The Changeling Chronicles


The Changeling Chronicles
By
Morpheus

When strange things begin happening to Shane, he soon discovers the truth about himself and this leads to an adventure in a world of myths and legends.

This was written as a serial story and posted to my Yahoo group over a period of several months.

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Morpheuscabinet2/

Part 1

It was mid-morning and the air was wet and damp, not the best time to play catch in the front yard. The fact that my shoes were both soaked through after walking through the wet grass only added emphasis to this. However, I didn't complain about this and certainly wasn't going to let it stop me from doing what I was doing.

At the moment, I was tossing a baseball back and forth with my friend Benji, something which we did at least once every weekend or two. Benji and I had first met about six years ago when we'd both been playing little league together and had quickly become friends. Even now, we were both on the school baseball team and we still enjoyed playing a game of catch while hanging out.

I stood there for a moment with the baseball firmly in hand, staring intently at Benji and silently giving him 'the look'. Of course, this had no real effect on Benji since this was hardly the first time he'd seen 'the look', but that wasn't really the point.

We both liked to practice the art of trying to look as intimidating as we could since that kind of thing could really give you a psychological edge against the other team’s players in a real game. Personally, I thought that it was just a little more fun than the trash talking that also went on during the games.

Benji just stood there and gave me his best intimidating look back. He was 5 foot 10, a full inch taller than me and a little larger overall. Where I was lean he tended to be a little bulkier, though not a lot. Still, in spite of his slight advantage in height and bulk, I was pretty sure that my intimidating look was better than his. Of course, Benji would emphatically disagree.

Finally, Benji exclaimed, "Come on Shane... Just throw the damn ball already..."

I grinned in triumph at having beaten him in our little staring contest. Of course, he would deny that this had ever been a contest, just as I would have if I'd been the one to break it off first. I didn't say anything to gloat or rub it in since there was no need. Instead, I just threw the ball to him and then caught it in my mitt when he threw it back a few seconds later.

"Come on, you can throw better than that," I called out a minute later when one of Benji's throws forced me to run for it.

Then when I threw the ball back, Benji missed it and then had to go running for it in the neighbor's yard. It was entirely his fault for missing a perfectly good throw but I knew he'd just complain that I threw it too wide. Just like with the intimidating looks, this was also an old game between us.

While I waited on Benji, I looked around the quiet cul-de-sac where I lived. There were very few people out and about at this time on a Saturday morning though Benji and I weren't completely alone. One of my neighbors was out as well, working on her garden.

Mrs. Sune was an elderly Japanese woman with white hair that was tied back in a bun and who always seemed to be dressed in a kimono. Nearly every time I went outside, I could find her in her own yard working on the garden. And though she wasn't looking in my direction, I could sort of feel her attention on me. In a way, it was sort of unnerving, especially since I couldn't remember ever actually having had a single conversation with her.

"I think I'm about done for now," Benji said once he'd recovered the ball. "My fucking feet are soaked..."

"Wimp," I teased him even though I was thinking the same thing. I was glad for the excuse to go inside and dry my feet.

A few minutes later, Benji and I were in my bedroom while I changed my shoes and socks. He was stuck wearing his wet shoes though I didn't feel much sympathy since I'd been in the same situation at his house often enough.

We had barely gotten settled in when my mom stuck her head in the door and asked, "Are you all right in here Shane?"

I rolled my eyes and responded, "Fine."

"I just wanted to make sure," my mom added, giving me a strange look. "Can I get you boys anything to snack on?"

Benji immediately asked, "Can I get a soda?"

"No, I'm fine," I responded.

Mom just nodded and told Benji, "I'll be back with that in a minute."

"Jeez," Benji told me with a chuckle once my mom had gone. "You'd almost think your mom didn't trust me in here with you..."

"It's not you," I told him with a shrug. "She's just been really weird since my birthday..."

Ever since I'd turned sixteen nearly two weeks ago, my mom had been acting strange and overprotective, barely even letting me out of her sight. And now that I thought about it, I realized that dad hadn't really been any different. Both of them had been behaving oddly.

I figured that they were probably just realizing how fast I was growing up and that before long I'd be leaving for college. I mean, I could sort of understand that, at least a little. I was sixteen, had my own car...even if it was a piece of cr1p, and I even had a job. I'd been working as a bagger at the supermarket for the last three months just so I could get insurance and gas for my car. It must have just dawned on them that I wasn't just a kid anymore.

"About time," I muttered to myself. Then at Benji's odd look, I told him, "I think she just figured out I'm growing up."

Benji nodded in understanding before going to the corner of my room where I had an easel set up with a half completed painting on it. He just stood there and looked over my recent work without saying a word, frowning slightly and then looking to several other paintings I'd done which hung on my wall.

"How's the new one going?" he asked.

"Not bad," I responded, looking over my most recent attempt.

Painting was something that I'd enjoyed doing ever since I started as a kid. There was something fascinating about being able to take all these random colors and putting them together in such a way that they had meaning. It was also relaxing and gave me an outlet for all of my otherwise wasted creative energies. I'd begun with the usual finger paints and had long since moved on up to real oil paints. Of course, just because I enjoyed painting, that didn't necessarily mean I was very good at it.

The current painting that I'd been working on was a half-finished portrait of a woman with white hair. In spite of her white hair, she wasn't an old woman but was instead sort of young and beautiful. In fact, she wasn't even anyone I knew in real life though I had been seeing her for several years now in my dreams. I've painted this same woman several times already with two of my best previous efforts hanging on the wall.

I stared at the painting for a moment, mentally going over what I still needed to add. One of the most important features that I needed to get right were her eyes. In my dreams, her eyes were always very unusual in that they always had a silver crescent moon in each.

"I think this is one of your best ones so far," Benji told me with no trace of teasing in his voice.

Most guys probably would have teased the hell out of me when they found out that I keep having dreams about the same fictional woman or that I kept painting her, but when I'd finally told Benji, his response had merely been to shrug and say, "Man can't live on baseball alone." I'd always been thankful that my best friend was so understanding about my little quirk. Unfortunately, my girlfriend Heather was a little less so, though fortunately it wasn't a deal breaker.

I was still staring at the painting when there was a quick tapping on my bedroom door. My mom came in a moment later, announcing, "I've brought your soda...and some chips."

"Thanks mom," I told her as I happily grabbed the bag of chips.

Then I noticed that my mom was staring at the painting as well, frowning with a worried look that surprised me. I know that she'd never been fond of the paintings I made of this white haired woman but I'd never seen her react quite like this. After a moment though, she flashed me a smile that seemed a little forced before she hurried on out of my room.

"Weird," I muttered once my mom was gone. Then I turned to Benji and gave an exaggerated shrug. "Sometimes, I don't think I'll ever understand parents."

Benji chuckled at that, then responded, "And we probably won't...at least not until we're so old that we don't understand teenagers anymore."

"Good point," I agreed. Then I went to my dresser and pulled out a dirty magazine from the bottom drawer where it was hidden and handed it to Benji with a grin. "I just got this one yesterday... Check out the girl on page seven..."

Part 2

"Shane Jacob Whitmere," the girl in front of me exclaimed with a scowl. She stood there with her hands on her hips, giving me something of an exaggerated glare. "I asked you a question."

My girlfriend Heather was very pretty, with red hair, green eyes, and a splattering of freckles across her cheeks. She could have used a few more curves but what she did have certainly wasn't bad. At the moment, we were at one of the countless clothing stores in the mall and she was posing in front of me in the new dress she was trying on.

"Well?" Heather pressed me impatiently.

I just gulped, suddenly feeling like a trapped animal. My dad had once told me that when a woman asks you if her clothes make her look fat, that there is no right answer. He'd told me that most of the time the question wasn't as straightforward as it appeared and that she was usually either testing you or trapping you, that she was either fishing for a compliment of or setting you up for an argument that she wanted to have and making sure that she could enter it with some sort of moral high ground. Dad told me that women liked to use this tactic to fake a fight and then use that as an excuse to make you do something they wanted in order to earn their 'forgiveness'.

"Um...," I stammered as I tried thinking of a good response, wishing that dad had told me what would be a safe answer. "You look absolutely gorgeous."

"Really?" Heather exclaimed with a grin. "You really think so?" Then she gave me a quick kiss on my cheek while I let out a sigh of relief that she'd only been fishing for a compliment rather than an argument.

I remained where I was, carefully not showing my impatience as Heather went back into the dressing room to try on some other outfit. Having to wait on her while she went shopping was probably the worst part of having a girlfriend, worse even than always being completely broke. However, I reminded myself that this was much better than not having a girlfriend. In the end, it was probably a pretty small price to pay.

My mind wandered back to that morning when I'd been playing catch with Benji in the front yard. The two of us had been talking about going to the movies later on, at least until Heather showed up at my door asking me to give her a ride to the mall. Of course I couldn't turn down a request like that from my girlfriend so Benji had said goodbye and left rather than coming with and getting caught up in Heather's shopping.

When Heather was finished in the clothing store, I was surprised that after trying on all those different clothes the only thing she actually bought was a new belt. Still, she seemed to think it had been a productive shopping trip and I was just relieved that part was over.

"I need to hit the hobby store while we're here," I told Heather, gesturing down the mall in the direction we needed to go. "I'm almost out of green paint."

Heather nodded at that as we changed direction and then abruptly asked, "Will you do a painting of me?"

"Sure," I responded with a shrug. "That might be fun."

That answer seemed to please Heather though I wondered how pleased she'd be once I had her sitting still for a long period of time so I could get her face sketched out. It might be a little strange doing a portrait of a real person for a change. Most of the time I preferred either painting landscapes or fictional people like the white haired woman from my dreams. In fact, I don't think that I've tried painting a real person in at least a year so this was going to be interesting.

At the hobby store, I quickly found the dark forest green that I'd been looking for as well as a couple other colors that I thought I could use. I was especially pleased at finding a particularly nice shade of crimson that was on sale, not to mention the pearlescent white which would probably be perfect for finishing off the current painting I was working on.

"This should be a great shade for her hair," I mused to myself as we left the shop.

"I like this one," Heather told me, holding up a tube of a sparkling blue paint that she'd bought. I had no idea what she planned on doing with it though since she wasn't into painting. Her art form of voice was singing, which she did rather well. Then she abruptly asked, "So, you wanna meet up for lunch tomorrow?"

"I wish I could," I responded with a sigh. "I've have an eight hour shift at work tomorrow." I shuddered at that, wondering how my dad could stand to work that long every day. I was definitely not looking forward to the day when I had to hold a full time job.

Just as I was about to suggest that we meet up after work instead, I suddenly noticed two guys coming towards us. I recognized both of them from school, a couple of seniors who were known troublemakers. Guy and Eddie were the kind of guys who loved bragging about how tough they were and thought that being tough made them popular. However, the truth was that they were nearly social outcasts, the kind of jerks that most kids didn't want to hang around with. Of course, they just assumed that the reason everyone usually avoided them was out of fear.

"Hey babe," Guy, the taller and thinner of the two said to Heather. "I know you from school..."

"Yeah," Heather responded with a roll of her eyes. "I told you to fuck off last week."

"Yeah, I remember," Guy said, his expression turning mean. "All I did was ask you out and you had to be a bitch about it..."

Heather gasped at that and then blurted out angrily, "You asked me to give you a blow job..."

"Just leave us alone," I told Guy, looking him right in the eyes. I figured these guys were all bark with only a little bite and wasn't about to back away from them. In fact, I was pretty sure that if I did, then Monday at school they'd be telling everyone I was some kind of chicken who ran away from them. "We're not looking for trouble."

"Back off," Eddie said, getting up in my face. "This ain't none of your damn business."

"You can make it up to me for being such a cunt," Guy smirked at Heather, apparently ignoring me entirely. "Just give me a hand job and we'll call it good."

"Listen asshole," I exclaimed, shoving Eddie aside so I could face Guy. "Leave her the fuck alone."

I gave Guy 'the look', hoping that I could intimidate him into backing off. I was just hoping I wouldn't have to really fight these two though I wouldn't hesitate if forced. My coach would kill me if I couldn't play because I hurt my hand fighting these punks.

Unfortunately, neither Eddie nor Guy seemed all that bothered by 'the look'. Eddie began pounding a fist into his open palm in a threatening manner, obviously trying his own intimidation technique.

Suddenly, Guy gave a sharp yelp of pain and grabbed at his face, staggering back and swearing a long stream of profanities. I just stared in surprise and confusion, wondering what had happened since I hadn't touched him.

"Fucking bee," Guy finally exclaimed. "Damn fucking bee stung me..." He pulled his hand away and I could see a nasty red welt forming on his upper cheek, just an inch away from his eye.

"I saw it," Eddie blurted out excitedly. "It was huge... I think it was a yellow jacket..."

At this point, Eddie and Guy were both completely distracted so I backed away, realizing that Heather had already done so. Guy was yelling about how he was going to sue the mall while I just chuckled and caught up with Heather.

"Did you see that?" Heather asked me with a laugh. "Talk about perfect timing."

"I know," I agreed with my own broad grin. "If I didn't know better, I'd almost think that bee was on our side."

After this, Heather and I decided that we'd had enough of the mall. We still laughed over the look on Guy's face as I drove her home and dropped her off. Then once I'd done that, it was time to go home myself. It was about time for dinner and mom always got a bit worried if I was late.

When I got home and parked my car in the driveway, I found that Mrs. Sune was still working on the garden in her front yard. She looked up and stared at me for a moment with a strange expression before turning her attention back to what she was doing. I couldn't help but feeling a chill go down my spine. That little old lady was definitely a strange one.

"I'm back," I called out as I went through the front door, pausing when I noticed several suitcases sitting in the middle of the floor.

"Good," mom said as she came into the room, giving me a strange smile that was obviously forced. "I was getting worried. Did you and Heather have a good time?"

"Um...yeah," I responded. Then I gestured to the suitcases and asked, "What's going on?"

Dad came into the room, holding another suitcase in his hand. He had a worried look on his face, the same look he had last year when he got the news that grandma had gone to the hospital with a heart attack. However, he quickly gave me a forced smile of his own which only made me more worried about what was going on.

"I just decided that we need to get away for a bit," dad said. "Just a little family time vacation..."

"Come on," mom urged me, "Go and get packed. We're leaving really soon..."

"But I work tomorrow," I protested, still a bit stunned by how they were acting.

Mom just frowned in annoyance. "We'll call your manager and explain it's a family emergency... Don't worry."

I just stared at her and at dad who was nodding agreement. This was the same man who'd always told me that being a man meant that you took responsibility and fulfilled your obligations, even when you'd rather be doing something else…especially when you'd rather be doing something else.

Something big was obviously going on here but I had absolutely no idea what. My parents were both acting weird. In fact, I realized that they were both afraid and were just trying to hide it. It suddenly reminded me of when I was a kid and they'd hide problems from me so that I wouldn't get worried. However, I wasn't a kid anymore and could take whatever it was.

"What's really going on?" I demanded, giving them each a suspicious look.

"Why does something have to be going on?" mom asked with an almost pained expression. "We're just going out of town for a bit is all..."

Dad stood there or a moment, scratching his well-trimmed beard, obviously trying hard to act nonchalant and casual. He was a horrible actor.

After a few seconds, I turned and went to my bedroom so I could begin packing, not bothering to press my parents anymore. My mom and dad were both afraid of something so they probably had good reason, even if I didn't know what it was. Their strange behavior and refusal to explain it was only serving to worry me as well. I didn't know what the problem was but it wouldn't hurt me to humor them for now. However, once they calmed down a bit I definitely planned on getting some answers.

Part 3

I tossed and turned in bed, having a hard time staying asleep. It was never easy sleeping in a new bed and the circumstances of how I ended up here certainly contributed.

Dad had driven us to some cabin in the middle of nowhere that was owned by one of his co-workers. He still wouldn’t tell me what was going on so I’d gone to bed with my mind still trying to make sense of it all.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d been in bed dozing off and on before I finally decided to get up and go take a piss. I climbed out of bed and stretched while simultaneously muttering a few profanities about my parents and their sudden urge for a vacation.

“If nothing else,” I muttered, “this is bound to be a good story.”

For some reason though, I felt rather strange but in a way I couldn’t quite describe. It was almost like I had goose bumps over my entire body, inside as well as out. It was a very weird feeling.

I shook my head then went to the bathroom to relieve myself, hoping that after this I’d be able to get to sleep. I also hoped that once my mom and dad had a good night sleep that they’d be willing to tell me what in the world was going on.

Once I was done draining my bladder, I went back to the small room that I’d been trying to sleep in. I stopped in front of the window and stared out at the full moon, feeling strangely drawn to it.

Then a strange chill rippled through my body, a soothing cool sensation that seemed to spread out from somewhere in my chest. I gasped in surprise at this, feeling more than a little confused.

A moment later, I suddenly noticed my hand glowing. I stared at it in shock, seeing a faint glow coming from beneath my skin. Then I stared at my palm which had a strange glowing symbol on it that looked sort of like a spiral with a line through it.

“What the hell?” I gasped, noticing that there were also strange glowing lines spreading over my body. I ran my finger over several of them but I couldn’t feel anything there. “What the fuck?”

Two more glowing symbols appeared on my skin as well, each of them giving off the same silvery white light. There was one symbol in the middle of my chest that looked a little like a crescent moon and another one on my navel that looked like some sort of Chinese writing.

“What is this?” I demanded of no one in particular, trying to make sense of these glowing lines and writing on my skin or the fact that all of my skin was now starting to glow from beneath, not just my hand. I suddenly wondered if this had something to do with why my mom and dad had freaked out.

Before I could come to any decision about whether to wake them up and demand answers, my skin began to ripple and move. I could only stare in horror as my very flesh began to pulse and write as though there was something beneath my skin. Strangely though, it didn’t actually hurt at all. It felt sort of cool and soothing instead.

Just then, my changing flesh became even stronger and I could feel my body beginning to move around from within. There was a strange pressure starting to build in my chest and a moment later, my chest started to swell outward. I stared down with my eyes wide open as my chest began to form into two lumps that looked shockingly like breasts.

My chest wasn’t the only part of my body that was changing through. The skin along my arm rippled and as the ripple passed, the skin smoothed out and became hairless. It was as though every hair on my arm just vanished.

Even my hands were changing as my fingernails glowed with the silvery light and began to stretch out, becoming longer as I watched. At the same time, my entire hand was changing along with the nails, somehow becoming more slender and delicate looking. My hands were starting to look like girl hands.

Suddenly, something happened to the way I was changing and it suddenly became painful. I gasped at the sudden agony and dropped to my knees, feeling as though everything in my body was trying to go into two different directions at once.

After several very long seconds, the changes that had occurred began to reverse. My chest began to deflate, releasing that pressure I’d been feeling. A ripple passed over my arm, leaving it a bit hairy again afterwards. Even my nails seemed to pull back in, becoming shorter as my hands returned to normal.

Once my flesh had returned to its normal appearance, the glowing lines and symbols faded quickly followed by the strange pale glow from beneath my skin. By this time, I felt extremely sore and exhausted.

I remained where I was for several minutes, taking deep breaths and trying to fight off the dizziness that had come along with my rapid change back to normal. Then I finally got to my feed, staggering a little as I did so.

“I’m normal again,” I whispered as I looked myself over, seeing no sign of the strangeness that had just hit me.

A thousand thoughts shot through my mind as I once again wondered if this was somehow related to how my mom and dad were acting. I was sure it had to be though I had absolutely no idea as to how much less what actually had happened to me.

“Maybe I imagined it,” I muttered, trying to convince myself that I’d just had a very strange and realistic dream. “That’s it… It was just a dream.”

With that, I staggered out of my small bedroom and back to the single bathroom that served the entire cabin. This time, my goal wasn’t to relieve myself but to just splash my face with cold water so I could shake this off.

“Damn that was a weird dream,” I sighed, turning off the cold water and then looking up into the small mirror that hung above the sink.

It took me just a moment before I noticed that something was wrong with my reflection. It was my eyes…they’d changed color. The irises had both turned a strange silvery color and even the pupils had changed, turning a dark color that was almost a burnt chrome rather than the usual black.

“Holy shit,” I blurted out, hardly able to believe what I was seeing.

I actually began to shake, realizing that I couldn’t deny what had happened earlier or just pass it off as a dream…not when I had this reminder. There was suddenly no doubt in my mind that whatever was going on, it was a lot stranger than I’d imagined.

“Mom and dad have some questions to answer,” I said with a grimace of determination. And this time I was NOT going to be put off.

Part 4

I sat at the breakfast table with my arms crossed, glaring past my untouched bowl of cereal at my parents. Mom and dad were making a show of drinking coffee and eating their breakfast, trying a little too hard to act as though everything was perfectly normal. So far, both of them had refused to explain why we'd run away from home, what had happened to me last night, and of course...why I now had silver eyes.

"What the hell is going on?" I demanded, not for the first or even third time since the sun had come up. It said something about the circumstances and just how upset my mom was that she didn't even correct me on my language. "I'm not a kid anymore."

"That's the problem," mom said quietly.

"Ellen," dad started to say as if to warn her.

"I can't believe it's been sixteen years," mom said, her voice shaking. "I didn't think it would pass so fast... That seemed like such a long time away..."

Dad sat there, scratching his beard and then putting a comforting hand on mom’s. He gave me a worried look that sent another chill down my spine.

"We didn't want you to know," dad told me quietly. "We just wanted to protect you."

Mom glanced at me for a moment before quickly looking away. She stared down at the table as she whispered, "We shouldn't have made that deal..."

"We didn't have a choice," dad told her with a grimace. "Sixteen years was better than nothing..."

"What deal?" I asked, gulping as I looked at them both. "What are you talking about?"

At that moment, I suddenly felt a cool sensation form in my right palm and it quickly began spreading up my arm. I gasped with a surge of fear as I recognized the feeling from last night. I held up my and saw that the glowing symbol in my palm had returned. It was the spiral with the line through it, exactly as I remembered it from last night.

"Oh shit," I exclaimed, jumping up from the table and staggering back as I saw that other glowing lines were appearing along my skin as well.

Mom jumped to her feet as well and called my name with a look of terror on her face while dad ran over to me as though he could somehow help. I had absolutely no idea of what was happening to me but I was pretty sure there was nothing he could do. After all, how could someone prevent the impossible from happening?

My flesh began to ripple and change just as it had last night. And just like last night, I felt a strange pressure building all through me, especially in my chest and groin. I let out another gasp as my chest began to swell larger, forming into two fleshy mounds. I grabbed hold of my apparent breasts and felt that they were indeed flesh and part of my body, as impossible as that was. Of course, everything about this was impossible.

At this point, my clothes no longer felt as though they fit quite right. Most of them seemed to have grown on me and to have become too large. Last night, I'd only been wearing my underwear when this happened so I hadn't really noticed any such thing so this was the only part of my changes which was actually new.

Up until now, all the changes occurring in my body had felt cool but oddly pleasant, almost even good. But now I felt my changes all freeze and begin to reverse, becoming incredibly painful as they did so. I muttered several profanities as the agony shot through my body while it was forced back to what it had been.

I clenched my fists tightly, feeling my long nails digging into my palm at first but then they receded back to their normal short length. My chest began deflating as well until a moment later it was almost as those bumps had never even existed.

"Fuck," I muttered when the changes had fully reversed and I was back to normal. The cooling sensation and glowing had all left my body but I felt sore and exhausted just as I had last night. "Damn that hurt..."

I started getting back to my feet but my mom rushed over to hug me, holding me tight and sobbing. Then she whispered, "Your hair..." She reached up for my hair and ran her hands through it.

"What about my hair?" I asked without comprehension.

Then I suddenly remembered my eyes, how after this had happened last night my eyes had remained changed. I had a bad feeling as I pulled away from my mom and went to find a mirror. Once I did and took one look at my reflection, I let out several profanities under my breath. As I feared, my hair had been changed.

My hair had grown and was now about three inches longer than before, though that was hardly the most noticeable thing about it. My hair had also changed color and was now silvery white. I could only stare at my reflection in surprise as I reached out and felt it.

"What's happening to me?" I whispered, staring into my eyes again.

My eyes looked the same as the last several times I'd looked at them, though as I watched, the burnt chrome color of the pupils shifted into the same silver color as my irises so that now the pupils and irises were all a single silver disk. Then I noticed that the silver disk in my eyes had a faint glow behind it which suddenly made me think it looked like a full moon. I gasped in surprise and then the pupils darkened back to the burnt chrome color, breaking the illusion of being a moon.

I took a deep breath and then forced myself away from the mirror. I needed answers and I wasn't going to take any more delays. I wanted to know what the hell was happening right now.

A minute later, we were all sitting down on the unfamiliar furniture of the cabins living room. Dad and mom both looked worried and uneasy, which wasn't really much different than how they'd been since yesterday. In fact, it wasn't too much different than how they'd been acting for the last couple weeks, just more urgent.

"I don't know why your hair or eye color changed," dad started off, shaking his head. "They never said anything about that..."

"They?" I encouraged him to continue.

"Sixteen years ago," dad said quietly, not looking at me as he continued. "You were almost two weeks old when...when you died."

I just stared at dad in surprise since that was about the last thing I expected to hear. It also made no sense since I was obviously very much alive. "What?"

"You died in your crib," mom said, crying as she did so. "It was sudden infant death syndrome... There was no warning."

Dad nodded sadly and scratched at his beard which was something he always did when nervous or worried. He looked me in the eyes and continued, "You have to understand, we had been trying to conceive for a long time before we succeeded. When you were finally born, it was almost like a miracle for us. And then...when this happened...we were devastated."

"Then they came," mom stated in nearly a whisper. "They...they weren't human but they said they could give you back to us. They said we could make a deal...that they could give you back, but..."

"We could only have you for sixteen years," dad finished for her, giving me a pained look. "They said that after sixteen years they would come to take you back...and that we'd never see you again." He shook his head and added, "We didn't have a choice... But now...now we can't let them take you."

"They took your body away," mom said quietly, still crying though she did try wiping her eyes. "They took your little body and then came back several hours later... You were alive again...just as if nothing had ever happened."

"Today," dad said quietly, gulping visibly and not looking me in the eyes. "Today is the sixteen year anniversary of when they brought you back."

All I could do was stare at my mom and dad in stunned silence, hardly able to believe that a single word of this could possibly be true. However, it was more than obvious that they were both serious...deadly serious. I didn't know what to think of that...or what to feel. What I did know was that things had suddenly gotten far weirder than I ever could have imagined.

Part 5

The scenery from the porch of the cabin was quite beautiful with a large cluster of trees on the other side of the clearing. The trees were thick enough that I couldn't see any other houses through them though I knew that there were indeed other cabins and homes nearby. There was even wildlife to observe, with a squirrel darting across the clearing in search of food while a bird circled far overhead, perhaps watching the squirrel and also thinking of food.

In spite of the impressive scenery, I could barely tear my eyes away from my own hands. They no longer looked like my hands and instead looked like the hands of some girl. They were sort of feminine and delicate looking with nails that were longer and perfectly manicured into ovals. My nails had also changed color, becoming a sort of glossy pearlescent that didn't seem to be any sort of polish. I'd scratched at them and from what I could tell, that actually seemed to be their real color.

A short time ago, right after I'd finished eating lunch, I'd been hit with another one of those strange transformation attacks. My body had begun changing again and then before it finished, I was suddenly changed back to normal. This time, I had been left with my changed hands and hair that had grown another four inches longer. I wasn't sure, but I thought that my chest also felt sort of tender and puffy.

So far I'd been hit with these strange attacks three times, and each time I seemed to change back to normal just a little less. Each time, it also seemed to feel better when the changes began and far more painful when they reversed. I shuddered to think of just how much it would hurt the next time. I was becoming sure that there would be a next time.

I felt scared and confused, and in spite of my parents telling me what they knew, I still didn't have much idea of what was going on. How could the dead be brought back to live? Who were these people who supposedly did it? And why would they want to take me? Sure, I had a few answers now but that only resulted in a lot more questions.

Then I closed my eyes, listening to my parents talking just inside the cabin. I could hear them going on about my strange attacks and the changes that were left behind after each one. Mom was the most vocal about it and she was even blaming herself, though I couldn't see why it was her fault.

"They're punishing him because we wouldn't just let them have him," mom was saying.

Dad immediately responded with, "And do you think we should have just stayed there and waited for them instead?"

"Maybe," mom started hesitantly, her voice holding a hopeful tone. "Maybe they won't come..."

The conversation had been like that since this morning when they'd told me about the deal they made. At first, I'd been part of the conversation but then realized that we were just going around in circles without actually going anywhere. That was when I'd excused myself from that and just tried to make at least some sense of things on my own.

"What am I?" I whispered, feeling even more confused than before.

I'd been dead but now I was alive. Did that make me some sort of zombie or vampire? I'd never felt any sort of cravings for either brains or blood, nor had I ever shown any of the other usual symptoms. Whatever I was, it wasn't one of those things.

Then I began to wonder what Benji or Heather would say about all of this. I could imagine just imagine Benji exclaiming, "Awesome. Let's see if you can come back from the dead again..."

"They probably wouldn't believe me," I mused with a sigh. As it was, I wasn't sure I even believed me.

Just then, I suddenly felt a chill go down my spine along with a cool sensation from my right palm. "Oh no," I gasped in dread. "Not again."

To my surprise, I didn't feel any of the other symptoms of my previous attacks. The symbol on my palm was glowing again but nothing else was. My skin wasn't starting to ripple and change and I didn't even feel that cool sensation that had previously flooded through my entire body. Whatever this was, it wasn't another attack.

I was just starting to relax from my impending panic when I noticed a strange shimmer in the air about twenty yards away from me. The air was all blurred and moving, almost the same way it sometimes did on a really hot day. Then a figure stepped out of the shimmer and stood there for a moment. I just let out a gasp of surprise, immediately recognizing my neighbor Mrs. Sune who was currently dressed in a red kimono.

"DAD," I yelled out, feeling my heart beginning to race.

My parents immediately came out onto the porch and then froze as they saw our neighbor standing there as well. However, a moment later, three other figures stepped out of the shimmer and joined Mrs. Sune. One of them was a man who held a startling resemblance to Legolas from the Lord of the Rings movies and who even held a bow. The second looked almost like a teenage girl except that she had long pointed ears, dark gray skin, black hair, and bright yellow eyes. Her hands were empty but she had two wicked looking short swords strapped to her sides.

The last member of the group was the most startling in that she looked the least threatening. She was a little girl who looked about ten years old, though she was obviously no ordinary little girl. She was dressed in a long, flowing white dress that seemed nearly to glow. She had long white hair, the same shade as what I now possessed, and from where I was I could see that she had pointed ears just like her two companions. However, the last sign that she was no ordinary girl was her face which held a strangely calm and aware expression that just didn't seem to belong on someone so young.

All four of these people started walking towards us though Mrs. Sune was in front. My parents both tensed up and looked as though they couldn't decide to run or fight. I just gulped and watched, surprised and just a little afraid, but also feeling strangely calm. For some reason, these people just didn't make me as afraid as I thought they should.

"Sixteen years ago, a bargain was struck," Mrs. Sune stated, staring at my parents and then at me.

"Mrs. Sune," mom exclaimed, looking confused. "You're part of this?"

"As I always have been," my neighbor responded with a slight smile.

Mrs. Sune suddenly began to shift and change, standing up straighter and becoming younger and more beautiful right before my eyes. When her changes stopped just seconds later, she now looked as though she was only in her late twenties or early thirties, though her hair still remained the same white it had been. Then I noticed something else that surprised me. Mrs. Sune, or at least the woman who had been my neighbor a minute ago now had a long white furry tail. No, I corrected myself just a few seconds later. She had THREE long furry tails.

"Dear Lord," mom blurted out, staring at Mrs. Sune with a look of shock that echoed what I felt. "You were there..."

"Yes," Mrs. Sune responded with a bow of her head. "I was there the day the bargain was struck. We would give you the child to raise until sixteen years had passed. The time has come and the child must return with us."

"NO," mom yelled suddenly grabbing hold of me. "You can't have him... He's my son..."

Dad stepped forward and put himself between me and Mrs. Sune, obviously intending to protect me. He didn't say a word since his body language and actions spoke clearly enough.

"We had a bargain," Mrs. Sune said coldly. "The changeling must come with us."

The little girl abruptly put a hand on Mrs. Sune's arm and Mrs. Sune paused and bowed her head. "Your desire to protect the young one is admirable," the girl said in a sweet melodic voice. "However, it is misplaced. The young one is in grave danger and the only path to safety lies with us."

“What kind of danger?” I asked hesitantly.

Suddenly, the gray skinned girl and the man who looked like an extra from Lord of the Rings both froze and began turning at once. An instant later, a massive spear appeared through the man's chest, releasing a spray of blood and sending him flying backward with what appeared to be incredible force.

"We're under attack," the gray skinned girl exclaimed, both of her short swords already in her hands though I hadn't seen her reach for them.

"Holy shit," I exclaimed, quickly looking to the source of the attack.

Off to the side about fifty yards away, there was another place where the air was shimmering and this place had six men stepping out of it...if they could be called men. The shortest of them had to be over six feet tall while the tallest had to be over seven feet. All of them resembled humans but were obviously not. For one, all had brutish looking features that would have looked right at home on a neanderthal, and for another, they all had skin in various shades of brownish gray, though none of them had the same charcoal gray color as the teenage girl.

The one closes to us was tall and lanky though I could see a tightly muscled form. His clothes seemed to be a mix of patched cloth and leather armor and he wore a pair of boots that appeared to be made of metal. In his hand he clutched a long and wicked looking spear, one identical to the spear that impaled the Legolas wannabe. And on top of his head, he wore a floppy red hat that reminded me a little of the hats worn by the Smurfs. But in spite of the red hat and scraggly beard, he didn't really resemble Papa Smurf at all.

The next one was a little shorter than the first but more than twice as wide with big bulging muscles. His clothes were similar to the clothes of the first one, and in fact they all wore clothes like this though several seemed to have chain mail as well. He had a large double bladed axe in his hand and no top of his head, he too wore a dark red hat, though his was a wide brimmed type.

I noticed that along with similar clothes, they all wore red hats on their heads though they seemed to be of different types. One had a top hat, one a derby, and a couple wore odd looking hats that didn't seem to be of any particular style. And of course, all of them were armed with either spears or axes, and they were all charging straight towards us.

"Take the changeling alive," the monster with the wide brimmed red hat yelled out.

The gray skinned girl took a defensive position between the ones she'd come with and the approaching attackers, looking grim and determined. Mrs. Sune scowled and stepped back, holding out her hand where a ball of fire appeared in the palm.

"What the hell is going on?" dad demanded angrily, backing up with a look of terror on his face. However, no one answered him.

"No," the little girl exclaimed and suddenly began to shimmer and grow.

It took me several seconds to realize that she wasn't just growing taller, she was becoming older. She aged right before my eyes, filling out until she was an extremely beautiful and graceful adult woman. Her hair had grown longer and now hung in long waves of silvery white to her waist.

Once the girl had finished aging, she turned so stare at me for just a moment so that my eyes met hers. Her eyes were an almost glowing silver, exactly the same color that mine now were. However, her irises somehow formed around her pupils into the shape of crescent moons.

I gasped in shock, suddenly realizing that this girl...this woman was the same woman from my paintings...from my dreams. She stared at me with a strange expression and I could feel something pass between us. The symbol on my palm seemed to radiate a cool tingle even more strongly.

"YOU," mom exclaimed, staring at the moon eyed woman with a look of fear and surprise.

"You shall be safe," the woman told me, her voice sounding beautiful and melodic.

Then the woman abruptly turned around and a wave of white light burst out of her hand, hitting a spear that had been flung at her and knocking it out of the air. She muttered something strange and another wave of light shot out at one of the large attackers, sending him flying backwards.

The gray skinned woman was jumping around with her blades slashing at unbelievable speed, blocking a thrust from a spear and then dodging aside to slash at her opponent. The entire time, she was obviously trying to keep herself between the much larger attackers and the moon eyed woman.

"Come on," dad yelled, grabbing me and mom and pulling us back into the cabin.

We all ran into the cabin to get to safety but I couldn't help but looking back at the moon eyed woman. We had barely gone through the living room when one of the gray skinned men burst through a window and then stood there with an axe in hand, grinning at us in a way that suddenly made me want to piss my pants and then run away screaming like a little girl.

Mom was screaming hysterically while dad and I both looked around for something we could use to fight with. Dad grabbed a lamp that was still plugged in while I grabbed a decorative figurine and threw it at the creature. He just took several more steps towards us, grinning evilly.

"We need you alive," the thing said as he looked right at me. It looked just a little disappointed at that too. "But the other mortals I can kill..."

"Out the other door," dad yelled, gesturing for mom and me to leave while he looked as though he was planning to stay behind.

Suddenly, I saw a tiny flash of yellow and a little bee landed on the creature’s nose and stung it. My eyes blurred and I realized it wasn't a little bee... It was a fucking HUGE bee...the biggest I'd ever seen in my life. But then my eyes blurred again and I gasped in surprise, seeing that it wasn't a bee at all bit a tiny woman with wings who couldn't have been much more than four inches tall. She had a tiny spear in her hand which she was using to poke at the monster.

"What the fuck is going on?" I screamed in frustration, feeling even more confused than before.

We ran out the other door of the cabin while the creature came after us, swatting at the bee woman the entire time. Once we were out the other door, we found that two of the monsters were already there waiting for us. One of them lunged and grabbed me by the arm while the other one swung his axe at dad.

"Shane," mom screamed, looking as though she couldn't decide between running and throwing herself at the monsters. "Carl!"

"Let me go you fucking bastard," I yelled at the one holding me while I struggled in desperation to get away.

I noticed a flash of white from the corner of my eye right before something slammed into me and knocked me right out of the monster's hand. I hit the ground hard but was immediately rolling and back to my feet, ready to run as fast as I could.

But then I noticed what had hit me and knocked me free. It was a fox...a big white furry fox with three bushy tails, and at the moment, it was snarling at the creature until it kicked the fox and sent it flying.

"Stupid kitsune," the creature snarled. "You're weak."

I stared at the white fox in surprise and confusion which only grew stronger as the fox shimmered and changed, transforming back into Mrs. Sune...or at least the young and pretty version of her that had three tails. She stood up, obviously a bit shaky and then she threw a ball of fire at the monster that had kicked her.

"Come," she yelled, grabbing my arm and pulling me away from the monster while he was swatting flames out of his scraggly beard.

A moment later, there was a flash of golden light and suddenly the tiny bee woman was now human sized. She was lean and athletic, built almost like a marathon runner with few feminine curves. Her hair was shoulder length and a bright yellow color that would have been a great shade for a sports car, just not human hair, though several streaks of black shot through that shockingly yellow hair. Black marks in the form of stripes decorated her skin, though whether it was natural, tattoo, or body paint, I had no idea. There was a knee length skirt hanging from around her waist which was a dark yellow color with black trim. The only other clothing she wore was a yellow and black halter top of some sort. And of course, she held a spear in her hand, a nasty thing that looked like a harpoon made out of a single piece of golden metal.

The no longer tiny bee woman immediately impaled the distracted monster with her spear and then pulled her spear out just in time to use it to block an attack from another one. She lashed out in a flurry of strikes with her spear, though I was a little too distracted with running to just stand there and watch as I was half tempted to.

Mrs. Sune led me around the cabin back towards the other side where the air was still shimmering. My mom and dad followed a short distance behind with one of the monsters right behind them. Once I saw where Mrs. Sune was leading us, I realized that she intended to escape the same way she had her friends had arrived. I wasn't sure which was more dangerous, going with her or staying with these monsters. Neither seemed a good option to me.

Without warning, one of the monsters jumped out from the porch where he'd been crouched down in hiding. It was the biggest one, the bulky one with the wide brimmed red hat who'd seemed to be their leader. In one swift leap, he caught up with my mom and dad and grabbed them both, one in each hand. They were both screaming in panic and frantically trying to get loose.

"Give me the changeling," the monster snarled.

"Mom," I screamed out. "Dad..." I started to go to them but Mrs. Sune grabbed hold of me and pulled me back, proving that she was stronger than she looked.

"Quiet child," Mrs. Sune snapped at me, gesturing to the hat wearing monsters who'd regrouped and were now all charging towards us.

Just a second later, the bee woman suddenly appeared beside me, apparently having dropped right out of the sky. She grabbed hold of my shoulder and firmly told me, "Come with me if you want to live." Then before I could even respond, she threw me into the shimmering air and everything changed.

Part 6

I found myself lying on the hard ground, feeling very dizzy and confused about how I got here...wherever 'here' was. Then I slowly sat up, trying to organize the swirling mass of memories in my head so I could make sense of this. Then I remembered the creatures that I'd been running from.

"What were those things?" I muttered.

"Red caps," answered a voice from behind me. I jumped in surprise and then turned to see the bee woman standing there, leaning against her spear. "Vicious killers who value physical strength over nearly anything else. They're dangerous but little more than thugs."

I just stared at the bee woman for a moment and then at Mrs. Sune who stood a few feet away from her. "And what about you? What the hell are you?"

"I am kitsune," Mrs. Sune said with a note of pride.

"We are faerie," the bee woman stated simply. "As are you."

"What?" I blinked in surprise.

"Silly child," Mrs. Sune said, giving me a disapproving look. "Have you not realized what you are? You are a changeling."

All I could do was stare at her in blank confusion, remembering that one of those things...one of the red caps had called me a changeling too. I'd heard that term before but couldn't quite place what it meant.

Mrs. Sune let out an exasperated sigh and announced, "Had I been allowed, I would have begun your instruction years ago. This day would not have come with you so unprepared."

I was about to ask her what she meant about my being a changeling and being instructed when I suddenly remembered my parents. "Mom," I blurted out in horror. "Dad. We left them..."

I quickly looked around for any sign of my parents but saw that we were in a small clearing in the woods. There were thick trees around us and a very obvious path through them. I could see nothing through the trees but more trees and darkness and there was absolutely no sign of the cabin or any other house.

A moment later, it suddenly dawned on me that absolutely everything about this place felt wrong. The trees didn't look quite right, certainly not like the kind of trees that had been behind the cabin. There was no wind at all and no movement of the branches. I couldn't even hear anything, not even a single bird. Even the light somehow seemed wrong. However, I had more important things to worry about.

"We have to go back," I exclaimed, frantically looking for how I could get back to help mom and dad.

"The red caps are probably soaking their hats in the human’s blood by now," Mrs. Sune said grimly.

"What?" I demanded, staring at her in horror.

"They soak their hats in the blood of their victims," the bee woman told me with a dark look. "It acts as a souvenir of their kill." She spat out bitterly and added, "And they can draw on the strength of their victims for a short while."

All I could do was stare at the bee woman, feeling even more horrified and worried. "No..."

"It's too late to go back," the bee woman told me sympathetically. "We couldn't help them once they were captured and our duty was to get you to safety. It still is."

"No," I whispered, backing away from these two creatures and whatever nonsense they were spouting

I wanted answers but all I was getting was more questions and a lot of worry. I couldn't deal with these two anymore. I had to get back to my mom and dad, and if these two wouldn't help me, I'd have to do it on my own. However, as I looked around I saw absolutely no sign of them and the only way I could really run was down the path through the forest. Somehow, I didn't think that was where I needed to go.

"I have to get back to my mom and dad," I insisted. "How do I go back?"

"You can't," the bee woman stated. "This way does not allow us to go back and I couldn't let you even if it was possible."

The bee woman at least looked sympathetic while Mrs. Sune looked annoyed. She gave me a cold look and said, "I've already told you...you're a changeling. Those were not your parents."

I just froze at that, staring at her and gulping. "What the hell do you mean?"

"I was present for your birth," Mrs. Sune stated. "Sixteen years ago today."

"My birthday was a couple weeks ago," I protested.

Mrs. Sune continued as though I hadn't spoken at all. "Mere hours after your birth, you were bound by magic into the form of a dead mortal infant. You were then presented to his parents to raise as their own."

Those words sunk right to my gut like a lump of lead. I just stood there, gasping in disbelief and feeling as though my entire world was crumbling down around me. Not only had I been attacked by monsters from sold old faerie tale, and not only were my mom and dad probably dead, but now it looked like absolutely everything I knew about the world and myself was a lie.

Mom and dad had told me that I'd died as a baby and that I'd then been brought back to life in some sort of miracle. But what if I hadn't been brought back to life? What if I'd never even been the one who'd died? Shane Whitmere had died as a baby and had never come back. An icy cold dread shot down my spine as I absorbed what this meant. I wasn't who I thought I was. I wasn't the real Shane. I was just some sort of impostor who'd been living his life without even having a clue that I was doing so.

"Oh shit," I whispered, collapsing to my knees in a dazed stupor.

"Watch your language," Mrs. Sune snapped at me. "Such language is inappropriate.”

"Very abrupt," the bee woman told Mrs. Sune in a disapproving tone.

"We don't have time to coddle the child," Mrs. Sune responded. "We don't have time to stay here either. If we do, the red caps may be able to find us. We need to be on our way immediately."

The bee woman gave me another sympathetic look before nodding. "You are correct. We can't remain..." Then she frowned for a moment before adding, "I can't stay at this size any longer... You know I can only remain this size for one hour out of twenty-four. I'll have to save my remaining time in case we need it."

A moment later, there was a flash of golden light and the bee woman was gone, or at least that was my first impression. It took me a second to realize that she was indeed still there but shrunk back to her previous height of four inches tall. She was also hovering in the air, using her insect wings to fly.

"Now come," Mrs. Sune said, this time more gently as she helped me back to my feet. "We must be going."

Mrs. Sune and the bee woman started down the path into the forest and I followed behind in a dazed stupor. I didn't really trust them but they had saved me from those red caps and at least seemed to know what was going on. That was far better than where I stood at the moment.

We hadn't gone far when the bee woman said, "At least Shyla was able to get the Lady to safety."

"That is fortunate," Mrs. Sune agreed. "Though I suspect she will be most displeased at being separated from us...and at being forced to leave the child behind."

"The Lady?" I asked hesitantly.

The bee woman glanced at me before answering, "The Lady of the Crescent Moon."

With a name like that, I knew that she had to be referring to that little girl...to the woman with the crescent moons in her eyes. "The Lady of the Crescent Moon," I repeated, remembering the moment I'd actually looked into her eyes and suddenly having a strange suspicion. "Who is she?"

"Are you always so dense, child?" Mrs. Sune asked in annoyance. "She's your mother."

Part 7

"My mother," I whispered, thinking of that strange woman with the silvery moon shaped eyes who'd haunted my dreams for several years. It had been nearly two hours since Mrs. Sune had told me she was my birth mother but I still had a hard time wrapping my mind around that, even though I was also strangely certain that this was the truth.

As far as I was concerned, my real mom was the woman who'd raised me, the one who I'd always believed was my mom. Now, I felt a massive sadness as I thought of her and dad, not to mention guilt. They were probably both dead now and it was my fault. I was the one those red caps were after, though I still didn’t understand why. And even if they were still alive, they'd probably hate me now for being an impostor, for pretending to be their son.

I couldn't help but thinking of all the ways that things could have been different. If my parents had never made that deal sixteen years ago, they'd still be alive. If they'd just turned me over like they'd agreed, they'd still be alive. And as Mrs. Sune had pointed out to me a short time ago, if we'd stayed with the Lady of the Crescent Moon rather than trying to escape through the cabin, we could have escaped with her instead and they would probably still be alive.

I cried silently as I walked, though fortunately, neither the bee woman or Mrs. Sune said anything about it. I kept wiping my tears and pretending that I was stoic about this whole thing, that I was too tough to cry, but it was only an act and not even a very good one.

We were still walking along the path but it only seemed to grow stranger, though not in any obvious way. Mrs. Sune and the bee woman wouldn't say anything about the Lady of the Crescent Moon, only that I'd meet her again shortly. However, they were both willing to talk about the path which they called a 'way'.

From what little I understood, a 'way' was a magic path between two 'realms', though I still wasn't quite sure what they meant by the word realm. They said that Earth wasn't a realm but that there were a lot of other realms floating around and that we were walking to one of them. They may have said more but I was a little distracted by my strange circumstances to pay much attention to some lecture.

At one point, we came to a spot where another 'way' crossed the path. A single glance at this was enough to convince me that we certainly weren't in any normal place anymore. Our path was going through a thick forest, but as the other path intersected ours, the air shimmered. I looked down the other path and gasped, seeing ocean and sand instead of the forest. The same ocean and sand was visible when I looked down the other direction down that path.

"No fucking way," I gasped at the sight of this.

"Watch your language," Mrs. Sune snapped at me in annoyance. "Profanity does not become you."

"Yeah," I responded bitterly. "Well fuck you too." That got a nasty glare from her but she didn't say anything else. She just turned and continued walking as though it was above her dignity to respond.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Sune announced, "We shall stop for a brief rest."

She went to the side of the path and slowly sat onto the ground, not appearing to care if she got dirty. Then again, after the amount of time she'd spent in her garden, I'd imagine she wasn't afraid of getting a little dirty.

"It is not normally a wise decision to rest while on a way," Mrs. Sune told me after I'd sat down as well. "They have been known to move or even break without warning. Unfortunately, this is the long way to where we are going."

"The Lady closed the short way behind her after she went through," the bee woman added. "To keep the red caps from following."

I just nodded and stared at Mrs. Sune for a moment, hardly able to believe that this was actually the old woman who was always puttering around in her garden next door. I finally said, "I take it that Mrs. Sune isn't your real name."

"Certainly not," she responded with a frown. "You may continue to call me that if you wish."

Since Mrs. Sune didn't actually give me another name to use, I didn't really have much choice but to keep calling her that. Then I looked to the tiny bee woman, feeling even more amazed that such a creature even existed. Of course, it felt wrong to just keep thinking of her as 'the bee woman'.

"What's your name?" I asked the bee woman. However, instead of answering me she just gave me a look of shock while Mrs. Sune glared at me.

"Never ask a faerie their name," Mrs. Sune told me a moment later. "It is considered extremely rude. Ask instead, what they are called."

"What?" I asked in surprise at their reactions as well as a bit of confusion. "Why?"

"I knew you should have been instructed in your heritage," Mrs. Sune muttered with a look of disgust. Then she gave me a steady look and explained, "Among the faerie, names have power. To know a faerie's true name, the first name ever given to them, is to have power over them. As such, we only share our names with those we trust most."

"Oh," I responded, understanding a little. Then I looked at the bee woman again and apologized. "I'm sorry. Um...what are you called?"

The bee woman nodded and then smiled faintly, something I could barely see because of her tiny size. "Most call me Honey Stinger," she responded with an amused look. "You may call me Bibi."

"Thank you for saving my life Bibi," I told her, knowing that I would have either died or been taken prisoner by those red caps if it wasn't for her.

"It was my duty," the bee woman...Bibi responded.

I just stared at her a moment longer, suddenly having the feeling that I'd seen her before. In fact, I think I'd seen her before in one of my dreams, one of the dreams that my biological mother had been in.

"You were the one who stung Guy yesterday," I exclaimed in realization. I remembered that he'd been stung by a bee but never would have guessed it had actually been a bee woman.

"It was my duty," Bibi told me with a nod. "Upon your birth, I was sworn to protect you for sixteen years and a day, just as she was bound to watch over you without interfering." She pointed to Mrs. Sune.

All I could do was stare at Bibi and then Mrs. Sune, realizing that they had both been watching me for my entire life. Bibi was small and had already proven she could avoid being seen so she'd probably been spying on me constantly. I blushed brightly, realizing all the things I'd done when I thought I was alone and had privacy. It was more than a little humiliating to realize that she knew every embarrassing little thing about me.

I suddenly remembered growing up, a time when a dog was coming to bite me but then suddenly yelped and ran off in the other direction. There was the time in junior high when George Nash wanted to fight me after school but then inexplicably developed a bad case of hay fever shortly before. In fact, I could remember other incidents that had gone in my favor, times when I'd been in danger but something had happened.

"You're like, my guardian angel," I whispered, wondering how many times she'd helped me out without me knowing she even existed.

“The Lady of the Crescent Moon wished to protect her child,” Mrs. Sune told me. “However, she also wanted you to experience life as a normal human which is why we were not to interact with you directly.” She frowned and added, “A grave mistake since your education was so neglected.”

I just nodded at that and then looked at Bibi again, suddenly realizing something. I gasped in surprise and blurted out, “Bee Bee… Holy fucking shit… You’re BEE BEE.”

“Language,” Mrs. Sune reminded me.

However, Bibi just smiled. “I didn’t think you’d remember.”

All I could do was stare at Bibi with my mouth open, hardly able to believe this new revelation. I couldn’t remember it very clearly but my mom told me that when I was about four, I had an imaginary friend that I called Bee Bee, one who I’d described as a talking bumble bee.

“So now my imaginary friend is real too,” I muttered. The way things were going, I wouldn’t be too surprised if a flying saucer landed in front of me and Elvis stepped out.

“Small children can sometimes see through glamour…through illusion,” Bibi told me. “Especially changelings. It seemed harmless to speak to you at that age since you could already see me, but as you got older, I had to keep from interacting with you.”

“You shouldn’t have interacted even that much,” Mrs. Sune pointed out, apparently ignoring the hypocrisy of her actually letting me see her on a daily basis.

Then I thought about how I’d unintentionally insulted Bibi just by asking her name. “So…are there any other big rules I should know, like the name thing?”

“A great many,” Mrs. Sune responded with a look that was deadly serious. “For now, make no promises and swear no oaths for you shall be bound to them.” Then she got back to her feet and said, “We must continue.”

We had been walking again for only another ten minutes when I suddenly felt the cool sensation in my palm again followed by waves of it flowing through my body. I froze where I was and gasped as my body began to go through another one of those strange attacks.

“Oh shit,” I exclaimed as my flesh began to ripple and move again, feeling good as it did so.

I stared down at my hands though they didn’t change at all. They already looked like girl hands with long fingernails, thanks to the last attack like this. However, the rest of my body was changing. There was a strange pressure in my chest and groin and I could feel my chest swelling out again, just as it had before.

Then I grimaced and closed my eyes, knowing exactly what was going to happen next. “Fuck…”

Just as I was expecting, the changes abruptly began to reverse themselves. I screamed out as the agony shot through my body, as everything was forced back to the way it had been. I collapsed to my knees, clenching my teeth and trying to just hold out until it was over.

Once the changes were done, I just remained where I was, taking several deep breaths and wondering what side effects I’d been left with this time. Then I slowly got back to my feet, noticing that Bibi and Mrs. Sune were both watching me with strange expressions.

“What the hell is happening to me?” I demanded. “Why do I keep changing like that?”

“Because you are a changeling,” Mrs. Sune responded calmly. “And the spell that binds you as such is wearing off.” At my blank look, she sighed and explained, “It has been sixteen years today since your birth, and as such, you have reached your first majority. Your faerie powers are beginning to awaken and are trying to break through the spell that binds you as a changeling.”

“The Lady of the Crescent Moon bound the spell tightly,” Bibi said, giving me a speculative look. “This helped hide you from her enemies even more effectively, but it is resisting.”

Mrs. Sune stared at me for a long moment, giving me a look that seemed to go right through me. She finally said, “The Lady knew the power of her binding and had intended to undo it herself. Unfortunately, our separation means that this is not an option at the moment, not until we reach the Court of the Morning Light.”

“The Court of the Morning Light?” I asked in confusion.

“Your true home,” Bibi responded.

I was trying to absorb that but Mrs. Sune continued, “The Lady knew she might not be able to remove the binding so made other arrangements.” She stood up straight before adding, “Me.”

“Your true name has only ever been spoken aloud twice,” Mrs. Sune told me, her expression looking very serious. “The first was the moment of your birth when you were named by your mother. The second was a short time later when you were bound as a changeling.”

“My true name?” I asked, realizing that if I wasn’t the real Shane Whitmere, then I would have to have another name. It was a very odd to consider that I had absolutely no idea what my own name was. And if what Mrs. Sune had told me earlier was right, then very few people would even know it.

“I was allowed to hear your name the second time it was spoken,” Mrs. Sune told me grimly. “I was entrusted with the keeping of your name but sworn that I could speak it once and once only. I could only speak it to give it to you.”

At that, Bibi nodded, looking as though this was news to her as well. “I understand,” Bibi said, giving me an odd look. “If you know your own name, it strengthens your faerie side and power. Your true name is the key to break the spell which binds you.”

“You have a choice,” Mrs. Sune told me with a serious expression. “I may give you your name and break the spell that binds you, returning you to your true form. Or you may wait until we reach the Lady of the Crescent Moon so she can undo the binding herself.”

I stared at Mrs. Sune, scowling thoughtfully as I put together what she was saying. If that spell was broken, then I wouldn’t have any more of those strange transformation attacks and I wouldn’t keep feeling more of that pain. But at the same time, if I broke that binding and returned to my ‘true form’, I would cease being who I was.

With that, I stared down at myself and felt the tears coming again. This was who I was…who I’d always been. This was me and my life. However, I knew now that it wasn’t. This was the form and life of the little boy who’d died so long ago. This was what the real Shane Whitmere would have looked like if he’d been allowed to grow up.

I thought of the way that my body changed each time I went through one of those attacks and I felt a surge of fear and shame. Was that my real form? Was that who I was going to turn into once this spell was broken? If that was the case, it would probably be better to stay who I was now for as long as possible. The idea of becoming someone else…something else… The idea terrified me.

After several very long minutes, I finally said, “Do it.” My voice shook as I said it. I was terrified of changing but I couldn’t bring myself to keep living a lie. I had to know who and I what I really was.

Mrs. Sune turned to look at Bibi who merely nodded and then flew a good distance down the path, far enough away so that she couldn’t hear my real name being spoken. Then Mrs. Sune turned back to me and gave me a look of approval.

“Many faerie parents give their children long and complicated names,” she told me gently. “It makes it more difficult for others to memorize them or pronounce them correctly, providing a degree of protection to the child. Your mother did not go to those extremes and instead chose a name she thought sounded pleasant.”

I realized that Mrs. Sune was trying to calm my fears and ease into this a little more gently. Until now, she’d struck me as being cold and a bit of a bitch, so this was a pleasant surprise.

“Your true name,” she said carefully, her tone suggesting that I needed to pay close attention. After all, she had pointed out earlier that she was only allowed to say it once so I had to make sure I had it. “Your name is Aeslyn Lunae Pippilotta Dae.”

As soon as I heard the final syllable, something deep inside of me screamed, ‘MINE’ and ‘THAT’S ME’. I felt a strange and absolute certainty that this was indeed my name…my REAL name.

I barely had a moment to absorb this when I suddenly felt my body starting to change again. Cool waves of sensation rushed through my body while my flesh began to shift and move. I looked down and saw the glowing symbols and lines on my body had returned, but strangely, they were beginning to suddenly go out and vanish, all except for the symbol on my palm which glowed even brighter.

Each time I’d changed, it had felt strangely pleasurable and this time was no exception. I gasped at how unbelievably good it felt to have my chest pushing out, to have a pulling in my groin.

And then I reached the point where every time before, I’d felt the transformation painfully reverse. This time, there was no resistance or pain. My body finished its transformation, flooding me with pleasure as it did so. Then I let out a scream of pleasure as an unbelievable orgasm exploded through body, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of relief.

The transformation had finished and I lay sprawled out on the ground in the middle of the path that we’d been walking on. Every other time I’d gone through these changes, I’d come out of it feeling sore and exhausted. However, this time I suddenly felt full of energy and life. I felt good…indescribably so.

“Oh God,” I whispered as I got back to my feet, noticing that my entire body felt different. Not bad…just different. Strangely, it was a nice different.

I looked down at myself, feeling a store of dazed curiosity. My chest was now pushing out into two soft bumps that were obviously breasts. I couldn’t really make out the details through my shirt, but what they were was unmistakable. I didn’t know sizes very well but guessed that they were C cups at most.

My transformed body was hidden beneath clothes that no longer fit quite right but I could tell it was a nice body. I seemed slender and shapely, a little more on the willowy side than the really curvy side. When I reached back for my hair, I found it was the same white color it had been before but it was now down to my waist and somehow seemed a brighter color.

“You’re absolutely lovely, child,” Mrs. Sune said with a nod of approval. “You truly are your mother’s daughter.”

“I’m a girl,” I whispered, not at all sure what to think or feel about that. Then I forced a weak smile and said, “I don’t think I can be Shane anymore…”

“You never really were,” Mrs. Sune responded gently, gesturing for me to continue our walk. “You never really were.

Part 8

The path of the way stretched out before me, going through the thick forest and never seeming to end, though it did occasionally twist and turn in odd ways. I'd been walking along this path for what seemed like forever, though I knew intellectually that it had only been several hours. Mrs. Sune walked a short distance ahead of me while the tiny bee woman Bibi flew around.

A short time ago, I'd noticed that bibi's spear was no longer present and had asked her if she'd lost it. That had led a lecture on what realms and ways really were. It was strange stuff but I was thankful for the distraction since it kept me from thinking too much about my situation.

"Every faerie has a demesne," Mrs. Sune told me. "What you might think of as a pocket of folded space...a place that is in another dimension. The size of a faerie's demesne depends mostly on their power. Those with smaller demesnes will often bind the entrances to pockets, purses or hats, creating in effect a pouch that can store far more inside than should be possible."

At that point, Bibi demonstrated by reaching into a small pouch on her skirt and pulling out her spear, regardless of the fact that the spear was MUCH longer than the purse was deep. After showing it off, she slipped the spear right back down into the pouch that it never should have been able to fit inside of.

"More powerful faerie will usually bind the openings of their demesnes into physical places," Mrs. Sune explained. "Often connecting it to a simple door frame. In these cases, a faeries demesne will serve as their home, containing anywhere from a single room to an entire mansion of rooms inside."

"Can I do that too?" I blurted out in surprise, suddenly imagining that Dr. Who TV show that I'd caught a couple times and thinking of that police box he had that was a LOT bigger inside than it should have been.

"Once you learn how," Mrs. Sune continued.

"Sometimes," Bibi said as she landed on my shoulder. "Sometimes faerie will keep from binding an entrance to any place or object. They can force an opening large enough for themselves at any time, creating a perfect place to hide and disappear should they need it. However, it is much easier to have a permanent opening and it takes much less energy to use when bound in this fashion."

Mrs. Sune continued with her lecture as though Bibi had never spoken. "When a faerie is born, their demesne comes into existence with them. However, when they die, it becomes unbound but does not cease to exist. It becomes like a bubble, floating in the void. Sometimes these bubbles of space bump into each other and merge, becoming larger bubbles. When such a bubble becomes large enough, we call it a realm. Such realms are valuable and faerie have long sought them out to colonize. These realms became the refuge of our kind as mortals increasingly seized dominion of the Earth."

After this, Mrs. Sune went on to explain how ways like the one we were on were the paths between these realms, or as Bibi described them, tubes that connected two bubbles. According to them, there were no trees actually surrounding us and everything I saw was actually an illusion, formed from the mind of the faerie who first created this particular way. It was a bit much to absorb and I began losing interest.

My thoughts turned back to the topic that was of much more immediate importance to me, the same topic that I'd been trying hard to avoid thinking about for the last couple hours. The fact is, I was now a girl and no matter how much I tried not to think about it, it was inescapable. Suddenly turning from a boy to a girl was shocking enough, but even stranger than that was just how comfortable and natural my new body felt. In fact, there was a feeling of relief at being a girl, as though I'd been wearing a strait jacket for a long time and had only now been released from it. This more than anything helped convince me that Mrs. Sune and Bibi were telling me the truth when they said that I was born female and had only just been returned to my natural form.

Not only did I feel oddly comfortable as a girl, I also felt incredibly alive and full of energy. There were other sensations that went with this, such as a vague awareness of Bibi and Mrs. Sune that I couldn't quite understand. I suspected that this was less a result of being girl and more from being faerie. Regardless of how I was born and what plumbing I now possessed, I knew very little about being a girl and even less about being a faerie. In fact, just yesterday I didn't even believe faeries even existed.

Just yesterday, I'd known several things as truth. I'd known my name was Shane Whitmere. I'd known I was human. I'd known I was a guy. I'd known who my parents were. And I'd known that there was no such thing as faeries. Today, everything I'd believed was real had been proven a lie. Everything I thought I knew about myself had just been torn away. I had absolutely no idea what was real anymore or even who I was. In one single day, my entire self-identity had been completely and totally shattered.

I was still dazed and in shock though I kept trying to deny it myself. I was following Bibi and Mrs. Sune more because it was easier to just go with the flow than because I had any real idea of what I was doing. At the moment, I was caught in the current and was doing everything I could just to keep from being pulled under.

Then I thought of mom and dad, feeling that sharp pain in my heart as I remembered they were dead. In a way, it didn't seem real. None of this did. It felt almost like every bit of this was one strange and twisted nightmare. However, I knew better than that...at least intellectually. I knew as much as it hurt know, I was really going to be crushed when reality came crashing back down.

I wondered what Benji would say if he saw me now. He'd probably have a very hard time believing that some faerie chick could possibly be his old friend Shane. Would he totally freak out or try flirting with me? I didn't know how he'd react. I didn't even know if I was cute or not. Since I hadn't seen myself in a mirror since my transformation, I might very well be a total butter face.

And then there was Heather, who I imagined reacting with disappointment and telling me that we couldn't be together anymore since she wasn't a lesbian. I'd never been under the illusion that we were total soul mates who were destined to spend the rest of our lives together, but I really did care for her and hated the thought of never being able to see her again. I also dreaded the idea of having to face her looking as I now did.

"That's probably never going to happen," I whispered in realization.

It wasn't until this moment that I realized that I would probably have to leave my old life behind completely. I would never be able to see any of old friends again. I'd never be able to say goodbye or explain what had happened to me. Of course, who could possibly believe the truth even if I did tell them? That just made me feel even more lost and alone.

"What the hell am I?" I suddenly blurted out, startling both Bibi and Mrs. Sune. Mrs. Sune gave me a stern look of disapproval while Bibi looked sympathetic. "Who the fuck am I?"

"Watch your language," Mrs. Sune warned me, for what had to be the hundredth time since we'd begun walking on this way. "That kind of language is not appropriate for a young lady."

"Fuck that," I spat out. "I don't know who the hell I am anymore. I don't even know what I am."

Mrs. Sune shook her head with a disapproving scowl. Her three tails were all standing up, reminding me a little of how a cat got when it arched its back to hiss at you. "You truly have spent too much living as a human."

"What is a changeling anyway?" I demanded. "I mean, what does that even mean?" I stared at Mrs. Sune for a moment, finding at least some small pleasure at releasing my frustrations. "And if this Lady of the Crescent Moon really is my mom like you said, then why the fuck did she give me away?"

Mrs. Sune stared back at me with her strict glare before responding, "If you will refrain from using any more profanity, I will attempt to explain."

"All right," I rolled my eyes. "I promise I won't use any more profanity."

I suddenly felt a tingling chill go down my spine and then ripple through my body. I gasped in surprise at the sensation since it was similar to what I'd felt when I first began each of my transformation attempts, but at the same time, it was definitely different.

"What the f...," I started, only to find my tongue froze on me. "Sh..." Again, my tongue froze on me. I tried to talk several more times only to find my tongue would freeze in the middle of what I was trying to say.

Bibi and Mrs. Sune were both watching me silently, neither of them seeming surprised. Bibi was scowling slightly while Mrs. Sune looked a little smug.

"The Lady will not be pleased by this," Bibi told Mrs. Sune.

"She will understand," Mrs. Sune responded calmly. "Besides, I think this may be for the best. Ladies should not use such language."

"What the heck is going on?" I demanded. "Why can't I talk right?"

"You made a promise," Bibi said, giving me a serious look. "Now you are bound to keep it."

Mrs. Sune gave me an appraising look, looking vaguely amused. "I warned you earlier to make no promises and swear no oaths for you would be bound by them." She bowed her head slightly before adding, "You have bound yourself to speak no profanities."

"Such are the rules of our kind," Bibi commented as she landed on my shoulder. "We are defined by our rules and our roles."

"Sh...," I started, only to find my tongue freezing again. I let out a stream of profanity, or at least tried to. Not a single word of it was able to fully form or leave my lips. I finally gave up on that and exclaimed, "I've never had a promise do that to me before..."

"Before now," Mrs. Sune explained pleasantly, "you were a changeling and were bound by the rules of humans rather than of your own kind. But now, your true faerie nature has been revealed and the rules of our kind apply. You must be careful of what words you speak lest you accidentally bind yourself further."

"How do I undo it?" I asked with a gulp.

Mrs. Sune gave me a steady look before answering, "You do not." At my gasp of shock, she continued, "You have bound yourself and will remain so bound for the rest of your life. And as our kind do not age in the fashion of humans, that may very well quite a long time."

I could only gape at Mrs. Sune in shock, hardly able to believe that one little absent promise would be able to make it so that I'd never be able to swear again. It suddenly dawned on me that it was as though the FCC had suddenly claimed domain over my mouth and would be censoring everything I said for the rest of my life. Then I couldn't help but imagining I was talking to Benji but whenever I went to say something, all that would come out of my mouth was a bleep.

While I was busy taking this in, Mrs. Sune began walking down the path again, saying, "I believe I said that I would attempt to explain your situation..."

Bibi remained standing on my shoulder, giving me a sympathetic look before shaking her head. "It is not easy being bound against your will, especially when it comes from a slip of your own tongue. You must remember, the rules of faerie are vastly different from what you are used to so you must remain aware. The consequences can be severe."

I scowled and went to catch up to Mrs. Sune, silently cursing since I could no longer do so aloud. She didn't even seem to notice that she'd left me behind as she explained, "There are several reasons faerie bind their own as changelings. And though some of these reasons do apply to you, perhaps the most pressing is that it was done for your protection. Your parents have enemies who would use you so you were placed out of their reach and in hiding. You remained safely hidden until now."

"The red caps," I muttered. "But why?"

However, instead of answering my question, Mrs. Sune abruptly froze. Her three bushy tails all went up and she stared ahead of us with an intense glare. It took me several seconds to see what she was looking at.

A little man had been crouched down beside the path but stood up and then stepped right onto the path, facing us. However, one look was enough to show that he was no more a man than those red caps had been. He was only a little over three feet tall, with an ugly wrinkled face and had brown skin. It wasn't the natural brown that you'd find on people of African or Australian Aboriginal descent but a brown that was more the color of dark mud. He wore clothes that were old and ragged. Then I noticed that he was staring at us with a sneer which normally might not have bothered me coming from someone that small, but the knife in his hand made it just a little more frightening.

A moment later, three other creatures that looked very much like the first stood up from where they were hiding and moved onto the path as well. I could see that they were each dressed differently from each other. Where the first wore rags, there was another who seemed to be wearing a bright red jacket that looked neat and pressed. Another wore denim coveralls and apparently nothing else. The last wore clothes that were similar to the first, though they looked newer and in much better shape. All three of the new ones were armed with knives much like the first.

"What the he... What the heck are they?" I blurted out. "Oompa Loompas?"

"Goblins," Bibi hissed from my shoulder just a moment before she flew into the air.

"Undoubtedly sent by the same one who sent the red caps," Mrs. Sune stated.

"The changeling isn't changeling anymore," the first goblin said, his voice a strange mixture of gravely and oily at the same time. He glared at me with yellow eyes and then grinned, revealing a mouth full of sharp teeth. "Take her alive. Kill the others."

The goblins immediately charged us but Bibi flew to the one who seemed to be the leader and impaled him in his cheek with her spear. He yowled in pain and tried slicing at her but she easily flew back and out of his range. Then she dove in again, stinging him on his rather large and bulbous nose.

"Foul vermin," Mrs. Sune exclaimed, holding out her hand and shooting a small ball of fire at one of the goblins. It hit him right in the chest and his clothes all burst into flame. He dropped to the ground and began rolling around, screaming in pain at the same time.

"Holy sh...," I spat out, grimacing and thinking that if ever there was a time to swear it was now. Since I couldn't actually say any of those words anymore, I was reduced to going back the equivalent that I'd used as a little kid. "Dog farts..." At least I could still say that much.

There was a sudden flash of golden light from Bibi and she was once again human sized. She lashed out with her spear, tripping one of the goblins and then impaling another. She lifted the impaled one into the air with her spear and flung him off.

"Run," Mrs. Sune ordered. "We are nearly to safety..."

With that, Mrs. Sune ran past the goblins, pausing long enough to throw another small ball of fire so I could get past as well. Then we both continued running while Bibi stayed behind to fight them.

A minute later, Bibi caught back up with us, back in her smaller size. She didn't say anything about the goblins and Mrs. Sune didn't ask, though we did slow down to a walk again. I just gulped, wondering just how dangerous that tiny bee woman really was. So far, I'd seen her in two fights and both times she'd really seemed to know what she was doing. It was even more impressive when I remembered that she'd been my secret bodyguard for my entire life.

"Those goblins were probably scouts," Bibi finally said, still holding onto her spear rather than putting it away. "They probably have people searching all the ways we might be traveling. If the enemy knew our location, he would have sent more than a handful of goblins."

Mrs. Sune just nodded agreement at that and looked thoughtful for a few seconds before responding. "Red caps and goblins both. It appears we may have the Unseelie Courts raised against us."

"We don't know that for certain," Bibi protested, looking uncomfortable.

"What the f...," I started before shaking my head bitterly. "What is this Unseelie thing?"

Instead of answering me, Mrs. Sune just stopped and pointed ahead, revealing what was obviously the end of the path. There was a small clearing much like the one we'd first arrived here on and in the middle of it, there was a stone arch where the air inside of it shimmered. I felt a tingle down my spine, the same tingle I felt whenever this weirdness occurred near me. Then I let out a sigh that we'd finally reached the end of this path and the long walk. However, I couldn't help but feeling a certain apprehension over what came next.

Part 9

I stared at my surroundings with my mouth dropped open, wanting to blurt out a 'Holy shit,' or a 'No fucking way,' but knowing better than to bother even trying. Instead, I just looked around in confusion, trying to absorb the scenery and make some sense of it.

After stepping through the stone arch, we'd appeared in the middle of some sort of city, if it could be called a city. There were no streets but all the paths seemed to alternate between being made of moss or smooth stones. There were tall buildings all around me, nearly each one looking as though it was made of a different material and different style. Some looked as though they might have been carved out of a single rock since there were no bricks or visible seams. There were even trees planted just about everywhere, some of which were large and actually appeared to double as more buildings.

Everything around me suddenly made me think that a city, a park, and some sort of abstract art were all crammed together in an odd way. In fact, I could even see stairs that would go up into the air and abruptly end. Sidewalks seemed to go up the sides of buildings. And there even seemed to be some small buildings and structures that were hovering in mid-air without any support. I was getting dizzy just looking at all this.

All of my senses were bombarded with chaotic input. I could smell the sweet scent of cotton candy and a few steps later, there was a horrible stench that made me want to gag and throw up. Then after several more steps, I caught what smelled like fresh strawberries.

At the same time, this didn't sound like any city that I'd ever been to. There was no sound at all from cars or any motorized vehicle, nor any sign that such things even existed here. Instead, it was oddly quiet except for the faint sound of music that seemed to be carried on the wind.

And then there were the people, if they could really be called people. This city didn't look nearly as crowded as any other city I'd been in, but there were definitely faerie around. There was one man who looked like a normal human in a modern business suit, except for the fact that he had green hair and was only eight inches tall. Several tiny faerie who looked just like humans with wings, much like Bibi, flew around. There were larger faerie as well, some about human sized and one that I saw who was about 8 feet tall and looked almost like some sort of ugly stone statue.

"Weird," I finally whispered, half sure that I was in the middle of some sort of dream.

"Welcome to the Crossroads," Bibi said, flying ahead of me and gesturing around. "This is the only faerie city in existence, and fortunately for us, it's a neutral ground where violence is strictly prohibited. We are safe while here."

"Do not mistake a lack of direct violence for being safe," Mrs. Sune warned her. "There are still dangers to be cautious of."

"As you say," Bibi nodded agreement.

"If the Crossroads ever had a true name," Mrs. Sune told me as she looked around, "there are none old enough to remember what it is. Or perhaps more accurately, if there are any who know what it was first called, they do not admit to such." She was silent for a moment, looking a bit thoughtful. "This is one of the oldest realms, one of the first ever used by our people. It became a crossroads of ways, a place where many ways meet, making this a primary thoroughfare during travel between realms."

"So, this is just like a bus station," I said as I looked around. "We still have to go somewhere else from here?" Mrs. Sune just nodded at that.

As we walked through the very strange city, I became aware of just how many doors there were. There were doorways just sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, sticking out from the base of a tree, and on several occasions, just floating in the air. I could see a shimmer in the air around many of these and feel the tingling sensation down my spine. I realized that these were the various ways that Mrs. Sune had been talking about.

"We must hurry to the other way," Mrs. Sune stated grimly. "We do not want to tarry here any longer than necessary."

I just followed close behind, my eyes darting everywhere as I took in one strange sight after another. There was a bridge that looked like it was made out of glass and another appeared to be made out of smoke. Some of the creatures I saw didn't look human in the least so I didn't know if they were faerie or something else entirely. In fact, there were so many different types of faerie creatures around that I was getting confused.

After I mentioned my confusion about the variety of different creatures, Bibi landed on my shoulder and told me, "There are many different tribes of faerie. We call them tribes rather than races because in spite of their vast physical differences, we are all faerie and are far more alike than different. Pixies, red caps, schtroumpfs, kitsune..." She gestured to Mrs. Sune when she said the last.

"And what am I?" I asked hesitantly.

"Your tribe are the sidhe," Bibi responded, seeming amused. "Out of all faerie, the sidhe have among the strongest resemblance to humans in size and form. Of course, not all faerie are from a tribe. Faerie can vary in form a great deal and there are a great many who are...unique. There can be great differences even within a tribe."

I frowned thoughtfully, about to ask Bibi more about the sidhe since it would be nice to know more about what I was now, when she suddenly flew off my shoulder with her spear in hand. Then I noticed that Mrs. Sune had stopped with an ugly old woman blocking the path.

The old woman had long, gray hair that looked knotted and filthy and wore ragged clothes that looked like they definitely needed to be washed…or burned Her skin looked a little greasy and actually had a faint green tinge to it. Then when she smiled, a very nasty and mean looking grin, I saw that her teeth were all sharp points, not to mention being completely green.

"What do you want Jenny?" Bibi demanded, hovering between me and the old woman, obviously ready to fight.

"The changeling child," the old woman said, giving me a hungry look that made me want to step back. "Give her to me."

"I would sooner die," Bibi responded firmly. "By my oath, I cannot allow you to harm her."

The old woman just laughed, though it wasn't a nice laugh. "Put that spear away... You can't harm me with it...not here."

Suddenly, the old woman moved and before I knew what was happening, she'd grabbed Bibi out of the air with a mason jar and snapped the lid on it, catching her just as if she really was just a bumble bee. There were even holes in the lid so it looked even more like the kind of jar some kid would use to capture bees in.

I went to jump to Bibi's defense though Mrs. Sune held up a hand to stop me. She made no move to attack the old woman herself, though she certainly didn't look pleased.

"We cannot use violence in this place," Mrs. Sune reminded me.

"Then how the he...heck did she do that?" I demanded angrily.

"No weapon was raised against the insect," the old woman said with a chuckle. "Nor any physical harm intended." She held up the jar where I could see Bibi hitting at the glass with her spear, trying to break out. It looked like capturing Bibi like that wasn't against the rules. This must be the other dangers that Mrs. Sune warned us about.

Just then, I noticed that there was movement around us. I quickly looked around, gasping at the sight of a large red cap who was coming towards us, holding a massive double bladed axe. It took me a moment longer before I realized that this was the same red cap leader with the broad brimmed had who'd come after us earlier. I had barely absorbed his presence when I noticed that the other red caps had appeared as well and they were starting to surround us.

"Oh shoot," I muttered, suddenly becoming very afraid.

"Remain calm, child," Mrs. Sune said, though she was obviously worried as well. "They are not allowed to harm us physically...at least not here."

"Like that helped Bibi any," I pointed out grimly.

Sune had told me that we weren't allowed to fight here in the Crossroads but it didn't look like we had a choice. I quickly looked around for something I could use as a weapon, knowing that I wouldn't be able to do much against the red caps and their axes but knowing that I had to at least try. I clenched my fists as I prepared myself, feeling the rage bubbling. These were the ones who'd killed my parents and rules or no rules, I was going to enjoy hurting them as much as I possibly could before they got me. I even gave their leader 'the look', not that it did any good.

"Look at her da," a girl's voice called out from the side. "She wants ta fight."

I turned to see the newcomer, surprised to see that it was a fairly pretty girl who looked to be about my own age, though I knew that might not mean anything since she was faerie. She was a couple inches taller than me and very curvy in the nice kind of way. She had long black hair, nicely tanned skin that looked slightly grayish, and she looked mostly human except for her yellow eyes. However, she was dressed in leather clothing that was similar to what the red caps wore and she held a single bladed axe. The girl even wore a hat, though hers as a white beret.

"Can I kill one of them da?" the girl asked the red cap leader with an almost pleading look. "I need me first kill so I can soak me hat."

"We can't kill them here, Jewel," the red cap leader responded to her with a scowl. Then he held up a thick coil of rope and grinned nastily. "We'll take them elsewhere first. Remember, our lord wants the changeling girl but I think we can spare one of the other two... A kitsune might be a good first kill..."

"Thank ye da," the girl who seemed to be named Jewel responded excitedly.

The red caps began approaching us, holding out ropes, nets and even a very large burlap sack. The old woman just stood back, holding the mason jar in her hand and cackling like some kind of witch from an old cartoon.

"This will not happen," Mrs. Sune stated firmly, standing close to me and looking as though she was about to fight to protect me. I braced myself, knowing that the smart move right now would be to just run like hell and get away. There was absolutely no way I could do anything against all of these guys, at least not without a machine gun or something. Still, they had us surrounded so it seemed that I didn't have any choice.

"Frack," I spat out, wishing again that I could use some real profanity. It would make me feel better if nothing else.

Just then, another voice yelled out, "Cease this action."

A second later, I noticed the speaker, a teenage girl with pointed ears and dark gray skin. It was the faerie that they'd called Shyla, standing there with a sword drawn in each hand. However, even more impressive was the fact that she wasn't alone. She had a half dozen other faerie with her, almost all of which looked like they could be elves from Lord of the Rings. All of them were also armed.

"Jenny Greenteeth," Shyla said to the old woman with narrowed eyes. "Release your captive." Then she looked to the red cap leader and ordered him to have his people back off. "We will not allow this hostility to go unanswered."

"So you would fight us?" the red cap leader demanded with a smirk. "Here?"

"If necessary," Shyla responded firmly.

I just looked around, not sure whether to be nervous or relieved. I understood that Shyla and these guards were supposedly on my side, that they were working with my biological mother, but I'd suddenly gone from a leisurely stroll through Wonderland to being in the middle of a Lord of the Rings standoff. I had a feeling that things would get very bad if they actually started fighting rather than just posing.

Suddenly, there was a crashing boom that sounded like thunder and nearly everyone present was knocked off their feet. I scrambled to get back to my feet as everyone else was doing the same. Then I saw that we had three more newcomers.

"What the f...fudge?" I demanded.

The three newcomers stood close to each other, each of them wearing a shadowy gray cloak to conceal their body. The newcomers also had their hoods up and each was wearing a mask that covered their entire face. The only thing that really served to identify them as individuals was the way their masks were painted. One was white with red streaks across it, one was gold with black spots, and the last was a swirl of white and green.

"The Ring of Silence," Mrs. Sune whispered from beside me, though I couldn't tell if she was upset at their arrival or relieved.

"The treaty forbids violence in the Crossroads," one of the hooded figures announced, the voice sounding male but rather eerie. "These activities will cease immediately."

"Who are these guys?" I whispered to Mrs. Sune. "The cops?"

"The Ring of Silence," she responded, nearly whispering herself. She didn't look at me though as her eyes seemed to be shifting between the cloaked figures and the red caps. "When the Seelie and Unseelie courts forged the great treaty, each side provided soldiers who would enforce it. These enforcers became the Ring of Silence, hiding their faces so we do not know which tribe, court, or alliance they originally came from. They enforce the neutrality of the Crossroads and ensure our kind are kept hidden from humans." She finally turned to look at me and added, "They are the ones who ensure that humans no longer believe our kind to exist."

"So, more like the men in black," I muttered to myself. "Or elves in gray."

Both sides reluctantly backed up though Jewel protested, "But what about me first kill?"

"There will be time enough for that later," the red cap leader told her with a scowl. "Our lord don't want no trouble with the Ring of Silence...least not yet."

"You still hold one of ours," Mrs. Sune called out, pointing to the old woman who Shyla had called Jenny Greenteeth.

Jenny Greenteeth just laughed cruelly. "Taken fairly our prisoner was..."

"Depart in peace," the gray cloaked spokesman said again. "Violence will not be tolerated here."

I glared at the gray cloaks, realizing that they didn't give a damn about Bibi or the fact that the red caps were kidnapping her. In fact, it seemed to me that the gray cloaks were acting as accomplices in the kidnapping, preventing any attempt to free her since that would require violence. I felt a surge of anger rising again as I thought about how wrong that was.

I'd only really met Bibi mere hours ago, but in that time, she'd already saved me from the red caps and from the goblins. Of course, she'd also been my invisible bodyguard for my entire life, not to mention my childhood imaginary friend. She'd probably helped me countless times that I never even knew about so there was no way I could just stand by and let those red cap bastards walk off with her.

My first impulse was to just attack the nearest red cap and grab his weapon, but I'd already learned the hard way that faerie rules have consequences. I had no idea what the consequences of fighting in the Crossroads would be, but since even the red caps were holding back, I had a feeling that they'd be pretty nasty. I didn't want to be the one to break that rule first, especially when I might unintentionally start a war. However, I couldn't just leave Bibi with these people. Fortunately, it seemed to me that the Ring of Silence didn't care if you stretched the no violence rule, just so long as you didn't directly break it.

Once I'd made up my mind, I hesitated only a moment before launching myself at Jenny, snatching the mason jar right out of her hand but being careful not to touch her. She responded by instantly lashing out with her hand and hitting me, probably out reflex. The old woman hit far harder than I would have imagined her even capable of, harder than one of the football players on my school probably would have. I was sent flying back, the mason jar clutched firmly in my hands.

Everything immediately exploded into chaos as the old woman had broken the rules when she'd hit me. Before I even knew what was happening, two of the guards who'd come with Shyla had picked me off the ground and were pulling me towards a nearby doorway, the entrance to another way. Everyone else in our group was rushing here as well though Mrs. Sune was bringing up the rear.

Just as we reached the doorway, Mrs. Sune was suddenly hit with a net that tripped her and dropped her to the ground. She transformed into a three tailed fox in the blink of an eye but a second net went over her as well while two red caps appeared by her side, grabbing hold of the net tightly so she couldn't get away. Half of our guards had already rushed into the way and none of the others made any move to go back for Mrs. Sune, though Shyla hesitated for a moment, looking like she was seriously considering it.

"This one will join our human prisoners," the leader of the red caps exclaimed with a cruel snarl, glaring at me as he said it.

"What?" I gasped at that, staring at him in surprise. "Human prisoners?"

My heart raced as I realized that my mom and dad might not be dead after all. In fact, I felt an immense sense of relief, though it didn't last long since I knew that if the red caps had them prisoner, things were still very bad for them. But before I could even absorb this, I was pulled through the door and into the way.

Part 10

I was awash in a sea of mixed emotions as I stepped out of the way. I felt swirling surges of fear, anger, confusion, and worry, all fighting for each other for dominance. In the end, I was so overwhelmed by all of these that I also felt just completely dazed. The fact that I had finally reached my destination didn't do much to ease my fears.

Bibi hovered in the air beside me, having been released from the mason jar about half an hour ago when we'd escaped the Crossroads. Unfortunately, Mrs. Sune had been left behind and Shyla assured me that there was nothing we could do about it at the moment. However, I could see that at least Bibi was worried about her as well.

"And my parents," I whispered to myself, my heart jumping slightly as I considered that they might still be alive. Unfortunately, if they were alive they were in the hands of the red caps and that couldn't be good at all.

"We have arrived," Shyla said unnecessarily.

We had just stepped out of a stone arch that was in the middle of a grassy clearing. A ring of small stones with a twenty foot diameter surrounded the arch and the group that had just come through it. Beyond the stones and the grassy clearing, I could see that we were surrounded by lots of trees, though it was difficult seeing much more because there was the clearing also contained a layer of fog. I looked around, seeing the sun in the distance, just rising over some of the trees and releasing an almost orange light that glistened off the mist.

"Welcome to the Court of the Morning Light," Shyla told me, giving me a slight bow. "Welcome home."

Normally, I would have said something appropriate like, 'holy shit', though this time I didn't bother since it would have been pointless to even try. Instead, I silently followed behind Shyla and the other guards as they led me towards the trees. Each step I took caused the knot of nervousness in my stomach to grow stronger while all the other emotions began to recede into the back ground.

Once we stepped into the trees, I saw that this looked like an old growth forest with old trees. Morning sunlight gleamed through the tree branches, looking particularly impressive as it reflected off the glistening dew drops and the faint wisps of morning mist that clung around.

As impressive as this scenery was, Bibi had already told me that part of what I'd see in this realm would be illusion. According to her, glamour and illusion were the preferred form of art among faerie and that the best could blend it seamlessly with reality so that you couldn't tell where one began and the other ended. From what she'd told me, I guessed that most of the ground and trees were real but the sun and sky at least were fake.

I soon realized that we weren't alone and that there were other faerie watching us, though some did seem to blend into their surroundings amazingly well as though they were nearly invisible. I saw a few faerie standing out in the open though, wearing a variety of different clothing. One man looked to be wearing some kind of old fashioned clothing that might have been made out of wool while another was a woman wearing a dress that shimmered as though it was covered with the morning dew.

One thing I quickly noticed was that there wasn't nearly the chaos or variety here as there had been in the Crossroads. Most of the faerie I saw were around human sized and held a strong resemblance to humans, making me suspect that these were probably sidhe. However, there were other faerie who were smaller, about three or feet tall. I didn’t see any that were smaller than that and certainly none with wings like Bibi.

After only a couple minutes, we came to edge of the main habitation. There were stairs, walls, arches, and some small buildings that seemed to be made out of a mixture of stone and trees. The trees that were part of the construction looked like they'd grown into the shapes of supports and arches, even providing a few structures that looked to have been grown entirely from the bodies and branches of the trees. I had no idea how much of that was illusion and how much was the result of magic shaping the trees.

Shyla led me through the structures which only grew more and more impressive. I went up one short flight of stairs and along a stone path though the walls and ceiling were only partially there, formed from a mixture of the stone and branches while leaving huge holes for sunlight to pour through. I felt a strange sense of history as I walked through this place, a feeling that this place had been here for a very long time.

All the guards who'd come with Shyla to meet us in the Crossroads left us but we certainly weren't left alone. There were other guards who were dressed and armed much like them scattered about. I suddenly felt like I was in Rivendell, surrounded by elves and being led to meet Elrond or Galadriel. It was a very strange feeling and even more so to realize that I was actually one of them.

Then we finally came into a large open room that was hard to really think of as a room at all since it had so many openings with the morning sunlight pouring through. A bird even darted into the room and then back out again through one of these openings. However, as interesting as this place was, my eyes were fixed on the figure who stood in the center of the room.

The Lady of the Crescent moon looked exactly as she had the last time I'd seen her, tall, slender, and beautiful with the long flowing silvery white dress. I stared at her and felt my heart jump into my throat while she met my gaze, her silvery crescent moon shaped eyes locked firmly on my own. Then she smiled gently and came towards me.

"You are very lovely," she stated in a melodic voice. She looked me over again and nodded faintly. Then she reached her hand out to me and I took an instinctive step back. "Of course," she mused, pulling her hand back and giving me a sad smile. "Things have ever been difficult on changelings." Then she stared at me a moment more before gently asking, "Do you know who I am?"

"They said...they said you're my biological mother," I answered carefully.

"But you doubt their words," she responded, her tone making it a question.

I hesitated a moment and gulped nervously. "No," I admitted quietly.

I'd never met this woman before today but I'd been dreaming of her for years and felt a strange connection to her that convinced me that she was indeed my biological mother. However, the truth is that she was also a complete stranger to me and I had no idea what I should think or feel towards her.

"I believe you are," I told her honestly. "But I don't know you. I don't even know who I am anymore." I met her eyes again and gave her a defiant look.

The Lady of the Crescent Moon nodded faintly with a slight look of disappointment on her face. "I expected such would happen when I bound you as a changeling."

"Then why?" I demanded, all my frustration exploding out. "Why do that to me? Why turn my entire life into a fu...into a freaking lie?"

Instead of answering me immediately, she just looked at me with a calm and almost serene expression. Then she turned as if she was going to walk away and just leave me there. She was looking away from me when she finally answered. "There were several reasons, all of them good ones and all for your own good." Then she slowly turned back towards me, frowning as she added, "I would not have sent my only daughter away if it were not necessary."

I winced slightly at being referred to as her daughter even though it was the truth. I might be a girl now and might even have been born girl, but I still didn't think of myself as one. After having spent my entire life so far as a guy, I didn't know that I'd ever really be able to think of myself as anything else. And then there was the issue of my relationship with her since it felt very awkward to have a stranger calling me that.

Just then, Bibi flew to the Lady of the Crescent Moon and hovered above her shoulder, saying something to her that I couldn't heart. Her expression darkened slightly as she listened to what Bibi was saying though she didn't say anything back to my tiny bodyguard.

"Very well," the Lady of the Crescent Moon finally said as Bibi flew away. She gave me another odd look that somehow seemed sad even though her expression was all calm and serene. "You have had a very long and difficult day and I do not wish to overwhelm you further. Please go eat, wash and rest. Once you have rested we will talk further and you will meet your father."

"My father?" I repeated in surprise. So far, no one had made a single mention about my birth father and who he might be so I hadn't really given it much thought. I suddenly felt extremely foolish for not having done so before now.

The Lady of the Crescent Moon merely smiled gently and gestured to Shyla. "My bodyguard Shyla will show you to the quarters which have been provided for you."

Before I could even think of what to say, my biological mother left the room through one door while Shyla began leading me through another. She didn't say anything as she led me through a hallway and then to an open doorway. There was no actual door, just a length of curtain to separate the room from the hallway. The room itself was large with two more rooms coming off the sides.

"These will be your quarters," Shyla told me.

"I think I might need a door," I pointed out, gesturing to the curtain.

However, Shyla responded, "None will enter without purpose or invitation."

"But," I started to protest.

Bibi, who'd come along landed on my shoulder and explained, "These quarters have been given to you by the Lord and Lady of the court. Once you claim them as your own, none will be able to enter without either your permission or theirs. This is one of the rules of the Court of the Morning Light."

"Really?" I asked Shyla skeptically, glancing to the curtain that covered the door. She merely bowed her head in agreement.

"Faerie can choose who is allowed to enter their demesne and who may not," Bibi told me. "Once you learn how to open your own demesne, you may choose to move your quarters there, if it is large enough. For now, the rule allows for nearly the same privacy that one would have in their own demesne."

I just nodded at that as I looked through the quarters, finding that the main room could probably serve as a living room, office, and all around general room. The room off to one side had a strange looking canopy bed that was big enough that four people could easily sleep comfortably. The thing that I noticed most was that all four corners were actually trees which appeared to be growing right out of the floor. Then there was the last room which had a sunken stone pit that was filled with water, obviously intended as a bath tub even though it was nearly big enough to swim in.

"You must claim this as your quarters," Shyla stated. "Then it will be bound to your claim."

"Um...I claim these quarters?" I said aloud, not sure how to do what she said. I immediately felt a cool tingle down my spine and in the palm of my hand.

"It is done," Shyla said.

I just nodded at that and looked around, suddenly wondering how I was going to sleep or take a bath when half the roof was missing and there were lots of big gaps in walls. Bibi noticed where I was looking and explained that no one outside of this room would be able to look within, making me think that all these openings might be sort of like some kind of magical mirror glass where you could see through one way but not the other.

"This place is fu...weird," I muttered before once again silently cursing my inability to curse aloud.

"I hope you approve," Shyla said professionally, not seeming to really care much either way. "Someone will be sent with food and fresh garments." Then she bowed slightly before turning to leave.

"Um...Shyla," I started, causing her to stop and look back at me. I felt a little awkward but I was curious about her dark gray skin color. "I was just wondering... I mean, you're the only one I've seen so far in this realm with dark skin like that."

"My mother was sidhe," she responded, not appearing to be embarrassed by the question. "My father was not." A moment later, she turned and left through the curtain.

I just stared after Shyla, feeling curious about her. After all, she looked to be about my own age but the Lady of the Crescent Moon had called her a bodyguard. I turned to Bibi and asked, "Is it considered rude to ask a faerie how old they are?"

"Most of the time," Bibi responded thoughtfully. "It varies from tribe to tribe and court to court with some believing that it is extremely rude to ever ask while others believe that it only becomes rude after the second majority."

"The second majority?" I asked, remembering that my sixteenth birthday was my first majority. It was a little weird to realize that today was my actual birthday, not the day that I'd celebrated my entire life. However, that was probably the least important of the things I'd found weren’t true.

"When a faerie reaches their hundredth year," Bibi told me, landing on my shoulder. "Among many faerie tribes, this is when their full powers are unlocked. We call it their second majority." Then she quickly added, "And before you ask, I reached my second majority shortly before your birth."

"What about Shyna?" I asked. "I mean, she looks like a teenager..."

Bibi just laughed. "She has looked as she does for as long as I have known her. I first met her when I was but a child."

"Da...darn," I responded, shaking my head and wondering just how old the Lady of the Crescent Moon was. With as strange as everything else already was, I wasn't sure that I even wanted to know. Then I just sighed and whispered, "So that was my...my birth mother."

A few seconds later, a woman's voice called out from the other side of the curtain, "May I have permission to enter? I come bearing food."

"Come in," I called back, suddenly realizing how hungry I was. The last time I'd eaten anything had been lunch and that had been a lifetime ago. The last time I'd eaten a bite, I'd still been a boy named Shane.

The woman who came in looked to be about nineteen or twenty years old with long brown hair and was dressed in a in a brown dress that had no sleeves. She was pretty but her most noticeable feature was the tattoo which crossed over her face. It was dark green and linked like a vine with thorns, coming up from the left side of her neck and crossing over to where it wrapped around her right eye and ended on her forehead. Then I noticed that she had similar thorny vine tattoos on both of her exposed arms.

“I bring food my lady,” the woman said, bringing in a tray and setting it down on the small table. Then she stood there as though waiting for something.

I looked over the tray, seeing that this certainly wasn’t the feast that I’d been imagining. There was small loaf of bread, a little cup of some kind of spread that I assumed was for the bread, an apple, and a goblet full of some golden colored liquid.

“Um…thank you,” I told her.

“Is there anything else I can do for my lady?” the woman asked, making me feel awkward to have her acting like this towards me.

“No, I think I’m fine,” I responded. She bowed before leaving without another word.

A minute later, I was going at my meal, finding that it was surprisingly delicious. The bread had rich taste that I hadn’t expected and the spread was somehow sweet and tangy at the same time. The apple was sweet, crisp, and definitely the most delicious apple that I’d ever eaten in my life. I gave a bit of the bread and apple both to Bibi who’d happy to dig in as well.

Then I took a drink from the goblet and felt the thick and sweet liquid burn as it went down my throat and then it began to warm my stomach. It tasted absolutely fantastic though it was unlike anything I’d ever had before.

“Is this alcohol?” I asked Bibi in surprise.

“It’s nectar,” she responded with a smirk. “And yes, there is alcohol in it.”

I was a little surprised at that since I certainly hadn’t expected them to give me booze with my dinner. “I’m underage,” I pointed out, taking another sip and enjoying it.

Bibi just laughed at that, taking a bite from the slice of apple I’d given her and then explaining, “The rules of faerie are important and binding but you will find that the rules of humans hold no sway. We have little interest in such human rules as this. Feel free to drink as you desire, just be careful not to drink more than you can handle.”

I finished the meal and discovered that it was a lot more filling than I ever would have guessed. After drinking all the nectar, I felt warm and pleasant but didn’t think I was really drunk. It was hard to be sure though since I’d never been drunk before and didn’t have anything to compare it to.

“I need to take a bath,” I finally said to which Bibi just nodded. She made no move to leave so I sighed. “Can I please have some privacy.”

“As you wish,” Bibi responded. “I will be waiting outside in case I am needed.” Then flew towards the door, calling back, “I am bound to protect you till tomorrow.”

Once Bibi was gone and I had my privacy, I went to the room with the bath tub built into the floor. A quick test of the water revealed that it was nice and warm, the perfect temperature. I didn’t need any further invitation than that.

I quickly peeled of my now ill-fitting clothes and dropped them to the ground, revealing my transformed body a little bit at a time. I stared down at my bare chest and the obvious breasts which I now possessed for nearly a minute before I took off the rest of my clothes.

“I’m a girl,” I whispered as I cupped my new breasts in my hands and then reached between my legs to where my male equipment was gone. “I’m really a girl.”

For several minutes I just stood where I was, staring down at my body and then slowly running my hands down it. My skin was so soft and smooth, without a single hair or scar. In fact, I found that I didn’t have a single hair on my body below the neck. My skin was also pale and creamy, definitely lighter than it was before.

Then I noticed that there a full length mirror on the wall across from the bath tub. I gulped and felt myself drawn to it, feeling both curious and nervous about what I would see.

“Oh my,” I gasped at the sight of my own reflection.

The girl who stared back at me was very beautiful though somewhat exotic as well. She…I had the same silver eyes that I’d had before my final transformation and the silvery white hair that now went down to my waist. My lips seemed sort of shiny and glossy, having a faint hint of that pearlescent color of my nails.

“Of course,” I whispered, reaching up and feeling my ears. “I have pointed ears too…”

After looking myself over like this, I could definitely see a very strong resemblance to the Lady of the Crescent Moon. And then as I looked into my own eyes, the pupils changed from the burnt chrome color to the same color as the irises and they all began to glow faintly from within.

“My eyes,” I gasped. “My eyes look like full moons…

Part 11

I woke up with the morning light streaming into my room, the exact same morning light that I’d gone to sleep to. The canopy of the bed had dimmed the light for me enough so that I was able to get to sleep, but it might also have been some magical property of the bed. I didn't know about that, only that I felt much better after having slept.

My mind was immediately bombarded with memories from yesterday, if it really was yesterday. My sense of time was a bit screwed up since this place seemed to be stuck on permanent morning.

“Mom,” I whispered as I sat up in bed. “Dad…”

For a minute, I just remained where I was with my eyes closed, trying to bring sense to everything that had happened. I felt like I was on the verge of bursting into tears but somehow pushed it all down.

“One thing at a time,” I told myself. “Just take things one at a time…”

I climbed out of bed then stared down at my naked body. I gently cupped my breasts and shook my head slightly, feeling my hair tickle my shoulders. It was strange. Being a girl like this felt sort of good and natural, yet at the same time, it also felt strange. I might have been born a girl but I’d spent my entire life as a guy so this was all new to me.

“I’m a girl,” I reminded myself. “I have to get used to it.”

I turned my attention away from my body and looked around me, at all the openings in the walls and ceiling. I suddenly felt like I was in a gazebo rather than an actual room and I half expected to see someone peeking at me through the openings.

“The Court of the Morning Light,” I mused, suddenly understanding why this place had been given that name. The sun hadn’t risen at all since I’d come here nor had it set, at least not while I was awake. I was beginning to suspect that the sun was stuck at a permanent sunrise.

Then I thought about earlier, before I took my nap. I remembered the bath I’d taken and how much I’d enjoyed the long hot soak. I’d explored my new body a little while washing, but I’d spent more time just closing my eyes and letting the stress wash away. By the time I was done with my bath, all I wanted was to crawl into bed for awhile.

After a minute I shook my head and went back to the bathroom where I’d left my clothes scattered around the floor. However, my clothes were all gone. I hadn’t cleaned them up so someone else obviously had. That made me a little nervous since I didn’t think anyone else was supposed to be able to come in here without my permission.

“Or the permission of the owners,” I reminded myself. Bibi had told me that the lord and lady of this place could give people permission to enter as well.

While I was there, I looked at myself in the mirror again, still having a hard time believing that the beautiful girl staring back was me. She looked like she could have been one of the elves from Lord of the Rings.

“Sidhe,” I reminded myself. “I’m sidhe.” Of course, I didn’t really know what that meant.

My eyes were back to the silver irises and burnt chrome pupils, though with a thought they both shifted to the glowing silvery disks that resembled full moons. I then shifted them back to ‘normal’. I’d discovered that I could do this earlier and thought that it was kind of a neat trick.

When I went back to the main room, I found that some new clothes had been left for me as replacements for the dirty ones I’d left on the floor. I stood and stared at a dark green dress that was spread out on a table.

“A dress,” I muttered. “I can’t wear a dress…”

For a brief moment, I felt just a little hurt and offended, at least until I reminded myself that I was a girl now. I still wasn’t about to put on something like this, even if this was the only thing I had to wear.

I just stared at the dress for a good long minute before finally shaking my head and letting out a sigh of resignation. I was a girl now and girls could wear dresses. I wanted to insist that I wasn’t going to be that kind of a girl, that I wasn’t going to ever wear a dress. However, I was a girl now and I knew that I would have to get used to that. This seemed like a good first step.

There was no underwear with the dress so I just put it on alone. It felt extremely light and smooth, making me wonder if it was made of silk or something like that. It was tapered in the waist almost like it had a built in corset and it long sleeves with white openings at the wrist, and the whole thing was long and flowing.

Then I found the shoes, if they could really be called that. They were more like green slippers the same color as the dress. They also fit me perfectly, just as the dress did.

Now that I was dressed, I was curious about what I looked like. I felt foolish, but when I saw myself in the mirror I had to admit that I looked gorgeous.

“Holy sh…,” I started, then paused to scowl in annoyance. I was really wishing I hadn’t made that promise to Mrs. Sune.

I ran my fingers through my hair which was soft and silky smooth. It was strange since I’d run my fingers through Heather’s hair and it hadn’t been anything like this. Mine was completely free from any form of knots or split ends and it just sort of fell right into place as though I’d been at some expensive salon.

“At least I’m a good looking girl,” I told myself with a nervous smile.

Since I was fully dressed, I saw no reason to remain in my quarters, other than trying to hide away from everyone else. I was a little uncomfortable at the idea of other people seeing me in this dress but I decided that the best way to get over that was to face it head on. After all, since I was a girl now I might end up wearing more dresses in the future.

I pushed aside the curtain and left my rooms only to find Bibi waiting for me in the hall. She immediately settled into a position a foot away from my shoulder though she didn't say anything. She looked sort of alert and ready to fight, suddenly reminding me that in spite of her small size, she was actually my bodyguard.

"I have a question," I said carefully, then paused to reconsider. "Actually, I have a lot of questions..."

"I will answer if I can," Bibi responded.

Then I held out my right hand and showed her my palm. Right in the middle of my palm was a symbol, a spiral with the line through it. It was the same symbol that I'd seen glowing there during my transformations but it seemed to be written as shiny lines in my skin. It was almost as though I actually had some sort of watermark tattoo there, something I'd discovered when I'd been taking my bath.

"What's this?" I asked, not exactly thrilled by the idea of being given some sort of weird tattoo without my knowledge or permission.

"That's your sigil," Bibi explained after a glance at my palm. At my blank look, she added, "Your personal crest."

I just blinked at that. "My what?"

There was a flash of golden light and suddenly Bibi was standing beside me, now as tall as I was. She pointed to my palm and then up above the doorway I'd just come through, revealing that there was an identical symbol carved in the stone and glowing with a faint silver light.

"We faerie have no written language as you know it," Bibi told me. "Instead, we have several runes which express broad ideas such as danger, go away or visitors are welcome in peace. Some faerie, sidhe included, will choose a symbol to represent themselves and will use this symbol to mark what they have claimed. It is a way to tell other faerie, this is mine."

"So someone claimed me?" I asked, feeling horrified and insulted at that.

"No," Bibi laughed. "That is your sigil...the symbol you use to mark that which is yours." She pointed to the symbol above the door. "That appeared when you claimed these rooms as your own." She hesitated a moment before continuing, "Most who use sigils will choose their own, often upon either their first or second majority. Sidhe will often choose ones for their own children. Yours was given as part of the process to bind you so tightly to changeling form. It was a...reminder of your true identity."

Then Bibi abruptly said, "Come... Your mother has waited sixteen years to speak with you. Do not make her wait any longer."

With that, there was another flash of golden light and Bibi was back to her tiny size. She flew down the hallway while I followed behind, feeling more and more nervous with every step. She eventually led me to a place that had a carved door frame in the wall though there seemed to be no actual door, just more wall with a glowing symbol carved into it that looked like a crescent moon. In fact, I recognized it as one of the symbols that had had been glowing on my body when I'd gone through those transformation attacks. After what Bibi had just told me, I realized that this was probably the Lady of the Crescent Moon's sigil.

At first glance, it looked like just a decorative door frame in the wall, but then I noticed the shimmer that looked like the entrance to a way. My suspicions were proven correct a moment later when Shyla stepped right out of the door, as though the wall hadn't even been there. She looked at me for a moment and then gestured for me to go in. Bibi made no move so I gulped and then stepped into the wall.

I felt the tingling down my spine that I'd come to realize meant the presence of magic, then a moment later, I was standing in a large room. The room was round with white marble walls that didn't have any openings in it like my own quarters did though they were draped with several long strips of dark green cloth. The floor was covered with white and dark green pillows though there were bits of furniture such as chairs and small desks scattered about the room and leaned up to the wall.

My eyes went up and I gasped to see that there was absolutely no ceiling, giving me a clear view of the dark night sky. It was the clearest night sky I'd ever seen, splattered with countless stars. Of course, the true star of this night sky was the bright crescent moon that looked at least five times as large as normal.

Then I turned my attention to the center of the room where there was a low table set up, the kind that you had to sit on the floor to use. However, it wasn't the table that drew my attention but the person who sat on the other side of it. It was a little girl with white hair and a silvery white dress, the same little girl who'd appeared at the cabin with Mrs. Sune and Shyla. It was the same little girl who'd transformed into the Lady of the Crescent Moon.

The little girl slowly stood up and absently adjusted her dress before looking at me with her crescent moon eyes. "Welcome to my demesne." She gestured to some of the pillows beside the table. "Please have a seat."

I quickly glanced around again and saw that it was indeed just the two of us with no guards or anyone else. Then I went towards her, carefully taking a seat on the pillows while she did the same thing.

"You look like a kid," I finally said, unsure of what to say.

My birth mother looked faintly amused at that. "Do I?" She reached for a goblet of nectar that was sitting on the table and took a sip, gesturing for me to help myself to a second goblet that was set out in front of me. Only once she had put the goblet down did she continue. "I thought that being in this form would make me seem less intimidating and easier to speak with." She tilted her head a little and asked, "Was I wrong?"

"No," I answered after a few seconds of consideration. She didn't seem very intimidating like this. It was hard to believe that she could possibly be anyone's mother much less my own. "You were like this earlier..."

She nodded slightly, still looking vaguely amused. "I spend a great deal of time in this form," she finally said. "It is as much my true form as the other that you've seen and I can switch between them with great ease. In some ways I am more comfortable in child form, being less powerful yet free from certain adult interests and desires."

All I could think to say to that was, "Oh..."

"There are three great powers that are inherent in our race...in faerie," she explained pleasantly. "Glamourie, creating a demesne, and altering our form. There are other magics as well, ones specific to the individual, court, or tribe, but these are the powers that we possess, even if only as a faint remnant. There are many like myself who have an alternate form, ones like Honey Stinger who can alter her size or like Tomoki who can become a fox."

"Tomoki?" I asked blankly.

"The kitsune who helped bring you here," she responded, suddenly looking grim. "She was a trusted advisor and close friend."

"Mrs. Sune," I whispered. I'd known that wasn't her real name but she hadn't given me anything else to use. Of course, Tomoki probably wasn't her real name either, just what other people called her. Somehow, it seemed more fitting.

I felt a surge of guilt as I remembered that Mrs. Sune...Tomoki had been captured because of me. My own parents were either dead or captured as well. I grimaced and began shaking a little until the apparent little girl placed her hand on me.

"What happened was not your fault," she said gently, actually sounding motherly in spite of having the voice of a little girl. "I have people looking to see if she is yet alive, and if so, where she might be held." Then she paused and added almost as an afterthought, "And the humans who raised you as well."

I just nodded at that, not trusting myself to speak much. "Thank you."

My birth mother didn't say a word but slid a tray on the table to me which contained chocolates, candied fruits, and some other things that I thought might be some other type of candy. I helped myself to one of the chocolates, amazed at how good it was. I don't think I'd ever had chocolate this delicious in my life.

"You undoubtedly have a great many questions," she finally said. "I will attempt to answer them."

Of course, I had a hundred questions running around in my head but only one of them screamed for an immediate answer. "Why?" I didn't bother specifying what I meant as I didn't think it was necessary.

She closed her eyes and then her body shimmered and transformed so that she was an adult again. She showed no signs of even having noticed this though after a few seconds she nodded slightly.

"Faerie are not like humans," she said after a very long minute. She opened her eyes and looked at me again. "The differences between our species are far greater than our appearance suggests. Faerie have a certain...genetic adaptability. Where humans excel at altering their environment to suit their needs, we adapt to the environment. In human terms, you might say that as a species we are able to evolve in a single generation."

"Evolve?" I asked, more stunned to hear a magical faerie tale creature talking about a scientific term like evolution than anything else.

"Such is why there are so many tribes of faerie," she explained. "In spite of the vast differences in our forms, all faerie share the same essential nature."

"That's interesting," I responded, feeling frustrated that instead of answering my question she'd gone into this weird tangent. "But what the heck does that have to do with it?"

My birth mother gave me a patient look that suddenly made me feel like a little kid who'd been caught misbehaving. The fact that I couldn't even swear right anymore and was forced to use little kid swear words only added to that feeling. A thought occurred to me that if I couldn't swear right, maybe it would be better to not do it at all than to do it in such a childish way.

Then I suddenly remembered something else, that in spite of her previous appearance, she was not only an adult and my own biological mother, she was probably far older than I knew. In her eyes, I probably was just a little kid. I gulped at that, determining to at least try being on my best behavior.

"Binding some of our youngest as changelings is one of the ways we adapt," she continued, almost as though I hadn't interrupted her. "It is an ancient tradition that has existed for longer than our own known history. We bind our youngest and most adaptable to live as other races for a time, then afterwards, they retain some of the nature and abilities of that race. Humans have long been the most popular changeling form which is why most faerie have such strong resemblance to them."

"Is that why I was a changeling?" I asked, trying to make sense of it all. "So I'd look more human?"

"No," she responded with a faint laugh though her expression quickly darkened and became sad. "The benefits of being a human changeling are more subtle. You see, most of our kind have avoided humans for centuries and many of those alive today have never seen a human in their natural habitat. You have been among humans as one of their own so understand them and their current world perhaps more than any other faerie. This understanding may be of great value to our kind one day."

I took a long sip of my nectar as I considered that and what it meant for me. It was a lot to absorb but I had a feeling that she wasn't telling me everything just yet.

"There's more," I said quietly, being careful to not sound like I was accusing her of anything.

She nodded at that, taking a sip of her own nectar and continuing to look sad. "You gain other benefits from your time as a human," she final told me. "You will have gained much of their protections. You will have a greater resistance to our rules and magics, making it more difficult for you to be bound without your consent. But more importantly, you will be more tolerant of iron."

"Iron?" I asked blankly.

"Iron disrupts magic and spells," she told me, staring off to the side rather than looking at me. "Our bodies are largely composed of magic so it has an effect on us as well. For many faerie, iron is a deadly poison and even the touch of it can burn. Others of our kind have built up tolerances so that it is more annoyance than lethal, almost like an allergy. It is only the rarest who have become completely immune to iron."

"Iron," I mused, shaking my head and wondering how anyone could be allergic to iron. After all, it was everywhere. "I don't think I've ever had any problems with iron..."

"You were a changeling," she told me gently. "I used the most powerful magic possible to bind you as such, lending you the form and protections of a mortal child. Once the binding was broken, those protections have vanished along with the form." She put a hand on mine and added, "You will probably find yourself more sensitive to iron than before, yet hopefully you will retain a great degree of tolerance."

There was complete silence for another minute as she gave me time to think over what she'd told me. It was a bit strange to consider that I might have developed some sort of allergy to normal iron, though certainly no stranger than anything else that had happened to me. In fact, compared to my own physical changes and unexpected lineage, that was pretty small potatoes.

"Your father and I have enemies," my birth mother continued after a minute. She stared off to the side with a thoughtful and sad expression. Then she turned to look at me, staring at me with those strange crescent moon eyes. She actually looked pained as she did so. "The true reason I bound you as a changeling was to hide you from them and to offer you increased protection for when you could hide no further. I bound you so tightly that their magic would never be able to find you and then put two who I trusted most to watch over you."

"Bibi and Mrs. Sune," I whispered, then at her blank look, I added, "Honey Stinger and Tomoki."

My birth mother nodded faintly at that, taking a long sip from her nectar. "They were bid to not interact with you lest their own magics weaken the changeling bonds and reveal you to our enemies and then you were placed in the care of humans who would raise you as their own."

"Da...," I started to say 'damn' then stopped as my tongue froze. I was about to replace it with 'darn' but didn't bother. It seemed pointless and almost pathetic to try swearing when I couldn't even use any real swear words.

There was another long awkward silence as I considered everything she'd told me. After that, I could understand why she'd turned me into a changeling, why my entire life had been a lie. I still didn't like it but I could understand a little better.

"Tell me of your life," my birth mother told me with a gentle smile. "Please tell me of your life as a human so that I may better know my daughter."

I hesitated a moment but then nodded faintly and began to talk. It was a little awkward at first but she was attentive and patient, listening with a strange eagerness as though hungry to hear every detail about my life. Before long, I had relaxed and was telling her about school, my relationship with mom and dad, and even my relationship with Heather. There seemed to be no judgment from her, merely a faint amusement.

Several hours passed before I'd even realized it and then I remembered something else she'd said the last time I'd talked with you. "You said that you'd introduce me to my birth father."

"Of course," my mother responded, her expression turning sad. She slowly stood up and said, "Come with me."

My mother led me out the door of her demesne where we were joined by Shyla and Bibi. Then she led me through several halls and to another room where the doorway was covered with a curtain, much like the door to my own quarters. Our bodyguards remained outside while the two of us went in, all the time without my mother saying a single word.

The room was round and about twenty yards across as well as made much like my own quarters in that there were a lot of openings to allow the morning light to pour in. But unlike my quarters, there were no side rooms off of this one that I could see, nor was there even a roof. Instead, I could look up and see the sky, or at least a very realistic illusion of the sky. However, in the middle of the room was large bed with a figure lying motionless in it.

I hesitantly stepped closer to the man, seeing that he was huge, about a foot and a half taller than me. He also seemed well muscled with long brown hair that had a few faint hints of green at the ends. However, the thing that drew my attention the most was the fact that he had antlers coming from his head as though he was a deer. They were large and impressive with seven points on each.

"The Lord of the Morning Light," my mother said from beside me, her voice filled with sadness. "The King of Stags. Effram of the Deep Wood. This is my husband...and your father."

I just stared at the man in front of me, feeling somewhat mixed emotions about the sight. However, I didn't feel any instinctive connection to him as I had with my mother. With her, I'd had dreams about her for several years and had made her a reoccurring subject of my paintings. The main in front of me was a complete and total stranger. "What...what's wrong with him?"

"Iron poisoning," she responded, her voice going hard and angry. She stared at him with a pained look that hurt to watch.

"Iron poisoning," I whispered, remembering what she'd recently told me about how iron was poisonous to many faerie. Now I could see why she'd looked so sad when talking about it.

"Sixteen years ago," my mother said grimly. "Mere days before your birth, he was attacked by an assassin with an iron blade. Our greatest healers were able to keep him from dying but could not cure the poisoning. He has been like this ever since, caught on the edge between life and death."

If ever there was a time for a 'holy fucking shit', this would have been it. However, since I couldn't say that I merely stood there in silence, staring at my father's body and realizing that this was the true answer to ‘why’.

Part 12

I stood among a small cluster of trees, silently staring down at a stone disk on the ground. It was about four feet across, rounded, and very smooth. In spite of the fact that there were no markings, this was in fact a grave stone.

This was the final resting place of Shane Whitmere, the REAL Shane Whitmere. Beneath this stone was the baby whose place I’d taken and whose life I’d lived. I couldn’t help but feeling at least a little guilty, and strangely enough, as though this was my grave I was staring at.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered as tears came down my cheeks. “I’m sorry I took your life.”

I knew that it was ridiculous for me to feel that way since I’d had absolutely nothing to do with what happened to him. He’d been dead before my mother ever became involved and I’d had no choice in the matter of impersonating him. Still, that knowledge didn’t seem to do much for my emotions.

After standing there for a long time, I finally turned and walked away, silently thanking my mother for showing me this place. I’d been curious about the baby who I’d replaced so now I knew his face.

“Poor mom and dad,” I quietly mused.

I felt a surge of guilt and worry as I thought about them being in the hands of the red caps. My mother had confirmed that they were still alive, along with Mrs. Sune…Tomoki. Unfortunately, my mother had absolutely no idea where they were being held…at least not yet.

I could only imagine how scared they had to be, being kidnapped by those monsters. They might even be hurt and in pain. How much worse would it be for them to find out that I wasn’t even their real son, that the real Shane had never come back and they’d been raising someone else’s kid instead?

I slowly walked down the path back towards the strange palace that seemed to be at the center of the Court of the Morning Light, my thoughts still dwelling on my mom and dad. I knew intellectually that they weren't really my parents but they'd been my mom and dad for my entire life and that hadn't just gone away. No matter what they thought of me once they discovered the truth, that wouldn't change how I felt about them.

It was with some effort that I turned my attention away from those thoughts and focused instead on my surroundings. There were several homes and structures nearby, each one blending into the environment in amazing ways. Of course, I was well aware that there were other homes that I couldn't see at all.

“The environmentalists would love this place,” I muttered.

With that, I shifted my eyes so that if anyone had been watching they'd see the glowing full moons. I'd discovered almost by accident that when my eyes were like this, not only did they look cool but I could also see things a little differently than normal. When I looked at another faerie, I could see a sort of glow around them like an aura, and since this seemed to work even through their illusions, I found that I could now see several faerie nearby which had been invisible to me just a moment ago. And of course, I could see other things as well. I could see a sparkling glow on several tree trunks and rocks, each of which marked the entrance to a demesne which was hidden from my normal sight as well.

"Weird," I mused, staring at my own hand and seeing a faint silvery glow.

Then I turned and looked at one sidhe who was leaning back against a tree a short distance away, hiding himself with illusion so that I never would have known he was there if it hadn't been for my strange vision. He seemed surprised when he noticed that I was looking straight at him which only amused me. I was tempted to wave at him but instead I just smiled faintly then continued walking back to the palace.

When I reached the steps into the palace, Bibi flew down and hovered beside me. She'd been following me on my journey to the grave but had been keeping her distance to give me some privacy. I was grateful for that since that was something I felt I needed to do alone.

"There is something I need to speak to you about," Bibi announced.

Suddenly, there was a flash of gold light and she was now human sized, letting me know that this was something she thought was important. I noticed that she had changed her clothes and that she was now wearing some sort of light armor that covered most of her body from the neck down. It was a golden color metal which might well have been gold, though there were black marks and stripes painted on it so that she still resembled a bee. The only thing missing from her warrior image was the spear which she still had stored in her demesne.

"Is it my mom and dad?" I asked eagerly. "Did you find out about them?" Then I remembered that as important as they were to me, they weren't the only ones who'd been captured because of me. "And Mrs. Sune...I mean Tomoki?"

Bibi shook her head sadly. "No, I fear I have heard no news of them." She gave me a steady look, looking almost embarrassed as she said, "You know that I have been watching over you since the day you were born."

"Yeah," I responded, feeling just a little uncomfortable as I remembered that she'd probably been watching me every time I jacked off too.

"I believe that I know you very well," she told me with a serious look. "Perhaps better than any other. You have entered a world far different than the one you know, yet one you were born to." She put a gentle hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes. "It may be difficult to adjust for now but I believe that you shall thrive here, perhaps more than any other suspects."

I just stared at Bibi for a moment, unsure of what to make of this. Then I frowned in realization. "It sounds like you're saying goodbye."

"You have the right of it," Bibi admitted with a sigh. She looked away from me for a moment before continuing. "When I was but a child, the Lady of the Crescent Moon saved my life even though I was not of her tribe or court. When you were born, she called upon me to repay the debt I owed. She needed one she could trust completely yet was not of her own court lest her enemies use that to find you. I swore an oath that I would serve as your guardian, protecting you with my own life for sixteen years and a day." She paused for several seconds before adding, "My sworn obligation has been fulfilled."

"So you're leaving," I said quietly, surprised that I actually felt a little hurt and betrayed by this. It wasn't as though I'd really known her for very long, other than her having been my imaginary friend that is.

Bibi nodded at that, looking a little sad. "I am pleased that you have returned to your true home, yet I have my own family that I have not seen in sixteen years. I left them with no explanation and long to see them and explain where I have been."

"I...I understand," I responded uncomfortably. I hadn't really thought about what she'd given up to watch over me like that. I couldn't even imagine what it was like leaving your home and family and not being able to see them again for sixteen years. "I guess this is goodbye then."

Bibi put her hand on my shoulder again and gave me a serious look. "Watching over you may have been a duty, but it was also a pleasure." She bowed her head slightly and added, "Good fortune to you in the days ahead and may we meet again one day." Then Bibi stepped back and suddenly shrunk back to her normal size again before flying off in the direction of the way entrance.

I stared after Bibi for a minute, suddenly feeling extremely alone. Other than my mother, I didn't really know anyone else in this place and I barely even knew her. Of course, I barely knew Bibi too but she was different. She'd been there protecting me with the red caps and goblins, and even though I didn't really know her, she certainly knew me. With her gone, I truly did feel cut off from my old life and everything I knew.

"I really am alone now," I whispered with a shake of my head. I may have been born in this place, in the Court of the Morning Light, but it was very strange to me in nearly every way imaginable. Then with a loud sigh, I continued back towards my quarters.

I had barely made my way into the palace when I found my mother waiting for me and she wasn't alone. Shyla was with her of course as she never seemed to go anywhere without her bodyguard, though there was also someone else.

The other person was a male sidhe who looked like he was about my own age, though that certainly didn't mean anything. He had copper colored hair that was cut short, copper colored eyes that matched his hair and he had the same pointed ears as every other sidhe I'd seen. His clothes were a loose fit pair of pants and button up green shirt, both of which looked more casual than the clothes I'd seen the other sidhe wearing. That just made me realize that he was the first sidhe I'd seen with short hair. All of the other sidhe, including the men, all had long hair.

"It seems that Honey Stinger has made her farewells," my mother stated, drawing my attention back to her. "Perhaps she will return to visit. She knows that she is always welcome in this court."

I just nodded at that, responding, "Maybe."

"With Honey Stinger having departed," my mother told me with a calm and serene expression that didn't give any clue to her emotions. "It seems that you are in need of a new bodyguard. I have chosen this one to take her place." And with that, she gestured to the sidhe boy standing beside her.

"What?" I blinked in surprise, turning to look at the boy again.

He bowed to me which only made me feel even more awkward with the situation. "It is a pleasure to meet you."

I was about to protest that I didn't need a bodyguard but then paused, remembering that I'd already been attacked by goblins, red caps, and whatever that old woman in the Crossroads was. I wasn't comfortable with the idea of having a bodyguard but had to admit that I could use one.

"I have heard of you," the boy said. "She of the Moonlit Eyes."

"What?" I blinked in surprise again, quickly glancing to my mother who actually had a look of faint amusement on her face.

"Your eyes have been noticed," my mother pointed out, "and you have not yet announced what you should be called."

At that, the sidhe boy introduced himself. "I am called Jimmy."

"Jimmy?" I repeated, feeling just a little confused as that didn't sound like the kind of name I'd expect a faerie to use.

He didn't seem at all surprised by my reaction and merely nodded. "It was the name I was given as a changeling."

"Jimmy is a changeling like yourself," my mother explained, still looking faintly amused. "He was also the youngest member of this court...until your arrival. But fear not, he is also a very capable warrior or I would not have chosen him for this responsibility." She gave him a steady look and he gulped visibly then stood up straighter. Then she looked at me again and added, "I thought you might be more comfortable with one who has similar experiences to your own."

I just nodded at that, not sure what to say. I gave Jimmy a weak smile, not sure how I felt about Bibi being replaced so quickly. Of course, it wasn't Jimmy's fault that she'd left and I didn't want him to think that I was blaming him.

"Come with me," my mother announced before I could think of what to say to Jimmy. "I would speak with you in private."

As we walked down the hallway, my mother made small talk, asking what I thought of the Court of the Morning Light and faerie in general. Shyla and Jimmy followed a short distance behind and I had to keep from looking back at them. It was weird being followed so obviously like this since Bibi had always been a lot less noticeable than Jimmy.

A few minutes later, we went through the doorway into her demesne while our guards remained outside. It looked exactly the same way it had the last time I'd been here, all the way to the crescent moon hovering in the night sky above. It was a little weird looking up at it and feeling like I was actually outside. Then again, the entire palace had that kind of feel, as though there was only the smallest difference between being inside and out.

My mother stood there and stared at me for a moment before quietly saying, "Aeslyn Lunae Pippalotta Dae."

A tingle went down my spine as she said my true name, getting my full attention in a way that my mom never had when she'd angrily called out, "Shane Jacob Whitmere." It was becoming very easy to believe that knowing a faerie's true name really did give you some power over them.

"This is but the third time I have ever spoken your name," my mother said with a faint smile. "I have not dared utter it these last sixteen years lest it weaken your changeling binding."

"I don't think I'll ever get used to that," I muttered.

"They are calling you She of the Moonlit Eyes," my mother mused aloud, watching me with a vaguely curious expression. "I have yet to see your eyes as such. Please show me."

I nodded faintly and then shifted my eyes again. The moment I did so, my mother seemed to have a silvery glow around her the same way every other faerie did. In fact, nearly everything in this demesne looked different with the walls now appearing to be transparent, a clear sign that they weren't quite real.

"Beautiful," she announced, reaching out and gently holding my face while staring into my eyes. "It is indeed an appropriate thing to be called." Then she released my face and suggested, "However, you may yet wish to choose your own name to be called. Though only a few still use it, I am sometimes called Laeluna."

"I don't know what to use," I admitted self-consciously.

Jimmy was able to still use the name he'd used had he was a changeling but that option wasn't available to me. There was no way I could still call myself Shane and not just because I was now a girl. Even calling myself a feminine version of it like Shanna just didn't feel right since that had been a stolen name to begin with.

"I...I kind of like Aeslyn," I said after a few seconds, thinking of the first part of my true name. Then I sighed and added, "I guess I can't use that though."

My mother smiled faintly, looking somewhat pleased, probably because I liked the name that she'd chosen. "It is not uncommon for faerie to use a small part of their true name," she finally said, looking thoughtful. "It helps you feel as though it truly belongs to you. However, it means that you will need to keep closer guard over the rest of your name."

For a moment, I just stood there, imagining what it would be like to have other people call me Aeslyn. The thought of having anyone call me by a girl’s name was still a bit strange to me but one that I knew I would eventually get used to.

Then I nodded faintly before announcing, "Call me Aeslyn."

"Very well, Aeslyn," my mother said with a pleasant smile. Then she gestured to the wall and a section of it opened up, revealing another room. I was a little startled to realize that her demesne was actually bigger than this single room and that she'd been hiding the rest of it. She didn't say another word though gestured for me to follow.

The next room seemed to be less of an actual room and more of a central hallway or hub. It was a large round room with no ceiling, showing the large crescent moon in the sky. However, there were six doorways placed around it including the one we'd just come through. Mother didn't hesitate before leading me through another doorway and into another room, one which was the largest walk in closet I'd ever seen.

"I feel like I'm in a clothing store," I muttered as I looked around, seeing rack after rack of dresses, over half of which seemed to be silver colored or white.

Of course, there were shoes, hats, cloaks, and jewelry on display as well as some things I couldn't really identify. A few of the things I could see looked like they might have been fashionable in Victorian London or even the Renaissance. It suddenly dawned on me that if you were virtually immortal, you had a long time to build up clutter.

"Holy sh...," I started, now having a better idea of just how old my mother might be.

"Very few have seen this deep into my demesne," my mother told me with a calm look that let me know that this was a huge sign of trust, or at least that she wanted to build something between us.

My mother stood there and looked me over with an appraising look that made me uncomfortable. Then she smiled faintly and said, "There is a tradition among sidhe that when our children reach their first majority, we celebrate with a feast and a lavish gift. I fear that circumstances have prevented the feast, but even though it has been delayed, you shall receive a gift."

"A gift?" I asked, looking around and thinking that I really didn't need a used dress. Then again, I was starting over without anything, not even any clothes other than the dresses I'd been given over the last two days.

With that, my mother walked to the far end of the room where there was a large wooden cabinet that stood about six feet tall and was covered with intricate carvings. There were small bits of brass on the cabinet as part of the decoration, each bit of it looking perfectly polished. There was even a lock built in, though I didn't even notice the key hole until my mother inserted the key and then opened the cabinet.

Once the cabinet was open, I saw that the bottom half was a series of drawers while the top half was an open display that had a red pillow on it with something silvery sitting in the middle of the pillow. It was silver metal sphere that was about the size of a golf ball, though it was not a perfect sphere. There appeared to be rounded black gemstone of some sort set into it.

My mother removed the sphere with a gentle care as though it was extremely valuable or fragile, which perhaps it was. Then she held it out for me to see in the palm of her hand, looking quite serious as she did so.

"This was given to me by my father upon my first majority," she said with a faint smile. "That was...a long time ago."

I just stared at her and then the strange sphere, my eyes going wide as I realized that it was definitely an antique. I was tempted to ask just how long ago that had been but bit my tongue, knowing that wouldn't be a good idea.

"What is it?" I asked instead.

At that, my mother's smile grew and she placed the sphere on the back of her hand. A moment later, the metal began melting and flowing over her hand in little rivulets of quicksilver. The black gem settled onto the back of her hand while the rivulets all solidified, becoming almost wires that were wrapped around her hand and fingers, forming an interesting piece of jewelry. Then mother placed the gem against her dress and when she pulled it back, the black gem had changed color and now looked like an opal that was white with faint sparkles.

"Among other things," she said pleasantly, "this is the most versatile jewelry you will ever see."

She touched the gem on the back of her hand and suddenly the metal turned liquid and began pulling back to the jewel until it had reformed into the same sphere that it had been. Then she reached for my hand, holding it firmly before setting the sphere on back of my arm, just several inches back from the wrist. A mere second later it began melting and flowing over my arm the same way it had over her hand. It felt cool and tingly as it moved, and in just seconds it had solidified so that I had a sort of bracelet that went halfway from my wrist to my elbow.

"Wow," I whispered, staring at it in amazement.

The stone was exactly where my mother had placed it but the silver had spread out as it wrapped around my arm. It felt light and comfortable, much to my surprise since I would have expected it to pinch or feel tight. I carefully touched the metal which felt perfectly solid.

"This is yours now," my mother stated, placing a gentle hand on my shoulder. "Keep it close and do not let it leave your side unless you have a secure place to hold it."

"Thank you," I responded, feeling genuinely touched that she'd trust me with something that was obviously important to her.

She merely smiled at that and led me out of her giant closet before saying, "I do have another gift for you as well. It is waiting in your rooms."

I left her demesne a minute later and was immediately rejoined by Jimmy who followed me to my own quarters. He didn't say anything as he did so and just kept his distance, trying to look serious and professional. However, it was obvious that he was a little nervous and was trying just a little hard to prove himself. It was so funny that I actually giggled, though a moment later I blushed brightly, horrified that I'd actually done something as girly as giggling. After that, I was too embarrassed to talk to him and was thankful when I reached my quarters and could leave him at the door.

"I wonder what the other present is," I mused as I stepped through the curtain.

But as I stepped into my quarters, I froze and stared in confusion at the sight of a woman who was standing in the middle of the room. I'd seen her before, one of the servants who sometimes brought things. She looked in her late teens or early twenties with auburn hair that was pulled back. What made me remember her though were her tattoos. She had dark green tattoos on her arms and face that looked like those tribal thorny vines. And though her clothing was hiding the rest, I was pretty sure that those same tattoos covered a lot more of her body that I couldn't see.

"I...I was told there was a present for me," I said in confusion, wondering if this woman was supposed to be delivering it.

However, she just bowed her head and announced, "That would be me."

My mouth dropped open and I could only stare at her in shock as the implications of that struck me like an out of control bus. At that moment, I suddenly wished that I could blurt out a good and firm, "Oh shit."

Part 13

I was in a small room, sitting in a comfortable chair and looking at the old man who sat across from me in a similar chair. His face was rough looking, made even more so by the scowl that he wore. His hair was shaggy and white with bushy eyebrows and a somewhat long beard.

At the moment, the old man was lighting a pipe, a strange looking thing that dropped down after the stem and formed into a U shape as it came back up into the bowl, looking somewhat like an exaggerated parody of a calabash pipe, the kind that Sherlock Holmes was usually depicted as smoking. The pipe itself was white and looked like it was made of ivory or bone, but it was also covered with detailed carvings and images though I couldn't make any of them out from where I sat.

I had spent nearly a week in the Court of the Morning Light and had seen many strange things so I barely even blinked at the fact that the old man was only three feet tall or wearing a kilt. Instead, I watched him with a vague sense of curiosity as he leaned back and blew smoke off to the side.

The little old man was called Corwin and he was supposed to be my instructor in all things faerie, in spite of the fact that he made me think of Grumpy of the seven dwarves. My mother had told me earlier that she'd intended for Tomoki to be the one who taught me, but unfortunately, that wasn't possible anymore. I tried hard not to think of Tomoki or my mom and dad since I felt a surge of guilt and a knot of fear every time I did.

Corwin was taking his time getting ready, perhaps because he wanted to point out that in spite of the fact that I was the daughter of the lord and lady of this court, he was the one in charge of our time together. Then again, maybe he just didn't want to teach me and was doing his best to procrastinate and kill time. Since Corwin was busy wasting time, my own mind began to wander.

It had been nearly a week since this started, since I'd discovered the truth about my parentage, since I'd been turned into...turned BACK into a girl, and since my entire life had been turned inside out. In some ways, my life since then has seemed like a strange dream, one that I might wake up from at any moment to discover myself safe and sound in my old bedroom as a guy again. I could tell Benji about the strange dream I'd had and we could laugh about it. However, I knew very well that this was no dream.

I was still a bit overwhelmed at finding out I was adopted and that my real parents were creatures out of some faerie tale. I had been spending enough time with my mother that we were getting to know each other but she still wasn't my 'mom' and I don't think she ever would be. I think she found the situation a little awkward as well though she was good at hiding any lack of confidence she might actually feel. Still, I had the feeling that she didn't quite know how to be a mother or how to interact with me but she was trying hard and I appreciated that.

What I didn't know what to think of though was my biological father who had been in a coma for the last sixteen years. I'd seen him several times but had absolutely no idea of what kind of a person he really was, in spite of my mother trying to tell me. For all I knew, he might succumb to his iron poisoning and die before I ever got to truly meet him.

Jimmy was currently standing guard just outside of this room, probably looking all stiff and proper. He'd been my bodyguard for several days now, but even though he was always following me around, I'd barely spoken to him. He was always trying to prove that he was professional and could be trusted with the responsibility of watching over me. And though that might be nice, it made it difficult to relate to him as a person...though I wasn't really sure whether I really wanted to or not. It had taken a good day after meeting him before it suddenly dawned on me that the reason my mother had assigned him to me was because she was trying to play matchmaker.

The idea of having any kind of romantic relationship with a guy left me feeling a bit confused and uncertain. I was a girl now and may even have been born a girl, but I'd spent my entire life before now as a guy...as a straight guy who liked girls. I wasn't even sure what my sexuality was now, whether still liked girls the way I always had or if that had switched sides along with my body. At the moment, romance was the very last thing I was interested in and the idea of my mother trying to set me up with anyone was actually kind of insulting, though I knew she certainly didn't intend it that way.

But as awkward as things were with Jimmy, that was nothing compared to my relationship with Thorn. I scowled as I remembered the other day when my mother had 'given' her to me as a 'gift'. It had been a shocking way to discover that slavery still exists in the world of faerie, though they didn't actually call it that. Instead, they referred to them as guests or servants while those who owned them were called patrons. Of course, only humans could be a guest or a servant of this sort.

"I am called Thorn," she'd told me with a bow. "The Lady of the Crescent Moon has given me over to your keeping."

I'd been completely stunned and horrified at that, realizing at the same time that I couldn't just refuse this 'gift' without insulting my mother. I looked Thorn over, trying to decide what I should do. After a moment, I realized that she didn't have pointed ears or any of the other indications of her being a sidhe.

"What tribe are you from?" I asked curiously.

"I am of no tribe," Thorn responded, her head bowed. "I am human...the only human currently in this court."

"What?" I gasped, feeling a bit stunned since she was probably the only human I'd seen since escaping the cabin.

"I was lost in the woods as a small child," Thorn explained to me, looking a little uncomfortable. "I was found by the faerie of another court and brought back home with them." She bowed her head and quietly added, "I have been among the faerie since."

"What if I let you free?" I'd abruptly asked her.

"Please don't do that," Thorn exclaimed with a look of horror that surprised me nearly as much as the way she'd been given to me. "Without a patron, any faerie will be free to claim me as their own and do with me as they will."

"But I can take you back to Earth," I told her, deciding that this was what I'd do. I'd take her back to Earth and let her free.

However, Thorn looked even more horrified if that was possible. "Please don't," she begged. "I'll do anything..."

I just gasped at that, feeling even more confused by her reactions than before. "I don't understand..."

"I'm human," she reminded me quietly, looking down at the floor rather than at me. "I was...I was taken from my home a long time ago. If I were to leave the faerie realms and return to Earth, I would...I would turn to my true age within minutes."

For a moment, I'd just stared at Thorn before cautiously asking, "How long ago?"

"Two hundred years," she answered, still not looking at me. I gasped at that, suddenly understanding why she was so afraid. Being turned to her true age would literally be a death sentence. "Everyone and everything I once knew is long since gone, so even if I could return to Earth, there is nothing left for me to return to."

As horrified and disgusted as I was by the idea of slavery, much less having a slave of my own, it was apparent that keeping Thorn was the least disturbing of all the options. Thinking of her as my guest helped me feel a little less guilty, though not a whole lot.

Just then, I realized that Corwin was finally talking to me, shaking me out of my thoughts. "Aelberon's hairy balls," he exclaimed with a deep scowl, speaking in an accent sounded vaguely Scottish. "Did ye hear a single thing I said lass?"

"Sorry," I apologized meekly, wincing and feeling embarrassed at having been caught so distracted.

"I dinna come her to waste my time instructing a lass who won't listen," he grumbled, giving me a bit of a glare.

I just snorted at that and responded, "Maybe I wouldn't have gotten so bored if you'd been teaching instead of playing with your pipe."

Corwin paused to stare at me with an intense look while I just glared back. Then instead of getting angry, he abruptly started laughing instead. "Ye've got some spunk to ye lass... I think I like that." Then he shook his head, taking a puff from his pipe while still chuckling. "Crotch rot. I'd forgotten how impatient younglings are..."

Corwin leaned back and took another couple puffs on his pipe, perhaps making me wait again just to push my buttons. "Well lass," he finally said. "If yer bored, perhaps we can start with what ye want to know... Do ye have any questions ye want answered?"

"I've got hundreds of questions," I admitted after a moment, letting out a sigh and shaking my head. "I just don't know where to start." I frowned thoughtfully, letting him wait as I considered for a moment. "I guess I don't know enough to know what I should ask."

"Aye," he responded, pausing to scratch his beard. "A common problem for changelings, even when most aren't left as ignorant as ye were."

"I guess, I just want to know more about faerie," I told him after a moment. "What are we? Where do we come from?"

"Difficult questions," Corwin muttered with an expression that I wasn't sure meant he approved of my questions or was annoyed by them. He puffed on his pipe for a full minute before continuing. "Faerie are beings of contradiction, creatures of chaos and whim who bind themselves in order and rules. We have always existed on Earth, long before humans arrived though not always in the forms we use today." Then he chuckled to himself and added, "There are many stories of where we came from and how we came to be."

"But what do the history books say?" I asked, feeling vaguely annoyed that he wasn't really answering my questions but at least he was doing so in an interesting way. He suddenly struck me as being a storyteller rather than a teacher, someone who was more interested in making a good tale than making sure it was accurate. It was probably just the way he leaned back with that pipe with a far off look in his eyes.

"History books?" Corwin asked with a snort, making it sound almost like the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard. "Our kind keep no written history. All our history is kept in tales..."

"Then how do you know what really happened?" I asked with an exasperated sigh. "I mean, how do we know which stories are the truth?"

Corwin snorted again at that. "Why would we bind ourselves to one story when we can choose our favorite?" He shook his head and muttered something that sounded like a profanity but in some language I didn't understand. That just made me suddenly wonder if I could still swear if it was in something other than English. I'd definitely have to find out, just now right now. "Well lass, let me tell ye one that suits me."

"Long ago when the Earth was young and covered with naught but mud and stone and water," Corwin began, pausing just a moment to stare at his pipe. "A spark of what is now called magic touched upon the mud and behold, the mud was transformed, for in the force of magic is the power of change. Life was created from that contact, the first life upon this formerly lifeless rock. Over time, this life grew and spread, becoming worms and the fish in the sea, eventually even becoming the things that crawl on land or fly in the sky. Over the course of time this life spread to cover all of the Earth."

I just nodded faintly, a little surprised to hear what was basically a variation of what I'd been told in school. I'd actually been expecting something a bit more exotic from a faerie.

"The spark itself was not left unchanged by its contact with the mud, though this would not be seen for untold ages. After eons of floating through the world, it slowly became aware...aware of itself and eventually of that which it had wrought. Over the greatness of time, the spark became more aware and created a body for itself composed of the magic from which it had come and the dust in the air. It mimicked that which it saw, moving from form to form as whim took it, and eventually, it even began to reproduce as it saw the living creatures do. Thus the first faerie were born."

Corwin paused to pack more tobacco into his pipe and then relit it, taking his time as he did so. I watched patiently, my mind still caught on what he'd told me. There was something about the way he spoke when telling the story that I had drawn me in completely and I couldn't wait to hear more.

Once Corwin was ready, he continued his story. "The early faerie were ever changing in form and mercurial of mind, existing in a world of whim and impulse. Aye, they were powerful in their way and completely free yet had naught but the moment with no thought to yesterday or tomorrow. They had no true sense of self for what use is such to a being of constant change. Then the first men appeared and the faerie saw what it meant to have an identity and some began to crave this thing."

I was utterly transfixed by Corwin's story, giving him my complete and utter attention. However, he stopped yet again in a long dramatic pause while blowing smoke rings overhead.

"Then one day, something happened," Corwin announced, "Something momentous. Twas on this day the first faerie took a name, though whether he chose it himself or had it thrust upon him by another is long lost. Tis a name that made all else possible for a name...a true name gave the corner stone for an identity and an anchor for rules to be bound. In the fullness of time, most other faerie took names and bound themselves in rules, defining themselves by these rules and the roles they assumed, surrendering much of their freedom in exchange for a sense of self and purpose." Then he paused yet again, staring me straight in the eyes as he dramatically stated, "Thus we are today, craving the freedom of our deepest natures yet defined by that which binds us."

"Wow," I whispered when he was done, feeling impressed by the story. "Is that really true?"

"Who is to say," Corwin responded with a snort. "Maybe next time I'll tell ye the story of how the elder gods created us in a wager against the Christian god. Tis a humorous tale best told with strong drink."

I leaned back and considered what Corwin had told me which seemed to suit him just fine as it gave him a chance to puff on his pipe in peace. That story had been very interesting but I wished I knew if it was true or not. It even frustrated me a little that Corwin didn't seem to really care whether it was or not, though that shouldn't be too surprising since he seemed more storyteller than actual historian. But from what I'd seen of faerie over the last week, that story certainly did explain some things.

After several minutes, I remembered one of the other questions I'd been meaning to ask. "When I was coming here, they said the red caps and the goblins were Unseelie... What does that mean?"

"They were from the Unseelie courts," Corwin answered with a scowl. "But I suppose ye don't know much about the courts...do ye?"

I shook my head and answered, "Not much."

"Obviously, lass," Corwin responded with a snort of distain. "If ye did, ye wouldn't be asking that question." He leaned back, puffing on his pipe for a few more seconds with a thoughtful expression before asking, "Do ye know of tribes?"

"A little," I told him. "I know that they're the different types of faerie, like sidhe and kitsune." Then I admitted, "I just don't know what they all are."

"Aye," he responded. "Do ye know what a ring is?"

"A little piece of metal you put on your finger," I joked, only to earn a snort. However, I thought that he might have been a little amused by that even if he wasn't showing it. "Like the Ring of Silence?"

Corwin merely nodded at that and responded, "Aye, the Ring of Silence is a ring but there are others. A ring is but a group of faerie bound together for common purpose, often binding themselves with their own rules. The Ring of Silence exists to uphold the treaty and hide our kind from humans. The Wild Hunt exists to ride down humans and faerie, though they are not as strong as they once were." Corwin paused to chuckle at that. "The Ring of Silence keeps them from their entertainments, but ye should keep yer distance lest they be bored."

"The courts are our main form of rule and law," Corwin told me with a serious expression. "Each is what ye might call a small kingdom occupying its own realm. Each has rules that ye become bound by when ye swear to that court and each is ruled over by a lord, lady, king, or whatever other title they choose to give themselves. Some courts are very ancient, older than our memories yet others are formed by rings who get powerful enough to seize a realm. But by Ogg's brass titties, the opposite can hold true as well. Sometimes a realm collapses and the court is broken. And when our kind left the Earth and moved into the realms, several of the largest courts could nae find a realm big enough to hold it and broke into smaller courts." He paused to give me an intent look and to puff on his pipe before adding, "The Court of the Morning Light is one of these, once part of a larger court."

"Course, not all faerie are part of a court," Corwin mused, pausing a moment to poke at the tobacco in his pipe and relight it. "A court may have several rings within yet not all rings are part of a court."

At this point, Corwin was obviously no longer in the storyteller mode he'd been in a few minutes ago and his explanations weren't nearly as engrossing. In fact, now he reminded me more of my history teacher in school, though I didn't consider this any kind of an improvement. Corwin spent the next several minutes talking about how the various courts used to war against each other, motivated by pride, territory, or even just boredom, then he went in how they began to make treaties and alliances with each other.

"In these days of conflict, many courts banded together and forged the Seelie alliance," Corwin continued, puffing on his pipe and scowling. "The Seelie courts were not alone though for other courts made their own alliance as well, an alliance called the Unseelie. In the time since, the Seelie and Unseelie have spent centuries in conflict with each other." He paused for a moment with a thoughtful expression before adding, "Course, many a court chose neither side and remained neutral, some being crushed between them for it. And then there are the wild faerie..."

"Wild fairy?" I asked blankly.

"Aye," Corwin responded with a grim look. "Ones never named nor bound, free in form and thought, living as they always have on whim and impulse. The wild ones can be dangerous and are always unpredictable." He paused for a moment to puff on his pipe before adding, "Legend says that the first spark may yet move among them."

I just nodded at that, feeling a faint chill down my spine though not the kind I felt when magic was nearby. "About the Seelie and Unseelie," I urged him to continue. "What's the difference?"

Corwin scratched at his beard for a moment before answering, "Well lass, tis a matter of history, politics, and the different rules which bind us." He gave me a strange look before adding, "Perhaps the greatest difference is over the question of what our relationship with humans should be. Many of the Unseelie courts are of the mind that humans are good for merely eating or entertainment, and their ideas of entertainment can be...messy."

I just stared at Corwin in horror, remembering that some of those Unseelie people had my mom and dad. I don't think that Corwin knew about that or if he'd really care much if he did. The Unseelie might do nasty things to humans, but from what I'd seen of the Seelie...or at least from this court, humans still weren't very well thought of. Corwin continued with his lecture, apparently unaware of my distraction.

“Small battles were waged for hundreds of years,” Corwin told me grimly, “to great cost for both sides. For our kind have children but rarely and the loss of even a single faerie can be greatly felt. Many of our greatest leaders were slain in the conflict and several courts were broken and shattered. So caught in our own conflict were we that neither side paid enough attention to the humans.”

“What about humans?” I asked, finding it hard not to still think of myself as one.

“Humans don’t live long,” Corwin answered with a snort, “but they breed like rabbits. Before any realized it, humans covered the whole world, outnumbering us thousands to one. And worse, nearly every one held iron. Humans were poisoning the world against our kind. Even those of us with a fondness for the creatures began to fear.” He shook his head at that, scowling and biting on the stem of his pip.

“And this is when you made that treaty people keep talking about,” I urged him to continue.

“Aye,” Corwin agreed. “Seelie and Unseelie put down their swords and a truce was declared. Our kind had already begun moving into the realms, building places hidden against humans and each other. With the treaty struck, we all retreated to the safety of the realms. Even most of the wild ones were driven into the realms. Since these days, our kind have remained hidden from humans.”

“And they made the Ring of Silence,” I mused.

Corwin just nodded. “Faerie were given from each side and sworn to uphold the treaty. Their duty is to keep humans from discovering us and to silence the faerie who would give us away.”

After this, we both sat there in silence for several minutes as I considered what he’d told me and he just held his pipe while staring at it with a thoughtful look. There was a lot more to faerie than I ever would have guessed and I could see why Mrs. Sune…Tomoki had been so frustrated at my ignorance.

“Tis enough for now,” Corwin finally announced, poking at the bowl of his pipe which had apparently gone out. “We will continue another time lass.” I just nodded at that, knowing that I had a lot to think about.

Part 14

I took a slow sip of nectar before setting the glass on the small table beside me. Then I looked at Corwin who was a short distance away, stuffing tobacco into his pipe and seeming completely unconcerned with time. Since we were both standing, the difference in our heights was quite obvious with him being just a little over three feet tall while I was about two and a half feet taller. Corwin was about the size of a little kid compared to me but there was absolutely no doubt that he was no child.

For the last few days, I'd spent a lot of time with Corwin as he instructed me on faerie history, etiquette, and of course, faerie rules. In fact, yesterday had been dedicated almost entirely to him explaining the rules and how they worked. When faerie talked about rules, they weren't just talking about the kinds of rules or laws that humans followed which could be broken or ignored with ease. Faerie rules were magically binding, such as the one where we had to keep our promises.

According to Corwin, every court had its own set of rules that bound anyone who was officially a part of that court. Some of the courts had rules that required their people to speak only in rhyme or forbid them from ever lying while others were even more ridiculous and could include extremely strict dress codes or banned them from even touching things of a certain color.

Compared to some of the rules, the ones for the Court of the Morning Light were very relaxed. People were required to obey lord and lady of the court, a rule that just about every court had in one form or another. You could not take something you knew had been claimed by another without their permission, could not enter their claimed quarters without their permission, and you could not kill another without provocation. There were other rules as well, most of which had no real effect since they banned me from doing things I wouldn't do anyway, however, there were a couple about courting and female behavior which made me a little uncomfortable.

Now that I knew about the rules, when I concentrated I could actually feel them on me almost like cobwebs. Corwin told me that these kinds of rules were firmly binding to most faerie but that faerie with strong ties to humans, such as human changelings like myself, were more resistant to being bound like this. However, he also pointed out that this resistance only protected me a little from being bound by others, not from binding myself.

But as important as these rules were, at the moment I was doing something far more interesting. Yesterday's lessons had all been about the rules but today we were talking about magic. Corwin had spent several hours telling me about how it worked and the different ways that faerie could use it, but theory was never quite as interesting as practice. That was why I'd talked him into actually teaching me something I could use.

"Remember lass," Corwin told me once he was finished lighting his pipe again. "Every faerie has a demesne and ye should be able to feel yer own..."

I just nodded and closed my eyes, barely listening to Corwin since he was just repeating what he'd been telling me for the last hour. I did what he'd told me to and tried to feel inside of myself for that little something that was my demesne. I'd managed to feel it before we'd taken our break but so far I hadn't been able to actually open it up.

I mentally reached for my demesne, for that little bubble that floated in the void that was uniquely my own. Then I tried pulling it to me and willing it to open up. After another ten minutes of concentration, I finally figured out the trick to it and there was aloud 'pop' sound as the air began shimmer in front of me. I held my right hand out to the shimmer, feeling my sigil tingling in my palm. I didn't even need to look to know that it was glowing.

"Mine," I announced, claiming my demesne.

Corwin hadn't told me that this was part of the process but it just felt right and it even seemed to be the right thing to do because I suddenly felt a stronger connection to it. A moment later, the shimmer in the air seemed to change just a little bit and then I saw that my sigil had appeared in the middle of the shimmer and was glowing with a silvery light.

"Not bad lass," Corwin mused puffing on his pipe and staring at the shimmer.

I relaxed and stood back, staring at the shimmering air for a moment and feeling incredibly proud of myself. I'd done it. I'd actually opened my own demesne and could hardly wait to go inside and see how big it really was. I glanced at Corwin but he said nothing and made no move towards the opening. His meaning was clear...this was my journey to make.

"Here goes nothing," I muttered before stepping into the shimmer.

A moment later, I found myself standing in the middle a cold darkness. I wished there was enough light so I could see, and to my surprise, there was. There was a glowing ball of silvery light above me which resembled the full moon. I was confused for just a moment until I remembered that I'd been told my demesne would respond to my will, that it was the nature of the way I was tied to the place. Of course, most of what I could do was just illusion, but from what I'd been told, it was a very powerful illusion.

Since I now had light to see with, I looked around but saw that my visibility was still limited. There was a thick mist all around me that I could barely see through. I closed my eyes for a moment and realized that I didn't really need to see to know where I was. I could actually sense just how far the boundaries of my demesne extended. It wasn't quite as large as I would have hoped, but it was still enough for me to work with.

I felt a surge of excitement as I considered that I could make this place look however I wanted just by willing it and decided to get to work. The floor had appeared when I stepped into the demesne, provided courtesy of my subconscious mind. The first truly conscious changes I performed were to form walls and a ceiling to go with the floor and then to change the glowing moon into a normal ceiling lamp.

"Wow," I whispered, shaking my head and feeling a little dizzy. "That took a bit more than I expected..."

I looked over my walled off room, noting that it was about the same size as the quarters I was currently assigned, maybe just a little larger. I nodded at that, realizing that I was going to have to come up with a plan on how I really wanted my demesne to look. Of course, I'd have plenty of time to take care of that later.

A moment later, I stepped back out of my demesne and found Corwin sitting back and puffing his pipe. "So lass," he asked when he saw me. "What do ye think?"

"I think I need to hire an interior decorator," I joked weakly.

"Well lass, ye can't leave the farching thing there," Corwin announced with a snort, gesturing to my shimmering portal. "Of course, if ye did it would close on it's on afore long. Better though if ye find a nice place to permanently bind it too."

I just nodded at that and turned my attention back to the portal I'd created. Since I'd successfully opened it, it was actually no problem at all to close it again. Then I grinned, wondering if I could place it in my current quarters to give me twice as much space. However, that just made me suddenly wonder if they'd remain my quarters after this. After all, now that I had my own demesne, my mother might ask me to move fully into that.

"I think that will do for today," Corwin told me with an approving nod. "Ye did good lass."

"But how do I bind it to something?" I asked.

"Aelberon's balls," Corwin responded with a scowl that held a faint hint of amusement. "Do ye want me ta wipe yer arse as well? Figure it out yerself." And with that, he left the room while I just stood there for a moment, shaking my head.

"Weird guy," I muttered, still having a hard time figuring Corwin out. Half the time he seemed like a grumpy asshole and the other half he was almost like a cheerful storyteller.

Since I was done with Corwin for the day, I started back to my quarters. Jimmy immediately joined me, not saying a word at first. I could tell he wanted to say something but was holding back. I was tempted to ask him what he wanted but decided to hold off a bit longer to see if he'd get the guts to say whatever it was without being asked. By the time I actually reached my quarters though, I took pity on him and asked him to come inside where he could sit down rather than having to stand out there.

Jimmy hesitated a moment before taking a seat, as if afraid that he'd be neglecting his duty by doing that. "You can't stand at attention all the time," I told him with a roll of the eyes, wishing that I still had Bibi to watch over me.

"The lady would never forgive me if I allowed anything to happen to you," Jimmy responded, staying in the chair but still looking alert.

I nodded at that, not really knowing my mother well enough to be sure how she'd react, but I probably wouldn't want to risk her anger either if I was him. "So," I said awkwardly, "You were a changeling too?"

"Yes," Jimmy responded with a self-conscious smile. "But it was not as difficult an adjustment for me as it is for you. I always knew who and what I really was and my father would visit once a month to teach me what I needed to know."

"That would have made it easier," I agreed, wondering what it would have been like to have not been caught by surprise. Then again, what would it have been like watching TV and going to school, all the while knowing that you weren't even human? "Have you been back to Earth since?"

Jimmy shook his head, "No." He hesitated a moment before adding, "But I do wish I could go back. Before I left, I had tickets for a concert with my favorite band but I never got to actually go." He shook his head and let out a sigh.

"What's the band called?" I asked curiously.

Jimmy grinned weakly before answering, "The Beatles. Have you heard of them?"

My jaw dropped at that and I nearly tried to blurt out a 'holy shit' before catching myself. I closed my mouth and blinked in surprise, realizing now that Jimmy was definitely a bit older than he looked, though I'd already guessed that.

"Um, yeah," I responded with a shake of my head. "I think everyone has."

"Really?" he seemed surprised. "I haven't been back since I left and was kind of hoping you could tell me how things have changed." He looked decidedly self-conscious as he looked at me.

"Sure," I responded, hesitating a couple seconds before weakly adding, "Just not right now. I wanted to take care of something..."

The excuse sounded a bit weak even to my own ears but I was still a bit shaken from realizing that Jimmy was probably old enough to be my dad. For a minute there I'd completely forgotten about my intention to keep my distance from him and had instead seen him as someone who actually understood where I came from and whom I could talk to about our shared experiences. I had to admit that I was still curious about talking with him, just not right now.

I left Jimmy where he was while I went into my bedroom where I would be out of his sight. I blushed as I thought of him sitting in the next room, wondering why I was feeling so awkward. Then I shook my head and tried focusing my attention on something else.

There was a wardrobe closet set up as part of my bedroom and it was starting to no longer look empty. Every day since coming to the Court of the Morning Light I'd been given a new dress to wear and they were starting to add up. At the moment, I was wearing one that was dark purple with a silver trim. It was a little strange to look my wardrobe over and realize that the only clothes I owned were all dresses...or that I'd become somewhat used to wearing them.

"I don't exactly have much choice," I mused as I looked myself over in the large mirror I'd had placed in my bedroom. I had to admit that I looked very nice in that dress, though I still had a hard time believing that was actually me. I ran my hand over the dress I was wearing and wondered if I'd ever be able to wear something like jeans and a T-shirt again. "Probably not while I'm here..."

One of the things that I'd recently learned was that there was a rule in the Court of the Morning Light that all women must dress in a feminine manner when possible. Since it was a magical rule, I wasn't sure how that really applied to me. At the moment, I didn't have much choice but to follow that rule since all I had to wear were dresses, but I wondered what would happen if I did have other clothes to choose from. Would I simple be unable to put boy clothes on in the same way that I was unable to utter a profanity? I had no idea.

I thought that this was a silly rule but I wasn't about to just shrug it off since I'd already found out the hard way just how powerful these magical bindings could be. I still couldn't swear, even when I tried using a swear word from another language. In fact, I'd experimented a little and found that I couldn't even write swear words anymore. My hand would actually freeze in the same way that my tongue did when I tried swearing aloud. I guess that was because the words of my promise were that I wouldn't USE profanity, not that I wouldn't SPEAK any profanity.

"Dog farts," I muttered, using what was about the strongest language I was capable of anymore.

Then I lifted the arm of my dress a little to stare at the beautiful piece of jewelry that my mother had given me. At the moment, it was sitting on my left wrist with the medal strands wrapping around to form a bracelet. I liked the way it looked there but it was a little hard to see with the long sleeves, so on an impulse, I reached for the currently violet stone and willed it to retract so I could take it off.

"This is so weird," I mused as I held the silver sphere up to look at it. I'd never even heard of something like this back on Earth, but as I'd learned, there were a lot of very impressive things you could do with magic. "Benji would laugh his...arse off if he knew I was wearing dresses and jewelry." I shook my head, knowing that my girlfriend...my former girlfriend Heather would kill for jewelry like this. "Not like I'll ever see them again..."

I let out a sigh, trying hard not to think about everyone and everything I'd left behind. I tried even harder not to think of the people who were paying the price because of my very existence, Tomoki and my parents. I felt another surge of guilt before I pushed it aside and tried to distract myself, something that I'd been doing a great deal since coming here. Of course, I'd cried myself to sleep a few nights, but I didn't dare let myself dwell on that during the day or I might never stop.

I turned my attention back to the silver sphere in my hand and raised it to my neck. I'd learned that if I placed it on my throat, it would form into a choker that actually felt very comfortable. However, if I placed it a few inches lower like I was doing now, it would turn into a necklace. A few seconds later, I was wearing what appeared to be a silver necklace with an amethyst pendant. It matched my dress quite well.

"Not bad at all," I told my reflection in the mirror. If I'd still been the old me, I'd date the new me in a heartbeat. Of course, the new me was probably a bit out of the league of the old me.

After spending several minutes killing time by primping and looking over my clothes, I realized how silly it was for me to be hiding in my own quarters like this. I thought of Jimmy in the next room and felt bad about how I'd abruptly ended our conversation and walked away. However, when I hesitantly went back into the other room, I found him gone, no longer occupying the chair where I'd left him. It was obvious that he must have gone back to standing outside my room because of the awkwardness.

"I wish Bibi was still here," I thought aloud, letting out a loud sigh as I did so. Then again, I reminded myself, things hadn't been perfect with her either. The fact that she'd been secretly spying on me for my entire life had created an entirely different sort of awkwardness, though it had also come with a certain familiarity as well. "I guess I'll apologize to him later."

Since I was completely by myself again, I began to slowly walk around my quarters, wondering if I should summon my demesne again and try binding it here. Of course, I needed to find a good spot to do that which was what I was looking for.

I was only halfway done with my search when I heard Thorn calling from the doorway. "May I enter?"

Of course, Thorn didn't need permission and asking like that was merely a formality. My mother had originally given her permission to enter my quarters so that she could bring me food and clothes, not to mention clean up after me. After she'd become my 'guest', I'd given her the same permission.

"Come in," I responded, quickly glancing down at myself to make sure I was decent even though I already knew that I looked fine.

Thorn pushed aside the curtain and came into my quarters, wearing a brown and green dress with no sleeves which seemed to be her normal form of dress. She was carrying a pitcher of water, a bottle of nectar, and bowl with various fruits, nuts and candies which she set down on a small table.

"Thank you," I told Thorn, making an effort as I always did to be polite to her and act grateful for what she did. It was still a bit weird for me to deal with her but I found that this helped with some of the awkwardness.

Thorn just bowed her head slightly in acknowledgement and then hesitated for a moment. "In some courts," she said carefully, "saying thank you can be dangerous." I blinked in surprise while she continued quietly, "Some courts see it as an acknowledgement of debt and may try to call on you to pay that debt."

"Really?" I asked, not really being surprised by this since Corwin had told me of some even stranger rules that different courts had. "Good thing we're not in one of those courts."

"As you say," Thorn responded, looking faintly amused.

"I guess you know a lot more about faerie than I do," I told her with a wry smile. "I'm still getting used to all this."

Again, Thorn just nodded her head in acknowledgement and responded, "But you know far more of the human world than I."

I stared at Thorn for a moment, feeling bad for her at having been kidnapped as a child and taken away from her family. I felt even worse with the knowledge that she couldn't ever go back to Earth, that she'd have to spend the rest of her life in the realms, among faerie who thought of her as property or worse. I even felt a surge of guilt for my small part in that.

I gently put my hand on her arm to give her a sympathetic touch but then suddenly yanked my hand back with a yelp of pain. I stared at my hand in surprise, seeing that I had several small gashes across my palm that were bleeding. My blood looked different than before, the same red as it had been but with tiny silvery sparkles in it. However, I barely gave that much thought as I was instead wondering how the hill I'd gotten hurt like that.

"I'm, so sorry," Thorn exclaimed, looking almost frantic as she began tearing off strips of cloth from the hem of her dress to use as bandages for my hand. "I didn't mean to hurt you... Please, don't touch me..."

"What the heck was that?" I demanded, staring at my palm again and noticing that the bleeding had stopped and the punctures were starting to heal.

"My curse," Thorn responded quietly, staring at the floor with a pained look in her eyes.

"Your curse?" I repeated.

Thorn held the strips of cloth out to me, nodding sadly. I used the cloth to wipe the blood off my hand rather than wrapping it up since the wounds were healing on their own right before my eyes. She gestured to the tattoos that covered her arms and winced visibly as she did so.

"It wasn't intended as a curse," Thorn said, trying to sound calm and nonchalant, but I could still hear the edge of pain in her voice. "When I was taken as a child, the one who took me had wanted to see what it was like having a child of his own. However, I soon became more of a prized pet."

Corwin had told me something about this, about why faerie would sometimes take a human child. He told me that since faerie can rarely ever have children of their own, some faerie would kidnap human children to raise, though others took them instead to be pets or with the intention of training them to be servants. However, he'd also told me that among some of the Unseelie courts, human children and especially babies were considered a delicacy. The very idea made me shudder.

"He bound me with powerful magics to protect me from others," Thorn continued quietly, "to hurt anyone who tried touching me." She smiled faintly as she added, "Of course, he eventually grew tired of me and I became his servant instead, at least until he gifted me to the Lady of the Crescent Moon." She bowed her head sadly and added, "This is a much kinder court than the previous one I have known."

"That happens every time you touch someone?" I exclaimed in disbelief, staring down at my hand which was now almost entirely healed.

Thorn merely nodded and then quietly responded, "Yes." She gave me a forced smile and added, "I try not to touch anyone... If you like, I can wear long sleeves and cover them so as not to accidentally harm you..."

"Two hundred years without being able to touch anyone," I whispered, the true horror of her situation dawning on me. Two hundred years without her being able to even do so much as hug someone else without hurting them. "I'm so sorry..." That seemed like too little for her situation and I couldn't help but wincing in sympathy. "Has anyone ever tried breaking the curse?"

"The lord and lady of this court attempted to when I first arrived," Thorn told me quietly, staring down at her own arms. "They said that the magic was bound too tightly for them to remove."

"I'm sorry," I said again, not knowing what else I could possibly say. I hesitated a moment, then told her, "I'm not used to having people serving me like this and I'm really not used to seeing people treated like...property." I scowled and clenched my fists tightly, digging my nails into my palms deep enough that I might even have broken the skin. "I grew up thinking that kind of thing is wrong...that it's...evil." I took a deep breath and looked Thorn in the eyes.

"It is what it is," she responded with a calm resignation. Then she asked, "Do you mean to give me to another patron?"

"No," I stammered awkwardly, "I mean..." I frowned and took a deep breath while I tried to order my thoughts. "I know you can't go back to Earth and that you need a patron... But...you don't have to be my servant if you don't want to. I don't want to MAKE you do anything..."

Thorn gave me a look of surprise then she stood there, staring at me for a moment with a thoughtful expression. "I have served for two hundred years," she finally responded, giving me an odd look. "I know nothing else. It is my life. It is my purpose." She bowed her head slightly and added, "I would continue serving."

I stared at Thorn for a moment, feeling a little confused by her response. I had a hard time believing that anyone would willingly continue being a servant like that if given the option, but I guess it probably was the only thing she knew. Still, I wanted to do right for her...for my own conscience if nothing else.

"If you ever want to stop serving me," I told her quietly, then I met her eyes again and raised my voice. "If you ever want to leave, to have a different patron or even no patron...I won't stop you." Then I took a deep breath and braced myself for my next words, knowing that they were the only way she'd realize how serious I was about this. "I promise."

Thorn gasped in surprise and stared at me as if I were crazy. Perhaps I was since most faerie avoided making any kind of promises if they could possibly help it and I'd just made one to her.

"No one has ever given me a choice before," Thorn responded, looking a little uncertain. "You are a curious faerie...even for a changeling." Then she gave me another odd look before shaking her head and saying, "I choose to remain as your guest for now.” Then she bowed to me before leaving my quarters, smiling and shaking her head as though she couldn't quite believe what had just happened.

I remained where I was, closing my eyes and thinking about what I'd just done. I could feel the unbreakable chains of my own words wrapped around me, ensuring that I would keep my promise even if I someday changed my mind, though I was certain I never would. This was the second time I'd bound myself with a promise, though this time I had done so intentionally and fully aware of the consequences. Strangely enough, in spite of being bound like this, I somehow felt a sense of freedom.

Part 15

I stepped through the doorway and slowly looked around the room, a large round room that was designed like nearly every other room in the palace in that it had a lot of openings in the walls and ceiling to allow the morning light in. In the center of the room was a raised platform that was effectively a disk about a foot tall and ten feet across. It was covered with pillows with my mother sitting on them, currently in her child form.

The Court of the Morning Light had an official throne room, a similar looking room that actually had some impressive decorations and a pair of large thrones, though from what I'd seen, that room hadn't been used in quite some time. However, the room I was currently in served as more of a casual throne room and appeared to see much more use.

I felt a mixture of curiosity and nervousness since I'd just received a message from my mother a few minutes ago to come here immediately. She sat on her platform, looking calm and serene as usual but I could tell that was only on the surface.

After watching my mother for a moment, I slowly looked around the rest of the room. Four guards stood in various places around the room, all of them doing their best to simultaneously look intimidating and to blend into the background like furniture at the same time. Shyla stood beside my mother's platform, close by but not drawing too much attention. And of course, there was a golden haired male sidhe standing in front of her whom I didn't recognize.

I glanced at Jimmy who was a short distance away from me, noticing that he was watching me with a very appreciative look, the same kind that I'd caught him giving me several times before. He immediately looked away and tried to regain his professional demeanor while I just blushed brightly, feeling self-conscious about the attention, but strangely enough, I kind of liked it.

"Aeslyn," my mother said when she saw me. "You've arrived."

My mother gestured for me to come closer, turning back to her adult form as she did so. I'd noticed that she usually stayed in her adult form when dealing with me, probably to help me actually think of her as my mother.

Then my mother turned her attention to the golden haired man who was standing in front of her, saying, "Please repeat what you told me and continue with the rest of your report."

The man bowed his head and announced, "I found where the red caps are holding Tomoki of the Three Tails." He paused for a moment before continuing, "She is being held in a small realm along with the two humans I was also told to look for. None appear to suffer from serious injury."

I let out a gasp of relief at that news, feeling almost dizzy as the sense of delight and hope hit me. I'd known that the red caps might be holding my mom and dad prisoner, but until now I hadn't been sure. Now I knew that they were not only alive but relatively unharmed. The fact that Mrs. Sune...Tomoki was alive and well too was nearly as much a relief, especially since I'd been blaming myself for her capture. None of them would have been taken if it wasn't for me.

"Can we get them?" I asked eagerly, giving my mother an almost pleading look.

"I counted only eight red caps in the group," the golden haired man told my mother after she'd nodded for him to answer. "If we time it correctly, a small group should be able to free them without issue."

My mother nodded at that with a faint look of relief that reminded me that she considered Tomoki a good friend. "Is there anything else you discovered?"

"Yes my lady," he responded with a deep scowl. "Your suspicions were correct. The red caps are answering to the Iron Lord."

There were several gasps from the room, from people who'd entered without my even noticing. "Who's the Iron Lord?" I asked in confusion.

"Aelberon's balls," Corwin exclaimed from beside me, surprising me since I hadn't noticed he was even there. He looked up at me and scowled intently before answering my question. "A very dangerous foe."

"I feared as much," my mother said, looking extremely worried. "This does complicate things a great deal."

"There was no sign of him in that realm," the golden haired man told my mother. "Only the red caps were present, and they appear to have been using that realm as a home for some time."

"Then we must hurry," my mother announced firmly, her expression becoming grim. "We can NOT allow them to be held any longer, not when the Iron Lord is involved." Shyla and several of the guards nodded firmly at that.

"Can I go with?" I asked hopefully, my heart racing. "I want to help."

"No," my mother responded firmly, her crescent moon eyes locking on me. "You must remain here where it’s safe..."

"But it's my fault they were taken," I blurted out desperately. "Please... I can't just sit here and do nothing... I can't..."

"No," my mother repeated, the look on her face making it clear that she wasn't about to change her mind.

For a brief moment, I thought about announcing a promise that I would never speak to her again if I couldn't go with, but then I thought better of it. That was emotional blackmail of the worst kind, the kind of thing that was used by the most self-centered of women. I didn't want to be that kind of girl, and just as importantly, I feared that she would still forbid me from going.

"Aeslyn," my mother said, giving me a sympathetic look as she climbed off her platform and stood beside me. She reached out to touch my face with her hand. "I understand your concern for the ones who raised you and your desire to help. But you must understand that the danger to you has not passed and the Iron Lord would still wish to acquire you."

"But why?" I asked, feeling confused and shaken. "I don't even know him."

"He desires something that can only be gained from our bloodline," my mother responded after a moment. She was back to looking calm and serene but I could still sense the tension beneath that. "I am well guarded and too powerful for him to take it easily. However, you are young and not as strong so provide a tempting target." She hesitated a moment before adding, "He will come after you again if given an opportunity and I mean to prevent that by any means."

A moment later, my mother turned and began walking away, telling Shyla, "We have preparations to make."

I just watched my mother leave with Shyla and the golden haired man and then then looked down at Corwin. "Who is this Iron Lord," I demanded in frustration, annoyed that my mother had never given me a real answer.

"Tis a right bastich he is," Corwin responded with a deep scowl. Then he hesitated a moment, looking as though he was trying to decide how much to tell me. "He's a faerie lord, one who stands apart from both Seelie and Unseelie courts and is feared by both. As one of the few with true immunity to iron, he uses iron weapons against his foes and even wears armor of that cursed metal so no magics can be used against him. Tis said he enjoys watching the effects of iron on other faerie, a tale I know to be true."

"He uses iron armor and weapons?" I asked, thinking about it for a moment and then adding, "He sounds like a medieval knight."

"Aye, lass," Corwin agreed with an even deeper scowl before he literally spat on the floor. "Twas that farching son of a wight who was behind the attack on lord Effram."

It took me a moment to realize that he talking about my father, and when I did, I gasped, "What?"

Corwin looked up at me with a grim expression. "Look lass, ye'll do well to make sure ye never fall into his poisoned hands."

I nodded thoughtfully as Corwin turned away, thinking that from the reactions I'd seen this Iron Lord seemed to be some kind of faerie boogeyman. Of course, I could see why since he was protected from magic and used poisonous weapons. Still, I had a hard time believing someone who was using the same equipment as a medieval knight could really be all that frightening.

I grimaced in frustration at the fact that I still didn't understand exactly why this Iron Lord was after me, other than because I was easier to get my hands on than my mother. However, I had more urgent things to think about at the moment, such as the fact that my mom and dad were still alive and a rescue team was being put together at that very moment. That gave me a strong feeling of relief but also one of apprehension.

"I wish I could be there with them," I muttered, clenching my fists and shaking my head in disgust. It didn't seem right that I was staying back where it was safe when it was my fault they had been kidnapped. I felt that I should be there...that I should at least be doing SOMETHING to help.

Then I abruptly froze as a thought suddenly occurred to me. My mother was sending the rescue team because she was concerned about Tomoki but my mom and dad weren't her main concern. In fact, I hated to think this of my mother but she might even resent them because I still cared about them. I didn't know if that was the situation at all or if she'd go out of her way to make sure they were rescued because I cared. What I did know was that most faerie didn't seem to care much about humans, thinking of them with either fear or contempt. Even if my mother did want my mom and dad rescued, there was nothing to guarantee the faerie in the rescue team would really care.

I clenched my fists even tighter, feeling my nails digging into my palms until the skin broke. If I'd been capable of swearing, I would have said a good one right then and there. But as that was no longer possible, I just grimaced tightly and thought about how I had to do something.

"I don't care what she says," I muttered, thinking of my mother and her insistence that I stay behind where it was safe. "I have to help."

My eyes moved to Jimmy who was standing a short distance away, trying to look as professional and alert as possible. Unfortunately, I had a feeling that he was going to be a problem. As my bodyguard, he'd probably stop me from doing what I was planning, or at the very least, he'd alert my mother. That meant that I had to lose him for awhile.

With that in mind, I started for my quarters, making sure to go around a few other people in the halls and to create as much distance between myself and Jimmy without seeming to. Then I turned the corner onto the hall where my quarters was located and took a deep breath. For a couple seconds, I was out of Jimmy's sight and I didn't want to waste this opportunity. I abruptly broke into a run and rushed down the hallway as fast as I could, turning the next corner just a split second before Jimmy did the same with the previous corner.

As I expected, Jimmy took his position standing guard by the door of my quarters, assuming that I'd gone inside just as I'd planned. I felt a moment of guilt and muttered, "Sorry for doing this to you..." I just hoped that he didn't get into any trouble because of me.

I found Shyla just outside the palace with a small group of soldiers who obviously comprised the rescue party. The golden haired man who'd found where the red caps where located was among them as were two other sidhe guards. The last member of the group was a green skinned man who stood about four feet tall and who carried a bow and quiver full of arrows. I was careful to stay back and not let them see me as I began to follow.

To my surprise, Shyla and the team didn't go to the way gate that led to the Crossroads but instead went the opposite direction, to the other way gate. The way that led to the Crossroads was a fixed one that had one end permanently bound to the Court of the Morning Light and the other end permanently bound to the Crossroads. The gate we were heading towards had one end permanently bound to this realm while the other was loose and could be set to any number of other realms within range. That kind of way was a lot less stable than a permanent one but made up for that with its versatility of destinations.

The way gate Shyla went to was in the middle of a cluster of trees and bound to a stone arch that looked nearly identical to the one that the other gate was bound to. Shyla touched the stone arch and did something that sent a tingle down my spine that told me magic was being used. A minute later, she went through the stone arch and vanished into the way with the rest of her team following close behind her.

Once the rescue team had all gone through, I rushed to the way gate and held up my hand, feeling the tingle of magic. I knew that the way was permanently open on this end so all I had do to was wait for them to get far enough away and then follow. I stared at the gate, feeling impatient and suddenly realizing that I forgot to bring any kind of weapon. Of course, I didn't have time to go back for one and wouldn't be able to do much with the swords and spears that seemed popular around here anyway.

"What I wouldn't give for a baseball bat," I muttered, taking a deep breath and then stepping through.

Part 16

I found myself standing in the middle of a grassy plain that extended in every direction forever, broken only by the occasional tree that popped up. My surroundings reminded me of a special I’d seen on TV about the African savannah.

I’d just stepped out of a way gate a few seconds ago, one that looked like a circle of rocks on the ground with the air above them shimmering. Of course, that was after I’d spent the last twenty minutes following my targets through a way.

“There they are,” I said, seeing Shyla and the rescue group a good distance away. I ducked down just in case they looked back at me.

After waiting a few seconds, I got up and began following after them again. I kept glancing to the sides, seeing that there was a herd of animals in the distance that looked like they might be gazelle.

It didn’t take long before I saw a couple of the faerie who lived in this realm. There were two of them, walking side by side. From the waist up, they were dark skinned and looked like African tribesmen with several painted white lines on their skin, but from the waist down, each of them looked like a zebra.

The two zebra centaurs had seen Shyla’s group and had watched them travel through the grass and then they both turned to look in my direction. They obviously saw me even though I’d ducked, though neither made any move to come towards me.

Since the locals weren’t interfering, I continued following after Shyla and the group, ducking down occasionally when I thought they might look back. I silently cursed as I followed, realizing that my dress and slippers weren’t the best choice for this kind of activity, but unfortunately, I didn’t exactly have much choice and just had to make do with what I had.

Before long, Shyla reached another circle of stones and vanished into another way. I hurried to catch up and entered the new way, one that looked like a path through a thick fog. I couldn’t see far enough ahead of me to actually see the ones I was following.

I shifted my eyes so that they turned into the full moons, knowing that this would give me what I needed. The environment inside of a way is all illusion, albeit a very strong and realistic one. With my eyes like this, I could see through illusion so could see through the fog almost as though it wasn’t even there. And to make things even easier on me, I could see the glowing auras of my targets up again.

Shyla and the others turned onto a side way that intersected with this one and then went to yet another realm, one that seemed to be nothing but an empty rock. From there, they went through another way and finally reached their destination.

When I entered the realm, it wasn’t nearly as barren as the last one but it certainly didn’t look like it was brimming with life either. There was lots of reddish stone everywhere with scattered patches of dry grass and scrub brush. I could see several small trees around as well, though they looked half dead.

In the distance where Shyla and the others had gone, there were stone buildings, or at least what looked like the ruins of stone buildings. Most of them looked as though they’d been destroyed, leaving only parts of the walls still standing.

“Weird choice of decoration,” I muttered, using my vision to see that those ruins weren’t illusion but were actually the wreckage of real buildings.

Shyla and her rescue team now looked as though they were ready for battle as they went into the wreckage. I followed as fast as I could, wanting to catch up before anything happened. I no longer cared if they knew I was there, just so long as I could be there to make sure my mom and dad were rescued.

If I had any doubts about this being the right place, they were removed when a red cap came charging at Shyla with large axe in his hands. He let out a fierce yell but Shyla suddenly dove to the side, slicing him with one of her short swords and then ramming the other one into his lower back.

Two other red caps quickly joined the fight and the rescue team was caught in the middle of a real battle. I knew that I’d be worse than useless in that fight so made no move to help. Instead, I remembered what I was really here for and went to find Tomoki and my parents.

“Where are they?” I demanded, looking around in frustration. There were only a few structures that looked to still be intact so they had be in one of those.

Since I didn’t want to waste time running around, I decided to trust in my new vision again. Once again I shifted my eyes over and looked around, hoping I could see something useful. Unfortunately, since the buildings were real rather than illusion, I couldn’t see inside of them so my X ray vision trick was useless.

But then I saw something, a glowing aura near one of the buildings. I hurried towards it, seeing that there was someone standing in front of the locked door, someone who looked to be a guard.

The guard was the red cap girl that I’d seen in the Crossroads, the one that they’d called Jewel. She stood there with a single bladed axe in hand, looking pretty annoyed.

“I can’t believe they attack when me da’s away,” Jewel exclaimed in frustration. “Half our people be gone too…” Then she spat at the ground, looking in the direction of the fight and muttering, “I should be earning my red cap, not being stuck on guard duty.”

“There they are,” I muttered, wondering how I could get past her. Then again, I didn’t really have to get past her the rescue team made it past the red caps. They’d take care of it for me. “I don’t care if I’m the one who saves them,” I told myself, not sure I really believed it. “Just as long as they get saved.”

But just then, Jewel saw me and laughed in delight. “The changeling girl… I thought ye got away but now ye come back to me.” She started coming at me, holding her axe and grinning evilly. “Now I’ll get to soak me cap.”

“Not from me you don’t,” I responded, feeling terrified but refusing to give her the satisfaction of seeing it.

I stood my ground and gave her ‘the look’, altering my eyes to full moon mode in case that might give it a stronger effect. To my surprise, it actually worked. She froze where she was, looking intimidated for a moment.

Unfortunately, my momentary advantage quickly faded because she shook it off and started coming towards me again, this time more slowly and carefully. She looked a little hesitant, as though afraid I might actually be able to do something.

I wasn’t sure what I was doing but the sigil on my palm began to tingle and I acted out of instinct, holding my hand out towards Jewel. Suddenly, there was a flash of silvery light from my palm and she staggered back, dropping her axe and grabbing at her eyes.

“I can’t see,” Jewel exclaimed angrily. “Wait till I get me hands on ye…”

“I don’t think you need this,” I said, grabbing the axe from where she’d dropped it. It was a bit on the heavy side but at least I was armed.

“Come back here and fight me,” Jewel yelled, swinging her fists at the air in the hopes of hitting me at random.

For a moment, I thought about taking advantage of her distraction to hit her but that just didn’t feel right. I’d been raised with the belief that it was wrong to hit girls, and even though I was one now, it was hard to get rid of years of conditioning. But more than that, it just felt wrong to hit someone who couldn’t fight back.

“Sorry about that,” I told Jewel as I hurried to the door. “But I really don’t want to be used as dye.”

I opened the door and went inside, gasping when I found Tomoki chained to the wall, looking bruised and beaten. She looked up when I entered and winced, looking like she was in pain.

“You,” she whispered. “What are you doing here child? Don’t tell me they captured you…” She said that last with a look of horror.

“I’m here to rescue you,” I told her, looking around for something that I could use to get her out of the chains. If nothing else, I could try cutting them with the axe.

“You should not be here,” she told me, looking afraid. “You can’t risk being captured…”

I found a key hanging on the wall near the door, right where she could see it but well out of her reach. I wondered if that had been done intentionally as some sort of psychological torture.

“I don’t know if I should still call you Mrs. Sune,” I told her as I went to work unlocking her shackles. “Or Tomoki.”

“Tomoki will be acceptable,” she responded with a faint smile. “After all, I was never married.”

“Where are my mom and dad?” I asked once I had her loose. “Where are they?” It was obvious that they weren’t in here with Tomoki.

Tomoki stood up and stretched, obviously pleased to be free. Her three fluffy tails all began to twitch and move. Then she gestured to a door in the back of the room that I hadn’t noticed.

Without a word, I went to the door and opened it, gasping as I saw my mom and dad inside. The room had no furniture, not even a bed, though there was a bucket in the corner that looked like it was used as a bathroom. Mom and dad sat against the far wall, both of them looking dirty and bruised as well as chained to the wall by their ankles.

“You’re alive,” I whispered, immediately rushing to my mom’s side. She looked up at me with an expression of fear and confusion. “I’ll get you out of here…”

Dad looked up at me, staring at me with clear suspicion in his eyes even as I was unlocking their shackles. That expression struck me like a physical blow, making me wince with the kind of pain that can only be felt in the heart.

“Who are you?” dad demanded.

“I’m…,” I started, then paused to look away in shame. I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eyes as I nearly whispered, “I’m… I WAS Shane…”

“Shane?” mom exclaimed with a look of shock. She looked as if she didn’t believe it at first but then whispered, “The way you were changing earlier...”

“You’re…you’re a girl,” dad exclaimed, making me wince more. “What happened?”

“Later,” I told them. “Once I get you out of here…”

We went back into the other room where Tomoki was waiting. Mom and dad both gave her a suspicious look but they obviously saw that she’d been treated badly as well because they both gave her sympathetic looks.

Then I heard Shyla’s voice from outside the door, announcing, “The red cap we questioned said they’re in here…”

“Why are we concerned with the humans?” one of the guards asked. “We should take Tomoki of the Three Tales and go…”

“The Lady insisted the humans be brought back as well,” Shyla responded firmly. “Safely.”

Then Shyla stepped through the door and froze, staring at me with her mouth dropped open. “Aeslyn, what are you doing here?”

The golden haired man came in next and stared at me, exclaiming, “She of the Moonlit Eyes?”

Mom looked confused, “Who’s that?”

“She means me,” I responded quietly. I gave a weak smile and said, “I’m called Aeslyn now.”

Tomoki gave me a curious look and mused, “Interesting.”

“I…,” I couldn’t bring myself to look my mom and dad in the eyes, feeling ashamed as I remembered the situation. They still thought that I was Shane, just transformed into a new shape. I dreaded having to tell them the truth and knew that I would have to.

“We have to get out of here,” Tomoki said. “Before the rest of the red caps return.”

A minute later, we were all heading back towards the way gate when suddenly a spear hit the ground beside me. I snapped around and saw Jewel standing on top of one of the ruined walls with another spear in her hand.

“I’m gonna soak me cap in yer blood,” Jewel yelled at me, apparently ignoring the fact that I wasn’t alone. “I’m gonna earn me cap…”

A moment later, Jewel jumped down the other side of the wall and disappeared. The guards moved to both sides of me, ready to protect me from Jewel.

“Let us hurry,” Tomoki stated. “The red cap is not as important as getting her to safety.”

Shyla nodded agreement before glaring at me. “You followed us.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d really rescue them,” I responded, gesturing to my mom and dad while staring back defiantly.

Shyla snorted at that then muttered something under hear breath that sounded like it might be a profanity, though I couldn’t hear it well enough to be sure. Instead of saying anything else to me, she started back towards the way gate.

We were about halfway there when something suddenly slammed into me, knocking me to the ground. Jewel crouched over me, holding a dagger to my throat as she grinned.

“I’ll take yer blood and make me da proud,” Jewel said. Then she snapped, “None of ye come any closer… This is between us.”

I snarled in anger, driving my knee up into Jewel’s crotch. She might not have any male equipment to hurt, but I’d been assured by Heather that it really hurt girls to get kicked there too…just not in quite the same way. It worked because Jewel fell back, gasping in pain.

A moment later, I was standing over her, holding her own axe to her throat. She stared up at me, looking vaguely afraid but defiant.

“I’ll not shame me da by begging for mercy,” Jewel told me.

I just stared at her for a moment, my silver eyes locked onto her yellow ones. “I don’t want to kill you. Just leave me alone.”

With that, I backed away from Jewel. However, one of the guards moved towards her with his sword, obviously intending to do what I refused to.

“NO,” I ordered him. “Don’t kill her.”

The guard glanced to Shyla who nodded and he stopped. “As you wish, milady.”

“What the hell is going on?” dad demanded. “Who are you people?”

I winced at that, feeling another surge of guilt and shame. How could I tell them that I wasn’t really their child, that I never truly had been? How could I tell them that the hope they’d been given when their dead son had been returned to them alive had all just been a lie?

“I’ll tell you when we’re safe,” I said quietly, well aware that tears were starting to pour down my cheeks. I knew that I had until then before they hated me forever.

Part 17

I winced under the power of my mother's glare, even feeling a little afraid. All pretense of calm and serenity had vanished and now her expression flickered between anger, worry, and relief.

"I believe I was clear when I said that you were not to go," my mother announced, her voice sounding calm on the surface. "You have no idea what you have risked."

"I'm sorry," I responded quietly, barely able to bring myself to look at her.

Getting chewed out was bad enough but it was even worse because we had an audience. We were in the casual throne room so were being watched by the guards and everyone who'd come back from the mission to rescue Tomoki and my parents. Even Jimmy was present, having taken his place as my bodyguard again, though he kept giving me resentful looks for the way I'd thrown him under the bus. I couldn't really blame him for that.

In spite of being chewed out for following the rescue team and putting myself in danger, I knew that I would have done the exact same thing again. I was very happy to have discovered that my mother really had been trying to rescue my mom and dad, that Shyla really was serious about bringing them back along with Tomoki. Sure, I hadn't been needed and had probably gotten in the way more than anything else, but I was still glad that I'd gone.

"I had to," I said quietly. "I had to help them..."

"I see that next time I will have to word my instructions more carefully," mother said, giving me a flat look, though there was something else in her eyes as well that I thought might be a flicker of pride.

I gulped at that, remembering that the rules of this court meant that if she actually gave me a direct order, I'd have a very difficult time disobeying it. In fact, between that and her knowing my true name, if she really wanted to, she could make it so that I had absolutely no choice but to be completely and totally obedient. I was pretty sure that she'd never do something like that to me, but the very idea of anyone being able to do that to me was terrifying.

My mother turned away from me and then looked to my mom and dad, both of whom stood back looking dazed and confused. They glanced at me and then my mother with my dad demanding, "What did you do to our son? Change him back immediately..."

"I see," my mother responded, giving them both a look of sympathy. "You do not yet know."

"What do you mean?" my dad demanded, followed by, "And who the hell are you?"

"She is the Lady of the Crescent Moon," Tomoki responded, standing up straight and looking as dignified as she could in her dirty condition.

"Fear not," my mother told them gently. "You are my guests and will come to no harm in this court."

My eyes widened at her calling them 'guests', though I knew she meant that they were real guests and not servants. Still, she had put them under her protection which meant that no one in this court would harm them.

Then my mother reached out and touched my dad's shoulder with one hand and my mom's with her other. Her hands began to glow with a silvery light and a moment later, my dad's black eye faded away. In fact, all the bruises and scrapes that I could see were gone and they both gasped in surprise.

"I fear there are several unpleasant truths you will have to face," mother told them both with a sympathetic look. "The blame for these can be laid at my feet for they are the result of my choosing you."

"What are you talking about?" mom asked nervously, her eyes darting to the guards.

"I can have you returned home should you wish," my mother told them gently. "But I fear you would be in grave danger. I fear that I was too overt in dealing with you, and though that could have been overlooked, the fact that you have entered the realms and have seen too much cannot."

Dad glared at her suspiciously. "So you're going to kill us to keep us quiet? Then why the hell did you even have your people save us?"

"Not I," my mother responded. "Nor any of my people. However, should you return to Earth, the red caps may yet come after you to use as leverage against Aeslyn. They must know how much you mean to her...and how much she means to me." Then she paused to glance at me for a moment before looking at mom and dad again. "Sadly, the red caps are not the greatest threat."

"The Ring of Silence," Tomoki said with a scowl. She looked at my mom and dad before adding, "You know too much and they would silence you."

"At best," my mother explained, "they would destroy your memories, perhaps erasing years from you and perhaps causing permanent damage to your minds. More likely, they would simply kill you as that is easier and more certain."

I let out a gasp of horror at that, realizing that I had yet another thing to feel guilty for. As it was, I hadn't been able to look my mom or dad in the eyes on the way back much less talk to them. I know they were scared and confused but I’d barely been able to explain anything to them, not that I really understood a whole lot more.

"You are welcome to stay in the Court of the Morning Light as my guests," mother said. "Here at least, you shall be safe. I owe you no less for what you have unknowingly done for me."

Mom and dad both stared at her in shock as they absorbed what she'd said, though it was certainly no worse than what I felt, especially since I knew what was coming next. My whole body began to shake and I could feel tears beginning to pour down my cheeks. I'd never been one to cry much but suddenly, I couldn't help it.

"And what did you do to Shane?" dad demanded, looking over at me which only made me wince more.

"I'm sorry," I blurted out, the tears pouring even harder. I stared at mom and dad, silently pleading with whatever deity listened to faerie changelings that they could forgive me. "I didn't know... I didn't know..." And with that, I turned and ran from the room.

My mom yelled out, "Shane," while at the same time, my mother called, "Aeslyn..."

I stopped just outside of the door, leaning against the wall for support and sobbing uncontrollably. I felt as though my entire world had crashed down on me...again. Of course, in a way it had. My mom and dad were about to discover the truth and that would be the end of everything.

Even as I stood there, I could still hear a little from the throne room. I could faintly hear my mother telling them, "Wait... Let her be till you know more of why her heart aches. I know you to be good people who would do anything to protect your child." There was a long pause before my mother finished, "Thus was the reason I gave my daughter into your care."

"That's it," I whispered, feeling a surge of pain through my very soul, though at the same time, there was also a twisted sense of relief that at least the wait was over.

After this, I couldn't bear to listen any more. I grimaced and staggered down the hallway, trying to get away from them...to get away from it all. I went towards my quarters since it was the only place beside where I had any privacy, and at the moment, that was what I wanted more than anything. I just wanted to curl up in a ball where no one could see and just be left alone.

It wasn't until I reached the door to my quarters that I even realized that Jimmy had been following behind me, keeping his distance but still guarding me. However, the look of resentment was gone, replaced by one of pity. That was far worse because I didn't want him to pity me.

"I'm sorry," Jimmy told me awkwardly.

I just grimaced in shame at that and went into my quarters without saying a word. I threw myself onto my bed, wishing that I could hide in my demesne where it was even more private, but at the moment, I didn't have the energy to force it open. So instead, I stayed where I was, silently cursing the openings in the walls and ceiling which suddenly felt like an intrusion to my privacy.

"Why can't I stop crying?" I demanded of the empty air. "Why can't I stop crying like a little girl?"

Of course, the answer to that was that I was a girl and always had been, in spite of what I'd grown up believing. Maybe now that I had a female body my hormones were making me just as emotional as every girl I'd gone to school with. Or maybe it was simply that having a female body made easier for me to justify unleashing my emotions. Whatever the cause, I just continued to sob until I eventually fell asleep.

Part 18

I sat on a large rock, silently staring down at the stone disk embedded in the ground that marked the grave of the baby Shane. At the moment, I was completely alone, except for Jimmy whom I couldn't get rid of. When I first came to sit here an hour ago, several other faerie had tried watching me from the cover of their illusions, at least until I'd shown that I could see through their illusions.

It had been two days since we'd come back to the Court of the Morning Light with my mom and dad, or at least I thought it was two days. In a place that was always morning and had no clocks, it was difficult to be sure. However, in that time since I'd been avoiding my mom and dad, unable to bear their reactions to me. Of course, I was extremely happy that they were alive and well, but I couldn't help but feeling guilty and ashamed for everything else, even though I knew that none of it was really my fault.

Jimmy hadn't said a word as I sat here in self-pity and just patiently stood back, as though it didn't matter to him how long we remained. Then he finally came to where I was sitting, and still without a word, he sat down beside me.

After another ten minutes of silence, Jimmy finally spoke. "It isn't your fault," he said quietly. "But I know that doesn't help much."

I nodded faintly, a little startled to realize that he understood how I felt. I wasn't sure that anyone really could. I was especially surprised since I'd been expecting him to still be mad at me for the way I'd snuck away and got him in trouble. However, in the last two days he'd acted sympathetic but not angry.

"I can't say that I truly know what you're going through," Jimmy told me, still keeping his voice low. "When I was a changeling, my situation was much different. I was left as a baby on the doorstep of a family that wanted a child. I grew up knowing who and what I really was, with my father coming to visit. And then when it was time to go, I actually had time to say goodbye." He was quiet again for another minute before adding, "Sometimes I miss them...my human parents. I wonder what happened to them after I left."

Jimmy didn't say anything else after that and we just sat there in comforting silence. For some reason though, Jimmy no longer felt as much like an intruder and I no longer felt quite so alone.

Eventually though, our privacy was interrupted by the presence of a newcomer, one that I didn't even notice approaching at first. A white fox with three tails stepped into the clearing with us and sniffed the air before turning to look at me. I immediately recognized Tomoki in her fox form though a moment later she changed back to her normal appearance.

Tomoki stood there with a grim look on her face, the same one that she'd worn for the last two days. I thought that she would have been happy to have been freed from the red caps so all I could imagine was that they must have treated her worse than I'd thought. However, Tomoki refused to talk about it and I certainly wasn't going to press.

"I would speak with you," Tomoki told me. "She of the Moonlit Eyes." She seemed faintly amused by my title.

"You can call me Aeslyn," I pointed out with a scowl. It was a little less embarrassing.

However, Tomoki merely responded, "No, I cannot."

Tomoki gave me a steady look, reminding me that she'd promised never to say my true name aloud again. It appeared that this promise also prevented her from saying even a part of it.

"You should not have come after me," Tomoki said, giving me a steady look. "You should not have risked yourself so, not even for those you consider your parents."

"I didn't have a choice," I responded quietly. "I had to do something."

Tomoki was silent for a moment and just stared at me with a thoughtful expression. "You must understand that you have enemies who would harm you and this entire court, so you must not give them any opportunity to do so. This is why I have recommended to the lady that you be taught to defend yourself." She bowed her head slightly before adding, "Your first lesson begins in three hours."

"What?" I blinked in surprise. "Isn't that kind of short notice?"

"As can be a dagger in the back," Tomoki responded before turning and walking away. "Do not be late."

"Well," Jimmy said from beside me with a broad grin. "That should keep you too busy to get into trouble."

I was a bit surprised since this was the first time he'd actually relaxed enough to joke in my presence. I knew that it was probably a bit unprofessional for a bodyguard, but I didn't mind that, not even if he was actually teasing me. It made him seem more human. However, I wasn't about to let him know that so just snorted in response.

After this, I was about to leave when I noticed more people coming towards us down the same path Tomoki had just left from. My heart suddenly jumped up into my chest when I saw that is was my mom and dad, being led here by Thorn. Since they were the only humans in the Court of the Morning Light besides Thorn, she had taken it on herself to be their guide.

"It's so beautiful here," mom exclaimed, looking around in amazement.

"This is where your little one was buried," Thorn told them gently, gesturing to the stone in front of me.

Mom and dad froze at the sight of me, staring at me with expressions that were hard to read. I just winced and cringed back, feeling a renewed surge of guilt and shame. I looked away, not quite able to meet their eyes.

"I'll go," I said quietly, knowing that they deserved privacy while seeing their son's grave.

"I'm sorry," Thorn apologized, though whether to them or me I wasn't sure. "I didn't know you were here."

I just nodded faintly and started to leave when mom called out, "Wait..." I paused at that and she gave me a pleading look and asked, "Why?"

"It's not my fault," I responded quietly, feeling the now familiar swell of guilt. "I didn't even know..."

"What she means," dad said, giving me a steady look, the kind that he always gave me when I was in trouble. "What she means is, why have you been avoiding us?"

"Because you hate me now," I responded in surprise, earning a gasp from mom. "How could you not?"

Mom and dad both stared at me with looks of shock before mom blurted out, "We don't hate you... How could you even think that?" They both looked horribly hurt, only making me feel guiltier, not to mention confused.

At this point, Jimmy moved next to my parents, putting one hand on each of their shoulders. "It's because she lost everything she was," he told them quietly. "She lost her face, her identity, her home...and the only parents she ever knew. I don't think she dared hope for anything else."

"Oh Shane," she whispered, looking horrified. Then without another word, she launched herself at me and grabbed me in a firm hug. "I don't hate you... I could never do that... This isn't your fault, none of it was."

I hugged her back, feeling an unbelievable sense of relief as tears poured down my cheeks. When I pulled away, I saw that she was crying too. Then I wiped away my tears and self-consciously said, "I can't stop crying..." Mom just gave me a knowing look.

Dad had never been as expressive as mom but he put a hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes. What I saw in his face wasn't the hate or condemnation that I'd expected.

"If you really thought we'd hate you," he asked with a frown, "then why did you risk yourself to rescue us?"

"It was my fault they took you," I responded quietly, feeling extremely awkward. "If it hadn't been for me..." Then I paused to self-consciously add, "And even though I know the truth...I still think of you as my mom and dad. I...I had to help."

This time it was my dad who grabbed me in a firm hug, one that surprised me a bit. When he pulled back, he had a few tears on his cheeks as well.

"You look...lovely," mom said just a little awkwardly as she looked me over. "It's Aeslyn now...isn't it?"

I nodded at that, feeling self-conscious but no longer really guilty or ashamed, at least not much. "It's a bit to get used to," I admitted with a wry smile.

"I'd imagine," mom said while dad just nodded. Then she abruptly said, "You look a lot like her..."

She didn't need to say who she meant by 'her', especially as her voice was filled with disapproval when she said that word. I knew that she was unhappy with my mother and blamed her for everything that had happened. Fortunately, mom and dad had at least listened to her warnings about how dangerous it would be to go home.

"I've seen my...my biological father," I said quietly. "He's been in a coma for sixteen years..."

"What?" my mom gasped in surprise.

"Apparently, someone tried to kill him just a couple days before I was born," I told my parents with a grimace. "I guess, she was just trying to hide me from the people who did that."

I wasn't sure how much my mother had told them but I thought that they deserved to know the real reason that they'd been lied to and manipulated. She hadn't done it as a cruel joke but as a desperate attempt to hide me from her enemies so that I could grow up safely. Of course, I knew that wouldn't make mom and dad feel a whole lot better about discovering the truth, but they needed to know.

"So, you're really some kind of faerie princess," dad mused with a shake of his head as though having a hard time believing it. I could understand the feeling completely.

"Something like that," I muttered in response, feeling embarrassed by that.

Mom gave me a weak smile and said, "I'd always wondered what it would be like having a daughter... I never would have guessed that I already had one...sort of."

Since I didn't know what else to say, I gestured to the grave stone and said, "I'll let you have some privacy with...Shane."

With that, I turned and began to walk away again. However, dad called, "Shane...I mean Aeslyn." When I looked back, he said, "Please don't avoid us again. We do want to talk with you more later."

"I won't," I responded with a faint smile before continuing on my way.

As I was leaving though, I noticed Thorn giving Jimmy a knowing look and a faintly smug smile. It suddenly struck me that maybe it hadn't been a coincidence that she'd brought my mom and dad to the grave while I was still here. Even if that was the case, this was one of the few occasions where I really didn't mind being manipulated.

Part 19

I crouched down, breathing hard, sweating like crazy, and feeling as though my entire body was bruised. I'd recently learned that as a faerie, I was stronger and had much more endurance than a human woman of my size, but of course, even that could be pushed to the limits.

Jimmy stood a short distance away with a one handed broadsword in his hand, a sword that was responsible for most of the bruises that currently decorated my body. Of course, I had a sword of my own, a slender blade that looked something like a cross between a rapier and a broadsword, but unfortunately, I lacked the skill to really use it. That was the very reason for this lesson and the sparring session.

Shyla stood a short distance away, watching the two of us and calling out instructions to me and giving me advice, not that most of it had been useful so far. For the last three days, Shyla had been teaching me how to fight and Jimmy had become her assistant and my main sparring partner. With the two of them training me, I was just grateful for the fact that I healed and recovered far faster than I had as a human.

"At least I have pants on," I muttered, imagining that this would have been even more difficult in a dress. For my sparring lessons, I'd actually been given clothes that were much more appropriate for this kind of activity. Unfortunately, Shyla had already commented on how I'd be practicing in a dress as well once I'd learned more than just the basics.

"Keep your blade up," Shyla called to me. "And keep your eyes on his blade and hands, watch what your opponent is doing."

Jimmy came forward and swung his sword at me, moving much slower than he would in a real fight. I was able to block his attack this time, but when I swung at him he was able to do the same to mine. I had improved quite a bit over the last couple days and blocked several more of his attacks until he got through and hit me with his dulled sword again.

"I think I'd prefer using a baseball bat," I spat out in frustration.

"With the way you wield that sword, you might be better off with a baseball bat," Jimmy teased me. Then he paused, looking almost serious as he mused, "You could always try practicing with a shillelagh to see how that works for you."

I snarled and swung at Jimmy, launching at him with a series of slashes which he easily blocked. However, after another minute of trying I was able to get past his defenses enough to actually hit him on his thigh. Of course, Jimmy had been holding back but it was still the first time I'd been able to hit him so I felt a huge surge of triumph over that.

"Next time," Jimmy told me with an almost predatory grin. "I go faster."

"Sh...shoot," I muttered bitterly.

"That will be enough for today," Shyla announced, giving me a speculative look. "I believe you have other lessons to attend soon."

"Don't remind me," I responded with a sigh.

For the last three days, it seemed as though my entire life had become almost nothing but lessons. Sure, before then I'd been having lessons with Corwin but now things had become a lot more serious. I still had my lessons with Corwin and he would tell me stories about faerie history and the different faerie courts. However, he was more of a storyteller than a historian and several times he told me stories that completely contracted each other and didn't seem to care as long as the story itself was a good one.

After story time with Corwin, I have etiquette lessons with Tomoki. She's spent the last several days trying desperately to each me how to sit, talk, and act like a lady, though I was less than enthusiastic about the subject, much to her frustration. Then this morning, my mom decided to sit in on one of the lessons, apparently being amused by the very idea of my being taught to be a lady. Mom even tried helping by bringing up the subject of feminine hygiene, at least until Tomoki pointed out that faerie women don't have periods and can't get pregnant unless they consciously choose too. Mom had been a bit jealous about that while I'd just been relieved since those were the two parts of being a girl that I’d dreaded the most.

Then came the several hour sessions where Shyla and Jimmy would beat up on me in the guise of teaching me physical self-defense. Before this, I'd always thought of self-defense as learning martial arts or how to shoot a gun, not as learning to fight with something medieval like a sword. However, it seemed that the really old fashioned weapons were still well in fashion in the faerie realms.

At first, I'd actually been kind of excited about learning to use a sword, at least until ten minutes after my first lesson had begun. Ever since then, each new bruise just made me wonder what I'd ever been thinking. I was thankful that the sword lessons were finally done for the day, though of course I'd have to come back to this tomorrow.

"You are doing much better," Jimmy assured me as we put our practice swords away. "It won’t be long before you won't even need a bodyguard." Of course, I knew he was exaggerating to make me feel better but I still appreciated it.

"Your performance was adequate," Shyla told me, "but your focus needs work. We will work on that next session."

I just nodded at that and started back to my quarters, looking forward to a nice hot bath. Jimmy followed behind me, still acting as my bodyguard. Apparently, just because he'd been my sparring partner and an assistant instructor, that didn't mean he could take the rest of the day off.

Once we reached my quarters, I teased him, "Go take a bath. You stink."

"I wonder why," Jimmy responded with a faint smile. "I didn't break a sweat."

I just laughed at that and fought back the urge to stick my tongue out at him. After all, as Tomoki liked to say, that would be very unladylike. I snorted faintly instead and went into my quarters, leaving Jimmy to stand guard outside the door. I might have invited him in where he could at least sit down be comfortable, but I had my own bath to take and couldn't very well do that with him present.

After taking off my sweaty workout clothes, I set them aside, knowing that Thorn would take care of them later and that I'd have them back and cleaned before my next sword lesson. Then I went and climbed into the tub, delighting that the water was already hot and perfect as always. I wasn't sure what kind of magic made the tub work but it had no drain and was always full, hot, and perfectly clean.

"All the modern conveniences," I mused aloud, thinking of how many of them were provided by magic. "None of the modern technology."

Of course, I didn't really have all the modern conveniences. For one thing, I didn't have any running water in my quarters, nor did I have a toilet. In fact, there were only a few toilets in the entire court and they were all located in the section of the palace that was set aside for human guests, the place where mom, dad, and Thorn stayed.

Once of the strangest things about being a faerie was the discovery that faeries were much more efficient about how our bodies absorbed food than humans were. Most faerie didn't release any kind of biological waste, meaning that they never had to piss or crap. I'd only found this out after I'd been here for several days without having to go to the bathroom even once.

"I'm not human," I reminded myself as I looked my naked body over. Even after two weeks, I still hadn't gotten used that idea.

I still looked human...mostly. And other than the fact that I felt more energetic and alive than ever before, I still felt human. I wondered for a minute just how human I was inside, if I still had the same organs in the same places or if they were all different. I didn't really know, though I only had one heart beating and it was coming from the same place, so I was at least fairly certain that I wasn't too different than a human girl.

"I guess it doesn't really matter," I sighed, sinking deeper into the water. "Whatever I am, I'm still me. I just wish I really knew who that was." I closed my eyes, trying not to think about the questions I still had about my own identity. My old self-identity had been completely wiped away and I was still picking up the pieces and trying to figure out who I was now. "Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes."

With that, I reached down to my ankle where my special piece of jewelry was wrapped around as an ankle bracelet. I put it there before my sword lessons so that it wouldn't accidentally get hit with a training sword and damaged. Actually, I wasn't really sure it could be damaged but I didn't want to take the risk. A moment later, I'd removed it and held the silver ball in my hand.

"Such a strange little thing," I mused, placing it against my forehead and then feeling it begin to melt and spread out until it formed a tiara. "Now I really feel like some sort of faerie princess. Disney, eat your heart out."

However, the next thing I did was something that I'd never seen any Disney princess do. I slipped my hand down between my legs and felt my slit. I even rubbed at it a bit, moaning slightly at how good it felt.

“I don’t have time for that,” I reminded myself, feeling extremely self-conscious as I pulled my hand back.

When I was done in the bath, I climbed out of the water, absently noticing that most of my bruises had already faded away. Being able to heal like this was definitely one of the things I liked most about being a faerie. As a human, I would have been hurting for days. Unfortunately, tomorrow I'd go through the whole thing all over again.

I quickly dried off, still being impressed at how the water all came right out of my hair, leaving it completely dry in less than a minute. I wasn't sure if that was a feature of being a faerie or if it was some magic in the towel. What I did know was that I didn't have to walk around with wet hair, for which I was thankful.

Before long, I was dressed in a short sleeved dress that was dark blue with silver trim. It even had a silver chain to wrap around my waist almost like a belt and a bit of a buckle that was a silver disk, very reminiscent of a full moon. I assumed it was my mother who'd chosen the dress and left it for me, just as she must have left all the others.

"Not bad," I mused as I adjusted my dress. "Not bad at all."

Then I looked at my dirty workout clothes and frowned slightly, considering the strangeness of the fact that I actually felt more comfortable in a dress than I did in pants. I wasn't really sure if it was just because I'd spent so much time in a dress lately, or perhaps more likely, it was the rules of the court affecting me in a subtle manner. It was a little scary to think of the rules influencing me without my even being aware of it, making me wonder how much of what I thought and felt was really me and how much was the rules.

"Faeries are defined by the rules," I whispered, remembering Corwin's lesson on that. I shuddered faintly, thankful that as a human changeling I had more resistance to them than most. Of course, an increased resistance wasn't immunity. "And this is one of the things I like least about being a faerie."

Then with a shake of my head, I reminded myself that I still had my lessons to get to. I smiled faintly, actually looking forward to these ones. I started to leave my quarters but then suddenly remembered that I was still wearing my tiara. I quickly removed it and placed the magic jewelry on my forearm, thinking that it might have been a bit embarrassing to be seen walking around with the jewelry where it had been.

Two minutes later, I stepped into the casual throne room where I found my mother talking to the golden haired sidhe who'd found where my mom and dad were. I'd learned since then that he was called Betram the Golden and that he was what my mother's primary scout, or as I thought of it, her main secret agent. At the moment, she was in her child form so looked quite a bit smaller than him but he still spoke to her with tones of respect.

"The Iron Lord has expanded his power even further than we expected," Betram was telling my mother. "I've confirmed that he's seized control over three of the smaller Unseelie courts as well as the remains of several broken courts. As of a short time ago, he was making his move on the Court of Endless Screams."

"The Court of Endless Screams," my mother repeated, a look of worry passing over her serene expression. "I would imagine that court might be a suitable match for the Iron Lord."

"Indeed," Tomoki agreed from off to the side, looking very grim.

"The Court of Endless Screams?" I asked Jimmy quietly.

"One of the most fearsome of Unseelie courts," Jimmy whispered to me, his voice cracking slightly. "They are all inhuman in form and mind, vicious and merciless beings who will make you plead for death. They believe that pain is the highest art and that they are all artists."

I just gulped at that and responded, "Oh..." I still didn't know much about this Court of Endless Screams, but I had no doubt that I should avoid them at all costs.

"But why is the Iron Lord choosing now to act?" my mother mused aloud. "He has been quiet for centuries, content to remain in his own realm."

"Tis simple, lass," Corwin said from the corner of the room where he leaned back against the wall, scowling intently. He moved closer to the center of the room where my mother was standing. "Seelie and Unseelie both have become soft and complacent. Aye, we have few seasoned warriors left…ones who fought in the great wars, and many of those have long since hung up their blades. Most of our greatest leaders and generals who survived past the treaty have since been killed by small skirmish or fallen to assassin’s blade."

"Such is the truth," mother agreed sadly. "We shall take what precautions we may."

The conversation continued for another few minutes before my mother indicated that they were done for now. She then started towards me, giving me a gentle smile as she came close. She looked up at me and for a moment it was hard to believe that this little girl was the same woman who'd given birth to me. Then I looked into her crescent moon eyes and easily remembered that she was far older than she looked.

"Come," mother told me, leaving the throne room and heading down the hall. It was obvious that she was worried about the Iron Lord so I was surprised that she hadn't just decided to cancel our lessons.

My mother led me to the room that we had been using for my magic lessons, a room that looked much like the casual throne room though much smaller. There was no platform in the middle of the room full of pillows but there were two chairs set up along with a table and some glasses of nectar. Then she gestured to Jimmy and Shyla, and a moment later our bodyguards stepped out of the room, guarding the door but giving us our privacy.

Mother usually preferred sitting on pillows to sitting in chairs but she sat in one of them without comment though she did gesture for me to take the other. "I have heard talk from the humans Carl and Ellen..."

"Oh?" I responded carefully, wondering why we were talking about my mom and dad instead of the actual lessons.

"As you are aware," mother continued, "they are not happy here and would like to return home. They speak of worry for their home, their families, and Carl is concerned for his employment. I think they are losing belief in the danger of returning, or perhaps, merely overlooking it."

"I know," I told her with a sigh. "I don't think they plan on staying here much longer..." Of course, I was extremely worried about what would happen if they went home but it wasn't like I could do anything to stop them.

"I believe the only reason they have stayed this long is because they do not wish to be separated from you." My mother paused for a moment before reluctantly admitting, "They truly do care for your well-being. It comforts me to know that I made a wise choice in choosing them."

I just nodded at that, agreeing completely but not sure that I should really say anything. After all, I didn't want to hurt my mother's feelings by suggesting they were better parents then she could have been.

"For centuries," my mother mused, "the realms have been our refuge from humans. Now it seems that we face a threat from within." She took a sip of her nectar before adding, "Carl and Ellen are welcome to remain here under our protection for as long as they like, but I do not know how long our court will remain safe. I suspect it will be decades before he is able to assault us directly, yet that does not mean we are safe." She stopped at that and stared at me with a sad look, reminding me that the Iron Lord was the one behind the assassination attempt on my father.

"Enough of that for now," mother abruptly said, standing up and gesturing for me to do the same. "We are here to teach you to control what magic you may. As I have told you before, glamour and healing are the most common magics among sidhe, yet the strengths and weaknesses of each can vary. Now, do as I have taught you and call your magic."

I did as my mother instructed, closing my eyes and feeling inside of me for that spark of magic. It was surprisingly similar to how I found my demesne, and as mother told me previously, it was not a matter of study and numbers but of learning to follow my instinct. According to her, it was like a bird learning to fly, something they would do naturally when they were ready.

In just several seconds, I felt the tingle down my spine that indicated the presence of magic, though this time the magic was my own. The sigil on my right palm began to glow and I could feel it responding to the energies I was summoning. Now I just had to do something with those energies.

"Now release it as you did yesterday," mother instructed me, turning her head away.

I released the energies in the form of a bright flash of light from my palm, the same way that I had done instinctively while trying to get through Jewel to rescue my parents. If anyone had been looking at my palm, they would have been completely blinded for a few seconds. It wasn't very impressive compared to most of the other things I'd seen, but it was magic and I could do it myself. I couldn't help but feel proud because of that.

"A base form of illusion," mother told me pleasantly. "Now let us try again, but this time, let us try something a little different..."

I nodded and listened intently as she explained what she wanted me to try next. I didn't have very much magic yet and wouldn't awaken to my full power until I reached my second majority, but this was a subject that caught my fascination and I was determined to learn everything I could about using what little magic I did possess. Between that and the fact that I was spending time with my mother and getting to know her better, that made my magic lessons the ones that I was actually looking forward to each day.

Part 20

I took a sip from my glass and savored the delicious nectar as it warmed me from inside. At the moment, I was sitting at a table in my quarters with my mom and dad, spending time with them and describing how I was doing with all of my lessons. Thorn was present as well though she refused the offer to sit with us and instead stood back, other than when she poured our glasses.

"Damn, this stuff is strong," dad exclaimed, already completely plastered in spite of the fact that he'd only had half a glass of nectar. I'd already finished a full glass and had started on the second but wasn't really feeling anything. "But it goes down so smoothly..."

"I don't think you should be drinking this," mom told me, glancing to her own glass which she'd barely even touched. "You're still a minor."

"Actually," I told her with a smile, taking another sip of my nectar to prove a point. "I've had my first majority so by faerie standards, I'm considered an adult. Besides, not only is there no drinking age here but this stuff doesn't seem to affect faeries as much. I mean, it's almost like soda to me." Of course, it was more like wine or beer, but I thought that downplaying the nectar would be a good idea at the moment.

"Like liquid candy," dad mumbled, taking another sip and nearly spilling his glass. "Should come in a shot glass..."

Mom gave dad a look that seemed to be a mixture of disapproval and amusement. Then she asked, "What is this nectar?"

I had absolutely no idea how it was made but Thorn responded, "It's made from fermented dewdrops." However, she had a faint smiled that convinced me she was just teasing, though I wasn't sure if mom got that or not.

"And you actually drink this?" mom asked her with a skeptical look.

Thorn just laughed at that. "Not often, and then only when thinned with wine. I believe the last time I had any was...perhaps a decade ago."

Mom blinked in surprise at that and exclaimed, "You were drinking this stuff as a child?"

Thorn looked confused for a moment and then laughed again. "I am older than I appear, Ellen."

"She's the oldest human you've ever met," I told mom with a faint smile.

"No fucking way," dad exclaimed drunkenly. "You look like you're in college..."

Thorn gave me a quick glance and then explained, "My first patron bound my age, a common practice for humans that have been taken, or at least those that they wish to keep." She paused for a moment before adding, "I am just grateful he waited for me to grow first or I might have been trapped as a child as many others have been."

Mom just stared at her for a minute before whispering, "Faerie can stop aging..."

"Some can," Thorn agreed, looking a little sad. "But only here in the realms where the flow of magic is different and easier to come by. If I were to leave the reams the magic which binds my age would break."

"She doesn't age," I told mom, knowing that she must be tempted by the idea of becoming immortal. I certainly didn't blame her and thought that maybe it might even be a good idea. "But she can't go back to Earth...ever." Mom gasped aloud at that while dad just began to snore.

I just stared at dad for a moment and then burst out laugh. At mom's curious look, I explained, "I can't believe that I just drank dad under the table...without even trying."

A second later, mom was laughing as well. "That will certainly give me something to tease him about." Then she glanced towards the door before leaning over and saying almost conspiratorially, "Now about that cute young man standing guard outside..."

I just blushed bright red and exclaimed, "Mom..."

"Come now," mom teased me. "I've seen the way he looks at you..."

"He's just a friend and bodyguard," I protested awkwardly, glancing to Thorn for help but she just stood back, looking completely innocent and uninvolved. "First off, he's closer to your age than mine. In fact, I’m pretty sure he's older than you..." Mom blinked in surprise at that, though she probably shouldn't have been surprised after our talk about Thorn. "And besides, I'm not even into guys." However, that last bit sounded like too much of a protest even to my own ears.

"Of course not," mom responded with a faint smile. "And if he's really that much older than you, you should definitely avoid any inappropriate contact."

"I definitely intend to," I agreed.

Mom just smiled faintly at that and then looked down at her glass of nectar, shaking her head. "I only had one sip and I can still feel it a little..." She looked at dad and sighed. "I suppose I should get Carl to bed."

After this, mom tried waking dad up but it didn't do much good since he was so drunk he couldn't stand up straight. I just shook my head, amazed that one glass of nectar could do this to him and have so little effect on me. I was definitely going to tease him about this once he sobered up. However, it meant that mom and I had to help support him as we left my quarters, at least until we got through the door and Jimmy was able to take over for mom.

"You know, we can't stay here forever," mom said to me quietly as we went towards the rooms where she was staying with dad. "We have to get back to the house... Carl probably lost his job by now and our friends are probably worried sick... I think whatever danger there was should be over..."

"Maybe," I responded, feeling worried anyway. And even if it was perfectly safe to go home, I knew that I'd miss them horribly. As much as I missed my own friends, I don't think I could really go back, not when I've changed so much and had so much to learn about being a faerie.

Just then, I realized that Tomoki was standing a short distance away and was watching us with a grim expression. Mom just glared at her, not having forgiven her for her part in lying to them and spying on us for my entire life. However, Tomoki wasn't apologetic about it which only seemed to infuriate my mom more.

"I can understand your desire to return home," Tomoki commented absently. "I too miss things that were left behind. I regret the loss of the garden that I tended for so long and wonder what became of the story on my favorite soap."

"It's hardly the same thing," mom pointed out grimly. "We can't just give up our entire lives and everything we know to hide in this faerie land."

Tomoki nodded at that, looking sad as she glanced at me. "I fear that the danger of returning may still be present. A spy reported that the enemy has learned of your friends Benji and Heather and are considering them as potential leverage."

"No," I gasped in horror.

"The Iron Lord's forces have not yet moved towards them," Tomoki continued with a shake of her head. "It is even likely that they will not waste their time capturing your human friends." However, I knew what she was suggesting, that there was a chance the Iron Lord would send the red caps or someone else after them.

"We have to do something," I blurted out. "I'll ask my mother..."

"I'm afraid that she has forbid any of the guards from going to Earth," Tomoki told me. "We may be able to convince her to send someone to look after your friends, however, that will take several days."

"Several days?" I gasped, my eyes going wide. They might not have several days.

Mom looked just as horrified as I felt. "Those poor kids..."

"I will speak to the Lady of the Crescent moon," Tomoki assured me. "Please remain patient." And with that, Tomoki turned and walked away.

"Those poor kids," mom repeated again. "I'm sure we can get her to help." However, she didn't sound all that certain.

After I dropped mom and dad off in their quarters, I slowly walked away with a cold dread in my gut. First, mom and dad had been kidnapped by the red caps because of me and now Benji and Heather were in danger. I couldn't just wait for my mother to change her mind and send guards. They were my friends so I had to warn them. I HAD to.

I didn't say a word as I went back to my own quarters, thinking the entire time of what I could do. When I reached my quarters, Jimmy abruptly put a hand on my shoulder and stopped me.

"You're planning on going after them," he stated. It wasn't a question.

"What makes you think that?" I asked, trying to keep my features unreadable.

"It's stupid to risk yourself like that," Jimmy responded, giving me a steady look. "And because I don't think you're capable of not trying to help them."

I stared at him defiantly for a moment before asking, "So, what are you going to do? Tell my mother?"

"The lady would give you a direct order to stay here," Jimmy answered carefully. "Then if anything happened to your friends, you would never forgive her...or me." He paused for a moment before adding, "And of course, the moment I left to tell her, you would immediately ditch me and run right for the way gate."

I didn't say anything at that, though if I'd still been capable of profanity, I'd probably use some right there. It seems that Jimmy knew me a lot better than I thought he did. At any other time, that might have been kind of flattering, but right now it was really frustrating.

"So you're going to stop me yourself," I said quietly, giving Jimmy 'the look'. "For my own good."

Jimmy just stared right back at me, his copper colored eyes meeting my silver ones unflinchingly. Then he finally responded, "No. I'm coming with you."

"WHAT?" I gasped in surprise. That was about the last thing I'd expected him to say.

"You're too stubborn to take no for an answer," Jimmy said with an awkward grin. "The only way to make sure you don't do something stupid and get hurt is to be there watching your back. Besides, Tomoki of the Three Tails told us that the Iron Lord's people haven't gone after your friends yet. If we hurry, we can get there and warn them to go into hiding before they're actually in any real danger."

I just stared at Jimmy for a moment before demanding, "Are you serious?" I half expected this to be some kind of joke.

However, he looked quite serious as he held up his hand and said, "Upon my honor as a former Boy Scout."

"Well, I can't question the honor of the Boy Scouts," I responded wryly. "So what now?"

"For the moment, I need you to wait here in your quarter while I go gather what we'll need," Jimmy told me. I gave him a suspicious look, thinking that this would be the perfect opportunity to get me to stay here while he went and reported what I was planning. He must have realized what I was thinking. "The first thing you learn as a Boy Scout is to be prepared. Trust me."

I hesitated a moment before nodding. "Just hurry."

Jimmy returned ten minutes later with a pack in hand which he set down in front of him. Then he held up a slender leather belt that had a sheathed dagger attached to it, a dagger with a silver looking hilt that looked somewhat feminine.

"I had intended to gift you with this when you completed your training," Jimmy told me, his expression almost solemn. "However, considering what we are about to attempt, I believe that it would be better than you were armed." He paused a moment to add, "I don't expect there to be any danger yet, but as I said, I like to be prepared."

Then Jimmy began to pull the dagger out of the sheath, but to my surprise, there continued to be more and more blade to come out, more than a sheath of that size could possibly hold. A moment later, he revealed that it was actually a full sized sword with a slender blade that looked almost delicate. However, I'd already learned that appearances could be quite deceptive.

I accepted the sword from Jimmy and then swung it through the air experimentally. It was so light and effortless with the blade reminding me a great deal of the practice sword I usually used. It also fit perfectly in my hand, almost as though made just for me.

"She is called Siffryn," Jimmy told me. "It means needle."

"Siffryn," I repeated, swinging it through the air again. "Thank you... I don't know what to say..."

"I just hope you never have cause to use her," Jimmy said quietly.

I just nodded and then carefully slit the sword into the sheath until it looked like nothing more than a dagger again. Then I abruptly started to laugh, commenting, "It's a grower, not a shower." Jimmy gave me a blank look which only made me giggle as I strapped the belt around my waist.

With that, Jimmy slung the pack over his shoulder to indicate he was ready and a second later, the two of us went to find a way to the way gate without being noticed. After all, Jimmy might have decided not to stop me from going but there were other people who wouldn't hesitate.

Part 21

Jimmy and I stepped out of the way and into a grassy clearing that was only about fifty feet across from one end to the other. The edges of the clearing were defined by a stone wall which I knew was actually to mark the boundary for this particular small realm. It was obvious that this realm was not one where people lived, but from the various stones and shimmers in the air, it seemed to be more of a crossroads of ways, almost like a much smaller and uninhabited version of the Crossroads.

I'd been a little surprised when Jimmy led me through the way that came here rather than the one that went to the Crossroads, until he pointed out that this was actually a much shorter route and that we could get to Earth and back in just a few hours. Making it a shorter trip was definitely a good idea as far as I was concerned.

"Impressive," I mused as I looked around me, seeing about a dozen way gates scattered about.

Off to one side, I could see circle of mushrooms on the ground with the air shimmering inside of it. A short distance away, there was an intricately carved wooden doorframe that also marked where one way gate was permanently fixed. There were other way gate markings as well, a stone arch, an obelisk, and even something with large stone blocks set up so that they looked like a miniature Stonehenge.

"How does anyone know where they go?" I asked. "There aren't any signs."

"You either know or you don't," Jimmy answered, sounding almost like Corwin for the moment. Then he smiled faintly and added, "If you use your magic, you can sometimes reach through the way and get a sense of where the other end goes."

"Okay," I responded, deciding that I wanted to try that myself. I went to the nearest way gate, the one in the middle of the circle of mushrooms.

"No," Jimmy exclaimed, grabbing my shoulder. "Don't go that way. You NEVER want to go that way..."

"Why not?" I asked curiously.

"Because," Jimmy told me with a look of disgust. "That way goes straight to the Bog of Eternal Stench." Then he gestured for me to follow him to a way gate that was marked by what appeared to be a ceramic disk set into the ground. "We go this way. This way goes to North America. Of course, I don't know exactly where we need to go so you'll have to be the one to set the other end."

Jimmy spent the next ten minutes instructing me on how to connect with a way so that I could sense the other end and even move it when it wasn't fixed. I held my hand to the way and let my magic connect to it and stretched my mind, carefully picturing where I wanted to go and directing the other end to connect there. Only once Jimmy was certain that I'd done this did we actually step through the shimmer and into the way.

The path of this way looked like a very long rope bridge that hung above a thick fog. It was really no stranger than any of the other ways I'd been on so far, but as I walked across the bridge and looked over the edge, I couldn't help but feeling acrophobic. I knew it was silly because this was all illusion, the same as the other ways had been, but it still made me feel like I was very high up.

"Don't go over the edge," Jimmy told me unnecessarily as we walked down the bridge. "Most stable ways prevent you from accidentally going through the boundaries but these unstable ones can be a little less...stable." He grinned at me and added, "Sometimes, if you go off the path you might accidentally leave the way through the side and end up lost in the void forever. It doesn't happen often but it has been known to happen."

"Great," I muttered, making sure not to lean over the edge of the bridge again.

We reached the other side of the bridge in just half an hour and then stepped through the other way gate that awaited us. A moment later, I found myself standing in the middle of some kind of garden. There was a pond with fish swimming around in it and all sorts of bushes and flowers. All of this was surrounded by a wooden fence that was partially hidden by the brush and flowers.

"This isn't where I wanted to go," I said in surprise. However, a moment later I realized exactly where I was. "We're in Mrs. Sune's back yard..."

"What?" Jimmy asked.

"This was where Tomoki lived when she was watching me," I explained.

Jimmy nodded then said, "That explains it." He pointed to a small boulder behind us that was carved with some sort of Japanese symbol. "This is a way anchor set to the way we just used." At my blank look, he continued, "If that way was opened anywhere near here, this anchor would grab hold of it. It makes the way much more stable and easier to set."

"At least we're close," I pointed out, glancing to the fence and knowing that my own back yard was on the other side.

I stood there for a moment, feeling caught in a swirl of mixed emotions. I was right next door to the house where I'd grown up, the house that I never expected to see again. I was about to go see the friends whom I'd never expected to see again either. However, I was definitely not the same person that they knew and that was more than just physical. I was actually afraid of seeing Benji and Heather...or at least of them seeing me.

"You don't need to tell them who you are," Jimmy reminded me, apparently guessing what I was thinking. "In fact, it might be best you don't. The less they know, the less likely the Ring of Silence would be interested in them."

Then Jimmy set the pack down and opened it up. To my surprise, the first thing he pulled out where my shoes, the ones that I'd been wearing when I first transformed. Those were followed by the rest of my old boy clothes, ones that I hadn't seen since.

"These have been altered to fit your true form," Jimmy told me, looking a little embarrassed. "I don't know what the current fashion is in this world but thought that these might stand out less." He hesitated a moment before saying, "Tomoki did say that the women on Earth dressed like boys now..."

I looked down at myself and the dark green dress I was wearing and nodded. "I'd probably fit in better with those," I admitted, then reached up and ran a hand through my hair. "But I'd still stand out...and so would you."

Jimmy deflated in disappointment, almost looking like a puppy who'd just been yelled at. "I hadn't considered that."

"Don't worry about it," I told him with a grin, gesturing to my old house next door. "We can both get changed there. I've got stuff that will fit you no problem and we can both get hats to hide our hair."

Jimmy quickly agreed with me and we began making our way around to my house. I knew that we wouldn't really need those clothes for very long but it would make it easier to walk down the street to Benji's house without getting stared at. Of course, I also realized that this would probably be my one and only chance to grab some things that I wanted to take with me.

We went around to the back yard where a spare key was hidden underneath a rock, but once we stepped around the corner, I froze with a gasp of surprise. Benji was in my back yard, staring at me and Jimmy with his mouth open. Then he glared at me more than a little suspiciously.

"YOU," Benji exclaimed, coming walking straight at us with a look of determination on his face. "You're that woman Shane was always painting..."

"What?" I blinked in confusion before realizing what I meant. I had a strong resemblance to my mother so he thought I was her, even though he'd never seen her other than in my paintings.

"You're part of Shane and his family disappearing," Benji accused us, his body language suggesting that he was about to try jumping us. "Where the hell are they?"

Jimmy suddenly stepped forward, drying his sword so fast that I barely even saw it. Benji froze and took several nervous steps back, glaring at us both with an expression of mixed fear and anger.

"No," I told Jimmy, afraid he was going to hurt Benji. "Don't hurt him... Put that thing away..."

Jimmy looked to Benji and then did as I told him, looking embarrassed. "I'm sorry," he told me. "I thought he was about to attack you."

"Who the fuck are you?" Benji demanded, no longer coming towards us.

"I'm...," I started but then paused to gulp uncomfortably. "I'm called Aeslyn." Then I held my hands out to show that I wasn't a threat. "Relax Benji... We can talk inside."

"What?" Benji gasped in surprise. "How'd you know my name?" Instead of answering, I went to the rock near the back door and removed the hidden key from beneath it, earning another gasp from Benji. "How'd you know that was there?" When I began unlocking the door, he exclaimed, "You can't just break in..."

"I'm not breaking in," I pointed out, holding up the key. "Besides, they won't mind that I'm here."

Jimmy went into the house ahead of me while Benji hesitated for several seconds, looking as though he was caught between coming in and perhaps getting some answers or running to call the police on us. After shaking his head, he reluctantly came into the house.

I went to the kitchen and glanced around, realizing that most of the food in the fridge would have gone bad by now. However, there were still some soda's in the door so I grabbed a couple Cokes, enough for each of us. Benji just watched me with a look of confusion.

"I haven't had one of these in...," Jimmy started, then paused to give me a wry smile. "In a very long time."

A minute later, I was sitting comfortably in the living room and gesturing for Jimmy and Benji to sit as well. Neither of them seemed inclined to, with Jimmy wanting to take his position at the edge of the room as a bodyguard while Benji just wanted to stand back and glare at me suspiciously. I finally got them both to sit, but that didn't get Benji to relax.

"At least tell me if Shane's alive," Benji demanded.

I glanced at Jimmy before letting out a long sigh. "He's alive...sort of." I winced and added, "It’s complicated..."

Benji jumped back to his feet, looking as though he was thinking of coming at me. Jimmy gave the appearance of looking casual and relaxed but I could tell that he was ready to jump to my defense the moment Benji actually made a threatening move.

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Benji snarled. "And what the hell are you two?"

"Okay, I'll give you the truth," I responded with a sigh. "The full truth..."

"But the Ring of Silence," Jimmy protested.

"They don't know about Benji and Heather and they won't find out as long as we all keep it down low." I gave Benji a steady look, letting my eyes shift for a moment so he gasped in surprise. "It won't put them in any more danger than they already are and they deserve to know what's going on."

"As you wish," Jimmy responded in a neutral tone.

"I came here to talk to you," I told Benji. "I needed to warn you..." Then I paused and took a deep breath. "But not yet... I don't think I'll be able to say this twice so I need to get Heather here so I can tell you both at once."

"How do you know about Heather?" Benji demanded, trying to give me his version of 'the look' though it didn't have much effect on me. "How do you know about any of this?"

"Call Heather and have her come over and I'll answer those questions," I pointed out. Then when he hesitated, I recited her phone number, much to his surprise. There was no way she'd recognize my voice now, but at least she'd know Benji and would probably come if he asked. "And don't try calling the police instead or we'll have to leave before we can answer your questions." Benji gave me a dirty glare that suggested I'd guessed his plan.

Benji called Heather a minute later and kept giving me suspicious looks while talking to her. "There are some people over at Shane's house who say they know what happened to him," he told her awkwardly. "But they say they'll only talk to us..."

After Benji was done with the phone call, we sat in silence for several minutes while waiting for Heather to come. Benji just kept staring at me suspiciously, making me feel self-conscious and guilty. Then he finally said, "You look a lot like Shane's paintings..."

"That's not me," I responded quietly. "Those paintings are of my mother."

Jimmy frowned for a moment and asked, "What are these paintings you mention?"

I hesitated a moment before standing up and saying, "Back here..."

I led Jimmy back to my bedroom and gestured to the paintings I'd done of my mother. He looked around the room, making no comment about the mess. Then he looked at the paintings for nearly a minute before nodding.

"A very good likeness of the lady," he told me. "You have skill with the brush."

"Thanks," I responded with a blush, taking another look at my room before leaving. "I think I'll want to grab my paint supplies before we go back..."

It was obvious that Benji was getting more and more confused with every minute. I suspected that if Heather didn't arrive soon, he'd start demanding answers again and maybe even threaten to call the police. I wanted to explain what was going on and who I was, even as I dreaded it at the same time. I hadn't been joking when I'd said that I probably wouldn't be able to bring myself to do this twice. The thought of doing it even once had my emotions all in a knot.

When Heather arrived, she came in and stared at me and Jimmy with her mouth open before finally blurting out, "Is this some sort of Lord of the Rings thing?"

"They think they’re elves," Benji told her.

Jimmy stiffened at that and protested, "I'm no elf... I'm sidhe... We both are."

Benji just gave Heather a knowing look, one that suggested that we were crazy and that they should humor us. I watched Heather as well, feeling extremely self-conscious as I did so. The last time I'd seen her I had been her boyfriend, but now, I was a girl the same as her.

"I'm called Aeslyn," I said to break the ice.

"And what's your name?" Benji demanded of Jimmy, not seeming to notice the way Jimmy had frozen and was scowling back. "Legolas?"

I put a hand up to stop Jimmy from doing anything rash and then explained to Benji, "Actually, asking a faerie their name is considered extremely rude... It's sort of like asking them for their social security number, bank account number, and the passwords for their e-mail and Facebook page all at once."

"I am called Jimmy," Jimmy said, putting emphasis on the word 'called'.

"Whatever you call yourselves," Heather said, holding up her cell phone, "I'm about to call the police..."

"If you do that," I told her, "I won't be able to tell you what happened to Shane." She froze at that and lowered her cell phone, staring at me suspiciously. "That is the reason I came here."

"Then start talking," Benji ordered, now being more confident and aggressive since Heather was present and he was no longer outnumbered.

"To start with," I said carefully, "You won't believe the truth. Neither of you will."

"Let me guess," Heather said, her eyes locked on me suspiciously. "We have to believe in magic and faerie tales..."

I hesitated a moment before nodding. "Pretty much."

Heather raised her cell phone again and told Benji, "These weirdos don't know anything... If they do, the police can get it from them."

"And what would the police say if they knew that you'd shoplifted that movie last month?" I asked her.

Heather froze and stared at me, obviously wondering how I knew that. I remembered that she'd stolen the DVD on a dare from one of her friends and that she'd felt guilty about it afterwards. I'd only found out about this after it had happened and knew that she was embarrassed to have done something like that.

"How did you know about that?" Heather demanded, looking nervous.

"Let me prove that I'm not full of it," I said gently, holding my hands out to show that I was no threat. "Give me a chance to prove that magic does exist and then I can tell you everything you want to know."

Benji and Heather gave each other a look before nodding for me to continue. I frowned for a moment, wondering how I was going to prove that magic really existed. Then I decided to start with something simple. I shifted my eyes into their glowing full moon mode, earning a gasp of surprise from Heather.

"Nice contacts," she said a moment later.

I kept my eyes like that and decided to try something else. I didn't have very much power and couldn't do much with the little magic that I did have, but I did have one trick that I could do besides just blinding them. My sigil began to glow on my palm and I held my hand up so they could see it. A moment later, a ball of light formed in my hand, providing enough light that I would easily be able to light up a dark room. This was just another form of illusion but one of the few that I could actually use.

"Cool trick," Benji said, still looking skeptical.

"A little help here?" I asked Jimmy with a sigh.

"I think you're doing fine," Jimmy replied with a faint smile.

I frowned and then reached for Siffryn on my belt. I'd been pretty impressed by how a full sized sword could so easily fit into a dagger sized sheath so I demonstrated that one by drawing the sword. Both Heather and Benji looked a little impressed but I could tell this wasn't enough. For all they knew, I was pulling some kind of stage magic trick. I was definitely going to need something bigger, something that they couldn't deny.

After a moment, I removed my special piece of jewelry from my left arm and held it up in sphere form so they could see what it had become. Then I placed it against my neck and let it reform into a necklace. Of course, there was one thing I could do that was even bigger and more impressive, one thing that they couldn't excuse as some sort of silly trick or illusion.

"Every faerie has a demesne," I said carefully, remembering my own lessons on this subject from such a short time ago. Jimmy immediately started watching me with greater interest. "It's like a pocket dimension that only they have access to, a place that's their own private sanctuary where they can be safe and comfortable."

"At least that's original," Benji responded with a snort.

A faint smile formed on my lips as I considered their reactions and then I reached out with my power and grabbed for my demesne. I hadn't yet bound it to any specific place since I wasn't sure if I'd be staying in my quarters or not. That meant I could still open it here though it also took a lot of effort. After a few seconds, the air began to shimmer in front of me.

"My demesne is through here," I said, gesturing to the shimmer. Then I reached my arm through where it appeared to vanish from their perspective, only to pull it back out a moment later as proof that this wasn't harmful. "Come with me please."

I stepped through the shimmer and into my demesne, confident that Benji and Heather were sure to come. After all, they were both too curious to just ignore this, just as they were both too curious to ignore the chance that I could tell them about what was going on. As I expected, they both stepped through the shimmering door and into my demesne with Jimmy coming close behind.

Benji and Heather both stood there with their mouths open, looking around as though they couldn't believe that with one step they'd gone from being in the middle of the living room to here. Of course, my demesne didn't really look all that impressive on the inside but that wasn't the point. The point was that in coming here like this, they'd been given all the proof they needed that magic existed. I just let them absorb that for a minute.

"So this is your demesne," Jimmy commented, looking around curiously. I just blushed a little, feeling self-conscious about my demesne.

My demesne was currently decorated to look a great deal like my bedroom, a place that I found familiar and comfortable. Not the one in the Court of the Morning Light but the one from the house where I'd grown up. It had off white walls and ceiling and was filled with copies of the furniture and decorations from my old room. Thanks to the nature of the demesne, all of it seemed perfectly solid and real in spite of it just being a very powerful illusion. The biggest differences between my demesne and my real bedroom was the fact that the copy was a bit larger and where my real bedroom had a closet, this one had a doorway that went to a large walk in closet and a small living room that was modeled off the one we'd just left.

"Holy shit," Benji finally exclaimed. "It's real... Magic is real..."

"Yeah," Heather agreed with a gulp. "But I think you're missing the point."

"What point is that?" Benji asked.

Heather turned to stare at me with a suspicious look and demanded, "Why does your private sanctuary look like Shane's bedroom?"

Benji snapped around to stare at me with a very similar expression, "Yeah, why is that?"

I suddenly felt weak in the knees and had a hard time standing straight. I slowly sat down on the edge of my bed and let out a long sigh, knowing that this would be easy compared to that conversation with my mom and dad.

"Because," I said quietly, unable to meet their eyes. "I am... I WAS Shane..."

Part 22

The inside of a faerie's demesne was supposed to be their sanctuary, a place where they could always feel calm and secure. At the moment, the atmosphere inside of my demesne was tense and awkward. Instead of being my sanctuary, it almost felt like a place where I was trapped.

I sat on the edge of my bed while Benji and Heather sat a few feet away, both of them staring at me with expressions of stunned amazement. I had just told them who I was a short time ago and had then explained what was really going on. Of course, I'd already convinced them that magic was real but I still had to prove that I was who I said I was, leading to a game of twenty questions where I told them things that would convince them that I actually was Shane. The entire time, Jimmy had watched with a faintly disapproving expression because I was clearly violating the old treaty by revealing too much to humans.

"I can't believe it," Heather whispered, staring at me intently. "You can't be Shane..." I didn't say anything since I'd already proven my identity and she was just trying to absorb it. "I can't believe you turned into a girl."

"Actually," I corrected her quietly, giving a wry smile. "I only turned back into a girl. It was a bit of a shock for me to find out that I was actually born female...not to mention that I'm not even human."

"Then while we were dating..." Heather started, giving me an odd look.

"I had absolutely no idea about any of this," I told her honestly. "And yes, I did like girls... In fact, I think I still do..." However, my eyes quickly darted to Benji who was staring at my chest and then to Jimmy.

Heather hesitated a moment, looking extremely uncomfortable before telling me, "But I don't..."

"I know," I responded quietly, giving her a weak smile. "I've known that anything between us was over since the minute I changed." I let out a sigh and shook my head before admitting, "To be honest, I never expected to see you again... Either of you." I looked to Benji as I added that last.

Benji just stared at me and then glanced at Jimmy before saying, "These Ring of Silence people you mentioned..."

I shrugged and told him, "Don't spread it around that faeries are real and they won't even know you exist."

"It's the other ones you should be worried about," Jimmy commented. "Keep a close watch for anything unusual. Stay in public places and crowds if you have any suspicions that you are being followed. No faerie will risk drawing notice and bringing the wrath of the Ring of Silence down on them." Then he hesitated a moment before reluctantly adding, "And carry iron. Kitchen knives should work fine. Any faerie will be very hesitant to get near you if they know you have iron weapons."

"I wish we could do more," I told my friends, feeling guilty for getting them involved in this at all. Just the very fact that they knew me had been enough to put them in danger.

I stood up and absently straightened out my dress, noticing that my friends were watching me curiously as I did so. This only made me feel even more self-conscious than before though I tried hard not to show it.

"We've delivered your warning," Jimmy told me, giving me an odd look. "There isn't any more we can do here. We shouldn't remain here any longer. If we do, you'll be putting yourself at unnecessary risk."

I just reluctantly nodded at that as I left my demesne. The others all followed with Heather and Benji both sneaking looks at me. Benji was especially giving me curious looks, obviously having a hard time believing that I was his old best friend. And more than that, now that I was longer a potential threat, he was starting to give me noticeable looks of admiration that made me blush.

Once everyone was out of my demesne, I was about to close it when I remembered something. "I probably won't be able to come back here again." I was sad as I considered that fact, that my new life didn't mesh well with my old one. "I suppose I should take everything I want to keep..." I looked towards my old bedroom, knowing that it would be easier to just move everything I wanted to bring with into my demesne. "I don't think there will be very much though."

I went to my old bedroom and looked around, trying to think of what I might need or even want. As I expected, there wasn't a whole lot that I could still use, other than my painting supplies. I gathered up my painting supplies and a few other things I decided to keep and moved them into my demesne where they would be safely stored. Then I closed my demesne and let out a sigh.

"I think I've got everything," I told Jimmy, whom I noticed was staring at some of the photos hanging on the wall. Specifically, he was staring at a picture of me...of the old me.

Jimmy turned and gave me an odd look, one that seemed just a little awkward. "I knew your changeling form was male," he said carefully. "I knew that you group up as a boy...but I could never really picture it before now."

I just nodded at that, realizing exactly how Jimmy felt. When I found out how old he really was, I'd felt awkward and uncomfortable with him, not sure what I should think or feel about him. Now he was realizing that I hadn't just spent my previous life in male form, but that for all intents and purposes I truly had been male. Jimmy was having to reevaluate his view of who I really was and I certainly wasn't in a position to begrudge him his right to feel uncomfortable with me because of it.

"We should get going," I said sadly. But at least this time, I could say goodbye to my friends.

But to my surprise, Heather exclaimed, "Oh no you don't." I turned to look at her and she was standing there with her hands on her hips, giving me a determined look. "You can't leave until I at least get to know you a little as a girl."

Benji nodded in agreement and said, "Shane...I mean Aeslyn... I know you're a girl now and I can't even imagine what that's like... But we've been best friends since forever and I don't want to just end our friendship because of that... I know this is some really weird shit but I'm your friend and not even some magic sex change is going to change that. Come on, give me a chance to at least try getting to know the new you..."

"I...I don't know what to say," I responded uncertainly, feeling moved by their insistence on staying friends.

"Don't say anything," Heather told me. "We can talk about it at the mall while we have a little girl bonding time..."

"What?" I blinked in confusion.

Heather just grinned. "You might not be my boyfriend anymore but that doesn't mean you can't be my best girlfriend."

"Hey," Benji protested. "What about me? I wanted to spend some time with her too you know..."

"Fine," Heather responded with a roll of her eyes. "You can come too."

"And I suppose I'll be driving," I said, looking at Benji and Heather, neither of whom had a car.

I could tell from Jimmy's expression that he didn't think this was a good idea but he didn't actually say anything against it. I honestly wasn't sure what I would have done if he'd spoken up and insisted we go back immediately, though I suspect that I probably would have stayed anyway.

Since I certainly couldn't go out in public as I was, I grabbed the clothes Jimmy had brought with and then went into my bedroom to change. My old clothes fit perfectly, much to my surprise. Whatever magic had been used to adjust them to my new body had worked perfectly. However, I couldn't help but feeling a little awkward in those clothes, as though they were no longer appropriate even if they did fit. I finished it all off by grabbing a hoodie that I could use to hide my silvery white hair and pointed ears.

"So how do I look?" I asked when I came back out.

"I know that shirt," Benji responded, a little surprised that my old clothes fit me so well. "You look totally hot..." Then he paused to blush which only made me blush as well.

Instead of responding to Benji, I turned my attention to Jimmy. "You can wear some of my old clothes so you don't stand out..."

However, Jimmy just gave a smug grin and said, "I have another solution."

He closed his eyes and stood there for a moment with a look of intense concentration. I felt the familiar tingle that told me that magic was being used in my presence and a moment later, Jimmy began to shimmer. A second later, Jimmy's hair looked reddish brown instead of copper, his ears looked round instead of pointed, and most importantly, he looked like was wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Of course, this was all illusion and he was still exactly the same beneath it.

"I'm not very good at glamour," Jimmy told me. "This is the extent of my abilities."

"A lot more than I can do," I muttered jealously.

Then I looked at the clock, feeling a little nervous but silently telling myself that we'd make this quick. After all, going out with Benji and Heather might not be the smartest thing but this was likely the last time I would ever be able to hang out with them again. In fact, it might very well be the last time I ever saw either of them again so I owed it to them and myself to at least have this final time together.

After this, I folded my dress and put it into Jimmy's pack and then strapped the belt with Siffryn around my waist, hiding it beneath my hoodie. A few seconds later, I grabbed my car keys and went out to the clunker that was sitting in the driveway. Jimmy hesitated, staring at the car nervously.

"What's the matter?" Benji asked him, looking a little smug. "Never seen a car before?"

"Oh, I've seen cars before," Jimmy told him grimly. "This is just a lot of iron is all..."

"Oh," I responded, suddenly feeling bad. "I didn't think..."

As far as Jimmy was concerned, this whole car might as well be made of Kryptonite. In fact, that very same thing applied to me as well. We were both changelings and had increased tolerance to iron, but in the end it was still potentially dangerous to us both. This was a very clear reminder as to why faerie had abandoned Earth for the realms in the first place.

"We should be fine as long as we're careful," Jimmy told me, still obviously worried about the car. "All of the iron is covered with paint and we won't be touching any of the metal inside." As soon as he touched the passenger side door, his image flickered and the glamour vanished. "Iron disrupts magic," he explained to Benji and Heather who'd gasped in surprise.

The trip to the mall was a little awkward, especially since I couldn't help but thinking that I was surrounded by the same substance that had put my father into a coma. In fact, it suddenly dawned on me that something as simple as stepping on a nail might now be lethal to me. I wasn't sure how much protection I gained from being a human changeling but I certainly wasn't about to test it. It was obvious that Jimmy felt the same. Once we reached the mall, Jimmy and I both climbed out of the car with simultaneous sighs of relief and a few seconds later, he was hidden by his glamour again.

Once we were inside the mall, Jimmy was looking around intently, obviously taking in all the sights. It had been decades since he'd last been on Earth, perhaps even before my mom and dad had been born, so I could only imagine how much everything had changed in that time. I grinned and decided that I would definitely have to tell him about some of the changes once we got back home.

"We don't have time to be at this for too long," I warned my friends.

"Then we'd better make the best of it," Heather exclaimed. "Come on..." She grabbed my hand and pulled me towards a clothing store that she liked. In fact, it was one of the stores I'd been forced to suffer through on my last trip to the mall several weeks ago, the day before my entire world changed.

Heather went through looking for clothes that she wanted me to try on, and though I was reluctant at first, I soon realized that this was an opportunity. Ever since my change, I hadn't really been able to pick out my own clothes or my own style. I'd been provided with a number of dresses that I could pick between, but that just wasn't the same as being able to actually pick out what I wanted to wear.

I tried on a pair of tight jeans, the kind I'd always thought looked good on girls and then I tried on several nice blouses. Heather seemed amused by my wearing those, but after having spent the last few weeks wearing almost nothing but dresses, girl clothes were no longer anything for me to feel embarrassed by.

After we'd gone through all the clothes, I gestured down at the dark blue dress I was currently wearing and told Heather, "I think I like this the best."

"The dress?" she asked in surprise. "I thought you would have preferred jeans and a t-shirt..."

I just smiled faintly as I ran my hands down the dress. "This just feels more comfortable for some reason. Besides, I've kind of gotten used to wearing dresses."

Heather just stared at me with a surprised look and I suspected that one of the reasons she'd wanted me to come shopping with her was so that she could have some fun embarrassing me by having me wear girl clothes. I was almost sorry to disappoint her and thought that maybe I should act a little more embarrassed for her benefit.

"Fine," Heather muttered with a look of disappointment.

I went back into the changing room and took off the dress, musing that it may have been more comfortable than the other clothes I'd just been trying on, but it wasn't nearly as nice as the dresses that I normally wore. After all, the ones I'd been given in the Court of the Morning light were much softer and silkier, not to mention they were a bit nicer overall.

Once I was changed back into my modified boy clothes, Heather and I went back to the boys who were sitting back and impatiently waiting for us. As I approached, I heard Benji telling Jimmy about cell phones while Jimmy listened in fascination.

"Phones you can use without any wires," Jimmy mused with a shake of his head. "And no magic is involved. Things certainly have changed since I was last here... You'll have to tell me more about these computers..."

"Next, we'll get you some lingerie," Heather told me. "I noticed that you don't have a bra and you really need one..."

I frowned slightly, realizing that absolutely none of the faerie women I knew wore bras or even seemed to need them. It may have been because faerie have built in support and don't sag, but there could have been some cultural reasons as well. So far, I hadn't seemed to have needed anything of the sort myself so hadn't given it a whole lot of thought.

"That might be interesting," I told Heather. "But unfortunately, we don't have time for that... I really wish we did."

Jimmy nodded with a faint look of relief. "We can't stay here much longer. It's too dangerous for Aeslyn to remain where enemies might track her down."

Benji and Heather both looked a little surprised at that, perhaps having forgotten what I'd told them about how I came to be here. Of course, I'd much rather remain here for more than a few hours but I had a feeling that I was going to be in enough trouble with my mother as it was. In fact, I was beginning to fear that if I stayed much longer, Shyla might very well show up with a bunch of guards to escort me home.

"But we still haven't checked out the jewelry or given you a makeover," Heather protested.

"Or played baseball," Benji added with a roll of his eyes.

"Maybe next time," I offered weakly, knowing that there would likely never be a next time.

We began walking back across the mall towards where I'd left my car, neither Heather or I having bought anything. She was obviously disappointed that the great shopping trip she'd envisioned had been cut short while Benji looked frustrated that he hadn't been able to do anything but talk with Jimmy. I only felt guilty for not being able to give either of them the time we'd need to convince them that I really was still their friend.

When we neared the door, I noticed the assholes Eddie and Guy standing off to the side. I scowled as I thought of my last encounter with them but that turned into a snicker as I remembered what Bibi had done. I couldn't help but wondering how she was doing and if I'd ever see her again.

"Those guys again," I muttered to Heather. She glanced at them and winced, obviously remembering our last encounter as well as I did.

Guy saw us and was glaring at Heather, however, the presence of both Jimmy and Benji seemed enough to make them keep their distance. Unfortunately, I was well aware that my own appearance would only have made me a target of their unwanted attention, much the way Heather had been last time. I was just thankful that they were smart enough to stay back and leave us alone because I had no doubt that Jimmy would clean the floor with both of them. Eddie and Guy might be assholes but that didn't mean they deserved to be cut in half with a sword.

In the parking lot, Jimmy's illusion flickered a little due to the presence of so much iron nearby but it didn't actually break until he touched the car. I could tell he was still nervous about the presence of so much of the poisonous metal but he was doing a good job of toughing it out and pretending it didn't bother him. I still found it hard to believe that the same metal I'd had harmless contact with countless times could actually hurt me, but memories of my father reminded me not to take it for granted.

"You know...Aeslyn," Benji said, climbing into the car and giving me a steady look. "It's still hard to believe that you're Shane... I mean, that you used to be Shane..." He paused to shake his head, looking self-conscious as he added, "I don't know if I can ever really get used to the idea but I'm glad you came back to tell me."

"Me too," I told him honestly, glancing at Heather as well. "Me too."

Part 23

I climbed out of my car and stared at my old home, feeling sad as I did so. I was about to leave again and might never be able to return. Then again, once things settled down with the Iron Lord, that might very well change. In the future, I might even be able to come back for visits.

"At least I can tell my mom and dad that the house didn't burn down," I muttered. Of course, once I went back and told them that everything here was fine, I had little doubt that they'd decide it was safe to return. "I'm sure they'll be back to check on it real soon..."

"Hey, can't I come with you?" Benji abruptly asked with an eager grin. "It would be awesome to see this weird faerie land..."

"Out of the question," Jimmy responded immediately. He quickly glanced at me before explaining, "That would be certain to draw the attention of the Ring of Silence."

Benji just glared at Jimmy for a moment before muttering, "Damn."

Heather just gave me an odd look, showing no signs that she was disappointed about not being able to come. However, when she saw me looking back, she did blush brightly. "I can't believe my boyfriend is a prettier girl than I am," she admitted. "This is just so weird..."

"Imagine it from my side," I told her wryly.

Suddenly, Jimmy snarled, "Aelberon's balls," and drew his sword in one unbelievably fast move.

I immediately snapped around and saw what had set Jimmy off. Crouching down near Mrs. Sune's garden was a three foot tall man with muddy brown skin and ragged looking clothes. I grimaced and gasped, "Oh sh... It's a goblin..."

The goblin realized it had been seen and stood up straight and stepped forward, holding a nasty looking short sword. Benji was staring at it in surprise while Heather looked afraid and slipped behind him, almost as though planning to use him as some sort of shield.

I shifted my eyes and realized that I could see several more silvery auras nearby. There were more goblins who were hidden by illusion so that they blended right into the surroundings and were nearly invisible. I could only guess that the one we did see wasn't very good at it.

"There are more of them," I said, looking around nervously and drawing Siffryn.

Since the goblins saw that they couldn't hide from me, they dropped their illusions and began to advance. Soon there were nearly a dozen of the small men, each of which was armed with a spear or short sword. I gulped, growing more afraid but refusing to show it. I tried to remember everything that Shyla and Jimmy had taught me about using a sword, regretting that we hadn't gotten to lessons about fighting multiple opponents at once.

"I thought goblins were supposed to be green," Benji exclaimed, looking more curious than afraid.

"Only in video games and movies," I told him. Truthfully, I had no idea if there were green goblins or not and Jimmy didn't look like he was going to add to the conversation.

"Damn," Benji suddenly started laughing. "They look like fucking Oompa Loompas..."

I just grinned at that and responded, "Hey...one of my closest friends is an Oompa Loompa..."

"Get back," Jimmy ordered me firmly, his eyes locked on the approaching goblins. There was no sign of the rookie bodyguard who'd been trying so hard to prove that he could do the job professionally. Instead, there was only a deadly seriousness that I'd never before seen in him. "Behind the car."

Benji and Heather went behind the car while I hesitated, wanting to help. After all, wasn't that the entire reason I'd been taking those self-defense classes with Shyla and Jimmy? However, he gave me a quick glare and told me to get back again. I grimaced and did as he asked, backing up and getting the car between me and the goblins.

The goblins were still approaching cautiously, almost as if each one was waiting for one of the others to make the first move. Then one of the goblins abruptly threw his spear though Jimmy knocked it out of the air with his sword, appearing to do so with ease. However, that first spear seemed to be all the goblins needed before they all began to attack.

"Holy shit," Benji exclaimed, echoing my thoughts.

I watched Jimmy with a scowl, feeling that I should be there helping him rather than standing back and trying to hide. Of course, that was absolutely the last thing he wanted. After all, it was his job to protect me and he'd be pretty pissed at me if I didn't let him do that.

None of the goblins said anything but they let out a strange battle cry. Three of the goblins surrounded Jimmy and whenever he tried blocking the one in front of him, the ones on his side would then attack. He was lashing back and forth, trying to work around their coordinated attack. Two other goblins stood back, waiting to join in if there was an opening. However, not all of the goblins were focused on Jimmy and the remaining ones began to go around the car and come at us from both sides.

I lashed out with Siffryn, snarling, "Come and get me..."

"The Iron Lord wants this one alive," one of the goblins reminded the others, glaring at me.

"This can't be real," Heather exclaimed in growing terror.

Benji, Heather and I were backing away from the car, knowing that if we stayed where we were we'd be pinned. As it was, our only chance was to avoid being surrounded and to run. It was then that Jimmy yelled out, "Run," and came rushing towards us, kicking one goblin out of his way while impaling another with his sword.

"We have to get to the anchor," Jimmy yelled as he caught up to us, turning to slash at another goblin and then yank the spear from the tiny opponent's hands.

"Easier said than done," I responded, stopping to block a goblin who was trying to slash at my legs with his short sword. He was fast but I had a longer reach so he couldn't quite get past my blade. I was suddenly thankful for all the practice that Jimmy and Shyla had put me through. "We're running in the opposite direction and we have to get past these goblins."

Two other goblins were already starting to close in and encircle me much as they had with Jimmy a minute ago. However, before they all got in place I was able to get past the guard of the first goblin and run Siffryn through his chest. I pulled Siffryn out, gasping in shock and even a bit of horror at what I'd done. I'd just killed someone. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to stop and dwell on what I'd done, though perhaps that might have been a good thing.

"Watch your eyes," I called out to my friends, holding out my hand and then calling what little magic I could so that there was a bright flash of light that blinded all the goblins near me.

I'd been told that goblins had great night vision but were a little sensitive to light which made this even more effective than it would have been otherwise. They began dropping their weapons and grabbing at their eyes, leaving them open for me to kick at the ones close to me and get away. Jimmy, on the other hand, was using the opportunity to slash at them and take them out more permanently, quickly killing four more of the goblins.

Benji took the opportunity to grab one of the spears dropped by a dead goblin and yelled out, "Come on you mother fucking midgets... Come and get me now..."

"This is a nightmare," Heather exclaimed, staring at the goblins with a look of shock. "This can't be happening..."

"Most of the goblins are clear," Jimmy said, giving me a nod of approval. "We can make it to the way gate..."

"Good," I muttered, thankful that there were only a few goblins left and they seemed more than happy to run off and leave us alone now.

Unfortunately, we'd barely started back in the direction we'd come from when I noticed something that made me really wish I could give a good 'oh shit'. There was a red cap coming from Mrs. Sune's yard...quickly followed by several more.

"Red caps," Jimmy stated unnecessarily. He glanced to me and then ordered, "RUN!"

We all turned and began running back the way we'd been previously been running, though this time we had a head start on our pursuers. Unfortunately, the red caps were a lot larger than the goblins and had much longer strides. It wouldn't take them long at all to catch up.

"My house is just up there," Benji exclaimed, pointing ahead of us.

Benji's house was just two more houses away so we arrived there quickly. Benji frantically scrambled with his key at the front door, muttering about how his parents weren't home at the moment. I just wished he'd hurry. Then we got in and locked the door behind us. Unfortunately, we didn't get time to take a breather as the front window suddenly burst in and a red cap with a large axe and a crimson fez climbed through.

Heather let out a loud scream while Jimmy immediately confronted the red cap. I backed off, knowing the other red caps would be arriving very soon. As it was, I prepared myself to use Siffryn on this red cap if I got an opening or on any of the others who came in.

Benji just snarled and threw the spear he'd taken from the goblin at the red cap, missing by over a foot. He cursed then rushed to his closet, pulling out his dad's golf clubs and saying, "Let's see how well you like a nine iron..."

"I don't think there's any real iron in that," I pointed out grimly.

"I can't believe we're being attacked by a monster with a fez," Heather half yelled, her eyes darting around frantically, looking as though she was about to completely panic at any moment.

"Hey," Benji responded with a forced grin. "Fezs are cool..." Then Benji threw the golf club at the red cap before turning and running towards the back of the house.

Jimmy drove his word into the red cap’s chest and snarled because even as that red cap fell to the ground dead, two more were climbing through the window and another was in the process of breaking down the front door. "Get iron," Jimmy ordered Heather and me. "Anything that can help."

Heather nodded and ran towards the kitchen while I snapped around and sliced off the arm of the red cap who'd just burst through the now destroyed front door. While he was staring at his bleeding stump in surprise, I send another slash towards his neck. The very sight made me want to empty my guts but I managed to keep control of myself.

Heather came rushing back into the room with a cast iron skillet held in one hand and a large kitchen knife in the other. Now that she was armed with iron, she no longer looked as though she was about to freak out. Instead, went behind the red cap that Jimmy was fighting and stabbed him in the back with the knife. The red cap let out a loud scream and staggered back while Jimmy took advantage of the opportunity to finish him off.

A moment later, Benji came back as well, holding a revolver style pistol in his hand, looking threatening. "Eat hot lead," he yelled, pulling the trigger but nothing happened. He paused and yelled, "Damn..." Jimmy glanced at Benji and then snatched the gun from his hand, much to Benji's protest. "That's my dad's..."

"You forgot the safety," Jimmy commented, turning and firing several shots right into the chest of the closest red cap.

"I didn't think elves used guns," Heather exclaimed, staring at Jimmy in surprise.

"I'm not an elf," he snapped at her before firing two more shots at another red cap who was trying to come through the window. "Besides, I used to go hunting with my foster father while growing up."

I just stared at Jimmy who held a sword in one hand and a gun in the other, looking the complete image of a sidhe badass. I couldn't help but feeling impressed and more than a little grateful than he was my bodyguard.

"Come on," Jimmy said, going to the front door with the gun pointed ahead of him. "We can't just summon the gate here because it would just latch onto the anchor... We'll have to make our way back there and hope they don't have it guarded."

I nodded, looking around the now destroyed living room and gasping as I saw that the first red cap we'd killed was now glowing. As I watched, his body faded away and vanished, leaving his clothes and weapons behind. The other red cap bodies were also starting to glow.

"They're disappearing," I exclaimed in surprise.

Jimmy barely glanced at them before nodded. "Faerie do that when we die. Our flesh isn't made of the same matter as humans."

Jimmy didn't say anything more as he left through the front door, firing two more shots at another red cap who'd been waiting outside to ambush us. He tried firing a third shot but the gun was now empty. Instead of seeming bothered by that, Jimmy threw the gun right at the red cap who'd been shot twice but was still standing. Of course, there was iron in the gun so I wondered if it would bruise extra hard if it hit. However, I wasn't going to find out as Jimmy charged him and disemboweled him with his sword.

"Holy shit," Benji exclaimed, staring at Jimmy in amazement. I suspect that my old best friend had just found a new hero.

Then Benji tried grabbing the red cap's axe, only to find that it was too heavy for him to make any use of. As it was, he could barely even lift it from the ground. Heather watched him with a smirk and then handed him the cast iron skillet which he accepted with a chagrinned look.

It was then that I noticed that Jimmy was walking with a slight limp and was bleeding from his thigh. I gasped, realizing from where he was bleeding that he must have been injured while fighting the goblins. Unfortunately, now wasn't a good time to stop and take care of his wound. From the look of grim determination on his face, I knew that he wasn't about to take a break.

Suddenly, a now familiar voice called out, "Now there ye are..."

"You," I blurted out, turning to stare at Jewel, the only female red cap that I've ever seen. She stood there with an axe in her hand and was glaring straight at me. She wasn't alone since there was another red cap standing beside her, a short and stocky one with a long scraggly beard and a nasty looking mace.

"The Iron Lord wants ye alive," Jewel exclaimed, her eyes never leaving me. "But ye bested me twice and I cannae have that... I'll soak me cap in yer blood yet..."

"You won't lay a finger on her," Jimmy announced firmly. "No one touches Aeslyn. NO ONE!"

"You talk too much," the stocky red cap snarled, suddenly charging at Jimmy. "DIE!"

Jewel took the opportunity to come at me with an almost crazed look on her face. Jimmy looked as though he was about to attack her but then he was forced to deal with the red cap who was after him. In a moment, they were swinging sword and mace back and forth leaving me to deal with Jewel on my own.

I used Siffryn to block her axe swing though she immediately swung again. I was amazed that the force of her blows didn't shatter my thin sword though they did drive me back more with each swing, closer and closer to the road. I was able to get past her defenses several times, enough to score small slashes on her arms and shoulder but not enough to do any real damage. In spite of her strength, she was pretty fast and obviously very determined.

"Why won't you just leave me alone?" I demanded angrily. "Why are you acting like I stole your boyfriend or something?"

"Ye've shamed me before me da," Jewel responded, swinging her axe at me furiously. "I'll not be having that..."

"Aeslyn," Benji called out, trying to charge Jewel with his cast iron skillet, at least until she swung her axe at him. He backed off, "Oh shit..."

"Ye'll not be making a fool of me again," Jewel snarled angrily. "I'll not be having me da thinking me soft and weak..."

By this point, Jewel had pushed me back until we were both standing in the middle of the road, a fact that I didn't really think of until a loud car horn went off. The car it came from shot right past, swerving to miss us and just barely avoiding contact with Jewel by about a foot before it slammed on the breaks and came to a halt.

Jewel dropped her axe as she jumped further away from the car with a loud yell of, "What the farching bloody hell is that?" She actually stared at the car with a look of shock and even fear.

"Several tons of iron," I snarled at her, earning an even bigger gasp of fear from her.

I took advantage of Jewel's distraction to launch myself at her, kicking her in the side as she was bending over to pick up her axe. She dropped it again as I slammed my knee in her face and then shoved her back. I felt guilty for fighting a girl like this, especially for fighting a girl with dirty tactics...but not much. Then I grimaced and drove Siffryn right into her shoulder, earning a gasp though Jewel refused to give me any more than that.

The driver of the car, a middle aged man, jumped out of the car and screamed, “What the hell is going on?”

He was frantically looking back and forth between where I was fighting with Jewel and where Jimmy was fighting with the other red cap. His eyes were wide in obvious shock and confusion.

“What the hell are you?” he demanded.

I didn’t have time to deal with that man and had to keep my attention focused on Jewel. She swung a wide punch at me, hitting me hard in the face. She was bigger than me, stronger than me, and a LOT more bloodthirsty than me. I couldn’t afford to hold back against her so kicked her leg and then rammed into her, knocking her to the ground. A moment later, I held Siffryn to her throat.

“I’m calling the police,” the driver yelled frantically.

“We’re just filming a movie,” Benji told the man. “We’re making a home movie…”

Of course, none of us had any cameras so the man looked more than a little skeptical. However, that was still the most believable explanation so he just climbed back into the car and tore off as fast as he could, probably happy to take any excuse to get away as fast as he could.

“Do it,” Jewel snarled at me, “I’ll not be pleading for me life…”

I just stared down her, thinking of how easy it would be to just push Siffryn down and end this thing with her once and for all. I was pissed off and more than half tempted to do it. However, it felt wrong to just kill someone who was unarmed and helpless, no matter how dangerous she’d been just a minute ago.

“No,” I whispered, standing up straight and backing away, kicking her axe away and keeping Siffryn up and ready.

“What are you doing?” Benji demanded. “She’s a monster…”

“Aeslyn,” Jimmy said, catching my attention. He’d just finished with his own opponent and was watching me. “Are you unharmed?”

“Yeah,” I responded, wincing as I knew that I’d have a nasty bruise on the side of my face where Jewel had punched me. However, it wouldn’t really be much worse than the bruises Jimmy had given me during training. “I’m fine.”

“Finish her so we can go,” Jimmy told me sadly.

I hesitated a moment before shaking my head. “I can’t…”

Jewel glared at me with her eyes going wide. “FINISH ME,” she ordered angrily, looking almost desperate. “Dinnae leave me shamed further…” Her eyes were almost pleading.

“No,” I said quietly. “You’re beat… You’re unarmed… I won’t kill you…”

“Then let’s go,” Jimmy told me, his expression making it clear that he thought that leaving her alive was a bad idea. “I think this is the last of them.”

We all started moving back towards my house, or specifically, Tomoki’s old house. I glanced back at Jewel but she was making no move to get back up much less come after me again. Instead, it almost looked like she was on her knees sobbing.

As we walked back down the street at a quick pace, I realized that our attempts to avoid notice had failed completely and utterly. Several neighbors had seem our fighting in the street and there were even several other cars that had gone past. I glanced to one house and saw someone on the other side of the window quickly darting back out of view.

“People were watching,” I said quietly, gulping with a cold dread as I considered what this would mean for everyone…especially Benji and Heather. “The Ring of Silence…”

“We have other problems at the moment,” Jimmy told me grimly, stopping me and pointing ahead.

Up ahead, I saw two creatures coming out from Mrs. Sune’s yard, two faerie who looked more than a little frightening. One of them was about seven feet tall, very lanky and seeming to be made of just skin and bone with pale white skin that looked like it belonged under some rock. It had long boney fingers with nails that looked almost like claws. This creature was completely naked without a stitch of clothes.

“Holy fucking shit,” Benji blurted out from beside me, putting voice to my own thoughts.

But as frightening as that first creature appeared, the second one was even more so. It didn’t even resemble a human in the least and instead resembled a giant black beetle about the size of a small car. I shifted my eyes and saw the silvery aura of faerie around both of these newcomers.

“Forget the anchor,” Jimmy said, grabbing me and pulling me in the other direction. “We get out of here NOW!”

Neither Benji, Heather or I offered any arguments at all as we all turned and hurried away as fast as we possibly could, hoping that we could get away before those creatures saw us. I had a feeling that things had just gotten worse than I’d ever imagined.

Part 24

I was in my demesne, my sanctuary from the problems of the world, feeling a little stunned since I never expected that I’d really be using it for that purpose. I was currently sitting on the edge of my bed while my friends were gathered around me, all of us silent as we considered our current situation.

First the goblins, then the red caps, and then those other things… After seeing all those faerie surrounding the anchor, we decided that it would be too dangerous to make another run for that way gate. Instead, we ran as far as we could.

We’d heard sirens in the distance, in the direction we’d just come from, a clear indication that someone had called the police. However, we wanted to avoid them nearly as much as we wanted to avoid the other faerie. And since faerie bodies took care of themselves, there would be little evidence left behind for the police to find, making them all the more confused and perhaps keeping the Ring of Silence from going after them.

While we were running, I saw two more faerie who were using illusion to hide themselves. Of course, they couldn’t hide themselves from me, not when I was using my special vision to look. Thanks to that, I saw them first and was able to get away before they had a chance to see us.

After several hours, we’d been too exhausted to keep moving so had decided to go someplace safe to rest and plan. Of course, my demesne had had been that place. I’d found an out of the place spot in an alley where no one, especially no snooping faerie, would be able to see the shimmer which would give it away.

Faerie have greater endurance than humans but even Jimmy and I were tired by this point. Benji and Heather were completely exhausted. I’d already used too much energy and didn’t have enough left to change my demesne and create some new beds so instead, the boys took the living room while us girls slept in my bed.

It had been strange sleeping next to Heather, though neither of us did anything other than sleep. She passed out as soon as she was lying down while I lay next to her for a good long time, just thinking about how at one time I would have killed to sleep with her.

Now we’d all had a good rest and were back to considering our next step. We still couldn’t go back to the anchor, not when the other faerie knew that it was our best way out of here. They’d be watching it closer than ever.

Heather held her cell phone in hand, scowling intently at it. “I can’t get any signal.”

“That’s because we’re in another dimension,” Benji reminded her. “Isn’t that right?” He looked to me and Jimmy for confirmation. After a moment, he abruptly asked, “Do you have one of these demesne things too?”

“Yes,” Jimmy responded. “But it is bound in place in the Court of the Crescent Moon.”

“I need to call my parents,” Heather said with a worried frown. “I need to tell them I’m all right…”

“Yeah,” Benji agreed. “My dad is gonna kill me when he sees the house…”

“By now, he’s already seen your house,” I pointed out quietly, feeling guilty for getting Benji and Heather involved.

“There is something else that I’m worried about,” Jimmy said grimly. When we all looked to him, he continued, “The Iron Lord’s people… They were operating in the open…in complete violation of the treaty. They were doing what every faerie has been desperately avoiding for centuries…giving our existence away to the humans.”

“Then the Ring of Silence will stop him for us,” I exclaimed with a grin. “All we have to do is wait for them to take care of him.”

Jimmy just shook his head with a scowl. “The Ring of Silence will try to silence everything… That means…” He paused for several very long seconds. “That means they will silence all of us… They may even silence every potential witness in a potential scorched Earth move. But there is more…”

“More than that?” Benji gasped in surprise.

“What worries me,” Jimmy pointed out quietly, “is the fact that the Iron Lord and his people don’t seem the least concerned about the treaty or the Ring of Silence.”

“Then what does that mean?” Heather asked fearfully.

“It means that we have to get into the realms,” Jimmy said, giving Benji and Heather each a steady look. “All of us. It’s the only way to protect you and keep your families from getting caught up in this. It’s the only way until the Lady of the Crescent Moon can figure out how to straighten this out.”

"If we can't get to the way gate," I thought aloud, "then how do we get back?"

Jimmy was silent for a moment before responding. "If we get far enough away from the anchor, we'll be able to call that way to us." I was just about to let out a sigh of relief when he continued. "However, they may be expecting that. I suspect that they'll have people waiting either in the way or on the other end of it, just in case."

"But there are other ways," I pointed out. "We went a different way the first time I went into the realms."

"True," Jimmy agreed with a frown. "Unfortunately, I'm not familiar enough with any of those ways to call them to us. The one we used is the only one I really know." Then he paused again to stare at me with a thoughtful look. "But maybe... Maybe you can help summon the one you used before." He scratched his chin thoughtfully before nodding slightly. "We can try that. We just have to make sure we get far enough away...just in case that one is linked to Tomoki's anchor as well."

We talked about this for several more minutes as we made our plans and then decided that it was time to finally leave our hidden sanctuary and get moving again. Jimmy left my demesne first in case there were any surprises waiting for us on the other side and then Heather followed behind him. I was about to go next when Benji put a hand on my shoulder to stop me.

"Aeslyn," Benji said awkwardly, "I kind of wanted to..." He paused, looking embarrassed.

I blinked, "Yeah?"

Then to my surprise, Benji leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. I was completely stunned at first, bit it felt kind of good. Before I realized it, I was kissing back before we both pulled apart.

"I'm sorry," Benji told me self-consciously. "I wanted to do that while I had the chance..." He blushed brightly and wouldn't look at me as he added, "You're just so pretty..."

I blushed self-consciously myself, not sure what to think about the fact that I'd just kissed my best friend. And what was more, I'd really liked it. If nothing else, that certainly proved the point that I was no longer the old male Shane.

"I...I kind of liked it," I admitted, blushing even brighter before turning and stepping out of my demesne. I just hoped that Jimmy and Heather didn't suspect what we'd done.

Once my demesne had been closed, we started down the street again, heading for the bus station so we could make distance even faster. While we walked, Heather pulled out her cell phone and called home, getting hold of her mom who insisted that she come home immediately.

"I wish I could," Heather told her mom over the phone, her voice shaking as she talked. "I saw something... I saw something I shouldn't have and now some people are trying to kill me... No, I can't come home now...not until it’s safe... No, don't call the police... Yes, this has something do with Shane's disappearance and the vandalism at Benji's house..."

"I'll need to borrow your phone after you're done," Benji said. "I've got to call home too..."

I just looked around, wishing that I could call home from here so I could ask my mother to send help. Unfortunately, there were no phones that could reach into the realms so we were on our own for now.

At the moment, we were walking past a small park that had several sets of kids playground equipment. I absently wondered what my mother would think of such things and what it would have been like growing up with her instead of my mom and dad. Somehow, I couldn't really picture it. I couldn't imagine her taking me on picnics or pushing me on the swing.

Just then, something suddenly struck me as being wrong. It took me a second to realize what it was, a boulder that was sitting at the edge of the park jumped out at me as being out of place. I'd been past this park a number of times before but I don't remember ever seeing that boulder before. Almost on instinct, I shifted my eyes and saw the silver glow from the apparent boulder.

"Look out," I exclaimed.

Even as I was pointing to the boulder, the faerie who'd been crouched down and hiding in illusion began to stand up. As with every illusion that I'd seen faerie use to hide like that, it dropped the moment he began to move. A moment later, where the boulder had been there was now an eight foot tall creature with gray rocklike skin that might even have let him pass as a rock without the use of illusion.

"A rock troll," Jimmy blurted out with a note of fear in his voice, "RUN."

The rock troll began coming towards us, moving slowly but with heavy steps that began to crack the concrete of the sidewalk once he reached it. People screamed at the sight of the creature and began running away as fast as they could. One man stood in front of the troll with his mouth open, staring up as though he couldn't believe what he was seeing. The troll swung his arm and hit the man, sending him flying with a sickening crunch. Of course, we needed no further convincing that we should run along with everyone else.

"Holy shit," Heather screamed, nearly in a panic. She pulled out the kitchen knife she'd taken from Benji's house and held it tightly like a magic charm of protection. Then again, it was made of steel so the iron might very well work like that against the troll. "Why do these things keep coming...?"

"They won't give up on Aeslyn," Jimmy responded grimly. "And they'll use anyone she cares about against her."

The rock troll let out a loud roar and continued chasing after us, grabbing a car that was parked alongside the road and then tossing it over. It paused to roar again, this time almost in pain as it looked down at its hands. Then it continued coming at us, this time looking almost angry, as though it was our fault he'd grabbed something made out of iron.

Suddenly, a loud but eerie sounding voice called out, "You have violated the treaty by revealing yourself before humans..."

A moment later, a tall figure in a gray cloak dropped from the sky and landed in front of the troll. The figure looked around, revealing that its entire face was covered with a black and white mask. Then two other similarly dressed figures appeared, one with a crimson colored mask and one who only appeared to be four feet tall and who was wearing a blue and white mask. I'd only seen members of the Ring of Silence once before but that was unmistakably who they were.

"Oh no," I whispered, not sure if they were go after the troll, us, or everyone. However, as frightened as we all were by their appearance, we couldn't help but stop to watch.

"You have seen too much," the four foot tall Ring of Silence member said to a nearby woman. It held its hand out and the woman suddenly collapsed to the ground motionless. "Your memory will be erased of this."

The one who'd first appeared told the troll, "Your violation is too grave to be ignored. You must be silenced."

Instead of being afraid at being surrounded by the Ring of Silence, the troll began laughing instead. It was a deep rumbling sound that was nearly as intimidating as its previous roars had been.

A moment later, something suddenly leapt at one of the Ring of Silence members from behind, a hairy faerie that resembled an ape in form. It slammed a spear right through the gray cloak's back so that the spear point burst right out of its chest. Then, the apelike faerie pulled out a nasty looking short sword and used it to cut off the gray cloak's head.

"No," Jimmy exclaimed in shock. "Impossible..."

While this was happening, even more faerie began to come out from where they were hiding and charged the Ring of Silence. The tall and gangly pale skinned one whom I'd seen near Tomoki's yard was one of them and he grabbed one of the Ring of Silence members by the throat and snapped its neck. At the same time, a group of five goblins charged towards the final Ring of Silence member, the one who was only four feet tall, surrounding it in the same way the goblins had previously gone after Jimmy.

I stared at the scene for a brief moment, gasping in stunned horror as I realized what was really going on. The reason the Iron Lord's people had been operating in the open without concern about being seen was that they were setting a trap...not just for me but for the Ring of Silence. They were luring in the Ring of Silence for an ambush.

"Let's get out of here," I blurted out, wishing that we'd continued running like Jimmy had ordered us to. I had no doubt that as soon as these faerie finished up with the Ring of Silence, they'd continue coming after us.

We all ran away from the slaughter as fast as we could, getting away mostly because the other faerie were focusing all their attention on eliminating the three Ring of Silence members. And with our head start, we were able to hop onto a city bus and catch a ride even further out of their reaches. We rode to the other side of town and then hopped off, making our way to a nearby alley where we would have privacy for our next step.

"I don't think we're out of range of the anchor," Jimmy told me grimly. "But we don't have any choice now... We have to try summoning the other way..."

"I just hope it's not being used," I muttered, knowing that if someone else was already using that way then our attempt was doomed to failure. As it was, this was already unlikely to work.

Jimmy spent several minutes instructing me on what to do and then I went to work. The process was a great deal like setting the distant end of a way gate or summoning my own demesne. I closed my eyes and concentrated, focusing on the way I wanted, remembering how it looked and where the other end was permanently bound. Then I became aware of it and was able to pull it to me until it snapped in place and the air in front of me began to shimmer.

"I did it," I exclaimed in amazement. "I really did it..."

"Good job," Jimmy told me.

"Awesome," Benji whispered, staring at the shimmer. "It looks like that door to your demesne..."

Heather just stared at it, looking afraid. "Does that really go to faerie land?" She looked at me and then Jimmy, obviously not comfortable with the idea. "There are more of those THINGS in there..."

"Faerie are like humans," Jimmy told her gently. "We come in all forms and all types. Some of us are kind and gentle while others are horrible and evil. You can't judge all of us by the actions of a few."

"I'm a faerie," I reminded Heather.

Heather thought about it for a moment before reluctantly nodding agreement. "Okay..."

Jimmy frowned then hesitantly said, "After that, I'm almost reluctant to say this." He looked at Benji and then Heather. "Can you two leave your iron behind, or at least put it well away? In some courts, being caught with iron in hand is an automatic death sentence...especially for humans."

Benji stared at him in surprise. "No fucking way..."

"It's sort of like walking around with plutonium or something," I told Benji wryly. "Most faerie take it pretty seriously."

Benji nodded but then gave me a stubborn look. "I'm not going there unarmed... No way in hell..." Heather nodded agreement beside him, clutching her kitchen knife even more firmly.

Jimmy shook his head faintly and let out a sigh. "Very well, but you will have to hide your iron before we reach the Crossroads. Don't bring it out again unless I tell you or you have no choice."

Benji and Heather looked at each other before nodding agreement. I let out a sigh of relief at that, having seen the stubborn look on Benji's face and knowing that he wouldn't have given up easily. I'd seen that look far too many times before the two of us got into a fight and that was the last thing we needed at the moment.

"Now get ready for a long walk," I told Benji and Heather with a grin. "But at least it will be safe... Once we go through and I release this end, they won't be able to follow us through."

"Thank Heaven for that," Heather muttered.

Jimmy didn't say another word before he stepped through the way gate while the rest of us followed close behind. We were in the very same place where I'd first entered the faerie realms, in a small clearing with a long path through the woods. Heather and Benji both gasped in amazement, hardly able to believe that with one step we'd all gone from the city to here.

"Unbelievable," Benji exclaimed.

I couldn't help but feeling just a little smug since for once I wasn't the rookie when it came to traveling by ways. In fact, compared to Benji and Heather, I was practically an expert. Of course, I still wasn't nearly as experienced as Jimmy and when I remembered that, it deflated my smugness.

At first, Benji and Heather were both impressed by the way, but after walking through the forest path for an hour that began to change. They were both tired of walking and were getting bored of the scenery. After all, it might be beautiful in a way, but it didn't really look all that much like magic and could almost have been a path through any other forest instead.

"Are we there yet?" Benji asked with a look of mock innocence, having asked the same question five minutes ago.

"No," Jimmy snapped in annoyance. "I already told you that we still have a long way to go... This is the long way back to the Court of the Morning Light..."

Benji just nodded, "Oh... Okay." However, I saw the look of mischief on his face and began to silently count to see how long it would take. I had only gotten to thirty when he abruptly asked, "Are we there yet?" Jimmy glared at him while I had to hold back a snicker.

As I watched Benji, I couldn't help but thinking of that kiss he'd given me back in my demesne, blushing slightly as I did. I'd never really given much thought about liking boys, but I couldn't deny that I'd definitely enjoyed that. In fact, I was wondering what it would be like doing it again, maybe even going further. I blushed brightly at the thought and even more as I wondered about doing it with Jimmy.

I glanced over at Heather, noticing that she was not happy. She'd been quite for most of our walk and had an upset look on her face that only seemed to be getting worse.

"I hate all this walking," Heather snapped, though it didn't seem to be aimed at anyone in particular. "This is ridiculous... I shouldn't even be here..."

"Are you okay?" I asked in concern.

"NO I'M NOT OKAY," Heather exploded at me in anger. "I've run away from home, I'm being chased by monsters, and I find out that my boyfriend is really a girl!" She glared at me for a moment more before spitting out, "This is your fault... This is all your fault... If you hadn't come back..." Then she paused to continue glaring at me before abruptly turning and quickly walking down the path away from us.

I winced at her accusations but I couldn't argue with them. It was my fault. Everything was my fault. If they'd never known me then none of this would have happened and they wouldn't be in any danger.

"She's just scared," Benji told me awkwardly. "I don't blame you..."

"But it is my fault," I responded quietly as the tears began to come. "I just wanted to warn you...to keep you guys safe. But instead, I just made you both bigger targets..."

"Don't blame yourself," Jimmy told me, putting a gentle hand on my shoulder. "Blame the Iron Lord. He's the one responsible for all of this."

None of us really talked much during the rest of the walk along the way, though Benji did try several times to lighten the mood without much success. By the time we reached the Crossroads, Heather seemed to have calmed down though she was still looking gloomy, not to mention tired from the long walk.

I felt nervous as we stepped into the Crossroads again, remembering what had happened the last time we were here. In spite of the treaty preventing any actual violence, those red caps had still managed to capture Bibi and Tomoki. Sure, I'd managed to get Bibi back then and there and later recovered Tomoki, but that had been a clear reminder that the Crossroads were still dangerous.

"We want to get through here quickly," Jimmy told us, looking around with a wary expression. "Humans aren't considered too fondly here, and whatever you do, do NOT show any iron."

Heather and Benji were looking back and forth with their mouths open, obviously having a hard time believing this was real. Of course, there was illusion mixed in with real physical buildings but I didn't mention that. Besides, they were obviously more interested in the huge variety of faerie that were around. I've been here before and had several weeks of experience with faerie, but admittedly, I was still nearly as impressed as they were.

Jimmy nodded faintly to one faerie we passed, one who looked like an African version of a sidhe. He looked like a dark skinned human wearing clothes made out of leopard skins, though of course, his pointed ears and yellow catlike eyes gave away the fact that he wasn't as human as he otherwise appeared.

Then I saw that he wasn't alone and actually had his own traveling companion, a tiny black woman who looked about six inches tall. She was completely naked and flew along beside him using a pair of black bird wings which sprouted from her back.

Benji stared at a short green skinned man who appeared to be wearing a back pack at first, at least until I took a second look and realized it was a shell. "Is that a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle?" Benji blurted out, earning a blank look from Jimmy and a faint snicker from me.

Jimmy and I both kept looking around, looking for any sign of the Iron Lord's people. We did catch sight of a red cap but kept low and took a detour so he never noticed us, much to my relief. I shuddered as I imagined a repeat of my last trip through the Crossroads. There was no way I wanted a repeat of that. Then we finally made it through the Crossroads without incident and stepped into the last way with a sigh of relief. From here, it was a direct shot home where we'd all be safe.

When the last way gate was finally in site, I let out a nervous sigh and muttered, "My mom and dad are going to kill me... Not to mention my mother..." I shuddered at that last one especially since my mother had the power to force my obedience in the future if she actually chose to do so.

"You won't be the only one to be disciplined," Jimmy told me with a scowl, looking both guilty and worried.

I knew that he blamed himself a bit for everything that went wrong and was afraid that he'd be removed as my bodyguard because of it. However, I fully intended to tell my mother that it was entirely my idea and that he'd tried stopping me and bringing me back. He didn't deserve to get in trouble because of my actions.

"I can't wait to introduce you to my mother," I told Benji and Heather with a weak smile. "She's the one I used to paint..."

Jimmy just scowled and added, "We need to tell her about the Iron Lord's move against the Ring of Silence."

Then we stepped through the gate and I announced, "Welcome to the Court of the Morning Light."

Suddenly, something slammed into me and drove me to the ground. Heather let out a loud scream but as I tried to get back to my feet and see what was going on, someone kicked me in the ribs and then put a foot on my back, pressing me further into the ground. I yelled and struggled to get up but it did little good. Whatever was going on was over in less than half a minute.

Someone flipped me over but still held me pinned down by my shoulders. I looked up and gasped in horror as I saw a hulking red cap with a wide brimmed hat, the same one who'd been leading the attack on the cabin during my first encounter with these creatures. He stared down at me with a cruel smile and snarled, "Welcome home girlie..."

Part 25

I was in the official throne room, or at least what was left of it. The thrones had been smashed to pieces and scattered across the floor while the floor itself had large cracks and gouges all over it, nearly all caused from the weapons which broke the pieces of the throne into even smaller pieces. And of course, there were nearly a dozen faerie chained to the walls, of which I was unfortunately one.

My entire body was bruised and sore due to the red caps smacking me around while bringing me in and chaining me up. Still, the physical pain was nothing compared to the fear and worry that gripped me. After all, It was quite obvious that the Iron Lord's forces had managed to invade the Court of the Morning Light while I was gone, leaving me to dread over what had become of my friends and family here.

I looked around the room, seeing that there were various guards and members of the court chained up, a few of whom I recognized. However, there was no sign of my mother or any of the other people I really cared about. The only exception to that was Jimmy who was chained about fifteen feet away and in even worse condition than I was. They'd broken his arm while taking him prisoner and had smacked him around even worse than they had me.

The fact that my mother was missing from this makeshift prison was a relief, but not much of one. After all, I had absolutely no idea if she and any of the others were even still alive. And considering the way the red caps liked to dye their hats, I could only fear for the worst. I shuddered, not sure whether to scream in defiance, sob uncontrollably, or just remain froze in stunned disbelief. My emotions circled in a huge maelstrom inside of me.

"How?" I finally gasped. "How could this happen...?"

"Betrayal," a voice said from the side.

The speaker was chained to the wall about fifteen feet away from me, on the opposite side from Jimmy. He was about five feet tall with shaggy red hair and large muttonchops. I remembered seeing him around the court but didn't really know him. It took me several seconds to remember that I'd overheard people referring to him as Badger Mick.

"We was betrayed we was," Badger Mick stated weakly, wincing at his own injuries which seemed to include some sort of stab would on his side. "It was a traitor who helped them invade..."

"What?" I gasped in surprise. "Who?"

It was another voice who answered, "That would be me."

I looked up and saw Tomoki coming into the room and slowly walking towards me, her face looking pained and filled with shame. "I am the traitor."

"Tomoki," I exclaimed in shock and disbelief.

Tomoki stopped a short distance away from me and just stood there for a moment in silence. "I told you that you should not have come for me," she finally said in a quiet voice. "I told you that you should not have risked yourself."

I felt horrified at her betrayal as well as completely confused. "But why...?"

"You traitor," Jimmy hissed weakly, obviously having a hard time as he sat up straighter and glared at her accusingly. "How could you...?"

"Because I had no choice," Tomoki responded quietly, wincing as she said it. "The Iron Lord..." She closed her eyes for a moment and then looked at me as she explained, "When I was a prisoner, he forced me to swear an oath..."

My eyes widened at that and I winced. "An oath?"

"I was tortured," she continued in a near whisper. "I was then offered the choice of torture and death by iron...or swearing an oath of obedience." She winced and stared at the floor, unable to meet my eyes. "To my eternal shame, I was not strong enough..."

"No," I whispered in horror, realizing what that oath meant to her.

"This is how the Iron Lord builds his forces," Tomoki told us. "He gives faerie the choice between death or swearing the oath...and most choose to swear." She shook her head sadly. "He has already begun here and will soon offer the choice." She gestured around the room to the other faeries who were chained to the wall.

"Then they let us find you," Jimmy gasped in realization. "They let us rescue you so you could spy on us for them..." She merely bowed her head. "Then you sent Aeslyn to Earth...right into a trap."

"No," Tomoki protested. "I sent her to Earth to avoid the trap..." She paused to take a deep breath and then stared at me with an almost pleading look that seemed completely out of place on that confident woman. "I was ordered to tell no one of what had happened and what was planned, yet I had to try keeping you from his hands. I suggested your friends were in danger because I knew that you could not resist going to them. You would have been away from the court when the attack occurred. You would have been able to escape the Iron Lord." Then she shook her head and admitted, "But when he arrived and found you missing, he ordered me to tell him where you were."

Jimmy continued glaring at her and demanded, "Then free us..."

"I cannot," Tomoki responded with a look of guilt. "I would were I still able, yet I am now enslaved to the Iron Lord. His orders prevent me from doing anything to assist your escape, no matter how much I might wish otherwise. I could not even suggest you leave before, only lead you to make the decision on your own. I fear there is nothing I can do to aid you now."

"And what about my mom and dad?" I demanded angrily. "And my mother? Are they dead?" It was all I could do to keep myself together enough to ask this since I already feared the worst.

"Your mother and the human Ellen are alive," Tomoki answered after a moment. "They escaped to the sanctuary of the Lady's demesne. They are out of the Iron Lord's reach yet are guarded from without and have no chance of escape."

I felt relieved at the news that my mom and mother were both alive and safe yet a cold feeling of dread came as I realized that she hadn't mentioned my dad. I closed my eyes, taking several deep breaths and trying to hold back the tears as I gathered my courage to ask about him.

When I opened my eyes again, Tomoki was looking at Jimmy and said, "It was Shyla who bought the Lady time to escape..." She bowed her head and quietly added, "She bought the time with her life."

Jimmy gasped at that and exclaimed, "No... Shyla..."

"She fell protecting the Lady of the Crescent Moon," Tomoki told him as gently as she could.

"Shyla," I whispered, silently thanking her for saving both my mother and my mom, though I wished she hadn't died to do it. I didn't know the woman all that well but I knew that I would miss her. However, when I looked to Jimmy, he was just motionless with a stricken look of obvious grief on his face.

"She was his elder sister," Tomoki explained quietly.

I just stared at Jimmy, a little surprised by that revelation but not too much so. The two of them had always been professional with each other but there had been something else there too, a subtle warmth that had come out during our training sessions. My greatest sympathies went to Jimmy for what he must be feeling.

"And my dad?" I asked quietly, afraid of the answer.

"I do not know," Tomoki admitted. "I know only that he was not with Ellen when the attack occurred."

I was about to ask her more questions when I started hearing gasps of fear from around the room. Then I looked up and immediately saw why. A man dressed in armor like a medieval knight had just stepped into the room. He stood about six feet tall and wore armor that was dark gray, covered with small pits and gouges. It was obviously old and well used armor but well taken care of as well since I saw no sign of rust.

The Iron Lord slowly walked across the throne room while his body language proclaimed that he was in complete control. As I watched him approach, I felt a cold chill run down my spine and was suddenly struck with the feeling that Darth Vader was coming at me.

On Earth, a medieval knight was an archaic figure that still held some image of romance but not of fear or real threat. After all, even the most powerful of knights would have been helpless before an untrained civilian with a decent gun. However, it suddenly struck me that for faerie, medieval knights had been figures of dread and still were. They were men who were protected from weapons and magic, covered in a deadly poison, and who wielded weapons that could kill you with only a single scratch. And of course, the Iron Lord had all of that. He was nearly the faerie equivalent of the boogieman.

The Iron Lord stopped in front of me and then told Tomoki, "Leave us now." There was a look of frustration on her face but she turned and left the throne room immediately.

With the Iron Lord standing right in front of me, I could easily look him over and actually felt increasingly afraid as I did so. He wore a helmet that covered his entire face except for a slit for the eyes, making him somehow seem all the more intimidating. Of course, that wasn't nearly as intimidating as the large double bladed axe he had strapped to his back or the sword at his waist.

Then the Iron Lord slowly removed his helmet, revealing a face that was surprisingly human. In fact, he could have passed as a normal human man with reddish brown hair, except for his pointed ears and the violet shade of his eyes. He didn't say anything for several seconds and merely stared at me intently.

"So you are the one called Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes," the Iron Lord finally said. "I assume you know who I am." I merely nodded at that, not trusting myself to say a word. "Good. That shall save time."

The Iron Lord abruptly turned and took several steps towards Badger Mick, stopping to stare down at the short faerie. Then without a word, the Iron Lord reached out and grabbed Badger Mick's face. Badger Mick screamed in pain and when the Iron Lord pulled his hand back, I could see that his iron gauntlets had left a blackened hand print behind.

"No," I whispered, desperately wishing that I could scream out some profanity so that at the very least I could call the Iron Lord by some names he deserved.

"You monster," Jimmy exclaimed, struggling against his chains. Then as the Iron Lord came towards me and reached out to grab my arm, Jimmy began screaming at him to stop and fighting his chains even harder.

I grimaced and braced myself for the pain that was sure to come, but instead of the burning I'd expected, I only felt itchy. The Iron Lord released my arm and when I stared down the skin was a little red, almost like I had a bit of a rash. I just stared at it in relief, suddenly feeling very thankful for my increased tolerance to iron. This had been the first time I'd actually even tested it out, as unwilling as that test had been.

"Your resistance is somewhat stronger than I had expected," the Iron Lord mused. Then he gave me a steady look that sent chills down my spine. "Fortunately, I have many other methods of persuasion..."

I glared at the Iron Lord as defiantly as I could and even gave him 'the look'. However, he seemed completely unaffected. I finally demanded, "What do you want with me? Why?"

However, instead of answering me he just gave me a look of contempt. "I shall be the ones asking the questions. Besides, you certainly already know the answer."

"WHAT ANSWER?" I screamed in frustration. "I don't know anything!"

"Doubtful," was his response. Then he simply said, "Tell me where it is."

I blinked at that. "Tell you where what is?"

"Do not play me for a fool," he stated. "The Lady of the Crescent Moon is out of my reach for the moment so you are the only one I have to question. You will tell me what I wish to know, one way or another. Save yourself the torment that is to come by giving me what I ask now."

"BUT I DON'T KNOW ANYTHING," I yelled at him, terrified of what he would do to me and my friends. I hadn't missed the fact that Heather and Benji were missing from the throne room and I'd been trying not to think about what that meant, just as I was trying hard not to think of what he would do to me.

"LEAVE HER ALONE!" Jimmy screamed, struggling against his chain. "You coward!"

"Silence," the Iron Lord told Jimmy in a firm but calm voice. There was no anger as he continued, "If you speak to me again without my permission, I shall cut out your tongue."

Jimmy glared at the Iron Lord defiantly, looking as though he was about to say something in spite of the threat. However, the Iron Lord no longer seemed concerned with Jimmy and was instead looking at me. His eyes looked cold and hard...like iron.

Just then, more faerie came into the throne room and caught the Iron Lord's attention. In front was the ugly old woman called Jenny Greenteeth whom I'd seen in the Crossroads. Behind her came the red cap leader with the wide brimmed hat. However, it was the final three who came in that made me feel as though my skin was crawling.

Of the final three to come into the room, I recognized two of them. There was the tall, pale skinned, bony creature that I'd seen twice on Earth and that giant beetle. But as creepy as those two were, their companion was even worse. From the waist down, it looked like a giant hairy tarantula. From the waist up, it was mostly human in shape but was covered with the same dark hair as the tarantula body below. It's 'face' was missing any form of eyes, nose or mouth but it made up for that by having nearly a dozen black eyes on its chest.

"I see that you are interested by my new allies from the Court of Endless Screams," the Iron Lord said when he saw me staring at them. He looked almost vaguely amused by my reactions. "They are true experts in the art of pain. If you do not cooperate, I may very well allow them to practice their art upon those human pets you seem to care for."

"Benji," I gasped. "Heather..." I glared at the Iron Lord and demanded, "Where are they?"

"In the kennel with the rest of the animals," the Iron Lord responded dismissively. "Perhaps I shall allow my allies to start with them in front of you as a warning of what is to come to you should you not cooperate."

I gulped in terror though I tried my hardest not to show it. I don't think I succeeded very well but at least it made me feel better, as though the act of looking defiant might actually give me some courage. "Would they still be your allies if you didn't force them to swear an oath of obedience?"

The Iron Lord gave me a steady look then obviously decided to continue humoring me. It frustrated me in a way but also relieved me since it meant that I was buying time and getting answers to come of my questions. "The Court of Endless Screams joined my cause willingly...once I promised they could perform their art on the other courts and upon the humans of Earth as they once did."

"Aye," the red cap leader said, looking unhappy. "But what do me and mine get for our services?" He gave the Iron Lord a dark look and continued, "I lost half me clan chasing this bitch for ye... We deserve payment for our services and recompense for our losses..."

"Blonesplitter," the Iron Lord said, his voice cold and hard as he looked at the large red cap. "You and your people have failed in your task four times. Your losses are not my concern and your failure is certainly not to be rewarded."

"But we got the bitch for ye," the red cap...Bonesplitter snarled angrily.

"Only after she walked into your hands," the Iron Lord responded coldly. "Only after I told you to wait at the way gate for her. I would hardly consider that worthy of reward."

Bonesplitter was quickly growing more angry and was glaring at the Iron Lord. "Too many of me men died for this scatch," he gestured to me. "Give us what we earned or I'll tale payment with her life."

The Iron Lord stared at Bonesplitter with a cold hard look. "She is still useful to my purposes. You however are not."

Then with one swift motion, the Iron Lord drew his sword and slashed it across Bonesplitter's throat. The red cap gasped in surprise and tried to swing his axe at the Iron Lord, but the Iron Lord slashed out with his sword again, catching him on the arm. The red cap collapsed to the ground and I could see that the flesh around his throat and arm where he'd been injured was turning black, obviously caused by the iron. Bonesplitter grabbed at his throat and then collapsed to the ground dead.

Jenny Greenteeth cackled a little, then said, "Foolish red cap. Still, tis a pity to waste a fighter..."

"He still serves my purpose," the Iron Lord responded coldly. "Now as a lesson."

The Iron Lord turned back to me and stared at me for a moment with his hard eyes. Then he abruptly reached out and grabbed me by the throat, holding me firmly but not squeezing enough to really choke me. I could feel the skin beneath his iron gauntlet beginning to itch and I winced, remembering the way it had blackened Badger Mick's face.

"You will tell me what I wish to know," the Iron Lord told me again. "One way or another, you will give me what I want. The only question is, how much pain you will suffer before you do?"

"My lord," Jenny Greenteeth said carefully. "Perhaps it would be best her answer not be heard by so many ears."

The Iron Lord abruptly let go of me, much to my relief. Then he turned away and announced, "Take her to where I can question her in private." He didn't bother looking back at me as he just strolled right out of the throne room with Jenny Green teeth following close behind him.

Unfortunately, the three faerie from the Court of Endless Screams didn't go with him. Instead, all three of them started coming right at me. My eyes widened in terror and then I did the only thing I could think of doing. I screamed.

Part 26

Pain. Fear. Shame. Confusion. These were the things defined my life over the past twenty-four hours.

I was completely naked and bruised over my entire body. The Iron Lord's people had torn my clothes off me and they hadn't been gentle at all about it. They hadn't been able to figure out how to remove the magic bracelet on my left wrist but their attempts had left my entire left arm severely bruised, even more than the rest of me. And on top of that, they'd smacked me around some more before chaining me to the floor of a storage room.

As with nearly every other room in the Court of the Morning Light, there were no doors to keep people out, just rules that the Iron Lord's people were not bound to follow. Still, the heavy chain prevented me from making any attempt to leave, and even if I could somehow get my ankle free from the chain, there were still two guards standing just outside the room.

It has been a full day since I'd been moved to this private cell and I haven't seen the Iron Lord once since then. His goons have come in to mess with me a couple times but there has been no sign of him, much to my relief. I wasn't sure if he was giving me time to stew in my own fear or if he was just busy with other things. After all, while being brought to this room I'd overheard someone say something about the Court of Eternal Night. Whatever the reason, I just hoped that he stayed away.

One of the things that was the most frustrating, besides having no idea of what was happening with my friends, was the fact that I didn't even know why I was here. The Iron Lord wanted something from me but I had absolutely no idea of what that could be. It was obvious that my mother did but she'd neglected to tell me a thing about it, not that the Iron Lord believed me when I told him that.

Then my reprieve ended and the Iron Lord returned, stepping into my prison and staring at me with his hard eyes. He made no move to come closer for several more seconds and then it was only to take a few more steps. He continued looking down at me though his expression was unreadable.

I wanted to cower, hide, or at the very least cover my naked body up. However, couldn't exactly do much at the moment so just tried to be defiant instead, to keep him from seeing just how scared shitless I really was. I gave him 'the look' and demanded, "Why?" When he didn't respond, I continued, "Why do this?"

"You seek to distract me," the Iron Lord responded with a faint hint of amusement in his voice. "You seek to delay your questioning." He stared at me for another long moment before surprising me with the response, "Very well. You WILL answer my questions so I shall humor you by answering you this one question first. In the simplest of terms, I intend to save our race."

"What?" I blinked in confusion.

"Our kind have existed long before humans," the Iron Lord explained. "The entire world belonged to us to do with as we willed. Then humans appeared and we allowed them to change this." There was a clear tone of distain in his voice when he said 'humans'. "We are wiser and far more powerful, yet they have one thing that we do not...iron. We ran from the humans and their iron, hiding ourselves away in the realms. In the time since, the humans have grown stronger and more numerous while we have become weaker. Instead of working to take back our world, we while away the time. We bind ourselves in frivolous rules and strictly limit ourselves so that we've become a shadow of what we once were… and of what we could become."

The Iron Lord stood back, looking quite calm as he explained this to me. He looked thoughtful for a moment as though trying to decide how much more he should say. I was thankful for that since the longer he talked the longer it was until he got rough with me again.

"My goal is to unite all the courts of faerie under my rule," the Iron Lord said. "I will break the shackles that bind them and unleash their true power. Then together we will take the world back from the humans."

"You want to conquer the humans?" I gasped in surprise, realizing that the Iron Lord was even more ambitious than I ever would have guessed.

"Humans are animals," he said, the contempt clear in his tone. "I mean to domesticate them."

"You don't know anything about humans," I spat out at him. "You're fu... You're insane."

For a moment, I feared that I'd gone too far in insulting him. The Iron Lord gave me a cold hard glare and then moved forward and grabbed my chin in his iron covered hands, forcing me to look up into his eyes.

"I know humans very well," the Iron Lord said in a cold quiet voice. "Long ago, I too was once a human changeling." I gasped in surprise at that. "I spent time among them, seeing with my own eyes how they lived in filth and pestilence, how they prey on each other with ease and break every rule they create for themselves. Once, I believed that we faerie had much to teach them, but now, now I realize that the humans are incapable of being anything other than animals. I will NOT allow our kind to be ground under the heels of these animals any longer."

I just stared back at the Iron Lord, a bit stunned by this revelation. I gulped and quietly asked, "Why tell me this?"

"Because," the Iron Lord answered simply, "If you know my goal, you may choose to join me of your own will. That would simplify things for me a great deal." Then he stared at me for a moment longer before adding, "But I can see that you have already decided otherwise. I suspected as much."

The Iron Lord gave me a look of cold hard determination that let me know he was through with talking and now he was ready to make me talk. Then he reached for his belt and drew a dagger. The fact that it wasn't iron was actually a very bad sign because that was a clear indication that his intention wasn't to kill me.

"I don't know anything," I blurted out in terror. "I don't even know what you're looking for..."

Just then, a voice called out, "Pardon me my lord..."

I glanced to the door where a figure stood all dressed in purple robes. I could tell she was female from her voice and the vague shape of her body though the robe and hood concealed nearly every other detail. The lower part of her face was covered with a black scarf but I could see yellow eyes that were surrounded by extremely pale and waxy skin.

"A messenger has arrived from the Court of Blood and Bone," the purple clad figure said in a voice that was low and slightly raspy. "They have offered alliance in exchange for certain...considerations."

"Very well," the Iron Lord responded, putting his dagger away and turning to leave the room with the woman. "I'll speak with this messenger..."

I let out a sigh of relief as the Iron Lord seemed to forget about me and left, thankful for the reprieve. However, my sense of relief quickly faded when one of the red cap guards came into the room almost immediately afterwards with a hungry look on his face.

"Now ta have some fun girlie," the ugly guard snarled, reaching down and grabbing one of my breasts so hard that it was painful and sure to bruise. "The Iron Lord won't mind, least not if yer still alive and able ta answer is questions..."

I grimaced and struggled to get away but he was too big and strong for me to have any chance again. However, I did have one thing I could do so unleashed what little magic I had, creating a blinding flash that caused him to stagger back with a stream of curses. He held his eyes with one hand, unable to see as he began kicking at me. It hurt like hell, but after a minute, he turned and left the room while I remained bruised over every inch of my body, but still avoiding the rape.

I was left alone in my cell for hours before the Iron Lord finally returned, though this time he was not alone. The woman in the purple robes was with him while Tomoki followed a short distance behind, her three tails dragging behind her while she had an expression of shame on her face. When the Iron Lord came in, he gestured to the guards who both moved away from the door and well out of hearing range, yet still close enough to come quickly if he called.

The Iron Lord stopped a few feet away and just stared down at me for several seconds. Then he calmly stated, "When last we spoke, I told you of what we have in common... I too know what it means to be a human changeling, to have been tainted from too long a contact with them."

I just glared at the Iron Lord, once again trying to hide my fear behind defiance. However, I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut. For one thing, I didn't want to give him a reason to stop talking and go for something more physical. For another, since I could no longer use profanity, there was no way that I could properly express my opinion of him.

"I remember my relief at having been freed from my changeling state," the Iron Lord continued in an almost pleasant manner. "I remember my pleasure at being able to leave the humans and rejoin my own kind. I imagine that you felt much the same relief at regaining your true form."

There was no need for me to respond to that, though I couldn't help but feeling a little uncomfortable with how close that last statement had been. I had felt an immense sense of relief at being transformed into my true form. Sure, it had been a bit confusing to suddenly become a girl after having spent my entire life as a boy, but my new body had also felt 'right' in a way that I never would have imagined.

"Humans are pitiful animals," the Iron Lord stated, as though this was a simple fact. "Imagine my shame upon discovering that I was considered more human than faerie." His eyes turned even harder as he said that. "My true form is perhaps too similar to that of a human. I have very little magic and a demesne that is too small to be of much use. And of course, I am immune to iron in much the same way those animals are. I was as weak and powerless as one of those animals." Then he held up his metal covered fist and stated, "But then I realized that there are many forms of power and that I possess one that is shared by few other faerie. I possess a power that no faerie can truly stand against, a power that will allow me to finally unite our race and allow us to reclaim the world that is our birthright."

"Good for you," I responded sarcastically, unable to bite my tongue any longer and unsure of what else I could possibly say.

The Iron Lord didn't seem angered by my comment, and in fact, he didn't seem to even notice it. "It has occurred to me that the greatest torment I can visit upon you is to strip you of what little power you possess, strip you of your true form, and once again bind you as one of those humans you seem so fond of." Then he bent over and stared me in the eyes with his own cold hard eyes and asked, "Is not that correct... Aeslyn Lunae Pippalotta Dae?"

I gasped in shock as he spoke my true name aloud, feeling it touch the very core of my being and send a cold chill of dread up my spine. Then for a moment, I could only stare at him in horror with the knowledge that he possessed my name, the most guarded treasure that any faerie possesses.

I couldn't understand how he could have possibly gained my name. As far as I knew, only three people alive knew it. I certainly hadn't told him my name and not only was my mother out of his reach, I was certain she never would have given it to him as well. Of course, Tomoki was under his power but she'd already sworn an oath to never speak my true name aloud and not even a direct order from the Iron Lord would be able to break that.

Before I could even fully absorb the horrific implications of what this meant, the woman in purple began muttering something in a strange language. I was too distracted to pay much attention to her until she spoke my true name. She immediately had my full attention and I realized that she was calling up magic and directing it at me. I looked down and gasped at the sight of glowing purple symbols which were appearing on my skin. And then, I felt the changes begin.

I screamed in agony as my body began to shift and transform, much as it had when I first discovered the truth of my own nature. As bad as the pain had been then, when the magic had forced my body back into its changeling form, it was even worse now. I could feel my own nature fighting this curse, trying to fight the magic which was binding me. Unfortunately, I was bound with my own true name far too strongly for it to do any good.

When the changes finally stopped, I was relieved that the pain had stopped as well, though I felt completely exhausted. I looked down at myself and gasped as I saw my body then I frantically reached for my chest which was now completely flat and missing my breasts. I reached between my legs and felt the soft flesh which now dangled down, the male parts that I’d lost when Tomoki had revealed my true name.

"No," I gasped in horror. "No..."

My whole body felt completely and total wrong. Sure, this was exactly what I'd been for most of my life, the way I'd been until just a couple weeks ago. However, it no longer felt right at all. It no longer felt like me. Instead, I felt almost as though my entire body was wrapped up in some kind of straight jacket, leaving me completely and totally trapped.

The Iron Lord watched me for a moment though he didn't say a word. He didn't even ask me where to find whatever it was he was looking for. Instead, he simply turned and calmly walked out of the room with the woman in purple close behind.

"I'm sorry," Tomoki exclaimed as she stepped forward, staring at me with a look of horror and shame on her face. Tears were coming down her cheeks and she whispered, "I am so sorry..." She looked away from me, staring at the floor for several long seconds before she continued in a near whisper. "I am bound to never speak your true name and had thought that would protect you. But..." Her voice shook with shame as she admitted her forced betrayal. "I could still be ordered to write it down."

"What...?" I demanded, feeling crushed by the sense of betrayal even though I knew intellectually that she had no choice. "You didn't..."

"I'm sorry," Tomoki told me again before she turned and fled from me and the feelings of guilt she felt.

After she'd gone, all I could do was stare down at myself and my male body, feeling stunned and horrified. I frantically began grabbing at myself, as if I could shove my penis back in or pull my breasts back out. I scratched all over my skin as I tore at it in desperation, trying to free the female body that was hidden within. When this didn't work, I let out a loud howl of frustration before finally just collapsing into sobs.

Part 27

My entire body ached over every inch of it, going all the way down to the bone. Nearly every inch of my skin was covered with bruises or scratches which no longer healed as fast as they did a day ago, before I was transformed. In a strange way, I was nearly thankful for the pain as it distracted me from just how wrong my body felt.

I was still chained to the floor of a storage room and completely naked except for the bracelet which was still fixed around my wrist. Unfortunately, I was also still male, a fact that I was well aware of. It seemed strange that after spending sixteen years as a boy and only several weeks as a girl, that I would feel so uncomfortable with being male again. However, that was definitely the case.

I grimaced as I watched the doorway, not knowing when the guards would come in to rough me up again. So far it seemed to be about once every six hours, though fortunately, the Iron Lord had yet to come back. Of course, that was only a matter of time.

At first, I'd wondered why the Iron Lord had left without even trying to interrogate me and why he hadn't bothered coming back. And then it dawned on me. As much as the Iron Lord wanted the information that he thought I possessed, there was something else he wanted from me as well. He wanted to make an example of me the same way he had with Bonesplitter, using me as a lesson in what happened to those who defied him.

I suspected that the Iron Lord was playing with me and was going to draw this out until I eventually begged for the right to swear obedience to him. I shuddered at the very thought but knew that I wasn't strong enough to resist forever, especially not when he had my true name. In fact, with that he could probably just bind me with a spell that would force my obedience anyway.

"Darn," I muttered to myself, wishing that I could give a good 'damn' or ‘fuck’, but even though I'd lost my faerie form and most of my faerie healing ability, I was still bound by the oath I'd sworn. It was really too bad because if ever there was a situation that called for profanity, this was it.

Just then, I heard something from outside the room and winced in fear at the thought that the Iron Lord was coming back. He'd let me sit long enough that he was bound to come soon for some real interrogation, or at least to put on a show of hurting me. I'd been expecting that and had been dreading it with every fiber of my being. But to my surprise, I heard a woman's voice from outside the room, one that I recognized.

"Aren't you a big strong guard," Thorn exclaimed, now positioned so that I could see her through the doorway. Instead of wearing her normal dress, she was actually wearing something that showed quite a bit more skin. She even had on a skirt, revealing the vines that were tattooed on her legs. "The Iron Lord must really trust you to have you guard a prisoner as important as this one."

"He knows we're strong," the red cap responded proudly.

Thorn reached up to run her hand over his face and suddenly the guard yelled in pain as deep scratches suddenly formed. Then Thorn grabbed him in a tight hug and held firm while her curse began to shred his skin. He finally pried her loose and knocked her back.

"It's a trap," the other guard snarled before yelling in pain. I couldn't see what was going on but there were several more yells before both guards went silent and I could see that at least one of them was motionless on the floor.

"Milady," Thorn exclaimed as she stepped into the room, leaning up against the door and looking like she'd gotten hurt with her attack on the red cap. Then she stopped and stared at me with her mouth going open, obviously surprised to see me looking as I now did.

"Thorn," I responded in amazement, getting back to my feet though it wasn't easy considering how much I hurt.

But then another figure stepped into the doorway, one who froze and stared at me before blurting out, "Shane!"

"Dad," I exclaimed, unbelievably relieved to find that he was not only still alive but right here with me. "You're alive..."

Dad didn’t say a word at first and just rushed over and gave me a hug, at least until he realized the awkwardness of hugging a naked ‘boy’. "You're Shane again," he said, staring at me in disbelief.

"Aye," Corwin agreed with a scowl as he pushed his way into the room as well. "The farching Iron Lord cursed her... I thought I told ye that..." Then he gave me a steady look before smiling faintly and nodding. "Now get yer arse moving. We don't have time to waste..."

I just laughed weakly and then gestured down at the chain which held my leg. "Small problem."

Corwin just snorted at that and reached for a dagger that hung from his belt. Without a word he began to saw at my chain, and to my surprise, his knife was actually cutting through it. In just half a minute, Corwin had cut me completely free from the chain.

I was more than happy to leave this room though I did have to stop at the doorway to look around the scene outside of it. Both guards were dead on the ground, but more important than that, Benji and Heather were standing a short distance away, looking as though they were acting as lookouts. Heather held a long stick her hand with the kitchen knife tied to the end so that it became a spear while Benji awkwardly held a sword. Both weapons had blood on them.

"Aeslyn," Heather exclaimed while Benji simultaneously called out, "Shane."

"You changed back," Benji gasped in amazement. "That's great..."

"No it isn't," I responded with a shudder. "You have no idea how wrong this feels..." I put a hand on my flat chest and winced at the absence of my breasts

"We'll get ye changed back," Corwin assured me. "Don'tcha worry about that lass. We'll find someone to break yer curse..."

"He bound me with my name," I told him in a near whisper, earning a look of shock. "He knows my true name..."

Thorn gasped aloud and looked as though she was about to touch me to offer comfort, though she pulled her hand back and glared at it sadly.

"Ye poor lass," Corwin whispered, giving me a look of pity before shaking his head. "We'll worry about that later. For now we need to get out of here. First...ye need something to wear..." Then he nodded to Benji who handed him a large brown cloth sack that he'd been holding and which appeared to be empty. Corwin reached inside and pulled out a bundle of clothes which he handed to me. "Now get ye dressed and hurry..."

I nodded and began getting dressed in the loose fitting trousers and shirt while dad explained, "They locked all of us humans up together and kept talking about how they were going to cook us..." He shuddered as he said it.

"Then this guy shows up and gets us out," Benji added, gesturing to Corwin. "He said he was your friend." He gestured to Thorn and added, “She vouched for him.”

“How’d you get away?” I asked Corwin in amazement.

Corwin snorted before answering, “There are more ways to hide here than ye know.” He paused for a moment before adding, “Besides, I used to have a great deal of practice back on Earth, hiding from humans who thought I was some leprechaun who could give them gold.” He shook his head at that and demanded, “Do I look like some farching leprechaun?”

“Well…kinda,” Benji admitted. Then when Corwin glared at him, he quickly added, “But it’s not like I’ve ever seen a real leprechaun…”

“Just shut up now,” Heather told him, elbowing him in the side.

Once I finished getting dressed, dad just stared at me with a pained look. “All those bruises…” He reached up to touch my cheek but then pulled his hand back. “What did they do to you?”

I couldn’t answer that, and thankfully, I didn’t need to. Corwin slung the apparently empty sack over his shoulder and said, “We need to be going.”

“I need to find Ellen,” dad said with a look of determination.

“Yer wife is safe,” Corwin told him with a deep scowl. “She’s with the Lady of the Crescent Moon in her demesne.”

“Then we need to go rescue them,” dad insisted while I nodded agreement.

“By Ogg’s brass titties,” Corwin snarled. “The farching Iron Lord is guarding that demesne with a half dozen of his strongest. Ye must be daft if ye think we have a chance of getting near there. T’would be suicide to try it and unnecessary since they’re safe for now.”

“But what about Jimmy?” I asked, reluctantly giving up on the idea of saving mom and my mother…for the moment. However, I wasn’t about to abandon Jimmy when he wasn’t in the safety of a demesne. “I won’t leave him.”

“Yeah,” Benji agreed. “I won’t leave him. He saved our asses.”

“Aye,” Corwin responded with a sigh. “He’ll still be chained in the throne room.”

Corwin protested a little but agreed that we could try getting Jimmy out as well, though he said it might be risky. Dad wasn’t at all happy about leaving mom but was at least satisfied that at the moment, she was a lot safer than all of us.

“Then ye’ll be needing this,” Corwin said with a snort, reaching into his sack again and pulling out a belt with a familiar looking dagger on it. “I found where they put yer things…”

“Siffryn,” I exclaimed, quickly putting the belt on and drawing the blade. Dad just stared at it in surprise that a full sized sword could come out of a dagger’s sheath.

As we started down the hall, I found that my bruised body was slowing down even more than I would have expected. I limped with each step and dad finally held me up to offer support, even though leaning against him like that hurt as well.

We quickly went towards the throne room, not running into anyone until we arrived and found a guard standing outside of it. It was a woman…if you could call her that. She was just over six feet tall and shaped like a human woman, but instead of clothes or skin, her entire body was covered with a dark gray chitinous armor...almost like an insect. Her face was just a blank face plate with no eyes or features.

The scary faerie woman saw us, though how since she had no eyes I didn’t know. However, she looked straight at us and exclaimed in an eerie voice, “Make you scream I will… Make your suffering a thing of beauty forever…”

“Oh darn,” I muttered in fear as she slowly started to advance on us.

“I think this is an appropriate time to ‘shit’,” dad said. Then as if to demonstrate, he exclaimed, “Oh shit…”

“I can’t,” I responded as I tried to stand straight on my own with Siffryn in my hand.

“It’s easy,” Benji said. “Just open your mouth and swear. I mean, you’ve done it enough times before…”

“No,” I told them, bracing myself for this armored woman, “I literally can’t.”

The woman suddenly jumped at us, her fingers outstretched and looking long and sharp like claws. Heather screamed and jumped back while dad jumped in front of me, holding up a short sword that he’d taken from one of the guards they’d killed while freeing me.

To my surprise, Benji jumped at her from the side, hitting her and knocking her away. She jumped back to her feet and snarled before slashing at my dad who held up his sword and forced her to keep back.

“Ugly bitch,” Heather exclaimed, finally shoving her spear at the woman.

The armored woman let out a loud scream as soon as the kitchen knife tip of the sword went into her side. “Such sweet pain,” she laughed, actually seeming to enjoy it. “Such sweet tasty iron…”

Then the armored woman dropped to her knees and began to shake for a moment before collapsing to the ground completely dead. All it had taken was a small wound from the kitchen knife to kill her, much to my amazement.

“I killed her,” Heather whispered, looking a little shaken. However, I knew that this hadn’t been her first kill since she’d used her makeshift spear to help rescue me.

I nodded and staggered into the throne room, finding that half the faerie who had been chained to the walls were now gone. However, I had a feeling that this wasn’t a good thing. Either the Iron Lord had killed them or he’d forced them to swear his oath of loyalty so there was no longer a reason to keep them there.

“Jimmy.” I gasped, seeing that he was still there though not looking like he was in very good shape. He even had a gag around his mouth.

I rushed to Jimmy and gently put my hand on his shoulder to get his attention. He looked at me blankly, without recognition. I winced at that and pulled the gag off so he could talk.

“Who are you?” Jimmy asked me.

“I’m…I’m Aeslyn,” I answered in a near whisper, cringing in shame. I didn’t want him to see me like this.

“The Iron Lord cursed her,” Corwin explained as he began cutting at Jimmy’s chains. “We’ll get ye out quick lad.”

Jimmy just stared at me for a moment with a look of disbelief. “Aeslyn… How…?”

“He has my true name,” I responded with a wince, earning a gasp of horror from him.

“Ye didn’t do nothing foolish like swearing to him, did ye lad?” Corwin asked with a deep scowl and a sudden suspicious look. “I’ve seen too many others who’d been caught and swore…”

“No,” Jimmy told us with a forced chuckle. “He tried making me, but instead I started to swear that I’d never swear obedience to him.” He shook his head and admitted, “But apparently I wasn’t the first to try that. He silenced me before I could finish my oath and then gagged me.”

As soon as Jimmy was free, dad looked around nervously and said, “We need to get out of her quick... Is there any place we can hide?”

“Like one of those demesne places,” Benji added. “That would be a great place to hide.”

However, Jimmy shook his head. “Then we’d be trapped in there. No, we need to get out of this court… We need to get Aeslyn to safety.”

“We need to keep ye out of that bastard’s hands,” Corwin agreed. “We’ll head to the gate…”

Dad hesitated a moment. “I don’t like leaving Ellen…”

“We cannae do anything for her now,” Corwin assured him. “We’ll have to get to safety and come back with help… For now, getting out of here is our main intent.”

“We can’t leave them,” I pointed out, gesturing to the remaining faerie who were chained to the walls. “We have to free them…”

Corwin scowled in annoyance but nodded and went to the first one with his dagger. Jimmy hesitated a moment and then went to another faerie to see what he could do about getting him free as well.

Just then, dad suddenly exclaimed, “Someone’s coming…”

I looked to the door where he was pointing and saw Tomoki enter. She stopped and stared at us with a grim expression.

“Ye blasted traitor,” Corwin snarled at her. “I’ll have yer hide for what ye did…”

“Aeslyn has been hurt because of you,” Jimmy added, looking as though he was about to jump her with lethal intention.

“I have no choice in what I did,” Tomoki responded, making no move to flee.

Dad glared at her angrily as well before asking, “Aren’t you going to call the guards?”

“Why would I do that?” Tomoki responded with a faint smile. “I was given an order that I not assist the Iron Lord’s enemies in any way, nor was I to attempt to help you escape in any way. However…” She paused for a moment to nod to me, “I was never given an order to stop your escape either.”

“So you’re just letting us go?” dad asked suspiciously.

Tomoki nodded. “I only hope you do so quickly before you are caught by one who will stop you.” She paused for a moment before adding almost defiantly, “The Iron Lord has my obedience…but my loyalty lies elsewhere.”

I just glared at Tomoki for a moment, still furious at her unwilling betrayals. Then I gulped and said, “You can come with us…”

“No child, I cannot,” she told me sadly. “Once the Iron Lord forces an oath of obedience, he immediately gives several orders which prevent one from committing sabotage, harming oneself, or attempting to escape him or his control.” She stared at the floor with a deep look of shame. “He has had much practice in these methods.”

“I’m sorry,” I told her sincerely.

“As am I,” Tomoki responded quietly. “There are others trapped here as well. Some have been forced to swear the oath while many managed to escape into the sanctuary of a demesne. However, when food runs out they will be forced to come out where the Iron Lord’s people are waiting. I fear that before long, even those who are safe for the moment will be captured. Time is not on our side.”

“Shit,” dad exclaimed, obviously thinking about mom.

Then Tomoki gave me an intense look before saying, “I am bound so as not to say much, but your only chance is to seek what the Iron Lord desires… You must find that which he wants from you.”

Tomoki looked as though she was about to say something but then froze with a look of frustration on her face. Obviously, she couldn’t give away too much no matter how much she wanted to.

“You must seek the Aelberon’s treasure,” she said, looking as though it pained her to say even that much.

“Aelberon’s key,” Corwin gasped from beside me. Tomoki nodded to confirm this. “That’s what he’s after?”

“What?” I demanded, “What are you two talking about?”

“Later lass,” Corwin told me. “When we’re safely away.”

“It’s your only chance,” Tomoki told me with a grim look. She gestured around before adding, “It’s the only chance for the Court of the Morning Light. No go… Hurry…”

“But what about…?” I started, then looked at the faerie who’d released. They’d all already run off instead of waiting to go with us. It looked like they were on their own now.

With that, I nodded to her and then turned and hurried out of the throne room as fast as I could move, which admittedly wasn’t very fast. Jimmy wasn’t moving much better than I was, having been beaten much the same way I was. However, he was still healing at a faerie’s pace rather than that of a human.

We ran into one red cap who was roaming the halls, but we saw him before he saw us. The fight was quick and brutal with Jimmy snatching the sword from Benji’s hands and using it to kill the brute. Even as injured as he was, Jimmy was unbelievably good.

In just a couple minutes, we’d slipped out of the palace and were rushing to the nearest way gate as quickly as we could. But even as we ran, I noted that the light was completely wrong. It was as though it was no longer morning in the Court of the Morning Light, but as though it was just a little darker. It appeared that the very illusion that defined the Court of the Morning Light had been somehow damaged or corrupted by the Iron Lord’s presence. I could only fear what that would mean for the faerie who were still trapped inside.

When we reached the way gate, we found that it was guarded by three faerie. One was the tall, gaunt pale skinned one while the second was a muscular red cap with a spear in hand. However, the last of the three startled me because he was about four feet tall, furry, and looked something like a giant teddy bear.

“Is that an Ewok?” dad blurted out in surprise.

The three faerie had already seen us and were starting to advance. I just didn’t know if these ones were going to try taking us alive so we could be forcibly converted to their cause, or if they were planning on killing us. I strongly suspected the latter.

“Stay back,” Jimmy told us, attacking the lead faerie, the red cap.

The red cap tried stabbing at him with his spear but Jimmy was too close and within his reach. Even being as injured as he was, Jimmy was handling this red cap without much problem.

“Damn,” Benji exclaimed, glaring at Jimmy who’d taken his sword. “I wish I hadn’t left that damn frying pan…”

“You were the one who said you felt like an idiot for using a frying pan,” Heather reminded him. “But it was a lot of iron…”

“Don’t remind me,” Benji grumbled, glaring at Heather while she used her spear to poke at the gaunt man.

The gaunt man was keeping just out of range of Heather’s kitchen knife tipped spear, though he kept snarling. Then he suddenly lashed out and grabbed hold of the spear a foot down from the knife tip and tore it from her hands.

Benji rammed into the gaunt man with his shoulder, knocking him to the ground. Then he and Heather tried grabbing for the spear, fighting for it with the faerie. Dad jumped in to help them.

The cute and cuddly looking faerie circled around and came right towards me, using a short speak. Corwin muttered several profanities and jumped back.

“Oh no you don’t,” I exclaimed, using Siffryn to knock the spear aside. I wasn’t as good at fighting as Jimmy but I was able to do all right.

At first, I thought that this cute creature couldn’t possibly be with the Iron Lord willingly, that he had to be one of the faerie who’d been forced to swear an oath. But then I looked him in the eyes and saw a dark and bloodthirsty expression, one which made me realize that reminded me of how you couldn’t judge a faerie by their appearance.

“I’m not a fighter,” Corwin grumbled, picking up rocks and throwing them at the cute teddy bear. “Ye’ll have to deal with it…”

“Caution milady,” Thorn called out, looking as though she was thinking about giving the teddy bear a nice hug.

I grimaced at how much my body hurt but tried to ignore it and just keep swinging my sword. One of the rocks hit the cute faerie in the head, distracting it long enough for me to get closer and drive Siffryn into his chest.

“I can’t believe you just killed an Ewok,” dad exclaimed, having jumped in to help me just a second too late.

Suddenly, the gaunt man got back to his feet, throwing Benji and Heather aside. Then it leapt straight at me with its claws extended. I was able to stab him in the shoulder with Siffryn, right before he knocked me down.

“NO,” dad screamed, “You’re not going to hurt Shane…”

Dad charged at the creature, swinging his sword back and forth wildly while the gaunt man took several steps back. Then the gaunt man lashed out with his hand, grabbing hold of dad’s sword arm and squeezing. There was a sickening crunch that made me gasp in horror.

“Carl,” Thorn yelled out with a look of horror on her face, the same thing that I felt.

“I would make of you a masterpiece had I time,” the gaunt man said, his voice cold and raspy. “Now I must do you the dishonor of hastening your demise…”

And with that, the gaunt man grabbed my dad’s head and twisted it. My dad immediately went limp and collapsed to the ground while I just screamed in horror and rage.

“No,” Jimmy exclaimed, finishing off his red cap and then jumping in and impaling the gaunt man from the side. “You shall not hurt her… You’ll never hurt her…”

“DAD,” I screamed, dropping to check my dad now that Jimmy was dealing with the gaunt man. It was obvious thought that my dad was dead, his neck broken. Tears were pouring down my cheek and I snapped around and charged at the gaunt man again. “DIE YOU BAS…!”

I slashed at the gaunt man with Siffryn, creating a nice slice all down his front so that his insides were starting to spill out. He knocked Siffryn back as I tried coming at him again and then struck out at Jimmy.

Heather had recovered the kitchen knife though the spear had been broken in half so she now held only half of it. Benji was standing back, staring in horror while Corwin snarled a long stream of profanity, most of which was in a language I didn’t know.

The gaunt man knocked Jimmy to the ground and then began to run away, staggering under the half dozen injuries he’d been given, most of which would have been lethal for a human. I snarled and began to chase after him but Corwin stopped me.

“No lass,” he told me grimly. “We dinnae have time for that… More will be coming soon and we have to be gone afore then…”

“But my dad,” I blurted out, staring at his motionless body while tears streamed down my face. “Dad…”

“It’s too late for him,” Jimmy said quietly, putting a hand on my shoulder. “He protected you with his last…just as he always has. Come…he wouldn’t want you to stay and get caught again.”

For a moment, I just stood where I was, feeling surges of grief and rage at war within. I desperately wished that I could swear, that I could give some kind of voice to what I was feeling. Instead, I turned without a word and went to the way gate. Jimmy was right. We had to go while we still could.

Part 28

We ran away from the Court of the Morning Light as fast and hard as we could, not daring to even stop for a rest. This was difficult since Jimmy and I were both beaten and exhausted while Corwin had short legs that couldn't cover the same distance as easily, but we had no other choice. It wasn't until we reached a small crossroads way and then entered another which we could sever behind us to guarantee that we couldn't be followed that we all finally allowed ourselves to rest and then continue at a slower pace.

The way we were currently going through had fields of endless poppies which extended from the path all the way to the horizon in both directions. Of course, they were all just illusion as proven by Heather when she tried picking a flower. She'd stepped two feet off the path to the left only to instantly disappear and reappear two from the path on the right.

Then there was the path itself, a long and slightly winding path that cut through the poppy field and which appeared to be made entirely of bricks. Specifically, the path was made of yellow bricks. If it had been any other time, I would have been making jokes about walking the yellow brick road with a munchkin, but right now, none of us felt like joking.

At first, I'd been in shock but now the emotions were coming harder and faster. I had a maelstrom of fear, grief, and rage all swirling around in my head, each vying for dominance. I could barely see the path in front of me as the only thing that filled my vision was the last image I'd seen of my dad, laying on the ground dead in front of me. Even being trapped in a body that was no longer my own was nothing compared to that horror.

I was barely paying attention to the others as they talked about where we should go or at least trying to find a destination instead of just running at random. "I still think we should go back to Earth," Benji insisted. "There aren't many faerie there and there are lots of places with iron around..."

"Aye, that might work for ye lad," Corwin told him gruffly. "But not for all of us."

"I can't go back," Thorn added sadly. "I can't ever go back to the human world."

"For now, we just need to keep going," Jimmy pointed out. "We can find a place to hide and rest while we decide what to do next."

"Aye," Corwin agreed. "For now we're on the back way to the Crossroads. From there, we'll be able to go most anywhere."

Jimmy just nodded and said, "It's just too bad that the Seelie alliance doesn't really exist anymore, at least not more than in name only." He shook his head. "Maybe we can still find some other courts to help us."

"Perhaps," Corwin mused thoughtfully, stopping in the middle of the way and scratching his beard. He reached into his brown sack and pulled out his pipe which he lit and then calmly sat down to smoke. "The Court of the Morning Light does have some allies yet..."

"Ones who would risk war with the Iron Lord though?" Jimmy asked skeptically.

"Perhaps," Corwin responded, taking a long puff on his pipe. "Let me think on it a minute."

The rest of us all sat down as well, happy to take a break and get some rest. I winced at how all this movement was hurting but the physical pain was nothing compared to the emotional.

"I'm so sorry," Thorn told me with a look of sympathy. She started to reach out for me but then pulled her hand back, looking even sadder as she did so. "Carl seemed a good man."

Jimmy put a hand on my shoulder but didn't say anything. He didn't really need to since I could feel his sympathy for my loss. I could only imagine how hard it would be telling mom about it...and about how I was right there and hadn't been able to do anything.

"If I'd only been faster," I whispered tearfully. "If I'd been better..."

"It wasn't your fault," Jimmy told me. "Never think that. That blame goes on the shoulders of the Iron Lord and no one else."

"Except that pale ass bastard," Benji added angrily. Then he took gave me a sympathetic look and awkwardly added, "I really liked your dad... He was kind of cool..."

Heather came over and gave me a hug, whispering, "I'm so sorry..."

Finally, Corwin stood up and announced, "I think I know where we can find sanctuary." He looked at me with a strange expression before adding, "We'll be needing not just sanctuary but allies. I think I have just the place."

With that, we got up and continued down the way, towards the Crossroads. Corwin didn't say anything more about where he intended to take us and seemed content to just walk in silence.

After a little while, Heather hesitantly asked, "Who's Aelberon?"

"What?" Jimmy asked, giving her a curious look.

"That woman who was pretending to be Mrs. Sune mentioned an Aelberon," Heather said with a thoughtful look. "And when you guys were talking," she glanced to Corwin, "it sounded important."

"He was a bit before my time," Jimmy admitted, looking to Corwin. "He was one of the last great Seelie lords..."

"Aelberon the oathbreaker," Corwin mused with a shake of his head. He paused, looking as though he was going to pull out his pipe again as he did every time he told a story. However, this time he slowly looked at each of us, his eyes settling on me. "The Lord of the Endless Sky. Aye, Lord Aelberon once ruled over the largest of the Seelie courts, and as such, played a pretty part in Seelie policy."

"So he was some kind of king then," Benji added eagerly.

"Aye lad," Corwin agreed. "T'was Aelberon who negotiated the great treaty on behalf of the Seelie, even though he paid a great price to see it made."

"What do you mean?" I asked, curious in spite of myself. I'd heard Aelberon mentioned a number of times, usually in the form of profanity, but Corwin had once talked about him as a warrior during one of his previous stories.

"Aelberon's court was too large to fit into a single realm," Corwin explained. "So in order to move into the realms, he had to break his court apart...into three smaller courts. In order to find safety for his subjects, he had to give up his own throne."

"So, what happened to him after that?" Benji asked. "Is there some sort of king's retirement home?"

Corwin scowled for a moment before answering, "Nae lad, Aelberon didn't last long after. He was killed by an old foe with an iron tipped arrow through the heart. T'was a sad day for the Seelie it was."

"Would this old foe happen to have been the Iron Lord?" I asked, burning with rage for the man responsible for my dad's murder.

"As far as I know," Corwin responded grimly, "the Iron Lord had naught to do with the deed."

Then I saw the look on Corwin's face change ever so slightly. It was a look that I was familiar with, an indication that his story teller side was starting to come out. "Aye, though the Lord of the Endless Sky was ended, he had not been without heir, for three times he had created issue. The eldest was the Lord of the Midday Sun who was slain in battle a full century afore the treaty. Second was the Lady of the Star Filled Night, gone missing centuries ago and nae seen since her father's court was whole." Then Corwin paused for a moment to stare straight at me as he finished, "And then there is Aelberon's youngest daughter, the Lady of the Crescent Moon."

"What?" I exclaimed in surprise. "My mother?"

"Dude," Benji exclaimed. "This Aelberon guy is like your grandpa..."

"Indeed," Corwin responded with a snort.

Heather stared at Corwin and then me before shaking her head and asking, "But what about this treasure she mentioned?"

Corwin just snorted again. "That is a tale for another time...a time when we're safe." Then he started back down the path again, calling out, "Now get yer arses movin if ye want to live..."

As we continued our walk, I thought about Aelberon and what Corwin had said about him, thankful since it gave me something to think about other than my dad or my transformed body. Up until now, I'd never really given a lot of thought to my faerie heritage beyond my mother and father. For all I knew, I had new aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents...and possibly even great great great grandparents wandering around whom I'd never met. It was a lot to think about.

We reached the end of the way and stepped through into the Crossroads without incident. However, I was immediately on guard and ready to draw Siffryn at a moment's notice. I didn't see any enemies around but I clearly remembered what had happened the first time I'd been here. In fact, if we'd been more careful then, Tomoki wouldn't have been captured and none of this would have happened.

"This place is still weird," Benji muttered from beside me. "I swear, I just saw a rabbit with a top hat on..."

"I don't see as many faerie as the last time," Heather pointed out as she looked around.

Jimmy nodded with a scowl. "I'd noticed that as well." Then he abruptly grinned though it was obviously forced, probably in an attempt to try lightening the mood a little. He pointed to one way gate and commented, "That one leads to the Court of the Cherry Blossoms...where Tomoki of the three tails originally belonged. I heard she left when her sister Rukia of the seven tails married the lord of the court. Apparently, Tomoki didn't want to be subservient to her sister, which the rules of that court would have required..."

"Well, the lass is subservient to another now," Corwin muttered bitterly.

"Of course," Jimmy responded quietly, looking embarrassed for having brought Tomoki up considering her part in our situation. He pointed to another way gate and mused, "I believe this gate starts the way path that eventually leads to the Court of the Eternal Peach Tree..." He was obviously trying to change the subject and distract us but it didn't do much good.

Then Jimmy suddenly froze and his expression went hard. He stepped off the path and bent down, picking up a blue and gold face mask. It had been sitting in the middle of a bundle of gray clothes, and when I looked closer, I saw that there was even a spear as well.

"The Ring of Silence," Jimmy said grimly.

"Aye," Corwin responded gruffly, pointing to two similar piles of gray cloth with masks that were nearby. "T'was more than one of them."

I stared down at the clothes and scowled, remembering the ambush that the Iron Lord's people set for the Ring of Silence on Earth. Of course, direct violence was absolutely forbidden here in the Crossroads so that kind of thing seemed unlikely. "What happened to them?"

"A trap it was," a voice announced.

I looked and saw that this came from a tiny man who was crouched down on top of a broken wall nearby, looking down on us. He was about a foot tall and had dark skin but was wearing several pieces of chitinous armor over his chest and shoulders. On his head, he wore a helmet that had a strong resemblance to an ant's head.

"What is he?" Benji blurted out.

At the same time, Jimmy asked, "Did you see what happened?"

"Nuno be my tribe," the tiny man announced proudly as he looked down on Benji. "Far Forager be my calling." Then the nuno looked at Jimmy and said, "Saw it all, I did."

"Then what did you see?" Jimmy asked him with a scowl.

"A gift for me, is there?" Far Forager asked with a hungry expression. "Talk, I will then."

Corwin snorted and then reached into his sack, pulling out a small wheel of cheese which he handed to the nuno. "Just be thankful it's only one of them," Corwin told us quietly. "They're very territorial so if we were near one of the ant hills where they make their home, then we'd be in trouble."

Far Forager accepted the cheese and sniffed it for a moment before nodding acceptance. "A fight there was," he stated, gesturing to the ground around us. "Two groups there were, fighting with each other. But a trick it was... Came, the Ring of Silence did and stop them they tried. Turned on the Ring of Silence, all the fighters did..."

"So it was a trap," I said grimly, thinking of how the Ring of Silence had been lured in for the kill on Earth. It appeared that the same thing had happened here. Two groups started fighting each other in the Crossroads, and when the Ring of Silence showed up to stop them, both groups attacked them at once. I looked at Jimmy and said, "I thought these Ring of Silence guys were supposed to be tough..."

"I'm beginning to think their reputation was exaggerated," Jimmy admitted.

"Aye," Corwin agreed, taking another look around us. "For centuries they've been relying on their reputation and the authority given by the treaty."

"They mostly deal with humans and covering up our existence," Jimmy grimly. "And probably only one or two faerie at a time... I don't think they've ever had to deal with an organized group who was actually targeting them." Then he shook his head and added, "They've probably gotten just as complacent as everyone else."

"Then if the Ring of Silence can no longer be trusted to keep peace in the Crossroads," Thorn said calmly. "It would probably be safer were we to be on our way."

"Agreed," Jimmy responded grimly.

I looked around, realizing now exactly why there were so few faerie in sight like there had been the last couple times I'd come through the Crossroads. They knew of the attack and that this enforced neutral zone was no longer as safe as it had been. I didn't blame them in the least for either hiding or getting out of here while they could.

We quickly hurried through the Crossroads, keeping a look out for anyone who looked like they might be working for the Iron Lord. We saw several armed faerie who looked like they might be possible threats but we kept our distance and carefully hurried around until we got to the way gate where Corwin said we needed to go. It was with a great sigh of relief that I stepped out of the Crossroads and into the next way.

This new way was a path through a forest that reminded me a great deal of the first way I'd ever seen. It was beautiful and relaxing but none of us dared relax too much. We took longer and more frequent rests but each time it got increasingly difficult to get going again. All of us were exhausted but we didn't dare stop for too long, not when we knew there would be faerie out searching for us.

Eventually, after traveling through two more ways, we finally reached our destination. We stepped into a realm and I slowly looked around, seeing that there were heavy trees everywhere along with a lot of mushrooms and toadstools scattered on the ground. In spite of there being no morning mist or ever-present morning light, this place reminded me a bit of back home.

"This is the Court of Silent Footsteps," Corwin said, looking at each of us before adding, "Watch where ye step. If ye don't, we may all end up dead."

We started to talk down the path when suddenly there was movement around us. A mushroom suddenly took several steps, revealing that it was actually a tiny man about seven inches tall who was dressed in brown and who wore a hat that looked like a mushroom cap. Several other mushrooms moved as well, revealing a half dozen little men, each of which was holding either a spear or a drawn bow with the arrow pointed at us.

"Halt intruders," one of the mushroom men exclaimed.

"Don't move," Jimmy hissed at us, holding his hands out to show he wasn't threatening them.

"But they're...tiny," Benji protested, looking offended.

"And armed with poisoned weapons," Thorn pointed out calmly.

Corwin held his own hands up and said, "We mean no harm to yer court... We come seeking sanctuary from yer king."

"And who are you?" the mushroom man who seemed to be their leader demanded.

"Refugees from the Court of the Morning Light," Jimmy answered grimly. "The Iron Lord has invaded."

There were gasps of surprise from the mushroom men as well as some quiet talking between them that I couldn't make out. After a minute, they told us to follow as they went down the path, moving at a very quick pace for their small size though still slow enough that we could take our time. That was fortunate since we were all about to fall over from exhaustion.

We went down the path just a short ways and I saw a squirrel off to the side. However, a moment later he shifted position and I saw that it was actually a tiny man with a long bushy tailed cloak that had a hood shaped like a squirrel's head. I would have sworn he was a real squirrel, just as I would have sworn those had been real mushrooms. Obviously faerie glamour was at play to augment their disguises.

I realized that there were other faerie watching us, though how many I had no idea. I could feel their eyes on me but when I tried to shift my eyes for a better look, nothing happened. The Iron Lord's curse had cut me off from that ability. I'd gotten so used to being able to see through illusion when I wanted that I suddenly felt as though I'd gone blind.

Most of the faerie we passed remained in hiding though some stood out in the open, glaring at us defiantly or just looking curious. A few actually looked vaguely afraid, perhaps due to our greater sizes. All of the faerie I did see though were small, none of them taller than a foot.

We came to the area that was obviously their main habitation as there were wooden doors in nearly every stump and tree, sometimes going up the entire length of the tree. There were rocky outcroppings with intricately carved wooden doors set in them as well and even a few scattered houses, some of which looked like nothing more than bird houses hanging from branches.

A small man with a blue jacket and a red pointed cap stood outside of one of the wooden doors, sweeping with a tiny broom that almost looked like it would have come from some Barbie set. He looked so much like a garden gnome that I had to take a second look.

A short distance away, I saw a tiny woman with butterfly wings flying through the air, being chased by a laughing man with dragonfly wings. Then I caught a glimpse of a tiny blue skinned man who seemed to only be wearing a pair of white pants and a white hat.

I shook my head and mused, "Even stranger than back home." And seeing all of these tiny faerie surrounding us made me feel as though I'd somehow become a giant.

I didn't see any sign of a palace, just an enormous tree with lots of windows and doors all over it and which may have served that purpose. However, we didn't go towards the tree but instead continued until we came to an amphitheater. It was set into the ground and all formed of stone with the far end being set inside of what looked like the mouth of a cave though it only went in about a ten feet. But inside that opening was a raised platform that was nearly two feet tall, very high for the faerie I'd seen here. And of course, on top of the platform was a throne that looked to be made of gold.

The man on the throne was enormous compared to the rest of the faerie in this court, probably standing at a full foot tall. His red hair and beard were liberally streaked with white, giving him a dignified and even regal look which was augmented by his red and gold finery, and especially by the gold crown on his head.

"Corwin, the Teller of Tales," the small king said once we stopped in front of him. He stared at Corwin and seemed to ignore the rest of us at first. "It has been a long time since last you visited our court."

"That it has yer majesty," Corwin agreed, giving a small bow.

Then the king looked over the rest of us, scowling intensely as he did so. Then he demanded of Corwin, "And why are you bringing four humans into my court?" The word 'humans' was said with a strong note of displeasure.

"Nae," Corwin responded. "Only three humans yer majesty." He gestured to me and said, "This is Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes, the heir to the Court of the Morning Light. She was cursed to this form by the Iron Lord."

A lot of faerie had gathered around the amphitheater to watch our audience with their king. At the mention of the Iron Lord, there were gasps of fear followed by quiet conversations that I couldn't make out.

"This is Jimmy, Aeslyn's bodyguard," Corwin continued the introductions, "Thorn, Aeslyn's maidservant. And these two are Benji and Heather, her guests."

The king stared at me with a look of curious interest before asking Corwin, "And why are you all here? My guards said something about seeking sanctuary."

"Aye, yer majesty," Corwin agreed grimly. "The Iron Lord invaded the Court of the Morning Light and is enslaving the people with oaths of obedience." There were more gasps of horror from the gathered crowd. "The Lady of the Crescent Moon is trapped in her demesne, unable to get out for fear of capture. We escaped and seek sanctuary...and perhaps allies against the Iron Lord."

For a moment, the king stared at me again and then at Corwin. "No. I'll not cross the Iron Lord and risk his turning his attention to my court."

"But he's already conquering every court he comes across," Jimmy protested angrily. "Sooner or later he's going to come after you too."

"No," the king said again with a grim expression. "I am sorry for your situation but I cannot help you fight the Iron Lord. And I cannot offer you sanctuary as there are none in this court to speak for you."

Suddenly, another voice called out, "I'll speak for them!"

There were gasps of surprise from the gathered crowd and even the king turned to stare in surprise at the tiny figure which flew through the air and landed in front of him. She stood there in a gold and yellow dress, looking quite determined as well as quite familiar.

"Bibi," I exclaimed in surprise.

"I'll speak for Aeslyn," Bibi told the king firmly. "I'll speak for all of them. They should be granted sanctuary and any help we can provide."

"Honey Stinger," the king said with a scowl. "We cannot risk drawing the attention of the Iron Lord."

Bibi turned and stared up at me with a look of pity and horror. Then she turned back to the kind, her expression becoming one of determination. "Father," she started loudly, catching me a little by surprise. "I have spent the last sixteen years of my life in the service of protecting Aeslyn. I will NOT abandon her now when she needs me most."

"Listen my daughter," the king told Bibi, sounding more gentle. "Your oath to the Lady of the Crescent Moon has been fulfilled. Your duty is completed and your debts have been repaid."

"Not the debts to myself," Bibi responded, putting her hands on her hips. "I watched Aeslyn take her first step. I was there on her first day of school and when she had her first kiss." I blushed at that last part and quickly glanced at Heather. "And I was there upon her first majority when she slipped the bindings of a changeling and assumed her true form. I watched over her and protected her every day for sixteen years and that does not go away just because my obligation has been fulfilled."

Benji gave me a confused look and whispered, "Who is that?"

Bibi paused to look up at me again, her expression difficult to read. Then she turned back to her father and announced loudly, "If Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes and her companions are turned away from this court, then I will depart with them and will never return." She hesitated only for a moment before adding, "This I swear."

Suddenly the entire amphitheater exploded into chatter as none of the witnesses could believe the oath she'd just sworn. The king stared at his daughter with a look of shock and then he stared up at me. I imagined that he was wondering why Bibi would swear an oath like that in order to help me. I was wondering the same thing, being just as surprised as everyone else.

"Very well," the king announced reluctantly, staring at Bibi again with a scowl. "They will have sanctuary." Then the king stared at me again and his eyes seemed to say, 'You had better be worth this'. I could only hope I was.

Part 29

The Court of Silent Footsteps is comprised mostly of brownies, sprites, piskies, and several other tribes that are physically small and who, back on Earth, had usually lived right under the noses of their human neighbors without being noticed. Of course, it made sense that their court was made with those of their size in mind and was not set up for visitors as large as we were.

The six of us who'd come here seeking sanctuary had been brought to the one room in the entire court that was big enough to handle all of us comfortably. It was actually a cave rather than a room, a large and well lit cavern that was used by the Court of Silent Footsteps as a banquet hall, one big enough to contain every member of their court at once. All of the tiny tables and chairs had been moved aside to give us even more room, all that we would really need.

Once we'd been shown to the cave where we would be staying, two healers came in to look at us. One of them was a woman with a red dress with black spots on it, reminding me very clearly of a ladybug. The other was an old man with a beard that was so long he actually had it wrapped around his waist like a belt. Neither of them said a word as they went to work examining our injuries and healing them with magic.

We all had bruises and scrapes from our escape though Jimmy and I were by far the worst due to the beatings we'd been given. However, Jimmy still had his faerie healing and had already recovered a great deal, leaving me as the worst of the entire group. When the healers went to work on me and my bruises started to fade away at their touch, I let out a long sigh of relief. It didn't take long before the pain receded to nearly nothing, though I was still so exhausted that I fell asleep well before they were finished.

When I woke up, I had no idea how long I'd been out though I did feel much better. All of my aches and pains had vanished with the healing, though my body did still feel completely wrong. However, that was a completely different issue.

As I sat up, I noticed that I was on a mattress when I knew quite well that I hadn't been when I fell asleep. I slowly looked around and saw that there were more mattresses set up around the cave, though I was the only one who'd actually been sleeping. Everyone else appeared to have gotten up well before me.

"You're awake," Jimmy said when he saw me. He gave me a worried look and cautiously asked, "How are you feeling?"

I thought of my dad and winced, grimacing even more when I remembered that my mom and mother may very well face a similar fate if we didn't find a way to get them out of there. "Not good," I finally answered Jimmy. "But I'll live."

"They brought us food," Thorn said, coming over and setting a tray down in my lap. It contained some fruits, nuts, and some cooked meat that I couldn't identify. "I thought you might be hungry milady."

"Thank you," I told her, giving a faint smile. It seemed just a little strange with her calling me 'milady' when I was currently in male form, but at the same time, it was also kind of nice for the confirmation that she still thought of me as female.

I ate in silence, trying very hard not to think about my current situation. I felt a little numb at the moment but knew that if I allowed myself to think about it too much, I'd probably collapse into tears. Even as I ate, I had to fight back the mass of dread that sat in my stomach like a lump of lead.

Once I finished with my meal, I got up and stretched. It was nice to have something in my stomach and to not be hurting, but being in the wrong body took most of the enjoyment out of that.

Heather watched me with a strange expression, then when I stared back, she explained, “The way you move… You look like a boy again but you move like a girl… Your body language is all girl…”

“What?” I asked in surprise.

“I hadn’t really thought about it when you were a girl,” Heather told me, “But it was definitely feminine… You’re still moving like that…”

“If I didn’t know who you really were,” Benji added, “I’d think you were totally gay… Sorry…”

“Must be Tomoki’s lessons,” I responded self-consciously.

Just then, Bibi came flying into the cave and hovered in front of me. She stared at me with a worried look for a moment before asking, "Are you all right?"

"I'll live," I told her, repeating what I'd said to Jimmy a short time ago.

"But you're not all right," Bibi said grimly. "I can see that..."

There was a flash of golden light and suddenly Bibi was standing beside me at human size. Benji and Heather both jumped in surprise, staring at her with their mouths open while Thorn looked as though she was trying to hold back a smile. Jimmy didn't even bother holding back his laugher.

"Jimmy told me what happened," Bibi said quietly. "We had a long talk while you slept and he told me everything." She bowed her head and added, "You have my deepest condolences for your loss."

"Thank you," I responded awkwardly. "And thank you for what you did...for speaking up for us. But won't you get in trouble with the king...with your father?"

"He is not happy," Bibi admitted with an amused smile. "But I think he is also intrigued with you, though he does not yet admit it."

"Um...hi," Benji introduced himself to Bibi. "I'm Benji..."

"Yes, I know you well Benji," Bibi told him, earning a look of confusion. She looked to Heather and added, "I know you too Heather, though neither of you knows me."

"What?" Benji asked.

"I am called Honey Stinger," Bibi told them, "though Aeslyn calls me Bibi. It would be acceptable if you choose to do so as well. It is a pleasure to finally meet you both officially. Jimmy has told me of how you came to be in the realms and I am sorry that you have been brought into our conflict."

Benji stared at her for a moment and then looked at me with a curious look. "Didn't you tell me once that you used to have an imaginary friend named Bibi when you were a kid?"

"Indeed," Bibi responded with a look of faint amusement.

Heather gave her a suspicious look and demanded, "How come you say that you know us?"

"She was my bodyguard," I told my friends awkwardly. "Apparently, she was following my around as my invisible guardian angel since the day I was born." Heather and Benji both gasped in surprise at that while I looked at Heather and asked, "Remember when Guy and Eddie were messing with us at the mall and Guy got stung?" When Heather nodded, I continued, "That was Bibi who stung him."

"I was present when you first met Shane," Bibi said.

"Holy shit," Benji exclaimed, staring at Bibi in horror. "You were spying on us?"

"You mean she was watching us when we made out?" Heather demanded, glaring at me as though it was my fault.

"I didn't know," I protested. "I didn't even know she existed until this all happened..." I was about to gesture down at myself but then realized that was pointless since I was physically back to what I'd been before 'this' happened.

Heather glared at me for a moment longer and then at Bibi, exclaiming, "Damn voyeur faerie..."

"I gave Shane as much privacy as I could while still performing my sworn duty," Bibi protested, though Heather didn't seem to care and just snorted and then stomped off to the other side of the cave.

"Dude," Benji said, looking at me and then Bibi. "That is totally wrong..."

I looked at Jimmy for help, wondering how come I was the one being blamed for the fact that Bibi had been spying on me. However, Jimmy just shrugged, apparently finding the situation somewhat amusing even though he wasn't saying anything.

After this, I talked with Bibi for awhile, filling her in on what had happened in my own words. She scowled intensely when I told her of Tomoki's forced betrayal then shook her head sadly, feeling guilty for her part in allowing Tomoki to have been captured by the Iron Lord's people.

"This never would have happened had I been more aware," Bibi told me sadly. "Had I avoided being captured by that hag..."

"It's too late now," I told her, remembering my own feelings of guilt as well.

I knew that there was nothing Bibi could have done, and in thinking about that, I suddenly realized that the same held true for myself. There was nothing that I could have done. It helped ease my feelings of guilt, though not by much. However, it did help my feelings of anger rise to the surface.

"But we have to do something," I stated with a grimace, letting the anger wash over me, finding comfort in it. "I can't just run away... We have to do something to help them all..." And of course, even though I didn't say it aloud, I also had to get revenge for my dad.

"I don't think there's anything we can do," Heather said, coming back over. "You saw those guys... They have an army. A scary one."

Intellectually, I knew that Heather was right and I absolutely hated it. I also knew that I had to do something. I couldn't live with myself if I just ran away and hid while all those people in the court were captured and enslaved. I especially wouldn't be able to live with myself if anything happened to my mom or mother while I was doing so.

Then I remembered what Tomoki had said about needing to find what the Iron Lord was after. I turned to Corwin, who'd been sitting back and silently smoking his pipe, asking, "Aelberon's treasure... What did Tomoki mean?"

Bibi frowned for a moment before saying, "Tomoki would not give a warning without good cause."

"Aye," Corwin agreed slowly, taking a puff on his pipe. "Tis time for that tale though I don't know what good it'll do ye."

Corwin sat there for another minute, silently puffing his pipe with a thoughtful look on his face. Benji and Heather quickly grew impatient but I was used to Corwin's slow pace so remained where I was, letting him take his time since he would anyway.

"Aelberon, the Lord of the Endless Sky was once a great and powerful Seelie lord," Corwin began. He talked about Aelberon for nearly a minute, listing some of his accomplishments and finally giving me the name of the court that he used to rule before it was broken into three smaller ones. Then Corwin gave a dramatic pause before adding, "But the Lord of the Endless Sky was also known as Aelberon the oathbreaker, a title that was considered unimaginable for everyone knows the impossibility of a faerie breaking a sworn oath."

"But what about the treasure?" Benji asked impatiently, only to be elbowed and shushed to silence by Heather.

"How could Aelberon be called oathbreaker when such a thing is impossible?" Corwin asked with a sparkle of amusement in his eyes. "I'll tell ye how it came to be."

Corwin went into a story of how Aelberon had sworn an oath in front of multiple witnesses to hunt down and kill a faerie who'd been accused of a horrible crime. After a decade, Aelberon finally found his quarry but discovered that he was innocent of the crimes he'd been accused of. Aelberon's oath had said nothing about what would happen if the man were innocent and it demanded that he execute the man anyway. However, Aelberon shocked everyone when apologized and let the man go unharmed, breaking his oath in the process.

"But how could he break his promise?" I asked, definitely interested in that piece of information.

"Gyffendrach," Corwin answered, pausing to look at his pipe which had gone out. "Gyffendrach was his secret." With that, Corwin stopped his story to fill his pipe with fresh tobacco and to get it lit again.

“What the hell is Gyffendrach?” Benji demanded impatiently.

Only after Corwin had taken several more puffs from his pipe did he continue. "Gyffendrach, which means 'the key' in the old tongue, was Aelberon's sword. T'was called Rulecutter, Oathbreaker, and simply Aelberon's key, all of which are apt names. None know where Aelberon came by such a treasure and the Lord of the Endless Sky would not say. All that any knew was that with this blade, Aelberon could undo any rule, binding, or oath laid upon a faerie. And as we faerie are defined by that which binds us...it can also undo any faerie."

"Holy shit," Benji gasped.

Bibi and Jimmy both nodded grimly before Bibi said, "Gyffendrach is considered one of the greatest legends of faerie. It holds the promise of freedom and the threat of taking away who we are."

I just sat there in stunned silence as I realized the possibility of this thing. It could break the curse that held me in male form and even free me from my own promise to never swear again. However, far more importantly than freeing me from my own promise, it would let me free Tomoki and everyone else who'd sworn to obey the Iron Lord.

"No wonder the Iron Lord wants it," I mused. "If anyone else had this, they could take his own army away from him."

"More than that," Jimmy added with a scowl. "If he had it, he could remove every rule and oath that binds a faerie...stripping them of much of their own identity."

"He could take away any previous oaths of loyalty and then force them to swear to him," Bibi added.

I gulped as I considered that, though I was more interested in what it could do for me. I felt a surge of hope as I thought of being able to use this sword to cut through the magic that held me in this form, letting me free from this cursed straight jacket of my own flesh. I felt even greater hope as I thought of freeing Tomoki and all of the others in the Court of the Morning Light. Gyffendrach sounded like it was exactly what we needed to escape the Iron Lord once and for all.

"And where is it?" I asked Corwin.

"Aye, lass," Corwin responded with a deep scowl. "That is the problem. Ye see, Gyffendrach was being kept safe in Aelberon's demesne when he died."

I gasped at that, knowing exactly what that meant. "Da...darn."

"What?" Benji asked, looking around. "You know where it is so why don't you just go get it?"

"Because," Thorn said quietly. "When a faerie dies, their demesne becomes unbound and vanishes into the void...along with everything within."

“What does that mean?” Heather asked with a frown.

“It means that everything in his demesne is lost forever,” I responded with a sigh.

“Not forever,” Bibi responded thoughtfully. “The demesne’s of dead faerie still exist but no one else has access to them...at least not until they become part of a realm.”

At this point, Jimmy explained, “When these dead demesnes bump into each other, they can merge and start forming realms. And whenever a demesne bumps into a realm and merges with it, the realm grows that much larger while everything that had been in the demesne is left in the realm.”

“So Gyffendrach is either in the void where no one can get to it,” I sighed, “Or it reappeared in some realm… How would we know which one?”

“Aye lass,” Corwin agreed. “That is also a problem problem. Even if Aelberon’s demesne merged with a realm, there is no way of knowing which one. It could be anywhere in the realms...or yet remain in the void.”

I scowled as I thought of that and then shook my head. “Then why in the world does the Iron Lord think I know where it is?”

“I cannae be sure,” Corwin responded grimly. “I suspect the Iron Lord believes Gyffendrach was nae in Aelberon’s demesne and thinks yer grandfather left it hidden elsewhere.”

“But even if he did, how in the world should I know?” I demanded.

“I told ye the tale would probably do ye no good,” Corwin told me with a shrug.

We were all silent for a minute as we considered this and how much trouble we were in. The Iron Lord wouldn’t give up until he found something which could not be found while that very thing was our best possible weapon against him. Even if Gyffendrach had been hidden away somewhere other than in Aelberon’s demesne, where would we even start looking?

Then an idea suddenly came to me and I gasped, “I wonder…”

“What?” Benji demanded. “Have you figured it out.”

I reached to my wrist and removed my special piece of jewelry, holding it out in my palm so that everyone could see the silver sphere. “My mother gave this to me for my first majority,” I stared at it intently. “She was insistent that it was extremely valuable and that I couldn’t let it out of my sight.” Then I looked to Corwin and added, “She told me that her father had given it to her for her first majority.”

“So Aelberon gave that to the Lady of the Crescent Moon,” Corwin mused, starting to reach out for the sphere but then pausing to pull his hand back. He stared at the sphere suspiciously. “It may be just jewelry, but with Aelberon ye can never tell.”

I stared intently at the sphere, wondering intently if this might be some sort of map or clue to where Gyffendrach was hidden. It seemed pretty far-fetched and more than a little stretch.

After a few seconds, I put the sphere back on my arm, halfway between my elbow and wrist. It quickly spread out as it always did and locked itself in position as a beautiful piece of jewelry.

“Now why don’t you tell me where Gyffendrach is?” I mused aloud.

Suddenly, the gem began to glow with an eerie green light. I gasped in surprise while the others all stared at me in amazement. I held my hand out and noticed that the brightness of the glow seemed to alter as I moved my arm.

“It stops glowing when I point my arm this way,” I said, holding my arm pointed to the back of the cave. Then as I turned around, the glow grew stronger, becoming strongest when I pointed towards the entrance we’d come into the cave from.

“Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Jimmy exclaimed in amazement. “It seems Aelberon left a little something for his heirs.”

“Maybe it’s like a compass,” Heather pointed out. “Maybe it points right to where that sword is…”

“Aye, that is a surprise,” Corwin agreed, actually grinning as he stared at my glowing jewelry. “That just might help us against that iron plated bastich.” Then he said, “I have another surprise to that I’ve been saving.”

“Another surprise?” I asked.

Corwin went and grabbed the brown cloth bag which I’d come to realize was actually the opening to his own demesne. He went to one of the mattresses that had been set out and then began shaking something out of the bag.

A pair of feet came out of the bag and then the legs they were attached to started to emerge. A moment later, a large man was laying on the mattress, a large man with antlers coming from his forehead.

“Father,” I exclaimed in amazement.

“I got Lord Effram to safety when the Iron Lord invaded,” Corwin said, looking just a little smug. “They would have killed him if given half a chance and I cannae allow that.”

I stared down at my father with a feeling of relief but also of guilt. I’d been so concerned about my mom and mother that I hadn’t even given thought to the fact that he’d been left behind in the Court of the Morning Light as well.

“Thank you,” I told Corwin. Then I looked at my jewelry which had ceased glowing and felt my determination grow. “Now we have some plans to make.”

Part 30

It had been a full day since I'd discovered the secret of the jewelry my mother had given me, that it was the key to finding the long missing Gyffendrach. I'd experimented with it a little since then, finding that it would glow and point me to where I needed to go whenever I asked it to show me where Gyffendrach was, but it would only do this while I actually had it on and not when it was just held in my hand. I also found that it pointed right to one of the way gates, which was obviously where we needed to go.

I would have begun following this lead immediately but Jimmy had insisted that we wait long enough to rest up and to make preparations. It was frustrating to wait but I knew that he was right, that we couldn't just run after it without at least thinking things through.

At the moment, all of us refugees except for Corwin were sitting around a nice sized pond, what would probably be considered a lake by residents of the Court of Silent Footsteps. Jimmy had removed all his clothes and gone skinny dipping, seeming completely unconcerned with this nakedness. It appeared that public nudity was not considered a taboo by most faerie courts, in in fact, some of them banned clothing altogether. Of course, Benji wasn't going to be outdone...at least not by much, and stripped down to his underwear for a little swimming as well.

Heather and I watched the boys swimming with some amusement, though both of us pretended that we were completely uninterested and hadn't noticed. I couldn't help but thinking about what my interest meant for my sexuality, thought I'd actually already noticed that I was finding guys more appealing. I suppose it shouldn't have been a surprise since in spite of my current body and upbringing, I was really female inside.

I made a clear point of not looking at Jimmy or Benji while they swam, other than giving the occasional sidelong look from the corner of my eye. Instead, I focused on trying to use my magic, or at least what little I possessed. I already knew that I could no longer see through illusions but I discovered that I couldn't call on any of my magic at all or even summon my demesne. The most I could do was make the sigil on my palm glow since the Iron Lord's curse interfered with everything else.

After Jimmy and Benji were done, they came back to shore and began drying off. A minute later, Heather suddenly exclaimed, "Benji, I didn't know you had a tattoo..."

"I don't have any tattoos," Benji responded with a confused look.

However, Heather pointed to the pack of his shoulder, "There... It's sort of silvery..."

"But I don't have a tattoo," Benji protested, trying to get a better look though he could hardly see anything since she was pointing to his own back.

"Oh that," Jimmy responded after taking a quick look. "That's Aeslyn's sigil."

"What?" I asked in surprise, moving closer so that I could see that Benji did indeed have my sigil on the back of his shoulder. It was the familiar spiral with a line through it, all in a silvery color. The sigil on my hand tingle when it got closer. "It is my sigil... But how?"

"I have one as well," Thorn responded from where she'd been sitting and watching everything in silence. She raised her sleeve to show an identical mark on her upper arm, though her normal green thorn tattoo was very close to it. "It means that milady has marked us as her own."

I gasped in surprise, wondering how either of them had those marks since I certainly didn't remember putting them there. Until now, I hadn't even realized that I could put my sigil on other people.

"WHAT?" Heather gasped in shock, staring at me with a look of horror. "You branded them like some kind of cows?"

"Not intentionally," I protested, feeling confused. "I didn't even know I could..."

"Being marked with a sigil is quite common within the courts," Thorn told Heather and Benji, looking almost confused as to why Heather was offended. "It is a mark of who your patron is that all can see. I bore the sigil of The Lady of the Crescent Moon until milady accepted me as her guest."

"So you're like, her property?" Heather exclaimed, looking even more offended than before.

I felt a bit offended myself, having been uncomfortable with the whole guest and patron thing since I first heard about it. However, marking people as if they were property somehow felt even worse. Then I realized that if Thorn got my sigil when I accepted her as my 'guest', then maybe I accidentally marked Benji when we had our kiss. I blushed brightly as I remembered that.

"Please," Jimmy said, gesturing for Heather to calm down. "I'm afraid that you misunderstand what the sigil represents."

"I'm not exactly happy about getting a tattoo without even being asked," Benji snapped, glaring at me quickly. "My mom and dad are going to kill me..." Then he paused to shake his head and added, "Well, this just gives them one MORE reason to kill me."

"Her sigil merely notes that she is your patron," Jimmy tried explaining to them. "Humans are not bound by faerie rules, and in most courts, have no legal protections. The only protections you have are those provided by your patron. It means that if you break the rules, she is the one held responsible. If anyone wishes to harm you, they have to go through her. I will admit that some faerie could consider that a mark of ownership, but to others it is merely a mark of protection, one given to humans that they wish to protect." He paused to stare at Heather and then Benji before continuing, "Aeslyn risked a great deal to try warning you of a threat. Do you really think she would ever harm you?"

"Not intentionally," Heather admitted.

"I didn't even know I did that," I told Benji. "I'm sorry...."

"Your magic was probably reacting to your desire to protect Benji," Jimmy said. "Magic is not always under our control." Then he looked at Benji and added, "Aeslyn can remove the mark when she wishes so it does not have to remain permanent."

"But you marked Benji as your property," Heather argued, and angrily demanded, "Did you give me one too?" She stared trying to look over her arm to see if there was any sign of my sigil.

"No, you haven't been marked," Jimmy told her. "I'd be able to sense it if you were..."

"Don't insult milady Aeslyn," Thorn suddenly ordered Heather angrily. "I have been in the realms for two hundred years, and in that time I have been considered either pet or servant, but until I was given to milady's care, I have never been considered a person."

Heather and Benji both stared at Thorn in surprise, though whether from her outburst or from the realization of how old she was, I wasn't sure. I was a bit stunned myself because I'd never seen Thorn angry, not even while she was fighting the guards to help me escape.

"Milady is the only one in two hundred years to consider my choice," Thorn continued, glaring at Heather. "I was given into her care by the Lady of the Crescent Moon but I remain with her because it is my own wish." She put a hand to where my sigil was on her arm and announced, "I am proud to bear her mark."

For a moment, all of us stared at Thorn in amazement while Benji and Heather seemed to lose their anger. I'd seen the way Thorn went after those guards in order to rescue me from the Iron Lord, using her own curse as a weapon. And now, she was trying to defend me against my own friends even when it wasn't really needed. I couldn't help but feeling touched by her loyalty and I silently promised myself that I wouldn't ever take it for granted.

"So this can come off?" Benji asked carefully, glancing at Thorn as if worried she might yell at him.

"Yes," Jimmy assured him. However, he put a hand out to stop me from attempting to do that and then looked at Heather. "But as we are still in the realms, it would be safest if you were both marked for now. Aeslyn can remove your marks when you return home, but in the realms, any faerie can claim a human who has no patron, so having your patron's mark visible can forestall a great deal of trouble."

After a minute, Heather agreed to let me mark her with my sigil, just to prevent any other faerie from trying to claim her. I wasn't sure what I was doing so reached out and touched her upper arm, willing her to be marked. The sigil glowed on my palm and then the same symbol appeared on her arm where I'd touched it. I let out a sigh of relief, thankful that at least one of my faerie powers still worked.

"It ticked a little," Heather told me when she ran her hand over her new tattoo. "And it feels a little cold to the touch."

Benji just grinned and said, "Now we all have matching tattoos..." He gestured to my hand and then glanced at Jimmy. "Well, almost all of us."

Heather and Benji began comparing their 'tattoos', now seeming almost excited about them. I just shook my head, hardly able to make any sense of my friends at all. At least they weren't accusing me of branding them like cattle.

Just then, I noticed Corwin coming towards us while Bibi flew alongside him, just over his shoulder. "I've been talking with the king," Corwin said once he was close enough. "He's impressed by the thought of finding Gyffendrach...but not enough to help."

"My father thinks it's a fool's errand," Bibi added with a scowl, hovering in the air as she spoke. "He thinks this is a goose chase that will lead to failure."

"Aye," Corwin said. "And perhaps it is. Oathbreaker is believed lost for good reason. But Gyffendrach may be our best chance of getting the Court of the Morning Light back from that iron bastard."

"I tried talking my father into offering more assistance," Bibi said, shaking her head sadly. "He said that if he'd known the Lord of the Morning Light was with you, that he would have offered sanctuary immediately. However, he still won't provide any other assistance. He's afraid of the Iron Lord attacking us. I've tried convincing him that the Iron Lord will come for us eventually, but for now..." She shrugged.

"The king did offer supplies for yer journey," Corwin said. "And he offered continued sanctuary for lord Effram and those who stay behind."

Bibi suddenly transformed to human size with a flash of golden light and then put a hand on my shoulder. "I'm certain that if you can find Gyffendrach, my father will change his mind. A tool like that could change the balance against the Iron Lord."

"But first I have to find it," I reminded her grimly.

"And I wish ye luck lass," Corwin said. "I'm no fighter so I'll be staying here."

"Well, I'm going," Benji stated. "I'm going to help you find this magic sword..."

"Thank you," I told Benji, feeling grateful for the offer but sad at the same time. "But I want you to stay here too..." I looked at Heather and Thorn. "All of you..."

"But why?" Benji gasped, looking offended.

"You have shown yourself brave and true," Jimmy told him, looking to Heather and Thorn as well. "But none of you are fighters. I would not put you at risk and I think Aeslyn would never forgive herself if anything happened to you."

Benji grimaced, "But I want to help..."

"As do I," Thorn added quietly. "But they know not where they are going and having humans with them may draw unwanted attention. At the moment, our best help may be merely to stay out of their way."

"I think she's right," Heather told Benji, putting a hand on his shoulder. "I don't like it either...but she's right. We'd just get in the way."

"Damn," Benji cursed, then gave Jimmy his best version of 'the look' and said, "You'd better watch out for him...her..."

"I will guard her with my life," Jimmy assured him.

"As will I," Bibi added, earning looks of surprise. "I too will go with you, not just for your sake, but for that of my own court. Though my father sees it not, this is our best chance against the Iron Lord."

"But what will your father say?" Jimmy asked Bibi.

"Let me worry about that," Bibi told him. "There is another complication though, one which means we will have to leave as soon as possible."

"Another complication?" I asked with a scowl. "How many do we need?"

Bibi stared at me for a moment before saying, "Since the Iron Lord knows your true name, he may use it to find where you are hiding."

"Leading him straight here," Jimmy whispered in realization.

"If ye knew the Iron Lord had Aeslyn's real name," Corwin asked Bibi, "would ye still have spoken for her?"

Bibi glanced at me for only a moment before responding, "Yes, I would have."

"Then I have to get out of here," I said grimly, not wanting to put this court in any more risk than I had to.

Jimmy nodded, "In that case, our best bet may be to keep moving for now."

Since we now realized that it was dangerous for me to stay in any one place for too long, we hurried to get ready for our journey. Bibi had already gathered most of what we needed, placing food, water, and other supplies in the pouch on her belt which was actually the entrance to her demesne. In that fashion, we were able to store our supplies without taking up any obvious space.

Once we were ready, I said goodbye to my friends who were remaining behind. I felt guilty for abandoning Benji and Heather in a strange place like this, but I knew that I would have felt much guiltier if anything had happened to them. I felt a stab of pain as I had a flash of my dad lying dead on the ground. I wasn't going to let that happen to them and I wasn't going to let that happen to my mom or mother either.

Jimmy, Bibi, and I quickly went to the way gate that my bracelet pointed to, though we found a small gathering was already there waiting for us. The king stood next to the gate with his various guards and courtiers scattered about. There was one faerie hovering beside him who looked like a four inch tall teenage girl with emerald green hair and dragonfly wings.

"Father," Bibi greeted him cautiously. Then she gestured to the green haired faerie and said, "This is my younger sister, Emerald Gini."

Bibi's sister Emerald Gini suddenly flew up into my face and glared at me before exclaiming, "So you're the reason Honey has been gone for so long. You don't look like anything special to me."

"And you still look like a little brat to me," Bibi told her sister with a faint smile as she flew up beside her. "Some things never change."

"So," the king announced, staring at Bibi. "You would leave without my permission...and only having just returned."

"I feel that I have to," Bibi told him, landing on the ground in front of him. "I do this not only for one I consider to be as family, but also for what I believe to be the ultimate good of our court."

The king stared up at me with an intense gaze that suddenly made me feel like he was the giant and I was the tiny one. He scowled deeply and I had a sudden fear that he'd order his guards to capture me or worse rather than risk Bibi coming with me. Then he finally spoke, announcing, "Honey Stinger seems to value you greatly. Then for her sake, I wish you well on your quest."

"Thank you," I told him, letting out a sigh of relief.

"I will speak to the other lords of the Seelie," the king stated. "I will see if anything of the old alliance remains in truth. They may work together for defense against a mutual threat, but do not hope for much assistance in retaking your court. They will not likely be roused to assist an untried girl just barely past her first majority." Then he paused to smile as he added, "Of course, possession of the Aelberon's key may yet change that."

I just nodded in understanding that finding Gyffendrach may not only be the key to freeing those who were sworn to the Iron Lord, but also to gaining the allies I'd need to help free my court. I grimaced in determination, silently promising myself that I wouldn't fail. No matter what it took, I was going to find Gyffendrach before the Iron Lord and use it against him. One way or another, he was going to pay and my grandfather's sword was the key to seeing that happen.

"Now daughter," the king said, putting an arm around Bibi who was less than half his size. "I would speak with you for a moment." I half expected him to sit down and have her sit on his lap as if he was Santa. Instead, he bent down and talked to her for a couple minutes, though I couldn't hear what they said. He then handed her something which she quickly slipped into her pouch. "Now take care and watch your back."

Emerald Gini flew back up into my face again and threatened, "You'd better bring Honey back safely or else."

"Behave," Bibi warned her sister as she flew up and landed on my shoulder.

Emerald Gini just scowled and told her, "Good journey and stay safe."

"Good journey," the king called out to us.

I'd already said goodbye to Benji, Heather, Thorn, and Corwin, but they'd all made their way over and were watching us from a distance. I waved one final goodbye to them before I turned and left through the way gate.

Part 31

I was getting more than a little tired of walking through ways. Sure, each one was different and unique and they could be quite interesting to see, but it still required a lot of walking and I was burned out of walking for mile after mile.

While we walked, I occupied my mind by thinking about how faerie should build a train system through the ways or at the very least, have roads so cars and motorcycles could help people travel instead. Of course, I knew full well that such things would never happen. After all, not only would that require a lot of iron but most faerie seemed to be pretty old fashioned when it came to technology. I found that rather ironic for a race that prided themselves on their racial adaptability.

I had brought up the subject of horses since those would probably be more accepted, and Jimmy said that some faerie actually did use mounts of various sorts to travel through the realms quicker. However, he and Bibi also pointed out that most of those mounts were actually other faerie, usually from tribes with forms more inspired from animals such as horses than from humans.

Of course, there were other things that occupied my attention as well during this journey, things which filled me with rage, grief, and determination. Nearly every time I closed my eyes I could picture my dad lying dead on the ground, or just as bad, imagine the same fate for my mom and mother. Jimmy seemed to be feeling much the same and was probably picturing Shyla's last moments.

Our group was mostly quiet but filled with grim determination. Even Bibi who hadn't lost anyone in the attack was silent, either floating beside me or riding on my shoulder without drawing much attention. I was just grateful she had chosen to come with us.

We finally stepped out of this way and onto a nice sandy beach. I immediately paused to look around, soaking in the smell of the ocean which spread out in front of us. I looked the other way and saw what appeared to be a lot of rocky outcroppings and jungle. However, my attention immediately went back to the water which I thought looked extremely inviting.

"This should be a good place for a break," I told my companions.

It had been a full day since we'd left the Court of Silent Footsteps and the entire time since had been spent either walking or taking quick breaks, napping for short periods when necessary. It had been several hours since our last real break so I was definitely in need of one. Thanks to the Iron Lord's curse, I'd lost my faerie stamina along with my natural body so tired faster than Jimmy.

"It looks like a good place," Jimmy agreed. "As long as we don't offend any of the locals."

I looked around but didn't see any local faerie, but then again, I hadn't seen any when I first stepped into the Court of Silent Footsteps either. When I still saw nothing, I returned my attention to the ocean, pausing when I suddenly realized that the water was infested with sharks.

"Not a good place to swim though," I muttered, seeing multiple shark fins above the surface, and when I looked closely, I could see more of the fish moving beneath the surface. "Definitely not a good place..."

In spite of this not being a good place to go swimming, it was still a perfect spot for a rest and meal. Bibi grew to human size just long enough to pull some food from her pouch, then she shrunk back down so as not to use up her limited time at that size in case she had need of it later. We all ate in silence while watching the sharks swimming in the water.

We were about halfway through our meal when I suddenly noticed something from the water. A man started to step out of the water and walked straight towards us. He looked like some kind of Pacific islander with well-tanned skin and black hair that came down to his waist. He had some sort of a sash around his waist and carried some sort of wooden club that had sharks teeth embedded in it for a nasty edge.

The man stopped a short distance away and asked, "Are you travelers or do you come with purpose?"

"We are mere travelers and have no issue with your people," Bibi answered.

"We're just passing through," I told him, pointing down the beach to where my jewelry said we needed to go. "There's another way gate that way I believe..."

"Indeed there is," the man responded. "You are welcome to travel through our realm as long as you stay to the sand and do not bother us."

Then the man smiled, a smile that was a bit too wide for any human to make and with teeth that were all very sharp looking, like a shark. He turned and walked back to the water where he disappeared beneath the surface. I just stared after him, suddenly realizing that all of those sharks in the water actually were the local faerie. If I'd still been able to shift my eyes, I would have been able to see their auras and would have known that already.

"The locals won't always be this friendly," Jimmy told me grimly. "Especially when we cross through their realms... Some courts give freedom of movement to travelers going from one gate to another, but certainly not all of them."

"Fortunately," Bibi added with a grin. "This will make it much more difficult for the Iron Lord's people to find us."

I nodded at that and then suddenly froze as I felt a tingle pulling at me. I let out a gasp, somehow knowing without a doubt that someone was using my true name in a spell. Since it was impossible to bind me in any way without actually being present, that meant only one thing. The Iron Lord was finally using my name to try finding me.

"He's finally started doing it," I said after Jimmy and Bib stared at me curiously. "He's using my name."

"Aelberon's balls," Jimmy exclaimed. "I was hoping we'd have more time before they tried that."

"We have to go now," Bibi continued. "We need to get as far away from here as possible and keep moving."

I nodded and began walking down the beach, regretting the need to leave so quickly. This might be a nice place to come back to on vacation, assuming I live long enough to ever have another vacation again. It was a grim reminder of my situation and just how serious it was.

The next way gate was just a couple hundred yards down the beach, marked by a circle of sea shells that were embedded in the sand. My jewelry compass said that this was where we needed to go so we left this paradise and stepped into the next way, one which was much less pleasant and looked more like a swamp. Unfortunately, the illusion was strong enough that it smelled like one as well.

It seemed to take forever before we reached the end of that particularly unpleasant way and ended up in another small realm that seemed to be used as a crossroads. It was thick with trees and brush but I could see several way gates scattered around. I consulted with my jewelry and saw which direction it was pointing so we started towards it. I just wondered how far we'd have to go and wished that thing gave distances as well as direction.

Suddenly, Bibi yelled out, "Watch out!"

"What?" I gasped while Jimmy drew his sword. Then I saw the red cap coming out from behind a tree and coming straight towards us, a massive double bladed axe in his hands. Siffryn was in my own hand a moment later.

Now I was beginning to hear crashing from all round us and realized that we were surrounded. More figures began to appear from the brush, one of them a red cap who was wearing a crimson baseball cap while the others looked like they might have come from the Court of Endless Screams or elsewhere.

One of the faerie who stepped out looked like a fat and ugly human with grayish skin and patches of what seemed to be mold all over him. However, as disgusting as he looked, that was nothing to the one who looked like a zombie from some horror movie. I felt chills of terror go down my spine at the sight of him and I more than half expected him to call out, 'brains...' However, he remained silent, merely glaring at me with an empty eye socket while holding a wickedly curved short sword.

Then there was what appeared to be a giant toad who was about four feet tall, all with grayish green skin and warts. Stepping out from behind one tree was a creature that was shaped a bit like a voluptuous human woman, except that she looked like she was made entirely of vines. Her whole body seemed to be dark green vines that were tied together into vaguely human shape and were moving around as she did. However, where her arms would have been, there were instead two long thorn covered vines from each shoulder.

The last figure to step out from the brush behind us was the most confusing because she looked the most normal. It was a fairly attractive woman who was holding a baby. Because of her normalcy and apparent innocence, I grew even more concerned about her.

"I think we're in trouble," I said with a forced smile, trying to form enough bravado to hide my growing terror.

"There she is," the red cap with a crimson turban said, pointing right at me. "The boss was right... If we waited here, she was sure to come to us..."

"That one must be taken alive," the one woman with the baby said, burping her baby as she did so. She pointed to me, though there was no real need to do so.

"A symphony of agony, I shall create," the zombie said in a cold and wheezing voice that sent even more chills down my spine.

"That one definitely has to be from the Court of Endless Screams," I muttered in disgust and anger. From what I'd seen of the members of that court, I wouldn't be surprised if all of them except the two red caps came from there, except perhaps the woman with the baby.

Suddenly, the toad snapped out its tongue and caught Bibi in mid-air. It immediately pulled her back with its long tongue, but an instant later, she was at human size and impaling the creature with her spear. She pulled her spear out with a look of disgust and made sure to stab at it several more times.

"I hate frogs," Bibi exclaimed vehemently.

The other creatures were already charging us, though fortunately, they seemed to get in each other's way more than anything else. The zombie jumped at Jimmy, moving faster than I would have imagined. However, while doing so, the zombie got in the way of one of the red caps and the fat guy with the moldy skin.

At the same time, the vine woman and the woman with the baby both started to focus on me. The vine woman reached for me with the four thorny vines that were in place of her arms, vines which stretched out at least four times longer than she was tall. One of the vines wrapped around my ankle and I screamed as the thorns dug in. Another vine grabbed around my arm with equal painfulness.

I snarled and lashed out with Siffryn, slicing loose the vine that held my arm but she pulled back on the one on my leg, making me fall to the ground and get pulled towards her. Bibi used her spear to attack and impale the vine woman, causing her to release me. However, the vine woman didn't seem to be really hurt from having a spear go through her stomach, merely annoyed.

At this point, the woman holding the baby suddenly threw the baby right at me. As it came towards me through the air, I saw that its eyes were solid black and it opened its mouth far wider than a human could possibly do so, revealing several rows of sharp teeth. Claws had even grown from its fingernails so that this thing that should have been small, cute, and helpless, had instead become a tiny creature of terror.

I instinctively held my arm up to block the baby and it suddenly bit into my forearm. Only the jewelry that was spread out over my arm prevented its needle sharp teeth from tearing into my skin. As soon as it realized this, it dropped to the ground and then jumped towards my legs. I jumped back just enough to avoid being bitten again.

While the red cap with the baseball cap was being fended off by Jimmy, the one with the turban attempted to attack Bibi from behind while she was busy dealing with the vine woman. But just as his axe reached where she was, Bibi suddenly shrunk and flew through the air to him, stinging him just beneath the eye. The red cap howled in pain, dropping his weapon as he grabbed for his injured face. It probably wouldn't have been a bad injury considering Bibi's size, but I'd learned that she could coat her spear with poison so that even at such a small size, it could be extremely damaging.

The baby leapt at me again though I blocked it with Siffryn. In the process, I saw that it had a long fleshy umbilical cord that stretched back over twenty feet to the woman. I felt disgusted at the realization that they were still attached. The woman then started pulling on the cord as though it was a rope, pulling the baby back to her. Once she had it in her hands, she suddenly began swinging it around above her head by the chord before releasing it and flinging it back at me again.

"What is this?" I yelled in frustration, though neither Bibi or Jimmy responded. Of course, I didn't really expect them to since they both had their hands full.

Suddenly, the zombie's head went flying to the side, courtesy of Jimmy's sword. However, he still had to deal with the red cap and the moldy skinned man. His sword was flashing back and forth as he tried blocking one and then the other, staying too busy with his own opponents to assist me with my single one.

The vine woman's body had completely unraveled so that she was no longer in human form. Instead, she was a big mass of vines that were trying to snap at the very fast and agile Bibi while starting to reach for me again.

Bibi suddenly grew back to human size just long enough to drive her spear through the throat of her red cap opponent and then she turned and tried using the tip to slash at several vines before she shrank again. She quickly dodged back as more vines snapped at her, including the ones which had been coming towards me.

My own opponent looked strangely calm and serene as she flung her own demon baby at me again. This time, I dodged to the side and slashed down with Siffryn, slicing through the cord that tied her and the baby together. When the baby hit the ground, this time it remained motionless, like a puppet whose strings had been cut. Now the woman was starting to look angry and her own eyes were starting to turn just as black as the baby's had been.

"You sidhe look like humans," the moldy skinned fat man exclaimed as he swung an axe at Jimmy. "I wonder if you taste as sweet..."

"You'll never find out," Jimmy responded, driving his sword right into the middle of the man's chest and then spinning around in time to block the red cap's attack.

Bibi returned to human size and slashed at two more of the vine creature's tentacles before dodging back out of the way again. She was slowly taking the vines apart one at a time. However, there were still several swirling vines remaining so the creature was still a threat, though one Bibi was well into dealing with.

The woman I was fighting snarled at me, truly looking furious for the first time. She charged at me and when she got closer, she swung her own fleshy cord at me as though it was a rope. It hit my legs and started wrapping around them, much as the vine woman's arm had earlier. I was about to slash at the cord with Siffryn to free myself, but she suddenly pulled me hard, knocking me off my feet and making me drop my sword in the process. Then she started pulling me towards her while backing up, quickly moving me too far to reach my weapon.

At this point, Jimmy had finished with his red cap and had left him disemboweled on the ground. He started to come help me but I snarled, "No... I've got this..."

I no longer had my weapon and the woman had jumped on top of me in attempt to strangle me, but I wasn't about to play damsel in distress and let Jimmy save me again. I grimaced in determination, refusing to give up. I wasn't going to just sit back and wait to be rescued yet again. I had to prove that I could take care of my own fights, even if to no one other than myself.

Jimmy seemed to understand what I was asking because he stood back, watching carefully but not interfering. I had no doubt that he would jump in to assist the moment that things went too far, but I appreciated that he was giving me the chance to finish this myself.

"I don't care if the Iron Lord wants you alive," the woman hissed at me. "I'm going to kill you for what you've done..."

I couldn't answer that as she had her hands around my throat and was choking me. Her mouth began to grow wider and wider, revealing several rows of sharp teeth much as her baby had. I could feel her fingernails growing longer and becoming claws as well. I tried not to think of that though and instead focused on what I could do. In spite of what she was, this fight wasn't really all that different than some I'd had on the playground as a kid.

"Aeslyn," Jimmy called out, looking as though he was about to jump in.

I just snarled and punched her in the throat as hard as I could, earning a gasp of pain and a releasing of her hands from my neck. Then I did something that I never would have done back on the playground, I grabbed at her eyes and dug my fingers in until I felt something warm and gooey. At this point, she released me completely and grabbed at her face, screaming in pain. A moment later, she was the one on the ground while I was on top of her, punching at her over and over again, releasing all the rage and frustration that had built up. In my mind, all I saw beneath me was the gaunt man who'd murdered my dad.

"Enough," Bibi said after a minute, pulling me off. "You've finished her..."

I stood back up, feeling weak and shaky. My hands were hurt and were covered with blood and gore, making me feel disgusted. However, that was nothing compared to the disgust I felt at the realization that I'd just beat a woman to death with my bare hands. Once upon a time, I never would have dreamed of even hitting a girl but now I'd done this...

"What did I do?" I gasped

"What you had to," Jimmy pointed out grimly, putting a hand on my shoulder. "It was you or her. But next time...try to use your sword."

I just nodded numbly at that and then looked over to the vine creature, or at least what was left of it. There was a ball of short stubby vines that was still writhing and appeared alive, but Bibi had removed all of the longer ones, leaving it completely harmless.

Just then, there was a howl of rage from behind me. I snapped around to see the mossy skinned man was back on his feet and charging at me with his axe overhead. Jimmy quickly drew his sword again but suddenly our attacker fell face first into the ground. I gasped in surprise as I saw an axe embedded in the back of his head.

"What the...?" I stared, then froze as I realized there was another figure standing a short distance back from the moldy skinned man.

The newcomer was definitely female and more than a little familiar. I gulped as I recognized Jewel, the red cap who'd been coming after me with an obsessive determination. She had her eyes fixed on me and snarled as she bent down to retrieve her axe.

"Ye have to hit a bog man in the brain to kill him," Jewel stated with a grimace. Then the mildew skinned fat man began to slowly get back up. Jewel slammed her axe down into his lower back and he collapsed to the ground again, completely motionless. "And their brains are above the arse..." She gave a nasty grin as she added, "Talk about a tribe with their heads up their arses..."

Jimmy and Bibi took positions to each side of me, making it clear that she wasn't going to get past them to get at me again. I retrieved Siffryn while Jewel remained where she was, watching me intently though keeping her axe lowered.

"Ye'll not be needing that," Jewel finally said, looking at Siffryn. "I'll not be harming ye..."

"Like I believe that," I responded with a glare.

"Ye bested me thrice," Jewel told me with a scowl and then spat off to the side. "Ye spared me thrice. By the rules that bind me, I cannae ever raise me weapon against ye again...for any cause. If ye tried killing me now, I cannae even defend meself." She didn't look at all happy about that admission.

I gasped in surprise at that statement, as did my two companions. "Then why come here?" I demanded. "Why did you help us?" I gestured to the bog man she'd killed.

Jewel removed the beret from her head and stared at it in silence for a moment. It was still white, indicating that she'd never soaked it in blood. This suggested that the bog man had been the first person she'd ever killed and she'd just earned the right to soak her cap and take a portion of his physical strength. However, she made no move to do that.

"The Iron Lord did a real number on ye," Jewel said instead, staring at me with a grim look. "He shamed ye, cursed ye, and then killed yer human da..." She frowned, her expression turning sympathetic for just a moment before returning to hard and angry. "Tell me then.... Are ye gonna keep opposing him…or are ye gonna run and hide like a babe? Do ye mean to kill him?"

"Yes," I responded, my anger matching that in her eyes. "I'm going to break this curse... I'm going to free my mom and mother... I'm going to free everyone in my court from his control. And yes, I'm going to do everything I can to kill that monster."

"Good," Jewel told me, looking strangely satisfied at that. "I too know loss... Ye were the one who shamed me...more than ye can know. But it was the Iron Lord who killed me da. It was the Iron Lord who murdered him without cause..." She looked as though she was shaking with barely contained rage as she said this. She looked at her beret and then the bog man, saying, "This is me first true kill but I cannae soak me cap..." She looked back at me again and added, "I've sworn not to soak me cap till it be in the blood of the Iron Lord."

"I'm sorry," I told her, realizing the seriousness of that oath for a red cap. To my surprise, I found myself feeling sympathetic to this girl who'd tried to kill me on several occasions. Of course, I could understand what she felt since my own dad had just been murdered as well. It was strange to realize that we had something like that in common.

"Ye shamed me greatly when ye bested me and dinnae kill me the last time," Jewel told me grimly. She bowed her head silently for a moment, looking as though she was lost in thought. "Ye left me with but three choices... I could live in shame. I can die in shame. Or..." She paused to stare at me for a few more seconds, as though trying to decide something. Then an expression of determination appeared on her face. "Or I could put me honor in yer hands."

With that, Jewel suddenly dropped to her knees in front of me, placing her axe flat on the ground as if it were an offering. She bowed her head, stunning me completely with this display.

"What...?" I started to ask.

"I be called the Jewel of Bonesplitter's Heart," Jewel stated, her voice shaking just a little as she continued, "And I swear loyalty and obedience to ye and yer cause...till death or ye release me."

All I could do was stare down at Jewel in complete and utter shock, hardly able to believe that any faerie would ever make such an oath of their own free will. The fact that she was actually making it to me felt more than impossible, but there was no denying what she'd just promised and what it now meant to her.

I had no idea what I could possibly say to something like this, so I said the only thing that came to mind and squeaked out, "Welcome to the team..."

Part 32

It was strange to continue our journey with Jewel walking along with us and more than a little unnerving. I kept glancing to her, thinking of how she'd tried to kill me on several occasions, though she made absolutely no threatening moves now. Her expression was mostly difficult to read but I did see resignation in her eyes, that she'd willingly bound her fate to my own and had accepted this completely.

The whole reason Jewel was with us was because I'd beaten her three times, in spite of the fact that she was stronger and nastier than me. The first time I'd met her had been in the Crossroads, though the two of us hadn't actually fought at that time.

The first time we fought was when I tried rescuing my mom and dad. I'd blinded her and then left her rather than taking advantage of the fact she couldn't see me to finish her off. I hadn't really considered that a fight, but apparently she did.

Jewel and I had fought for the second time in the very same realm when she attacked me during our attempted escape. In spite of that being so close to our first encounter, both in time and distance, she still seemed to consider that a separate fight. And finally, there was the fight outside of Benji's house, the one where I'd left her in tears. It was hard to believe that these little skirmishes had been enough to make her swear such an oath.

In spite of Jewel's oath, Jimmy and Bibi were keeping a close eye on her, as though afraid she might change her mind and jump me at any moment. I was a little concerned myself, but after she went so far as to make that kind of a promise, I didn't think she'd turn on us now. In fact, I didn't think she even could turn on us now. Jewel hadn't just sworn obedience to me but also loyalty. That kind of oath went even deeper than the one Tomoki was now bound by.

For the most part, Jewel walked a short distance behind us, keeping her distance due to the awkwardness. However, she had come closer when asked and seemed to have absolutely no problem answering any questions I chose to ask her.

"I'll tell ye what I can," Jewel had told me. "But I dinnae know much. Me da was chief of our clan and was the only one to meet with the Iron Lord. He dinnae tell us their plans, only when and where to fight."

In spite of that, Jewel did have a lot to tell us about what the Iron Lord had already done, what allies he'd already gathered, and all the rumors and gossip that were going around his forces. It was educational, not to mention frightening at just how much power he'd already gathered.

"The Iron Lord was never part of either the Seelie or Unseelie courts," Bibi commented grimly. "He always seemed to dislike both and spent centuries apart. Then he began gathering outcast without court or even tribe and then started recruiting in the Unseelie courts..."

"He probably started with the Unseelie before the Seelie because they're more sympathetic to his goals," Jimmy pointed out.

"Aye," Jewel agreed. "That farching iron cocksucker offers us what we want for the most part, rather than using force. At least, until he had enough strength to use force on those who refuse."

I noticed that she'd said 'us' rather than 'them' which was a rather clear reminder that she was more related to the Unseelie side of things than the Seelie. But from what I understood, her red cap clan weren't actually part of any court since the Unseelie court they'd once belonged to had collapsed completely a couple centuries ago.

"And what exactly has he been offering them?" I asked.

"Earth," Jewel responded with a shrug. "Humans. Many a faerie are being unhappy with the treaty and long for the days of old, the days when humans hid in fear of us. The Iron Lord offers old territories that we were chased from, humans for all the sport we be wanting, and a return to glory..." The look on her face when she said 'glory' made it clear which motivation had caught her interest.

"What the Iron Lord plans would be a disaster," I said grimly. "For both humans and faerie..."

Jewel looked a little skeptical at that but didn't argue. Bibi pointed out, "Returning to war would devastate our peoples... We faerie still haven't fully recovered from the great wars of centuries ago... Unlike humans, we reproduce more slowly and cant’ afford the losses."

"There are a LOT more humans than there were when the faerie left," I told Jewel. "And a LOT more iron. In fact, even if there was no iron at all, it would still be a VERY bad idea to start a war with them. You have no idea the kinds of weapons they have now." I shuddered at the thought of what would happen if someone managed to get just a single nuke into the realms.

When we reached the end of the way, I paused to consult my jewelry which confirmed this was the way gate we needed to go through. I knew it would continue working as a compass for another minute so I'd check it again as soon as we came through the other side and entered the realm.

Jewel watched me curiously but didn't say anything. So far, she hadn't even asked where we were going or what our quest was, seeming satisfied to merely come along. However, I knew that I'd have to tell her soon, either that or send her away.

As soon as we stepped into the next realm, I paused to look around. I could see lots of grassy hills with trees scattered about, even in a few thick clusters in the distance. All in all, this looked like a somewhat peaceful park, especially since there was a pleasant wind blowing. In the distance, I could see some people moving, ones who appeared to be children playing. That added to the impression of this just being a park.

Then I checked my bracelet and saw which way the glow was pointing. I gestured in that direction for my companions and then we began to walk, hoping that none of the adults of this realm took offense at our taking a short cut through it.

It only took a minute before the nearest children noticed us and some began to come in our direction. Others began to appear from closer by, having been hidden from my sight by the nearby hills. Before long, we were surrounded by a dozen of these children, several of which held nasty looking knives in their hands. A few more appeared with bows that were drawn and had their arrows pointed right at us.

A little girl with blonde pig tails and who was wearing a very old fashioned dress came forward and pointed up at us accusingly, "Grown-ups aren't supposed to be here..."

"Grown-ups are bad," one of the boys stated.

I gasped in surprise, taking a closer look and realizing that the little girl had pointed ears. In fact several of these 'children' had pointed ears, though some of the others were rounded. I gulped, realizing that I'd forgotten one of the most important lessons I'd learned...not to judge a faerie by appearance.

"This is the Court of Lost Children, isn't it?" Jimmy exclaimed with a look of surprise.

None of the apparent children answered and all continued staring at us with either looks of curiosity or hostility. Jewel snarled and looked like she was about to attack these 'children' but I gestured for her to stay still. They still had arrows pointed at us and I certainly didn't want to get killed because we jumped the gun. Jewel scowled but remained still.

"They don't look TOO old," one of the boys pointed out.

Jimmy, Jewel, and I all looked like we were about sixteen or seventeen, definitely older than these faerie appeared to be but perhaps not old enough for them to consider us as 'grown-ups'. Of course, Bibi looked a few years older, but she was pretty small and they probably wouldn't see her as clearly.

"I say we kill them," one little boy with round ears exclaimed. Several others started to echo agreement.

"No," one little girl added. "Let's play with them... They look like fun..."

However, the blonde girl with pigtails who'd first approached us said, "No... We'll let the Piper decide what to do with them..." That elicited nods of agreement from all of them.

"Easy," Bibi said as she landed on my shoulder. "I think their arrows are poisoned. Don't give them reason to shoot." Then she flew to Jewel to give her the same warning.

The children had us follow them through the hills, towards the person that they called the Piper, who I assumed was their leader. I didn't bother offering any resistance since it wouldn't do much good just yet. We'd have to wait to see their leader and then just explain that we were passing through.

"What tribe are they?" I asked Bibi quietly.

Bibi stood on my shoulder and answered, "Half of them are elves.”

I was a little startled at that since they didn't look like the elves from Lord of the Rings, nor did they look like the elves I'd always associated with Santa Clause. I thought those elves were just little men with beards.

"The other half are humans," Bibi added after a moment, earning another gasp of surprise from me. "Most of them have probably been guests here for centuries."

I just stared at all of the 'children' who surrounded me, suddenly realizing that this was what Thorn had told me about, how some human guests were permanently bound as children, never allowed to grow up at all. I couldn't help but feeling a stirring of wonder as well as of horror.

"The Court of Lost Children is well known for taking in lost children and orphans," Bibi told me. "And for occasionally taking some who do have parents and homes."

After that, I looked around carefully, trying to pick out which ones were the elves and which were the humans. They all dressed much alike, some in old fashioned clothes while others wore nearly rags. The easiest way to tell humans from elves were the pointed ears and the fact that all the elves seemed to have brilliant green or purple eyes.

Then I noticed several other faerie, tiny ones with wings who were darting around. They immediately made me think of the Court of Silent Footsteps and the friends whom I'd left behind there. Bibi watched them with a curious expression.

"I'm going to scout," Bibi whispered into my ear. A moment later, she vanished and there was only a large bee hovering in her place. I knew that this was just illusion, the same way that she'd kept from being seen for most of my life. Still, it was a strange experience to watch this little bee fly off in her place.

A few minutes later, we reached our destination, obvious due to the fact that there was a wooden throne, one which looked like it had been made by a bunch of kids using tree branches and rope. However, sitting in the throne was what looked like a twelve year old boy, one who looked just a couple years older than everyone else I'd seen in this court. He wore loose fitting green clothes that looked old and faded. The boy also had a set of pan pipes that he was currently playing.

The Piper played his pipes for another minute, producing a strange yet beautiful sound. He didn't even look at us, acting almost as though he didn't know we were even there. Once he was finished though, he set his pipes down and then looked up at us, giving a cocky grin as he did so.

"Visitors," the Piper exclaimed. "I love visitors...except for grown-ups. You look a little too much like grown-ups for my tastes..." He gave us all suspicious looks.

"We are just travelers," Jimmy told him pleasantly. "We didn't come to cause any problems for you or yours. We were just going to the next way gate and plan to be gone as soon as possible."

"What?" the Piper asked, "You weren't even going to say hi? How rude." Then he jumped off his feet, revealing that he had a short sword strapped to his belt. He came towards us with a cocky grin on his face, looking at Jimmy and me and then at Jewel. "And what's your name?"

All three of us gasped at what was obviously a very intentional act of rudeness. Jewel started to reach for her axe, and the only reason she stopped was the fact that we still had arrows pointed at us. Even then, I suspected that she still would have gone after him anyway if I hadn't been there as well. The Piper just jumped back, laughing as though this was some sort of game.

"Come closer," Jewel told him with a nasty looking grin. "I'll tear yer farching tongue out and shove it up yer arse..."

The Piper just laughed again as did most of his people gathered around. "I don't think you're just travelers," he stated after giving another look. "I think you're treasure hunters. I love a good treasure hunt..."

"This one has a pretty shiny," the blonde haired girl in pig tails exclaimed, pointing to the jewelry on my wrist. "I want it."

"You can't always have what you want," I told her, giving the girl a warning look not to come closer.

"It's a very pretty shiny," the Piper agreed, staring at me with a look that revealed something in his eyes that was far more than the playful boy he appeared. "But not the treasure I'm interested in." He grinned at me and added, "I think, you're looking for a sword."

Jimmy stiffened beside me, obviously as surprised as I was that the Piper was that close. I watched him for a moment, suspecting that this wasn't just some guess. He knew more about us and why we were here than he should.

"Jimmy already has a sword," I pointed out, not mentioning the fact that Siffryn was a sword as well and not just the small dagger it appeared. "Why would we need another?"

"Because a treasure hunt is fun," the Piper responded with a grin. "Looking for the treasure can be even more fun than having it."

Then the Piper reached for some cloth that was folded up on his throne and being used as a cushion. He shook it out, revealing that it was a hideous patchwork cloak made from patches of about a half dozen different colors, almost like a quilt. There was brown, tan, black, red, green, and even a few patches of orange. He put the cloak on though kept it pulled back and didn't bother raising the hood.

"Now tell me, where is this treasure you are seeking?" the Piper said. "Me and my friends would really like to know."

"I have no idea what you're talking about," Jimmy responded. "We're just travelers, not treasure hunters."

"Would you swear to the truth of that?" the Piper demanded of him with a cocky grin. When none of us said anything, he responded, "I thought not."

"How about you?" the blonde girl demanded of Jewel, pointing a dagger at the much larger red cap girl.

Jewel just shorted, "Blow it out yer arse ye stupid twit. And if ye think to scare me with yer blade, ye've got another thing coming. I've shat bigger turds than ye." While the blonde girl was standing there with a look of shock on her face and while I was trying to hold back a laugh, Jewel stared straight at the Piper and said, "Whether ye believe me or not, I dinnae know a thing about any treasure."

The Piper leaned back into his chair again, absently rubbing his cloak in what was probably mean to be a dramatic fashion. "My sources said that three faerie were in search for a very special treasure. I didn't think that I'd be lucky enough to have you walk into my hands like this, but I do mean to have that treasure."

I quickly glanced to Jimmy, realizing that the Piper didn’t seem to know about Bibi. It appeared that his mysterious sources hadn’t told him that Jewel had joined us as a fourth member, though I was definitely wondering who his sources were.

“Where is it?” the Piper demanded again, this time with a hard edge to his voice.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied to him.

The Piper snapped his fingers and suddenly several of the ‘children’ threw some powder at us. The instant it hit, I collapsed to the ground, unable to move my body. I gasped in surprise, seeing that Jimmy and Jewel had just been dropped the same way.

“We got you, we got you,” one of the apparent little boys bragged excitedly while the rest of the ‘children’ laughed in delight, acting as thought this was some kind of game that they’d just won.

The ‘children’ immediately rushed us and started taking away our weapons. Even Siffryn which didn’t look very dangerous in comparison to Jimmy’s sword and Jewel’s axe was taken. Then the blonde girl started grabbing at my jewelry, trying to force it off my arm. Fortunately, since I was the one who’d put it on, I was the only one who could remove it.

“You stupid boy,” the girl exclaimed, kicking me in frustration. “Boys don’t need bracelets… Stop being so selfish…”

“Girls,” the Piper said in an exasperated tone that I well recognized. I’d said the very same thing in the same tone myself on more than one occasion. “Leave it be Windy. Just get them thrown in the dungeon. You can worry about getting the shiny later.”

I just closed my eyes and groaned, knowing that this was not good. First, I’d been captured by the Iron Lord’s people and now I was being kidnapped by a bunch of little kids. If Benji found out about this, I would NEVER live this down.

Part 33

The Piper’s ‘dungeon’ was actually a tiger trap, a very large hole in the ground that had steep sides so as to make it impossible to climb out of. There were a few poles over the top of the hole to form bars, not that they were necessary since we wouldn’t be able to climb the sides.

‘Children’ looked down at us from above, mimicking monkeys and making faces at us. A couple of them threw fruit down at us and then they all began laughing before running off.

“Well that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” I told Jimmy with a sigh.

“Me?” Jimmy responded in surprise. Then he grinned and responded, “One of these days…POW…to the moon…”

“Don’t threaten her,” Jewel snapped at Jimmy, causing Jimmy to stare at her in surprise. She looked as though she was ready to attack him if he tried anything.

“He’s just joking,” I told Jewel, surprised by her reaction. “He’s my bodyguard and my friend. He’d never actually hurt me.”

I stared at her for a moment, still not completely sure about her though. I thought about giving her a few direct orders to make sure she never did, just to ease my own concerns, but it just seemed wrong to do that.

“We need to get out of here,” I said, looking up at the opening.

“Agreed,” Jimmy responded, looking thoughtful. “The question is, how?”

Jewel just scowled in annoyance and sat back without saying a word. I looked from her to Jimmy and then back up to the opening, smiling faintly as I did so.

“We still have an ace up our sleeves,” I reminded him. “Bibi.”

I didn’t see a way out of here yet so sat down while Jimmy wandered around our small enclosure looking for a way out. Eventually, he gave up and sat down as well.

Then I suddenly felt it, the tugging on my very being that indicated my true name was being used again. I gasped in horror, realizing that as long as we were trapped here, we were sitting ducks for when the Iron Lord’s people arrived.

“The clock is ticking,” I said grimly. “The Iron Lord is looking for me again.”

“Then we’re going to have to get out of here soon,” Jimmy told me.

Bibi arrived about an hour later, flying down into our hole and exclaiming, “I can’t leave you alone for five minutes…”

“And hello to you too,” I responded.

“So what did you find on your scouting trip?” Jimmy asked.

Bibi frowned, hesitating a moment before saying, “I was talking with some of the faerie of my size… Of course, I had to offer them a bribe of honey and bread before they’d open up, but I found out a few things.”

“So did we,” I responded grimly.

“Like that Piper is a farching arse,” Jewel muttered. “Just wait till I get me hands on him…”

“Well, for one, I found that the Piper and his followers don’t have a very high opinion of their smaller brethren,” Bibi said. “It seems they completely ignore them and call them insects.” She snorted in disgust at that.

“Which would explain why they didn’t even care that you got away,” Jimmy added thoughtfully. “They didn’t even seem to notice you were ever with us.”

“In this case, it’s to our advantage,” Bibi said with a nod. “I also found out that this is one of the courts my father sent a message to in order to try recruiting allies.”

“So that’s how he knew about us,” I responded grimly. I stared at Bibi for a moment and added, “Your father may have put a little too much information in his messages.”

“I think you’re correct,” Bibi agreed with a sigh. “But I also have the feeling that the Piper has other sources of information. But more important than that, the Iron Lord sent a messenger to the Piper as well…offering an alliance.”

“Don’t look at me,” Jewel said with a shrug. “I dinnae know about it.”

I gasped in surprise. “But isn’t this a Seelie court?”

“It is,” Bibi agreed. “Or at least it was. The Iron Lord offered the Piper the freedom to go back to Earth and collect as many new children as he wanted. Apparently, some of their games are rough and their human guests occasionally die while playing.”

“So he wants to replenish his numbers,” Jimmy mused. “That can still be done under the current status quo, but it would definitely be easier for the Piper if he didn’t have to worry about the Ring of Silence.”

“The smaller faerie don’t think he intends to really join the Iron Lord,” Bibi told us. “Instead, it seems that the Piper is trying to play both sides. It seems that what he really wants is Gyffendrach for himself.”

“Gyffendrach?” Jewel blurted out in surprise. “The Oathbreaker?” She stared at me and demanded, “Is that what yer after?”

“It’s what the Iron Lord is after,” Jimmy told her grimly, giving her a suspicious look. “We’re just trying to find it before he does.”

“I thought the Oathbreaker was long lost,” Jewel said after a moment. She stared at me again before asking, “How can ye find something that’s been lost for centuries?”

“Aelberon was her grandfather,” Jimmy answered. “And it appears he left behind a map for his descendants.”

“Of course, ye have me help,” Jewel stated as though it was a simple fact. “I’ve already given me oath and have no intention of letting it be broken by that iron prick. I’d rather me oath stay with the one of me own choice.”

I just nodded at that and then looked up at the top of the pit again. “First, we need to get out of here before the Iron Lord sends more people.”

“I didn’t see any rope up there,” Bibi commented. “I’ll see if I can find some.”

Jewel held up a hand and said, “Wait a moment…”

With that, Jewel took off her beret and then reached into it with her hand going in all the way up to her elbow. She then pulled out some rope that had been rolled up tightly, holding it out for Bibi.

I just stared at Jewel’s hat for a moment, surprised at the fact that it was also the opening to her demesne. Of course, I knew that I shouldn’t have been since a red cap’s hat was their most prized possession, valued even over their weapons.

“I’ve got me backup in here too,” Jewel said, reaching into her hat again and pulling out a short sword.

Bibi nodded and turned to human size. She took the rope from Jewel and slipped it into her own pouch. A moment later, she shrank back to her tiny size and flew back out of the hole.

Within a minute, Bibi had removed the bars on our cage, tied the rope to a tree nearby and dropped the other end down into the pit so we could all climb out. I let out a sigh of relief when we reached the top and were free.

“I thought there would be guards,” Jimmy said as he looked around.

“There were,” Bibi responded with a shake of her head. “They got bored and wandered off to go play…fortunately for us.”

We found our weapons which had been confiscated, all thrown into a pile. Jimmy reclaimed his sword, Jewel her axe, and I returned Siffryn back to my belt. Now that we were free and armed again, we still had to get to the way gate and escape this realm.

“Now to get our bearings,” I said, checking with my bracelet to see which way it pointed. “That way…”

We quickly started in the direction pointed out by my bracelet, hoping that the way gate wasn’t far. Several times, we could see ‘children’ playing nearby and we ducked down and snuck by before they really saw us.

“This place is like the Lord of the Flies,” I muttered, thinking of the book that we’d just finished reading in literature class at school, before all this had started happening.

Suddenly, I heard the sound of musical notes coming from a distance. A group of ‘children’ who appeared to be playing tag a little ways away all froze and looked in the direction that the music was coming from.

“They know we escaped,” Jimmy said grimly.

The ‘children’ all began running towards the sound while two of them pulled daggers out of their belts. “We’re under attack,” one little boy yelled out. “Let’s go get the grown-ups…”

“Under attack?” I asked, looking to Jimmy and Bibi.

“Possible,” Bibi agreed. “But unlikely.”

A moment later, I heard a loud roar from the distance, one which sent chills up my spine. I was pretty sure that roar hadn’t come from any of these ‘children’ or elves.

“I think it sounds more than just possible,” I told her, not sure whether to go see what was going on or to continue towards the way gate. After a few seconds, the decision was taken away from me as a creature appeared in the air above a hill in the distance.

The creature that was flying towards us was a bird…a monster bird that was bigger than any I’d ever before seen, easily larger than some airplanes. It was also ugly, looking like some sort of giant vulture.

“It’s a roc,” Bibi cried out in fear. “HIDE!”

All of us dove for cover behind some large rocks, hoping that the bird didn’t see us. It flew past without giving a glance back towards us so it appeared that our hiding had worked. However, as it flew past, I could see that it had large bundles held in each of its talons.

The roc swooped towards the ground some distance away and dropped both of its bundles. Then it shot back up into the air again, letting out another roar like the one we’d already heard. Seconds later, it had flown off again in another direction.

“It’s looking for us from the air,” Bibi stated grimly. “The Iron Lord must have sent it…”

“Aye,” Jewel agreed with a broad grin. “Look at the drumsticks on the buzzard… We can be eating off it for a week…”

“Probably longer,” Jimmy said. “That bird could probably feed a whole court for a couple days.”

“Well I don’t know about you,” I pointed out, gesturing towards where we needed to go. “But I think we’ve got better things to do than go looking for dinner.”

“She’s right,” Bibi agreed. “Let’s go.”

But as we were starting to move, the two bundles that the roc had dropped ahead of us began to move as well. They stood up, revealing that it they were actually two large and ugly creatures, each standing just over seven feet tall and looking vaguely human…just uglier.

“Ogres,” Bibi pointed out. “They must have been dropped here to guard the gate so we couldn’t sneak out.”

I consulted my bracelet and confirmed that it was pointing right towards the two ogres. I grimaced, looking closer and guessed that the gate was right there, ensuring that we couldn’t just go around them.

“Then it looks like we have no choice,” Bibi said, flying off towards the two ogres at a fast speed. Jewel just held her axe and grinned.

Bibi struck first, stinging one of the ogres in the face with her poison tipped spear and then growing to human sized and attacking the second. However, the second ogre snarled and slapped at her with his massive fists, sending her flying back, this time not of her own power.

Jewel yelled out a battle cry and charged forward, going right to the ogre that Bibi had already stung. Unfortunately, it only seemed pissed from Bibi’s attack, not actually hurt. He snarled and swung a massive club at Jewel which she blocked her with axe.

Jimmy charged forward as well, going to the ogre who’d slapped Bibi away, slashing out with his sword and catching the ogre in the side. However, the ogre just snarled and started swinging his massive fists at Jimmy, forcing Jimmy to keep back.

“Give us the girl,” one of the ogres snarled, turning to look at me.

I just charged at him myself, refusing to stay out of this fight. I sliced at him with Siffryn and jumped back, injuring his arm a little but avoiding being smashed myself.

Bibi recovered and quickly rejoined the fight, becoming small again and going straight at one ogre’s eyes. While he howled in pain, Jimmy took advantage of the distraction to drive his sword into the creature’s heart.

At the same time, Jewel was grinning, almost like she was having fun. She threw herself at the ogre with the club, and while she was keeping him busy, I moved around behind him and slashed out with Siffryn, slicing through his hamstrings so that he could no longer hold himself up and fell.

“Gotcha,” Jewel exclaimed, swinging her axe into his neck before he could do anything. She looked to me and gave an approving nod but didn’t say anything.

“The way gate,” I mused, looking around until I saw the shimmer in the air just a short dozen feet away from where the ogres had been standing. It was marked with an X that had been formed on the ground out of small stones.

Just then, I heard the roc’s roar again and snapped around to see it flying through the air, this time with a few more bundles in its claws. It was coming right towards us, swooping towards the ground and releasing its bundles. The bundles were large sacks that opened up, revealing that each contained about four goblins.

Eight goblins got up and started towards us while the rock swooped around through the air and came back. I had no doubt that it could snatch us up with its massive talons and finish us off easily.

“Through the gate,” I ordered.

Jimmy positioned himself to guard me so I could go through first while Jewel did the same. “Well, move yer arse,” she told me, gesturing to the gate.

I nodded and went through with the others following close behind me. We started backing down the way but goblins began coming through the gate behind us. Fortunately, there was no sign of the roc. It was probably too big to follow, though that did leave the question of how it had gotten to the Court of Lost Children in the first place.

The eight goblins all came through and now outnumbered us two to one. They began spreading out, positioning themselves in the best manner they could. Fortunately, the way wasn’t wide enough to allow them to circle around and get behind us which meant their options were severely limited. They wouldn’t be able to use their normal tactics.

Of course, the goblins weren’t very large or scary individually, but during our previous encounters they’d made up for that by working as a team. They might not be able to surround us this time, but I had a feeling that they’d still be dangerous.

“Keep them off balance,” I said, hoping that we could keep them from working together.

Jewel just charged straight at a couple of the goblins, swinging her axe and forcing them back with her sheer aggression. Bibi took advantage of that to fly behind the goblins and suddenly grow to human size, just in time to impale one of the little men from behind with her spear.

The goblins seemed thrown off balance by that tactic. Jimmy was dancing back and forth between two of them while I was getting pushed back by another two. I’d slash at one and then the other would advance, jabbing a spear towards me.

I grimaced, looking around for a place to move but there wasn’t one. We were on a way path and the way just wasn’t wide enough for a lot of maneuvering. The very thing that kept the goblins from circling us also kept us from being able to move very far. Then I suddenly grinned as an idea came to me.

The goblins had been pushing me to the edge of the path so I just turned and jumped off the path. I hit the edge of the way and found myself suddenly reappearing on the other side of the path. I kept going forward and impaled one of the goblins I’d been fighting from behind.

“Take that,” I snarled, unleashing all of my anger again.

The other goblin turned to face me but I kicked him back as hard as I could, sending him off the path and then reappearing on the other side where I’d just come from. However, since he’d just gone through back first, it was his backside which came out, letting me impale him from behind before he could fully turn around too.

I’d just killed two goblins by stabbing them in the back, something that would have left me completely shocked and horrified not that long before. But after everything I’d been through and all the anger I had built up, I no longer felt all that bad about this. Instead, I turned to help with the remaining goblins.

By this time, only two of the goblins remained alive. They began backing away from us and then abruptly turned and ran back through the way gate. We didn’t bother following.

“We need to get as far away from here as we can,” Jimmy said. “Before they come back with reinforcements.”

“No arguments here,” I responded, taking another look at the way gate before turning and starting the trip down the way.

Part 34

We huddled together in what was the most miserable realm that I'd ever seen, a realm of thick mud and nonstop rain. In fact, I think that this was the first time I'd seen any rain at all since coming into the realms but I was already more than a little sick of it.

As wet and miserable as this realm was, it was where we'd chosen to stop for a meal and sleep. At the moment, we were all pulled in under a rocky outcropping, getting what shelter we could from it though still being quite damp. Bibi was about the only one who wasn't wet and that was only because she was small enough to use us as additional shelter. Still, this was a crossroads realm with plenty of escape routes should anyone come after us, which was of course the reason we'd stopped here for our much needed rest.

Even though all of us had slept a bit, none of us was eager to get going again. For one that, that would mean leaving our shelter and getting soaked, and for another, we were all tired of walking. Instead, we stayed where we were for a bit longer, just savoring the opportunity to stay still.

I stared at Jewel for a moment, still feeling a bit confused by her. "I was curious," I said carefully. "If you wanted revenge against the Iron Lord, why didn't you just go after him yourself?"

"Aye, I be wanting his blood for me cap," Jewel responded slowly. "I be wanting to take his head for what he did to me da. However, I know me strength is not up to the task. The Iron farching Lord would cut me down before me axe got close. I knew that I needed allies to succeed." She gave me an odd look at that, making me realize that it must have been a difficult decision for her to come to me. Fortunately for me, she hated the Iron Lord far more than she did me.

"That makes sense," Jimmy said while I nodded agreement.

Jimmy, Jewel, and I all had personal grudges to settle with the Iron Lord. He'd killed people closed to each of us, and though Jimmy didn't say anything, I knew that he was grieving for Shyla as much as I grieved for my dad. Bibi was the only one of our group who hadn't lost anyone close to her, though I knew she was still worried about Tomoki and the others who were now trapped in the Court of the Morning Light.

"We should probably get going again," I said reluctantly. However, my motivation increased when I reminded myself that once we were out of this realm, we'd be out of the rain and mud entirely. That was something I couldn't wait for, even if it meant walking again.

"We've been going deeper into the realms," Bibi said as we began walking to the next gate. "We've been getting further from the Crossroads and most of the central realms. I think we're getting close to the wild ones..."

I frowned at that, hoping that we didn't actually have to go into one of the wild realms. Corwin had told me that the wild realms were several of the oldest and largest of all the realms in existence, ones that were formed from the demesnes of the very first faerie. When the faerie abandoned Earth and moved into the realms, the Seelie and Unseelie had actually worked together to gather up all the wild faerie and drive them into those realms, then sealed them inside so that they couldn't cause trouble, either on Earth or for the faerie courts.

"We're likely to start running into forsaken faerie then," Jimmy pointed out with a scowl.

"Forsaken faerie?" I asked curiously. I don't remember hearing that term before.

"Faerie who have forsaken the bonds of court and civilization," Bibi answered. "They try living as free from rules as they can, living as much like our wild faerie ancestors as possible."

"Most of them are bloody insane," Jewel muttered.

I nodded at that, understanding what she meant. Wild faerie would be considered completely insane by most standards, living on impulse and whim with no rules or true self-identity. They were mercurial creatures and anyone who tried living like that by choice probably wasn't very stable themselves.

"The forsaken faerie think that being wild is more primal and true to our nature," Jimmy told me. "It's a much simpler life."

"The Piper found out what we were after because he read between the lines of what the Iron Lord and my father both told him," Bib said, giving me a warning look. "We have to hope that we don't run into any of the forsaken, and especially that none of them find out. Any forsaken would follow us to the ends of the realms in order to get their hands on Gyffendrach since it has the potential to release all of their bindings and perhaps even turn them to wild faerie in truth."

"Then we'll have to be careful," I agreed.

As we walked through the mud again, I noticed that we weren't completely alone. I hadn't seen any natives of this realm before, but now I saw the mud rise up into a vaguely humanoid shape in the distance. It began walking and then collapsed back down into the mud. I watched closely and saw the same thing happen several more times, though not anywhere near us.

"I think I know where we are," Bibi abruptly said, having watched as well.

"In a farching mud pit," Jewel grumbled. "And I for one want to get out of here before mold grows on me arse."

"There's a story I heard," Bibi said. "When the faerie abandoned the Earth and moved into the realms, one realm was settled by certain desert faerie, creatures of wind and dust and sand. Dust devils and ifrit. The story says that this tribe hates water nearly as much as iron and that some enemies took advantage of the opportunity. Their enemies seized all the realms that connected to theirs and converted them to watery ones, leaving the desert faerie trapped in their own realm. The only way they could leave is to have their children adapt, to become something else that could survive the wet environment."

"Changing from creatures of air and dust into creatures of water and mud," Jimmy said, looking to another one of the mud creatures. "You might be right. One of these gates might go directly to that desert realm and these could be their offspring."

"Ones who could not well survive in the realm of their parents," Bibi agreed.

"Then I hope that's not the realm we have to go through," I thought aloud. "Then again, a desert might be a nice change after all this mud."

I was relieved when I stepped through the way gate and out of the rain but less than pleased when I saw what was on the other side. This way looked like a dark cave that was only lit by some glowing moss that grew in patches along the cave walls. I'd just barely entered this way and was already starting to feel a little claustrophobic.

I glanced down at my jewelry which was still glowing and pointing the way, straight down the way we'd just entered. I frowned slightly and said, "I'm not sure why, but I've got a feeling that we're getting really close. I think we're almost there."

The walk through the way was slow and very uncomfortable, especially since we all had wet clothes and muddy shoes. Or at least, it was a miserable trip for Jimmy and me since Bibi had a whole set of spare clothes in her demesne pouch while Jewel had pulled out a pair of spare boots.

Fortunately, this was a short way and we reached the other end of it after only a half hour of walking. We stepped out into a realm that that was all a dull gray stone with large rocky outcroppings and pillars everywhere. I couldn't see very far ahead of us because of this but that also meant that no one would be able to see us from very far away either.

We went past several way gates as we made our way towards the one we needed, and once we arrived, I stared at it in silence. "This is it," I said with a strange certainty. "This is the last way we need to go through. Gyffendrach is on the other end."

Bibi and Jimmy shared a glance, obviously wondering how I could be that certain. The truth was, I had no idea why I was so sure, only that I was. Gyffendrach was on the other end of that way.

Suddenly, I heard a loud roar echoing through the air, sounding like it came from the direction we'd just come though it was hard to be sure. I froze, listening as it came again, sounding almost like some kind of battlecry.

"Aelberon's balls," Jewel exclaimed, drawing her axe. "We've been found. I'd recognize Gutgnawer's voice anywhere..."

"Gutgnawer?" I asked blankly.

"Aye," Jewel responded with a grim smile. "T'was me da's second in command. Now he leads me old clan."

Bibi flew up into the air, high enough to get a good look at our surroundings. She came back down and told us, "We have enemies coming all right. I counted five red caps and three others that look like they might be from the Court of Endless Screams or the Court of Darkest Shadows."

"Then we have to go now," I said, nodding to the gate.

"No," Jimmy responded quickly. "If we go through, they'll just follow right behind. If Gyffendrach is that close, our best choice is to buy you the time to find it."

"That makes sense," Bibi agreed, looking around with a thoughtful expression. "We'll get them to follow us in several directions, providing them several false paths. There are enough places to hide that we can keep that up for awhile."

"But I can't just leave you all behind," I protested.

"We'll be fine," Bibi assured me. "It will be like playing that game you used to enjoy as a child...hide and go seek."

Jimmy just nodded at that. "Go, find Gyffendrach. We'll deal with our pursuers."

I stared at him and Bibi and then looked at Jewel, wondering how she'd deal with the possibility of fighting her own clan. However, she held her axe in hand and just grinned eagerly. Somehow, I had a feeling that she wouldn't mind at all.

"Gutgnawer called me weak afore me da," Jewel said simply. "I'll be happy to show him me strength."

With that, my companions all rushed off into the rocks in different directions, quickly disappearing from my view. Then I heard Jimmy call out a battlecry from a short distance away, drawing their attention to him rather than me.

"It's just hide and seek," I reminded myself. "All they have to do is keep moving..."

I still didn't like the idea of leaving my friends behind to deal with our pursuers without me, but it seemed that I didn't have much choice. They were counting on me to retrieve Gyffendrach so that was exactly what I was going to do.

I turned my attention back to the way gate and discovered that it was an unstable gate. This end was permanently bound where it was but the other end was loose. That was a problem since I had absolutely no idea where I needed to set the other end. However, my bracelet seemed to have this well in hand because suddenly it glowed brighter and I could feel it somehow feeding directions to the way. The other end moved to where it needed to go and then locked in place for me.

Seconds later, I was standing in the way on what looked like a cobblestone street through the back alley of a very old fashioned city. I stood there for a moment, marveling at the realism of the illusion since I even smelled the filth of chamber pots and no sewage system. However, I braced myself against the smell and then began running down the path as quickly as I could, not only eager to be through this way but also eager to do what I needed to do so I could return to my friends.

It took me nearly an hour to reach the other end of the way, and by then I'd long since stopped trying to run and had just been trying to walk fast. I let out a sigh as I saw the way gate, one which looked like a simple doorframe into a building. I reached for Siffryn on my side, not drawing the blade but keeping my hand there in case I did need to draw it quick. Then I stepped through the gate.

I found myself standing in darkness, in nearly complete and total blackness which spread out in every direction. There was only one speck of light visible, a small glow in the distance. I grimaced and tried to ignore the fear that threatened to form and slowly started walking towards the light.

"If only I'd brought a flash light," I muttered.

At first, I moved extremely slowly for fear of tripping over something or stepping into a hole. However, as I walked I found that the ground was perfectly flat and smooth without any variations. That gave me the confidence to head towards the light at a faster pace.

When I reached the source of the light, I found that it was coming from a lantern that was lying on its side on the ground. I carefully picked it up and saw that the lantern appeared to be made of a brass frame with glass windows to let the light out. However, the light didn't seem to be coming from any sort of candle or light bulb but appeared to just be nothing more than a ball of light. It was obviously a magic lantern which explained why it was still glowing though no one seemed to be anywhere around.

"Is there anyone there?" I called out, feeling a little more daring now that I actually had light to see by. However, there was no answer, nor had I really expected there to be one. I hadn't heard a single thing since coming into this realm except for the sound that I made myself. I suspected that I might very well be the only one in it.

Then I looked around, noticing for the first time that the lantern wasn't the only thing that had been lying on the ground. Fifteen feet away from where I'd found the lantern, there were various pieces of clothes scattered about. They were all small and appeared to have been made for someone around Corwin's size. There were other things as well, a chair and small table, a bag full of coins, a nasty looking dagger, and even some dishes and silverware. All of it was scattered about.

"Why would someone just leave all this here?" I asked aloud, looking around in confusion. Then it suddenly dawned on me.

Whenever a faerie died, everything that was inside their demesne was lost...until it eventually merged with a realm. When that happened, the demesne itself added to the size of the realm while all of its contents were dumped inside. That was what this was, the contents of a demesne which had merged with this realm. Of course, that left the question as to why no one had cleaned it up or at least taken anything useful. After all, there was no doubt that a magic lantern would attract some kind of attention.

I only looked over the scattered items for a minute before continuing on my way, this time following the guidance of my jewelry rather than the light. But since I now had the lantern, I was able to see other items scattered about. I walked past weapons, clothes, and at one point a small pile of gold and jewels. In fact, there were so many things on the ground that it was surprising I hadn't stumbled over something while I'd been walking in the dark. All of this had been left behind from various demesnes which had merged with this realm. That finally told me everything I really needed to know about what kind of realm this is.

"This is a new realm," I whispered in realization.

I had no idea of how 'new' this real actually was and suspected that it had probably been in existence for centuries at least. However, I was growing more certain that I was the very first person to ever discover this realm. That would explain why no one had ever collected any of these treasures that were spread about. It would also explain why the ground was completely flat and why the entire place was smothered in darkness. No one had yet claimed this realm or customized it with illusion.

On an impulse, I called out, "I claim this realm as my own."

I suddenly felt the magic lock into place, and for a brief moment, my own sigil appeared on the ground around me, glowing with silver light as it stretched twenty feet across. The glow faded but I could still feel the sigil there, could still see a faint silver etching of it. And more important, I could feel myself connected to this realm in much the way I was to my own demesne. Of course, my connection to this realm wasn't nearly as strong or as personal, but it was still there.

Then I decided to try something else and called out, "Let there be light."

The moment those words left my lips, everything was suddenly illuminated by a silvery light from above. I looked up and saw that there was now a very large full moon in the sky, far larger than any full moon I'd ever seen in the real world. It also provided enough light that I no longer really needed the lantern to see by, though I still kept firm hold of it.

For a moment, I just stared at the moon which somehow seemed both comforting and appropriate. "I have my own realm..."

I felt a bit stunned by the realization that I now had my very own realm, larger than any single demesne could possibly be. And as far as I knew, I was the only person who had any idea of how to get here. After all, most of the time you couldn't travel to a realm unless you had a fixed way or knew where to set an unstable one. The only reason I'd found this place was because my jewelry had led me here.

Then I shook my head, reminding myself that I was here for a reason and didn't have time to goof around. I grimaced and continued towards my destination, already certain of what I would find.

Ten minutes later, I arrived at my ultimate destination. It looked just like any of the other piles of belongings that had been left from a demesne, except that this one had come from Aelberon. There were clothes scattered about, a chest full of gold coins and jewels, and most notably, a sword which was lying flat on the ground. It was a large sword with a two handed hilt and a blade that was five feet long by itself. The sword was in the style of a claymore...and my bracelet was pointing right at it.

"Gyffendrach," I whispered in awe. It seemed that my grandfather really had left a compass that could track down his sword, regardless of where it was. Aelberon had made sure that even if his sword was lost into the void, it could still be recovered by his heirs one day.

I stared at Gyffendrach for nearly a minute before I finally gathered my courage to pick it up. It was large and heavy, too much so for me to ever be able to use in a real fight. I silently cursed that fact because it would have been awesome to go into battle with my grandfather's sword. I could just imagine the look on the Iron Lord's face if I came at him with this thing. However, that wasn't really why I needed this sword. I didn't need it for its use in a fight but for its special powers.

"Please," I whispered, closing my eyes and feeling the hope swell inside. "Please work..."

With that, I suddenly felt a tingle from my palm, the same kind of tingle I often felt when magic was present. Then I noticed it, a piece of the sword's crossguard was actually glowing with a faint golden light. I ran my fingers over the glowing part, seeing that it was in the shape of a key.

"Aelberon's key," I mused, remembering another name for Gyffendrach.

To my surprise, the golden key set in the crossguard actually felt a little loose. I pulled at it with my fingers and it popped loose into my hand. I dropped the sword to the ground, now holding the golden key which was still glowing, my mouth hanging open in surprise and realization.

"The sword wasn't the key," I exclaimed with a loud laugh. "The key is..."

Then I clutched the key tightly in my hand, closing my eyes and feeling the power inside of it. I took a deep breath and then whispered, "Mine." An instant later, I could suddenly feel the power of the key more clearly. I could feel that it was now willing to respond to me. This was no longer Aelberon's key...this was Aeslyn's key.

In my mind's eye, I could see inside myself...into the depths of my nature. At the very center was a solid rock, my true name. This was the cornerstone to my identity and very self. This was that which all of the rules and bindings connected to.

I could see those in my mind's eye as well, like strings, ropes and chains which connected to the rock...far more of them than I ever would have imagined. Some of them were gossamer thin and easily broken or ignored. Others were thick and unbreakable. These were the rules of my court, the ones that had formed from my own choices and decisions in life, and of course, the ones that had been forced upon me.

I couldn't really tell what any of the individual threads were, not unless I focused on that one specifically. However, I didn't bother wasting my time by looking at the thin ones. The ones I was interested in were the ones that were thick and solid, such as the ones I'd placed myself with my own sworn promises. I quickly found the one I was looking for, the chain that I'd forged when I promised to never use profanity. With little more than a thought, it came loose and vanished. I could immediately feel the difference inside of me.

"Holy shit," I said, using my first profanity in weeks. I intentionally tested the limits of this newfound freedom. "No fucking way... It really worked..."

Strangely though, these profanities felt odd in my mouth, as though they didn't really belong. I could swear once again but it seemed that I'd gotten out of the habit.

Now that I'd gotten that out of the way, it was time to focus on what I was really here for. I reached inside of myself again and found the spot where the Iron Lord had used my name to track me. I realized now that each time he did so, he made that link stronger, making it easier for him to find where I was. I removed that binding with a sense of relief. He could still use my true name, but as long as I had the key, I could remove his link before he could do any damage with it.

"Now for the main thing," I whispered, my heart racing with excitement. I felt the chain where the Iron Lord had bound me into this cursed form and it was with the utmost sense of relief that I removed that one as well.

The wave of transformation immediately rushed through my entire body as every cell sighed in relief and then rushed to reclaim what had been stolen. My hair rapidly grew, lengthening and returning to its former silvery white color. My bone structure shifted and changed, altering in what should have been an excruciating manner but which was anything but. I could even feel the horrible boy parts in my groin pulling back up inside of me while my chest once again swelled outwards.

When Tomoki had first given me my true name and I'd transformed into my true self, the experience had been more pleasurable than anything I'd ever felt in my life before then. This was a hundred times better and I screamed in orgasmic pleasure, my voice shifting from male to female in mid-scream.

It took about a minute for my transformation to run its course but it felt like much longer than that to me. I savored each and every moment of that very long minute, delighting as my flesh resumed its true female form. Once my transformation was over, I stood up straight, feeling just a little off balance for a moment but unbelievably good. I closed my eyes and savored the 'rightness' of my own body.

I stared down at my feminine hand, smiling as I did so. Then I ran a hand over my soft, smooth, and hairless arm. I reached up and felt my pointed ears, grinning at their return. And only then did I cup my breasts before laughing in delight. And finally, I reached between my legs and felt the complete absence of boy parts.

"I'm me again," I gasped as tears of joy ran down my cheeks. Then I yelled out to my new realm, "I am Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes and no one is EVER going to take that from me again!"

Part 35

I stepped back into the realm where I'd left my friends, scowling as I looked around and saw no sign of anyone. I'd expected them to meet me back at the gate when they were done dealing with our pursuers, so the fact that they weren't here left me feeling a little nervous. I thought about calling out to them but decided that would be a bad idea. If the Iron Lord's people were still running around this realm, then that would just give my position away to them.

After a moment, I pulled the cloak I was wearing more tightly around me. I'd found the cloak among Aelberon's things and had been drawn to it at first because, unlike every other piece of clothing I'd seen in that realm, it looked brand new and completely spotless. That alone suggested that it was probably magic. It was a reversible cloak that was all black velvet on one side and a silvery white on the other, a color which reminded me very much of my mother's normal colors. Because of that, I hadn't been able to resist grabbing it, though thoughts of being able to stay dry while going through that rain realm certainly provided motivation as well.

Since I didn't know what was going on, I pulled the cloak off and reversed it so that the black side was facing out. If nothing else, I wouldn't stand out quite so much. And if I found some shadows, it would really help me blend in.

"Come out come out wherever you are," I whispered, drawing Siffryn and looking around.

I scowled more deeply, deciding that I needed a better look around and would have to climb one of the rocky pillars for a good view. I started to do just that when I suddenly heard a scream coming from a short distance away. It sounded horribly pained and definitely female.

I wasn't sure who the scream had come from but I knew that I had to find out. I immediately started towards the source, and when I thought I was lost, I heard the scream again. The sound provided a beacon which drew me towards the source, filling me with increasing concern.

When I reached the source of the sound, I crouched down low behind some rocks and watched with horror. There were three red caps gathered there as well another creature who was very familiar looking...the gaunt man. I felt my blood boil at the sight of the creature who'd murdered my dad, so much so that I nearly missed the fact that they had Jewel tied up to a rock. I gasped at the realization that the screams had been coming from her.

"I'll nae tell ye shite," Jewel snarled angrily, spitting at a muscular red cap with a floppy crimson hat. "Ye can kiss me arse ye cock nosed cum sucking..."

Suddenly, the red cap punched her in the face and silenced her for a moment. From the condition of her face, this wasn't the first time he'd punched her. In fact, it looked like she'd been roughed up pretty good. I could see some blood from where I was at as well.

"Now tell me where the sidhe girl is," the red cap demanded. "Tell me NOW!"

However, Jewel just stared him in the eyes and responded, "I'd rather have me axe shoved up me cunt than tell ye anything, Gutgnawer."

Gutgnawer snarled and was about to hit her again when the gaunt man held up a hand and stopped him. "Amateur," the creature hissed out. "No skill or artistry... Pain is like an orchestra which must be managed and timed to perfection..." Then he looked at Jewel with an expression that sent chills down my spine, obviously thinking about how he could make her into his next masterpiece. "Allow me to question this one..."

"As long as she talks," Gutgnawer responded grimly.

The gaunt man reached for Jewel and ran his clawed fingers over her face and then slowly down her body. When he reached her stomach, he suddenly drove one of his fingers into her, all the way up to the knuckle. She howled in pain while he remained where he was with his finger piercing her belly.

I snarled in anger, knowing that I had to do something but not knowing what. What could I do against four enemies all by myself? So for the moment, I remained where I was, my fingers grabbing the rocks painfully hard while I tried coming up with some idea of how I could help her.

"Is that all ye got ye pasty faced prick?" Jewel demanded angrily.

"Ye shouldn't have betrayed us," Gutgnawer told Jewel. "I told Bonesplitter ye were too weak to be one of us...that he should have given ye to me to get me heirs with..."

"I'd rather fuck a spriggan then ye," Jewel spat out. "The Iron Lord killed me da and ye still follow him... How could ye do that?"

"Ye know our rules," Gutgnawer responded. "The strongest leads and the Iron Lord has proven himself the strongest." Then he demanded, "Now tell me where this Aeslyn is. If ye do, instead of killing ye, the Iron Lord may let ye swear to him."

Jewel just spat in his face, snarling, "I'd rather cut off me own tits with an iron blade."

"That can be arranged," the gaunt man said. He held up his clawed fingers and added, "We shall work up to that. Oh yes, I think you will make a beautiful canvas..."

"Do what ye want," Jewel glared defiantly. "Ye'll get nae from me..." Gutgnawer responded by hitting her again.

I just snarled at that, knowing that I couldn't let this go any further. I had to do something to help Jewel. Then I decided to take a lesson from what my friends had been attempting to do when I left them, even though it appears not to have worked as planned. Still, it was the only idea I had.

I let out a bird call which I knew should get some attention because I hadn't seen a single bird since coming to this realm. Then I moved, climbing behind another rocky outcropping while Gutgnawer sent the other two red caps to check out the sound. He was obviously suspicious of a bird call which was just what I wanted.

When the two red caps approached me, I waited until they began to pass and then jumped out and drove Siffryn into the back of the one closest to me. As he fell to the ground, the other red cap jumped at me with his axe. I blocked the attack and moved to the side, backing up as quickly as I could to get some room. Then once I had enough room to maneuver, I held out my hand and unleashed what little magic I could, blinding him in a flash of light. With that advantage, it only took me a few more seconds to finish him off as well.

"What am I doing?" I asked as I stared down at the two red caps I'd just killed. "What am I becoming?"

Of course, the answer was obvious. I was doing what I had to do to survive and becoming what I needed to be to help my loved ones. At one point, I never would have been able to imagine killing other beings in cold blood, especially not by doing it in such a dirty tricks manner. But now, now I barely even felt guilty. After all, with as often as these red caps kept coming after me, I was becoming used to stopping them.

My next thought was to go charging Gutgnawer and the gaunt man but I held back instead. The red cap leader started callout out for them, using the names Buster and Skullbreaker, though of course there were no answers. He finally left the gaunt man with Jewel and came to investigate himself.

I was hiding atop another rocky outcropping when Gutgnawer approached, feeling a stirring of unease though I tried to ignore it and focus on what I needed to do. I was behaving more like an assassin than a warrior and that didn't sit right with me after all, though I wasn't about to change my tactics now. After all, I had no illusions about my own limited strength compared to his. If I wanted to beat him and survive, I'd have to keep playing dirty.

Gutgnawer found the bodies of the two red caps which were just beginning to glow and fade. He snarled angrily and began looking around for the source of their deaths. I waited until he was close enough then made a sound. When he snapped around, I flashed another burst of light right down into his face and then slashed at him with Siffryn.

"I'll kill ye," Gutgnawer yelled, blocking my attack with a large spiked mace. He swung wildly, not seeing me but still making it very dangerous for me to do anything to him.

I grimaced, knowing that I had a very little window of opportunity before his vision returned enough to really make him a threat. Then I grinned, picked up a small rock and then tossed it to his left. When he turned to follow the sound of it hitting, I swung at his exposed side, slicing through his side pretty nicely. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to stop him.

"You don't want to kill me," I said, deciding to try a change of tactics and see if I could make him hesitate. "I'm the one the Iron Lord sent you to find. I'm the one you need to take alive..."

Gutgnawer paused with a scowl before blurting out, "Yer supposed to be a male now... I see ye must have found the Oathbreaker."

I blinked in surprise that the Iron Lord had told him what he was really after, but then again, it made sense. Gutgnawer and his people would need to know what to look for in case I reached Gyffendrach before them.

"I'll kill ye and take Oathbreaker for meself," Gutgnawer snarled.

I picked up another rock and threw this one right at Gutgnawer's face. His vision had improved enough that he could see the motion coming towards him because he swung at it. I took advantage of that to charge at him again, this time coming from the side and striking low. He immediately tried turning to block me but I was still in motion and went around behind him, slicing at the backs of his legs with Siffryn. With his hamstrings cut, he collapsed to the ground, unable to hold his own weight up.

Gutgnawer yelled at me but I stepped back, realizing that his vision had returned too much for that kind of thing again. He was still on his knees, unable to stand up fully at the moment, but he was still able to swing his mace. For a moment, I considered how I might get past his defenses when I realized that I didn't actually have to. All I needed to do was keep him from interfering when I went after Jewel and I'd already done that.

"See you later ugly," I told him, turning and running back towards where Jewel had been left with the gaunt man.

When I returned, I found Jewel yelling in pain as the gaunt man focused his attentions on her. I felt the rage bubble up again, not just for what he'd done to my dad but for the cruel and sadistic way he was torturing her. No one deserved that kind of treatment and only the worst kind of monster would do this. I knew with an absolute certainty that I would never feel a moment of guilt for ending a creature like this.

I charged right at the gaunt man, fully intending to impale him from behind while he was distracted by Jewel. However, he saw me coming and turned just in time for me to run Siffryn through his stomach instead. Then he backhanded me, sending me flying back while my sword was left sticking out of him.

"Your scent is familiar," the gaunt man said in his creepy voice. "Ah yes, I remember you... You are the one my lord is seeking..."

"And you're the one who killed my dad," I spat out, getting back to my feet and charging at him again.

The gaunt man lashed out at me with his clawed fingers, catching me in the shoulder and filling it with a burning pain. I was thrown back again, but this time I'd managed to grab hold of Siffryn and recover it. I quickly got back to my feet, wincing at my shoulder and focusing intently on my enemy. The creature in front of me wasn't just my opponent but my enemy, a being I hated with nearly every fiber of my being.

"If you surrender," the gaunt man said, not seeming to even be aware of his own injury, "I shall do you the honor of making of you a masterpiece that will be remembered for all time... Oh yes, you will be immortalized in your suffering..."

"You've already made me suffer," I spat out bitterly. "Now it's my turn."

I charged at the gaunt man again, lashing out with Siffryn. He tried blocking with his arm but the blade dug in deep. The gaunt man didn't seem to feel the pain of the injury though he held the hand as though it didn't work right anymore. He tried clawing at me with his other hand but I ducked down and struck at him with Siffryn again, tearing open his entire stomach. He staggered as his innards began to spill out, though his face still showed no sign of pain. His face retained the same expression, even as I removed his head from his shoulders.

"Gotcha," I exclaimed triumphantly as his body collapsed to the ground motionless.

I stood there for a moment, having seen enough horror movies where the monster got back up again even after you were certain it was dead. When the gaunt man appeared to truly be dead, I finally turned my attention back to Jewel.

"I'll nae tell ye," Jewel mumbled, barely understandable. Her eyes were both closed with matching black eyes and bruises that seemed to cover nearly her entire face. Her nose appeared to be broken and there was blood coming from her mouth. She was obviously in pain and way out of it.

"Jewel," I exclaimed, gently touching her shoulder to try getting her attention. Then I began untying her.

Jewel opened her eyes and stared at me with a blank expression that lasted nearly half a minute before her eyes focused. Then she blinked and whispered, "Ye found it..."

"Yes," I told her gently, "I did." I finished untying her from the rock and she slumped to the ground where she was sitting up but leaning back against the rock.

"I dinnae tell them a thing," Jewel told me quietly.

"I know," I responded. "I heard."

For a minute, I just stared at Jewel with a feeling of intense sympathy and even guilt. She'd been tortured because of me and because she was trying to protect me. In a way, it seemed ironic and hard to believe because of the way she'd once been trying to kill me. But after this, I could no longer doubt her sincerity.

Some sidhe had healing magics but if I had that kind myself, I had absolutely no idea how to use it. If I did, I would definitely have done so on Jewel right now. Not only was she badly beaten, but she had a nasty gash in her shoulder, the hole the gaunt man had put in her stomach, and her leg looked like it might be broken. I desperately wished I could do more for her.

Just then, I felt a strange impulse and began tapping into what magic I could. The sigil on my palm began glowing with a silvery light, and on an instinct I placed my palm against Jewel's shoulder. The magic rushed from my hand and into her body which began to glow with the same silvery light. The bruises began fading a bit from her face and the wound in her shoulder was beginning to close.

"I'm healing her," I whispered, not completely sure how I was doing it. My mother had once told me that half of magic is merely following your instincts and letting them guide you. It appeared that she hadn’t been exaggerating.

When my magic faded away, I felt tired but it had been worth it. Jewel was in much better condition, though still not completely healed. It appeared that my powers weren't strong enough to take care of all her injuries though I'd done enough to help.

Jewel stared at me with a look of surprise before stating, "I dinnae know ye could do that..." She grimaced from the much milder injuries which remained and began getting back to her feet.

"Neither did I," I admitted.

Once Jewel was standing again, she leaned against the rock for support and looked around. "Gutgnawer?"

"Still alive," I answered grimly. "I left him injured but couldn't finish him..."

Jewel chuckled weakly and then asked, "Do ye know what red caps think of mercy?"

"That it's weakness?" I guessed.

"Nae," Jewel shook her head. "Giving mercy to a foe is a grave insult. Yer saying that ye think so little of them that ye have no fear of them coming after ye again. Yer saying that they aren't worth the effort of killing."

"Oh," I responded, staring at Jewel in surprise. Now I understood why she had been so furious at me the last time we'd fought, why she had taken it so personally. I hadn't just beaten her, I'd insulted her on top of it. And when I'd let her live again... "I didn't mean it like that..."

"Aye, I know that now," Jewel responded with a shrug. "But Gutgnawer doesn't. By letting him live, ye might just have made it very personal for him."

I grimaced at the idea of facing Gutgnawer again, especially if he thought there was something personal between us. Then, I momentarily wondered if I could beat him two more times before quickly discounting that idea. I had a feeling that if I did get the opportunity to spare him again, I wouldn't be of the mind to...not after the way he'd been treating Jewel.

"Do you know where Jimmy and Bibi are?" I asked

"Nae," Jewel responded with a grimace. "I've nae seen them since we separated." Then she muttered a few profanities before adding, "They dinnae fall for the trick for long. That pale skinned arse was able to find me..." She shuddered faintly at that, probably thinking about what he'd done to her once they'd captured her.

"He won't be hurting anyone ever again," I told Jewel with satisfaction. "Now we've got to find the others."

Jewel recovered her axe from where the red caps had left it on the ground and then we got out of there as quickly as we could. Jewel had to lean on me for support as her leg was still injured, but she was in much better shape than she would have been without my healing. If it hadn't been for the fear of Gutgnawer recovering enough to return, I might have left her there to rest while I went in search of the others.

Part 36

Once Jewel and I had traveled far enough through the maze of rocky outcroppings, I paused so she could rest again while I tried figuring out how to look for Jimmy and Bibi. I couldn't very well call out to them since there were still four unaccounted for enemies wandering around, not to mention an injured Gutgnawer. I felt a knot of dread in my stomach as I considered that my friends might be in the same situation I'd found Jewel in...or worse.

I considered my options for a minute with growing frustration until something suddenly dawned on me. I smiled faintly, remembering that since I had access to my magic again, I did have one trick I could use. I shifted my eyes and then began looking around.

With most realms, the environment was largely formed from illusion, albeit the extremely realistic ones that even felt solid to the touch. These constructs could be nearly indistinguishable from reality, though in most courts, they'd brought in real dirt, stone, and plants from Earth in order to augment things. However, in unoccupied realms like this one, no one had bothered doing such a thing so everything around me was merely illusionary constructs. And as my eyes could see through illusions, I effectively had X ray vision.

All the stone outcroppings and pillars around me were now transparent to my eyes, letting me see a limited distance beyond them but still much better than I'd been able to before. I looked back the way we'd come and didn't see a sign of Gutgnawer's aura which meant that he was out of range. Then I slowly looked around, catching small flash of silvery aura just a short distance ahead. I started towards it, only to walk into a rock that I barely noticed. I winced self-consciously and then went around, being more careful not to walk into any more rocks that I could see through.

It took about two minutes to reach the spot where I saw the faerie aura and then I looked up and quietly called out, "Bibi..."

Bibi stuck her head out from a crack in the rocks and stared at me for a moment before exclaiming, "Aeslyn... You found Gyffendrach." Then she paused to ask, "But where is it."

"I left the sword in my demesne," I answered. "It was too big and awkward to carry around easily." I didn't mention that I'd left a few other useful things from that realm in my demesne as well, such as that magic lantern and some gold coins.

Bibi nodded then told me, "I can't fly to you... My wing was injured in the fighting..." I reached up for her and let her climb onto my hand and then I placed her on my shoulder where she'd be able to ride until her wing healed enough for her to fly again. "I can't grow either," she added with obvious frustration. "I used up all of my limited time at that size."

"Then yer not good for much are ye?" Jewel asked with a pleasant grin which suggested that she was just teasing.

"You don't look so hot yourself," Bibi reminded her. Then after getting more comfortable on my shoulder, Bibi told me, "The two who were chasing after me gave up and went to join the ones going after Jimmy. I tried helping but they got me..." She tried moving her wings, wincing as she did so. "I just barely managed to get away."

"And where is he?" I asked grimly, feeling my heart race. Bibi pointed in a direction and I nodded. "Then let's go find him."

It didn't take very long before I was able to see the glow of five faerie auras, a clear indication that Jimmy was still alive since there were eight of the Iron Lord's people and four of them had already been accounted for. Still, that didn't tell me what kind of condition he was in. I was going to have to check that out myself.

I set Bibi down and then told her and Jewel, "You two should rest here..."

"Only if ye order me," Jewel responded grimly. "I'll not be resting on me arse when I can still swing me axe...not if I can help it."

"Okay," I agreed, letting out a sigh of relief since any help would be appreciated. I wasn't sure I was up to taking down another four faerie single handedly. As it was, I'd been pretty lucky before. "But just wait here for a minute while I see how he is. If I can, I'll try luring some of them to us."

With that, I snuck up on the group and peered over some rocks for a better view. As I expected there were four of the Iron Lord's people, two of them being red caps while the other two looked like horror movie monsters. One of them was that spider centaur creature that I'd seen in the Court of the Morning Light while the other looked like a human woman in shape, but with her hair, skin and eyes all being pitch black as though she was some sort of living shadow.

Then I saw Jimmy, tied up on the ground in some sort of white rope. I glanced to the creature with the spider body below the waist and realized that it wasn't rope, it was webbing. And at the moment, Jimmy seemed awake but looked very pale. Fortunately, they didn't seem to be torturing him, merely talking among themselves about their next step.

I remained where I was for a minute longer and considered my options before slowly backing away. Once I was far enough back, I made some noise, not much but enough that they would hear me. And as I expected, they came to investigate, or at least the red caps did. The spider monster and shadow woman both remained with Jimmy.

I kept a close watch on the approach of the red caps using my special vision, and when they were about to turn the corner I nodded to Jewel. She suddenly lashed out with her axe, driving it right into one red cap's chest before he even knew she was there. Then as the second red cap snarled and started swinging his axe at Jewel, I charged him from behind and drove Siffryn into his back.

"And ye always called me a wee little girl," Jewel said as she kicked one of them on the ground. He was still alive but severely injured. However, being a faerie, if we didn't kill him now he'd probably eventually make a full recovery. Jewel looked as though she was about to take his head and make sure that didn't happen, but then she hesitated and gave a nasty grin. "I think I'll let ye live so ye can remember that it was this wee little girl who bested ye..."

The injured red cap looked up at her with hatred in his eyes, as well as a bit of respect. "I won't forget this," he spat at Jewel.

"Nor do I expect ye to," she responded with a nasty grin.

Bibi stood off to the side, grimacing in frustration as she was unable to do anything to help at the moment. I could understand her frustration, especially since she was used to being my bodyguard and was now relying on me and Jewel. I picked her up, which was obviously a little embarrassing for her, and then we all went back to where Jimmy was being held.

After setting Bibi back down, I considered how we were going to do this and decided that I wanted to make a bit of a statement. I blushed slightly as I realized that what I really wanted to do was impress Jimmy a little. With that, I flipped my cloak around so that the silvery white was on the outside. It matched my eyes and somehow felt more appropriate than the black.

"Be careful," Bibi warned me, holding her spear in hand though it would do little good unless one of the enemies happened to get close to her.

I nodded and then climbed to a rocky outcropping were I stood up in full view. "I am Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes," I exclaimed loudly, immediately catching the attention of the shadow woman and spider centaur. "I am the one the Iron Lord has sent you for and I have found that which he seeks."

"Aeslyn," Jimmy gasped out in surprise though his voice was weak.

I expected the two opponents to run at me, but to my surprise, the spider centaur actually leapt at me, reaching me with a single jump. I dove to the side, just barely managing to avoid being grabbed by the creature. I jumped from the rocky outcropping and hit the ground in a roll, just a moment before it hit where I'd just been again.

Jewel jumped out from behind a rock, swinging her axe into the giant spider body with a fierce should, screaming, "I'll smash ye like the farching bug ye are..."

The spider creature stopped to deal with Jewel, who was moving very slowly compared to usual due to her injuries. Unfortunately, the shadow woman now arrived to come after me. I slashed at her with Siffryn but the blade went right through her without seeming to bother her in the least. She didn't say a sound as she came towards me though tendrils of darkness spread out from her feet and came towards me. I stepped back, having a bad feeling about letting those things touch me.

I grimaced, seriously thinking about shouting out a nice, 'oh sh1t', but not actually doing so. I was free to swear again, but for some reason it no longer really felt all that appropriate. Perhaps Tomoki's lessons had sunk in more than I'd realized. Either way, I was capable of swearing now but merely chose not to do so.

"Come and get me," I called out to the shadow woman instead, slashing at her dark tendrils which pulled back in response. I might be able to hurt her with Siffryn, but I could at least keep her tendrils at bay.

Then the shadow woman raised her hands and suddenly a wave of darkness spread out from her, enveloping everyone. I was suddenly completely blind, unable to see anything except this pitch black. It was even worse than in the last realm I was in because at least there I'd been able to see the lantern in the distance. But now, there wasn't even the smallest speck of light.

"I cannae see," Jewel yelled out, sounding just a little afraid.

This was definitely not good and I knew the shadow woman probably wouldn't have done this unless she could still see in the dark. That meant she had all the advantage. But after several seconds of panic, I realized that her overwhelming darkness was really just another form of illusion. I grinned faintly and shifted my vision, suddenly finding that I could see again, though everything looked very strange. I was beginning to think that seeing through illusion was one of the best powers ever.

The shadow woman started to circle around me, obviously planning on grabbing me from behind while I couldn't see. However, I surprised her by snapping around and swinging Siffryn right through her neck. Unfortunately, the sword passed through her as though she wasn't even there...as though she was as much illusion as the darkness. I could see the silver aura from her though which confirmed that she was indeed real.

A moment later, the shadowy tentacles began to wrap around my legs, keeping me from moving away. I slashed out with my sword again and cut myself loose but knew that I couldn't keep this up. I was already sore and tired from the previous fights and didn't have a whole lot left. Then I had an idea. She seemed to really like all this darkness so I wondered how she'd deal with a little light.

"Eat this," I yelled, shoving my hand into her face and unleashing a blinding flash of light, using up what little magic I had left in the process.

The shadow woman shrieked with an eerie hollow sound, staggering backwards as she did so. All of the shadows suddenly vanished, letting me see without my special vision again. And as I stared at the shadow woman, I realized that she looked slightly different than before, as though her black skin wasn't quite as dark. I didn't hesitate before driving Siffryn into her chest again. This time it worked and the shadow woman collapsed to the ground motionless.

Now that I was finished with the shadow woman, I was able to focus on the spider monster. Jewel had managed to remove one of its legs with her axe and it had a nasty green ichor bleeding from it in a few places. Unfortunately, it didn't look like it was about to go down. I started towards it, thinking that with two of us, we should be able to take it down easily.

Suddenly, the spider creature held out a hand and a mass of webbing shot out of its palm, right at me. I tried jumping to the side but some of it still caught my legs. I hit the ground hard and found that my legs were entangled in the webbing and glued to the ground. I grimaced and started cutting at it with Siffryn while Jewel continued fighting the creature alone.

The spider creature started coming towards me and Jewel took advantage of his distraction to climb onto a rocky outcropping and then jump onto his back. The spider creature tried knocking her off but she swung her axe and his head went flying from the body. Unfortunately, the creature didn't stop though it did become more frantic about trying to get her off.

"Aelberon's balls," Jewel yelled as she was finally knocked loose.

"It must have its brain somewhere else," I called to her. "Like that bog man..."

Of course, the creature had a giant spider body from the waist down so maybe its brain was actually located there. Then again, it had a bunch of creepy eyes in its human looking chest as well. I grimaced, thinking that we might just have to keep chopping this thing apart until we found its weak spot. Unfortunately, neither Jewel or I could keep this up for much longer. We may have bitten off more than we could chew.

"Then I'll keep cutting," Jewel exclaimed, thinking the same thing I was. "I'll nae let a spider squish me..."

Just then, a human sized Bibi suddenly appeared on the creature's back, driving her spear through his human backside so that the head burst out of his chest, right between the eyes. The spider began to stagger while Bibi pulled out her spear again and then drove it into the spider body, right below where the human part sprouted from. Then, Bibi appeared to completely vanish while the spider collapsed to the ground.

"Squish," Jewel yelled, charging at the creature and beginning to chop at it just to make sure it was dead.

I watched Jewel in amazement, hardly able to believe what I was seeing. Just a short time ago, she hadn't been able to even stand on her two feet, and even after I'd healed her, she had still needed help just to walk. But now, now she was moving as though none of that mattered. I just shook my head, wondering if that kind of recovery was due to some red cap magic. If that was the case, then Gutgnawer might be after us again much sooner than I'd expected.

"Bibi," I exclaimed, rushing to the spider creature when I remembered that she'd been on him when he fell.

"Here," Bibi called out to me, climbing over the spider to get to me. "I REALLY can't wait until my wing heals..." Then once I picked her up, she added, "That took all my reserves..."

"You look exhausted," I said, putting her on my shoulder so she could rest. Then I looked to Jewel who was still hacking away at the spider creature. "Are you done?"

"I dinnae like spiders," Jewel responded self-consciously as she finally stopped and began cleaning off her axe instead. "They're so...creepy." I nearly laughed at that but somehow managed to keep a straight face. Bibi didn't even try.

After this, we rushed to check on Jimmy who was still tied up. "Are you all right?" I asked him, already using Siffryn to cut at the webbing which bound him.

"I'm fine," Jimmy responded weakly, sitting up once he could move and staring at me with a strange expression. "You found it..." Then he muttered, "By the first spark, you're beautiful."

I blushed brightly at that and then did something that I'd been wanting to for awhile, I grabbed Jimmy and kissed him on the mouth as hard as I could. He was obviously caught by surprise but didn’t hesitate before kissing back.

"Wow," Jimmy said when we broke apart, staring at me with a look of amazement. "I should get captured more often."

"If yer both done," Jewel said with a smirk. "I think we should get our arses out of here while we can."

"Agreed," Bibi responded from my shoulder. Jimmy and I took another look at each other, both blushing slightly but agreeing that we should indeed get going.

Part 37

Once we were far enough from the scene of our battles, which was really only the next realm over, we finally stopped to rest. I didn't want to sleep on the ground again so opened my demesne, providing not only a comfortable place to sleep but also one that would be perfectly safe.

Even as I did this, I realized that we should have gone to the realm where I'd found Gyffendrach rather than just running through the nearest way gate. That entire realm would have been about as safe as my demesne since the Iron Lord's people had no idea where it was. Of course, it was too late for that now and my own demesne would be more than fine.

"This looks somewhat familiar," Bibi said with a wry smile as she looked around the inside of my demesne for the first time.

I just flopped down on my bed and let out a long sigh of relief. It was nice to have a real bed for the first time since being captured by the Iron Lord. That felt like so long ago. All I wanted to do was close my eyes and sleep.

Then Jewel commented, "This be a very strange home." She drew my attention with that and I watched as she slowly walked around my room, staring at absolutely everything with a curious look.

"It's made to resemble where she grew up as a changeling," Jimmy explained to her.

Bibi just nodded and pointed to my bookshelf in the corner. "Of course, in the place this is modeled from, my bed was up there." Then she turned me to me asked, "You didn't include that did you?"

I shook my head, responding, "I had absolutely no idea."

Jewel just continued to look around my room, appearing even more interested. She stared at my paintings and paint supplies curiously and gave me an odd look, perhaps wondering what I'd been like as a changeling or maybe just amused at learning more of my private life. However, she didn't say anything so neither did I.

The others were all curious to hear about how I'd found Gyffendrach, just as I was curious to hear more about how they ended up in trouble. However, we were all more tired than curious at the moment so we all quickly settled down to sleep.

After everyone had slept and rested, we shared stories of what had happened while separated. They told me that it was the shadow woman and the gaunt man who were responsible for my friends capture, due to the gaunt man being able to track Jewel down by her scent while the shadow woman had been able to blind Jimmy enough so that he couldn't get away in time. Then I told them about how I'd found the new realm and claimed it for my own as well as how I found the sword.

"This is it," Jimmy exclaimed, holding the sword and staring at it in amazement. "Gyffendrach."

"Actually," I started, about to explain about the key I'd found in the crossguard when I noticed Bib had flown onto my folded cloak and was examining it.

"You said that you found this with Aelberon's belongings?" Bibi asked me, looking vaguely surprised. "Odd. It's obviously a woman's cloak."

"Maybe it belonged to my grandmother," I responded with a shrug.

It was strange to realize that I had absolutely no idea who my grandmother even was. Since she was a faerie, she might even possibly still be alive. However, if she was I suspected I would have heard it mentioned by now.

“It’s enchanted,” Bibi commented as she sniffed at it. “I am no expert in cloth magic but we have several in my court who are and I recognize the enchantments.”

I just grinned, feeling just a little smug. “I thought it was magic. I mean, it was perfectly clean and looked brand new when I found it.”

“Such are several of the enchantments I sense within,” Bibi explained. “It will resist wear and damage as well as keep itself clean.”

I nodded at that. “I’d noticed that I didn’t have a drop of blood on it after fighting. Is there anything else?”

“Yes,” Bibi responded, looking up at me as she continued. “It repels water and will keep you warm in the cold and cool when it is hot. From what I understand, cloaks of this nature were once quite popular among the lords and ladies of faerie. However, when we moved to the realms where the weather is stable and controlled, they were no longer practical. I believe you will still find many of the older lords and ladies with cloaks such as this in their wardrobes.”

“What I’m more interested in is this realm,” Jimmy said. “You said you were able to claim an entire realm for yourself?” He shook his head. “That is hard to believe.”

I just shrugged and tried to act nonchalant. “It didn’t look like anyone else had ever been there. Unfortunately, it’s not like I had a lot of time to do any real decorating.”

“Regardless,” Jimmy said. “Now that you’ve found Gyffendrach, we need to hurry back and see if we can get help freeing our court.”

“Actually,” Bibi said, “that was something I wanted to talk to you about.”

She flew away from the cloak and in a flash of light she was human sized. Since she had such limited time at that size and hadn’t fully recovered from using it all up before, she obviously thought that this was important and really wanted to make sure we paid attention.

“Having Gyffendrach will help,” Bibi said grimly, “but it’s still not enough to make the lords of the other courts pay attention to you. Nor is it enough to let us defeat the Iron Lord. If you are ever going to face him directly, you need to be stronger. You need your full power to even stand a chance.”

“I fear we can’t wait eighty-four years for her to reach her second majority,” Jimmy pointed out with a sigh.

“I know,” Bibi agreed, staring at me for a moment with a strange expression. Then she abruptly turned to Jewel and asked, “Have you reached your second majority?”

“Nae,” Jewel shook her head. “I only reached me first majority two months ago.”

I was a little startled at that. I’d known that she looked the same age as me and had been pretty sure that she wasn’t much older, but she was actually closer to my age than I’d guessed.

“Then I am the only one of us who has reached second majority,” Bibi said. “I have reached my full power, what there is of it. My second majority gave me my ability to reach human size as well as a few other things. Now you must reach your full power if you want any chance of the Seelie rulers to take you seriously...if you want any chance against the Iron Lord.”

“Like Jimmy said,” I reminded her, wondering where she was going with this. “I’m not anywhere near my second majority. I’m just barely past my first.”

“I know,” Bibi said with a sigh. “This is what my father and I spoke of before we departed the Court of Silent Footsteps. He did not think it likely this quest would succeed, but he gave me something on the chance it did.” She paused for a moment and looked around at each of us before finishing, “The Fount of the First Spark.”

“The Fount of the First Spark?” Jimmy repeated in surprise. “But that’s been lost since the treaty.”

“Aye, and so was Oathbreaker,” Jewel pointed out, giving Bibi a very curious look.

“What is this this?” I asked, apparently being the only one here who’d never heard of it.

“It’s a spring,” Jimmy explained. “A magic spring. Legend says that the first spark once slept for thousands of years, and where it rested the water became infused with its power. Those who drink of this water are able to awaken their full power, the power they would usually gain with their second majority.”

“That doesn’t really sound all that great,” I said. “I mean, it sounds cool, but it doesn’t sound like it gives anything that you wouldn’t already get eventually.”

“Aye,” Jewel agreed. “But in times of war, it be a great way to make yer young fighters stronger.”

“It was never really lost,” Bibi said. “My father told me the truth…that the rulers of the Seelie and Unseelie hid it away when they came to the realms. That Aelberon himself sealed it so that it would take three of the Seelie court rulers and three of the Unseelie court rulers to unlock it.”

Jewel just stared at her for a moment before demanding, “But for what reason?”

“Because,” Jimmy said thoughtfully. “If any one court has control over it, they have an advantage over the other courts. The courts would all fight for control over it and the treaty was meant to stop the fighting. They made sure that they kept anyone from using it but left an option if they ever needed it again.”

Bibi just nodded confirmation. “My father gave me a map to where the Fount of the First Spark was hidden, and with Gyffendrach, we can enter without needing the six rulers.”

"And where is this Fount of the First Spark?" I asked calmly though my mind raced with the possibilities. There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to face the Iron Lord again and that I was going to make him pay for what he'd done to me and my family. I was going to need all the power get I could if I was going to do that.

"It was hidden near the wild realms," Bibi responded with a smile. "We're already more than half way to it."

"Then I say we go find it," Jewel announced with a hungry look in her eye, probably thinking the same thing I was about needing to be stronger to face the Iron Lord. She glanced to me, "Of course, it be your decision."

"You are the only one here with the key," Jimmy agreed, acting calm and as though he was good either way, though I could see the eagerness in his eyes as well. Just like Jewel and myself, he also had a score to settle with the Iron Lord.

I didn't need to give my answer aloud, merely nod. All of us where in obvious agreement about our next step. If there was a way to get stronger, to awaken my full power, then I was more than willing to take it.

"Oh," Bibi exclaimed, "There is something else I must give you..." She reached into her pouch and pulled out a bundle of cloth she unfolded to reveal a dark green dress with white trim. "I brought this with in case we succeeded in breaking your curse. I thought it might fit better than those boy clothes that you're still wearing."

The others started to leave my demesne in order to give me privacy to change, not that it was really needed since mostly faerie had no problem with nudity. However, they knew that I'd been raised human and still retained some human attitudes towards things like that.

Bibi and Jewel left first and Jimmy was about to go next when I found myself reaching out to stop him. I stared at him for a moment, blushing as I remembered the way I'd kissed him earlier. Since then, I was startled to realize that I'd been even more attracted to him than before, as if doing that had opened the floodgates of my own emotions. I suddenly felt extremely self-conscious and uncertain, not sure of my own sexuality or if he felt the same way.

"Do...do you really think I'm pretty?" I asked awkwardly.

"Yes," Jimmy responded, gently reaching out to touch my face, looking as though he was about to kiss me again. "You're gorgeous." Then he pulled his hand away, suddenly looking pained. "I can't do this... I'm your bodyguard... It isn't professional..."

I just giggled faintly at that and told him, "I don't think our relationship has really been all that professional for awhile... I think of you as a friend a lot more than I do as a bodyguard."

"Perhaps you're right," Jimmy admitted, looking just a little uncertain. "But I think the Lady of the Crescent Moon would be unhappy with me if I took advantage of you..."

I giggled even more at that, remembering my earlier certainty that my mother had been trying to play matchmaker when she assigned him as my bodyguard. I'd become even more convinced that this was the case since, and though it offended me just a little that she'd try that, I had to admit that she had good taste.

"I don't think she'll mind," I told Jimmy, grabbing him for another kiss. He only hesitated for a moment before kissing back passionately.

Once we broke apart, Jimmy no longer looked very resistant at all. He stared at me with a look of clear and obvious attraction that that pleased me a great deal. Then he smiled before turning and leaving me to get changed.

It was a great relief to switch out of my ill-fitting boy clothes and into the dress which was not only more comfortable but also felt more appropriate. I couldn't help but smiling at the irony, that I'd spent sixteen years as a guy and only a few weeks as a girl but that I now found dresses much more comfortable than pants. I was definitely going to have to thank Bibi again for bringing this for me.

When I was ready, I left Gyffendrach behind in my demesne again as well as the cloak, though I did hesitate about the latter. I really liked the way it looked and felt on me but decided that it might attract a little more attention than I wanted at the moment. Then I double checked on the key which was now hung from a string around my neck, dropping down into my cleavage so as not to be seen. Only then did I leave my demesne to join my friends and continue our journey.

We hadn't gone very far when I felt my true name being used again. I immediately reached for the power of the key and severed the link before the Iron Lord could actually use it to locate me. I couldn't help but feeling a little smug at that. He might have my true name but thanks to this key, he wouldn't be able to use it against me very easily.

Until now, I had led the way on our journey to find to Gyffendrach, using my bracelet to guide us. But now, Bibi had taken over as our guide, stopping to consult with a strange looking map the same way that I had previously been consulting with my jewelry. She led us through a short way and to another realm, one which looked like a lush green grassy plain that spread out in nearly every direction forever.

"Kind of relaxing," I said, looking around.

"We'll be able to see any enemies coming from a long distance," Jimmy commented, looking around with a much more wary eye. "Unfortunately, they'll be able to find us just as easily."

I just nodded at that and continued looking around. At the moment, the only thing I saw besides the grass were horses or antelope that were scattered around in the distance. It wasn't until we got closer to one of them that I got a better look and realized that this was neither a horse nor an antelope.

"They're unicorns," I blurted out in amazement.

The one I was staring at had a body that was sleek and graceful, more like an antelope or deer than an actual horse. It also had a spiraling horn that came from its head and it seemed to actually sparkle just a little in the light. On an impulse, I shifted my vision and saw the silvery aura which confirmed that this was indeed a faerie, that they all were.

After a few seconds, I realized that I wasn't the only one staring at the unicorn. Jewel was watching it as well, with a rapt attention of awe and delight that I'd never seen on her face before. When she noticed that I was looking at her, she suddenly scowled and gave me a glare, demanding, "What? So I like ponies..."

"I didn't say anything," I responded, turning away to keep her from seeing my grin.

I was definitely in a much better mood than I'd been in for a long time. We'd found Gyffendrach, I'd broken the curse that bound me, had returned to my true form, had some protection from the Iron Lord using my true name against me again, and Jimmy liked me. It was enough that I was almost able to forget why we were still on this journey. Almost.

As we continued walking across the realm to the next way gate, I noticed that the unicorns were all keeping their distance from us, all except for the one that had gotten close enough for us to get a good look at. That one was obviously following us, keeping back but probably trying to make sure we weren't going to cause trouble. That was fine with me, as long it didn't try causing trouble with us either.

Then I felt my true name being used again, much sooner than I would have expected. I could only imagine that the Iron Lord was frustrated to have gotten so little from the last time so was trying again, though he'd have no more luck. At most, he'd have confirmation I was alive and perhaps a general direction of where I was, but he wouldn't be able to narrow down where I actually was or send his people directly to me.

I was still feeling a little smug about this a few minutes later when Jimmy abruptly said, "We're being followed."

I looked back the way we'd come and didn't see anything, at least not at first. Then I saw some movement in the distance, low to the grass so it didn't stand out so much. My first thought was that maybe it was the unicorns getting curious but I immediately discounted that. This was someone else, probably the Iron Lord's minions.

"Let's hurry to the gate," Bibi exclaimed. "Maybe we can lose them..."

We all started running for the gate but our pursuers picked up their pace as well. I still couldn't see them that clearly but that didn't really matter. One thing I'd learned was that no matter what tribe of faerie the Iron Lord sent after me, they were always trouble. I didn't imagine these ones would be any different.

When we were within sight of the way gate, there was a sudden flash of light ahead of us. An instant later, a cute little girl with blonde pigtails stood before us, a wicked grin on her face and a dagger in her hand. There were two more flashes of light from beside her and an instant later she was no longer alone. Two more 'children' had appeared next to her, both of whom were holding bows with arrows pointed right at us.

"Elves," Bibi exclaimed in frustration. "Some can teleport to where they can see..."

It was then that I heard the music, the sound of pan pipes in the distance. I gulped, realizing that it wasn't the Iron Lord and his people who'd caught up to us this time but the Piper and his army of 'children'.

Part 38

I stared intently at the cute little blonde girl who stood in front of me. She had a little dress, her hair was in pig tails, and she appeared to be only ten years old, but I knew better than to think that she was a harmless child. The nasty grin on her face and the dagger in her hand were clear reminders that she was anything but. I recognized this elf girl from the Court of Lost Children as the one who'd tried stealing my jewelry. The Piper had called her Windy.

Windy wasn't alone and had two other elves with her, one standing on each side of her and both looking just like little boys with bows and arrows. Unfortunately, they looked just dangerous as she did because they were each aiming their arrows at us. I strongly suspected those arrows were poisoned and didn't want to risk finding out for sure.

These armed elves were standing right between us and the way gate we needed to escape. At the same time, I was well aware that more elves were running towards us and would soon catch up. We had a very short window of opportunity before we had to deal with more than just these three, a window that was getting much smaller with every passing second.

Bibi took advantage of the fact that the elves had completely ignored her when we were in their realm in order to try flying around behind them. However, Windy immediately snapped, "Don't move bug or we'll shoot your friends." Bibi immediately froze, remaining where she was hovering in mid-air.

The elves continued threatening us but made no move to disarm us or tie us up. It was obvious that they were just keeping us in place until their reinforcements arrived to surround us.

"Where is that boy with the pretty bracelet?" Windy suddenly demanded. She glared at me for a moment, her eyes going to my wrist and then she exclaimed, "You're wearing the bracelet... Give it to me."

Windy grabbed for the bracelet on my wrist and I offered no resistance as she tried removing it again. She had no more luck doing so this time than she did when I'd been a prisoner in her realm. However, there was one major difference between now and then. This time, I was able to move.

I suddenly grabbed Windy, holding her in front of me as a shield while simultaneously unleashing my magic to blind the other two elves with a flash of light. My friends were immediately in motion with Jewel and Jimmy knocking the bows from the elves hands. In just a few seconds, we were now the ones who were armed while they were helpless.

Jewel swung her axe towards the neck of one of the elf boys but I called out, "Stop..." She gave me a look of annoyance but did as I told her. These elves might be dangerous and much older than they appeared but I just couldn't bring myself to hurt them since they looked like little kids.

"Let's get out of here," Bibi exclaimed, looking back at the group of elves who were almost upon us.

But just then, Windy had a look of concentration on her face and suddenly there were five portals around us and a dozen new elves, all of which were copies of her and the boys she was with. I gasped in surprise while she pulled away from me with a mischievious grin.

"Illusion," I said in almost immediate realization. I shifted my eyes and could see through all of them. These weren't the solid illusions that were part of the nature of the realms but were more the normal kind, the kind that were more typical to the power of faerie. "She's just trying to distract us until her friends arrive."

I started towards the way gate with my friends right behind but an arrow suddenly hit the ground right in front of me. Then there was a flash of light and another little girl appeared, holding a dagger in her hand. The rest of the elves caught up to us in seconds and we suddenly found ourselves surrounded yet again. This time we were outnumbered.

If it hadn't completely unladylike, I would have blurted out a good 'damn' or 'oh shit'. As it was, I didn't dare actually do anything now that I five elves with arrows pointed at us.

"You grown-ups all think you're so special," Windy exclaimed. "But you're all just meanies..."

"Especially the one who ordered us to catch you," one of the boys added.

Another boy immediately snapped, "Shut up Dusty. Don't tell them that..."

"No," Dusty responded, glaring at the other boy, "You shut up Stinky..."

"All of you shut up," Windy yelled, glaring at them and then rolling her eyes as she muttered, "Stupid gross boys..."

I would have found that all quite amusing if they hadn't still all been armed and surrounding us. They began talking among themselves about tying us up and taking us back to their court, something which wouldn't be good. Then I stared at Dusty, realizing that he'd said a 'grown-up' had ordered them to catch us. I suddenly had a very bad feeling.

"You said a grown-up told you to catch us," I said carefully.

The boy Dusty nodded and responded, "He made us promise to do what he said."

Jimmy gave me a suddenly look and whispered, "This is not good."

"It seems the Iron Lord has seized the Court of Lost Children," Bibi added grimly. "He has much to answer for."

"Take their weapons," Windy ordered her people. "And tie them up. We have to take them back to mister Gutgnawer." A cold chill went down my spine at that.

Just then, I heard an eerie melody which was obviously being played on pan pipes. I looked back and saw a figure in a patchwork cloak walking towards us. The Piper had the hood of his cloak pulled down so I couldn't see his face but he was bent over and playing his pipes as he walked.

"The Piper," Jimmy grimaced beside me. "He's joined the Iron Lord."

I glared at the approaching Piper but then paused as I noticed something. All of the 'children' around us had turned their heads and were listening to his music with looks of rapt attention on their faces. Each of them started to lower their weapons and then one by one began to sit down on the ground. In moments, several of them were even snoring.

The Piper stopped in front of us and slowly lowered his pan pipes and then raised his head so we could see his face. He absently pulled the hood back and walked around us to Windy and bent town to put a hand on her forehead.

"What's going on?" Jimmy demanded. "First you send your people after us and now you save us from them."

"I didn't send them after you," the Piper responded quietly. He stood up and looked at us, anger burning bright in his eyes. "The Iron Lord's people invaded my realm...murdered many of the children who were under my protection and enslaved my elves." His eyes flashed with something powerful as he added, "They murdered my friends and turned these ones into his slaves." He spat that last out.

"I'm sorry," I told him quietly. "He did the same thing to the Court of the Morning Light."

"I have no quarrel with you right now," the Piper stated. Then he froze to stare at me with a strange look. "You have a great resemblance to the Lady of the Crescent Moon."

"She's my mother," I responded, obviously not surprising him with that.

The Piper continued staring at me for a moment with an expression that didn't belong on the face of a child. He suddenly reminded me a great deal of my mother when she was in her child form. She always presented the same sort of maturity and wisdom that didn't seem appropriate to her apparent age either.

"You were the boy I held captive," the Piper finally stated, glancing to Jimmy and Jewel before staring at me again. "You have found the Oathbreaker."

"We're not giving it to you," Jimmy pointed out firmly, holding his sword to make that very clear. Jewel took a similar position as did Bibi who suddenly grew to larger size.

The Piper made absolutely no move to either attack me or back away. He continued staring at me with a hungry expression before stating, "I do not see the great blade upon you."

"It's hidden in a safe place," I responded, wanting to make it clear that even if he could overpower us, such as by using that magic dust they'd ambushed us with previously, it would do no good.

"Before," he said quietly. "I had sought the Oathbreaker in order to release me from my curse."

"Yer curse?" Jewel demanded, glaring at him skeptically. "Ye don't look so cursed to me?"

The Piper merely nodded at that, giving me an intense look as he explained, "Long ago, one I had mistakenly trusted with my true name betrayed me, cursing me so as to remove much of my power. Most of my power from my second majority has been lost to me. I have not trusted those traitorous insects since."

He glanced to Bibi and gave her a dirty glare while I watched, now understanding why he and his court had such contempt for the smaller faerie who lived there. It must have been one of them who'd cursed him.

"My curse is nothing compared to that of my people," the Piper stated, bowing his head. "If you have the power to free them from their oaths of obedience, then I beseech you to do so. If you do this, I will offer anything in my power to give. And I will..." He paused for a moment, looking almost pained as he added, "I will take nearly any oath you require."

I just stared at the Piper in surprise, hardly able to believe the offer he'd just made. He'd effectively offered to sell himself into slavery in order to free his people. I suddenly felt a great deal of respect for this apparent kid.

With that, I bent down and stared at Windy for a moment before reaching for the key. I closed my eyes and focused, knowing that this was the test that would prove if its power would work on other people as well as myself. If it didn't, then it would be of no use at all in rescuing Tomoki and the rest of my court.

I could sense her inner self in the same way that I'd seen my own, seeing the solid stone of her true name which anchored all the rules which bound her. I couldn't tell what her true name was but that wasn't important. What I was interested in were the chains which connected to it. Many of my threads had been light and think but there were very few of hers that were. I assumed that this was because I had been a human changeling so wasn’t quite as bound by some of the rules. The rules of court and tribe bound her more firmly than they did me, making me realize just how lucky I was as a result.

At first, I could see all these rules connecting to her but couldn't really make out what any of them were for, not without a lot of focus and concentration. Of course, I didn't really need to look too hard. All I had to do was look for the strongest and most recent one. It didn't take long at all to find her oath to obey the Iron Lord's people and to remove it completely.

"I don't have Gyffendrach at hand," I said carefully. "But I still have access to its power."

Windy opened her eyes and sat up, her dazed state appearing to have been broken due to the magic I'd used on her. She stared at me and immediately tried to reach for the dagger she'd dropped, but the Piper stopped her.

"You don't have to capture them anymore," he told her.

"I don't?" Windy responded with a confused look. Then her eyes went wide in realization. "I don't..."

Windy was obviously confused at suddenly being released from her promise, not to mention relieved. She talked with the Piper while I went to the next of the sleeping elves and repeated the process. I did this with each of them while the Piper watched with an expression that alternately flicked between intense relief and grim resignation.

Once I was finished releasing all of the elves, the Piper told me, "Thank you for doing this." He then braced himself and asked, "What do you wish as payment?"

"Nothing," I responded without a moment of hesitation. That earned a gasp of surprise from him as well as from my friends. "I don't want any payment for freeing them. No one should be enslaved that way. No one." Then I remembered Jewel's oath to me and told her, "You made your oath on your own, but if you've changed your mind..."

"Dinnae even think of removing it," Jewel told me with a look of stubborn defiance. "I knew what I was doing when I made me oath."

"Then I thank you again," the Piper told me, giving me a cocky grin that reminded me much more of how he'd acted when we were in his realm. "I supposed I need to be going. You've freed these friends but I have others who are still held by their promises and more who need avenging."

"And don't forget we have to fight the bad guys off," the elf called Dusty said. "They're still in our home."

With that, the Piper turned to leave while his people began following him. "Wait," I said, holding up my hand. I hesitated a moment and then reached for my key again. It only took a second to find the right binding and to remove it. "A little something to help you take back your court."

The Piper froze to stare at me with his mouth open, obviously surprised that I'd help him break his own curse. "I do not know how to thank you," he said after a moment. "Is there anything I can give you to show my gratitude?"

I was about to say no when I realized that there was something he might be able to give me. "Help." At his blank look, I continued, "They've taken over the Court of the Morning Light the same way...have enslaved some of my own friends and hold my own mother trapped. He's doing the same to others too and he's gotten too powerful for anyone to take by themselves. We need to help each other."

"She's got the right of that," Jewel agreed with a scowl.

"My father, the King of Silent Footsteps is trying to find allies against him," Bibi said. "If you could join with..."

"We don't need anyone else," Windy exclaimed stubbornly.

"I don't know," the Piper responded thoughtfully. "We probably won't be enough to take the Court of Lost Children back from the Iron Lord's soldiers...and our own people." He scowled grimly for a moment before abruptly giving a cocky grin. "No promises, but I'll think about it."

The Piper gave an exaggerated bow, once again seeming little more than some kid. He took several steps before Windy leaned over and started whispering to him. Then the Piper abruptly stopped and turned back to his us.

"It seems I do have something to offer you as thanks after all," the Piper announced, putting his hand on Windy's shoulder. "But first, Windy has something she wants to say."

Windy stood there, looking shy and self-conscious for a moment before she blurted out, "Thank you for breaking my promise." Then she stuck her tongue out at me.

The Piper nodded at that and gave me a serious look. "Windy also says that the Iron Lord's people, especially one known as Gutgnawer, know about your having recovered the Oathbreaker. It would be very easy for The Iron Lord to guess that you are headed towards the Fount."

"What?" I gasped in surprise. "How did you...?"

"I was one of the Seelie lords who formed the treaty," the Piper answered with a smug look. "I am one of those with a key to the Fount as well. Unfortunately, others who know have fallen under the Iron Lord's power and may have told him where it is hidden."

"Just great," Jimmy grumbled.

The Piper suddenly began to shimmer and a second later he had grown larger...and older. He no longer looked like he was twelve years old but as though he was twenty-two. We all gasped in surprise while he gave the same cocky grin I'd seen on his younger face.

"War is something for grown-ups," he announced. "So it seems that this would be more appropriate." He looked down at himself and grinned, "It has been too long..." Then he stared at me once again before saying, "One final warning. When you encounter the guardian...be VERY polite." And with that, he turned and walked away with the group of 'children' following close behind.

"It seems that we may have just gained an ally," Bibi stated as she watched them leave. Then she shook her head and added, "Maybe."

Part 39

It had been two days since the encounter with the Piper and in that time we hadn't seen a single sign of the Iron Lord's people. Perhaps we'd finally lost them and could finish our business in peace, though none of us was going to hold our breath. We made sure to stay on our toes and keep watching for ambushes while we were traveling.

At the moment, we were all in my demesne, just having finished with a good night of sleep. I was so grateful that I had access to my demesne again since it made stopping for a break much safer and more comfortable. The only down side was that it took a lot of concentration and effort to open it again each time.

My demesne no longer looked much like my old bedroom, having been changed for practical reasons. For one thing, I needed to shuffle things around so I had room for four beds, or at least three normal sized ones since Bibi didn't take up much room at all. And for another, Jewel and Jimmy felt a bit claustrophobic in the enclosed room. As a result, my room now had rounded marble walls with large openings which allowed views of an illusory forest beyond, and the ceiling had been completely removed so now showed a night sky with a very large full moon above. My new décor had been modeled with inspiration from my mother's demesne, my quarters from the Court of the Morning Light, and from my old bedroom.

"Once everything settles down, I’ll change this to something a little more permanent," I told myself. Of course, I'd changed my demesne to look like this partly in an effort to impress my friends since my old room wasn't all that impressive, but it was definitely growing on me.

We had finished with our rest and were all eager to get going again. I grabbed my cloak and put it on with the silvery white side facing out, smiling faintly as I did so. I'd opened my demesne in a desert realm that was extremely hot, and since Bibi assured me my cloak could protect from temperature extremes, it seemed the perfect time to wear it again. Of course, I'd probably make my friends a little jealous at being able to stay cool while they suffered from the heat, and I did feel a little guilty about that, but not enough to suffer when I didn't have to.

After Bibi and Jewel left my demesne, Jimmy reached for me and gave me a long kiss. My body immediately responded to the passion and I would have loved to have continued, but we didn't have the time for that. With a reluctant sigh, we broke apart and stepped out of my demesne and back into the desert realm.

"We're almost there," Bib said, reaching into her demesne pouch for a flask of water which she took a long drink from. "We should be there by tonight."

"Finally," Jewel responded, reaching into her hat and pulling out an apple.

I had been about to close my demesne but found myself watching Bibi and Jewel instead, feeling jealous at how easily they could get into their demesnes. It took me a lot of effort to keep opening mine while they just had to reach into their pouch or hat. That kind of ease of access and convenience was a major advantage to having their demesnes bound to hat or pouch. Unfortunately, I couldn't very well use mine that way.

Then I paused and whispered, "Why not?"

Everyone knew that if you had a large demesne, you bound it to a specific location, but if your demesne was small you'd bind it to an object instead. I wondered why you couldn't bind a large demesne to an object the same way. Then I grinned, having an idea.

"Just a minute," I told my friends as they were starting to walk away. "I want to try something before we go."

I wasn't completely sure what I was doing so just followed my instincts and did what felt right. Instead of closing my demesne entrance, I moved it to my cloak. It took me nearly half a minute to bind it in place so that my cloak now served much the same function as Jewel's beret or Bibi's pouch.

"I think it worked," I said, running my hand along the black velvet inside. It was stopped by the fabric but I could feel the tingling that marked my demesne entrance, sealed shut only because I commanded it to be. Then with a thought, my hand slipped right on through, right into my demesne. I pulled my hand back out and then grinned. "It did..."

"That could be very useful," Jimmy agreed. "But it could be problematic if you ever lose your cloak."

"Aye, but we red caps NEVER lose our caps," Jewel said proudly. "I can sense me cap anywhere."

"True," Bibi agreed. "You should be able to sense your own demesne opening and track your cloak down if ever lost. And though it is very difficult, you can always break the binding at a distance and simply forge a new opening."

I just grinned and told them, "I'll just be careful not to lose it. Besides, this will make it MUCH easier on me when we stop to rest."

A minute later, we were walking across the realm again and I was grateful for the protection offered by my cloak. This was a desert realm with sand and rock everywhere, and of course, the bright hot sun beating down on us. And since we were in the realms rather than back on Earth, this sun NEVER set so the surrounding rocks never had a chance to cool off at all.

The natives of this realm were all reptilian faerie, though they appeared to come in several different tribes. None of the ones we saw showed any signs of really being intelligent and appeared to just be animals in mind as well as form. That kind of thing seemed to be increasingly common away from the central realms and close to the wild ones.

However, we did see other faerie besides the lizards, ones who were forsaken faerie. Every one that we'd seen so far appeared to have come from a different tribe and most appeared to be either naked and filthy or filthy and wearing rags. These were the faerie who'd abandoned rules and civilization as much as they could and who were trying to live as much as they could like their wild ancestors. And from what I understood, these were the faerie equivalent of a crazy homeless person.

I watched one forsaken faerie who was four foot tall, naked, and very hairy. My first impression at the sight of him was that he was a chimpanzee, but then I saw that his features were a bit more human...and ugly. He was watching us from a distance but made no effort to approach, much to my relief.

"Some forsaken can be quite dangerous," Bibi told me. "Many of them are little more than bandits."

"We've had several of them following us off and on," Jimmy added. "I think they're curious about us since we don't look like forsaken, but they're wary enough to keep their distance." He grinned as he added, "Just make sure you keep your weapons visible." He patted the sword on his side.

Bibi landed on my shoulder and began looking over her map again. "Okay, the way gate we need should be just up ahead."

As we got closer, I could see the way gate a short distance away, marked by several large stones. We all let out sighs of relief and picked up our pace, eager to get out of this hot desert.

Suddenly, Jewel exclaimed, "Wait... Something be wrong..." She stopped and sniffed at the air, scowling as she did so. "I smell a familiar stink."

I shifted my eyes and looked ahead, gasping when I saw a silver aura where a small boulder had appeared to be a moment before. "It's a trap!"

With that, the illusion dropped from the boulder completely and it stood up, revealing itself to be a rock troll like the one I'd seen ambushing the Ring of Silence. My eyes saw the other hidden faerie as well before they came out from their illusions or where they were hiding behind rocks. In a moment, we were completely surrounded.

"The Iron Lord said ye'd be here," Gutgnawer exclaimed, holding his large mace. "He said all we had to do was wait here for ye..."

"The Piper was right," I muttered in frustration.

I saw only one other red cap, the same one Jewel had let live previously. There were three goblins, probably survivors of our escape from the Court of Lost Children. And there were three elves, two of which were armed with bows and arrows and none of which looked happy. All three of them kept glaring at Gutgnawer.

Suddenly, the elf who hadn't been holding a bow teleported into the middle of us in a flash of light. Before I'd even realized he was there, he'd snatched Bibi right out of the air, holding her firmly with one hand while he had her wings pinched between the fingers of the other hand.

"Don't move bug or I'll pull your wings off," the elf ordered. Bibi was frozen with a look of horror on her face that verged on complete panic.

"NO," Bibi screamed. "Let me go... Don't take my wings..."

"If you harm her in any way," I threatened the elf coldly, "you'll suffer the same fate."

"Give me Oathbreaker now," Gutgnawer snarled, glaring at me with a look of pure hatred. "If you do, I MIGHT let ye live..."

"Why should I give Gyffendrach to you?" I demanded, trying to buy time while I frantically looked for a way out of this.

Suddenly, another voice called out, "Gyffendrach?" Gutgnawer looked as surprised by it as I was. "You have the Oathbreaker?"

Then I saw the short hairy faerie that I'd seen earlier, standing a short distance away and staring at me with a hungry, almost desperate look. As if that wasn't enough, two more forsaken faerie who'd been following us appeared as well, looking just as intent.

"Rulecutter," a tiny birdwoman called out in a musical voice. "Freedom..."

I stared in surprise at the forsaken faerie, though not at all surprised that they'd be interested in Gyffendrach. They wanted to cut themselves off from all rules and live completely free and wild, and though they'd forsaken their courts and what rules they could, they were still firmly bound by many more. Gyffendrach was their only true hope of freeing themselves from them completely, and as such, was their Holy Grail.

Though a part of me thought the forsaken faerie were completely insane, the truth was, I could understand them far too well. As hard as it was to admit to even myself, I'd been briefly tempted to use Gyffendrach to cut away each and every rule that bound me, to free myself from their influence.

The temptation had been stronger than I would have expected, reminding me of what Corwin had told me of how faerie needed the rules to define ourselves but still craved the wild freedom of our ancestors. These rules bound me but they also defined me, making me who and what I was. These were the rules I'd accepted about how reality worked, about what was and was not acceptable behavior, and even all the silent promises I'd made myself. To remove all those rules would be to destroy myself in every way that truly mattered.

I shook my head, not wanting to think about the forsaken or sympathize with them at the moment. I had far more important things to worry about. And with that in mind, I reached into my cloak, through the veil into my demesne and grabbed Gyffendrach from where it sat. A moment later, I pulled it out and held it up so everyone could see it.

"This is the sword called Gyffendrach," I called out, feeling every pair of eyes locked upon me. I looked to Bibi, who even though she was terrified, was still watching me intently. "This is the sword that people call Oathbreaker."

Gutgnawer grinned hungrily and demanded, "Give it to me NOW!"

"If anyone makes a move," I yelled back, "I'll throw it into my demesne and leave you no choice but to kill me." I paused to let that sink in, knowing that the Iron Lord would make his death VERY painful if he let Gyffendrach become lost that way again. "But I promise that if you let me and my friends go...and promise never to come after us or attempt to harm us again, then I will give you this sword."

"NO," Jimmy exclaimed with a look of horror.

"Promise," the other red cap told Gutgnawer. "She'll give us the sword..."

"Fool," Gutgnawer spat at him in contempt. "Once we make our promise, she'll just use Oathbreaker to break her own..." He glared at me and spat out, "No deal... Now give me Oathbreaker or ye and all yer friends will die screaming."

I grimaced, annoyed that Gutgnawer didn't fall for that. Then I took a deep breath and braced myself before suddenly throwing Gyffendrach...right towards the hairy little man. He snatched the sword up and ran off as fast as he could, dragging the massive sword behind him. The other forsaken faerie immediately rushed after him, all eager to get their hands on the fabled Oathbreaker.

"Get that sword," Gutgnawer ordered, immediately running after the forsaken faerie. The rest of his crew began to do so as well, seeming to forget all about us now that they had their prize in sight.

The elf who was holding Bibi was so startled that he released her, only to have her immediately grow to full size and then punch him in the face. She hit him a few more times and then drove his face into the ground, yelling, "How about I pull your arms off...?"

"What did you do?" Jimmy yelled at me with a frantic look on his face.

"I bought us some time," I told him though he didn't seem to hear me.

"We have to go get Gyffendrach back," Jimmy exclaimed grimly. "We need it to free Tomoki and the others." He gave me a look that suggested that he thought I was being unbelievably selfish by giving up the sword that way. "Now the Iron Lord will get Aelberon's sword..."

"He may get Aelberon's sword," I responded with a grin. "But I still have Aelberon's key."

With that, I pulled out the gold key which had been dangling down between my breasts, revealing it to my comrades who all stared with blank looks. I stared at it for a moment, feeling the power that resided within.

"The sword was a decoy," I explained to my stunned friends. "All its power actually came from this key which had been embedded in it. They may have the sword but we still have its power."

My friends all stared at me in disbelief so I bent down and focused on the elf whom Bibi was holding prisoner. I used the key to free him from his promise the same way that I'd freed the others. He let out a gasp of surprise as he realized what I'd done.

"Go back to the Piper," I told the stunned elf. "He's going to need all the help he can get to take your court back." Then I sighed. “I just wish I could have done this for the others too.”

I nodded to Bibi who backed off and let him get back to his feet. He stared at me suspiciously for a moment and demanded, "You're just going to let me go?"

"Unless you try anything against us," I responded, giving my best calm and serene look. "And I do request that you don't tell anyone about this..." I held the key up and added, "Especially any of the Iron Lord's people."

The elf stared at me for a moment with an expression that was quite serious and unlike that of the child he appeared. "You have my thanks," he finally responded, giving me a bow and then adding, "I will keep your secret. I swear." And with that, the elf turned and began running back towards the other gate we'd come from.

"Is that really...?" Jimmy asked, staring at the key.

"It sounds like that Aelberon was a right tricky bastich," Jewel responded with an approving grin.

Bibi just stared after the elf for a moment before muttering, "He didn't even apologize...the brat." Then she finally turned back to me and stared at the key. "Very clever. Now they'll be focused on recovering the sword rather than on capturing us."

"I'm sorry I didn't trust you," Jimmy told me quietly, looking genuinely sorry.

I just shook my head and told him, "Don't worry about it. I should have told you guys about this before now."

After a moment, I let go of the key so it dropped back into dangling from my neck and then I reached for my jewelry. I removed it from my wrist and placed it below my throat so that it could form a necklace, but to my surprise, when it started to melt and flow around my throat, so did the key. In moments, I was wearing my normal necklace but instead of being pure silver, I now had some faint gold threads spread through it as well, especially around the stone.

"Wow," I exclaimed in amazement. "That's a surprise."

Out of curiosity, I removed my necklace, but when I did so, they key didn’t separate and reform. Instead, I now had a silver and gold ball in my hand with the jewel remaining as it always was. I placed it on my wrist and it reformed into a silver bracelet, the same as before though now it had some gold mixed in with it. Then I willed the key to come out and it did so, with the gold metal melting and flowing out, reforming into a key again.

"Very interesting," I mused, putting the key back into it again and watching it melt and reform into the bracelet. After a moment, I returned it to necklace form since I hadn't really worn it like that since before I was cursed. "I guess I'm less likely to lose it this way."

"If you're done playing with your jewelry," Bibi said, shrinking back to her normal size. "We need to get going." She pointed to the way gate and added, "Before they decide to come back for us."

"Good point," I agreed, glancing back to the direction the Iron Lord's people had all run off to. "The sooner the better."

Part 40

The realm we'd just entered was definitely mountainous with steep cliffs and sheer walls. Small trees and scrub brush were scattered about as well and I could see a waterfall in the distance, though I couldn't tell if it was close enough to be real or if it was just part of the demesne illusion. I didn't bother shifting my eyesight to see through illusions because I didn't want to spoil the effect of the beautiful scenery.

"A little chilly," Jimmy commented as he looked around. "A nice change from that desert."

"Aye," Jewel agreed. "I'm just glad we're out of there. I've got enough sand up me arse to last a lifetime."

"According to my father's map," Bibi stated from where she stood on my shoulder. "We need to go straight to that cliff." She pointed to a mountain side that was nearly straight ahead of us. "And then it says we'll have to pass the guardian."

"The same one the Piper warned us about?" I asked, pulling back the hood of my cloak and letting the wind tickle my hair. I hadn't suffered the heat from the previous realm the same way the others had, but this was definitely a nice change anyway.

Bibi merely nodded at that before responding, "My father didn't say much about this guardian except that he was very old and powerful."

Since we were close to the end of our journey, we were all excited to reach the Fount of the First Spark, guardian or no guardian. We immediately began walking towards the cliff where Bibi's map told us to go, though we also kept a close watch for any sign of either the guardian or the Iron Lord's people.

It didn't take long for us to reach the base of the cliff and see the mouth of a cave which went inside. There were lots of large boulders everywhere but I saw no sign of a guardian. That just made me think of the rock trolls who'd been disguising themselves as boulders, not to mention the fact that a guardian might be hiding behind one of those boulders.

"Just a moment," I cautioned my friends, shifting my vision so I could get a better look.

A second later, I gasped in shock as I saw a silver aura which revealed the largest faerie that I'd ever seen. A large rocky ridge at the base of the cliff was hiding a faerie beneath, though even being able to see through the illusion it covered itself with, I still probably wouldn't have noticed it except for the silvery aura. Even without the illusion, the creature's skin was all the same color as the surrounding rocks.

"I see it," I exclaimed with a note of fear in my voice that embarrassed me. I pointed straight at the creature and gulped, "Oh sh..." I caught myself, remembering my decision not to use profanity. "It’s enormous..."

"I wish I could see through illusions the way you can," Jimmy commented grimly. "It seems to be a very useful ability when dealing with other faerie."

The guardian realized that I'd seen it and dropped the illusion, revealing the rock colored reptilian body. Then as it began to stand up and stretch, its skin changed color, becoming a dark red with streaks of black. It hadn't just been using illusion to hide but also had skin like a chameleon. In seconds, a massive monster was revealed.

"By Aelberon's balls," Jimmy blurted out at the same time Jewel exclaimed, "Shite," and Bibi said, "Ogg's tits."

The creature had a long reptilian body with a tail and had some resemblance to a crocodile. It even had a snout with lots of sharp teeth that were quite visible when it opened its mouth. However, the fact that the head alone was bigger than most minivans made those teeth all the more frightening. And of course, the creature had a large pair of leathery wings coming from its shoulders, wings which had been extremely visible when it was stretching but were less so now that it had allowed them to fold back down.

"A dragon," I whispered. "It's a real dragon..." Even after all I'd seen since discovering I was a faerie, this was still amazing.

"I thought that tribe died off centuries ago," Jimmy whispered.

Jewel just snorted, clutching her axe nervously as she added, "Obviously not."

"So what now?" I asked Bibi nervously, not taking my eyes off the dragon.

"Well," Bibi responded, obviously just as nervous as I was. "The Piper did say to be very polite and we'd have to talk to it for that." Then she paused for a forced smile, "And my father never said anything about having to fight the guardian, just about convincing it to let us through."

I gulped and took a deep breath before starting towards the dragon. My every instinct said that I should turn and run from this creature but that wouldn't get me what I needed. That wouldn't get us past this creature and to the Fount of the First Spark.

"Hello," I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking. I also tried to take a lesson from my mother and attempted to look calm and serene, though I don't know how well I did. "I am called Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes. My friends and I are here to use the Fount of the First Spark."

For nearly half a minute, the dragon just stared at me without responding. Then it spoke with a loud gravelly voice that was nearly half roar. "GREETINGS AESLYN OF THE MOONLIT EYES. I HAVE BEEN CALLED BY MANY THINGS OVER THE EONS, MOST OF WHICH HAVE BEEN LONG FORGOTTEN EVEN BY MYSELF."

"It's nice to meet you," I said carefully.

"I thought your kind were all gone," Jimmy called out to the dragon. "I was told that the slaughter of the last of your tribe by human iron was what decided the Seelie and Unseelie courts to forget the treaty."

"I AM...THE LAST," the dragon responded.

"Dragons are the oldest tribe," Bibi whispered into my ear. "If any faerie are older, they are wild and unknown."

The dragon may have heard Bibi because he stated, "WHEN MY TRIBE WERE YOUNG, WE PLAYED WITH THE LIZARDS WHO ONCE RULED THE WORLD. IN TIME, THE LIZARDS DIED. THEN MY KIND DIED. I ALONE REMAIN TO REMEMBER THOSE DAYS."

I just stared at the dragon with my mouth hanging open, feeling even more awed than before. This was a creature who claimed to have played with dinosaurs, a creature who was older than I could even comprehend. He was ancient even by the standards of faerie, most of whom rarely lived a thousand years. Most faerie either died in conflict or eventually grew bored and allowed themselves to pass on. I could only imagine how much this dragon had seen.

"We have come to use the Fount," I told the dragon again. "Will you let us do so?"

The dragon merely settled back down on the ground, looking almost as though it was going to nap. "WHAT CARE I IF FAERIE CLAIM THEIR BIRTHRIGHTS EARLY? IT IS NO CONCERN OF MINE. I MERELY GUARD THIS REALM LEST ANY ONE COURT SEIZE CONTROL OF WHAT BELONGS TO ALL."

"So we can just go on in?" Jewel asked, gesturing to the cave and looking surprised by that.

"I WILL NOT STOP YOU," the dragon said. "THE SEAL WHICH BINDS THE PATH MAY, BUT THAT IS NOT MY CONCERN."

"We thank you, great dragon," Bibi yelled out.

"GO IN PEACE," the dragon responded, lowering his head and closing his eyes as if going to sleep. We went past the dragon and to the cave entrance, but then the dragon called out again, this time almost as in afterthought. "OF COURSE, THE KEEPER MAY NOT SHARE MY VIEW."

"Keeper?" I responded in surprise. "What keeper?" I looked at Bibi and said, "You never said anything about a keeper."

"My father never mentioned one," she responded with a scowl.

I looked back to the dragon but it didn't add anything further. Instead, his skin was starting to change color so that it looked like the surrounding stone again. I had a feeling that within a minute, it would be covered in illusion the way it had when I first spotted it.

"A dragon chameleon," I muttered with a shake of my head, wondering how anyone could possibly even find a dragon to kill it if it didn't want to be found. Of course, I imagined that a creature that big would probably have a lot of confidence and might not even bother hiding from some human with a sword or spear.

We stepped into the entrance of the cave and began going inside. However, it was extremely dark in there and soon the light from the opening wouldn't be able to let us see. I tried shifting my eyes again but it did no good. I could see through illusion, including through darkness that was merely a form of illusion, but it did no good against real darkness which was the result from not having enough light. Fortunately, I had the magic lantern in my demesne so a minute later we had enough light to see by.

The cave went in about thirty yards and then abruptly ended at a wall that blocked our path. It was made of some sort of metal which could have been brass and it had six large indentations in it which looked sort of like very large key holes.

"Three of the Seelie keys," Bibi said, flying to three of the holes which had some sort of flowery pattern around them, then she flew to the other three which had a different design. "These are for the three Unseelie keys needed."

"And we don't have any of those keys," I responded pleasantly, concentrating on the one key I did have and hoping that it would work. A second later, there was a clicking sound as the magic bindings were unlocked and the wall completely vanished. "This is one unbelievable skeleton key."

"I know that twelve keys had been created," Jimmy said. "Six were given to the Seelie and six to the Unseelie. It took at least three courts from each side to agree to unlock this." Then he shook his head and chuckled. "But it appears that Aelberon kept a back door for himself."

We hadn't gone more than a dozen yards past the seal when a voice called out, "Identify yourselves." It was an old woman's voice, coming from the darkness ahead.

I raised my lantern and could vaguely make out the shape of a figure in shadow. The figure took several steps close, enough so that I could see that some of the old woman's face, though it was partly kept in shadow from the hood of the black cloak she wore. She had no lantern of her own, nor apparently any weapon. The only thing she had on her was a staff she was leaning against.

"I take it that you are the keeper," Jimmy stated.

"I am she," the old woman responded. "Now please identify yourselves and tell me why you have come."

"I am simply called Jimmy," Jimmy answered, "though some few call me Jimmy of the Copper Hair."

"Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes," I answered.

Jewel just snorted and said, "Jewel of Bonesplitter's Heart."

And finally, Bibi flew in front of me and said, "I am called Honey Stinger of the Court of Silent Footsteps."

"We came to use the Fount of the First Spark," I stated.

The old woman snorted at that and responded, "That much is obvious." She gestured back the way we’d come and added, "You do not have enough to use the keys. How then did you pass the barrier?"

I hesitated a moment before answering, "Aelberon's key."

"If you have Aelberon's key," the old woman said grimly. "Then what of Aelberon?"

"He died centuries ago," Bibi responded, suddenly growing to human size with a flash of light. "The key was lost until recently."

"I thought as much," the old woman stated, shaking her head. "I swore to Aelberon that I would remain here and keep the Fount secure and well until his return. It should have been no more than five years before he returned with the supplies intended to test seekers for their worthiness. When he never returned, I suspected his death. It was the only reason he would not return."

"You've been locked up in her that long?" Jimmy gasped while the old woman nodded.

"We came because we need our full strength," I told the old woman, deciding that it was best to be honest with her. "The Iron Lord is spreading war and conquering other courts one after another. He has my mom and mother both trapped and he killed my dad. I need to be stronger so I can face him." I gestured to my friends and added, "We all do."

The old woman didn't respond to that and instead raised her heads and stared at me. I was a little startled to actually see her eyes. They were both solid black with tiny sparkles of light. She seemed to almost look through me with those eerie eyes.

"I know that cloak," she finally said, reaching out to touch the fabric. "It belonged to my mother, the Lady of Shadow and Light. Where did you come by this?"

I blinked in surprise. "I found it with Gyffendrach...with all of Aelberon's things after his demesne merged with a realm."

"Ah yes," the old woman responded with a nod. "My father kept it after she passed..."

"Your father?" I blurted out, staring at the old woman in even greater surprise. Then I looked into her strange eyes and suddenly realized who she was. "You're the Lady of the Star Filled Night..."

"I am she," the old woman responded, suddenly shimmering and changing. She became younger right before my eyes, with her wrinkles fading away and her white hair darkening to black. A moment later, she looked like she was in her late twenties or early thirties, with hair that was raven black except for patch of silvery white which hung from the front. "You have heard of me?"

"My...my mother is the Lady of the Crescent Moon," I stated, my heart racing as I stared at my mother's long lost older sister. I shifted my eyes so that she could more easily see the full moons.

The Lady of the Star Filled Night...my aunt stared at me for a moment before nodding. "Yes, I see the resemblance. I should have noticed it before, though it has been centuries since last I have seen my sister."

My friends all stared in surprise, though certainly no more than what I felt. This was the first faerie relative I'd ever met besides my mother. Since my father was in a coma, I wasn't counting him.

"Come," my aunt ordered us, turning and walking deeper into the cave. "We will talk further in comfort."

"How can ye see in this darkness without a light?" Jewel demanded, looking a bit grumpy. "I cannae see a thing without it."

"Tis one of my gifts," my aunt explained calmly. "Inherited from my mother, the Lady of Shadow and Light. I can see in the greatest darkness without need of light. My brother could see great distances and details under the light of day, with eyes sharper than any hawk. And my sister," she turned to glance back at me," could see through illusion and glamourie."

I just nodded at that, not having known my mother could see through illusions as well but it certainly explained where I'd gained that ability. "I can do that too," I admitted, earning a curious look from my aunt.

A minute later, we entered a large cavern that actually had light present, though it was still a bit dark. The entire ceiling was all black but had sparkles of light that looked like stars in the sky. However, those didn't provide anywhere near enough light to see by. Most of the light in the cavern came from the large pool of water in the middle which glowed with an eerie green color. That was obviously the Fount of the First Spark.

And though my eyes were drawn almost immediately to the glowing water, I still noticed that the cave had other features including what appeared to be trees growing inside, some of which appeared to have some sort of fruit growing from them. There was moss growing in small patches around the cave walls, all of which glowed just a tiny bit. And of course, there were several stone carvings placed around the cave. Some looked like small obelisks with symbols cared on them while others appeared to be animals.

Instead of taking us to the water, my aunt instead led us to one out of the way corner where there was a shimmer in the air marking her demesne. The inside was completely dark at first, lit only by the lantern I'd brought, but that changed when she remembered that she might not need light to see by but we did. After that, several lanterns lit so that we could see.

The only resemblance the inside of her demesne had to my mother's was the fact that neither of them had a ceiling and I could see the night sky above. My aunt didn't have any moon in her night sky though, merely a darkness with an endless array of stars. The rest of the room we were in was all made of intricately carved wood that probably would have taken real wood carvers a very long time to make. Fortunately, hers was all made from solid illusion.

"Please have a seat," my aunt told us, taking a comfortable looking chair herself. Once we were all seated, even Bibi who'd returned to her normally small size, she said, "Please tell me everything that has occurred since I was last beyond these walls. I would appreciate it if you start with the death of my father."

Since the others were more versed with faerie history than I was, I let Bibi and Jimmy tell about Aelberon's death and most of the older events. Then I picked up the story and told her about how I was a recent changeling, leaving out the part where I'd been male. I told her about the Iron Lord's invasion of the Court of the Morning Light and the quest to find Gyffendrach.

When we were finished, my aunt leaned back in her chair with a thoughtful look. "So my sister is trapped by the Iron Lord," she mused grimly. "We had thought him an eccentric recluse, dangerous to any who crossed him but not one to seek conquest. It appears that his ambition has grown in my absence." Then she stared at me for a long minute before saying, "I can understand why you come seeking the Fount. You will indeed need your full strength in order to confront him."

"Then may we drink from it?" Jimmy asked.

"Yes, of course," my aunt responded with a nod. Then she got up and led us back out of her demesne. "All you need is one good sip to awaken your full power. Drinking more than that will provide no additional benefit."

When we reached the edge of the pool, I stared down into the water for several long seconds before bending down. I hesitated for several more seconds before I reached my right hand in to scoop up a palm full of water.

I gasped as my hand made contact with the water, feeling the tingle of magic which went up my spine as well as tickled my palm. My sigil immediately began to glow with a silvery light and I felt the cool tingle of magic spreading from my hand all the way up my arm. Then I noticed that the glow from my sigil was spreading as well. As I watched, glowing silvery lines and swirls began to grow and spread up my arm, suddenly reminding me of a vine that was growing. I took a deep breath and then sipped the water I held cupped in my hand, gasping as the feeling of cool magic went down my throat and then spread through my entire body.

"I feel it," I whispered in awe, closing my eyes and savoring the sensation of cool magic flowing through my entire being. Then I looked at my right arm which still had the glowing swirls and spirals spreading all the way up to my shoulder.

"I dinnae think it'll work for me," Jewel said hesitantly, even as she reached inside her beret and pulled out a mug. "Red caps get our magic from the blood in our caps. Without blood in me cap..."

In spite of her doubts, Jewel dunked her mug into the water and then drank it from that. I could feel the magic again though it wasn't nearly as obvious with her as it was for me. Then again, I'd touched the water with my hand...with my sigil and she had not. She handed the mug to Jimmy who drank the rest.

"I can feel it too," Jimmy exclaimed with a grin, the copper color in his eyes seemed to glow faintly for a moment.

The magic inside me began to settle down and fade, though I could tell that it had indeed changed something inside of me. It had awoken something that was already there but which had still been mostly asleep until now. I was only just becoming aware of this part of me and knew that I would have to explore it more and discover just what it meant to have my full power.

Then I looked at my arm again, noticing that while the sweeps and swirls were no longer glowing, they were still present. I still had all those markings going up my right arm, all in the same faint silvery coloring that my sigil normally had on my palm. It looked like touching the water directly had left my skin permanently marked from it.

“Will you not drink as well?” my aunt asked Bibi.

Bibi shook her head, “No, I’ve already reached my second majority.”

My aunt nodded at that then stared into the water for a moment. “Once, the Fount was the birthright of every faerie and any who could find it was free to drink of its power. Perhaps it is time to return to those days.”

I listened to my aunt, the Lady of the Star Filled Night, though my thoughts were on something else. I could still feel the tingling inside myself and could sense magic more easily than before. Now, I had not only Aelberon’s key but my full power as well.

“The next step,” I told my friends grimly. I reminded myself of exactly why we’d come on these quests and felt my determination harden. “The next step is the Iron Lord.”

Part 41

My friends in and I were all in good moods as we began the journey back to the Court of Silent Footsteps. We'd found Gyffendrach, the Fount of the First Spark, and the Lady of the Star Filled Night, all of which had been believed lost for good. If we could accomplish three impossibilities in such short order, there seemed to be absolutely no limit to what we could do.

The Lady of the Star Filled Night...my aunt had balked at my offer to remove her promise to remain at the Fount as its keeper until Aelberon's return, even though there was no chance of him ever doing so. She'd said that she'd had that promise for so long that it had become a core part of her and her purpose in life. However, she'd relented and allowed me to remove the promise so that she would be able to leave and help my mother.

In spite of now being free from her promise, my aunt did not travel with us. She'd remained behind so that she could reseal and secure the Fount, ensuring its safety until she could decide what to do with. Once she was done with that, she would follow behind and make her own way to the Court of Silent Footsteps.

Jimmy, Jewel, and I had all been playing around with our new power, trying to discover what our full power meant to us. Jimmy had already discovered that his power of illusion had become stronger. Instead of being able to just pass himself off as human, he could now cover himself with a strong enough illusion to actually look like other people. He had spent some time showing this off by looking like me, Jewel, and other people I didn't know. However, this was merely a visual illusion and did nothing to change his voice or his actual form.

Jewel was the first red cap to have ever gained their full power without having ever soaked their hat in blood. And since all of a red cap's magic came from their hat and the blood it had been soaked with, she hadn't expected to gain anything from the Fount. To her surprise and delight, she had become stronger, tougher, and could heal faster than before.

I was actually disappointed by my own increase in powers because none of what I gained seemed like it would be of any use against the Iron Lord and his people. I could now call on more magic so could create those flashes of light more easily and often, but that was the extent of what I'd gained for fighting. I could hold the light so that my hand glowed, though not enough to blind anyone, and I could even extend this silvery white glow around my entire body. But other than that, the only other trick I'd gained was that I could create balls of silvery white light and let them float around me so that they resembled miniature moons and acted almost like lanterns. It seemed that my full power merely turned me into some kind of night light.

There was one more change the Fount had given me, one I hadn't even noticed until Jimmy pointed it out a short time ago. My eyes were still the same glowing full moons that they were when I shifted them and they hadn't changed back to normal. When I tried changing them back, nothing happened. It appeared that my eyes were now permanent full moons in the same way that my mother's eyes were permanent crescent moons.

The changes to my eyes also had another effect, making it even easier for me to see through illusions. I could now shift my vision as easily as staring at something and I even found myself doing this by accident. The auras I saw around faerie were almost constantly present too, even though they'd fade into the back of my consciousness. I was already starting to get used to that part though knew it might take some to full get used to the sensitivity of my new vision.

As we walked, I kept looking at Jimmy, not with my special vision but with my normal sight. I had no interest in staring at his aura. It was his ass that I was interested in. Then again, he was returning the favor by giving me lots of quick glances too, glances that I pretended not to notice though I did intentionally stick my breasts out further whenever I saw him looking. Though I hadn't gained much in the way of power from my drink of the Fount's water, I did feel more energetic and alive, and for some reason, more attractive and desirable. Of course, that could just be because of the way Jimmy kept looking at me.

I absently ran a hand through my hair, suddenly wishing I had a brush to run through it or something. Fortunately, my hair was silky smooth and very well behaved so I didn't have any knots or split ends, and it even tended to fall into place naturally. Still, I would have liked to be able to do something to primp, maybe even try a little makeup.

Eventually, Bibi called for a stop in a realm that looked mostly uninhabited. She gave me an odd look and grinned before announcing, "You two stay here and rest. Jewel and I are going to do some scouting around this place."

Jewel looked like she was about to argue but then she glanced at Jimmy and grinned, "Aye. I'd like to satisfy me curiosity about this place."

I frowned, wondering why Bibi wanted to take Jewel scouting but leave Jimmy and me behind. Then I looked at him and blushed brightly, realizing what they were really doing. They were giving the two of us some time to be alone together.

"Why did they...?" Jimmy started, then paused when I put my hand on his and grabbed it firmly.

"I've been wanting to do this again for awhile," I told him, giving him a kiss which he obviously enjoyed just as much as I did. Then I noticed the bulge in the front of his pants and felt my heart skip slightly. “Maybe we should get a little more privacy so we can try that again.”

“That sounds good to me,” Jimmy said. “But why wait?”

I just smiled and took off my cloak, leaning it up against a rock and then stepping into it and into my demesne. Jimmy followed close behind, and the moment he was with me again, I grabbed him for another passionate kiss.

Jimmy and I fumbled around a bit and collapsed onto one of the beds, still going at it. I gathered my nerve and then reached for the bulge in his pants. Jimmy didn’t any further invitation than that before he began reaching for my breasts.

I moaned in delight at how good it felt. I’d played with myself a few times since my transformation, but somehow, having Jimmy’s hands do the work felt so much better.

A part of me could barely believe that I was doing this and was even a little afraid. After all, I had sixteen years of being a boy, but right now, I was definitely all girl. My body was craving Jimmy nearly as much as my heart was.

Another part of me hesitated to take this further, though only for a few seconds. I had to remember that all the human reasons I had to not do this were completely irrelevant. Most faerie had a much more open view about sex than most humans, due in large to the fact that for faerie there was absolutely no such thing as STDs and faerie women can’t get pregnant unless they consciously choose to do so.

Within minutes, Jimmy and I were both completely naked and then we began to go at it even more enthusiastically. This was my first time having sex as either gender, but Jimmy was obviously a bit more experienced. He took the lead and knew exactly which buttons to push before he entered me, and even more afterwards.

The pleasure was unbelievable and grew even more so when I orgasmed. My entire body exploded in pleasure and I was sure I even screamed out. The experience was completely magical…literally. My sigil started glowing as did all the swirls and spirals running up my arm. I could feel the magic bursting through my body, mixed with the bliss. And best of all, Jimmy was able to keep going and bring me this feeling over and over again.

Once we were through, my entire being felt incredibly charged and alive, more than I ever would have imagined. The pleasure and magic both continued humming through my body, and I could see why it was called an afterglow since I was literally glowing.

“That was unbelievable,” I told Jimmy, giving him another kiss, eagerly looking forward to doing that again.

“You read my mind,” Jimmy responded, giving me another lingering kiss before he reluctantly got off the bed and reached for his clothes.

I remained where I was for a few more minutes, just savoring the sensations in my body before I let out a sigh and dampened down the glowing so it wouldn’t give me away. However, I might not be glowing anymore on the outside but I was definitely still doing so inside.

One thing I’d just learned, besides the fact that I absolutely loved having sex, was that in spite of having been a boy for the first sixteen years of my life, I was definitely all girl. No…not a girl. After this, I was a woman.

When Bibi and Jewel returned, Jimmy and I had just barely finished getting dressed again and cleaned up. I blushed brightly as I thought of what we'd done, yet I couldn't help but grinning at the same time. I clutched Jimmy's hand possessively as I saw Bibi and Jewel share a knowing look, though neither of them said anything.

After this, we continued with our journey though Jimmy and I held hands first half hour and continued sharing glances afterwards. Things were good at the moment, too good. When I thought of that, I only remembered the situation my mom and mother were in and felt guilty. That dulled my mood again, but the hope I felt at having Aelberon's key and my full power was enough to keep raising my mood again.

"Soon," I quietly told myself. "Soon the Iron Lord will be done with and then I can explore this without guilt."

It was nearly three hours after we'd returned to our journey when we arrived at a new realm that was a thick lush forest full of very large trees. I couldn't really see past the trees enough to get a good look at distance or even at the sky. It was a very beautiful looking realm, albeit one that appeared pretty wild just from the first look we had around.

"Where are we?" Jimmy asked. Since we were returning to the Court of Silent Footsteps through a different route than how we'd come, we were all a bit worried about becoming lost or getting stuck on some side routes that took us further from our destination rather than close.

Bibi landed on my shoulder and sat down while looking at her map. After half a minute, she pointed off to the distance and said, "There should be another way gate in this realm that will point us towards the Crossroads."

Just then, I realized that we were being watched. I looked up and saw a large black crow sitting on a tree branch, staring right at us. A moment later, I corrected myself, deciding that it was a raven rather than a crow, though I'd never seen a real raven before in my life. Of course, I also realized that this wasn't even a real raven. The silvery aura gave it away as another faerie.

Then I slowly looked around me, this time paying more attention. All of the trees and brush in this forest were real rather than illusion, but I did see a number of auras which gave away some other faerie who were hiding and watching us.

"We're completely surrounded," I told my friends, thankful for the fact that none of the locals had made any hostile move yet.

A moment later, an enormous bear came walking towards, appearing to take his time. Other 'animals' began to come out as well, all of them moving into position to truly surround us. The was a coyote, a wolf, a fox, a cougar, and others. A huge eagle settled down onto a tree branch on one side while an owl landed on the other.

"The Court of Fang and Claw," Jimmy stated, looking around with an intent look as though prepared to fight at any moment. However, he was very careful not to reach for his sword or do anything else that these faerie might take as a hostile move. Then he glanced to me and explained, "A court composed of faerie with animal forms."

"I'd guessed that much," I responded as I looked at the 'animals' which surrounded us.

"Why are you here?" the bear asked with a deep voice, surprising me since I wouldn't have thought a bear's throat could even be capable of making human speech.

"We are passing through on the way to the Crossroads," I said, gesturing to the direction Bibi had previously pointed at. "We were traveling to the other way gate."

"Come," the wolf ordered us, turning and indicating that we should follow. "We will decide what to do with you."

Jewel began reaching for her axe but I shook my head, taking my cue from Jimmy. These 'animals' hadn't done anything to harm us yet and I didn't want to give them any reason to do so. Then with a sigh, we all began following after the 'animals', with me being greatly reminded of my reception in both the Court of Silent Footsteps and the Court of Lost Children.

I saw no signs of habitation or any kind of structures, only natural forest. However, when we reached a large clearing that obviously served as their meeting place, things changed. There were three large totem poles set up around the clearing, marking the boundaries of this area. There were also several dream catchers hanging from the surrounding trees. However, there were no thrones, chairs, or anything else of the sort.

We were led to the center of the clearing and then 'animals' surrounded us, keeping their distance though. Rabbits, squirrels, and even a beaver joined the more dangerous 'animals', though fortunately, none of them made any threatening moves. Then again, when you have a large mountain lion staring at you, he doesn't need to actually threaten you in order to be intimidating.

"Why do you travel through our territory?" the wolf demanded, his voice more aggressive than the bear had been when he'd asked the same question.

"We are on our way to the Court of Silent Footsteps," I explained, trying to stay calm and focused. "The Iron Lord has been conquering other courts and we are trying to fight back."

"That is between the Seelie and the Unseelie," the wolf responded. "That is no concern of ours. We have never been part of either alliance."

I blinked in surprise at how easily he just shrugged the whole thing off as not their problem. Then I looked around at the other 'animals', wondering if they shared the wolf's view. Of course, he seemed to be their spokesperson at the moment so he was the one I was going to have to deal with.

"Neither is the Iron Lord," I pointed out as calmly as I could. "Yet he started invaded Unseelie courts without provocation. And as his strength grew, he started invading Seelie courts as well. He told me himself that his intentions are to unit all faerie courts under his rule and to enslave the humans."

"What care I for the humans?" the wolf responded.

However, the bear casually said, "The humans in our old territory were respectful of us. I'd hate to see anything happen to them."

"They've changed," the coyote abruptly added. "Unlike you, I've gone back to our old territory. It is covered with stone roads that cut through the land. Buildings taller than trees cluster together. The land has been destroyed and the humans spread unchecked."

The wolf snorted, which was strange coming from such an animal. "We once lived among the humans...teaching them..."

"And we should never have abandoned them and left," the eagle stated. "The decision of the treaty was not ours."

The animals argued among themselves for another minute while I just stood there and listened. It seemed that this would continue for some time longer so I decided to get the subject back on topic. Of course, the topic we'd started with was no longer the one I wanted to focus on. We'd only come here to pass through, yet I saw an opportunity.

"I know humans," I said, loud enough to catch their attention. "I lived as one...as a changeling. There is much good in the human world as well as much bad. I think that the faerie all leaving them has had a harmful effect. The purpose of the treaty was to try protecting faerie by making humans forget we exist. This has worked...perhaps too well. They have forgotten that they are not the only intelligent life in the world. They have forgotten that there are things of great wonder and power that they cannot understand or control. They forget the wisdom given to them by those who have lived for centuries..."

At this point, all of the 'animals' were staring at me in rapt attention. Even my friends were all staring at me with looks of surprise on their faces. I just smiled pleasantly, as though I was talking of nothing more important than the weather.

"We have suffered from their absence as well," I announced. "We faerie so easily forget that much of who and what we are was learned from humans. As humans learned from us, so too did we learn from them. Yes, humans and their iron can be dangerous to us, but not so dangerous as we can be to ourselves. The Iron Lord has proven that even though our separation may keep the humans from harming us, it does not keep us from harming ourselves. The Iron Lord seeks to conquer all of us, human and faerie alike. Only if we all work together can we possibly hope to stop his threat."

"So you came here to ask us to fight for you," the wolf said.

"No," I shook my head. "As we said, we were merely traveling through so that we could do what we may against this threat. But I see that this beautiful realm is in danger yet you do not even seem to notice it. I do not ask you to fight for me. I merely ask you to fight for yourselves and the threat that the Iron Lord presents to your court. For make no mistake, sooner or later he will come for your court just as he came for my own."

At this point, I absently noticed that I was starting to glow with a silvery light which I hadn't even realized I was creating until now. However, as everyone seemed to be listening to me, I continued as I was, trying to be as calm and serene as I could. It somehow felt appropriate.

"All I ask is for you to decide among yourselves which is in your best interest," I said almost pleasantly. "Hiding here and waiting for the Iron Lord to come...or taking the fight to him? Waiting here where it appears safe for the moment, or taking your destiny into your own hands and joining the fight against the one being who singlehanded destroyed the treaty and threatens to do the same to faerie and humans alike?"

"Who are you?" the wolf asked, his voice cowed a little as he stared at me.

I just smiled pleasantly at him before answering, "I am called Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes, heir to the Court of the Morning Light."

"Lord Effram's child," one of the animals said in surprise, though I couldn't see which animal this had come from.

"I will leave you to consider what path your court will take," I told the wolf, keeping my voice calm but loud enough for all the rest of the animals to clearly hear it as well. "I will be leaving with my friends as we have much to do."

"Yes, we have much to decide," the wolf responded after a moment.

With that, I bowed slightly to the wolf and the other animals before turning to leave, gesturing for my friends to come with me. The animals all spread apart to let us through and none of them offered any interference as we walked to the next way gate.

"I can't believe you did that," Jimmy exclaimed once we were far enough from the gathering. "The way you talked to them..."

"Aye," Jewel agreed, giving me a strange look. "It was nae believable."

"I don't know what got into you back there," Bibi agreed. "But it was very impressive."

"I don't either," I admitted self-consciously. "I just realized that instead of just trying to get them to let us go, I should take advantage of the opportunity to try getting them to help. I mean, I have a feeling that we're going to need all the help we can get."

When we reached the way gate to leave, I paused to look back, hoping that the Court of Fang and Claw would decide to help fight the Iron Lord, though I certainly wasn't going to count on it. Then I turned back to the way gate as my friends were already going through. Jimmy stepped through right ahead of me and I smiled faintly as I stared at his ass. Whatever this court decided to do, I had already made a decision of my own. Once we stopped for the night, Jimmy and I were going to be spending a little more personal time alone.

Part 42

The Crossroads was much like the last time I'd been here with most of the residents staying out of sight. There was a strange tenseness in the air, though at the same time, there were a few more faerie out than before, as if they'd gotten tired of hiding or had decided that it would do no good.

Shortly after stepping into the faerie city, I saw two faerie who were each about four feet tall, fighting each other in some sort of a duel. Neither one of them seemed to have any fear of the Ring of Silence coming to stop them which gave a clear indication of the local situation. They'd given up on the peacekeepers being able to protect them, which also explained why nearly every faerie I saw out seemed to be armed.

Then I noticed a two foot tall anthropomorphic rabbit who was actually wearing a modern business suit and kept glancing at his pocket watch impatiently. "Curiouser and curiouser," I mused at the sight, though it grew even more surreal when his friend arrived a few seconds later. His friend was a three foot tall turtle man. I just shook my head, thinking that every time I came through the Crossroads it was like some kind of acid trip or weird dream.

"We're almost home," Bibi exclaimed excitedly.

"Just be careful," Jimmy reminded us. "The Iron Lord's people could be around here anywhere."

I just nodded at that, having seen already seen several small groups of armed faerie in the Crossroads who looked like they might have been working for him. Of course, I couldn't tell for sure and wasn't about to go ask them. The best we could do was simply keep our distance and do our best to avoid notice.

"At least our gate isn't much further," Bibi said.

We hadn't gone more than another ten steps when I heard a scream coming from nearby. We all froze and listened, hearing more sounds that suggested there was some kind of fight. For a moment, we all hesitated, trying to decide if we should get involved but my curiosity was stronger than my caution and I started towards the noise and left the others little choice but to follow.

Just half a minute later, we arrived on the scene and found two dead Ring of Silence members lying on the ground. A third Ring of Silence member was still alive but severely injured with a large spear coming out of his chest. Or at least I assumed it was a male since I couldn't see anything beneath the mask and loose gray clothing.

Then I looked at the three attackers. One of them was a huge troll who stood just shy of eight feet tall, with skin that was grayish but splotched with green. There was a four foot tall creature with slimy green skin whom I recognized as a hobgoblin, a larger and nastier cousin of regular goblins. The last was a woman who appeared to be a cross between human and cat, being human in shape but with a tail, catlike features on her face, and dark gray fur over her entire body.

"Sorry I am to do this," the troll said in a rumbling voice. "The Iron Lord ordered us to slay any of the Ring of Silence and I cannot disobey..."

"Just shut up and finish him," the hobgoblin snarled.

The cat woman lunged at the fallen victim with her claws extended, obviously intending to slice his throat open. However, Bibi suddenly grew to human size in front of her and blocked her attack. The rest of us immediately charged in.

Jewel went right at the troll who slammed a massive club at her. At the same time, Jimmy went after the hobgoblin, using his newly increased power to create an illusion of himself being the cat woman in order to confuse his opponent. Since Jewel was going after the largest of them, I went to join her, going around behind the troll while he was focusing on her and slicing his hamstrings since that tactic had worked so well for me in the past. The troll collapsed to the ground and Jewel drove her axe right into his side.

"I'll enjoy feasting on yer entrails," the hobgoblin snarled at Jimmy, right before Jimmy drove his sword into the creature's throat.

The cat woman was down with Bibi's spear having gone through her stomach while Jewel was about to finish off the troll. "Hold it," I told Jewel, staring at the troll with some sympathy since his comments had suggested that he'd been forced to swear obedience. "Not yet." The troll stared at me with a look of fear and actually whimpered.

Bibi stood atop the severely injured cat woman, apparently deciding that my directions to Jewel applied to her as well. She was keeping the cat woman pinned down, unable to fight back. I looked at the cat woman and troll but then turned my attention to the faerie they'd just been about to finish off.

"Are you still alive?" I asked the seriously injured Ring of Silence member. From the slashes in the gray cloak and clothes as well as all the blood, I could tell that he'd been injured more than just the spear that was still sticking out of him. When he moaned and shifted position a little, I grimaced and told him, "I don't know if I can help you...but I'm going to try."

I pulled the spear out of him and then removed the mask for a better look, revealing that this Ring of Silence member was a woman rather than a man like I'd thought. She was only about five feet tall and humanoid with black hair, dark red skin, black eyes, and small horns on her forehead. In fact, she looked almost like the classic depiction of a devil. However, I didn't have time to think about what that meant.

"I hope this works," I muttered, putting my hand on her and trying to summon my healing power the way I had with Jewel.

The magic came far more easily than it had with Jewel, due no doubt to my gaining my full power. My sigil glowed with a silver light as did the rest of the swirls and spirals running up my arm. Then the glow spread to this devil woman and I could see her wounds beginning to close up. She gasped as my power flowed through her body, healing her injuries with miraculous speed. In less than a minute, all of her wounds had healed and her body was almost like it had never even been injured.

"Unbelievable," Jimmy exclaimed, staring in wide eyed amazement. However, he was no more surprised than I was myself. "I don't think I've ever seen that powerful a healing."

"The healers of my court would take hours to heal wounds that bad," Bibi said in surprise.

I just stared down at my own hands and whispered, "So I'm a healer..."

In a way, this discovery was a relief because it meant that I actually had gained something real and substantial from the Fount. My healing power was far stronger than I'd ever imagined and I couldn't help but feeling proud of it. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be of much use against the Iron Lord so I felt a strong surge of disappointment as well.

"You healed me," the devil woman exclaimed, slowly sitting up and staring at me in confusion. "You saved my life." Then her eyes narrowed suspiciously and she demanded, "Who are you?"

"I am Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes," I answered her. "My friends and I found you being attacked and tried to help."

The devil woman got to her feet, then paused with a look of panic when she saw her mask on the ground. She quickly snatched it up and put it back on, which seemed silly to me since we'd all seen her face. Then again, I realized that this was probably due to some rule that the Ring of Silence was bound by.

Then I turned my attention back to the prisoners. The troll grimaced and said, "If you intend to slay me, please do so quickly."

"Gladly," the devil woman responded, reaching down for the spear I'd pulled out of her.

"Wait," I told her, looking at the troll again. "You've sworn an oath to the Iron Lord, haven't you?"

"To my eternal regret," the troll responded with a scowl. "I had thought I had no choice. Now I wish I had chosen death rather than slavery."

"There is no force which can break that kind of oath," the devil woman said, raising her spear. "And he will kill me the moment he is able to move again because of it." The troll didn't argue against that.

I just looked at her and then the troll before stating as calmly as I could, "There is one way."

With that, I bent down by the troll, knowing that my friends would immediately strike him down if he attempted to harm me. Then I used the key to reach out and remove his oath to the Iron Lord. He just blinked, feeling the change inside of him but perhaps not yet realizing exactly what it was.

"You are free from the Iron Lord's control," I told him simply. "What you choose to do with your freedom is up to you, but be warned, if you turn your weapons against any of mine, you will not be granted this mercy again."

"I feel it," the troll whispered. "My oath is gone... But such a thing is impossible..."

"Not for one who possesses Aelberon's key," Jimmy said, earning gasps of surprise from both troll and devil woman.

The troll stared at me for a moment before saying, "I do not have the words to thank you Lady Aeslyn...but I assure you that I intend to fight the Iron Lord. Perhaps in this way I can make up for what he bid me to do."

I nodded in approval of that and then reached out and unleashed my healing magics upon him, healing his wounds the same way I had the devil woman's. He slowly stood up, being careful to make no threatening moves at all. The devil woman watched with a scowl, obviously not happy about my letting him go after his part in the attack. However, she made no move to attack him, perhaps out of respect for my saving her life.

A moment later, I turned my attention to the cat woman that Bibi was still holding pinned down. I reached out to remove her oath but then paused to shake my head sadly. "She swore no oath. She did this of her own will."

"She enjoys hunting her prey," the troll commented awkwardly.

"Then she has no excuse," the devil woman stated, driving her spear right through the cat woman's chest before I even realized it. The cat woman died almost instantly. Then the devil woman bowed to me and said, "I thank you again for your assistance, but I must go. The Ring of Silence...or what little there is left of us, have a great deal to do."

"We're forming an alliance," I told her abruptly. "In the Court of Silent Footsteps, we're trying to gather enough allies to stop the Iron Lord. Perhaps the Ring of Silence should join with us as well since we all share a common enemy."

The devil woman merely responded, "That is not my decision to make, but I shall pass the request to those who may."

And with that, she turned and hurried away, obviously eager to get out of the Crossroads before she was ambushed again. I agreed with the sentiment completely.

"I'll...I'll speak with some faerie I know who might wish to help," the troll said before he too turned and left.

"T'was too short a fight for me tastes," Jewel grumbled. Then she looked down at the dead cat woman and where the hobgoblin was in the middle of fading away. "It's almost a shame I swore me oath not to soak me cap. I've been getting more kills since joining ye..." Of course, her opponent from this fight had walked away alive but she didn't seem to be considering that.

"I can take care of that," I told her, reaching for my necklace which contained the key.

Jewel shook her head. "Nae... I take me oath seriously and I'll not have it taken by ye." Then she gave me a nasty grin and added, "Asides, I'll be having the Iron Lord's blood for me cap soon enough."

I just nodded at that and started in the direction we had been going, to the gate that led to the Court of Silent Footsteps. I was more than eager to get out of the Crossroads, especially considering the fact that the Iron Lord's people were still wandering around looking to ambush the Ring of Silence and probably anyone else he considered a threat. Once we reached the gate, I let out an immense sigh as I stepped through it.

When we reached the Court of Silent Footsteps a short time later, we were suddenly surrounded by twice as many of the mushroom men as before. The air was filled with nearly a dozen tiny flying faerie as well, all of which were armed with either spears or bow and arrows. Once they saw Bibi however, most of the weapons lowered and they began to relax. However, there were still a few weapons aimed towards Jewel.

"She's with us," Bibi called out to the guards. "She's sworn an oath to help Aeslyn fight the Iron Lord." That was enough to convince the rest of them that Jewel wasn't a threat.

"Things have become more dangerous," one of the mushroom men told Bibi. "We have tripled the guards in case the Iron Lord turns his attention to us."

Suddenly, an excited voice called out, "HONEY," right before Emerald Gini shot through the air and grabbed her sister in a firm hug.

"It's good to be home again," Bibi said, looking just a little self-conscious from the attention.

I just chuckled as I watched Bibi's sister still clutching her tightly and then began walking towards the cave where I'd stayed the last time I was here. Jimmy was obviously relieved to be back as well, though Jewel followed behind, looking nervous. I suspected that she feared some faerie of this court would still mistake her for one of the Iron Lord's people and attack. Fortunately, Bibi kept warning all the new faerie we encountered that even though Jewel was a red cap, she was on our side.

Then I heard, "Aeslyn," yelled out in a familiar voice. I saw Heather and Benji running towards us with Thorn and Corwin following a short distance away. "You're back..." Heather grabbed me in a hug much the same way that Emerald Gini had grabbed Bibi.

"You're a girl again," Benji said, staring at my breasts in awe.

"Yes," I responded with a broad grin. "And it feels absolutely wonderful to be me again."

"I'm very happy for ye lass," Corwin said, stopping in front of me and looking me over. "Ye obviously found Oathbreaker, but I dinnae see the blade."

I just smiled at that and then looked to Thorn who stood back, looking a little awkward. When she saw me looking at her, she said, "Welcome back milady," and then bowed.

"I have something for you," I told Thorn, smiling as I went to her. "I have something I want to do for you..."

"Milady?" she responded blankly.

With a smile, I reached for the key and called on its powers. I found myself seeing Thorn from the same kind of perspective that I saw faerie, but with her there was no true name and no rules binding her. She was definitely bound by magic, but it was done in a completely different way. At first, I wasn't even sure that this would work but I followed my instincts and the spell which bound her so tightly broke and faded.

As soon as I was finished, the thorny vines on Thorn's arms began to blacken and wither. She gasped and stared at her arms as the tattoos faded away until there was no sign of any tattoos or markings except for my sigil. She ran her hands over her arms as though unable to believe that they were really gone.

"They're gone," Thorn exclaimed as tears of joy began pouring down her cheeks. "My curse is broken..."

"I know what it's like to be cursed," I told her gently. "I can't imagine what it was like being cursed for two hundred years..."

Without warning, Thorn suddenly threw herself at me and grabbed me in a tight hug, whispering, "Thank you milady," over and over again. I just remained there hugging her back, knowing that this was the first time she'd been able to truly touch another person in two hundred years. It was getting a little awkward but I wasn't going to take this from her.

"I found Gyffendrach," I told Corwin while still holding Thorn. "I have Aelberon's key."

"And a very good thing that is," a new voice announced. I looked down and saw Bibi's father, the king of this court. He stared up at me with a grim look and said, "We'll be needing that and every other advantage we can get. The Iron Lord has begun attacking the humans."

Part 43

It had been nearly two full days since I'd returned to the Court of Silent Footsteps, and though I was relieved to have completed my quest and to be back where it was safe, I was growing increasingly frustrated. The king had become even more active in trying to form an alliance with the other courts, but unfortunately, most of them were hesitating to become involved. Even the fact that the Iron Lord had declared war on the human world in the name of faerie wasn't enough to get most of them interested in more than just defending their own realms.

"I have to do something," I muttered in frustration. Every minute my mom and mother were left trapped was another minute closer to when they'd be completely out of food and would be forced to either starve or surrender to the Iron Lord's forces. For all I knew, that may already have happened but I was trying hard to stay positive. It wasn't easy.

My thoughts turned to fantasies of sneaking back into the Court of the Morning Light and getting to my mother's demesne. I was sorely tempted to do just that, to make an attempt to rescue them on my own. After all, I not only had my full power but also the power of the key. However, I had to remind myself that by now, the entire realm would have been sworn to the Iron Lord. There was no way I could go against an entire Court by myself, not even with my closest friends. I needed real numbers behind me to have any chance of freeing my court or my family.

Just then, Thorn interrupted my thoughts by coming in with a tray full of food. "I've brought you something to eat milady," she said, setting the tray down and putting a hand on mine. She grinned cheerfully as she turned and left.

I watched Thorn leave, smiling to myself as I did so. Ever since I'd broken her curse, she had been extremely cheerful. She'd also become very touchy feely, taking any opportunity to touch other people and even hug them. I couldn't blame her in the least.

After taking a bite of the food that Thorn had brought and washing it down with a drink of nectar, I looked around the cavern we were still using as a room. Or at least the others were using it as a room since Jewel and I slept in my demesne. The others were still a little suspicious of Jewel, especially Benji and Heather who'd seen her trying to kill me, so they all made sure to keep their distance. Jewel was currently sitting far away from everyone else, making a show of sharpening her axe. She was doing this partly to mess with Benji and Heather but also because she was as frustrated as I was about our waiting.

Then I looked over to where Benji and Heather sat, quietly talking to each other. I didn't notice that they were holding hands. In fact, I'd seen them doing that a lot since I got back. It seemed that while I was gone on my quest, the two of them had become much closer to each other. I couldn't help but feeling a little jealous and left out, though I knew it was foolish to feel that way at the same time. After all, I had Jimmy now and I knew they'd been feeling left out from what I was doing. As sad as it was, it appeared that we really were growing apart. They were still human while I was becoming more and more a part of the faerie world.

When Benji got up to leave, I went and sat down next to Heather. I hesitated a moment before saying, "So...you and Benji?"

Heather blushed, "Um...yeah. It just kind of happened."

I laughed at that. "I'm happy for you. I know it isn't easy on you both being stuck here..."

"It isn't," Heather told me sadly. "I really miss home and my family. I want to go back." But before I could think of a response, she grinned and asked, "So...you and Jimmy?"

"It just kind of happened," I responded, feeling just a little embarrassed.

"But I thought you told me that you were still into girls," she teased.

I hesitated for a moment before admitted, "I still am a little bit..." Then I thought about it for a few seconds more. "I suppose it's difficult to explain. I still like girls a little, but I think I just like boys more now."

Heather nodded at that thoughtfully before saying, "So you're...sort of bi."

"Pretty much," I agreed. "That kind of thing isn't considered a big deal in most of the courts. Besides, I definitely lean more towards guys now."

"But what about the age difference?" Heather asked, looking a little disturbed. "I mean, isn't he a LOT older than you?"

"That bothered me at first," I admitted. "But he looks the same age as me, and anymore, I don't really think of his age. He's just Jimmy." Then I grinned and added, "Besides, since we're both between our first and second majorities, by faerie standards we are considered to be about the same age...not that age is actually considered a bit deal either."

Then Heather gave me a mischievious look and abruptly asked, "So, how is he in bed?"

"Quite good," I responded pleasantly, earning a gasp of surprise from Heather. I was pretty sure that she and Benji hadn't taken that step yet and suspected that she'd asked only to try being daring. I decided to shock her a bit more by leaning over and whispering, "Imagine the energy of a teenager, the experience of decades, and the stamina of a faerie." Heather gasped at that and then blushed brightly while I just sat there, trying to look calm and serene. It was quite amusing.

After this, we changed topics and began talking about other things, mostly about what had happened on my quest to find Gyffendrach. She was amazed when I told her about discovering my own realm and about meeting a real live dragon. However, what she seemed most excited by was my meeting the Lady of the Star Filled Night.

"I can't believe you actually met a new family member," Heather gushed. "And she was actually trapped there for hundreds of years?" She shook her head, shuddering as she did so.

A minute later, Heather stared at me with a strange look and said, "I still can't believe you used to be Shane... I mean, you're nothing like him."

"He's still in here," I assured her, tapping my temple.

"I know," Heather admitted. "But you've changed so much...and not just physically. I mean, you're even more feminine than I am. And you're so beautiful and graceful."

"Thank you," I told her with a smile, pleased by the compliments. "But you know that you're certainly not bad yourself. When I was Shane, I always thought you were very pretty."

Heather smiled self-consciously at that and then asked, "Did you know that Benji has a bit of a crush on you?"

I actually had guessed that from the way he'd been looking at me every once in awhile. Of course, the fact that we'd kissed back on Earth was a good indication too. However, I'd seen the way he'd been looking at Heather over the last two days and had no doubt as to who he was into now.

"He might have before," I told her honestly. "But we're just friends and nothing more. You're the one he's really interested in. Trust me on that."

"Thanks," Heather responded self-consciously. She stared at me for a moment before saying, "You know, you've changed since going on that trip. And I don't mean just because you turned back into a girl or have those weird eyes all the time. You're different than you were before you got cursed..."

"Different?" I asked curiously.

"Don't take this the wrong way," Heather told me awkwardly. "But you're sort of intimidating now. I mean...in the good way."

I was a little startled by that so smiled faintly and asked, "In a good way?"

"It's kind of difficult to explain," Heather said, looking even more awkward and uncomfortable. "You're stronger than you were...and not just because you have more power. You just seem more confident and...well...more...you."

"That really clarifies things," I responded wryly.

Had I really changed that much? But then I thought about it and realized that I probably had. I'd seen things that the old Shane never would have imagined. I'd done things that I never would have ever considered doing before, both good and bad. I'd had sex with a man...and definitely wanted more, and I'd even beaten a woman to death with my bare hands. I had become someone that Shane never would have recognized.

Heather was still floundering for a moment before she seemed to realize what she wanted to say. "You still look like you're my age, but you don't really act like it anymore. I mean, you talk and carry yourself more like an adult than a teenager. And honestly, you sort of make me feel like a little girl in comparison. I feel like I'm being left behind."

I had absolutely no idea of what to say to that so I just put my hand on hers and tried to comfort her. "You're not being left behind. We're just traveling in different directions."

"See," Heather responded with a weak smile. "That's exactly the sort of thing I'm talking about."

After that, we both laughed a bit before Heather wandered off to go find Benji. I decided to find Jimmy, thinking that if we had to do a lot of waiting, then spending some time in my demesne with him would be a great way to do it. Unfortunately, before I could find Jimmy, a messenger from the king found me and asked me to meet him at his throne.

I arrived at the king's throne to find that the other refugees had been gathered there as well. Even Jewel had been called in and she stood off to the side, watching curiously. I saw Bibi and Emerald Gini a short distance away and Gini waved at me with a broad grin. I just smiled, thinking that this was quite different from the way she'd threatened me when we first met.

"Lady Aeslyn," the king said, surprising me a little with the title.

"Your majesty," I responded politely.

"I have spoken with the lords of the Seelie courts," the king stated grimly. "While most agree that the Iron Lord is a threat, few are willing to commit. And unfortunately, none is willing to commit assistance to the Court of the Morning Light at this time." He shook his head sadly and said, "I fear that I cannot contribute enough troops on my own to make a difference without leaving my own court vulnerable to attack."

"Aelberon's balls," Corwin blurted out with a scowl. "What'll it take to get them to help?"

The king didn't seem bothered by Corwin's swearing, though he did answer, "I am not certain. Several courts seem nearly ready to offer assistance, but only so long as others commit first." He looked to me and said, "I know that you hold Aelberon's key, but it is a pity that you lost his sword. It may not have the same power as the key but it would prove a very useful symbol."

"Unfortunately, we don't have it," Bibi told her father. "At the time, our choice was to lose the sword or lose our lives. Now we must make do with what we do possess."

"Quite true," the king agreed.

I just considered the situation for a minute while the king and Corwin talked about how each of the courts had reacted. Then I abruptly asked, "What about the Unseelie courts?"

The king and Corwin both gave me blank look before the king asked, "The Unseelie courts?"

"The Unseelie courts have just as much to lose as the Seelie courts," I pointed out calmly, still thinking this through. "In fact, they have even more to lose. The Iron Lord has conquered more Unseelie courts that he has Seelie. And if he succeeds, they won't be allowed to just walk away with their own leadership still intact."

It was obvious that the king hadn't even considered approaching the Unseelie courts for this alliance. "But Seelie and Unseelie courts don't work together..."

"They have before," I pointed out. "When the treaty was formed, the Seelie and Unseelie worked together to browbeat the non-allied courts and even the wild faerie into complying with it. And as has been pointed out to me, both alliances are just shadows of what they once were. Perhaps it's time to form a new alliance."

At this point, nearly everyone was staring at me in surprise. The king slowly nodded and said, "I'll send messengers out immediately..."

"And while you're doing that," I said, coming to another decision. "I'll go talk to some of these other courts personally." That earned even more looks of surprise. "I may not have the sword anymore, but perhaps seeing proof that I do indeed have Aelberon's key will convince them."

"This time, I'm coming with ye lass," Corwin announced with a stubborn look that suggested this wasn't up for debate. "I know some of these courts. Ye'll be needing my help."

"I want to come too," Benji stated with a similar look on his face. "I don't want to be left behind anymore. I want to do SOMETHING to help..."

However, Heather just blurted out, "I just want to go home." Benji looked at her in surprise while she looked like she was about to break into tears. "I miss my family... I just can't stay here..." Her voice was starting to shake and it was obvious that she was barely holding herself together. I'd known she was having a hard time of this but perhaps I'd underestimated how much so.

"By now, the Iron Lord will probably have forgotten about ye," Corwin admitted. "It should be safe for ye to go home...probably safer than remaining here."

"I'll escort her home," Bibi said, looking to Heather and nodding. Then she looked to Benji and added, "I'll take them both home."

"But I don't want to go home," Benji protested weakly. Of course, I knew good and well that he was just as homesick as Heather, however, he also wanted to prove his courage. "I want to help..."

I nodded and went to Benji's side, quietly telling him, "You two should be safe at home...but there are no guarantees. Heather will need someone to guard her and keep her safe...just in case." Benji's spine stiffened at that and he gave me a determined look. "Can you do that? I don't know who else we can trust to protect her."

"Of course," Benji responded, sounding almost offended that I'd doubt him. "There is no fucking way that I'll let anything happen to her."

"Good," I told him with. "I'm trusting you with this."

"I'll get them home safe," Bibi told me. Then she hesitated a moment before looking at Benji and Heather, adding, "I'll even stay long enough to convince their families of the truth of their adventure."

There were several gasps of surprise from the gathered faerie but it was Benji who spoke what they were thinking. "But what about the Ring of Silence?"

"I don't think they're much of a concern anymore," I told him grimly, remembering how the Iron Lord had pretty much decimated their numbers. Besides, the Iron Lord has already revealed us to the human world so there isn't much point in trying to cover things up anymore.

After this, Corwin and the king began discussing which Unseelie courts might be receptive to an alliance while Jimmy told me he was going to start packing supplies for our new journey. Jewel just sat back and grinned, obviously pleased that we were going to be doing something other than just waiting again.

"Milady," Thorn said as she approached me. "I would like to come along as well. I believe I can be of some assistance with some of these courts."

"Then I'd be happy to have you along," I told her, knowing that she was desperately looking for some way to contribute. Besides, since Corwin was coming with and Benji and Heather were going home, Thorn would have been left behind here on her own. "A diplomatic mission should be safer than a quest for some lost relic."

Then I turned to the task of saying goodbye to Benji and Heather. Heather was crying as we hugged and said goodbye, with her promising to contact me again somehow. I told her that I'd do my very best to try seeing them again, but I made no promises. I was well aware that with the situation being what it was, there was a chance that I might not be alive to see her again, though I didn't tell her that. Of course, I was a little teary eyed myself and I didn't try hiding that as I hugged them both, wishing them good luck.

"Be safe," I told my friends, sad to see them go but relieved that they were no longer going to be in the middle of this. "And remember, keep iron close to you at all times...just in case."

"I will," Benji promised, giving me a sad smile. "And you be safe too... Don't do anything stupid...like getting yourself hurt."

"I'll do my best," I assured him.

Before I'd said as much as I would have liked, Benji and Heather were off for their own trip home. Bibi was going with them so wouldn't be coming with us on this new trip. I felt a little sad about that but thought that my human friends needed her more than I did at the moment. I just hoped that they all got home safely.

Part 44

The Court of Wave and Tide was the first court that we visited in my quest to find allies against the Iron Lord. It was an aquatic court composed mostly of selkie, merfolk, and other ocean dwelling faerie. Most of the realm was under water...real ocean water rather than illusionary, though there were numerous small rocky islands, such as the one the way gate was located on.

There was a salty wind coming from the water that was quite chilly, making me thankful that I had my cloak to protect me from it. Unfortunately, none of my companions had quite the same kind of protection, though none of them had made a single complaint.

Jimmy and Jewel stood back a little, both trying to look stiff and formal like proper bodyguards. Of course, Jimmy was doing a much better job at that than Jewel who couldn't have been proper if her life depended on it. Thorn stood back, trying not to draw attention while Corwin stood beside me, apparently having been to this court before and knowing some of the people.

Bibi's father had been generous enough to send three guards of his own to help protect us as well, all three of them tiny with wings so that they could keep up. One was a man in shiny black armor which made him look somewhat like a beetle, one was a tiny brown haired woman with a brown dress and moth wings, and the last was a woman wearing some sort of lightweight pink and white armor on her chest and shoulders which looked like it may have been carved from a snail shell. All three of them hovered in the air a short distance away, ready to protect me should the need arise.

The water surrounding us was filled with apparent seals and otters as well as with merfolk who kept splashing their tails to the surface. A few seals and otters rested on the rocks of the shore, all of them watching us intently. However, a short time ago one of these 'seals' had transformed into human form and stood in front of us, looking almost like a normal human, except for the fact that his only clothing seemed to be a sort of kilt made from what appeared to be seal skin.

"I understand your concern," the Lord of Wave and Tide said. "But this is a problem for land dwellers, not for those of my court."

"This is a problem for everyone," I argued, trying to stay calm but it wasn't easy. "The Iron Lord is attacking one court after another, both Seelie and Unseelie. He's seized the Court of the Morning Light and the Court of Lost Children. Now he's even going after the human world..."

"He'll never be able to reach us beneath the waves," the Lord of Wave and Tide stated as though it was a simple fact. "We need no others to defend ourselves."

I let out a sigh of frustration, then closed my eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. It was time to change tactics. "The Iron Lord has broken the treaty and revealed faerie to the human world. Do you really think that any one person has the right to make such a decision by themselves? That he has the right to declare war on the humans on his own....in the name of all faerie?"

The Lord of Wave and Tide hesitated at that. "A war with the humans would not be good...but even humans cannot harm me or mine."

"Are you certain?" I asked with an almost pleasant smile. "You see, I know humans very well. They have ways of traveling under the water now and weapons that can deal immense damage. Trust me, you do not want an unnecessary war with them...especially not one chosen by the Iron Lord. Besides, are you not one of the lords who agreed to the treaty that the Iron Lord has broken?"

"That was my father," the Lord of Wave and Tide said in response, but he was scowling intensely, definitely not looking happy. "I cannot commit to a war with the Iron Lord..."

"Then don't commit to the war," I told him, disappointed that he wouldn't agree to help but I did see him wavering a little. "We are gathering the rulers of several influential realms to discuss this issue in detail. Please come, hear what the others have to say and provide your own wisdom on the subject."

After a few more minutes, the Lord of Wave and Tide had agreed to come to the meeting, though he still wouldn't commit to anything else. When we left the realm a short time later, I was disappointed that it hadn't gone better. As it was, I hadn't really gained much more than we already had from him.

"Dinnae give up lass," Corwin told me as we started down the way. "Mayhap the next court will be more receptive."

"And which one is the next court?" I asked.

Corwin, who'd been acting as our guide on this journey, responded, "That would be the Court of the Green. Tis a lovely realm, occupied by dryads, ents, and other form of tree folk. They have little love of humans or even of faerie outsiders. I have never been in their realm so know little of how ye will be met."

"I've been there," Thorn said quietly. I looked at her and saw that she had a very grim expression on her face. She absently rubbed at her arms, as though verifying that the thorn tattoos were still gone. "That's where... That's where I grew up."

I stared at Thorn for a moment and then quietly asked, "And that's where you were cursed?"

Thorn nodded at that, looking a little shaken. I put a hand on her shoulder to offer her what comfort I could and it seemed to work. "Some of them liked going back to the human world," Thorn said after a minute. "Back to the old forests so they could collect seeds and check on the ones they'd planted. That was how Grindlebark found me." She paused to give a weak smile. "I was a child and only wanted to go home, but he didn't care about that. He thought I'd make a good pet so took me back with him instead."

"And this Grindlebark was the one who cursed you?" I asked, my voice cold. Thorn just nodded at that.

"No one will touch you there," Jimmy told her grimly. "We won't allow anyone to harm you."

"Thank you," Thorn told him, then hugged me. "Thank you milady." Then she straightened herself up a bit and said, "Let me tell you what I know of that court..."

By the time we arrived at the Court of the Green a few hours later, I'd been well briefed on everything that either Thorn or Corwin knew about them. As Corwin had told me earlier, they were forest faerie, ones whose forms were modeled more off of plants than from animals. They were environmentalists and hermits, generally having little to do with the other courts.

When we stepped out of the way gate and into the realm, my first impression was that it looked a great deal like the Court of Fang and Claw. We were in the middle of a thick forest with trees and brush everywhere. There seemed to be quite a variety of trees here, but some of them looked very old and very large. It was easy to believe that this was the home of tree faerie.

At first glance, it might appear that we were completely alone in the middle of the forest, and it probably would for most people. However, I wasn't fooled for even a moment. I'd immediately seen through the illusions and had seen the silver glows. There were near a dozen faerie close by.

Two of the faerie looked like ordinary trees, even without any illusion covering them. I could see their roots digging into the ground. Other faerie were hiding themselves behind illusion, either trying to make themselves look like trees or like just part of a single tree.

I walked to one of the illusion covered faerie and looked straight into his eyes, saying, "Hello. I'm called Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes and I would like to request an audience with the Green Man."

The faerie was obviously surprised that I saw through the illusion and let it drop, revealing that he was humanoid in shape, but tall, thin, and with brown skin that looked like tree bark. The other nearby faerie came out of hiding as well, perhaps realizing that their attempts to hide from me were useless or maybe they just wanted us to realize we were surrounded.

Most of the faerie who were revealed were much like the first, being vaguely human in shape but with skin that looked like bark. Several of them looked even more like trees while there were two green skinned women with hair that appeared to be made of leaves. These women were dryads and were completely naked. Of course, every faerie I saw here was naked. I absently wondered if wearing clothes was against one of this court's rules.

The faerie that I'd approached didn't say a thing and merely turned and walked away. I assumed that meant we were to follow so we did so. We went deeper into the trees and I saw even more of these forest faerie, some of which were no bigger than Bibi's true size while one of them stood about fifteen feet tall and was rooted into the ground. Many of them blended into their surroundings so well that I knew my companions didn't even see them. I alone was able to make out their true numbers and variety.

By this point, I was familiar with the routine of being led to where the lord of a court actually held court. This time was no different as I was led to a clearing in the trees that was very much like the one from the Court of Fang and Claw, except that here there were no totem poles or anything else that could possibly have been man made. The closest exception was that there was a large stump that looked as though it had naturally formed into the right shape to be used as a chair or throne.

The 'throne' was occupied by a large man who was just over seven feet tall and who appeared to be made entirely of fresh green leaves which had just been packed into human shape. As with the others, he wore no clothing though he did have a sort of crown on his head which was made wood. This was the Green Man, also known as the Lord of the Green.

For nearly a minute, the Green Man and I just stood there staring at each other, neither of us saying a thing. Thorn had told me that those of this court were quite good at patience. Then again, since they identified with trees, that made a lot of sense.

"So you are the one the Lord of Fang and Claw told me of," the Green Man finally said, though he spoke rather slowly.

"I am called Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes," I told him, not at all surprised that he'd been in contact with the Court of Fang and Claw. Thorn had told me that was one of the few other courts they actually dealt with on a regular basis. "I come seeking allies against the Iron Lord and his aggressions."

"I know what it is that you seek," the Green Man stated, his voice sounding more bored than anything. "We have little need of allies. We merely wish to be left alone."

That response didn't surprise me any since it was the same line that everyone seemed to have. "I can understand your desire," I told him, slipping into that calm state that seemed to work better when dealing with others. "You have a beautiful realm and it appears to thrive in this peace. However, I fear that the Iron Lord may not care of your desire to merely be left alone. The Court of the Morning Light wished to be left alone yet he came upon us without cause. The Court of Lost Children merely wished to be left alone yet the Iron Lord invaded there as well. And now he has broken the treaty and has launched war against the humans in the name of all faerie, an act which could spread into a war that will annihilate both races."

"Do not listen to her honeyed words," another voice said.

Trying to ignore the voice, I continued, "The Iron Lord's ambitions will not go away with this. For even if he succeeds against the humans, he will have access to an unlimited amount of iron. With that in hand, no court will be able to resist him."

"This one lies," the hostile voice said again. "She seeks to lure us into fighting her foe for her. She would have us die in place of herself."

I looked to the speaker and saw that he was about eight feet tall, with green skin that had small patches of bark. His hair seemed to be tangled with a mass of leaves and twigs, though I suspected they were more a part of him than decoration. Then I saw the way Thorn was looking at him with an extremely wary look and suddenly guessed who he is.

"You are the one called Grindlebark, are you not?" I asked him politely, enjoying the look of surprise that I knew who he was.

"How do you know of me?" Grindlebark demanded, glaring at me suspiciously. Then he finally noticed Thorn standing there and began to grin. "I see... You have my old pet..."

"Thorn is no one's pet," I told him grimly.

Grindlebark seemed to think that funny and responded, "Yes... Too ugly and stupid to be a good pet..."

I felt the anger building inside of me as he insulted my friend. It wasn't the burning anger I'd felt when I'd beat that woman to death with my bare hands but a cold anger. I gave Grindlebark 'the look' and kept my voice calm and controlled as I stated, "You will not insult my friends."

The Green Man did absolutely nothing to interfere as Grindlebark came towards me, stomping a bit with each step. He towered over me, massive and fearsome with his size and obvious physical power.

"Foolish sidhe," Grindlebark said. "Thinking you can come here and give orders..." Then he bent down to look me in the eyes, looking even more fearsome as he did so. "And what will you do if I continue to insult that worthless human?"

"Milady," Thorn exclaimed fearfully, grabbing my arm as if to try protecting me or at least convincing me to back off.

I just met Grindlebark's eyes, giving him 'the look' with even more intensity so that he actually backed up a step under the force of my gaze. "Know this, that I am the keeper of Aelberon's key," I said, keeping my voice calm and quiet. There were several gasps from around the clearing from that, though the Green Man showed no sign of surprise. "You have done great harm to my friend in the past, taking her from family and home and enslaving her. You have done immense harm by cursing her so that for two centuries, she could not enjoy the comfort of another's touch."

Grindlebark just snorted at that. "She's just a pitiful human..."

By now, my sigil was glowing as were all the swirls and spirals along my arm. A silver glow spread over my entire body and I continued staring Grindlebark in the eye without flinching. "Thorn is my friend," I said, still keeping my voice calm and almost pleasant. "And if you ever harm my friend in any way or form again, even if it is with but a word, I will use Aelberon's key to remove each and every rule which binds you. I will even remove the burden of holding a true name."

Now, all the faerie gathered around were staring at me in horror and even a little fear, especially Grindlebark. I'd just threatened Grindlebark with something even worse than death. I'd threatened to tear away his very identity and everything that made him who he was."

"You wouldn't," Grindlebark started.

However, I just smiled pleasantly and added, "This I swear."

A sudden silence filled the air as I swore the oath and a look of shock appeared on Grindlebark’s face. Then he snarled and looked as though he was going to physically attack me, though I braced myself to jump back. I had no doubt that my bodyguards were all a moment away from attacking him.

“ENOUGH,” the Green Man yelled out. He stared at me and said, “You would threaten one of my court?”

“I apologize for what must seem a great rudeness,” I told the Green Man with a bow of my head.

“Please allow me to kill her,” Grindlebark said to his ruler. “She insults our entire court.”

“This confrontation was not my intention when I came,” I told the Green Man. “I mean no threat to you or yours, though this one has done great wrong to my friend in the past and I will not allow him to harm her again.”

The Green Man stared down at me for a minute before saying, “You come claiming that you wish an alliance, yet you threaten to start war in my realm over a human?”

I didn’t say anything to that and just stood there, trying to look calm and serene, attempting to keep my frustration from showing. I met his eyes with my own and didn’t look away.

Then the Green Man suddenly looked at Thorn and asked, “What say you of this Roselyn?”

“Roselyn?” I asked in surprise.

Thorn looked a little self-conscious as she explained, “Roselyn was the name my mother gave me. I have not heard it spoken in a very long time.”

“I dinnae think Thorn suits ye quite as much now,” Corwin offered with a chuckle.

Thorn just looked up at the Green Man and told him, “You were always kind to me when I was a guest here, my lord. I always thought that it was you who bade my former patron gift me to the Lady of the Crescent Moon once he grew bored of me. That that, I thank you, for if not for that I would not have met milady. I can promise you that she means no harm to your court. She’s only trying to protect those she cares for.” She looked a little proud as she said that last.

“Aeslyn is loyal to a fault,” Corwin stated.

“Very well,” the Green Man stated, turning his attention back to me. “You will have your alliance.”

“WHAT?” Grindlebark demanded angrily.

“Silence,” the Green Man ordered him. “The Lady Aeslyn has convinced me that the Iron Lord is indeed a threat to our court. Allies could be useful, especially one who demonstrates and earns loyalty.”

“Thorn,” I started, putting my hand on her shoulder. Then I paused and said, “Roselyn… That does sound more appropriate now that you no longer have tattoos. Thank you.”

“No milady,” she responded with a broad grin, hugging me and glancing to where Grindlebark stood fuming, “thank you.”

Part 45

I was frustrated as I walked along the way, still fuming over the failure from that last court we’d visited. It had been worse than a failure, it had been a complete and total waste of time.

The Court of Gilded Lies had been founded by artists, entertainers, and storytellers who were more interested in fantasy than reality. Over time, they’d isolated themselves from the other courts and lived in a world of their creation, one that was even more bound in illusion than any other realm I’d seen.

When we’d arrived at the court, they’d all been very friendly but absolutely no one took us or the threat of the Iron Lord seriously. Instead, they seemed to think that the Iron Lord and his attacks were merely another story, no different from the ones that they were constantly making up. More than once, I was asked how the story of the Iron Lord ended.

Of course, that should have been expected from a court where their ruler was called the Great Fool and was dressed like a medieval court jester, including the classic jester’s cap. After talking with him, I had no doubt that he was a great fool indeed.

“Farching bastards,” Jewel exclaimed with a scowl. “I’ll never get that honey out of me hair…”

“I’ve got glitter in places I didn’t even know I had places,” I muttered.

“I’m glad to be gone from there,” Jimmy said with a sigh. “I am NEVER going back there…” He shuddered as he obviously remembered their ‘jokes’ on us. It appeared that the Great Fool was a huge fan of slapstick and had been encouraging that kind of humor for decades.

“Aye,” Corwin agreed. “T’was nice sharing a tale or two with an old friend, but tis not a place to be staying for long.”

Thorn, now called Roselyn just smiled. “I thought it was quite entertaining, though of course I’m not the one who has to clean up after them.”

I just sighed, trying not to think of my failure with the Court Gilded Lies and instead focus on the successes I’d already attained. The Court of the Green and the Court of the Feathered Serpent had both agreed to the alliance while several others had agreed to at least come to the meeting between the various rulers.

“So what next?” I asked Corwin, trying to keep my voice calm.

“The Ring of Shining Laughter is nae far, lass” Corwin said, then paused to scowl deeply. “But by Ogg’s brass titties, they’re even worse than the Court of Gilded Lies. Nae, the next best court is the Court of Pureblood Sidhe. Ye should get a good reception there.”

“They’re welcoming if you happen to be a sidhe,” Jimmy said, glancing around at the others who were with us. “Otherwise, they aren’t very friendly.”

Corwin looked to Jimmy and asked, “So lad, ye know the court?”

Jimmy nodded at that, not looking happy. “My mother was born into that court but was exiled when she had Shyla from a non-sidhe father. Since my father was sidhe, I’ve been welcomed, but I’d rather not be part of any court that would deny my family.”

“So how will they treat the others?” I asked, gesturing to everyone in our group besides Jimmy and myself.

“I don’t know,” Jimmy admitted.

“I’ve been there afore,” Corwin told me. “I was treated politely but it was clear I was not welcome to stay overly long. Since we’re with ye, we should be treated well. They’re likely to treat ye with respect due to yer heritage.”

I nodded at that. “Because I’m sidhe.”

“Aye,” Corwin agreed. “And Aelberon was once their lord.” At my look of surprise, he added, “The Court of Pureblood Sidhe was one of the three courts that broke off from Aelberon’s court. The Court of the Morning Light was another as was the Court of the Whispered Word.”

“I haven’t heard of that last one,” I responded thoughtfully. “The Court of the Whispered Word…”

“A broken court,” Jimmy told me grimly. “The court was destroyed from within and without nearly two centuries ago.”

“Aye,” Corwin agreed with a distant look in his eyes. “Tis a tragic story of greed and betrayal. For in the days following the treaty…”

Corwin told a long story about the Court of the Whispered Word and the events that led to its destruction, continuing the story for nearly the rest of our journey. I was pleased for the distraction as it kept me from thinking too much about the failure with the Court of Gilded Lies.

When we reached the Court of Pureblood Sidhe, I stepped out of the way gate and looked around in amazement. There was an enormous palace in front of me which looked to have been formed of marble and gold. Instead of wilderness, I saw cottages and gardens.

“This place looks like it came straight out of a faerie tale,” I said, half expecting to see Rapunzel dropping her hair down from one tower I saw.

Three guards had been standing nearby, each wearing uniforms and partial armor over their chests and shoulders which appeared to be made of gold. They were all sidhe, as was to be expected by the name of this court. In fact, every faerie I saw was sidhe.

The guards immediately drew swords but I held up my hands. “I am called Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes, heir to the Court of the Morning Light. We mean no harm to your court and merely seek audience with your lord.”

For a moment, the guards hesitated before one said, “Very well. Come with us.” Then he gave suspicious looks to the most of my entourage but said nothing.

I looked around as we were escorted through the palace, seeing that this was far more like a real palace than what I was used to. There were no holes in the walls or ceilings, and if the entire building hadn’t seemed to have been carved from a single piece of marble, I might have thought I was in some palace on Earth.

There were other sidhe around as well as a few humans who were obviously servants. The sight of them made me very uncomfortable but I knew that I couldn’t do anything about them at the moment. The truth was, I didn’t even know their stories or how willingly or unwillingly they were here.

“Time for that later,” I told myself quietly.

We reached the throne room a short time later and I saw that a beautiful young woman sitting on the throne. She had golden blonde hair which went all the way down to her ankles and which suddenly made me think of Rapunzel again. This was the ruler of the court, the Lady of Seven Songs.

“So you are the daughter of the Lord of Morning Light and the Lady of the Crescent Moon,” the Lady of the Seven Songs said when she saw me. She stared at me for a moment with a pair of eyes that were mixed with gold and green. “You look much like your mother.”

“Thank you,” I responded. “You seem well informed. I assume then that you know why I am here.”

“The King of Silent Footsteps has already requested my assistance,” she said dismissively. “My answer to you is the same as to him. Our court has no need of such an alliance.”

“A pity,” I responded, once again attempting to be calm and polite. “That is the same answer that nearly every other court has given. I had thought the Court of Pureblood Sidhe would show more wisdom and courage. I am truly disappointed that those my grandfather once ruled would choose to abandon his daughter and granddaughter, that they would hide away like goblins rather than act as true sidhe.”

“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” the Lady of Seven Songs demanded angrily. “You dare insult the courage and wisdom of this court?”

I just remained there, trying to look calm and serene. I’d already been warned that the sidhe of this court were full of themselves so thought that appealing to their pride might be a tactic. Now I just had to continue playing the part.

“It is a great shame,” I said, acting as though I hadn’t heard her. “I have managed to defeat many of the Iron Lord’s servants, have found the lost Gyffendrach, broken a curse upon my true name, and have even unsealed the Fount of the First Spark. After I have done all of this, surely you can demonstrate the true strength of this court and show the Iron Lord that you are now cowed by him?”

The Lady of Seven Songs stood up, still glaring at me angrily. “I will not be insulted by one such as you…”

“By one such as I?” I asked with mock innocence. “You mean one who is a pureblood sidhe…who is the granddaughter of Aelberon, Lord of the Endless Sky…and one who is the keeper of Aelberon’s key?”

“Seize her,” the Lady of Seven Songs demanded and her guards moved to do as she ordered, hesitating a moment though.

Suddenly, my own guards were between them and me, making it very clear that they’d have to go through them. Jimmy stood there with his sword drawn while Jewel had her axe. She looked as though she would be happy for the excuse to use it.

At this point, I drew on my own magic, just enough so that my sigil and the marks on my arm began to glow silver. I let the silver glow slowly spread over my body and then turned to face the Lady of Seven Songs again.

“Are you so afraid of the Iron Lord that you would attack me rather than listen?” I asked her.

“I will not have this kind of insult in MY court,” she stated firmly. “You WILL respect me.”

“Respect is something that must be earned,” I answered. “It is not something that is given merely because of your tribe. I have done a great many things to earn respect. What have you done? You have inherited a court from your father and then done nothing but sit upon it, ignoring old alliances and friends. Do you truly think that the Iron Lord will ignore you? If you do, then you are as great a fool as the Great Fool of the Court of Gilded Lies.”

“ENOUGH,” she yelled furiously. “Kill them all!”

Several guards started to move towards us but one of them yelled, “NO. Stand your ground and ignore that order.”

The sidhe who’d spoken looked to be in his mid to late twenties, though of course that gave no indication of his true age. He was wearing a uniform and armor as well, though his were much nicer than the other guards which suggested that he was much higher in rank.

“Would the captain of my guards refuse an order?” the Lady of Seven Songs demanded coldly.

“In this case, yes I would milady,” he responded firmly. “First, you attack one who is descended from Aelberon…a violation of the greatest form. You are ignoring the alliance with the Court of the Morning Light that your father swore to uphold. And third…” He turned to look at us, but to my surprise, he wasn’t looking at me. He was staring straight at Jimmy. “I will not slay my grandson for your ego.”

“Hello grandfather,” Jimmy greeted him politely.

“Grandfather?” I mused, giving Jimmy a curious look. I was going to have to ask him more about his time in this court once we had a chance.

"You dare to ignore my orders?" the Lady of Seven Songs demanded in shock, obviously having a hard time absorbing what he’d just said.

The captain of the guards merely bowed his head. "No milady. I merely obey orders given to me by your father, the prior lord as well as an oath I had taken to place the good of the court above even the desires of my lady."

"You place the welfare of your grandchild above my desires," the Lady of the Seven Songs told him coldly. "This I will not allow."

Jimmy's grandfather didn't back down from her gaze and instead responded, "My loyalty to this court is unquestionable. I said nothing when you exiled my only daughter but I will not stand by while you murder her son...especially not when that also means betraying this court." She was growing even angrier, if that was possible while he continued, "Old oaths and alliances demand we assist the Court of the Morning Light if nothing else. We need alliances to survive the threat of the Iron Lord and I would not have you sacrifice this court merely to satisfy your own pride."

"Milady," Roselyn whispered to me. "Are you sure it's wise to antagonize her?"

"She has a point," Jimmy added quietly, not taking his eyes off his grandfather. "Are you trying to anger her?"

"Actually," I responded with a faint smile. "Yes." I earned a gasp of surprise from both Jimmy and Corwin at that.

From what I'd been told by both Corwin and Jimmy, those of the Court of Pureblood Sidhe tended to be very arrogant and full of themselves, viewing themselves as the rightful heirs of Aelberon's court and legacy. With that in mind, I knew it was only a matter of time before the Lady of Seven Songs demanded that I turn over Aelberon's key to her, perhaps as a condition for the alliance. I'd decided to cut off that line of thinking by reminding them that I was actually Aelberon's descendent, and as such, had more right to his legacy than they. Besides, there was also something I wanted to test and this seemed the perfect opportunity.

By this point, the Lady of Seven Songs almost seemed to have forgotten about me as she was now focused on Jimmy's grandfather. It was fascinating to watch, but even more interesting was watching to look of surprise on Jimmy's face. I don't think he expected his grandfather to defend him at all. But as amusing as this was, I'd come to this court for a reason.

"I apologize for any insult to this court," I stated aloud. The Lady of Seven Songs and the captain of the guard both stopped and looked at me again. I just stood there, trying to look as calm and serene as possible, knowing that the silver glow that surrounded me would help with that. "The humans have a saying...that with great power comes great responsibility. I am merely disappointed that this great court does not seem to be fulfilling its responsibility."

As I spoke, I noticed that the captain of the guard and the Lady of Seven Songs both seemed to calm down a bit. This isn't the first time I'd noticed that happening when I spoke with people. Whenever I was calm and glowing like this, the people I was talking to seemed to calm down as well, though whether this was simply due to my own apparent calmness or some power I may have gained from the Fount of the First Spark, I still wasn't sure. Of course, it could be mere coincidence...but I doubted it.

"The Court of Pureblood Sidhe has always been a leading court of the Seelie," I continued my speech. "It saddens me that such a great court is not providing its strength and wisdom in what is perhaps the greatest conflict faced by either Seelie or Unseelie. The Iron Lord seeks to conquer all of faerie, to unite Seelie and Unseelie alike beneath his rule. He wishes to throw the might of faerie against the human world, sparking a war that could destroy both races utterly."

I continued speaking for another two minutes while the Lady of Seven Songs now watched me with a thoughtful expression rather than one of anger. Then she finally said, "You have made excellent points. These are trying times and the Seelie courts could use our guidance and wisdom. I will consider your offer of alliance further."

After that, things relaxed a great deal. I didn't get any firm commitment to do anything more than show up at the gathering of lords, but I had a very good feeling about this one. That was a relief after what had happened with the Court of Gilded Lies.

Once we were done with that, the Lady of Seven Songs looked at Jimmy's grandfather, her expression being one of fondness rather than anger. He gave her a similar look, suddenly making me realize that in spite of their previous argument, their relationship was much closer than I had thought. I suspected that his arguing in favor of the alliance may have contributed to her change of mind nearly as much as my speech.

Jimmy cautiously went over to his grandfather and hesitantly said, "Grandfather. Thank you for holding your blade."

His grandfather just smiled at that, resembling Jimmy a little as he did so. "I am pleased that you have come to visit, though I would that the circumstances were otherwise." Then he awkwardly asked, "How is...your sister?"

"Shyla is dead," Jimmy answered grimly. "She was slain by the Iron Lord's forces when he invaded the Court of the Morning Light."

"I am sorry for that," his grandfather told him with a grim expression of his own. Jimmy looked doubtful at that, reminding me that his mom had been exiled from the court just because Shyla had been born of a non-sidhe father. "The rules of this court may not have allowed her to be a member of this court...but she was still my granddaughter."

A few seconds later, Jimmy and his grandfather wandered off to continue talking in private. I was curious but made no move to listen in or invade their privacy. I knew that the relationship between Jimmy and his grandfather was a little strained so had a feeling that this talk was something that had been a long time coming.

Then I turned my thoughts back to my conversation with the Lady of Seven Songs. I'd pushed her buttons easily enough, just using her pride to do so. I'd also used that very same pride to help sooth her afterwards, once I'd made my point. However, it was how easily I'd soothed her that had me thinking. I was becoming more confident that it was more than my words which had done this, though I was also certain that I hadn't really done anything more than calm her down so she would listen to me. If I could truly control other people's minds or emotions, I wouldn't have had so many courts turning down my requests for assistance.

Of course, there was one other aspect of my speech that had me considering, and that was the words themselves. I'd never been very confident with public speaking before, yet now, I found that I felt calm and confident when doing so and that the words I wanted came with ease. My newfound confidence could be the result of my experiences and my determination to help my friends and family, but it might also be more. Could it be possible that this also came from the Fount of the First Spark? Perhaps, it had done more than just awakening my magic. Perhaps it had also awoken other parts of myself, parts that I had yet to truly discover.

The truth was, it didn't really matter if my newfound abilities to sooth others and speak convincingly were the result of the Fount or some natural talent I was only now discovering. What truly mattered was that these were tools I could use to help my family and stop the Iron Lord. One way or another, I was going to rescue my mom and mother, free Tomoki and my court, and avenge my dad, and I would happily use any and every tool at my disposal to accomplish these goals.

Part 46

I stood inside my demesne, calmly watching as everyone got ready to continue our journey. I'd slept quite well, as had everyone else, yet I still felt vaguely frustrated. I glanced to Jimmy, regretting that the two of us hadn't had much opportunity to be alone since we'd begun this trip. Sadly, I didn't see that changing until we returned to the Court of Silent Footsteps.

On my journey to find Gyffendrach, there had been four of us sleeping in my demesne. Now, we had twice that many which meant far fewer opportunities for privacy. However, this was a small price to pay for what we were trying to accomplish.

Ironically, in spite of having twice as many people with us as on my last trip, my demesne was less crowded. The three guards who'd been sent by the King of Silent Footsteps were all small and took up almost no space at all. However, far more than that was the fact that my demesne was actually larger. I'd discovered that after drinking from the Fount of the First Spark, the raw space I had available in my demesne had actually tripled. I'd used that new space to expand the rooms we were staying in and already had plans for what I was going to do with the space once we were done with our trip. I eventually planned on having one public room where guests could come while having the rest of it be more private areas, much as my mother had done with her own demesne.

Once everyone was ready, we started leaving my demesne. I came out through my cloak which was spread open and floating in the air as though held by invisible hands. I'd recently realized that since the opening could be fixed in mid-air and it was now part of my cloak, the cloak would remain there as well. It was kind of spooky to see it from this perspective but it was a lot more convenient than trying to find a tree or rock to hang my cloak from.

I snapped my cloak around me and let it settle in place like a normal cloak then indicated that I was ready to go. We started off without any further words, going to the way gate we'd camped near and starting the journey to our next court.

Jimmy gave me a very appreciative look, his eyes lingering over my breasts for a few seconds longer than necessary. I just smiled at that, feeling pleased that he felt the same way I did. Unfortunately, we wouldn't have a chance to really do much with our physical relationship until we were finished with this mission.

"I just hope the next court works out as well as the last," I mused aloud.

Yesterday, we'd stopped at the Court of the Rising Sun, which wasn't actually part of either the Seelie or Unseelie alliance but which was on the way to where we were going. There had been a few kitsune like Tomoki there as well as some strange faerie, but they'd all been happy to have allies against the Iron Lord. In fact, it had probably been the easiest court to deal with yet. The only allies who'd been easier to acquire had been the Ring of Roses, who'd actively sought us out after hearing that the Court of the Green had agreed to work with us.

"After yer done with the Court of Autumn Harvest, we should be getting back," Corwin told me. "We'll be wanting to be there when the courts gather."

"You're probably right," I agreed. Unfortunately, the only real friend I still had waiting for me back at the Court of Silent Footsteps would be Bibi. I spared a moment to worry about Benji and Heather, telling myself that they were all right. Bibi would have made sure they were safe, but it would be nice hearing the confirmation from her own lips. "It will be nice to take another break from this traveling."

When we reached the Court of Autumn Harvest, I took a slow look around, seeing a number of trees with red, orange, and yellow leaves hanging from them, though the ground was also covered by these fallen leaves. The surroundings were also a little foggy, reminding me of how the Court of the Morning Light was, though this fog was a little thicker. Still, there was something nice about the scenery.

"Tis always a pleasant court," Corwin stated with a faint smile. "They have some good story tellers and the best spiced cider ye'll ever taste..."

"I can hardly wait," I responded, more eager to finish with our mission than anything else.

"I've heard of their cider," Roselyn said, looking more than a little interested. "I would like to try some while here, if we have the opportunity of course."

Just then, some of the leaves began to move and stand up, revealing the guards who'd been hiding beneath. I'd been expecting that, having already seen their auras, but what I didn't expect was the fact that we had five faerie all pointing either bows or crossbows at us. They were all just a little over four feet tall and wearing clothes that were made of autumn colors, and each of them looked cold and angry.

"We come in peace," I said, holding my arms out so that they could see I wasn't making any hostile moves. "We come to speak to the Harvest Queen."

"Drop your weapons and surrender," one of these guards exclaimed.

A moment later, a dozen tiny faerie who'd been hiding in a nearby tree all left the tree in what appeared to a cluster of leaves taking flight. These faerie were all the same size as Bibi or my Court of Silent Footstep guards but had wings that looked like autumn colored leaves. In seconds, this swarm of tiny faerie surrounded us as well.

"I am Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes," I called out, summoning my magic so that a silver aura began to form around my body. "I mean no harm to your court..."

But before I could even finish talking, the tiny faerie began to poke at me with their spears. It felt like I was being stung by a half dozen bees on my face and hands at the same time. I gasped in pain and then unleashed a blinding flash of light that would let us escape through the way gate. Unfortunately, other faerie guards had positioned themselves between us and the gate, ones who hadn't even been looking when I blinded the others.

"Milady," Roselyn screamed in terror and pain as she was poked by their spears as well.

"Get in here," I told her, holding my cloak open so she could get into my demesne and into safety.

Our tiny opponents were now focusing on our tiny guards but it wasn't a fair fight since the ones on my side were outnumbered four to one. Our larger opponents were still a bit dazed from my strobe and weren't aiming their weapons towards us, perhaps afraid that they'd hit each other. Corwin suddenly threw a handful of something resembling dust at them, hitting two of them. Both of the faerie he'd hit dropped their weapons and began scratching themselves fiercely.

"Itching power," Corwin said, running into the safely of my demesne right after Roselyn.

"Come here ye half-pinted bastards," Jewel exclaimed. "I'll cut ye down even smaller..."

"We have to get out of here," Jimmy told me grimly to which I nodded full agreement.

I gestured to the way gate and the faerie who were between us and it. “First we have to get past them.”

"What the heck is going on?" I demanded angrily. "We came on a diplomatic mission."

Unfortunately, none of the local faerie answered Jimmy, though more began to appear and join them. Another dozen tiny faerie appeared along with four more of the larger ones. I grimaced and tried fighting the larger ones with Siffryn, but the smaller ones kept getting in the way.

Suddenly, a half dozen of the smaller faerie grabbed my cloak and began yanking it, pulling me backwards and off balance. That wasn't a good thing while I was trying to defend myself from one of their larger friends. I had to slip my cloak loose just so I could catch my balance and block a sword that was being swung at me. Seconds later, the smaller faerie started flying at my hands, stabbing at the backs of them with their spears until I was forced to drop Siffryn.

Jimmy and Jewel howled in rage as the local faerie were targeting them with the same tactics they were me. They were having to fight off the larger faerie while the smaller ones flew in to stab at them with tiny spears, forcing them to release their weapons. Then one of the larger faerie jumped at me, knocking me to the ground. Before I even realized it, I was tied up in rope and could barely move.

"Help," I called to my friends, but they were already being taken down the same way. Within several more seconds, we'd all been captured.

One of the four foot tall faerie crouched down beside me, holding a dagger to my throat. "Don't fight us any further," he told me coldly. "We don't want to hurt you or yours but we have our orders. Your fate is sealed, but your friends... If they don't fight...they will live. They may be forced to swear...but they will live."

"Oh no," I gasped in horror, suddenly realizing what had gone wrong. The Iron Lord had gotten to the Court of Autumn Harvest before us.

Then I remembered that I still had an ace up my sleeve, one which could change the situation. I couldn't move my body but I could still call upon the power of the key and release these faerie from their oaths. But before I could fully do so, the faerie next to me hit me alongside my head with the hilt of his dagger. My head exploded into pain and suddenly found myself unable to focus or think clearly.

"AESLYN," Jimmy called out, though I barely heard him. He tried calling out again until he was similarly silenced.

My awareness flickered in and out as they carried me to an opening in a hill and then down inside of it. We went down into a series of gray stone halls though I was out of it enough that I had absolutely no idea of how far they'd taken me or in what direction. All I knew was that when my awareness fully returned, I had a splitting headache and was chained to the wall in a stone room that looked almost like a stereotypical dungeon cell.

"Ugh...my head," I muttered as I sat up, clutching my head and trying to make sense of my broken memories of being brought here. What I did remember was that the Iron Lord had already seized this court and I'd walked right into it. "I am definitely rethinking my intention to not swear anymore..."

"I see that you waken," another voice said.

I snapped my head around for a better look and immediately wished I hadn’t. The pounding in my head and nausea suddenly surged, though it faded again once I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. Then I looked at the source of the voice and saw a woman chained to the wall on the other side of the room.

The other woman was about five feet tall with a faint reddish brown tint to her skin, the same as the faerie who'd attacked us. She had long red hair and wore a red and gold dress that was a bit tattered and torn, but which had obviously been very good quality. She was watching me with eyes that were a little too large to be human and which were an odd golden color.

“I see I’m not the only guest here,” I commented, taking several deep breaths to let my head settle down.

“I apologize for the accommodations,” she said wryly. “I am the Harvest Queen…the ruler of this court.” She paused a moment before correcting that. “The rightful ruler.”

“The Harvest Queen,” I said in surprise, slowly getting to my feet. “How did you end up in here?”

“The Iron Lord’s forces seized my court,” she said, her voice quiet and calm, but I could see the anger flashing through her eyes. “Before my capture, I swore I would never obey the Iron Lord or his minions. They were left without means to control me yet thought my continued survival could be used to control my court.”

I just nodded at that, wincing slightly but thankful that my headache was fading quickly. “Locked in your own dungeon. Not good.”

“And what of you?” the Harvest Queen asked me with an intent look.

“I am called Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes,” I told her with a wry smile. “I came to your court to seek an audience with you and propose an alliance against the Iron Lord.

The Harvest Queen stared at me for a moment and then laughed bitterly. “Then you have your alliance, though I know not what good it will do either of us.”

I just smiled at that, feeling a little better. I looked down and took inventory of what I had with me. They hadn’t taken any of my clothes, which was a pleasant surprise after the way I’d been treated at the Court of the Morning Light, but I was still without either my cloak or Siffryn.

“Don’t give up hope just yet,” I told the Harvest queen, reaching for my necklace and smiling. “I do have an ace up my sleeves.”

With that, I used the power of the key to unlock my chains and let them drop to the floor. The Harvest Queen was watching me with an even more interested look now. I didn’t say a word as I went and unlocked her chains as well.

“Now for the door,” I said, going to the door and trying to open it. Of course, it was locked and wouldn’t budge. I used the power of the key on it but didn’t feel it having any effect. “That isn’t good.”

I stared at the door for nearly a minute while the Harvest Queen stood back and watched me. Then I grinned, remembering one other little detail. This entire structure was made from solid illusion…illusion that I could see through. I’d gotten used to holding my vision back so that I could function without running into things, but it was very easy to let loose and stare right through the door and walls.

“There’s a large bar holding the door shut,” I mused aloud, annoyed that there wasn’t a lock or even some kind of enchantment. Those I could undo…a giant dead bolt I could not.

“Of course,” the Harvest Queen responded, obviously not surprised since this was her own dungeon. “But how did you determine this?”

“X ray vision,” I answered pleasantly, staring at the door and considering my other options. “This might take longer than I thought.”

Part 47

I sat in the cold stone dungeon that I'd been locked in, silently staring at the door and waiting. Since I couldn't use Aelberon's key to just unlock the door and leave, I'd been forced to come up with another plan. All I had to do was wait for a guard to come in to feed or check on me, then I would blind him and use the key to break the Iron Lord's hold on him. That would not only let us escape but would turn that guard into an ally.

It was a good plan and I was certain that it would work, but so far there had been one small problem. I'd been locked in this dungeon for over twenty-four hours and not a single guard had come in. Faerie could survive without food and water far more easily than humans, but I was still getting hungry as well as impatient.

The Harvest Queen kept me company as we waited for the opportunity to escape and she'd even asked me to call her Autumn since these weren't very formal settings. Autumn was actually very pleasant to talk to and I had a feeling that if I had been able to reach her before the Iron Lord, she would have been open to an alliance. Of course, she had agreed to the alliance anyway, though neither of us had a lot to offer at the moment.

After what seemed like forever, the door finally opened and a guard stepped into the dungeon. But to my horror, it wasn't one of the local faerie who was our guard but a red cap. That meant I couldn't just break his oath to the Iron Lord to free him. However, that didn't mean the rest of my plan was worthless.

I let a brilliant flash of light into his eyes then shoved past him to rush out the door. However, I found that there had been two other red caps outside the room, ones who hadn't been caught in my strobe. A massive fist caught me in the face and sent me flying back. Then all three of the red caps crowded into the dungeon to glare down at me.

"We've got ye now ye sidhe bitch," Gutgnawer exclaimed, giving me a look of pure hatred.

Autumn stood back, realizing that it was pointless to try fighting them at the moment. I stood up, feeling slightly betrayed by that but knowing that it wasn't her fault. It was stupid fighting them when we were outnumbered and unarmed. I stood back up, trying to ignore the bruise which was going to cover half my face and trying even harder to appear calm and in control. I was fully aware that at the moment I was in control of nothing.

"Hello Gutgnawer," I greeted him as pleasantly as I could, enjoying the look of anger on his face. "It's nice to meet you again. Have you lost weight?"

Gutgnawer just came towards me and bent down to glare at me eye to eye. I didn't look away and merely gave him 'the look'. "I'd kill ye now if the Iron Lord didn't want ye for questioning. Course, he didn't say ye had to be unharmed...just able to talk."

Then Gutgnawer hit me, knocking the air out of me with one punch. Because of that, I couldn't even gasp in pain as he hit me several more times. I dropped to the ground with my entire body hurting too much to move.

"The Iron Lord will be here soon," Gutgnawer told me with a malicious grin. "Then ye'll be wishing I killed ye."

Once the red caps were gone, Autumn commented, "Somehow, I don't think that this was what you intended."

I just grimaced and admitted in a whisper, "Not quite..."

For the next few hours, I desperately tried thinking of a way to escape this dungeon but nothing came to mind. Everything that came to mind had already failed. With each passing minute, I felt a cold knot of dread grow even larger in my stomach. The Iron Lord was coming and he was not going to go easy on me. I still had nightmares about what he'd done to me the last time I'd been his prisoner and I had a feeling that he was going to be a lot nastier this time.

At the same time, my fear was also increased by worry for my friends. I knew that Jewel and Jimmy had both been captured at the same time I was and that the Iron Lord had no reason to keep them alive. Of course, the local faerie had said that they had no intention of harming my friends if they didn’t have to, but I certainly wasn't going to count on that.

I hoped that Roselyn and Corwin were able to get away since I'd gotten them safely into my demesne, but I couldn't be sure about them. For all I knew, they may have come out of my demesne only to be captured, or my cloak might have been locked up in some chest which would leave them trapped inside. In fact, if I was killed while they were still inside, then they'd be trapped forever with no chance of escape.

I shuddered as I remembered the realm I'd discovered Gyffendrach in and a human skeleton I'd seen while there. It had probably belonged to some human guest who'd been trapped in his patron's demesne after his patron had been killed. The thought of that happening to my friends only made me even more aware that I'd have to be careful not to get killed, as if I didn't already have enough motivation.

Then there were the three guards who'd come with me from the Court of Silent Footsteps. I thought that they'd been captured as well but wasn't sure since I hadn't been paying too much attention to them during the fight. I felt a little guilty that they'd put themselves in that kind of danger for me and my mission and I'd barely even given them a second thought.

When the door finally opened again, my heart jumped at the sight of the Iron Lord stepping through. He looked exactly the same as the last time I'd seen him, imposing in his iron armor. Autumn gasped in fear at the sight and took several steps back while I stood where I was and faced him, trying to look calm and not show him the fear I really felt. Then I noticed the massive sword he held in his hand. Gyffendrach.

For a moment, the Iron Lord just stared at me with his cold hard eyes and then he said, "Behold, I wield Gyffendrach, the legendary Oathbreaker."

Autumn gasped at that and whispered, "The Oathbreaker..."

"Why then does it not work?" the Iron Lord demanded of me. "What is the secret?"

"How would I know that?" I asked with mock innocence. "The only one to know that secret has been dead for centuries."

The Iron Lord suddenly backhanded me, his iron gauntlet smashing against my cheek painfully though I knew he was holding back. "Do not play with me. I left you bound by your true name yet you controlled the power enough to break those bonds. Now tell me how you did so."

"It just happened," I lied. "When I first found Gyffendrach, it broke my bonds on its own. Maybe it recognized me as Aelberon's heir."

"You shall tell me what I wish to know," the Iron Lord told me, stating this as a simple fact. "I have important business to attend and do not have time to draw this out."

Then another figure came into the dungeon, the same woman with the purple robes who'd been the one to actually cast the curse on me. She stared at me with her eerie yellow eyes set in a pale face, not saying a word, at least not at first. I felt a chill go down my spine, remembering what she'd done to be me before.

The eerie woman began to speak in her raspy voice, quiet enough that I could barely hear what she was saying. Autumn was pressed back against the wall as far away from the Iron Lord as she could possibly get and would probably be unable to even make out an of it. I was grateful for that as I recognized a spell and my own true name. A moment later, I found the magic binding me, entrapping me in its power.

"You are bound to speak the truth," the Iron Lord said as he smiled faintly. "You are bound to tell me all I wish to know. Now tell me how I use the power in this sword."

"You don't," I answered. Then without even meaning to, I added, "There is no power in that sword."

I bit my tongue, determined not to say anything more. I felt a surge of fear and anger as I realized that the Iron Lord could have just done this to me in the Court of the Morning Light, that he could have interrogated me without all the pain and humiliation. The only reason he hadn't was because he'd wanted to do this the hard way, he'd wanted to break me completely. Now he didn't have time for that kind of thing and had decided to go straight to the issue.

I glared at the Iron Lord with every ounce of defiance I had, feeling the anger building inside of me. This was the man responsible for entrapping my mom and mother...for murdering my dad...and for cursing me. I absolutely refused to let him binding me to again, to let him have even an ounce more power over me than I absolutely had to. I mentally reached for the power of the key and destroyed this new curse that had just been placed on me, before it could do any more damage.

"The link is broken," the purple clad woman said in surprise. "Again..."

"HOW?" the Iron Lord demanded of me, a glint of desperate hunger in his eyes. "How did you break the spell? I hold your true name. I hold Oathbreaker..."

I just continued to stare at him, feeling a sense of pleasure at his surprise and anger. That made it easier for me to slip on my mask of calm serenity and give him an almost pleasant smile. "You may hold Gyffendrach...but I hold its power."

Then I reached for my power, allowing myself to glow with a silvery aura. I was going to attempt to sooth him, to reason with him in the same way I had the rulers of those other courts. However, he struck out with his fist, smashing me into the face again and sending me flying back. My power was broken and the glow gone, not that it would have done any good I realized. Not against someone like him, even if he hadn't been wearing so much iron.

"Prepare a room with the full implements of interrogation," the Iron Lord ordered the purple clad woman and the guards standing in the hall. He gave one more look at me before adding, "Once ready, I will begin the questioning in force."

With that, the Iron Lord left and slammed the door behind him. I leaned up against the wall for support and took several deep breaths, knowing that once the Iron Lord returned that things were going to be very bad. He'd dropped all pretense of trying to take his time and now planned to go to straight out torture. I didn't know how long I'd be able to hold off under such treatment and I didn't want to find out.

"That was...interesting," Autumn said, giving me a look which suggested that she couldn't decide if I was insane or her new hero. "He said you were bound by your true name yet broke the bonds? How is such possible without Oathbreaker in hand?"

"As I told the Iron Lord," I answered. "He may hold Gyffendrach...but I'm the one with its power."

She gasped at that while I forced a smile, deciding not to mention the key which was hidden within my necklace. Aelberon had hidden it within the sword and had used the sword as a decoy, and I was beginning to see that there was a very good reason for this. After all, the last thing I wanted was for the Iron Lord or anyone else to think that they could cut my jewelry off me in order to acquire the power. Instead, it might be best if they thought it was actually a part of me.

I winced in pain at the extra bruises the Iron Lord had given me, ones which were added on top of what Gutgnawer had already done. Of course, all those pains would be nothing once the Iron Lord began his real interrogations. However, they were still a distraction so I decided to try something that I'd been curious about. I tried turning my own healing powers upon myself. I felt the glow spread over my skin and I did heal, but it took a lot more energy than it did to heal someone else. By the time I was done, most of my bruises were gone and I felt much better, but there was still some residual damage that would have to heal normally.

"They will be returning soon," Autumn reminded me grimly. "What do you intend to do?"

"I'm going to escape," I told her in a calm tone, stating it as though it was a simple fact. The fact that I hadn't been able to escape before was completely and totally irrelevant.

I stared at the walls with fierce determination, seeing through them with ease. I found it annoying to be locked in a cell by walls and a door that were nothing more than illusion. Sure, they were the solid illusion that was so common in the realms, the kind that would be indistinguishable from reality to anyone without my eyes. But with my eyes, I could easily see them for what they were...nothing.

On a sudden impulse, I called upon my magic so that my sigil and the swirls and spirals on my right arm all began to glow. Then I calmly placed my glowing palm against the stone wall and the wall suddenly faded away and vanished as though it had never been there, leaving a huge gaping hole that I could easily walk through.

"By Lesarra's soul," Autumn blurted out in shock, staring at the hole as though she couldn't believe it.

I just smiled in satisfaction and asked, "Are you coming?"

"Of...of course," Autumn responded, staring at me now instead of the hole in the wall.

Part 48

I stepped into the hallway and found one of the local faerie standing guard there, though he was busy staring at me in surprise and disbelief. I immediately blinding him with a flash of light and then removed his oath to serve the Iron Lord.

“You’re free from the Iron Lord’s control,” I told him as I continued down the hall without a second look at him.

With my eyes, I could see through all the walls though all the layers of illusion prevented me from seeing too far in any one direction. However, I could see enough to know where to go.

My silver glow spread over my body and when I reached the next room I wanted, I didn’t even need to touch the wall, merely walk towards it and it dissolved from my path. I stepped inside and found three tiny faerie all held in bird cages. These were my Court of Silent Footstep guards, alive and well. It only took a moment to free them from their cages.

Then I saw where I wanted to go and started that direction, completely ignoring the wall in my way. It vanished as I walked through into the next hallway over.

Two more of the local faerie guards stood there, gasping in shock. Autumn ordered them, “Lay down your weapons by command of your queen.”

“We were ordered to guard these rooms,” one of the guards said, obvious reluctance in his voice. “And to let none escape.”

The guards started towards us but the guard I’d already freed attacked them. The three tiny faerie jumped in as well, keeping both of them distracted long enough for me to free one of them from his oath and then the other. Seconds later, they were both standing there with their mouths open.

Another wall dissolved before me, revealing Jimmy and Jewel inside. Both were chained to the wall by their ankles but seemed otherwise all right. In fact, they actually had thin mattresses to sit on which was better than the treatment I’d been given.

“Aeslyn,” Jimmy jumped to his feet with a sigh of relief and a look of stunned confusion.

“That’s a might neat trick,” Jewel said, gesturing to the hole in the wall. “Ye’ll have to teach it to me.”

“I’m glad you’re both all right,” I told them, letting out a sigh of relief of my own. I undid their chains and then hugged Jimmy tightly. “Now let’s get out of here.”

With my friends free, I started wandering down the halls again…and through them. My glowing aura spread out so some of the walls and doors dissolved as I vanished. I absently noticed that the floor, which was also made of solid illusion, didn’t do so. Perhaps my subconscious was keeping it safe because I needed it to walk on.

When we found more of the enslaved local faerie, they were quickly overwhelmed so that I could free them. Then I found several dungeon cells holding faerie who hadn’t sworn yet, either because they’d promised not to swear allegiance or because they’d been able to hold out. Quickly, more and more joined our numbers and followed behind.

By this point, I wasn’t even paying much attention as I passed and was just letting my glowing aura dissolve the doors and walls, freeing those within the cells. Since the prisoners weren’t sworn to the Iron Lord, there was little more that I needed to do, not when there was a growing army to rush in and unlock any chains.

Not all the prisoners I’d freed had been locked up by the Iron Lord’s forces though. Autumn stood imperiously in front of one freed prisoner and stated, “I shall pardon you for your past crimes if you help me free this court.” He immediately agreed and joined the growing army.

I was well aware of the gasps of shock and awe as well as the stunned whispers over what I was doing, though I was scarcely paying attention to them. I wasn’t even paying much attention to all the destruction I was causing in this underground labyrinth of halls and rooms. Instead, I was looking through the walls for more faerie to free.

The fact that I was able to do this might be unbelievable to those others but it was no less so to me. After I’d drunk from the Fount of the First Spark, I’d thought that it hadn’t given me any real powers, or at least nothing that would be of any use in my conflict with the Iron Lord. But now, I could not only see through illusions…I could destroy them. And in the faerie realms where so much was based on illusion, that gave me the power to unleash havoc.

“We need to reach the surface,” Autumn told me, gesturing down a side passage. “The ceiling may cave in…”

I looked where she was pointing and then looked through the surrounding walls, quickly finding a shortcut to the stairs that led up. I calmly walked directly towards them, dissolving yet more walls as I passed.

“Watch out for the Iron Lord,” I said loud enough for the others to hear me. “And his own people.”

When we reached the surface and stepped out of the hill, Autumn laughed in delight and said, “Now I can call upon my own powers…”

A group of the Iron Lord’s people were coming towards us, nearly a dozen of them. There were two red caps and others from various other tribes. However, I didn’t even get a chance to deal with them.

Autumn held her hands out and then her eyes began to glow with a golden light. A moment later, the fallen leaves began move and swirl all over the ground, moving on their own. Suddenly, a massive cloud of leaves surrounded the Iron Lord’s people and then began to stick to them, wrapping them up so tightly in the leaves that they couldn’t even move. Autumn’s growing army didn’t even hesitate before descending on them and finishing them off.

“Where to now?” Jimmy asked.

I just pointed to the distance and said, “To my cloak. I can feel it over there…probably still where we were captured.” Of course, that was also where we’d find Roselyn and Corwin.

“We shall provide escort,” Autumn told me, gesturing to her guards.

Just then, a frighteningly familiar voice called out, “Halt… You shall not escape again.”

“Damn,” Jimmy exclaimed as the Iron Lord came into view with more of his own people as well as a dozen faerie from this court.

Our gathered forces stared at the Iron Lord in fear and became backing up. Jimmy reached for his sword which was still absent. Most of our small army weren’t armed yet so even though we outnumbered them, we were the ones in trouble.

“Go,” Autumn ordered me. “I’ll cover your escape. You’ve freed enough of mine to give us a fighting chance.”

Then she held out her hands and more of the leaves began to rise from the ground and swirl through the air, this time creating a thick cloud to obscure us from the rapidly approaching enemies. I could see her freed forces using the opportunity to disperse as well, probably to get armed and prepared for the real conflict.

“When I have reclaimed my realm,” Autumn told me, “I expect you to free my prisoners of their oaths.” She smiled at me as she said it and even gave a faint bow. “Thank you. No go while you can.”

I didn’t need any further encouragement to turn and run towards the way gate where we’d been ambushed. Jewel was muttering profanities about running from a fight, but it wasn’t like we could do much fighting without our weapons. Of course, if she thought about it she could pull her spare weapon from her demesne, but she apparently hadn’t even considered that.

We hadn’t even reached the gate when I heard Roselyn’s voice calling out, “Milady… Over here…”

I turned to see Corwin and Roselyn standing there, with Roselyn holding my cloak in her arms. And from what I could see, they had our weapons as well.

As soon as we reached them, I gave Roselyn a quick hug and then put my cloak back on, holding Siffryn in hand and ready to use. Jewel and Jimmy were both delighted to have their weapons back as well.

“I dinnae know how we would find ye,” Corwin admitted grimly. “I feared we’d get caught afore then…”

“You should have seen her,” Jimmy exclaimed, giving me a look of pride. “I couldn’t believe it…”

Mere seconds later, there was loud roar, a familiar sounding battle cry. I snapped around and saw Gutgnawer coming towards us with two of his red caps. Then I saw the Iron Lord with the purple clad woman and a dozen of his faerie slaves. They got past Autumn and her distraction. I just hoped she was all right.

“You are mine,” the Iron Lord exclaimed, holding Gyffendrach in hand. “You will give me the power of Aelberon’s key.”

Corwin threw a handful of his itching power at the approaching faerie and there of them dropped to the ground scratching. I would have released them from their oaths but I didn’t dare take the time in the middle of the fight, not when so many others were still present.

The Iron Lord came straight at me, swinging Gyffendrach. Jimmy immediately jumped between us, blocking the legendary blade with his own sword. They traded blows back and forth but I didn’t have time to admire Jimmy. Gutgnawer was coming straight at me.

Gutgnawer swung his massive mace at me and I barely jumped aside in time. He snarled with a look of hate and came at me again. Suddenly, Jewel hit him from the side, ramming into him.

“Ye deal with ye cockroach balled scartan,” Jewel exclaimed, swinging her axe at him.

“Ye might have spirit after all,” Gutgnawer snarled. “Maybe I’ll let me spawn me get yet…after I teach ye to mind yer betters.”

“Try it and I’ll bite yer wee prick off,” Jewel spat back in disgust, followed by swinging her axe again.

A group of the smaller local faerie came at me and I swung at them with Siffryn to no effect. They were too fast for me to hit. However, I did have other options. I blinded them all with a flash of light then reached out for the nearest one and freed her from her oath. I was able to free two more of them before they recovered enough to do anything.

“Corwin…Roselyn,” I called out, holding my cloak up so they could get into my demesne.

“I hate to leave ye lass,” Corwin responded grimly, throwing another handful of his itching powder into the air. “I’m not a fighter but I’m no coward either.”

Even Roselyn had a look of stubborn defiance on her face as she swung a tree branch at any opponent who came to close to her. Fortunately, the tiny faerie guards who’d come with us were between her and the other opponents and were drawing their attention.

“If you can keep them busy,” I told my guards and the other faerie I’d freed.

I took the opportunity to release several more of the tiny faerie, knowing that each one freed was one more on our side. Unfortunately, the larger enslaved faerie came at me along with a red cap. I unleashed another flash of bright light to blind them.

“If only my power would work on something other than illusions,” I muttered in frustration, feeling nearly helpless again.

Suddenly, Jewel was flung back by Gutgnawer who was laughing cruelly. He grabbed a large boulder about seven feet across that was set in the ground and grunted, lifting it with inhuman strength. I could feel the tingling of magic and knew that he was drawing on the strength reserves of his hat, reserves that Jewel couldn’t match.

“Watch out,” I called to Jewel.

"I'll shove that pebble up yer arse," Jewel yelled at Gutgnawer, though I could see the look of fear that washed over her face before it was replaced with one of stubborn determination.

Gutgnawer came at Jewel and tried hitting her over the head with the boulder he was holding. She dropped her axe, and in a desperate act tried to hold the boulder to keep from being crushed. To my surprise...and obviously even her own, Jewel was able to stop the boulder and keep it held aloft. She didn't have the stores of blood stored in her hat to draw on, but she was still able to match Gutgnawer's strength.

"Ye cannae be doing this," Gutgnawer exclaimed in disbelief. "Ye've never soaked yer cap..."

"I dinnae know how," Jewel responded with a malicious grin. "But I obviously can."

They were each holding on to the boulder now, keeping it held above their heads as they struggled for control over it. Then Jewel suddenly kicked Gutgnawer between the legs, causing him to release the boulder and howl in pain. She took full opportunity of that distraction to bring the boulder crashing down on Gutgnawer and obviously doing some serious damage. He shoved the boulder away awkwardly, but before he could do any more, Jewel had already picked her axe back up and swung it right into his head.

At the same time, Jimmy was still fighting with the Iron Lord with his sword blocking the larger Gyffendrach. Unfortunately, the Iron Lord's armor made it almost impossible for Jimmy to get through and harm him, even when he did find an opening. I just watched with a burning anger, wanting to go after the Iron Lord myself. After all, if I could take him down now then everything would be over. Unfortunately, all the other faerie kept getting in the way and I was too busy just trying to protect myself to even seriously consider going after him.

Jewel turned away from Gutgnawer's corpse and stared at the Iron Lord with a look of grim determination, the same look that I probably had when I stared at him. Then she charged right at our enemy, letting out her own battle cry. As the Iron Lord turned to block her attack, Jimmy was able to find another opening. A second later, Gyffendrach was knocked out of his hands.

Corwin immediately rushed in and snatched up the dropped Gyffendrach, shoving it into the large bag that was the entrance to his demesne. I felt a surge of delight that we'd recovered the sword, even if it didn't have any power. After all, it had belonged to my grandfather and I didn't want to see it in the hands of someone like the Iron Lord. However, the Iron Lord was hardly unarmed and immediately drew his own sword from where it was sheathed on his belt.

For a brief moment, I saw an opportunity to go at the Iron Lord myself, but then the woman in purple came towards me. She had no weapons in hand but I knew first hand that she had other ways to harm me. Instead of weapons, she could use magic directly. I grimaced, feeling a shudder of fear as I considered what she might be able to do with my true name before I could break any links.

"I owe you," I told the woman coldly, remembering the horrors of having been trapped in male form. The Iron Lord may have given the order but she was the one who'd done the deed, so I blamed her every much as I did him.

I started towards her with Siffryn, trying to ignore the smaller local faerie who were starting to swarm around me again. However, the small local faerie on our side suddenly began to intercept them and leave me free from their interference. I smiled faintly at that, relieved that I wouldn't have to deal with getting 'stung' while fighting.

The purple clad woman still made no move to draw a weapon but a ball of purple fire suddenly appeared in her hand and she threw it right at me. I jumped to the side, just barely avoiding being hit. One of the red caps let out a howl of pain as the blast had caught him instead. The woman didn't even hesitate before forming another ball of purple fire, apparently being unconcerned about having just hit one of her allies.

Suddenly, Roselyn jumped on the purple clad woman from behind, grabbing her tightly and holding on in a firm bear hug. If Roselyn had still been cursed, she would have torn the woman in purple up pretty good. However, without her curse, this move wasn't very effective. The woman in purple shrugged and threw Roselyn back, revealing that she was indeed far stronger than a normal human.

But in the process, Roselyn had torn back the woman’s hood, revealing the woman's face completely. She was completely bald with pale skin that was nearly pure white, not to mention having a texture that made it look almost as though it was made of wax.

"You will die human," the waxy skinned woman said in her eerie voice, staring straight at Roselyn. She gave a cruel smile, revealing that her mouth was too wide for a normal human and full of very sharp teeth, suddenly making me think of a piranha. "All your pitiful kind will die..."

"I think not," I said, getting close enough to release a flash of light into her face, keeping her off balance long enough for me to drive Siffryn right into her heart. When she didn't immediately drop to the ground, I pulled Siffryn out and gave a second slash through her neck.

"Thank you, milady," Roselyn said as she got back to her feet, looking around with obvious fear in her eyes. However, there was also a determination there which declared that no matter how afraid she was, she wasn't going to just run away and hide.

"No," I told her with a smile. "Thank you."

Just then, a burst of burning pain exploded in my shoulder and I let out a loud scream, seeing that I'd been hit with a crossbow bolt. I dropped Siffryn but Roselyn immediately rushed to pick it up and check on me. Jimmy snapped around to stare at me in horror, leaving himself open for the Iron Lord to strike at him. A moment later, Jimmy was howling in pain too as the Iron Lord's blade sliced right through his side.

"Jimmy," I cried out, grabbing at the crossbow bolt in my shoulder.

"Milady," Roselyn was gasping, trying to hold me steady so she could pull out the bolt. "Please let me help..."

Jimmy staggered back, a look of agony on his face. He dropped his sword and it was only Jewel jumping in that kept him from being killed with another slash. The Iron Lord's people were starting to push us harder, and with me and Jimmy both injured, we were in even worse shape to fight them off.

But just as panic was starting to rise, leaves began to rise up from the ground and dance through the air. Mere seconds later, arrows shot through the air and began hitting some of our enemies. One of the local faerie went down with an arrow through his leg while the one beside him was hit in the leg by a crossbow bolt. And even as more of our opponents went down, the leaves began to swirl around others and wrap them up in cocoons.

Autumn came rushing towards us with two dozen of her people, all of them now armed. She looked bruised from the earlier fight with the Iron Lord's people but definitely not done for. She had a look of grim determination in her face as she rushed to our rescue.

"You shall not have my court," Autumn yelled to the Iron Lord. "You shall not have my people."

The Iron Lord turned as an arrow hit him in the chest, not making it through his armor but making enough of an impact that he began to back away and look for cover. Jewel looked torn between going after him and helping Jimmy, but after a quick glance at me, she went to Jimmy's side and helped him stay on his feet.

"We've got to get out of here while we can," Corwin exclaimed.

I winced from my pain and looked around, realizing that nearly all of the Iron Lord's forces at the moment were local faerie whom he'd conscripted. His own people must have invaded and then moved on to the next court once they had this one firmly in control, relying on the locals to do the remaining work for him. I felt a faint sense of relief at that since Autumn wouldn't need to deal with the Iron Lord's full army, just her own people who'd be less enthusiastic or motivated about following their orders.

Autumn waved for me to go so I turned to do so with my friends, breaking off from the fight and escaping while we could. I realized that one of the Court of Silent Footstep guards had been killed in the fight, the one who'd been wearing the beetle armor. At the moment, I was in too much pain to feel the guilt that I knew would come later. The remaining two guards broke off from the battle and joined us in our retreat.

We rushed the rest of the way to the way gate, moving as fast as we could with both Jimmy and myself being injured. He was having a hard time moving at all and wouldn't have been able to make it on his own if Jewel hadn't been holding him up. But as we were stepping through the gate, I looked back and saw another half dozen of the local faerie conscripts coming towards us.

"Hurry," I said through gritted teeth.

Inside the way, we had only managed to get about fifty feet down the path when our pursuers came through the gate as well. I turned around to face them, looking down what appeared to be an old stone bridge over flowing water. In just a second, they were going to come rushing down that bridge towards us...unless I stopped them.

"Damn," I muttered, my first profanity since the day I'd found Gyffendrach and removed my curses. Somehow, saying that simple word almost felt as though I was saying some truly obscene vulgarity. It was unladylike, but at the moment it also seemed very appropriate.

I grimaced and braced myself, trying to ignore the burning from my shoulder as I called on my magic. Surprisingly, the pain from my shoulder actually lessened as I did this rather than increasing as I'd expected. Then I unleashed my magic in a wave of silver light which spread out in front of me, washing over the bridge between me and the way gate. The bridge dissolved the same was as every other illusion had, but it wasn't just the bridge. The sky, the water...EVERYTHING between me and our pursuers faded and vanished, leaving nothing more than a mass of darkness between us, all except for a seven foot long section around the gate which remained untouched.

"Aelberon's balls," Corwin exclaimed in disbelief. Roselyn just gasped in shock and stared with an open mouth.

The other faerie stood frozen on their little patch of safety, staring into the empty space between us with looks of shock and even fear. I'd just destroyed the bridge...the solid illusion that made it possible to even walk through the way. Without that, they'd immediately fall through the bottom of the way, only to reappear at the top and repeat the process over and over for eternity...or until they broke through the boundary of the way and were lost into the void forever. I'd just removed any possibility of them following after us.

"And imagine what she can do to ye if ye fuck with her," Jewel called out, trying to hide her own amazement.

Two of the other faerie were armed with crossbows but neither of them made any effort to shoot at us. Instead, the entire group turned and ran back through the way gate as fast as they possibly could.

Since any chance of pursuit had been ended, I turned back to Jimmy who'd collapsed to the ground with his eyes rolling back in his head. I let out a gasp at that and immediately dropped down beside him. At the same time, Corwin pulled back his shirt to reveal his wound, a nasty slice through the side, just below the ribs. However, I could only stare in horror at the sight of the blackened skin that looked almost as though it had been burnt.

"T'was iron," Corwin whispered, his voice choking on the words. Then he stared up at me with a dark look on his face that clearly added the rest. Jimmy was dead.

Part 49

I crouched over Jimmy's body with tears pouring down my cheeks, letting them drop onto his still form. My tears were a strange silvery color that was similar to mercury but which glowed from within. In faerie tales, tears like this had the power to heal any injury and even bring the dead back to life. Sadly, mine seemed to lack any power at all. All of my healing power came from my hands, not from my tears.

Jimmy was still alive...barely. I'd immediately flooded him with all of my healing power and had done so several more times since. I'd kept him from dying or even getting any worse, but I hadn't been able to heal the wound or even make the blackened skin go away. Now, he was laying on a bed in my demesne, having failed to wake up after yet another of my desperate treatments.

My power hadn't been able to do nearly enough for Jimmy, but ironically, I felt much better...at least physically. It seemed that every time I channeled my magic like this, a side effect was that I'd heal my own wounds. I hadn't noticed it at the time, but while I'd been escaping the dungeon in the Court of Autumn Harvest, all the remaining bruises I had from my rough treatment had all faded away. After wiping out the way and attempting to heal Jimmy, my wounded shoulder was almost entirely healed as well.

"Please," I begged him. "Please don't die..."

"Ye've done all ye can," Corwin told me gently. "Yer a right powerful healer but ye can't heal iron poisoning."

"I can try," I insisted stubbornly.

Just then, Jimmy moaned weakly and shifted slightly. I felt a surge of hope but he did nothing more, letting my frustration come crashing back down again. I grimaced, thinking about the Iron Lord and just how much I wanted to destroy him. There were so many good reasons to do so and this was merely the latest.

"Jimmy was a changeling," I blurted out angrily. "I thought former changelings were supposed to be more resistant to iron."

"Ye are," Corwin told me gently. "If the lad wasn't more resistant, he would have died afore ye even had a chance to try healing him."

"I'm so sorry," Roselyn told me. She'd been sitting back, looking sympathetic and frustrated at not knowing what she could do to help. "If I could do anything..."

"I know," I responded with a sigh.

Jewel just scowled in frustration. "I had him in me sights and I let him get away. Me da would be shamed..." She looked a Jimmy and winced, obviously feeling guilty though she didn't want to admit it.

"Iron poisoning," Corwin spat out bitterly. "A nasty way to go. Aye, I've seen it afore...too many times." Then he shook his head and scratched at his beard before adding, "Tis the iron residue in the wound... It keeps ye poisoned even after the blade is gone."

Then Corwin sat back in the corner, getting his pipe out and lighting it. I didn't want the smell of pipe smoke in my demesne but it was comforting him so I didn't say anything about it. Instead, I just stared at Jimmy and thought about what Corwin had said.

After a minute, I was suddenly struck by an idea. It was a desperate idea, probably even a stupid idea...but it was all I had. I grabbed onto it with everything that I had, welcoming the sense of hope that came with it, as false as that hope might turn out to be.

"I need to go home," I said, turning to look at everyone else.

"Now?" Corwin asked in surprise. "But the Court of the Morning Light is still under the Iron Bastard's control. We just barely got out of the last realm..."

I just shook my head at that and told him, "No... My old home... I need to go back to Earth."

Corwin just stared at me as though I'd lost my mind while Jewel merely nodded and said, "If that's what ye need."

The two remaining bodyguards from the Court of Silent Footsteps had been sitting back and quietly watching things until now. They chose now to approach, hovering in the air in front of me and staring at me for several seconds.

"We will continue to accompany you," the tiny woman with the moth wings stated.

I'd learned during our journey together that she was named Dusty Wing, though I hadn't spoken much with her or her friends. The three of them had stuck close together and only acted professional towards me and the others. I knew that she and Shimmer Wyne, the last of the three guards were taking the loss of their friend Bester Shell rather hard.

"We will guard your back," Dusty Wing assured me.

"Thank you," I told Dusty Wing and Shimmer Wyne. "But I have something more important for you now." I paused for a moment to consider my options and then explained, "The diplomatic mission to the other courts is over. Now someone has to go back to the Court of Silent Footsteps and report what happened to the king. He must know about the events in the Court of Autumn Harvest, as should all the other courts at the gathering. They need to know that the Iron Lord's forces can be pushed back."

Dusty Wing bowed to me and said, "You are as wise as you are powerful." I was a little startled by that since I certainly didn't think of myself either wise or powerful. In spite of what I could do, none of it had been of any use against the Iron Lord.

"You can go back with them," I told Roselyn reluctantly. At her look of surprise, I explained, "I'm going back to Earth and I know you can't go there."

"No, I'll not go back there without you milady," Roselyn responded, giving me a defiant look. "You've given me choice to go where I will and I choose to accompany you further."

"But Earth...," I started to remind her.

Roselyn just shook her head and stared at me with a stubborn expression. "I will stay in the realms as I must, but I will come with for as long as I can."

I just nodded at that, not about to argue with her now that she'd made her mind up about something like that, no matter how much I might worry. "Then we need to get going," I said grimly. "I need to get there as fast as possible."

"Aeslyn," Jewel said, coming towards me and then stopping. She stared me in the eyes for several long second before abruptly asking, "Do ye trust me?"

"What?" I blinked in surprise, not having expected that question. I continued looking her in the eyes, remembering the almost obsessive way she'd tried killing me...and then her fierce determination to serve and protect me. "Absolutely," I finally answered, surprising myself a little to realize how much that was true.

“Then I know how ye can get there faster,” Jewel said. She hesitated a moment before adding, “There are ways known to the Unseelie…ways that are dangerous for any Seelie to use.”

Corwin snorted at that. “That may be fine for ye, but it won’t be nae farching use for us.”

“I am nae part of me old clan anymore,” Jewel said with a grim look, “but I’m still a red cap and we were once of an Unseelie court afore our court was broken. I can go through the Unseelie courts and travel these ways.” Then she looked me in the eyes and added, “Alone, carrying yer cloak for ye.”

I stared at Jewel for a moment, realizing what she was getting at. “While we all stay in here.” I gestured around the inside of my demesne.

“Aye,” Jewel agreed. “If need be, I can even claim to be for the Iron Lord.” She spat that out, showing how much she disliked the idea of pretending to work for him again, but she was obviously ready to do so.

For a moment, I continued to stare at her, realizing just how dangerous this would be and the risk that she’d be taking in traveling alone like that. Then I looked to Jimmy and grimaced, nodding my agreement.

“I cannae understand what ye have in mind,” Jewel told me. “But ye can count on me to help ye however I may.”

A short time later, we’d said goodbye to Dusty Wing and Shimmer Wyne, wishing them good luck on their journey back to the Court of Silent Footsteps. Then Jewel left my demesne as well, carrying my cloak with her as she started making her way to a nearby territory that was controlled by an Unseelie court.

I sat safe inside my demesne, right beside Jimmy, pushing more of my healing magic into him every once in awhile to keep him from getting any worse. Unfortunately, it didn’t make him any better either.

I couldn’t help but wondering if this was what my mother felt when she stood beside my father’s motionless body. I suddenly had a much deeper understanding of her and what drove her, as well as a dread that Jimmy would never awaken either.

Other than worrying about Jimmy, I also worried about Jewel and what danger she might be in. But at the same time, I also felt impatient and even guilty that I’d let her take this risk on her own.

Every couple hours, I would peek my head out for a look and check in with Jewel to see how things were going. During the third time, I found that Jewel was badly injured with several nasty gashes that were bleeding out.

“Was a wee fight with some wights,” Jewel told me with a grin, giving no doubt as to who had won it.

After healing her wounds, I warned her, “Be careful. I don’t want you getting yourself killed.”

Less than ten hours after Jewel had begun her solo trek, I came out of my demesne to find that we were standing in a small realm that had an inch of water covering most of the stony ground. Tiny fish seemed to dart through the water, though they could have been tadpoles from what little I’d seen. Jewel had stopped right beside a way gate which was marked by a stone pillar beside it.

“This is the way ye need,” Jewel told me, pointing to the gate. “It goes to the human world and the other end is loose so ye can move it to where ye need to go. It’ll go to where ye were raised as a changeling.”

I just stared at the gate for a moment, realizing that this might very well be how Jewel had come there with the red caps and goblins oh so long ago. I’d come to trust and rely on her so much that I could easily forget she’d once been my enemy.

“Thank you,” I told her. Then I went back into the demesne and told Roselyn and Corwin, “We’re past the Unseelie courts and only have one last way to go.”

“Good, lass,” Corwin responded, putting his pipe out and then placing it into his own demesne. “I was getting tired of napping. It’ll be good to stretch my legs again.”

“I’d like to walk too,” Roselyn told me pleasantly. “As long as I am able to that is.”

With that, I reached for the way gate and set the destination of the other end, then the four of us stepped through, with me wearing my cloak again. This way looked much like the realm we’d just left, with a long shallow watery path that stretched down the entire way. However, there were a lot of flat stepping stones as well so that if we were careful, we wouldn’t have to get our feet wet at all. I was in too much of a hurry for that though.

I was impatient, especially since my destination was so close. I couldn’t help but thinking that every minute I took might mean the difference between Jimmy living or dying. Corwin had a difficult time keeping up my pace with his short legs, but he didn’t complain once and seemed just as determined to get there as me.

We reached the end of the way in less than half an hour, and then Roselyn reluctantly went back into my demesne. She wanted to stay out with us rather than having to hide, but there was no other choice. At least this way she was close and would be able to keep an eye on Jimmy for me.

“This is it,” I said, stepping through the final gate with Jewel and Corwin following close behind. “We’re here.”

I took a quick look around to get my bearings, seeing that I was exactly where I’d intended to be. I was standing in the center of a large hallway, right in the middle of my old high school. We must have arrived between classes because the hall was filled with students, many of whom froze and stared at us in shock.

“Where the farching hell are we?” Corwin demanded, obviously bothered by the presence of so many humans, especially ones who were staring at him.

“School,” I said simply, already staring down the hall to the classroom where I needed to be.

At first, the students were stopping to stare at us and I could hear them saying things like ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘cosplay’, and even suggestions that we were either some practical joke from students or a movie publicity stunt. However, I didn’t have time to deal with that so allowed the silver glow to spread over my body, startling them enough so that they began moving out of my path.

“Get out of me farching way,” Jewel snarled at some of the kids, raising her axe to show that she meant business. I wasn’t sure if she was bluffing or not so warned her not to hurt anyone. She just grumbled and muttered, “I don’t like them staring at me…”

It would have taken just a minute to reach the classroom if it hadn’t been for all the students in the way, but we got there quickly enough. I stepped into the room and saw my old science teacher sitting there behind his desk, apparently grading tests.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, getting to his feet and staring at us in confusion.

“We mean you no harm,” I told him calmly. “There is something that we greatly need in this room and we don’t have time for anything else. Now please leave and let us work.”

The teacher just stared at me with his mouth open, looking like he was about to demand an explanation, at least until he saw Jewel holding her axe and scowling. He backed up towards the door, looking afraid and exclaiming, “I’m calling the police,” before he ran out.

“Now where is it?” I mused, looking over the room and then heading to the storage cabinets, sure that what I was looking for was in one of them.

I went to the first cabinet door and unlocked it with my key but didn’t find what I was looking for. Then I went to the next.

Suddenly, a voice called out, “Aeslyn…” I snapped around to see Benji standing in the doorway, staring at me in surprise. Then he grinned and said, “Someone said they saw elves in the hallway…so I had to come see.”

“I’m not an elf,” I reminded him with a faint smile, though I was in too much of a hurry to really enjoy the reunion. “I’m sidhe.”

“I’m a red cap,” Jewel stated proudly.

“And I’m a might curious about what yer looking for,” Corwin muttered.

“What are you doing here?” Benji demanded.

I opened the next cabinet and then grinned as I saw what I was looking for. I reached in and pulled out a device that looked like a tube with wires coming out of it which attached to a small car battery.

Just then, Heather came into the room and let out a squeal of delight. She immediately ran to me, giving me a hug.

“Hi,” I greeted her with a weak smile, not wanting to be rude to my friends but knowing that I had to hurry.

“What are you doing here?” Heather demanded. “If you wanted to visit, you should have come to my house. I mean, you shouldn’t have shown up at school in the middle of the day…”

“I didn’t know it was day when I arrived,” I admitted. “You know how time is in the realms. Day and night doesn’t mean much when each realm is set to a different time. For all I knew, it could have been midnight. And honestly, I don’t even know what day it is.”

Heather and Benji both stared at each other and then me. Then Benji demanded, “What the hell is going on?”

I grimaced and then took of my cloak, holding it up in the air in front of me where it froze, spread open so I had easy access to my demesne. “We’ll talk inside.” I looked to Jewel and said, “Can you guard the entrance please?”

I stepped into my demesne with Benji, Heather and Corwin following close behind. Heather and Benji both gasped and looked around with Heather exclaiming, “It looks different than the last time I was in here…”

However, it was Benji who saw Jimmy on the bed and exclaimed, “Holy shit… What happened to Jimmy?”

“The Iron Lord injured him in a fight,” Roselyn explained sadly. “He used an iron sword…”

“Oh shit,” Benji whispered in realization.

“I came here to help him,” I said, sitting down beside Jimmy.

I grimaced and then looked over the device that I’d come for, the one all my hopes were hanging on. I turned it on, just like our teacher had demonstrated in class one day while discussing electromagnetism. I just hoped…prayed that this electromagnet would do the work.

“Here,” I handed the electromagnet to Benji. “Hold it against the wound. Hopefully the magnet will pull out any iron residue…”

Using a magnet to pull out any tiny remnants of an iron wound seemed like a simple and obvious solution, one that some faerie must have tried before now. If it had worked, I’m sure I would have heard of it already, but I was determined to try for myself. This was the only hope I had.

“Please stay with me,” I begged Jimmy, the tears running down my cheeks again.

Then I took a deep breath and called on my magic, pushing it into Jimmy to heal him the same way I had a dozen times already. I pushed even harder with my magic, hoping that I could push any iron out of his system…that the magnet would take care of that for me.

“HEAL,” I ordered, pushing every ounce of magic I could into healing Jimmy.

The silver glow from my body spread to Jimmy and infused him. It flowed over and through him, then jumped to the electromagnet which Benji was holding firmly against the wound. I continued pushing as much as I could until I couldn’t call any more magic. Only then, when the glow faded on its own did I finally stop.

I just sat there for a minute with silver tears still running down my cheeks. Then, I looked at his wound and gasped in surprise. There was no longer any trace of the black marks from the iron poisoning and his flesh had sealed up again almost entirely.

“Jimmy,” I whispered, putting my hand on his forehead.

Then Jimmy moaned, making the first sound he had in hours. That was followed by his eyes flickering and then opening. “Aeslyn…?” he asked weakly. “What’s going on?”

“By Aelberon’s balls,” Corwin whispered, staring at Jimmy in stunned amazement.

“How are you feeling?” I demanded eagerly.

“Tired,” Jimmy said, slowly sitting up, wincing slightly as I did. “And a bit sore.” He reached for his side and then scowled. “I was struck by iron… How?” He stared at me for a moment with a look of confusion. “How am I still alive?”

“The lass did it,” Corwin said, staring at me now with an expression of awe. “The lass did the impossible…again.”

My tears had changed to ones of joy and I grabbed Jimmy tightly, holding him possessively and then kissing him. My heart raced with relief that he was all right…that he was alive.

“Wow,” Benji said. “That was unfucking believable…”

“You did it,” Heather told me, giving me a quick hug. “You did it…”

“Aye,” Corwin said, still looking as though he had a hard time believing it. “Now what will ye do?”

I stared at Jimmy for a moment, smiling in delight as I did so. Then I looked to the electromagnet in Benji’s hands and said, “Now I use that thing to help someone else…” I stood up and stated, “It’s time I finally met my father.”

Part 50

I leaned back in my chair, silently watching the large man who slept in front of me. He shifted slightly in his sleep, a very good sign for someone who had spent the last sixteen years being as motionless as a statue. But as of yet, my father had yet to open his eyes or wake up.

We had returned to the Court of Silent Footsteps a day ago and I'd immediately went to work trying to heal my father the same way that I had Jimmy. Using the electromagnet and all of my healing power, I'd been able to cure his iron poisoning and even heal his wound. However, my father had been in even worse shape than Jimmy and for much longer, so even though I'd healed him, I still wasn't sure that he was going to be all right yet.

I closed my eyes and considered what I'd done, still delighted that it had worked so well on Jimmy. In fact, I wanted to be with Jimmy now, holding him and reassuring myself that he was indeed still with me. However, I owed it to my father to heal him as well.

The idea of using a magnet to remove any microscopic particles or residue from an iron wound seemed obvious to me, so it shocked me that no one had ever done this before. Perhaps they had but it just hadn't worked. Perhaps my healing powers were stronger than those of whoever else had tried it and had been able to heal the remaining damage afterwards. Or perhaps it was something else. I'd noticed the way my magic had jumped to the electromagnet when I was healing both Jimmy and my father and I couldn't help but wondering if maybe my power had somehow amplified the magnet to make it work better. I didn't know for certain why it had worked, only that it had. For that I was very grateful.

One thing that I'd noticed about Jimmy's wound was that it had healed but had also left a scar. That was a pretty good indication of just how nasty that iron induced injury had been since most faerie wounds would heal up without any sign of a scar at all. Still, a permanent scar was an extremely small price to pay for surviving such an injury.

After healing Jimmy, I'd hung around long enough to talk to Benji and Heather. It was good seeing for myself that they'd gotten home safely and finding out what had been going on since then. Both of them had gotten in trouble for their absence, but not nearly as much as they would have if not for Bibi's explaining things to their parents. Benji's parents had been especially worried, due to all the damage to his house which happened at the same time his disappearance.

Then they told me about the Iron Lord's activities and how they'd been showing up on the news. Of course, no one on Earth really knew what was going on, only that groups of 'monsters' kept showing up out of nowhere and causing havoc in different random places. Sometimes they stole food and supplies, other times they just killed people and destroyed things. The Iron Lord wasn't keeping any of his people in one place for too long and wasn't even launching a straight out invasion yet. From what Benji and Heather told me, it sounded like he was testing the human’s response time and reactions. He was gathering information before committing all of his forces, and was probably waiting to build even more power in the faerie realms at the same time.

Of course, the police had arrived at the school in force, assuming that we were part of another of these attacks. The entire school had even been evacuated before I'd finished healing Jimmy. Fortunately, we'd been able to get to the way gate and escape before we were in any real danger from the swat teams. I just wished I'd had time to say a better goodbye to my friends before leaving since I didn't know when I'd ever be able to see them again.

A moment later, I was distracted from my thoughts by Bibi's arrival. She flew in with Dusty Wing and Shimmy Wyne following close behind and then paused to hover in front of me so I could see her better.

"How are you doing?" Bibi asked me, looking to my father. "Has he improved any further?"

"He's moving a little," I responded with a weak smile. It was a vast improvement of his previous condition but I was still disappointed and worried because Jimmy had been up and about almost immediately.

Bibi nodded at that and then gestured to her two tiny companions. "Dusty Wing and Shimmer Wyne have requested that they be allowed as your escort while you are a guest in our court." She looked faintly amused at that, probably because she'd been the one acting as my escort.

"I'd be happy to have them as escorts," I responded with a smile.

Bibi landed on my shoulder and talked into my ear, just loud enough for me to hear but not anyone else. "I don't know what you did, but you certainly impressed them." Then Bibi went back into the air again and said, "Oh yes, the other reason I came was because one of our guests is requesting to speak with you." With that, Bibi flew off, leaving my two new escorts to lead me to the other guest.

I took another look at my father and then left the cavern we were all still staying in. Jimmy was standing right outside the cavern entrance and greeted me by taking hold of my hand and giving me a kiss.

"What you did in the Court of Autumn Harvest was unbelievable," Jimmy told me, looking a little self-conscious. "And what you did for me..." He shook his head then chuckled. "I'm supposed to be your bodyguard but it seems that you're the one who keeps saving me."

"It does seem that way, doesn't it?" I teased him.

Jimmy just gave me another kiss and then said, "I can't thank you enough." He stared into my eyes and added, "There's something that I want to give you."

Then Jimmy leaned forward and began whispering something in my ear. It took me a moment to realize what it was...his true name. He was giving me the ultimate proof of trust that any faerie could give another. I gasped at that, suddenly knowing that I could never forget the nine names which made up his true name.

"Jimmy," I whispered once he was done, feeling unsure of what I could say to something like that.

However, Jimmy just smiled and put a finger over my lips to silence me. "I believe you have someone else you need to talk to."

I reluctantly nodded agreement, though I knew good and well that Jimmy and I were going to talk about this later. After all, how could he possibly drop a bombshell like that on me and then expect me to carry on as though everything was the same?

A minute later, I found the guest who'd requested to speak with me. The Harvest Queen had cleaned up and looked beautiful in a brilliant red and gold dress. She even had autumn leaves woven through her hair. And standing behind her were six of the larger faerie from her court, each one holding a bird cage with a half dozen of the smaller faerie held within.

"Aeslyn," Autumn greeted me with a smile. "I am pleased to see that you've returned well."

"And I'm glad to see that you're doing well too," I responded with a smile of my own. "The last time I saw you...you were rather busy."

"Indeed I was," Autumn told me, looking quite pleased. "We were able to chase the Iron Lord and his own forces from my realm, thanks to your assistance. I brought some of my own which need freeing...if you wouldn't mind."

"Of course not," I responded, looking at all the tiny faerie in the cages.

I went to the first cage and reached out with the power of the key to release them from their oaths of obedience, one at a time. I wished I could have just done them all at once, but unfortunately, they key didn't work like that. If it did, that would have made freeing people from the Iron Lord's control far easier.

While I was working, Autumn told me about how she and her forces had retaken her court, and of how they'd managed to capture their own who'd been turned to the other side. Her own powers to control the leaves had done most of it but they'd also shot some of the larger ones in the legs from a distance, taking them out of action while keeping them alive. Some of the smaller ones had been taken by nets. And once the Iron Lord had left, many of his sworn followers had found holes in their oaths and their orders, such as that none of them had been ordered not to walk into dungeon cells of their own free will.

"These are the only ones I could safely bring with," Autumn explained to me. "I have many more of my people locked up with the hopes that you will be able to free them as well."

"I'll break their oaths as soon as I have the opportunity to safely do so," I assured her as I finished freeing the last of the faerie from the cages.

With all the faerie free from their oaths, they had been released from the cages and were flying around in what resembled a swarm of autumn leaves. With their tiny size, they easily fit in with the faerie of this realm and dispersed to socialize. However, the larger faerie and a half dozen of the smaller ones remained with Autumn as guards and entourage.

"Regardless of the outcome of this meeting," Autumn told me a short time later. "I offer two dozen of my finest warriors to help you reclaim your own realm. I would offer more but dare not with so many yet under the Iron Lord's control."

"Thank you," I responded, surprised and delighted by the offer. This was the first solid offer of help that any of my allies had made so far and I definitely appreciated it.

"You shall have two dozen of mine own as well," Bibi's father exclaimed, arriving on the back of a fox which he was riding like a horse. He looked up at us and dismounted. "Perhaps our combined warriors shall be enough to free the Court of the Morning Light."

"Thank you," I told him appreciatively, strongly suspecting that his offer was out of pride since he didn't want to be outdone by the Harvest Queen. "You are both very generous. Of course, any rescue will have to wait until after the upcoming gathering. Hopefully we shall gain other partners there as well."

We talked for another half hour about how we might be able to get into the Court of the Morning Light and neutralize our own faerie without harming them. Of course, until we knew for certain what other allies we'd have in the endeavor, if any, we would be unable to make any real plans. Still, just being able to talk this much about it finally made it feel real. I could finally see the rescue of my friends and family in sight.

Eventually, I had to excuse myself so that I could go back and check on my father again. As important as this was, I was also very concerned about my father. It was a little strange since I'd never given him a lot of thought and had considered him someone who'd died before I'd ever been born. The first time I'd ever seen him, he'd been in this coma and it had looked like he'd never awaken. I'd thought he never would. But now...now things were different. Now he might wake up at any moment and I found myself excited about that and eager to meet him.

I returned to the chair beside my father, seeing that his situation hadn't changed. But as I sat there and silently watched him, it was my dad whom I thought of. I felt the familiar pain as I remembered his last minutes, as I remembered how he'd died. But I also remembered before then, back to all the good times when I'd thought he really was my biological dad, before I learned the truth of who I was. I might not have always thought so at the time, but he'd been a good dad who always did his best for me. He deserved far better than what he'd gotten, and no matter how things worked out with my father, the man who'd raised me would always remain my true dad.

Then my father's eyes flickered and opened. My heart jumped as he slowly sat up. I suddenly realized that I felt more nervous now than I did when begging for assistance from the ruler of another court.

"Good morning," I said pleasantly so that he wouldn't be startled when he realized that he wasn't alone. It took a little effort to control my voice.

"Who are you?" he demanded, his voice deep and rich though also weak at the moment from lack of use. He looked around with an intense look. "Where am I?"

"I am called Aeslyn," I told him gently, slipping into the role of calm serenity that I was becoming used to. It was very good for hiding how nervous I really felt at the moment. "We are in the Court of Silent Footsteps."

"The Court of Silent footsteps?" he repeated in surprise, getting to his feet though it obviously took him a little effort.

I stood up as well though my father towered over me, standing about seven feet tall, and that wasn't even taking his large antlers into account. I found myself staring at them, suddenly imagining how awkward it would be having those things growing from my head. I shuddered, feeling very thankful that I took after my mother rather than my father.

"Please be patient and I will explain everything," I told him. I gestured for him to have a seat in one of the chairs and took my own seat again. He hesitated a moment and then sat down, staring at me for a moment with an odd look on his face. I realized that he'd probably noticed the strong resemblance I had to my mother. "You have been injured and ill for a very long time. I'm afraid that many things have changed."

"Explain," my father demanded, staring at me suspiciously.

"I am told that you were attacked," I said carefully.

"I remember," he responded, not taking his eyes off me. "The coward stabbed me in the back..." He reached for his lower back which was now healed but held a scar as a reminder.

"It was an iron blade," I told him. He gasped in surprise at that, then suddenly looked extremely skeptical, probably thinking that if it really had been iron then he'd be dead now rather than having this conversation. "You suffered from iron poisoning but strong healers were able to get to you immediately...halting the progress and keeping you from death. But sadly, they could do nothing for the poison itself, leaving you in a state between life and death for more than sixteen years."

"Your tale has a flaw," he stated, his voice turning angry. He started to stand and added, "The curing of iron poisoning is impossible, not without severing of the infected limb."

I just smiled at that, feeling almost amused. "I think that you'd be surprised at what is and what is not possible." Then I looked across the cavern and called out, "Roselyn... Please bring us some food..." I looked back to my father and told him, "You must be starving."

My father grumbled, obviously unsure of what to do. He was still weak and sore from his long injury and confused at finding himself in this strange place, met by a woman whom he didn't know. However, he seemed to relax just a little more once Roselyn rushed over with a tray of food, also giving us cups of nectar.

"I am hungry," my father admitted, already digging into the food provided. While he ate, he stared at Roselyn, finally saying, “I know you... You’re Thorn…Laeluna’s servant. But what of your markings?”

I blinked at that, a little surprised to hear him use my mother’s other name. She’d mentioned it to me once, saying that there were a few people who used it rather than her title, but until now I don’t think I’d heard anyone else use it.

“I serve the Lady of the Crescent Moon no longer,” Roselyn told him with a look of pride. “I was gifted to mildady.” She pointed to where my sigil marked her arm and announced, “Milady Aeslyn broke my curse. She’s the one who cured your iron poisoning too.”

However, my father no longer seemed to be listening. Instead, he was staring at Roselyn’s arm…at my sigil.

“I know this sigil,” my father said, looking a bit confused. “I chose it for my own unborn child…” He grabbed Roselyn’s arm and touched the sigil with his finger. “The round spiral is the ancient symbol for the sun… The line striking through it makes it mean the opposite of the sun…the moon.”

“My lord,” Roselyn complained at his grip, pulling herself away. “You’re hurting me.”

“The augur foretold that my child would take after its mother,” my father whispered. “That it would be marked by the moon…”

My father turned to stare at me, his eyes going wide as he looked into my own and realized what the full moons within signified. “Hello father,” I said with a nervous smile, holding my hand up so he could see the glowing sigil in my palm. “I’m happy to finally meet you.”

Part 51

The Court of Silent Footsteps was beginning to get crowded due to the all the arriving dignitaries, all of whom arrived with an entourage and guards. The king had been forced to designate one section of his realm for the dignitaries and even reshape its form in preparation for the gathering.

I stood back and watched in fascination as a large wolf arrived with a bear, elk, coyote, raven, and beaver all following after him. Of course, that was no stranger than the cluster of walking trees which had arrived a short time earlier. I was just thankful that the Green Man had left Grindlebark behind.

Then I looked over to the Piper who was sitting back and playing his pipes in order to entertain some of the local faerie who'd gathered around him. He was back in his child form, looking almost like an ordinary twelve year old boy. He still wore that strange patchwork cloak of his but it was pushed back and seemed to be treated more as a cape at the moment. As I watched him, I absently wondered if his age changing was like my mother's in that he could switch back and forth with ease, or if it was more like Bibi’s size changing in that it could only be used for a limited amount at a time.

When the Piper had arrived late yesterday, he'd come with an entourage of three elves, two human 'children' and to my surprise, three sprites...the smaller flying faerie from his realm. It seemed that the current situation had forced him to reconcile with the sprites in his court. Of course, he'd also arrived with another dozen of his people who were tied up, waiting for me to break their oaths. They'd all appeared quite willing to come with and had only been tied up as a precaution, in case Gutgnawer or one of the others had left them some secret orders.

To my amazement, four Unseelie courts had accepted the invitations and had come as well. Most of the Seelie faerie kept their distance from them but Jewel had volunteered herself to act as a liaison and intermediary.

After I was done looking over the dignitaries, I started looking for my friends. Jewel was talking with a large troll, and from what I could tell they appeared to be comparing their axes. Roselyn was with the human 'children' who'd arrived with the Piper, probably comparing stories about how they'd come to the faerie realms and their treatment. It was a little strange to realize that those two 'children' could very well be even older than her.

And then there was Jimmy, who followed a short distance behind me, looking stiff and professional like a proper bodyguard. Ever since he'd told me his true name yesterday, he'd been intentionally standing back and acting all proper, except when I caught him watching me with a smirk. We hadn't yet had any privacy to really talk about it either.
It was strange how he'd been the one to give me his true name, yet I somehow ended up feeling like he was the one who'd gained leverage over me.

Corwin was with my father, telling him about everything that had happened during the past sixteen years...and about me. I kept my distance to let them talk, knowing that I made my father uncomfortable. I could only imagine what it was like to suddenly go from having a pregnant wife to suddenly having a grown daughter. It had to be just as difficult to suddenly go from being lord of your own court to being little more than a refugee.

I looked to Dusty Wing and Shimmer Wyne who were just a short distance away, staying far enough back that they didn't distract me but close enough that I could call them over if I needed them to lead me somewhere or deliver messages. I gestured to them and Dusty Wing came over, immediately ready to do whatever I needed.

"Do you know if the Court of the Pureblood Sidhe has arrived?" I asked, suddenly suspecting that Jimmy's grandfather might be among their members. If he was, I was going to make Jimmy introduce us.

"I do not know," Dusty Wing stated. "But I'll find out." And with that, Dusty Wing flew off to do this for me while Shimmer Wyne remained nearby in case I had another task.

It was then that I noticed Corwin and my father in the distance, with my father looking less than pleased. He stopped to talk with several members of the Court of Fang and Claw group and then noticed me. A minute later, he and Corwin started in my direction.

“What is the meaning of all this?” my father demanded, gesturing around us. “Did you need to bring the shame of my court’s fall to all of faerie?”

I was a little startled at but responded, “We need allies to defeat the Iron Lord and take the court back.”

“We do not need assistance,” he told me angrily. “Especially not from Unseelie…” He said that as if ‘Unseelie’ was a dirty word. “The Court of the Morning Light is my business, not theirs.”

I looked up and stared into his eyes, slipping on my mask of calmness. I’d found that remaining calm and serene was the best way of dealing with situations that would otherwise be difficult. Acting calm and in control helped me to actually feel calm and in control.

“No single court can match the Iron Lord and his forces,” I explained almost pleasantly. “He is far too strong for that and only becomes stronger with each day as more and more fall beneath his control. He is a threat not just to our court but to every court, and not just to faerie but the human world as well.”

“What do I care of the human world?” my father snapped.

I just continued to stare up at him, realizing the irony. I’d worked hard at making allies and arranging this gathering but it had never even occurred to me that I’d actually have to convince my own father. However, if I could convince some of those others then I could certainly convince my own flesh and blood.

“You should care about the humans,” I told him. “The Iron Lord is declaring war on them. If a war with the humans fully erupts as I fear it will, then all of faerie will suffer…including the Court of the Morning Light.”

“You overestimate those humans,” my father responded with a snort of contempt. “They are weak and powerless save for their iron. And even if the forces of all human kind were arrayed against us, they cannot enter the realms.”

“You underestimate humans,” I corrected him. “I have lived among them as a changeling and I know them far better than you would think. Humans have weapons far more dangerous than iron. They can turn an entire court into dust with a single attack. And though they do not even know if the realms, once they learn of them they may very well discover how to enter.”

My father glared down at me with a powerful force of personality that made me want to step back. However, I held firm and continued staring in his eyes.

“You are barely past your first majority,” he said firmly. “You know nothing of the affairs of courts and have no right to interfere in my rule.”

“And you have been asleep while the worlds crumbled and others had to deal with it,” I pointed out coldly. “You may be my father but you have not yet earned the right to lecture me. You may also be the Lord of the Morning Light and able to decide for the court, but that does not change the fact that I am right. You cannot sacrifice the future of our court and my mother, merely for your pride.”

“How dare you…?” my father responded angrily.

Suddenly, Corwin burst in, “Effram…ye underestimate the lass a great deal.”

My father was startled by that and stared down at Corwin. “What do you mean old friend?”

“Aeslyn may be just past her first majority,” Corwin told him with a steady look, “but she has reached her full power. She sought out the lost Fount of the First Spark and drank from its waters. She has sought out the long lost Gyffendrach and recovered the power for her own. She alone discovered the cure for iron poisoning and brought ye back from the edge of death. And she has forged allies where none were to be found, near single-handedly forging this alliance ye condemn.”

For a moment, my father just continued staring down at Corwin and then he shifted his gaze to me again. I calmly met his eyes with my own, thinking it ironic that it was easier to deal with Grindlebark than my own father.

“Look around ye,” Corwin said, gesturing to all the dignitaries. “This is the first gathering of this kind in centuries, the first since the days of the treaty. And ye owe it to yer daughter. She may take after her mother, but it’s from ye that she inherited her stubbornness.”

Just then, I saw someone else walking past a short distance away, an old woman in a black cloak with silver trim, leaning on a staff. I smiled at the sight of my aunt, the Lady of the Star Filled Night. I waved to her and she turned to stare at me for a moment before coming in my direction.

“I’m glad you were able to make it,” I told her with a smile. “Do you know my father?”

The Lady of the Star Filled Night paused to look up at my father while he stared down at her suspiciously. He glanced to me, obviously annoyed by the interruption in our argument.

“So you’re the one my sister married,” my aunt stated, glaring at my father who blinked in surprise and a little confusion. Her whole body shimmered and she became much younger right before my eyes. Her hair darkened and she was once again the younger version I’d last seen her as. “You had better get Laeluna out of that realm safely.”

With that, I smiled faintly and then turned to walk away, leaving my father and aunt to deal with each other. I had a feeling that she was even less likely to be cowed by him than I was.

It was several hours later when the gathering was beginning to start. The representatives from each court was moving into the arena, or at least what I thought of as the arena. It was a clearing set out in the open air in an indentation in the ground. There were seats set all the way around it, facing in so that everyone present could see everyone else.

I stood by the opening that everyone was using to walk into the arena, watching intently as each passed and making note of who was here. I recognized the wolf from the Court of Fang and Claw, the Lord of Wave and Tide, the Green Man, the Harvest Queen, and even the Lady of Seven Songs who was looking particularly haughty. A few of them greeted me as they entered.

There were others as well, some of whom I knew and some whom I did not. A large and brutish looking troll slowly came my way, an Unseelie representative from the Court of Grinding Stone. He paused abruptly and stared down at me.

“You are the one called Aeslyn?” the Lord of Grinding Stone asked, still staring at me.

“I am,” I responded politely.

“Then you are the one who spared my nephew and freed him of the Iron Lord’s control,” he stated, sounding pleased. “He spoke well of you.”

“Thank you,” I told him, knowing that he must be referring to the troll I’d met in the Crossroads. “I am pleased that he made it home safely then.”

The Lord or Grinding Stone nodded and said, “As am I,” before he turned and continued into the arena.

Next came a large figure dressed all in gray, with a long gray cloak and a pure white mask that covered the entire face. This was the leader of the Ring of Silence, who’d surprised me by showing up and hour ago with eight other members of the Ring of Silence. They claimed that they were all that remained after the Iron Lord had decimated the rest of their ranks. It was hard to believe that this was all that remained of what was once considered a fearsome force.

Once everyone had entered the ring and taken their seats, I remained on the outer edge to watch. This was a gathering for the leaders of the rings and courts which left me no place in the actual gathering. I’d done my part in getting everyone here and that would have to do.

The King of Silent Footsteps was the host of this gathering so began with a speak about why we were all here and why we needed to work together. Then the other various rulers began to stand up and speak, some for the alliance and others against.

Then the Harvest Queen abruptly stood up and announced, “I want to hear what Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes has to say. She is the one I agreed to alliance with.”

“Agreed,” the Green Man stated. “My alliance was forged with she of the Moonlit Eyes.”

“I say let her speak,” the Piper called out, once again looking like a grown man.

The King of Silent Footsteps looked to me and nodded, gesturing for me to speak. Since I wasn’t in the ring of chairs, I just walked into the center opening, attempting to look calm and in control.

“Who is this girl?” another voice demanded. “She has no rule and no place to speak here…”

I looked to the speaker, a very beautiful woman with almost pure white hair and skin, all of which seemed to be covered with tiny ice crystals that made her sparkle. She wore a long white dress and had a crown on that looked as though it was made of ice.

The speaker was the Queen of Deepest Winter, one of the Unseelie rulers who’d come to the gathering. At the moment, she stared at me with cold contempt. She wasn’t the only one with such a look in her eyes.

“She is Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes,” another voice suddenly called out loudly and deeply. I was startled to see my father standing there, staring straight at me. “She is the Lady of the Full Moon, the wielder of Gyffendrach the Oathbreaker, the heir of Aelberon…and she is my daughter. The Lady Aeslyn speaks for the Court of the Morning Light.”

I smiled at that and then let the calm flow over me, becoming as calm and serene as I could. I felt my sigil and arm tingle and glow with a power that spread over my entire body so that I was once again covered in my silvery aura. Then I slowly looked across the gathered rulers, meeting each of their eyes in turn before I began to speak.

Part 52

It was four days since the gathering in the Court of Silent Footsteps and three days since the alliance against the Iron Lord had been agreed upon. Even those present who still thought they didn't need the alliance had joined, just to avoid the risk of being on the outside of such a powerful gathering. In the end, seventeen assorted courts and rings had agreed to band together against this mutual threat.

Afterwards, there had been little sitting around as we'd needed to prove the value of such an alliance as soon as possible. That was why we'd sent a small force to the Court of the Autumn Harvest, with myself as a member, to finish cleaning up any leftover remnants of the Iron Lord's control and to free all the remaining faerie there from their oaths of obedience. We planned a similar expedition to the Court of Lost Children very soon, but at the moment, were about to do something more personal. We were about to free the Court of the Morning Light.

At the moment, there was a gathering of forces in one of the realms right before the Court of the Morning Light. My father stood there, fully armed and ready to reclaim his court. My aunt, the Lady of the Star Filled Night stood a short distance away as well, in her younger form and armed only with her staff. However, she had insisted that she was going to be part of rescuing my mother.

Of course, we had our army as well, formed from the faerie of a half dozen courts. The Piper stood back with all the faerie he'd brought to the Court of Silent Footsteps, including the ones that I'd freed from their oaths. The Harvest Queen had provided even more than the two dozen warriors she'd promised, saying that she was free to do so now that none of hers remained under oath. Even the Lady of Seven Songs had provided a good number of soldiers, saying that the Court of Pureblood Sidhe would not ignore their sister court. Of course, what had been left unsaid was that their pride would not allow them to do any less than the other courts.

"This is too dangerous for you," my father told me, looking down on me with a worried expression. "I command you to stay back where it is safe."

I felt the urge to immediately do as he ordered, courtesy of the rules that demanded I obey any order given by the lord of my court. However, I shoved that urge aside and instead gave my father 'the look'.

"I think not," I told him pleasantly. "You forget, I'm a former human changeling...able to ignore such inconvenient rules." Of course, it was a little more difficult than just ignoring it. "And then there is the matter of my having Aelberon's key."

My father scowled at that, looking both frustrated and worried. "I have just gained a daughter and have no wish to lose her so soon."

"I'll be fine," I assured him, taking his hand in my own. "It was my idea to go in first as the vanguard. With any luck, I'll be able to reason with them and get them to surrender without any fighting. After all, they may be under the Iron Lord's control but they are still our people...still our friends."

My father just grunted at that, knowing that I was right but not wanting to admit it. Then he put a gentle hand on my shoulder and told me, "Then I wish you luck and safety in your endeavor."

"Good lucky Lady Aeslyn," the Piper said with a cocky grin. "You do your part and we'll do ours."

I just bowed my head to him and said, "Thank you. Good luck to you too."

And then I gave my father a reassuring smile before I pulled my cloak tightly around me and stepped through the way gate by myself. In spite of how confident I'd acted with my father, I was actually pretty scared by what I was walking into, though I didn't need my father to worry about me any more than he already was and I refused to give my enemies the satisfaction of seeing it. I'd learned that there was a certain strength that came with keeping a calm appearance, regardless of how you felt inside.

When I stepped into the Court of the Morning Light a short time later, I stopped and looked around, immediately seeing all the guards that were hiding behind illusion. I held my hands up to show that I was no threat and then looked directly at the nearest one.

"Most of you know who I am," I stated loud enough for them each to hear, though I kept my voice and expression calm. "Take me to whomever is in control of this court now. I would speak with them of a deal."

The guards all dropped their illusions of that and became visible, then they began to take positions around me. I continued looking at the guard I'd first addressed, recognizing him as Betram the Golden, my mother's spy. His powers of invisibility and stealth were the strongest in the entire Court of the Morning Light, so I knew that it had to gall him that they meant absolutely nothing to me.

"You should nae have come back," one of the guards said, sounding extremely sad and apologetic. "Ye were safely away but now we cannae let ye go..."

"I am sorry for this," Betram told me grimly, gesturing for me to start walking.

I didn't say a word as we walked towards the palace but I did look around quite a bit. The atmosphere of this realm was nearly dead compared to what it had been. Most of the faerie were in hiding, not just covering themselves with illusion to watch, but in their demesnes or other hiding holes. There were plenty of armed guards about though which was probably the reason why there were so few others.

And then of course, there was the light itself. There was no longer any sign of the morning light streaming through the trees. Instead, the sky beyond seemed dark and gray, almost as though right before a big storm. It was obvious that the Iron Lord had corrupted the very illusion that defined this realm, perhaps as a side effect of the damage he was causing, but more likely, as an intentional effort to crush the spirits of those within.

At the entrance to the palace, I recognized one of the guards as Badger Mick, one of the faerie who'd been chained up with me in the throne room. He had a scar on his face in the shape of a hand print, courtesy of the Iron Lord's gauntlet. I felt anger at the sight of that, knowing that he was lucky it was just skin contact with iron rather than a wound, but that didn't make it right. The Iron Lord had a great deal to pay for and I had a great deal to make right.

Once I was in the palace, I saw that the Iron Lord had left some of his own people behind as well, though not very many. I saw guards who were obviously in charge and were all wearing dull gray armor pieces on their chests and shoulders, armor which looked almost as if it was made of iron. Of course, I knew otherwise but the resemblance wasn't accidental. The Iron Lord loved using a faerie's natural fear of iron to his advantage and this was just more of the same.

"Psychological warfare," I mused to myself.

The Iron Lord's people who were present seemed to come in only two tribes, both of which were about the size of humans and were dressed alike. One of the tribes had pure white skin with a texture that looked like wax, and none of those ones had any hair. These all appeared to be of the same tribe as the woman in purple whom I'd killed. The other tribe resembled sidhe except with gray skin and hair. I couldn't help but wondering if Shyla's father might have come from that tribe.

I was led to the place that had once been the throne room but which had been a dungeon the last time I'd been here. There were still chains and shackles bolted into the walls but no faerie were held by them. I felt a knot in my stomach since I knew what that meant. It meant that every faerie they'd captured had either sworn obedience or had been killed. I just hoped that those who'd escaped to their demesnes had been able to stay safe within.

Then I looked to the center of the room where a new throne had been placed, one that seemed hastily constructed from a large chair and then decorated to look as gaudy as possible. Somehow, I doubted that even the Iron Lord would use a throne like that. Instead, I suspected that whomever he'd left in charge had decided that one on his own.

Suddenly, a voice cried out, "Oh child..." I turned around to see Tomoki coming into the room with a look of stricken horror on her face. "No... I thought you were free..."

"It appears that is no longer the case," I responded calmly.

Tomoki winced and told me with a sad expression, "I can no longer help you...not even by lack of action. We have been ordered to stop all escape attempts and to actively stop anything which could harm the Iron Lord's interests." She had tears in her eyes as she whispered, "I'm sorry..."

"So am I," I responded sadly, feeling pity by what I saw in front of me. Tomoki had been a proud woman but it had all been stripped away from her. What these people had done to her had broken the Tomoki I knew and I didn't know if she could ever be repaired.

"I am taking off my cloak," I said, carefully removing my cloak and tossing it into a corner. "I think that I will not be needing it."

"Your weapon as well," Tomoki said in a bitter tone. She pointed to where Siffryn hung from my belt, now visible since I no longer had my cloak hiding it.

I drew Siffryn and tossed it into the corner with my cloak, never taking my eyes off my former neighbor. "I don't think I'll be needing that either."

Then I looked to the Iron Lord's people who were coming in, noticing the way Tomoki looked at them with intense fear. I grimaced inside, clenching my fist in anger at what they'd done to her and the rest of my court. However, I didn't let any of that show on my face. Instead, I took a deep breath and forced myself to become calm.

"These are the Iron Lord's most trusted followers," Tomoki told me with a shaking voice. "They are the Ring of Iron...his own people. Each of them carries an iron weapon. They were left to control the court should you or your mother make any attempt to return."

"The Ring of Iron," I whispered, watching them intently. This was the first time that I'd seen any of the Iron Lord's followers from his own court. Until now, all I'd seen were the unaffiliated faerie he'd recruited or the ones from other courts. The only exception that I knew of was that woman in the purple robes.

A moment later, another member from the Ring of Iron came into the room and Tomoki suddenly looked even more afraid. He was one of the ones with waxy white skin and yellow eyes. He glared at me as he came in and took a seat in the throne, clearly making him as the man in charge.

"The guards tell me that you are the one called Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes," the man said, his voice having the same creepy quality that the woman in purple had.

"I am," I responded calmly. "And what may I call you?"

"You may address me as Lord and Master," he responded with a sneer. Then he looked to Tomoki and demanded, "Is that not correct...slave?"

"Yes Lord and Master," Tomoki responded grimly, obviously having been ordered to call him that.

"I think not," I told him. "I came here for a reason and it wasn't to be your slave. I came here to discuss the release of my court."

The pale skinned man just sneered at me. "This court belongs to my lord now. He will greatly reward us for your return. You have embarrassed him too often and shall suffer greatly for that offense." Then he leaned forward in the throne and pierced me with a nasty glare that almost made me take a nervous step back. "You are the one who slew my mate...and I would tear you to pieces for that. However, that would be a great mercy compared to what my lord intends for you."

"I see," I responded slowly. "So the woman in purple was your mate..." I paused for a moment to consider, "I would say that I am sorry for your loss...but I am not."

He glared at me even harder, and I had no doubt that if the Iron Lord didn't want me for himself, then this man would truly follow through with his threat to make me suffer. As it was, he could probably still hurt me a great deal as long as I was still alive for the Iron Lord when he was through.

"Did you know that I was raised as a human changeling?" I abruptly asked him. When I saw he did, I continued, "Humans have many stories about the creatures of their fears and nightmares...many of whom I have met since coming back to the realms. You are certainly no worse than any of the others I have encountered."

The man in the throne just continued staring at me with those yellow hateful eyes. "You will know fear," he said coldly. "And you will know suffering unlike any you can imagine..."

"The humans have a great many stories," I told him calmly, acting as though he'd never even spoken. "But there is one story that I've always been fond of." I paused to smile as I added, "It's called the story of the Trojan horse."

Suddenly, Jewel charged forward and slammed her axe through the neck of one of the Iron Lord's guards while Jimmy slammed into the guard behind me and disarmed him. While that was going on, Bibi suddenly grew to human size, driving her spear right through the throat of another Ring of Iron member.

"What's going on?" the waxy skinned man demanded, jumping from his throne and staring in shock as a hundred tiny faerie swarmed through the room, courtesy of Bibi's father, the Piper, and the Court of Autumn Harvest.

Tomoki jumped at me with a dagger in hand, obviously hating herself for doing this but unable to control her own actions. Jimmy drove his sword into her shoulder, forcing her to drop the weapon.

"I'm sorry about this," Jimmy told her grimly.

I just bent down beside Tomoki and told her, "You're free from your oath..." I put a gentle hand on her cheek. "You're free from the Iron Lord's control."

Tomoki just stared at me with a look of complete shock and confusion before realization dawned. "I'm...I'm free..." Tears of joy began pouring down from her cheeks and I just smiled and touched her shoulder, healing the wound that Jimmy had just given her. Then she stared at her shoulder, nearly as surprised by the way I'd broken her oath. "How...?" She paused to stare at me again. "You must have found Gyffendrach... Of course you did...you're you again... But where...?"

"I did find Gyffendrach," I told her with a grin. "But I don't need it with me to use its powers..."

"How...?" Tomoki gasped as she looked around the room, at all the tiny faerie who'd either taken down or chased away all of the guards.

"My father is coming through the main way gate with our army," I explained to Tomoki who looked too dazed to really absorb all this.

She blinked in confusion and gasped, "Your father...? Are you daft child?"

"While they were preparing for that attack," I told her pleasantly. "I got past all the guards and into the center of the palace...with an army hidden in my demesne."

"Aye, t'was Aeslyn's idea," Jewel said, giving me a proud look. "She’s a right sneaky bitch."

"Is that a red cap?" Tomoki gasped, her eyes going wide.

Tomoki just stood there with a look of gaping shock on her face. I turned away from her and went to the oathbound guards who'd been taken down and constrained by the tiny faerie. I was amazed at what could be done with some magic thread, poisoned arrows, and some of the sleeping dust from the Court of Lost Children. All of the guards from the Court of the Morning Light had been taken down alive, though several were fairly injured.

"Just a moment," I told Betram, breaking his oath and then healing his injuries before going to the next. Within a minute, all of those guards had been freed and were on our side.

"What next?" Jimmy asked.

I looked around the room, noticing that the wax man in charge had escaped the room along with two of his Ring of Iron people. Of course, they wouldn't be too much problem to find though we had a lot of our own people to take down and free as well. I shifted my eyes and looked through the illusionary walls, seeing where our targets were located and then telling Bibi.

"Two squads go that way, "Bibi ordered some of her tiny warriors. "Two more go that way. I'll have one squad remain with us."

The army of tiny warriors dispersed to seize control of the palace, taking any of our own people out of action without any more harm than necessary. The Ring of Iron were of course fair game for more lethal action. While they were taking care of that, I retrieved my cloak and Siffryn, feeling pleased to have both of them back.

I started down one of the halls while Jimmy and Jewel walked beside me as bodyguards. Bibi, who was in command of our tiny army was along as well, already well aware of where I was going and what my intentions were. Only Tomoki seemed lost and confused.

The tiny soldiers swept over two sidhe guards, taking them down long enough for me to free them from their oaths. Then we continued with them joining our forces, swelling our numbers the same way we had in the Court of Autumn Harvest.

Then we saw a lone member of the Ring of Iron, and before any of the soldiers could go after him, Tomoki let out a roar of rage that I never would have expected of her. Balls of fire appeared in each of her hands and she charged right at the soldier, stopping to throw both balls of fire at him. The fact that he was wielding an iron sword was irrelevant since she was well out of his range.

"NEVER AGAIN," Tomoki yelled, throwing more fireballs at him while the armored warrior began to duck for cover, screaming as the flames began licking at his flesh.

Suddenly, Tomoki began to glow and as I watched, a fourth tail grew from her spine. I knew that the number of tails a kitsune possessed was an indication of how powerful they were, so it looked like Tomoki had just stepped up to the next level of power. Tomoki of the three tails had just become Tomoki of the four tails.

"You will NEVER touch me AGAIN," Tomoki exclaimed furiously, suddenly throwing an even more powerful fireball at the man, though it didn't seem that it was needed. He collapsed to the floor with a scream of pain and just burned until completely dead.

"Are you okay?" I asked Tomoki hesitantly, realizing that things must have been even worse for her here than I'd realized.

Tomoki just gave me a cold smile and responded, "I am much better now."

Part 53

I stared at the smoldering corpse that Tomoki had made from one of our enemies and then I glanced to her. I watched her for a moment, wondering if he had done something to her personally or if he was just an outlet for her vengeance against another…or even all of the Ring of Iron soldiers.

After a moment, I looked around and grimly said, “Let’s take a short cut.”

With that, my sigil began to glow with a silver light, as did all the marks on my right arm. I held up my hand and the wall beside us suddenly dissolved and faded away. There were several gasps of shock from Bibi, Tomoki, and the other faerie with us who didn't know I could do this.

“How did you…?” Tomoki started to ask. Then she paused to shake her head, “It matters not so long as we can flee.”

"This way," I said, stepping through the hole and dissolving another large hole, revealing the two Ring of Iron guards who were standing in front of my mother's demesne. "If you would..."

An instant later, a dozen tiny faerie swarmed over the two guards, blinding and stinging them. And while they were off balance, Bibi and Jewel quickly finished them off.

“There might be more of them,” I stated grimly.

“They are probably escaping while they can,” Tomoki said.

“Unlikely,” Jimmy pointed out. “Our forces will have taken one of the way gates immediately and we had another group coming through the second gate. By now, we’ll control both gates to this realm.”

“No,” Tomoki shook her head, wincing as she added, “They created a new way gate…” She hesitated a moment before adding, “”They created a long way…a short cut to the Iron Lord’s realm.”

I blinked at that, feeling a little confused. “A long way is a short cut?”

“Indeed,” Bibi agreed with a grim smile. “A long way is just that…a very long way. It’s a direct way that connects to two very distant locations without connecting to any bridging realms… It’s a single direct path that can make the travel much quicker.”

“But they’re very unstable,” Jimmy added. “They take almost constant upkeep to prevent them from collapsing. That’s why almost no one ever makes them.”

“And this one leads directly to the Iron Lord’s territory,” Tomoki said.

I scowled at that, definitely not liking the idea of a direct path between the Iron Lord’s realm and this one. We were definitely going to have to seize control of that gate and soon. After that, we could decide whether to close it…or perhaps send some of our own forces into his back yard.

“I’ll worry about that later,” I said, stepping over the bodies of the dead soldiers and then glancing up and down the hallway to make sure there were no more of them.

Only then did I turn my attention to the entrance to my mother’s demesne. The shimmer on the wall was still present, marking where it was bound. After all this time, I was finally here. My heart raced with excitement.

"Knock knock," I said, holding my glowing sigil to the shimmering air and hoping that my mother could sense my presence from within.

A minute later, the shimmer changed slightly and my mother stepped out, looking exactly as she did the last time I saw her...except for the expression on her face. She stared at me with a look of unbelievable relief and suddenly threw her arms around me in a tight hug.

"You're safe," she exclaimed. "I was so worried..."

"Milady," Tomoki greeted her, a look of intense shame on her face.

"I am pleased you are well," Bibi said.

"I was really worried about you too," I told her once we pulled apart. It was hard keeping my voice from shaking though I didn’t even try to keep my eyes from tearing up. "You have no idea how thankful I am that you're all right... But is...?" I looked to the demesne entrance again, feeling afraid and hopeful at the same time.

"Ellen is perfectly fine," my mother assured me with an amused smile.

Then, almost as if on cue, my mom stepped out of the demesne as well. She took one look at me and then suddenly grabbed me in a hug just like my mother had a moment earlier. "You're all right," she sobbed into my shoulder. "I was so worried..." I just stood there, hugging her back with a sense of deja-vu and an unbelievable sense of relief.

"As heartwarming as this is," Jewel said. "Ye've still got a farching army of them iron plated bastards to deal with."

My mother froze and stared at Jewel with a look of fear. "A red cap..."

"She's with me," I told my mother. "She's a friend..."

"I'm not certain I like your taste in friends," she responded, slipping on her own mask of calm serenity.

I couldn't blame my mom from being concerned about Jewel since it was a group of red caps...with Jewel among, them who'd taken over this court originally. "She's saved my life several times," I told my mother. "I trust her with my life."

"Sorry bout helping take over yer court," Jewel apologized. "Now can we go and kick some more arse?"

Just then, several of the tiny sprites flew in and began talking to Bibi. Then Bibi turned to me and said, “All the oathbound guards in the palace have been neutralized. You should be able to free them at your convenience.”

“Free them?” my mother asked with a look of confusion.

“The rest of our forces should be here soon,” I said thoughtfully. “If everything goes as planned.”

My mother looked at all the gathered sprites and pixies then stared at Bibi. “I assume these forces are courtesy of the King of Silent Footsteps.”

“Some are, milady,” Bibi responded with an amused smile. “While you’ve been locked away, your daughter almost single-handedly reforged the Seelie alliance.”

“What?” my mother gasped in surprise, staring at me in amazement.

“She’s accomplished several impossible acts,” Bibi told her with a chuckle. “Including… No...I’ll let you find out about that later.”

My mom stared at me with a look of confusion. “What’s going on Aeslyn?” Then she paused with a pained look in her eyes and asked, “And where’s Carl?”

I winced at that, suddenly feeling a returning surge of guilt. “He’s…” I couldn’t look my mom in the eyes as I whispered, “He died…”

“He died saving Aeslyn’s life,” Jimmy told her quietly. “I’m sorry…”

Mom nodded faintly, as though she’d been expecting that. Her eyes were teary but she wasn’t full out crying, not like I was. Without another word, the two of us just hugged, this time in shared grief.

When we pulled back, I wiped the tears from my cheeks and told myself that now wasn’t the time for crying. Now was the time for payback.

“I am sorry for your loss,” my mother told my mom gently, then looked at me and gave me a sympathetic look.

“Thank you Laeluna,” my mom told her, surprising me a little by the use of her name. After spending weeks being locked up together, it shouldn’t be any kind of a surprise that they’d be on a first name basis.

My mother gave my mom a gentle hug and then as she pulled back, she looked around and frowned. “What happened to the walls?”

Jewel just snickered at that and said, “Just wait and ye’ll see.”

“We need to meet up with the others,” I said, already starting down the hall. I was still shaking as I thought of my dad so focusing on what we needed to in order to stay focused.

We hadn’t gone very far down the hall when we ran into a group of oathbound guards who’d been neutralized by our allies. They lay scattered all over the hall, several of them bleeding from lots of small wounds while two of them were snoring loudly. Three of warriors from the Court of Autumn Harvest hovered in the air to guard them.

“Thank you,” I told my allies before bending over treat the injuries and remove the oaths.

“It was our honor to aid you, Lady Aeslyn,” one of the tiny warriors said. “You freed me from eternal slavery and I can never repay that.”

“Aye,” another of the tiny warriors said. “You freed our queen and our court. It is only just that we aid you in doing the same.”

My mom and mother both stared at me in surprise but neither said a word. I was glad for that as I wasn’t in the mood for any more explanations at the moment. However, they continued giving me curious looks and I could tell the questions were building up in both of them.

I had to stop twice more to free more of our people, and each time they joined our growing force along with the faerie who’d been guarding them. This was really starting to remind me of the Court of Autumn Harvest, except we were no longer running into opponents.

We had just reached the main entrance to the palace with a small group of elves came running up. “Lady Aeslyn,” a cute elf girl with a pony tail said, pausing to give an awkward curtsy. “The Piper said to tell you that we found a whole buncha goblins hiding in the trees. We’ve got em all hanging upside down so we can play whack a goblin.” She gave me a mischievious grin and added, “Wanna come play?”

“Not right now,” I told her. “But thanks for the invitation.”

“Okay,” she responded cheerfully, exclaiming, “Bye bye,” before running off again with the rest of her friends.

“The Piper is here too?” Tomoki gasped in disbelief, obviously beating my mother to the punch because she looked like she was about to say something.

“Actually,” I said, carefully controlling my voice. “There’s someone else I think you’re more interested in.” I looked to my mother.

Suddenly, I heard my father’s voice calling out, “Laeluna…” I looked and saw him coming towards us with a group of soldiers with my aunt, the Lady of the Star Filled Night beside him.

Mother stared at them with her mouth dropping open, all pretense of calm serenity vanishing. “Effram…?” she gasped in disbelief. “Shinea?”

“Hello sister,” my aunt greeted her with a smile. “Your daughter told me that you needed assistance…”

“But how?” my mother responded, not taking her eyes from my father. “You were gone…”

“It seems that father never told you where he left me,” my aunt told her, not seeming to really notice that it wasn’t her my mother was talking to.

My father just stared at her for a moment before joking, “I take a short nap and the entire court falls to ruins…”

“Effram,” my mother exclaimed, throwing herself at my father and giving him a long kiss. Then she just hugged him tightly, as though afraid he’d disappear again, sobbing tears of joy.

Watching my mother and father’s reunion filled me with happiness as well, until I glanced back at my mom. She turned away from them with tears in her eyes. I didn’t say a thing as I went over and hugged her, sharing her grief over my dad. For as much good as today had brought, it also reminded me of the loss of a loved one.

Part 54

It had been nearly two hours since my parents had reunited for the first time in sixteen years and they hadn't moved an arm's length from each other since then. Of course, I couldn't really blame them, but while mother was trying to catch my father up on everything that was going on, we still had a court that needed to be put back under control. At the moment, that required freeing all of our oathbound people which meant that I didn't have the luxury of continuing with the family reunion.

I walked through the woods with Jewel, Jimmy, and a group of faerie guards as I looked for more of our own who'd been neutralized by our allies. I'd already freed a great many of those the Iron Lord had enslaved but there were still many more to go.

"We did it," Jimmy told me with a grin. "We took back the court..."

"That we did," I agreed, feeling even more pleased to know that my mom and mother were both all right. With them free, it felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

"Of course," Jimmy mused thoughtfully. "Once we free everyone here, we still have to go to the Court of Lost Children. And we have other courts that need help fighting off the Iron Lord as well..."

"Now that we've got a farching army," Jewel added, "we can take the fight to him." She held her axe and stared at it with a hungry expression, "Soon I'll be able to soak me hat in his blood and avenge me da..."

I just nodded at that, knowing very well that they were both right. We'd won this battle but not the war. We weren't done with this yet, not by a long shot.

"Still," I mused aloud, "coming this far does deserve a little celebration. Maybe we should have a bit of a party after we free everyone...before heading off to the Piper's court..."

Jimmy just laughed at that. "True... This does deserve at least a little celebration."

"And I'd like to start with this," I exclaimed with a giggle, suddenly throwing myself at him and giving him a long and passionate kiss. Once we were done, I didn't quite pull myself away. Instead, I leaned in and whispered into his year, "My name is Aeslyn Lunae Pippalotta Dae." Then I giggled again and added, "But if you call me Pippi...you die."

Then I pulled away from Jimmy, grinning as I saw the look of stunned amazement on his face. He'd given me his true name but apparently had never expected that I'd return that trust. Of course, my key ensured that my true name couldn't be used against me quite as easily as his could against him, but that was beside the point.

"Aeslyn," Jimmy started, staring at me a look of intense affection that was far more than just physical.

"I think I heard something over this way," I said, abruptly changing the topic and hurrying away. If he could drop a bomb like that and then tease me by keeping his distance, then I could do the same.

"Ye know," Jewel said with a grin. "I think yer ma is so besotted with yer da that she barely even noticed her sister."

Just then, I heard a thud from a short distance away. I moved towards the sound and suddenly saw four Ring of Iron soldiers jump out from behind some tree where they'd been hiding. Since the trees were real trees rather than illusion, I hadn't been able to see our enemies through them.

"Ye farching bastards," Jewel exclaimed as she started for one. "I'll put me foot so far up yer arses I'll be kicking out yer teeth..."

"Stay back," Jimmy told me grimly. "They have iron weapons and you don't need to risk yourself now. You're too valuable."

I nodded at that, well aware that not only did I have Jimmy and Jewel, but also a half dozen other fighters who'd been following close behind. Suddenly, an elf, two sidhe, and three other faerie of indeterminate tribes all charged forward towards our enemies. I grimaced, frustrated at standing back when I was perfectly capable of fighting.

"I thought they'd all escaped through the long way," I muttered, annoyed that I hadn't been able to see them. "I can see through any illusion or invisibility...but put a normal tree in front of me..."

With a grimace, I decided that I wasn't just going to sit back and do nothing. I reached down and picked up a rock that was about the size of my fist. Then with a grin, I threw it straight at one of the waxy skinned men with all the force and accuracy of someone who'd been on the school baseball team. I beaned him right in the head, knocking him back and leaving him open for one of the others to finish him off. I picked up another rock and repeated the process.

Jimmy looked at me with an impressed look. "That was quite a throw..."

"I used to play baseball," I told him with a smirk. "I wonder if we can set up a game here once things settle down..."

I watched the enemy soldiers, knowing that it would be difficult to take them down without resorting to more dirty tricks. All of them were armed with iron weapons so my own people were having to play defense even more than usual and were hesitant to get too aggressive and leave themselves open. The Ring of Iron soldiers were glaring at me, obviously not liking my contributions to the fight, but they had all of my own soldiers between us so they couldn't get through to me without going through everyone else first.

Just then, someone suddenly grabbed me from behind, holding me tight with powerful arms. I screamed and started to fight back until I felt a knife pressed against my throat...one which made my skin itch. I froze in terror, knowing that I had an iron knife against my throat and that one small scratch might be enough to kill me.

"Surrender," a familiar and creepy voice ordered over my shoulder. It was the wax man, the one the Iron Lord had left in charge of this realm. "Back away or I kill her now..."

"Aeslyn," Jimmy exclaimed with a look of horror on his face.

Jewel stood there with a furious expression, looking as though she wanted to charge the wax man and cut him to pieces. She probably would have too if he hadn't been holding me as a hostage.

"It seems I hold you again," the wax man hissed into my ear. "My lord will be furious at me for losing this court...but may be more forgiving when I present you to him..."

My heart raced with fear but I wasn't about to let him see that. I bit back on my fear and forced myself to become as calm as I could, knowing that I'd need to be calm and focused if I wanted to survive this. It wasn't easy though, not in the least, though I was somehow able to manage it.

"What do you want?" I asked in a carefully controlled voice. "You know that my mother and father will never give you back control of this court...not even in exchange for my life."

"You will be a gift to the Iron Lord," the wax man told me coldly. "What remains of you..." Then he looked up and snarled, "But for now, we leave this realm..."

The wax man used me as a hostage as he and his people went to the long way that they'd set up. Jimmy and Jewel both followed close behind, unable to do anything to help for fear of getting me killed. The rest of the faerie with them followed their lead, though one quickly ran off to warn my mother and father. By the time we reached the long way gate just outside the palace, my mother, father, aunt, and mom were all there, watching in horror and frustration.

"If you harm her in any way," my father snarled. "I will hunt you and your kin to the ends of the realms. None shall survive my vengeance..."

"Save your threats," the wax man told him with a sneer. "If I see any following, I will slit her throat."

"Don't worry," I said as calmly as I could. "I've escaped the Iron Lord's people before and I can do so again."

With that, the wax man pulled me through the way gate while his three remaining soldiers followed immediately behind. I grimaced, wanting to blind them with a flash of light and then make a run for the gate, but it would do no good. Any surprises would likely result in my immediate death. For now, I had no choice but to continue being their hostage.

This way had not been designed to look appealing, and in fact, it was one of the less pleasant ways that I'd been on. It looked like nothing more than a dirt path with thick fog above and on both sides. The whole thing was gloomy and even a bit spooky. I knew full well that this fog was nothing more than illusion which extended about a foot or so to each side of the actual path, but I couldn't help but having nervous thoughts about what might be 'hiding' in that fog anyway.

The wax man removed his weapon from my throat but forced me to continue walking, with two of his people in front of me and two behind. I might no longer have the blade to my neck but I knew that my chances of escape hadn't improved much at all. I was still surrounded by four very dangerous and armored warriors, all of whom were armed with iron weapons. Any attempt to escape would still be doomed to failure, though I certainly did fantasize about it was we walked.

We had been going for over half an hour when I said, "No matter what becomes of me, at least you and yours are away from my court."

However, the wax man just laughed at that. He held out something for me to see, a crystal ball about the size of a soft ball. I wondered why he was showing me that and then realized what it was. I'd heard about crystals like that but hadn't seen one yet. Two crystal spheres could be linked together so that people could talk over long distances, basically working as the faerie equivalent of a phone system. However, they were actually fairly rare.

"I contacted my lord upon your attack," the wax man told me with an eerie sounding laugh. "He has already dispatched two hundred warriors through this way..." I gasped at that while he just grinned like a shark. "We shall cross paths with them soon, and not long after, they shall pour forth into your court...slaughtering all."

"This time," one of gray skinned warriors said, "your court will die rather than be permitted to serve..."

I froze at that and turned to stare at the wax man in horror. After everything I'd gone through to free the Court of the Morning Light, they were going to destroy it...murder absolutely everyone within. Even though most of our people were now free and we still had our borrowed army, the Ring of Iron would be coming with iron weapons and would be catching them by surprise. We would probably be able to fight them off, but there would still be casualties...countless casualties.

For a brief moment, all I could see was my dad lying on the ground dead in front of me. If this attack went through, then my mom could be killed as well. My mother and father could be slain. Jimmy, Jewel, Bibi...all of them could be murdered. Nearly everyone that I cared about was in that realm and was at risk. Fear and rage warred inside of me but both of them were overshadowed by something else...iron determination. I would not...COULD NOT let that happen.

"That isn't going to happen," I stated as a simple fact.

I let the calm flow through and fill me, washing away fear, anger, and desperation. I understood with an absolute clarity what I needed to do...and what price I would pay. I accepted this without reservation, knowing that I would gladly pay this price a hundred times over to protect the ones I loved.

My sigil and the marks on my arm all began to glow with a silver light, a light that spread over my entire body. I drew on the magic, more than I'd ever pulled before. It flowed through me and filled me.

"What are you doing?" the wax man screamed, swinging his sword at me.

I ducked to the side, using my left arm to try directing the blade away from my body. His blade bit into my forearm and immediately itched and burned, a clear sign that I'd just been struck by iron. However, I ignored that as best I could and pushed all my magic back out, sending waves of silver light up and down the way as far as I could in both directions.

The wax man stared at me in confusion and even fear, demanding, "Cease whatever you are doing..."

I said absolutely nothing and merely met his desperate glare with my calm and accepting expression while the illusions all began to dissolve and fade. The mist vanished from around us, as did the light and the very ground beneath our feet. The dark emptiness flooded in as I fell, only to reappear through the top of the way and fall again. I repeated this cycle only two times before the very fabric of the way tore apart collapsed, dropping everyone and everything within the way into the eternal void.

Part 55

I was alive. Barely. As I was falling into the void, something suddenly occurred to me that I hadn't thought of before then. I stepped back into my own cloak, into my own demesne. I'd somehow even pulled in so hard that I turned my demesne opening inside out so now my cloak was inside my demesne with me.

At the moment, I was on the floor, exhausted and in agony. I couldn't move my left arm at all yet it still felt like it was on fire, all thanks to the iron inflicted wound that I'd been given. I looked at the injury, a slash across my forearm that might not have been too bad if it hadn't been made with an iron weapon. As it was, the skin around it was blackened and looked almost burnt.

I grimaced, disappointed that my immunity to iron wasn't stronger than this. When I'd been touched with it on my skin, it had only itched and left a slight rash behind afterwards. I'd thought that maybe that meant it wasn't nearly as poisonous to me, that I'd be able to shrug a wound off with little effort. This was definitely proving me wrong.

"Hurts," I whispered, forcing myself to my knees, wondering if maybe I should have just stayed in the void and let it end without so much pain. I'd fully expected to die when I'd destroyed the way and it almost felt like I was cheating to still be here. "No... I'm still alive..."

Then as I stared at my arm, I suddenly realized that it didn't look nearly as bad as I would have expected. Sure, the skin around my wound was black but it hadn't spread nearly as much as Jimmy's had. It took me a few more seconds to realize what this was. Whenever I channeled my magic, a side effect was that I healed some of my own injuries. And I'd just been channeling more magic than I ever have before in my life, even more than when I was curing Jimmy. My own power must have pushed back the damage from the iron poisoning...delaying it.

"Maybe giving me a chance," I whispered, wincing as I did so.

I quickly glanced over my demesne which was no longer the beautiful and peaceful sanctuary it had once been. I'd wiped it all away in order to clear room for my hidden army, planning to rebuild it once we were done. For now, there was a round gray wall that formed the border of my demesne, but I had no furniture or internal walls to break the space into smaller rooms. The only things I had left within were the items that I'd left stored here, like my painting supplies and Gyffendrach. And of course, the electromagnet I'd stolen from my old school.

I slowly staggered across the length of my demesne to where the electromagnet was stored, wincing with each step. I'd held the poisoning off by flooding my body with healing at the same time I'd been injured, but it was starting to spread again. I was getting weaker with each step and only barely managed to make it to the magnet before I could no longer stand.

Nearly every fiber of my body was burning now and it took and immense effort to turn the magnet on and hold it to my wound. That would help pull out the iron residue, but it wouldn't be enough without more healing. And unfortunately, I didn't have the energy to heal myself again.

"No," I whispered, picturing my dad lying dead on the ground again. Tears came to my eyes as I realized that I'd soon be joining him. In a way, it was a relief. The pain would all go away... But then, another thought tickled the back of my mind and I realized that if I died now, then I'd be causing pain for Jimmy and my mom...for everyone who cared about me. And it would also mean that I couldn't take down the Iron Lord. "I've got to..."

I knew that I had to get moving, that I had to find the energy to help myself. I could almost hear Jewel yelling, "Move yer arse..."

It was with an incredible amount of effort that I called my magic and channeled it through my body, though once I did so, some of the aches and weariness faded. My power was pushing the damage back, was healing what the iron poison had destroyed. And as I had more magic flowing through me, I knew that I needed to do something with it. I didn't dare risk releasing the illusion destroying light, not when I was within my own demesne. Instead, I pushed my magic into forming new illusions for my demesne.

My power of illusion was extremely weak and the only real illusions I could do were the ones which were part of my realm or demesne. I focused on doing what I could with this, rebuilding the demesne I had before I'd erased it for my army. As I did this, it took my mind away from my weariness and pain, distracting me from the fact that I was near death. Within minutes, I was completely caught up in what I was doing, almost like I was whenever I painted.

A night sky with a large and brilliant full moon once again glowed from above me. The walls reformed out of rounded marble, resembling the walls from the palace in the Court of the Morning Light. Internal walls and partitions formed as well, creating a large public room which I could share with guests as well as several other rooms for my personal use, including one which looked almost identical to my old bedroom back on Earth and one that was a bedroom more like the one I had in the Court of the Morning light.

Once I was finished rebuilding my demesne to my liking, I looked down at my arm, only now remembering the reason why I'd called so much magic. My skin was no longer blackened and blistered but there was a scar across my forearm, a thin line from where the blade had sliced me. I felt a strong sense of relief at the sight, at the realization that I'd just saved myself from iron poisoning. However, I'd just used up nearly every ounce of reserves that I'd had and suddenly felt the crash. With that, I collapsed to the ground in welcome unconsciousness.

I had no idea how long I remained on the floor asleep, only that when I woke up again I was sore and tired. I sat up, still amazed that I was still alive when I'd completely accepted my own death as the price to protect my friends. Then I realized that I might very well still die, just more slowly and painfully than I'd expected. I'd survived both the void and iron poisoning when either would have been enough to end me, but the void would still end up being the death of me.

I closed my eyes and considered my situation. In spite of still being alive, I was still lost in the eternal void. The fact that I was able to use my own demesne as a lifeboat prevented the void from killing me directly, yet I was still lost with no way out. Now, instead of facing whatever the void would do to me or the painful death from iron, I would probably face starvation instead. And since faerie could survive without food or water more easily than humans, that might end up being a very slow death.

Since I had nothing else to do but kill time, I set my painting supplies up and began to paint. Or at least I tried to. This was the first time that I'd done any painting since discovering my true self, and though I had a lot of things I'd seen and would like to paint, I just didn't feel inspired. Knowing that I was trapped and awaiting a slow death kind of took any joy out of this so I gave up before I'd really done much more than prep that canvas.

My thoughts turned fully to the void and the idea that my demesne was completely surrounded by it. It seemed a little scary at first, until I remembered that my demesne was always surrounded by the void. Every realm and way was surrounded by the void since they were just bubbles and tubes floating through it, but it was easy to forget this because of all the illusion. But I had seen the void with my own eyes, catching a quick glimpse of it before I'd escaped into the safety of my demesne. I couldn't help but thinking of what I'd seen with that brief look.

"I want a better look," I thought aloud, deciding that I wanted to see what the void really looked like without all the illusions to hide it.

I wasn't really sure what I was doing, only that I was acting out of instinct. I reached out with my will and removed a large section of the wall in my common room, forming a window instead. This window didn't look out into the night sky like the opening above me but instead looked through all the illusion and through the bubble itself. It was a window to allow me to look through directly into the void.

"Oh my," I whispered, staring in amazement at the void.

It reminded me a little of outer space though it was full of light and color, with swirls and waves of glowing energies all over the place. The void wasn't the empty vastness that I'd expected but was actually full of energy...of magic. It suddenly dawned on me that this was where magic came from.

As I considered this, I realized that it made perfect sense. Magic was always more powerful in the realms and demesnes than on Earth, and certain types of magic could only be performed there. The realms and demesnes were the only places where the solid illusions could even be made. I understood now that this was because the realms and demesnes were actually located right within the source of that magic power.

I just stared out the window for a long time, silently taking in every detail. I could see shimmering bubbles in the distance, some tiny and some larger. I could even see a few shimmering strings that ran from one to another, obviously the ways between realms. And then I began noticing several faint silver auras.

"Faerie," I whispered, my eyes going wide.

The faerie I caught glimpses of had no bodies and no form and seemed to be nothing but auras and energy. These were like the primitive faerie, the ones who existed on Earth before faerie began to mimic the bodies of the living creatures they saw. I gasped in awe as realization slowly dawned on me.

"This is where the first spark came from," I whispered.

I couldn't help but wondering if maybe this was more than the place where our most ancient of roots began. Maybe this was where faerie souls went after their death as well. Maybe this was a faerie afterlife. Of course, that was nothing than pure guesswork...and perhaps even wishful thinking. After all, it would be nice to believe that we would continue on after death and to know what awaited me. Faerie were no different than humans in that regard.

“Or maybe these are just the faerie who got dropped into the void and had their bodies destroyed,” I mused. The silver auras I was seeing might very well be the wax man and his army. “I just don’t know…”

After just staring into the void for an hour or so, I knew that I had to record what I was seeing. I went back to my paint and canvas and began painting the scene that was spread out before me. If I died here, then at least my painting would survive, perhaps to be found again someday when my demesne merged with some realm. Perhaps I should leave a full record of who I was and what was important to me so that whomever found my belongings would have an idea of who they'd once belonged to. These were morbid thoughts but they seemed appropriate.

"At least they're safe," I whispered, reminding myself that I'd intentionally sacrificed my life to save my friends and loved ones. My death might take a lot longer than I'd expected, but this was still due to my own choice and I refused to regret that.

Just then, I suddenly felt a tingle to my very soul as someone used my true name. My first impulse was to immediately sever the faint connection just as I had every other time the Iron Lord had used it against me, but this time it felt different. I hesitated, feeling the gossamer thin connection and thinking that it didn't feel like someone was trying to use my name against me. It felt more like someone was merely calling it.

"Jimmy," I whispered, realizing that it had to be him. Of course, it could be my mother calling to me too, but for some reason I thought that this was from my lover. "It has to be..."

A minute later, I felt it again...my true name. The connection grew just a tiny bit stronger, confirming that it was the same person. I hesitated several seconds and then whispered Jimmy's true name, reaching out for him. I felt another faint link form, going in the same direction as the one I already had. It seemed to merge with the link to me and become a single stronger link.

"It is him," I exclaimed in excitement.

I grabbed hold of the shared link and stretched out my awareness as far as I could to the other side. Then I could hear something, faintly and as though from a very great distance. I heard crying and then I heard Jimmy's voice, calling out in excitement. "She's alive... She's alive..."

I stood there in stunned amazement, feeling more than a little excited myself. I could feel my link to Jimmy...could feel which direction he was. Then without consciously thinking about what I was doing or how, I reached out with my magic in the same way that I would to call my demesne to me and force open an entrance. But instead of calling my demesne to myself, I pushed it towards Jimmy. It took me several more seconds to realize that I was actually moving my demesne through the void.

"I'm moving," I whispered in awe.

Then I looked out my window again and stared once more into the void. I suddenly realized that I had a much greater understanding of the void than ever before, perhaps greater than any other faerie I'd ever met. The void was not an empty nothing which spread out forever. It was an ocean, a vast and deep ocean that was full of currents, waves, and even life of a sort. The realms were mere islands in this ocean with the ways being bridges from one island to another. And as that was all the case, my demesne was a boat...one which was no longer merely floating where the current took me.

On my own, I would have floated through this ocean of void forever, and even now that I knew I could move my demesne through it, I still would have had absolutely no idea where I was or where I could go. I'd had absolutely no way to navigate...until now. Jimmy was pointing out to me like the north star, giving me all the navigation I needed to find my way.

A moment later, I felt my name being called again, but this time not by Jimmy. I reached for the link and stretched my senses along it, hearing my mother's voice calling my true name again. If I had her true name, I would have tried calling it back to strength the link. But as it was, I could only listen. Then to my surprise, I heard her voice whispering something else...something that I couldn't make out until she'd used my true name again. Even then, I had to strain to catch what she was saying. She was calling her own true name to me.

I was a bit startled that my mother would give me her true name but honored at the same time. I took a deep breath and then called out her name. "Laeluna Lunae Silvereyes Aeslyn Sadae." My voice shook slightly as I finished the name and formed my own link with her. I felt a strange sense of pride in the discovery that my mother had named me after herself.

Then my true name was called again, this time from a new source. This time it came from my father. I had just barely absorbed that when Bibi and Jewel added their cries of my true name as well. Shortly afterwards, they began whispering their true names to me, the same way my mother had.

I called out my father's true name and then Bibi's. I paused to grin slightly before pronouncing Jewel's. "Ruby Red Heartsblood Caitlynn Rose." Then I giggled before musing, "She really is a jewel...and a flower."

Now I was linked to each of them and I could actually hear them repeating my name together like some kind of a chant. Tears began to flow as I listened to them calling out to me...calling me home. Before now, Jimmy's link had given me the general direction I needed to travel in, yet now I had a blazing beacon to follow.

"I'm coming," I sent down the links towards them. "I'm coming..."

As I forced my demesne to move even faster, I realized that there was another link...another navigational point that I hadn't even been aware of until I knew what to look for. That one led off in a different direction, to the realm that I'd claimed as my own. It was my realm and was now bound to me. I realized that if I wanted, I could very easily follow that link instead, straight to my own realm.

"The Realm of the Full Moon," I said, naming it aloud for the first time. Of course, I'd already been thinking of it like that for awhile. Maybe one day it might even become the Court of the Full Moon. Of course, that was an amusing thought but nothing more. And at the moment, I couldn't afford to be distracted by amusing thoughts like that. I had to focus on getting home.

I'd already burned out all of my energy and resources and hadn't recovered nearly enough for something like this. The marks on my arm glowed with a silver light while the silvery aura covered my body as I channeled every bit of remaining energy and focus I had. I wouldn't have been able to do this if it hadn't been for them calling to me, cheering me on in a way. I just slipped into a trance and followed their calls, followed them back home.

When I reached my destination a short time later, I was about ready to collapse but remained going on pure willpower. I wrapped my cloak back around myself, fully aware that I was still glowing, and then pushed a new opening out of my demesne. A moment later, I stepped back through my cloak, pulling it with me so that to anyone on the outside, I would have seemed to suddenly appear out of nowhere.

"AESLYN," several voices exclaimed at once before I was rushed and caught in a massive group hug.

Then everyone began talking at once, congratulating me on my return, saying how thankful they were that I was alive, and demanding to know how I could have possibly survived. It was all so much at one time that I could barely absorb who was saying what, much less think to respond.

"I heard you," I whispered, trying to stay focused. I stared at Jimmy and said a little louder, "I heard you..."

"We thought you were dead," Jimmy told me with a look of intense relief. "We thought you were gone forever..."

"When the way collapsed...," my mother started with tears running down her cheeks.

"Not collapsed," I responded with a weak smile. "I tore it open from the inside..."

There were several gasps of shock as they realized that I'd intentionally destroyed the way and hadn't just been caught in it when it collapsed on its own. My father stared at me in shock and demanded, "What would possess you to do that?"

"The army coming through it," I whispered in response, earning several more gasps of surprise. "I couldn't let them reach..."

Jimmy grabbed hold of me as my legs began to buckle. He held me tight, giving me a kiss and whispering, "Aeslyn..."

"That's my name," I whispered back, closing my eyes and just barely managing to add, "Don't wear it out," before I collapsed into unconsciousness.

Part 56

The atmosphere in the Crossroads had changed since the last time I was here. The alliance had made a move to cut off the Iron Lord's influence in the Crossroads, giving the Ring of Silence responsibility for doing so. The Ring of Silence, augmented by soldiers from the allied courts, had been able to restore peace and security. The various denizens had all begun coming out of hiding so the air of life and energy that I'd seen during my first visit through was returning.

Since the Crossroads were now safe again, not to mention under the protection of the alliance, it made the perfect place for us to gather for a war counsel. At the moment, only a few of the allied courts were present since the alliance had temporarily broken up into several smaller units, each one responsible for focusing on a specific area of our efforts.

Three of our Unseelie allies as well as three Seelie courts were focusing on taking back several of the courts that the Iron Lord had seized. Once they had control of the courts, I was to travel there and free those who'd become oathbound servants. So far, we'd already freed one Unseelie court from his control and now the Court of Marsh and Fen had joined our alliance against him. At the moment, they were looking at how to free the small and formerly neutral Court of the Weeping Sorrows as well.

When I'd shattered the long way and dropped the Iron Lord's army into the void, I'd inadvertently done even more damage to him than I'd realized. The attacking army had consisted of his own elite troops, and most of the forces that he'd left behind to guard his own realm. Without those forces, the Iron Lord's realm was now vulnerable and another group of our allied courts were focusing on how to either take his realm or at least cut it off from any outside aid.

The group gathered here in the Crossroads were the courts who'd been tasked with dealing with the Iron Lord's presence in the human world. They were talking of war and strategy, things that I had no real experience with and little to offer. However, my father had been impressed by my Trojan horse trick in the Court of the Morning Light and had insisted I come along. It had also been pointed out that we were going to be dealing with faerie on Earth, and I was one of the most knowledgeable and experienced faerie in all the realms when it came to modern human society.

As the court rulers talked, I listened but my mind continued to wander. It had been a full week since we'd freed the Court of the Morning Light and I'd been lost in the void. I'd been surprised to learn later that I'd been gone for nearly two full days, longer than I'd realized. After I'd healed my iron poisoning and collapsed, I'd sent far more time unconscious than I would have guessed.

After returning home, I spent the next two days in bed, sleeping for most of the time though not all. Both my mom and mother doted on me the entire time, which startled me a little as I hadn't seen my mother really acting motherly before then. I also noticed that there was no sign of the jealousy or resentment between them that had once been there and that now they were acting almost like best friends and seemed willing to share me. Of course, their time together in my mother's demesne was responsible for this, and as I learned, they'd spent much of the time talking about the one thing they had in common...me.

Eventually, I had to get out of bed and get back to work, against the wishes of both my mom and mother. Being able to relax and be pampered may have been nice for awhile, but I still had a lot of oathbound to free in my own court and didn't want to make the Piper wait any longer either. I'd spent most of my time since then traveling between courts and freeing those trapped by their own oaths.

"The Iron Lord's assaults on the human world may no longer be a concern," the Lord of Wave and Tide said. "With his own realm in peril, he will likely withdraw from the human world and focus his attention there."

"No," the Lord of Grinding Stone stated. He was the only Unseelie presence in our group, though I'd realized that in spite of his scary appearance, he was actually a calm and thoughtful troll. "My sources say that he has been using long ways to pull some troops back to reinforce his realm. However, he and his other forces have increased focus on the human world. He has begun building a larger presence there and has seized control of a large source of iron."

"No," the Harvest Queen exclaimed with a look of horror.

My father scowled intently and mused, "He is gathering resources for a greater assault upon the realms. This must not be allowed."

"Agreed," the King of Silent Footsteps said with a scowl of his own.

"That is all very lovely," the Piper mused aloud, looking like a child at the moment and grinning smugly. "But I'm sure that tin plated bastard will go running home once our allies take his realm. I know that snooty Lady of Seven Songs was bragging that her forces would take the court by days end." The sarcasm in his voice would have been hard to miss.

"The wolf of Fang and Claw told me that their aim is to cut off all ways to the Iron Lord's realm," my father said grimly. "The Green Man has been recommending this siege tactic before a direct assault."

"Sadly, that would be pointless while he is able to create the long ways," the Lord of Grinding Stone pointed out. "He can bypass any siege at the moment."

"And this is all beside the point," the Harvest Queen reminded everyone. "Our task is to focus on his efforts in the human world, not upon his realm."

Then the King of Silent Footsteps looked at me and announced, "I would hear the opinion of the Lady of the Full Moon." Everyone turned to look at me with expectant expressions.

I calmly looked over everyone as I considered what I was going to say. I remembered what Benji and Heather had told me about the news reports and about all the gossip. I'd learned a lot about the situation on Earth from them, but probably not enough to do much. However, it might be enough to make some good educated guesses with.

"When I was last on Earth," I said carefully, "I heard about the Iron Lord's attacks. He was attacking quickly, probing human response and then leaving. The humans were completely confused as to who was attacking them or why." I looked to the leader of the Ring of Silence who was sitting in our group but saying little. "The treaty and the Ring of Silence have done well in making the humans forget that our kind exist, but unfortunately, that is now working in the Iron Lord's favor. The human leaders probably do not believe the reports of the attacks and believe them to be hoaxes. Because of that, they are slow to respond at all. However, they may not believe we exist but they are learning that these attacks are indeed real and very dangerous. They are starting to respond faster...but not fast enough. The Iron Lord is able to escape with his forces through the ways before the human forces even arrive."

"But now the Iron Lord is remaining in one location," the Lord of Grinding Stone said thoughtfully. "He remains to guard the iron source he seized from the humans. That should change things."

I just nodded at that. "It certainly will," I agreed with him. "The humans will have time to gather information on him and his forces. And they will have a better opportunity to attack."

"Humans would stand no chance against a force such as his," my father stated as though it was a fact. "The Iron Lord would destroy them."

"I'm afraid you're wrong," I told him quietly. "Humans have no magic and don't even believe it exists...but they do have iron. A great deal of it. I think that most of their weapons have enough iron to protect them from magic and those same weapons are powerful enough to cause a great deal of damage." I closed my eyes and envisioned an army of goblins, red caps, and other assorted faerie going up against tanks and machine guns. In fact, a single plane could probably take care of the Iron Lord's forces with some well aimed bombs. "The humans would decimate his forces."

Nearly everyone present stared at me as though sure I was exaggerating while I did my best to keep from letting out an exasperated sigh. Most faerie seemed to think that humans were still using swords and spears and had no idea of just how much weapons and technology had advanced since the faerie had left Earth. I had tried explaining this several times but they were still doubtful.

"The Lady of the Full Moon correct," the leader of the Ring of Silence said abruptly, speaking for probably the first time since this meeting had begun. "The Ring of Silence has monitored human progress in order to better understand how we may keep our existence hidden from them. They are far more numerous and powerful than you imagine." There was a long pause before the cloaked figure added, "This is why the Ring of Silence has worked so hard to keep them from discovering us."

"If this is the case," my father said, apparently deciding to trust me on this. "Then it will be to our advantage. The humans can take care of the Iron Lord for us."

"That sounds good to me," the Piper agreed.

"And to me as well," the Harvest Queen said with an amused look.

"It may sound good," I said, looking each of them over as I continued thinking about the consequences of an attack like that. I'd seen enough movies about alien invasions and the sort that I had a pretty good idea of how things might end up. "But unfortunately, that might be the worst thing that can happen to us."

The King of Silent Footsteps gave me a curious look and asked, "How so?"

"First, they would have clear and definitive evidence of our existence," I said grimly. "They would probably capture prisoners for interrogation and even experimentation. They would learn everything about faerie...our strengths, our weaknesses, and even about the realms. They could probably even force their prisoners to open the ways and give them access to the realms."

"Impossible," the Lord of Wave and Tide exclaimed in clear disbelief.

"Should humans learn that much of us," I continued as though I hadn't been interrupted, "some of them would doubtlessly seek the power that faerie possess. Many of them would do anything to control the realms and be able to live for centuries without aging."

"I have many human friends in my court," the Piper said thoughtfully. "Some have been with me since before the treaty was forged. I remember well that there are those among the humans who will do anything to acquire such a gift. There is a reason I only bring their children to join me. The adults cannot be trusted."

"There is another reason as well," I pointed out calmly, making sure to look at each of the gathered lords in turn. "The most important reason. The humans would see the Iron Lord as the vanguard of an invasion from all of faerie and would see his terrorist attacks as proof. They would remember old stories and old fears. They would fear an invasion of aliens and monsters and would do anything to defeat us." I paused to smile wryly as I added, "Too many monster and alien movies would encourage this idea..."

Several of the group looked extremely confused, though it was the Harvest Queen who asked, "What are movies?"

"They are...like plays," I said, trying to think of an explanation that they'd all understand. I shook my head faintly at the strangeness of explaining modern human culture to centuries old faeries. "They are stories that humans watch...and many of the stories involve humans having to fight off invading forces from creatures who aren't human."

They were all thoughtful at that but my father stared at me intently, perhaps trying to wonder what it had been like for me growing up as a human. Then he said, "Between this misunderstanding and the hunger for what we possess... The humans would never stop coming after us."

The various lords looked back and forth between each other and I could see that they were beginning to understand the threat we faced. Our greatest threat wasn't from the Iron Lord, but from what he could unwittingly unleash upon all of faerie.

"If we are not careful," I said carefully, putting it all into simple terms. "We could accidentally unleash a war that destroys all of faerie and even removes the safety of the realms. The human world would fare little better from such a war."

"Then what do we do?" the Harvest Queen asked me with a grim look.

"Simple," I responded firmly. "We do what we were already planning to do. We stop the Iron Lord ourselves...and we do it before the humans can. It is too late to keep our existence secret but we can show the humans that the Iron Lord does not represent us...that we will take care of our own renegades. And we keep too much of our business from falling into their hands so they don't learn too much." I looked at the leader of the Ring of Silence as I said that. "We make sure the humans don't get any faerie prisoners to interrogate when this is over."

After this, the meeting turned back to attack strategies though there was a lot more urgency than before. It was clear that everyone had taken what I'd said to heart, which felt kind of good. I just sat back and listened, not saying much since I'd already said all that I really had to say and I couldn't think of anything else to contribute.

Eventually, the meeting broke for a rest so I left the meeting room and went to one of the larger outer rooms of the building we were in. Jimmy, Jewel, and Roselyn were out there waiting on me, with Roselyn offering me a cup of nectar as soon as she saw me. I looked around and saw that Corwin was there as well, waiting on my father, just as Bibi had been waiting for her own.

"So how is it going?" Jimmy asked me curiously.

"Everything is starting to come along," I told him. Then I noticed a group of unfamiliar faerie standing around at the other end of the room.

"They arrived when you were all talking," Jimmy told me when he saw where I was looking. "Most of them arrived together."

I looked more closely and saw there were several different tribes gathered together. "Some of those are Unseelie," Jewel told me. "She pointed to one of them and said, "Unless I miss me farching guess, that one is from the Court of Crimson Innocence."

I was curious so started towards the group. The faerie that Jewel said was from the Court of Crimson Innocence looked almost like an elf girl at first glance. She looked like a human girl, though her hair was crimson red and pulled back in an intricate braid. However, I quickly spotted the other signs which proved she was neither human or elf. Her eyes were yellow and slitted like a cat, and when she opened her mouth, I could see her canine teeth were long and pointed fangs.

"Hello," I said, calmly looking the group over. "I am called Aeslyn of the Moonlit Eyes."

"The Lady of the Full Moon," the apparent little girl said, surprising me by using my other title. She gave me an appraising look. "I am called Kishune of the Peaceful Death, the daughter heir of the Court of Crimson Innocence." She gestured to two other faerie who were obviously of the same tribe as herself. "These are my retainers and bodyguards."

"I am pleased to meet you," I responded carefully. "But I must admit that I am curious over what brings you here."

"The alliance against the Iron Lord," Kishune stated simply. "I was sent as an emissary from my father, the Lord of Crimson Innocence, in order to negotiate on behalf of my court. The Iron Lord has made us generous promises should we join him of our own will, yet we do not trust him and fear what fate he will call upon us." She bowed her head slightly and then looked back up at me. "We have heard of this alliance that is neither Seelie nor Unseelie and hoped would could come to an arrangement."

"I cannot speak on behalf of all the courts," I told her. "But I am certain you and yours would be welcome among us."

Kishune nodded slightly, seeming satisfied by that response. "We are not the only court who came for this purpose," she told me, gesturing to some of the other faerie standing near her, the ones from obviously different tribes. "Other realms have sent their own emissaries with me."

One faerie who looked as though he was made entirely of sand that had been bound together in human shape, looked to me and said, "Gritt is who I am. The Court of Dunes, I represent. Neither Seelie or Unseelie have we ever been. This alliance, we wish to join..."

Then another one of the faerie stepped forward, a short and stocky man who was just under five feet tall and who had almost pure white skin. However, his white skin was broken by black tattoos that ran in a line across his cheek and wrapped around what I could see of his arms. The tattoos looked almost as though they were writing of some sort, though not in a language I knew.

"I am called Algrapha the Index," this faerie told me in quiet tones. "I represent the Ring of Knowledge."

"I've heard of them," I said, vaguely remembering Corwin saying something about that ring. I had to concentrate for a moment before I remembered what it was. "You're scholars, and I've heard your entire realm is one giant library."

"This is true," Algrapha said, looking pleased that I knew that much about them. "But we are mere keepers of knowledge rather than seekers."

I nodded at that, then added, "I was told that your ring started after saving the contents from the Library of Alexandria...that your ring have been collecting all the human books possible and saving them."

"This is also true," Algrapha told me. "We have never been part of either alliance and have no wish to be involved in such things. Yet we feel that that this Iron Lord is a threat to our library and all we hold dear. We are a small group with no warriors or fighters. All we have to offer is our gathered knowledge."

"But knowledge is power," I said with a smile. Algrapha just smiled back, obviously very pleased at that statement and my own understanding of what they had to offer.

Then another figure stepped forward, one that was six and a half feet tall and wearing a tattered brown cloak. "I am here on behalf of the Ring of Fist and Blade," the figure said in a deep female voice. "We were once part of an Unseelie court afore it broke, now we stand by own our strength. "That farching Iron Bastard is nae gonna have us as his lapdogs."

With that, she pulled back her cloak and revealed that she was an attractive woman, in a sort of brutish and barbarian way. She had slightly grayish skin, muscles like a bodybuilder, and she even had a scar slashed across her face. Since faerie usually healed without scars and I seemed to be the first to ever cure iron poisoning, I assumed it to have been caused by magic. And then I noticed the crimson hat on her head. She was only the second female red cap I'd ever met.

Suddenly, the red cap exclaimed, "Ogg's brass titties, this is a surprise..." I noticed that she was staring past me and when I turned, I saw that she was staring straight at Jewel.

Jewel was glaring back with a fiercely defiant look in her eyes before snarling, "Hello ma. I dinnae expect to ever see ye again...not since ye left me and da."

I stared in surprise, definitely curious about this relationship. The red cap woman...Jewel's mother walked past me as though I was no longer important and went over to join Jewel. The two of them began to talk, though it sounded more like a quiet argument to me. However, I didn't want to intrude on Jewel's privacy by listening in on what was obviously a private conversation.

For the next several minutes, I talked with these faerie and then glanced back to Jewel's mother, who was still talking rather passionately with Jewel, before turning my attention back to Gritt, Algrapha, and Kishune. I couldn't help but feeling quite pleased by their presence since I'd worked so hard to gather possible allies, and now the allies were coming to me.

"I have no true official capacity," I said as I looked over there newcomers with a calm smile. "Yet I welcome you all to the alliance. The Iron Lord's time is coming to an end...very soon indeed."

Part 57

The preparations for the attack against the Iron Lord proceeded much faster than I would have expected, though I knew I shouldn't have been surprised. I'd succeeded in impressing the seriousness of taking down the Iron Lord before the humans could to the leaders of our alliance and they'd taken it to heart. Being able to take down the Iron Lord ourselves without the aid of any humans had also become a rather large point of pride.

Logistics were a bit of a challenge, though most of those problems were quickly solved by the creation of some new ways, including some temporary long ways. In this fashion, we were able to move soldiers and supplies from their various courts to the gathering spots. We were currently in the final phase of troop movement as everyone was marching through the ways that had been set up and were scheduled to begin arrival on Earth at approximately the same time.

"Remember," my father told me when we reached the final gate entrance to Earth, "I want you to stay back out of the immediate fighting. Avoid the fighting as much as possible."

I bristled at that, feeling vaguely insulted since I wanted to do my part. "I came here to help and I mean to do that."

My father stared at me for a moment before letting out a sigh. He reached up to rub the base of his antlers before saying, "And you will. But a powerful healer is worth ten soldiers...and one who can heal iron poisoning is invaluable. I would not waste you by having you act as a common soldier."

I bowed my head slightly at that, forced to admit that he was right. As much as I wanted to join the fight, I wasn't a skilled fighter. I had done a great job of defending myself on my quests but I wasn't up to the level of Jimmy or Bibi. Whether I liked it or not, I would be much more useful healing those who could fight.

"Remember, my daughter," my father said, putting a hand on my shoulder and looking at me with a look of pride. "You are irreplaceable...and not merely because you are the only one capable of freeing the oathbound. I am just learning to know my daughter but I would suffer greatly if anything were to happen to you."

"I'll keep her safe," Jimmy assured my father with a look of determination.

"Aye," Jewel agreed. "As will I."

"I'll stay back and keep her company," Corwin added, having come along as my father's advisor. "I'm nae good in a fight."

With that, my father stepped through the way gate to join the front of our forces. I held back a few minutes longer, letting more of the soldiers get through. While they were passing, I looked to my friends, knowing that both Jimmy and Jewel would regret not being in the thick of things. Of course, Jimmy was still my bodyguard and he took that very seriously, especially since my last kidnapping.

"I'm a little surprised you're not going to fight with your mother's people," I told Jewel, still uncertain about her relationship with her mother. From what I'd seen, it appeared a little hostile, but I thought that she'd be happy to fight alongside a bunch of other red caps.

"I'll nae fight aside her," Jewel exclaimed bitterly. "She called me weak for nae having soaked me cap. She's shamed of ever having me..." Her voice cracked slightly, hinting at just how much that hurt.

"Then she obviously doesn't know you very well," I told Jewel, putting my hand on her shoulder. "Besides...can she toss boulders around without having to call on the power in her hat?"

"Nae," Jewel responded slowly, then began to grin and even laugh. "Nae... I think I'm the only red cap who can..."

Jewel was probably the only red cap who'd ever gained her full power without having soaked her cap in blood. Other red caps had reserves of strength that they could borrow from their victims, but Jewel didn't have that, and had instead discovered her own reserves of strength to draw on. I suspected that the other red caps had the same kinds of internal reserves as Jewel, but they'd become so used to using their stolen strength that they never even learned to use their own.

Then Jewel's face darkened again. "She said I was a poor excuse for a red cap..."

"Just because you haven't soaked your hat?" I asked in surprise.

"Aye," Jewel responded quietly. "And because I lost to ye thrice..."

I just snorted at that. "You've slain more than enough enemies," I reminded her. "You even beat Gutgnawer. And the only reason you haven't dipped your hat in blood is because you made a decision not to do it yet. Obviously, your mother is full of...it."

Jewel laughed at that. "Aye, she is a bit."

"Besides," I added with a grin, "Every other red cap I've met uses the strength they stole from other people rather than their own. Maybe that just makes you the first white cap."

"Now yer being daft," Jewel responded with a grin.

"Maybe," I told, "but if you want to get the Iron Lord and fulfill your oath, then you might not want to stick with me during this fight. I want him so badly I can taste it...but it seems I won't be getting anywhere near him."

Jewel just snorted at that. "Ye have a way of getting in the thick of it. Nae, I think me best chance of getting that arse faced shunta is to stay close to ye."

"She does have a point," Jimmy told me with a sigh. "You do have a habit of getting in the middle of things." He hesitated a moment before adding, "I wouldn't be too surprised if the Iron Lord comes to you." The look on his face made it quite clear that he was more than prepared to deal with the Iron Lord if that happened.

After that, we stepped through the gate and arrived on Earth. Most of our army had already arrived and there were faerie of numerous tribes all scattered about. I caught a brief glimpse of Bibi who was leading the forces from the Court of Silent Footsteps. They were all tiny but I knew better to underestimate them. I'd seen first-hand just how effective those tiny warriors could be, especially when they swarmed over their enemies.

One thing that made the sight of all these various faerie soldiers even stranger was the fact that we were on Earth, right at the outer edges of a city. Most of the faerie were standing in the middle of the streets, staring in awe at the buildings and at all the cars. I could see fear in some eyes as they realized just how much iron was nearby.

This wouldn’t have been my choice of where to appear, at least not at any other time. However, the Iron Lord had just started to push into the city and we’d wanted to cut him off and show the humans that we would protect them.

The battle had already started with our forces clashing with those of the Iron Lord. I watched grimly, also looking around and seeing some humans running as far away from us as possible while others were hiding and watching in rapt awe.

“Idiots,” I muttered, knowing that they’d get themselves killed if they weren’t careful. Fortunately, I’d already arranged for some faerie to wander the outer edges of our conflict and warn away any approaching humans.

After taking a deep breath, I closed my eyes and felt the links that bound me to my friends and family by our true names. I could have severed the links with ease using the key, but I found that I liked having them. They were signs of the trust that we had for each other…and a reminder of how they’d led me out of the void.

Then I smiled faintly, reminding myself that these links also had several other uses. I could feel the links pointing towards my father, Bibi, Jewel, and Jimmy, all of whom were nearby. However, the one I grabbed onto with my mind was the one that led to my mother.

“It has started,” I projected down the link as hard as I could. If my mother was paying attention, she’d be able to hear that and would then be able to relay that to Roselyn and my mom since both of them were with her. I just smiled, amazed at how useful these links could be for long range communication. “Hopefully we’ll have him soon.”

I took a deep breath and allowed the calm to flow through me, reminding myself that I had a job to do. I was a healer and there were faerie being injured who would need my help.

Several of the injured faerie were brought to me, but I realized that this could be a time consuming way to heal them and that they could die in route. There were other healers here as well, staying back out of the battle, so I decided to take my healing to some of those who wouldn’t afford to pull back.

I began moving through the battle, avoiding any direct conflict myself and finding those who’d pulled back with injuries. I stayed calm and focused as I worked, letting Jimmy and Jewel guard me from the enemies who came too close.

But while I was doing this, I was aware of all the various conflicts. There were several dozen goblins charging as a single group. Goblins weren’t very large or strong, but they were experts in working together to overcome larger opponents. However, as good as the goblins were, the various pixies, sprites, and other tiny faerie were even better.

Bibi descended on the goblin forces with more than a hundred of her own soldiers, quickly taking them down with tactics similar to what the goblins used themselves. The goblins had no chance against so many tiny but poisoned spears and arrows.

I saw a strong presence from the Ring of Iron, with dozens of their own soldiers armed with iron swords, spears, and axes. I felt a momentary sense of fear for our own forces, hoping that I could get to any who were injured by the Ring of Iron in time. But to my surprise, the Ring of Iron couldn’t even get near most of our people. They were being dealt with by archers and crossbowmen from the Court of Lost Children and the Court of Autumn Harvest. As dangerous as iron was, it was useless if they couldn’t get close enough to hurt anyone with it.

There was a scream of pain from an elf who’d gotten too close to the Ring of Iron and now had a severe wound in his shoulder. His companions pushed the Iron Lord’s soldier back, giving me an opportunity to reach the wounded elf.

“You’re going to be all right,” I told the screaming elf, tearing open his shirt for a better look at his wound. The entire shoulder was blackened and burnt from the iron poisoning.

“It’s too late,” Jimmy told me grimly.

“No,” I snapped back, grabbing hold of the elf and flooding him with my healing power, trying to drive the damage back enough so that I could heal the poisoning. I had the electromagnet right inside my demesne and it only took a moment to bring it back out. However, the elf was already lying there motionless. “No… I can save you…”

Jimmy put a hand on my shoulder and gently told me, “He’s already dead…”

“No,” I whispered, grabbing at this unknown elf and pouring more of my healing power into him. I held the electromagnet to his wound, desperate to save him. But Jimmy was right. It was too late. Tears poured down my cheeks as I realized that he’d died in my arms, and for all my healing power, I’d been completely helpless to save him.

Corwin had been following close behind, watching with a grim expression and throwing some of his itching powder at any enemy who came too close to us. He stared at the dead elf and then at me with a sympathetic expression.

“Death is the price of war, lass,” he told me sadly. “Iron poisoning kills fast…especially for those who don’t have the resistance from being a human changeling.”

I grimaced at that, once again feeling rage at the Iron Lord and his people. And as bad as this was, he now held a source of iron, one that I’d been told was large enough to poison all of the realms.

“We have to stop him,” I said firmly, looking around for any sign of the Iron Lord. Unfortunately, I saw no sign of their leader, just his varied troops.

Suddenly, I heard a loud screeching roar from overhead. I looked up and saw an enormous bird, one that sent chills down my spine. A moment later, I saw two more rocs, each circling overhead and looking as though they were about to swoop down on their prey.

“This is NOT good,” I whispered. “Not good at all.”

“Aye,” Jewel responded from beside me, staring up at the giant birds and added, “Now we’re all up shite creek.”

Part 58

I stared at the three giant birds flying overhead, circling as though looking for some carrion to feed on. The sight of the rocs scared me and not just because they were giant birds. I was no expert on warfare but knew enough to know that whoever had all the air power had a major advantage.

Just then, the rocs began to swoop down and grab soldiers up from the battle field. They didn’t seem to even be concerned about which side they were attacking, which was at least a small consolation since their side was being hit too.

Moments later, all the archers who’d been so focused in the Ring of Iron soldiers had turned their attention to the rocs. However, the arrows didn’t seem to be doing much good. The birds were just too big for their arrows to have much effect on.

“Farching buzzards,” Jewel exclaimed, glaring at the birds. “We’ll never be able to get anywhere if we’ve got to watch the sky as well as everything else…”

“Aye,” Corwin agreed grimly. “Tis a right problem.”

“But one we can’t worry overmuch about right now,” Jimmy pointed out. “We’ll keep an eye on them. You just take care of the healing…” He pointed to one faerie who was on the ground screaming a short distance away.

I just nodded at that and rushed to the man’s side, using my powers to heal his wounds. Fortunately, they hadn’t been caused by iron or I might not have reached him in time. Within a minute, he was on his feet again, a little weak and unsteady but more than eager to rejoin the fight.

Suddenly, one of the rocs swooped down and grabbed at one of the faerie near me. Jewel immediately jumped at it with her axe, taking a nice chunk out of its wing before it roared and knocked her back. Then it turned to face is with a look of hatred in its eyes.

“Ye’ll make a fine feast once we’re done,” Jewel yelled out to the bird, who was trying to snap at us with its beak.

“If that’s the way ye want to play it,” Corwin exclaimed, reaching into the sack that he had with him almost all the time. Then he ran towards the giant bird, pulling something out of the sack and throwing it into the roc’s mouth. “Take a bite of that ye beak faced shunta…”

A moment later, the rock let out a shriek of pain and staggered on the ground, smashing into other faerie. It looked like it was trying to get back into the air, but instead, it merely flopped before collapsing on the ground, shaking as though having a seizure before abruptly going still.

“What the farching hell?” Jewel blurted out. “It’s dead…”

I stared at Corwin in surprise and asked, “How…?”

“T’was that iron skillet yer friends Benji and Heather left in the Court of the Morning Light,” Corwin responded with a smug look. “By Aelberon’s balls, I thought it might be useful but I never thought I’d be feeding it to a bird…”

“Iron poisoning,” I exclaimed in surprise. “Poisoned by a cast iron skillet.” I shook my head, not sure if that was hilarious or jus sad.

Then I looked up at the two rocs that were still flying overhead and knew that they had to be dealt with too. I closed my eyes and felt the links to Bibi and my father and projected down them, “Use the iron weapons that the dead Ring of Iron dropped. You can poison the rocs…”

“I just hope they heard me,” I muttered. Those links might be great for communication, but only if the other person was paying attention. However, in the middle of battle they were more likely to be paying attention to staying alive.

A minute later, I noticed some of the soldiers on our side picking up the iron weapons and charging towards the rocs whenever they descended. I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be much longer before they were taken care of.

Then I suddenly found Dusty Wing and Shimmer Wyne floating in front of me, giving me little bows in mid-air. “Lady Aeslyn,” Dusty Wing stated. “Honey Stinger has sent us to act as messengers for you should you have need of such.”

“Thank you,” I told them. “I don’t have anything at the moment but…” Then I paused, looking up and seeing a helicopter in the air, coming in the direction of the battle. It looked like it may be a news or police helicopter rather than military, but it could still be a problem. “The humans are going to be watching us a lot more closely,” I told them, pointing to the helicopter. “If you can spread the word to have the rocs taken care of before the humans get too close...”

“As you wish,” Dusty Wing said with another bow before she and Shimmer Wyne took off.

In spite of the rocs, the battle between our forces and those of the Iron Lord were still going on. I looked around, trying to make sense of all the chaos and bloodshed.

The Court of Wave and Tide had fewer soldiers in the battle than most of the others, due to most of theirs being unable to fight effectively out of the water or having their powers too weakened. Those who were fighting were mostly selkie in human form, looking like humans with seal skin kilts and the like. There were also a few who were human in shape but whose bodies were covered in scales.

The Court of Grinding Stone had a strong presence in the battle with trolls, rock trolls, and a few other tribes I didn’t recognize fighting on our side. They were the confusing ones since the Iron Lord had faerie of the same tribes on his own side.

The Lord of Grinding Stone had told me that they’d belonged to a larger court that had split into two smaller ones when the treaty was signed and they moved into the realms. The other court which had formed during this time, one that the Lord of Grinding Stone called their sister court, had been one of the ones to willingly join the Iron Lord. As a result, some of the Lord of Grinding Stone’s people were fighting against old acquaintances and relatives.

Of course, the red caps were having a similar conflict as the Ring of Fist and Blade fought against the red caps on the Iron Lord’s side. Jewel had told me that at one time, there was a court that all the red caps had belonged to. When the court broke apart, several of the red cap clans bound themselves into the Ring of Fist and Blade while some of the other clans, including the one she used to belong to, had gone off on their own. The Iron Lord had recruited several of the lone class with the promise they could show their strength and gain new blood for their caps.

The Court of Crimson Innocence and the Court of Dunes had both provided some soldiers for our battle as well, though not many. It seemed that the Court of Crimson Innocence hated direct sunlight and only a few of theirs could tolerate it for long. However, they had promised more fighters if the battle extended past sunset. The Court of Dunes had only been able to provide a dozen of their warriors, yet they all seemed very tough and difficult to injure.

I paid close attention to the flow of the battle as I moved among the various groups who were fighting, healing those I could and then moving on to the next. I was able to save several who were injured by iron poisoning, though sadly, even more who were injured by the iron had died before I could reach them.

Enemy soldiers would occasionally attack us, though the forces of those I was healing usually kept them back. Those who got through were stopped by Jimmy and Jewel, and only twice did I need to even draw Siffryn.

I was currently among the Ring of Fist and Blade forces, bent over a red cap with a spear through his side and healing him. He grunted, not even saying a word of thanks as he got back up and started to rejoin the battle.

“Not very grateful,” Jimmy told me quietly.

“Nae,” Jewel responded grimly, glaring at her mother who was fighting a short distance away. “He felt ashamed to have needed yer help at all.”

I nodded at that, noticing that several of the red caps around us were giving Jewel looks of contempt. Her still white cap and the fact that she was guarding me rather than joining the battle directly seemed to draw their disapproval. I’d even noticed her mother giving her a quick look of contempt.

Just then, there was a loud roar and I looked up to see a group of the Iron Lord’s soldiers charging at us. However, my attention was focused on only one of them. He was a massive monster who stood about fifteen feet tall, with greenish skin, four arms, and an absolutely enormous war hammer.

“Oh shite,” Jewel whispered, staring up at the monster.

“By Ogg’s brass titties,” Corwin exclaimed, backing away. “I dinnae have another skillet…”

“Come on,” Jimmy grabbed me, pulling me back and then putting himself between me and that monster. “Run.”

The four armed monster roared and then swept three red caps aside with a single swing of his massive hammer. He stepped forward and stepped on another one, crushing him to death.

Several red caps charged at the monster with axes, though only one of them was able to actually hit the monster before being killed as well. Even though the monster had been hit with an axe right in his side, he barely seemed to notice it.

Then I noticed Jewel who was staring up at the monster with a momentary look of fear on her face. However, that expression quickly changed and hardened, becoming one of absolute determination.

“I’ll be getting this one,” Jewel exclaimed, dropping her axe to the ground.

Without another word, Jewel reached to her belt where she had a couple of thick gloves she’d brought with her. I’d wondered why she had them with her but she hadn’t told me. She put the gloves on, not taking her eyes off of the monster.

“Jewel,” I cried out, drawing Siffryn. I wasn’t about to let my friends fight that thing alone.

“No,” Jimmy told me. “You need to stay back.”

“Aye,” Jewel called back to me. “I told ye… I’ll be taking care of this one meself.”

With that, Jewel walked to a car that had been abandoned in the middle of the street. So far, nearly all the fighters had been avoiding the cars scattered about because of the iron. However, Jewel just grabbed hold of the car, revealing exactly why she’d brought the gloves. She’d brought them to protect herself from the iron.

“Come on ye ugly piece of shite,” Jewel snarled, suddenly throwing the car right at the monster. It screamed as it was hit with the very large and heavy piece of iron and was thrown back onto the ground. “I’ll tear ye down to size…”

A moment later, Jewel snatched up her axe from where she’d dropped it and charged right at the monster. It was screaming in pain as it was on the ground and shoving the car aside. In mere seconds, Jewel had jumped right onto the monster and swung her axe into the side of his head. That was followed by two strikes to his head which severed the whole thing.

“Unbelievable,” I exclaimed, staring at Jewel who’d just single handedly taken down that monster. I suddenly wondered how I’d ever managed to beat her once much less three times.

Just then, another voice yelled out, “Ye’ve got to be jesting…” Jewel’s mother stood there, staring at her with her mouth open. “Ye cannae have taken that thing by yerself… Tis impossible… Ye dinnae even have any blood in yer cap…”

Jewel just stared at her mother for a moment while absently wiping the blood on her axe off on the monster she’d just killed. Then she grinned almost evilly and responded, “Aye, but I’m not so weak that I need to use someone else’s strength to kill me enemies…”

Jewel turned away from her mother and came back towards us, grinning with smug satisfaction. Her mother just stared at her with a look of disbelief…and respect. In fact, all of the other red caps were now giving Jewel looks of respect before they turned to go back to fighting their enemies.

“Great job,” I told Jewel, knowing that she was far more pleased by earning her mother’s respect than by killing the monster. “Now we just need to find the Iron Lord.

Part 59

The shriek of sirens filled the air so I rushed to the edge of the battle, only to see a dozen cop cars trying to blockade the whole area. Several individual police had already arrived and been dealt with, but now it appeared that they were arriving in full force. There were swat team guys all over the place and they all looked confused and shocked by the battle in front of them.

When I got close enough, I could hear one of the police yelling into his radio, "I'm not kidding... There are monsters, and faeries...and even fucking kids here fighting... No, I'm not fucking kidding... There are kids in there... Get the God damn National Guard here now!"

"This isn't good," I told my companions.

"What can a few human soldiers do against this?" Corwin asked, gesturing to the battle that was raging around us.

Faerie were throwing each other through store windows and destroying nearly everything in sight as they fought. The cops were here but were obviously outnumbered with what they would probably assume was the most insane riot they'd ever seen.

"You'd be surprised," I told Corwin. "But that isn't the point. It's what we might accidentally do to them that worries me. We don't want to escalate things and drag the humans into the conflict any more than necessary. If we start killing cops..." I shook my head, hating to even think of how the humans would respond to that.

Just then, some of the Iron Lord's soldiers saw the gathering human police and began charging towards them. Trolls, red caps, goblins, and some other tribes I couldn't immediately identified all went straight towards the police. I could see looks of bloodthirsty glee in some of their eyes at the idea of slaughtering the humans.

"Open fire," one of the police yelled.

A moment later, nearly three dozen enemy faerie began falling to the ground dead as hundreds of bullets ripped through them. Machine gun fire, shotguns, and even tear gas filled the air, destroying our foes even faster than we could.

"Aelberon's balls," Jewel exclaimed, staring in disbelief.

"And this is nothing," Jimmy pointed out grimly. "You should see what will happen if they start coming with tanks, bombers...or even the atomic bomb." He shuddered visibly at that.

The small army of cops seemed to be emboldened by their success and began yelling commands over the megaphone for us all to surrender. I could see that they were ready to start moving forward and killing all of the 'monsters' they saw here. I grimaced, determined that this wasn't going to happen any more than I was going to let them be killed.

I let out a whistle and Dusty Wing and Shimmer Wyne both appeared next to me along with three other sprites from the Court of Lost Children. These were the faerie who were in charge of protecting the boundaries of our battle and keeping the humans away. They were all looking to the human police now with expressions of fear.

"They need to be taken out and removed...without harming them," I told the tiny faerie. "You'll probably need to sneak up on them..."

"We have elf shot," one of the sprites said, holding up a tiny bow and arrow.

"We have sleepy dust," another sprite added, patting a large pouch which hung from her waist.

"We'll do as you wish," the third said.

Seconds later, the three sprites had gathered their own forces, two dozen other sprites as well as small faerie from the Court of Silent Footsteps and they were all swarming towards the police, using illusion and invisibility to hide themselves as much as possible. Then they descended on the police, bombarding them with sleep dust and arrows that had been treated to paralyze their targets. Within minutes, every one of the police were either unconscious or unable to move.

"We'll need others to pull them back to safety," I told Dusty Wing and Shimmer Wyne. They both took off to find some larger faerie who could take care of that task.

Then I looked up at the helicopter that was still overhead, probably making sure we'd all end up on the evening news. Fortunately, the rocs had been taken care of or the helicopter would have been destroyed by now. Corwin had only taken out the first roc while a group of faerie armed with iron weapons had taken down the second. The third had kept its distance until someone unleashed some kind of magic fireball which burnt off its feathers and knocked it to the ground where it could be finished off as well.

I was just about to go and find someone else to heal when I heard crying from outside the actual area of combat. I turned and started towards it with Jewel, Jimmy and Corwin still following close behind. A moment later, I found a woman and a little girl crouched down behind a car, cowering and with the woman obviously injured.

"We mean you no harm," I told her gently, bending down and looking at her ankle which appeared to be broken. I assumed that she'd fallen while trying to run away from the chaos. Then I looked to the girl who appeared to be about six or seven and who looked absolutely terrified. "I just want to help..."

"Keep away," the woman nearly screamed, looking desperate as she clutched her frightened daughter to her.

I didn't say a word as I put my hand on the woman's leg and let my magic flow. My healing power didn't work on her nearly as well as it would have on a faerie with the same injury and it took about five times as much energy to the get the same effect. I wondered if this was because faerie all healed faster than humans or if perhaps because faerie were so adaptable. Either way, I healed her leg but wished that I didn't have to use so much of my resources to do so.

"My leg," the woman whispered once she realized what I'd done. She stared at me with a look that was part fear, part curiosity, and even part gratitude.

Just then, the girl exclaimed, "Is that Tinkerbell?"

I looked and realized that one of the sprites from the Court of Lost Children had come to give me a report. The sprite snorted at that, then told me, "We have faerie moving the human soldiers to safety. None of them appear to have been hurt."

"Thank you," I told her. "Good work."

The little girl and her mother both stared at the sprite as she flew away and then they both stared at me. I just smiled calmly and told them, "You two should get out of here now."

"What...what's going on?" the woman demanded, looking to the battle with a look of fear.

I hesitated a moment, unsure of how much to tell her. I glanced to my friends who'd all stepped back and seemed willing to let me deal with them. After a few seconds, I finally answered, "A war." I stared into her eyes, noticing her gulp when she saw the full moons in mine. "Some bad faerie want to declare war on humans while the other faerie don't want that. The other faerie are trying to stop the bad ones before humans get hurt."

That was definitely an oversimplification of the situation, but I thought that she'd be able to absorb that more easily than the full truth at the moment. It also had the added benefit of being more easily understood by the little girl.

The girl stared up at me and then suddenly gasped as a sweet music began to fill the air. I looked to the fighting and saw the Piper was in adult form, wearing his patchwork cloak, and playing his pipes. As I watched, rats began crawling out of the nearby buildings and coming towards him. Pigeons began to fly in a circle above his head, forming a growing flock of the birds. Then he gestured and his army of rats and pigeons began to charge forward, overrunning the Iron Lord's people.

"Is that...?" the little girl gasped, her eyes going wide. Her mother grabbed her protectively, staring at the Piper with an expression of awe and fear.

"Don't worry," I assured the girl and her mother both. "He only takes orphans and then he just gives them a good home." I paused to give them a reassuring smile. "Now go. Get to safety while you can. We have no wish to see you or yours harmed."

The woman nodded and then hurried off with her daughter in tow, not bothering to say anything more. Of course, I didn't blame her since I knew how confusing and frightening this whole situation was.

"Just a minute," Jimmy told me, rushing to where some of the police had been gathered and picking up a few of their weapons. I knew he could touch iron the same way I could, getting a rash from it rather than burning, but he still paused to take a pair of gloves off of one of the unconscious police. A minute later, he was armed with two hand guns and a machine gun. "Now I'm ready."

I hurried back to the battle and quickly realized why the Piper was pulling out this army of animals to help. The Iron Lord was getting reinforcements as a large way gate had opened and more faerie were pouring out to join him. More soldiers from the Ring of Iron were appearing, each armed with iron weapons.

"I'm sick of those farching bastards," Jewel exclaimed with a sneer.

"Me too," I told her grimly, thinking about how many had already died of iron poisoning before I'd been able to heal them. With those iron weapons, even a small wound was almost guaranteed to be lethal.

I stared at the new forces, realizing that this was a large problem. Our side had been winning this battle until now but the influx of new opponents could very well tip the scales, and if nothing else, it would make the fighting continue for much longer.

Jimmy grimaced and opened fire at the gate with the machine gun, mowing down Ring of Iron soldiers as they came through until the ammunition ran out. Faerie around us stopped to stare in realization of just how effective these human weapons were. For those who'd doubted my claims about their weapons and how risky it would be to fight them, this was enough to convince them of not only that but also of how important it was to win this battle.

I focused on my links to Bibi and my father and then projected to them, "We have to end this quickly. The longer this fight goes on the more likely the human forces will become involved. I expect their reinforcements before very long. We have to find the Iron Lord and end this."

When I was done projecting the message, I muttered, "I hope they got that." Then in case they didn't, I repeated the message to Dusty Wing and Shimmer Wyne and had them rush off to deliver it to the various commanders on our side.

Since everyone was busy with the combat, I started looking for where the Iron Lord was located. If I could give that information to my father or the others, it would give them a better sense of where to direct their soldiers. Of course, while I cut through the battle in the direction from where the Iron Lord's forces had originated, I kept stopping to heal our wounded along the way.

Once I reached the far end of the battle field, going past more than a few of the Iron Lord's soldiers, I suddenly realized exactly where he was. I found the source of iron that he'd come for, the source that three dozen Ring of Iron soldiers were still guarding rather than joining the battle. There was an old junk yard, filled with towers of rusting cars. To humans, this might be nothing more than scrap metal, but to someone like the Iron Lord, this was enough iron to conquer all the realms with.

"He's not in the actual battle," I stated to my friends. "He must be back there, surrounded with iron and directing things from the rear."

"I'd never thought the Iron Lord was the type to direct from the rear," Jimmy said grimly. "He always seemed more the type to get into the middle of things."

"Aye," Corwin agreed. "But tis a wise move... He can have his people move the iron through a way gate while we're distracted by battle."

I closed my eyes and told Bibi and my father where we believed the Iron Lord to be hiding as well as Corwin's suspicions that he was merely using the battle as a distraction while he moved as much of the iron as possible. Since Dusty Wing and Shimmer Wyne hadn't returned yet, I could only hope that my messages had gotten through.

"How do we get past them?" I mused, looking at the large group of soldiers who were spread around the outside of the junk yard. There were far too many for us to fight alone, even with the guns that Jimmy was still carrying. We'd have to wait until we could organize more of our soldiers to go through them.

Jimmy stared at them for a moment and then abruptly said, "I have an idea."

After Jimmy explained what he was thinking, Corwin stared at him in surprise and exclaimed, "Ye must be daft lad if ye think that will work."

"It might," I said, though I knew it would be a bit risky. In fact, it reminded me a bit too much of something I'd seen in far too many movies. I wondered suddenly if that was where Jimmy had gotten the idea, from some old movie.

Mere seconds later, Jimmy used his own special talent, the one I kept forgetting he had because he used it so little. He formed an illusion around himself so that he now looked exactly like one of the gray skinned Ring of Iron soldiers, or at least he would to anyone besides myself. Jewel put on a cruel sneer and stood beside him, giving me the 'stink eye'. It reminded me a great deal of how she'd been before we'd become friends.

"I dinnae like this," Corwin muttered. "I can find a safe place to hide while ye do this... Just be careful lass... I dinnae want to see ye harmed." He stared straight at me as he said this. Then he snorted and muttered, "Aelberon's balls lass... If anything happens to ye, Lord Effram will skin me alive."

"I'll be careful," I assured him.

Jewel and Jimmy both nodded. "I'll die before I let anything happen to her," Jimmy stated firmly.

"Aye," Jewel agreed. "I'll nae let a single hair on her head be harmed."

With that, we started marching right towards the Ring of Iron guards in front of the entrance to the junk yard. I stared down at the ground with a grim look while Jewel held her axe as though ready to strike me if I moved the wrong way.

"We caught a prisoner," Jimmy announced to the guards, gesturing to me. "Our lord wanted this one alive for interrogation."

Several members of the Ring of Iron stared at me with hostile glares, nodding faintly. I could only imagine that they'd heard of me and that I'd thrown two hundred of their comrades into the void. I could see in their eyes that none of them was sympathetic to me in the least.

"Our lord will make her pay, that's for certain," one of them laughed cruelly as they waved us through.

"Move it ye little bitch," Jewel snarled, shoving me towards the gate. "If the Iron Lord didn't want ye so bad, I'd soak me cap in yer blood..."

A minute later, we'd walked right past all the guards and through the gate of the junk yard. Jimmy and Jewel both looked around nervously, obviously thinking about just how much iron there was surrounding us. There were piles of old cars, many of them crushed into cubes and stacked on top of each other. They both gulped though neither of them said a word as we continued in to find the Iron Lord.

Part 60

I felt a little nervous as I walked through the junk yard with Jimmy and Jewel beside me. We were surrounded by iron, all in the form of cars, half of which had already been crushed. This wasn't the first time in my life that I'd been surrounded by so much iron, but it was the first time since I'd awoken to my true form as a faerie.

Most faerie burned at the very touch of iron, though my iron tolerance meant that it merely gave me a rash instead. However, I was also well aware of the fact that an injury caused by iron would kill most faerie very quickly but my tolerance merely meant that I'd die slower and more painfully. I comforted myself with the reminder that I could heal my own iron injuries and had done so in the past. Still, memories of the pain ensured that I had absolutely no intention of ever going through that again.

I glanced at Jimmy and Jewel, seeing that they were both uncomfortable in our surroundings as well. Jewel looked especially uncomfortable, no doubt due to the fact that she didn't have the kind of tolerance that Jimmy and I did. If she touched anything here, she would end up with a burn mark on her skin. Fortun