Fallenwood #3

by Leslie D. Soule

With five crystals to destroy, in order to rob the dark lord Malegaunt of his power, Ash Kensington's path is set. She begins a quest with the talking cat, Greymalkin, and her wyvern, Slick. But when she meets up with the handsome dragon slayer, Draeon, her senses overwhelm her, and she becomes distracted. Will she be able to destroy the crystals in time to challenge Malegaunt?


If there was one thing that Ashley ‘Ash’ Kensington could be absolutely certain of, it was that she was tired of quests. But she was still in the middle of one, with no way out. She felt the exhaustion in her bones, in her heart, and in her soul. She lay there on the grass looking up at a sky full of stars as she plucked a smooth, polished, stone object covered in what looked like gold glitter—a jitterpop—from the jar beside her and, with a flick of her wrist, sent it flying into the air several feet above her. There it jittered up into the sky, giving off sparks the whole way until it burst into a firework butterfly that flew away on dissolving wings of fire. Ash stared into the sky, transfixed. It’s beautiful.

Ash was going to celebrate her twenty-seventh birthday soon. She had embarked upon a quest long ago. Her stepfather had died when she was nineteen years old—an impressionable age—and ever since then she’d felt like some dark force chased her. She’d run away and entered a portal, finding her way into the magical realm known as Fallenwood, and it had been her savior. But things were not perfect in Fallenwood, either, despite the semblance of a terrestrial paradise that lingered there. She’d found friends there as well, like the talking cat named Greymalkin, the sorcerer Will Everett, the court jester Terces, and—the name stuck in her throat—Prince Edward. Only now, he was a king. And then of course, there was Malegaunt, the dark lord who was after her. She still did not know why. I don’t think I’ve done anything to anger him. In fact, I don’t even know him—not really. I’ve only ever heard his name.

It was a cold winter’s night in the forest, and Greymalkin had found a whole jar of jitterpops tucked away in a cupboard. Though Ash tried to rein in her endlessly restless mind, a question seemed to attach itself to every jitterpop she threw. She lay there on her green cloak that had been placed atop the cold ground, surrounded by trees covered in snow. Her thoughts wandered as the snowflakes fell down toward her.

My heart is simple, but the world is so confusingly, vexingly…complex. What am I doing here in Fallenwood? She loved it here, but still. I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.

Throw, jitter jitter jitter…pop! The moon looked on serenely as the firework butterfly fluttered its wings to gracefully dip, arc, and spin until it sputtered out into nothing. Ash had no answers, even after all this time. I’m here to set things right, right? But what did that even mean any more? All those years ago, she’d come to Fallenwood in her search for answers, but her stay here only seemed to give her more questions. She plucked up another jitterpop. Determined to throw it farther, she altered her grip. It did, indeed, go higher than the last. Throw, jitter jitter jitter jitter…pop! That’s not it, though. There’s something else—there’s got to be. Who is Malegaunt? Why did he steal the black unicorn, my Shadowmere? Ash had been the only one able to capture the ‘untamable’ black unicorn of the Fallenwood realm—the symbol of defiance with the power to unite all six of the realm’s disparate kingdoms. This time, Ash threw the jitterpop even farther than before: jitter jitter jitter jitter jitter…pop! Then a frightening thought came to her: Is Malegaunt toying with me? She was about to chuck another jitterpop really, really far, but she paused when she heard a familiar tapping, that of feline feet on the stone walkway nearby. It was her cat companion, Greymalkin. Here’s a welcome sight.

“Having fun?” he asked. The demure, little gray cat looked down at his white paws. “I’d throw a few jitterpops, if I could. Unfortunately, I haven’t been blessed with the correct apparatus.”

Ash felt a sting of guilt at hearing that, though she did let out a small chuckle. We still haven’t been able to change him back into his human form, she thought to herself. Greymalkin hadn’t always been a cat; he’d been a man once, transformed by the dark-hearted court wizard Hieropraxis long ago. Not even the power of the sorcerer Will Everett could transform him back. He’d tried to change Greymalkin back, years ago, but the spell was too strong for his own powers to break. Ash felt bad for Greymalkin’s lady, Rosalyn, who was waiting for him back at Castle Evendown. I wish there was something I could do, Ash lamented. But there wasn’t. No one knew where Hieropraxis had gone or how to reach him. Even if she could find him, though, it wasn’t likely he’d willingly hand over an antidote if he had one. Poor Greymalkin. The possibility of a future transformation seemed utterly bleak at best. She threw another jitterpop.

Ash was staying with Will in his home in the deep woods along with the court jester, Terces Solario. Will had been a mentor to her, but something seemed off about him lately. This activity helped Ash to think. She’d escaped the house, trying to find answers. What could possibly have worked Will into such a fervor? He never used to stay up late into the night, meeting with Terces and whispering back and forth until the early hours of the morning. But now these peculiar behaviors had become commonplace.

“I like these,” said Ash. “It’s like I’m taking the magic within them and setting it free.” She felt restless as she plucked another jitterprop from the jar.

“I thought you’d enjoy them.”

I wish I could slow down and just enjoy the night. She couldn’t escape the feeling that all of this was wrong. She was twenty-six years old. It seemed that by her next birthday she still wouldn’t have things figured out. She thought about all the years that had passed by and how her stepfather had died at the age of fifty-one. How would she feel if she had only twenty more years to live, to talk to Greymalkin and Will, to search for answers, to drink the hot, frothy, berry drink known as “rakeih,” or to toss jitterpops into the air? Twenty more years of such silly nonsense would be fun, undoubtedly, but would it mean anything? Would it pay homage to the deepest desires of her soul? Most importantly, would it matter? She’d operated under the assumption that there had to be more to life than what the media back home had force-fed her—the old, tired narrative of college, marriage, work, live, die. Ash had traveled to Fallenwood from that Other Realm across the portals—the one that everyone there called the ‘real world’. Good riddance. But what if I’m wrong? The path I’ve traveled thus far hasn’t led me anywhere but here. She looked around: before Greymalkin had come to find her, she’d been alone, having crossed the portal into Fallenwood for a second time. She threw the jitterpop into the air—jitter, jitter, jitter…POP! Sure, solitude had its charms; it allowed her to think about what a sentimental fool she’d been, falling for Prince Edward—now King of Evendown, the place that used to be her own kingdom when she was to be a queen all those years ago. Evendown was the realm of ambition where the goal of its royalty had always been to use the power of the Crown to take control of all the other kingdoms. Edward is not my king. Ash’s heart was made for rebellion, and maybe that’s why she’d never be with him. The woodlanders were free out in the wild, unincorporated forest lands. We bow to no one. All hail the dark and mighty woods, where the forest god Cernunnos is said to wander in his antlered helm and his forest-green cloak. So, maybe there was one being they would bow to, and it was him. Or, perhaps, the black unicorn Shadowmere—a symbol of resistance and independence respected throughout the land. They alone.

Ash sat up, grasping the jar of jitterpops to herself as she watched Greymalkin. These things certainly aren’t giving me any answers. She felt lost, afraid, and unequal to the many tasks at hand, the countless puzzles that needed solving. But she tried to put all of that out of her mind for the moment. These ruminations will do me no good. She spun the jar lid off again, set it aside, and grasped a jitterpop, trying to clear the unwanted thoughts from her mind.

She smiled. “These’re fun.”

Greymalkin looked off toward the house where candlelight flickered from behind the windows. “It’s time for you to head back, though. Dinner’s going to be ready soon.”

“All right. Just one more.” She couldn’t resist.

She stood up, examining the rough surface of the jitterpop. It looked like a miniature moon with its ragged craters. It was a jagged, dark gray sphere, dusted here and there with flecks of gold. She tossed it underhanded into the air and saw it turn a bright red; the firework that flew from this one was a deep crimson butterfly—the rest had been more amber in color. Ash looked around hesitantly. Was it some terrible omen?

“What just happened?” She gazed off toward the direction of the house and saw a tiny light flickering in the window moving from side to side. I wonder if they saw that. Then she looked over at Greymalkin.

The cat shrugged. “That one was probably just defective.”

Ash wasn’t so sure, and her breath caught in her throat. I feel like this is some dreadful portent. Still, she dusted off her cloak, throwing it over her arm. I’ll have to find a spot for it to dry when we get back to the house. She fixed her chestnut hair up into a ponytail and followed Greymalkin over a carpet of snow, brushing snowflakes away from her pale face as she continued on. Things had been tense lately at the house in the deep woods and, though neither Will nor Terces had said anything directly, Ash recognized the strange signs: the knowing glances they gave each other, Will’s frantic writing sessions, and Terces’s new interest in the fighting arts. Terces had been a jester his whole life, so there was no reason on earth why he’d need to fight anyone. What in the world was going on? Ash knew that they were up to something. Why wouldn’t they tell her what it was? If they were planning something, she wanted to help. The sense of not knowing was killing her. Still, she wasn’t going to bring it up at dinner. Surely Will and Terces would tell her eventually…right?

She kept on walking, and the light from the window grew brighter with every step she took. That light emanated from a candle, only now it merely stood still.

Her thoughts bothered her like a pesky fly that just wouldn’t go away. She followed Greymalkin up the stone walkway to the house and grasped the cold, bronze doorknob. There was something else that stung her conscience, too, though.

Seriously, I’m a summoner? It all seemed so surreal. Ash had realized her power of summoning in the midst of the quest she’d just undertaken, wherein she, Terces, and Greymalkin had saved Will from the power of the poisoned books in the Tower of Academia. But she’d actually gained the power long ago on her very first visit to Fallenwood when she touched the giant crystal in the cave of the Wolf King. She still feared this strange power as she had no way to control it. I dare not use magic.

She entered the house and gazed over at the dining room table in awe of a beautiful steak lying upon a white, ceramic plate, all dressed up like she was at a restaurant. She took a seat and seized the knife and fork. Ash gazed at the knife she held in her hand. It was the one she’d caused to materialize upon discovering her hidden magical power so many months ago. It felt like it had just appeared, but she hadn’t created it out of nothing: She’d called it to herself. She’d summoned it.

“So, the crystal did give you some power,” Terces said cheerfully as he took a seat. He was always trying to get her to open up about things, but she stayed quiet as much as possible. I don’t even know how to control the power yet, though. It frightened her. I could make a mistake with it.

She nodded. “I suppose, but it burns me whenever I use it. It’s horrible.”

The burn on her arm began to throb, stinging afresh with pain, and she set down the knife on the table’s surface, freeing her hand so she could clutch the wound’s poultice. Most of it had healed, but there was still a bit of tenderness. Maybe it wasn’t the ring that burned me, she thought, recalling the last hoop of flame she’d jumped through as she’d leapt through a portal in the god-forsaken place called the Tower of Academia. Not too long ago, they’d gone on that rescue mission to save Will from his imprisonment. Maybe it’s something else. Could it be my Curse? Here in the Fallenwood realm, every magic user became afflicted with a particular, lifelong curse that grew stronger with each use. Will couldn’t touch metal. Terces could virtually be controlled with the right vocal commands. Ash’s price was that it burned her just like fire. That was its terrible toll. The sensation flared through her arm once more, jolting her senses. What a horrible price to pay.

“I’ll get you some more cooling salve,” said Will. Ash tried to distract herself from the ache by gazing out the window. Autumn had come and gone all too soon, taking with it the innocent beauty of bygone days. Now, the forest lay cloaked in winter.

She closed her eyes, gulping in a deep, refreshing breath as she recalled what had happened with this particular knife the second time she’d accidentally summoned it. Ash had somehow summoned up Will’s missing steak knife from where it lay at the bottom of the Reflecting Pond out in front of the Ivory Tower, which was many miles away. She remembered holding it as it had dripped water onto her plate. Will’s mouth had dropped open and, for a moment, he’d gaped silently like a fish out of the sea. That seemed like ages ago.

“How is that possible?” Terces asked once he began to realize what had happened. “Ash is a Visitor. She couldn’t have been born with magic or woken a latent power from within.” He looked expectantly over at Will who was standing in the kitchen. “You don’t just ‘get’ magic, right?”

The old conversation had started up again—the one surrounding the “why” of it all.

Then Terces had turned his attention toward her, asking, “Ash, when you pressed the Heart Aflame shard back into place, did you touch the main crystal at all?”

She had to think back. It happened so long ago. Her memory was fuzzy these days.


"Betrayer" by Leslie D. Soule


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