Once upon a time there was a woman, living alone in the forest. The woman was kind and would often offer refreshment to the travellers, both merchants and sellswords who passed her way. Over time, talk of this woman spread and she became renowned for her hospitality and for the quality of her rolls. People came to call this woman who would tend to the wounded, feed and care for the sick and provide beds for those in need as Mother of the Travellers.
Upon landing Aurelia thought she might throw up. The fall seemed to have lasted far longer than was possible and the trees surrounding her seemed to be spinning, dancing around her in ever faster circles. She blinked and then blinked again, taking a deep, steadying breath before sitting up. Reyes was sat nearby, looking around with interest and still clutching the cloud given to him by Lady Ink. Aurelia hesitated for a moment before patting her pocket to ensure the carton of cigarettes was still there. She didn't have a clue what she was supposed to do with it, but she felt it would probably be a good idea to keep it nearby.
"Where do you think we are?" she asked at last. With a slight grunt she pushed herself to her feet and retrieved her violin, unclipping the case to cast a critical eye over the instrument. Satisfied that it was undamaged after the fall she secured the clips and slipped the case onto her shoulder.
"I guess we're in the book," Reyes said cautiously.
"This is the book." Aurelia span around at the sound of the unfamiliar voice only to be assaulted by the almost overpowering smell of fresh flowers. The woman before her had long red hair and wore a cloak of some heavy grey material. She wore the oddest dress, made entirely of feathers and leaves it was altogether too fussy for Aurelia. "I've been here some time, but I can't find anywhere to go."
"Did they send you?" Reyes asked.
"Don't trust her," Aurelia hissed. "She could be part of the book."
"Why would she be? Ink or Mudd could have sent her."
"No one sent me. I found the book." She held up a hand inside of which she held a tattered piece of paper, torn down one side. "I tore this out as I fell."
"That could just be any old page," Aurelia scoffed.
"You aren't from my world," she said thoughtfully. "If you were then you would know me by instinct."
"Right. And who are you on your world?"
"I am Tatiana, Queen of Life." As she spoke she drew her shoulders a higher so that she stood a little taller. Her eyes shone with something akin to fervour.
"Right, pull the other one while you're at it please."
"I would prove it, but this world is different and it could be dangerous. The trees, the flowers... none of this is even real."
"I'm real." Reyes smiled at Tatiana.
"Yes, but you aren't human." His smile faltered ever so slightly. "I can't quite tell what you are." She took a step forward and flowers bloomed under her bare feet, creating a carpet on which she could walk. Aurelia glanced at the path behind her to see a wake of dead and rotting plants. "You seem distant, as though your head belongs elsewhere."
"As interesting as all this is," Aurelia interrupted, "We do kind of need to start looking for a way to, I don't know, help. Remember, the reason we're here in the first place." She glared at Reyes, willing him to remember and quite messing around.
"Come with us." He held out a hand to Tatiana, who seemed taken aback. "We're here to help Ink and Mudd repair the book."
"I'm not here for that. I'm here to help Rose - what happens to the book is of little consequence to me."
"Damn well should be. Our world's going to disappear unless we do something about the book and I'd hazard a guess that yours'll do the same thing, Rose included whoever the hell she is."
"Don't speak of my daughter that way." Tatiana was suddenly very close to Aurelia, her green eyes speaking of dire consequences should she continue. Aurelia met her gaze and did not blink. Tatiana turned, the cloak she wore lifting with the movement and Aurelia caught a glimpse of something silver that fluttered like a moth, or maybe a butterfly, beneath the folds of material.
"If your daughter's back in your world then you need to help fix the book," Aurelia said stiffly.
"So come with us," Reyes repeated his offer, still smiling at Tatiana.
"I... very well."
"You said you'd been here a while. How much of this world have you seen?" She figured if this stranger would be travelling with them that she should at least be useful.
"I've seen all this realm has to offer. It is tiny, compared to my world."
"Right, yes your world is infinitely superior." She just about resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "How about you tell us something that's actually useful?"
"Or perhaps you should learn to respect your elders and betters."
"I'll respect you when you earn it." Aurelia shrugged her violin higher onto her shoulder.
"Are there any houses nearby?" Reyes asked Tatiana, "Any buildings at all?"
"Just the one a cottage not too far from here. The forest is perhaps twelve square miles and around that there is nothing but desert."
"That makes no sense whatsoever," Aurelia said flatly.
"We're in the book of stories. Who said anything has to make sense?" Reyes grinned at her.
"What do you know of the book?" Tatiana asked.
"Only what we were told," Reyes said eagerly, pleased to see that she seemed to be relaxing. "Lady Ink and Mudd came to see us, to tell us about the book. Apparently it's falling apart. Unravelling was the word they used I think. Everything is connected to it in some way so it's definitely not a good thing."
"Well then I shall help you repair this book, although I'm not sure I can be of much help while we're here. My magic will be severely limited by the book."
"So much for the 'Queen of Life.'" Aurelia sketched quotation marks around the words and sighed. "What can you do?"
"If you can provide me with the right ingredients I can do almost anything, but these trees and the flowers aren't real." She knelt down and plucked a single daisy from the grass. Carefully Tatiana laid the flower across her palm and held it up for Aurelia to examine. She looked at it very closely and saw, to her surprise, words running across the surface of the petals. They moved too fast to read and seemed to change at an unbelievable rate. "I can't use these in my magic. Maybe they would work or maybe they wouldn't, but if they did then the effect could be volatile, even dangerous. It would have to truly be a last resort."
"What ingredients could you use?" Reyes asked, fiddling with the piece of cloud he still held.
"Blood, hair and the like. Mine or yours, as we come from outside this place."
Aurelia shivered and glanced up at the sky. It was very suddenly dark, the sky overcast with clouds that had not been there moments before. "We should go and see what that cottage is about," she said. "It looks like it's gonna rain."
Mother would care for anyone, even those too proud to admit they needed her help. If they stumbled, wounded, past her cottage then she would beg for them to come inside for it hurt her if they moved on. She felt warm whenever she helped, even if that help was no more than providing a fire to scare the winter chill or a bowl of hot soup to those who needed it.
But over time, the travellers through the forest began to dwindle. There were fewer people to warm themselves at Mother's fire, or to thank her for her hospitality. She grew lonely, and in her loneliness she grew desperate.
Mother's desperation leant her strength and she bade those who passed her way to stay with her, to live in her cottage deep in the green forest where no harm would befall them. They would surely, she would say, fall prey to the wolves or the rats should they venture past the doors, whereas inside there was warmth and company. Many tried to leave, but none succeeded.
Vespera cursed loudly, raking a hand through her hair in order to pull it out of the wings strapped to her back. She winced a little as a few strands parted company with her scalp but she needed as much movement as she could get and as much height as she could muster and for that she needed her wings.
Closing her eyes, Vespera took as deep a breath as she could manage in the harness of her wings, focusing on the light from the stars above and on the effort required to channel it into a more tangible form. This energy was her power, something she could use in order to force her wings to move and lift her from the ground. Only there was something different. The light felt sluggish and unresponsive to her touch. It did not, as it would have done on her own world, rush towards her call like an eager friend or a dog that missed its master. Instead it recoiled as though it did not trust the intrusion she was making. She frowned, reaching out with invisible fingers and clawing at the light, trying to force it to obey her command. She relaxed slightly as the wings at her back creaked, but nothing more happened. There was not, as there should be, any great gust of energy to send her into the sky, no moment of exhilaration that she, the Wingless Queen, could still fly. There was only disappointment and a feeling of inadequacy as her feet remained planted firmly upon the ground. She opened her eyes and they were dark with rage.
Storming forward she kicked a nearby tree, growling with frustration and something more. Centuries she had worked on these designs, years of captivity and of planning leading up to a coup that she had lead successfully only to falter because of her own stupidity. Everything she had ever done had lead up to that day when her feet had once more touched the soil of Earth, only to find it tainted. If she could have done so Vespera would have ripped the book in two at that moment in time, consequences be damned.
"Are you lost?" Vespera span around at the sound of the voice to see a young human woman looking at her with a kind smile.
"This is the book?" she asked.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," came the reply. "It sounds to me as though you've had a knock to the head. Why don't you come back to my cottage and I can have a look?"
"Have you seen anyone else in this forest?"
"Oh people pass through all the time. I have some guests at the cottage now, if you are looking for anyone in particular."
"A fa- woman, with red hair and only a little bit shorter than I am."
"I haven't seen her yet, but she'll come to the cottage eventually. It's the only house for miles you know. Please, do come." She looked up at Vespera with beseeching eyes, bright blue and kind, but the Queen barely registered. The woman reminded her hauntingly of the sickly Rose, small and skinny with bright red hair, only in far better health.
"I don't have time to stop for any reason."
"But surely you're famished! You must have been walking for hours to get here, days even. Please, I insist." She took Vespera by the arm and began to pull her away. Vespera snarled with rage and attempted to yank her arm back only to find it gripped as in a vice. "I insist that you come back with me." The kind tone had left the voice now and her eyes were dark. Vespera gasped at the pressure on her arm, sure that any second now the bone might even break an embarrassment she was not sure how she would react to. With no other choice left to her Vespera allowed herself to be dragged through the forest.
At the edge of the clearing in which she had stood, things suddenly seemed to change. The colours seemed to grow brighter even as the details became less clear. The world around her seemed to be shifting from reality to resemble an illustration in a book, but one that had been coloured by a child. The leaves on the trees were bleeding into one another and the lines were smudged. Even as she looked, however, they seemed to shift back together. Ahead of her was a small cottage that she was sure had not been there before. There was a symbol carved upon the door of a circle, within a larger, incomplete circle. Just like the cover of the book this image seemed almost familiar to Vespera.
"What do you need?" the woman asked, pushing open the door and leading her inside.
"I don't need anything."
"But surely you must eat? Surely you must require a drink at the very least?"
"What I require is for you to leave me alone!" Vespera snapped, trying to push back out of the house. Yet again the woman displayed unnatural strength, pushing her down into a chair and turning her to face a small table set for two people to eat at.
"Now, tell me what you would like to eat."
"I do not eat," Vespera replied sullenly. "The light is enough to sustain me. Or at least it would be, were the light in this place real."
"But the light is real. As real as I am anyway."
"Well what does that say about you then?" Vespera asked, looking at her with piercing eyes. "If you are so real, then what is your name?"
"People just call me Mother." She sat down opposite Vespera and leant to the window, pushing it open so that a stream of daylight slanted across the table, breaking through the clouds above. Vespera leant forwards and rested her hands in the light, but the usual rush of familiarity was not there. She felt a deep pang of loss for that which she could not find.
"You said there were others here," she said, looking up at Mother. "Where are they?"
"There are a handful of people in the back room. You can come and talk to them if you want."
"I would very much want that." Mother led her through the cottage, which was larger than she would have guessed from the outside, into a large room full of comfy chairs. The fire was roaring even now in the middle of the day, and many people were dotted around the room either standing or sitting. At the sight of Mother every single one of them looked nervous.
"I'll leave you to get to know everyone. I hope your friend's here." Mother smiled and left. Vespera heard the distinct sound of the door locking behind her. Glancing around the room she spotted a mane of red curly hair. Her heart skipped a beat but when the woman turned her face was too bland to be Tatiana, her eyes too dull.
"Welcome to Mother's house," she said, smiling a little sadly. Vespera nodded and began to walk around the room. Every person she passed said exactly the same thing. Welcome to Mother's house. Every time it was accompanied by the same smile, the same shining regret in the eyes. Vespera shivered, her hands reaching for the pendant about her neck for a sense of familiarity. The cold glass did nothing of the sort, its usual warmth absent.
"Welcome to Mother's house."
"I think I heard the first time," she snapped finally at an old man sitting by the fire. "Don't you have anything else to say?"
"I wouldn't bother trying to get out of here. Mother always brings you back."
"What on Earth are you on about?"
"She takes good care of us though, gives us regular meals and a bed to sleep in. It could be worse."
"She doesn't let you leave?"
"It's a nice prison, but it's a prison nonetheless."
"Have you ever tried to get out?"
"I wouldn't bother trying to get out of here. Mother always brings you back."
"You said that already." Vespera took a step back, looking the man up and down as he spoke again.
"She takes good care of us though; gives us regular meals and a bed to sleep in. It could be worse." Everything about him was the same as the previous time he has said the words. His voice had not changed in the slightest, his posture had the same slumped air of lost hope and tears were pooling in the corner of his eyes.
Vespera ground her heel into the wooden floor, trying to decide what would be the best thing to do next. She had only ever been held captive once and it was not something she ever wished to repeat. There were no windows in the room, only the fire, something which greatly agitated Vespera. She would feel more comfortable if she could see the sky and at that thought a smile curved the edge of her lips. There was one thing she could do even if she couldn't harness the light within the book. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, focusing on the heat within her body and imagining it pooling together into a single spot right at the tip of her index finger. The spot grew warmer and a small flame burst into light. She might not be able to draw energy from a self created flame, but she could certainly burn the building down with it.
But the fairy queen was different. She came from a world outside of that to which Mother belonged, bringing a new fire with her. This new fire was strong, burning within her heart and giving her the strength to lead the others to escape.
And escape they did, but they escaped into a wild forest, full of vicious creatures that would quite happily feast upon them given the opportunity. Mother, in one desperate final attempt to protect those she had taken under her care lead them through the forest to her hideaway, where she had a few meagre supplied stored. Hard days were ahead.
"What the hell is this?" Aurelia asked, looking around at the hand drawn plants and trees that surrounded them.
"A bridge between parts of this world - this is the boundary between the cottage and the forest."
"I think it's kinda cool," Reyes said. He was bouncing slightly as he walked, the constant smile on his face as wide as it ever was. He led the way out of the illustration and through towards the cottage which, they discovered as they reached the boundary wall, was on fire. The stench was horrific, a mixture of burnt timber, burnt pages and something far worse. Reyes smile faltered.
"This isn't a natural fire," Tatiana said, her voice oddly clipped as she watched the red flames licking the side of the building. "This is magical."
"How can you tell?"
"Because I would recognise this fire anywhere. I last saw it thousands of years ago, when my sister's court burnt."
"So it's not a good thing then?" Reyes asked nervously, glancing at the burning building. A figure was emerging through the fire and the smoke. A woman, reasonably tall, whose silhouette was altered by the wings she wore at her back, merely a metal skeleton with fabric stretched between them as a membrane. At the sight of her Tatiana lost control. She snarled and leapt forward, casting her cloak off as she went and allowing her great silver wings to unfold to their full extent. The hot air from the fire propelled her high into the air but, she moved herself back from them enough so that with nothing more than a steady beat she could hover a short distance above Vespera.
"How did you get here?" she shouted, her voice easily audible even over the crackling flames.
"I was sent here," Vespera responded in kind, her voice louder even than Tatiana's. "We have to return to our world it is falling apart without you." Vespera kept her eyes on the fairy above her and splayed her fingers, holding her hands above her head. "I can't fight you here," she shouted. "The light is all wrong. You should know have you not seen something similar in the plants? In the people? I wish you no harm."
"And I should believe that, as Latanya once did?"
"I get the feeling there's a lot of history between these two," Aurelia said conversationally, dropping to the grass. The burning house was not so hot that it was uncomfortable, which by all rights it should have been. Instead it was just pleasantly warm and Aurelia was not against making use of this fact. She set down her violin (far enough from the flames that there was no chance of the heat damaging it) and lay back on the grass, closing her eyes. To the side Reyes was biting his lip, looking between the two fairies as though trying to decide where it was best to intervene. Aurelia cracked open an eye and sighed. "Probably best to leave them to it. By the sounds of it this has been coming a long time." After a moment Reyes seemed to decide that she was right and instead went to help the people now stumbling out of the burning building.
"How can I trust a word you say?" Tatiana whispered, finally done with shouting, blinking away tears as she moved nearer to Vespera, until their faces were merely inches apart.
"You can't." Vespera's reply was equally quiet. "But I would have you know that I have no reason to lie to you. Our world is falling apart it has been since you left and it will only be worse now I am here. The only hope is to restore the book of stories and unite the courts."
"Latanya would never-" Tatiana began, jerking back from Vespera, her face creased with disgust and disbelief.
"It was her suggestion," Vespera interrupted. "I spoke with her before I was sent through the book."
"You spoke with her?" Tatiana laughed. "She speaks with no one."
"She was working." Vespera's voice was quiet and her shoulders drooped very suddenly.
"Who?" But the horror in Tatiana's face showed that she already knew the answer.
"Rose." At the word Tatiana sank back to the ground, her wings fluttering until she silently retrieved her cloak from the forest floor and threw it around her shoulders once more, concealing them. She sat heavily on the grass beside Aurelia who looked over at Reyes and shrugged. Neither of them quite sure what would count as the appropriate reaction. Finally, Reyes moved over, wiping the soot that covered his hands onto his trousers. Kneeling down on the grass, he placed his arms around Tatiana, holding her tight. She seemed surprised at the touch, but after only a moment she relaxed slightly, her head resting on his shoulder as silent tears made tracks down her cheeks.
"We can still save her," Vespera said cautiously, moving over from the burning building. "If we unite the courts." Tatiana remained motionless for a moment, resting in the groove of Reyes shoulders. Then she looked up and gently pushed him back, her eyes fixed upon Vespera.
"I will believe you for know," she said in a cracked voice, "But never expect me to trust you." Vespera nodded she had expected no more and in fact far less than this.
"Mother's house is gone! We are free!" Aurelia glanced up at the new voice to see the inhabitants of the house cheering and hugging each other in celebration.
"I would not be so quick to celebrate." They all turned as one to see Mother emerging from the forest behind the house.
"Who's she?" Reyes asked.
"That's Mother. Now be quiet, I want to see what she does." Vespera was watching her intently.
"Do you think I kept you there for the sake of it? This forest is dangerous, more so than any of you realise!" The men and women who had emerged from the now gently smouldering cottage glanced warily at each other.
"Oh please," Vespera scoffed. "It's almost as though they're none of them capable of original thought."
"Maybe they're not," Aurelia suggested. "I mean this is a book maybe they're just playing their part."
"What are we doing then?" Reyes whispered.
"Wondering what the hell we're actually meant to be doing? We must have been mental to come in here with so little actually useful information. I mean, what did Mudd and Ink actually tell us? And damn it Reyes can you stop fiddling with that stupid cloud? Won't it go in your bag or something?"
"I like holding on to it." He shrugged. "Makes me think of home."
"But you ran away from there," Aurelia's voice betrayed the irritation she felt at the whole mess. Reyes didn't reply, but for once he wasn't smiling. "Sorry," Aurelia said after a moment. "I shouldn't have said that." Tatiana and Vespera, meanwhile, were more interested in the reactions of the various people milling about.
"They say this forest is haunted!"
"I heard there are wolves as big as bears!"
"And rats the size of cats!"
"It's odd," Vespera mused. "When they were inside they wanted nothing except to get out." Tatiana did not reply instead fixing her attention on the distant form of Mother.
"Come here I will take care of you all." As she spoke, people turned to her as though it was an instinct, their eyes shining as they sought comfort that was coming from no one else. "I have more supplies hidden in the forest. If you come with me then we can share them."
"There is something different about that one," Tatiana spoke at last. "The energy around her is odd."
"You can sense their energy?" Vespera seemed genuinely taken aback.
"Yes, but it is different. I think, perhaps, in the case of this one it is stronger. I could not say for the rest of the world." She did not look at Vespera when she spoke, but picked at the feathers of her skirt, her eyes following her fingers as though they were the most interesting things she had ever come across.
"Why are they all following her?" Aurelia asked, frowning. "There's no way she can actually protect them."
"I think they just don't know any better." Vespera shrugged. "Worse for them. We need to figure out a way to fix the book, not save their skins."
"Perhaps saving them will help save the book," Reyes suggested.
"That makes absolutely no sense," Vespera replied acidly.
"But it is surely worth a try." Vespera shot a dark glance at Tatiana who was still refusing to look at her.
"Well then let's follow them." Reyes moved to his feet and turned to help Aurelia. "I could carry your violin if you want," he offered.
"Thanks, but I'd rather keep it close." She smiled a little at his offer and his own face split once more, his usual care free manner restored.
"Come on then," he shouted, running past the remains of the house. They were now merely smoking, the magical flames having consumed them far faster than any natural fire could have done. They joined the back of the crowd now milling at the edge of the clearing and, after a brief bottleneck, they once more passed through the strange boundary of the house. When they emerged back into the forest, it was night time.
"How does that even work?" Aurelia gasped, taken aback, a frown threatening to leave permanent creases upon her face. "It was bright and sunny just seconds ago."
"The book of stories," Vespera said thoughtfully. "Perhaps the world shapes itself to the narrative of the tale, as do the people within."
"All of them?" Reyes asked. Tatiana faltered and looked uncertainly at Vespera, the first time she had done so since their confrontation. There was fear in that glance, something that frightened Vespera far more than the book of stories.
"Brilliant. Scary tales in the middle of a dark forest, just what I need right now," Aurelia grumbled, perhaps in an attempt to break the silence that had descended upon them.
"The stories that frighten are more often than not the ones worth listening to," Tatiana said quietly as they continued to move forwards.
"Of course you would know all about the stories that frighten little children, Tatiana." Vespera's eyebrows were raised, her lips curled into a slight smirk.
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
"Oh nothing I'm sure." Vespera moved ahead, the same smirk still touching the corner of her mouth. Tatiana looked as though she was about to snap something else at Vespera's back, but Aurelia spoke first.
"Will the pair of you just shut up? Are you sure you two aren't the sisters because you're sure as hell acting like it." Tatiana opened her moth and then shut it, for once left speechless.
"Come on." Reyes took Tatiana's hand and turned her away from the pied musician before someone got hurt. "We need to stay near the crowd."
"We're here!" Mother's voice seemed somehow to echo between the trees and her smiling face was easily visible even from the back of the crowd.
"I don't see anything." Aurelia was peering around, looking for the supplies Mother had promised them, as were many of those who had been inside the cottage.
"But they'll die if she doesn't have anything!" Reyes said, biting his lip.
"And us too no doubt."
"Where are these supplies of which you so readily boast?" Vespera shouted to Mother.
"Here of course." Mother smiled back at her and turned, pulling at the bark of the tree by which she was stood. To the surprise of the crowd it pulled away cleanly, revealing a hidden compartment. Inside was a single loaf of bread, a pitcher of wine and a block of cheese, barely enough to feed half of the gathered crowd for a single meal, never mind to feed them all long enough to get out of the forest and the desert that surrounded it.
The supplies were, in truth, too meagre, but one brave warrior was willing to make a stand. He would, or so he proclaimed, fight his way out of the forest along with those who had grown soft in their time at Mother's cottage. They would lead everyone to safety, never mind the dangers of the forest.
"We can't survive on this!" Someone shouted. There was a murmur as a man elbowed his way to the front of the crowd, turning to face them with a gleam in his eye. "We shouldn't just sit around here and wait to die! If we fight, there's a chance we can get out of these forests. I have a sword, and I am not the only one. Cats are not all that big, and I have killed bears before! Let the rats and wolves come, we can send them straight back to hell!"
"He's new," Vespera murmured. "He wasn't in the cottage."
"He is like the one who lead us here," confirmed Tatiana. "Mother?"
"That's what she calls herself."
"What does that even mean?" asked Aurelia. "How can he have not been in the cottage if he's here now?"
"Because the story needs him here maybe?" Reyes suggested after moments contemplation. "The story is trying to end, but because we're here, it can't."
"What do you mean?" asked Vespera.
"Well they were all trapped inside the cottage right?" Vespera nodded. "So the story couldn't move on it had ended. Now that they're free it needs another ending."
"Perhaps a more permanent one this time?" Tatiana closed her eyes. "They're coming."
"Who are?" Aurelia drew her violin to her, hugging it as though it could protect her.
"The wolves truly they are huge and the rats."
"Rats?" Reyes grinned and turned to Aurelia. "You can deal with rats right?"
"Well, I can but..." she hesitated, looking around at the crowd now cheering for the warrior. "There are a lot of people here."
"All the more reason! You're a pied musician Aurelia. This is what you do best."
"What does he mean?"
"Fine. I'll do it. Just watch," she said to Tatiana and Vespera, laying her violin case down on the ground and unclipping the fastenings. "For the rats too I guess."
The pied musician was a gift from the Gods to the poor travellers. There were rats beyond counting, thousands and thousands of the creatures pulling themselves seemingly out of the air itself and converging upon them with bright red eyes and sharp little teeth.
The musician struck up a note on her violin and they turned as one to watch her, listening to the gently music she played. Along with the gift from the Rainbow Weaver her own abilities were amplified and truly she was a master at her art, for the rats heard commands in the music. They fought with their meagre strength but in large numbers, tearing at the large grey wolves that ran circles about the clearing.
However, though there were thousands of rats there were many hundreds of wolves, jaws snapping and claws slashing at the little grey bodies clamped to their own.
"Aurelia," Reyes said suddenly as she raised her bow. "Take this." He held out his cloud to her.
"Take it. Lady Ink said it was a cloud to me because that's what I saw it as. Maybe you'll see something else in it." Aurelia lowered her violin and reached out with the hand in which she held her bow, grasping the cloud between thumb and forefinger. The moment Reyes' finger lost contact with it the cloud seemed to contract until it was no more than the metal strip Lady Ink had first given Mudd.
"It could be bow," she said softly. "A violin bow." And, just like that, it was. The wood was dark and smooth, the hairs glistening silver. The end was a little wider than it was on her own bow and was in the shape of the tapered spiral that had been on the construct. There was no knob with which to tighten the strings but she knew they would be perfect anyway. Laying her own down carefully in the case she once more propped her violin under her chin, resting the bow on the strings.
They could hear the rats now, squeaking and scratching as they moved ever nearer. Men drew their swords, women huddled back and the little odd group at the edge of the clearing kept their attention fixed on Aurelia. The first note sounded crisp and pure as dew upon flowers on a spring morning. The rats stopped squeaking and the talking in the crowd before them stopped as they all turned to stare, as though they had only just noticed the four standing apart at the back. Aurelia closed her eyes as she played, for rats were now moving almost silently into the clearing. They did not, as they might usually, come close to her, but instead they stood motionless and watched her playing.
"It's the construct. It has to be they're not usually so well behaved."
"Try putting instructions into the music," Tatiana suggested. "Have them attack the wolves." The music changed. Instead of long, pure notes the music was sharper with a lilting feel to it almost as though it were a dance piece. The rats certainly danced, spinning in circles and running under and over the feet of those standing there until together they ran from the clearing.
The wolves began to howl, tearing and snapping at the rats. Aurelia swayed a little on the spot as her music increased in both volume and tempo, driving the rats into a frenzy as they took on creatures far bigger than they. A number of them peeled away from the mass and entered the clearing, forming a ring around the four of them, standing upon each other's shoulders in a way that was decidedly unnatural.
"Can they beat them?" Vespera wondered aloud. The answer became clear soon enough when the first wolf skidded into view. The crowd shouted a war cry, unintelligible through the music that was now unnaturally loud. They rushed at the creature, the steel of their swords blazing in the moonlight, thirsty for blood. The first wolf, surrounded as it was, stood little hope, but the ones that came after (some still with one or two rats clinging feebly to their coats) came together.
It was the Rainbow Weaver, in the end, who realised the truth. There was only one way out of this for any of them, and this was by the power of the fairy queens. Only the Queen of Light found herself unable to use the light of the book and the Queen of Life was afraid what sort of power could her own brand of magic produce using the creatures of the book?
Aurelia lowered her violin and all seemed quiet despite the growling of the fierce creatures. They were huge and not many could fit in the clearing at the same time, but red eyes shone from between the trees, telling of many more more even than the forest should have been able to hold, more than Tatiana had encountered in her months alone in the woods and certainly more than the ragtag group before them could face and survive. There were still few enough wolves that those with weapons could fight them off, but those who found themselves unarmed were quickly overcome, their screams dying as their throats were torn out. The rats that still formed the shield around them showed no sign of moving, but none of them really put much faith in it as a defence.
"We're doomed." Aurelia's summary, although brief, seemed apt to describe the situation. "So much for fairy queens I've been of more use than either of you two."
"Watch your mouth!" Tatiana flared up, her eyes flashing with anger once again.
"Wait!" Reyes shouted above her, excitement shining in his eyes. "Maybe this calls for desperate measures?" He had turned to Tatiana. "You said you could use your powers, well now seems like the time to do it, right?"
"Maybe," Tatiana said cautiously. "But I would be wary the book is trying to end this story, and by could easily turn my kind of magic against me."
"Well then use us." He gestured at himself, Aurelia and Vespera.
"Hey leave me out of this!" protested Aurelia
"I doubt my power is stronger than that of the book." The wolves growled, their hackles raised, jostling each other for position. It was, in fact, only the sheer number of the creatures that meant they weren't all dead for they were fighting amongst themselves, trying to be the first to reach the humans. Those at the front fought bravely, swords now red with blood, but still it was only a matter of time.
The Queen of Life had touched upon the truth. How could her might, although strong in her own world, hope to match the might of the Book of Stories?
What they needed, it occurred to the Rainbow Weaver, was a way to combine the two.
"The page! The page you tore from the book! Use that!" Reyes shouted about the sound of steel tearing through flesh.
"That's the books power," Aurelia shouted back. "What good will that do us?"
"I can combine it with my own power," Tatiana realised, her eyes widening. "This is a page of the book, a page that writes the stories if I write the story on this page with my power then
anything could happen."
"So do something, quickly!" Aurelia shouted. The bow she still held shimmered and became a dagger with a rounded hilt, sharp as Aurelia's own tongue. Tatiana reached into the folds of her cloak and withdrew the page which although crumpled still seemed to exude a certain power.
"Give me the blade, quickly." For once Aurelia did not reply and handed over the weapon. Tatiana handed Reyes the page and in one swift motion sliced the blade down the palm of her hand. "Reyes, Aurelia you do the same." Reyes took it readily enough and Aurelia hesitated only a moment before she too added her own blood to the dagger.
"And me?" Vespera asked.
"I need something more from you for this to work," Tatiana shook her head. This time she reached into a small pouch on the side of her belt. "There are certain ingredients I carry with me at all times those that are the strongest, those that could be deadly in the wrong hands." She drew out a tiny vial, inside of which was a sliver of a strange, golden membrane.
"One of the last fragments of your wings, yes." Tatiana uncorked the vial, tipping the fragment into her bloody palm before taking the blade from Aurelia. It shifted once more, now becoming a quill with a fine nib, the tip of which glistened with blood. "Reyes, hold out the page." He did as she bade. Tatiana did not write, as they had expected, but instead she drew. With the blood she traced a circle, large enough to fill the whole page. The blood dribbled a little as she drew but she took little notice. Only when the circle was connected did she even seem to breathe, her fingers trembling as she set the tiny piece of wing at the dead centre of the circle. There was a flash of golden light, intensely bright and blinding. Aurelia, Reyes and Tatiana all raised an arm to shield their eyes, but Vespera gasped when it hit her, familiar and warm. The light seemed to dance across her skin, embracing her as a lost lover. It was only there for a brief second, but in that time Vespera felt its many colours caress her face, rushing to obey her.
With far less effort than it had ever cost her before Vespera sent the energy to her wings, rising high above the fighters, the treetops and
her friends. She almost hesitated a moment at that thought. Although the light was gone, its intensity still pounded through her veins. She knew the power wouldn't last long, so she had to make the most of it.
Down below, all the others could see was the outline of Vespera the Queen of Light. As Tatiana watched the golden light flared outwards towards the wolves, striking them down. They fell as soon as it made contact with them, the burning energy killing them with an efficiency that was almost unbelievable. Tatiana looked at Vespera and thought for a moment that she could see her not with wings of metal and cloth, but with wings of glittering gold.
Then the moment was over. Vespera's wings beat once, twice, three times and her feet made contact with the ground. Gasping she fumbled with the buckles and laid her wings upon the ground. The men and women nearby looked at her with open mouths.
"What did you do?" Reyes asked, awed, looking at them both.
"I drew the sun."
"Why?" Vespera asked, a frown in her eyes as she massaged the sides of her chest where the straps dug in. "Why not something you could use yourself?"
"Because we needed to act fast and your magic has always been less patient than my own."
"I thought you weren't going to trust me. I could have done anything with that power and you knew that."
"I did it so that we might get out of here and restore the courts, that's all. Don't be getting ideas."
"So is the story fixed now?" Aurelia asked before they could go on. "Or will the book keep trying to end it?"
"I think the book will continue to end all stories until it is fixed," Vespera said thoughtfully. "There are no predators left alive in the forest, but if we want them to survive then they'll need something more."
"They need protection."
"No. They need a story." Tatiana said decisively. She was still holding the quill which shifted once more, becoming a dagger again. The blood still dripped from the blade and she turned to Vespera. "Now I need your blood." Vespera did not hesitate to hold out her hand and did not flinch as Tatiana ran the blade across her palm.
"Reyes," Vespera said slowly, turning away as Tatiana plucked a feather from her dress. "There was something in the light something colourful that reminded me of you. What are you exactly?"
"Oh. I'm a Rainbow Weaver. I, um, vomit a rainbow."
"Yeah, definitely that," he said, laughing.
"It's like you," Vespera said firmly. "Bright."
"It's done." Tatiana had returned from the crowd, slightly the worse for wear. Her hair was a mess and some of the feathers around the edge of her dress were bent. "Thank goodness Lionel gave me this cloak," she muttered. "They'd have torn my damn wings off if they could." She glanced at Vespera and then quickly looked away. Vespera thought that maybe she regretted her choice of words but Tatiana was difficult to read at the best of times. Vespera moved over and began to shrug her wings back on, not looking at the three behind her. Two friends and... and what? Tatiana had been her sworn enemy once, but that had been thousands of years ago. She'd spent so much time in the stars planning her revenge only to find Tatiana a different person. She thought bitterly on those years. She had not been herself either. Here in the book of stories, looking back, the things she had done to her court disgusted her. She had disfigured them only because she could not bear them to have what she could not.
She regretted that now.
"So they're protected from what?" Reyes asked.
"I didn't protect them Vespera has taken care of that. I merely used the remnants of the blood magic to create a path."
"Where does the path go?" Aurelia seemed genuinely interested.
"Anywhere. There are four blood types strong ones at that used to create it. They'll go wherever they feel the path should take them and from there..." she shrugged. "Who knows?"
"What do we do with this?" Reyes was looking down at the page he still held, now covered in nothing but dry blood. The scrap of Vespera's wing was gone.
"It's just a page of the story now I think." Aurelia took it. "This doesn't look much like the sun to me."
"It's close enough," Tatiana snapped.
"Will you two just be quiet? Or maybe the three of you?" Reyes was grinning. "It's like you're sisters or something." Aurelia hit him, but only lightly.
"Aurelia. Perhaps we did not meet in the best of terms, but I would hope that we part on better."
"Friends, maybe? Or at least not enemies, right?" Aurelia nodded. "I think I'd like that."
"Then please take this. I feel this book will not wish for us to remain together after what we have accomplished today." She was holding the vial that had previously contained the scrap of Vespera's wing. Now it contained only blood. "This is my blood and mine alone," Tatiana explained. "Should you ever find yourself in danger that you cannot overcome alone, then you will know what to do. I will come, if you need me."
"Thank you," Aurelia said after a moment, taking the vial carefully and placing it in her violin case for safekeeping.
"And I believe this is yours." Tatiana held the dagger out to Reyes who took it allowing it to once more shift into nothing but a wisp of cloud.
"What happens now?"
"We take the path." Tatiana indicated the dark route out of the clearing. "I hope we meet again, Reyes of the Rainbow Weavers, and Aurelia of the Pied Musicians."
"I hope as much," Vespera agreed. "I am honoured to call you friend." The word stuck oddly in her throat.
"Well goodbye then," Aurelia held out a hand but withdrew it quickly. Somehow the gesture felt inadequate. When had she become so damned fond of them? She'd almost hated Tatiana barely half a day ago.
"So long," Tatiana supplied, turning and moving onto the path without looking back. Vespera followed her and soon they were both swallowed by the dark.
"Well then," Reyes grinned at Aurelia, "Let's see what this book can throw at us next."
And so those who had survived walked along the path created by the Queen of Life. It led them out of the forest to resume their lives or to new adventures. Their stories went on; many of them becoming great tales sung about by the bards and jested by the fools who graced the courts of Lords and of Kings.
However, one of this number found herself walking forever. Mother followed this path, desperate for it to take her home only there was no home left for her to go to. She walked through the forest for the rest of eternity, finding no one whom she could take care of. They say she can still be heard to this day, sobbing as she wanders alone.