By John C. Tremblay
Magic . . . it can imprison and liberate, smite and soothe, terrorize and entertain. And in some cases— like the one that has me wondering how I managed to become the Fates’ whipping boy— it can do all that and more at the same time.
“And the hunt is on!” said the haunting voice of Ratrilpot’s Queen as a spell sent it echoing across the island and into the ears of a thousand hidden spectators.
Peachy. That meant one of the other “contestants” must have spotted me.
I sprinted through the underbrush, checking my clue card to find the break in the rocks that led to the valley. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one getting a clue about where to head next.
A dragon-sized X had been painted onto the cliff face above the tunnel. Judging by the sour metallic smell and the vultures circling overhead, I had a pretty good idea of what was used for paint.
“At least there’s no chance of me being bored,” I said, trying to find the proverbial silver lining.
Then doing my best not to get dripped on, I bolted through the crack.
Have you ever been so utterly surprised by a place that you wonder if you were stung by a swarm of poppy flies without realizing it? I mean, I’ve seen my share of sights, being heir to the throne of Stillwell; but I’ve never seen a valley look so impossibly perfect that it made the few hairs on my chest stand up in shock, wilt, and drift slowly to the ground like dandelion fluff.
“Kendall stands tentatively… cautiously… taking in the splendors of the Valley of the Sunken Idol. Is he worthy of the treasure that lies within, or will he meet a fate worse than death? We can only wait and see.”
I didn’t bother looking for Her Majesty as I knew she wouldn’t make an appearance until it had the most impact. Instead, I scanned the valley for signs of life— beyond the camouflaged souls on the bamboo scaffolding that lined the cliffs.
The waterfall would have been an obvious choice. But since we were on an island in the middle of Lake Birdsong, and there was no natural way you could have water flowing uphill on one side of the cliffs and down the other into the basin in front of me, I guessed that whatever magic was being used to create such an idyllic scene would be strained by the burden of hiding a treacherous monster too.
That left two possible hiding places for a doom-bringer. Either the foliage— which looked ethereal from afar, but up close was dripping with green paint; or the rock formations lining the bottom of the pool— which looked as though they’d stolen their colors from a rainbow going through a rebellious phase.
I “picked” a ruby red apple from a flowering dogwood nearby and tossed it into the water to see if there was any volatile reaction. A scarlet tint spread out from where the fruit landed; but nothing else happened.
“Guess that settles that,” I muttered.
I abandoned most of my clothing on the shore and raced towards the water, almost colliding with a perky red-headed merchant who had darted out from behind a palm tree.
“Care for a candy, sir? They’re fresh from Maria T’s Courtyard Inn and Sweets,” she said with a beaming smile, before turning towards the hidden crowds. “Maria T’s… Come for the candy; stay for sweet dreams.”
Rustling and shouts echoed from the passage behind me.
“No, thanks. I don’t have time.”
I tried to move around her, but she stepped back into my path and pushed a tray of glistening pink blobs in front of me. “There’s always time for a snack. How about some bubbly gum? You never know when you might need a pick me up.”
“Look, I appreciate what you’re trying to do—”
But when I looked into those big brown eyes, eyes that I recognized and trusted despite the face being unfamiliar, I knew I had no choice but to say yes.
“Thanks,” I said softly, and for a brief moment I felt all my worldly troubles fade, as though I had traveled to the Planes of Peace rather than this blasphemous imitation. This was why I was fighting to stay alive: for us and our future together.
“Safe journey,” the girl said with a wink as she cleared the way.
I shoved the candy into the pouch at my waist; and then taking a deep breath, I dove into the frigid waters of the lake.
By Annūté’s mercy!
I forced myself not to exhale from the shock and concentrated solely on the golden treasure that beckoned to me from the impossibly clear depths below.
“Well they don’t call him a doll for nothing. Our smooth-bodied suitor is every bit the prince charming, in AND out of his clothes. But will his good looks be enough to pick up the first Survival Idol? Or will he become the next sunken treasure when the lake reveals what’s below the surface?”
What? As if hearing the Queen’s disembodied voice underwater wasn’t weird enough, she kept me in suspense on top of that? This was not proving to be one of my better days— though technically any day involving Ratrilpot’s demon dictator was usually one you wanted to forget.
I kicked my legs faster, letting out a few tiny bubbles as I got closer to the bottom, where a golden figurine shone brightly from its pumice pedestal.
Almost there… almost there… Gotcha.
Or rather, it got me. A water snake swam out from behind the rock and wrapped itself around my legs, while a pike the size of a rowboat raced towards me.
“It seems Kendall is in over his head, folks. The Survival Idol may cool off the other challengers, but it won’t quench the bloodlust of those island guardians. Will Stillwell’s Sovereign Son end up drowning in despair, or can he rise up and swim to safety? Stay tuned.”
What could I do?
My chest felt like it was going to implode. The snake was cutting off the circulation in my legs. And a fish that looked like the love child of a kraken and a piranha was advancing in my direction.
I didn’t have anything I could fight back with. I didn’t have the strength to struggle. It seemed my only option was to accept my fate. At least I got to see those eyes one last time before the end.
Wait… the candy!
I fumbled with my pouch, not knowing what the sweet was or what it would do, but knowing it was my only hope.
‘Come on,’ my mind and lungs pleaded in unison.
I thrust it between my lips and chewed, filling my mouth with a bubbly sensation that tasted of nectarine kisses and springtime breezes. But by then, it was too late. I couldn’t hold my breath any longer; and without meaning to, I sucked in the candy and what felt like half the lake.
I’ve got to say there’s something rather unsettling about blowing air out of your backside in a stream so forceful that it propels you from the bottom of a lake, up to the surface, and back to the shore.
On the plus side, with the Survival Idol and the immunity it brought, I could rest for a few moments and catch my candy-flavored breath.
“It looks like Kendall is safe until someone else finds their way into the open arms of Annūté. Oh wait. What’s that? Annabelle the Cannibal has eaten her way into the hellish kitchen of the afterlife? That means it’s time for our First Island Council!”
A moment later, a clam shell floated out from behind the waterfall with Ratrilpot’s Queen perched upon it. Apparently she’d changed into something new since the contest began, as now her supple curves were covered only in lavender seashells and robes of pearlescent silk.
“A lovely choice of formal wear, Your Majesty,” I said with a bow as she reached the shore.
The Queen flicked her long blond curls over her shoulder.
“Such a gentleman. But will that be enough to survive against the malign milkmaid, the invisible assassin, the golden boy, and our two surprise contestants, so he can win the hand of our beloved Princess Eilloena? Only time will tell what the future holds. But first, let’s move to the council area, so we can recap before starting the next round.”
I gave a thumbs up and feigned one of those smiles like your life depended on it smiles— because at that point, it probably did.
The next round of the competition, Dancing for Your Life, proved to be more melodrama than drama, with the three of us “dying” on stage and one of the other contestants fleeing in tears following his critique by the sharp tongued judge, Rhymin’ Scowl. But at least I’d survived it.
Or so I had thought.
“I’m extremely disappointed in the two of you,” the Queen chastised as she returned to the stage. “This is a serious competition, and you never made us feel like you deserved to be here. So I don’t have a lightlily for either of you. May death take the weaker warrior.”
Before I could react, the Queen and the judges darted away from the stage, while the milkmaid grabbed a floating milk jug from the air and hurled it in my direction.
I dodged it easily enough, but when it shattered against the stage, some of the sour milk splashed on my boots, scorching them and causing them to sizzle.
I barely had enough time to get them off before the liquid ate through them.
What the Hym kind of milk was this?
“Well, faithful viewers, it looks like Kendall may finally buy the farm. Our dairy duchess has a strong arm and a mean streak that could curdle the blood in your veins. Who else could milk a basilisk so well? He better figure out something soon or he’s going to be creamed.”
“Oh yeah, that’s me: The Duchess of Dairy,” the milkmaid shouted. “Check out my jugs!”
She reached over for more floating ammunition, and I raced off the stage.
“Hey, stud, where ya going?” she snapped. “I’m not through with you.”
Another jug smashed nearby, and I barely escaped without losing my britches.
Of course, once I made it behind a nearby rock, I barely escaped from losing my lunch too. There was a corpse lying face down in a pile of blood-soaked leaves with a knife in its back.
“What’s this? Our Countess of Cheese killed our original contestant, the Naughty Nymph?”
The crowds gasped.
“Hey! Why aren’t y’all looking at my jugs anymore? Mine are better than hers. Look how I shake them. It brings all the boys to the farm.”
“Oh my god,” another female voice yelled. “You killed Candy. You, backstabber!”
I peeked up to see a brunette beauty bolt out of the crowds and fire off a series of slingshot blasts that shattered the remaining jugs and forced the dairy diva to jump backwards to avoid the steaming mess.
“Oh no, you don’t,” the milkmaid shouted before launching into a stream of obscenities the new vixen matched barb for barb.
Moments later, there was a big hole between them from where the milk had devoured the wood, revealing a muddy puddle underneath. Two guards sneaked out of their hiding places to push the girls into it.
“You must be feeling right at home,” the brunette said as she flung a clump of mud at blondie.
“Oh yeah. There’s nothing more fun than wrestling a big hairy pig.”
The brunette’s mouth opened and her cheeks flushed, while the crowds let out an “Ooooh.”
“That’s it, wench. It’s on.”
Brunette dove at blondie, grabbed her hair, and pulled her down into the mud.
The crowds erupted into a chorus of cheers and jeers as the catfight continued. Part of me wondered why the Queen let this diversion last so long, but another part of me was glad for it, as it meant I could sneak over to my beloved— who was now disguised as a brown-eyed troll guard.
“Are you enjoying the competition?” I asked nonchalantly, forcing myself not to throw my arms around the thick torso and smother it with kisses.
“More so than you, I’d wager,” my beloved responded. “Though perhaps, I can even the odds a bit.”
With a quick glance to make sure everyone was still focused on the manic mud wrestlers, the troll motioned to a satchel near its feet.
I reached down to pick it up, but before I could look inside, the crowds let out a loud “Awwwww.”
I looked back to the pit in time to see the two indistinguishable mud maids fall over, hands locked around each other’s throats.
“I hope your fifteen minutes of fame was worth going wild for girls, because your deaths mean Kendall has just churned his way to another victorious round. Only four more contestants stand between him and happiness. Can Kendall outthink them? Can he outrun them? Can he outlast them? We’ll find out soon, as Survival Idols continues!”
I tried to ignore the feeling of dread in my gut, instead focusing on examining the contents of the gift I’d received.
Leafy stalks? How would that help?
Then I caught their pungent scent and realized what one of those mystery contestants was.
I raced through the forest with reckless abandon— something that’s quite painful when you no longer have any boots to protect you from the rocks and roots.
The Queen had chose a dragon as one of the contestants? I thought she wanted me to marry her daughter. How could I do that if I was burnt to a crisp?
I suppose it was the Queen’s way of being ironic, given that Eilloena had already saved me from one. Though, in my defense, it’s not like I had a chance to prepare for battle. One moment I was in Stillwell conversing with our court magus, and the next I’m transported— without a sword, steed, or armor I might add— to Ratrilpot, where I’m expected to duel it out with an overgrown lizard that’s just toasted Prince Otah from the Kingdom of the Desert Sun.
I had to hope the dragon’s bane gift from my beloved would help me deal with the beast if it caught up with me; and in the meantime, I needed to secure immunity with the next Survival Idol— which to no surprise was located on the other side of the island, at Millipede Caves.
When I arrived, I shuddered.
The rocky highland was creepy beyond reckoning with the rickety bridge over the pit of writhing and hissing insects, but the Queen hadn’t stopped there. A thousand spectators hung by their feet from the gnarled branches of a deadwood forest, to look through bamboo tubes that were stuck through the cavern roof.
I grabbed onto the rough ropes of the bridge and placed a foot on a rotting plank.
Down below pincers clicked furiously, so as carefully and as quickly as possible I made my way to the other side.
After taking a deep breath, I approached the mouth of the cave and peered into the brightly lit chamber. A golden statuette lay in plain view atop a broken stalagmite. Was it another trap? I picked up a rock and tossed it inside.
That was all I heard. No curses. No slithering. No scuttling. Maybe I was paranoid.
“Everyone waits with baited breath as the bitter bachelor advances towards the next idol.”
I rolled my eyes and tiptoed into the cave. But when I approached the golden token, I realized why things had seemed too easy. It was a makeshift fraud.
One of the other contestants had gotten there first, and based on the stench of sweat wafting into the cave entrance that I’d last smelled at the end of our deadly dance-off, I had a good idea who it was.
“Surprise,” the pear-shaped Midas said as he stepped into the doorway, waving the real statue for me to see.
You would never have expected he was the “golden boy” the Queen had spoken of. His hair was dark and short. His eyes were small and muddy. His brow was wrinkled and his chins stubbly. But that wasn’t how he earned his nickname. He earned it for his golden touch.
“While you and Miss Milk Jugs thought I was crying in a cave following my dance critique, I was actually making my way over here to secure safety for the next round. And lo and behold my strategy worked,” he said with a maniacal grin. “I’m safe; and you’re not!”
I remained quiet, instead trying to think of a way to escape this mess. From deeper in the caverns, dripping sounds ticked away the seconds.
“What’s the matter, your highness? Your so-called rapier wit has failed you now that you’ve been bested by a better man? Or are you hoping Eilloena will save your hide again?”
“You’re the last person I would expect to be critical of others, WIDE-Ass,” I countered, with Rhymin’ Scowl’s name for him.
“For the last time… My name is MIDAS!”
“I’m sure the sixty cows that went into making your pants would beg to differ.”
Midas’s ears went as red as his cheeks, and his body trembled as he stepped forward.
“It looks like Kendall may finally have to pay up on his debts, as the man with the golden hands goes in to secure his investment. Can Kendall outshine the competition? Or has he bought himself a golden ticket to the great beyond? Let’s watch.”
Midas glanced away for a second to see where the Queen’s voice had come from. The one half second of distraction was all the time I needed. I stooped and grabbed the rock I had thrown into the cave earlier and whipped it at his head.
While he thrust his hands in front of his face— thus turning the stone to gold as it struck him— I squeezed by and darted over the bridge, barely making it across before the weakest link gave way and several boards plummeted.
The cacophony of clacking, snapping, and rumbling from the insect pit echoed the volatile rush of emotions that were coursing through my body.
The only way for me to survive until the next round was for someone else to die.
Either by another contestant’s hand . . . Or by my own.
Ever hear the adage, “You learn all the important stuff you need to know about life when you’re a kid playing in the garden?” As sad as it is, there’s a lot of truth to that.
Take for example, the matter of hide-and-seek. I learned early on I was horrible at it. Other kids in court had this gift for finding wardrobes that led to other worlds. I was lucky if I managed to stay hidden for more than thirty seconds.
And now that I was all grown up and thought I’d found a haven in this ditch with several discarded mugs and a couple empty barrels, I got discovered once again.
“Bud the Wiser Brewer may have stolen the recipe for ambrosia, but even that crisp liquid sunrise can’t stop the pain,” a man moaned nearby.
I looked around but didn’t see anything but ferns and tree trunks. Was a spectator behind one of the oaks?
After hearing some rustling in the distance, I stuck my head up to ground level and saw Midas searching through the forest. Given that there was no way he could have made it across that bridge without it collapsing, it was obvious the Queen had given him some help to make things more interesting.
“Oh well,” I muttered, “back into the fray.”
I tried to move, but found my leg was tied to a tree root.
As I fumbled with the knot, an unseen assailant punched me in the stomach and kneed me in the head. I keeled over and gasped as my forehead throbbed. Apparently, He-who-cannot-be-seen had found me.
“I can’t believe you stole my little milkmaid, bro. She was my everything, and you killed her.”
I shielded my face with my arms. “Apparently you can see as well as we can see you. I had nothing to do with that.”
Another punch to the gut caused me to drop my guard.
“You were there. That’s all that matters. It’s your fault.”
I rolled my eyes and failed to dodge a whack to the jaw that split my lip.
“Zing. I bet Kendall didn’t see that one coming. Maybe he’s finally set his sights on a prize that’s too far out of reach. Can Kendall make his vision of the future a reality? Or has his luck faded from view? Let’s see, shall we?”
I ignored the Queen, instead focusing on trying to avoid getting punched again. Although no blows came, it was obvious Mr. Invisible wasn’t yet done with me, as I heard the scraping and shuffling sounds of climbing nearby.
Then I saw the knife come out— seemingly floating in midair— on a branch above me.
“Maybe we can talk this over?” I asked, heart pounding as loudly as Midas’s footsteps were pounding nearby.
“No, bro; no more talking. It’s time for action.”
Sweat dripped under my arms, blood dripped from my lip, and Midas’s musky scent got stronger.
“I’m sooooo gonna gut you. But first I gotta return the ale I rented. And since you’re in firing range, a little humiliation sounds like the perfect thing to break your spirit before I cut your throat.”
I crossed my arms and scowled as I stared upwards. As if getting beaten to a pulp by some cowardly bully wasn’t bad enough, now I was supposed to live out the adage about it being better to be pissed off?
“Hey man, no fair. I can’t go when someone’s watching. Look back down again.”
I kept my eyes fixed firmly on the branches above, while I continued to struggle with my bonds. Twigs snapped nearby.
“Look away, damn you! I really have to go!” the voice growled.
“Not a chance.”
“You pervert! You want to see my beanstalk.”
I refrained from making jokes about how he couldn’t find it, and instead pointed out the obvious. “You’re invisible.”
“You’re still a pervert.”
“Yeah you are!” Midas said behind me.
I didn’t have time to respond. I didn’t have time to think. I just dropped to the ground and prayed to Annūté that things would sort themselves out.
“Eeeewww!” Midas wailed. “Eeeww! Eeeww! Eeeww!”
Lucky for me, He-who-cannot-be-seen could also have been nicknamed He-who-cannot-aim. His attempt at humiliation hit Midas on the head, and the golden gift went soaring into the treetops, leaving Mr. Invisible a lot more visible, and Midas the recipient of a glittering golden stream that stretched from the statue in the tree all the way down to his forehead.
Crowds cheered in the background, and a brown-eyed pygmy cut my ankle free from its bindings before slipping into the brush again.
“Good luck,” he whispered, poking his head out only long enough to blow me a kiss.
I smiled and touched the place on my cheek that suddenly felt warm. The aches on my personage and in my soul were temporarily soothed, and hope filled me once more.
With only a few rounds left to go, it seemed like I might have a shot at surviving this fiasco.
“Lo and behold, it looks like Kendall has cheated death once again, as our invisible friend finally reveals his true colors. Goodness knows what the milkmaid saw in him. And speaking of sights, it’s time for us to take a closer look at what’s coming up next.”
With a flash of light, a sensation that alternated between tugging and prickling, and a taste in the back of my mouth like briny vinegar, I found myself transported to the front porch of a palatial house that was missing one very important feature: a roof.
“Hello everyone, and welcome to Manor Mates,” the Queen said as she walked out of the front door in fairy queen garb.
She fluffed her golden curls to show off the violets and buttercups that had been woven within them, and then adjusted her cleavage, which was popping out of her dewdrop, diamond-adorned, green velvet gown.
“Hidden within this mansion is the next Survival Idol: a porcelain swan,” she began. “I’ll let Kendall into the property first. Then five minutes later, I’ll open the doors to the other contestants. Can our prince survive a stint with the other challengers? Or will he face a lethal eviction? Before we find out, let’s meet the first of our mystery competitors.”
A “native” pounded out a melodramatic drum beat, while the Queen swished her cape of silken spider-web strands.
“Hailing from other side of the Sugonian Seas comes the one, the only: Wicked Witch of the Wild Wild Westernlands.”
She fwiffed into existence on the porch next to us a second after her glowing red dragon-hide boots and said, “Howwwdee Partners,” with a voice that was raspy and harsh, like stubble scraping against skin.
Beside me, Midas shuddered. “You!” he snarled.
“Well if it ain’t that two timin’ miner over forty-niner, who gave a 24-karat smile to my darling sister, Clementine.”
“Could it be that our contestants have a history together?” the Queen asked with a portrait perfect smile that the royal artist began to sketch. “What a twist.”
Midas jumped up to punch her, but the witch snapped a finger and Midas froze. Then stormcloud-colored gloves appeared on his hands.
“Temper. Temper,” the Queen quipped. “Why don’t you save your hostility for your bout inside the house, where our final contestant will make an appearance as well. Speaking of which, has anyone seen him?”
A guard whispered to the Queen.
“What do you mean you never unchained him? How’s he supposed to eat anyone if he’s bound? Release him at once!”
The guard ran off into the greenery, while the Queen pushed me through the doorway and told me that my time had begun.
I raced into the foyer and looked around. It was obvious that in addition to much of the furniture coming from the infamous Madame Lola’s Lounge of Loving, Midas had been brought in earlier to lend a helping hand with the decorations.
“Which way do I go?” I muttered.
With the roof open to the elements, it’d be a lot easier for the spectators to see inside from the scaffolding that had been set up alongside the top floor. Unfortunately, the ornate door at the top of the stairs proved to be locked.
I rushed back downstairs to grab something to bash it in with it.
“What’s this folks? Kendall’s good looks couldn’t unlock the heart of the manor? Guess he thinks the key to success requires a more direct approach. Hopefully that bust he’s grabbing can live up to its name, for it’s almost time for the other constants to join him.”
I slammed the bust into the door, breaking enough of a hole in it that I could reach around to the other side. But to my dismay there was no key on that side of the door either. I was going to have to break the whole door down.
“And now, Rhymin’ Scowl, our favorite dance judge, returns to give us a few brief words before we have our open house.”
“Hickory Dickery Dock. Our boy has run out the clock. And now I confess, Wideass is next; let’s see who comes out on top.”
I kicked furiously at the door, trying to ignore the thundering footsteps.
“Gotcha,” Midas wheezed.
Fortunately, he was still wearing the gloves; unfortunately, he’d grabbed the satchel that held the dragonbane. And when I forced myself through the doorway, the strap tore, leaving him with my only defense against the beast that was perched atop the wall above us.
The dragon was a torture chamber brought to life. The jaws were an iron maiden. The tail was a three-foot thick whip. The eyes were hot coals, and the talons were swords.
I tore my gaze from the beast, instead scouring the enormous furniture-filled room for a place to hide. Score another point for the Queen. Mirrors hung on every wall and stood beside or behind each antique.
“Now this is what I call excitement. Man versus beast in an up-close display of action so heated it could scorch you. Is one of our hot-tempered contestants about to get… fired? Let’s find out.”
A mad cackling from down below indicated the witch was on her way up too. No doubt the horned beast was waiting for his three course meal before striking–though his mouth must have already been watering, given the amount of rotten-egg scented drool dripping onto the patterned rugs.
“Yee haw! Make my day.”
I dove behind a chaise-lounge as a miniature lightning bolt zipped through the doorway.
That was what the dragon was waiting for. It roared and shot a fireball into the sky. Then just before it launched a follow up blast into the manor house, the dragon stopped. It swung its head up in surprise and sniffed.
“Dragonbane!” it announced, scales pricking up.
“That’s right!” Midas huffed. “You can’t touch me.”
I peeked my head up to see the witch click her boots together— no doubt deciding she’d have a better chance of surviving if she wasn’t in the line of fire— and Midas waving the stalks like some spoiled schoolboy.
The dragon grinned wickedly and shot a fireball at him anyway.
Midas screamed and threw the dragonbane into the air, barely managing to escape the blast. The dragon beat its mighty wings and swooped down into the house, but didn’t make a move towards either of us. Instead, it hovered over the fire as the herbs burned into cinders, breathing in as much of the smoke as it could. When it lifted its head, a growl like thunder rumbled from its stomach.
“Munchies!” it bellowed.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so thankful to be thin. As soon as the dragon saw how much Midas resembled a yet-to-be roasted pig, it tore after him and swallowed him whole.
I’ll skip the drama that followed, or at least condense it. We had our next Island Council. The dragon insulted Eilloena. The Queen chided me for not defending her honor. I lost my temper and told her off. The Queen ordered the dragon to eat me; and I bolted away, swiping a few bottles of Doctor Peppa’s pick-me-up tonic as I passed.
Behind me, the dragon opened his jaws and inhaled loudly and deeply, as if trying to suck in all the air on the island. Instead of breathing out fire, it burped and turned to gold.
“Damn it all!” the Queen huffed.
I’m guessing I was supposed to rejoin the others, but the only thing I cared about was getting back to my beloved in something other than a coffin. So I chugged down the bitter berry contents of all three bottles— an amount that far exceeded the recommendation— jogged in place for a moment to get my heart pumping, and then zipped across the landscape at speeds normally attainable only to cheetahs.
Sweat poured down my cheeks like that magical waterfall; the bottoms of my feet burned like the dragon’s breath; and my chest heaved like Midas’s had done during his dance recital. But I didn’t stop until the tonic wore off and I had traveled to a part of the island where there was an empty tree house that looked like it might provide some shelter.
Unfortunately, the witch and her magic boots appeared outside my safe haven as soon as I’d climbed inside and pulled up the rope ladder.
“Come down here, you varmint!” she yelled as mini lightning bolts shot through the open window and scorched the wall behind me.
“Get lost, I have a bucket of water,” I lied.
She aimed both hands at the tree house and cackled as her bony fingers began to glow.
“What’s this? Is the brat prince finally going to get what’s coming to him? They say people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones and by the looks of the spell the Witch is casting, Kendall will learn that first hand.”
I fished in my clothing for something to save myself with. The only thing I had left was the first of the Survival Idols I had grabbed when swimming.
Well, it saved me once. Perhaps it would do so again.
I whipped the golden statuette at the witch’s head, causing her to shift her aim and send the spell blazing at the tree.
The witch cursed and marched around the tree as it turned to glass, while I felt a rush of air behind me. The red-headed candy seller had returned.
“Care for another sweet, my sweet?”
I looked down at the tray and picked up an orange one. “What’s this?”
With a grin, I popped the candy in my mouth and chewed. It glazed my teeth and throat with a sweet sourness that burned my tongue.
“Why don’t you see if you can sing the house down?”
Normally, I would say there’s nothing romantic about murder, as I’m of the opinion that the only people who should be swooning when blood is spilled are those who’ve lost the blood. But given that the witch was chanting again, and it wasn’t just my life at stake, I decided to take the stage.
I opened my mouth and belted out a love song to my beloved that brought tears to those beautiful eyes. And when I hit that high note, the world shook and we tumbled into each others’ arms.
Alas, the witch didn’t seem so happy with my performance in that when the glass tree splintered, it caused the tree house to crash down on top of her— leaving only the two glowing red boots sticking out from underneath.
“I’m not sure what’s happening, folks. A discharge of magical energy seems to have knocked our host, Ryan Egret, out of the sky, thus preventing me from seeing the proceedings in my crystal ball.”
Rolling my eyes, I rushed out of the remains of the tree house and removed the boots from the corpse. Then looking around to make sure no one was watching I snuck back into the wreckage.
“This just in from my contacts in the netherworld, the Witch has joined her big brother in the land down under, which means that Kendall will become Ratrilpot’s Next Hot Royal. Who’d have guessed? For those of you who lost your bets and owe me your lives, I’ll give you one last chance to avoid becoming participants in ‘Axe Me No Questions and I’ll Fell You No Lies’. The Saving Race to find Kendall begins… now.”
I held still for a moment and let her words sink in.
I’d actually won?
Pity I had no interest in living happily-ever-after in Ratrilpot.
“Those boots should overcome the spells that prevented me from bringing you back to Stillwell,” my sweetheart said. “Put them on, and let’s get out of here.”
With a smile, I did so, and took my lover’s hand.
A magic spell had stolen me away from Stillwell and gotten me into this mess. It was only fitting that a magic spell should get me out of it.
Clicking my heels together three times, I whispered, “There’s no place like home.”
And for the first time in my life, I truly appreciated what that meant.