"I'm sure there's nothing to worry about, brother."
The soft, comforting voice sounded familiar to Midnight. She'd heard it before in her vision, and now, as she came close to the end of the small corridor, she could hear others talking as well.
"Even so, Marcus, you think it wise to have left the girl alone, walking around with absolutely no idea of where she is going?"
"But on the contrary. I believe she knows exactly where she's headed. Don't you, Midnight?"
As the man said so, the corridor came to an abrupt end and Midnight suddenly found herself inside a very large room. The conversation died instantly and six people turned to look at her in the dim evening light coming through the tall windows. The shadow fell on their faces, so it was hard for her to make out who was talking. All she could do was listen to the warm voice as it spoke again:
"Ah, I see you were able to find your way. I had a feeling you might."
"Y-yes." Midnight replied, her own voice a little low.
"Step inside, please," the voice demanded. Still hesitating, Midnight walked in. The floor began to vibrate again at her feet and she moved closer to where she could sense a large, round table where six people sat in complete silence.
"Well now, I know you don't need light to find your way, but I think it might be...helpful if we lit up the place anyway," the man spoke again and with that, close to twenty candles lit up at once around the room. It wasn't much, but it was bright enough for Midnight to see the people sitting at the table.
She recognized the old man who'd spoken to her, now and in her vision. He stood up from his chair and came round the table, putting a hand on Midnight's shoulder. It was a nice surprise to find the Centaur sitting to his right, although he didn't look as happy about it. Instead, he just stared at her like she had done something incredible. On the man's other side Midnight recognized Valrya, who seemed determined not to look at her at all, although her expression was just as shocked. Next to her was the woman the girl remember was called Aphariel. Her sharp gaze intimidated Midnight so she quickly looked away from her and back to Arragus. Then she noticed the two little men standing next to him. Or maybe they weren't really standing up. It was hard to tell, because of their height. They looked at her like she was the strangest thing they had ever seen.
It was then she realized how very tall they all were. Even though he was old, the man standing before her was easily twice her size, and even the two short ones were only a head or two shorter than her, although they had seemed much smaller in her vision.
"I hope our World does not seem too strange to you. And not too frightening, I should hope, considering all of the facts."
Midnight looked confused. "Um..." she mumbled, unsure of what to say. The man looked at her and then turned his gaze to Valrya. Surprisingly, the Fairy looked down, seemingly flustered.
"Well, we can get to that later." he continued, his voice a bit more stern. "Your journey here was long and tiring, and I'm sure you have been through enough. There is no need for us to discuss this now. You must rest."
"No, sir, I'm fine, I..." Midnight began to say, but when she met the old man's piercing gaze, a sudden feeling of unease came over her. At once, she felt so tired it was hard to finish the sentence so she just shook her head weakly. The man smiled slyly.
"We thought you might be." he said quickly. The shortest of the little men moved away from the table, walking to the far end of the room. Midnight heard the door opening and the sound of someone talking. After a moment, another man came in.
"Lamilay," said the old man "will show you to your room. And then later, please come down so you can meet with the others."
There were still many things Midnight would have wanted to ask, but she nodded and followed the newcomer. He smiled gently and held the door for her as she walked out.
When they were both outside, Midnight allowed herself a quick look at him out of the corner of her eye. He was an odd appearance: just about as tall as her, but he looked much older than she was. His hair was rather short and spiked, but what was most obvious about it was the color. It was the whitest white Midnight had ever seen, with just a few faint shades of green here and there. Much like his hair, his nose was also short and pointed. Actually, all of his features were sharp; even his armor, which consisted mainly of two large shoulder pads, had spikes.
Suddenly, Midnight realized that he was looking at her too. She turned her head quickly, embarrassed.
"It might get overwhelming," the man said suddenly.
"It must be difficult." he went on, like he hadn't heard her. "It's all very new to you. And probably strange, too."
Midnight smiled but didn't say anything. She hadn't had time to think about anything properly, so she didn't know what she was feeling. Instead, she resorted to looking around the walls of the large hallway they were passing through. There were statues and strange portraits everywhere, of people and creatures and places she didn't recognize. The floor vibrated underneath her feet, but only dully. She had gotten used to it by now and so she turned to look at Lamilay. After all, it's not like she needed to see to know where to step.
"I'm not exactly sure...what I'm doing here," she said quietly, unsure whether she should talk to him at all.
"Well, you're a Keeper."
She'd heard that word before. But it had been a long time since then. In a story, perhaps?
Lamilay noticed her confusion.
"It means you're a protector, a guardian."
By now Midnight looked alarmed.
"Don't worry; there are four more Keepers aside from you. Actually, one of them is my sister. Valrya was supposed to explain it to you. I'm guessing she didn't."
Midnight looked embarrassed again.
"She didn't...talk much."
She was afraid she's said something offensive when the young man started laughing heartily.
"No, I bet she didn't. She doesn't like you very much."
"I didn't think she did." Midnight said quietly.
She'd suspected the Fairy had something against her, and now she knew for sure. It wasn't much of a surprise, but it still bothered her. Lamilay noticed the frown on her face and put his hand on Midnight's shoulder, patting her gently.
"You needn't worry about it. It's not because of something you did. It's because of who you are. A Fairling. Human. Plain."
Midnight sighed. She didn't understand very much of anything, but she felt that people like her - Fairlings, they called them - weren't considered something good in this world. Somewhere at the back of her mind, she wondered why that was, but decided it wasn't the time for that question.
Finally, she said:
For the first time, the man looked surprised. When he spoke, his voice was low and Midnight had to listen carefully to understand what he was saying.
"A Patron...Well..." he started, clearly not knowing how to go on. His brow furrowed ever so slightly, but in the end he sighed and continued:
"Patrons are...well, they're a special kind of mystical beings. You see, our World is broken up in Clans. There's the Centaurs, Fairies, Dragons, Mermaids, Elves and Goblins. The Clans and their members are ranked by power and importance, but I won't go into too much detail. I shouldn't be the one telling you this, you know. It was Valrya's duty..." he paused, "...for the life of me, I've never seen that woman disregard a single order, but I guess she made an exception this time...Now, each Clan has its own Patron who leads them, you see. Are you following all of this?"
Midnight nodded. Her heart was beating fast. She had heard this before.
"Good. What you really need to know is that Patrons represent the Clans in their purest forms. They are their people, and for that, a Patron will always posses the traits of his or her Clan. Faeries are proud and fierce and they will stand alone against a whole army of invaders without a second thought. But they are stubborn and easily angered. How did you find their Patron?" he asked ironically.
"Something like that." Midnight said and they both started laughing.
"We're here," Lamilay said suddenly. They had stopped in front of a tall white door. Lamilay opened it for her and, as she stepped inside, Midnight gasped in surprise. It was the most beautiful room she had ever been in. It was large and oval shaped, with pale green walls and a four-poster bed at the far end. The curtains were emerald and gold and the floor was made of some kind of black wood.
"I...wouldn't really know, but you might find some clothes in there..." Lamilay pointed at two doors to his right. "I'll leave you to rest for now," he added and left Midnight standing, still awed, in the middle of the room.
She turned to face yet another set of doors that opened into a small dressing room. The clothes were right there, where Lamilay said they would be: a pair of brown trousers, a simple, white shirt and a pair of brown boots. Next to them there was a small bowl of water. She washed up quickly and tried on the clothes. They fit her perfectly and that was all she needed.
Looking at herself in the large mirror next to the bed, Midnight nodded, pleased with her new appearance, then set her head on the soft round pillow. It was so comfortable and she was so tired, she would have fallen asleep right away, had it not been for a sudden noise from somewhere outside. It sounded like people talking. She got up and came closer to the window, peeking from behind the heavy curtains.
"--I still don't understand how she can help!" Midnight recognized Valrya's voice.
"I cannot see the future, therefore I cannot say one way or the other." another voice said.
Midnight could see them clearly now, as they were passing right below her window. Valrya looked unhappy, or actually rather angry. The old man she was talking to wore long black and gold robes. He seemed indifferent to her emotions as he spoke.
"It is not your concern, nor mine how she will help us through these times. It is, however, our duty to protect the Keepers, no matter what their origin might be. I believe it would be a safe assumption that, if she were in any sense related to Daire, you would, perhaps, feel differently?"
The Fairy looked up. A trace of embarrassment marked her perfect translucent features.
"There is no doubt in my mind," the man continued, "that there is a strong reason why Zarina came after her first. Why would she have come herself to collect the girl, had she not wanted something from her; had she not wanted it badly?"
"Marcus, I...I'm not sure. The girl has no powers. None! She is too weak to hold the sword and I doubt that she is capable of handling herself in a fight. We had to carry her half the way!"
Midnight rose to her feet as she attempted to walk away from the windowsill. This was no longer a conversation she wanted to hear.
Then, the sound of more people coming caught her attention.
There were four of them. A girl with short spiky green and purple hair and a Centaur that looked like a smaller Arragus. He had long brown hair down to his waist, or whatever it was Centaurs had. Oh his arm, he carried a bow and a set of arrows. He was much taller than the girl, but neither of them seemed too aware of that. However, they both looked worried as they approached Valrya and the man named Marcus. Behind them came the other two: also a boy and a girl. They both looked about Midnight's age. The girl had long, blond hair that fell neatly over her left shoulder, framing her perfectly oval face. When she turned to look at the others, Midnight noticed she had very large, round eyes, like some of the other girls she'd seen in the marketplace. Next to her, the boy walked in silence. He had his head down so all Midnight could see of him was his ruffled jet-black hair. He looked like he'd just woken up, the girl thought to herself and smiled.
Midnight yelped in surprise. After a moment, she realized the sound had come from the door.
"Um...just a moment!"
As she opened it, she found herself staring at a strange little man that was two heads shorter than her. He nodded, looking rather displeased and Midnight's eyes widened as she recognized the thorns and vines on his robe.
"Um...sir?" she said, confused.
"Yes, well, we're waiting for you, so let's go!" the little man said in a low, irritated voice. He turned around and started to walk away quicker than would have been expected for someone his height. Midnight followed. They walked through corridors and hallways and down a set of stairs until they were out in a small garden hidden from any outsider's view, where a group of people stood waiting for them: the old man named Marcus and the other four Patrons, as well as the two girls and boys she'd seen moments before.
They all had the same curious and expectant look on their faces. It gave Midnight the feeling that they were waiting for her to do something weird, like turning into a pile of slug or doing a back flip.
Marcus spoke first:
"Welcome to the Council of Daire."
He made a gesture like a short bow. Midnight looked at him somewhat confused, but he carried on:
"I am truly sorry you could not be here earlier, but I...we wanted to let you rest before meeting everyone else."
Slowly, he raised his hand and gestured toward the others, in order.
"You've already met Arragus and Valrya," he said and the two bowed in her direction. Arragus smiled widely, looking genuinely pleased, but Valrya just looked away.
The man continued:
"My name is Marcus, although I'm sure you know that, too."
He looked at her like he knew she'd been eavesdropping.
"And this is Brohand."
The man who had accompanied her bowed quickly. In the daylight, Midnight could see his face clearly for the first time. It took all of her willpower not to jump back. His skin was a sick greenish color and he was so old it just fell around his neck in folds, hidden by the robes he was wearing. He had an abnormally large nose that ended abruptly and his eyes were two tiny black dots set deep into his head.
He smiled as if he knew what Midnight was trying to hide from him.
She swung around to meet a pair of kind, warm, amber eyes that belonged to a tiny little man. He only had a few strands of hair standing out of the top of his head, which, she noticed, was a deep shade of pink that made him look like he was always blushing. He staggered forward in his attempt to bow, which sent a wave of general amusement through the group.
The woman with turquoise hair and big round eyes stepped forward, but didn't bow like the others. Instead, she sized Midnight up and, after a moment, nodded like she approved of what she saw. It made the girl feel a little humiliated but she didn't think this was the right time to complain. But before she could say anything, a man's voice made everyone turn to the castle doors behind Midnight.
Lamilay was headed their way, holding a sort of scroll in his hands like it was the most valuable thing he owned. Before she knew it, the Council members walked away from her and Midnight found herself standing alone, unsure of what she should do next.
She jumped back, startled. The girl with the spiky green and purple hair was staring straight at her.
The girl smiled and grabbed Midnight's hand, shaking it so enthusiastically she thought it would fall of.
"I'm Xyleena, but that's kind of a mouthful, so everyone calls me Lix."
Her voice was sharp and a little high-pitched. Every word sounded like a wave of crystals, but it was actually quite pleasant.
"Oh, we know." the girl said quickly. "We've been waiting for you to come. It's funny though...I always thought that..."
Midnight frowned, sensing something unpleasant.
"Nothing, really, I just hope you won't mind, but I always thought you'd be more...tall?" the girl finished, a little unsure. "Come, you should meet everyone else now."
She pulled Midnight by the hand toward the others. As they walked, Midnight looked at her new acquaintance. She seemed like a strange little doll, literally, because she was so short she barely reached Midnight's shoulders. Her hair was a vivid shade of green and purple and the way it stood up like spikes, the girl realized she must be Lamilay's sister. Her clothes consisted of a simple sleeveless shirt and a couple of colored veils that fell around her like a short skirt. Her legs were wrapped around in silk strands the color of honey. They stopped abruptly in front of the Centaur that looked like a younger image of Arragus.
"Cynon, Midnight." Xyleena made the introductions.
The Centaur bowed as he extended a hand. Midnight shook it weakly, too impressed by the imposing creature before her. He was taller than her by at least one foot. His eyes were a deep shade of blue, much like Arragus's. The part of his body that was horse-like was the blackest black she had ever seen.
"Hello," was all she could say.
"Hello, Midnight. I am glad to see you're safe," the Centaur said.
"I...don't really know what I'm doing here, actually..." Midnight admitted, slightly ashamed she was the only one who didn't seem to know what was going on.
The small girl cut in.
"You're one of the Keepers, of course. This is the safest place for you. Or it should be anyway..." her voice trailed off.
"Yes, I know that, except...nobody's really told me what a Keeper is."
"A Keeper is a guardian," the Centaur replied.
"Well...how come Valrya didn't tell you this?" Cynon looked as confused as Lamilay had been just hours before.
"I...guess she doesn't like me very much," Midnight said quietly.
"Oh, that's alright. Valrya doesn't like anybody. Well, in that case, I suppose it's best we told you. The Keepers are the guardians of a great power."
As the Centaur started to tell the story, Lix and Midnight sat on a fallen tree trunk covered in moss.
"The first Mystics were, in fact, human, just like you. But it was a very long time ago. Back then, people believed that everyone had a special gift. Something that set them apart. It was bestowed on them when they were born and their lives were built around that special talent that they had. Nobody really knows when it started but, at some point, there were...accidents, so to speak. Sometimes, some people's talents were too powerful, too strong. It caused damage. And a lot of lives. You see, before they were chased away, Mystics often caused accidents, because they couldn't figure out how to control their powers. They caused storms that destroyed crops or earthquakes that could wipe out entire villages. People were afraid and that was only natural. The others began to fear those who were too powerful, so they chased them away. But more were born. They started being known as Mystics, Magical Beings, Creatures, you may very well choose, and they were hunted down one by one. It was a horrible time. The Mystics retreated from villages. They went into the mountains, or swamps, or forests. The others, the humans, as they called themselves, were too afraid to enter their refuges, so they just stopped hunting them altogether. But they marked the places as forbidden or restricted and, in time, people began to avoid going through them. Soon after, there were no more Mystics born into the human world and those that were got chased away. In time, I think people forgot this part of history. All that did remain were the legends."
Midnight nodded. Even her Grandmother had told her stories about things that lived in the dark forest near their house. But they were never scary. They had fascinated Midnight as a child and now, as she thought of them, her eyes started filling up with tears. The Centaur and the girl both looked away, as if they knew why she was in pain. After a while, Cynon went on.
"The humans went on with their lives. And so did we. Those driven into hiding formed settlements. They managed to survive in the wilderness using their powers to protect themselves from the strangers of the human world. They evolved and learned to control their gifts. In time, we learned how to use our powers wisely. But we could never go back to the other world, for fear of being hunted down again, so we became legends and myths."
"So...there are more...places like this?" Midnight asked, her eyes wide with surprise.
"Of course. Two or three. This is Daire. It's one of the oldest settlements that exist. I think it was among the first ones created. Of course, some Mystics couldn't contain themselves into their human form as their powers evolved so they grew differently from the others..."
He laughed and pointed at himself, a gleam of pride in his eyes.
"Sure, I can change into a normal, human form but I prefer my regular self."
"You mean you aren't always...a Centaur?"
"Well I wasn't born like this, was I?" the boy laughed.
Midnight smiled, embarrassed. Xyleena punched Cynon playfully as she continued his story.
"The Mystics divided into Clans, as I'm sure you've been told already. There are six Clans: Faerie, Centaur, Goblin, Elf, Dragon and Merfolk. Long ago, the Elves and the Goblins were part of a single Clan, but they somehow grew apart...It's a long story, one I don't know that well myself, so...
At that moment, Valrya's outraged voice drew everyone's attention. She was the one closest to Lamilay, gesturing and speaking so quickly it was hard to understand what she was saying. Some of the others nodded, some just looked indifferent, but the argument ended quickly. Once again, Midnight turned to Cynon.
"What about the Keepers?"
"Remember how there are six Creatures that form the Council of Elders?" he asked, pointing at the six figures around Lamilay.
"There are also five Keepers. The Elves and Goblins take turns, because they are considered 'smaller' powers, less important in the battle field"
Xyleena made a face at the word ‘smaller' but didn't interrupt.
"A new Keeper is chosen every time the other one dies or can't do his job anymore. See, there is only this much power to go around. When one of us dies, the power finds another Creature, usually one that has just been born. But sometimes, and this is very rare, Creatures aren't born when they're supposed to and the power has to find someone else to protect itself. Like...a human."
He looked down. Midnight's eyes widened.
"You're one of those rare cases, yes. Also, you were born at the Tween. Midnight, everything is more potent at the Tween, because it's the border between now and then, today and tomorrow. I don't know exactly how it works, but I've felt it before and I bet you have, too. The last five Keepers died at the Tween, but there were only four of us born then. Naturally, it sought you out because you were closer."
Midnight blinked hard as the information sank in. If she had lived perhaps thirty feet further away from the forest, none of this would have happened? Her Grandmother...
"Or maybe it was drawn to you," Xyleena added quickly, like she somehow knew what the girl was thinking. "Nobody knows how it finds the right person. It just...does."
There was a long pause. Midnight was still thinking about her Grandmother.
"Keepers are powerful Creatures. Warriors, if you must. But you can't be a Keeper without a Keeper's soul. That's the real power. It's why we're strong like that."
Xyleena looked at Midnight, but she didn't see her. Images of her Grandmother were still passing before her eyes. She wiped away a tear before speaking again.
"And you're the Centaurs' Keeper, right?" she asked Cynon in a shaky voice. He nodded.
"And...you?" Midnight looked at Xyleena.
"Oh, well, I'm complicated. My mother was Elf but my father is a Goblin. I suppose that's for the best. There's always rivalry between the two Clans..."
She sighed heavily.
"So then...who are they?"
She turned around to point the two Creatures she hadn't been introduced to: a boy with black hair and a big-eyed girl. They stood farther away, whispering to each other and looking anxiously at her.
There was a hint of annoyance in Xyleena's voice that made Midnight and Cynon smile.
"That's Aimess. She's a mermaid. She only addresses you when she needs something. Mermaids are...proud."
Midnight laughed. She had a feeling that was not the word Xyleena had in mind.
"And the one with the black hair?"
This time, Cynon was the one who sounded vaguely annoyed.
"That would be Aidan. Dragon Keeper."
Xyleena chuckled and rolled her eyes dramatically, mimicking the Centaur's frown so well even Cynon himself smiled. The sound of steps drew Midnight's attention, and she turned to meet two pair of startling eyes boring into her own. Aimess and Aidan were studying her, but there was something more than curiosity in the young boy's eyes. It frightened Midnight, but she tried to calm herself.
"Look at her skin. Well, at least we know what she is. No doubt there." Aimess said to the air around them, like Midnight wasn't even there. The mermaid locked her round gray eyes on her green ones and, for a moment, she felt overwhelmed. Her gaze was so intense it was almost hypnotizing. Then the young mermaid looked away. With a shudder, Midnight turned to the dark-haired boy. He was still looking at her, or rather through her. A few strands of rebel hair fell over his forehead and into his face. He brushed them aside unconsciously, but they just fell back. His nose was short and straight and his lips were slightly pink and set in a mocking smile. She tried to avoid his gaze, because his bright yellow eyes reminded her of a serpent.
Neither of the two had introduced themselves, as if they knew they had already been discussed. For a moment, everyone was silent. Then, Aimess strolled past Midnight almost like she was sliding across the grass. She sat down at the far end of the yard, singing and drawing circles in the air. Aidan went back to his place, leaving the other three Keepers in a surprised silence.
"Aidan is...well, he's just like his kind, I suppose" Xyleena chuckled when he was out of earshot.
"What do you mean?"
"Arrogant, strong, great swordsman..." Cynon began.
"Tall, smart, handsome..." Xyleena continued, only half-joking. She smiled dreamily. "Dragon children are always like that. They resemble their descendants entirely, I guess."
Midnight still looked confused.
"Well they don't call them Dragons for no reason, do they?" Xyleena added.
She opened her mouth to say something else, but before she could start talking, the Patrons returned.