Blink. A ray of light fell on Midnight's face and she instinctively moved to cover her eyes, but Arragus pulled her hand down. He stepped in front of her, inside of what looked like a marketplace. At first it was too bright for the girl to notice much around her, and both the Centaur and Valrya were moving so close together, holding her by each arm, that she had a hard enough time trying not to fall down but, slowly, her eyes began adjusting and all she could do was stare.
Midnight knew she wasn't supposed to move around but she found the temptation difficult to resist. It was, by far, the strangest place she had ever seen. Even the forest seemed strange here, not cold and dangerous like before, but large and welcoming and warm. It was still a forest, but the trees had grown taller and thinner, and the paths were paved with bricks. There were no more roots sticking out of the ground and it didn't even seem as dark anymore. Instead, the trees stood very close together and their branches intertwined high above their heads, into a thick ceiling of bright green leaves and vines.
The marketplace was crowded. People came and went quickly, most of them hidden under their hoods, so Midnight couldn't see their faces, but, occasionally, some of them would stop to look around or talk with someone else. When they did so, the girl could see them clearly as they uncovered their faces in a polite greeting. They were so different; no matter how hard she tried, Midnight couldn't find two that would look alike.
Some of them were very small, like children, and had long pointed ears and a few strands of red hair that stuck awkwardly from their otherwise bald heads. Others were even shorter men with pale blue or deep red skin. They looked serious and seemed to have a permanent frown on their faces. Whenever they stopped to talk they didn't take down their hood completely, like everyone else, but simply shrugged it back a little, looking stern and displeased.
Suddenly, two hooded figures appeared in front of her and Midnight had to move out of their way so quickly she tripped over her own feet and would have fallen but for Arragus who was firmly holding her arm. He looked at her and frowned.
"I tripped. Sorry," she said, apologetically.
She turned around to find the two figures staring at her and suddenly she realized that they were girls. Both of them had long black hair, braided up to their waist in intricate patterns, and large blue eyes. Suddenly, Midnight found herself hypnotized by their strange gaze. Their faces were perfectly oval in shape and their skin was pearly white, shining oddly in the sunlight. The girls whispered something to each other, then turned away, walking - or rather gliding gracefully - into the crowd, where a couple of boys - maybe fourteen years of age - had started a sword fight. The others, watching from a safe distance, shouted excitedly, waving their own wooden swords.
Out of the corner of her eye, Midnight noticed Arragus looking at Valrya. She nodded and grabbed the hilt of her sword, holding it so tight her knuckles stuck out from under her skin. She stepped forward, her eyes piercing through the crowd.
As they stepped into the light of the marketplace, the atmosphere suddenly changed. Almost instantly, all conversation stopped. Several people gasped in shock and Midnight could see that they were all pulling closer together, until they were just a mass of colored figures. Even the fighting boys had run away.
Silently, the Centaur pushed through the crowd, pulling Midnight to his side and followed by Valrya. Left and right all around them, everyone was trying desperately to get out of their way, hiding their faces under their hoods.
All except for one. Midnight had noticed him before, standing in the crowd with his face completely uncovered. It struck her as odd, that he wasn't trying to hide or avert the Centaur's gaze. Instead, he cast him a glance that sent shivers down the girl's back. His brow furrowed for just a second but then he quickly pulled the hood over his face and vanished into the crowd. After a while, a second man did the very same thing and then several more, as they went on down the road. Midnight looked at Arragus, unsure if she should speak or not. The Centaur's face was filled with tension. His eyes moved from face to face, carefully examining everyone there. Valrya, to Midnight's left, seemed to be just as calm as ever as she, too, glanced around. Only her hand, the girl noticed, showed any sign of tension, as it closed tightly around the hilt of her sword.
Soon after, the crowd disappeared as the road took a sudden turn to the left. Every now and again, people moved past them, too hurried to even notice their presence at all.
"We have to go back before nightfall." the Centaur whispered so quietly it was difficult for the girl to understand him for a moment. He looked at the ceiling of leaves above them. It wasn't as green as when they had first come through the gates. The sun was going down.
An unpleasant thought crept into her head. Her heart started pounding.
"Go back where? Are you taking me back?"
This time, it was Valrya's voice that broke the silence.
"Don't be ridiculous, how could we do that?" she said, her sharp gaze fixed on the girl's blushing face. "You can't go back."
Midnight's pale face turned even whiter. "What do you mean? Why not?" she fought the urge to stomp her foot like a child.
Valrya sighed, irritated.
"And how would you like to do that? Zarina destroyed your house and nearly destroyed you. And now you know the way in! No place in this world is going to protect you, except for the castle!"
For a moment Midnight fought the sudden urge to start laughing at the woman's words.
"I'm sorry...there's a castle?"
The fairy woman frowned and there was repulsion in her voice as she spoke.
"Fairlings are so ignorant! Where do you think you get your stories from? Everything they know has its roots here, in our world. They think they invented it all! Ignorant..."
Midnight frowned. It seemed odd to her that Valrya hated her people so much, when she was, in fact one of them. Or at least that's what the lizard-man had said...
They turned left and right and right again several times, and with each turn the forest seemed to transform even more. The trees were thick again, but this time she could see animals watching them through the thick bushes. She could even see a few strange looking houses - or at least she thought they were houses. Some were simply huge stomps from trees that had probably fallen a long time ago. Others were carved inside tree trunks and others were made of a strange combination of wood and rocks. Only now and then did she see a regular looking house, made of bricks or wood, with smoke coming out of a little chimney on the roof. They all had large round windows, but Midnight couldn't see any doors.
Looking around at the strange houses and the even stranger faces staring through the windows, she noticed something in the distance, not too far ahead.
"We're almost there..." the Centaur spoke, relieved.
"Is that...the castle?" the girl asked in a shocked voice.
"Part of it, yes."
It was beyond unnatural. From where they were standing the view was more that Midnight could have ever imagined. Right there in front of them, in the middle of a meadow, stood the castle she thought only existed in her Grandmother's fairy tales. Midnight could see the dark towers, like spirals, so tall they almost touched the green ceiling and behind them, a lower, round building with a glass roof. There must have been light inside, because Midnight could see shadows appearing through the glass, like someone was pacing back and forth.
"Well, what do you think?"
"It...it reminds me of the cities Gram used to tell me about in her stories."
The memory of her Grandmother sprung into her head and she moved to brush away a tear. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew the hood of her head and Midnight froze in mid-step. She thought she could hear...but was it possible? Her stomach felt so small for a moment she thought it had disappeared completely. It had only been for a second, but she could have sworn she'd heard whispers. She put her hand on her heart. It was beating rapidly and she suddenly felt stricken with panic, like something terrible had, or was about to happen.
"What is it?"
Valrya's voice was tense. She turned her head to the side, trying to spot anything out of the ordinary. They stood in complete silence for a minute or so, until Midnight's heart slowed down.
"Nothing. I suppose...I must have...I'm just tired."
Valrya eyed her suspiciously but before she could say anything, the Centaur pulled the hood back on Midnight's head and whispered:
"We should get going. No point in staying in one place for too long. And you can't be too tired before you get there."
The girl wondered exactly where she was supposed to get to, but the tense feeling she'd had just moments before quickly chased away any other thought.
They walked the rest of the way in silence. From time to time, the fairy ran ahead to search the area around them, but mostly they stayed close. Midnight's head was still spinning around the voices she had heard. They seemed even more distant to her as she tried to remember them.
Midnight turned her head. The Centaur's eyes were fixed upon her face. He looked worried.
"No, I..." she took a deep breath. "You didn't hear anything before? When...when the wind blew?"
There was a twitch at the corner of the Centaur's lips. His brow furrowed for a moment, but only slightly, before he spoke.
His voice was tense now.
Surprised, Midnight turned to look at him. He wasn't joking.
"Just before...it blew my hood off!" she said, alarmed.
Arragus looked at her for a second, then sighed and smiled reassuringly.
"Sometimes, the forest can play tricks on people. I've been here for a long time, I'm used to it, but it' more difficult to focus when you're tired. Don't think about it. If there was anyone following us, we would have heard them long before you could have. Your hood must have fallen on its own and you thought it was wind blowing through your hair. That's all."
There was small comfort for Midnight in his words, but she decided to leave it at that. It hadn't been the forest, that much she knew. She'd felt it. Those hadn't been just sounds she'd imagined; there was more to it than that. A feeling...unease...worry...fear...
The sound of metal falling against metal broke into her thoughts and Midnight looked up from under her hood, startled. Two men wearing heavy-looking metallic armors were walking toward them. One of them had long red hair, braided to one side of his head. He was taller than the other. A bow was swinging on his right shoulder and there were five arrows in his quiver. The other man, although shorter than the first, was definitely stronger. He had a hood over his head and it covered most of his face, except for his eyes. He kept looking back to the castle, like something dangerous was about to come out of there, but then he saw the three up ahead and stopped. His companion did the same. They stood there for a second and Midnight's heart started racing, but, almost immediately, they turned around and stomped angrily out of sight.
"I don't like this." the Centaur spoke in a concerned tone of voice.
"Me neither. Something must have happened."
"In only two nights?"
Concern had now turned into alarm.
"We should wait until we get inside before we jump to any conclusions, Arragus. It's safer. But yes. I'm not surprised. We're almost inside, let's not waste time."
They passed the tall spiral-shaped towers and even some lower buildings which Midnight hadn't noticed before and she knew immediately that they were on castle grounds. The road quickly started filling with people going left and right, but nobody was paying attention to the three travelers. No one stopped to talk anymore, no one even bothered to exchange greetings with anyone else. They all went about their business, their expressions stern and suspicious. Midnight felt the heavy tension but before she could think about it too much, Valrya pulled her hand.
Arragus grabbed both her shoulders and pushed her through a tall door. Surprised, Midnight stumbled and fell flat on her face.
"Whoops. Easy does it. You should really pay more attention."
The Centaur bent to pick her up while somewhere, someone started laughing. Still on her knees, Midnight looked up to meet four pairs of eyes watching her intently. She blushed and struggled to get up, but she was so tangled in Valrya's cloak she couldn't even move. Someone giggled loudly. She looked up again and saw a boy and a girl leave the group, pointing at her and whispering. The other two, also a boy and a girl, shot them an angry look and went in the opposite direction.
"Come on!" barked Valrya, pulling Midnight up and straightening the cloak. She put her hand on the girl's shoulder, pushing her along.
"Once you're inside, you'll have to meet the Council members," her voice was just a low whisper, "and then someone will escort you to your quarters. Until then, you do not speak to anyone else. You do not do other than instructed and you do not ask any questions. Understood?"
The fairy woman's eyes looked into Midnight's for so long the girl felt they could have burned a hole right through her head. She nodded and Valrya's grip tightened.
Just as she spoke, something caught Midnight's attention and she gasped. The castle itself was a beauty beyond anything she could have ever imagined. It shot up into the sky and seemed to go on forever. It was made up of a solid stone base, but after a few levels it separated into hundreds of towers and other smaller constructions interconnected by a web of bridges and stairs. An armed guard stepped out on the ledge, looking down at them, but Valrya dismissed him with a move of her hand and stepped through the tall black doors. So did Midnight.
The room they entered was round and very large. A glass ceiling stretched above their heads and the light that came through it gave the floor a greenish color. On the left, partially obscured by the darkness, was a marble staircase, spiraling up and out of sight. The marble shone in the green light, but it didn't give off the color with the same intensity as the floor. It only glowed faintly, almost unnoticed.
Suddenly, a wave of voices swept over them. Midnight started and gasped but the Centaur didn't seem to be too impressed by the event. Instead, he glared at her like it was the first time he noticed she was there. The voices were all just echoes now, but Midnight had felt them, their anger and despair, and it made her shiver.
"Time to move on" Arragus said, pointing at the marble staircase. Midnight started to climb a few steps but then turned around, confused:
The Centaur laughed and looked at his legs.
"No can do. Stairs don't sit well with four legged things like me."
"But then...which way do I go?"
"Oh, well...They said you'd be okay on your own. I didn't understand it, either, but Marcus knows these things better than me. I guess I'll be seeing you, then."
He smiled and raised a hand, waving at the girl. The next moment he ran back out through the doors.
Still not convinced, Midnight turned to face the darkness ahead. Taking a deep breath, she climbed another step and became completely still in the blackness that now surrounded her.
Then she understood what they had meant by 'being okay on her own'. It was an odd feeling, like the steps vibrated below her feet every time she touched them with her shoes. Suddenly, there was no more darkness. It was as if she had connected with the marble steps somehow; she could see - or rather sense them in her mind, much in the way she could sometimes tell there was a candle burning in a room without opening her eyes. The stairs just seemed to light up as she touched them. Intrigued, she took another step and the marble below her foot began lighting up in her mind, while the previous step faded away. It wasn't easy, and it certainly came over-hand, but it also intrigued her.
Every now and then, when she stepped in a certain spot, she could feel a sudden burst of emotion hitting her square in the chest. Sometimes it was worry; sometimes she could almost hear a faint girlish laughter. She was still annoyed at the fact that no one had seemed to be even slightly bothered by these sudden sounds like she was, but before she could think about it for too long, Midnight reached the top of the stairs and was forced to once again direct all her attention to what had now lit up in her mind. It looked - or felt - like a long corridor, but she could only see the floor, stretching out and fading away ahead of her, like it was completely suspended in mid-air. A draft of wind caught in her hair, swirling it around her head and more echoes burst in her mind.
'Should be her...'
'Just plain useless...'
'Patient...soon be discovered...safe...'
Unlike the other times, these voices seemed to hang around her, growing louder as she tried to walk forward through the corridor. They had now become more or less a mixture of sounds and words that Midnight tried desperately to ignore, as their intensity made her lose focus and stumble.
Suddenly, there was a cracking noise below her and a sound so intense and loud flooded her mind, Midnight clutched her head with her hands. It was the sound of someone screaming louder than she had ever heard anyone scream. It seemed almost inhuman, like they were being tortured past all reasoning by something, or someone invisible to Midnight's eyes. The fierceness of the scream made her so dizzy she stumbled aside, falling into what she thought was complete darkness. She screamed and her voice echoed in her own mind.
Instead, hands forward, Midnight touched another rough surface. The surprise and the shock caused her to jump back, a little discouraged. The small wall lit up in her mind but it faded as she pulled away. The scream inside her head had also disappeared, leaving Midnight in a frightening silence. Slowly, she put her hands up in front of her, reaching out until she could feel the wall again. She needed to touch the surface, Midnight realized, to be able to see it like she did the floor.
"How strange." she found herself saying. Both the wall and the ground seemed to vibrate at the sound and then Midnight could hear her own voice again, only this time it felt like she was witnessing the moment rather than hearing another distant echo. For only a fraction of a second, she could see a red-headed girl, propped up with her hands against the wall, speaking those very same words. Then the image was gone. Still holding one hand on the surface of the wall, she turned and continued to walk forward. Every now and then her hand touched something harder inside the wall, like a small metal figurine of some sort, but she paid little attention to it. Her head had begun to feel heavy and she'd begun to lose control over her newly found power. By the time she reached the end of the corridor there were moments the floor disappeared altogether from her head, leaving her feeling suspended in mid-air.
As she took the last step, Midnight's foot hit something hard. Harder than wood, but not metal...Her exhausted mind didn't react to the new object and she was forced to grope around until she could figure out that she was standing in front of a door of some kind. After a moment, she was able to find the handle and turned it. The door opened noiselessly.
Behind it, a series of torches lit up another narrow passageway. Trying to get adjusted to the light, Midnight leaned against the door which, as she was now able to tell, was made of marble. She could still feel the floor underneath her feet, even with all the light around her. It was even more confusing than walking around in the dark only with faint shadows to guide her. Now that she could see perfectly well, the extra-sense was making Midnight anxious and a little disoriented. It wasn't until her eyes became adjusted to the light that she really noticed what set this place apart from all the other parts of the castle she had seen.
Looking closer, she noticed carvings in the walls: strange letters and symbols that she did not recognize, and something else engraved in the stone...Curious, Midnight grabbed a torch and brought it as close as she could to the markings in the wall. There were five of them, repeatedly engraved over the entire stone surface: two vines intertwined like two chain rings - one vine bearing leaves, the other one thorns; three adjacent diamonds forming the shape of a crown, each one marked differently - a wavy line on the middle one, a zigzag line on the one on the left and a straight line on the one on the right. She fought back a smile at the third symbol: a sword pointing upwards, through a spiraling line finished in an arrow tip. Midnight had recognized the sword, for the fairy woman had a very similar one. The fourth and fifth symbols were set higher than the rest. One of them was the symbol of a winged serpent, wrapped around itself and biting its tail, while the other one represented a stallion, with its front legs raised in the air and a quiver dangling around its waist, looking like it was about to charge. As she walked along the wall, the symbols appeared over and over again. Sometimes one, sometimes more, but always followed by a series of strange letters that the girl couldn't read. From time to time, Midnight thought she could see a sixth symbol, but the markings were so worn out by time, that she couldn't understand what it stood for.
Suddenly, the writing stopped and the stone became smooth again. Surprised, Midnight lifted the torch up in front of her. Before her eyes, the hallway split into two corridors, both dark and unusually quiet.
"They said you'd be okay on your own."
She hadn't understood it before, but now...She lifted her hand, putting it on the left corridor's wall. Instantly, her eyes snapped shut and images began to form in Midnight's mind.
She could see a man. He looked very, very old, his simple robe hanging loose on his tall, thin body. He, too, held a torch in his hand and Midnight noticed an odd scar on the back of his palm. He was running, his shallow breath echoing in the little corridor. The fear that he felt flooded her head; its intensity was almost maddening and Midnight automatically let her hand slide off the wall.
She stumbled back, her teeth chattering violently, her heart almost beating its way out of her chest until the images died from her mind completely. Taking a deep breath, she moved on to the wall of the corridor opening to her right, touching the cold hard stone just slightly with the tip of her fingers.
This time, Midnight's mind relaxed as the scene unfolded before her. It felt like she was floating through the air as she watched a group of people enter the hallway. The first one she recognized as Arragus, the Centaur. The next one was a tall, pale woman, with a sword swinging on a thick, metal belt. Midnight knew it was Valrya, although her face was hidden behind her long silver hair. She held a pouch in her hand, making a very distinct metallic noise as she walked with it. The third one was a rather short, funny-looking man. His head was bald and red, except for a handful of green hair right in the middle of it, pointing up. Even his walking style was ridiculous. He took short, quick steps, gasping for air as he walked, trying to keep up with the others. Compared to Valrya and the Centaur, he was indeed small; the top of his head would have barely reached Midnight's shoulder. He wore a long, green robe that reflected the light from the gigantic torch he was holding - which made him look even stranger - but, as he turned, Midnight noticed the symbol on his right sleeve: interconnected vines decorated with leaves. Another woman came after him and, as she walked into the light, Midnight gasped. She was incredibly beautiful. Her hair was a black so intense it threw off the light around her and it fell around her head in neat, wavy lines, curling slightly just below her shoulders. Three strands of her hair were braided and pulled together with a round, sharp pin with a pearl at one end. She wore a long, red dress slit on both sides up the entire length of her legs, swaying around her when she walked.
The woman turned around and Midnight noticed that she had large, round eyes, just like the girls in the marketplace. Looking closer, she noticed her dress was made up of millions of little diamond shapes that made a singing-sound as she moved. Another little man appeared in the now dim light. At least, Midnight thought it was a man, from the sound of his voice, because his face was hidden under a large purple hood. He was a bit shorter than the other one, but not by much. He had a torch in his hand, too and as he bent, the symbols on his sleeve became clear in the light: two vines set widely apart, each one bearing thorns.
"Brohand," the woman spoke coldly. She took the torch from him and they walked away together.
Before the light from their torch could die completely, another man stepped into the corridor. He looked old and, Midnight thought, much like the frightened man she'd seen the first time. He had a long dark - blue beard and his hands were long and skinny. In a slow, deliberate move, he turned around and looked at the walls of the corridor. For a second, he stood there, almost completely in the dark. His hand moved over the stone wall as he spoke to the air around him.
"We'll be at the end if you need us."
Midnight let her hand slip from the wall. It was painfully stiff and her fingers were cold from touching the stone. She rubbed her shoulder, realizing she's been there for quite a while. The corridor ahead of her didn't look much more welcoming than the other, Midnight thought to herself, holding up the torch. Well, at least she wasn't lost.