Jerak proved a marvelous source of information about the various creatures and plants around Phantasm. He carefully pointed out to me the fabulous venim (veh-nim) plant, which he said would preserve anything it touched in its current state. Sick people ingesting venim would remain alive, but still sick; creatures would not age; clothes stored in venim sprigs would not wear. Jerak spoke as if this was all a bad thing.
“But why is it so horrible?” I asked, “It sounds as if this venim plant is the thing of immortality.”
Jerak wagged his head, “No creature is ever meant to be immortal, changeless, ageless. Everything in the world changes over time, even the mountains. Without change, time is meaningless, life is meaningless.”
I understood what he meant, and suddenly I saw the wisdom of his words.
The sun set quite abruptly before we were halfway on our journey. Jerak stopped alongside the road and said, “This would be a good place to rest for the night.”
No sooner had we gotten comfortable, with Jerak laying on the ground, and my head resting against his side for a warm, soft pillow, than the sky fell absolutely dark. I looked around. There was no moon, and no stars, no light whatever. I observed this aloud to Jerak. He scoffed and said it was perfectly normal.
“Surely you don’t expect the Moon-Beems to have the Moon in the middle of the sky right after sundown,” he pointed out.
I shrugged, not quite sure what he meant; was the moon of Phantasm supported on celestial beams of some sort? “In my world,” I said, “the moon is always visible, only more difficult to see in the daytime because the sun is so much brighter. And even when there is no moon, one can always see stars.”
“How strange!” Jerak responded, and at that moment, the bright, glowing Moon rose above the peaks of the mountains. I gasped; it was much bigger than Earth’s moon, and there were small glowing creatures running all about its surface, giving a sparkling, moving appearance.
“What are those?” I asked Jerak.
He jerked as if he had been sleeping when I spoke to him. “Moon-Beems; the Moon is their hive, and they work after nightfall. Their movement is what makes the moon rise.”
As I watched, the Moon-Beems raced around the craters of the Moon, in and out, and all around. Every so often, a glittery flake of Moon-surface would peel away from the moon, and seemed to hang in the air, glittering still, like a star. By the time I fell asleep, there were hundreds of these stars in the sky.
Jerak woke me the next morning, we had a bit of fruit and farran-wheat (sort of a cross between corn, oats, and wheat-berries; a very sweet, crunchy texture, with an oaty aftertaste) for breakfast, and set off down the road again.
A few hours later, just when I was about ready to propose another break, a newcomer ran up from behind us.
“Hold up a minute, friends!” he huffed, struggling on his stocky legs to reach us. Jerak and I stopped and turned to him. He was a dwarf, no more than three and a half feet tall, and covered in dust, as if he had come a great distance. He carried large pack with many utensils and tools hanging from it on his back. His clothing consisted of random patches of many different weights and grades of fabric, giving him a very mottled, rag-tag appearance. His eyes twinkled merrily as he winked at us.
“And where might you two be a-goin’?” he asked in a bass voice emanating from somewhere within his thick brown beard.
“Good Dwarf,” Jerak greeted him as formal as ever, “We are on the way to the nearest dwarf-town, my companion and I. My name is Jerak, and this is Laura…a human.”
The dwarf’s eyebrows lifted so I could actually see the whites of his eyes. “Y’don’t say!” he gasped. “Well, it just so happens that I live in the dwarf-town that lies this way. If’n y’don’t mind, I’d be right glad o’ the company, if ya’d travel with me. My name’s Galen.”
“How much further is it to the town, Galen?” I asked. I wondered if dwarves were really as resilient as all the books said they were; at any rate, I knew my legs were ready to fall off!
“If all goes well, we should be there before the moonrise,” Galen announced.
We started off, but a small voice in my head spoke up: What does he mean, “if”?
We walked on through the day. Galen led us across a field. He pointed to a tree line on the horizon. “That there’s the last glade, and then we’ll see the town.”
I looked up at the sky. The sun was already fast approaching the mountaintops. I wondered if we would indeed make it before “moonrise.”
The sky was golden by the time we reached the edge of the glade. The shadows among the trees were deeper, but Galen paused, pulled a lantern out of his pack, and lit it. We trekked through the glade by the cheery light of the little lamp. Even so, I was on the lookout for more imps as we passed through the trees. At last, we reached the edge of the glade, but the sky was already dark. Galen stopped to look at the sky.
“Blast,” he muttered, “that took longer than I thought it would.”
I learned then that on Phantasm, there was apparently a space of time between the actual darkness of “nightfall” and the phenomenon they called “moonrise,” when the Beems would begin their work and the glowing hive would rise from the mountains. The sun had set, but the moon had not yet risen. It was pitch black, except for the light of Galen’s lantern.
“Look!” he cried, and I saw his stubby finger pointing past the lantern into the distance. Peering hard, I could just make out several points of light, like the windows of cottages. “There’s the dwarf-town!”
Seeing this gave new strength to my over-weary limbs. “Let’s go, then!” Who knew what sort of beastly creature roamed the dark of Phantasm before moonrise?
“What’s that over there?” Jerak’s voice came out of the darkness a little ways behind us. Galen swung the lantern over to the right, and we could see the light of a small bonfire ahead; it was just a little ways off from a straight path to the town, and anyway, if we wanted to investigate it, we could just take a more convex route than the one we were currently on.
“I’m not sure,” I began, but Galen waved me off.
“I smell meat cooking; it’s probably a band of gypsy trolls.”
I glanced at the dwarf, “Are trolls mean creatures?”
“Ehh,” Galen shrugged his round shoulders, “they’re nice enough, as long as you’re polite.” He chuckled, “And they’re born entertainers!”
I glanced back toward the town. “I don’t know about you two,” I said at last, “but I could really use a break and a warm meal. Let’s go pay the trolls a visit, then we can continue on toward the town when the moon rises.”
“Sounds good to me,” Galen agreed. “Jerak? What about you?”
Jerak tossed his mane, thinking over the situation, “Well, I suppose one small detour would not hurt,” he said.
“Let’s go, then!” Galen cried lustily.
We trekked all the way across that long field in the blackness. As we neared the fire, enough to make out the burly creatures that looked for all the world like crumpled masses of flesh-colored clay, one of them stood and placed himself between us and the fire.
“What be you doin’ ‘ere?” he demanded in a gravelly voice. The firelight glinted off the gold ring in his triangular ear.
“Hold off,” Galen cried, stepping forward, “we mean no harm. We are only weary travelers looking for a place to rest till moonrise. I met the unicorn and the human on my way to town.”
All the buzz of conversation that had been happening between the trolls ceased. The burly one reached around and planted a hand on my back, pushing me closer to the light of the fire.
“A human, eh?” he looked me over, pulling at my clothes (covered in dust from the road and slime from the vines) and running the ends of my hair through his pudgy fingers. “Well…I ain’t never seen the like! She’s a rare creature, all right!” He turned to Galen, “Can she talk?”
“Of course I can!” I answered for myself. “May I sit down, please?”
I didn’t like the way the burly troll leered at me; perhaps they were not evil, but they certainly didn’t strike me as friendly! He gestured toward an open seat behind me, “Yes, we’d be delighted to have you join us.”
I sat between two squat trolls. They grunted in greeting and continued slurping huge bowls of strong-smelling soup.
“My name is Griggum,” the big troll said, resuming his seat. “Welcome, strangers.”
I glanced at Jerak, wondering if it would be proper to return the favor and introduce ourselves, but the unicorn remained silent. After the meal, the troll on my right pulled out a squeezebox and began playing a slow tune. For the first time in a while, I was actually comfortable, the fire was warm and bright, and the music was gentle…
I blinked at the realization that I was suddenly chilled to the bone. I wanted to wrap my arms around myself, but my hands had been mysteriously tied behind my back. I remembered how Galen had said the trolls were magical folk; no doubt the music had contained some sort of charm to lull me into a trance. Now I found myself bound yet again, for the second time in two days. This time, it was rough troll-rope rubbing my skin raw. I saw Jerak, miserably hobbled, himself. In fact, the only free creatures were the trolls—and the dwarf who had brought us there. I glared at him.
“Galen!” I cried, “How could you do this?”
Galen only shrugged, “Sorry, human; I enjoyed your company while it lasted, but—“ he broke off and stroked the large bag of gold Griggum had given him.
“Awwright,” the nearest troll ordered, hauling me as far upright as he could. Being only three feet high, I ended up in a sort of leaning squat over him as he dragged me toward the wagon. “Inta there wit’ ya!”
He half-tossed me toward the steps at the edge, barring the way with his thick arms so I had nowhere to go but up. Once I was inside, three trolls followed me, while Griggum and his partner tied Jerak to the back of the wagon, cleaned up camp, and sat on the bench at the front of the wagon to drive.
I didn’t like the way the trolls—once so quaint and charming—leered evilly at me.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“We’re going to the dark towns,” the biggest one answered, “That’s where all the Underworlders live, since the sun don’t shine over there.”
“Underworlders?” Whatever they were, it didn’t sound pleasant at all.
“Yeah, minotaurs, ogres, goblins, and the like; they’ve found a way to the surface, see, and they can’t get back, so they stay in the dark towns.”
“And we come by,” another troll chimed in, “whenever we gets an opportunity, and we give them a little entertainment!”
The burly one nudged him, “How much you figger we’ll get for the human show?”
The second troll grinned, “Twice as much as usual, and if we get the gryphon, twice as much again!”
I blinked, “Gryphon?” The word squeaked out, I was so unaccustomed to saying it, “there are gryphons in this world?”
The burly troll kicked me, “Hey, shaddup, human, or I’ll stuff my sock in your mouth! O’course there are gryphons; darn nuisances!” He turned back toward the smaller troll. “And we are going to get one! Griggum has the trap all laid, right where it comes. We’ll get it, all right, and tomorrow night, when we put on the show, oh! We’ll make it squawk!”
We had not been driving for more than ten minutes when I heard Griggum shout, and the wagon suddenly took off at an alarming speed. I almost fancied I could hear the sounds of horses behind us as well as the pained whinny of the ponies up front. After a while, the wagon rolled to a stop. Griggum stuck his wrinkled head into the wagon.
“Unicorn patrols,” he said quickly, “I can’t shake ‘em; we need to make a scrape for it.”
“What about the prisoners?”
“Cut the milk-horn loose,” Griggum ordered frantically, “and—“
A loud, insistent neigh wafted over the open plain. I could hear the drumming of a hundred hooves.
“Garn!” Griggum swore, “Chuck the human! We can’t be caught with it!”
The burly troll stood and lifted me hand and foot completely off the ground. “Chuck it where?” he said, as Griggum’s partner rolled up the cloth on the side of the wagon. I saw that we were very near a body of water.
“In the Lake!” Griggum cried, as the voice of the Chief Unicorn could be heard.
“Halt! It is I, Undaglen, Guardian of the Lake! I command you, come forth!”
I just barely heard Griggum trying to appease the unicorns as I sailed about three feet through the air before hitting the water with a heavy splash. I wiggled as much as I could to stay above water, but the bonds were too tight, and I could not keep myself afloat. The last thing I heard was the unicorn’s reaction to the sound of my body hitting the water, but I sank below the surface before anyone could see me.
The sun provided some light as I sank deeper into the clear water (it was clear, but not icy), but what good was light when I was running out of air and could not move? I jerked as something bumped against my back. I tried to twist my body to see what it was, but whatever it was had already disappeared into the depths. I actually reached out to steady myself in the water before I realized that the bump I felt was someone releasing me from the troll rope! I tried to swim into the shadows (not that easy with my legs still tied) to see what it was, but I had to give up because I was running out of air. I tried to tuck my legs closer, to see if I could untie the rope from around my ankles (very difficult, since troll-rope has no ends; it is woven around a bound thing by magic), but just then, something began moving out of the shadows, headed straight toward me! I jerked out straight to confront it, but the huge creature (easily ten feet long, at least! Much larger than I) made straight for my ankles, and I felt a bump again. I looked down, and my feet were free! My lungs were nearly bursting at this point, so I tried to kick my legs and wave my arms, hoping to get enough momentum to carry me toward the surface—to no avail. Every movement just made me sink lower. I was losing strength; it was becoming harder to hold my mouth closed against the water. I saw the creature come toward me again, this time from behind, and I felt long limbs wrap around me like a blanket—a wet, fish-like blanket.
A webbed hand, palm planted against my neck and fingers firmly gripping my jaw so I could not move, held my face still as the other hand, holding a leaf of some sort, smeared it across my face. It left behind a snot-like jelly coating my nose, mouth and chin. The arms did not resist as I pushed against them, wanting to get a good look at my new captor before I passed out from lack of oxygen.
I saw, but I could not comprehend. The creature before me was neither fish nor human, but a mix of both, and very tall (or long, as the case may be), too fish-like to be described in human terms, and too humanlike to be dismissed as a mere fish. She had bulbous eyes, gills instead of a nose, and a mouth constantly in motion. Violet hair was piled on top of her head, bound and fastened by strands of seaweed and starfish. She maintained her position by softly waving colorful fins spanning the space between her arms and her sides. The legs were separate, but each ended in a long fin, like flippers. I banked on the creature’s desire to rescue me as I waved my hands, trying to signal that I wanted to be taken up closer to the surface.
The creature only peered at me in what could only be construed (having no eyelids or eyebrows) as annoyance.
“Speak; you are a human, this I know, else the trolls would not discard you in this fashion. You may breathe air without fear, for I have spread uandino over your mouth. My name is Shirill, and I am a mermaid.”
My mouth flew open on its own, and I felt a sudden heaving rush of air enter my lungs—but no water. I stretched my lips as far as they would go, but the gel over my mouth did not even crack. I could breathe normally with the coating on my lips, just like Shirill had said.
“My name is Laura,” I told her. “Thank you for rescuing me.”
Shirill smiled and turned her back toward me. “The rescue is not complete yet. Hold fast, Laura, and I will take you to the surface.”
I wrapped my arms around her neck, taking care that I would not choke her, and with a powerful kick of her foot-fins, Shirill propelled us toward the surface of the water.
I gasped when my head broke the surface. Shirill arced her back, so that I could remain above the water and catch my breath without causing her to come above the water herself. We seemed to be in a water-filled cove of some sort. I gripped the jagged rocks at the edge, but I had no strength in my arms to pull myself up. Just then, I felt Shirill underneath me, grabbing my legs and giving me the necessary boost upwards. I hauled myself onto the rock and sat there, soaking wet and panting heavily.
“Thank you, Shirill,” I said.
Shirill smiled at me from beneath the water. “Humans are a rare breed,” she said, “we merfolk have seen many such breeds die out over time, because the species have no care for each other.”
“What do you mean?”
“The dwarves will not help the gryphons, the fairies will not venture to help just any wounded unicorn, the giants, well—“
Giants? I had not met any giants yet. “How do you know so much about the other creatures if you cannot leave the water?”
Shirill blew a stream of bubbles that sounded like gentle laughter as they broke on the surface. “There are waterways under the ground all over Phantasm. True, there is only one Lake, but that Lake is the water source for any body of water in the world.” She paused, “That reminds me.”
Shirill swam away for a moment, and returned with something white in her hands. She handed it to me. It looked like a small clam, but the shell was translucent and waxy, almost like plastic.
“What is this?” I asked her.
“It is called a meir; it is a sort of shelled creature that we merfolk use for communication.”
I examined the shell, but I could see no way it could possibly aid in communication. I couldn’t even get the thing open. “How does it work?”
“Place it under the water,” Shirill explained, “and the shell will open and emit a high-pitched squeal that only merfolk can hear. I have memorized the sound of this one. Wherever there is a body of water, place the meir in it, and I will come to you, wherever you are.”
“Sounds like the merfolk are the only ones who aren’t restricted to one location, but truly inhabit the world around,” I observed, tucking the strange white shell in my pocket.
Shirill somersaulted thoughtfully, “I suppose,” she said, “though there are Unicorn Guardians for every species; yet the unicorns still keep mostly to themselves and others like them. There are different-colored horns, you know.”
I crossed my ankles and pulled my knees to my chest to conserve body heat. “Really?” I prompted the mermaid. “Like purple and orange and such?”
“No,” Shirill corrected me, “Not quite; there are five colors: blue, green, gold, silver, and red. The color of the horn signifies the region and the species the unicorn must protect: blue is for the Lake and the Mer-folk, Green for the Meadowglades and the Little Folk, Gold for the Dwarf-towns, Silver for the gryphons in the mountains…” her voice dropped respectfully, “And the Red-horned unicorn guards the Phantasmagyth.”
“Phantasma-what?” I asked, but just then I heard a familiar voice calling my name.
“Laura! Laura! Are you in there?”
I turned around. “Jerak?” At first I could not tell where his voice came from, but just then I noticed that the cove did not consist of this one area, but extended further back into the shadows.
“There is an exit onto land back there,” Shirill confirmed, “Fare you well, Laura!”
“Thank you, Shirill!” I said, and ran toward the sound of Jerak’s voice.
The unicorn was very relieved to see me.
“Ah, Laura!” he cried, “I would have never forgiven myself if I had lost you for good! We were lucky those Unicorns came when they did. How did you escape the troll-rope?”
Speaking of unicorns reminded me of what I had just learned from Shirill. I looked at Jerak’s horn: milk-white and velvety. “Shirill the mermaid saved me,” I told him.
“A mermaid?” Jerak was almost disgusted at the mention, “Well, I suppose it’s all right.”
“Jerak,” I continued, “She told me that unicorns have different-colored horns that mean different things. What does yours mean?”
Jerak’s body stiffened; evidently I had hit on a sore subject. “Well, Laura, it appears that you, being a human, are not safe around dwarves. I am afraid we must abandon our present course and return to the Fairy Glade.”
I could see that he did not want to talk about horns just now. I remembered how young elk with new horns had the same velvety covering.
“You’re very young, aren’t you?” I hinted gently that I knew.
Jerak sniffed in frustration, “Not young, just—not assigned, yet.”
“When will that be?”
“Good gracious!” He burst out, “Why should a human concern herself with the traditions of unicorns?”
“All right, fine,” I replied, “We’ll leave that alone for now. But I must tell you, Jerak, that I learned something in the back of the trolls’ wagon.”
“What did you learn, human?” He wasn’t calling me Laura anymore; he was still angry with me.
“They’ve trapped a gryphon and they’re going to put him on display like they wanted to display us.”
Jerak didn’t break his stride, “So?”
Shirill was right; the different species didn’t care for each other. “Don’t we want to work out some sort of rescue?”
“Why should we? It would only mean trouble… and I wouldn’t want to be caught by the trolls a second time!”
Now was my turn to sigh in annoyance, “But what if you end up a Mountain Guardian? Wouldn’t you want to rescue the gryphon to perhaps earn their respect?”
“If I am their Guardian, they will have no choice but to respect me!”
We had just entered a clearing when Jerak stopped in his tracks. I wondered if I had gone too far harping on his attitude, but he tilted his ears forward, listening intently.
“Laura,” he warned me, “hold very still, something is—“
Before he could finish, a shadow passed over us, and a very large object (or creature) landed at the edge of the clearing, right in front of us. As the dust settled, I found myself staring right in the face of a young—
“Dragon!” I gasped, unable to stop myself.