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The Silver Scepter


It was now the fourteenth day of Bell’s unusual surroundings. She currently lived in an elegant bedroom with the occasional company of Madam Riana, her kindly old servant. What happened more than two weeks ago just would not come back to her. The sum of her knowledge right now was that her name was Bell, and she was ten years old.

Bell idly stroked a familiar doll for a while until the usual ruffling came from the hallway. Madam Riana entered the room with a tray full of breakfast food.

"Good morning!" she greeted cheerfully, setting the lavish meal on the nightstand. "I hope you like waffles, Bell."

"I’m going to ask you again," Bell said firmly. "Where am I?"

Riana sighed. "The Realm of the Glowing Hills, dear. That is all you need to know."

Bell shrugged, coming to the usual conclusion that she would not get any more information from her sweet servant. Pondering, she stuffed syrup-soaked bits of her waffle into her mouth. All she remembered was waking up in this very room two weeks ago. She recognized her own name and many of the toys adorning her room, but the room itself was completely new to her.

"I’ll just have to find out for myself," she finally decided, finishing the last of her breakfast and gulping down some orange juice.

She stood and took a look out the enormous window. Beyond a tall wall below, the foothills of this strange land glowed in pastels. Apparently, she resided in an enormous house. Perhaps you’d call it a palace. It did not matter, since Bell rarely got to go very far from her room. Her only breaks included trips to the bathroom.

After slipping off her nightgown and pulling on a plain but hardy brown outfit, she glanced out her room door. To the right, there was an ominous looking door she often thought better of worrying with. Down the other way was an elegant hallway not unlike her room, but she would like to know what else was in this place.

So she went. Stepping lightly on the shiny floor tiles, she cautiously peered down the corridors, hoping not to be once again caught by Madam Riana or whoever else there may be in this place to prevent satisfying her aching curiosities.

Bell passed more winding corridors, all decorated with fancy wallpaper and finished wood tables holding flower bouquets. Just as she began to suspect the entire house consisted of winding halls that led nowhere, she heard something in the distance. Getting closer, she decided she was hearing a baby crying.

Just as she came to a hallway identical to the one just outside her own room, except there was no ominous door, she realized there was someone in the room with the fussy baby.

"Now, now," came Madam Riana’s soothing tone from inside the baby’s room. "Calm down, Annalisa. Go to sleep."

When Riana’s footsteps approached the doorway, Bell looked around to find a hiding place. Desperate, she dived into a fancy urn next to the bathroom. Riana left the baby’s room with no notice of Bell’s presence. When the sound of footsteps faded entirely, Bell wriggled back out of the urn, careful not to knock it over. Holding it in place once she got out, she turned into the bedroom.

The room looked much like her own, but instead of a big comfy bed, there was a brass crib. Above the crib on the wall hung a beautiful tapestry with the name "Annalisa" sewn into it. In the crib, a 10-month-old baby girl watched her.

"Hi," Bell greeted her meekly.

Annalisa laughed happily in response.

"Glad to have some company, huh?" Bell continued. "I don’t blame you. I’m quite lonely myself. I don’t suppose you could tell me what’s going on here?" She smirked as the littler girl continued to gaze at her silently. "I didn’t think so."

Suddenly, there were some footsteps in the hallway again. Bell crawled under the crib, hidden behind the lacy border around the bottom of it. Just when she was concealed, Madam Riana entered the room and walked straight to the crib.

"Still awake, my dear?" she asked Annalisa. "Well, you can just take your nap later then. I’m not sure how your mother cares for you exactly. If all goes well, you should be able to return to your parents soon enough, but I’m afraid things are looking grim at home. You may have to stay here." Riana made a heavy sigh, and her voice became hoarse. "I wish I didn’t have to one day tell you about your homeland, about the terror happening right now, but your parents are glad you are safe, regardless of what happens to them."

Annalisa began to fuss again.

Riana tore a tissue from a nearby box and dabbed her own eyes. "I’m sorry, Annalisa. Your parents are so sorry for what you are going through. Then again, your brother and sister are to lose out on quite a bit as well. You’re all such sweet children. I hate to see these things, these evil things, befall such wonderful children as yourselves." Sighing heavily, Riana scurried out of the room and down the hall. When her footsteps died down, Bell emerged, causing Annalisa to laugh again.

"Do you recognize me?" Bell asked her eagerly, although Annalisa couldn’t answer her. "You’re my little sister, aren’t you!" She pondered for a moment. "Our parents! I can’t believe this! Why can’t I remember who they are?" She sat in a white rocking chair by the window, thinking over what she just heard. "Annalisa, I think we’re from some kingdom that is endangered somehow. We have a brother, too, I gather. He must be around here somewhere." She jumped up and paced the floor. "What could be so wrong with our home land?"

Annalisa watched her in intrigue.

"You know what?" Bell concluded. "I’m going to find out for myself. I’ll find our brother. I’ll find out why I can’t remember anything. I’ll find out where we are from and who our parents are. Most of all, I’ll learn why we are here in the first place." With that, she patted Annalisa on the head gently and left the room.

Once again, she cautiously traversed the fancy corridors, relieved to realize she knew her way back to both her own room and to Annalisa. These new hallways looked just like the others. Finally, she came to another section like the one outside her room, also without an ominous door.

"What do you want for lunch, Edward?" came Madam Riana’s voice from this bedroom.

"I’m not hungry," replied a young boy.

"It is almost time for lunch. Pick something."

"I don’t want anything."

Riana sighed. "Very well. I shall ask later."

Once again, Bell dived into a nearby urn just as Madam Riana exited the boy’s room and disappeared down the hall. When she was gone, Bell emerged from the urn and peered into the room. Sitting in the middle of the room was a 5-year-old boy. He was fidgeting with a toy wizard.

"Hello," Bell greeted, stepping into the room slowly.

Edward gasped. "Whoa! Who are you?"

"I’m Bell. I live down the hall somewhere."

The boy stood up. "I asked Madam Riana about the baby I heard crying. She told me I heard nothing of the sort, but I know what I heard."

Bell nodded. "I see. You’ve been just as disrespected as I. Have you any knowledge of our parents?"

"She won’t tell me anything about them either."

"Here’s what I do know," she volunteered. "You’re my brother. The baby is our sister, Annalisa."

"Oh," Edward replied. "I thought I had sisters. I wasn’t sure. I am sure we do have parents, but I don’t remember."

"Me neither."

“Want to play with me, Bell?” he invited, picking up his figurines. “I’ve got a big collection of witches and wizards. Mordack. Manannan. Hagatha. Erasmus. Erana. Lolotte. Malicia. Crispinophur. Gandalf. Saruman. Merlin. Baba Yaga. Oz. Let’s have a fight between Hagatha and Baba Yaga. It'll be fun.”

“Sounds like it. But I can’t. Madam Riana may have figured out I’m not in my room. I could get in trouble.”

“Why can’t we play together?” Edward complained. “I don’t get why she’s keeping us apart like this. Why didn’t I know you and Annalisa were here?”

“I don’t know and I intend to find out. Our parents are in danger, Edward. I do not know what kind of danger, but our home land is in serious trouble. I think we’re here for protection.”

Edward stood up. “We have to save our parents.”

“What?”

“Don’t you think so, Bell? There were brave heroes who defeated the evil mages and aided the good ones. Someone has to save our mum and dad. It should be us.”

Bell pursed her lips in thought. “You know, Edward, that’s not a bad idea. I’m going to find out more. You wait here.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m not sure. I’ll figure something out.”

Stealthily, Bell returned to her own room, just in time for Madam Riana to come in with her lunch tray.

“Are you well, my dear?” Riana asked.

“Uh, sure. I’ve been sitting here.”

“Nonsense.”

“What! I’m speaking the truth.”

“Speaking the truth is a good habit. I desire it. But not yet. There is something going on, and your parents did not want you to know about it until the time is right.”

“What?”

“I cannot say.”

Bell sighed. “I saw Edward and Annalisa. I heard you talking. I know they are my brother and sister. Why did I not know?”

Riana ground her teeth and for a full minute did not speak. “It is about time you found them, I suppose. This is not entirely under my power. Personally, I see no harm in you being aware of your brother and sister. But it is not my decision, and perhaps you know too much already.”

“Too much?” Bell piped up. “I don’t know anything. I can’t stand it. I want to know what is going on and so does Edward.”

“Not now, Bell,” Riana sighed. “I have to go right now. I’ll return in a short while to retrieve your lunch tray.” With that, she hurried out of the room.

Bell promptly stood and watched from her door. Riana did not go down the hall but instead stood in front of the ominous door.

“Enter, Madam Riana,” spoke a deep raspy voice that came from the ominous door.

“Thank you,” Riana muttered, disappearing into the misty contents behind the door before it snapped shut.

Gritting her teeth, Bell stepped out of her room and in front of the door.

“You are not authorized to pass,” spoke the raspy voice.

“How may I gain access, door?” she asked. “Is there something I must do?”

“If you are not authorized to pass, you may enter if you answer a random riddle.”

“A random riddle?”

“Yes, of course. It would not be good for security to have the same riddle all the time, would it?”

Bell sighed. “I suppose not.”

“If you answer correctly, you may enter. If you do not, you may not. If you answer incorrectly, you must wait 24 hours before trying again. It will of course be a different riddle each time.”

“Very well, door. What is the riddle?”

“Let me think. Ah yes!” The mysterious speaker cleared its throat. “What has a voice, but no mouth? Has a mind but no brain? What is locked with no key?”

Bell shrugged. “You!”

The door chuckled. “Correct. I quite enjoy giving that one. Go on in, but beware. There is a reason for the security you know.” With that, the door swung open.

Mist once again poured through. Just inside was a concrete stairway leading up to a cloudy red light. Quietly, Bell ascended the stairs as the door snapped shut behind her. She could barely make out some voices.

“I think we torture them needlessly,” spoke Riana. “Their parents are trying to keep them alive not just for the sake of it. You know what kind of family they come from! Curiosity is in their blood.”

“Be that as it may,” retorted a soft mystical voice. “It is better they know as little as possible. Of course Bell found the others. The spell fails when the subject becomes reacquainted with things from before the enchantment.”

“They know a little already,” Riana pointed out. “We can’t just keep telling them not to worry about it. Children find things out. It’s part of the definition of a child, and expecting them to sit quiet and not explore their curiosities is the zenith of foolishness.”

“Do not call me a fool, Riana,” spoke the soft voice again. “You must remember where your loyalties are. I am doing what their parents asked of me. They would know best.”

“No, you are not! They said nothing about isolating them from each other. Poor Edward is bored out of his mind and would love nothing more than to play with his sisters.”

“I am doing what I feel is right, Riana. It’s bad enough their home is being ripped apart by the Rogue Centaurs as we speak. There is no guarantee those awful brutes will not find their way here. We have to worry about the security of the Realm of the Glowing Hills.”

“I hardly see how isolating the children accomplishes this.”

“You need not see, Riana. You must obey me. I really do not need to provide you a reason, but if it will get you off my back, you should probably remember I have never steered anyone wrong before.”

“There’s a first time for everything, Marietta!”

There was a cold, ominous silence.

“I try to be lenient and calm, Riana,” Marietta said. “But I have my limits like anyone. Don’t cause me to blast you into oblivion! It is a shame because I’ve grown quite fond of you.”

Riana sighed. “Fine. I will not say anything more. And I do hope you can keep those awful Rogue Centaurs at bay. I shall return to my work now.”

“You do that.”

Riana stormed out of the mists and down the stairs, right past an unconcealed Bell, but she didn’t notice her. Once she was out the door, Bell ascended the stairs more, trying to get a good look at Marietta. She couldn’t see a whole lot, as Marietta appeared as a fuzzy red blob in front of a glowing fiery crater.

“What is the location of the Silver Scepter?” Marietta spoke all of a sudden.

The crater rumbled. “The Scepter is concealed in Morins Glen. The Skeleblins guard it well.”

“Good. It should have no effect on them anyhow. I would like to know where it is.”

“And I just told you.”

“Right, crater. My dear Riana may voice her opinions at her will, but as long as she knows not where the Silver Scepter lies, the better. The last thing we need is those children getting their memories back. It is all the better for them. I am sure of it.” Marietta stood regally and seemed to glide away.

Gaping, Bell turned around and went back downstairs, out the ominous door, and back into her room. Digging through the armoire, she extracted a small sack. She took her uneaten lunch, wrapped her sandwich and potato chips into napkins, and put them into the bag. She threw in the one doll she recognized from the mysterious before-time. Thinking about what she was going to do, she threw the sack under the bed. A few minutes later, Riana collected her empty dishes.

Several hours later, the sun set over the Glowing Hills, and the pale bright moon illuminated the magical foothills. Bell ate some of her dinner and saved the rest in the sack. A few more hours and it was time for bed. Riana bade her good night and shut the door.

Bell lay in her bed for a few minutes, but she was not at all tired. Finally, she stood up and walked out. Not caring about being discreet, she went straight to Edward’s room. He was not asleep but playing with his toy mages under the bright moonlight.

“Come on, Edward!” she beckoned.

“Huh?” he reacted.

“Gather your mages and anything you need.”

“Like what?”

“Get anything you already recognized from before we came here.”

Edward scratched his head. “My mages are all I have. I kept a potato from dinner. Think I’ll need it to save our parents?”

“Quests tend to require odd items,” Bell admitted. “Bring it. I have other food as well. We are leaving now, Edward. Let us get Annalisa and we’re off.”

Edward scanned his room. “All I care about are my mages. Let’s go.” He dropped the mages and potato into the sack.

They went to their little sister’s room. Annalisa was fast asleep in her crib, clutching a stuffed dragon.

“We shall bring the dragon and the tapestry,” Bell decided. She pulled down the crib bars, and she and Edward carefully picked up the baby.

“She’s waking up,” Edward said.

Annalisa opened her eyes but stayed silent, smiling at seeing her big brother and sister.

“How do we get out of here?” Edward asked while helping Annalisa stand up.

“The window,” Bell suggested. “It’s about five stories down from here, but that is quite odd since I haven’t seen any down stairways around here at all. Perhaps Marietta’s chamber?”

“Marietta?” Edward asked.

“I’ll explain on the way. Right now, we need to find a place called Morins Glen. I don’t know how far away it is.”

“Well, okay.”

They took some sheets from the linen closet and fashioned a long rope until they used up every set of sheets they could find. It seemed long enough, so they hung it out the window, tied it to the brass crib, and carefully climbed down. Edward held the sack. Bell had Annalisa on her back. After a few scary minutes, they were on the glowing ground.

“Let us run now,” Bell whispered, as they traversed the glowing but otherwise empty lawn of the enormous house.

“How do we get around this wall?” Edward asked when they came to the wall surrounding the domicile.

“There must be a gate or something somewhere,” she guessed.

Edward suddenly darted around and stared to their right. “I think I heard something.”

Bell listened. In fact, there was a man yelling about something. “Let’s check it out!” So the three quietly stepped closer to the sound, hiding behind the wall of the building and peering around the corner.

A tall brightly dressed man stood in the middle of the yard. In front of him was a shorter creature. His torso was covered in long shaggy purple hair, but his limbs and head were bare.

“What have I told you about digging holes around here?” the tall man scolded him.

“Forgive me,” begged the odd creature. “I just wanted to make some tunnels. It is what my kind do, sir.”

“Well, keep it away from here. Lady Marietta will have a fit.”

“Sorry, sir,” the creature repeated. “I shall try to control myself.”

“You ought to try harder!” The man stepped closer to the odd creature. “Look at this wall. We’re trying to protect three innocent children in this place, and you’re digging holes that could allow anything in.”

Bell pointed to the big hole in the ground. “They’re not looking,” she noted. “Let’s go.”

While the man and creature were looking at the wall, the three children sneaked past them and down into the dirty hole. After a couple of minutes, they emerged into another bright glowing clearing, but they were outside the wall.

“Great!” Edward cheered.

“That was convenient,” Bell commented. “Let’s keep moving. I do not know how long before they’ll notice we’re gone.”

“I’m not worried. I often stay up way past midnight playing with my mages. Nobody ever knows.”

“All the better.”

For two hours, they wandered the sparse woods of the shimmering realm. When they got hungry, they split the sandwich Bell saved from her lunch.

“What is Annalisa to eat?” Edward asked.

“It’s okay,” Bell said. “I found some baby food jars and brought them along.” She took a jar out, got a spoon, and fed some to her sister.

A few more hours passed, and they kept walking. During their journey, Bell filled in her brother on what she heard in Marietta’s chamber.

“We’ve got to get that Scepter,” he stated. “Where is Morins Glen? Do you have any idea?”

“I admit I have been hoping for some sort of sign,” she said.

Edward yawned. “Well, I’m tired. Can’t we stop someplace?”

“Fine. Let’s go a little further and see if we can find a good place to rest for a short while.”

Walking a little further led them into denser woods.

“I’m scared, Bell,” Edward confessed.

“Me, too,” she replied, gazing around. “I think I see a cottage up ahead. Let’s go to it.”

They stepped up onto the porch and gently knocked the door.

“I’m coming,” they heard a man’s voice say. The door came open and an elderly woodsman gazed at them. “Oh, my! You kids look real tired.”

“We are, sir,” Bell said. “We’re a bit lost and could use information and someplace to sit for a spell.”

“That’s fine.” He stepped aside and let them walk in. “What brings you around this time of night?”

“We’re on an important errand. We’ll need our strength.”

An old looking dog lay curled in front of the roaring fireplace. The old man went to a table and poured the contents of a coffee can into three cups. “Well, here’s some tea. Just brewed it. Should make you feel better. There aren’t many people around, so you must have been walking for many miles.” He handed the two older kids cups. For Annalisa, he pulled some milk from an ice box, filled a child’s sipping cup, and gave it to her. “I’ve had children of my own and still have stuff around. They’re all grown up now and live far away. I am lucky to see them now and then. Anyway, have a seat on the couch. This tiny one really looks like she needs sleep.”

The three kids sat on the couch. Edward drink some of his tea before he and Annalisa fell asleep. Bell fought hard to keep herself awake. She decided better than to tell the old man their names or where they came from.

“What can you tell me about Marietta?” she asked.

“She’s a sorceress who lives in a weird palace nearby,” he replied. “Usually pretty nice, but a little off her rocker. I suppose that is typical of magic folk.”

“Do you know how to get to Morins Glen?”

“Sure. You’re not far from it. Deeper in the forest, there are some marked roads. The forest isn’t very dangerous at all. Folk living there are right friendly actually. Look for signs that say Morins Glen. Once you get there, however, be on your guard. Odd bunch live there, but they aren’t harmful. Just odd in their own sort of way.”

“I suppose we are all odd. I have heard something about Rogue Centaurs? Do you know who they are?”

The man shuddered. “Don’t like thinking about them! Good thing this Realm is protected by lots of magic. Sorceress named Erana helped out. She’s a good friend of Marietta’s.” He took a sip of tea. “The Rogue Centaurs are led by a nasty warlock named Ixion. He’s been leading these beasts far and wide, destroying kingdoms, killing the innocent, setting fires, stealing gold, and leaving the Centaurs to occupy these conquered lands, preventing these places from any chance of rebuilding. Dreadful shame! I really hope the spells Erana and Marietta set around this place hold up. Ixion has passed through even the strongest realms and wiped out the most powerful creatures. Sure are uncertain times we live in, and I am thankful each day they have not penetrated our borders.” He took a breath. “Morins Glen is protected, too, but not as much. They’ve held up so far, but if Ixion sets his sights of them, that’s it. I fear the Realm of the Glowing Hills is next!”

“What kingdoms have been attacked?”

The man shook his head. “It’s too awful to think about. They scorched Kolyma. Demolished Eluria. Raseir took a nasty beating. Serenia as well. Lost Wages was trashed, but it was not a very clean place to being with. Lytton, too. Planet Xenon. That fiend even defeated the Realm of the Sun. It was that conquest that has really shaken up the people around here. I have children and grandchildren I worry about. I lost my wife some time ago.”

“Do you know if Marietta is protecting anything in particular?”

The man pondered for a moment. “There is a rumor that a faraway king and queen sent their child or children to her for protection. Nobody is entirely sure if it is true or how old they are. They might be up in that big house of hers if the rumors have any truth to them.”

Bell continued to gather some information. Finally, the old man retired to his own bedroom, and she caught a little sleep on the couch with her brother and sister. They awoke just before sunrise.

“You’re a prince,” she told her brother as they headed down the road. They had gotten a quick breakfast from the old man before they were on their way. “Annalisa and I are princesses. I don’t know where, but our parents are king and queen somewhere.”

“Wow!” Edward reacted. “Of course, it seems like everybody is royalty these days. But don’t you see? It means we run the kingdom that is in terrible danger.”

“It’s clear what we have to do now,” Bell stated. “We have to get the Silver Scepter, get our memories back, and go save our parents from the Rogue Centaurs.”

“That’s what I said yesterday!”

“Right. But it was a good idea.”

On they traveled into the forest, following the roads and signs until finally, around mid-morning, they reached an archway with the sign “Now Entering Morins Glen”.

“What a strange place!” Bell noted.

Morins Glen was nowhere near as colorful as the Glowing Hills. In fact, it looked like an overgrown graveyard.

“I think we should watch out for the Skeleblins.”

“Skeleblins?” asked Edward.

“Sounds like a cross between skeletons and goblins.”

“Yeah.”

They passed mausoleum after mausoleum. There were a few Skeleblins around, but they didn’t bother them.

“Where’s the Scepter?” Edward wondered.

“Don’t know, and I don’t think it would be wise to ask.”

“It’s that way,” said a voice.

“Huh?” Bell and Edward reacted.

A nearby Skeleblin was pointing down an adjacent road. “It’s that way. The Silver Scepter is guarded though. You may have to be authorized.”

“Oh, thanks,” Bell said as she and her siblings went that way.

Soon enough, the three came to an enormous mausoleum with a few dozen Skeleblins pacing around. They walked on up to it.

“Are you authorized to enter the Chamber of the Silver Scepter?” asked a Skeleblin.

“Yes, we are,” Bell replied. “Lady Marietta sent us.”

“Are you sure? She’s very adamant about keeping the Scepter safe. Have you any proof?”

“Well, she’s the one who told me it was here. So did her crater.”

The Skeleblin blinked. “The crater! You must have figured out the door’s crazy riddle. Very well. I don’t want to incur the wrath of Marietta. Go on in.” He stepped aside and opened the door for them.

“That was easy,” Edward whispered as they entered the mausoleum. “What now?”

They went down a hallway. In the very center, a glowing force field held the Silver Scepter.

“It’s beautiful!” Bell said. “And it’ll tell us where we’re from!”

“How do we get it?” Edward asked.

“Not sure. Let’s look around.”

They wandered through the rooms in the mausoleum. In one of them, there was a giant swan sleeping, but otherwise there wasn’t much around.

“Wait a minute,” Bell said when they returned to the Scepter. “There’s a button here. It says Off.”

She pressed the button and the force field disappeared.

“I have to admit,” she mentioned. “I am a little uneasy about how easy this all was.”

“We can ride the swan to our kingdom,” Edward suggested.

“Right,” Bell said, taking the Scepter.

She and Edward held it for a while. A bright white glow emanated from it. This went on for about a minute until it went dim again.

“Of course!” Bell reacted. “We’ve got to go home.”

The three of them went to the room with the swan. They woke it up, it offered to give them a ride, and they accepted.

“We’ve got to save our parents,” Bell said during the ride. “Of course our parents are…”

Meanwhile, in a faraway kingdom...

Lord Ixion paced in the tower of the Castle. The captive king and queen were chained to the wall in front of him.

“I never get tired of slaying monarchs,” Ixion sighed, holding his sword and eyeing his hostages. “So what are your names again?”

The king cleared his throat. “Uh, Alexander. King Alexander. She’s Queen Cassima.”

Ixion chuckled. “Okay. How long have you been married?”

“Twelve years.”

“Let me answer something!” Cassima snapped.

Ixion raised his eyebrows. “Oh, my, Alexander. Your wife has some claws, doesn’t she?”

“It’s my kingdom,” she said. “He’s only king by marriage. His parents are the King and Queen of Daventry. His twin sister is the heiress.”

Ixion chuckled. “I’ve already been through there.”

“You killed my parents and my sister?!” Alexander shrieked.

“No, I don’t think I killed them. I’m pretty sure I sealed everyone from the castle into a dungeon.” He took a deep breath. “So what’s the deal with your sister? How old are you two anyway?”

“Cassima is 29. Rosella and I are 31.”

“You two have been married for twelve years you say? Don’t you have any children?"

“No,” Alexander and Cassima replied in unison.

“Really? I haven’t found any children around here, but I’ve come across a few families who try to hide their kids. I do not like being lied to.”

“Oh, I don’t blame you,” Cassima said, glaring at Alexander. “He is not always honest with me, you know.”

“Yes, I am!” Alexander retorted.

“Are not!” she said, looking at Ixion again. “He’s been seeing Lady Celeste again. I caught him last month.”

“I am not cheating on you! How many times do I have to say it, Cassima?”

Ixion raised his eyebrows at the scene but said nothing.

Alexander continued. “You know what? I get sick of you complaining. Besides, what about when Mordack was holding you hostage? I find it hard to believe all you were doing was mopping his floors.”

“I resisted him!” Cassima said. “You know that. I resisted the Vizier as well. Besides, my hair still worked in the potion calling for the hair of a pure-hearted maiden, did it not?”

“I have no way of knowing just how old that hair was.”

“I can’t believe you don’t trust me!”

“You don’t trust me!”

“Enough!” Ixion shouted, and the quarreling couple shut up immediately. “Listen to yourselves.”

“Marriage is hard, Ixion!” Alexander snapped. “How about you try pledging your life to a spoiled little brat who whines every single day about something stupid? Do you think chaining me to the wall like this is torture? No way!”

“I do not whine!” Cassima snapped. “It’s not like you’re ever any help. I can’t even talk to you anymore. You don’t listen to me. You don’t understand me. It’s like I don’t exist to you.”

“Don’t exist? Cassima, our last anniversary I took you all the way to the Frozen Reaches and we had a romantic dinner overlooking the icy lake. The ice nymphs played music for us. I still do my best to make you feel special.”

“Right, sure. I do often wonder just how you paid off those nymphs, you know.”

“Oh, I’ve had it! You see this, Ixion? She just keeps finding fault with everything. Nothing is good enough for her!”

“Bite me, Gwydion!”

Meanwhile, not far outside the Land of the Green Isles...

In awe, Bell, Edward, and Annalisa soared through the air on the back of the giant swan.

“There’s the Isle of the Crown!” cried Edward.

“We’re almost home,” Bell said. “Of course, we should be careful. Those awful Rogue Centaurs are here. We have to hide from them so they don’t kill us or imprison us.”

Up ahead, winged black centaurs fluttered around the tall towers of the Castle of the Crown.

“Oh, no!” Bell shrieked. “There they are!”

“I hope Mum and Dad are okay,” Edward said.

The swan made a gentle descent until at last it landed on the small beach. The kids all jumped off.

“Thank you, swan,” Bell said, as they headed up the path, hiding in the brush.

“What do you see, Bell?” Edward whispered.

“Those Rogue Centaurs are everywhere!”

In fact, the scenic landscape around the Castle of the Crown was swarming with Rogue Centaurs wielding crossbows, swords, and spears.

Bell, Edward, and Annalisa cautiously crawled through the grass. All of a sudden, they leaned on a concealed hole in the ground and fell down into a tunnel. Covered in dead grass, they brushed themselves off and coughed. The hole was not very far above them, but the earthen walls were too steep to climb.

“Now what do we do?” Edward asked.

“Let’s follow this tunnel and see what we see,” Bell said. They walked down the dark tunnel until they saw a light up ahead. Eventually, they came to a small room. There was someone they knew chained to the wall.

“Jollo!” Edward cried, running to the jester.

“Kids!” Jollo reacted. “Princess Bell! Prince Edward! Princess Annalisa!”

“I’ll find the keys, Jollo,” Bell said, scanning the area. “Ah! Here it is.” She grabbed a key from a high shelf and unlocked the jester.

Jollo stood up and stretched with a groan. “Thank goodness! I have been kept here for so long. The Rogue Centaurs arrived only two days after your parents had you sent away. It was dreadful not having you three around, but they wanted you to be safe.”

“Well, we just had to come back and see what we could do,” Bell reasoned. “We could use your help. Where are our parents?”

Jollo moaned. “Oh, dear! I hope so much they are still alive. Last I knew, the evil Lord Ixion invaded the Castle. They grabbed me and all the guard dogs and imprisoned us down here. He proceeded to go upstairs after your parents. I do not know what happened.”

“The tower, then?” Bell suggested. “Is that where Ixion is keeping them? In that case, we should get there immediately.”

“What!” Jollo shrieked. “Ixion or his Rogue Centaurs will kill you for sure if they see you. There have already been so many deaths around the kingdom. I hate to think what has become of your parents or what will become of you if you tangle with them.”

“We came all the way here, Jollo,” Edward mentioned. “We’ve been through quite a bit already. We are not stopping now. We have to save our parents and the entire kingdom.”

Jollo sighed. “I see I will not deter you. It is against my best judgment, but I suppose we have to try.”

“What do you propose we do?” Bell asked.

Back up in the tower...

Ixion paced back and forth in front of Alexander and Cassima. “No children, huh?” he asked after they were silent for a few minutes. “How come?”

Cassima shrugged. “Well, my mother had difficulty conceiving me. They were a little disappointed that when I did finally arrive I turned out to be a girl, but, hey, what are you going to do? Anyway, I suppose infertility passed along to me.”

“So who was set to inherit the kingdom? Not that I intend to leave much of a kingdom to inherit anyway.”

Alexander grumbled. “Oh, we hadn’t thought of that. We just kept hoping she’d get pregnant but hasn’t happened yet.”

Cassima sighed. “I’m worried he’ll decide he’d rather have a baby with Lady Celeste!”

“Will you give it a rest? I’ve told you over and over there is nothing going on!”

“Oh, sure, Alexander, and you just happened to have your mouth pressed up against hers while you were locked in one of the spare bedrooms? Give me a break.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“You are unbelievable. Not only do you leave all the regal duties on my lap, and take credit for them by the way, but you never even help me with anything else. All I asked you to do was clean the oatmeal Annalisa spilled on herself and..” She quickly clapped her hand over mouth.

Ixion gaped at her. “Annalisa? Would that be a child of yours, Cassima?”

“Uh, no, not mine. She’s a friend’s child.” She grinned innocently, but Alexander was already glaring at her furiously.

Just then, one of the Rogue Centaurs came up the stairs holding a large painting.

“What is this?” Ixion commented, showing the picture to the king and queen. In the picture sat Alexander and Cassima with Bell, Edward, and Annalisa sitting in front of them. “It would be odd if they weren’t your children, wouldn’t it?” He read something on the back. “Alexander. Cassima. Bell. Edward. Annalisa. And this is dated only two months ago.”

Alexander and Cassima only stuttered unintelligibly.

Ixion shook his head. “Where are your children?”

“They’re on vacation,” Alexander blurted out.

The evil warlock pulled up a chair and sat in front of them. “Three children. How old are they? How did you come up with those names anyway?”

Alexander sighed. “Bell is ten and named after my father’s mother. She’s our successor, too, being our first born. Edward is five and named after the King of Daventry my father served under before ascending the throne. Annalisa is almost a year old. We just really like that name.”

Ixion smiled. “Well, that’s sweet. Such a lovely family you have here. I sure feel bad that I have to make orphans out of these otherwised privileged kids.”

“Why are you doing this?” Cassima piped up.

“World domination, of course! So many have tried it. I shall succeed.”

“You couldn’t keep your mouth shut, could you!” Alexander snapped at his wife. “All that work, too.”

“Like you’re any help!” she shot back. “Did you hear yourself telling him our whole family history perhaps?”

“Oh, the names and ages of our children qualifies as whole family history? You are a simple minded shrew, aren’t you!”

“Simple minded! You haven’t had a single successful program in this kingdom in at least the past three years. Our last trade reform? My idea. The economic booming from the Isle of Beast once they started selling tickets for their hedge maze? My idea. The three new shops on this isle? My idea.”

“Those were not your ideas. Beauty was responsible of the Isle of the Beast thing. I did the trade reform, not you. And, I don’t know if you noticed, but a lot of our citizens were against the new shops! If everything with you wasn’t such a petty battle all the time, maybe things would...”

“Enough!” Ixion shouted. “I have had enough of your fighting. It is going nowhere. It’s all for nothing. None of it matters.”

The quarreling couple did stop but said nothing more.

“So many kingdoms I’ve scorched,” Ixion went on. “I see so many kings and queens, princes and princesses, counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses, and they’re all so in love with each other. It is sickening. All they have argued about is which one will sacrifice his or her own life to save the other. Didn’t matter, because I ended up just slaughtering them both. I can’t take that cutesy stuff.” He shook his head. “But I don’t understand you two. You’ve been at each other’s throats since I got here. Yet you are married and ruling a kingdom together.”

Cassima snorted. “I wouldn’t say together on that one.”

“In that case, haven’t you gotten into a kind of schism? I don’t even believe I was needed here.”

“Our kingdom is fine,” Alexander said. “Or at least it was fine before you got here.”

“What about your children?” Ixion went on. “Ah, my own parents quarreled all the time as well. My brother and I just couldn’t stand it.”

“And that drove you to a life of evil?”

“What? No, no. I had been planning this since I was about your son’s age. That was just an unhappy memory of mine. But my point is that it is pretty awful to have fighting parents.” He shrugged. “Of course, it does not matter because it’s not like those kids will ever see you again.”

However, right behind him, Bell, Edward, and Annalisa were climbing the steps.

Alexander made a silent gasp upon spotting them.

“What’s wrong?” Ixion asked.

“Uh, just had a leg cramp or something,” he lied.

“Hey!” Cassima said to Ixion, looking up at the window next to her and Alexander. “Have you looked out at that view, Ixion? It is very nice.”

Ixion nodded. “It is a nice view.” He went to the window and looked out. “You sure can see a lot from up here. Oh, look, there’s that Pawn Shoppe. I’m surprised it still hasn’t finished burning down.”

Just then, Bell and Edward ran up and shoved him hard, knocking him out the high tower window.

“AAAAAHHHH!!!” Ixion screamed on the way down.

“He’s not very smart,” Edward mentioned.

“Let us out!” Cassima begged. “The key is up there.” She pointed to a small shelf under a transom over a door.

Bell jumped a few times before managing to knock the key down and promptly unlocking her parents from the wall. Everyone shared a happy embrace. Bell and Edward started to tell their parents all about Marietta’s house and their journey when they were met with malicious laughter.

“Foolish children!” Ixion cackled from outside the window. He was riding on a centaur. “Thought you could get rid of me by just knocking me out a window. Did you think it was so possible when I have hundreds of legions of flying minions who would save me at the drop of a hat?”

“What makes them so loyal?” Bell demanded fearlessly.

“Please, my dear girl. I’m Lord Ixion, warlock. I needed only a few centaurs willing to join me. Then I cast a spell on a cloud to generate millions of evil clones. Those original ones backed out when they heard of my horrendous plans, but I simply cast another spell to subdue them. It was brilliant on my part. I daresay I’m quite unstoppable at this point.” The flying centaur he rode started rearing. “If you don’t mind, I’m off to my enchanted cloud.” They turned around to fly away, the centaurs long flowing tail swishing by the window.

All of a sudden, Ixion reached into the window, snatched Annalisa, and flew off.

“Annalisa!” Bell and Edward cried in unison, both jumping after the tail and grasping it. But now all three children were high in the sky, being flown off somewhere.

“Oh, no!” Cassima squealed. “Alex, what’ll we do?”

“We need to get the Winged Ones,” he stammered. “If they’re all okay, that is. They’re the only ones who can fly.”

Cassima glared at him.

“Won’t you concentrate on this, please?” he snapped at her.

“No, not that,” she said. “How do we signal them in time?”

Just then, Jollo came running up the stairs with a few guard dogs at his heels.

“I found Shamir’s lamp!” the jester exclaimed, handing it to them. “See what we can do.”

Meanwhile, Bell and Edward clutched the centaur’s tail for their lives.

“Get off my centaur, you urchins!” Ixion demanded. The flight was certainly bumpy until they landed on a very large, greyish cloud.

“Is this your evil cloud?” Edward asked, reluctantly letting go of the tail and standing on the big white mass.

“Yes, it is,” Ixion replied proudly. “How nice you should see it for yourselves.

“How does it work?” Bell asked, holding Annalisa’s hand.

“Like I’m going to just tell you! Ha! I’m not that stupid. You’ll just try to screw it up.”

“How could we possibly screw up the work of such a powerful warlock as yourself?”

“Well, good point. But there is not much to this cloud. I just churn out clones of centaurs from here. My exponential minions are quite beneficial to me.”

“What did you take Annalisa for?” Edward piped up.

Ixion shrugged. “Felt like it. I daresay, I’ve always wanted a daughter. She’s not genetically my own, but she’d do quite nicely.”

“You can’t have our sister!” Bell snapped.

Ixion set Annalisa down on the cloud. “It’s not like you have a say in this. It’s cute that you think you do, though. Of course, it’s a shame you won’t be around to witness my amazing universal takeover!”

“You think you can take over the universe?” Edward scoffed. “Impossible!”

“Silly boy, you don’t realize how powerful I am.”

“Doesn’t matter. All mages have a weakness, whether good or evil.”

Ixion raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I know all about this stuff. You can’t fool me. You have a weakness, like it or not.”

The warlock sighed. “I do know my weakness. In fact, it comes as a riddle.” He took a breath. “Malevolent vapor so very super fails only in the presence of a lifeless tuber.”

“What’s a tuber?” Bell asked.

“I’m not telling!”

Meanwhile, a short distance away in the sky...

Lady Celeste flew through the high clouds, dangling Alexander and Cassima in her hands.

“Thanks for this, Celeste,” Alexander mentioned. “I hope the kids are okay. Don’t think I’ve ever been so scared.”

“Not a problem,” Celeste said pompously. “I suppose I must do something for you two once in a while.”

“Yeah,” Cassima told her. “While you’re at it, you think you can stop having affairs with my husband?”

“Honestly, Cassima, how can you even think about that at a time like this?!” Alexander thundered.

Celeste sighed. “Cassima, you and I have known each other forever. You know what Alexander lacks that prevents me from having any sordid relationships with him? I’ll give you a hint. If I were to let go, he would fall to his death. Any man of mine would be able to fly, as he would have wings on his back. No wings, not worth my time.”

Cassima pursed her lips. “Fine.”

Back on the cloud...

“What are you going to do to us?” Bell asked.

“I haven’t decided for sure yet,” Ixion replied, pacing. “Oh, it just has to be good!”

“Get away from my children!” echoed Cassima’s voice from afar.

Lady Celeste finally dropped her passengers onto the evil clouds, and they ran to their children.

“Oh, thank God!” Alexander sighed with relief.

“We’re not out of danger,” Bell said seriously. “Ixion is about to kill us. He’s also decided to adopt Annalisa.”

“No, no, no,” Cassima reacted, glaring at Ixion. “Not going to happen. She’s my baby. Not yours!”

Edward folded his arms and looked up at his parents. “Do either of you know what a tuber is?” he asked.

Alexander shrugged. “I don’t know. A sword perhaps?”

“Uh, you’re thinking of a saber,” Cassima pointed out. “But I don’t know either. A pipe maybe?”

“No, that would be a tube. Oh, maybe it’s a lubricant.”

“Doesn’t sound like one. Could it be an article of clothing? Or a gem of some sort?”

Alexander glared at her. “Clothes? Gems? Is that what’s on your mind?”

“What does it matter what a tuber is, anyway? We’re all about to be killed. Let’s worry with that.”

Ixion sighed. “Good gracious, Alexander, you sure married a nasty woman.”

“Would you believe she was quite sweet when I first met her?” Alexander said.

Cassima huffed. “Must we go through this again? Our daughter is about to be usurped.”

Annalisa was still crawling around the cloud, cooing happily and enjoying herself despite the situation.

Bell dropped her bag beside her. “What are we going to do?” she whispered to her brother. “We need a tuber.”

“Well, I’m not so sure we have whatever a tuber is right now. We’ll have to do something else. But what?”

They did not notice that, behind them, Annalisa had opened up the bag and was pawing through its contents. She picked up a wrinkly potato.

“Ew,” Edward reacted, seeing the potato and taking it from her. “Why did we bring this thing along anyway?” With that, he tossed it aside and it landed on the cloud.

All of the sudden, the cloud quaked and turned varying bright colors.

“NO!” Ixion cried. “A potato is a tuber, you fools.”

Bell smirked. “Well, good.”

Suddenly, the evil cloud exploded in an orgy of spectra shimmering every which way. Ixion combusted in a red fiery mass. Apparitions of millions of evil centaur clones were sucked into the blast. At last, everything vanished.

And Alexander, Cassima, and their three children, no longer having a cloud to stand on, plummeted toward the earth.

“What do we do?” Cassima shrieked.

Suddenly, they stopped in midair, and in a flash they were standing safely in the tower in the Castle of the Crown.

“Zounds!” Alexander reacted, looking around dumbfounded. “We’ve been rescued.”

“Yes, you have, King Alexander,” came a deep woman’s voice belonging to a regal sorceress standing in the tower with them.

Cassima smiled. “Marietta!”

Marietta sighed. “Should I apologize now for failing to keep your children confined to my palace?”

“No, it’s okay,” Alexander chuckled.

"Really? You're not mad?"

"No, how could I be? To this day, I'm a little peeved at my father for holding it against me for turning Manannan into a cat." He folded his arms. "Even though doing so freed me so I could save Rosella! But no! He still had a problem with it!"

Cassima smiled at him. "It's okay. Relax. Let's be glad our children our safe now."

"Yeah. I know. But, anyway, Marietta, I suppose your failure to keep them in did end up saving the universe, so it's all good."

“That's good. Or maybe you are to blame,” Marietta continued with a smirk. “After all, you passed onto them that adventurous urge. They got away from me quite well.”

“Yeah, too well,” Bell remarked. “I’m glad we stopped Ixion, but it was almost too easy. The Skeleblins practically gave us the Silver Scepter!”

Marietta folded her arms. “The Skeleblins don’t have very many powers. In fact, their greatest skill is looking like something to be avoided. It usually works, but I see you were not fooled.”

“What about that purple guy digging tunnels?”

“He’s quite a pest. I was hoping at least the wall would have kept you in.”

“What happened to Ixion?” Edward asked. “Is he gone for good?”

Marietta nodded. “As far as I can tell. He and all the Rogue Centaurs were sucked into oblivion. Every land under his siege is now free. The spell has been lifted. Daventry is safe again, as well, and your relatives there are all safe and sound now.”

Cassima looked out the window. “The Isle of the Crown looks like it’s back to normal. The evil has been lifted.” She beamed at her children. “I don’t think I have ever been so proud!”

“Me neither!” Alexander agreed.

“I see my work here is done,” Marietta concluded. “You all stay healthy now. The universe sure needs you from time to time. Farewell!” With that, she disappeared.

The five of them kept a silence for a few minutes. Eventually, the silence was broken when Edward said, “So that’s what a tuber is!"

THE END

Tomato World
Science Village