Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Siaya Dragalorn
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Drust’s eyes narrowed at Ghent’s mutterings about the Rabbit Holes, his neck twitching.
Never underestimate a Guardian, boy,” he answered Ghent’s misgivings about Smaya, doing his best to ignore Ghent’s other comments. Ever gruff, a hint of weariness coated his voice. Weariness that had nothing to do with physical fatigue. “It may be worth speaking to her again. If you have the strength.”
Despite her growing sleepiness, Elayra shot Ghent a smug ‘told you so’ look.
Drust turned his head toward Ghent at his charge’s last questions. “Ready for anything,” he answered, his voice tight and clipped.
“Caervolus is the Guardian of Mushroom Gorge.” Elayra glanced warily to Drust as he nodded in agreement to her statement.
“Guardians are not like our dead whose spirits move on to the bowls of the Spiritayum,” he elaborated. “They’re Spiritayian. Beings born to the spirit realm.” He returned his gaze to the fire. He glanced toward the short stack of wood with a quick, calculating look. “Guardians are exceptional Spiritayians. They claim or are gifted a portion of our realm to watch over. Most can interact with us in ways many other Spiritayians can’t. They’re practically immortal and hold immense powers.
“Wonderland knows Caervolous as a Guardian. But you,” he glanced to Ghent, “may recognize him as Carol’s inspiration for the Blue Caterpillar.” A sneer pulled at Drust’s lips, detest glittering in his eyes. “He knows all, sees all. Not only from Wonderland. He can tell us what is, and what has been. Ask the right questions, and he’ll tell us how to bring our enemy down. But, as with most Spiritayians, his services come at a price. We must each face him in his test. Succeed, and he’s bound by soul and magic to answer our questions with the truth.”
“Fail, and you get to be fertilizer for his mushrooms,” Elayra grumbled.
Her jaw tightened as she tried to suppress a yawn. She shook her head, contemplating walking around the clearing. The last thing she wanted was to fall asleep and leave Drust and Ghent alone. With how the last day had gone, she wouldn’t be surprised to wake up to the sounds of Curse-driven Drust murdering Ghent.
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Ghent held Drust's gaze, his mouth set in a stubborn line. It was the same look of defiance he got when he found himself in trouble for something he didn't do. In this case, he didn't feel he was underestimating Smaya. At least, not intentionally. He had reason to believe she had her limits -- she said herself she couldn't hold off the ghosts for long -- and he wanted Drust to know it.
Before he could inform Drust of his firsthand experience, Ghent's eyes dropped to the katana at Drust's side. He couldn't think of a way to tell the Knight without sounding like an opinionated know-it-all, which would likely anger him and lead to disaster.
What bothered Ghent more than walking on eggshells was seeing Elayra taking pleasure in him being wrong. He wanted to wipe the smug look off her face by asking her when she'd last spoken to the Guardian of the forest, except he didn't want to trigger the Curse. Instead of picking another fight, Ghent settled for saving his revenge for later.
"I guess there's no harm in asking her." Ghent offered, the words stiff and forced. He had his doubts and fears, but he saw the logic in contacting Smaya. They didn't have a lot of options, and she was the only one capable of helping them in such a forsaken place. If she was as strong as Drust thought her to be, it would be foolish not to seek her aid.
While Drust offered more information about Caervolous, Ghent leaned back to stretch his spine. His staff remained balanced across his lap, barely shifting despite the movement.
"Seriously? He's real too?" Ghent wasn't sure why the news came as a surprise to him, but it did. The temperamental, hookah-smoking caterpillar was impossible to forget. The thought of the insect being the inspiration for anyone was both frightening and hilarious.
"Does he..." Ghent stopped mid-sentence, unable to keep a straight face. He came dangerously close to asking if Caervolous smoked, but he decided against it when he saw the disdain from Drust. Ghent didn't want to be banned from asking questions relating to their present situation on top of everything else.
"Never mind." Ghent resumed a serious expression, waiting for the catch. Sure enough, there was one. A test. He hated tests.
"What kind of test?" Ghent demanded, suddenly sitting straight as a board. His hands moved to his staff at the fertilizer comment, and it was right then and there he decided he hated the man called Caervolous.
"The last time I took a test without preparing, I flunked it." Ghent rambled, his memories of high school far from forgotten. He frowned at them suddenly, wondering if they would have told him about the test had he not asked. "You guys really love telling me this type of stuff last minute, don't you?"
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Despite Ghent trying to take back his questions about the Blue Caterpillar, Drust’s scowl at the concept turned into another snarl.
“Not. As you. Perceive him, boy,” he growled, his neck twitching.
Elayra tensed and looked to him, her mind forcing her tiredness to abate a fraction. Her gaze darted over him, watching his eyes as they glistened in the firelight. She waited tensely, ready to go for her own weapon if he so much as twitched to grab his katana.
“I’ll say it only once more.” He turned so his body better faced Ghent, the black veins in his eerie gaze pulsating. “Forget. What. You. Know.” He turned back to the fire as he took a breath.
“Drust,” Elayra said, her voice firm, but soft. She only just managed to resist the urge to reach for the comfort of her saber's hilt.
Drust closed his eyes and gave a jerky nod intended for Elayra. ”Thanks to your ignorant, idiotic author,” he continued, his voice strained with the effort of keeping so much as a slightly even tone, “your world has a warped view of Wonderland. A dangerous view.” He snorted. “He even used the Cat’s name. Many Earth dwellers have come here only to become the Cat’s Pet from his spread stupidity. Just saying the Cat’s name can summon the beast.”
“Drust.” Elayra shifted, jumping as the fire let off an extra loud pop.
“I’m fine, girl,” he offered dryly. All the same, his neck twitched unreassuringly at Ghent’s complaints and reservations. “Teaching you to fight is the best I can do to prepare you,” he growled as Elayra rolled her eyes at Ghent’s last question. “Everything else is up to you.”
“Anyone who’s survived his test is Tongue Tied.” She cast a knowing glance toward Drust. “Magically prevented from talking about his test, his weak points, the moment they leave his domain.” Irritation saturated her voice and twisted her face.
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The look on Drust's face was enough for Ghent to stop speaking altogether. In the glow of the firelight, the ebony lines were more apparent than before, a stark reminder of the the Curse plaguing the man. Ghent's mouth dropped in protest, but no words came out. He couldn't believe how angry Drust got over a question that hadn't been fully asked.
While Ghent was fearing for his life, Elayra spoke up, which was more than he was able to do. He stammered the beginnings of a response, but he wasn't sure if Drust was able to hear, much less understand him. Thankfully, there was no need for further discussion. Drust broke eye contact.
With the unspoken threat of getting stabbed out of the way, Ghent remembered to breathe, his mind whirling with flashbacks of Drust charging him with the katana. He glared at the back of Drust's head, resenting him for his unpredictable, terrifying ways.
"I don't see what the big deal is," Ghent muttered underneath his breath while Drust complained about Earth's interpretation of Wonderland. "I used a movie as a reference, so what?" He rotated the staff to better observe it, grumbling to the weapon as if it would offer him a reply. "It's not like I came here thinking Johnny Depp was gonna be my freaking dad."
Ghent abandoned his mutterings at the mention of 'the Cat', which he assumed was none other than the Cheshire Cat. He was suddenly thankful he kept most questions regarding Wonderland's inhabitants to himself. The name might have escaped him by complete accident, and he really didn't want to be added to the list of those enslaved.
"So he's kind of like Bloody Mary, minus the mirror." Ghent mused, uncaring if the words made sense only to him. He didn't go out of his way to offer them any explanation, he felt satisfaction in knowing something they didn't.
Elayra wasn't the only one startled by the fire's spontaneous pop. Distracted by thoughts of evil cats and vengeful spirits, Ghent screamed a little despite himself.
Glaring at the fire for scaring him half to death, Ghent returned his attention to Drust. He had a feeling no amount of training would prepare him for whatever Caervolous had in store, but the chance to prepare helped soothe his badly rattled nerves.
"Guess I'd take a physical test over a math test." Ghent pulled up his hood to help warm his ears, discouraged by their lack of information. He almost asked if writing down the answers would work, but he knew that was too obvious. Surely something terrible happened if one attempted that.
"Thanks for the pep talk, but I'm getting back to work." Ghent moved so he was no longer facing them, his knee brushing against the journal from his father. He picked up the book, looking at it for a long moment before setting it aside. As much as he wanted to, he couldn't read it yet.
"In case you guys were wondering, I'm going to try contacting Smaya." Ghent closed his eyes to better focus, his heart giving a nervous stutter at the thought of returning to the Betwixt so soon after leaving it. "I know I'm asking a lot here, but try not to miss me too much while I'm gone."
Taking a breath, Ghent did what he could to tune out the world around him. He concentrated on focusing first and foremost, his mind working to envision the Betwixt and the details he remembered from his first visit. He pictured the unusual display of translucent trees and varying plants, and the gray, deadened coloration of the clearing.
Confident his mental imagery was accurate, Ghent focused on Smaya next. The green of her dress, the overwhelming sadness in her eyes. He remembered the peculiar way her fiery hair seemed to glow, a striking contrast against her pale skin.
Finally, Ghent's grip on his staff loosened. He felt a familiar shift in the air, daring to hope his efforts were not in vain.
Hidden 7 mos ago 7 mos ago Post by Siaya Dragalorn
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At Ghent’s irritated mutterings, Drust shot the boy a glare that would have frozen the heart of even the bravest of warriors. A scowl pulled warningly at his lips, another twitch accentuating the action.
Elayra, ever tense, gave Ghent her own dark look, silently demanding him to keep his mouth shut. The threat to shut it for him lowered her chin as she tapped the hilt of her sword. Healing concussion or not, she was certain she could still run circles around Ghent. The idea of tying him up and shoving a gag in his mouth tempted her.
She raised an eyebrow at who Ghent compared the Cat to. “Who?” she asked, curiosity shining through despite herself.
“An Earth myth,” Drust snapped, an unnerving icy edge in his voice. What composure he had managed to maintained so far was threatening to slip away.
Drust’s scowl darkened and Elayra rolled her eyes when Ghent shouted at the fire’s noise.
The man’s lips tightened when Ghent voiced his preferences, but said nothing. Instead, he closed his eyes, taking slow, deliberate breaths. His fingers curled then uncurled when the boy spoke again.
You’re the one who asked the questions, Featherhead,” Elayra gave the back of Ghent’s hood a snarky glower.
Drust’s neck twitched and he grit his teeth when Ghent finished talking.
A glance to Drust made Elayra bite back the taunt tickling the tip of her tongue. His struggle to keep control over the Curse strained his face. The last thing she needed was him snapping again while Ghent was in the Betwixt.
Drust snorted, making Elayra flinch.
“Send the Guardian our deepest gratitude for summoning a tichari,” he growled without opening his eyes. “Her kindness is not something to be taken lightly.”
When Ghent finally went quiet to focus on the undertaken task he had so humbly announced, Elayra breathed a sigh of relief. A bit of silence, a reprieve from Ghent’s voice was well overdo. And would hopefully help her guardian win his own personal battle.
For the time being, at least.


As Ghent focused, as it had before, the world shifted around him. The crackle of the fire faded into an eerie silence. The chill of being away from the warmth of the fire diminished, leaving him in a comfortable state somewhere between warm and cold. Gray tendrils ghosted around him, filtering in and swirling like fog as it consumed the physical world.
But unlike before, the tortured emotions of Hollow Forest remained at bay. The cries and moans of the tormented souls hissed in little more than distant whispers. Paralysis did not take hold, leaving him to move as he pleased.
Instead of remaining within that gray, churning world as with his first visit, the fog dissipated as quickly as it had come. As it lifted, the gentle rush of a waterfall filled his ears. Grass softer than the leaves of lamb’s ears sprouted up beneath and around him. The bright moonlight turned the layer of dew drenching the lush blades into glittering jewels.
A clearing thrice the size of the one Ghent left behind in the physical world stretched around him. Thick trees surrounded the area, their trunks brushing their brothers, leaving no gaps. Their branches entangled with one another, creating an impenetrable barrier that left the center of the clearing open to the sky.
Above him, the stars twinkled and danced. They swirled impossibly about their inky domain, forming different constellations on a whim. Unlike the jubilant specks, the silvery light of the unnaturally large and bright full moon felt sad. As if it, too, wished it could move as freely as its sisters, but could only sit and watch, stationary. Eternally incapable of scratching the itch to dance and play.
Nevertheless, the light glistened off an equally impossible waterfall. A stack of rocks sprouted straight up from the ground a handful of yards opposite Ghent. Water came from nowhere and went nowhere. It cascaded down the gray, moon-bleached stones. Specks of mica sparkled brilliantly within the rock, making them look as if they housed diamonds. The rushing stream fell into a large pool, creating ripples and spraying a fine layer of cool mist about the banks. Though it lacked a visible outlet, the water level never rose.
A moment passed. And then another. Save for the gurgle of the waterfall, the clearing remained silent. Deserted. Its soul inhabitant looked out of place. A living boy dressed in the drab apparel of a world far different from Wonderland. Even so, the unexpected peace of the area would not deny Ghent it’s sanctuary.
“Lovely, is it not?” a melancholy voice asked from behind him, breaking the relative quiet with her strong, yet soft voice.
Smaya stood mere inches from him. The aura of sorrow and regret that lurked around her seemed to sooth the moon’s glow. Unlike the rest of the Betwixt, the moonlight did not drench her of her color, as if even it took pity on the anguish she felt.
Completely solid, she stood in all her sorrowful, ethereal beauty. She clasped her hands daintily behind her back. Her emerald gaze with all their dark, harrowing secrets focused on the waterfall.
She closed her eyes and inhaled the fresh, damp scent of flowing water and wet earth. “Welcome back, young Madrail.”
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Although his insides churned with anxiety, Ghent remained focused. Not long after he pictured Smaya, he experienced the change in the air as the Betwixt replaced the Safe Zone, challenging his senses to adapt within a matter of moments. The sounds of the campsite had faded completely, replaced by what he assumed was rushing water. Gone were the smells of smoke and wood, morphing into the sweet smell of earth, similar to that of freshly fallen rain. The temperature grew warmer and more inviting, offering an opportunity to escape the cold. Visually, everything was different as well, but Ghent hadn't opened his eyes yet.
Fearing what new horrors he might be met with, Ghent cracked open an eye. He looked to his hands as he flexed his fingers, relieved to find that he retained mobility. It was a promising start, a noticeable improvement over the last time he crossed over into the Betwixt. Even the emotions of the dead were gone; the only distress he experienced was due to his shiny new staff being left behind.
Tensing at the sight of the tendrils, Ghent swiped his hand through the air in an attempt to disperse the intrusive swirls. He got to his feet and hurried forward to escape them, turning his head in every direction as he absorbed his surroundings more with every step.
“What is this place?” The fear Ghent harbored was suddenly gone. The clearing was so unbelievably beautiful, he half wondered if he had somehow died during his transition from Hollow Forest to the Betwixt.
Awestruck, the boy walked onward until he stopped near the waterfall, a spectacular sight that defied gravity and logic all at once. He knelt near the edge of the pool to look in, the ripples obstructing what should have been his reflection. The flow of water was calming, hypnotizing. It was enough to make him overlook his aches and pains, his troubles brought on by Wonderland and those associated with it.
Rising, Ghent's gaze followed the waterfall until the sky took over his attention. He tilted back his head to get a fuller view, amazed by the show of stars above him. They looked close enough to touch, twinkling in a display that couldn't be rivaled.
Movements slow, Ghent pulled down his hood in order to have better visual, his dark black hair unruly as ever. He glanced to his side, nearly expecting to see Drust or Elayra there. It almost felt wrong to witness something so incredible on his own.
The thought was ironic, for in that very moment, a familiar voice sounded directly behind him.
"Whoa!" Ghent spun around, startled by the sight of Smaya standing so close to him. The woman was just as he envisioned her, her presence adding a surprising splash of color to the clearing. Unlike the Betwixt, she hadn't changed, her aura of sorrow prominent as ever.
"Oh man!" Hand on his heart, Ghent took a step back in order to see the taller woman's face. "You scared the crap out of me!" As soon as the words flew from his mouth, he regretted them. The statement probably wasn't the most appropriate way to greet the Guardian of Hollow Forest.
Thankful Drust wasn't present to chastise him, Ghent turned to watch the waterfall alongside Smaya. He glanced sideways at her as she spoke, fearing his outburst had offended her.
"Huh? Oh, yeah! It's not. Er. I mean...it is. We, uh...we don't have waterfalls like this on Earth." Ghent tripped over his words in his hurry to respond, feeling like the world's biggest idiot by the time he’d finished. He rubbed at his neck, touched by her welcoming him back. At least someone cared.
Wrapping the drawstring of his hoodie around his finger, Ghent studied Smaya through an occasional side glance. Much like Elayra, and females in general, she was impossible to read. Left with few options, Ghent decided to open the conversation by thanking the woman.
"My..." Ghent paused, brows pushed together with thought. He still didn't know what word to use for Drust and Elayra. 'Friends' was out of the question, and even 'companions' felt too chummy. He hated to think what they referred to him as. "My, uh, associates wanted me to let you know that they're grateful for your help," he continued without taking a breath, feeling a bit like a businessman leading up to an important deal. "I'm grateful, too. We wouldn't have made it to the Safe Zone without you and Margen. I...we really appreciate it."
Without giving Smaya much room to reply, the boy babbled on, his nerves aiding him in what threatened to be a long winded ramble.
"I know it’s asking a lot, but I was wondering if you would kind enough to help us again.” Ghent smiled as innocently as he could, the same tactic he used against his mother when asking for something expensive. “I know I just asked for help, but we're kinda at the mercy of the spirits, and, well, I was hoping you could use your super cool spirit magic to keep them in line for us.”
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The faintest hint of a smile pulled at Smaya’s lips as Ghent struggled to respond.
“No,” she answered in her airy, downtrodden voice, “I suspect you wouldn’t.” She opened her eyes, gaze still on the waterfall. “Just as I suspect you have not called on me merely to admire the scenery at my side.” About a hand’s width taller than Ghent, her eyes shifted downward to him, waiting with silent patience.
Smaya gave a slow, graceful nod in welcome to Ghent’s thanks. Her expression remained its unreadable melancholy as he nervously continued with his newest request.
She looked to him fully when he finished speaking. A short silence fell, broken only by the gentle rush of the waterfall. Her head cocked slightly, as if listening to its whispered counsel.
“You are… unusual, young Madrail,” Her words came slow and unhurried, giving no hint if Ghent's antics affected her. “I am aware of your plight. I will do what I can to provide you with swift travel from my forest. But I have a favor to ask of you in return.”
She looked away from him and stepped to the waterfall’s pond. Her bare feet glided silently over the soft, damp earth, even the mud not daring to soil her clothes. Her dress shimmered in the light as she knelt before the rippling pool, momentarily revealing a pattern of vines wrapping around it.
“As I trust you know,” she began, the mournful woe in her voice taking on a deeper, darker heaviness, “an illness has befallen Wonderland’s physical realm.” She reached toward the water. Her draping sleeves brushed the ground as she placed the tip of one of her thin fingers to the wet surface.
Color burst from her fingertip in a wave. Black veins streaking through a sickly shade of red replaced the moon’s monochromatic reflection on the pool, consuming the water from bank to bank.
“The Crimson Curse.” For the first time, a tinge of revulsion mingled with her sorrow. But it vanished as quickly as it had come. “While its blight has not directly affected the Spiritayum or our magic, we are not entirely free of it.”
The vivid colors faded, giving way to wispy shapes of lost, wandering soles. From toddlers in rags to the elderly in worn garments, they wandered aimlessly on the pond’s illusion, their faces void of emotion. Their wispy, translucent bodies twitched painfully as streaks of onyx and crimson zapped through them.
“The Sorceress’ Curse has done more than what meets the eye.” She closed her eyes and dipped her head. “It has trapped the spirits of deceased Wonderlanders within your realm and the Betwixt. The Spiritayum will not allow their Curse-touched souls to pass its boarders to travel to the Beyond. To their true afterlife. Even in death, they suffer. Not even the Omitten have escaped this fate.”
Smaya lifted her hand from the pool. The illusion faded, allowing the surface to again show off the pleasant glow of the moon and shifting stars between its ripples.
“In turn, parts of the Spiritayum reliant on passing spirits have begun to fade and twist from disuse. Should they fade or warp completely, it will create a rift between realms. A hole where the two collide.” She stood slowly. “It’s a slow decay, but decay nonetheless. A decay that would bode ill for both your realm and the Spiritayum."
She closed her eyes for a moment and took a breath. “Forgive me for placing the burden of this knowledge upon your shoulders, young vinifcium. A burden I must further ask you to keep to yourself for the safety of both our realms, as well as ourselves.” She sighed, the sound so forlorn it could have spread its grief to even the hardest of hearts. “Not many would approve of one as youthful as yourself knowing our troubles. Our weak points.”
Smaya opened her eyes. “My request to you is simply this:” She turned to face Ghent, meeting his gaze. The eternal grief in her eyes turned her irises a couple shades darker, her eyes glistening in the moonlight. “Keep this—keep us in mind as you embark on your quest. Remember that it is not only your living, but also your dead who will be freed once the Curse has lifted. That both your realm and mine are relying on Wonderland's Heir, your White Knight, and you.”
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Confident his charm was enough to secure them help, Ghent waited for Smaya to respond. His brows lifted at her comment of him being unusual, but he didn't disagree. Especially after discovering he wasn't even human.
Ghent’s hopeful smile wavered at the mention of a favor, doubt already creeping into the corners of his mind. He waited for her to go on, reluctant to hear what the request entailed.
As Smaya spoke of the illness plaguing Wonderland, Ghent nodded slowly. He couldn't forget the Curse if he wanted to; the topic came up more than he would like, and Drust was a constant reminder of it. The boy turned as Smaya approached the pool, his attention drawn to her hand when she reached for the water.
The serenity of the setting was short lived. The pool became polluted with dark veins reminiscent to those on Drust’s face, the water changing from crystal clear to bloody red. Ghent leaned forward to get a better look, disturbed by the images manifesting. The shapes resembled people of varying ages, each moving wherever their feet took them. They didn’t seem to acknowledge their surroundings, their eyes appearing deadened and unfocused as they trudged onward.
Believing the pool was a one way window, Ghent studied the lost souls without fear for his own safety. His expression grew increasingly troubled as Smaya continued, her words chilling him. This painted a bigger picture as to what the Curse was capable of, and who was affected.
"How can something be so powerful?" Ghent's voice was scarcely a whisper, his desire to survive feeling like an impossible dream. If the Curse was powerful enough to plague the dead, what hope did he have against it? What hope did anybody have?
Mind reeling with information, Ghent staggered back, startled when one of the smallest figures seemed to angle its hooded head toward them. In that moment, he understood Smaya’s sorrow.
“N-no, it’s okay. I won’t tell anyone.” Ghent wanted to reassure the woman, her mournful sigh sending a pang of sympathy through his heart. As soon as the words left his mouth, his eyes widened. If he kept his word, neither Drust nor Elayra would know about the danger threatening the realms.
Wishing he had the ability to think before he spoke, Ghent bit his bottom lip to prevent himself from making more promises. He didn't even know Smaya's proposition yet. He waited to be challenged with an impossible task, but it never came. For a moment, he wondered if he heard correctly. Her favor was simply that he didn’t forget them.
It was a selfless, honorable request. Ghent hardly knew how to use magic correctly, but he couldn’t bear to make Smaya more sorrowful than she already was. It was his turn to say something, but what?
"You know for second there, I thought you were gonna ask for my soul or something." Ghent laughed weakly, a feeble attempt to calm his nerves. Is everything a joke to you? Elayra's question from earlier sounded in his head, earning a sigh from the boy. "Sorry. Today's been crazy."
Ghent faced the pool again, reflecting on all that he learned. Either Smaya was desperate enough to tell him about the predicament of the realms, or she felt she could trust him. He suspected the first, but hoped for the later. After a long period of silence, he resumed eye contact with the woman, his mind made up.
“This is a lot to take in...but I’m glad you told me.” Ghent admitted, surprised by the maturity in his own answer. “I’m still new to all of this, and...uh, I sorta suck at magic, but I’ll do what I can to help. And…I won’t forget any of you. I promise.”
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“Corrupt one vital pillar, and the entire structure will crumble after it,” Smaya answered Ghent’s nearly inaudible question. Her soft voice bounced off the waters of the mysterious pool with a pleasant melancholy. “Though we reside in different planes, we are all still connected, two parts of one whole.”
The Guardian waited patiently for Ghent’s answer to her request. If not for the gentle billow of her hair caught in the occasional phantom breeze, the woman looked for all the world a statue.
Though barely a twitch of her lips, a knowing smile tugged at their corners at Ghent’s apology for his reaction to her request. With a slow blink, she gave a slight, unhurried shake of her head in dismissal.
“Laughter unfueled by death's mania is hardly in need of apology. These woods have been devoid of such a sound for far too long,” she finished through another sigh filled with longing and regret.
She fell silent, watching him as he stared into the rippling waters. Only the gentle rush of the impossible waterfall broke the silence. Even the dance of the stars above grew subdued, as if they had decided to pause to listen in on their conversation.
Smaya met his gaze when he looked back to her. His words drew another soft, sorrowful smile from the woman. “That’s all I ask, young vinifcium.”
A lost soul keened somewhere in the distance, the woeful sound little more than a whisper. Smaya glanced toward it, her downtrodden expression unwavering.
“My duties call.” She looked back to Ghent, her voice ever mournful. “You are welcome to stay a while, but it is best you don’t linger too long in my absence. The Betwixt can be a dangerous place for the living without a Spiritayian escort. Especially for a vinifcium. Stay too long, and it will claim your spirit.”
She nodded respectfully to Ghent, then turned with a gentle swish of her dress. Before the folds at her bare feet could fully settle, her form burst into green mist. It swirled about, glittering in the moonlight.
“Farewell, young Madrail.” Her voice echoed in the air as the mist wrapped in a loose spiral around him. “And good luck.”
The glittering mist dissipated in a twinkling burst. It settled toward the ground and vanished as quickly as it had come.
With Smaya gone, the moonlight once more silvered the world. The orb’s undulating form reflected brokenly in the pool, the gentle rush of the waterfall quick to replace the silence.


For a long moment, only the warm voice of the fire filled the clearing. The enchantment around the area turned a distant wail into little more than the moaning whisper of a nonexistent wind. Elayra glanced toward Ghent, curiosity getting the better of her.
In the darkness resting outside the fire’s small, comforting ring of golden light, Ghent’s form was nearly impossible to make out. She blinked, squinting, until her eyes adjusted to the difference in lighting just enough to tell Ghent had again become translucent.
She released a breath she hadn’t realized she held. Hoping the dunderhead wouldn’t offend the Guardian and make her send her wrath raining down on them, Elayra glanced to Drust.
The White Knight still had his eyes closed. His chest rose and fell in a forced steady rhythm. A rhythm she knew well.
The heat and crackling lullaby of the fire made her eyelids weigh heavily. With another glance to make sure Ghent hadn’t turned solid, she let her own eyes droop closed. Without her consent, she began to doze sitting up. Her chin dropped to her chest, and she jerked awake.
“Rest, girl,” Drust intoned, one eye open and on her. It met her gaze before closing. “The curative works best in slumber.”
“I know,” she said through a sigh, struggling to keep an irritated edge from her voice. She glanced uneasily between him and Ghent. With her luck, as soon as she fell asleep, she’d wake up to the sounds of Ghent screaming bloody murder from the sharp end of Drust’s katana. “But—”
Drust interrupted with a heaving, growling sigh. Something a strange mix between a toothy grin and a scowl pulled at his face. “Then you should also know you’re no use to us in your condition.” He opened his eyes and met her stare, hard. His gaze had returned to their normal, eerie black-veined red. The lines snaking from the corners of his eyes remained stationary, the Curse subdued for the moment.
She nodded stiffly. “Fine.”
Reluctantly, she got into her pack. After a moment, she pulled out her cloak. With a groan, she draped it over herself like a blanket, careful to keep its tattered, worn fabric far enough from the fire.
She glanced toward Drust when the Knight moved to grab his katana. She stiffened, but he kept his actions slow, deliberate. Reassuring. He gripped the sheath in one hand, then drew the long sword. The satisfying shing of it pulling from its scabbard rang in the air. Its long, silver blade glinted in the firelight as he examined it. A hint of pride tinged with regretful sorrow sparkled in his eyes for a fraction of a second before he carefully twirled the weapon and stuck its sharp tip in the ground beside him.
“But if anything—”
“It’ll be fine, girl,” he growled, an eye twitching. “Sleep.” He smirked down at her. “If you can’t, I’m sure I can find a remedy for that.”
Elayra scowled. “I can manage, thanks,” she grumbled, reaching to adjust her pack roughly where her head would land.
Drust gave a snorting “Hmm.” Legs crossed under him, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes again.
Taking a breath of her own, she laid down, using the lumpy pack as a familiar makeshift pillow. She drew the cloak tighter around her, warding off the chill of the night at her back.
Quicker than she thought possible, her aching body fell into a sleep deeper than she could have hoped for.
Drust watched her for a moment until her breathing evened out into that of slumber. Satisfied she had at last done as ordered, he gave a short sigh then resumed his meditative position, his back straight.
Hands resting on his knees, ready to grasp his katana at a moment’s notice, he slowed his own breaths. Each one drew in quieter than the last as he shifted focus to the sounds of the forest, listening to muffled rustlings and warped voices even Elayra couldn’t have picked out. If Ghent so much as twitched upon his return, chances were, he’d hear it.
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Smaya's smile didn't go unnoticed. Ghent began to smile in return, but the cry in the distance cut his reaction short. He looked to her inquisitively, curious as to what a guardian's duties entailed. Rather than burden her with questions, he nodded to show he understood.
“Yeaaah, I should probably head back.” Ghent mustered another weak laugh, this time without an apology. Smaya didn’t seem bothered by him joking in serious situations, which made her even cooler in his book. He took a step back, preparing to take his leave.
“This means a lot.” Dipping his head to show his respect and appreciation, Ghent looked up just in time to witness Smaya vanish. He turned to get a better look at the smoke surrounding him, amazed by her theatrical exit.
"Later, Smaya." Ghent waited until the emerald faded into nothingness, his voice quieter than it had been. “And thank you.”
The Betwixt remained breathtaking, but no amount of beauty could mask the ugly truth. Ghent stared past the waterfall, unable to think past his conversation with the mysterious woman. The images in the pool were no longer there, but the suffering souls were forever burned into his mind.
Shuddering, Ghent resumed the same seated position he chose to arrive in. The Betwixt was no place for a meltdown, especially with his physical body left behind. Heart heavier than it had been, he closed his eyes and started to focus.
Nothing happened. For a gut-wrenching second, Ghent wondered if he didn’t have the energy to make the journey back. Drust had mentioned something about strength, which raised a few questions. Did fatigue play a role in traveling between realms? Ghent didn't know.
"Come on..." Ghent refocused, imagining his destination in greater detail. He pictured the clearing, and the way the trees seemed to frame the Safe Zone from every angle. He remembered the way Drust and Elayra were seated around the fire, with their weapons and supplies just within reach.
Seconds ticked into minutes. Ghent felt an odd sort of muscle spasm go through his body, something similar to a hyptic jerk before one falls asleep. Still, nothing happened. At least, nothing that resembled his previous travels between realms.
Ghent cracked open an eye, just as the Betwixt began to slip away. The scenery seemed to stretch and fade, the cool tones replaced by the greenery of the Safe Zone. The effect was nauseating, so much that Ghent scrunched his eyes shut. When he took his next breath, there was a heavy scent of smoke in the air.
Gasping, Ghent opened his eyes. He blinked dazedly, his fingers numb against the metal of his staff. In hindsight, leaving his body away from the fire hadn’t been the best of ideas, but at least his soul was intact.
With the paranoia of someone who'd lost their phone, Ghent searched the ground for his father's journal. To his relief, it was there, nearly camouflaged against the earth. Retrieving the precious item, he craned his neck to look toward Drust and Elayra. Both were as he remembered leaving them, with the exception of Elayra, who appeared to be asleep. Inwardly groaning, Ghent forced himself to his feet, taking the journal and staff with him.
Mindful of the slumbering princess, he stepped lightly, eyeing the pair cautiously before speaking.
“She agreed to help us.” Ghent stood a few paces away from Drust, keeping his voice down for Elayra's sake. He swallowed hard, still jittery from his experience in the Betwixt. “So, uh...if we're lucky, we should be able to make it to Gardendale by tomorrow."
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After the last couple days, the quiet felt almost strange to Drust. Welcome, but odd nonetheless. The gentle sound of Elayra’s relaxed breaths helped to ease some of the tension eternally threatening to strangle him. He just had to focus on the positives.
The princess was safe. Hatter’s boy had been found. And they had all survived Ghent’s first day back in Wonderland. At long last, the boy’s training would begin.
But it was late in coming. Ghent had already shown the vinifcium fighting instinct was either latent or nonexistent. He’d lived a coddled life, that much was obvious by his appearance alone. The chances of the boy becoming a decent fighter in the short time they needed were nonexistent at best.
Drust scowled. He quickly banished the creeping thoughts. Forcing his mind to stop its muddled, mixed thoughts, he focused fully once more on the sounds of life—and death—around him. He let his senses take over his mind, pushing the Curse as far from the forefront as possible.
At the sound of Ghent's gasp amidst the relatively quiet night, Drust's hand reached instinctively for his katana still sticking out from the ground. He quickly looked toward the boy, his muscles tensed readily.
But everything appeared fine. Deducing Ghent’s action to be nothing more than a reaction to returning to the living world, he let out a slow, quiet sigh. He released his katana and forced some of the tightness from his muscles. Closing his eyes again, he did his best to mentally brace himself for whatever news Ghent brought.
Good or bad, he would stay calm.
He listened to Ghent’s rustlings as the boy checked for his father’s gifts. Drust tracked Ghent’s steps by sound, his eyes still closed.
“You made it back,” he observed quietly as Ghent neared, his monotone voice ever unreadable.
Eyes still closed, he let out a relieved breath at Ghent’s news. That was one setback out of the way.
“Good.” He nodded stiffly. “We can’t afford more delays.” The corner of his mouth twitched into an irate sneer. He took another slow breath as his lips evened out.
He opened his eyes and looked Ghent over. The boy looked troubled. More troubled than normal, that was. His skin shone with an unusual pallor in the flickering light of the camp's fire. The shadows played over Ghent's drawn face, the expression from more than just the chill of being away from the warmth.
Drust’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. Something had happened to the boy in the Betwixt.
He cast the clearing a quick, precautionary glance. Only the shadow of his katana moved about. It danced with the whims of the flames, the elemental likeness of the weapon's handle melting into the darkness behind it. A faint, chilled wind blew through the clearing. It carried the sweet scents of the forest and the nearly imperceptible phantom-decay of the dead.
But nothing seemed out of place. Nothing outside the Betwixt, anyway.
“You look ill, boy.” His suspicion leaked into his voice. With a quick, tiny sigh through his nose, he got to one knee and turned to his pack. He reached inside, then withdraw his wadded cloak. “Rest, if you desire.” He handed the tattered brown garment to Ghent, offering it as a blanket. “As established, I have first watch. I’ll wake you when it’s your turn to take over.”
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You don’t look so great yourself. Ghent studied the Curse-infected Knight through bloodshot eyes. He lifted his shoulders in a halfhearted shrug, his muscles protesting the simplest of movements. “Maybe I’m allergic to ghosts.” He thought the comment was clever until he remembered Drust didn’t have a sense of humor.
“I’m just tired.” Ghent amended. He anticipated a follow up question, or even an accusation, but it never came. Instead, Drust turned his attention to the magical bag between them.
Ghent breathed a secret sigh of relief. It wasn’t long before the Knight retrieved something, a bundle of fabric large enough to pass as a blanket. To Ghent’s surprise, the item was offered to him. He stared at the cloak as if it were a foreign object, his mind taking longer than necessary to process the gesture. It was strange to think that this was the same man who had tried to run him through with a katana.
Before Ghent could find the words to properly thank him, Drust went on to speak about keeping watch. The task had slipped Ghent’s mind completely.
“I guess I can take second watch,” he offered, glancing toward Elayra. He wasn’t sure how the King’s Curative worked, but he figured the longer her sleep went undisturbed, the better. He tucked the journal underneath his arm and reached to accept the cloak, his hand dipping slightly due to the fabrics weight.
“And, um…” Ghent couldn't help but feel the smallest bit ashamed. Aside from the hoodie on his back, he hadn't thought to bring anything warm. “Thanks, Drust.” He lingered in place, contemplating saying more. There was a lot he still wanted to ask the Knight, but the time wasn't right. After a few moments of deliberation, he turned to go.
Carrying Drust’s cloak and Hatter’s gifts, Ghent returned to his belongings. He set aside his staff, then opened the flap of his backpack and placed his father's journal inside for safekeeping. Hopefully, the pages contained answers to some of the questions that went unasked.
Using the softer half of his backpack as a pillow, Ghent moved to lie on his back. The canopy of trees towered above him, stray dust motes drifting where they pleased. It should have been peaceful, but he couldn't take comfort in the scenery. He had too much to think about.
Everything had happened so fast. It took one day -- one encounter -- and his entire world was flipped upside down. Elayra and Drust were real. Magic was real. Not to mention ghosts, and worlds beyond Wonderland. He wasn't human, and his role in the castle was apparently decided for him. His father was one of the Forsaken, and his mother...he didn't know. He didn't even know what had happened to Elayra's parents exactly.
If that wasn't enough to keep him awake, Ghent also had his life on Earth to worry about. By now his parents would have discovered his disappearance. What would they think? He didn't leave a note, or tell anyone other than Henry. Part of him wondered if that was because he had no intentions of actually going. After all, he hadn't gone into the portal willingly. He was pushed.
Thanks, Miles. Ghent rolled onto his side and pulled the cloak over his shoulder, his eyelids too heavy to keep open. The last thing he remembered before succumbing to sleep was the warmth of the fire, and the gentle rustling of trees.
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Drust’s lips curled up in a sneer at Ghent’s joke about ghosts, but he didn’t comment. The Spiritayum had its secrets. Which mean the deeper Ghent dove into their side, so, too, would the boy. He could only hope Ghent would tell him if it was something he needed to know.
One of Drust’s brows rose when Ghent agreed to take the second watch. “You already agreed to it, boy,” he reminded as Ghent took the cloak from him.
“And yes,” he added, noticing Ghent’s contemplative glance to Elayra, “she needs sleep. The longer she’s unconscious, the quicker the curative will work,” he confirmed, guessing at Ghent’s thoughts.
Drust snorted at the boy’s thanks, but gave a jerky nod in a silent, ‘You’re welcome.’ He looked to the fire to compare its hunger to what remained of their small stack of wood, expecting Ghent to return to his own space. But the boy stayed. He could practically feel the unspoken questions nagging at Ghent, but his charge remained silent.
“Rest, boy,” he said gruffly, reaching for one of the smaller dried logs. “Luck here doesn’t mean luck in Gardale. You’ll need your wits. And strength. For both travel and training.”
As if spurred by his words, Ghent turned and went to where he had left his unusual backpack.
Drust carefully added the small log to the flames. Using the stick Elayra had been poking the fire with earlier, he pushed the log closer to the embers of the fire’s heart. The flames flared for a moment, relishing the addition to its food supply.
He watched the flames as Ghent settled in for the night. He focused once more on listening to the surroundings, keeping an eye on the trees encircling them. He glanced to Ghent when the boy adjusted himself, the cloak wrapped snugly around him.
The boy’s breaths soon slowed, matching Elayra’s in slumber.
Growing tired of sitting, Drust got to his feet, his movements inhumanly quiet. He pulled his katana from the ground and gently rested its blade against his shoulder. He began patrolling around the perimeter. He kept just far enough from the sleeping teenagers to not disturb them, but close enough to get to them quickly if trouble arose.
As Drust made a round for the umpteenth time, a silvery shimmer rippled through the magic protecting the Safe Zone.
In an instant, Drust held his katana at the ready, every muscle prepared for a fight. He turned in a circle, searching for an intruder as he backed toward the fire to wake his charges.
He spun when movement caught his eye.
The tichari who had been in the field when the trio arrived stopped at the edge of the woods. It stared at Drust, its overly large ears twitching. The electric glow from the whitish-blue fox colored the woods and grass around it, turning the ghostly fox into its own light source.
Drust’s eyes narrowed. He glanced behind the fox, watching for any others it may have led to the clearing.
The tichari gave something somewhere between a snort and a sigh, a cloud of white mist curling from its snout at the action. The tichari trotted to the side. A bed of electric fog floated into the clearing behind it. Various sizes of dried logs and twigs sat atop it, illuminated by the ethereal light of the fox’s powers.
The tichari pointed its snout toward its collected stock, then to their dwindling pile of firewood. Its translucent brows rose with surprising expressiveness, silently asking, ‘Do you want this or not?’
Though he lowered his katana, he didn’t let his guard down. He gave a jerky nod.
It looked almost like the youthful tichari rolled its eyes as the cloud floated toward the pile. Drust watched both the cloud and the tichari as the creature lowered its collected wood. It fell quietly to the soft grass well out of reach of the hungry flames.
“You have my thanks,” he said softly as the cloud dispersed.
The tichari’s shoulders hunched in a shrug before it darted back into the forest. A line of mist trailed behind it, remaining for only a moment more than the spirit creature before even it disappeared.
After a moment, he looked to the replenished pile. A pile stocked enough to last them the night.
Satisfied the tichari had brought no intruders to worry about, Drust resumed his patrol. For the remainder of his watch, he stopped only to feed the fire when it began to dwindle, and warm himself on the occasion the night’s chill began to get to him.


Drust hesitated. He looked down at Ghent, the boy’s back to him. A part of him didn’t want to wake his charge, wanted to let both the overworked teens rest until morning. And he still didn’t know whether or not they could trust Ghent to be even remotely diligent. So far, the odds weren’t promising.
Drust grit his teeth and shoved the thought aside. As little sleep as he tended to need, he still needed it. And waking Elayra instead wasn’t an option he was willing to choose.
He'll do fine, he assured himself. He nudged the sleeping boy with his boot, trying to rouse him.
He met any resistance or hesitation to wake with another, harder nudge to Ghent’s side, half-whispering, “Wake up, boy.”
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For the first time in years, Ghent revisited the dream from his childhood.
At first, everything was too dark to see what was happening. He felt himself being picked up and passed to someone else, their arms strong and secure. He heard a voice -- possibly two people, followed by footsteps.
Somewhere up ahead, Ghent saw a room illuminated by light. The closer they got to the light, the more he could see. It came as no surprise when he realized Drust was the one carrying him. Time did little to change the Knight, but his face was noticeably different without the Curse.
In Drust's opposite arm, Ghent managed to make out Elayra's petite form. She had to have been two at most, which meant Ghent was three. His scattered memories from fourteen years ago were back, but he retained his thoughts and memories from the present.
When Drust brought them into a room at the end of the foyer, Ghent suspected they were in the castle he had heard about. He wasn't sure, though. Everything was happening too fast, and his three-year-old self hadn't been too concerned about surveying his surroundings.
His point of view became fuzzy as the setting changed, the stone walls replaced by overgrown foliage and massive trees. The road ahead crisscrossed like a spider’s web, but Drust didn't take any of the paths. He seemed to know precisely where he was going without them.
On they went, covering ground at remarkable speed. Ghent looked across Drust's chest to make sure Elayra was with them, and she was...but something was different. In this version of the dream, she was armed with a knife. A knife! Ghent gawked. He began to stammer something to her, but every step from Drust jostled him so much, he couldn’t speak.
Things got even weirder when Ghent realized Margen was perched on Drust’s shoulder like a parrot. The tichari waved a tiny paw at him, and a dumbfounded Ghent waved back. He definitely didn’t remember that before.
The farther they went, the more their surroundings changed. Tendrils of smoke replaced the trees, and a tall iron fence blocked their path. A portal materialized where the gate should have been, colors of black and red swirling like an angry typhoon.
Ghent gasped at the sight. He heard Drust's ragged breaths as they come to an abrupt stop. Snaps and snarls of faceless monsters sounded behind them, their forms emerging from the shadows. Before Ghent got a good look at what had ambushed them, he was put on the ground along with Elayra.
“GO!” Someone yelled at them. The voice sounded like Drust, but Ghent didn't know for certain. He felt someone push him toward the portal, but he used the momentum to run toward Elayra instead. If he altered the events of the past, maybe he could fix the present.
“Elayra!” Ghent couldn't believe how young he sounded. He lunged for her hand, forgetting about the knife until it was too late. He shouted as the blade slid across his palm, but it didn’t hurt. Ignoring the blood trickling down his fingertips, he turned to push Elayra through the portal.
Instead, somebody pushed him.
Wake up, boy.
The force of the shove was enough for Ghent to fall, his body disappearing from Wonderland.



Ghent’s eyes snapped open. He rolled onto his back with a gasp, startled by the sight of Drust. “I’m awake!” To prove his point, he started to sit up and instantly regretted it. His body felt stiff and his head hurt, not to mention his allergies made life more miserable than usual.
He leaned forward with a groan, resting his arms and forehead against his knees. He remained in the slumped position for half a minute, his posture resembling a zombie with a hangover.
Eyes bleary and half-lidded, Ghent lifted his head to look at Drust. “Two-year-old's shouldn’t have knives," he informed the man, his voice thick from sleep. He grimaced as he stood, his body aching relentlessly. On Earth, he took many things for granted. Sleeping on a mattress was one of them.
“Keep the fire going, and make sure nothing gets in,” he mumbled through a yawn, counting each task on his fingers. Up until that moment, he thought school was the worst thing to wake up for. Guard duty was significantly worse. "Anything else?”
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Drust replaced his foot on the ground as Ghent jarred awake. He stuck the tip of his katana into the ground beside him and snorted at Ghent’s statement. He crossed his arms and stared down at Ghent. He waited patiently for the boy’s body to catch up with the concept of being awake.
A raised eyebrow at Ghent’s comment broke Drust’s statue-like presence. “No. Typically they shouldn’t.”
He watched the boy stand, the Knight ever towering over his charge. He sighed; Ghent looked worse than Elayra had after her first day of training as a child.
This was going to be one long journey. A wasted journey if the boy didn’t adapt, and fast.
His neck twitched. He felt the Curse pulse in him, fighting for control with the fuel of the negative thought. Scowling, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath as Ghent collected himself.
Drust gave a stiff nod in confirmation. “Here, the forests are divided into exactly twelve hours of day. Twelve hours of night.” As he spoke, he opened his eyes and reached into a hidden pocket of his trousers. “I’ve taken the brunt of the watch. There are about four hours of dark remaining. You’ll take the next two. Then wake Elayra for the last two.”
Drust brought out a pocket watch. It rested in his palm, a long, its thick silvery-white chain swinging downward. A bit larger than the typical pocket watch, it looked small and delicate in the Knight’s large hand. Its white metal held a tinge of tarnish. The enamel coloring of the intricate design had faded, but still it glinted proudly in the firelight. A relic that hinted at a time long past. A time when fineries were easier made. When peace was more than an idealistic idea in the mind of the rare rebel.
A colored enamel design of the Heart family crest sat at the center of the watch's lid. A Knight stood on either side of it, one armored in black and the other white outlined in ebony. The white one raised a katana and the other a wicked-looking polearm above the crest, their weapons' blades crossing. Entwined rose vines ran around the edge of the watch, dotted with alternating blue and white roses in various stages of bloom.
Drust depressed the rose-shaped latch at the top. It sprung open readily, revealing an even more unique clock face.
Four diamond-like lines marked its celestial-decorated face at the four cardinal directions. Shorter ruby lines marked between each diamond one, creating a total of twenty-four lines. Six white runes and one emerald one rested beneath the marks. Two of the white runes let out a faint, pulsing light.
Five elegant clock hands of different materials faced in just as many directions. The longest, bottom-most hand glowed a faint silver akin to moonlight. A glittering golden hand rested above it just shorter than its brother, followed by one of clear glass with gray fog swirling inside it. The metal of the second to the top looked in the process of changing from blue to a warm orange. The top and shortest of the clock hands sloly rotated counter-clockwise toward the bottom, its almost sinister matte black surface seeming to absorb the fire's light rather than reflect it.
“Time,” Drust continued, reading the unusual watch, “is a relative thing in some parts of Wonderland. Depends on how connected a place is to the Spiritayum. Stronger the connection, the less it has to adhere to Time’s rules for our realm. So, naturally, we developed different methods for counting time. This,” he nodded to the pocket watch, “is an OmniChrono. I’ll spare you the particulars, but it keeps time better than any Earth device.”
He extended the pocket watch toward Ghent so he could better see it.
“The only hand you need to focus on tonight is the bottom one. Once it moves two notches,” he placed a fingernail on the glass protecting the clock face, indicating one of the red gem-like lines embedded into it, “wake Elayra, and give her the Chrono.”
Drust closed the OmniChrono’s lid. Holding it by the chain, he offered it to Ghent.
“If you notice anything suspicious for our location, wake me. Immediately. Follow your instincts. I’d rather be woken when there’s no real danger, than sleep when our life’s under threat.” He nodded toward Ghent’s weapon, its tined blades hidden by its sheaths. “And keep that at the ready. Be prepared for anything.” He paused before remembering Elayra wasn’t conscious to complete their usual mantra. “And always expect the worst,” he finished.
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Ghent failed to refrain from yawning a second time. He sniffed in an attempt to clear his sinuses, but his nose was pretty well stuffed. This, of course, was all thanks to William Saxon.
Inwardly cursing his foe, he rubbed at his eye while Drust spoke about how time worked differently in the forests. Ghent responded with a contemplative ‘hm’ but didn’t offer more than that. He was too tired.
The task of keeping watch wasn’t divided equally as Ghent thought it would be. It sounded like Drust had taken it upon himself to stay awake for the majority of the night, whereas Ghent and Elayra only had to stay awake two hours each. This was both good and bad. Good because Ghent got to sleep more. Bad because he had a feeling Drust would be more irritable than usual if he wasn’t well rested.
Feeling the terms were more than fair, Ghent nodded to show he understood. He remained groggy until Drust presented something from his pocket. At first glance, it appeared to be a watch of some sort. The mere sight of the object was enough to wake Ghent up.
“Wow…” Ghent murmured, amazed by the amount of detail on the front. He leaned forward to get a better look, the images of the Knights catching his eye. If the depiction of the armor was accurate, he had a pretty good idea of how Drust looked in the years before The Curse.
"This is really cool," he admitted, his curiosity growing as the clock was revealed. At least, Ghent guessed it was supposed to be a clock. The inside was beautiful, unique, and unlike anything he'd ever seen. He wasn't sure what he was looking at.
"Uh..." Ghent hoped Drust wouldn't assume he knew how to read the thing. Thankfully, the Knight showed him how to gauge two hours in a way that was surprisingly simple. Making a mental note of the red line, Ghent resumed his original position and reached to accept the item.
"You guys have some pretty weird names for stuff," Ghent commented. He cupped the OmniChrono in both hands, careful not to drop it. It was somewhat unnerving to be entrusted with something he assumed was irreplaceable.
Carefully, Ghent turned the OmniChrono over to see if the back mirrored the front. There weren't any Knights, but he did notice Drust's name near the top, along with some numbers and additional text underneath. Before the boy could inquire about it, Drust went on to speak of intruders and the importance of waking him.
"I will. Wake you, I mean." Ghent promised hastily. He had no intention of keeping quiet. The entirety of the Betwixt would likely hear his screams if he saw something trespassing into the Safe Zone. Still, Drust made a good point. Ghent had a weapon now.
Slipping the OmniChrono into the front pocket of his hoodie, Ghent went to collect his staff from its resting place. The metal was cold against his sweaty palms, reminding him of how nervous he was. The mantra was far from encouraging. "With you two, I always expect the worst."
Switching the staff to his dominant hand, Ghent remembered Drust's cloak. He retrieved the bundle of fabric from the earth and offered it back to him.
“Hey...about the OmniChrono...is it a family heirloom or something?” Ghent didn't plan to ask about anything beyond his duties, but he couldn't help himself. There were too many questions swimming around in his head. "Is that supposed to be you on the front?" He tacked on another question as he usually did, talking faster than one could hope to reply. "And what's it say on the back?"
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Drust’s brow rose slightly at Ghent’s comment. “The same could be said of your world,” he intoned as Ghent took the watch. With the way he held it, the boy looked afraid of breaking it. “It’s not delicate, boy.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s designed for adventurers. It can take a beating.”
Drust watched him for a moment. He spared the back of the Chrono a quick glance, the spiky lettering of his name and flowing cursive of another language a familiar sight.
Drust gave a quick, approving, “Hm” and jerky nod at Ghent’s agreement at his orders. Though he suspected he’d get woken at every slightest rustle, he at least believed Ghent would wake him. The action turned into a sneer at Ghent’s comment to the mantra.
“To think,” he growled, neck twitching as he pulled his katana from the earth. He turned from Ghent, keeping the weapon’s tip pointed at the ground. “I was worried you’d begun to trust us,” he finished with a snort. He tossed a couple more logs into the fire, the extra force behind the motion making the flames send indignant sparks hissing into the air.
Elayra shifted in her sleep, making Drust look to her. The girl pulled her cloak tighter around her as she adjusted so her opposite side faced the fire, but didn’t wake.
He took a deep breath, then knelt before his stuff. The warmth and light of the flames bathed half his body. He sheathed his weapon, then glanced over when Ghent offered him the cloak.
Drust shook his head, keeping his voice low to avoid disturbing Elayra again. “If you can avoid tripping on it, use it. If you think you'll need it to keep warm. Do an occasional perimeter check. But stay in the Safe Zone.” He tipped his pack onto its back, readying to lay down. Items rustled inside, but he paid it little mind. “And watch for fog rolling in. The Chrono’s predicting it.”
He frowned at Ghent’s questions about the OmniChrono. Of everything he could have asked, he went with the irrelevant. Drust sighed and raised a hand, trying to silence the boy before he added any more questions to his unending string.
“No, it’s not a family heirloom,” he answered, beginning with the first of Ghent’s questions. “And no, that’s technically not me.” His lips quirked in a smile that looked more deranged than amused to an unfamiliar eye. “OmniChronos were standard issue. For all knights of the palace. That was their typical design for us. The White Queen and Hatter had mine engraved. And replaced the usual sword of the White Knight's design with a katana.
“The numbers signify my creation date. The rest is in a language of magic.” He sat back, one knee bent and the other leg beneath him. He rested a hand on his raised knee, staring at the flickering flames as he recited the inscription. “‘One journey’s end is the beginning of another. Enduring strength be yours.’ I suspect Hatter used it to enchant it as well.” His amused expression softened, shifting from deranged to lopsided. “He never admitted to it. But that Chrono’s more resistant to magic and physical beatings than normal.”
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“We’ll have to work on few trust exercises before that happens.” Ghent joked, half serious. For the most part, he trusted the Wonderlander's, but not enough to feel at ease around them. Despite being linked by the past, they were strangers. More than that, they were unpredictable. Especially Drust.
Ghent jumped a bit when the logs collided, the sound louder to his ears than it should have been normally. He began to wonder how much they trusted him in return when Drust refused the cloak.
“Check the perimeters,” Ghent agreed, making a mental list of things that needed to be done. “I can do that. Thanks for this,” he lifted the cloak in reference, raising a brow when Drust mentioned fog coming in. Apparently, the fancy pocket watch did more than tell time.
Before Ghent got a chance to worry about intruders using the fog as coverage, Drust began to address his list of questions. He answered in order, beginning with the pair of Knights on the lid of the OmniChrono.
“Custom made just for you, huh? That’s pretty sweet.” Ghent commented, thinking back to an earlier conversation of Drust traveling with Hatter and the White Queen. The three of them had obviously been close. Drust wasn’t the easiest guy to read, but he seemed to soften a little whenever the past was brought up. Maybe the memories helped keep the Curse at bay.
While he listened, Ghent pulled the cloak about his shoulders. He tested the length of the fabric, halting as the next comment reached his ears.
Creation date. Unless that was a strange Wonderland term for 'birthday', Drust’s origin presented a big mystery. "Created? Like The Powerpuff Girls?" Ghent whispered to himself, stunned he hadn't stopped to wonder whether Drust was something other than human. His height, his eyes...the unnatural paleness of his skin tone. It should have been obvious just by looking at him, yet somehow the thought never presented itself in Ghent's mind.
Amazed by his own obliviousness, Ghent stilled his tongue while the inscription was translated. He considered the text as Hatter was mentioned, which was enough for the boy to remove the OmniChrono from his pocket to take a closer look. He had no knowledge of what enchanting an object entailed, but he hoped he could learn to do it too. He turned the OmniChrono over, taking a newfound interest in the date recorded. Unfortunately, the numbers were small and difficult to read despite the light coming from the fire.
“Still, I'll take good care of it.” Ghent lifted his head, looking to Drust as he spoke. "This isn't something that can be replaced, it's one of a kind. It has your creation date on it and everything." There. A hint. He hoped to reopen the topic so Drust would offer more information as to what that meant, but he wasn't sure if Drust was the type to be lured into a conversation.
Undeterred, Ghent slipped the item back into his pocket, studying the man – or, whatever Drust was – from his spot. It was amazing to think that a being as powerful as Drust could somehow be brought into creation. Who created him, and how? Were the rest of the Knights the same, or was Drust special? Ghent didn’t want to risk angering him, but he couldn't contain the flood of questions threatening to pour out of him. He couldn't wait.
"Speaking of creation dates..." Ghent edged closer to the Knight, hoping to hear anything he felt like sharing. “How old are you? What are you? Do you have any special abilities? Aside from being crazy tall, I mean.” While Ghent spoke, he cut a glance toward Elayra to make sure she hadn't awakened. It was easier to ask questions without her around. He didn't have to put up with her eye rolls and sighs if she deemed a question stupid.
Lowering his voice as a precaution, Ghent turned his attention back to Drust. “Do you know who, er, created you? If you don't remember, your memories could've been erased. I saw a movie like that before. Two movies, actually."
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Drust returned Ghent's promise to take care of the OmniChrono with a grateful grunt and slight nod. But he didn't rise to the unspoken inquiry in the boy's tone. He stared at the fire, momentarily lost in thoughts of the past. Sensing Ghent's gaze on him, he glanced to the boy. He paused, taking in the way Ghent looked him over. The Knight tensed, his expression darkening as he realized the reason behind the closer inspection.
Ghent had just realized the Knight wasn’t human.
Drust's neck twitched and his lips pulled down in a half-snarl as he looked back to the fire. Ghent’s imperceptiveness knew no bounds. If that didn’t change, it could mark the boy’s—or even his companions’—downfall.
“I remember, boy!” he snapped, his voice harsher and louder than he had intended.
Elayra shifted again, muttering in her sleep.
Drust grit his teeth and looked back to the fire. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, struggling to keep the pulse of the Curse from raging through him.
“Our memories begin the moment we’re created.” Though a hard edge clung to his voice, he lowered his volume and forced his thoughts from Ghent’s obliviousness. Focused on the answers Ghent sought. “I am a White Knight. Black and White Knights of the palace were never given any other racial name. We were created with the sole purpose of being warriors. Loyal protectors of the White Rule.”
Opening his eyes, he looked to his hand, the flames tinting it with their golden-red light. He clenched and unclenched it as he continued, the severeness in his voice slowly easing. “As for ‘special abilities…’”
He paused. It had been years since he last had to explain what he was. It felt almost odd doing so now to someone who knew so little. Even Elayra had had an idea of what he was, what he could do, by the time she worked up the courage to ask more.
“We're designed to be near-perfect warriors. I’m far stronger and faster than any human. I need less sleep and sustenance to function and survive. My stamina and senses are heightened. I can withstand more extreme temperatures longer. I heal quickly from any non-magic wounds, and age much slower than humans. The Knights’ skills in combat are unparalleled. Only vinifcium have ever grown to nearly rival us in physical battle.” His lips twitched upward from unspoken memories. The expression quickly turned bitter. “But we’re weak against magic. Without any countermeasures, a simple attack spell can deal massive damage. As we were created by it, so, too, can it kill us. Typically, we even lack the ability to command it. We’d pose too much of a danger to ourselves. I was a rare exception, capable of accessing it.”
He took a moment to take another breath, trying to not let the the reason why everything had changed creep heavily into his mind.
“We can only be created in the Chamber of the Heartstone in Heart Palace. And only by a vinifcium.” He glanced toward Ghent as he continued, “I am the result of your father’s first attempt at creating a Knight. That was nearly thirty-five years ago.” A grim smile pulled at his mouth. “But Knights aren’t created as infants. We’re created old enough and with the basic knowledge and abilities to be the warriors we’re designed to be. I was told I looked somewhere around seventeen.”
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[Dang it! Oops Post. Now I'm gonna be all thrown off. *Cries.*]
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