Neopedia : Aethia and the Battle Faerie
Aethia ran through the Haunted Woods, a Faerie frightened and alone. Her wings were wounded, unable to lift her from the ground into the cold air. The trees loomed over her, their limbs reaching down, clawing at her, trying to hold her still. Far away, she heard a howl echo off the hills. Far away, yes, but not as far as it was half an hour ago. The pack was getting closer, and she was tired, every step a little slower.
She crossed a cold river, the water freezing her toes. The mud sucked her feet down deep, and it slowed her down even further. Branches scraped against her face, blinding her vision as she ran. What was she doing here? Some foolish quest to find something that had been lost for ages. She didn't even remember anymore. All she could think of was running - running from the pack on her heels.
She was foolish to come here. She was a young Faerie who hadn't even graduated from the Faerie Academy, but when she found a folded piece of paper between the pages of an old book, she knew she had to solve it herself. A name, a clue, a sword... lost so long ago, almost forgotten by the others. No one knew where she went, or what happened to her, and many feared even whispering her name. Aethia didn't. When she found the paper, she said it out loud.
"Valeane," she whispered. The name of the Battle Faerie.
Written on the paper was a map. Not a very good one, as the water stains damaged much of it, but what was in her hand was definitely a map. The Haunted Woods. The Mourning Tree. A quickly drawn image of a sword. Could it be? Could she have hidden them there? The two swords she wielded when she faced the Dark Faerie Fiona? The swords she was forced to hide. No one knew why, but when she was defeated by Fiona, she disappeared for a time, returning without her swords or her pride. She faded away then, never to be seen again.
And here she was, in the Haunted Woods, looking for that hiding place, looking for the lost swords, hoping she could bring them back to Faerieland and...
She stopped, her feet buried in mud. There was a growling in front of her, red eyes staring from the shadows. Aethia turned. More red dots, more growls. She spun in every direction, but the growls were everywhere. She drew out her tiny knife, forged from Faeriesteel, and took a deep breath of cold air.
The voice was like a blade of ice, cutting through her ears. She turned to see the slender shadow, peering at her beside one of the twisted trees.
The Dark Faerie's grin was as slender and dangerous as a knife-edge. "I'm glad they're teaching you well in the Academy." She stepped out into the clearing, the Werelupes staying where they were. "Did they teach you to never trust a Darkness Faerie?"
Aethia shook her head. "They taught me all about you, wicked sister."
"You're so educated," Fiona whispered with her mocking voice. "You know what happens to little Faeries who wander into the Haunted Woods, then?"
Aethia nodded slowly. "I do."
"Well, because you're so... educated... I will give you a head start." She waved her hand and the red eyes and growling disappeared. "Get going, little one." She leaned forward, putting her hands on her hips. "I want to see you run!"
Aethia didn't hesitate. She spun on her heel and ran as fast as she could through the woods, searching for any kind of solace, any kind of hiding place from the pack.
She ran. Her weary legs ignored the pain; her hands tore at the tree limbs, snagging her hair and clothes. She heard nothing behind her, but that was only a matter of time. The pack would find her soon enough, those creatures bred on hatred and spite. It was only a matter of time.
The mud grabbed her ankles, pulling her deeper down into the bog. Aethia grabbed at anything to keep her from falling, but as soon as she got free, she heard the howls begin.
No more time.
The moon loomed high in the sky, casting its silver light down on the Forest, chasing away all the shadows.
Nowhere to hide.
She ran again, fell, and tried to pull herself up. Then, she just fell back into the mud, her heart beating hard against her chest, her legs refusing to move any further.
"Aethia," a voice said to her. She looked up, expecting to see Fiona... but there was no one. She pushed herself up, just enough to look up at the sky, and there before her, fallen from her pocket, was the map that brought her to the Forest.
She looked at the map, then looked up around her. A circle of trees. All bowed toward the center. A single wide tree, all blackened by age and despair. The circle all bowing toward the centre...
She was there!
Lying in the circle, surrounded by the bent trees. Someone called to her. Someone...
Her arms ached as she lifted herself to her feet. The ground beneath her was moist and half-frozen. She approached the tree. Carefully. Reverently. She didn't hear the beasts, didn't care about the darkness. Her numb fingers touched it, her frozen lips whispered the name.
The tree growled and she stepped back. Its limbs turned and the bark opened up, a wooden maw with slivers for teeth. Deep inside, she saw the glint of moonlight on steel, and without thinking, she reached forward.
The maw snapped shut, and she barely got her hands out of the way in time. A deep voice then spoke: "Who are you?"
She put her hand on her heart. "I am Aethia, student of Shyvara, daughter of Dreeana."
"What do you seek?" the voice asked.
Aethia lowered her head. "The sword of flame and the sword of ice," she answered.
"Who wielded them?" the voice asked.
"Valeane," she said, her voice low and soft.
From behind her, the sound of the pack grew closer. She looked up at the tree, her eyes flashing in the light.
"Why do you seek?" the voice asked.
Aethia blinked away the sweat and dew from her eyes. She knew her next answer was important. More important than anything she had ever said before.
"Why do you seek?" the voice asked, its tone insistent.
Another voice spoke then, just behind her. "Be careful," it said, all cold and cruel. "If you answer wrongly, the tree will gobble you up."
Aethia didn't need to turn to know who stood behind her. She heard the pack, snarling at the edge of the circle.
"Why do you seek?" the voice asked a third time. Three is the magic number, Aethia thought. It won't ask a fourth time.
"To teach others to protect themselves," she said.
From behind her, she heard Fiona curse in the Faerie Tongue. The voice spoke to her: "You are worthy," it said. The swords then glowed, one silver like ice, while the other was red like a forge. She took them into her hands, and the silver sword froze her fingers, while the red sword scalded them, but she did not let go. For all the pain in her hands and fingers, Aethia did not let go. Instead, she turned and faced Fiona, the swords in her hands.
"I've found them!" she said, seeing the reflection of her eyes in those of the Dark Faerie. One eye was silver, and the other red, just like the swords.
The Dark Faerie took a step back. Then, another. "You found them," she hissed. "Let's see how long you can keep them!"
The pack leapt into the circle, but the swords moved in her hands, as if they had a will of their own. She guided them, and they guided her. Together, they faced the pack, and drove them back, one by one.
"Enough!" Fiona cried, and the pack backed off. "You have found the swords," she said, fading into the darkness. "But your predecessor had them as well. She failed to master their secret, and she was judged unworthy. We will see if you do any better..."
The pack faded as well, leaving Aethia alone in the circle. "What did she mean?" she asked, but there was no one to answer. Aethia looked down at the swords; the Faerie Tongue written on their blades was old and difficult to translate.
A riddle! she thought. That's what she meant. The swords are a riddle.
"That's right," the voice behind her said. She turned to face the tree and saw a beautiful yet ghostly figure standing there. "And if you do not solve the riddle, the swords will not serve you."
Aethia fell to her knees, but the ghost shook her head. "No," she said. "I was not worthy. You may be." The ghost touched Aethia's chin, and it was as cold as iron chains. "Go forth," she said. "Go and find the secret of the swords."
When Aethia looked up, the ghost was gone.
"I will," she said, a tear finding her cheek. "I swear I will."