Tillie rubbed her bruised backside and looked around. The room was no longer shades of gray; the orange in the bowl was orange again. She staggered to her feet beside the cauldron. The stench of burning leather tickled her nostrils.
“Your pant leg is on fire,” Eve said, tugging at her evening gown to smooth out its wrinkles.
Tillie instantly stopped, dropped, and rolled. The fire died out, but Tillie kept rolling, unintentionally colliding with Grayden. The young warrior laid still and did not open his eyes.
“Grayden?” Tillie called. “Can you hear me?”
After a silence that seemed like an eternity (but was really closer to 1.64 seconds), Grayden gasped.
“Oh, Grayden, you are okay!”
“I sure am,” Grayden grunted, opening his eyes. He inhaled deeply several times. “I beat the Wompus Wulf yet was nearly killed by a ladybug. Discraceful.”
“It wouldn’t have been a very warrior-like way to go,” Tillie agreed. “I like your new kilt, by the way.”
Grayden smiled. “Thanks.”
“Doesn’t anyone care about me?” Eve said, limping slightly.
“Eve!” Tillie gasped. “Your hair is black again!”
Eve grabbed a few strands of her hair and pulled them in front of her face. “You’re right,” she said. “Much better. It looks like we dispelled the black-to-green curse by....” Eve trailed off, noticing something on the floor by her foot.
“What is it?” Tillie asked.
“It’s the ladybug.” Eve studied the tiny figure for any sign of movement. Seeing none, she lifted the hem of her cocktail dress, raised her foot, and stomped on the floor. “Just in case,” she said, giving her ankle a twist. “That was my favorite handbag,” she added, pointing to her enormous beaded purse.
“Where’s Lord Mareel?” Tillie asked.
“Lord Mareel?” Grayden said, confused.
“Just come on,” Tillie said, circling the cauldron and dragging Grayden behind her.
Lord Mareel lay in a crumpled heap against the wall. Thanks to the water Tillie had poured on him at dinner, the warlord’s body seemed fuller than it had before; his tail curled upward and his tentacled arm trailed involuntarily along the wall. Blood ran from his forehead; the bright red suddenly made Tillie wish that the room had remained shades of gray.
Grayden knelt beside Lord Mareel, inspecting his injuries.
“The Black Eel is coming for me, Grayden,” Lord Mareel whispered, clutching the young warrior with his tentacle. “Remove the band of leadership from my left arm.”
Grayden did as he was told, unclasping the golden armband from Lord Mareel.
“Now, put it on your arm.”
Grayden hesitated. “I... I can’t,” he stammered. “I am apprentice to the Keeper of the Flame. I can’t be our pod’s warlord too.”
Lord Mareel coughed. “There is no law that forbids duel roles. Perhaps the strength of a warlord combined with the wisdom of the Keeper of the Flame is what our pod needs to survive. I can see that now.”
Grayden nodded. “May the Black Eel guide you safely to your sister.” Slowly, he placed the intricately carved band around his left arm and closed the clasp.
“Thank you, Lord Grayden,” the fallen warlord whispered. He closed his ebony eyes and spoke no more.
Tillie was suprised to find a tear tracing a thin line down her cheek. Grayden did not cry, although he remained silent and kneeling for several minutes. Even Eve bowed her head and kept her mouth shut.
A moan from the Governor of Green brought all three of them back to their senses. “Oh, what shall become of me?” the thin man mumbled. He rose unsteadily to his feet, his knees trembling. “She made me do it.... She drugged me....” Like a stiff tree blown over by a sudden gust of wind, he toppled sideways and hit the floor.
“Are you alright?” Tillie said, squatting beside him. “How can we help you?”
“Someone needs to help the Baron of Black,” the man replied. “She imprisoned him in the lowest dungeon of the Casa de Castle. He’s been there for days now.”
“The dungeons have never been used,” Eve said in a mocking voice. “They’re just for the tourists. What a load of rubbish!”
Tillie turned on the witch. “Make yourself useful and go tell the color managers that they need to hurry to the dungeons to free the Baron of Black.”
Eve did not move.
“Do it!” Tillie yelled.
Eve grinned. “Yes, boss,” she said, hurrying from the room.
Grayden offered the Governor of Green his arm, helping him into a high-backed chair.
“Who is The Gray Man?” Tillie asked.
“I-I don’t know who you mean,” the Governor of Green protested.
“I deserve to know,” Tillie said. “I just nearly died to bring him back to life!”
“I’m not allowed,” he said, trembling.
“Tell her,” Grayden demanded.
“I should never have even uttered his name,” the Governor of Green said.
A bugle blasted in the distance.
Grayden and Tillie raced to the window and scanned the moonlit courtyard below.
“Elias Qsmith?” she said. The faun was wearing a military-style tabard with an embroidered emblem of a hydra decorating its front.
“Friend of yours?” Grayden asked.
“Not really,” she answered. Then she noticed who stood directly behind Elias Qsmith. Uncle Quentin. Beyond the big man crowded a throng of humans, fauns, centaurs, and other beings (including Mr. and Mrs. Goodfelter and Jasper the bear).
“Uncle Quentin!” Tillie called from the window, waving her arms. “Wait right there!” She clutched Grayden’s hand and tugged the boy behind her, dashing from the room.
As they crossed into the hallway, they collided with Eve.
“What’s the hurry?” the witch demanded, shoving the pair of them away from her. “I’ve already told the color managers about the Baron of Black and they’ve all headed down to the dungeons to free him.”
“Uncle Quentin’s here!” Tillie said.
“Outside.” Tillie grabbed the witch’s bony wrist in her one free hand and took off. “Come on!”
Tillie, Grayden, and Eve dashed through the halls of the Casa de Castle as one unit, navigating its twisting staircases and narrow hallways until they entered the main lobby. Without pausing to appreciate the three-tiered fountain or the crystal chandelier, they sped through the entryway and into the crisp night air.
Uncle Quentin, Elias Qsmith, and all the others, who were just beginning to ascend the front stairs of the castle, paused mid-step.
“Uncle Quentin!” Tillie yelled, releasing Grayden and Eve’s hands. She took the steps two at a time and then flung herself down the remaining few into her uncle’s burly arms. Hugging him close, she smelled the familiar mix of pipe tobacco and peppermint. She looked up into his beaming face; one blue eye and one green eye stared back. “Your glass eye!” Tillie said. “It’s okay.”
“Yes. He cleared up about five minutes ago and showed us exactly where in this amusement park maze to find you! We were all so worried about you....”
Mr. and Mrs. Goodfelter stepped up behind Uncle Quentin and patted Tillie’s hand.
Eve descended the last of the stairs with her arms spread wide. “Nice to see you again, Quentin.”
Uncle Quentin kept hold of Tillie. “Nice to see you, too,” he said.
Elias Qsmith surged forward, inserted himself between th witch’s arms, and squeezed her tight. “Dash it all, Eve!” he exclaimed. “I thought you’d abandoned all us blighters once and for all!”
Eve wriggled free from the faun, waving her hands in front of her as if shooing away a fly.
“How did you find us?” Tillie asked, detaching herself from Uncle Quentin.
“Right, right, right!” Uncle Quentin replied. (Which in this instance meant, “How silly of me not to explain how we found you right away!”)
“Why do you always say that?” Eve asked. “How is anyone expected to know what that means?”
Uncle Quentin wrinkled his brow and removed his pipe from his pocket.
Tillie looked at him and smiled. “In this instance, Eve, it very clearly means, ‘How silly of me not to explain how we found you right away!’ Anyone should be able to tell that.”
Uncle Quentin lit his pipe and nodded in approval. “Thank you, Tillie.”
“You two are pathetic,” Eve said.
“Anyway,” Uncle Quentin continued, “When I came to meet you two at Old Mary Anne’s cottage, I was shocked to find the place pecked to bits and covered in owl feathers. I immediately rounded up a search party and set off to follow the directions from the glass eye’s vision. We made our way across the plains until we came to these cliffs. We never did catch site of that beastie you were warned about.”
Tillie grinned. “That’s because Grayden killed the Wompus Wulf.” She motioned for Grayden to come forward. The young warlord bowed.
“This is my friend Grayden,” Tillie said. “Without his help, I wouldn’t be here now.”
Uncle Quentin smiled wide and scooped Grayden into his arms. “You have my thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” Grayden squeaked.
Uncle Quentin laughed and returned Grayden to the ground.
Just then the entrance to the Casa de Castle burst open; the entire group of color managers – the Baron of Black and the Governor of Green included – was silhouetted in the doorway. “Constituents!” they yelled in unison, flooding down the stairs. “Many, many constituents!”