When Tillie opened her eyes, she was floating face down in the same spot where she had gone to sleep.
She heard the clanking of metal on metal and looked up to see a guard unlocking the door of the cell.
“Rise and shine, prisoners,” he barked. “The Keeper of the Flame has consented to see you spies.”
“For the last time, we’re not spies, we’re still-giants,” Tillie said with a sigh.
“That’ll be determined soon enough. Out you go.” He gestured to the door with his spear.
Tillie swam through the open gate, happy to get out of the cell. Four armed guards stood at the prison entrance. “Come on you!” she heard the head guard yell from inside the cell. “On your feet or I’ll be forced to run you through!”
Eve stumbled from the jail, looking around wide-eyed as if she had never been outside before. Her swimming was clumsy as she got into line behind Tillie.
“Don’t worry, Eve,” Tillie whispered. “Everything’s going to be alright. If this Keeper of the Flame person is half as wise as everyone seems to think she is then maybe she’ll know about the Wompus Wulf or the Trail of Dragon. In any case, I’m sure she’ll listen to reason and set us free.”
“The only ‘reason’ she’ll listen to,” said the head guard, “is the reason why we should kill the both of you for spying on us.”
“Must you always make a nasty comment every time I say something?”
“Yes, I must,” the head guard said. “Don’t take it personally, though. I’m just like that.”
The guards guided the two captives along the cliff face that formed the valley wall and toward the opposite end of the village. Tillie spotted a lone, circular hut ahead of them, its exterior adorned with strange curving symbols that reminded her of the tattoos on Grayden’s arms. An eerie blue light emanated through the hut’s canvas walls, making it glow like a paper lantern.
The head guard pulled back the ornate curtain that hung across the door and held it open for Tillie and Eve. Blue light spilled from the interior. “Only the two of you may enter,” he said. “Don’t even think about trying to escape. The Keeper of the Flame can strike you dead with a glance.”
“Thanks for the advice,” Tillie said, ducking beneath his arm to enter the hut. Eve followed. Another draped doorway stood a few feet in front of them, the bright light glowing behind it. Someone else was in the room, but Tillie could only make out a dark silhouette against the blue light.
“Hi, Tillie,” said a familiar voice.
“Grayden!” Tillie said. “I’m so glad to see you.”
“I told you everything would be okay.”
“That remains to be seen,” added a cold voice from behind Tillie. She shivered as a single octopus tentacle slipped around the edge of the curtain, parting it in one swift motion. “The Keeper of the Flame may yet agree with me, boy,” Lord Mareel said.
“Ignore him,” Grayden whispered. He then turned to Eve and bowed. “We haven’t met. My name is Grayden.”
Eve’s eyes rolled back into her head and her tongue lazily licked her lips. She said nothing.
Grayden looked confused.
“That’s Eve,” Tillie said. “I don’t know why she’s not speaking.”
Lord Mareel snorted. “She had better speak to the Keeper of the Flame or there will be trouble.”
The glow from the hut’s inner sanctum grew and a deep voice said, “All is made ready.”
The authority of the voice startled Tillie. She looked at Grayden who nodded his head and pulled aside the curtain to the inner sanctum. As he did so, blue light blinded Tillie. Eve lost her footing and tripped forward into the water. Even Lord Mareel gasped slightly. Grayden helped Eve to steady herself and led her through the doorway, followed closely by Tillie and Lord Mareel.
The blue glow in front of them slowly gave way to a large round room that was even more splendid than Uncle Quentin’s private library. Expertly shaped stone vases sat in alcoves; hand-sewn tapestries of people with webbed hands and feet battling hideous underwater beasts covered the walls; crystals dangled from the ceiling, reflecting the light. But all of these trinkets paled in comparison to the blazing blue fire that burned, impossibly, in a hollow stone pillar in the center of the room.
Tillie found herself staring into the dancing flames of the hypnotic underwater blaze. It was brighter than any fire Tillie had seen on dry land, its glow illuminating the farthest corners of the room. Much to her surprise, it also produced a fair amount of heat, although not enough to roast marshmallows. Mesmerized, Tillie failed to notice the regal figure sitting just beyond the fire for several long moments. Eventually, her eyes wandered upward to the ancient woman, who was wrapped in green velvet from her neck down, like an exceptionally nice Christmas present. All that showed of her body was her face and her long gray hair, which danced in the water around her head. Her skin reminded Tillie of old parchment, full of cracks and wrinkles, but her clear blue eyes showed no sign of age. Tillie stared at the old woman, as captivated by her as she had been moments before by the blue flame.Her voice was warm yet unyielding, like a stern grandmother. “I am pleased to see you, Mareel,” she nodded to him, “and you, Warrior Grayden.” Tillie thought she saw a slight grimace cross the Keeper of the Flame’s pursed lips as she said Grayden’s title. “But who are these other two you bring before me? And why are they bound? Is this how we treat guests in the pod now? Untie them at once.”
Grayden gladly did as the Keeper of the Flame asked, untying Tillie’s hands and then Eve’s. Tillie rubbed at her wrists where the seaweed ropes had been, trying to get the circulation flowing again.
“But these two are Lapadanian spies that I caught,” Lord Mareel said. “They were trying to get information about the pod in preparation for a full-scale invasion. They must be punished.”
“And what do you think, Grayden?” asked the Keeper of the Flame.
“I think they are not Lapadanians, but still-giant humans shrunk to our size by magic.”
“Indeed?” The Keeper of the Flame said. “Well, let’s find out right from the source, shall we?” She turned her gaze to Tillie. “Just who are you and why have you come to our pod, child?”
With the blue eyes piercing her flesh like needles, Tillie felt compelled to answer. Even if she had wanted to lie, which is something that Tillie never really wanted to do, she wouldn’t have been able to. Tillie attempted a curtsy and answered. “My name is Tillie McGwinn,” she said. “My travelling companion, Eve, and I ended up in your land by accident after we were attacked by a parliament of daylight owls. They threw vanishing powder on us. Eve managed to counteract the spell before we disappeared completely, but we ended up this size.” She paused and then quickly added, “Not that there’s anything wrong with this size. We’re just not used to being this size.”
The Keeper of the Flame nodded. “I understand.”
“Thank you, your… keepership,” Tillie said.
The Keeper of the Flame grinned.
“You’re not going to believe her lies, are you?” Lord Mareel demanded. “She is clearly a Lapadanian spy on a mission to find our weaknesses.”
The Keeper of the Flame’s subtle smile vanished, and the features of her careworn face filled with pity. “You know as well as I do that these two are not Lapadanians.”
“But, they could be!” he insisted, his tentacle arm involuntarily clenching and unclenching in rage.
The Keeper of the Flame shook her head sadly. “Lapadanians haven’t come near our valley for years.” She stared into the depths of the blue fire in front of her. After a few moments she looked up again, her eyes dim. “Sarda’s death affected us all, Mareel, but we can’t let our grief drive us to harm innocents.”
Tillie felt like she should warn the Keeper of the Flame that Eve was far from innocent, but she managed to keep quiet.
“I know how you feel,” the Keeper of the Flame continued, “but…”
“You have no idea how I feel,” Lord Mareel said, leaning forward so he was face to face with her.
“Your sister was my finest student,” she said, meeting Lord Mareel’s gaze. “I know that she would have carried the mantle of the Keeper of the Flame with dignity and wisdom. I also know that she wouldn’t want you to persecute outlanders. Your hatred for the Lapadanians has already led you to use forbidden magic to alter your body. What would Sarda think of your transformation?”
Lord Mareel looked down at his body. “Sarda would have understood that all of the sacrifices I’ve made, all of the changes that I’ve gone through, have been for our people. Despite what you say, Sarda would have been proud of me. You didn’t know her as well as you think you did.”
The Keeper of the Flame shrunk back into her chair and pulled her ceremonial robes tight around her. For a moment, she looked to Tillie like a frail old woman, lonely and sad. Tillie stepped forward and hugged her. Grayden gasped in surprise when he saw what she was doing. The Keeper of the Flame pointed one long finger to the spot where Tillie had been standing.
“It is forbidden to touch the Keeper of the Flame,” she said. Despite the stern words, Tillie could hear no anger in the Keeper of the Flame’s voice.
Tillie stepped back.
Grayden smiled at her.
Lord Mareel scowled.
Eve stuck three of her fingers in her mouth and made a gurgling noise.
“Well, I’ve met the child,” the Keeper of the Flame said, directing her attention to Eve. “So who are you? And why is your hair green? I’ve always heard that the still-giant humans have very plain hair, like the girl’s.”
Eve stared at her, her lips moving slightly, but no words forming.
“You will answer me,” the Keeper of the Flame demanded.
Eve looked at Tillie.
“What is wrong with you?” Tillie hissed at the witch. “You’re making us look silly and you’re going to get us into trouble.”
“Answer,” Lord Mareel demanded, threatening Eve with the point of his harpoon hand. “Or I will make sure that you are punished terribly.”
Suddenly, Tillie saw a brown mark appear on Eve’s cheek amidst the pale skin of her normally flawless face. At first the spot looked like a small, dark bruise, but it began to spread across the witch’s features at an alarming rate, consuming her lips and nose before Tillie could scream.
“What’s happening to her?” Tillie asked.
No one answered.
Tillie looked at Lord Mareel; his wide eyes conveyed the same confusion that she felt. In desperation, she turned to the Keeper of the Flame. “Please help her.”
“I’m not sure what to do,” the old woman admitted, rising from her chair.
Tillie looked back at Eve, horrified. The witch’s once-white flesh had now turned completely gray and was beginning to bubble and blister. Her mouth opened in a silent scream and her body began to melt, flesh dropping from her skeleton in great clumps of mush. Before anyone could do anything, Eve had become nothing more than a pile of pulsating mud.