With a mixture of 34% fear, 21% amazement, and 45% surprise, Tillie stared at the mound of black mud that had, just a few seconds earlier, been Eve. She ordered her lip to stop trembling, but it refused to obey.
The Keeper of the Flame knelt beside the pile of goo and pressed her fingertips into the soft mud. She looked up at Tillie, a half-smile crossing her face. “Never fear, child. I am certain that your friend is alive and well.”
“How do you know?” Tillie asked.
The old woman turned her hand upside down and dropped a clump of the mud through the water. It hit the stone floor and flattened into a disc. “This mud is quite ordinary. You can find it anywhere in Lake Loch – coating the ground outside my hut, covering the walls of the valley itself, or,” she paused purposefully, “lining the floor of the jail cells.”
The image of Eve playing in the mud in their cell sprang to Tillie’s mind. “You’re saying Eve did this to herself?” she asked. “Why would she turn herself into mud?”
“What I’m saying, child, is that the witch is long gone. She created a golem from the mud in her cell and sang it to life. Then, no doubt, she hid in the depths of the cell while the guards led her golem away. After the guards left, the witch escaped and is now free to go where she wants and do as she pleases.”
Tillie did not like the sound of that at all.
Nor did Lord Mareel.
“I find it hard to believe that my guards would be fooled so easily,” he said. “But if this is true, I will find the witch and make her pay for this outrage.”
“Remain where you are, Lord Mareel,” the Keeper of the Flame commanded
“But we must find her,” Tillie urged. “The last thing Eve said to me was that she planned to get revenge on the person who imprisoned her.”
Grayden reached for his pike-tooth dagger, but the Keeper of the Flame just laughed.
“This is no joke!” Tillie said. “Eve is extremely dangerous.”
The Keeper of the Flame’s demeanor warmed as she looked on Tillie with kindness in her blue eyes. “My dear girl,” she said, “I’ve known you for less than five minutes and already I’m fond of you. It’s a rare little girl who can be on trial before a group of hostile people in an unfamiliar place and still be concerned with the safety of her captors! I assure you, we can take care of Eve.”
“Yes,” Lord Mareel agreed. “Our warriors have successfully managed to protect the pod from Lapadanian raiding parties for years. A single witch should not be a problem.”
Tillie wasn’t sure she agreed with them, but she decided to keep her mouth shut.
“Why don’t you explain to me why you were traveling with such a dangerous individual?” the Keeper of the Flame asked.
For the second time in as many days, Tillie told the story of the black-to-green curse, the glass eye’s vision, and how she came to be so small. “Do you know anything about the curse?” Tillie asked.
“I’m sorry, but no. This is the first I’ve heard of it. But don’t be too down-hearted; I do know of the Trail of Dragon.”
“Can you tell me where I can find it?”
“Oh, yes,” the old woman said simply. “I can tell you that – but I won’t. It is a treacherous path that you must promise never to go near once you have returned to dry land.”
“You’re going to let me go back to dry land?!” Tillie exclaimed, ignoring the warning about the Trail of Dragon.
“Of course, my dear,” the Keeper of the Flame said, smiling. “You are no longer a prisoner of our pod. I release you.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you!” Tillie cried.
“I suggest we get you home as soon as possible. After all, I’m sure that your family is missing you.”
Lord Mareel brandished his harpoon hand. “This is not right!” he yelled. “She cannot be allowed to just swim away! The security of the pod is at stake!”
“That is not your decision to make,” the Keeper of the Flame stated. “It is mine. And I have made it.”
“There is no wisdom here!” Lord Mareel said, spitting into the water. “If this is the way that our pod now deals with spies, perhaps I should defect to the Lapadanians myself! At least they know how to behave in a war!” Lord Mareel swam toward the curtain to the outer chamber, only to be intercepted by Grayden’s dagger.
“Let me by, boy!” Lord Mareel bellowed. “Or you’ll join your father in the realm of the dead.”
“Stand down, Grayden!” the Keeper of the Flame called, authority flooding her voice.
Reluctantly, Grayden lowered his weapon, hatred twisting his usually gentle features.
“Let him leave in peace,” the old woman said quietly, her voice cracking. “I fear he is already beyond our reach.”
Lord Mareel sped from the room.
After a few moments of silence, the Keeper of the Flame was the first to speak. “We should get moving if we’re going to send you home today.”
“Today! Really!” Tillie exclaimed. “Can you make me big again?”
“Of course we can. Our people know of a root that when mashed and mixed with some other ingredients, which I’m afraid I must keep secret, makes an excellent enlarging potion. It’s a fairly simple concoction, really.”
“If you can make yourselves large, why don’t you ever come and visit us still-giants on dry land?”
The Keeper of the Flame smiled again. “We’ve been to the surface world.” She looked at Grayden as if deciding something. “In fact, the founders of our pod were once still-giants and lived on the dry land. As a matter of fact, that’s why we call your kind ‘still-giants.’ Because you are ‘still giants,’ whereas we chose to become our current size.”
Grayden gasped. “Is that true?”
“You think the Keeper of the Flame would lie?” the old woman asked.
“No, of course not.” Grayden admitted.
“If you were once still-giants,” Tillie continued, “why did you shrink yourselves and move underwater into Lake Loch?
“We were driven from our homes on the Plains of Wompusmeeste by a terrible creature…” the Keeper of the Flame said, her voice trailing off.
“Wompusmeeste…” Tillie repeated. “That sounds kind of like Wompus Wulf.”
The Keeper of the Flame looked horrified. “Where did you hear that name?!” she demanded.
“It was part of the glass eye’s vision,” Tillie admitted, frightened by the old woman’s reaction. “Didn’t I mention it before?”
“No,” the Keeper of the Flame said.
“What is the Wompus Wulf?” Tillie stammered.
The Keeper of the Flame was silent for a long time, her breathing ragged and shallow, her blue eyes clouded. Then, suddenly, she spoke, her voice crisp and regal:
A wild creature roams.
You’ll find no record of this beast
In ancient scrolls or tomes.
Some say it came straight out of Hell
Across the Peaks of Tulfe.
No one has lived to see then tell
About the Wompus Wulf.
This ceaseless fiend pursues its prey
Through grass and stream and mud.
Its pelt, grown coarse from foul decay,
Is caked with tears and blood.
Its jagged teeth are to be feared.
Avoid its claws as well.
Even its whiskers, bent and seared,
Are worthy of a yell.
If you should see this fearsome brute,
Remember – don’t be still!
No sword or spell or poisoned root
Can save you from the kill.
Run far, run fast, run straight away
And you’ll survive, at best.
If you escape and did not pay
With life, you passed the test.
When the Keeper of the Flame finished reciting the lines, her eyes focused once more on Tillie and Grayden.
“So the ancients say,” the old woman mumbled.
“Are you telling us that the Wompus Wulf is the creature that drove our people into this lake?” Grayden asked. “Into hiding?”
The Keeper of the Flame nodded. “The creature was determined to hunt down and devour every last member of our pod. Once it had the taste of our people’s blood on its tongue, it could smell one of us from miles away. Our ancestors had no choice but to go someplace where it would never find them again and where they would be masked from the Wompus Wulf’s keen sense of smell. So, they shrunk themselves and then cast an underwater breathing spell upon the entire pod. Barely escaping a rampage by the beast, they slipped beneath the waves of Lake Loch. We’ve lived here ever since.”
“You said all of this happened ages ago, right?” Tillie piped up. “Surely the Wompus Wulf is dead by now.”
“I wish that were so, Tillie,” the Keeper of the Flame said, shaking her head. “But, I assure you, the Wompus Wulf still prowls the plains to the east of Lake Loch searching for prey. You see, child, it can stay alive for eons by feeding on the life-force of other creatures.”
“Like a vampire?” Tillie gasped.
“A little like that, yes,” the Keeper of the Flame agreed. “But, the Wompus Wulf doesn’t just drink the blood of its victims; it eats them whole, and when it does, it absorbs all of the years that that creature would have lived. If it eats a young man, for example…” she looked at Grayden as she said this, “it may gain sixty years of life from that one feeding. The creature can sustain itself by eating animals, of course, but it only gains a year or two of life from each of them.”
Frightened, Tillie decided to change the subject. “Why did you say I should avoid the Trail of Dragon?”
“Ah, the Trail of Dragon,” the Keeper of the Flame repeated. “That is the old road named after Sir Joseph Dragon that leads across the Plains of Wompusmeeste, through the heart of the Wompus Wulf’s hunting grounds.”
“Oh,” Tillie said, realizing that her question had not changed the subject. “Well, at least there’s not a real live dragon on the plains, too.”
“Of course there are no dragons on the Plains of Wompusmeeste,” the Keeper of the Flame said. “The Wompus Wulf ate all of the dragons years and years ago.”
Tillie swallowed hard, making a “gulp” noise in her throat.
“Why have I never heard of the Wompus Wulf before?” Grayden asked. “Why did I not know that our people were once still-giants? Why aren’t all the children of the pod taught these things?”
“Because it was decided generations ago that such knowledge should be passed down solely from Keeper of the Flame to Keeper of the Flame.”
“But this is our true history. It’s not right to keep it secret.”
The old woman looked him square in the eyes. “Perhaps the next Keeper of the Flame will decide to reveal the truth to all the members of the pod.”
“Are you saying that you’ve chosen Tillie to be your successor as Keeper of the Flame?”
“No, Grayden,” the Keeper of the Flame said, shaking her head. “I’m saying that I’ve chosen you as my successor.”
Grayden didn’t look excited.
“Congratulations!” Tillie said, viciously shaking Grayden’s hand as she had seen Uncle Quentin do to his own friends.
“But, the Keeper of the Flame is always a woman,” Grayden protested.
“Not always, Grayden. The apprentice and heir to the Keeper of the Flame is the person who is the best choice. It is mere coincidence that the last three have been women. You have shown great wisdom throughout your short life and you continue to impress me. Just a few moments ago you controlled your anger with Lord Mareel and, for the greater good, stepped down from a fight.”
Grayden didn’t seem to know how to respond or how to act. “This is a great honor, but, but…” he stammered, “I am a warrior!”
“I’ve made my choice,” the old woman said with an air of finality.
There was a sudden uncomfortable stillness in the chamber.
“Dangerous or not,” Tillie said, “the Trail of Dragon is the path I must follow.”
“I forbid it,” the Keeper of the Flame said flatly.
“Actually, your keepership, you really don’t have the right to forbid me from doing anything. After all, I’m neither a member of your pod nor your prisoner. You released me, remember?”
The Keeper of the Flame looked surprised and worried. “Tillie, you simply don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Believe me, your keepership, I don’t want to follow the Trail of Dragon, but I promised to find out what happened to Uncle Quentin’s glass eye. I must discover how to repair the damage or I’ll never be able to look him in his one good eye again. Not to mention my promise to Ophelia. The poor little bug looked like she was in trouble.”
“I will not help you rush toward your own destruction,” the Keeper of the Flame said. “I see too much potential in you to send you into the jaws of the Wompus Wulf. I refuse to show you to the Trail of Dragon.”
“That is certainly your decision to make,” Tillie agreed. “But if you refuse to point me in the right direction you’ll force me to wander around the Plains of Wompusmeeste on my own until I find the Trail of Dragon.” She felt sure she was going to be sick from the very idea.
The Keeper of the Flame sighed and placed her head in her withered hands. “There is wisdom in what you say,” she admitted. “I will show you the way.”
“And I’m going with her,” Grayden said.
“That, I can and do forbid,” the Keeper of the Flame said. “I will not send my newly chosen apprentice on a doomed journey.”
“But we can’t allow her to face the Wompus Wulf alone!”
“I’m sorry, but the answer is no, Grayden,” the Keeper of the Flame said. “I will, however, allow you to escort Tillie to the west edge of Lake Loch and set her off towards the eastern terminus of the Trail of Dragon. Then you must return to me to begin your training as apprentice to the Keeper of the Flame.”
Grayden nodded his head but did not respond verbally.
The Keeper of the Flame produced a small glass container from a fold in one of her sleeves and held it out to Tillie. “After you have climbed onto dry land, dab the contents of this vial on yourself and your clothes. You’ll be returned to your original size in no time.”
“Thank you,” Tillie said, taking the vial.
“Dear girl,” the Keeper of the Flame said, “I am truly sorry that you insist on following this path. If there were anything in my power I could do to convince you to return immediately to your home, I would do it. You have shown me, however, that your mind is made up.”
“It is,” Tillie added, suddenly dreading to leave the relatively safe depths of Lake Loch.
“In that case, I can only offer you good luck.” The old woman motioned for Tillie to come closer to her.
Much to Tillie’s surprise, the Keeper of the Flame bent forward and gave her a tender kiss on the forehead.
“I thought it was forbidden to touch the Keeper of the Flame,” Tillie said, smiling.
“I think it will be okay this once. Farewell, Tillie.”
“Goodbye,” Tillie replied.
“Grayden,” the Keeper of the Flame said. “Please make sure that Tillie is given a week’s worth of provisions. The Plains of Wompusmeeste are wide and inhospitable.”
“I will,” Grayden said.
“Thank you again, your keepership,” Tillie called, waving a final goodbye to the old woman on her throne. The Keeper of the Flame waved sadly in return as the curtain to the antechamber fell closed.