The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 24

    There are all kinds of courage because there are all kinds of fear. The courage to face pain, the courage to press on in the face of loss, the courage to believe that we can make a difference. Being afraid isn’t a sign that we lack courage. None of us are fearless in all situations, there’s always something that can hurt us, at least until the day we die. We can be courageous and afraid at the same time, we just need to be able to chose what we do, rather than letting our fears chose for us.

    “The Castle of Final Peril.” RG announced as the he set down in front of the ruin of the castle’s front gate.

    “This place looks even less friendly up close.” Stumpy said. I’d tinkered with it a bit as they’d flown closer. I’d cleaned up the bodies of RG’s force, dissolving them back into the essence of the realm they’d been pulled from. For the castle though I’d left the damage that I’d done in place and augmented it with the wear of centuries. RG’s version of the castle had been a bustling center of his power. This version was the ruin of it.

    “It is.” RG replied. “This is the home of the Wicked Queen. The horrible beast who rules this land.”

    I nudged him in his ghostly ribs. Horrible beast? That wasn’t very fair. I should have qualified for at least “terrifying”.

    “The puppy is in there?” Peri asked. The ominous presence of the castle was a lot stronger up close, both due to it’s sheer size and the shadows it projected as it gobbled up the moonlight that fell on it.

    “So I have been told.” RG said, rubbing his ribs.

    “Who told you?” Peri asked.

    “The wind.” he replied, which was technically true, since I’d been in the form of a breeze when I’d spoken to him. Peri shrugged and accepted that a ghost could talk to the wind without requiring further justification.

    “Got get her!” Peri said. I’m not sure why she thought she could command a ghost. Probably it was simply because she didn’t want to go in there herself and was looking for any options she had to avoid it.

    “As you request.” RG said with a smile and a bow. It surprised me, but he seemed to be as happy playing the role of her servitor as he was playing the ruler of Bedlam. I thought about that for a moment. Either role would grant him the measure of reality that he craved, so perhaps it actually didn’t make a difference to him? It was something I’d have to ask Professor Haffrun about later. For the moment though I watched as he walked forward towards the gate and slammed into an invisible wall.

    “Oww.” he said and started feeling around the entranceway looking for an opening he could pass through. “Hmm, it looks like the castle has been protected by a Ghost Ward since I was here last.”

    “What’s that?” Peri asked.

    “The Wicked Queen doesn’t want me to come back so she’s made it so no ghosts can enter the castle. That means I have to stay out here.” RG explained. I need Peri on her own if she was going to confront her fears. That meant peeling away RG from her, especially since he’d already fulfilled the terms of the deal I’d offered him.

    “Ok. We’ll go then.” Peri said and dragged Stumpy along with her. Since neither of them were ghosts, they were able to pass through the wards around the ruined gate without a problem.

    “Were you planning to let me get back to my body or am I going to need to build another one?” RG asked once they’d passed into the castle, knowing that I could hear him.

    “I should give you a fluffy bunny body for that crack about being a horrible beast.” I said, taking my normal form again. “But you did do a good job getting here.”

    I snapped my fingers and RG’s ghostly form was replaced with his physical body.

    “You’re not leaving me frozen in the ice?” he asked, surprised at the freedom.

    “You asked for your freedom.” I said.

    “I also asked for my realm back.” he said.

    “That I can’t do for you.”

    “I’m fairly certain you can.” he objected.

    “That I can’t do for you in a manner that you would enjoy.” I elaborated.

    “Try me.” he said.

    “I’ve bound Bedlam in laws to make it safe for my world. To destroy those laws would destroy Bedlam itself. If I passed Bedlam back to you, you would be bound by those same laws. You’d basically become my vassal.” I said.

    “But I would have Bedlam to rule?” he asked.

    “Yes. To the extent that you didn’t violate my general wishes for it.” I said.

    “I will need to consider that.”

    “Feel free to roam anywhere you’d like while you do. Except through the portal to Earth. Belle’s barrier is still in place there and I don’t think it will react kindly to you if you try to cross it.”

    My offer wasn’t that generous given that no matter where he went in Bedlam, I’d be aware of what he was doing. RG accepted it graciously though, turned into a blackbird and took wing away from the Castle.

    I turned my attention back to Peri and found that she and Stumpy had arrived at the Sky Moat.

    “That’s a long way down.” Stumpy said. He was looking at the chasm that confronted them.

    The half sphere which formed the mountain’s crown was balanced on top of the spire that pierced the clouds. It was a formation that could never have occured on my world. Even if someone had built something like it, the weather would have knocked it down in short order.

    This was the Dreamlit world though. The impossible was not only probable but likely. A freestanding road of floating glass steps wound around the spire and lead to the outermost edge of the half sphere the castle stood on. Anyone brave enough to climb those steps would arrive where Peri and her crew had. Outside the outer wall. Those who managed to penetrate the outer wall were then faced with the “Sky Moat”.

    The Sky Moat had been carved completely through the mountain’s crown to serve as a bottomless pit of air. It meant that the outer rim of the mountain top wasn’t attached to anything in particular, but a floating piece of mountain was fairly tame by comparison to some of the things that lurked in Bedlam.

    That didn’t mean it was any easier for Peri and Stumpy to deal with though. If you fell into the moat you’d fall all the way down through the clouds to the slopes of the mountain several miles below. Neither Peri or Stumpy could fly and jumping the moat was similarly beyond their abilities.

    “We gotta get in there!” Peri said.

    “I might know a way.” Stumpy said.

    “What?” Peri asked.

    “I think I can reach those poles on the far side where the drawbridge is supposed to be. You could climb over me and get inside like that.” Stumpy said. I’d crushed the drawbridge during my assault and hadn’t seen a reason to repair it.

    “How are you gonna get over?” Peri asked.

    “I’ll have to wait here.” Stumpy said.

    Peri frowned and furrowed her brow. She knew that meant she’d have to go forward alone if she wanted to continue and being alone was, almost, the last thing she wanted to do.

    “It’s not too late to turn back.” Stumpy suggsted gently.

    Peri rocked side to side, fighting against things inside herself that she didn’t have a name for yet.

    “No.”  she said finally.

    “No?” Stumpy asked, unsure of what she was disagreeing with.

    “I’ll go.” she said. She was staring straight ahead at the castle’s inner gate, her hands clenched into tiny fists.

    “Ok, climb up on my shoulders then.” Stumpy said. She did and he extended his roots as far as he could and then reached outward with his branches. For a moment it looked like the two of them were going to tumble down into the Sky Moat but before they could, Stumpy caught the poles on the far side and stopped their fall.

    Peri didn’t need to be told to start climbing. She scampered up Stumpy’s outstretched branches faster than a chipmunk and fell to the ground on the far side of the Sky Moat with a cheer of joy when she got there.

    “I’ll hold on here. Don’t take too long though!” Stumpy said.

    “Ok.” Peri said, and turned to venture into the inner castle.

    “Thank you Stumpy.” I said, drifting over to him in the form of a breeze after Peri had moved out of earshot.

    “My pleasure my Queen. Will she be able to bring me back with her though?” he asked.

    “That’s going to depend on her and how she does in there. If she can’t though I’m make sure you’re suitably rewarded.” I told him.

    “That would be more appealing if you weren’t the Wicked Queen of Bedlam.” Stumpy said.

    “Don’t worry. I’m a lot more than that.” I told him and then whisked off after Peri.

    She’d made it into the entrance hallway. It was a long, dark archway that opened onto a dimly lit room beyond. Here are there shafts of silver moonlight speared through the darkness but the stones seemed to eat the light where it landed on them rather than reflecting it to illuminate the room any further.

    As Peri walked deeper into the castle, I summoned up more wind to howl around the outside of it. There was nothing in the archway or the entrance chamber except the rubble and ruin that remained from my rampage as a dragon. With the wind howling though it sounded like a chorus of ghosts were moaning from the different spots in the room where the sound snuck in.

    “You’re all aloooooone.” the ghostly voices seemed to howl.

    Peri looked around for the source of the words, but kept moving on.

    “You’re all alone in the dark.” the voices said, some retreating far away, some rushing in right past her ears.

    She jumped at that and I could see the goosebumps rising on her arms and neck. Her eyes were wide open and she was breathing quickly. Somehow though she kept moving. She wandered into the entrance hall and then into the covered garden beyond it.

    The garden’s flowers had all withered and were hanging wilted on their stems. In place of the fragrance of the many species a garden should support, the castle’s garden’s smelled only of dust and age.

    Peri looked around, but apart from the withered plants, the garden was as empty as the entrance hall had been.

    “Puppy?” she called out in a tiny voice.

    There was no answer except for the wordless ghost wailing from outside.

    “Puppy?” she whispered even more quietly as she walked through the garden.

    Still no answer.

    She reached the other end of the garden and found a pair of doors with the image of a fierce and baleful looking dragon carved into them. Carved into the doors beneath the dragon, there were smaller figures, all skeletons, that the dragon had burned up.

    “I’m not alone.” Peri said to herself.

    “Whoooo’s with you?” the ghostly voices seemed to ask.

    “Mommy and Daddy. And James. And Jin. Mommy said they’re always with me.” she whispered our names like a magic spell she wasn’t sure of, but I watched the effect they had on her. Remembering each of us seemed to strengthen her. I didn’t get that. I mean I was with her but I wasn’t exactly making her life easier. Mom, Dad, and James weren’t even that close. They were literally a world away. Saying our names should have reminded her of how alone she was, not made her feel better.

    “Doooon’t goooo in thereee.” the ghostly voices said.

    “That’s where the puppy is.” she said, wild, childhood intuition moving her forward where no plausible reasoning would.

    “Doooon’t goooo in thereee!” the ghostly voices insisted.

    Peri drew herself up to her full height, a new fire in her eyes.

    “Puppy!” she shouted and barreled at the doors. The dragon on the doors roared as she approached, or perhaps it was only the wind. It didn’t stop her in either case. She smashed through the doors and into the throne room that held the center of her fears. The dreadful monster under the bed.

    Inside the room stood the Throne of Bedlam.

    It was empty.

    The whole throne room was empty in fact.

    As Peri looked around the ghostly wailing from outside revealed itself as nothing more than the wind. Through the hole I’d smashed in the wall, moonlight streamed in, illuminating the room brightly and showed that it was just a dusty, old room.

    Peri was panting and hunched over at the end of her charge but straightened up as she looked around the empty room. I watched as she took it in. At first she was wary and tense, waiting for something terrible to appear. Then her head tipped to one side and her shoulders relaxed. There wasn’t anything terrible in the room. Even the Wicked Queen was just a picture that hung over the throne.

    “PUPPY!” she yelled, unafraid of attracting attention at last.

    A woof of doggie delight came from beyond the far end of the throne room.

    That was all it took to send Peri scurrying forward.

    Unfortunately that was also all it took for the castle to begin crumbling. Peri was past her fear of Bedlam, the next step was to make sure she didn’t set up shop there.

    Peri felt the floor giving way underneath her just as she saw Belle racing down the hallway that lead out of the far end of the throne room. Belle saw her at the same instant and morphed from puppy to her full War Beast form.

    Peri and the floor had fallen maybe ten feet by the time Belle arrived and snatched Peri up by her shirt collar. With a flick of her head, Belle tossed the little girl onto her back and bounded up, leaping off the collapsing bits of floor with a strength and speed that was completely inhuman.

    “We’re getting out of here! Hold on tight!” Belle yelled as she streaked out of the collapsing castle. At first I thought Peri was screaming in terror but listening more closely I noticed that she was squealing with delight.

    Together my sister and her puppy fled the Castle of Final Peril, laughing the whole way.

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