Donla was nervous. If you asked her why, she never could have explained her unease. There was something in the air, a feeling of foreboding she had never experienced before. The other overseers had sensed it, but didn’t seem to be as concerned as she. Now that sense of trepidation seemed to be growing so quickly it was filling the very air she breathed, stifling her with the unknowing dread and an ever-lingering feeling that she must do something, that Psitharis itself was at stake. But apart from the growing pains her beloved homeland experienced in its birth and infancy, trouble was simply a foreign concept in this land of dreams and imagination. As a matter of fact very few people in the world understood the concept of danger; it simply didn’t exist. But Donla knew it all too well. Her job from the first moment she drew breath was to be ever-alert, the leader of the tiny army that kept Psitharis’ borders safe from any perils that might try to penetrate its shores. But those dangers, real or imaginary, had never surfaced. So why was she there?
She monitored the halls of the palace, nodding every now and then to the watch that already stood in place. She knew they resented her presence at times, they all believed her to be foolish in her hypervigilance. But Donla had always assumed the role of protector. It was the role she was created to play. And nothing could deter her from her role, even if in the six years of her existence where she had never had a true role to play in her world. But she had always been different from the others, she and the other Overseers. Only they were aware of their limited life span, quite aware that the universe in which the local folk who reveled in the wondrous majesty of the charmed life they lived. They all had back stories, memories they could pull from the depths of a long life well lived, even though they had only lived for the length of Psitharis itself.
Donla’s life began six years ago, as did the many others. Only she, Osmen and the one named “Jack” were well aware of this fact. Most of the people they knew existed on the knowledge that their forefathers had traveled to these shores eons ago and settled in this harmonious kingdom almost before the dawn of time. And they were right. But the dawn of time was only six years back, not the centuries most people supposed their ancestors arrived. But the Overseers did not see any reason to try to change the minds of the citizens that surrounded them. After all, what would they tell them? That their entire being was created by a small child in another realm and they all lived at the whim of her underdeveloped imagination? No, the decision had been made long ago to keep the origin of Psitharis a secret from everyone. The first Overseer Jack was adamant about that.
Every world has its own version of how it began. Only in this world the story was very well known by the three who started it; at least they knew their version of events and what was told to them by the first Overseer. In Donla’s case she was the third to be created, so she was the baby of the strange sort of surrogate family that had come to be to ease a child’s crushing solitude. Osmen was her older sibling by only days, but neither of them knew just how long Jack had existed in this child’s mind. Perhaps he had always been there. He would never tell them that much, he only shared with them the truth of their creation: Father, Nature and Protector. They were the beginning of it all, the first three creations of a troubled and vibrant mind, put in the world to herald the possibilities that existed in such a small soul. As Jack told them in the beginning, “She needs us just as much as we need her. Our one and only task is to be exactly what she needs us to be.” And that was a duty each of them took very seriously.
Jack was a very handsome man, though at times his visage would change to fit the Creator’s ideal, as did they all from time to time. But his face was the one that would change the least, as if the child had an idea of what she had intended to create but was still a little uncertain of the details. But he seemed to be there as a form of father-figure, as the child had no father in her world to speak of. It was a role he relished, his one wish in life to see her smile, to see the tears that often trailed down her face as she appeared in her dream world to disappear completely. His heart from the very beginning was hers, and whatever she needed of him she needed only to ask. As a matter of fact, as if through some form of symbiosis that neither of the others would ever share with her, he knew her needs before she was able to give them voice, and by the time she arrived he was waiting for her with whatever was needed to make her smile. Jack was the one who helped her create the beach when they wanted to walk along the shores of a vast ocean. Jack was the one who helped form the amusement park in her mind when she was too inexperienced to know how.
Osmen came along around the time of the creation of all that existed beyond the place called Dream Land. She was the keeper of nature, the provider of the mental images of the high mountain, the rivers that wound intricately down the steep elevations and the tunnels that would begin the alternate pathways to the crowning achievement of little Medora’s mind, the Cerulean Palace. The little girl took six of her non-consecutive days to complete all of the wondrous sights that made up Dream Land, as it was told to her in a book of her world that any world that was created automatically took six days. It was on Day Four of the little girl’s visits to Dream Land that Osmen came to be, and Osmen was the most beautiful creation of little Medora yet. Her dresses were silvery white, always flowing in a slow, fluid motion that resembled floating in water. Her long brown hair closely resembled the Creator’s hair, but as Medora’s hair was kept short by her mother, Osmen’s hair was as flowing as her gown. Her high, lilting voice seemed to calm any creature she shepherded, and her very personality seemed to resemble that of a small child; innocent, yet wise and ahead of her time.
Medora pushed Jack and Osmen together as much as she could, always looking for that parental connection that had been missing from her life from birth on. But there were jobs to do and a world to finish, so Jack and Osmen would present a loving picture to their young charge but as soon as she was gone they set about finishing the grand project that would make her far happier than their union ever could. They seemed to be perpetually at odds with each other, for Osmen often argued with Jack about being a little more strict with the little miss when it came to the many “obstructions to the perfection” that would magically appear out of nowhere. But Jack’s primary and, to be honest, only concern, was for his small charge and every single wish and command he could provide. After all, who could punish their own creator?
When the Cerulean Palace was erected and the last brick put into place, the need for a third Overseer became very apparent. Somebody had to guard the castle on the mountain. They had to be fierce, brave and powerful. And so the Protector was created on the seventh day. Donla arose from the Place of Creation and, being the guarded soul she already was, instantly scowled at her only three companions as she surveyed her surroundings. They stood on the shore of Dream Land, waiting with baited breath to see how she would take to them. And it wasn’t a promising start. Donla looked down at her hands to see she was not the same as the others. She rushed to the water’s edge to look at her visage in the water. She was brown, unlike the other three. Her eyes were light brown in color, like the little girl’s, but the resemblances stopped there. She was very tall, and her hair was braided in long locks to the small of her back. She was beautiful, yet she was different. How would she fit in to this new world that had only welcomed her three short minutes ago, especially when she appeared ready to strike down anyone who approached her?
As she gazed at her reflection, she felt something wrap around her finger. She looked back to find the little girl holding her hand, smiling at her and pulling at her to turn around. As Donla turned away from the water the little girl lurched forward and wrapped her arms around Donla’s long legs. It was her first experience with human contact, and her fate was sealed along with the others. This child, this little girl who had created her, she would do anything she could to protect her, to keep that smile steady on her face. She knelt down and took little Medora in her arms, feeling her first true emotion ever...love.
It was as if in five minutes she was born, grew up and became a mother. It was a lot to take in, but in the fullness of time all three of the Overseers grew accustomed to their new lives and the roles they were created to play. Osmen was in charge of keeping the waters of Dream Land the same blue color as the one that came from the top of the mountain as the sun’s beams reflected all along the shoreline. She was in charge of keeping the flowers in bloom, of keeping the waters running along the mountainside, of tending the pastures that would feed the animals that seemed to multiply and change with each passing day. Jack was Medora’s constant companion, taking her to all the different attractions and sights and providing her endless hours of entertainment. In short, whatever little Medora needed, that’s what Jack was. Donla, on the other hand, was in charge of protecting the Creator, keeping her as close to the shore as possible and out of mischief at all costs. And when the villagers began to show up in Dream Land she took her job more seriously than ever, often times to a domineering degree.
Each being took their jobs very seriously, until at some point they realized they were taking their jobs too seriously. The Creator didn’t need a security detail anymore, nor did she need an adult following her around or the ethereal maiden who kept the sun shining over her head at all hours. The newly-crowned Psitharis was filled with people now, and they couldn’t fawn over Medora as they once did without drawing the suspicions of the other people. So little by little they began to take a step back, watching from a distance, always ready to jump into the fray if needed. Only there never was a fray and eventually they decided the best way to allow the world to grow and thrive was to leave Medora to her own devices. So with heavy hearts and a new purpose in mind, each took to their own domain, with Osmen retreating to the forests where she was happiest, Donla making the colossal trek up the tall mountain to the Cerulean Palace to protect the Counsel that had been appointed around the same time the world had been renamed, and Jack...well, Jack decided to devote himself to the daily operations of the park, making sure that whenever he did see Medora’s face it was always happy.
And there Donla remained to that very day, the day that filled her with unease and dread. It had been almost seven years since she opened her eyes to a new world, seven years since the first four beings in Psitharis met for the first time altogether. And yet the Creator had barely aged at all, perhaps growing from age four or five to age eight. Time must move very slowly in that other world Medora lived in, because the obvious signs of age had already affected Donla. Her braids were developing a touch of grey from the years of worry placed heavily and evenly upon her shoulders. The last time she had seen Osmen she was looking rather tired, the upkeep of an entire eco-system keeping her quite busy. And no one had seen Jack in so long it was feared he might be dead. But could people actually die in Psitharis? Donla wasn’t entirely sure.
The most troubling absence wasn’t Jack’s, however; it was the Creator’s herself. Where was Medora? Donla kept a running log of all of her visits to Dream Land, provided by a small network of spies employed to keep watch over her charge as she was unable to leave the palace anymore. They reported every ride she rode, every snack she ate, every attraction she watched with rapt interest. But there had not been a single thing to report, not since the day she ran out of the park in a panic. No one had seen Donla’s small charge for months, and Donla’s concern was slowly growing into full-blown fear. She was so nervous she had considered on several occasions seeking out the other two Overseers to decide what action to take next. After all, there had been occasional absences, but none of this duration. It was unnerving to be without the one person who kept the world going without a hitch, and Donla worried there might be consequences that accompanied her disappearance. But thus far the world went on without Medora, Jack and Osmen were nowhere to be found and Donla tried her best to assure herself that the world could continue with or without the one who originated it. But there was always that damn, nagging terror that snuck its way into her dreams at night, that nestled in her every thought and invaded each of her steps down that long hallway that ended in the Counsel’s chambers. As Donla opened the door to find all seven children busy with chores of their own, her heart stopped pounding in her head, her pulsed slowed a fraction from its frantic pace. These children had long been her children, the replacements for the little girl she missed each day of her life.
Donla walked unnoticed through the large room where the Counsel children spent the majority of their lives. Barathasan was busying himself with a model of a new attraction he planned to suggest to the others, the twins dressed two dolls to look identical, as they always dressed themselves. Alexa did what she always did, fussing over tiny Chylis like the mother she always pretended to be. And the two troublemakers...well, no one ever knew where Dresden and Emyll were from one moment to the next, but they were certain to be coated from head to foot in filth when they returned. Their protector, meanwhile, walked over to the large window that oversaw every single aspect of the waking world; the park, the beach and to a degree the forests that stretched out east of the main villages past the great meadow. Osmen’s home, or at least she hoped Osmen was still there. It had been so long since she had seen her face.
Suddenly an unusual sight caught Donla’s eye. It was a sight that didn’t bode well with her, and she would soon know why. There was a dark fog on the horizon, blowing in from some faraway shore and putting the entire skyline in the dark. It crawled slowly across the ocean, devouring the light of the setting sun and putting the world in stormy shadow. And emerging from the darkness of those dark clouds that lined the point where ocean ended and sky began were something even more unsettling. There were large ships emerging from the clouds. One...two...three...Donla counted as each ship made its presence known. When she got to ten something in her mind told her the ships were the herald to a catastrophe Psitharis had never known in its short history. This was no friendly armada approaching their crystal blue waters, deep down she knew this with utmost certainty. These new arrivals meant harm to her beloved world. And there was no Creator to fight off this threat, even if a small child could manage to fight such an ominous danger at all.
Donla’s mind raced with options. At the rate of their approach they would be landing on the shores in less than an hour. In another hour the whole of Psitharis’ civilization could be razed to the ground. There was no contingency plan for this development. There had never been need to amass a large army to protect their shores because as far as they knew there were no enemies to defend Psitharis from – until now. So she could stand and fight with the tiny army that had served no purpose up until this point except breaking up trivial fights in the amusement park and basic rule enforcement. And very likely those who stood against this approaching menace would be slaughtered, including her. She could sound an alarm to evacuate the park and the people of Psitharis into the castle itself; but how long could they hold out if there was indeed a huge army planning an invasion aboard those large ships? It wouldn’t take long before the troops would kill every last man, woman and child in the palace, and she would be forced to watch their demise before meeting hers. They would kill her most certainly, but not before they killed...
The Counsel. The very thought of watching those unknown assassins murder her children choked her with fear. What would they do to her beloved charges, the little one she had dedicated her entire life to? The very thought was far too much for her to bear. In the back of her mind she could hear a voice crying out in a mantra: save the Counsel, save the Counsel, save the Counsel. It wasn’t her voice. It was Medora’s, crying out across the divide that separated her world from theirs. And it was an urgent cry that spurred Donla into action.
“Myan, Rooke. Come here!” She cried out to the two guards who stood guard at the door. The men both rolled their eyes, accustomed to the occasional order barked at them by the woman who towered over them and frightened them into subservient submission just through her impressive size. Nevertheless, grumbling the entire length of the room, they joined the captain of the guard at the window where they were shocked into silence. Even they could not deny the threat that loomed over the horizon. “What is that?” Rooke gasped, clutching the window.
“I don’t know.” Donla responded. “But I need to get the Counsel out of here and out of harm’s way. And we need to get the rest of the troops assembled.”
“Do you think we are in harm’s way?” Myan asked, squinting through his bad eyes to see the ships approaching. “We’ve never faced anything like this. We’re – we’re not ready for an invasion if that’s what this is.”
“I know.” Donla noted in exasperation. “But first things first. I’ll get the Counsel to safety and meet you back here. Assemble the troops. Looks like there’s going to be trouble.”
In the back of her mind she knew she was looking at these two soldiers for the last time in a long time, possibly ever. But her first priority was the Counsel, and it was the one sacred duty she could not turn her back on. She rushed over to where the twins continued to exchange outfits for their dolls, blissfully unaware of the approaching doom. “Frailen, Ghias, I need you to pack a small bag. Very small. Take only a change of clothes and some necessities. Do it now.”
Frailen looked up from her doll, alarmed at the look of fear on her protector’s face. “What’s wrong? Did we do something bad?”
“No, not at all. We’re going on a little journey. And I need you and your brothers and sisters to be ready to go very shortly. Tell the others to do the same. I’m going to find Emyll and Dresden.” As the twins began to relay her orders, Donla raced out the main corridor, down the long staircase two steps at a time until she had gotten to the back exit of the castle. There she bounded out the door, looking frantically in all the places she knew her two missing children could be found. After what seemed to be an eternity of searching she finally found them in one of the old tunnels behind the castle. She knew it very well. It was the quickest way to bypass half the mountainside, with a long incline that you had to half climb, half hike to traverse. It was also a dangerous tunnel she had warned them thousands of times to stay away from, but Dresden and Emyll were never two to shy away from an adventure, dangerous or not. She rushed to the door to the tunnel, searching all the hedgerows along the way. She finally found them where she suspected to find them, halfway up the incline and climbing about in the dark. “Boys, get up here this minute!” She screamed, trying to hide her fear but failing. “We need to leave the palace. We haven’t a moment to lose. Quickly! Climb up here and let’s go!” Dresden was first, his blonde hair barely discernible through the dust from all the climbing. Emyll was hot on his heels, just as dusty as his cohort.
“What’s going on, Donla?” Emyll asked, trying fruitlessly to brush the dust from his legs as the hurried along. “You seem worried. Is there trouble?”
She looked down at him as they ran back toward the palace. “I’m not certain. But to be safe I’m taking you away for a while. It will only be for a day or two, until we receive the all-clear from the advance guard. There’s nothing to fear; we’re just taking every precaution to keep you and your brothers and sisters safe.”
The girls had already packed the two wanderers a sack to take on their journey, knowing they could not be relied upon to pack themselves. And as Donla prepared the children to trek down the opposite side of the mountain, probably for the last time in their lives, she took a last look out the window. As she suspected the boats had come within twenty yards of the shore, and she could already make out many smaller boats filled with occupants. Whatever was going to happen was going quickly, and she couldn’t afford to stick around to find out what that was. It normally took a week for the smaller groups of troops to scale the mountainous trails that led to the Cerulean Palace, which meant escape would take just as long. They had to move fast. Despite their many protests Donla ushered the children to the back door and began the slow descent down the other side of the mountain. She couldn’t risk taking them through the dangerous tunnel system; it was too steep for Chylis and the twins and the walls were far too unstable to be trusted anyway. Rooke spotted her as she started her descent. “Captain, what do we do? How are we going to handle this? Donla!” But Donla did not turn around. Every moment she lost in their escape was a moment they could be discovered and imprisoned, or worse. It was a treacherous journey with seven children in tow, and at times the mountain sloped so sharply she half wished she had taken the tunnel system instead. But as nightfall approached and the children grew weary Donla knew they had no choice but to stop and rest. She pulled out some blankets and set up beds for the younger children. Barathasan and Alexa stayed awake, intent on speaking to Donla. They’re old enough to know the truth, Donla thought to herself.
“Donla, those ships,” Barathasan began, polishing his glasses as he was wont to do when nervous, “who were those people on those ships? Are they the reason we left the palace?”
Donla, who up until that point had been operating on sheer determination, suddenly felt the weight of her cowardly acts. Sure, she had saved the Counsel from a possible assassination, but she had run away from the soldiers she served beside for almost a decade, the castle she helped create, the world she and three others had been responsible for creating. And the weight of it all came down to crush her very spirit.
“I – I don’t know who they are, Barathasan.” She admitted. “All I knew was I had to keep you safe. I had to get you out of harm’s way.” Her shoulders slumped, and the guilt threatened to overtake her.
Barathasan went over and sat beside her. “It was the right thing to do, you know. If the Medora girl is anything like you’ve described to us over the years she wouldn’t have wanted us to get hurt. You have to go by what you think her orders would be. She would have ordered you to protect us. You did the right thing.”
She smiled down at her wisest charge. He was right. She had no need to second guess herself. Her mission had been clear for years, ever since the Counsel came into being. They were connected to the missing Creator somehow. They had to persevere.
Alexa was still worried. “What are those people going to do to the others? Are they here to hurt them? Are we ever going to go home?”
Donla took Alexa’s hand. “I just don’t know Alexa. I don’t know about any of it.” They sat in silence, staring at the campfire. As the sounds of nature began to recede from across the breeze they could swear they heard the sounds of anguished screams, but none of them acknowledged what they heard, or what they thought they heard. They contented themselves with the knowledge that, no matter how horrible things got, once Medora returned things would be righted once again.
It took a week of non-stop hiking to reach the bottom of the mountain. And even then there was another day’s journey before they reached the Great Meadow, where they might seek the protection and solace of Osmen herself. It was a journey that would put them directly in harm’s way. At this point they had already spotted the first signs of the invaders advancing toward their side of the mountain. They watched from the cover of night as the glow of campfires dotted the landscape below. Noting the exact position of each flame as it slowly ebbed and died out, they made a long berth around the location, avoiding the inhabitants of the area and traveling under cover of darkness. During the daytime Donla used her expert knowledge of her surroundings to find hiding spaces the troops couldn’t find, and there they would take cover until safety could be assured. The children grew tired easily, especially traveling at night, and food had become scarce. But Donla pushed them forward with her one mission in mind: keep the Counsel safe. And now they were down to one more precious day. One day until they would be exposed to anyone who bothered to keep watch on the open expanse between the mountain and the dark forest. Even hidden by darkness they would be open, susceptible to attack on all sides. Donla had weighed all the options, but there were no alternatives. To get to freedom, they had to face the possibility of failure.
At the base of the mountain they hid in the shelter of a small cave. It was cramped and dark, but they were glad to be together, glad to have made it so far. Donla prepared them for the task ahead, and in doing so gave them very important rules. The first rule was for the older children to stay with the younger children, keeping track of them and holding fast to them at all times. The second rule was to stay close, keep the group tight so their movements wouldn’t be noticed by the soldiers above. “The most important thing I want you to remember,” Donla began, “you must run straight for the forest if I tell you to run. Only worry about yourself and the one you are responsible for. Do not look back. I may not be with you when you reach the forest. Seek out Osmen and she will help you.”
“What are you saying, Donla?” Chylis asked, panic rising in her voice. “Where will you be if that happens?”
Donla took Chylis in her lap and brushed back the hair that had fallen in her face. “If we are discovered, I will stay behind and fight to give you the opportunity to escape. There is nothing more important than your safety, so you must do this for me. I will join you if I am able. But your lives are most important to me now. You must do as I say. Is that understood?”
Chylis’ eyes welled up with tears, but she nodded. “If you say so. But promise me you will try to get back to us.”
“Of course I will. I would do everything in my power to keep us together. After all, we’re a family. And once we reach Osmen we....” Donla stopped, putting her finger over her lips in an unspoken plea for silence. Paralyzed with fear the children listened as voices came near to the opening of the cave.
“The queen is making her ascent to the castle on the other side of the mountain. So why are we being forced to stand guard on the side of the mountain that is completely devoid of life?” One deep male voice inquired.
“Supposedly there are some fugitives missing from the castle who the queen hoped to dispose of before she took over this place. Tying up loose ends, so to speak. They were the former rulers of this kingdom.” A second voice answered, aggravation tinged in the tone of his voice.
“But I thought this land had no rulers.” A third voice interjected. “Just some stupid world that didn’t bother to build an army or put in any sort of defense. Easy pickings.”
“Well, there was a bunch of kids...”
“Kids? They had kids in charge of an entire kingdom? The first voice asked incredulously. “You gotta be kidding.”
“No. They weren’t even that smart.” The second voice clarified. “They were the closest things they had to rulers, but they didn’t rule anything. The real ruler of this world disappeared a while back. That’s why the queen chose to invade. No army, no rulers. Just a bunch of brats she wanted to chuck off the side of the mountain, but they disappeared too.”
“So, we’re out here looking for children instead of guarding the queen and the princess as they make their way up the mountainside. What did we do to get this punishment?” The third voice sounded as frustrated as his companion. “Seems like we’re hunting a needle in a haystack over here.”
The first voice laughed nervously. “Yeah, well we better find that needle and bring it back to the palace. You know how the queen is. She’ll have our heads if she doesn’t get exactly what she wants.”
The voices began to trail off. “Wouldn’t want to piss her or that kid of hers off. Which makes me wonder. Have any of you actually ever seen the princess?”
“Naw. I don’t think anyone’s ever seen her....” The voices grew too distant to hear what was being said. Nevertheless the children still sat motionless, afraid to breathe lest their very breath give them away.
When she was sure the soldiers had moved on Donla said quietly. “We’ll stay here until night has fully fallen. Then we’ll make our way to the forest.”
It was dark as pitch when Donla emerged from the cave. There wasn’t a sign of life as far as she could see. Her eyes adjusted quickly to their surroundings. Darkness surrounded them, which was a good sign. It meant all the soldiers were most likely far above them and would not notice their movements. Cautiously, all of the children surfaced, the older one instantly taking hold of one of the younger children’s hands. Chylis held onto Alexa for dear life, while Barathasan was responsible for keeping track of the twins. And Emyll and Dresden partnered up with Donla, walking closely behind her as they made their way out of the mountain flora and into the tall grass that grew in a heavy blanket from the base of the mountain to the border of the Great Forest. The moon gave them just enough light to keep moving forward to their final destination. What they would find in the forest they had no idea, but after what they heard that afternoon it was clear it would be far preferable to the terrors that awaited them in their former home. There was no going back, it was impossible.
“Eww, I’m getting wet.” Chylis complained. The grass came up to her waist, the evening dew making her skirts a sopping mess. Alexa picked her up as best she could and once Chylis was secure they began to make very good progress. All was going well until they heard the sound they dreaded most.
“What’s that motion in the grass?” A familiar voice shouted out to no one in particular. Suddenly the base of the mountain was lit with the light of several torches, and they were beginning to approach the small group in an alarming rate.
“RUN!” Donla screamed. The children took off as fast as they could. Barathasan dragged the twins, who were wailing for Donla while running as fast as their little legs could carry them. The boys outpaced all of them, easily getting ahead of the pack and acting as the guides in their terrifying flight from their would-be captors. Alexa slung Chylis up to her back so she could run faster than holding her at her side. They didn’t know where Donla was. Did she follow? Did she stop to fight? They didn’t dare betray her last instruction to find out.
The forest was just within reach. Each tiny group reached the boundary within five seconds of each other. It was nothing but blackness among the dense woodland, but Donla had given them orders to not stop until they had run for another minute once inside. They tripped over branches and outstretched roots, falling at times and picking themselves up, adrenaline fueling their every step. Alexa managed to stay on her feet, even with Chylis now cutting off most of her oxygen supply with her vice-like grip around her neck. After a minute of running they each stopped, afraid to call out for the others for fear of discovery. They felt around in their blindness for a spot to stick to until Donla could find them, or until enough time had elapsed where they knew they had to continue their escape without their fallen mother.
After an eternity of waiting, Barathasan was the first to speak up. “Can anyone hear me?”
He waited for a moment. In the near vicinity he heard Alexa speak up. “Barathasan, we’re here. I’ve got Chylis.” The twins finally lost their composure and answered with wails of despair, while the boys both spoke in terse responses, worried sick that they hadn’t heard a word from their fierce protector.
“Stay where you are.” Barathasan shouted. “And stay quiet. We can’t find each other, but they can’t find us either. Just lay low.”
They sat in the dark for ages, too frightened to move. The only sounds in the air were the twins quiet sobs and Chylis’ muffled tears, covered by Alexa’s shoulder. Just as all seemed completely hopeless they heard a voice that gave them an overabundance of hope. “Children, are you all right?” Donla had made it! The silence completely broken, they all spoke up at once, letting Donla know they were shaken but fine. “I believe we are alone. I’m certain the soldiers who saw us are taken care of.”
“What happened?” She heard Frailen’s nervous voice somewhere in the darkness.
“They are taken care of. Let’s not dwell any further on the matter. Now, one at a time, please call out to me and I will find you.” For the next hour Donla gathered the children to her. And there in the safety their surroundings provided them they waited.
“Donla, I’m getting scared.” Ghias whimpered. “We can’t sit here in the darkness forever. What are we going to do?”
“I’m not certain dear one. I was hoping to find Osmen as soon as first light hit, but here in this forest we can’t be certain when the sun has risen. Light never finds its way into this place.” Donla looked around. Apart from making out the dim shadows of her beloved children she could see nothing else.
“Then what do we do?” Alexa grabbed for the older woman’s hand blindly. “If Osmen doesn’t show up we have to make our way back outside. And I ran so hard and it’s so hard to tell which way we’re standing I don’t think we could find our way. We could be stuck in here forever. We could starve in here.”
Donla wanted to reassure Alexa, to let her know that she was going to be able to save the day. But doubt slowly crept into her brain. Even she wasn’t sure of direction anymore. She had walked to several different areas to find the children so, in their current position, she was completely turned around. They could indeed walk for days and possibly never find a way out of their predicament. All she could think to do was sit, hold her children tight and pray for some sort of miracle.
And the miracle came in the form of a small yellow light, followed by a tiny red light. Two floating apparitions were heading in their very direction. At first they feared some sort of trap, sent in by soldiers too petrified to traverse the obscure paths where their quarry was hidden. But as the lights grew closer it seemed obvious they weren’t sent by any malevolent source. The lights danced about, coming close to the group then flying a couple of feet away and hovering, as if waiting. Waiting for the small group to follow them. One got close enough so they could see what they were staring at behind the glow. “Oh, look! It’s a little person...with wings!” Chylis marveled.
“This has to be Osmen’s creation.” Donla remarked. “She was always fascinated with creatures such as this. I only wonder where Osmen is.” The children gathered up their belongings and began to follow the floating lights as they flew deeper into the forest. After only a few minutes of journeying into the unknown they came to a tall veil of vines and leaves, cutting off any forward progress.
“Looks like we’ve reached the end of the line here. Now what?” Emyll said as he ran his hand across the wall of foliage.
Almost as if answering his question the leaves and vines began to recede, revealing a voluminous light that temporarily blinded them all. And beyond the light was more forest, only it was nothing like their current surroundings. There was a tiny stream that fed bunches of flowers on either side of its banks. The trees glistened with the translucent colors of their leaves: some green, others in colors they had never seen before on any of the woods that covered the mountain. Birds sang in the distance, and the beauty of this hidden paradise was more than they would have ever dreamed imaginable. And in the backdrop of this masterpiece laid out before them stood a large cabin. Instantly the children ran for the cabin, despite Donla’s pleadings for caution. Her fear was unwarranted, however, for as she spoke she saw an almost-forgotten image walking toward her from the front porch of the cabin. Her dress was flowing as it always had, her hair the same as it always had been. But there was something sad in Osmen’s demeanor as she approached. She held out her hands to Donla as she grew close, and in return the protector embraced her.
“Donla.” Osmen smiled, weariness etched on her face. “I knew you would come. I knew this would be where you brought the children. You were very wise to do so. What lurks outside this safe refuge is no longer friend to us. The Creator has abandoned us. Our lives as we have known them have fallen into ruin.”
“What has happened?” Donla asked her old friend. “What has come to our shores that threatens us so?”
Osmen led Donla to the back of the cabin, to a large table hewn from an enormous tree. There they sat and there Osmen began to tell her friend of the menace that had invaded their world. “The woman who calls herself queen, she is the manifestation of our Creator’s captor. Medora’s mind is caught up in turmoil, a turmoil so great it has created an army. The imposter queen is a manifestation of some sort of trauma our young architect has experienced. And that trauma has come to destroy our world. Villages have already fallen, people have already been enslaved. Those who fought are already gone. The evil has already won.”
“The Creator?” Donla was dumbfounded. “The Creator has visited this plague upon us? How could this be?”
“It was not her intention to do so. You must remember, she is only a child. A child we already knew faced heavy adversity in her short life. But something has come about to remove her from our existence, and put this horror in her stead. If we were three we might be able to influence her mind, to help her destroy this army she has inadvertently created. But without Jack...”
“Have you seen Jack?” The troubled warrior asked. “I used to see him a great deal. But he disappeared so long ago and I always feared for his well-being.”
Osmen shook her head. “Jack has fallen. His priority was to always be what she needed him to be. Her mind, being in such chaos, has made him into something we would no longer recognize. We have no choice but to move on without his help. You will stay here and guard the Counsel. It is the last vestige of innocence left in Psitharis and those souls must survive at all costs. I will safeguard you in this place until such a time when we see the true queen’s return. But until Medora is strong enough to put a stop to this destruction we must persevere, by any means necessary. My enchantments are strong enough to keep the soldiers away from this place. It is the only strength the Creator has left to me, the strength to protect them, to protect you. My small subordinates will stand guard over this place, no matter how long it takes. And I – I will return to my own realm, beyond this forest and past all reach from any entities that might try to harm me. There I will stay until hope is renewed. And I promise...I will stand watch over you.”
The friends parted ways, with Osmen tearfully hugging her old friend one last time before disappearing altogether. And all that was left to do was to settle into their new life in this unknown wonderland and wait. Alexa automatically set herself up as the second mother to the children, using her maturity to create to-do lists, assign bedrooms and in short settle the makeshift family into a domestic life. Barathasan remained the knowledgeable one, spending endless hours drawing up schematics of the tunnel system, creating blueprints of the Cerulean Palace, crude drafts of Dream Land and maps of the world itself. He wanted to be prepared in case Medora, the one Donla proclaimed the “true queen,” ever returned. Emyll and Dresden spent hours in the gardens harvesting crops and planting new seedlings as the seasons changed. And the twins learned to create new clothes for the eventuality that, as they aged, they would grow.
But none of them ever aged. None of them ever grew an inch. In that place where everything was kept perfect for them nothing seemed to change and the occupants of the cabin never seemed to age, save for one. Because as the years passed the different emotions that plagued Donla took their toll. She changed from a tall, proud fighter to a much altered version of herself. She shrank under the weight of the guilt she felt for not staying behind and fighting for the others who by now had surely been crushed, or worse yet, assimilated. She aged decades beyond the years that passed, growing quickly into a woman who aged far past her prime. Her long brown braids turned grey, and her vibrant brown eyes lost the sparkle that made them warm and inviting. And the torment that withered her most, more than anything involving her dying world, was the knowledge that after five years, after eight years, after ten years, the Creator was nowhere to be found. She would bravely trek out to seek information from the villages within a night’s hike of the Great Forest, but none of the downtrodden and mistreated would or could offer her any word of comfort. She learned of the enslavement of the entire world, of the people’s need to bow to the queen’s evil will or be annihilated. She learned of the park’s new mission to keep the world alive, but barely. And in her dangerous treks to the outside world she learned that the Counsel could never leave their home, as most had forgotten about their very existence and reemergence was tantamount to a death sentence.
Nothing changed in those ten years except for her. The children often complained about still being five, still being eight, still being ten, but there was no remedy for the curse that hung over their heads. Donla’s joints stiffened with pain and she did her best to remain positive, but she knew she was fading. Now that the world had gone so long without its savior she figured the original three must be dying out. But she had heard nothing from Osmen since that first fateful day when they found themselves in the forest for the first time. Perhaps she was already dead. Perhaps like Jack she had simply ceased to exist, replaced with something sinister and under the control of the queen. Donla simply didn’t know.
Her first sign that Osmen might still be alive was in the inexplicable construct of a new cabin. It was a shocking event to be certain. For so long nothing ever changed, nothing new ever took place in their miniature universe. Then suddenly logs began to fit themselves together, stacking one on top of the other as if assembled by unseen hands. In hours the family watched in wonder and a slight trepidation as logs situated themselves one on top of the other, as a chimney built itself stone by stone, as the board for a floor flew past them into the hole fashioned for the eventual door. For a moment, Donla’s hopes grew in a way they had not done in a long time. This was not the work of an Overseer; this was the work of Medora herself. But where was Medora?
In a matter of a day there was a new cabin...but for who? The question was answered just as the door was bolted into place, for as the last nail hammered itself into place the veil of leaves parted once more, and an older gentleman walked through the curtain of leaves into his very own unknown. “Greetings. My name is Donla. You are the first visitor to these lands in a great while. Might we have the pleasure of your name?” She extended his hand which he readily shook.
“Name’s John. John Parker.” The old man’s eyes were so bright, his nature so friendly. “I’m not sure what I’m doing here, but I’m sure glad to see some smiling faces. Perhaps you can tell me where I am and why.”
They sat for hours talking to Mr. Parker. He sadly figured out his fate before the rest. If he was put into a safe place in his granddaughter’s mind, then there was a definite reason for his presence there. For him it had just been a strange journey. One minute he’s walking out of the convenience store, his usual Diet Coke and peanut butter crackers in hand; the next minute he’s standing in the dark watching as a thin line of light led him toward the cabin and his new friends. He had been sick, but had no idea he was sick enough to die. Whatever happened must have been sudden, because his last memory was kissing his beloved wife before he departed for the hardware store. As a matter of fact he was going there for Medora, picking up some tools that might be helpful with a project she had wanted to work with him on while he was at their house the next week. Now that was never going to happen. He felt horrible for leaving his wife so suddenly, but he felt the most remorse for leaving his little bug. As he explained to the Counsel and Donla, Medora had become a sad teenager who had few friends and no support to speak of in her own home. It had been about thirteen years for Donla and the children, but scarcely six years had passed in Medora’s other life. And when she returned she would no longer be a little girl....if she returned. John filled in the gaps of the mysterious disappearance of the little girl Donla had once loved to the point of worship. Her life had spiraled into an existence where just keeping her head above water was an accomplishment. The ships probably arrived when any hope of returning to Psitharis died for Medora. And the evil that overtook the land was an indirect product of her own lively spirit dying in that despair.
He was the last visitor for three years. In that time John Parker became an integral part of the Great Forest, helping with the gardening and filling in the blanks that Donla's one-sided version of history could not fill. They realized it was Medora’s mother sitting on top of that mountain, ruling over Medora’s dream and twisting it into a nightmare. They realized that more than likely Medora’s sister was the princess often referred to but never seen, just another phantom menace that tore apart the fantasy that had kept the Creator happy once upon a time. And they knew it would take some sort of miracle to bring their girl back to them.
That morning seemed like every other morning before it. Grandpa tended the gardens with Emyll and Frailen, and Alexa and Ghias hung the well-worn dresses and pants of the children out to dry. There was a sense of unease settling over the small paradise. Rumors had circulated throughout the villages that a girl had defied the orders of the tyrant of Dream Land and had been marked as a wanted person by the queen herself. Hope emanated throughout the small group that maybe, just maybe, their Medora was coming back to them. But no one wanted to breathe the words, lest all their hopes go up in flames. So they went along with their routines, no one speaking aloud the one wish they all had collectively. But that morning was different. Grandpa looked about every now and then, watching the veil of leaves that separated them from the darkness and the danger that awaited them outside. The others didn’t know why, but they probably had their suspicions. He wanted his granddaughter back. It was understandable. And now there was a mystery girl creating havoc in the uniform misery Psitharis had become. His optimism was understandable.
Suddenly he dropped his rake and began to walk hurriedly toward the veil. Barathasan followed close behind him, motioning for the others to stay put. He figured it was another false alarm, another possibility that would pan out to be nothing but the rustle of leaves, the useless call of yet another cruel trick of the mind. But Grandpa stood before the curtain of leaves for a long time, with Barathasan all but ready to escort him back to the garden when this proved to be a futile yearning. But when Grandpa began to speak to a disembodied voice on the other side of the wall it sent young Barathasan reeling.
“Oh, we have a visitor! Come in, come in. You are most welcome!”
“I’d be more than happy to visit with you, if you’re talking to me,” the voice on the other end was muffled, it was difficult to hear, but it was indeed female, “but at present I’m blind as a bat and I can’t find where you are!”
“Yes, I am talking to you,” Grandpa reassured the voice, “and we’ve been hoping you would wander this way, Medora. Have no fear. All you have to do is ask, and the door will be made known to you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The voice was getting hysterical. Barathasan understood why. The fairies that had once led them to this place had drawn them out of darkness. And most likely that’s where the young woman found herself now.
Grandpa laughed. “Don’t you understand? This world is yours. You created it, you control it. Wish for the door to open.”
It seemed like an eternity before something actually happened. But the mystery was about to be solved, and in short order. The curtain of leaves began to rise, higher and higher, until the voice had a body, and the body quickly ducked under the foliage that stood between her and heart’s desire. Barathasan watched in amazement as the girl he had heard so much about for sixteen years collapsed in the old man’s embrace, crying like the small child he had remained for those same sixteen years. And in that moment of pure love, of pure emotion, Grandpa was left
with only one thing he could say. “There, there, my girl. Everything’s going to be all right.”