Midnight Mirage

Florence carefully closed the door to the balcony. Though it was nearly midnight sleep would not come to her. The gentle, crisp spring breeze played with her feathery red hair, bright as the fieriest sunset. Her emerald eyes wandered through the sable cape of night, trailing behind the day's radiant crown of sun. A pearly flash blossomed in the sky like smoke from a fire curling through the air. The fallen star arced across the sky and fell in the forest beyond the balcony. As though hypnotized, Florence leapt from her balcony and landed in the soft lawn below. Her azure night gown grew damp with dew as she followed the star into the forest. The moon bathed her alabaster skin in a silvery glow as it rose higher in the night sky. Ebony shadows dappled her dress as she made her way under the leafy canopy and she could hear the distant knell of church bells tolling out the midnight hour. The grey trees grew closer together the deeper she went into the vibrant green wood until light was entirely blotted out. Fear crept into her mind as the darkness deepened.

A guttural growl rumbled from behind her. Florence whipped around to see glinting teeth disappearing into the shady undergrowth. Suddenly a howl pierced the night's silence and she heard the barks of wolves drawing towards her. Panic made her fleet-footed as she fled deeper into the woods. Trees flew out of the darkness and rushed past her. Thistles and thorns tore at her dress and cut at her legs. She could not outrun the pack. Her mind painted a vivid picture of snapping jaws and she quickly scrambled up a tree, putting her hands and feet in every notch she could find. Settling herself on a branch 30 feet above the ground, Florence tried to peer through the pitch black to the forest floor. The scuffling of paws halting their momentum as they skidded on leaves reached her ears. The same low growl echoed through the trees. Florence clung to the mossy limbs, gripping the ancient tree tightly. Suddenly the sound of the wolves fleeing floated up to her. She waited for their sound to vanish into silence before climbing down.

Florence continued to wander through the ghostly-quiet forest, carefully roaming through the blinding darkness. Eventually she reached a clearing, surrounded by the tallest trees in the entire forest. Enclosed within them was a small meadow. Long, emerald grass waved slowly and an assortment of colorful wildflowers speckled the field. The aura of tranquility enveloping it was intoxicating. Enticed, Florence circled the trees until she found a wooden gate. A porcelain cup of honey-golden liquid lay on top of it. Draining the sweet nectar, Florence slipped through the gate and slowly strode towards the center of the grasses. In the middle lay a wide pool of silvery water. Setting down the cup, Florence stepped into the water and carefully waded out to the center. Even when the water reached above her head, she dove down into the pool. The clear water did not sting her eyes. Rather, it felt like peering through thick glasses resting lightly on her face. Her lungs deflated, pushing out all their air and still she swam deeper. The cool and fresh water felt cleansing and pure .Eventually she could bear it no more; her lungs burned as though there was acid inside of them, crying for breath. Florence looked upward to find she could no longer see the surface. Propelling herself skyward, she felt consciousness begin to ebb away and darkness crept into the corners of her vision. She reached the mirror-like surface and felt relief, knowing she could soon collect a breath. However, when she attempted to breach the surface all she found was rock. Pounding along the top of the pool, sending waves blowing away from her, she tried to find a crevice in the stone roof above her through which to breathe. Finally her strength vacated her and she sunk into a nightmarish black. Before the darkness could completely enclose her, she felt something pulling her up and out of the water.

Florence lay collapsed in the grass, unable to move, taking in as much air as she could hold. After several minutes of gasping and coughing up water, Florence turned to see her rescuer. She beheld a very peculiar sight; there was a boy who looked to be about 15, her own age, sitting next to her. He wore brown shorts, an azure shirt and was barefoot. Curly brown hair created a halo around his face and dark brown eyes peered curiously at her. His skin was tinted a light shade of blue but the strangest thing about him was his wings. The boy had magnificent feathery cobalt wings neatly folded at his back. Florence sat up quickly and stared at him.

"Are you alright?" The boy asked. His voice was light and had a chirpy quality to it.

"I'm fine."

"What happened? Why did you go swimming in there?" He pointed behind her and where she had seen a beautiful pool now laid a cave submerged in murky water. Florence furrowed her brow in confusion.

"That wasn't there before. There was a clear pond." Florence looked around and noticed that what she had once thought were enormous trees was a towering steel gate. "And that gate was made of trees." A knowing look spread across the boy's face.

"Did you drink the cup of nectar at the gate?"

"Yes. Why?"

"It was the elixir of illusion. That explains why you had such a hallucination. You shouldn't have taken it."

"I didn't know!" Florence retorted.

"Well, just don't do that again. By the way, my name's Ren. What's yours?"

"Florence. What exactly are you, Ren?"

"I'm a bird spirit." He spread his wings behind him. "In particular, wrens. They were very creative naming me, don't you think?" Florence laughed.

"What is this place?" she asked, staring at the gates so like a cage.

"This is one of the many homes of the witch of the forest. She comes and goes as she wishes. Everyone in the forest fears her—she is the malice of the forest, stealing treasures from all around. She also fancies capturing creatures and holding them prisoner. If she finds us here, we will be made her personal slaves for the rest of our lives. Right now she's probably out searching for that star so we have some time." Florence felt a jolt of fear when contemplating that not only could she be enslaved but her star could be lost.

"How are we going to get out of here?" Ren frowned.

"I flew over the gate. I guess you'll need wings." Ren pulled a small crystal vial out of his pocket, filled with a metallic blue paint-like paste. Dipping his thumb in the vial, Ren rubbed his index finger and thumb together until they were coated with blue. Then he reached out and smeared some the size of a dime onto Florence's back. Before she could protest, he drew his hand away in an arcing stroke like a paintbrush. To her surprise, wings sprouted from her back along the line Ren had drawn. Instead of feathery ones like his, Florence now had silken butterfly wings. Gaping in awe, Florence watched as she quickly learned to control her wings, fluttering them behind her as easily as if she was blinking.

"Now we need to take off. Follow my lead." Florence carefully studied Ren as he sprinted a few steps then leapt high into the air. His wings caught him at the epitome of his jump and swiftly carried him over the towering steel gate. "Now you try." He called, perched on a tree 60 feet above the ground. Taking a deep breath, Florence broke into a run then launched herself up into the air. Her wings fluttered frantically, catching the air just before she touched the ground again. Pulling her higher, her wings worked furiously and she just made it over the fence before gliding down to Ren's branch. He laughed at her awkward landing, clutching at the bark as she suddenly ceased flight. "It was good for your first time." He assured her. "Where are you going now?" Florence told him of her search for the fallen star. Ren paled a bit. "You're going to have some trouble trying to get it first. I better come with you." The two took off through the trees, Florence following Ren's path through the forest. Occasionally stopping for Florence to rest, they quickly made traveled closer to the heart of the woods.

A glow emanated from a point not too far ahead of them. Excited that the star was not far from their grasp, Florence soared forward.

"Wait! Florence, wait!" Ren called after her, but she paid no heed, landing just in front of the glowing light. A towering palace of ice lay in front of her, its diamond-like facets shimmering faintly in the dark. The glassy turrets seemed to pierce the sky and she could feel the cold emanating from the crystalline surface. Arched windows bedecked the castle and the frames were incrusted with glittering gems. Intrigued, Florence passed through the gaping mouth of the structure into the inner cavern. Stalactites spiraled down from the ceiling like frozen whirlpools and captured light bounced through the icy chamber. Ren landed just behind and chased her into the palace, grasping her arm. "We need to leave." He whispered urgently.

"Why?" She asked, befuddled as to the reason to vacate such a wondrous place.

"This is the lair of the demons!"

"The demons?" She echoed in alarm. Ren nodded frantically.

"They're dark creatures, never venturing from their stronghold in the day. They're like ghosts, haunting you in the shadows. The demons are the stuff of nightmares. They don't appreciate trespassers so we should get out of here." Florence quickly agreed and the pair turned to rush out the door. However, before they could so much as take a step towards the exit an iron gate fell across the opening with a clang. Ren clasped her hand and began to tug her in the other direction. "We need to find another way out." He murmured and the two delved deeper into the palace. The hall became increasingly narrow and dark until they were squeezing through the shadow-enshrouded passage. A caterwaul of sinister laughter bounced down the corridor and Ren's wings fluttered anxiously in surprise. They tore through the hallway until they reached the end, bursting into a large ballroom. A crystal chandelier hung high above their heads and two stair cases went in opposite directions at the far end of the room. Pausing only momentarily, Ren and Florence bounded across the room and surged up the staircase. Out of the corner of her eye, Florence could see shadowy figures in swift pursuit. They found themselves in a small cylinder with a narrow staircase spiraling upwards. Leaping onto it, the pair sprinted up as fast as their legs could carry them. Panting, the flight merged into a large dome filled with strange black metallic instruments. At the center of the ceiling a circle had been carved out of the ceiling and a shaft of muted moonlight beamed down. Ren set his sights on a window at the far side of dome.

"Run!" He cried but it was too late. The shadows were upon them, entrapping them in a ring. One of the black forms rushed at them. It seemed as if smoke was billowing off of it as he rushed at them with a horrible shriek. Florence and Ren fell to the ground as they were set upon by the demons. Screaming faces lunged at them and they were enveloped in a suffocating darkness that drove all air from them. Batting his arms furiously, Ren jumped through the smog and in the general direction of the moonbeam. Shutting her eyes against the acrid smoke, Florence clawed at the whirlwind of blackness around her. Knowing he had to act quickly, Ren grabbed a black hourglass from a shelf and hurled it to the center of the room. The clock dissolved into ashes and shards of glass lay half-buried in the rubble. Catching the moonlight, the hourglass's debris burst into flames as white as a blizzard's snow. The demons rushed backward, pushed away by the light. Ren clutched Florence's wrist and dragged her to the window. Pushing her out, he jumped after her and the two slid off the icy dome.

Falling through the air, Florence tried desperately to flap her wings but despite her efforts she continued to descend. Before she could be broken upon the ground Ren caught up with her and carried her to a nearby tree. After collecting her mind, Florence turned to him.

"What happened?" She asked. He explained how the demons were hurt by light and they were probably performing experiments to try and shield themselves from it in that room. Since the hourglass was a dark object, the energy from the moon incinerated it.

"I've never seen that much energy in the flames of a dark object. They must have hexed the hourglass to use as much energy as possible." Ren deduced.

"That would make sense. Look what it did to the moon." Florence pointed to the sky which had once been bright with stars. Now the light was faded, like embers of a fire. The moon and stars had been blown out like candles, smoke wafting from them.

"We should hurry. Soon the demons will be healed enough for pursuit." With that, the pair flew through the forest again, journeying to the star. Eventually they once again came across a light. However, this was different than that of the demon's fortress. This was a purer light, a celestial brightness that was rained down to the earth from the heavens. Beaming with delight, Florence glided over to the branch closest to the star. After the demons, she had learned not to dive headlong into things. Ren perched next to her and the two stared down at the star. They were nearly blinded by the pearly shine emitted by the star. It looked like a small ivory ornament with intricate carvings decorating it. The star was so radiant its light spanned several yards from it. Ren tapped Florence on the shoulder and pointed almost directly below them. There stood a woman in a flowing, dark purple cloak and a black gown. Treading lightly, she began to circle the star and chant. A shiver of fear ran through Florence when she looked at the woman.

"That's the witch." Ren whispered.

"What are we going to do?" Florence asked in a hushed voice.

"I'll distract her while you run and get the star." Ren said. "Before we do this, promise me that you'll visit again."

"Of course I will." Florence spoke smiling.

The two dropped from their perch to the earth, Ren soaring at the witch while Florence ran for the star. The witch whirled around with her lip curled back like a territorial cat. Her lips and fingernails were blood red and her hair was as black as a raven's wing. She lunged at Ren, shrieking in a strange tongue. A blast of fire burst from her outstretched hand and blew Ren back. Florence froze, torn between the desire to help Ren and the pull towards the star. She was about to fly to Ren's side when he got up and leaped high over the witch, landing behind her. Unfortunately, this allowed the witch a glimpse of Florence and provided her a new target. A bolt of lightning split the air and Florence barely avoided it, jumping into the air just a moment before raw electricity scorched the ground where she had stood. Ren tackled the witch from behind, knocking her to the ground. Before the witch could turn and attack him, Florence reached the star. The light receded into the splendid ornament at her touch. Holding it triumphantly in the air, she turned towards the witch who muttered angrily in the strange tongue as though she were cursing her. A ray of pure light burst from the star and obliterated the witch. The only trace of her was the purple cloak.

"Is she dead?" Florence asked in shock.

"No, she teleported before the light hit her." Ren brushed the dirt off of him. "What do we do now?"

"We return the star to the sky." Florence replied. Somewhere in her mind she knew exactly what to do. Holding the star to her, Florence breathed gently on it. Immediately the star began to slowly rise through the air, growing brighter and brighter until it completely consumed their vision. As her eyes followed the impossibly white circle that was the star, Ren took her hand.

"We've done it." He whispered. Suddenly the star began to explode, shedding its outer shell. Shards of molten light flew into her face, warming her skin like a hot shower. Florence closed her eyes against the shrapnel but the brightness penetrated her eyelids, leaving only white to see.

Gradually the explosion stopped, her face cooled and the color in her eyes changed to a buttery yellow. Florence opened her eyes to a pale dawn breaking over the horizon, its warm sunshine sliding through the rails of her balcony. Clutched in her hand was a blue wren's feather.