The Clearfront Balcony Club, Scene 4

Scene 4: Later that day, Drew hands Jessica a very large paper chain as they share a hearty laugh from their conversation.

JESSICA: Are you serious?

DREW: Yes! Our kitchen was on fire, and that lady got mad that I wouldn’t serve her a drink! She asked to see the manager, but I said he was busy dealing with the fire department, so she just lost it at that point!

Jessica and Drew both laugh again.

DREW: Alright, so what’s next?

Before Jessica can answer, an argument blares from Carla’s apartment.

JESSICA: Well, I was thinking that…

The argument gets louder, and Jessica and Drew can’t ignore it anymore. They hear objects crashing inside of Carla’s apartment, which makes Nedra, Brisa, Owen, and Juniper poke their heads outside in concern. After a minute or so, the argument suddenly stops. Carla storms out to the balcony and lights up a cigarette.

NEDRA: You shouldn’t smoke when you’re pregnant!

Carla notices everyone staring at her. She puts out the cigarette but looks extremely miffed about it.

CARLA: Who asked for your opinion?

NEDRA: My nursing degree and your unborn baby! That child is stressed enough having to listen to its mom and dad fighting, it doesn’t need-!

CARLA: Hey, what my boyfriend and I do in the privacy of our own home is none of your business!

NEDRA: I got news for you, sweetheart, your arguments ain’t private! If you’re gonna fight loud enough that people on the streets can hear it, you’re gonna-!

Carla doesn’t want to hear a lecture and stomps back into her apartment. For a moment, everyone is quiet as they absorb what they just witnessed.

OWEN: (awkwardly changes the subject) So, how are the decorations going?

JESSICA: We got a lot done, actually! What about you? Did you figure out what you’re gonna wear yet?

BRISA: Well, Owen is gonna wear his dress uniform, but I can’t figure out what I’m gonna wear. I thought I brought my old homecoming gown with me, but we looked through everything and couldn’t find it anywhere! I guess I left it at my mom’s house, but unfortunately, I can’t go there and get it. My stepdad has heart problems, and they’re both at that age group that’s supposed to be vulnerable. There’s no time to mail it either, so I gotta use something out of my closet. There’s some nice outfits I could wear, but, I dunno, none of it feels special enough! I mean, I know a wedding on the balcony isn’t fancy or anything, but still…

JUNIPER: Your heart has made a call into the universe, and the solution has presented itself!

BRISA: Are you… Are you talking to me?

JUNIPER: It is no coincidence that I was called out here, for I have the ability to solve your problem! Wait right here! (She goes inside her apartment)

OWEN: What’s happening?

THEO: (from inside) Nedra! I can’t find my reading glasses!

NEDRA: It’s a studio apartment, Theo! There’s only so many places they could have gone!

THEO: (from inside) What? You’re not gonna help me look?

NEDRA: No way! I’m not missing this! Whatever she brings out has gotta be good!

Juniper comes out with a business card in her hand, and everyone seems slightly disappointed to not see something more outlandish. She holds out her arm so Drew can get it.

JUNIPER: Please hand this to the young lovers!

After Drew grabs the card, he reads the front side of it.

DREW: Juniper Moonbeam Brushfoot. What is that, a magic spell?

JUNIPER: (speaks in a less ethereal voice) No, it’s my name. I’m a seamstress.

Drew passes the business card to Jessica, and Jessica hands it to Owen. Owen and Brisa read it together.

BRISA: Oh, you work in that upholstery shop down the street!

JUNIPER: Well, I did until my services were deemed “non-essential.” But it appears I have a purpose for being home after all! If you provide me the material, I can make you a wedding dress!

BRISA: Oh, that’s great!

OWEN: Yeah, that’s really… Wait, where can we get the material? Everything’s closed!

Everyone mulls it over for a moment.

JESSICA: Maybe some old sheets?

NEDRA: Oh, I have a silk tablecloth that we never use! You can have it. (She goes inside to retrieve it.)

THEO: (from inside) No, not our good tablecloth!

NEDRA: (from inside) Theo, we can’t even fit a table that size in here! What do we need it for?

Nedra goes back outside and hands the tablecloth to Juniper.

JUNIPER: Wonderful! (to Brisa) Just email me a design you like and your measurements. I can have it ready to wear in a couple of days!

BRISA: Thank you so much!

OWEN: Yeah, thank you!

JUNIPER: Namaste, my children!

Juniper puts her hands together, bows, and practically glides inside her apartment. Owen and Brisa shrug and return inside. Nedra returns inside her apartment as well. Mendel pokes his head out the door with a cellphone to his ear.

MENDEL: (to the person on the call) I think they’re done now. Okay, let’s talk data protection… (continues his conversation inside his apartment)

JESSICA: So, anyways… I was thinking we could make little hearts that could line the sides of their patio.

DREW: Sounds good to me.

An ambulance siren blares past them, and Drew frowns at its sight.

DREW: How do you do it? How do you not let it get to you?

JESSICA: Who said it doesn’t get to me? I’m only human, I feel negative feelings too! I just don’t let it consume me. I used to get obsessed with my anxious thoughts, I wouldn’t let them go until I solved whatever issue that was plaguing me, and it really messed me up! I thought the solution to that was to not let myself think any negative thought. That was actually equally damaging! I had so much unexpressed emotion that it nearly consumed me! Eventually, I learned to give my emotions room to breathe, but after an appropriate amount of time has passed, I moved on to something else. It’s okay if you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, we’re all going through unimaginable stuff right now, but just don’t let it define you! It breaks my heart to hear about all of the suffering happening out there right now, but after I give myself time to grieve, I think about what they would do if they were in my shoes and I try to live my life to the fullest! I can’t change what’s going on out there, and I’m not always happy about my own situation here, but all I can do is try to make the best out of these circumstances!

Jessica gives him an encouraging smile, and as his mind drinks in her words, he smiles back. After a moment, he picks up the crafting materials.

DREW: When that lady couldn’t see the manager, she threw a fit! A couple of TSA agents had to come over and try to calm her down!

JESSICA: Oh really?

Drew continues to tell his story while they go back to work.Carla

The Clearfront Balcony Club, Scene 3

Scene 3: Jessica comes outside with a stack of papers that have penciled lines on it, scissors, and a glue stick. She sits on the floor of her balcony and sets everything down in front of her. She then starts cutting along the lines she’s created on the papers. Drew emerges from his apartment, and Jessica glances up but quickly goes back to her task. Drew tentatively goes to the edge of his balcony to talk to her.

DREW: Got bored of being inside all day?

JESSICA: (still miffed at him) Actually, I thought I should work where Brisa and Owen can come coordinate with me if they need to.

DREW: Oh, makes sense.

Jessica continues working without making eye contact with him.

DREW: Listen, I’m really sorry for the way I behaved earlier! I’ve just had a hard time dealing with this whole stay at home thing! I loved going to work and being surrounded by interesting people all day! Then, on my time off, I liked hanging out with friends and watching sports, and now I can do either of those things! All I do is sit around and watch TV, and everything is either repeats or depressing news. I keep seeing the death toll go up, and then I hear all these sirens go by, and it all makes me wonder if I’ll be next! I worked at the airport, and I keep thinking- What if I came in contact with one of those people who have it? Or what if I caught it and don’t even know it yet? I’m constantly taking my temperature, and every little ache and pain makes me paranoid! I’ve never had much luck in life, so I keep worrying I’ll get it! I feel like I’m an animal just waiting to get slaughtered here! I get so jealous of the people who just have everything work out for them, they don’t have to worry about catching this thing! I thought you were one of those people; I didn’t know how much you struggled, and you must be looking for some way to escape all the negativity too! So, I’m sorry for trying to take that away from you!

Jessica takes a moment before she responds to him.

JESSICA: You don’t have much luck? You have a job that you love, some great friends, fulfilling hobbies… Sounds pretty lucky to me! So, some bad things have happened to you! That happens to all of us! That’s life! If you just focus on the bad things, of course you’ll feel unlucky! You’ll feel a lot better about your life if you stop feeling sorry for yourself all the time! Instead of pining over things you can’t do, focus on what you can do! That’s why I volunteered to help Brisa and Owen. I can’t work or visit my friends either, but I can do a favor for a couple of nice people!

Drew takes a moment to soak in what she just said, and he looks at her in an impressed expression.

DREW: Can I help?

Jessica finally looks up at him.

JESSICA: You wanna help?

DREW: Yeah! It beats sitting around the house feeling sorry for myself! I’d like to learn to be more positive… if you’ll give me a chance!

Jessica studies him as if she’s trying to gauge his sincerity, and when she concludes his authenticity, she holds up her glue stick.

JESSICA: Here!

Drew can’t reach it, so she gets up to hand it to him.

JESSICA: Oh, right! We’re supposed to be six feet apart!

DREW: I’ll step back, and you can toss it to me.

JESSICA: Okay, but I’m not a very good shot!

DREW: (jokes) Aw, be positive!

Jessica gives him a playfully reproachful look. He grins and then takes a few steps backwards. She tosses it, but it goes past him and onto Juniper’s balcony. Before Drew can reach over and knock on her door, Juniper gracefully saunters outside.

JUNIPER: What is the universe calling my attention to? (finds the glue stick) Ah, a bonding agent! It is surely a sign of my role in putting together two elements together! I must become the glue and keep everything together! But how?

DREW: You could pass the glue stick over to me.

Juniper looks at Drew and Jessica in surprise.

JUNIPER: Oh, I’m getting strong vibes from the two of you! You’re missing something, and I can help you get it back!

JESSICA: Well, we’re missing the glue, and you could help give it back.

JUNIPER: Ah, yes! Bonded together for a single purpose! How can I play a role in this endeavor?

DREW: You could hand us the glue.

JUNIPER: Ah, I could, but this object came to me for a reason!

JESSICA: Yeah, I accidentally threw it too far.

JESSICA: Oh, my dear, nothing ever happens by chance! As I meditated, my aura became entwined with the energy of the universe, and then this sign came to me! And I simply knew that-!

Nedra stomps out of her apartment and agitatedly focuses on Juniper.

NEDRA: Oh, for crying out loud! Will you just give the kids their damn glue?

JUNIPER: And just skip the spiritual lesson that’s presenting itself?

NEDRA: Yes!

JUNIPER: Fine!

Juniper holds out the glue stick for Drew to receive, but he hesitates.

NEDRA: What’s the problem?

DREW: Well, we’re supposed to stay six feet apart, you know, so the germs don’t hop onto each other…

NEDRA: Don’t talk to me about how to avoid spreading communicable disease! I was a nurse for forty years! You can grab the glue stick! Just don’t stand too close and wash your hands after you’re done using it!

THEO: (from inside the house) Are you done out there? Will you keep it down?

MENDEL: (pokes out of his apartment) Are you done out there? Will you keep it down?

THEO: (pokes out of his apartment) Hey, no one talks to my wife like that!

Mendel exasperatedly shakes his head and goes back inside.

THEO: The nerve of some people!

Drew quickly grabs the glue stick, and Juniper, Theo, and Nedra all go back inside. Jessica bursts out laughing, and eventually Drew does too.

JESSICA: So, I’m making a giant chain out of paper. I was thinking I could create the links, and you can glue them together.

DREW: Sounds good to me!

She takes the links that she’s already cut out and reaches them out to him. Drew gladly takes them and moves one of his chairs over so he could face her as he works.

DREW: I’m Drew, by the way. Drew Callan.

JESSICA: I’m Jessica, Jessica Robbins.

They almost reach out their hands to shake it out of habit, but instead they give each other a polite smile and then start working.

DREW: So, Jessica, what did you do before the quarantine hit?

JESSICA: I’m an actress!

DREW: Oh, really?

JESSICA: Yeah! I’ve mostly survived on being a movie extra and playing small parts in plays, but last month, I finally got a leading role in a huge theater, but then, well, you know…

DREW: That sucks!

JESSICA: Yeah! Oh well! It’ll be there waiting for me when everything opens up again. What about you? What did you do at the airport?

DREW: I was a bartender.

JESSICA: Not was, you are a bartender! Things’ll open up again one day!

DREW: (doesn’t totally believe it but tries) Yeah!

They chitchat until the lights fade. Image: Day five of Italy's nationwide coronavirus lockdown, in Rome

The Shadow Path, Chapter 16

Dorian looked just as surprised to see the three of them as they were upon his entrance. For a moment, they all seemed to have gotten on the same level, but after that spell, Dorian shook off the sentiments and returned to his usual swagger. “Are you here to kill me?”

“You seem awfully smug for someone who’s outnumbered!” Aidan shrewdly observed.

“You can’t kill me!” Dorian said factually. “What a pity! You came all this way for nothing!”

“We didn’t choose to come here,” Yasmina corrected him, “You brought us here! We weren’t going to waste our time with a puppet- we’re after the puppet-master!”

Dorian seethed, “How dare you! As king, it’s my duty to form partnerships that provide me with the necessary means to secure my power! Only a fool would turn down such an alliance!”

Aidan vehementally differed, “Only a fool would sell his soul to serve his own selfish needs! Uprooting century long alliances and sending your country to the brinks of war, and for what? You won’t have power if there’s no one left in the kingdom! After combat, you won’t have much of a country left to rule!”

“Mortals will die, that’s what they do!” Dorian replied dismissively. “The strong will survive, that’s nature!”

Yasmina pointed out, “You’re mortal! If Daeva is successful and does eradicate the mortals, what use will she have you?”

Dorian didn’t seem worried about this possibility. “We have a deal.”

Ardeshir interjected, “She took your essence, didn’t she?” Yasmina couldn’t tell if the stunned look on Dorian’s face stemmed from the fact a cat had spoken to him or by the substance of what he just brought up. In any case, Dorian didn’t answer, so Ardeshir pressed further, “She put it in an obscure object, didn’t she?”

Dorian truly appeared scared at this point, but before he could recover from this blow, Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir suddenly got enveloped by rope! From inside the bureau, Kadera emerged! “Oh! It is you!” Kadera leered delightfully. “Well, we’ll make this quick then!”

As she raised her wand, Yasmina knew she couldn’t fight back, so her instincts prompted her to keep Kadera talking. “You were wrong about me!”

Those words clearly stung Kadera. She lowered her wand and argued, “My predictions are never wrong! You are a witch and you lived a life of loneliness. I knew you would reject the archetype, so you wouldn’t fit in with mortals or magi. I was right!”

Yasmina shot back, “I rejected the narrative that all witches are evil beings bent on destruction, something you probably created to suppress the the good magi out there who have the potential to challenge you! The truth caught up though, it always does! You think I’m the only one who would rise up against your regime? You may kill me, but there will be others!”

“You are no soothsayer!” Kadera spat.

“No, I’m not,” Yasmina acknowledged. “But a person doesn’t need fortune telling abilities to figure that out! Besides, you’re forgetting something. You made two predictions that turned out to bear some degree of truth, but that day in Neodrach, you made three predictions. The third was that I would try to kill the king. You were wrong about that!”

“You were trying to kill Master Daeva, which is essentially the same thing!” Kadera reasoned.

“But it’s not!” Yasmina emphasized this bottom line. “I had the intention but I never had the chance. You were wrong!”

“Enough!” Kadera snapped. “Nice try, but I’m not going to let you go just to make a prediction right! I should’ve killed you a long time ago! You can die knowing your purpose in life was truly pointless! You lose! Goodbye!”

She raised her wand again, but before she could strike, it suddenly got shot out of her hand! An almost joyful battle cry came from the door, and Jakan burst in! His fellow thieves came from all different directions. Kadera summoned her powers through her fingers and took aim at Jakan, but the thieves shot back at her before she could. Although Kadera was outnumbered seven to one, she could still take them all once. A few got knicks, but none of the thieves were seriously hurt. They did start to grow frustrated at their attempts to harm her getting repeatedly thwarted!

During the foray, one of the thieves untied Aidan, Ardeshir, and Yasmina. Aidan immediately drew his sword and fought off Dorian. Yasmina ran towards Kadera, but she couldnt’ take her eyes off of Aidan and Dorian. She detected something off about Dorian’s fighting skills, but she couldn’t figure out why her instincts had prompted her to think that. He seemed to have a formidable aptitude to do battle, but he didn’t move much. He acted as though he was cornered even though he had plenty of opportunity to move from that spot. His stance suggested he was guarding something, but the only thing that stood behind him was the painting…

Suddenly, it clicked for her, and she knew what she had to do! She had never done magic this advance, but every fiber of her being told her that she could do it. She concentrated each cell of her body on exactly what she wanted to happen, and she felt her magic build more and more. When she felt it mount to a peak, she knew it reached the time to release. Without thinking about it, she shouted, “Switch!”

The whole room stopped as everyone watched her powerful spell shoot out in three different directions. First, it went to the painting, next to Ardeshir, and finally to Dorian. With a final blast of light, the hex had finished by blasting a hole in Dorian’s painting! They heard Dorian’s voice cry out, “No!” It didn’t come from Dorian’s body, it came from the cat!

Dorian’s body voiced Ardeshir’s words, “No way!”

With Kadera fully distracted, Jakan aimed his wand and quickly shot a spell her way! She fell to the floor, barely able to move or breathe! Yasmina strutted over to her and gloated, “Dorian’s essence lived in the painting. That’s how Daeva controlled him! She won’t be able to do that anymore! And I highly doubt that Caragsona will willingly let themselves get ruled by a cat! Dorian will have to find a new puppet! And by the way, I still haven’t tried to kill the king! You lose! Goodbye!”

“You bested me, but you’ll never win against Daeva!” With that last thought, Kadera took one last breath and moved no more!

Yasmina and the others celebrated, but Dorian interrupted them, “You fools! I’m still king! This is still my kingdom and you’re all still criminals!”

“That’s exactly why we came!” Jakan told him. “You sentenced us to death, so we figured if we’re doomed anyways, we might as well go out with a bang! That way we’d at least die as heroes! Turns out we don’t have to! Good luck trying to rule the kingdom as a cat!”

Dorian growled, “Cat or not, I am king!” He went into the hall and found some nearby chamber maids. “I hereby order you to-!” The chamber maids screamed, grabbed broom from their carts, and chased after him.

Everyone in Dorian’s chamber had a hearty laugh at this, but that instance gave them an idea. They saw two broomsticks left, and Jakan remarked, “That’s okay. We can pair up, and the rest of you can find more and join us.”

“Who am I riding with?” Yasmina inquired.

Jakan replied, “You and I will have to be the head riders.” Yasmina began to object, but Jakan over-ruled her, “Aidan needs to come, and your friend here…”

“This is amazing!” Ardeshir raved as he examined his hand clutching a broomstick. “I haven’t been able to hold anything in a hundred years! Remarkable!”

“…he probably shouldn’t be left alone,” Jakan finished. “Plus, people may assume he’s the improper king and…well, he’s safer leaving the castle immediately!” Yasmina still seemed worried, so Jakan went on, “If we go by foot, we won’t get there for a couple of days. Do you want my crew to get to the battle before you?” Yasmina hadn’t thought of that, and this notion was totally unacceptable to her! Jakan continued, “That’s what I thought! Look, if you can do an essence-switching spell, you definitely have the power to fly a broomstick!”

Yasmina knew he was completely right, and she felt heartened by his encouragement. “Okay, I’m ready!”

“I’m not!” Ardeshir ran over to Kadera and stole her wand. “Okay, let’s go!”

“We can take off from the balcony,” Aidan suggested.

Jakan agreed, “Let’s go!”

They ran towards the front of the castle, but before they could get to the balcony, they were greeted by some knights. “Sire, what are you doing?”

In his most regal voice possible, Ardeshir commanded, “Stand aside!”

The knights were clearly puzzled by his voice, but they did as they were told. Ardeshir, Jakan, Aidan, and Yasmina ran to a large, stone balcony that overlooked the entire kingdom. The view was breathtaking, and for a moment, Yasmina forgot about where she was and why. “Wow!”

“This is where my parents addressed the kingdom,” Aidan said wistfully. “Although, as a kid, I had more fun watching the townspeople enter over the drawbridge!”

Yasmina peeked over the edge to see the drawbridge and nearly had a heart attack! She saw King Kahlil standing before the castle with an army of his knights behind him! Ardeshir also peeked over, and Kahlil addressed him, “King Dorian, for the horrendous crimes you’ve committed against your own-!”

“Woah, woah, woah!” Ardeshir responded. “I’m not Dorian!”

Aidan ran to the edge and desperately shouted, “Please don’t wage war on my kingdom!”

Kahlil’ jaw dropped. “Prince Aidan? I thought you were dead!”

“I’ve been alive this whole time!” Aidan informed him. “But I don’t have time to explain. I have to go to battle to save the soul of my kingdom, but if I don’t come back, watch over Caragsona for me, okay?”

Kahlil looked utterly confused, but he agreed, “Upon my honor!”

Jakan had already mounted his broomstick, and Ardeshir fell in place behind him. Aidan got onto the back of her broom and encouraged her, “You can do this!”

Yasmina mounted the broom and reminded herself, “You have to believe you can do this!” She concentrated hard just as she did with the essence-switching spell, and soon she felt the magic leave her fingertips and enter the broom. Before she knew it, they were up in the air and zooming towards Duanolc!

The Shadow Path, Chapter 7

Daeva stared into the cauldron and shook her head. “She’s known these two for less than a day, and yet she risks her life to help them! Why does she value them so much?”

The other three witches shrugged, and then Kadera suggested, “So, why not capture the other two and lure her here? She doesn’t overcome any obstacles without their help, so she’ll be weak without their help.”

Daeva dismissed this notion. “No, no! If we were to harm her friends, it would only increase her fury and desire to get to us. Remember, we want to distance ourselves from her.” She paused and added, “We’ll have to figure it out later though. I have something pressing to attend to.” And with that, she ambled out of the room.

In the castle Rogamaith, King Dorian blankly focused on the door on the other side of the meeting room. The round table he sat at had piles of papers haphazardly strewn enough to leave very little room left on it. The door opened, and a man who also dressed in royal garb gingerly entered. “King Dorian?”

“King Kahlil,” Dorian mechanically replied, “enter.” Kahlil shut the door behind him and chose the least cluttered spot to sit down at. Dorian hollowly asked, “How can I help you?”

“How can you help?” Kahlil answered in astonishment. “I’m here to find out why you arbitrarily cut off trade with my land!”

“I explained it all in my letter,” Dorian apathetically recalled. “The people of Caragsona no longer need to rely on foreign goods. We are entirely self sufficient, and by producing our own goods, I’ve created more jobs for my people. Since we’ve done that, we’ve become the economic envy of the world!”

Kahlil countered with, “I’ve heard otherwise. Our reports have indicated that your infrastructure is crumbling and many of your citizens are starving!”

“These reports are false!” Dorian scoffed.

“King Dorian,” Kahlil differed, “My sources come from the testimony of some of your own people!”

“Those people are lying!” Dorian picked up a piece of paper from a large pile next to him and manically waved it at Kahlil. “Do you see this data? It shows an increase of annual household earnings! And this one!” He picked up a sheet from another pile. “Our castle treasury reported an increase on the new budget due to more people paying taxes! The previous king let our roads and buildings decay, we cannot realistically fix the entire land after a mere ten years! And if anyone is starving, it is through their own folly! Caragsona is doing better than ever since I took charge!”

Kahlil did not look swayed. “If we hear that you are committing such atrocities against your own people, we will have no choice but to send our military and-!”

“You wouldn’t dare wage war against my kingdom!” Dorian snapped. “Our knights would destroy yours in an instant! I am insulted by your hostile attitude! You are no longer welcome in Caragsona! If we see you or any of your officials near our land, you will be met with our military force! Get out!” With a look of grave sympathy, Kahlil marched out. Dorian sat down, sighed, and continued to stare at the door absentmindedly.

Yasmina, Ardeshir, and Aidan sat on some stones, which were between leafy trees that overlooked a jewel-like lake. Aidan snacked on some berries and nuts while Ardeshir gave Yasmina a lesson, “Don’t close your eyes!”

“How am I supposed to look inward without closing my eyes?” Yasmina probed.

Ardeshir continued, “How can you see what object you’re hexing if your eyes are closed?” Yasmina thought he had a point but clearly struggled to implement his recommendations, so Ardeshir told her, “Okay, practice looking inwardly with your eyes closed for a moment.” Yasmina closed her eyes, and Ardeshir asked, “What do you feel?”

Yasmina answered, “I feel the smoothness of the rock underneath me.”

“Good. Now move upwards to your organs,” Ardeshir directed.

Yasmina complied and felt her body from the inside. “I feel my stomach full from our lunch. I feel my heart beating from…excitment. And I feel energy coursing through my veins.”

“Good! That’s your magic!” Ardeshir informed her. “Use your mind to push it towards your wand.”

Yasmina followed his word and willed her powers to flow all the way down her arm, and it reminded her of the spell she produced when they fought that beast at the start of their journey. It differed from the fire she produced in Santach, which got created by instinct just as it had the few times she did magic by accident in the past, but the magic she used against the monster had been the first time she did it on purpose. She had some sense of how it worked, but now that Ardeshir had explained it, it really clarified the topic for her.

“Now, concentrate on what you want the magic to do,” Ardeshir instructed. “Command it to move that pebble in front of you. But first your eyes need to-.” Before Ardeshir had finished his sentence, energy shot out of Yasmina’s wand that made the pebble Ardeshir referred to explode with such a force that Aidan had to use his arms to shield his eyes. Ardeshir inquired, “Did you do that intentionally?”

“No!” Yasmina became upset and turned to face the other way. She held back her tears of frustration; she did not want to admit she let her emotions get the better of her.

Ardeshir empathized with her, but Aidan was the first to act. He went over to her rock, sat beside her, and put a sympathetic hand on her back. “It just takes practice!”

Yasmina felt comforted by his gesture, but she did not feel reassured about her abilities. “What if I don’t get better? What if this is the best I can do? I mean, the entire kingdom depends on my magic, and I just can’t get it right!”

“You’ve put a lot of pressure on yourself to be perfect,” Aidan observed. “Do you think my family was all knowing? We made the best decisions we could with the information we had at the time. Sometimes those choices had terrible consequences, but we learned from those experiences and made new policy from it so that no one had to go through our hardships again. And when we realized we made a mistake, we found ways to remedy what was done. We weren’t always successful, but we found satisfaction in knowing we did all we could. I didn’t bring you on this journey assuming you’d be perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, but you’ll find a way to overcome them and emerge victorious! I mean it! I have a feeling you’re going to do just fine!” He saw her smile weakly, and he could tell his message started to sink in. “Why don’t you take a break from learning and clear your head a bit.”

Yasmina didn’t respond to his encouragement or kind words. She stared out at the lake, but her expression started to soften. After a while, she noted, “It’s so unfortunate that evil overtook the Shadow Path! It really is beautiful here!”

“It really is!” Aidan agreed while also looking out at the water. “Once we take back the throne, this path will open up to good again, and everyone will have a chance to see it again!” Yasmina’s face showed hints of doubts, so Aidan iterated, “You have to believe that if we’re going to get through this!”

“You’re right!” Yasmina tried to convey as much confidence as she could in that sentiment. “Someday soon, everyone will get to enjoy it as we have!” Before anyone could expand on the subject, something from within the lake moved! Yasmina stood up with her wand ready while Aidan did the same with his sword. As whatever it was grew closer, it made a bigger and bigger ripple in the water. When it neared the surface, they saw air bubbles form. Suddenly, something big splashed out, and they were prepared for a fight. After a moment though, they could see the thing was a stunning horse with a mane so silky that it looked aquatic! It trotted up to them playfully and beckoned for them to climb on its back. Aidan and Yasmina lowered their weapons but did not appear remotely tempted to ride the horse. Yasmina said sarcastically, “Oh, a horse that can apparently breathe under water wants me to ride it, nothing bad could possibly happen, right? You wouldn’t happen to be trying to drown me, would you?” The horse’s expression soured and it sniffed in resentment. Yasmina, Aidan, and Ardeshir laughed as they left the lakeside.

After they returned to the Shadow Path, Ardeshir praised Yasmina, “You remembered something we taught you! Well done!”

“Thanks!” Yasmina realized he was right and sheepishly smiled.

“Now, can you name the monster?” Aidan teased.

Yasmina tried to recall the name of the creature but couldn’t, and when she saw the smirk on Aidan’s face, she objected, “Oh, come on! I remembered everything else about the beast! Isn’t that enough?” The three of them had another hearty laugh as they continued walking.

As they trekked through a very wooded area, they all seemed to be in a contemplative mood. Now that she had given her brain a break, she felt more balanced. She savored the sight of the jagged trees and the sound of birds settling in the branches. She really did feel it was a shame that this path turned to evil because the beauty of its nature was almost blinding! As she heard even more birds land on the treetops, she felt glad that a few normal animals inhabited the area. Suddenly, the clang of metal sounded from above them, causing the three travelers to stop in their tracks. Curiously, they craned their necks to see what happened. What they saw made their jaws drop!