“This is it, huh?” Micah asked, looking around the alpine vista. “A small pond in the middle of nowhere?”
They were standing on the edge of a small lake surrounded by pine trees. Micah looked around and was glad for the serenity of the place. It felt as if they had been without a break for a long time, and it almost seemed as if he could relax here.
“It doesn’t matter where we go, precisely,” Nevala explained as he approached the water’s edge. He looked across the surface of the water, his eyes grim and his expression sickly. “We can reach her anywhere there is sufficient water.” He turned back to look at Finn and then Max, his eyes pleading. “You have to realize, if I thought there was any chance of this working I would have tried it a long time ago. I don’t think she’ll help us.”
“We have to explore every option,” Tristan said. Micah turned toward him curiously, glad to see the determination in his lover but wondering where it was sourced. He frowned as Tristan continued, “We owe it to those who have died.”
“I understand you’ve lost a great deal in a short time, Tristan,” Nevala said, smiling sadly, “but I’ve been fighting this war for a very long time. I’ve lost more people than you’ve even known, and I’ve been trying to make things right all along.”
“Then why haven’t you come back here?” Zach asked. “Loki seemed pretty adamant about how this could help.”
Micah found it interesting that although Finn and Max were the ones closest to Ivan, they remained silent and let others question Nevala. They clearly knew something the rest of them didn’t and Micah was starting to get tired of the secrets being kept from him and his friends.
Thankfully, Nevala was ready to bend and tell the truth, and Micah was glad when Nevala sighed and began speaking. “Scheherazade and Ivan had a disagreement about how to handle Oberon. I sided with her at first, but then Ivan brought me around to his side.” He shook his head and looked down at the water, his expression now guilty. “That betrayal of trust led to her being captured and then killed by Oberon. She, understandably, held it against both of us.”
“You have all your memories back now, don’t you?” Tristan asked. “You didn’t have them when you were first reborn in that form, but now you know everything you ever knew.”
“Yes,” Nevala confirmed, nodding. “And I know this is a bad idea, but . . .” He shook his head and looked up with determination. “You’re right. We need to pursue every angle we can. There won’t be any negative consequences of coming here other than trudging through those bad memories.”
“So what do we do?” Finn asked, breaking his silence for the first time since their arrival at the lake.
“We summon her spirit,” Nevala said as he met Finn’s eyes. Finn nodded in response and left Max’s side to stand at the water’s edge with Nevala.
“She’s not alive?” Tristan asked, looking at Nevala in surprise.
“Did I not mention Scheherazade was killed by Oberon?” Nevala asked.
“I assumed since she was a phoenix she would be reborn as normal,” Tristan said with a shrug.
“There were . . .” Nevala paused as he stared into the water, “complications.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Nevala raised his arms toward the sky as he prepared the incantation. His mind whirled through his past to drudge up memories of time when he was younger in body and younger still in mind. So much had changed since the days he served in Camelot, the kingdom Ivan and Scheherazade had set up for the purpose of combating Avalon.
When he had shown up with Excalibur in his hands, Scheherazade had been skeptical, but Ivan had been willing to hear him out. As Nevala, then Merlin, had vowed before Ivan’s throne to do whatever it took to combat Oberon and his forces.
It had taken Scheherazade a long time to warm up to him, but once she had they had become practically inseparable. He was among the most powerful phoenixes alive, and she was the queen of phoenixes, at least those which were left. He was amazed she had managed to retain her station after her own son took over Atlantis, but somehow her tenacity had held strong over the years.
And then she had come up with the idea that somehow Oberon could be redeemed. She believed Oberon had become mad from his connection to the Spirit Pool, and that there was a way to reform that connection to bring him back to sanity.
Nevala had still been in love with Oberon, and he had latched onto the thought that he might not be lost. They had approached Ivan together, wanting to gain his support on their plan of action. Ivan had been extremely resistant, but had reluctantly agreed after much argument.
And then they had invaded Avalon together, along with their soldiers, ready to make good on their plan. They watched as Oberon came to the battlefield and slaughtered Djinn and Phoenix alike in brutal fashion, seemingly immortal to the fire and weapons thrown his way. It had been an outright slaughter of nearly every single person they knew, and Oberon killed them all with sadistic glee.
Ivan had pulled Nevala aside, and questioned whether or not Nevala truly believed there was still sanity in Oberon worth preserving. It hadn’t taken much after that for Nevala to realize Ivan was right, and they agreed to stop Scheherazade from attempting her plan.
Unfortunately, no amount of reason could sway Scheherazade from her attempt to save her son, and Oberon cornered and killed her at the side of the pool before she ever had a chance to make the attempt.
Nevala and Ivan had barely managed to escape, Ivan taking Excalibur with him and disappearing into the world. Oberon visited his wrath upon Camelot and burned it to the ground, destroying everyone he could find in the fabled city.
Ivan had sought out Nevala later, and they made several more attempts on Avalon, but each one was flawed. Each time, Oberon was ready for them, and every time he proved his immortality.
Over the centuries, they wondered what had become of Scheherazade, and only through great pain and effort did they come to learn she was haunting the waters of Avalon, unable to move onto the next stage of existence unless someone exorcised her presence, something which Oberon had no intention of doing. As a ghost, she could not do much at all, and she was right where Oberon wanted her.
Nevala pushed those thoughts and memories aside as he began to chant in the language of Atlantis, ancient words of power and strength which were completely foreign to those around him. His syllables reverberated across the clear waters, disrupting the small waves formed by the gentle breeze blowing across the water’s surface. His words seemed to be carried as if by a breeze of their own, stilling the waters and delivering the scene into a deathly silence.
The water began to grow murky from swirling eddies of dread blackness, and then ghostly mist erupted from its surface as Nevala’s chanting reached a crescendo both in volume and power. The mist glided across the water toward them, slowly at first as the sky began to darken overhead, ominous clouds forming out of nowhere, and thunder crackled above them. The wafting mist formed into a woman in a flowing unearthly white gown seemingly teased from the mists themselves. As regal as she was in life, Scheherazade was now the queen of ghosts as much as she was ever the queen of Phoenixes.
“Of all people to summon me,” Scheherazade said as she approached the edge of the water, her spirit feet standing on the water’s surface. She locked eyes with Nevala, an edge to her voice as she continued, “You were the last I expected to see.”
“Hello, Scheherazade . . .” Nevala said, bowing his head. “It’s good to see you again.”
“I wish I could say the same,” Scheherazade said, frowning in disdain. “What name do you go by now?”
“Interesting,” Scheherazade said. As Nevala looked up to see her expression, her demeanor changed from whatever it had been while his head was bowed, and her face became a mask of neutrality. “Well, Nevala, why have you summoned me?”
“We seek entrance to Avalon,” Nevala replied with humility. “We need to know where Ivan hid Excalibur, and then we need the password to activate it.”
“What a pointless question!” Scheherazade said with a scowl. “Why ask me the location of Excalibur when you have it in your possession?” She turned her attention on Max and beckoned him toward her with her hand. “Come forward, human.”
“What is she talking about, Max?” Nevala said, turning to stare at Max with his eyes narrowing in suspicion.
“I have no idea,” Max replied, and Nevala was almost certain he could believe it. Max seemed genuinely unnerved by the stares he was receiving from their friends, especially the intensity in Scheherazade’s eyes.
“That ring on your finger,” Scheherazade urged, holding out her hand toward Max. “Hand it to me.”
“I haven’t taken this ring off since Finn slid it on my finger,” Max said defensively, lifting his hand and rubbing the ring subconsciously. “You’ll have to give me a much better reason than that. It’s the token of our love.”
“Unless that love is with Arthur,” Scheherazade said, smirking. “I’m afraid you’ve been duped.”
Max turned to Finn and stared hard at him, his eyes searching for explanation. Finn smiled back weakly, and mouthed, ‘I’m sorry’, before turning toward Scheherazade.
Nevala spoke up before either Finn or Scheherazade could. “Finn, what is she talking about?” His whole body had gone cold, as if the bitterest of winds were blowing upon him. It had to be an unnatural chill to affect him at all, being a phoenix, but what he wasn’t sure was if Scheherazade was the source or if it was the feeling of betrayal as he looked at Finn.
“Ivan wasn’t sure he could trust you, Nevala,” Finn said, meeting Nevala’s eyes and smiling sadly. “I had to keep it secret. From everyone,” he said, glancing at Max. “Assuming that anyone else would have told you the truth.”
“We’ll talk about this later,” Max said after a moment, but he slipped the ring from his finger and walked toward Scheherazade. He met her fiery eyes as he reluctantly dropped the ring into her hand. She smiled at him but his eyes remained hard as he turned back to Finn. He shook his head and shambled back toward his previous position, leaning wearily on the cane at his side.
“So all this time we could have gone after Ivan . . .” Nevala whispered in disgust. He was at a complete loss of words. Even after all the centuries he had fought to help defeat Oberon, he still wasn’t trusted. He felt for Max, who was surely deeply hurt that the love of his life had kept such a secret from him as well, and he wondered what was now going through his mind.
“I’m sorry, Nevala,” Finn said, shrugging. “It was the price I had to pay in order to obey Ivan’s orders to me. You were not to find out from me, but Scheherazade is about to make it all clear.” He turned to Max and spoke with more nervousness than Nevala had ever heard from him, “Max, Ivan knew you’d keep it safe if you . . .” he trailed off as Max raised his hand to silence him. Finn sighed and looked to Scheherazade expectantly.
“Arthur hid Excalibur in plain sight using the most powerful magic of the Djinn,” Scheherazade said as she held the ring in front of her face and stared at it. A flash of lightning broke the sky above her head and the ring seemed to catch the light. She let go of it and it floated in the air in front of her for a moment before it began to spin. “But I will dispel the illusion now,” Scheherazade said as she focused her eyes on the ring. “There’s no more need for half-truths. That is how we all got into this mess in the first place, after all.”
She entered a trance, chanting in the same language Nevala had used to summon her, and her eyes burned with vibrant fire. The storm crackled overhead, and a series of lightning strikes pierced the sky and several touched down on the water of the lake behind her.
Scheherazade’s chant grew in volume and the lightning strikes became more frequent. Zach was the first to shout and pull away from the lake, Peter next and then Tristan. Wind swirled around them, ripping at their bodies and buffeting them with debris. Nevala held his ground, watching the ritual unfold as the lightning strikes drew closer to Scheherazade’s form.
Without any warning, a powerful bolt of lightning sliced through the air, directly striking the ring. The light blinded Nevala and the others, and the violence of the impact forced him to take a step backward. By the time his eyes recovered he was staring at a beautiful sword of polished silver and platinum, the hilt gilded with gold and studded with rows of small sapphires and rubies. It was a sword fit for a king.
It was also a familiar weapon to Nevala. The last time he remembered it being in his hands it had borne the blood of Oberon, if only a small trace of it. He was one of few not to gasp at the sight of the blade, but for some there was almost a reverence as they saw it.
Tristan moved forward, his eyes drawn to the blade with extreme interest. Zach was right behind him, looking at the sword with equal parts curiosity and fear. Tristan reached toward it and then pulled his hand back, glancing up at the sky and then to Scheherazade.
“You’re a phoenix, aren’t you?” Tristan asked, raising a curious eyebrow. “How do you know so much about djinn magic?”
“I am from an age when the djinn and phoenix worked side by side, young phoenix,” Scheherazade said, and for the first time since her arrival there was a softness to her. She smiled at Tristan with fondness as she continued her explanation. “The simple answer to your question is that we are essentially the same race as the djinn, but took a slightly different path in our evolution. The secret is hidden in our genetics, and I sought to unlock those secrets.” Her smile thinned as she added, “That quest is the entire reason Oberon even exists.”
“What do you mean?” Tristan asked. Nevala opened his mouth to interrupt, not wanting to trudge through the past, but Scheherazade cut him off with a glare.
“Djinn and phoenix were not allowed to mate with each other,” Scheherazade said as she turned back to Tristan. “Our people feared the possibility of a being with both our powers. They didn’t realize we were once all this way, and we could all learn to have those powers again.” She looked off into the distance as if seeing some memory there. Her voice was filled with melancholy as she continued, “I found a young djinn who was willing to help me prove that theory. Arthur and I had a child in secret, Oberon, and raised him as well as we could. He was cast out of our society.” She shook her head and sighed bitterly, returning to the present as she met Nevala’s eyes. “He held onto that bitterness and turned it against our people, rising to overthrow and then imprison them.”
Tristan nodded as Nevala and Scheherazade shared a stare. There was no doubt in her eyes as to who was to blame for Oberon’s downfall from sanity. They had had the same argument time and time again while they were alive. She would always blame him for Oberon choosing to rebel.
“All right, so despite the lies which have been told,” Max said, interrupting their staring contest. Nevala looked at him to see he was glaring at Finn who was frowning in return. “How do we use Excalibur to get into Avalon?”
“The reason Nevala hasn’t been able to use the sword in the past is because there is no longer a password, not because he didn’t know what it was,” Scheherazade explained as she reached out and took the sword from where it hung suspended in the air. She held it in her hand and studied it as she continued, “Oberon has altered the gateway so it can only be opened by one who shares his blood.” She looked away from the sword at last and met Max’s eyes. “You need an elf.”
“That will take considerable doing,” Finn began. “We need—”
Zach cut him off with trepidation, glancing nervously at Sheherazade. “So, I can do it?”
“Indeed. You’re likely the only one who can whom you’re going to find,” Scheherazade said with a nod. “At least you don’t have to perform any ritual blood-letting like most of the elves do to open the gateway on their own. You need only hold the key and attempt to open the gateway.”
“Max has been holding that ring, er, sword for a long time . . .” Zach asked, scratching his head as he looked at the sword. “How come it didn’t trigger before?”
“Is Max an elf?” Scheherazade asked, looking at Max. Max shook his head and she looked back at Zach. “That’s why,” she said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Can I take the sword?” Zach asked, reaching forward hesitantly. Scheherazade nodded and he continued reaching with more confidence until his fingers touched the pommel and he shuddered. He slid his hand down the hilt and then gripped it, tentatively at first and then more firmly. He pulled it toward him and it resisted for a moment as if magnetically attached to its position, but then it came away. He stared at it in wonder, while the others watched him.
“I still have a question,” Tristan said, tearing his eyes away from the sword and looking at Scherezade.
“What can I do for you, young phoenix?” She asked him sweetly.
“How do we defeat Oberon once we get there?” Tristan asked with a frown. “Loki said we should use the sword to kill him, but, is that really possible?”
“Perhaps,” Scheherazade replied cryptically.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tristan’s vision faded and he felt himself pitching backward. He tried to stabilize himself, but it seemed as if the ground had disappeared from under him. He was floating in a sea of impenetrable blackness. Without knowing how it happened, he felt a solid surface behind his back and realized he was lying down.
The darkness retreated as a gentle glow appeared to his side, but before he could look over to see what it was, he was staring up at Scheherazade. She seemed more substantial than she had before, and she reached a hand toward him.
“Where are we?” He asked as he took her offered hand and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. As soon as he was standing he took the opportunity to look to his side and saw The Spirit Pool, the place where Kurt had taken him in a dream several days before. “This is where . . .” Tristan began, shaking himself as a chill traveled down his spine. When Kurt had brought him here before, it had been incredibly warm, but now it felt colder than any place he’d ever been. “How did we get here?”
“You’ve seen this before, have you?” Scheherazade asked. She was already nodding as Tristan turned toward her, and she nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, in a dream.”
“Did you just put me to sleep?” Tristan asked.
“Time works differently in a dream. You’ll only be asleep for a moment,” Scheherazade explained as she walked toward the edge of the pool. She peered into the waters, which appeared far more turbulent than when Tristan had seen them before. “I can’t risk Oberon tracking me here and learning of our conversation. It was the only way to be safe,” Scheherazade went on. “We wouldn’t want Puck to find us here.”
“Puck?” Tristan echoed.
“You’ve encountered him recently,” Scheherazade said as she sat down on the edge of the pool. She reached down and dipped her finger in the water. “You know him as Loki.”
“So he was working for Oberon,” Tristan said with a frown. “Why did he send us to you?” he asked. Scheherazade smiled but didn’t look up, and Tristan quickly came to realize the implications of his question. “Oberon already knows we’re coming, doesn’t he?”
“He is counting on it, actually,” Scheherazade said, finally looking up as she met his gaze with a level stare. “He’s baiting you.”
“How do you know this?” Tristan asked, taking a step toward her. The step also brought him closer to the pool, and he began to shiver. Whatever was going on in the pool, it was sapping all the heat from the room.
“It may seem as if I am haunting this lake specifically,” Scheherazade said, chuckling briefly, “But do you really think I was emotionally attached to some alpine lake in the middle of nowhere when I perished?”
“No . . .” Tristan replied. “I suppose not.”
“I haunt the waters of Avalon,” Scheherazade said as she dipped her cupped hand all the way into the pool and scooped out some of the white water before letting it cascade back down her hand and into the pool. “I can be summoned to any body of water in the world, just as Avalon can travel to any body of water in the world. Of course that means those in Avalon have access to me at nearly all times, and Oberon can coerce answers from me if he so chooses.”
“Then this entire conversation is at risk?” Tristan asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Likely not,” Scheherazade replied, smiling sadly. “He won’t know what happens in the dream state. But I have to show you the Spirit Pool.”
“What is this place?” Tristan asked as he struggled to move toward the pool. His movements were sluggish in the extreme cold, but he told himself it was a dream and continued his approach. “Kurt spoke to me in a dream.”
“Yes, I have sensed his presence near the pool,” Scheherazade said, pursing her lips thoughtfully. “He must have a strong spirit to reach out to you from the beyond.”
“He knows ghosts better than any man I’ve ever known,” Tristan said as he finally reached the pool’s edge and settled down next to Scheherazade. “Even better than Finn, I’d bet.”
“I’m sorry about your loss,” Scheherazade said, reaching out and laying a consoling hand on Tristan’s shoulder. “I can feel your pain. What if I told you there was a way to end that pain, for you and for your friends?”
Tristan’s interest was sufficiently piqued, and he asked eagerly, “What do I have to do?”
“Before I tell you that, I have to ask you to promise you will keep this knowledge from Nevala,” Scheherazade said slowly.
Tristan looked up and saw the seriousness in her eyes, but he wasn’t ready to agree to such a promise yet. “Why would I do that? Regardless of what he’s kept from us in the past, he’s helping us defeat Oberon.”
“He is also Oberon’s former lover, Tristan,” Scheherazade said, shaking her head sadly. “You can’t trust him, Tristan. You have to do this alone.”
“Okay,” Tristan said, sighing. “I promise I won’t tell him.”
“This pool powers Avalon. It is where all the souls of the Djinn and Phoenixes who once ruled her are held captive.” Scheherazade gestured into the pool and Tristan followed her gesture. He could see amorphous shapes moving eerily through the water. He felt kinship to them on an instinctive level. “You can free them, and every other soul held captive within. The world will be reborn, and the souls reincarnated. You will also end Oberon’s immortality.”
“Loki told us that Oberon must be killed by Excallibur,” Tristan said with confusion.
“That is merely another tactic to bait you into attacking without seeking out the pool,” Scheherazade said, shaking her head. “He wants to lure you into thinking you have a chance so he can kill you all. That’s what he’s done every other time. This is the only way to defeat him.”
“How do I free those trapped inside?” Tristan asked, staring at the pool and wondering if he had any friends in there. Wondering if his parents and others he never got a chance to know but would have liked to were swimming in its depths.
“It will require great sacrifice, and only one with the soul of a phoenix or a djinn would be capable of doing so, I’d imagine.” Scheherazade looked up and met his eyes. “You’ll have to jump into the pool willingly, and let it destroy you.”
Tristan felt a chill superseding everything he’d felt from the pool so far. “How do I know I can trust you?” he asked, looking back at the pool and wondering what terrible fate would await him in those chilling waters.
“You don’t,” Scheherazade said, sighing. “But let the spirits guide you. They will tell you the truth. They are in the great beyond, and they will help you know what you must do.”
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