“Once upon a time,” Fredric began, laying Fang’s reigns on her neck and turning to face Alapar, legs loosely crossed, “there was a wise old sage that lived in this wood, a Teidekan magician, as a matter of fact. He was nearly four hundred years old but looked more as if he were around twenty, and he had a brother magician who lived in the west forest on the opposite end of the Strip. The brother was a nasty magician, not quite cruel but quite disagreeable, a formidable pig in comparison to the sage. He charged high prices for his healing and spell casting services. Often he prescribed remedies that included regular, long term treatments so patients had to come back several times, the price going up each time. The sage magician was a kind soul, and he was such a talented healer and spell caster that his customers only had to come once. They loved him so much that they often brought him food and other goods to express their gratitude, so much so that he didn’t have to charge them anything at all. Even the spirits of the forest helped him, keeping him safe from storms, and keeping wild animals from attacking him as they often did the brother magician.
“The sage magician had a young daughter of about eleven years old, and if the spirits and the people loved the sage, they adored his daughter. She often walked the forest searching for small animals and other creatures in need, and she either healed them with her child powers or brought them to her father when their ailments were too much for her immature magic to handle. Together the father and daughter kept the east forest healthy and safe, and everyone there was happy. In the west forest, however, people were tiring of the brother magician’s money-grabbing exploits, and they were beginning to make the journey across the river to see the kind sage for remedies. It got so that long lines stretched from the sage’s clearing (he had no need to live in any kind of house, for the forest protected him from everything) and nearly back to the river. Though the waiting was long, the sage’s daughter helped her father by serving the waiting people tea and little cakes, and entertained them by singing and performing shows with her animal friends. Since some of them had to stay in line overnight, the sage and his daughter ensured that the forest protected them as well. Soon they had more food and other goods than they could go through in centuries piling up in the once spacious clearing, and they requested that the people stop bringing it. And so the sage magician’s services were completely free.
“Meanwhile the brother magician was losing business like sand slipping through his fingers. Everything was very expensive in the west forest, since the merchants were so poor that they had to nearly quadruple prices just to keep their families fed (it caused a domino effect so that a loaf of bread was the price of a team of horses in the east forest). The greedy brother magician had all but destroyed the western economy, and soon he was having troubles keeping up his grand estate and feeding himself and all his horses. He had to raise his prices as well—and it continued like a rubber band stretching and stretching. Inevitably the rubber band of their economy snapped, and to live in the west forest was to be dirt poor. Most people left, and those who stayed were at the mercy of the brother magician, who was growing steadily eviler as life became more dire. The evil cloud spirits of lightning and hail couldn’t break through the loving protection of the good forest spirits in the east, and so they moved west; it stormed nearly every day without pause, devastating the land. When the brother magician found out that everyone was relocating to the east forest, he decided he would pay his brother a visit as a way to see how life was across the river.
“And, oh, life was good! Everyone was at peace with the spirits of the forest and sky, and with each other, and nearly every day was a cause for celebration. The sage magician and his daughter were extolled and sung about in every house, and they were a friend to all. They were in a state of such peace and pure happiness that they welcomed the old antagonist the brother magician, eager to show him what life was like when money was worth next to nothing. The brother magician was like a storm cloud, however, casting shadows in the doorways of widows and striking fear in the hearts of young children. The spirits of the forest shuddered and fled when they saw the blackness of his heart seeping hatred like an infected wound. The brother magician had gone from being simply nasty to being like the spirit of darkness and evil itself. He saw that though his brother the sage had not one copper penny to his name, he was richer in more respects than there were stars in the sky. The forest spirits were too frightened to be near the clearing while the brother magician stayed with the sage, and the evil cloud spirits were finally able to spitefully spit hail and lightning on the east forest. The sage sensed the all-encompassing darkness within his brother’s heart but he welcomed him nonetheless in his characteristic manner. He did, however, order the forest to hide his daughter from his brother—the safety of his daughter overrode attempts to be accepting and kind. The young magician girl watched over her father from the safety of the trees as the sage attempted to quell the darkness from his brother—surrounding him with beauty, showering him with gifts and undue kindness, making the reluctant people dance and play music in the clearing and be merry. The brother’s heart was so turned to darkness that it rejected all manner of beauty and goodness, and he became angrier and darker still that his brother and his old people were so happy (even the muted happiness in his presence). The blackness was like sticky plaque in the brother’s heart.
“The little magician watched every attempt fail, and watched her uncle’s eyes grow darker and darker. She saw how despondent her father was becoming, and it hurt her to see him so sad and hopeless. After another fruitless party for her uncle, the evil magician packed up his things and stepped around the sleeping sage to sneak away into the night. The evil cloud spirits sent heavy rain to mask the brother as he travelled through the east forest, and they inadvertently masked the sage’s daughter following him through the trees. The good forest spirits helped the daughter to get ahead of her uncle and she intercepted him as he was crossing a clearing with a small pool. The daughter remembered how people smiled whenever they saw her, and she told herself that she wouldn’t give up until she got her uncle to smile. The dark magician was surprised to find a little girl there in the rain, and she introduced herself without mentioning her father. The dark magician commanded the evil cloud spirits to cease raining on them so he could see better. From a covered basket she offered him one of her speciality tea cakes, and used her magic to create beautiful images in strings of coloured lights to light up the darkness. She turned the pool into a mirror-stage for an elaborate light show. The forest gasped in delight and pleasure at the simple beauty, but the dark magician hissed at the vibrant colours and shielded his eyes. With a snap of his fingers he turned her basket of cakes into a rotting human skull filled with crawling mealworms, and turned her strings of lights into long, black phantom serpents with glowing red eyes and sharp green teeth that swirled around her, snapping at her and pulling on her hair. The faint moon was covered by the evil cloud spirits. It was black as pitch except for the glowing eyes and teeth of the phantom snakes, and the skull which the dark magician set ablaze with demonic fire. Thorns and brambles sprung up all around the clearing, growing nearly five feet high. The dark magician cackled like rumbling thunder as he commanded the darkness and terror around the shrieking child, flicking aside the attempts of the good forest spirits to save their friend. They were no match against the powerful darkness, so they fled to get the sage.
“Threats to his daughter were the only thing that could make the kind sage violent. In a blazing fury he exploded into the pool clearing, tearing through the bramble bushes, taking the brother completely by surprise. ‘How dare you harm my child!’ he roared, fire spitting from his mouth and glowing in his eyes. Ceaselessly he bombarded his startled brother with every destruction spell he could remember and some that he made up on the spot. Their courage renewed, the forest spirits battled the evil cloud spirits and drove them back to the west once again. With rapid fire attacks driven by his raging fury and frustration that his brother could not be saved, the sage rendered the dark magician nearly dead. Before the sage could finish off his brother, the daughter shouted to her father not to kill her uncle. ‘His death will not kill the darkness! You will kill the goodness too!’ She held her father’s uncertain eyes until he dropped his arms and pulled his magic back, falling to his knees to grab her in a hug.
“‘Your wisdom and courage is great indeed, my love,’ the sage whispered as he held her, crying as if his heart would break. Instead of killing him, the sage had the forest spirits take his brother back across the river to the western forest, and he took his daughter home. There was peace again throughout the east for everyone except for the daughter; she was uninjured physically, but her young mind had been ravaged by fear. She would not leave her father’s side for more than a few minutes at a time, and she shivered like a winter leaf when the darkness fell over the forest right before bed. She took to sleeping during the day and staying up through the dark time to keep watch over her father, and so no one saw her for more than a few hours every day. ‘I’m afraid of the dark,’ she replied when her father one day worriedly inquired about her new strange behaviour, ‘I’m afraid of Uncle returning in the night.’
“Her father thought for a moment before responding. ‘A fear of the dark is almost wise, my child, but not quite. A fear of the absence of light? You might as well be afraid of the silence as well. The darkness will not hurt you, child. The trouble with darkness is that the shadows conceal truth, and makes good judgement unattainable. It hides both goodness waiting and bad things lurking. It is wiser to fear the unknown than to fear the dark, daughter.’
“She was too young to understand his abstract lecture, and continued to shiver and shake in the night. Alas, to quell her fears, the sage devised a plan. He had the good forest spirits deliver a message to the celestial spirits of the moon and the stars, who were more than willing to help the good sage and his lovely daughter. The forest spirits returned to the sage a little before nightfall; with them were a flock of thirty silver owls clutching woven watermelon vine baskets in their talons. The night sky spirits had helped the forest spirits fill the baskets with stardust. The sage sent for his daughter so she could see what they had done, and said to her: ‘Do not be afraid of the dark! The stars can only come out when it is dark, and in the night they see everything. Nothing is concealed or unknown to the stars, and you needn’t fear the unknown because of them. They will show you the truth under the veil of darkness.’ The girl was delighted.
“With the help of the forest spirits and the night sky spirits, the owls spread the stardust over the east forest. The dust landed on the trees, vines, animals and insects. When everything was coated with a good layer of the silvery dust there were still nine baskets left. The spirits and the sage talked about what they should do with them, and the daughter spoke up to suggest they spread it over the west forest. ‘Even though my evil uncle lives there, I know there are some good people who live there as well because they couldn’t come here yet. I’m sure a little stardust will give them some happiness and make them less afraid of the dark magician.’
“And so, pleased with his daughter’s goodwill, the sage magician sent the owls and the spirits on their way to the west forest. Even though the evil cloud spirits tried to stop them, they completed their mission and returned to the east forest. The dark magician was angered and fearful, as he didn’t know what the owls were dropping from the sky, but there was nothing he could do about it since he was still recovering from the sage’s attack. The good people of the west forest thanked the silver owls and the spirits.
“Meanwhile, the daughter and the sage sat in the boughs of the tallest thatis tree in the east forest, watching the sun set behind the thunder clouds to the west. As the first star appeared on the eastern horizon, the stardust sprinkled everywhere began to glow. By the time the silver owls and the spirits returned, the whole east forest was ablaze with starlight, and the west forest glowed softly as well. The sage told his daughter to lean close to a glowing branch on the thatis tree, and she could hear voices whispering to her, chattering incessantly. ‘They tell of the happenings in the forest,’ the sage explained to her. ‘Nothing is unknown to them—all the secrets of the forest are yours now, my love.’
“She thanked the night sky spirits and they returned to the heavens, and the owls who returned to the night hunt. Her good friends the forest spirits stayed with her and her father, and they watched the forest shine in the night. The young magician was never afraid of the dark, or the unknown, again.
Fredric was nearly whispering now. The fire from the camp where his friends were was just in sight beyond the trees. He slowed Fang to a stop. His mother’s words had come to him easily as he told the tale, and he felt like he was still within the story as the soft glow of the forest enveloped them. Gazing off into the night, he didn’t notice Alapar’s haunted eyes.
“Legend has it,” he said, pinching a wisp of glowing ivy between his fingers, “that if you listen carefully with your heart, you can still hear the whispers of the stardust.” He held the ivy to his ear, and nodded as though consenting to the secrets of the woods.
He flashed a smile at her and then did a double take when he took in her face. What now?
She took the ivy from him and stared at it, and then passed her hand through her tangled hair. “Don’t be silly,” she whispered with a smile like pale mist, “you can only hear the stardust if you have magician blood.”