I heard that worried squeal from below and rolled over on my improvised bed (in lieu of an actual mattress we'd managed to smuggle half a dozen old cushions up into the loft) to lift the little hatch set into the floor of my room. "What's the matter?" I asked poking my head down into Will's room below (hopefully it wouldn't occur to Mom to wonder at that hatch appearing after more than a week in the apartment - Cornelia's power over wood and stone was enviable now that she had had some practice).
"It's my dormouse," Will explained, looking up from the usually lively pet. "I think he's sick!"
"Do you want me to get the mop?" I offered, reaching for the knotted rope that I used to get up and down.
She lifted him up in both hands. "Not that sort of sick. Ill! He got into our jar of cookies."
"Are you sure he's not just sleepy?"
"I offered him the last one and he refused!"
"That sounds pretty conclusive," I agreed and scrambled down the rope. "So what do we do?"
Will gave me a panicked look. "I don't know! Mom's not home, who can..."
"Matt," we concluded in unison.
I picked up the dormouse out of Will's arms. "You're not dressed for going out," I told her. (Which was true, she was schlepping around a baggy sweatshirt and slippers, not exactly suitable for the cold, windy streets). "I'll call his house while you get dressed."
"Why do you get to call him?"
I rolled my eyes. "Because you get to go see him? I've no idea where he lives and if this is serious we can't risk me getting lost on the way there."
"Okay?" She gave her pet (one thing we did not share was a fondness for the voracious little critter - I guess I'm not an animal person) a scratch behind the ears before turning to what was now our wardrobe.
I on the other hand went to the telephone and leafed through the piles of contact details under it until I found Matt's number. "Someone really ought to organise these," I muttered quietly, realising that that 'someone' was probably going to be me.
I don't think Will was intentionally loading me down with her chores but it was just more practical for me to be the one doing them: I hadn't gone to school again so far, so I had much more time on my hands for things in the house. Besides, these were all things that I really ought to know how to do.
"Hi," I greeted the woman who picked up the phone. "Is Matt home?"
"Not at the moment," she replied. "Who's calling?"
"I'm..." I recalled that Matt's parents hadn't been too impressed at the dormouse's antics when Will dumped the pet on him before the mission to rescue Taranee. "...a friend of his from school. My pet's ill and I wanted to ask his advice. Do you know when he'll be back?"
"Not for a while I'm afraid," she told me. "But if it's an animal problem, he's working in my father-in-law's pet shop. It's Olsen's - on Almond Street - do you know where that is?"
"I'm not sure." I picked up the pen and paper that we kept handy for this sort of thing. "Could you give me directions?" She did and I scribbled away industriously. "Thank you very much."
"Thank you," Will said when I put the phone down. She was dressed warmly now and holding a towel which she used to wrap her pet up against the cold weather. "I'm going to dash, just in case it's something serious."
"Yeah, probably best," I agreed. "I guess you get to put off showing me more Maths."
"I don't see why you're so eager," Will told me, heading for the door. "It was just luck you got a good grade. There's no reason to think you're actually good at it."
"Well it's worth a try. You have the magic, maybe I get maths as compensation."
She laughed as she went out the door.
I watched her cycle away from the window and then went to the closet to get one of her spare jackets and another set of keys. After a few days cooped up here I really could do with getting out. As long as I stayed away from Almond Street, it should be safe enough. Just to be even safer though, I added a ball-cap from her closet and scraped my hair back into a short pony-tail. It was barely long enough to stay back but with a bit of luck I wouldn't be recognised if anyone who only knew Will casually happened to cross my path.
As I walked out of the yard my mind went back to Hay Lin's question a few days ago. Well, to one of the bubbly girl's questions.
What was my name?
Part of it I knew. Will had chosen to declare me her sister and perhaps one day Mom might know who I was and accept me too. So I was one of the Vandom family, even if only one of them knew it. I still felt warm at that fact.
But my own name, that was something I hadn't decided. I didn't even have an idea yet that I liked.
(Irma had suggested 'Bill'. If I wasn't sure that she'd enjoy the experience, I'd have drowned her in the bathtub for that.)
I looked at shop signs as I passed them, looking for inspiration. Not that I was going to call myself 'Pharmacist' or 'Ye Olde Bookstore' but...
Will, I would have to admit, was not the most literary of girls. While she had a few books other than school texts, most of them had were obviously from when she was (a lot) younger and I'd read through all of them already, when school books got too dull.
Yeah, I'd had quite a bit of time on my hands over the last few days and school books are evidently written to be as boring as possible.
Anyway, perhaps I could get a better book here. I had a little money - Will had split her allowance with me in case I needed some money for an emergency - and it couldn't hurt to look even if I didn't buy anything.
There was a little bell thing that rang as I pushed the door open. The show was shadowy inside and it took a moment for me to realise that the leather-covered volumes on the shelves were actually books! They looked nothing like the bright and colourful children's books and cheap cardboard-covered school books I'd seen so far.
For a moment I thought that I was alone in the shop but then I heard the sound of footsteps and a man stepped out from behind one of the bookshelves. He was tall and thin with blond hair slicked back into a pony-tail. "Can I help you, Miss...?"
"Uh, I'm just... seeing if something catches my eye?"
"Of course." He bowed slightly. "If you need help, just call."
I nodded and started scanning along the shelves, picking out the titles that were embossed into the spines, sometimes in gilt. It took me all of a minute to realise I was way over my head. Some of the titles didn't seem to be in English at all and once I reached the third shelf I realised that some of the letters didn't seem to be from the alphabet.
There was a giggle from behind me and I turned to see a girl around my own age leaning against bookshelf opposite, hands clasped behind her.
For a moment I froze, looking at her. My face must have been quite the picture because she giggled again. It was, to be honest, a pretty nice laugh and I turned around and sat down with my back to the shelf, chuckling at my own plight. "Okay, I confess! I don't have a clue what I'm looking at."
"I think that shelf is Russian... or maybe Greek," she told me, then looked at me somewhat expectantly.
"Sorry, am I supposed to pretend I can speak those?" I asked after a couple of moments.
She grinned. "I think we can skip that bit if you want. There's some stuff in the back that might be a bit easier to get into."
"Sounds good." I scrambled to my feet. "I'm not really looking for anything particular, just something a bit more interesting than everyday life." Standing I found that I was a little taller than her which was an almost new experience for me. She had mousy brown hair about the same length as mine except for two thin braids that hung down in front of her shoulders.
"I know how that feels," she assured me and waved her hand towards the back of the store. "Over this way."
I'll be honest, the books in this part of the store didn't look all that different. In fact, some of the scripts seemed even stranger... "I'm not sure that this exactly what I'm looking for."
"I guess they really didn't tell you anything," the girl said sweetly.
I looked back and saw her clothes change to a long green dress with a blue tabard over it. A silver circlet appeared in her hair and two silver ornamental rings capped her braids.
Ohhhh dear. This could be bad. Still.... maybe she was friendly. "You would appear to have the advantage of me."
"Looks like I do," she nodded. "I'm surprised the Guardians are letting a loose end like you run around."
"I appealed to their better nature." Did this place have a back door. A window? Well, another window - the one that I could see was a mosaic of coloured glass in the shape of a peacock and I rather doubted I'd be able to get out of it.
"So that's how you convinced them to put up with you, faker." She put her hands on her hips. "Well don't think I miss what you are. I've been watching you for a while. And I have the power to stop you."
"Stop me? I don't know what you mean. I don't even know who you are!" I darted away from her, trying to get away from her by going around the other end of the bookcase. I had almost reached the corner when the bookstore owner stepped into my path. Except he was also changing shape, changing into something that wasn't even human.
I recoiled, almost losing my balance.
"You're not going anywhere," the girl told me and thrust her hands forwards. A bubble of force formed around me, suspending me in mid-air. "You've done enough already, pretending to be friends with Cornelia and flashing your belly at Matt."
What? I flushed. How could she know that!? And why would it even matter to her? Unless...
She'd told me that her friend Elyon had a crush on him. And later that she'd vanished, perhaps into Metamoor.
She curtseyed. "Elyon Brown," she confirmed. "Except that's not who I really am."
"Indeed," the towering snake man agreed, slithering around her. "You're far more than that, Elyon."
I crossed my arms. She had magic, evidently, and I didn't. I wasn't going to be able to fight her like that, so I'd have to find another way.
"So if you're not really Elyon Brown, does that make you a fake too?"
Her eyes narrowed angrily. "No, it makes my so-called parents fakes. After my real parents died, they stole me away from my brother and took me away from Meridian to Heatherfield. They pretended to be my family, the same way that you're pretending to be Will's sister."
"You shut your mouth!"
My hand hurt and I realised I'd slapped it against the bubble as hard as I could. As if it had been her face.
"I may not know your family, Elyon. But I do know mine. And don't you ever dare suggest that I don't love them."
Elyon walked forwards and looked me right in the eye. "And what are you going to do about it? You're nothing but an illusion and soon you won't even be that!"
"Now let's not be hasty," her companion suggested. "Remember the plan, Elyon. Our guest could be very useful to us, as long as she considers the consequences if she proves... uncooperative."
Elyon lowered her head submissively. "Of course, Cedric. You can trust me."
I have no idea how she took any reassurance from his toothy grin but once he had slipped away behind the bookcases, she took a deep breath and then eyed me up again. "You don't have any future in Heatherfield. All you are is a construct of magic. Once we defeat the Guardians you'd simply fade away. But Cedric and my brother want to give you a chance. We can give you a real body, and a new life in Meridian."
"That sounds like a sweet deal," I agreed warily. Something told me that it wouldn't be a simple as that. They would want something from me and they'd take measures to keep me to whatever they asked for. And what if they decided not to keep their word? I didn't like the look of Cedric - maybe I'm a little suspicious by nature - and Elyon hadn't been exactly trustworthy, luring me into this.
"And if you don't agree I'll simply make this bubble smaller and smaller until your body is destroyed. My magic is stronger than any of the Guardians. Stronger than all of them combined!"
"I don't think I'd enjoy that." I had to get out of the bubble. It already felt as if it might be getting smaller. I eyed its margins and I think it really was. That suggested that just by thinking about it Elyon was making it happen. "So what do you get out of this? We both know that I'll do what I have to in order to survive."
Elyon smiled. "The Guardians need the Heart of Kandrakar to fully master their powers. Without it, they can't keep closing the portals and trapping my people in Metamoor. I think they'd be a lot more reasonable - maybe we could even be friends again - if you were to bring the Heart here."
The thought of the bubble shrinking had been enough for that to start happening and I didn't think Elyon had actually intended to do that. I hoped not, because the ideas beginning to form in my mind rather counted upon my being right.
I needed to keep her talking while I put it together. "And what if I were to agree, and then go tell the Guardians about this shop? I imagine you'd know, and wouldn't get caught but there's got be a portal around here. Not to talk myself out of this deal, but I imagine you want some kind of safeguard?"
Magic seemed highly dependent upon intent and perhaps upon focus. If I could break hers, then perhaps it would break the spell.
Elyon gestured and the oily surface of the bubble faded away athough I could still feel it against my hand. "No one needs to know that this is around you, but I won't be taking it away until we have the Heart."
"What stops you from clenching it down on me if I chat with Matt?" I asked innocently.
She scowled at me. "Maybe you'd better not."
"But surely you're over him, now that Cedric is in your life. Why should I mess up Will's chances with him?"
There was colour in her cheeks. "You don't understand!"
"A lot of things, no. I think you're being a real fool about your parents. But your brother?" I changed by tone of voice. "That, I do understand."
"You chose him over everything. Your friends, even the world you knew?"
Elyon nodded. "Yes."
"Then you know why I won't betray my sister."
"But you aren't really her sister! You said you'd do anything to survive."
I could see doubt and confusion in her eyes and I seized upon it. "If I took your deal then I wouldn't survive. Something might be left wouldn't be me. Because I'd never betray Will. That's who I am."
My ears popped as the bubble closed around me. Under that crushing power I was forced into a crouch and then into a fetal postion. Somehow I twisted to keep my eyes on Elyon. Her hand was steady... but her lower lip was trembling.
The pressure forced a gasp of pain with the last air in my lungs, but I kept looking at her.
Looking her in eyes.
Making her watch me die.
Magic was will.
And I had to shake hers.
The last thing I thought before red overtook my vision was that there was a pun in there somewhere.
W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H.
When I woke up I was somewhere I had never been before.
Okay, that doesn't narrow it down very much, does it? It wasn't Heatherfield though. If anything, it looked like a picture from one of Will's history books, depicting the Middle Ages. I was sitting on a bench at the edge of a market square. Above the square reared up a magnificent cathedral.
"Is this... Metamoor?"
There was a giggle. One I'd heard before.
"No," Elyon told me. "This is Dahl's Eternal Summer."
"What?" I scrambled to my feet, looking for a way to escape. I couldn't feel the bubble.
The other girl declined to meet my eyes. "I decided not to kill you. You'll do just as well as bait for the Guardians. They'll be joining you here, soon." She offered me a cup of something frothy. "This will help you feel better."
I accepted the mug. It wasn't as if she couldn't have poured it into me while I was unconcious if she wanted to. "I don't understand. Who is Dahl?"
"He was a painter. I've brought you into his last picture."
"You can do that?"
She curtseyed. "I told you. I have more power than the Guardians. You won't be seperated from your sister for very much longer."
"No offense, but I'd prefer it if she drove you off with your tail between your legs."
Elyon looked surprised and then shook her head. "It's too bad you're on the wrong side."
"Funny, I could say the same for you." I drank from the cup and found the contents spicy and reviving. When I looked up at Elyon she was giving me an impish look. "Alright, what am I drinking?"
"Mead," she told me. "It's a little bit alcoholic. And it's replacing some of the magic that you're made of. Everything you eat will do that from now on. Eventually you'll have a perfectly normal human body."
The mug hit the ground. "Really?"
She nodded. "It was more difficult than I thought, but one day you'll be a real girl, Pinocchiolina."
"Pinocchiolina?" I rolled the name around my lips as I retrieved the cup from the ground. When I looked up, Elyon was gone. I was alone and out of place in this little celebration. Setting the empty cup down on the bench I slipped away into the gap between two buildings and hid myself behind a barrel.
Curling up on myself I wondered how today could get any worse. I'd blundered right into Will's enemies, almost been killed and now I was being used as bait to lure her into a trap. "If I get out of this I'm never leaving the apartment again without letting someone know where I'm going," I vowed. "Please be alright, Will. If you get hurt then I'll never forgive her."
My cheeks felt wet and I realised I was crying. How foolish I was to be saying I wouldn't forgive Elyon when she didn't need to to worry about me at all. She had her magic and she had me trapped. And a part of me didn't want to hate her even with this. She had spared me - more, if she was to be believed then she had given me a chance at a real life, of one day being more than just a magical shell that thought for herself.
Could I really hate her when she was giving me life almost as much as Will had?
I think that I could. Not for what she had done to me and for me. Those, at least I could call us square over. But if she followed through and sent Will and the others here... I wouldn't be alone, but all of them would lose their families. Mom would be alone, never knowing what had happened to Will.
That I thought I could hate her for, if it happened.
I don't know how long I sat there, trying to get hold of my feelings, but eventually I had cried myself out. With a sigh I took off my cap, tidied up my hair again, and scrubbed away the tear-stains with a hankie before I put the hat back on.
Maybe the Guardians wouldn't be captured at all. Perhaps they'd even rescue me without any trouble.
But if they were captured then I owed it to them to do everything I could to help. Right now that meant finding out everything I could about this place, this prison. Elyon had left so there must be some way out. I might not have the magic to use it, but if Will was here she'd have the Heart of Kandrakar, so that shouldn't be a problem.
So where was I? I poked my head out above the barrel and looked out at the market square. It didn't look so terrible - in fact there was festival atmophere. Men in fancy clothes that looked nothing like anything I'd seen in Heatherfield were carrying tall banners through the crowds of more plainly but still oddly dressed people moving baskets of food and barrels that I presumed to contain drinks. In some parts of the square partying seemed to have broken out already - a couple were dancing (not the sort of dancing I'd seen Will do to music on the television but dancing nonetheless) and a juggler was keeping five apples in the air at once, which was pretty cool I had to admit. The fat merchant watching certainly seemed to agree with me.
"What are you doing there? Up to mischief?" a gruff voice demanded.
I eeped and spun around to see a plump man with a stained apron giving me an amused look. "Mischief? Me? Uh-uh!"
He gave me a searching look. "Hmm. You're not from around here. Eying the food I'll bet."
"ehh..." I rubbed the back of my head nervously. Better to let him think he was right.
"Well there'll be plenty of food for everyone later, as long as they earn their keep." He folded his thick arms across the apron. "And since my usual assistant is off juggling I could do with another pair of hands."
I bit my lip. I really ought to to find out more about this place... but where would I even start? At least if I was doing something for this man I'd not have to come up with an explanation for who was or why I was here. I nodded my acquiesence. "What do you want me to do?"
As it turned out, the man was an innkeeper and what he wanted me to do was wait tables. Before you start thinking that it was easy, you have to remember that I'm not very large and I had to carry food and drinks around on heavy wooden platters. There weren't any lightweight metal and plastic trays so I struggled quite a bit.
"I don't think you'd better try to lift this one," the innkeeper told me, balancing six heavy tankards onto one such platter. It wasn't quite large enough for them so one tankard was stacked on top of three others. He jerked his head towards a rack of bottles. "Take one of those over to Master Van Dahl. And be polite. He's an important man!"
I pulled one of the bottles off the rack and held it up for inspection. "Uh, who's Master Van Dahl?" Hadn't Elyon mentioned someone called Dahl?
The innkeeper nodded towards a corner of the room, near the window. I could just about see a man at the table there, wrapped in a long cloak.
Even the bottle was surprisingly heavy, so I held it in both hands as I walked over to him. "Master Van Dahl?" I extended the bottle.
"Ah, thank you." He accepted it with one hand and set it on the table without looking up. "Please bring me..." He looked up and I saw a thin, sad face beneath shaggy brown hair. "I don't know you."
"Um... should you?"
"I know everyone here," he said confidently. "What did someone your age do that Phobos would punish you? Stare at him? Take one step too close to him?"
"Ah... I'm not sure who Phobos is. I got sent here by a girl called Elyon."
Van Dahl rose to his feet and bowed slightly. "I'm forgetting my manners. It has been far too long since I spoke to another living soul. Elias Van Dahl at your service."
"I'm..." I hesitated. "Uhm... Miss Vandom."
He gave me a sceptical look.
"I don't actually have a name," I explained. "It's a long story."
"Young lady, I have nothing but time. I don't even know how long it has been since Cedric trapped me here."
"Cedric? I thought that you said Phobos...?"
Van Dahl sighed. "Cedric is Phobos' right-hand man. Like yours, it is a long story." He gestured to the chair facing him. "Please, take a seat and we can exchange our tales."
I complied. If the innkeeper protested, well he had told me to be polite. And besides, it seemed I'd stumbled on the one person that could tell me all about this place. "Cedric, I've run into. Assuming we mean tall, blond and turns into a snake. He and Elyon are working together."
"I see. Tell me, have you ever heard of Meridian?"
"Elyon said something about it, that it was their home. I'm guessing that it's something to do with Metamoor?"
"Yes," he agreed. "Metamoor is another world from the Earth and Meridian is the great city that covers it. Long ago, or so my teachers claim, Metamoor was one of the brightest of all the worlds but by my time it had become a world of darkness, lit only by the Light of Meridian. To protect other worlds, a veil was drawn between the worlds, cutting Metamoor off from the rest of the universe. And then... the Light failed."
"I was a court painter, the most famous artist of all of Meridian, when it happened. The queen and her consort vanished mysteriously. Her daughter, the heir, was no more than a child and so the crown passed to her brother: Phobos. Life had never been easy in Metamoor, but under his rule it became unbearable. His sister also vanished mysteriously, and Phobos withdrew into the shadows. He didn't want to talk to anyone, showing himself only to his loyal whisperers. Orders went out to destroy every statue, every portrait, any image of him in all of Meridian."
"You'd painted him, I take it?"
He nodded. "I had; and as a skilled portraitist I could easily paint more. I decided to run away away from him. There were people I knew, people who were afraid of what Phobos would do. They helped me to escape from Metamoor to another world, a place and time where an artist would be respected."
I blinked. "I take it that you don't mean here."
Van Dahl smiled sadly. "No. You'd know it as Europe. By your calendar, the year was 1700."
"Um... Master Van Dahl..."
"I've been here a long time, haven't I?" he said resignedly.
"Three hundred years," I confessed. "I'm sorry."
He sank in on himself. "I knew it was possible, but... I'm sorry, I need a moment."
I needed a little time myself. Three hundred years? This had been going on that long? But Will said that she had been chosen as a Guardian just in the last few weeks. Of course, they had been picked by Hay Lin's grandmother, who died only a little later so there had been no chance for anyone to ask questions about the history of the Guardians. But surely someone would know, if I could only find them.
Someone cleared their throat and I looked up to see the innkeeper. "Is everything alright, Master Van Dahl?"
"Merely sober thoughts," Van Dahl assured him. "I gather my young companion has been assisting you? I'm afraid you'll have to get along without her for a while." He pulled himself to his feet, towering over me, and dropped a handful of oddly cut silver coins onto the table. "Come along, Miss Vandom. We should talk more privately."
The innkeeper wasn't as tall as Van Dahl, but he was probably twice as broad. Nonetheless I saw his face pale as he stepped aside.
"That man was afraid of you," I accused Van Dahl in a low voice as I followed him out. Yes, I followed him. Quite honestly, he was too important for me back away from just because he seemed a little sinister all of a sudden.
He hunched his shoulders. "I imagine some of them do, yes," he agreed. "This is my painting, I created it and I created them as well. I don't usually throw my weight around, but they aren't exactly inclined to argue with me."
"You created this?" I gestured around us. "All of this?"
"Well, that wasn't my intention."
"This sounds horribly familiar." He'd created them? The way Will had created me?
Van Dahl's eyebrows arched. "I look forward to hearing your story. But I'm skipping ahead of mine. I'd fled Metamoor and made a new life for myself. I could paint, dream, wish... and like others, I could love. But I had not truly escaped. Phobos send Cedric after me to make sure I was punished. He found me and - whether it was Phobos' instructions or his own inspiration, he bound me to my latest work."
"The painting was supposed to be named 'The Last Tear'. A village where no one has cried in a long time. The last tear is in a crystal bottle in the cathedral and the life of the village is just joy. An eternal summer... Cedric told me that he'd always heard that artists put themselves into their work. He created a portal into it and forced me through it."
"Then this place has been for hundreds of years?" I asked. "Don't the people here notice?"
He shook his head. "It's like a play. They're caught in a few moments and no matter what I do, they revert to those actions unless I'm right there with them and sometimes even then. I've lost count of how often it happens."
I followed him up a narrow stair into a loft overlooking the square. "And they don't remember anything?" The room's furniture was barren except for dozens of incomplete paintings.
"Oh, they do but it doesn't really matter to them. As far as they're concerned this is normal. They don't know what it's like to be hungry, or thirsty or tired. I've almost forgotten them myself, this place just isn't real enough for them to matter."
"But you were drinking whatever it was in that bottle."
"The wine wasn't for sustenance," he told me wryly. "I guess you're not old enough to understand. Lucky girl."
"You don't look three hundred years old. I may not get any older." I looked around at the pictures. "I see you've been keeping busy."
Van Dahl sighed. "I tried to at first, but I can't finish any of them. Without colours, it's useless even to try."
"It's all an illusion. When I try..." He gestured impatiently. "See for yourself. Letting me take my paint and canvases was Cedric's idea of a cruel joke. He took away my ability to paint and then left it dangling in front of me all this time."
Looking closer I saw that the pictures were washed out and felt... hollow, incomplete. The colours were scarcely more than hinted at. "That's cruel."
"There is no end to Phobos' cruelty," he said. "So what is your story?"
I found myself a seat against the window sill, looking down over the market. "Have you ever heard of the Guardians of the Veil?"
W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H.
It might be that I couldn't grow tired here, but I guess it must take a while to kick in because explaining my history really took it out of me.
Van Dahl gallantly offered me the use of his bed. I'm not sure he'd used it in decades so I didn't complain about the rather lumpy mattress. Mind you, I also didn't actually get under the covers or undress. That'd be just a bit icky under the circumstances.
It seemed I'd barely put my head on the pillow when my shoulder was shaken.
"There's a disturbance outside," Van Dahl told me sharply. "That hasn't happened before, so I think someone else has come through the portal."
I sat up and reached for my sneakers. "Who?"
"Well that's the question, isn't it?" He slung his cloak around his shoulders, making it flare dramatically.
I was glad that my sneakers were velcro-fasten becase I really wasn't inclined to take the time to tie laces before scrambling down the stairs.
"What's going on?" Van Dahl demanded of the first person to cross his path.
The woman squeaked in surprise. "Oh! Master Van Dahl! It's witches! Five witches!"
I slapped my face.
"I see. And where are these 'witches' now?"
"They ran away!" She pointed in the direction of some houses across the square. "Captain Von Schliese is after them!"
Shading my eyes against the late afternoon sun, I saw girls scrambling on the rooftops. The colour of their clothes was distinctive and by squinting I thought I could see a head of unruly red hair. "That's my sister."
"The good captain is somewhat short-tempered, we'd better hurry before he does something rash." Van Dahl started running across the square, leaving me to trail in his wake. His longer legs widened that gap quite a bit and after a moment I also had to deal with another problem: people might get out of Master Van Dahl's way, but they weren't so considerate for a young girl.
The Guardians vanished from sight behind a roof as I ran. It seemed strange: I knew they had powers over the elements, so if they were threatened, why weren't they using those powers to protect themselves? I doubted that a handful of town guards could really threaten them...
Something was wrong, badly wrong.
Besides, the more obvious problem that I'd been used as bait to lure them into a trap.
"You hear him, monkey!" I heard Irma shout. "Get your sweaty hands off me or I'll bite!"
"Can I lock her away at least?" the mustachioed soldier holding her protested as I came into view of them. "She's hardly sweet." The Guardians were surrounded by the soldiers, Irma and Cornelia physically restrained. Judging by the fact that Hay Lin was on the ground - the girl loved to fly - I was going to go with the theory that she couldn't.
Also, all five of them were unfairly gorgeous.
I kind of knew that about Will already, but the rest of them?
About the only consolation was that I had a theory that this was what they'd look like in a few years, so there was a good chance I'd look like Will did now by then. If so then I had a lot to look forwards to.
(And if their parents ever saw the Guardian's uniforms then they'd be grounded until they that old for real. I'm not surprised they started a riot.)
"Captain, these girls are my guests and I am sure that this is nothing more than a simple misunderstanding."
I pushed past the guards, who were't expecting someone to do that, breaking my pace slightly to kick the guard restraining Cornelia in the ankle. "Will!"
She caught me in a hug. "Are you alright? Did Elyon hurt you?"
"I'm okay." I decided it wasn't the moment to let her know about the almost-crushed-to-death bit.
When we parted the guards had relaxed (except for the guard I'd kicked, but at least he wasn't holding Cornelia any more).
"As you can see, they were simply concerned for their companion," Van Dahl explained. "You can tell his lordship that I will take responsibility for them."
Captain von Schliese nodded sharply. "Very well, Master Van Dahl. But please keep them out of trouble."
Irma glared at their backs and then nudged Van Dahl under the ribs. "Wow, you must be important to be ordering them around."
"I have a certain influence," he conceded. "Miss Vandom tells me that you are the Guardians."
"I'm not sure how much help that will be," Taranee admitted. "We can't seem to use our powers."
Van Dahl nodded. "I can't say that I'm surprised, although I hoped otherwise. If the legends are true then your powers are over the elements, but we are trapped in an illusion: there's nothing real here for them to work upon."
"Elyon was able to leave, so there has to be a way that we can."
"I've looked, believe me."
Cornelia ignored Van Dahl's depressed face. "How did Elyon get hold of you anyway?"
"Believe it or not, I ran into her in a book store," I explained with a shrug. "I didn't know who she was until it was too late."
"Did she... say anything?"
"Yes, she did." I looked at Van Dahl, who was retelling his story to the other Guardians. "I guess we're not in any hurry."
"What happened?" It was odd just how... solid... the willowy blonde could appear at times. Well-rooted, down-to-earth... she was well suited to her powers.
"She lured me in, trapped me and offered a deal she - or at least Cedric - thought I couldn't refuse."
I got an aristocratically arched eyebrow.
"She wanted me to steal the Heart of Kandrakar for her. If I agreed, she'd arrange for me to have a new life in Metamoor. If I didn't... well she thought I was some sort of fake person, preying on your better natures. She thought that you would be well rid of me."
"Elyon would never do that!" protested Cornelia. "She's shy and gentle, she'd never kill someone!"
"But she would destroy a rogue astral drop."
Cornelia's eyes flicked away with me.
I reached over and took her hands. "Thank you."
"You said someone, not something. I think that that's why Elyon didn't go through with it when I turned her down. She could have killed something that threatened you, but not someone protecting their sister. I hope that that's true."
Cornelia met my eyes again, shifting her hands so that one covered mine. "No one doubts you're Will's sister. Although we really need to choose a name for you."
"Speaking of names, do you know why she'd call me 'Pinocchiolina'?"
Cornelia laughed. "Pinocchio is from a Disney movie: it's about a puppet that came to life and wanted to be a real boy."
"I suppose she invented a female version to name you. Will that be your name now?"
I considered and then shook my head. "No, it seems a little too fancy for little old me."
"And your nose isn't big enough."
I put my hands on my hips. "There's nothing wrong with my nose."
"Pinocchio's nose grew every time he told a lie." She gestured to indicate a nose at least as long as her arm. "I guess you must be telling the truth since yours still looks like Will's."
I stuck out my tongue.
"Or maybe it's your tongue that gets longer," Cornelia corrected herself and we both giggled. "I don't understand why Elyon would run off like this though."
"She told me that she was from Metamoor her whole time. Her real parents died when she was very young and the people she thought were her parents fled here with her." I shrugged. "It sounds a lot like Master Van Dahl's story, to be honest, except that she claims that they kidnapped her from her brother."
"So who is her brother? That snake guy Cedric?"
I frowned. "I don't think so. I'm pretty sure she said something about Cedric and her brother. Plus she seemed to have some sort of crush on Cedric which would be pretty weird if he is her brother. How did she manage to capture you?"
Cornelia shook her head, flipping her long blonde hair from side to side. "It was Cedric. Irma saw some sort of lizard in the museum and we thought it might be connected to you disappearing - no offense, but Will said it might be the sort of borning place you'd like..."
"What's a museum?"
"You'll see when we get out of here. I spotted you in the picture and when we were all clustered around it... bam! He opened a portal and it sucked us through."
"Elyon said they were going to use me as bait when she left me here," I agreed. "I suppose it worked."
"So what do we do now?" Taranee asked from where the others were. "We don't have our powers... we can't even change back to our normal selves. Does anyone have any ideas for getting out of here?"
"You said that this is a world that never changes." Will looked over at Van Dahl. "Like living in a moment that doesn't move. Maybe that's the trap: as long as the picture doesn't change, we can't change the fact that we're in it. But if we were to change the situation..."
"Well how do we do that?" asked Irma.
"Well it's a painting." I looked over at Van Dahl. "You're the painter: how do you change a painting?"
"You paint over it." He looked hopefully for a moment but then shook his head. "But I don't have any paints, remember?"
"What do you need to make paints? Assume I don't know anything."
"She usually doesn't," added Irma.
Someone - I shall not name names - slapped their hand over Irma's mouth to shut her up.
"It depends what colours you want," Van Dahl explained. "It's a little complicated, but I keep the basic pigments as oils. When I need some I pour a little out and mix it with water to get the right consistency before I use it."
"Did you bring your pigments with you or did you mix them here?"
"Cedric threw them to me," he explained. "Do you think that he did something to them?"
"I'm hoping that he didn't."
I got some confused looks from the others.
"When you used the pigments before, where did you get the water from?"
"I... from the well." He paled slightly. "You mean all this time... I was that close?"
I spread my hands. "I don't know what we can use instead but..."
"It's a worth a try," Will agreed. "Good thinking little sister. And I have an idea what to try."
"I'll show you." She started to walk away and the rest of us fell in behind her. After a moment Van Dahl moved up alongside her and offered reassurances to the townsfolk we passed, most of whom didn't seem too fond of the Guardians. Way to make a first impression girls.
To Van Dahl's obvious surprise, she led us to the doors of the Cathedral. "What do you have in mind."
"You said that this picture was supposed to be named for the Last Tear, which is inside the Cathedral. What if you tried mixing your paints with that?"
He raked his hand through his hair. "I don't know. But it can't hurt to try. I've never even been inside here."
"Really?" Taranee asked in surprise. "I would have thought... well, this era was very religious."
"I know. But I'm from Metamoor," he reminded her. "Christianity doesn't really mean very much to me, one way or the other."
Irma tried the door. "It's locked!"
We exchanged glances. Maybe it was nothing, but it certainly felt as if someone didn't want us to go in. And that might mean that we were onto something.
"If I had my powers I could open this in an instant," Cornelia proclaimed.
Irma was more constructive. "Is there another way in?"
"If there is then it's probably locked too." I exchanged looks with Will. "Do you think we could break the lock?"
Van Dahl stepped away slightly and called out to two men setting up a trestle table. "Hey, you there! Come to help us a little." He threw his cloak aside as the pair approached us. "Where's there's life there's hope, right?"
"Exactly, Elias. Maybe nothing will happen if we try..."
"...but we can be sure it won't if we don't!" I finished.
With three sturdy shoulders against it, the door was soon shaking, but it was a while before one of the hinges gave way. Without that to brace it, the rest of the door began to twist and eventually one of the boards cracked with a sharp retort and the men were able to kick the rest of it down.
A solemn air came over us as we went through the door. The success at opening it had left me giggling with triumph (however small) but the inside of the cathedral took my breath away.
"This is amazing," Irma whispered reverently. The interior was tall and airy, lit by rainbow streamers of light through the stained-glass windows at the far end. The columns supporting the vast, many arched roof were decorated with lavish frescoes picked out in gold that glittered in the light.
For once there was no arguement from Cornelia over Irma's statement: "Beautiful," she agreed.
"I wish I could paint this," Van Dahl sighed. "I had no idea it was like this."
"Well maybe you can." Will led us to a large stone table (she later used the word altar) and pointed out a small glass bottle lying on a pink bottle. "This has to be the Last Tear. Take it with you and mix the colours with it."
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Van Dahl!"
The voice echoed through the cathedral and the seven of us looked around for the source. There didn't appear to be anyone but us there...
Will groaned and for a moment I thought she would collapse, but when I caught her arm she straightened. "A portal!"
Silver mist formed in the middle of the aisle, coiling into a circular pattern.
"Something's coming through!" warned Hay Lin.
She was right. A few seconds later a large, blue-skinned man rode through the portal. Rode, I say, because he was mounted on... I don't have the words. Irma later described it as a riding-rhino and I suppose that's as good a term as any.
"Frost the Hunter!" Will yelped.
"You're doomed!" the rider - Frost, I presume, unless WIll meant the riding-rhino for some reason - proclaimed. "There is no hope of escape!"
"Uh... if there wasn't you really wouldn't be here," I pointed out and then ducked for cover as he drew a sword that looked to be about as long as I was tall.
"She's right! Elias, this proves that we can undo the curse. Otherwise Cedric wouldn't need to send him."
Van Dahl had to cut off his protests as the angry Frost spurred his steed forwards. We scattered left and right around the fast but not especially agile creature.
"Go!" Irma shouted to Van Dahl, pushing him towards the door. "Mix your paints! We'll deal with Frost."
"Good joke, Irma," complained Cornelia. "We don't have our powers, remember?"
The brunette shrugged. "So we improvise. Don't be so negative."
"The painter can wait," Frost snarled, bringing his riding-rhino around. Incongrously this placed him directly in the pool of light cast by the sun through the stained glass window. "Last time you ran away..."
"No offense, but we thought we'd try that again!" Hay Lin said cheekily and the five of them turned and dashed for the door. Will caught my arm and all but dragged me, which was a mixed blessing - it certainly helped me keep up with her longer legs but at the cost of slowing her down.
"You're not getting away this time!"
"Get out," Will called out. "Let him follow you!"
"Let him?" Cornelia asked incredulously, looking back and seeing that we were falling behind.
The thunder of the riding-rhino's hooves was barely behind the two of us as the others ran out of the door. Suddenly will used her grip on my arm to spin me to one side and released her hold sharply. She went one way and I went the other each of us colliding with the wall - in my case with a side order of pain to the shoulder that took the brunt.
Frost's triumphant cry was cut short as he turnd his head to watch Will and missed the fact that the arch of the door was considerably lower than his shoulders while mounted. He rebounded and from that height hitting the stone floor probably hurt almost as much as hitting the arch had.
"Come on!" Will scrambled up and grabbed me - still dazed - yanking me out of the door after the riding-rhino, which had slowed to an amble now that the burly hunter wasn't in the saddle. I'm morally certain Will was grinning manically as she scrambled up into the saddle, dragging me with her.
"Do you know how to ride?" I asked.
"Only horses!" She snared the reins and twitched them lightly. To my complete surprise it worked and the riding rhino started to obediently walk after the other girls.
"Urrr..." Frost staggered out of the catherdral, sword in hand. He caught sight of us and his face turned purple. "You'll pay for this, Guardians!"
"Not until you explain what you're doing here!" came a shout and I saw Captain Von Schliese at the head of a crowd including two of his soldiers and a considerable number of the men from the market. "Riding that thing in our cathedral, chasing after Master Van Dahl's guests... you've got a lot to answer for!"
The towering Metamoorian's jaw dropped. "Are you threatening me? Do you know who I am?"
"No, and I don't care." Von Schliese drew his own sword and the crowd produced various long, heavy tools. "This is our summer festival and you are invited to leave!"
Frost raised his sword, apparently not overly concerned by the numbers against him. The confrontation was interrupted however by a gleeful shout from one of the windows overlooking the square: Van Dahl's window. "It works! It works!"
We turned and I saw him leaning out of the window, waving a scrap of canvas. It was too high for me to make out details... but we didn't need to: it was almost dripping with paint. Rich, vibrant colours!
"It works, girls. The tear mixed the colours! I can paint again."
"Phobos's curse is broken!" Will shouted and raised her free hand, the Heart of Kandrakar alight in it. I'd seen it before but this was different. Then it had seemed a simple glass sphere, held in a simple but elegant silver setting. Now it pulsed with a pink light and and she raised it tear drops of magic hurtled away from it towards the other guardians.
"Air!" cried out Hay Lin as silver light engulfed her and she lifted off the ground, long pony-tails flapping in a wind.
Irma's magic was blue and at her call of "Water!" the contents of the nearby well rushed up at her command.
The ground cracked beneath Cornelia's hand, a fissure forming and extending towards the suddenly paling Hunter, and Taranee grinned broadly as a fireball crackled into existence between her hands.
"This isn't your lucky day," Will proclaimed. "Now get out of here or you'll regret it."
W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H. - W.I.T.C.H.
A few minutes later the summer festival - delayed some three hundred years - was getting started. The seven of us had a table to ourselves: officially because we were the guests of honour, unofficially because the locals still weren't sure what to make of us.
Frost had fled the square back into the cathedral and presumably through the portal, since the search organised by Von Schliese hadn't found him. He'd left his riding-rhino behind and my animal-loving sister had already needed reminding twice that there was no way we could hide a large green rhino in Heatherfield, no matter how tame he was around her.
"Can you feel the wind blowing?" Van Dahl asked from the head of the table, watching bright banners flying around the square and a flurry of flower petals blown across our table. "I'd almost forgotten what it was like..."
"It's great, isn't it!" agreed Hay Lin. "And I didn't have to do anything!"
Even the townsfolk, for whom this was a genuinely new experience, seemed to be enjoying the new weather.
"What will you do now?" Van Dahl asked us.
"We'll - don't even think about it!" Will added, seeing me sneak a hand around a cup of mead.
I gave her an innocent look. "But it's really tasty."
"It's alcoholic! Mom would throw a fit if she though I was drinking!"
Irma laughed and leant over to ruffle my hair. "Your sister's a bad bad girl, Will. Flirting with Matt and now wanting to drink alcohol!"
"It's bad for you." Will turned back to Van Dahl. "We'll return to Earth, but we'll leave the portal open for you."
The painter looked surprised. "But isn't it your job to close portals like this."
"Yes," she admitted. "But this one is the only way you'll ever be able to go home."
"This is my home now," Van Dahl announced, somewhat wistfully. "There is no one waiting for me now, not in Meridian or on Earth. Now that I can paint again it will be a good place. I can't wait to get started doing a painting of the inside of the cathedral."
"But if we close the portal, what if this all becomes nothing but a picture. You could..."
He shook his head to cut Cornelia short. "Then I'll never know, will I? There's nowhere else for me, Guardians. Not on Earth and not on Meridian. I'm asking for a favour: close the portal, so that Phobos and his followers can never trouble me again."
"Will!" I protested.
"It's alright Miss Vandom," Van Dahl told me. "This is what I want. Please, give me the same freedom that your sister gave you."
"I... okay." I hung my head and thus as caught by surprise as he pressed something into my hands. "What?"
He shrugged, somewhat embarassed. "I did a little sketch earlier. I haven't had time to actually add any paint but I want you to have this."
I unrolled the parchment and saw a simple charcoal drawing... simple, but so perfect I skipped straight to wondering when he'd seen Will sleeping.
Then the clothes he'd drawn sank in and I coloured (according to the usually reliable Hay Lin) all the way to my ears.
"Ooooo!" Hay Lin exclaimed, looking over my shoulder (yes, even she is taller than I am, particularly when she's in Guardian form). "That's beautiful."
"Thank you," I mumbled.
He gave me a quick hug around the shoulders. "No. Thank you." Then he let go and took a step away. "Goodbye girls."
We chorused awkward farewells of our own and then: "Heart of Kandrakar," Will chanted. "Take us home."
Everything went pink.
When light faded we were in a large dark room I'd never seen before. "Where are we?"
"The museum," Cornelia told me. She turned me around and through the shadows I could see a large picture. Most of the details I couldn't make out in the darkness, but I could see a marketsquare and a cathedral.
Will took my hand. "That's right. Dahl's Eternal Summer." She raised the Heart towards it and a beam of energy lashed out to the portrait, drawing out grey streamers of magic from the canvas.
I looked down at the drawing in my hand. "Why did he thank me? All I did was get captured and you all had to come and rescue me."
Taranee adjusted her glasses. "Maybe because you gave him something he'd been missing for a long time."
"What? Someone to paint?"
The last of the grey streamers dissipated in the light of the Heart and before it dimmed once again, I saw the picture clearly (if someone pink-shaded). In one corner of the square, outside his home, Van Dahl stood in front of his easel, smiling as he worked.
"No," Taranee told me softly. "You gave him hope."