Crystal opened her eyes and saw a late afternoon sky, streaked with dark-marbled sepia clouds, and sunlight beaming through the gaps. She smiled. She knew where she was – her Far Away Place. She could smell the lush grass that she was lying on, and there was a strong scent of rose and lavender permeating the land.
She lifted herself to a seated position and felt a wave of weakness overcome her. There was also pain deep inside her chest. I have not recovered yet from my last battle with Rhab-di, she grimly thought.
She scanned her familiar surrounds: the fertile, green fields, with the deep, serene river that wound its sleepy way through the valley. Three castles were in close proximity to each other – Sir Kenneth’s fortress, accessible from the fields and roads, but impenetrable to all but the most powerful of magic; Lady Xena’s abode, once a humble cathedral but now the lady warrior’s home, protected by an enchanted wood; and finally Goldmire’s Tower, jutting from the Meandering River, and only accessible by boat.
Aside from the ominous dark clouds, all signs seemed to indicate that life was peaceful – birds were high in the sky riding the air currents; a mother duck paddled slowly in the river, followed by a line of eight ducklings, watched by a half-snoozing crane. Wild horses could be heard galloping along the east bank, neighing in exuberance at their unbridled freedom.
Crystal forgot the pain in her torso, and her weariness, and soaked in the beauty and tranquillity of her home away from home, the land she swore to protect with all her might and magic for four long years.
She heard the sound of splashing water and turned her attention to the Tower. A row boat appeared from behind the circular wall and Goldmire was sitting comfortably in it, although his hulking form caused the boat to draft deeply – leaving only an inch or two between floating and sinking. Only after a dozen strokes, the giant clumsily stepped onto the riverbank, only a few yards from Crystal. She grinned, for she always enjoyed the company of the Far Away Place’s least comely inhabitant. They looked quite a pair when they were close to each other. He was nearly twelve feet tall and Crystal was barely above three – she was quite short for a seven year old.
Goldmire was no ordinary giant, for he really was a monster, turned to the cause of goodness. He was tamed by the child-mage, Crystal. He had a humanoid form, but he was covered in bright yellow fur and he had long, sharp claws on his hands and feet. His fangs were long too, but ever since he was turned, he had a kind face – most of the time. When Rhab-di attacked the Far Away Place, Goldmire changed into a menacing defender, a ferocious adversary.
“Young Mistress, you have come back, and yet you were here only a few days ago! Does this mean the enemy is attacking again?”
Crystal got to her feet, flinching with the pain of the effort. “I suppose so, Goldmire. I never pick when I turn up, but it’s always when I’m needed.”
The large hairy face showed deep concern. “Lady Crystal, you are still wounded! Sir Kenneth has a healer – perhaps he should see you.”
Crystal shook her head. “Nothing can heal me like the land itself, and with the blessing of King Saxon. The trouble is that it always takes time.” Her thoughts turned back to the times when she had audience with the King. Saxon was an elderly man, or so it seemed to the seven year old, and had a very kindly face. She knew him all her life and he was her protector. He was like a grandfather and she loved him dearly. “As long as he is King and this land is free, I will heal.”
Goldmire looked to the sky. “Hmm. I think Rhab-di will be coming soon. The sky is turning the colour of his soul. That is always his way. Will you be strong enough?” His eyes could not disguise a mortal fear for her life.
“I’ll survive, and so will the land. I’ve had greater challenges in past battles.” Crystal had a sense of purpose few adults could match, and her eyes sparkled with determination. This was the core of her magical ability, along with her mysterious tie to the Far Away Place.
Out of the nearby woods a female form appeared, with a long bow in hand, and a quiver strapped to her back. It was Lady Xena, and when the huntress-warrior saw the pair by the river bank, she ran effortlessly across the green field, literally jumping the narrow road to Sir Kenneth’s castle, and tightly hugged the petite girl.
It took only a few seconds for Xena to realise Crystal was hurt. “This is no good, child,” she observed.
“But I am here, and we are about to fight Rhab-di again.”
Lady Xena straightened herself and surveyed the hills that surrounded the Far Away Place. Her green eyes were piercing, and she could see the smallest of creatures miles away. “I see nothing, but the signs are all around. I fear you are correct.” She placed her bow on the ground and quickly tied her long black hair into a pony tail, a ritual she followed prior to every battle.
Goldmire started to pace around the field, slowly building his mental preparedness for war. Each stomp of his foot on the ground sent tremors around him.
Trumpets suddenly sounded from the most majestic castle in the Far Away Place. The great gates opened and a silver armoured knight, riding a great white horse, rode out and followed the road toward Crystal’s group. Sir Kenneth wore red plumes on his full helm and he firmly held a long white lance with a gold blade at its tip. The horse galloped the span to the river bank in a matter of seconds, without a single bead of sweat forming on its muscular body, and he snorted when Kenneth reined him in.
The Knight effortlessly dismounted and took his helmet off, and dropped to one knee before the blonde-locked girl. “My Lady, I have seen the signs, culminating in your appearance. I am, as always, at your service.”
Crystal looked at her knight and her heart warmed with his conviction, and his strikingly handsome features. He was perfect, like Sir Galahad, and he completed the group that had, for the past four years, defeated the Foe that threatened to turn beauty into ugliness, harmony into chaos, and peacefulness into pain and misery. “Sir Kenneth, I will need your skills today.”
“As always,” he responded, echoing his former statement. He returned to his feet and saw the look in his compatriot’s faces, and then returned his gaze to her. “You are still weak. I had a feeling this may be the case, as it was only a few days ago that we had battled with Rhab-di. Will your magic be strong enough, my Lady?”
Crystal’s lips pursed and her eyes sparkled again. “Of course. We will defeat the black-hearted creature.”
Sir Kenneth dropped his head in acknowledgement and respect, and smiled. “As I guessed. You are a wonder, Lady Crystal.”
Just as the knight completed his words, lightening started to rain down on the hills to the east, and the few rays of sunlight were snuffed out by the dark clouds completely filling the sky. He jumped back into his saddle and unhooked his lance, ready for combat.
Lady Xena loosely nocked an arrow on her bow and simply stood still, eyes penetrating the eastern hills, having already spotted other signs that Rhab-di was going to attack from that direction. Goldmire stopped pacing and flexed his hands, mumbling words that could only be understood by his kind, but the intent was absolutely clear. Crystal shakily turned to the east and opened the palms of her hands to the heavens – large balls of light materialised in each. She focused on them, ensuring they were ready to defend her small group. She felt tired – more weary than she had ever felt before, and yet her magic was still strong. Her determination fed it.
The four did not move from where they were. They knew that Rhab-di always went for them – that was the creature’s purpose. Crystal secretly thought that the fiend actually targeted her, for she always sensed that her life, and the Far Away Place, were intimately connected.
Rhab-di appeared atop a hill a mile to the east. The creature was bigger than it had ever been before – a massive black cloud, shapeless, menacing. Lightning flashed from within, but it could not illuminate the cloud itself. It was a rolling mass of nothingness; of death.
Rhab-di, even without any sign of being a living, breathing creature, emanated a human-like malevolence. There was a shriek of glee that projected from the boiling cloud, and it seemed to sense Crystal’s weakness. It picked up its speed and came thundering toward the four warriors.
Sir Kenneth suddenly spurred his stallion and he immediately charged at the cloud, lance as steady as if it was resting on the ground. The gleaming head of the weapon penetrated the cloud and it flashed gold light, scattering – annihilating, a great swathe of Rhab-di’s mass. A shriek emanated again, but this time of pain. However, the cloud was huge, and the majority of it still remained, and it rolled effortlessly past the valiant knight.
Lady Xena fired arrow after arrow into the mass, and each time it entered the cloud, a giant chunk of cloud evaporated with a silver flash from the arrow head. The enemy felt this too, and Xena destroyed as much volume as Sir Kenneth, but still there was a tsunami left, heading for Crystal.
Rhab-di, despite his pain, was jubilant. Confident.
In a rage not ever seen by the mundane of humanity, Goldmire screamed out so loud that it shook leaves from trees, and then he slammed both his fists into the ground. A shock wave pulsed forward and lifted the very earth in a foot high wave, and when it hit the cloud, it shook the mass, the very vibrations causing internal disruption. Lightning bolts crossed each other, causing explosions and collapsing great pockets of Rhab-di’s gaseous body. And yet, after all of these attacks, there was more left of the enemy than what was taken away.
The cloud was now only a dozen yards away, and while it had slowed considerably, it was going to encompass all except Sir Kenneth. Crystal had been in this situation before, but the foe was always more diminished than what she now faced. She threw both her globes of power with all her might and they entered the darkness, and as they fell into the blackness and collapsed, Rhab-di cried in pain as great volumes of the cloud sucked into a new-born whiteness. Crystal saw the great Rhab-di, second after second, shrink smaller and smaller. For a while she thought that this battle would end like all others before, with the enemy disappearing…
Then Crystal’s greatest fear came to realisation. The magic had ended and there was still some cloud – no more than six feet in diameter. Goldmire leapt for the gas but the cloud evaded him; Xena had run out of arrows and drew a dagger but it was too late to intercept the foe; Sir Kenneth cried out in despair as he was far too many yards behind Rhab-di.
She invoked another two globes just when the cloud encompassed her. They were small conjurations: faint, barely holding their shape. She was spent… there was so little left in her. She fought with all her might, all the determination she had that made her so special, and then… she felt her globes collapse and drag the entire cloud into them, as well as herself…
As she became distended and one with the bright light of her magical globes, she saw the face of King Saxon – that warm and kind face – and she was able to feebly speak. “My King, I’ve failed you! We’re all lost!”
He shook his head, as he too was sucked into the white light. “No, you did not fail, my dearest one. You fought a great battle and war.”
She was one with the light.
The heart monitor flat lined.
Crystal’s mother and father collapsed by her still body on the hospital bed, weeping uncontrollably. Dr Saxon, Crystal’s surgeon, couldn’t help but sob as well. He loved the dear, little fighter, and he was there with her since she was first diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma four years before.
He looked at her pale face and saw peace, but also a trace of that incredible determination that allowed her to fight and win many a battle over four years, where perhaps other children would have given up much earlier. He was proud of his own achievements, because he gave her some life and she grasped it with both her hands and became a wonderful person and inspiration for all who knew her.
He then turned to the small table next to her bed and saw the little diorama that Crystal had built and augmented over the four years. A small scene with three castles and a river running through. Three figurines were placed close together next to the river bank – a knight on a horse, an Amazon warrior, and a strange monster that seemed to have come from some fast food children’s meal. She loved her table, he thought. It was the world she went to when she was most in pain, when the chemo was overwhelming, when the radio therapy beat her down, or when one in a long line of operations had taken place when another malignant tumour was cut out.
He knelt and joined Crystal’s parents at the bedside and wept with them. He could barely speak but he needed to say one comforting statement. “She’s at peace now. She is now without pain in a Far Away Place.”