Alexander had his eye on the stone archer at the garden, and his gaze was suspicious. "This statue follows your every movement, doesn't it?"
"Yeah," I nodded, my eyes also on the statue. "He may shoot if we try to pass through the gate."
Alexander took out the shield we found in the catacombs. "Well then, why don't I go first with the shield?"
"Be careful," I warned.
He nodded once, propping the shield on his right arm as he cautiously walked towards the gate. The stone archer followed him, his arrow constantly trained on Alexander before he released it. Alexander quickly brought up the shield to guard against the stone projectile, and within seconds the shield's only use was kindling.
I exhaled, waiting for something else to happen, but the archer only slumped dejectedly, his only arrow gone.
Alexander looked down at the shield's remains, then back at me. "That was a surprise, wasn't it?"
I giggled weakly. "No kidding."
"Well, come on," he beckoned me. "Let's see how further we can go."
I cautiously jogged through the gate and joined him at the rose hedges. He removed one of the flowers and smelled it, closing his eyes as he did so. "Oh, smell that," he told me, holding the rose in my direction.
The rose smelled very fragrant and even felt soft against my nose. "Ooh. You should hang on to that," I recommended, nudging him. "Be a nice gift to send to Cassima, huh?"
"Mm," he grunted, turning away, but not fast enough to hide the blush coloring his cheeks. "Why don't we see what's beyond this gazebo?"
He took one step closer to the little gateway, but the rose hedges, sensing an intruder, quickly grew together to prevent access to the area beyond the gazebo. The path was blocked.
"Apparently someone doesn't want us proceeding," he speculated.
"Someone probably didn't want us proceeding from the beach," I reminded him. Off his somewhat quizzical look, I explained, "The boiling path, the archer, and now this? Something is up."
"Should we turn back, then?" he suggested, joining his eyebrows together. "Maybe this is a sign we're not supposed to be here."
"No way," I chuckled, examining one of the rose hedges. "No one sets up barriers like this unless they're hiding something really worthwhile."
"Are you talking about treasure or something?" he asked me.
"I'm talking about anything that might be useful to us," I told him, my eyes lighting up as I dug through my satchel for Lady Celeste's dagger. "Maybe Alhazred has some kind of secret that he doesn't want anyone to find out, and so he hid it beyond this garden. Aha," I exclaimed softly when I pulled out the dagger and began sawing at the branches.
"I don't think that'll help," he said to me, extracting the scythe from his inventory. "Let me try."
I sidestepped so he could get full access to the hedge. "Be my guest."
I just had to chuckle to myself. That phrase had me thinking of Beauty and the Beast, my favorite Disney movie. And here we were on the Isle of the Beast.
Alexander fluidly wielded the scythe, hacking away at the magical rosebush as leaves flew through the air. But Alexander didn't let up until he gasped, "Kit, I see light!"
After a minute or two of pruning, the path was once again open. I wondered if the hedges would try once again to grow together, but using the scythe must have worked. "Okay, then. Let's have a look."
I followed Alexander through the gazebo, and my eyes lit up when we saw the land beyond. The path through the woods and garden ended here in a small clearing where a gushing fountain dominated and perhaps ten feet away was an iron gate leading into a maze of hedges. Far beyond the hedge maze was a majestic castle, shining brilliantly in the sunlight.
I took my gaze off the bubbling fountain when we heard the iron gate opening and closing. Stepping through the gate was a tall figure, dressed in regal clothing and very fancy shoes. Yet the figure itself was not entirely normal. You could easily tell this from the thick brown fur that covered it, and the long pig-like snout that protruded from under its hat.
The creature growled when its eyes alighted on us. "Who dares enter Beast's garden?" it demanded in a feral, gravelly male voice.
Alexander and I were speechless for only a brief moment, then I cleared my throat as Alexander responded, "My name is Alexander, and this is my friend Kit. We didn't mean to disturb your private garden."
"No?" Beast snorted. "And yet, monsieur, you could hardly have 'accidentally' broken through the three enchanted traps of the Isle of the Beast!"
I chuckled weakly as Alexander stuttered. "Perhaps it's simply our nature to break through enchanted traps." Was I an idiot for insisting we come here.
Beast growled a little. "You must be a prince and princess, then." When I gestured at Alexander to say, "Just him, not me!" he went on, "I know the nature of princes all too well. This face you see before you is hideous, is it not?"
As he studied his reflection in a hand mirror with disdain, I groaned, "Oh, certainly not hideous…."
"I agree," the prince of Daventry nodded. "For the face of a beast…it is really quite…noble."
"Ha!" Beast shouted, making me jump a little. "I'm glad you like it! For you two will soon own ones just like it! I too was once a pretty prince, caring for nothing but adventuring and rescuing fair maidens."
"Must've been nice," I smiled brightly, sighing wistfully. So far, this little adventure was the most exciting thing to happen in my life.
"But I rankled one too many evil hags," he growled. "One dark night, I was turned into this obscenity you see before you, warped in shape, and trapped on this enchanted island over a hundred years ago!"
I whistled, looking Beast over. "Over a hundred years on this island? My word, you don't look a day over twenty-five."
"Kit," Alexander hissed at me.
"What? It's a compliment," I retorted.
He shook his head sadly before turning back to Beast. "Surely there is a way off this island," he pointed out.
Beast was snide again. "Oh, surely. You broke in, did you not? And yet, think: Where would I go clad so 'eloquently' as I am with this silk, and this PELT?" he spat the last word out. After clearing his throat, he went on, "You see, my prison is also my sanctuary. You are the first to break through the barriers in lo these many years-that is, except for the Druids, who stole my heirloom coat-of-arms!"
Okay, hold on a second. Beast allegedly stole the Singing Stone from the Isle of Wonder, which may have led the Red and White Queens to steal the Winged Ones' sacred golden fleece. And now the Druids of the Isle of the Mists had stolen Beast's coat-of-arms….Was that what prompted him to take the Singing Stone?
No, use your head for once, dummy. If Beast was mad at the Druids, why would he steal from someone else instead of them? This is very fishy business, and there's a vital clue we're missing.
It couldn't have been the same reason Alhazred wanted Alexander dead, could it?
I tuned back into the conversation just as I heard Alexander saying, "…any way we can help…"
"Help?" Beast repeated. "You? I'm afraid you don't understand. The enchanted barriers were a warning and protection for YOU more than for me. Your prize for forcing your way past them is to join me in this dire life."
"And that means what?" I asked, joining my eyebrows together and raising them up high on my forehead.
Beast's grimace was almost a smirk. "By the laws of this sorcery, you are doomed to be trapped in the form of a beast. Your reward for broaching this garden is to be my slaves, slaves as beastly as I am. You have only a few hours of humanity left."
"Uh-oh," I groaned as Alexander gasped, "But that's not possible! There must be some way to break the enchantment. Spells always have a weakness somewhere."
"That's very true," I concurred. "Did this sorceress mention any way out of the spell?"
"The enchantment you are under is tied to my own," Beast answered. "Oh, the sorceress left me a 'way out,' but I'm afraid it was only her final, bitter joke. You see, I need only find a maiden to join me here, to share my castle, my life-willingly. Take another look at me. You can't help but admire the hag's terrible cruelty and cunning," he sneered.
"Oh, that's no joke," I scoffed, thinking once more of Beauty and the Beast. "We can find a maiden no problem!"
"I shall do whatever it takes to find such a maiden," Alexander vowed, "for Cassima's sake."
Jeez, he must really have been bent on reuniting with Cassima if he was willing to chance turning into a beast for her. I couldn't help but admire his lion heart instead of the hag's cruelty, as Beast suggested.
This vow amused Beast. "Truly? How determined of you. I personally would not waste my last few hours as a man on an impossible errand. However, you may do as you please. I give you this token." He presented me with a beautiful diamond ring set in a pure gold band. I bowed my head to him as he did so. Just because he didn't look like a prince anymore didn't mean he still wasn't one.
"It's my family ring, and the only heirloom I have left," he told me. "If perchance you should-if you think you have found a maid…"
"We give her this ring," I finished.
"Yes," he responded. "She must accept it of her own free will. By doing so, she accepts me. Not that you shall find anyone, mind you!"
I couldn't help but smirk a little. Watch me.
"Your time is short," he warned us. "Count the minutes on your fingers while the fingers you have, pretty prince and little lady. Your master will await you." Then he turned back to the iron gate and disappeared behind it, returning to his grand but solitary castle.
"Well, back to the Isle of the Crown?" he suggested.
"You thinking about that girl who lived past the village?" I confirmed.
"Yes," he nodded as we headed back to the garden past the gazebo. "I've seen no other maidens on our quest, and she may just be the one he's looking for."
"Good thinking," I commended as we quickly crossed the pond and returned to the beach. I took out the magic map, and we teleported back to the Isle of the Crown.
Instead of heading directly to the nobles' quarters beyond the village, Alexander made a quick stop at the bookstore, hoping to run into Jollo. Sure enough, the Court Clown was seated in his usual chair, reading the same book.
"Jollo, my friend," Alexander greeted as we walked over to him. "Is the wedding still moving forward at the castle?"
Jollo looked up at the sound of his voice and stood up instantly, putting down his book. "Prince Alex, Kit! Egads, yes, that confounded wedding has the whole castle a-bustle! Look, I didn't come here to talk about that, though. I came to warn you," he added confidentially.
I eyed him curiously. "Something else we should be concerned about, Jollo?"
"No, listen!" he protested. "The vizier knows that you're here, Alexander. He's posted extra guards and he's telling them about two foreign saboteurs! Who else could he mean but you? The vizier's genie must have learned about your presence in the land, Prince Alex." He laughed in distress as he went on, "I don't know how, but he must have."
"Hold on a second," I interjected. "Uh, do you remember what color this genie's eyes are?"
"Bright yellow, if I remember correctly," he hummed, furrowing his brow. "Why do you ask?"
"Alexander," I gasped, widening my eyes as I took his arm, "he's the one that's following us. The vizier's genie is the one that's been trying to kill us all this time!"
"Kill you?" Jollo echoed. "Just what-"
"First was the boy in the water, then the man in the garden at the Isle of the Beast," I recalled. "Then there was that old woman on the Isle of the Sacred Mountain, and that Lady Celeste imposter! All these people had bright gold eyes, and they were all trying to trick us into death," I explained. "If only we'd been a little more discreet."
"Kit, this is serious!" Jollo protested. "Alhazred will never let anyone get close to Cassima now. He's doubled the castle guard probably to make sure you keep out! Gadzooks! Oh, it's too bad there isn't some way to convince Alhazred that you've left the islands, or even died! If he thought you were out of the way, you might be able to get close enough to-" he trailed off.
An idea formulated in my brain as Alexander hummed. "An interesting thought. Tell us more about this genie."
"The genie's name is Shamir Shamazel," Jollo answered. "Alhazred brought Shamir with him when he came to this kingdom. Shamir probably wouldn't directly threaten you, but that doesn't mean he isn't dangerous. He can be a terrible trickster, and an ingenious spy. It's too bad we can't get our hands on Shamir's lamp," he sighed wistfully. "If we had that lamp, Alhazred and all of our problems would be solved. Wouldn't that be a fine thing?"
"It would be," I agreed, but Alexander had something else on his mind.
"You would wish to be master of such a wicked creature?"
Jollo shook his head. "Oh, Shamir isn't necessarily evil. Genies never are, you know. They only reflect their owner's heart-for good or ill. Alhazred is hardly a shining example for an impressionable genie."
I couldn't help myself, I had to make a joke. "Let's hope he never has children."
They recognized it as such, and chuckled. "So how do you propose we go about getting Shamir's lamp?" Alexander inquired.
Jollo blinked. "What? Oh, Prince Alex, I was only dreaming. I mean, the lamp is heavily guarded. It would be easier to steal Alhazred's own trousers while he's wearing them than it would be to get that lamp!"
Alexander grinned. "But surely a clown's hands are quick and agile…"
He didn't even try to look modest. "Well, yes, they are, matter of fact. But then, the theft would be detected almost immediately, and then…my poor neck…"
"Ah," I pointed out, raising a finger. "IF the theft were detected."
His eyes lit up. "Oh, I see! Yes, well, there might be a slim chance, but only that. If you could find me a replica of the genie's lamp, an EXACT replica, I might be able to make the swap. I alone might get close enough. But I couldn't tell you what to look for. I caught a glimpse of it only once. I would know it if I saw it again, but to say I cannot."
I looked over at Alexander. "Eh, we'll manage something."
"Good luck to you both, then!" he wished us. "I really must be going back to the castle. I don't think I'll be able to come back here. If we were spied on, well, it's too high a risk. I hope you understand." He spoke more to Alexander as he said, "If I see Cassima, I'll tell her I saw you. If you do ever make it to the castle, look me up, and do be careful, friends."
"No problem," I nodded, grinning. "You look after yourself, Jollo."
"And thank you for all your help," Alexander supplemented.
Jollo nodded, then left the bookstore. Once he was gone, I turned back to Alexander. "Okay, well, let's go talk to that girl."
Just past the village was a beautiful tan two-story house with rose hedges growing all over the side and across the wooden fence. Sitting close to the fence as Alexander and I walked up to the house was a lovely young girl with flowing blond hair. A thin veil sat upon her head as she tended to something, allowing me to see her features. Her skin was pale and as delicate as porcelain, with soft blue eyes and pale pink lips. Her clothes were like the ferryman's, obviously nobility clothing, but dilapidated and uncared for.
Smiling, I rested a hand on the fence, lightly fingering one of the roses there. "You have lovely roses, Miss. But perhaps, instead of a red rose, you'd like a white rose?" I proposed, looking at Alexander before her.
The maid looked up and there was fear and distrust in her eyes, but there was also clear desire for the rose Alexander offered her. Eventually, the desire took over and she accepted the rose, placing it against her nose before looking back at us. "Oh, I shouldn't, sir and miss, but it is so lovely! I have never seen a rose of white," she whispered, gazing at the flower in awe. "It looks so pale and delicate. Wherever did you find one of such a color?"
"There are many hedges of them on the Isle of the Beast, and they grow together like magic!" Alexander told her, smiling.
Her eyes widened. "Oh, truly? What an adventure it must be to see them! But I should not speak so, especially to strangers. Thank you for the rose, though, kind sir and miss." With that, she went back to her work.
I grinned at Alexander, and in that moment I knew we were thinking the same thing. Closing my fingers around Beast's ring, I went on, "Excuse me, miss, but allow me to tell you about the place where the white roses grow. The Isle of the Beast is an enchanted place, with a path running through a deep forest. The path crosses three magic blockades, set to keep any who try to visit away. At the center lives a tremendous beast."
The maid was a little startled, but intrigued. "Really? Magic blockades? How exciting! What kind of a beast? Is it very terrifying and ferocious?"
"He is a beast that walks on two legs, dresses like a prince, and speaks with the voice of a man," I answered.
She made an uncertain face. "A beast that talks and wears clothes? How is that possible? Is the beast magic, too?"
Alexander took over the narrative. "Not magical, enchanted. Beast was once a prince, but a witch trapped him in the form of a beast and set him on the island. There, he lives in a castle in the midst of a maze."
The girl looked sad. "How terrible. Imagine how lonely he must be," she lamented.
"Oh, yes," I agreed. "The level of solitude he lives in can be very lonely. Really, in that kind of life, who wouldn't be terrifying and ferocious?"
Her eyes widened. "He really exists? Oh, how it breaks my heart! If I could, I would tend to such a beast. Such a beast might find comfort in a kind face, do you not think it so?"
"Oh, absolutely," Alexander and I chorused. "You would not be afraid of him?" he went on.
"Afraid?" she echoed. "Maybe at first, but how silly of me to speak so! The roses in this little yard are the only magic I will ever see."
"We could take you there," Alexander offered. "In fact, we would owe you our lives if you would go. If you truly wished to go."
We now had the girl's undivided attention. "You are serious? I could leave here? Oh, I have always dreamt of leaving, but to actually go-this is the only home I have ever known."
"Home is a hard place to leave, even if you're unhappy there," Alexander concurred.
She got to her feet. "But I WILL go," she vowed. "If I can help him, I must go!" And she headed for the gate, pushing it open easily and walking over to us.
"Nothing you want to take with you?" I asked.
"Nothing," she responded sadly.
I withdrew the ring Beast gave me and offered it to her. "Then take this ring. It's his, and he would pleased if you wore it."
With wonder in her blue eyes, she took the ring and slid it onto her finger. "Why, it's the most beautiful thing I have ever seen! Thank you both kindly."
As we started for the beach, the front door of the house flew open and a snide, rather large woman, yelled, "Beauty! Where do you think YOU'RE going?!"
She responded simply, "To a place where roses grow, and to someone who truly needs me."
I wondered how Beauty was doing when the Beast stepped through the gates once again when movement in the corner of my eye caught my interest. I quickly looked around to see a salamander with sparkling gold eyes crawling past.
"I see you wear my ring," Beast observed as Beauty stood before him. "You willingly agree to spend your life here with me? Do you know what that means?"
"Yes, milord, I do," the maiden nodded. "I have been touched by your story."
"Pity alone need not sentence you to endure this face," Beast warned her.
Beauty disagreed, "Oh, but it is a gentle face, and kind."
I felt a little smile cross my face when I heard this. Most girls I knew could be really shallow and would run away screaming if they saw Beast. It was good to see not every girl had looks on their mind when meeting a potential mate.
Beast was touched. "You look at me so sweetly and are not repulsed." He exhaled, and all of a sudden, his voice had changed. Now he sounded like a human man. "By the light of your eyes, my spirit soars!"
Alexander and I were spellbound as a swirling ray of magic swept around Beast, restoring his fur to pale skin. His clothing was the same, but now his face was human, with a wig similar to Governor Swann's from Pirates of the Caribbean. "The enchantment! It is broken!" he proclaimed excitedly.
Beauty curtsied to him. "I am pleased to have served you, milord. Do you still wish me to stay?"
"What?" the prince gasped. "Speak not such nonsense, Beauty! Do you think that I have learned nothing of true love during my time here? You are my queen."
The same magic surrounded Beauty, and now she was in a gown that befitted her name, made from fine silk. "Oh!" she gasped. "My clothes! This gown!"
"How well it suits your noble heart," the prince decided.
Alexander and I walked up to the pair, and they turned to face us. "Alexander, Kit, how can I ever repay you?" Beauty inquired. I began to shake my head as she went on, "I have nothing to offer except my gratitude. But please, take these old clothes. Perhaps you will find someone in need during your travels."
"You have already repaid us by your example of courage, Beauty," Alexander promised her.
"And by your friendship, I hope," I supplemented, accepting the clothes with a thankful nod.
The prince smiled. "You will always have our friendship and loyalty, Prince Alexander, Miss Kit. But from a fellow adventurer, take some advice. If you find your true love, protect her with your life. We are all beasts without the redeeming humanity of love."
Alexander smiled as the prince went on, "And to aid you, accept my mirror. Now that my life is no longer hung in false shadows, I have no need for it. Give it to someone with nothing to fear from the truth it reveals."
Stepping forward, Alexander took the mirror and bowed his head to them. "Thank you. We wish you both well."
I bowed to them as the prince and his new queen curtsied to each other. "Come, Beauty. Let me take you home," he invited. Taking her hands, he led her over to the gate and opened it for her, following her into the maze.
"Nothing better than a happy ending, am I right?" I grinned, nudging Alexander as we walked towards the gazebo.