"Even though it's not April 1, I'm certain this must be your idea of a joke, sir," Lieutenant Commander Steve McGarrett said. Although he had transferred to the reserves when his father had mysteriously died, the Admiral who was calling him apparently hadn't gotten that memo. Admiral Aikman was insisting that Steve was the only man for this particular mission, one which Steve could only believe was some sort of post transfer hazing ritual. Did reserve SEALs get hazed? It was the only explanation Steve could imagine.
"This is no joke, Commander," the Admiral said in all seriousness. "This is not only an imperative mission, it is one that could determine the future of all mankind."
"All mankind," Steve repeated slowly. He didn't know Admiral Aikman especially well but he'd never known him to engage in sport of this kind. But still. Faeries? Portals? Forest of Nightmares? No way was any of this true. "I feel I must decline, sir. You need to find someone who believes in all of this…."
"I know it sounds vaguely ridiculous," Admiral Aikman said, cutting Steve off before he could say something he might regret. "Come to my office and I'll show you all the proof you need."
"Sir," Steve said, trying hard to think of way to get out of meeting with him. But he knew he was not going to successfully refuse the Admiral's request. "When?" he finally asked with a sigh.
"This afternoon, 1300," Aikman said. "Bring your kit. You'll leave immediately after the briefing."
"Sir?" Steve said before he realized he was talking to dead air. 'Bring your kit'? He hadn't agreed to take the mission. He was in the reserves. Didn't that mean he could refuse any missions? "Hey," Steve said when he had dialed his phone.
"Brah," Chin Ho Kelly said, sounding as chipper as he always did.
"You busy?" Steve asked.
"Nah. Chasing bad guys. Filling out forms. The usual. Why? What's up?"
"Can you take an early lunch?" Steve asked. If anyone could make heads or tails out of what the Admiral had said it was Chin. He'd lived his entire life in Hawaii and there were no local mythos which were unknown to him.
"Sure. I'll meet you at Kamekona's truck in 15?"
"Perfect. Thanks," Steve agreed, going up to his closet to take out his kit and putting his gun in the back of his cargoes. He had other armaments in his duffle but this gun was his go-to - the one he could always count on no matter the circumstances. He didn't worry too much about making the house ready to be empty since one of the reasons he was talking to Chin was to ask him to check in on it. He did lock the doors and set the alarm before driving to Kamekona's infamous shrimp truck.
He wasn't surprised that Chin was there and waiting for him, his police uniform crisp and professional as always. Kamekona greeted him heartily, taking his order before strolling away to get their food.
"What's up?" Chin asked Steve as soon as they were seated at one of the tables.
"If hypothetically I said to you Esri faery land, what would you say in response?" Steve saw Chin's expression stiffen at the words, his breathing shallow. "Hypothetically."
"Are you mad?" Chin whispered, leaning over the table to hiss at Steve. "What the hell, Steve?"
Steve stared back at Chin, part of him considering the fact that Chin had never before spoken to him like that nor had he ever seen Chin so visibly shaken. Apparently Esri faery land was not something to be spoken out loud. Which until he said it to Chin he had no way of knowing. "So that would be a bad thing to say."
"I've known you to do some crazy things but this beats them all," Chin said, shaking his head.
"I have no idea what it means," Steve said in his defense.
"Obviously. If you did, you'd know better."
"Explain it to me," Steve requested. They looked up at Kamekona when he returned with their food, his expression a considering one. "Thank you."
"What's going on?" Kamekona asked pointedly.
"Steve is trying to bring the curse of the ancients on him and me by extension," Chin said quietly.
"This is a serious accusation," Kamekona responded sitting beside Steve and motioning with his fingers. "Tell, tell."
"Ask him," Chin said barely above a whisper.
"Esri faery land?" Steve said in the same quiet tone. Kamekona's eyes grew wide and frightened, an expression never seen on the big man's face.
"You have no comprehension of the meaning of that which you say so easily," Kamekona whispered.
"I don't," Steve said. "I'm not trying to bring a curse on anyone's head. I'm only looking for information."
"The last man I knew who asked about it was never seen or heard again, disappearing nearly as soon as the words left his mouth. He was a haole, a transplant who had it in his head that he could go between this world and that. Can't say what made him think it. Took a boat out to the Pu'u Keka'a reef and that was that. You awaken the spirits of the reef at your own risk. Even saying the words aloud can anger them," Kamekona said.
"And you believe all of this?" Steve said with a frown. "I have never known either of you to be superstitious before."
"Not superstition, McGarrett. True facts. Seen it with my own eyes. Youare welcome to dismiss it but not when you are anywhere close by me," Kamekona warned.
Steve glanced from the big man to Chin and back. They had twin looks of dismay displayed and Steve had to look away. "So hypothetically speaking if I was asked to look into the what might be happening in the depths around Pu'u Keka'a reef, you would recommend that I not."
"Find a helicopter and fly as far and fast away from here as you possibly can," Chin said with an intensity that gave Steve pause.
"Don't think that's an option," Steve finally admitted, glancing at his watch. "I have been contacted and told I'm taking this mission. I need you to check on the house."
"You got it, brah. How long do you want me to wait before I call Mary and tell her you aren't coming home?" Chin asked in complete seriousness.
Steve stared at him before turning slowly to look at Kamekona who was looking at him with the same severe expression as on Chin's face. "The Admiral will notify you. You can notify her."
"Right. I get your truck," Chin said, standing up and taking his uneaten food with him. "I pray I'll see you again. God speed if I don't."
"Aloha," Kamekona said, getting up to lumber away without looking back.
"Drop me off at base and you can have my truck now," Steve said, going toward it. Chin changed directions and got into the passenger seat as Steve started it up. "I'll be back for it so try not to wreck it."
"It will be my problem if I do," Chin told him, shaking his head. "Tell the Admiral no, brah."
"I can't," Steve said. "And you really believe?"
"Steve," Chin said as though it explained everything. "You are a believer."
"In some things. But this is hocus…," Steve began to say before he caught Chin's dismayed expression. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say that. But you have to admit that it sounds just a little far-fetched."
"Not to me," Chin said.
"Why don't I know anything about this mythology, if it really exists? I grew up here."
"You aren't native. Spirits don't visit you the way they do us. You'd be a believer if you were native," Chin said.
"So whites never know?" Steve asked.
"Some do. It's rare," Chin said. "You don't have the blood of the islands in your veins."
"I guess not," Steve said, pulling into the base and producing his credentials. Chin showed his HPD badge which was enough to gain him entry. Steve drove directly to the building that housed the Admiral's office, taking his backpack from the truck. "I'll see you soon."
"I can only leave it to the powers that you return to us," Chin said, watching him walk into the building. It was all he could do to not get out of the truck and chase Steve, begging him to come back to Honolulu with him. Steve was a good man and a good friend. Chin regretted losing both.
Steve was admitted directly into the Admiral's office, Admiral Aikman standing to shake his hand when he entered. "Commander."
"Admiral," Steve said, seeing the lines of worry on the man's face. He followed the Admiral over to a TV screen filled beautifully blue water at the base of a sharp cliff.
"Do you recognize this island?"
"It looks like Pu'u Keka'a – the black rock, sir," Steve said.
"Yes," the Admiral agreed, pressing a button so that a DVD began to play. "This is from a diving exercise yesterday," the Admiral explained. There were six SEALs with scuba masks and tanks swimming in the clear blue water. As they swam away from the camera, they came closer to the black rocks of the Pu'u Keka'a reef. One of the SEALs stopped and motioned to the others to back away. That SEAL reached out and touched the black coral, snatching back his hand and shooing the other men further away. The SEAL by the coral lowered himself and peered into the opening where he had put his hand. Before any of the other men could do anything to prevent it, the SEAL was sucked into the opening, disappearing from view in that instant. The remaining SEALs began searching, the camera following them around to the opposite side of the solid reef. The missing man had not swum through. He had been sucked into the coral. When the camera returned to the original position, the opening in the coral was no longer visible. All of the remaining SEALs examined the coral, their hand signals indicating that he had disappeared at that exact location. Having no other option, the SEALs surfaced, the camera going black as they reach the boat.
"What happened to him, sir?" Steve asked, certain he was not going to like the answer. He wondered if he would believe it but that remained to be seen.
"He crossed over," the Admiral said in a low voice. "The portal has opened and it must be closed."
"Sir?" Steve said, staring at the Admiral.
"The portal between the Esri world and the Human world has come unsealed. It has to be closed to protect our world from them and their world from us," the Admiral said like it made complete sense. Steve could only continue to stare at him, trying to remember when he forgot how to speak English. "I understand your confusion, Steve. Please, have a seat," the Admiral said, gesturing at a chair.
Steve automatically sat, watching the Admiral sit in the chair next to him.
"Natives know of its existence. They fear to discuss it but the knowledge is passed on from generation to generation. The portal was sealed in the Before-Time, beforeany Humans inhabited these islands. The Esri feared an invasion and retreated to their side of the portal. In the Before-Time, they lived here and they lived there. They passed through freely. When Humans discovered the Hawaiian islands, the Esri knew Humans could be a threat to their existence. They sealed the portal and hide it beneath the coral."
"Why is it open now?" Steve asked quietly.
"We aren't sure. But there is only one Human who knows the ways of the portal. The portal-keeper is the only one who can seal it so the Esri are safe from us and us from them."
"Then ask him to fix it," Steve said sharply.
"That's the problem, Commander. We have reason to believe he crossed over. He came to the islands three months ago to see the portal for himself. He sailed out to the reef and was not seen or heard of again."
"This man. He was a haole?" Steve asked although he already knew the answer.
"Yes. We believe he was one quarter Esri but we don't know for certain. Some Esri come across and take on Human form. They are indistinguishable from us unless they choose to reveal their true selves. I could be one and you'd never know," the Admiral explained.
"With all due respect, sir, I'm having a hard time believing in portals and beings from other worlds."
"Understood," Aikman said with a crisp nod.
"I don't think I'm the man for this job. I don't believe."
"You don't have to believe, Steve. All of that will change when you swim through," the Admiral said.
"But why me, sir? Surely there are SEALs who do believe."
"How old were you when your mother died?"
"Sixteen, sir," Steve said with a frown at the abrupt change of topic.
"Did your father talk much about her after she died?"
"No sir. He sent me and my sister away. To the mainland," Steve said.
"That was to protect you," the Admiral said. "Your mother was Esri."
"No she wasn't," Steve said in denial, shaking his head. "She was Human, like us."
"That's what your father wanted you and your sister to believe. For your protection. Your mother didn't actually die. She was abducted and forced to return to Esri."
"How could you know that? If my father said she died in a car accident, then she did," Steve said in a hard tone.
"He couldn't tell you the truth."
"You can't prove that she wasn't Human," Steve said. "What am I saying? Of course she was Human."
"She wasn't, son," Aikman said gently. "Did she ever swim in the ocean with you?"
"No. She said she didn't know how," Steve said.
"I'm sure that made sense to you at the time. The fact is she couldn't swim when you were around. Some of the Esri are like mermaids. The ones who choose to leave the water take on Human form. If they spend too much time in the ocean, their true selves are revealed."
"Mermaids?" Steve said, the first thing that popped into his head.
"Yes. Most of them are actually Esri. They allowed the myths of mermaids to survive to protect themselves."
Steve stared at the Admiral in disbelief. Apparently they had both fallen into an alternate universe where words like mermaids and the Esri World and portals supposedly made sense. None of it was making sense to him. "Sir," Steve said then stopped.
"I understand your consternation," the Admiral said in a warm tone. "It will all make sense when you swim through."
"How do you know I can? Surely they have safeguards in place."
"You are half Esri even if you don't know it. You'll be allowed to swim through. And swim back to our side."
"The SEAL that disappeared," Steve said, nodding his head toward the TV. "Was he part Esri?"
"We don't know. We're having trouble reaching his family. We don't put it in your records. And there are only a handful of Esri who chose to live on this side," the Admiral explained.
"How do you know my mother was Esri when I don't?" Steve demanded.
"Your father told me when you joined the Navy. He thought it was important that someone know. Did you open your father's safe deposit box after he died?"
"No sir. I keep meaning to go to the bank."
"When you do, you'll find it contains a letter from your mother. It explains your mixed heritage," Aikman said.
Steve shook his head, rubbing his forehead. The low thrumming in the back of his head had bosomed into a full fledged pounding behind his eyes. "Sir," he said again.
"We need you do to this, son. You're the only one who can," the Admiral said, an underlying of steel in his voice.
"Fine," Steve finally conceded. If nothing else, he'd dive down to the reef and prove to himself that the Admiral had gone mad. "How will I find this portal-keeper when I arrive?"
"We have reason to believe he will find you. This is entirely unprecedented so we're using the best theories available to us," the Admiral admitted.
"But you're sure this haole, this portal-keeper, will be able to seal it back?" Steve asked.
"We are. I'm not at liberty to tell you how I know. But my source is beyond equivocation."
"Yes sir," Steve sighed. "You have someone to take me out?"
"Of course," the Admiral agreed. "We have your wet suit prepared. We're ready when you are."
Steve nodded, standing to follow the Admiral out of his office and into a locker room where he traded his clothes for a wet suit. He had to ask why the wet suit was such an interesting shade of orange, which the Admiral explained would make it easier for him to remain undetected in Esri waters. "Their sky is red which makes the water close to this shade," the Admiral had said. Steve just shook his head and stuffed his cargos and polo into his backpack with his boots. His gun he strapped to his waist beneath the suit, a huge knife secured to his thigh.
"I suppose I'm ready, sir," Steve said, Aikman nodding and leading him out of the locker room. It was built on the dock where a small motorboat waited, one man on board. Steve didn't bother with introductions. The man at the controls didn't look like he was in a chatty mood which suited Steve just fine.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the dock, the boat slowed to a stop. Pu'u Keka'a loomed over them, casting deep shadows on the water below. Without fanfare, Steve tilted backward into the water, his breathing mask firmly in place.
He enjoyed watching the brightly colored fish as he swam down to the coral, slowing when he got to the section he recognized from the video. It seemed solid to him until he swam closer. Only then could he see that there was a distinct gap in the coral that seemed to be obscured by some kind of optical illusion. It wavered more than the surrounding water, the coral in that section seeming to dance in front of his eyes.
Sending up a silent prayer to deities he wasn't sure existed, Steve swam through, the gap just the right size for a man with a tank on his back to fit through. He blinked several times when he emerged on the other side, trying to reconcile the fact that the water surrounding him was orange – not the deep orange of a pumpkin but pale orange like the inside of a tangerine would be. There were some curious creatures that swam up to take a look at the intruder but they appeared to be as harmless as the creatures he'd left behind on his side of the portal. Well. Apparently the Admiral hadn't gone mad after all.
Steve swam toward the surface, breaking out sooner than he would have done in the blue ocean. Just to his right was a small wooden row boat, a man leaning over the opposite edge. Steve could see the back of his bare legs and the curve of his spine but nothing else.
Lifting his mask, he decided to risk calling attention to himself. If this…person was a hostile, Steve was confident he could take him. "Hello."
The man straightened and turned to look down at him. "Right on time," the man said in a calm, somewhat loud voice. "Figures you'd surface on the wrong side. No matter. Come on. We need to get to shore. You going to climb in or you planning to swim to the beach?"
Steve stared up at the short man with the blond hair, the words barely registering. This man was surely a standard issue Human. How did he know Steve was coming? Why was he waiting for him?
"I know you have at least a million and one questions. And I'll answer them all. But right now we have to get to shore. Hop to. Let's go," the man said, clapping his hands.
Steve decided do as the man asked. He really had no other choice that he could think of. He shrugged out of his oxygen tank, hoisting it into the boat for the other man to secure. That helped him climb into the boat with a minimum of fuss. Once aboard, he removed his flippers and sat on one of the gunnels, staring at the man who had taken up the oars. "Tell me who you are," Steve demanded, coiled for action if necessary.
"Danny Williams. Originally from New Jersey. Hope to be from there again soon. Now that you're here, maybe I can actually return home," Danny Williams of New Jersey said as he rowed the boat across the orange water. The sky over their heads was pale red, the orange sun just above the horizon of the orange ocean.
"How did you know I was coming?" Steve asked, watching the flex of muscles on the bare arms of the other man.
"I'm the portal-keeper. I know everything that happens with the portal," Danny said as though it made complete sense.
"Where is the SEAL that disappeared through the portal yesterday?" Steve asked.
"He hasn't gotten here yet," Danny said. "My guess is he'll be here in about a week."
"A week?" Steve asked, his eyebrows climbing to his hair line. "He got sucked through yesterday."
"According to Human time, yes. Not according to Esri time. How long have I been gone?" Danny asked, looking over his shoulder to judge the distance remaining to the sandy shore.
"Three months," Steve said.
Danny shook his head at that. "Here it's only been ten days. Esri time and Human time aren't the same."
"Apparently. What is this you're wearing?" Steve asked, gesturing to the man's unusual attire. It seemed to be one piece of blue and white of cloth, tied in knots at the shoulders and on his outer thighs. The center was tied with a belt of the same material, the front overlapping the back to provide some modesty to him. It left his arms and legs exposed, not that Steve minded the view. The flexing muscles under the golden hair would have kept his attention even if he wasn't trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
"It's called a mmu-fum-omuu. You'll get used to them, especially once you start wearing one."
"Yeah. I don't think that's going to happen," Steve said.
"Got to blend in, sport. That's one of the first rules of undercover. Of course anyone who sees you with me will know you aren't Esri. You're tall enough but that hair," Danny said, shaking his head.
"What about my hair?" Steve asked, a line etched between his eyebrows.
"Esri have white hair generally. Some have blue if they have Human blood. No one has black hair."
"You have blond-ish hair," Steve pointed out.
"I am the portal-keeper," Danny repeated, making it no clearer to Steve than it had been previously.
"I have no idea what that means," Steve admitted.
"I do recognize that," Danny said as he rowed them ashore. He jumped out, pulling the boat further onto the sand as Steve gathered his pack. "Leave the tank. You won't need it."
Steve nodded, crossing barefoot over the sand with Danny. The beach was edged by a dense forest, huge trees towering over their heads and casting the sand in shadows. At least the sand was white, a fact that was extremely comforting to Steve. Steve stared in amazement as Danny climbed a rope ladder, very soon disappearing into the red leaves of the tree.
"Don't dawdle. We don't have all day. No one has seen us yet but it won't be long before you attract a crowd," Danny said from somewhere in the depths of the foliage. His head popped out, his blue eyes laughing at Steve's gobsmacked expression. "Hop to."
Steve grasped the ladder and began to climb, very soon catching up with Danny who lead him up even further until he climbed onto a platform that was six feet wide and circled the entire trunk of the tree. The platform led to a tree house, the open front room revealing two huge rooms beyond, one with a table and chairs, one with a bed on a platform.
"Welcome to my humble abode," Danny said, taking Steve's pack and putting it in the first room of the treehouse.
"You live here?"
"I do. You're staying here tonight. Providing you aren't discovered. That could be problematic."
"All right," Steve said, holding up both hands in self defense. "You need to start explaining yourself. I've never been to a different world or dimension or whatever this place is."
"Understood. Take off your wetsuit. You'll find a new mmu-fum-omuu on the bed. It's dark blue. I tried to find a black one but the weavers laughed at me."
"I'm not wearing…that," Steve said, waving at Danny's attire.
"You don't have much choice," Danny said, hands on his hips, exasperation on his face. "You didn't bring enough clothes and you can't wear your wetsuit the entire time. Everyone wears mmu-fum-omuu. You'll stick out even more if you don't."
"You said I can't be discovered. I'm fine hiding in my Human clothes."
"What happens when they are filthy? You look like the type to be covered in a healthy coating of mud before breakfast. You can't have brought more than one set of clothes. Won't be long before you have no choice."
"Fine. I'll wear thatonce I have no choice," Steve said, taking his pack with him as he went into the room with the bed. "If you've only been here ten days, how do you have this tree house already?"
"It belonged to my mother. And her father before her. His father before him," Danny explained. "You hungry?"
"Yeah," Steve said as he peeled off the wet suit. "You have a towel?"
"Cupboard. Right side," Danny called back.
Steve found it and patted the moisture off before pulling on his cargos and polo. He scrubbed his head as he went out to the front room.
"Oh no. This won't do. Not at all," Danny said, studying Steve.
"What?" Steve asked, looking down at his clothes. They were perfectly normal by Human standards – the only standards he'd ever had up until now.
"This ink," Danny said, pointing to the edges of Steve's tattoos peeking out of the edge of his sleeves. "Won't do at all."
"It's not like I can take them off," Steve pointed out. "And if I wear one of those get-ups, all of them will be exposed."
Danny shook his head and took a step closer, lifting Steve's right sleeve. He touched the tattoo, sending shivers through Steve's arm. When he looked back down, the tattoo was gone.
"What the hell?" Steve demanded taking a step back from Danny when he reached for his left sleeve.
"It's only temporary. When we return to Earth, they'll be back. No worries, sailor. Your ink is safe. Let me do the other one," Danny said, making a come heremotion with his finger.
"You said I had to stay out of sight. What does it matter if I have tattoos?"
"Please stop arguing with me and let me make it disappear. I promise it will be back right where you left it," Danny said, reaching out and grabbing Steve's left arm. Steve surprised himself by letting the smaller man reel him in and use his magic to erase the second tattoo. "Better," Danny said with a nod. "Let's eat. Then we'll plan our strategy for tomorrow."
"What strategy?" Steve asked as he followed Danny to the table laden with food. There were bowls of what Steve assumed were fruits and vegetables, crusty bread, and pottery goblets of water. Lanterns were glowing around the tree house, keeping the oncoming night at bay. "I came to find you. I found you. You'll come back with me and seal the portal."
"Not yet," Danny said, sitting at the table.
"Why not? It needs to be sealed doesn't it?" Steve asked as he sat opposite of Danny.
"It does. And I will. But not before I find Grace."
"Grace?" Steve asked, accepting a huge bowl of blue…fruit he guessed.
"My daughter. She's the reason I'm here. And by extension why you are here. She's here and I am not leaving without her. Now that you're here, you're going to help me find her."
"Wait. Wait," Steve said, holding up one hand. "My only mission was to find you. I did. You need to seal the portal. End of story."
"No," Danny said, shaking his head. "My precious daughter is being held by the faeries and we are going to go get her. Then we'll all swim through the portal and I'll seal it."
"Faeries?" Steve asked faintly. Really?
"I accidentally married the Queen of the Faeries. They decided Grace needed to live among her 'true' people so she'd be ready to ascend the throne. They neglected to consult me about this plan and I'm reclaiming her," Danny said like it was the most sensible plan ever.
"You accidentally married the Queen of the Faeries," Steve repeated. He couldn't even… he didn't even know…. Maybe he could sneak away in the clock of darkness and swim back home.
"Yeah. Not like she toldme she was the Faery Queen. I should have guessed when she kept flying off at night. But you know how faeries can be," Danny said with a shrug.
"No. No I don't know how faeries can be. I have no fucking idea what you're talking about."
"No need for that language, sailor," Danny said with a tsk. "I was living a normal Human life. I was a policeman. I was rear ended by a beautiful woman who flirted shamelessly with me. Rachel and I got married, had a perfect daughter named Grace. Rachel decided to return to Esri and left Grace with me. Then Rachel's henchmen flew into Grace's room and brought her here. I came directly after them but so far haven't found Grace. You are going to help me find Grace at which point we will all return through the portal and I will seal it. Not before I find Grace. Not on your schedule. When I have Grace."
"Yeah," Danny said. "You didn't know your mother was Esri, did you?"
"No," Steve confirmed. "Not until this afternoon. Is she still here do you know?"
"She died a few years ago, I'm afraid. She bragged about you all the time. She loved you and Mary," Danny said.
"You knew her?" Steve asked, sadness overlaying his words.
"Not as well as some. She regretted leaving you but forces beyond her control made her return home."
Steve nodded at that. What was there to say? "Do you know where Grace is?"
"I have a vague idea. We'll have to cross the T'rtile Plains and go through the Forest of Nightmares," Danny said with a shiver at the idea. "Faeryland is on the opposite side. We may be able to cross part way through the forest via the crystal mines if the miners are amenable to the suggestion. I am prepared to bribe them but that will take quite a bit of alchemy. I'm out of practice. Don't suppose you have any spells about you, huh?"
"Not as far as I know," Steve said. He wasn't going to say unequivably that he didn't have any magic. He didn't know he was part Esri until a few hours ago. "How would I know?"
"We'll check as we go toward the Forest. The T'rtile Plain twists and turns so we have to be careful how we proceed. And then there are the mor-eri who guard it. Awful tempers. Hopefully we'll be able to charm them into calm."
"Okay," Steve sighed, resigned to this new world. He was adaptable if nothing else. And maybe he did have some hidden reserves of magic. At this point, he couldn't honestly say he'd be surprised by too much.
"You need to eat," Danny said, waving at the food still sitting on Steve's plate. "Can't cross the plain or charm the mor-eri if you don't keep your strength up."
"Right," Steve said, eating some of the strangely colored food. It was all fairly pleasant if somewhat bland. The bread was crusty and tasted like butter which was a nice touch of home. "Did you bake this bread?" he asked because he needed to talk to Danny to stay grounded in any form of reality.
"I got it from the bakers. Well. They gave it to me. It's a tradition," Danny said with a shrug.
"Right. If you are revered here, why did you have to wait for me to go find Grace?" Steve asked.
"I'm not revered as much as I am…feared I suppose. Not that I would cast a spell on anyone who didn't deserve it. But the Esri don't know that. And I admit I had a good head of steam when I arrived, what with Grace disappearing and all. They've kept their distance since."
"I see," Steve said when he wasn't certain he saw at all. But it didn't seem worthwhile to complain about the buzzing in his head. He was pretty sure it would remain until he returned to Earth. "How are we going to get Grace away from the faeries? If she's heir to their throne, she's going to be heavily guarded, isn't she?"
"Yes. I'm planning to charm one of the mor-eri to help us. Faeries are especially reluctant to tangle with the mor-eri. Might be because the mor-eri like eating them," Danny said.
"What do these mor-eri look like?" Steve asked even though he wasn't sure he wanted to know.
"A cross between a dragon and a dinosaur," Danny said in an off-hand manner which Steve frankly resented.
"A dragon and a dinosaur," Steve repeated.
"Yeah. Usually 10 to 12 feet tall. Scales. Wings. Sharp teeth. Bad tempers. No tail to speak of."
"Great. And you're going to charm one of them."
"It's not all that difficult, especially if we find a young one that's never tasted Esri or faery blood. They are attracted to bright shiny things. Then we cast a calming spell over them and there you go. A tamed mor-eri."
"Right," Steve said. "And it will go with us across the Forest of Nightmares and into the mine of crystals."
"Of course not. It wouldn't fit into the mine, even if the miners would allow it. It will fly to Faeryland and wait for us there."
"Can it fly us there?" Steve asked, all resigned and defeated.
"They aren't helicopters, Steven. They are sentient beings," Danny said.
"I'm sorry. This is all still new to me. You are the one talking about charming it. Is that ethical if they are sentient beings?" Steve asked.
"Ethical has varying degrees of meaning," Danny said with a wave dismissal. "Anyway, we need a young one. It wouldn't be strong enough to fly us there."
"Of course not," Steve said. "I guess we'll leave at first light."
"Naturally," Danny agreed, standing and gathering the plates they had used. He put them in a bucket and lowered it down out of the tree. Steve wasn't even going to ask what happened to them after that. He was pretty sure he didn't want to know. "Let's turn in. You take the bed. I'll sleep in the hammock," Danny said, waving toward the rope hammock suspended between two limbs high over their heads.
"Okay," Steve agreed. At least the bed looked like one he recognized. So few other things made sense, he wasn't going to argue about being given the bed to sleep in.
"I'll wake you up in time to eat," Danny said as he began to climb up another rope ladder.
"Okay," Steve repeated, going into the treehouse to sit on the edge of the bed. He tried to calm his racing thoughts but in truth he wasn't sure it was possible. What the ever-loving hell?
The lamps that Danny had lit were starting to sputter out, the dark descending like a blanket. Steve pulled off his shirt and shucked his pants, laying down on the bed. The night was warm enough to sleep without covers and to his surprise, it wasn't long at all before he fell asleep.