The Voevode, Baday, was fiddling with his thick wheaten moustache, continually biting it and pulling it with his fingers. He would be much more comfortable if those were either his brave men-at-arms in front of him ready for the training battle, or even the Grand Duke himself who decided to show his daring. But they were three boys, three young princes, with their light brown shaggy heads thrown back, standing in front of him that morning, the three princes who were about to compete to prove they were ready to advance to the next stage of military training. Each year, the boys were determined to find the strongest among them. Baday was unusually gloomy and worried about the impending duel; to him the outcome of the battle was as transparent as water in a stream and promised no good for anybody.
First, there was Tagas, the elder son of Vlady the Grand Duke. He was a sturdy chap of twelve winters, who in a year or two would be quite ready to become his father’s right hand. There was his brother Seles, the second son of Vlady, always following his elder brother, like a tail feather with an arrow or smoke with fire. While there was also a younger son, Rohan, he was still quite a small child, and not at this lesson today. Baday’s dismal mood this day was because of the third prince who was present, Vraigo by name, whose grey crazy eyes were flashing at him in the morning sunlight. The son of Vlady’s perished brother, Vraigo would certainly beat the Grand Duke’s sons again. And as a result of such a thrashing, Baday realized, Tagas would grow furious and Seles would scheme against Vraigo, behavior that did not befit the Grand Duke’s sons.
Baday heaved a deep sigh, surveyed the stubbornly bent heads, and announced in a deep bass voice:"All of you remember, it is quite enough to seize the sword of your adversary in order to win a victory."
"But the real battle does not end with that!" immediately blurted Seles. "Until a fighter has his hands and legs cut off, he—"
"If a fighter can lose his sword, he can easily lose everything else!" growled Baday. "Don’t debate, prince, or else everybody will consider your tongue your main weapon. Start the battle! The winner of the first fight will combat in the next one."
Tagas kicked the earth with his foot like a bull-calf and ran towards the trampled dueling ground. Bending under the weight of a training sword of brittle steel, much heavier than a fighting sword, and a shield with the family blazon—a big raven stretching out its strong wings against the Eye of Day—Seles followed his brother. Pitted against Tagas’s strength and pressure, Seles was a worthy adversary for the shiftiness and deftness of a wild cat, one that doesn’t expect to win a victory but is always ready to torment its rival. Seles began rushing over the ground trying to beat off the adversary’s trenchant blows, diving and jumping up, so both Vraigo and Baday unwittingly started stamping their feet and clenching their fists.
"Attack him!" Baday could not contain himself. "Seles! I wish a bear would catch you! Attack your brother or lay down the sword!"
Seles let his mind stray from the duel just for a second and was thrown off the fighting ground by a vigorous blow. He rolled over the tough earth, dropping his weapon and hissing through clenched teeth. As he watched, Vraigo stopped stamping his foot for a moment, squeezed the handle of his sword more firmly and looked at Baday.
"My turn now?"
"Yes! It’s time for Tagas to give a thrashing to the forest puppy!" yelled a defeated Seles.
"Prince!" Baday barked to Seles. "Beat your enemy, but never lose face!"
Tagas bent his head still lower as Vraigo guardedly moved toward him. Two winters younger than Tagas and half a head shorter, Vraigo had always been a strangely silent boy who preferred to live a vagabond life together with the forest dwellers instead of living quietly and comfortably among his people in the Duke’s Stronghold. Druids and drevalyankas were his closest friends, but Vraigo also felt more at home even with less admirable types of forest-dwelling magical creatures like rusalkas, mermaids, kikimoras, werewolves, and wood goblins, than among the people he was born to. Maybe, thought Baday, it was just as well.
Meanwhile, Vraigo had already taken his step out onto the dueling ground and Tagas immediately made a dash towards him. A heavy blow fell upon the younger boy. Baday gave a start, but Vraigo easily intercepted the blow with his sword, and Tagas, being drawn by his own stroke, nearly fell to the ground. Tagas turned around, moving along a broad arc, howled, and his sword flashed in his hand with lightning speed. Crushing blows fell upon Vraigo, who hardly had time to parry those with his shield. At some point, Baday lost count of the blows. The voevode nervously pulled at his moustache and decided to stop the duel, but before he could speak, something amazing suddenly happened. Not believing his own eyes, Baday saw the younger prince’s shield falling to the ground while his heavy sword flew effortlessly from Vraigo’s right hand to his left hand and struck a sideways blow to his adversary’s sword. Tagas dropped his weapon and swayed forward, falling on his knee.
"Hah!" Vraigo triumphantly threw up his sword and a sunbeam slid cheerfully along its blade.
"A-ah!" Enraged, Tagas dashed back up and swooped upon his enemy.
Before Baday had time to move, the boys fell, rolling on the ground with only the crackling of their leather shirts resounding now that their weapons lay silent and forgotten.
"Worm!" Tagas yelled, enraged. "Swamp touchwood! Werewolf! You’ll remember, remember well, who is the true prince!"
Baday’s heavy hand unceremoniously grabbed Tagas’s nape and raised the kicking prince above the ground.
"Prince!" growled Baday. "You are speaking obscenities! And if the Duke learns of your behavior?" He set the boy down roughly.
Tagas immediately fell silent and, panting, took a step back from Vraigo.
"You saw it all, Baday," he uttered dully. "I almost won, but he did something with my sword! I’ve always known that he is a werewolf. A child like him could not do the things that are beyond the power of some grown-up warriors!"
"Vraigo." Baday scowled at the boy who was rising, holding his torn shirt collar. "This sword, indeed, is heavier than the usual one. I hope you did not allow magic to enter into a fair fight?"
"Who needs magic to beat Tagas?" Vraigo answered. Tagas jumped ahead again and Baday had to grab him by his shirt. "I just threw my sword from one hand to the other. And what of it?" Vraigo calmly took his sword and threw it here and there. "The fallen trees of forest abatises and the stones in gnomes’ caves are much heavier."
"So crawl, crawl into your cave! And even better, into the swamp, so kikimoras can tickle you and swamp spirits can stink throughout your body!" roared Seles, Tagas’s resentful brother. "Tagas is the strongest of the people! You werewolf!"
"Okay, I’m already crawling away!" Vraigo sneered. He threw the sword down, bowed quickly to Baday, and jumped from the fighting ground.
Field grass soon covered his head, the buzzing of bees echoed in the field along with birds’ trills, and the wicked, offensive cries of Tagas and Seles were hushed far away and no longer had any power over Vraigo.
Beyond the field awash with summer light and scents, the Eternal Forest rose like a cool green wall. Here, not far from peoples’ settlements, the forest was light, with bark of birch trees showing up white here and there, and elastic pillows of moss. Those who had not wandered far into it could not imagine what thick, impassable swales and dense thickets were hidden in its depths. Nor could they imagine what beings were sometimes able to emerge from the forest into the sunlight. For Vraigo, the forest was much easier to understand than the complexities of life in Stronghold. All the Eternal Forest’s inhabitants had their own languages that the boy quickly learned to understand, and whether they were forest people like druids, larger animals, birds, or small magical creatures, with them one could always solve a matter peacefully. And as for the vicious ones—like werewolves and pikshas—he knew simply to stay away.
However, last winter, half-forgotten, long-unseen monsters, much more mysterious and frightening than the familiar werewolves and pikshas, had begun to appear in the forest again and disturb the residents. Thoughts of these strange, threatening beings were far from the mind of the young prince on this bright morning as he made his way into the forest.
The forest fascinated and attracted Vraigo not only because of the friends he found among the native forest inhabitants, but also because of an amazing person. The magus named Agar lived in a newly built, deliciously tar-smelling hut beside a narrow sleepy stream. Nobody knew whence he came nor how he had arrived in Areya. No one knew on what subjects he and Duke Vlady spent long hours of conversation. They only knew that here was where Agar’s path ended. The Duke had permitted Agar to settle near Stronghold and would often stop at the hut by the stream during his rides. The Duke’s friends and people were very surprised by this, as Duke Vlady never kept magi around him, instead ridiculing their art in every way. And yet it seemed that Vlady recognized Agar as a truly gifted magus. His small home was quickly filled with strange, unheard-of things, and in the crown of a tree above the roof of the magus’ hut, a whole family of drevalyankas settled down. The other forest-dwellers were extremely surprised by this, because drevalyankas, which are known to possess magic powers themselves, were shy creatures that would normally avoid meeting people.
Agar himself was not like Vraigo’s other acquaintances. Tall, with very white hair, he sometimes seemed to the boy Vraigo to be an extremely old man, but he could build a house of heavy logs all alone, and he was so cheerful and laughed so heartily that all the surrounding animals enjoyed coming around his home just to be near him.
Each morning, after his mandatory training on the fighting ground, Vraigo would run headlong to Agar’s cabin. Completely different classes began there, and the magus did not drive away the curious boy who so enjoyed the old man’s presence. The prince gladly carried water, pounded fragrant herbs in a mortar, and murmured the strange words staring at him from old, tattered scrolls.
The thought of Agar immediately calmed Vraigo. He ceased to clench his bleeding lip, and, jumping over the trunk of a birch almost bent to the ground after a recent rain, he found himself in the forest. How nice it was to run over the forest floor, feeling springy moss under a fine boot! Vraigo sometimes thought that he could spend all day this way, picking berries in handfuls on the run, especially if a raspberry bramble happened to appear on his way as it did now.
Getting out of the prickly bushes, the boy grabbed a branch and stopped as if rooted to the ground. Aha! He was already lucky: from behind the neighboring tree, shaking its massive cockscomb, a bright red rooster was emerging. This rooster will be a fair catch, Vraigo thought, since it must have wandered away from its human home. Of course, Agar will reproach me until he learns the bird is not stolen, but what delicious soup the magus will have today! Without hesitation, the prince took off his shirt and quietly walked towards the bird. One step, another one—it was important that no twig, no cone, crack under his heel. The boy was about to throw himself onto the rooster, when the rooster suddenly roused himself and then jumped from behind the tree.
"A-ah!" yelled Vraigo, recoiling in horror and almost falling down.
The comb-topped moving head of the cock was attached to the strong body of a toad with the long tail of a serpent that the creature continuously swept upon the ground. The beast immediately turned to Vraigo, opening his strong beak and screaming, seeking revenge on the small human who had disturbed it. At the last possible second, the prince managed to throw his shirt onto the creature, hiding its dead black eyes. He spun on his heels and running as fast as he could in the opposite direction, scaring the forest-dwelling creatures with his fearful screams.
"Basilisk!" shouted Vraigo. "There’s a basilisk!"
He continued yelling and dashing toward Agar’s cabin until strong hands intercepted him, raising him slightly above the ground to stop his progress.
"Prince!" Agar exclaimed, looking at his student’s scratched face. "What are you doing? You scared the drevalyankas, and to tell the truth, even I was a bit frightened."
"Basilisk!" the embarrassed boy repeated. "By the first edge of the raspberry brambles..."
"You fought a basilisk this morning?" Agar asked with a faint note of incredulity.
"Well, Agar!" Vraigo frowned and stamped his foot. "It’s not a joke! I barely managed to throw a shirt over him to keep him from looking at me." He shuddered, looking back over his shoulder.
"Stay here," ordered the magus, pushing the boy toward an old birch tree. "Not one step from this place." He dove under low branches and seemed to melt into the forest.
"Agar!" desperately cried Vraigo. "There really is a basilisk, and you’re unarmed!"
The prince wanted to follow his teacher, but his feet seemed stuck to the thick birch root where the magus had left him, and something began to ache in his chest, splashing like icy spring water. Suddenly in the distance, among the lush foliage, lightning flashed, flickered, and then faded up into the sky rather than toward the earth. A few long moments later, Agar appeared from behind the trees. His eyes, cheerful as a rule, were concerned, and in his hands he was clutching Vraigo’s shirt with a tattered collar and with a thick black spot on the sleeve.
“A basilisk almost came out of the forest,” he said perplexedly. “How could that happen today, when we have so long believed that basilisks had vanished from the earth? Most old men have not even heard tales of such a creature from their grandfathers. What could a basilisk do in a human habitation?”
"I saw people of stone in one of your scrolls," whispered Vraigo. "It was written that those at whom a basilisk looked..." Vraigo trailed off, afraid to finish the thought.
"Yes, that is true." Agar finally shook himself. "Come on, I must read something immediately. There will be work for you, too." He charged off toward the cabin, expecting Vraigo to stay close behind.
The Eye of Day had not yet managed to reach the peak of the sky when Vraigo, wearing Agar’s shortened shirt in place of his own ruined garment, was already sitting at a long table attached to an outside wall of the hut, carefully pounding a pestle into a mortar. Today the magus had set an unusual task before him, and the boy did not quite believe that he could succeed at it. From the mysterious depths of his dwelling, Agar had extracted a narrow, brittle stone plate, upon which an amazing flower was vividly depicted. Neither in the forest, nor in the field, nor in the underground passages of gnomes, had Vraigo ever seen such a small, tight bud with so many tiny petals, peeping out through the petrified leafage like bright red sunshine.
"What is this?" asked the prince, enchanted.
"The spirit of an ancient flower." Agar, screwing up one eye and then the other, admired the plate. "You shall try to free him—it’s enough to crumble up the stone which holds the flower and add just a drop of magic energy."
Momentarily forgetting about the stone flower, Vraigo stared at the teacher.
"But I cannot!" he replied. "The magic mantle did not pass to me and has never endowed me with its energy! I have no way to reach it; I possess no magical ability..."
"How many times have you tried to find this path?"
"I don’t know the number."
"Hence, there is nothing wrong with trying again," concluded the magus. "Take the stone, the mortar and pestle, all your patience, and start working."
To argue with Agar was useless—somehow he was always right—so Vraigo silently went to the other end of the table and began the chore. He rubbed the unyielding stone, casting sidelong glances at his teacher who was opening tightly rolled scrolls, one after the other, knitting his dark brows, which were totally unexpected against the background of Agar’s white hair. A patriarch of the drevalyankas’ family was sitting on a low branch near Agar, and the magus was repeatedly raising his head as if asking the little creature for advice about something.
It is necessary to say that Vraigo quite envied the magic of these little, bright green, fluffy creatures, which most people thought were just shy tree foxes. In fact, they were natural magi, who knew much more than did people about the past, who could foresee the future, and from whom it was impossible to conceal a single thought in one’s head. Drevalyankas had lived side by side with all other forest dwellers from the beginning of time, but, for some reason that no one understood—unless Agar understood—in recent years they had almost vanished from the Eternal Forest.
Finally, the stone plate was reduced to a mound of small sharp chips and Vraigo painfully began the real task. Slowly, slowly, squinting from the effort, he began to try to paint the red sunshine flower in his head. But the image was crumbling in his mind; the tight petals didn’t want to be picked, and the leaves didn’t want to grow. Vraigo’s brow was wet with sweat from his efforts, but he dared not move. Agar, rising from his seat, disappeared into the cabin.
The prince, concentrating on his mental flower, did not immediately notice that a man in a dark traveling cloak appeared from behind an old blue fir-tree at a distance from the cabin. He stood motionless in the shadow, but the drevalyanka squeaked, throwing himself quickly up the tree trunk and out of sight, and Vraigo set his eyes upon the stranger.
"Boy!" called the traveler, as if he had waited to be noticed. "How can I see White Agar?"
The prince was about to shout something in response when suddenly a yellow button, tight with petals, floated before his wide-open eyes, indistinguishable from a real living flower. Never before had Vraigo managed to express his desire so precisely, and his thoughts immediately rushed to the flower, but with the corner of his eye he noticed that his teacher had emerged from the cabin carrying a new scroll.
"Alkay?" Agar exclaimed in surprise on seeing the cloaked traveler.
"Greetings to the great, pure Archmagus!" replied the stranger with a vague smile. "Very unexpected encounter, isn’t it?"
The fragile image of the flower in Vraigo’s head did not let him turn, so he took a deep breath and, as Agar had taught him, he mentally stretched upwards, reaching for the mantle of magic high above. Like a slender thread, twisting and flying, he traveled into the clear blue of the sky, but nothing happened. The prince couldn’t reach the energy he needed, although the truly endowed needed only a brief moment of contact with the mantle to become energized. As if from a distance, he heard the teacher and the stranger, who stood by the old fir-tree as before.
"I could have guessed," said Agar quietly, "from the moment when I saw the basilisk."
"Impressive thing," agreed the traveling stranger.
Vraigo felt a familiar weakness lying on his shoulders, and his hands grew cold. Stone dust was floating before his eyes, familiar sounds became distorted—anxiously, a drevalyanka screamed shrilly, and the unpleasantly rasping voice of the stranger kept repeating:
"Did you really think that I could not do that? No, really? But, you know, I cannot get angry at you for long. The road is still open to you."
Suddenly, Vraigo felt as if something picked him up, pulled the prince sharply and highly upwards, and then released its grip on him a moment later. Screwing up his eyes, barely holding back a cry, Vraigo felt as if he was falling down, down, until he fell onto the hard wood table, barely breathing the thick air, and opened his eyes. Astonished, he yelled from the heart:
"Agar!" The magus and the stranger jumped in surprise. "A flower! A little flower! Agar!"
Amid the stone dust, shrouded in a pale glow, a fluffy ball of a flower was lying, the flower that had exploded in Vraigo’s mind a moment ago. Grabbing the flower, the boy ran to the teacher; he so wanted Agar and even this strange traveler to see, touch, and feel what he had just created.
"I’m endowed!" shouted the amazed prince, holding out his creation to the magus. "I can reach the magic veil!"
"Of course," replied Agar simply and stroked Vraigo on the head. "Run, show it to your friends. This is happiness, when a new flower appears on the Earth."
"Endowed is good," agreed the rather frightening stranger, staring at the boy.
"Run!" Agar repeated, and unexpectedly gave Vraigo a forceful push. "And be very careful!"
The happy prince flew into the forest, beside himself with joy, and on the edge of the clearing he turned to wave goodbye to Agar.
Vraigo did not have to search for his friends very long. As usual, the young druids played in the branches of a huge ancient oak, which had been the whole world for them since their early childhood. Here it was possible to arrange soft nests and hang up a swing, to hide oneself in a deep hollow, and to chase each other through the strong, springy branches. All the druids were able to climb trees well; for them it was no different from walking on solid ground. Virtually every one of them had his own tree, which could be any type, and to which he or she was connected by a secret kinship. Living in the forest, each always cared about the trees and even knew how to communicate with all types of trees without using words.
The prince just could not imagine Belsha and Vasilinka, the druid twins, without the oak. He strongly suspected that these little children of the original mother of forest dwellers, Selena, had impressive magical abilities. Otherwise, Vraigo mused, what helped their old oak tree continue growing, branching out and covering itself with a cap of thick foliage every spring?
So today, Vraigo was absolutely happy. He, who had always lagged behind his friends in magical ability and was not able to understand their little secrets, he was now among the endowed! And he was not just any natural magus who was able to find water, cure disease, or make a plant bear fruits. No! He had found his way to the pure magical energy of the Earth, and he could create anything he pleased.
(Well, almost anything.)
"Hey!" cried the prince, running up to the thick trunk of an oak. "Belsha, Vasilinka, take a look at this! Come down, quick!"
Two heads, one red and one ash-blond, flashed in the foliage, and the druids easily jumped to the ground, one after the other. Forest-dwelling druids, with all their similarity to people, were smaller and more fragile. Their skin had a pale greenish light, and their hair, usually ash-blond, was shot with green, too. Only in this case, Selena and her daughter Vasilinka’s hair was fiery red, flaming like autumn leaves. Vraigo’s friends barely came up to his shoulder in height. They noiselessly began moving toward the prince, who instantly realized that his friends had just exchanged angry words. Belsha’s countenance was dismal and Vasilinka looked angrily at her brother, her thin brows knitted.
"This is for you!" Vraigo, feeling shy, held the flower out to the girl. "Have you ever seen anything like this?"
"What is it?" The girl gently squeezed the stem. "Where did you get it?"
"It is not real," Belsha claimed, and buried his pointed nose in the bud.
"You stone hump!" Vasilinka knocked Belsha on the head. "It is real; it’s just unusual." She looked at the flame-red flower, knelt, and held it near the grass. Like a bird caught up by soft air currents, or like a fish tossed into its watery element, the bud of the unusual flower began moving, reaching down and growing into the ground. A moment later, a real forest flower was peeking out of the thick grass extending to the roots of the oak.
"Wow!" inhaled Vraigo and Belsha at the same time.
"Now, that’s not like anything I’ve ever seen!" Belsha added.
"It is not because of my action." Satisfied, Vasilinka stood up, brushing off her knees. "The flower wanted to grow, as though it had not seen the sun for a long time."
"Exactly!" The prince tried to wave his hand casually, but genuine puppy-like joy was escaping him. Only this morning the flower had been nothing more than a painting on a stone plate!
"Vraigo, did you join with the magic veil?" the girl asked in a low whisper. "Have you realized that you are endowed?"
"Yes! Yes! Yes!" Not waiting for an answer, Belsha enthusiastically thumped his friend’s shoulder.
"I’ll be covered with bark!" he exclaimed, amazed and filled with joy at Vraigo’s news. "Well, we can do so many things now! Oh, Vraigo, today at dawn I saw—"
"Stop it!" Vasilinka pulled her brother’s sleeve, and turned her pale face to the prince. "How did it happen? But you did not believe in your endowment at all."
But Vraigo did not answer her; like a good hunting dog, he was already thinking of the next adventure. How many such trails to adventure he would find together with Belsha; these paths would take the boys far away from home. This caused the prince instantly to remember the basilisk, whose appearance was also important and stunning news, and he stared at his friend Belsha.
"Did you see an unusual creature this morning?"
"Certainly!" Belsha was bobbing up and down, full of feelings. "At dawn, I went to collect the dew so that, as we had planned, we could spread it on the old toad from the foul swamp. I had almost filled a leaf when I noticed him!"
"Was he sitting in the raspberry bushes?" Vraigo specified.
"Why in the bushes?" Belsha was surprised. "No! He was slinking away into a pinery and I followed him."
"This is dangerous," Vraigo admonished. The prince was startled and indignant at his friend’s rash action; chasing a basilisk was incredibly dangerous because anything it looked at could be turned to stone. "But do you know what would have happened if he had noticed you?"
"Yes, to those like you, people, who don’t know how to walk in the forest! No one will hear a druid! So, I remember where he lay down to sleep, and we can easily go back and get him out into the sunshine!"
"Get out a basilisk?" Vraigo was dumbfounded.
"What basilisk? A piksha! I have never seen such a huge one in our forest, He is bigger than a lynx, than a wolf!"
"You just try to attach yourselves to this unfortunate piksha!" intervened Vasilinka. "He has done nothing wrong that we know of. In fact, nobody seems to have heard of his being around, and so we know he has not attacked either druids or people. He also has the right to live in the forest."
Among the magical creatures of the Eternal Forest, pikshas were one of the most dangerous predators. This dark thing would wander at night in its cat-like way, in search of prey, easily reading and paralyzing the thoughts of his target. Pikshas could simply deprive their victims of energy if they chose, but held particular yearning for their blood. And so, in the people’s settlements, terrible legends were told about babies stolen from their cradles by the insidious piksha, and about the travelers in the forest whom he whirled in circles with his hypnotizing thoughts.
The way to do away with a piksha was to push it out of its lair in the day-time, into the sunlight where the nocturnal creature became completely feeble. Therefore, these intelligent creatures long ago moved deep into the Eternal Forest and tried not to disturb vindictive people. The fact that a large piksha had now appeared near human habitation was very strange and disquieting.
"He hasn’t attacked anyone so far, but everyone knows pikshas cannot be trusted," Vraigo said, supporting Belsha. "It is necessary at least to take a look at him to understand if he is dangerous or not."
"How can you understand that?" Vasilinka asked with a smile. "Maybe you’ve learned to read thoughts as well as to make flowers?"
The children had no time to argue. Captured by excitement, one after another, they swept past the druids’ huts, then under the reproachful eye of an old druid sitting on the bank of a forest stream; they skirted the pond where the forest dwellers raised fish and found themselves in the pinery.
"There!" whispered Belsha. "The big hollow!"
Vraigo instantly realized what he was talking about. One of the low, thickset pines had roomy accommodations for any beast; a medium-sized lynx had spent the last winter there.
"Let’s climb and look at it," invited the prince.
His friend eagerly nodded his head. As always at such moments, Belsha’s pale cheeks flushed, and his green eyes, usually light like birch leaves, became transparent.
"Quietly!" he warned. "A piksha has a hare’s ear and a wolf’s nose."
The thick, smooth trunk of the pine did not present any difficulties for the druid, but Vraigo was heavily scratching upwards with all his might, sticking his fingers into the bark, while tearing the skin of his elbows. Agile Belsha managed by pulling himself with one hand and pushing his clumsy human friend with the other. Finally, the boys straddled a lower branch and cautiously moved on; Vasilinka remained on the ground. The hollow, like a sketchy patch of black, loomed in front of their curious, flushed faces. Not a rustle, not a breath, came out of the thick darkness.
"Are you sure he’s there?" whispered Vraigo, already tired of pricking up his ears.
"He’s hiding," Belsha exhaled quietly. He straightened like a column and looked into the hollow with enthusiastic horror.
"He has managed to escape!" the prince exclaimed, shaking his head. "Was it really a piksha?"
The insulted druid silently reached for a branch, sure he just had to shake it somehow to find the creature hiding in the hollow.
"Wait!" Vraigo suddenly felt inspired. "Now, let’s see—"
The prince tightly grabbed the tree trunk, closed his eyes, and mentally darted up. Everything came surprisingly easy—the mantle of magic accepted him, enveloping him and giving him its energy. Vraigo opened his eyes and he directed a thin ray of blue light, flashing over his head, so that it pierced the black hole. Before the excited boys had time to bend over the hollow, a fierce, snarling snout with bristly whiskers rushed toward them accompanied by barking and hissing.
"O-y-y!" Belsha yelled, falling from the branch.
Stunned by his own magical action, the prince stared at the snout, unable to move. His eyes caught sight of the creature for a moment as the piksha poised himself, preparing to jump.
The ringing voice of Vasilinka brought him to his senses, and the prince pushed off the branch and dropped down. He slammed heavily into a lower branch of the pine, but the boy managed to catch hold of it and cushion his fall. After he had fallen lightly into the grass, he jumped quickly to his feet.
"Did you see that?" he shouted to the girl. "There’s your 'harmless' creature! Now, we’ll drag him out of the hollow."
But both Belsha and Vasilinka were silently watching somewhere above their heads, with their faces expressing deep astonishment.
"He’s gone," said the girl, finally.
"How?" wondered the prince as he followed their gaze.
"It’s a fact!" confirmed Belsha. "The moment you fell down, he bounded away on the branches."
Everyone knew that in the sunlight, pikshas became feeble and weak like kittens, and Vraigo was about to argue with his friends, but the memory of the empty and cold eyes of the creature he had just seen suddenly filled his mind. Those eyes almost reminded him of the gaze of the terrible basilisk. There was something in those eyes, some thought, a malicious and exultant thought, as though the piksha had hidden power that, with time, would break out and reveal itself to all the people who had forced all the wicked creatures—even basilisks and pikshas—from their old homes throughout the Eternal Forest, driving them far into its depths.
A sense of unexpected alarm suddenly fell upon and burned Vraigo. Although he didn’t yet fully understand the source of this concern, he quickly turned to the druids.
"You have to run home and tell everything we’ve seen to your tribesmen. Strange things are happening in the forest. This morning I saw a dangerous basilisk; your elders probably know of such a creature. You need to be ready to defend yourselves, if necessary."
Belsha and Vasilinka simultaneously nodded to the prince. In moments of danger, these two often-obstinate druids had learned to rely on Vraigo’s judgment, as they had when a forest fire drove them into the foul swamp and when a bear-crank had come across their snow hut. Together the brother and sister darted away through the forest.
Vraigo stiffened in indecision himself. He had to rush to Stronghold and warn the guard who, of course, would not believe a word from him; even though he was a prince, he knew he was considered a strange boy. But anxiety dug into him with its sharp teeth. The prince looked around helplessly, and suddenly he realized—in fact, he felt with his whole skin—where that vicious, cold wave of fear was coming from.
"Agar!" he cried, frightened.
Vraigo’s legs carried him to the river, running and shivering. He didn’t know why the air became so icy in the summer forest. With his teeth chattering, the prince got out of the water, fleetingly wondered at the silence around him, and soon found himself near the house of his teacher.
"Agar!" called the boy once again, rounding the hut and stumbling on the spot. "Agar..."
The magus was only one step away from the table, but he was lying face down, stretched out at full length, clutching a crumpled scroll. In that moment, time vanished for Vraigo. With his hands drawn and numb with cold, he was barely able to turn the magus over on his back. The boy began to cry, calling and shaking the teacher. He received no response, and anger with Agar suddenly swept over him. How could the magus leave his pupil alone on this earth, with neither an explanation nor teaching on how to live in this world without bumping its delicate inside or rubbing against its rough edges? How was he to deal with the adversity that, like a heavy, stifling cloud, was thickening over Areya?
"You can’t!" cried the prince, looking at the still, pale face. "Don’t go away! I won’t be able to cope here alone. I can’t do it by myself!"
Gripped by despair, his mind rushed along the elusive blue track which had taken White Agar, and which now parted before him. Vraigo struggled a long time to reach through the magic veil and touch the teacher; it seemed to him that he might be able to break his fragile connection to the land and join Agar on his journey. But finally some kind of soft power pushed the prince, noiseless lightning burst before his eyes, and the boy screamed and found himself tumbling down into the grass.
Cold drops of night dew now stung his skin, but before peace settled on his tormented consciousness, a familiar voice whispered tenderly, "Sorry, child, I never thought that I would have to leave you so early. But I am happy—happy that I’ve found you, and happy that I can leave this earth to you."
The Eternal Forest softly rustled over the clearing, water from the sleepy river flowed a deep, playful blue, and stars, like living reflections of the magic veil that had enveloped the white magus, impassively watched the world below.