The Violet Hour

Chapter One-Aftermath

 

 The violet hour.

It was at once both the most fascinating and frightening concept any of them had ever perceived. And for that reason the group was deathly quiet while Katriva explained her understanding of the most difficult spell in Mr. Tout's stolen book of magic. It was by far the most complicated and the most powerful, with multiple conditions that had to be met before it could even be considered. Yet, executed properly, they would have a puncher's chance of being able to challenge both Tout and his apprentice, Owen Wells. Victory meant an end to their control, bringing peace and happiness back to both the magical forest and the island. It was a most noble cause, but for all practical purposes it also bordered on insanity.

            Fourteen year-old Mariah Prindle sat cross-legged in the circle, captivated by Katriva's every word. Her English Springer Spaniel Willow lay beside her, licking his front paws. At the urging of an alicorn they had come to Mr. Tout's world several years earlier. Somehow they found a way to leave the forest, a feat never before accomplished. Due to the friendship she formed with Pauly Wells, they had made their way back to help him find his twin brother Owen. In doing so, the girl and her dog also became the first ones to intentionally make their way back into this magical land.

            They found Pauly alright, or more precisely he found them, in the depths of a marsh-covered area bordering the appropriately named Marsh Island. It was anything but a pleasant reunion. She wasn't exactly certain how they managed to escape with their lives, but somehow everyone made it out of the marsh and onto the island.

            And they had Katriva and Beth to thank for it.

            Mariah couldn't stop thinking back to Beth's ferocity. After absorbing two attacks from Owen, she finally retaliated with a force that sent him flying backward. What she really wanted to know was where all Beth's power came from? The last time Mariah saw her, she was part of a statue called the Singing Sisters.

            She wasn't singing anymore, and she certainly wasn't a marble statue.

            Not only that, she now possessed abilities far exceeding those of a normal teenaged girl. That made her wonder what role Katriva, the mysterious voice from inside Beth's head now come to life, played in everything? At this point it didn't really matter. All that really mattered was that they had survived.

            The dog lay by her side and continued licking his front paws frantically. Never a big talker in the first place, he hadn't spoken a word since the confrontation in the marshland. That was exactly where his thoughts were at the moment. When Mariah's struggle with the sylph called Tabitha took a turn for the worse, Willow answered the call. He came away from it with a mouthful of the strange girl and an aftertaste that would not go away. Making matters worse, the taste just kept getting stronger and more revolting by the hour. Willow had sampled some very nasty things in his life—after all, he was a dog. Still, nothing could compare to this. He had saved his girl's life, so it was worth it. But at the moment it was impossible to concentrate on anything other than getting rid of the awful feeling in his mouth.

            Pauly was more attentive than the dog, although his thoughts also kept drifting back to the marsh and his brother Owen. If Katriva's plan succeeded it would almost certainly mean the end of his twin. He realized why it had to be that way. For everyone's sake, it just had to.

            Realizing it didn't make it any easier to live with.

            Under Tout's tutelage, Owen was transformed into a madman with a dangerous thirst for power. It had reached the point where even Tout was wary of him, as evidenced by the way he let his assistant take charge of their confrontation. Any hopes Pauly harbored for a reconciliation were dashed in the marshlands when Owen never hesitated, not even for a moment, before attacking.

            He hoped that some good still remained in his brother, although at this point he knew it was wishful thinking. Still, it was his only brother, and his identical twin at that. If he got the chance, he had to try and help him. Growing up, Owen was always reckless and wild, but back then his actions didn't hurt others. Deep inside he was always a good person. If something, even a single shred of that decency still existed from the Owen he remembered, Pauly had to try and pry it out of him.

            Rio, a greatly oversized grey and white Norwegian Forest cat and his longtime companion, was also absorbed in thought as Katriva outlined her plan. Once, long ago, Owen had saved her from certain disaster when she was trapped in an enormous patch of roses by a group of whirlcats. Rio knew Owen was in a bad way based on their encounter with the Brewers a few years earlier. Still, it was hard to believe that the boy they just fought in the marshes was the same person who once risked his life to save her.

            Even though there was no reason to do so, Pauly wasn't the only one hoping that Owen could be saved. Beth Tomson stood quietly contemplating Katriva's plans, and the experience was surreal. Against her heart and against her wishes she had battled him to a standstill in the marshland, giving them just enough time to make a narrow escape. Her sister Becca was right—she still had deep feelings for Owen. In modern terms one might say that the best way to describe their relationship was "it's complicated."

            Like Owen, she was once under the guidance of Mr. Tout, and made the mistake of striking a deal with the deranged old carnival master turned dictator. At Tout's "request" she had tricked Owen, while at the same time dooming his brother Pauly to a life in the underground dungeons of the lurkers. During the time she spent with Owen they encountered a true gauntlet of dangerous situations. In doing so they saved one another from several life or death encounters.

            They had also fallen in love, which is where the real tragedy between them began.

            Caught between her allegiance to her twin sister Becca and her feelings for Owen, she delivered him to Mr. Tout. It was justifiable at the time, and it was the second most painful thing she had ever done. It was also something she could never forgive herself for. What hurt most was that the same lack of forgiveness held true for Owen. The word "sorry" was not in his vocabulary, particularly where she was involved. He despised her and wanted to destroy her, and she knew that the next time they met it was quite likely that only one of them would survive. Still, like Pauly, she hoped for a miracle that would bring back the Owen they both knew and loved.

            As she listened, Beth was still nursing the wounds he had inflicted on her during his first two attacks. Hoping that he might still have a spark of feeling for her, she hadn't even tried to defend herself. In this instance, that was simply not the case. The look in his eyes was that of someone who was out to harm her, maybe even kill her. When push came to shove she had to fight back. If not totally for herself, she had to protect the others, particularly Katriva.

            It was of little consolation had she known that Owen was still smarting from the force of the blow she finally countered with. It was obvious in the look of surprise when she blasted him full-on with a spell known as the leveler that sent him flying backward into the marsh.

            Still, despite everything that had happened, she could not bring herself to hate him, and it terrified her. Her deepest fear was that somewhere down the line Becca would be right again in saying that her feelings for Owen would become a big problem.

            And then there was Katriva.

            For a brief period Beth had carried the girl's essence within her. Under her guidance they had somehow, against all odds, made it to this point. As she listened to Katriva speaking to the group, the voice was familiar. After all, she had heard it in her thoughts at the most critical moments during her recent trip to Tout's island. But now that the girl who belonged to that voice stood right in front of her, she was taken by Katriva's simple beauty. Some girls go out of their way to look attractive. Katriva didn't need to. Her dark brown eyes accentuated her ebony skin and her hair hung just right in a series of braids neatly flowing from the top of her head and traveling halfway down her back.        

            Lutang, the sixth onlooker, was a most unusual addition to their group. And, like the others, he had an old score to settle with Mr. Tout. As the former leader of the whirlcats, he thought his disdain for the man couldn't be any worse after what Tout had done to his kinsmen several years earlier.

            He was wrong.

            Out of nowhere Xander, his greatest rival among the whirlcats, gave his life to save both him and Katriva. Sensing that he was about to finish second best in their confrontation, Tout attempted to destroy the girl's body, launching a desperate volley of destructive magic in her direction. It would have taken out Lutang as well, if not for Xander's selfless actions. He had no idea his former nemesis was even on the island until he threw himself in front of Tout's attack. In the process he paid the ultimate price.

            His dying words were still fresh on Lutang's mind as he sat there, still dismayed by the actions of his former enemy. "I'm sorry Lutang, please forgive me," Xander choked out during his final moments. "I was always jealous of your bravery. I just wanted to be brave like you." Being brave was the last thing on Lutang's mind at that moment as he pondered his adversary's incredibly selfless sacrifice. He thought back to his own last words to his fellow whirlcat, and how insufficient they now seemed.

            "You are brave Xander. You truly are," he told him as the last drops of life drained from Xander's body. That hardly seemed enough, given his sacrifice. Thanks to his selfless act, Katriva was whole again. Had she perished, their entire cause would have been doomed. Simple words could never express the gratitude he felt at that moment. He made a silent vow that Xander's death would not be in vain. In the end, Mr. Tout would pay for this.

            Lutang was also still trying to come to grips with the events leading up to the unexpected first step in his quest for retribution—the death of the quadramorph. Years earlier, under direct orders from Tout, the four-headed creature had decimated the ranks of the whirlcats. Lutang never expected to get a chance for retribution against the fearsome killing machine. The common belief was that the quadramorph died after being driven off the Red Cliffs of Avery. To their surprise they learned that it was very much alive when the beast attacked them in the swamplands.

            Thanks to Beth and Katriva, they all escaped with their lives this time and the quadramorph was truly dead. He felt a slight prickle in the spot where years earlier his lower right tentacle was torn off by the creature. It stood as a constant reminder of the ambush that killed his father and brother. The other three tentacles also quivered as he thought back to his previous run-ins with the quadramorph. Now that the beast was out of the picture, this time for good, Mr. Tout was firmly in his sights.

 

* * *

 

Meanwhile, far away at the other end of Marsh Island, Toddathon Tout sat alone, silently brooding in his enormous stone tower overlooking the river. He was furious with Owen, the sylph named Tabitha, and the world in general. Most of all, he was furious with himself. He had them, all of them, right there in his hands. Somehow, he had let them slip away.

            And then there was the quadramorph.

            It just couldn't be true.

            The quadramorph possessed far too much magic to have met its match in such a manner. It was a bad dream, a horrible nightmare—it had to be.

            It just couldn't be true.

            Except that it was.

            And for that reason Mr. Tout found himself in even deeper trouble than the embarrassment of being outsmarted by a group of teenagers.

            And on top of that, he was already feeling the effects of the four-headed creature's demise.

            Every other time reports surfaced about the quadramorph's death, he knew better than to believe them. He knew there was not enough magic in his world to kill it.

            This time was different.

            This time there was enough magic—more than enough if he really wanted to admit it.

            And this time he was there to see it.

            Though he was not there to witness the actual death, he was there to see the aftermath, or at least what remained of the once fearsome beast. Swallowed alive by a torrent of marsh and mud, it was now becoming just another rotting part of the endless swamp. He thought back to the way it lay there, half submerged in mud and sinking fast. By now it would be completely pulled into the muck, like so many unsuspecting things before it.

            Except that this unsuspecting thing was different. This unsuspecting thing was a potential game-changer for Toddathon Tout—possessing as it did some of the most powerful magic he had ever conjured. As long as it was alive, the magic stayed alive and at his disposal. And now, like a fistful of water, it was gone. His body was already reeling from the loss. It was only a matter of time before it also affected his mind.

            Unfortunately for him, the death of the quadramorph, his wonderful, abominable killing machine, was just the start of it all. And it was orchestrated by two of his former students. Two of his best students, and that meant trouble. It made him angry to think how greatly he had misjudged the combined strength of Beth and Katriva. Even if he never publicly acknowledged it, he had always admired them both, often wondering how much simpler things would have been had they only possessed the stomach for his kind of work. Instead they were two gifted girls who, in his mind, wasted their tremendous abilities. Because of that they were both disposed of—one as a statue and the other as part of the enchanted weeping willow tree.

            He was mad that they escaped, all of them. Adding insult to injury, Katriva's body was also lost. Now she was whole again, and he feared that if she and Beth put their minds and their talents together, it meant big trouble for him.

            And while there was blame enough to share everywhere, the brunt of it sat firmly on his shoulders.

            It all began with his decision to send Karl to the forest to bring Beth back from the statue. It was akin to sending a child to do an adult's job, and it produced disastrous results. Like dominoes falling, one by one, Beth was freed and somehow found a way to release Katriva's essence from the weeping willow.

            That was far from the worst of it.

            He was also enraged at the fact that he had failed so miserably, despite having advance notice. Tabitha, the sylph, warned him that the girls were together on the island. With her help, they set the trap propelling them into the marsh. His trust in the sylph's loyalty also backfired, quickly transforming into a mistake that enabled Katriva to escape in her human form. 

            He was angry for listening to Tabitha in the first place. He should have known better than to trust her. In theory, her plan to bring his enemies together was sound. In practice it quickly fell apart, scattering like dandelion fluff on a windy day.

            Of course the sylph had followed through on her end. By tricking the girls into using magic they cast a trail that stood out like a flare. Her efforts easily allowed him to track them all down in the marsh. After that everything went wrong in a hurry, and the sylph was just one aspect of their abject failure.

            He should have known better.

            Woodland creatures were always so predictably unreliable. Without exception they were ready to cut and run at the first sign of danger, disappearing the moment things got tough. In this case she had simply turned to dust, vanishing when the dog attacked her to leave both him and Owen in her wake. He knew her nature going in and failed to pay attention to both his instincts and his past experiences.

            And for that he was furious.

            But out of all the blunders racing through his mind, the worst decision centered directly on his feisty apprentice, Owen. And once again it came down to trust. He had trusted the boy's ability to control his emotions and trusted that he would be able to follow the plan. Instead Owen instantly flew out of control, crumbling under the pressure. They went in with a solid plan and Owen immediately scuttled it due to his feelings for the girl Beth. His mind shut down the moment he laid eyes on her, and with it, all rational thought disappeared.

            And it all went downhill from there.

            There was no room for personal vendettas, the stakes were far too high. Unless, of course, they were his. Owen possessed great power, there was no questioning that. But he did not possess the intellect to control it. And he had trusted him.

            "Trust," he sneered. "Trust is over-rated."

            Like it or not, it was all true, every last maddening part of it. Tabitha had disappeared, Owen was nowhere to be found, and the quadramorph was gone—buried in the marsh, along with all that valuable magic. He would have to act quickly, but at the moment, he needed a new plan. Before that could happen what he needed most was a way to clear his head.

 

* * *

 

As he wandered through the forest near Tout's tower, Owen also carried feelings of rage that went well beyond description. He had let his emotions get the better of him, and in the process made himself look like a fool. It was also quite apparent that he had greatly underestimated Beth, although that was putting it lightly. He should have taken her out when he had the chance. Instead he opted to toy with his former girlfriend in an attempt to make her suffer slowly and painfully. It came as a complete shock when she finally fought back, and he had the scars and the bruises to show for it. The greatest bruise, the one to his ego, was not readily apparent, although it seethed deep within him.

            Fool me once . . . He vowed not to make the same mistake a second time. The next time around there would be no hesitation. The next time around he would simply annihilate her. There would be no second chance for her to retaliate.

            He was also still reeling from the shock produced by his twin brother Pauly's reaction to everything that went down in the marshlands. Traditionally the peace-keeper of the family, Pauly had displayed a previously unseen ferocity. Regardless, it all came down to his own actions and the way he handled the situation. When all was said and done he had failed miserably. He knew it, they knew it, and so did Tout.

            The bigger question now was what was he going to do about it?

 

Please note: This is a representation of Chapter One of The Violet Hour. The actual chapter may undergo changes prior to being released in October 2022.