Once upon a time, in a land far distant, where magic still was commonplace and dreams still came true sometimes, there lived a man and his wife. There was nothing special about this couple, nothing worthy of tale-telling, except for the fact that this pair had produced two remarkable children. Their firstborn had been a boy, who grew over the years into a clever, brave, and good-hearted child, but their second had been a girl, and she was the one that everyone remarked upon. She had eyes like the sea and hair like gold and a laugh like music, and there were no children in the land who could compare with her. Someday, she was sure to grow into a woman of dazzling beauty, and even as a child, older girls would feel envious of her because they knew that someday she would be more lovely than they. However, the boy and his sister paid no heed to any of this. Why did it matter to them if the world paid more attention to one than the other? They were the very best of friends and loved each other deeply, and they spent their days playing in the fields and forests of the land and were happy.
However, the time did come when sadness eventually fell upon them. Their mother fell ill of a strange disease, and no amount of doctor's medicines could cure her. Finally, in desperation, their father sought the help of a hedgewitch who lived deep in the wild wood. She was an ancient and bad-tempered old woman, but it was said she knew of everything that crawled and flew and ran and grew in the forests, and she could cure all diseases if the price was right. With much begging and pleading, the man convinced her to come to his hut and care for his wife.
"Your wife is very sick, and yet may die," the hedgewitch told him. "Yet I do know of a charm that may save her. It's apples she needs. Feed her those, and she will become well."
The man thanked the hedgewitch with many praises, but inwardly he was frightened. The season was not right for apples - no farmer would have anything on his trees but the tiny green beginnings, too hard and sour to eat. There was one person who would have them, but the thought of asking him set the poor man to trembling. The land next door to the man's house belonged to a fierce and mysterious person, so reclusive that few knew whether he was man or monster. The rumors spoke of his fierce temper - he had been known to kill the thieves who tried to steal the fruit of his magical trees with his bare hands. However, the man loved his wife dearly, so he resolved to try his luck.
Late that night, when the shadows were at their deepest, and the moon had slipped behind a cloud, the man tiptoed into the garden of the recluse and sought out the enchanted apple trees. He clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering, not just from the chill of an early spring night. He found the trees easily enough by their scent; in his entire life, he had never known an apple to smell as sweet, and even in his terror, he found himself wishing he could pluck one of the fruits from the boughs and taste it right there. Even in the dark, the apples were visible, almost as if they could glow. There were so many of them! Surely the shadowy guardian of this place would not miss two or three...
Just as the man's hand went up to pull down an apple, a cold voice called, "What thief is this who dares to steal the jewels of my garden?"
The man turned around to stare. In the darkness, he could make out nothing more than a towering dark figure, shrouded further by an inky cape. However, even the darkness could not hide the glowing of the creature's red eyes, and the poor man fell to his knees in shock and terror.
"Please, my lord, spare me!" he said. "I come here not of my own greed, but for the good of another. My wife lies dying of a deadly disease, and I have been told that only apples can cure her. Yours are the only apples in the land. Please, my lord, have mercy on me, and on my wife and my poor children, who will be motherless soon if not for your pity."
The creature's countenance did not change, and the man felt a sinking fear. The guardian had been unmoved; he would be killed now, and his children left as orphans.
"Do not call me 'my lord,' farmer. I am not your lord, or the lord of anyone else," answered the monster in his cold voice, "and these are not my apples. They belong to my master, a dread dragon who lives in the hills, and he his far more fierce and unpitying than I will ever be. If I allow theft to go unanswered, he will do things to me far worse than killing, and if he sells this fruit, it is at a dear price. Since you have taken nothing as of yet, I can let you go free. Go somewhere else for apples, and leave me to my peace."
"I cannot go. There are no other apples, and my beloved wife will die without them. Ask what you will of me, even up to my life, and I will pay the price to save her," answered the man. He felt braver now, knowing that the beast he was speaking to could be bargained with.
"A life for a life. That is a fair price," the monster said thoughtfully. He was silent a moment. "You say you have children?"
"Yes, my - I mean, yes, sir. A son and a daughter," answered the man, wondering briefly if this monster ate children, like the ones in the stories.
"Ah," the creature answered thoughtfully. "You have heard the old tales, I suppose, of how Beauty tamed the Beast and other such nonsense. I am a monster, through and through, and no maiden's love will make me otherwise, but... a monster's life is a lonely one. No one can bear to look me in the eye without shrinking away in fear, and guarding the valuables of my master is tedious and thankless work. I wish for diversion and companionship. I will give you what your wife requires if you will give me your daughter."
"Oh, no! I cannot do that!"
"You can. A life for a life. Your wife for your child. Fair is fair," said the monster. "I swear to you in the names of all I hold dearest that she will come to no harm, either by me or anyone else. She will have all good things that it is within my power to give her, and I know spells whereby she will forget her past life, and so will not be lonely or homesick. She will live as a princess. Surely you could ask for nothing more?"
"Will I ever see her again?" the man asked.
"No. I will not allow that. So, will you accept the deal? I am being more than generous to you."
The man took a deep breath. "If you swear that she will come to no harm, that she will be happy and well cared for, then I accept your bargain."
"Done! Monster I may be, but I have honor enough. My word is good," answered the beast. He reached up with both hands into the boughs of the apple trees and took down two perfect fruits, large enough to fill his monstrous hands, shining like rubies even in the dim starlight, and smelling like the richest perfume. "Here. Take these. Give them to your wife, and she will be well, for they will cure much worse than what she has."
"Thank you," answered the man.
"No, give me no thanks. You don't mean it, for you see me as robbing you of your child," answered the monster. "I cannot help being the villain here; it is what I am. Go. Your wife awaits her cure. I will be coming for my payment in the morning."
Bowing and muttering polite phrases, the man turned and all but ran out of the magic garden. He was sure he could feel the weight of the monster's glowing eyes resting on his back, even when he was well out of normal sight.
The one relief he got was that the apples worked a cure that was truly miraculous. Their sweet scent filled all the rooms of the tiny hut, and calmed the children at their play until all they could do was sit very still and breathe the delicious perfume. The man brought them into the room where his wife lay, still and pale, and set them down on her bedside table. Tired though she was, she was lying awake and staring at the ceiling, in too much discomfort to sleep but fitfully. However, the color seemed to come back into her cheeks even as she saw the miraculous fruit, and when she had eaten both of them, she fell into a deep, restful sleep with a smile on her face.
By the next morning, the woman felt whole and well again, better than she had been even before she had fallen ill. The atmosphere of the house should have been joyful, but the memory of the bargain made the night before haunted the farmer and dulled his happiness.
"Wherefore are you so sad?" asked his wife. "Are you not glad that I am well?"
"I am glad," the man replied, "but I am weighted down by guilt, and cannot be merry. Do you not wonder how it is that I brought you ripe apples in March, when they do not even grow in this land until August?"
"I had not thought," the wife asked. "Where did you come by such a miracle?"
"I tried to steal them from the garden of our neighbor," he replied.
"You mean the monster? Oh, heavens forfend!" cried his wife. "What happened? How did you escape? Surely the guilt of so small a theft as two apples can't be causing such gloom."
"The price of magic apples is high," answered the man gravely. "The monster who watches over the garden would have killed me, left you to die, and made our children orphans if I had not agreed to pay his terrible price. My dear, forgive me, but I have sold our daughter for your life."
"How could you do such a thing? He'll surely kill her!" the wife exclaimed. "I would rather I could give back the cure that saved me and die, so that our child could live."
"He swore that no harm would come to her," the man replied. "She will be taken care of. It is better this way, that we should all live, than all of us should suffer and die."
"But how long until we must give up our child? Surely she is too young to be without her mother? Did he not give us a year or a month before we must pay his terrible price?"
"He said he would come for her this morning," the man replied.
"He will not," said the wife sternly. "Why would he? He has never even been known to even leave the confines of his home! What makes you think that he will come here to take our child away from us? What need has he of her?"
"I will come, and I have come," answered a voice. "I am as good as my word in this and all other things."
All heads turned to stare at the front door. It was open, letting in a cold morning breeze that seemed to turn everything in the room to ice, rustling the cape of the frightening creature that now seemed to blot out any light that might ever come through that portal. He seemed a creature of ice himself, but black ice, without even a sheen to make it bright. He stood there, immense and immovable, watching them all with his unreadable gaze and glowing red eyes.
"What... who are you?" the wife stammered, almost inaudible in her fear.
"My name, if you wish to know it, is Ecliptor," the creature answered, equally softly and nearly as sadly, "and I have come for your daughter."
The wife, hearing the heartbreaking certainty in his words, broke down and sobbed on her husband's shoulder. The children stared at him in wide-eyed horror.
"What do you want with my sister?" asked the boy, glaring up at the creature defiantly.
"She was promised to me," the monster answered, addressing the small child as if he was a rational adult. "Your mother would have died if I had not provided the medicine that saved her, so now I am taking my payment. You would not want your father's promise to be broken, would you?"
"No..." said the boy thoughtfully. "You're not going to hurt her, are you? If you hurt her, I'll get you for it," he added with surprising bravery.
"You lack not for courage. I feel better about doing this, knowing your parents have a child such as you remaining to them. No, little warrior, your sister will come to no harm. I will protect her as I have always protected my master's orchards," answered the monster.
"I don't want to go!" protested the girl. "I'm scared, Andros! Don't let it get me!"
"It'll be okay, Karone," the boy replied. "Be brave. I'll come and see you again when I can."
"You promise?" asked the girl.
"I promise. We'll be together again soon," her brother replied.
"Enough talk. We have said all there is to say. Come, child," said Ecliptor. In a swift movement, he scooped the child into his arms and swept away. All to soon, even the sound of her cries had vanished, leaving behind a silent house filled with cold wind. The mother sobbed quietly as her husband tried to comfort her, and the boy stood very still and very silent, radiating determination...
When the little girl awakened, she did not know where she was. Looking around, she found herself lying in a beautiful bed, finer than anything she'd even known existed while she had lived in her parents' hut. The room she was in a was lovely thing, with deep, soft carpeting on the floors, fantastic pictures hanging on the wall, shelves of picture books and toys and all manner of things small children loved. Across from her bed, there was a wide window, lined with lace curtains, and from there, she could see a vast expanse of deep green forest leading off towards the blue sky. The sun was just rising in the east, tinting the world pink and gold. She sat up and studied everything around her with wonder. A touch of unfamiliar material surprised her, and she realized that she was wearing a nightgown made of the softest cloth she had ever felt. Until then, she had never even heard of silk, much less touched it, and she imagined it must have been made of flower petals, to be so delicate, and she was almost afraid to move, lest she damage it.
"You are awake," said a voice.
The girl turned around in search of the speaker and saw that the door to her room was standing open, and a strange creature stood outside, but she was not afraid of it. Something inside was telling her that this beast, whatever it was, was friendly to her. She addressed it.
"Who are you? Where are we?"
"I am your guardian, and this is your home," he replied. "You may call me Ecliptor."
"Are you my father?" she asked. There was a vague notion in the back of her mind that she was supposed to have a father to look after her, but it was all very blurry and confused.
The creature shook his head. "No, your parents have abandoned you. There is no one in the world who wants you except me. When you were very young, you were burned in an accident, and your face is now so horrible that no one wants to look at it. But I am a monster, just as horrible as you. No one wants me either. I have taken you into my home and treat you as my own daughter. We will always be together here, so we will never be lonely."
"Am I really that ugly? Give me a mirror and let me see!" the little girl demanded.
"There are no mirrors here," the monster replied, "nor anything that would show your reflection. I cannot stand to look at myself and see that I am a monster, and I will not make you suffer the same fate. Nor will I let you go outside this tower. Here within these walls is everything you need to live and be safe, but if you go outside, people will be frightened of you and try to kill you. You must stay here until you have learned to defend yourself. In the meantime, anything else you want, I will give to you."
"Do I have a name?" asked the girl.
"I call you Astronema, because to me you are as valuable as all the stars in the sky," he replied. "Remember that - I and I alone am the only one who will ever love you, so you must not stray from me. Do you understand?"
"Yes. I understand," the girl replied. "Don't worry. I don't want to go away from here. I promise I'll never leave you. I will stay here... forever."
Early morning stillness was broken by the sound of hoofbeats on the hard-packed earth of the cartroad. Two handsome young men, mounted on glossy steeds, were riding steadily toward the green smudge on the horizon that was gradually becoming distinguishable as a forest.
"Why do we keep doing this?" asked one of the young men. He was a merchant's son, dressed in fine clothing, and his horse was the better of the two. "Every spring we do the same thing, and every summer we go home empty handed. We've crossed plains and deserts. We've searched over mountains and valleys. We've been through every town in the kingdom, all the way to the edge of the ocean, and we still haven't found her. Aren't you ready to give up?"
"No. I'm never going to stop searching," his companion replied.
"But Andros, it's been ten years!" said the first young man. "You may not even know her when you see her. You don't even know she's still alive!"
"Don't even say things like that, Zhane," Andros replied. "I know my sister is still out there somewhere, and I won't stop searching until I find her. If she's not in the forest, I'll just have to start searching beyond this kingdom. I'll comb the whole world if I have to. Even if the monster that stole her has taken her all the way to the moon, I'll find a way to get there and bring her back. If you don't want to come, stay behind, but I will never stop searching as long as there is breath and blood in my body."
"I never said anything about not coming!" Zhane replied, laughing a little. "Any excuse to get away from the routine of trade! Adventures are for me! I'd go to the moon with you just to see it!"
"Then we'll go to the forest," Andros decided, "and we'll search every inch of it for clues as to my sister's whereabouts."
"Well, then, let's be off," answered Zhane. He clapped his heels to his mount's sides, and the horse took off in a burst of speed. Laughing, Andros hurried to catch up.
After an hour or two of riding, they eventually came to the edge of the forest. Andros had never been there before, and he was amazed by the deep shadows and the wild scent of pine. Everything had a still and ancient feel, as if the silence there had stacked up thickly over the ages, like dust in a disused corner. A breeze rustled through the treetops, causing the entire forest to rustle like lapping ocean waters, and over that came the lonesome moan of the stronger wind that rode higher in the air.
"This is truly a place of dark magic," said Zhane. "Perhaps we should rethink our purpose?"
"No," Andros replied. "Have courage! You claim to be a swordsman in the safety of our valley, so why not here where there is real danger to battle? Don't prove yourself a coward now. I have a strong feeling that the end of our search is near."
"It could be very near," agreed Zhane. "If we were eaten by wild beasts or monsters, our search would definitely be at an end."
Andros turned to glare angrily at his friend, who held up his hands in protest.
"I was joking!" he said. "Should we search this forest together, or would it be best if we were to travel separately?"
"We should split up," answered Andros. "We will search the forest until the sun begins to set, and then we will return to this site. I'll mark it so we can find this place again," he added, taking off his hat and pinning it to a tree with his penknife. "If you get into trouble or find any sign of Karone, sound a blast on your hunting horn, and I will come to you as swiftly as I may. Good luck to you, my trusted friend."
"Good luck to you, too, and may what we seek be found swiftly," Zhane replied.
The two struck out into the forest, each going in the opposite direction. Soon, they were lost to each other in the thick shadows of the forest.
"You know, there's something to be said of living in an ivory tower," murmured Astronema to herself, "and that is that it is completely and utterly boring! Nothing ever happens around here."
She sighed deeply, gazing out the window that was the tower's only portal to the outside world. Though she had sworn her guardian that she would never leave the safety of her home, there was a restlessness growing inside of her that was very hard to suppress. She longed to know what it was like to walk about on good, solid earth, to meet animals and birds, to actually be able to walk more than fifteen paces in any given direction. She had never in her life seen oceans, mountains, deserts, fields, or other people... not that she could remember, anyway. Her distant past was a blank place in her memory, and her more recent past was a blur. Every day was very much like the last one. In the early days, Ecliptor had spent much of his time with her, teaching her what he could of the world beyond her captivity. However, as she had grown older and more independent, he would leave her to herself, sometimes coming only to deliver her meals. She could not be angry with him for this, for he had often told her of the cruel master who had charged him with guarding the apple orchards, and she knew he was spending as much time with her as he safely could. In the meantime, though, this place was very lonely.
Well, judging by the sun, her guardian would be there soon, to deliver her evening meal and spend a few moments with her before he returned to his duties, and that was something to look forward to. Meanwhile, just to pass the time, she took from her dresser the tortoiseshell brush with the silver inlaid designs and began to put it to good use. Though her protector had missed no opportunity to remind her of her deformity, the horrifying aspect of her face, he could not deny that she had the most beautiful hair that had been seen in the kingdom for many a year. It had all the brightness of gold and was softer than the silk dresses she wore, and it had never been cut. When she unbound it, it fell down past her feet and trailed behind her, a mantle richer than that of the king. With nothing else to do that hadn't already been done a hundred times, she would often spend hours brushing and styling her hair. Now she unbound it and let it fall out the window to dance with the wind, freer than she had been in ten long years. Pushing gloomy thoughts out of her mind, she began to sing as she began to brush her long tresses.
Meanwhile, in a place not far distant, Zhane was plodding through the forest and getting very discouraged. Apart from his friend, he was losing much of his determination. His horse was tired from picking its way through brambles, and its rider was in no better shape, being footsore and slightly scratched from encounters with thorn bushes. He was just pausing to catch his breath, when a very strange sound caught his ears. Someone was nearby, someone female, and she was singing with the sweetest voice he had ever heard. Suddenly, it was as if he had just awakened from a sound night's sleep, and he felt as refreshed and energetic as if he hadn't taken a step all day. Burning with curiosity, he made his way in the direction of the sound.
After he had gone but a short distance, he came to a small clearing amid the trees, and in that clearing stood a white tower. It had a single wide window, and sitting by that window was a young woman with the longest blonde hair he had ever seen, spilling almost to the ground in a luxuriant waterfall. Though her hair seemed almost to glitter in the sunlight, the girl's face was concealed within the shadows of her room.
"Hello, up there!" Zhane called.
The voice stopped singing, cutting off a line of her song with a gasp. "Who said that? Who's there?"
"Don't worry! I'm not here to hurt you," Zhane replied calmly. "How could I, with you way up there and me down here? My name is Zhane. Who are you?"
"I am called Astronema," the girl answered, a little breathlessly. "I'm sorry if I disturbed you. It is only that I've never seen another person like you before. No one ever comes here but my guardian, and he is a monster and not a man."
"A monster?" Zhane repeated, surprised. Could it be possible that this was his brother's missing sister? "How long have you been up in that tower?"
"Oh, I've always been here," she replied. "Ever since the day my parents abandoned me, I've been here. No one wants to look at me, no one but my guardian."
"I wouldn't mind looking at you," said Zhane. If her face matched her voice and her hair, she had to be the most beautiful woman in the world!
"No, you can't!" cried Astronema in shock. "No one can look at me! That's why I'm here. My face was terribly scarred in an accident, made too awful for anyone to look at without being sickened by it. My guardian built this place for me, so I would be safe. Otherwise I would be slain as a monster."
"I don't believe you," Zhane replied. "Let me look for myself. Where is the door to this tower? Will you let me in?"
"There is no door, and this is the only window. My guardian gets in and out by magical means. No one else may enter or exit."
"Hmm," said Zhane thoughtfully. He was determined he was going to get a look at this captive girl - for captive she clearly was, and certainly deluded. There had to be a way in somehow. Looking at her long hair still flying out in the breeze, he got an idea.
"Gather up your hair and hold it tightly, so I won't hurt you," he instructed her. "I'm going to try to climb."
"What? You're out of your mind!" the girl replied, but she did as she was told. She hadn't realized how desperately she had longed for companionship, and she was willing to try anything if it meant she could have a chance to know this stranger better.
Zhane carefully twisted her locks together to make a golden rope and gave it a pull. It held. Seeing that it was safe, he began to climb, and in moments, he was standing at the side of the girl who had so enchanted him. Seeing her face now enchanted him all over again.
"I could learn to hate your guardian for telling you such lies," he said. "Truly, you are the most beautiful creature I have ever seen!"
"No... no!" she answered in shock. "It is not possible! Ecliptor told me that I am horrible, a monster, even so much as he is! He would not lie to me."
"Have you never seen your reflection?" asked Zhane gently.
"No... he will not let me have mirrors," Astronema answered. "He says he would not let me feel the pain of gazing into my own face and seeing how dreadful I truly am."
"I say again, he lies," Zhane replied. "Look into my eyes and see that I am telling you the truth. I have traveled this land from end to end, from the highest mountains to the edge of the sea, and I have visited every town and village in the kingdom. I say to you in all honesty that I have never seen another who could compare with your beauty."
Drawn against her will, Astronema raised her eyes to meet his. In them, she saw the truth of his words, as she looked at her reflection for the very first time in the eyes of the man who had loved her at first sight.
"You're right..." she whispered in amazement. "I am beautiful! All this time I never knew..."
Zhane shook his head sadly. "Your guardian must be very cruel to have lied to you like that all these years."
"Oh, no, he's never cruel!" Astronema protested. "I can't believe he would ever do anything that was not for my own good. He has always been so kind to me..."
"Is locking you in a tower and never letting you see your friends or family a kindness?" asked Zhane, getting angry. "For ten years, your brother has been searching high and low for you! Couldn't this guardian of yours at least let you send letters? Why did he keep you imprisoned like this?"
"I... I don't know..." said Astronema hesitantly. "What are you talking about? I have no brother, no family. I was abandoned when I was a child. There is no one who ever loved me but my guardian."
"Who told you that?"
Zhane nodded. "You have no other measure of truth than what he has said to you, and you already know he has lied to you once. I tell you the truth now: your guardian took you away from your home in exchange for saving your mother's life, and since that day, your brother has been trying to find you. His name is Andros, and he is my truest friend in the world, and that is how I know this is the truth."
"I can't believe it," said Astronema. "Everything I've ever known is a lie? What am I going to do?"
"I'll tell you what you're going to do!" Zhane answered. "You're going to be free!"
"Free?" she repeated. Her eyes turned toward the window, following the endless lines of trees to the horizon. "You mean, actually go outside?"
"Of course!" Zhane replied with a laugh. "Your brother isn't far from here. I'll call him here, and together, we'll rescue you and take you to your true home."
"I... I don't know what to say," said Astronema.
"Don't say anything," Zhane replied. "I'll take care of everything. Just wait, and I'll be back with your brother in a short while."
"You should go, then," she replied. "My guardian will be here soon, and he would be angry to find you here. He is very powerful, and might kill you if he finds you here."
"Will he stay here all night?" asked Zhane.
Astronema shook her head. "He only comes for a few minutes in the evenings. He has to guard his master's apple trees, so he will only stay long enough to bring my meal and talk a while."
"Good," Zhane answered. "Andros and I will hide in the trees, out of sight, and you can call for us when it's safe to show ourselves. Then we can take you away, and your guardian will never know what happened."
"I will be sorry to leave him," said Astronema. "He was always kind to me."
Zhane shook his head, unable to comprehend her feelings for the monster that had stolen her. "If you say so. I will return soon."
"Be careful," she said.
"I will," he replied.
Moments later, he had scaled back down the side of the tower and vanished into the darkening forest. Astronema wistfully watched him go and pondered all he had said to her.
As the sun set, Andros returned to the place he had marked in low spirits. A long and tiring search had revealed nothing but trees, trees, and more trees, and he was weary and discouraged. From the edge of the forest, he could see that the sun had already half-set, and he had been concerned that Zhane would be waiting for him and worrying, but when he arrived, he found no sign of his friend. Half-hopeful, half-afraid, he leaned against a tree to await his friend.
Some time later, he was rewarded by the sound of feet crashing through the underbrush. Tensing and reaching for his sword, Andros stared into the thickening shadows, ready for anything. Then he relaxed, seeing his friend step into the light, leading his horse, his face lit with a broad smile.
"I found her!" he exclaimed. "I really found her!"
"You did?" Andros asked, astounded. "How? Where? Is she all right? Why isn't she with you?"
"Yes, I found her," said Zhane, still smiling. "I heard her singing and followed the sound. Her monster guardian holds her captive in a tower with no doors and only one window up at the top. I knew I would not be able to rescue her alone, so I came back to get your help."
"My time has finally come, then," Andros replied. "Show me the way to the ivory tower! It's time my sister returned to her true home."
"This way," Zhane answered. He set off into the woods again, beckoning for his friend to follow. Together, they picked their way quietly through the ever-thickening darkness.
Ecliptor appeared in the ivory tower with a shimmering of emerald lights, and was surprised to find his adopted child doing something he had never seen her doing before - just sitting and staring off into space, her hands folded in her lap, watching the stars come out. He set the tray he carried on a bedside table and came to stand next to her.
"Is something troubling you, my child?" he asked. "You look pensive."
"I was just wishing," she replied, "That I might go outside someday. I've lived in this tower all my life. I'm nearly grown up now. You've taught me how to look after myself, and surely I will not meet any people if I just walk in the forest? The trees seem to go on forever and ever. I could go for miles without ever seeing anyone!"
"All the more reason to stay here," said Ecliptor. "You said yourself, there is nothing out there but trees... and wild animals, who are nearly as dangerous as humans. You would get lost and be hurt. There is nothing out there that you cannot see from where you are."
"Could you not come with me and protect me?" she asked. "I cannot imagine how there could be anything in the forest that you could not defend me from."
"I am too busy for that; you know very well that I only have a few minutes a day that I can spend with you, as much as I wish it were not so," Ecliptor replied. "We are both prisoners and outcasts, you and I. The least I can do is keep you safe and happy even when I am not."
"But I'm not happy!" protested Astronema. "Nor am I safe. You tell me over and over that your master is deadly dangerous, and that he might kill you for any offense. If you were to die, where would that leave me? Trapped in a tower with no choice than to jump out the window or stay here and starve. I need my freedom, Ecliptor! I don't think I could stand living another ten years here..."
"It is impossible," said Ecliptor softly, coldly, "so no more talk on the subject. You will stay here, and that is that. Now, eat your dinner, child, and let us find something else to talk about."
"Yes, Ecliptor," she said meekly.
She took a seat on the edge of her bed and began to pick unenthusiastically at her meal, while Ecliptor watched her with a critical eye. Something was wrong with her today, he decided. There had been no talk of leaving yesterday - all of those kinds of discussions had been left behind in her childhood days, or so he had thought. She had been perfectly content when he had left her at midday, so why was she acting like this now? His suspicions crystalized as he noticed a stray wisp of something on the floor. It was a little scrap of rust brown, looking out of place against the clean pink carpet. His sharp eyes traced the indentations in the plush piling, noticing the imprints of large boots.
"Astronema," he said quietly, "do you have something to tell me?"
"No, Ecliptor," she replied. "Why do you ask?"
"I was just wondering," he said, "how someone managed to get into the tower today. A man, by the look of things."
Astronema gasped and turned to stare at him with wide, frightened eyes. "How did you know?"
"Do you think you can keep secrets from me?" he demanded angrily. "How can you lie to me about something like that after all I've done for you?"
"You hid things from me - yes, and lied to me, too," Astronema replied. "You told me I had no family. You told me I was a monster!"
"And he told you differently?" asked Ecliptor.
"Yes," she said. "He told me the truth."
"What makes you believe him? How do you know a single word he said was true?" he demanded. "Did he even tell you his name?"
"Well, no..." she replied, momentarily confused.
"You can't trust him," Ecliptor insisted. "As far as you know, he's only a hunter trying to steal a beautiful, innocent girl. You know nothing of the outside world, Astronema. It is best for you to forget him and stay here. Did he say he was coming back? No lies, now. Trust me, I will find out if you try to deceive me."
"He... he said he'd come back tonight, and wait in the trees..." answered Astronema, frightened by her guardian's cold anger. "I... I said I'd call him as soon as it was safe."
"Call him now," Ecliptor commanded. "I will deal with him myself."
"No, please!" she begged. "Leave him alone! Let me have the blame!"
"That cannot be done. He must not be allowed to spread the word that you are here," Ecliptor replied. "Call him!"
"No!" she shouted back.
"Karone?" called a distant voice. "Was that you, Karone?"
"Quiet!" hissed another voice. "He might still be there!"
"They're here," said Ecliptor quietly. "I'm going to meet them."
"Leave them alone!" Astronema protested, but it was too late.
At the base of the tower, Andros and Zhane were surprised to see Ecliptor appear in a burst of green light. Zhane gasped and jumped backwards in alarm, but Andros only regarded him with a cold, steady stare.
"We meet again," he said softly.
Ecliptor nodded a little in acknowledgment. "I remember you. You are her brother, yes?"
"Yes, and I have come to take her home, where she belongs," Andros replied.
"She belongs here with me," Ecliptor replied. "You are no longer a part of her life. She does not remember you, and would not even recognize you if she saw you. Just turn around and go away, and leave us both in peace."
"I can't do that," said Andros firmly. "She's my sister. I love her."
"So do I."
"You call this love?" Andros asked. "Stealing her from her family, imprisoning her in a tower, telling her lies, trying to keep her all to yourself forever? That's a cruel kind of love."
"You don't understand," the monster replied. "She is the only good thing I have in the world. If I lose her, I lose my reason for being. I don't think I could stand being alone again..."
"So you want her to be alone instead?" asked Andros, unmoved. "There is a time for protection, but that time is over. There comes a day when you show real love by letting go."
Ecliptor stood for a moment, indecisive. Zhane came forward to speak.
"Let her go," he said quietly. "Take your joy in knowing that she is happy."
There was no way to tell what was going through the monster's mind as he stood and stared at them - his expressionless face and featureless red eyes told nothing. For a long, tense moment, they matched each other glare for glare, testing each other's resolve. After an uncounted number of minutes slipped by, Ecliptor backed down.
"Have it your way," he said. "I see I cannot stop you. Take her and get out of here, then. If I ever see you again, however, and you don't see me coming, you may not live to regret this decision."
Andros ignored him. He and Zhane came to stand at the base of the tower, where Astronema had been watching the entire scene.
"Come down, Karone," he said. "We can catch you."
Wordlessly, she did as she was told, and landed safely in their waiting arms. However, she ignored their greetings, going instead to the side of her longtime guardian.
"Ecliptor," she said, "I'm sorry I have to leave you. Please don't think I don't care about you."
"You have chosen them over me," he answered, sounding hurt. "Almost strangers, and you would rather spend the rest of your life with them than with me?"
"No," she answered. "I want you to come with us."
"What?" said Zhane and Andros together.
"What?" Ecliptor asked in shock. "How can you ask such a thing of me? You know what kind of master I serve! I could never leave his service and be sure of my safety. You forget also that I am a monster. No one would ever be able to look me in the eye and not be stricken with terror."
"That can't be true," she replied, "because I have looked at you many times, and I know you are not horrible. No real monster would have a heart as good as yours. You have been like a true father to me, and I do not want to leave you forever."
"But what of my master?" he asked, still uncertain.
"The dragon?" asked Zhane. "Dragons can be slain. I say you master has been terrorizing the world long enough. Together, we can find him and defeat him!"
"If you did that, you would be a hero," Karone added. "No one could hate you then."
"You... you are right. You all are," Ecliptor answered slowly. "I will come with you, and I will help you free the land of my master... my former master's evil. I never truly belonged to him anyway. My heart has always belonged to my child."
"If Karone says you are good, I will believe her," said Andros, smiling a little. "I hope you feel up to traveling. We have a long road ahead of us."
"And I want to see it all!" Karone replied.
"Let's go, then!" cheered Zhane. "To the dragon, and whatever lies beyond!"
Voices of approval were raised. Talking and laughing together,
off down the road
and onward to new adventures and other tales.