The Fool jolted awake. The Black Fox lay beside him, unmoving, his breaths shallow and raspy. His black fur was stained with dried blood, a stark contrast to the vibrant memories the Fool had shared with him in the fairy realm. Sorrow gnawed at the Fool's heart. He knew the Fox's life, its laughter and loyalty, and this wasn't how it was supposed to end.
"Where are they?" the Fool rasped, his voice hoarse. He glanced at the window, the sky an unnerving mix of day and night. Panic seized him as he searched for anything, anything to help his fallen friend.
Beside him lay the Cat King's book, the one the Cat High Priest had brought through the mirror. Desperation fueled his touch as he tried to pry it open. "Book!" he pleaded, his voice cracking. "Show me how to heal a dragon bite! Why oh why did I return from a haven without sickness, only to learn useless things?!"
Frustration welled up as he battled the book's ancient seals, each closed page a barrier between him and a potential cure. The Fox's life, their shared past in the dreamscape, flashed through his mind, fueling his determination.
"What's wrong, Your Highness?" boomed a voice. The Burgomaster, flanked by lackeys bearing platters of food, entered the room. He swiftly shut the window, blocking the unsettling twilight, and plastered a wide smile on his face. "Need something?"
"This!" the Fool gestured, shoving the food aside, almost tripping over the Fox. "The Black Fox needs help! He's been bitten by a dragon!"
The Burgomaster paled, exchanging nervous glances with his disguised guards. "A dragon?"
"Yes! The same creature that lured us from the fairyland. If only the Princess hadn't..."
The Burgomaster patted him consolingly. "You must still be delirious, Your Highness. Rest, and your body and mind will heal."
"I'm not delirious! It was a dragonsnake, and it wants us both!"
Ignoring the growing fear in the Burgomaster's eyes, the Fool fixated on the final seal on the book. "Maybe...", he muttered.
The guards tensed. "What are you doing, Your Highness?"
With a swift, desperate move, the Fool grabbed the Fox's leg and pressed it onto the seal. The room pulsed with an otherworldly energy.
A blinding flash consumed the room, the house, the entire street! The seal had yielded, leaving everyone bathed in a searing afterimage. The Burgomaster, shrieking in panic, fled the room, leaving the Fool and the Fox in stunned silence.
The Fool rubbed his eyes, the world blurring back into focus. The Fox's wound remained, his breaths weak and labored. Anger and despair gnawed at the Fool. "Stupid Princess!" he cried, oblivious to his partial blindness. "Why did we return? The Fox had his tower, I had paradise! Why, oh why?"
The silence that followed held a strange echo, almost a whisper from the fairy horn. Memories flickered – the well, the castle, the Elves of In Between. With newfound purpose, the Fool secured the horn to his belt, then gently hoisted the weakened Fox over his shoulder. Clutching the book close, he mounted his horse and spurred it towards the dry-out well.
"Take us to the elves!" he urged the horse, their journey filled with the Fox's feverish pleas. "My tower," the Fox rasped, "bring me back... that's where I belong."
Reaching the well, the Fool, half-blind and desperate, lowered himself down with the Fox in his arms. He reached for the horn, his hand disappearing into its depths, yet finding nothing. "Elves! Fairies! Help!" his voice resonated into the abyss. "The horn is useless! Please, my friend is dying!"
But only silence answered, a suffocating void. The well was dry, devoid of its usual chatter and gurgle. Panic clawed at the Fool's throat. "Help me!" he cried again, his voice echoing unanswered.
The Fox in his arms seemed to fade, the wound on his neck a gruesome testament to the venom's hold. "Strange story," the Fox rasped, his voice weak.
"Forgive me," the Fool choked out, tears blurring his vision. He pressed his ear against the Fox's chest, a faint flicker of life still present.
Then, an idea sparked. Lifting the horn, he pointed it skyward. It sputtered and trembled, and to his astonishment, water began to gush forth, filling the air with a refreshing spray.
"Look, Fox!" he exclaimed, a sliver of hope flickering in his voice.
As the horn sputtered its last drops, the well echoed with a splash. "Drink!" the Fool urged, lowering the Fox to the water's edge.
Just then, a familiar figure emerged from the shadows - the Idle Fisherman.
The Fool's heart leapt with hope at the sight of the Idle Fisherman. Perhaps he knew how to tap into the horn's magic, how to save the Fox! But before he could speak, the Fisherman moved with startling speed. With a rough yank, he snatched the horn from the Fool's knapsack and, in a move that defied the Fox's waning strength, shoved the Fool headfirst into the yawning darkness of the well.
"No," boomed the Enchanted Deer, antlers scraping the sky as he witnessed the unfolding scene. "This tale ends differently!"
The Seer, shrouded in moonlight, sighed. "Interfering again, Deer? Unbidden help breeds misunderstanding. They won't cherish what they haven't earned."
"This isn't about them," the Deer countered, his voice laced with desperation. "This is for me." With a flick of his head, he conjured a shimmering portal, hooves pounding across moonlit grass.
Through the portal he led his companions: the silent, fierce Wolf, the Wildcat whose eyes gleamed like hidden treasure, the sly Fox with a mischievous smirk, and the wise Owl, her amber eyes sparkling with ancient knowledge. Together, they raced across kingdoms, over whispering seas, finally landing on the snow-capped peak of the Owl's domain.
"Knew you'd arrive," hooted the Owl, unfazed by the biting wind.
"Highest point," the Deer demanded, breath misting in the frigid air.
The Owl studied him, a flicker of amusement in her gaze. "Follow, then, Deer of Stars."
They reached the pinnacle, where a spring bubbled, its source hidden deep within the icy heart of the mountain. Here, the Empire's lifeblood was born, rivers carrying magic and vitality to every corner.
Without a word, the five companions pooled their intentions, channeling their power into the water. It pulsed with renewed energy, coursing through rapids and placid lakes, over towering aqueducts, finally reaching the Imperial Palace in the City of Stars. Deep within, it filled the bathhouse, where a stone statue lay submerged.
As the water dissolved the stone, the Empress emerged, wracked with a cough that tore from her soul. Years of stolen life ignited a fire in her eyes. "Enough's enough," she hissed, the words barely containing the storm of emotions raging within.
Not much further up in the very same palace, the serpent leaned back in his throne, amusement flickering in his golden eyes.
"Now that the Five are making it no secret that they are openly meddling with human affairs," he drawled, his voice smooth as honeyed venom, "there is no longer any reason to keep myself small and to hide myself away in the shadows anymore, is there? The counselors have failed to assist me in my plans. Failures! All of them."
He hissed with laughter, the sound slithering through the opulent chamber.
"But I can't really blame them, can I? Their biggest mistake is simply that they're human, and making mistakes is part of being human. The thing is... I can't have any more mistakes."
"I understand that all too well," said the Sorceress, her voice a low murmur that echoed in the silence following the serpent's words.
"That's why, for my next plan to succeed, I need to factor in the risk of humanity's inherent flaws."
"Which is to say…," asked the dark Mirror Queen, leaning forward in her obsidian throne, curiosity glinting in her obsidian eyes.
"What has been obvious since the very beginning, actually. Namely that I can't depend on humans to execute my plans that have to do with humans."
A smirk played on the serpent's lips, his forked tongue flicking out to taste the air.
"I'm intrigued," said the Mirror Queen, her voice laced with a dangerous undercurrent.
Suddenly, the Council burst into the room, their faces pale and etched with worry.
"The sun and the moon and the stars have been... extinguished, it seems, your slithering majesty," the counselors stammered, their voices cracking with fear. Increasingly, they could not see their betrayal of the rightful Emperor as separate from the disasters plaguing the Empire ever since. They didn't have to tell him. The snake had already noticed this in their voices, cold dread washing over him as the forked tongue flicked, casting unsettling shadows in the dimly lit chamber. He had to act quickly. He could not afford anyone from that stupid Imperial family to interfere with his plans.
"Yes? What about her?" asked the puzzled Counselors.
"She is to be married. Now."
"But your highness," a counselor ventured, his voice trembling, "the Four Kings haven't even arrived in the City of Trousers yet! How are we going to inaugurate a new kingdom without the presence of all the other kings? It won't be recognized if it is not witnessed."
The serpent's eyes narrowed, silencing him with a venomous glare. "Do I stutter, fool? The ceremony commences now!"
His words hung heavy in the air, and the counselors, cowed and fearful, scrambled to obey. They knew the consequences of disobeying the serpent were swift and merciless.
And so, the whole Council drove as quickly as possible to the City of Trousers to have the marriage performed immediately.
After arriving in the City of Trousers, they rushed to their friend, the Delegate Envoy to the High Priest who was at that very moment showing the Princess the city’s temple.
"She is to be married right now," the Council had said to the Delegate in the temple, while the people had all come out on the street to look at the heavens in the semi-darkness that had now fallen over earth.
"She is to be married now," the Deputy had told the Burgomaster.
"She is to be married now," the Burgomaster had told the Countess.
"You are getting married right now," the Countess had said to the Princess.
With the Mirror Queen clinging precariously to his back, the Serpent slithered through the palace, straight towards the treasure vault. Outside, the heavens writhed in chaos - thunder cracked, stars flickered, and bolts of lightning ripped through the daylit sky. But the Serpent and his companion were oblivious, their eyes set on the prize.
They burst into a cavernous chamber, a staggering display of wealth overflowing before them. Heaps of gleaming gold, mountains of silver, chests overflowing with precious gems, statues carved from the finest marble, and jewels sparkling like captured constellations - the room pulsed with an almost tangible avarice.
The Sorceress gasped, momentarily speechless. Then, a laugh erupted from her, bubbling up from her core and echoing through the vault. The Serpent, meanwhile, plunged into the treasure like a ravenous beast, emerging on the other side with a triumphant grin.
"This," he hissed, his voice dripping with satisfaction, "is the culmination of my efforts."
"My dearest Serpent," the Sorceress purred, her eyes gleaming with avarice, "this is beyond magnificent!" She hopped from treasure to treasure, a giddy child in a candy store - a golden vase, a shimmering necklace, a platter fit for a king.
But their celebration was abruptly cut short. A tremor shook the room, followed by a sound that made even the sturdiest chests tremble - the thunderous approach of four armies converging on the capital.