A raised, circular dais sat in the center of a round open-air pavilion, surrounded by a mote of clear blue water in which water cascaded down from the ducts encircling the dais. Blue and yellow lilies floated along lazily, with little bridges connecting the central dais to the rest of the open room. A large domed ceiling, raised high by white concrete columns, showed paintings of colorful birds and butterflies flitting about in a blue sky. The sun shone in on this magnificent sight and illuminated the complete view of the entire city outside below, a waterfall running down out of the high acropolis and into the river that wound through the entirety of the city.
Philip led the way for the party to the central dais, where purple and blue fluffy couches lined the edges near the ducts, and in the center, a mosaic tiled painting of a woman surrounded by blue waters, white raiment winding round her legs, waist, chest and arms, and bright red hair billowing out behind her, her eyes closed and her arms spread in a look of serenity, the white fabric of her gown flowing out in every direction, as she seemed to sink into watery depths.
Seated with her back to the city below on a purple sofa was a woman who wore an exquisite blue silk gown, with a translucent blue wrap wound about her arms, and long chestnut hair billowing down her shoulders to her bosom, her bare feet resting on the mosaic tiles. Philip led the group across one of the small bridges onto the circular dais and gestured for them to sit. Lucas and Eric sat on one of the couches directly across from this yet unnamed woman, Imogen taking a seat next to Eric, and Bronwen and Hephaestian sat on another sofa near them. Philip politely seated himself on a sofa next to the woman.
She spoke. “It is good to have visitors here in our realm,” she said, “It has been many, many years since anyone crossed our borders.”
Lucas didn’t know what to say, and looked to Eric and Imogen, who also seemed unsure. Bronwen looked on silently with her arms folded, and Hephaestian leaned forward intently, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting in his hands.
“Allow me to welcome you in my official capacity to Madeena, city of the water” said the woman with a smile, “And allow me now to introduce myself as Illina, Grand Matriarch of this realm.”
“How is it,” asked Imogen timidly, “That this place could be hidden as it is?”
“My servant Philip no doubt explained to you that we are a Lufian people,” replied Illina, “We worship the goddess Lufia and practice the craft that was handed down to her people by the fairies themselves. I am told that you, Miss Imogen, are a witch?”
“This is true,” said Imogen with a gulp
Illina smiled, “That is good to hear.”
“I’m not used to that kind of reception, ma’am,” said Imogen.
“Of course you aren’t, my dear,” said Illina, “But we here in Madeena are all Lufian, to the last.”
“Do you mean to say that you’re all Lufian witches?” asked Imogen.
“No,” replied Illine, “But we are all worshippers of the goddess, and those of us who do not possess a share of her power and who cannot possibly become witches are acolytes. I myself am a witch, but Philip here, for instance, is an acolyte.”
Philip smiled at Imogen sheepishly.
“We all do our part to serve the goddess,” said Illina, “And we can do so freely here, as as you said, our realm is hidden from the outside world.”
“May I ask how?” asked Imogen.
“It is quite simply old magick,” said Illina.
Bronwen raised her eyebrows, but Illina didn’t notice it.
“Old magick?” asked Imogen.
“Yes. Tell me, are you familiar with the triad of Grimoires produced by the goddess’s first acolytes?”
“Yes,” said Imogen, “My mother taught me about them. The Grimoires of fire, earth and water, simply called the Green, Red and Blue Books.”
“That’s correct,” said Illina, “Your mother must have been a knowledgable servant of the goddess.”
“Yes,” said Imogen, “She was well-known amongst Lufians. She was called Phoebe the Wise.”
Illina looked startled, “Your mother… I did not know that Phoebe the Wise had ever had any children.”
“She adopted me,” explained Imogen, “She never had any children of her own.”
“Then let me say,” said Illina, bowing her head with reverance, “That is an honor to meet one so closely connected to a woman who is considered among our lot to have been a saint for our cause.”
“She disliked being referred to that way,” said Imogen, her voice quieting a bit.
“Of course, she would be humble,” said Illina, “But your mother, you know, was our champion during the first schism of the Angelist Church. She led many Lufians into hiding and away from persecution. In fact, she helped to create this very city.”
“She did?” asked Imogen in wonderment.
“Yes. As I mentioned, there were in those times three tomes valued highly above all others to Lufians. One of them, the Red Book as we called it, was seized by the Church and destroyed. The elders themselves hid the Green Book, and it’s location is still unknown. The Blue Book however, remained with a small group of witches, of whom your mother and I were a part.”
“She never mentioned anything like this city, or your name, that I can remember,” said Imogen.
“Philip tells me that have only just become a witch, correct?” asked Illina, “That you have been an apprentice for many years?”
“That’s true, yes ma’am,” replied Imogen, “I am seventeen now, and my initiation ceremony was to take place a few days ago, however my mother was…” she hestiated, “She was killed.”
Illina placed a hand over her chest and a look of sadness fell across her face, “I am truly sorry to hear that, child.”
Bronwen spoke, “An assassin in employ of the Church killed her in cold blood,” she said with an angry tone, “I intend to bring that assasin to justice personally.”
Illina looked shaken, and placed her hands on her lap. “That is one way of resolving the matter, however Lufians do not always advice retaliation in such a way. Violence always begets more violence.”
Bronwen said nothing.
“Please,” said Imogen, “Go on. We can talk about my mother later. I want to know the rest of the story.”
“Of course,” Illina nodded and took a deep breath, composing herself. “Your late mother and myself were part of a group of elite witches. Our power surpassed those of our peers, and, during the first great schism of the Angelists, the Lufian elders handed over authority of the Blue Book to us, imploring us to try and devise some solution.
“Nearly no one has ever seen the contents of any of these books, but what I can tell you from my own experience is that the runic and archaic language is difficult, if not impossible to understand. The books were written by the hands of fairies who attempted their best to write in language we might understand, but the structure of sentences and words do not make sense. Symbols and words are playfully scattered across the pages, little drawings surround the incantations, even bright little smudges litter the book where the fairies themselves kissed the pages. Their words are sometimes indiscernable, and only through meditation or an intense connection to the spiritual can one read their mysterious text.
“So it was that your mother, myself, and a few other witches sat down with the Blue Book, each of us scouring it’s pages to try and find answers. Spells for protection, spells for the endowment of powerful magick that would enable us to defend ourselves. We tried many things, but often we misused the magick in the book and hurt one another, or did nothing at all.
“It was Phoebe who at last woke me up in the middle of the night, along with the others, to say that she had devised a plan. A passage within the Blue Book spoke of an unseeable veil of protection that would sequester a region into an unknowable place, accessible only by those who knew how to work the magick of the spirit. We were in a hidden and remote village at that time, and together we tried the spell, attempting to hide our little shack from the outside world.”
Illina was quiet for a moment.
“What happened?” asked Eric suddenly.
Illina looked up at Eric, “We were successful. The doorway to our humble makeshift home was quite literally a passageway that could lead us back to the physical world. There was nothing, however, outside of our small house. We looked out the windows and saw only an endless mist. So we were able to undo the spell, and the house came back into physical existance.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” said Imogen, “Did the house stop existing physically?”
“No, it simply didn’t exist in the material and seeable world anymore,” replied Illina. “As you can see by looking around, the water, the stone, the fabrics, these are all very real. But the world in which we now reside is seperate, a spiritual place that was created specifically for the purpose of housing this city.
“But I get ahead of myself. After the success of our first spell, we sought the elders immediately and informed them. Phoebe proposed that we find a city large enough to enough all of the Lufians and sequester that city into the unknowable realm we’d brought our little house into. It was a brilliant plan, but unfortunately we were running out of time. The inquisitors from the Church had already begun to march into our lands, and Lufians were dying.
“In the span of a week, our acolytes and many witches themselves gathered the Lufians from around the countryside and brought them to a small city built on a river. It was one of the ruined city of Old Times, and many were the weary Lufian witch or acolyte who sought refuge there. It seemed a perfect fit for our needs, and so, Phoebe and myself, the others of our select group, the elders, and the many witches who had come from around the countryside gathered together, and in unison we performed the spell.
“The results, well… they stand before you.” Illina smiled. “We were successfully hidden from the outside world, here in this realm.”
“But you said that it was an unknowable place shrouded in mist,” said Imogen.
“It happened that when we first looked out our windows in that small house where first we performed the spell, all we could see was mist, and indeed if you look out behind me at the city, you will see that beyond the trees surrounding Madeena, there is a rolling mist permeating the air. But we were able to bring the land, the trees, the river itself, all of it, here into this realm. We don’t even know now what exactly this place is. We still receive the light of the sun, however, and at night the moon climbs into the sky as it does outside. We call this place a spiritual realm, but it is entirely possible we opened a portal that relocated this city from one area of the world to another.
“Where once this city had stood there was nothing, a chasm in the earth that became a grand lake. After the spell was successfully cast, we were able to return to the outside world as we needed, and were careful not to leave traces of ourselves or to reveal the way in. There are several entrances to the hidden city of Madeena from outside, but only a witch may enter, or one in possession of an enchanted item that a witch has blessed.
“We attempted, the elders, many other witches and myself, to gather Lufians from farther away, but our efforts cost the lives of many elders and witches. Phoebe herself accompanied me on many pilgrimages to the other lands on this continent, but we were successful in saving only a few lives, while many witches were captured by the Chuch and executed for heresy against their Angel.
“Upon a regrouping of all the Lufians we could gather, it was decided that our best option was to cut our losses and live here in this city, simply allowing time to pass. Many of us were uncomfortable with the idea of hiding out here while others lost their lives, and indeed many witches chose to abandon the city, taking their chances in the outside world, hoping to guide as many of the faithful to safety as they could. Some returned, others were never heard from again.
“All the while, the rebuilding effort continued. We gathered materials from the outside world as needed, and built the little paradise you see before you, filling it to the brim with art and literature that paid homage to the goddess Lufia, and we gathered here in this high temple many times for worship in those days. We were grateful to have found safety.”
There was a long silence, in which everyone seemed to collectively contemplate quietly.
“There has to be more to the story, though,” said Hephaestian, “Because Imogen’s mother left the city, and you said the three Grimoires are lost.”
“You’re correct,” Illina nodded in Hephaestian’s direction. “It was Phoebe who caused the trouble, though I don’t blame her at all for it. She was fervent in her belief that hiding here, abandoning the other Lufians to die, was an arrogant act. She had wanted for a long time to go back to the outside world. I had been able to convince her to stay, assuring her that her guidance and her power were put to the best use here in the city, but there came a time when even I could not assuage her anymore.
“Phoebe herself was the one who took the Blue Book and fled. She said that if one sanctuary could be created for the witches, so could another, and it was I alone who saw her that night, saw the Blue Book in her hands, which she had taken from the temple by some clever means that I didn’t know and didn’t care to ask about. I begged her to stay, but she was unassailable. It was her ardent wish that Lufians everywhere find safety, and not just a select few.
“I suppose I might have stopped her by force, had I a mind to do it, but the truth was I agreed with her. It was I who was too cowardly to brave the Angelist forces again, I who could have saved more lives, but I didn’t want to leave. Phoebe’s theft of the book was soon discovered without my having to say a thing, the elders were able to divine it on their own. She was branded by the elders as a traitor, though her abscondence from the city was the impetus for many other witches to go back out into the world. It was because of her benevolent wish to save others that the many Lufians who followed her example were able to save countless lives from across the continent.
“The elders, however, were displeased, as the Green Book could not be recovered without incredible risk, and they refused to send any emissary to retrieve the book for them.”
“It sounds like the elders were cowards,” said Bronwen flatly.
“Bronwen!” replied Imogen in a horrified voice.
Illina smiled softy, “No, she’s right. They were indeed cowardly in that regard. I thought so at the time myself, but as a much older woman now, I’m able to see why they chose not to leave. They wanted to ensure the safety and well-being of the Lufians who had survived the schism, and to educate a new generation who could carry on our philosophies and traditions, who would uphold the ideals the goddess handed down. This was their main focus, and they could do it without the use of one of the three Grimoires. It is believed that the Blue Book was seized by the church sometime later, though obviously not from Phoebe herself. As for the Green Book, well, it’s location remains a mystery.”
Imogen shifted in her seat and leaned closer to her satchel.
“So it has come to be that Madeena flourishes even while the outside world crumbles,” said Illina, “And were we able to combat the Angelists ourselves, we gladly would, but it is not in our power to battle armies of soldiers with magick. The goddess did not give us these gifts to make war or bring death. I believe, however, there will come a time when the Angelist Church falls from favor, and equality is once again the way of the land. Eden has flourished in times when free expression was accepted by all, and even Lufians do not demand that others believe in our ways or uphold our laws. Our reverence for nature is unflinching, and that includes reverence for the lives of humans who might do us harm. So it is that we wait, here in our little paradise, for a time when the world returns to a state of peace.”
“I don’t know if that will happen,” said Lucas, disheartened. “The world is in far more danger than I’ve ever known it to be. The Angelist Church has gained the might of the Alexandrian army, and the plains of the free people are being warred over by neighboring kingdoms. It seems that a new schism is coming, and not just for those who are Lufian, but any who refuse to submit to the law of the Church.”
“As it must be,” said Illina calmly, “For this is always the way with religions. Our worship of the goddess is voluntary, and can be interpreted in many different ways. Though we refer to Lufia herself as a real deity who once existed, there are many among our number who believe her simply to be an emblem of reverence toward nature and life. The powers that we possess, though we say are given by Lufia herself, may yet someday find an explenation through science. It doesn’t really matter, ultimately. We are a belief system with so many facets and different practices that we can come together in peace even among our differences, because our goals are the same: acceptance, love toward others, and the defense of the natural world. We desire to live in harmony with nature. As our city is one with the great river, so too are we one with nature.
“But of course this is not the way with the Angelists. They belief that their faith in their deity grants salvation, and even then only to a select few. They care not for this world or it’s wonders, but for an Otherworld. They refuse to see Eden for the extraordinary beauty that it is, and look heavenward, in the hopes that an Angel will descend, to deliver them from man made poverty and man made hardship. They attack because they are insecure in their belief. They force others to commit themselves to the service of their Angel because they do not truly believe they serve an angel; they simply seek to avoid their fear of death by believing that this world is of no consequence, and they desecrate it accordingly.
“Eventually, though, nature will win. It always does.”
Again, there was a long silence.
“On the topic of nature,” said Philip, finally speaking, “Perhaps we should inform them of our predicament.”
“Yes,” said Illina with a crestfallen look downward, “It seems the best time.”
“Predicament?” asked Lucas.
“Yes,” Illina took another deep breath. “Our utopia has gone undisturbed for nearly fifty years now, but a situation beyond our control has arisen. Sickness has long been something Lufians are known to have a swift command over, as we have been able to cure almost all known diseases through magick or spiritual intervention. However, the people of the city are becoming ill at an alarming rate, and nothing we have thus tried has helped them. We are running out of options. We cannot seek the assistance of scientific medicine without exposing ourselves to the outside world, or worse, bringing into this realm those who might defile or harm us. And yet, we seem unable to combat the disease.”
“What manner of disease is this?” asked Imogen.
“The symptoms are sometimes incongruous with one another from case to case, but all who suffer from the Illness, as we simply call it, experience weakness in their bodies, many experience coughing fits or an inability to keep down food, while others have begun to bleed from their orifices, and others still simply show few physical symptoms but are mentally overtaken, and become unable to speak or rationally process information. A symptom among witches is that their magickal ability weakens or disappears altogether for periods of time. Many have already died. We are entirely at a loss as to what this sickness could be, and have found no way of treating it through medicine or magick.”
“Perhaps something has infected the water,” offered Hephaestian, “If a virus developed, that would be the most effective way for it to be transmitted among all the people here.”
“It’s possible,” said Illina, “But we believe something more sinister is at work. Since magick is entirely unable to undo this disease, or indeed even to fight the symptoms, which it can do in other cases, we have come to believe it is a curse. If magick is unable to heal it, it must be something designed to prevent healing magick from alleviating the symptoms. It must be a curse of some kind, something of a magicakl nature.”
“What can we do?” asked Lucas, “Philip told us that we might be able to help you.”
“I don’t know if you can, but I’d like to try,” said Illina, “You, child, are special, are you not?”
Lucas was silent, and Hephaestian cast a protective glance his way. “Yes, I suppose it does no harm to tell you. I can… I can control fire.”
“Can you conjure it?” asked Illina.
“No, I’ve never done anything like that, or even really thought of doing it.”
“Mother was unable to ascertain what sort of power he has,” Imogen said, “It seems magickal, but he’s never been instructed in the ways of magick whatsoever. Even someone who shows a natural proclivity toward magick must be taught to hone it, but he can bend and shape and move fire any way he desires, and do so effortlessly.”
“Conjuring or controlling fire, or any other element,” said Illina, “Is something that perhaps a powerful may be capable of, for a short time. But to do so with little exertion is a talent indeed. Philip told me of your power. I believe it is possible that your spiritual energy is of a kind not ordinarily seen among humans, indeed I sense something vastly powerful within you. I would like to try, if I may, and harness this energy, however small an amount I may be permitted to extract from you, and see if it can’t be reapplied to solve our rather vexing situation here.”
“Would that put Lucas in danger?” asked Hephaestian.
“Decidedly not,” replied Illina, “I would perform the procedure myself, with the intent of simply borrowing some of his infinitely self-replenashable energy and attempting to use it to treat the symptoms of one afflicted with the disease.”
“So we may have already come in contact with the disease ourselves,” said Bronwen.
“Indeed, it is possible,” said Illina, “And I greatly apologize for putting you at risk. The method of transmission is unknown to us, it does not seem to be physical or spiritual. People simply fall ill with no explenation. If things continue at this rate, the last bastion of Lufian civilization that is known to us could be destroyed forever.”
“I… I don’t know,” said Lucas, “I want to help if I can, but…”
“It’s alright,” said Illina, rising from her place, “Take your time. Rooms have been prepared for all of you, and you are welcome to stay here in the palace. Though as I said, the method of transmission is unknown, no one within the confines of the palace walls has yet been stricken with the sickness, and we are careful who we allow in. It upsets me to behave this way, but precaution must be taken. I ask only that you stay here within the confines of the palace for now, and rest yourselves, while I continue to convene with our elders in the hopes of diving some solution.”
“The elders are still alive?” asked Eric, startled.
Illina chuckled, “No, they are not the original Lufian elders, rather new elders that have been selected over time. I happen to be one of them, as I am Madeena’s matriarch and leader. Please make yourselves at home here, and Philip will show you all to your rooms. Dinner will be prepared soon, I hope to see you all there.”
With a whirl of her beautiful blue gown, Illina turned and left, walking across one of the bridges over the water and out into the larger chamber, where a man dressed in a white robe led her through an open doorway. Philip stood, “I’ll show you to your rooms now,” he said with a smile.