“I go first?” I asked, giving an eye to the darkness. There was a faint white glow somewhere in the distance. “I mean, you know the way, so maybe you should go first, do the introductions, you know.”

“The Seven King did not request my presence,” Rayya said.

I didn’t fire off an, “I wonder why,” because I’m not that kind of guy. Plus, she had at least a sixty percent immunity to sarcasm. I sighed, and took my phone out of my jacket pocket, so I could use its flashlight mode. “Fairyland is going to be the death of my battery power,” I muttered.

Even with the light offered by my phone it was dim and murky. Truly, the shadow was like a sea I was swimming in, a floating black ink that gently shied away from the light, as if with some sort of respect. A, “Pardon me, I didn’t realize you needed to see. I’ll just be dark around the edges then, alright?” The glowing designs on the columns were green and gold or blue and white, to no pattern I was able to immediately discern. I took a picture of one, because hey, I already had my phone out.

The flash startled something, as did the click of the picture being taken. I forgot to turn that off in the options. I switched it back to flashlight and turned to the side. I wasn’t going to turn around all the way. No, that’s how they get you, and I didn’t want to be a pillar of anything, except maybe righteousness and strength. If I could order off the menu and not choose power’s prix fixe selection.

I didn’t hear anything, as quiet as I could try to be, what with the sound of my heart beating in my ears. I took a deep breath and switched modes once more. I took another picture. This time I saw it out of the corner of my eye.

The glowing designs wrapped around a stone creature perching like a gargoyle higher up on the column. I stepped back into the darkness as the realization hit me. These weren’t just pieces of art. I looked at all the columns between the door and the glow I was headed towards. This was an army. An army between myself and the Seven King.

I put my phone away and kept walking, careful not to brush against any of the pillars. The glow I was walking towards grew as the distance shrank. It was a huge tree, glowing white from bark, branches, and leaves. In front of it was a dark structure that I took to be a throne. It began filling the area up with light, so much that I was fighting blindness, especially in regards to the previous darkness. I slowed when it was a more comfortable distance, when I could almost focus on the dark structure and the stranger who sat there.

The structure itself was kind of like chair, but more something I would call a lounge. It was a cushioned bench partially made of the tree itself. The padding was made of black leaves and silver moss, I guess. It was a very modern look, and the individual lounging upon it (hence the reason for the term) was very modern in her own way. Sophisticated. Complicated.

She had beautiful skin the color of soil when it was freshly turned and rained upon, and if that seems very specific, it’s because it’s what I immediately thought. She had, let’s call it, ample cleavage, which was notable because not a stitch or thread or even a candy floss of clothing was worn. She had amazing legs. I mean, the turn of the toe, the length, the delicate curve of the calves. Yeah, well, they were nice looking. It’s a thing for me. I felt the flush and like just about every adult male since the beginning of clothing just put my hands kind of in front of my waist and tried to look nonchalant. Her eyes were dark, like pools of warm chocolate, and the lashes were feathery. She had long black hair, left adrift over her shoulders in fits and curls.

“Do I have the honor of addressing the Seven King?” I asked, finally.

The laughter was like chimes in the wind. “Dear Thomas was true,” the King said. “You will be an amusing diversion.”

I tried not to visibly swallow as she moved her legs in a scissors-like motion and slid forward. “A diversion? I thought you wanted me for my…” I took a deep breath, concentrating on the blinding white tree, “…professional talents.” Rohana would have laughed, I think.

Something changed about her as she chortled in glee again, and this time it sounded more like a symphony of triangles. It started as a shimmer at her toes, and spread like a wave up her form, and then she was diamond and water, two dark eyes in an almost sexless body, with a head shaped like an upside-down tear drop. She stood to her lovely crystalline feet. “Which ones? Dragon taming?” she smiled, and the insides of her mouth sparkled as her black tongue flickered.

“I know when I’m being mocked,” I said. I didn’t know if I was irritated. “You requested my presence?”

The triangles again, and she walked past me, smelling like cucumber and something spicy and wonderful like pumpkin pie in her passing. “I require your expertise.”

“If you want a door closed, I’m your man.”

“I do not know if I want a man,” she laughed.

“Why was the door Closed here?” I asked. The darkness settled on her skin like a grey mist, and then she was different once more, tall and ebony, with long curved spikes from her head, and wicked black claws at her fingernails. She turned back to me, and her eyes were grey and a film was over them.

“You are a piece of a puzzle, a con in the conundrummer’s beat,” she said. Her voice was breathy, like it whispered past cold caves in the night. “You are a liar for all you speak sooth, soothing words that belie your confusion, fused with the conundrum of a hero’s feat.” Long black robes wrapped around her body with a shrug of her shoulders, a cloak woven of the night. The patterns of the columns shifted and hands came out of the stone, panicking my personal zombie reactors (I have a line of them that stretch all up and down my left side) reaching at nothing, then melting back as she passed. “Come, world walker, follow the path of my thinking. I am thinking you fear the path before us, but fear’s behind us, and opportunity summons. Summon your courage, man. If man you will be for me, my desires may be given, and you given to yours.” She laughed, and it was a cackle.

The columns began giving out additional light, painting the huge room in colors, as when Gandalf lifted Wormtongue’s hold on Rohan. The sun had come to this place of stone in the form of a dark beauty, dancing before me.

What could I do? I followed.

I spent a moment considering that it was an incredibly good thing that I had spent my life as a geek. I mean, I was still agog seeing the special effects of the changes the Seven King (if, that indeed, was the King and not some imposter – I’d seen three forms, were there four more?) but I wasn’t paralyzed with awe. Was I getting jaded about magic? Or was I just mentally shying away from the thought that she had made a come-on to me, and I was wondering if she shifted shapes in bed?

And would that be a good thing or a bad thing? I mean, sure, we’d sipped at our beers and considered if cat girls were considered beastiality, but that was a thing we did because it alleviated the discomfort of finding them hot. Or if being in bed with werefolk was treading too far across the line. Shapeshifter sex was just a faint curiosity, tentacles or no tentacles.

I thought about Rohana and cringed. I mean, I had about six justifications ready along the lines of, “But fairy sex doesn’t count,” that was as applicable as explaining that sex with a -cubi or a nymph wasn’t too far from masturbation. I was also clearly aware that it was, indeed, rationalization. Were we enough of a thing? She had a girlfriend, or had had a girlfriend, and well, I knew people who lived the polyamorous lifestyle and some were happy and some, well, were not. You know, like everyone else. It just seemed a whole heck of a lot more complicated and required specialized time management software.

But you don’t refuse a King, right?

I didn’t hate the part of myself that thought that, but I did feel guilty about it. And wondered if I was carrying any kind of protection. I knew it was a bad idea to keep a condom in your wallet. Not only did it spill out at the wrong time when you were paying for your milk, but the temperature changes could damage the spermicide and the latex, and friction could tear it on a micro level. And once you have sex with a fairy, you have sex with all the other fairies they’ve had sex with…wait, that’s not how it goes.

I had been known to call vampirism a “magic STD,” but never to Matana’s face. I think.

The hall filled with light and the ceiling was still a fair mist, but a bright one instead of that of shadow. The colors of the columns flared, and the clicking of the stone feet of the one I followed was the only noise except my labored breath and bare feet against the floor as I tried to keep up with her.

We neared the door and Rayya bowed. “My King,” she answered my question, “You have answered in the form of war?” she asked from her kneeling position.

“Thomas spoke true, and in truth he bespoke the gift that gives us our answers. Answer enough.” The words were said in an off-hand manner. “Grant chambers to our guest, as I go to our captains, and Captain’s Chambers.”

Rayya nodded.

The glossy black statue turned to me. “The Cold Water that Shapes the Stones will guide you,” she said, and her hand reached out to gesture towards Rayya, then turned to me. Her long claws reached for my face, and I kept myself from flinching. Barely. I definitely blinked. One touched my forehead, and those grey eyes searched mine for something. I couldn’t tell if it was something she found, but she pulled those huge curved weapons (that reminded me of prehistoric ground sloths; those things were crazy dangerous) from my face and then disappeared in a haze of little black specks, like volcanic ash.

“The Water that Shapes the Stones?” I asked.

Rayya’s expression didn’t change from what I considered “annoyance.” “My brother is Cold Waves that Crash on Rocks,” she said. “His given name is Nen.”

Wrecks. Yeah. I can see it. “Does he have a song?”

“Yes,” she said.

I thought about asking further, but she turned and began walking out of the doorways. The doors closed slowly behind us, but didn’t feel quite as Closed. I still didn’t know why they had been sealed the way they had, unless it was to make Rayya exercise a power.  Was it a demonstration for me, or was it a chiding for her? That was my first mystery.

I followed my guide as she went down the stairs and chose a set of doors that were almost frilly. They had billowing blue drapes with white lace on the bottom, and they were outlined in ornamental silver shapes.  The wood was black, or at least painted that way.  The door led to a hallway that looked like a posh hotel, with room names like “The Engraver,” and “The Artiste.”  My room’s name was, “Eternal.”

“Welcome to Shangri-La,” I muttered, as Rayya opened the door to my suite.