Aida and the Crystal Palace
Updated: Nov 1
By Hamilton Winstead, Virginia State University
Her only wish was that her body could be the same as those around her. When she was a child, she wished her lips and tongue would mold the sounds and words others made as they played. She prayed that one day she'd be someone that would know the love of her parents, her siblings, and the love of someone that cared for her more than themselves. Aida knew all of this was impossible, but that was why she had journeyed so far.
Aida sat in the corner of the thatched roof tavern stirring at the bowl of porridge alone. At the same time, the small bands of adventurers filled their bellies with mead and cheered loud enough for the woman's porridge to shake. They marveled at the tricks of a wizard that made the flames of the torches' dance on her fingers and told tall tales of duels and dungeons until the frothy liquid put them on their ass.
A large, stocky man stood on the bar and raised his mug. He nearly slipped in his drunken stupor, but the soldier managed to slur his words out.
"Listen here, when I kill that golem, I'll wish for enough gold to make us richer than the Queen of Thornia."
All of the adventurers erupted with glee and continued to order more drinks and food. It didn't take long for one of them to notice Aida in a corner booth staying far away from the noise. He fixed his leather armor and straightened his back as he approached the hooded young woman. Her dark curls hung out of the cloth, and her cedar brown skin could be seen peeking between her gloves and sleeves.
"Well, miss, it seems you don't have a party here with you," he said, taking the seat across from her, "If you'd like, we have enough supplies in mine for you to join. They say it suicide to face a golem all by your—". The soldier gasped before he could finish his pitch to Aida.
It was the same reaction everyone had when they saw her. Her face was covered in blotches of white skin, and her eyes were a rich amber. Her family thought she was diseased, others believed she was cursed, but this was how Aida had been born. The warm yellows and rich brown wood that covered the bar were only shades of grey, and even if Aida had wanted to make fun of the man for being afraid, she had never found it in herself to speak. The man ran off back to the rest of his band merry band, and Aida continued to sit alone. Isolation and fear drove her here. Killing the golem was the only way she'd be able to be free of this curse and live the life she wanted.
There wasn't anything special about the small town. Only a few hundred people lived here, and they made enough to get by. Still, this village always had parties of adventurers journeying from across Thornia for their chance at anything they could dream of. It was said that further up the river and into a dark forest of trees taller than castle walls was a crystal palace where anything a person wanted would be given to them. But getting to the court would not be simple. The forest is teeming with monstrous creatures. The palace is guarded by a beast too powerful for any mortal to defeat. Some rumors say it's a dragon, while others say it's a golem made of unbreakable diamond. No matter how horrifying the stories, droves of adventurers would risk their lives for the chance at anything they could dream of. Even if she had to do it alone, Aida would reach the palace and wish away the curse.
Aida stood at the river's path entrance with her small bag of supplies on her back and a sheathed at her hip. The others who had dared journey to the Crystal Palace were already far ahead into the woods on horseback. At the same time, Aida was forced to travel on foot. They all had horses and pack animals carrying pounds of supplies, squires and knights armed with the sharpest steel, and even sorcerers that could heal wounds and hurl lightning. But Aida had nothing to lose. She followed the river into the woods and watched many of the adventurers who had been so sure they would reach the shimmering gates of the palace limp home with wounded pride and faces frozen in fear. Aida didn't pity them or believe that they deserved death or embarrassment. She envied them. Because they had someplace to run to.
Farther into the woods, only the most skilled parties had continued on the journey. The weaker ones had been killed or scared off by the atrociously large wolves and bears that lurked in the brush. Aida had avoided the beasts by following a map she purchased with money from selling her horse. Its wrinkled pages laid out alternate paths less frequented by the wild creatures with a taste for human flesh.
The floor of this part of the forest was covered in vines, and a pungent smell filled the air. Aida crept through the colorless swamp watching for the slightest movement in the night. Even though she couldn't see color in the world, her eyes were acutely attuned to seeing in the dark. Every small animal that scurried up the trees or bird that returned to its nest was seen by her. She also saw a thick barbed vine lash out in front of her, barely missing her cheek.
Aida ducked and drew her sword, slashing the vine as it tried to reach out again. A wagon-sized bulbous flower whipped its spiked vines ferociously at the girl from thirty yards away. She hadn't read about carnivorous plants living in the forest. Still, there had been so few reliable accounts from the forest that anything could be living in the woods.
Two more vines struck from the darkness towards Aida's head and feet. She rolled her wrist and rotated the sword's pommel with her other hand cutting both vines with one clean circular motion. The gargantuan plant continued to whip its vines at the girl. Aida would sidestep or twist her body just enough to avoid being torn to pieces by the creature with a deft speed. The beast screeched with each vine cut, and Aida would inch closer towards its center mass, hoping to cut it down from the root.
She came within a few feet of the creature needing only a step or two for it to be within range of her sword. Still, when she pulled her blade back to thrust into the heart of the bulbous plant, it unfurled into a wide flower covered in teeth, and it lunged with its flag-sized petals began to close around Aida.
"Get clear!" a voice said from somewhere above her. Aida jumped backward with all the strength in her legs and watched a ball of fire engulf the mouth of the man-eating plant. The creature's echoed in the night as it shriveled from the flames into a pile of ash.
Standing from a tree above them, a man with reddish-brown skin and golden tattoos on his face smiled before jumping down to meet Aida.
"I've run into three of these moody house plants since I got here. Luckily, they don't seem to like fire too much," the red-skinned man said, smiling with a white flame dancing on his fingers. Aida could tell he was a Genasi from the color of his skin and his ability to wield fire without casting a spell. Genasi were the children of nature spirits and humans. They were rare, but they could be found adventuring just like any other race. The Genasi man approached Aida, who still stood wary of the stranger.
"I'm Ejiofor," he said, extending his hand, "You wouldn't happen to know the way back to the main path? It seems most of my party decided to leave me to the fate of becoming fertilizer."
Ejiofor looked puzzled at the woman. Aida took her left hand signed out, saying that she was mute. It took some time for Ejiofor to understand, but when he did, he started apologizing profusely. Aida assured him it was alright, and she sheathed her sword and thanked him.
"Are you out here on your own?" Ejiofor asked.
Aida nodded and reached into her bag for a notebook explaining her situation.
"They think you're cursed?" he said confused, "I knew people in this country were strange, but that doesn't make much sense. They were perfectly fine having me tag along with them, and my skin's almost as red as a cherry."
Aida couldn't help but chuckle. She was still somewhat wary of the young Genasi man, but he was slowly wearing down her guard.
"How about we head back to the main path together, and we can make camp. I'm not too sure how many fireballs I can hurl tonight."
The two adventurers made a small camp and continued their conversation. Ejiofor had traveled from an island named Mostal to the south, hoping to find a way to cure his mother and siblings of a disease that plagued their home. He heard the story of the Crystal Palace and joined a party of adventurers he met in town. Still, he was separated from them when they were attacked in the forest. They exchanged information about the forest and the journey to the Crystal Palace and ultimately decided it would be better for them to travel together than turn back.
"I didn't see that larger party turn back yet, and who knows if they'll let us in the Crystal Palace if they get their first. But if we use those maps, we might beat them to it."
At first, Aida was hesitant to put her trust in Ejiofor. She had heard stories of bandits who would join adventuring parties just to rob them of everything they had. Nevertheless, Ejiofor had made a reliable companion.
The shortcuts Aida and Ejiofor took had been more accessible for a small party like them to handle, but that didn't mean they weren't crawling with monsters. When fetching water, Ejiofor was attacked by an acid-spitting River Drake that nearly melted his face. Luckily Aida had cut the head off the gator-sized beast before it had the chance. A pack of dire wolves attacked the two of them. Ejiofor had multiple opportunities to escape into the woods; he stayed and fought with her, hurling balls of fire and piercing the thick dire wolf hide with his spear.
Aida and Ejiofor were a surprisingly good team. Ejiofor's was decent with a spear, and he would keep many of the goblins, wolves, and other creatures at bay with bursts of flame. Aida was a fierce and lightning-quick swordswoman. Every time Ejiofor forced an enemy to retreat, Aida would pounce like a lion with every stroke of her steel blade.
Writing on her notepad, the two of them would have long conversations about their journeys before meeting each other. It was easy enough for them to get lost laughing with one another, or Aida would be amazed by some trick with flames Ejiofor would do.
“Here, try this,” Ejiofor handed a small, rolled piece of bread to Aida across the campfire. The fluffy brioche-like dough was soft with a white topping that looked like a seashell. Aida took a bite out of the roll and her eyes went wide when she tasted the sweetness. “Tasty right? My sister showed me how to make them.”
Aida scribbled in her notebook, “Your family eats like this all the time?”
“We used to. Before the plague came to my island, my mother and sister would make them all the time. My conchas don’t come close to theirs,”
Ejiofor got quiet for moment and stared into the flame of the campfire for a bit. Aida noticed his somber
They talked of their homes and families. It was difficult for Aida to tell someone about how her family and town had treated her. At first, the idea of her being cursed for looking the way she did and being unable to speak was just a local tale. Something the local kids would joke about, and her parents did their best to show her the love and care any child should. But when a drought came to their region, all of that changed.
The people blamed Aida for their lack of rain. Soon the drought turned to swarms of locust that ate the last of their crops, and the town was beseeched by dishonorable soldiers that stole whatever else they had. In the end, her family turned on her too and sent her away.
"I'm sorry you had to go through all of that," Ejiofor said as they sat by the fire exchanging paper, "People do horrible things when they're afraid."
Aida took the note from his hand and scribbled out another question to him, "Are you afraid?"
Ejiofor held the yellow paper in his hand and smiled in the dim light, "Afraid? Why would I be afraid of you when I can control fire with my hands?" She returned the smile and wrapped him in a hug.
The Crystal Palace
It took them a few weeks, but the pair of friends finally made it to the Crystal Palace. Encircled by deep green trees, the palace shimmered in the night. Its walls were made brilliant jewels. Towers made of white quarts were capped with large amethyst roofs, and the windows were tinted the color of pale blue sapphires. The castle was more marvelous than the legends, and it was more intimidating than any king's castle.
Aida and Ejiofor stood at its gates in awe of the palace's beauty. The whole thing was almost unreal. Both of them took a moment to soak in the accomplishment. But as they marveled at the castle, the earth beneath them began to shake.
Pillars of jagged rock and crystal tore through the earth, and lizard-like creatures were covered in scales of pink and white quartz. The beast's wings stretched a hundred yards in each direction, and its eyes were carved out of two large emeralds. The crystal dragon roared into the night, its howl echoing into the woods scaring off any other monster that dared to come near.
"One last monster to kill. This one shouldn't be too difficult, right?" Ejiofor asked, twirling his spear behind his back. Aida just nodded her head and raised her sword taking a fighter's stance. The two of them sprinted in opposite directions trying to flank the crystal armored beast. It hesitated for a single moment, trying to decide which adventure it should try to squash first. Seeing their chance, Aida and Ejiofor made the first move.
Ejiofor reached into his bag and threw three daggers at the beast's front legs. The thin blades bounced off the dragon's crystal scales harmlessly. The crystal dragon reared on its feet and swiped at the Genasi boy with its right claw forcing Ejiofor to tuck himself to the ground and narrowly avoid being flicked off into the forest like a gnat.
Aida took the opportunity and sprinted underneath the monster's back foot, hoping to find chinks in the dragon's crystal armor. She thrust her blade where the dragon's hip met its back leg, and the tip of her blade managed to find its way between the scales and a few inches deep into the flesh underneath. The dragon yelped in pain and stumbled back. It let out another roar and began fiercely beating its wings. Aida thought it might take flight, but the dragon instead created gusts of wind that kicked up swatches of dirt and rubble.
The wind beneath the dragon's wings was so strong Aida began to lift from the ground. She spun the blade into a reverse grip and plunged it into the ground, trying to steel herself against the onslaught wind; however, her effort was not enough. She held strong for just a few moments before losing her grip and thrown backward fifty yards into the Crystal Palace's gate. Her sword fell to the ground dozens of feet away, and Aida was left dazed on the ground.
Ejiofor himself had been blown into the tops of the coniferous trees far above the battlefield and watched helplessly as his friend Aida smacked into the thick onyx doors of the palace. The dragon stepped closer to the stunned girl and opened its mouth wide to crush Aida between its teeth. Ejiofor yelled in protest and leaped from the tops of the tree, spewing white-hot flames from his fingertips.
Aida could feel the heat on her skin and awoke to see the crystal dragon covered in a torrent of fire. Until now, Ejiofor had only thrown a fireball or two. But the rage that filled his heart produced a flame brighter. After nearly a minute of sustaining the cone of fire, Ejiofor dropped to his knees in exhaustion, covered in sweat. The once pink Crystal Dragon had become a deep red, and parts of its body had become misshapen and melted from the heat. Aida prayed that the battle was over, clutching her broken ribs and trying to limp towards her friend on what was probably a twisted leg, but the dragon wouldn't have it. The melted dragon ripped out of its molten shell of crystal and swiped at Ejiofor with its claw. Its crystal edges tore his body into two
She screamed out in horror, watching the blood of her only friend drip from the dragon's paw. Aida's scream shook the earth; she had felt more pain than in any of her years alone. She could feel a force tugging from the pit of her stomach.
The moonlight shone on her more than any other. Its radiant light beamed down and glistened off Aida's skin. Her amber changed to a marble white, and a silver light filled the space in her palms. With only the wave of her hand, the Crystal Dragon was atomized by the blast of silver energy Aida commanded.
The particulate remains of the dragon sparkled like stars as they drifted to the ground. Aida clutched her only friend's body in her arms. The sound of her tears masked the opening of the onyx gates that slowly lurched out. A woman wearing a robe made of stars and hair twisted into long locs decorated in platinum and crystal walked from the palace gates.
"Do you wish to save him?" the woman from the Crystal Palace said. Her voice was ethereal and trailed with a sweet hum.
Aida raised her head towards the woman letting her tears be seen, "I came here to help myself. He came here to help others; he helped me! I want to save him!" Aida's throat was raw and horse from waling, but her words were still apparent. She had never spoken, but her words rang in the ears of everyone from the Crystal Palace to the village.
"Very well," the woman said, "But if I grant you this wish, you must grant mine and stay here at the palace and train to be its future guardian."
Aida hesitated for only a moment and nodded her head in agreement. The woman raised her hands over Ejiofor's body, covering it in a divine light. The wounds on his body closed, and Aida could feel his chest contract up and down, and life went back into his body.
When the woman finished, she reached out her hand and waited for Aida to take it. Aida looked at her friend, but the woman of magic only shook her head, already knowing what Aida was thinking. Aida stood up from the ground-hugging her friend one last time before she disappeared behind the jet-black doors.
Ejiofor would wake in the morning believing only for a moment that what he had experienced was a dream until he saw where the indentation in the ground where the Crystal Palace and its dragon had been. The only thing left was Aida's chipped sword and a notebook.
"I will always remember the time we spent together and the adventures we had. No one has risked their life for mine, and I had never wished to trade my own for another, but that must mean what we had was truly something special. Your family's health and waiting for you to return. I hope that one day I will get to meet them and go on more adventures with you."
Sincerely Your Only Friend,
Aida the Crystal Palace Guardian
About the Author
Hamilton Winstead, Virginia State University