The Fourth Wish
"And for your fourth wish," the terrible genie asked in a deep, booming voice. With skin liken unto molten brass and eyes the color of the sea after a storm, the mystical creature towered over the small slip of a girl. From the waist up, the genie was as a man though of huge proportions; below, a thin trail of vapor snaked through the air to disappear into the battered spout of an old, dented lamp.
"Wait a minute," the young girl said, a frown marring her tiny, freckled face. "You said I had three wishes and three wishes only."
"I have been trapped in that accursed lamp for an amount of time your pitiful little mind could not even begin to comprehend. If I have to grant a fourth wish to remain free from that awful prison if but for a few moments longer, then so be it," the genie said in a tone of intense anger and ancient pain.
"I had no idea," the little girl said softly, sadly. The seventh child of fourteen, her parents struggled just to feed her let alone provide the love and emotional support she needed. Though not as extreme as the genie's situation, she too was lonely and felt trapped by her circumstances. She could definitely sympathize with the poor creature. "A fourth wish, hmm, let me think about it."
Her first wish had been easy. Wishing for enormous wealth, the girl hoped to eliminate her family's greatest shortcoming, poverty. The second wish also involved her desire to better her family, health and longevity, bosom companions to prosperity. For her third and presumably final wish, she had asked the awesome genie to bestow upon her the power to change the world for the better. All three wishes had been relatively selfless and this time she decided to be a bit more selfish.
"For my fourth wish, I wish to be the greatest beauty in all the land."
The echo of her last words died as an oppressive silence filled the small grotto that had been uncovered by the recent sandstorm. The lamp began to shudder violently, the metal growing a bright, cherry red as if heated by the white-hot flames of a smith's forge. An aura of soulless black emanated from the genie as his enormous body swelled to fill the miniscule cavern. The wispy tail of his lower torso rippled and pulsated with an incalculable amount of magical energy. Snapping taut, the smoky cord ripped away from the trembling lamp with a horrible rending sound and coalesced into a pair of gargantuan legs. The brass lamp was flung savagely across the cave to clang resoundingly off the fractured stone, the tattered ends of the genie's chain recoiling powerfully upon his former prison.
Laughing maniacally, the genie glared down at the terrified girl with a look of pure malice. "Foolish child! By making a fourth wish you have forfeited all of your wishes and released the fetters that have bound me since the moment of creation. Thanks to you, I will now take my rightful place as supreme ruler of this pathetic world and there is nothing that can stop me. Such service should be rewarded, so I'll spare you the indignity of seeing all that you know and love subjugated to my will."
Sinking his massive hands into the rock of the cavern roof, the genie pulled the ceiling down upon both of them. Screaming in mortal fear, the young girl was dashed to the cave's floor by the first toppling stone. The second sent her spiraling down into the darkness.
Aileea awoke with a start, her knuckles whitening as she clutched the threadbare blanket firmly up around her chin. It had been thirty years since that fateful day when she had unleashed one of the most ancient of horrors upon an unsuspecting world and for thirty years she had been plagued by the same, reoccurring dream. It would have been so much simpler if she had perished in that long ago cave-in, her existence ended before the pain and guilt of what she had done be allowed to come full circle. Life was never that simple, however, and she had survived, by the grace of the gods, to bare witness to the horror that her childish ignorance had wrought.
Shivering slightly at the brisk chill in the night air, she rose from her makeshift bed and crossed to the hastily erected fire pit she had dug out of the loose, rocky soil of the arid desert. The fire she had built earlier burned low, the meager supply of gnarled, leathery shrubs she had collected for fuel on her trek nearly exhausted. Running her supple fingers through the sweat dampened curls of fresh, powdery snow that crowned her weathered features, she sighed bitterly and threw the remainder of the wood on the dying embers.
Starring deeply into the revitalized flames, the harsh lines of her stoic mask slipped, revealing the traces of a once luminescent beauty. Subdued beneath the trials and tribulations of the grave responsibility that dominated her life, her cloudy blue eyes were twin mirrors of mystery that reflected all attempts to gaze past them and into the torment and anguish that raged within her troubled soul.
Another restless night, another day closer to the fulfillment of the sacred vow she had swore so long ago. As was usual at such an early hour, her thoughts drifted back through the ethers of time to the nightmarish days, months, and years that had followed the release of the evil genie.
The first thing she noticed upon regaining consciousness was that her entire body ached and her head felt like someone had smote it with a heavy sledge; the second, she seemed to be tucked safely in her straw pallet though she did not remember how she had gotten there. For a brief moment, she thought it all must have been nothing more than a bad dream, but the fresh scrapes and painful abrasions that covered her body had not come from a mere dream. Dragging herself wearily to her feet, she pushed aside the thick, hide drape that served as a crude door for the wretched dwelling and stepped gingerly out into the blinding glare of the afternoon sun. Nearly collapsing as a sickening wave of nausea washed over her, Aileea caught herself on the hard, sun-baked dirt of the hovel's wall as she waited for the dizziness to pass.
Across the way, her mother and two of her sisters were hard at work with the preparations for the evening meal. Rigorously pounding out what little maize they had gleaned from the fields into nutritious flatbread, they laid the thin slices upon a scattering of smooth stones heated to bake them. Laughing and joking with her two elder daughters, Aileea's mother glanced back to see which of her many offspring had exited their small home. The stone pestle slid from her suddenly nerveless grasp and fell, forgotten, to the cracked earth at her feet. Her easy smile vanished only to be replaced by a look of fear as she made the sigh to ward off evil and dropped weakly to her knees. Abasing herself upon the scorched ground, she covered her head with the loose folds of her jinto and began to ray fervently to the family's teraphim. Aileea's siblings, confused at first by their mother's strange actions, glanced back at their younger sister and gasped with a mixture of shock and fear. Following their mother's example, they too made the sign to ward off evil and sank to the sandy soil to join their mother in her prayers.
"Mother, Tuan, Sari, what's the matter, why won't you look at me," the young girl asked as she tugged at the prostrated forms of her mother and sisters. Tears flooded her eyes as she pleaded with her family to acknowledge her presence.
Raising a trembling hand, her mother pointed toward the shaded pool that was her family's only valuable possession. Scrambling quickly to the edge, she looked into the small spring that seeped up ever so slowly from the desert floor. The amount of precious liquid that filled the hole this late in the day was very slight, the life giving fluid used to sustain the family and their animals throughout the long, blistering day. Still, it was enough to provide a reflection and a frightful premonition filled Aileea's jumbled thoughts as she peered intently into the water.
Starring back at her from the crystalline surface was a young Nadia girl who had seen twelve turnings of the seasons, her cute, freckled face and deep, sapphire eyes framed by a motley mop of tangled, red hair. Unfortunately, that was not all the puddle revealed and Aileea saw what had terrified her mother so.
Nestled within the fiery tresses of her matted hair was a single lock of white, a delicate lily amongst a gathering of crimson roses. It was the mark of a Sh'Tay, or mind walker in the common tongue and it branded her an outcast, her tribal religion superstitious of anything beyond the scope of the human norm.
Faced with the certainty of banishment by the tribal council, she considered waiting for her father and brothers to return from their labors, but dismissed the foolish notion knowing their reaction would be no different. A few more tears trickled from her blue-hued orbs to mingle with the pool's lingering moisture, the only legacy she could leave her family, fleeting though it was.
Gathering what little supplies she could and making sure to take more than her family could spare, Aileea trudged off into the relentless desert. Without a backward glance, she left her family, her tribe, and the only life she had ever known to face the deadly perils of an unforgiving wasteland. As young as she was, death seemed inevitable, any hope of survival improbable at best. Aileea, spurned by those she loved and those who supposedly loved her, burned with a fierce anger and was not only determined to survive, but to thrive in the harsh environment.
Despite the odds against her, she had passed the grueling tests of survival. With the help of her growing mental powers, the same powers that had saved her from being entombed in the genie's cave, she became master of the domain she had carved out of the howling wastes. Days turned to weeks and weeks into years, her lonely exile troubled only by dreams of that awful day when she had released the genie and left behind all that she had known. Finally, driven from seclusion and back into inhabited lands by her growing guilt, she discovered to her dismay that the genie had conquered the entire continent and ruled his empire from a remote, floating citadel that rested in her former home.
Appalled by the genie's tyranny and draconian laws, she had vowed a blood oath to overthrow him and put right what she had caused to go wrong. For the next twenty-four years she traveled the length and breadth of The Seven Kingdom and even to the fabled cities across the sea in search of a means to thwart the nearly omnipotent genie. Others had joined her quest from time to time, but only she remained, the genie's insidious minions whittling away at her companions until only she was left.
She had loved and lost, killed and hated, all the while fighting a losing battle against a foe that would never grow old, tired, or feeble. For the longest time the future had looked bleak, an exercise in futility, but then she had found the lost oracle of Delshin. Hope blossomed anew, though at a terrible price, and after a brief side trip, she found herself back where she had started, her goal the cursed fortress of the powerful genie and with a lot of luck, absolution.
A conscious brush across the mental shield she had placed around the campsite pulled her thoughts back to the present. Waiting anxiously to see if she had been discovered, Aileea let out an explosive breath as the presence moved on, the illusion of rock and sand convincing whatever was out there to seek elsewhere. The genie knew she was coming, the gateway she had opened into the blazing inferno that surrounded his soaring castle triggering the intricate web of wards that crisscrossed the vast waste. She could have stepped directly to the genie's lair, but she wanted the foul beast to know she was coming, to feel dread and taste fear for the first time in his immortal existence. Besides, it would have been difficult at best to have forced her way through the genie's powerful protections.
Now that she possessed the means necessary to defeat him, or so he thought, the genie bent all his efforts, both magically and physically, to prevent her from reaching him. Thus far she had barely been able to avoid the vigilant patrols that scoured the desert with orders to eliminate her at all costs. While confident she could deal with any of the genie's varied servants, she was loath to tax her strength so close to the completion of her goal. She knew she would need all of her power and probably then some to overcome the mighty genie.
Striking camp as the upper rim of the sun crested the eastern horizon, she shouldered her pack and strapped the worn scabbard of a long sword around her waist. Reaching down and drawing the polished blade, Aileea looked intently into the bright gleam of metal, a wavering vision of the kind, bearded visage of the sword's previous owner starring back at her in the glare of the morning sun that glinted along the reflective edge. Swift, bitter tears stung her eyes as the apparition smiled and with a final wink, vanished with the shifting light.
Less than a month had passed since Aileea and Orwyn had faced one of the genie's myriad avatars in the twisted ruins of Delshin. Sacrificing himself to buy her the time necessary to complete the ritual and awaken the sleeping spirit, Orwyn's heroic death had only added to her desire to cast down the cruel genie and his empire of evil. She could still hear Orwyn's jovial banter and deep laugh that made the seemingly endless days of her quest pass more pleasantly. At night, she could still feel the loving embrace of his strong, gentle arms as they held her close, his eager, tender lips kissing away her worries and comforting her soul. They had planned to marry when it was all over and hopefully start a family, but the genie had crushed that dream as he had so many others.
Wiping away the salty tears, Aileea slid her painful memories back into their sheath and turned resolutely to the north and the distant stronghold. Only a few more hours, a day at the most, and the destiny she had pursued for most of her life would be fulfilled one way or another. One of them would not see the setting of the sun.
Her soft, rabbit-skin boots made no sound upon the marble tiles of the long hallway as she strode boldly forth. Clutched in her willowy hands was Orwyn's sword, the bared length stained dark with the blood of the genie's otherworldly guardians. Her clothing hung from her in tatters, ripped and torn by both blade and claw. Her exposed flesh was covered with a multitude of deep lacerations, her blood mingling with that of her foes.
Limping slightly, Aileea halted her approach at the base of the raised dais that held the genie's exquisite, diamond throne. Glaring up at her lifelong nemesis, her eyes filled with hatred as her grip tightened upon the blade's blood and sweat soaked hilt.
"So, it is down to you and it is down to me. I must admit, I'm a bit disappointed in you my dear," the genie said mockingly, " I had hoped you would at least make this a bit more of a challenge, but it seems you underestimated my power. Look at yourself, you were barely able to defeat my minions and still you consider yourself worthy to face me. You are still the same, foolish little girl I failed to destroy thirty years ago. It would be far too easy to just simply destroy you so I think a little recreational humiliation is in order."
A huge two-handed sword materialized in the genie's hands as he leapt from his dazzling throne to attack the injured woman with a mighty, overhand chop. Aileea's blade rose swiftly to meet it, the clash of steel on steel echoing loudly throughout the vaulted chamber. Even though she had easily parried the blow, the force behind it drove her to one knee and made her fingers go numb. Ducking and rolling forward, she barely avoided the genie's riposte, the loud whoosh of air above her tucked form and indicator of the genie's enormous strength. If she had remained kneeling, she would have been dead, sheared in two by the genie's titanic cleave. Realizing she had no hope of matching the genie's physical prowess, Aileea retreated to the narrow corridor of fluted columns that led to the genie's scintillating throne. She prayed the tight quarters would hamper the genie's massive swings and neutralize some of his advantage.
"Where's your precious oracle now little bug," the genie taunted as he stalked inexorably in. "Perhaps some of your pathetic mind tricks can save you, though I truly doubt it. Beg for mercy and I might let you live. I could always use a new play thing."
Aileea screamed in defiance and rushed the genie swinging and hacking wildly. Gone was any semblance of skill or thought, her swordsmanship fueled by reckless desperation and a burst of pain-numbing adrenaline. On her way through the genie's keep, she had passed through the silk and lace of his harem. The sight and sounds of those poor, broken creatures had sickened her, the inhuman perversions a far worse fate than death.
At first, the genie struggled to fend off the mind walker's erratic blows, but as Aileea's rage ebbed, so too did the speed and frequency of her swings. Reduced at last to a series of feeble parries by the genie's carefully measured attacks, Aileea's sword was struck from her trembling hands. Defenseless, she threw up her arms to hide her face; she was unwilling to see the coming end.
"I have you now," the genie howled in triumph as he brought his mammoth blade around for the finishing blow.
As the great blade passed harmlessly through the melting form of Aileea, the genie gasped in a mixture of shock and pain as the sharpened tip of Aileea's sword, the real Aileea, plunged between his broad shoulders and tore out of his heavily muscled chest. Grasping the blade with suddenly feeble hands, the genie slumped weakly to his knees as his own blade vanished, the black ichor that was his blood dripping from the sword's edge with a smoking hiss. Feeling the touch of pain for the first time, he tried to reach out with his magic and destroy the impudent human, but found his power inexplicably gone.
Locking the genie's muscles into immobility with a single thought, Aileea leaned forward, her lips tantalizingly close to the genie's ear, "I believe it was you who underestimated me. Now, it is I, who have you."
"How…is…it…possible," the genie muttered in pain.
Twisting the sword grimly, she watched in satisfaction as the genie's frozen body shuddered in agony. A fresh gout of blood poured out of his mouth and ran thickly down his chin.
"The answer to your question is this," Aileea said as she reached beneath the laced front of her shirt and pulled out a thin, leather cord. Snapping it with a quick jerk, she held it before the genie's eyes, the brown, silver-flecked stone that dangled from it catching the room's light and absorbing its radiance. "This is a fragment of the great rock that fell from the heavens eons ago. It shattered the land and obscured the sky for a thousand years; if not for the intervention of the gods, life would not have survived. But I should not have to tell you of all people about ancient history now should I? You were around back then after all. Funny thing about this little stone, it nullifies all magic, yet has no affect upon my powers. Fortunate, wouldn't you agree?"
"I'm immortal…I…can't…die," the genie sputtered weakly, a hint of doubt in his gravelly voice.
"Unfortunately, you are correct. However, I have an old friend of yours who's been just desolate without you," Aileea smirked as she reached into her pack and pulled out the same lamp she had discovered all those years ago.
"The lamp has no power over me, your own words made sure of that," the genie said as he regained a measure of composure despite the dreadful injury.
"For the moment, that holds true. Thanks to this," Aileea said twirling the hung of rock before the genie's pain-clouded visage, "I was able to hide my true self and actually cause you injury. A single drop of your blood placed upon the lamp and you will be bound to it once again."
"No need to be hasty," the genie said in a wheedling tone, a sly expression crossing his suddenly cunning face. "Perhaps some sort of arrangement can be reached."
"I don't think any arrangement could make up for all the evil you have caused."
"What about the life of your love," the genie asked simply.
Aileea gasped audibly, her heartstrings wrenched by the genie's reply. Despite all the pain and horror the genie had caused, she considered his words for several, long moments. Though she felt bad about even contemplating such a notion, she knew the genie could do exactly as he said. Awash in a flood of conflicting emotions, Aileea almost made the second biggest mistake of her life.
Only the memory of Orwyn's final moments, cradled in her arms, pulled Aileea back from the precipse that loomed before her. As the light of a thousand suns had illuminated her face, heralding the long dormant oracle, he had gently, lovingly stroked her cheek. His last words had been simple, yet profound. "We did it, my love." His calm, accepting smile would forever be burned into her mind.
Aileea's face hardened, the moment of indecision, of weakness, passed. While she would do anything to get Orwyn back, she would not dishonor his sacrifice by throwing away all that they had fought for. "Nice try, but no."
Placing the lamp beneath the bloody sword, Aileea stared deeply into the genie's eyes, relishing the pain and fear evident in his eternal gaze. The genie struggled desperately to move, but Aileea's power held him easily. Finally, a single, glistening drop of ebony blood fell from the blade's edge with infinite slowness. Both Aileea and the genie watched its descent, her in elation and him with fear.
With a wet splash, it splattered upon the brass exterior with a loud plop. Holding her breath as the light in the throne room dimmed, Aileea watched as a swirling curtain of darkness descended upon the frightened genie, the madly whipping end coming to rest upon the lamp's curved spout.
With a bright flash and a hollow, rushing sound, the genie was gone, reclaimed by the lamp as the sword clattered noisily to the tiled floor. Slumping wearily against one of the gem-encrusted columns, Aileea had to blink away the tears of relief and joy that flooded her eyes as the weight of destiny lifted from her slender shoulders. Picking up the sword and the lamp, the only thing that could have made the moment any sweeter would have been if Orwyn were still alive to share it.
As the splendid opulence around her began to disintegrate, the magic that sustained it fading with the genie's passing, she resheathed the sword and slipped the lamp back into her pack. Concentrating briefly, a shimmering portal opened into the wind swept hills that surrounded the former center of the genie's power. Stepping quickly through, the gate winked out of existence as her attention was riveted by the grim spectacle of the collapsing fortress. In less than an hour, the magical wonder had completely crumbled to dust.
Turning westward into the waning light of the blood-red sun, Aileea resumed her never-ending journey. Now, she had to find a way to destroy the lamp.