The insects carried Camille for two full days and nights until they arrived at the tunnel that led into the decrepit land of Undercrest. The land was neither below nor above Fiddlewood, and Fiddlewood was neither below nor above it. Their surfaces touched one another and were connected by a tunnel made of roots that grew from one realm into the next, so if someone were to pass through the tunnel their world would literally turn upside down. Undercrest and Fiddlewood were like two hemispheres existing on the same planet, yet controlled by two different gravitational pulls. Up and down was one in the same in both realms, yet governed by different natural laws.
Undercrest existed in perpetual darkness, and was only lighted by the moon when the sun was shining in Fiddlewood. Otherwise there was only blackness dotted with tiny specks of dying starlight. It was a cold place that was only hospitable to the most wretched creatures, all of who owed allegiance to the Witch Queen. She called this land the belly of the world, and from there she controlled Fiddlewood, feeding on the secrets of those living in the land where the sun would shine. She learned of Camille’s existence and her unrivaled beauty by listening to the roots that grew from Fiddlewood into Undercrest. She heard the songs that were sung in praise of Camille’s existence and learned about her love. The Witch Queen learned about Camille, and then sang her own song, a demented lullaby that would bring Camille to her lair, so she could steal her life force and reinvigorate her own expired vigor.
The entire forest of Undercrest was cold, petrified stone that calcified through the years from the deprivation of sunlight, which disappeared upon the Witch Queen’s rise to power. She used their fossilized trunks as building materials for her castle. Intricate root systems constructed grandiose chambers and hallways, most of which were spellbound with illusions to confuse any intruders. Her entire castle was a trap to the unexpected visitor, like a spider’s web designed to fool other spiders. The cold atmosphere surrounding her home smelled of a loss of life, not death, but the suffocation of life, as if those things living were frozen, smothered by the Witch Queen’s malevolence. Not even Camille’s lover’s eyes could see any beauty in that dark world. All she saw was doom.
“Ouch! The cheek of you!” screamed Camille, after the insects dropped her onto the cold marble floor in the main chamber of the Witch Queen’s castle. She rubbed her bruised knees then curled up into a ball as her grotesque bodyguards stood overtop of her. Her hot breath fogged the air, and for the first time since her birth her gut tightened with fear and uncertainty of what was to come.
“The beauty of Fiddlewood warming my chamber at last,” boomed an achy voice. “I’ve waited for this day since the moment you bloomed, and now here you are curled up in a ball trying to hide your beauty. If you ask me, that’s no way for a guest to act in the presence of royalty. So please, stand up and grace me with the same beauty you paraded around Fiddlewood.” The Witch Queen came into view at the top of a grand staircase that was lined with two strips of black carpet, and decorated with petrified statues of rabbits, owls, frogs, cats and so on – once living, loving creatures reduced to home décor simply for the Witch Queen’s delight. She defied her frailness with perfect posture and a reflective black gown that draped to the floor in heavy folds. Her wrinkling, cracked skin betrayed her powerful demeanor, though, and looked as if it could be blown right of her bones like dust from a porcelain doll. She battled her thinning grey hair with red dye that clumped onto her scalp and flaked dried out red dandruff onto her shoulders. Her teeth and lips were rotten and black from the centuries of stolen secrets that she inhaled from the innocent, and from the evil curses she uttered throughout starless nights. She wore a crown of petrified wood on her head that cradled the orb of a fallen star she had devoured decades before, which had granted her the strength to rule Fiddlewood from Undercrest. But that energy was gone now. She was decaying rapidly and none of her magic could defy the process, and just as her life seemed like it would be swept up by a gust escaping the petrified forest a star died and bloomed into Fiddlewood as a flower, holding enough power in her unique heart to restore her dying beauty. “Leave us,” she commanded. She waited until the insects were out of her chamber room before she started down the stairs, running her bony fingers along the petrified statues as she glided past them. She stopped on the second to last step and looked down on Camille, “Stand up so I can look at my prize.”
“Who are you? Why did you bring me here?” demanded Camille.
“I am royalty; the only royalty to exist in this world. Now do as I say or end up just like them,” said the Witch Queen, scratching the chin of a petrified frog with her long fingernail. The Witch Queen stood to Camille’s level then ran her pale white salad fingers through her soft brown locks, “I’ve never considered being a brunette before, but the idea is more attractive after having laid eyes on you,” she said. “Do you care to know why I brought you here?”
“I already know why,” said Camille.
“Is that so?” responded the Witch Queen.
“Yes, you kidnapped me and brought me here because you lack the common decency to ask,” replied Camille, crossing her arms.
“Harshness does not suite you, girl,” said the Witch Queen, circling about her.
“It surely suites you,” snapped Camille, to which the Witch Queen offered her a slap across the face in return. “The cheek!” cried Camille.
“No, your cheek,” mocked the Witch Queen. “Which will be my cheek shortly,” she added.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Camille, while rubbing her cheek with a curiously terrified look on her face.
“That is why I brought you here,” started the Witch Queen. “You are a unique phenomenon in Fiddlewood, one that does not occur often. You are like nothing else is or could be: a star, a comet, a galaxy, a songbird, a champion tree, a waterfall, and now a flower. Your past lives have supplied you with outstanding amounts of beauty, both physically and mentally, and I intend to learn from those lives by harvesting their energies. In so few words, you are a fallen star, Camille, and you will end up like the last fallen star to wander into this world.”
With a quivering lip, Camille tried her best to dissuade the Witch Queen, “Well, I can’t tell you about my past lives even if I wanted to. I don’t remember them.”
“No matter,” said the Witch Queen with booming delight, “the secrets lie here” – pointing to Camille’s brain – “and here” – pointing to Camille’s heart.
“Knowing my past lives won’t make you beautiful again,” said Camille, taking a step back.
“Stupid girl, you possess so much beauty yet know nothing of it. Knowledge is the foundation to everything, especially beauty. True, the fine detail does lie on the outside: in your skin, your smile, your eyes, your hair, your legs, and so on,” said the Witch Queen, as she pointed at Camille’s body. “But with the proper knowledge, my knowledge for example, anything, including beauty, can be stolen,” she laughed, “which is exactly why I brought you here!” The Witch Queen’s wicked laughter jolted Camille’s assurances, forcing her to take flight in seek of refuge. The Witch Queen continued to laugh as Camille ran to the nearest door, knowing there was no escape for her in the labyrinth of illusions. Without the Witch Queen’s power the castle was virtually impassable, so each door Camille fled through just led her back into the chamber that was echoing with the Witch Queen’s delight. Finally, the exhaustion in her muscles and the torment of her psyche forced her to her knees as defeated tears rolled from her eyes. She cried because of the cruel fate that awaited her; she cried because of the Witch Queen’s malice; she cried for the fear of the unknown; but most of all she cried because she would never see 5-Year-Old Con again. She was terrified of what all of this meant for her, and was certain that if the Witch Queen stole her life force, her secrets, her beauty, and the love in her heart that she would not continue her journey through everlasting existence.
The Witch Queen locked Camille away in a cell that opened up to the night’s sky. She signaled to the stars shining in the darkness, telling her to say her final goodbyes to her brothers and sisters before shutting the iron bars behind her. Camille’s night was not one of sorrow like the Witch Queen had expected, however. She was in good company. In a land where the sun never shined and the moon reigned supreme, it was finally able to linger long enough to reach out to Camille and express its delight for her having existed. She embraced his energy and stared at him until her eyes grew heavy. She could not explain why, but she believed she could feel the moon telling her everything would be fine. It just didn’t seem like the end for her when she still had so much love to offer the world.