Krile shaded her eyes and tilted her head back. She could just make out the hilt of the sword hundreds of feet in the air, very nearly touching the tree-root sky. A long wooden staircase wound around the shining blade. "That sure is high," she said. "It'll take us a while to get there."
"Nevertheless, we must do it," Paladin answered. He looked quite different from his normal self--his hair was short, purple, and spiked, and he wore a tiara set with a ruby. His armor had a golden sheen to it, and the toughened leather beneath the plate was, for some reason, indigo. But the voice was his, and Krile completely failed to notice anything unusual about his appearance. "I only hope I am able...."
"Of course you are!" Krile gave him a sharp poke in the arm. "Just think of how nice this place will look once we get to the top."
Paladin gazed upwards. "I know our course. But... I can tell you've doubts of your own."
She stopped in her tracks. "What? I--I don't!" But Paladin was already walking on. Quickly, she jogged to catch up as the sword's light shifted, throwing gold and silver pools across their path. "I'm not lying," she insisted. "I mean, I--but I don't doubt you. You're a good king! I know that! What happened to Disneyworld wasn't your fault!"
He remained silent as he mounted the long wooden staircase that wound upwards around the sword. Here, the light it emitted was steady and strong, but looking out over the landscape--it really hadn't taken them long to get high enough to see it--revealed shadows everywhere. Darkness flowed over of the valleys and towns. Worst was Disneyworld Castle, its spires glowing with a purple unlight that made the eyes strain just to look at. But that wasn't Paladin's fault. He couldn't have known what would happen. Krile hadn't seen either until it was too late. It was her fault too. The light shifted again, highlighting another, much stouter castle. Bal. Krile swallowed. Paladin was right, as much as she wanted to deny it. She was scared. She didn't want the same thing to happen there, but what if she couldn't stop it? What if they both died because she wasn't strong enough? If that happened, it wouldn't just be Bal and Disneyland lost. It would be everything, everywhere, falling into nothing. "Just like Lix," she murmured. She could see easily, almost as if it was happening right in front of her: Lix being swallowed up by the darkness. He'd still been smiling as it happened.
And then something else caught her eye that quite distracted her: a flat, circular creature with a needle-like beak and three-pronged wings. "Paladin!" she shouted, already ringing her bell. The sharp, clear notes struck the monsters visibly as Paladin rushed down and began laying into them with his blade. "Cara! I--I didn't mean to get so far ahead!" One of the odd, S-shaped wings draped over her as Paladin severed it, dispatching the last of them. "You're hurt. I'm so sorry." He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and marched her up the stairs.
"Hey, hold on! I--" Oh, well actually there was a lot of blood on her clothes now. But it felt more like she'd been raked with stinging nettles than wounded. "--I don't know how that got past me. But that's not your fault!" She crossed her arms as he sat her down on another step and made a complicated motion with his hands. Blue-white-green light swirled around her; the bloodstains faded.
"You do not understand... they were from Disneyworld." He held up the severed wing and then threw it from the tower. "These are what ambushed Lix, only in different form. Come--we must hurry and stop this before there are any more."
Krile scrambled to her feet, making sure to keep up with him now as he pounded up the spiral steps. Possibly they should have been more careful as there was a distinct lack of railings, but it didn't occur to her. She was too busy worrying about the winged monsters. If they'd come from Disneyworld now too, how far would they spread? What if they reached Bal? They couldn't allow that to happen--and they had to get them out of Paladin's kingdom too. But would destroying them be enough to bring back the people who'd fallen to them?
Paladin stopped abruptly and faced her. "Are you scared, Cara?"
"I..." She stared at her boots. It was suddenly difficult--physically difficult--to look him in the eye. No. She should say no, shouldn't she? That was what the answer ought to be. But to actually say it would be a lie. "...I think I am. I'm sorry." It was a shameful answer, but it was the only one she could give him.
"Our countries' need is too great for us to be frightened like children."
She nodded. He was right. "But... you are too," she pointed out. "You're scared that what happened is your fault. And you're scared that you're a bad person. But you're not. You don't need to worry about those things all the time."
He started walking again. "You don't know my past. I've much to answer for."
She caught up to him, slipping her arm through his. "I think we should just reach the top of the sword. Then we can restore its light and we'll both stop being scared. How does that sound?"
He smiled faintly. "All right."
The top of the stairs was in sight now. Both of them quickened their pace until they reached the wooden platform at a full-tilt sprint. "We made it! See." Krile said poked him again. "I knew you'd get here."
Paladin nodded. The sword was thrust point-first into the ground. "Come, we've little time. We must defeat the dark master." He drew the luminous blade and hurried down the stone steps of Castle Bal's dungeons, Krile at his side. Her fear had all but evaporated. She knew what they'd be facing now, and wasn't surprised to see the creature when they stepped into its stony lair: a huge, dark form with spiked armor covering its head and shoulders, a body like a lizard's and swords in place of any hands. It grinned with a mouthful of stainless steel cogwheels and laughed--a deep, booming sound.
Krile drew her own sword just as a faint ringing started behind them. Once they defeated it, the darkness seeping out from Disneyworld would fade and the creeping shadows would be gone. Lix would come back. And then she'd get dressed and catch up on her accounting.
Then again, how was she supposed to think when that ringing had interrupted? And now there was a cat nudging against her hand. "I'll feed you once Paladin and I are done, okay?" She took a deep breath and shut her eyes--wait, no! Once she opened her eyes she wouldn't be here anymore! She'd--
--wake up because this was a dream, wasn't it? Of course it was. What kind of thing had swords for hands? That was impossible even for a demon. And why did Paladin have purple hair, anyway?