Chapter Two

Mariana crouched, her wide eyes fixed upon the tangled weeds beneath her feet, mumbling the old spell.

"M-may the light to home shine for me,

On the distant shore.

So that I may find my home again,

To where I was before."

As always, it did not work. No saviour light appeared to guide her out of this strange place. Mariana slowly stood up, looking around warily as an owl hooted in the distance. She was in a swamp of some kind - at least that was what she thought it was. Weren't swamps filled with pits of mud which tried to suck people into their murky depths? Mariana strangled a cry as she stared down at the dirtied hem of her white nightgown, the mud caking her leg up to her knee, and her now bare feet.

"May the light..."

Mariana changed as she stumbled almost wildly in the direction of no particular destination, once in a while tripping over twigs or even her own feet. Her arms and hands had become lacerated and bloody from the many falls and struggles to get back on her tired feet. Mariana's eyes began to mist with tears.

She was beginning to doubt spells worked here, wherever "here" was. Then again, she had only attempted the guiding light spell. What if...

In helplessness, Mariana conjured the black fire.

"B-black fire, b-bring your power,

To aid me at this troubled hour."

Mariana gasped as a huge shudder coursed through her bones, making her convulse before a dark aura surrounded her. Black fire swirled from Mariana's very pores and rushed out in increasingly larger waves, knocking down the nearest trees and sucking the life out of everything it touched. The fire licked at the swamps and sucked them dry, caressed the beasts which lived in the obscurity of the disappearing trees and turned them to hollow black shells and then to ashes. Wave upon wave of the liquid-like power poured out of the girl until she was almost completely drained. She toppled to her knees, then lied down with the side of her face agains the now charred ground. No tree stood against the black horizon, and Mariana was strangely relieved to see that she had some control over what happened in this place after all.

"Well, Princess. I guess your infinite wealth and future power aren't enough, so I brought you a gift." Orie smirked, leaning against the doorway of the dining room, a small red box dangling from the tips of his long fingers.

"Oh, thanks, Orie!" Alliorn blushed and took the box. "Come on, everyone else is here! This is so great! My sister is here too. I can't wait for you to meet her!" Alliorn steered the tall boy towards the table. Everyone else was too engaged in excited conversation to notice his arrival.

"So how's the school's best sword-fighter faring?"

Alliorn blushed again. "Actually, I've been bored out of my mind. I'm so glad vacation is ending in two days."

"You're probably the only person who would say that."

"Oh, I'm sure Neri would say that too. She loves school. Did I tell you that she graduated top of her class in mage's school? I bet she'll do great in regular school."

"School, school, school." Orie rolled his eyes as Alliorn pushed him down into a chair. His eyes widened immediately as he caught sight of... a catboy? Two catboys! One had white hair and pink eyes while the other had black hair and blue eyes.

"Aw crap, you're wearing pink again?" The dark haired one snorted. "I thought they taught you a lesson back at Sky Mountain."

"I like this shirt and it's pretty! I don't care what you think. Neri!"

"Damee, stop bothering Circe. I think the shirt looks very nice."

Orie was jerked out of his bewilderment. He hadn't even noticed the pale girl who was wedged between the catfight. She looked across the table at him and smiled.

"Oh Neri, you're finally here! I didn't even notice you! Orie, that's my sister Neri! Neri, this is my friend Orie." The look on Alliorn's face was nothing short of pride.

"Nice to meet you, Orie." Neri's voice was low and timid as always. The two catboys had stopped their bickering. Circe simply blinked up at Orie with curious pink eyes while Damee glared at him with suspicion. Orie waved at the three with unsureness. Alliorn laughed. She then noticed that everyone had stopped talking and were looking at her expectantly.

"Oh! Everyone, I would like you to meet my sister Neri." She hated putting her shy sister in the spotlight but that was the only thing she could do at the moment. Neri nodded in the general direction of her audience and smiled, trying to shrink into her chair. Circe looked worriedly at Neri's blushing face and glomped onto the girl.

"Don't worry I'll hide you!" he whispered. Neri reached up and patted Circe's head thankfully as Damee cursed under his breath and sank lower in his chair. Alliorn laughed uncomfortably.

"Um... so how's St. Lucrecia's? Still champions?"

"Yeah!" was the unanimous reply. This sparked conversation once again.

Circe disentangled himself from Neri and patted her head in return. Damee remained slouched in his seat, thumping his tail. Alliorn took a seat beside Orie.

"I've never seen... catboys before," Orie glanced at the two.

Damee scowled and turned his head away. Circe blinked again and smiled, wagging his tail a little.

"Neri found them at the mage's school and adopted them," Alliorn explained.

"So you're brothers?"

Damee glared at Orie. "If I were related to him, I would have killed myself before I was born." Circe giggled, oblivious to Damee's comment, and started playing with his napkin, tying it around his neck like a scarf. Neri hung her head in embarassment.

I wish I were back home.

Mariana lay on her back, watching the white clouds drift across the blue sky. Without the trees she could see the heavens at last. Slightly comforted by the idea that there was a sky in this world, she rolled over and staggered up. Her muslin nightgown was torn in several places now. The bewildered looking girl darted her eyes about, turning a full circle to observe her new surroundings for the first time. She closed her eyes and spun around. Where she stopped she began to stumble forward again to the unknown.

Where am I? Why am I so lost? I don't remember anything! A salty tear traced its path down Mariana's dirt-smudged cheek. I did something wrong... is this my punishment?