Finally, the rabbit decided to properly introduce itself. “My name’s Sarah. What do people call you?”
“I’m seldom in the company of regular folks and less frequently introduced to them, but if you must know, they call me Zephaniah.”
“A curious name,” thought the Rabbit.
“I’m the hidden one, raised under the tutelage of unicorns to fulfill their sacred role. Mankind doesn’t have the same relationship with magical creatures from days of old; unicorns hide from magicians for fear of being hunted.”
They continued to walk down the forest path toward Conundrum’s gypsy cart. Sarah looked above the woodland grove and saw a feint wisp of smoke in the morning breeze. Her master would be awake and she wondered if he was prepared to meet someone stranger than he was?
“Let me walk ahead to tell my master of your arrival,” whispered Sarah. Zephaniah nodded and the rabbit took her leave, vanishing into the mist like vapor. As she approached, a familiar sight greeted her eyes. Conundrum fried her favorite meal of carrots and butter on a sizzling frying pan stretched across a small fire. She felt something was wrong as she scanned his physiognomy without trying to appear suspicious.
“What’s on your mind?” inquired the elderly magician.
Sarah glanced at him furtively, “I forgot what I was going to say?” She didn’t tell him who she met in the forest. It was wiser to patiently pretend everything was normal.
Conundrum reached for a metal cooking plate and served her delicious carrots. It wasn’t like him to cater to her needs. She resolutely decided it was someone or something pretending to be her master. A hundred scenarios ran through her mind. They were interrupted when the Hatter stepped out of the woods, entering the clearing. Zephaniah stopped. He surveyed the scene, drawing two conclusions. One; the rabbit looked uncomfortable and two; the old man was frightened.
“Sit down sir and help yourself to my friend’s fried carrots.”
Zephaniah took a seat on one of the logs girding the fire pit. He glanced at Sarah for her to do the same.
“I can see you already met Sarah earlier this morning. I hope she didn’t startle you?” inquired Conundrum.
“You really are a question Conundrum, and I’m told riddles are your game.” Zephaniah gave Sarah a wary glance and returned his gaze to the imposter. “Before I share what I’ve been instructed to tell you, let’s play a game of riddles.”
“Ask your questions and be done with it,” sneered the charlatan who looked more evil by the second.
Sarah couldn’t contain herself; uncertainty and panic gripped her. Obviously, she was a swirl of emotions; her hair turned a shade of magenta.
“The first of three riddles is one any child would know,” said the Hatter.
Falls down wet, Floats up hot
Nurtures life, Doesn’t stop
Causes things to dance and sing
Whispers, Rushes, Springs
“That’s easy,” cried the imposter; “Rain, of course.” Zephaniah looked amused.
“The second riddle is harder still.”
A direction neither right nor left,
It can go up, it can go down
Does not exist behind us
Is unseen before us
“The future,” cried the magician. He began to laugh and couldn’t stop. “Was that supposed to stump me?”
Zephaniah’s demeanor changed. He leaped to his feet, appearing two feet taller. His staff changed from green to grey and became pale white. “I’ve an even easier riddle for your wicked mind,” boomed the Hatter.
Who betrayed nature
Killed magic to feed his desire
Plundered the spirits of life
Doomed himself to fire
Over the clearing a swirling mass of darkness formed as the imposter jumped to his feet drawing his wand. Lightening burst forth from the sky igniting the stick in his hand. Sarah’s hair stood on end as she was knocked backward. Fringes of Zephaniah’s cloak caught fire as he reeled on the ground.
He picked himself off the damp earth. Electricity was in the air and droplets of rain felt like icicles as they struck his skin. Zephaniah clutched his staff to steady himself. “You still don’t understand magic. It only serves your desire to control others,” he criticized.
Wormwood gave him a distasteful look. Rather than casting another electrical charge he swiped a dagger from his cloak and flung the weapon at the Hatter. It struck. Zephaniah gasped and fell to the ground emitting his last breath.
“I’ll take your hat now, but how does it work?”
Sarah was defenseless and knew her feral magic was no match for a cerebral magician. Wormwood thought hard. He made up his mind, doffing Conundrum’s magic hat, his exterior transformed into a thin, midsized man, hunched over like a vulture. He threw the hat directly into the campfire, reaching under his cloak for a small terrarium containing an assortment of night crawlers.
“They haven’t feasted since last season.”
Thin blood worms poured onto the Hatter’s body. They snaked through his nostrils. The brownies consumed his shoes and clothes.
“What’ve you done to my master?” demanded Sarah.
“He’s been petrified and will continue to sleep until lack of nourishment kills him.”
Meanwhile, the Hatter’s body was all but eaten by the worms. Only the tall magic hat remained. The ace of spades looked worn. Wormwood picked up the hat and put it on.
Anyone in the presence of magic understands it becomes tailored to those who wear it. When Wormwood used Conundrum’s magic hat, he was able to assume the magician’s identity. Now he didn’t need to disguise himself. He twisted the playing card sown into the top stack of Zephaniah’s hat; once, twice, three times. Sarah counted as the magician nervously twisted the card again; four, that makes five, and six. Wormwood turned to address the rabbit, but before his mouth opened, a flash of red light lit up his body and he vanished.