No one ever moved faster than Vasilisa did getting back up the stairs. Cassandra was huffing and gasping as she followed the sorceress. Entered another chamber, she glanced around as if fearing that the Groundsler would crawl back, but everywhere she looked was silent and empty as ever.
"Are we safe here?" Cassandra whispered.
"For now," Vasilisa replied and walked up to an extinguished hearth in the middle of the hall. Cassandra watched the young maiden holding her hand out in a gesture that was fluid and delicate, it was like she was tracing strokes in the air. Suddenly, the fire burst to life, brightening the whole room with its vivid dancing flames. Cassandra's eyes widened in admiration.
Then the fair-haired princess turned to her owl.
"Owlyn, where do they keep my cloak?"
"I know where it is, my lady, give me a moment," the bird said and then flew out of the room through an open window. That left only Cassandra and Vasilisa alone together for the first time.
Cassandra averted her eyes, looking anywhere but the naked sorceress beside her.
"So your name is Cassandra? What a twist of fate," Vasilisa said, staring at the girl like she did when she was a frog.
"A twist of fate?"
"I heard from Owlyn that you're a seer from the human world. If you're the One, I need your help to find my wand."
"I'm not a seer or anything, I'm just me," Cassandra said. "And I certainly don't want to die here. I want to go home now."
Then she looked around with some uneasiness. She seemed to remember the way they had come. If she wasn't wrong, the Chamber of Mirror was somewhere upstairs. She could find her way back and go home through the magical mirror.
Cassandra was making for the door, but Vasilisa moved over to stop her. Her nude form still made Cassandra feel embarrassed as if she was the one with no clothes. Obviously, the sorceress had no concern about any human decency at all.
"Where are you going?" Vasilisa said.
"To my normal, human-friendly world, what do you expect?" Cassandra said.
"No, you can't leave. You have to help me find my wand before Koschei found it first."
"What?" Cassandra said. "Isn't that your own responsibility to find your own wand?"
Then they heard a cry from Olwyn, who flew back into the room. She carried with her a long multi-layered garment. The outer fabric was a flowing material made of red feathers sewn together into a cloak.
The owl glided through the chamber with the robe in her claws. The longer feathers that made up the hem flirted with the wind like the tail of a phoenix.
Vasilisa turned to her pet and held her arms out. Owlyn dropped the robe for her and it fell elegantly, covering the sorceress's nakedness.
"What a delight to have it back," the sorceress breathed in contentment.
It was the most beautiful robe Cassandra'd ever seen. The sleeves were wide like the wings of a swan. Cassandra looked at the robe and its wearer in awe. She was sure that the sorceress's cloak was also magical.
Without realizing it, she found herself reaching her hand to touch the feathers, admiring the handiwork. It had unusually rich, ornamented mantles but surprisingly light. The dominant color was a mix of lustrous red and glittery gold.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Vasilisa said smugly.
"This is not an ordinary cloak, Cassandra," Owlyn added. "Fashioned after Goddess Freyja's Falcon Cloak, my lady named it the Cloak of the Fire-Bird."
"You made it?"
"No, it's a gift from Vasilisa's mother before she was born," Owlyn said in a whisper.
Vasilisa turned around to them.
"Now," Vasilisa said. "Don't you want to know more about your mother?"
"My mother?" Cassandra said.
"What do you know about her that I don't?"
"Something that she never told you," Vasilisa said.
Later they made their way through the corridors. Then they found themselves in front of the enormous double doors. The doors were so heavy that it took the combined weight of the two girls to move them.
"Oh..." breathed Cassandra as they stepped inside. It was a circular hall with a vast dome and gilded gold ceiling.
They slowly walked the length of the hall in silence. Cassandra gazed up at the marble statues, which stood supporting the roof. Did she just notice that a statue over there, of the man with a steer's horns —hadn't it been on the other side before? And surely the winged woman above them hadn't been smiling so cruelly?
It might have been a beautiful place, if one didn't mind the strange statues, of course, or that faint faraway music which disappeared when you tried to listen to it.
"You think your magic wand is here?" said Cassandra in a small voice.
"No," answered Vasilisa. "But I'm looking for clues."
The sorceress floated over to the dais which stood at the east end near the imperial staircase. She seemed to be searching for something among the glittering tapestries on the walls. Then she waved her hand and the tapestries flipped aside, revealing the largest mirror Cassandra had ever seen, a mirror large enough for four people to walk into abreast.
Yet, Cassandra felt a familiar pulse in her veins once again, she blinked and realized something was hanging in front of the fireplace, which was burning with hot green flames. It was a birdcage made of twisted golden wires.
"Look!" she whispered, going tiptoe to check it but keeping well back in case it was something dangerous. Then: "Oh! What is that?"
The owl and her mistress were right beside her at once.
"It looks like...it's a snake," Owlyn said in a restrained voice. Her eyes stared at it with intensity. "Anyway, it's dead. Let me eat it!"
"No!" both Cassandra and Vasilisa cried at the same time. Then they heard another sound, barely audible above the crackle of the fire, a sound like a paper bag brushing across a wooden floor.
"...if you please, gentleladies,..."
Cassandra froze. She looked at Vasilisa, who was frowning. Somehow the thought of a snake being kept like a canary was the most horrible of all. This is a different world, Cassandra thought, and all desire to explore and understand tempted her again.
"...gentle ladies...if you please..."
"It's the snake," confirmed Cassandra. There was a sort of horrified amazement in her voice. Vasilisa put her head close to the cage. The snake was lying as still and quiet as before, but its black eyes glittered at her. It was alive.
"...of your mercy, ladies...I beg you..." The voice was as dry and thin as a dead butterfly's wing.
"It's hurt," said Vasilisa, somehow sure of this.
"What's wrong with you?" Cassandra said to the snake. "What can we do?"
"...if it would not be too much to ask...the heat...fire is death to my kind..."
Now that Cassandra thought of it, she saw it would be madness to keep any other living creature so close to that great fire. She looked up and realized with dismay that the cage could not be detached from its chain. They would have to reach in and take the snake out.
"Don't trust a snake, my lady," warned Owlyn. "It could be one of Koschei's tricks."
Vasilisa seemed to hesitate. Cassandra didn't want to either, but she couldn't just walk away and leave the creature to die. For some reason, she felt a pang of sympathy towards the snake. The way its weakened voice begging them, and how it seemed to waste away slowly motivated her to speak again.
"You won't—er, bite us, will you?" she said.
"Ah, lady..." The tiny voice was so pained now that even the princess looked ashamed. With a sideways glance at Cassandra, she unfastened the cage door and took out the snake, which was neither slimy nor scaly, but dry and very warm. It drooped limply from the princess's hand, head and tail hanging like pieces of old string.
"It's cooler at the other end of the hall," advised Cassandra. She might have trouble managing her fear at times, but she never got overly hysterical, Vasilisa noticed. The princess felt grateful for this as she carried the snake back and laid it on the floor near the double doors.
"Is that any better?"
The snake gave a weak, appreciative wiggle. "My life...is yours...gentle ladies..."
"What was it doing there, anyway?" Owlyn said.
"Hush, Owlyn, it's tired out. It can't talk," Vasilisa said.
Cassandra kept staring at the creature. She was tempted to stroke the snake down its blue and coral length, which was strange as she wouldn't want to do the same with frogs. She resisted though.
Although the creature was nearly two feet long, its back was marred by little bumps or stubs, giving it the look of a very slim caterpillar.
"What were you doing in that cage?" Vasilisa asked again. "If Koschei did it, we'd better know about it."
"Yes, my lady, it was that devil, the deathless lord," answered the snake weakly. They strained to hear the papery voice.
"Him again!" said Vasilisa in rage.
"That cage was meant for a Firebird, a Phoenix...but he caught me and put me there lest I fly away."
"Fly?" said Cassandra. "Like a butterfly? So you're a caterpillar, aren't you?"
When the creature spoke again its voice was a little stronger. "Gentle lady, you mock me..." then, with a laugh like a whispered sigh, it said, "Although only an infant of my kind, I am known as a Feathered Serpent."
"You mean you're a serpent with wings?" Cassandra bent over the serpent, reaching a tentative finger towards one of the bumps. Now that she looked at them more closely, they didn't look decorative at all. They looked...like wounds. "You're like a dragon then?"
"No, just a Feathered Serpent, gentle lady."
"Oh, alright," she said. "And what happened to your wings?"
"Koschei the Deathless tore them off," whispered the serpent.
"That bastard!" cried Vasilisa, "Once my wand is restored, I will turn him into a toad!"
"Are you Sorceress Princess Vasilisa?" asked the wingless serpent.
"Yes, that is correct."
"Oh, we have been waiting for your return, my lady. We need your help to stop that devil's cruelty. Everyone has been severely oppressed since you disappeared."
"Well, now I am back and I will indeed help you," said the princess vehemently. "But I must search for my wand. Do you happen to know where it is?"
"I am weak, but I could still smell the power of the Golden Wand," the serpent replied. "It's not in this castle, my lady, but you should go seek it yonder in the Wood of a Thousand Deaths."