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The Willow Princess: A Reignview Tale

The Willow Princess: A Reignview Tale

Written by Jeremy Neeley

 

Published by Jeremy Neeley at Shakespir

 

Copyright 2017 Jeremy Neeley

 

 

License Notice

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment and is not to be resold or given to another party in any form. If another party wishes to use this book, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

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Table of Contents

 

The Wedding

The Dead of Night

The Cold Heart

The Dragon’s Breath

The Call of the Underworld

The Prince of Corts

The Golden Nectar

The Grendel Horn

The Reunion

 

About the Author

 

 

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[]The Wedding

 

The land of Tora was dying. Ages ago, the Grave War between previously harmonious tribes had set the wheel of death in motion. Armies burnt farms to smoldering ash, poisoned waterways with vile concoctions, twisted beasts with arcane magic, and left vast fields of fallen soldiers to rot in their wake. As the wounds of conflict cut deep, disease and pestilence grew strong, their corrupting touch seeping into flora and fauna alike.

The struggle eventually ground to a stalemate with no clear victor in sight. But, the losses on all sides were immense, and a truce was enacted. Each tribe would be bound to their homeland, never again to cross into the realm of another.

The massive Doppel Beasts, with their heavy pelts of white and shoulders as broad as a man is tall, were bound to the Northern Mountain to live among the blizzards of blinding snow. The Fang burrowed deep below the scorching Western Desert, sliding back into their labyrinthine caverns upon bellies of steel-like scales. The Southern Jungle was once again the sole refuge of the Bree. These giant arthropods, with elegantly woven wings wrapped around their segmented torsos like shimmering gowns, nestled into their hive to toil away at their labors. And, man, tired from battle and heavy in heart, kept to their birthplace along the Eastern Shores, knowing that to venture abroad once more would assuredly bring untold suffering.

Generations of agreed isolation held fast, but the war’s sickening impact upon Tora continued to fester and spread. The damage had been done, and inevitability stood stark on the horizon. The men of the Eastern Shore could see the dark shroud falling and sought only to manage their strained existence as the resources to sustain life continued to dwindle.

The tribe of men consisted of four clans—the Greys, the Corts, the Willows, and the Brauns. Prior to the Grave War, each of these clans lived under a singular chieftain who governed his people as he, or she, alone saw fit. On more than one occasion, disputes would arise between the clans and violence would be brought to bear. But, the war diluted those previous animosities, and the clans of men became a singular tribe ruled by the will of all four.

Strengthening their unity became paramount. With so many lives claimed by the blade and the resulting epidemic, it was decided that men and women would marry across clan lines to ensure the continued existence of humankind. Historically outlawed by the chieftains, it was deemed a necessity, and it was for this reason the tribe of men gathered on this day. This particular celebration held extra meaning as well, for this was to be the tenth generation removed from the end of the Grave War.

Each clan offered a young man and woman to the ritual, and as was tradition, one came from the bloodline of the chieftain, the other of a lesser house. The chieftains and their advisors were matchmakers, weighing both stock and interest in their pairings. In some instances, the newlyweds knew of one another prior, in some instances not. As the eight stood before the altar prepared to offer their vows in front of the crowd, only one pair stood hand-in-hand.

Rowan Reignview, the fourth son of the house of Reignview in the Grey clan, wrapped his calloused fingers around the gentle touch of Princess Anabelle Song, fifth daughter of the Willow Queen, Lady Welltress Song.

Rowan was built to aid with muscle, and upon that sturdy frame perched a head covered in a crop of bristling brown hair. His blue eyes cast a gentle gaze above a warm smile framed in stubble, a smile he gave fully, and often to Anabelle.

Rowan was a compassionate man, his worn palms rough from the labors of good deeds. He worked the fields when needed, cut the lumber when requested, and built homes for the needy without a moment’s pause. Despite not being from the noble line, his word was held in high esteem, for it was true and measured. For this, his fellow Greys had dubbed him Rowan the Kind-hearted.

His bride to be was similarly revered. Anabelle was often found among the sick and distraught, her gentle voice and willing ear a source of great comfort to many. Although her birthright deemed respect, it was genuinely earned among the clans of men.

A deep complexion of rich umber framed by wavy locks of raven hair revealed not a single blemish. Her eyes, like two orbs of sparkling jade, looked upon her brethren with utmost benevolence. She was a beauty by any standard, both inside and out.

Over the years, Rowan and Anabelle had crossed paths on several occasions. As Anabelle consoled a family whose home had burnt down, Rowan was just feet away starting to rebuild it. When Rowan rushed to clear a road of fallen timbers in the midst of a storm, Anabelle was there, eagerly waiting to pass through on her mission to transport urgent medicine to a young child.

Conversation and shared experience forged a sincere love between the two, and it was without obligation they appeared before the altar that day. Rowan and Anabelle stood in deep desire, shoulder to shoulder, two kindred hearts longing to be joined as one for the rest of their days.

 

 

 

 

As the priest concluded the rites, the newly formed unions of men and women turned towards one another and shared a kiss. Of the four pairs, it was Anabelle and Rowan who held the longest. At that moment, they were lost in time, unshaken by the roars of the cheering revelers and growing merriment. Petals of wildflowers fell like raindrops upon the couples, yet the pair did not withdraw. It was not until the heavy hand of Rowan’s friend Marcus struck him firmly upon the back that Rowan realized the ceremony was over.

“Congratulations, brother,” Marcus said with a hearty chuckle. “And to you too, Princess Anabelle.”

Marcus was a mighty man, bold in action and words, which came as no surprise being the son of the Braun chieftain. Standing much larger and wider than Rowan, a heavy black beard served to mask a constant grin. Marcus was a man with an ever-present confidence, even fool-hearty at times. Anything he could not overcome through sheer strengthen was smoothed over by his endearing attitude and noble lineage. These traits had allowed his jovial smile to remain, even in the toughest of times.

“Ah, Marcus, our congratulations to you as well,” Anabelle responded. “The Restless Prince has finally been snared.”

Marcus cast Anabelle a playfully stern look, drawing his new bride towards him. “Aye, Emilie has accomplished that which so many before her could not, and that is why she is, undoubtedly, unmatched in all of Tora.”

At that, the Braun clansman engulfed Emilie in his massive frame and planted a forceful kiss upon the unsuspecting woman.

After her release, Emilie, red-faced with embarrassment, quickly scurried off to speak with relatives, leaving Marcus to stand in momentary confusion.

“Marcus, my friend, perhaps you need to ease Emilie into your newly-forged relationship,” Rowan said with a smirk.

“Aye, perhaps,” Marcus replied. “I suppose love must be worn in, as with you two old boots. Neither one complete without the other.”

“Did you just call me a boot?” Anabelle asked, feigning insult.

“No, of course not. I would never dream of calling the Princess of Willows a smelly piece of trod leather. No, not at all. Maybe a glass slipper, dainty and elegant.”

“Soooo,” Rowan interjected, “that makes me dainty and elegant?”

Marcus, sensing he had been backed into a verbal corner, lashed out in customary form, delivering a stiff right hand to Rowan’s shoulder. The attack was quickly followed by a bear-like embrace of his two friends.

“Ah, forget all of that. Come, let us drink!” the Braun Prince declared.

Besides Rowan and Anabelle, and Marcus and Emilie, two other couples were married that day. Princess Gwendolyn of the Greys was betrothed to Thomas Northgrind of the Willows and Lord Vadik Grenwald, Prince of Corts, was joined with Helen Frelgen of the Brauns.

They had all gathered at the center of the shire where they sat at a long, wooden table, prepared to partake of the customary feast of meat and ale. Emilie rejoined her husband, and soon, all eight of the honored guests were seated, surrounded by friends and family.

“Quite a day,” came a courteous voice to Rowan’s right.

It was Lord Vadik Grenwald, the son of Cort Chieftain, Vemir Grenwald. Vadik was a sharp-tongued man, keen on using biting words backed up by his elevated station in life. Any challenge faced was overcome through manipulation with the sole goal of protecting his reputation at the cost of damaging another’s. He was liked by very few, feared by much more. But, as the last unwed son of his line, his time to participate in the marriage ritual had finally come.

“Aye, indeed,” Rowan replied, shaking Vadik’s extended hand.

“I must say, you have won the day, Rowan,” Vadik continued, glancing across Rowan’s brow to the face of Anabelle.

“Yes, I am a lucky man,” Rowan stated, smiling at his wife.

“Luck indeed,” Vadik continued, his eyes transfixed upon Anabelle. “I never quite understood why the elders thought it best to pair commoners with nobility. I mean, of course times are tough and our numbers are declining, but truthfully the wise path would be quality over quantity, as it once was and should always have been. You know, prince to princess, farmhand to wench.”

Rowan, growing uncomfortable with Vadik’s insinuations, stared coldly into the Cort’s gray eyes.

Vadik knew he had risen Rowan’s ire, and, unfazed, returned his stern glare with a wry smile.

“Let us raise our horns,” came the bellowing voice of the priest, signaling all in attendance to grow quiet. “As threads of your lineage, you shall weave your own strands, ever mightier to hold us fast to this land, our home. It is with love and hope we salute you!”

At that, all present drank to the couples’ success, partaking of sweet honey wine. The chatter ensued and the musicians commenced their merry melodies. A spot was cleared before the table of honor, and, those willing, took to the dance floor.

Setting down her horn, Anabelle grabbed Rowan by the hand, leading him into the merry fray. The son of Reignview wiped drops of mead from his lip and eagerly followed. As the pair held one another tightly, swaying and stepping to an ancient tune, Rowan could feel the unwavering stare of Vadik. Sure enough, the sly prince’s gaze was locked upon them.

Keenly observant, Anabelle placed her hand gently upon Rowan’s cheek, directing his attention to her.

“Worry not, husband,” she spoke into his ear. “Vadik is of my distant past, pages long torn from my memory. You, however, lay claim to all of my tomes of joy. Remember the first chapter, written on the shores of Elm River?”

Rowan smiled. Anabelle could calm a tempest.

“That first day we met?” she continued.

“Aye, I do,” Rowan replied.

“I was gathering water at the bank and spotted you on the opposite shore fishing,” said Anabelle.

“Yes, the waters were raging from the previous night’s downpour,” Rowan reminisced. “I knew I would have a hard time catching anything that day, but for some reason, I thought best to try.”

“And what happened?” Anabelle asked, continuing to lead him.

“You sank fast into the mud. Knee deep.”

“And you, despite the violent waters, dove headfirst into the froth, swimming madly towards me.”

“I thought it was a patch of quicksand,” Rowan chuckled. “Little did I know you had freed yourself while I was still submerged.”

“But there I was, leg caked in mud, staring at a man who emerged from the cold waters soaking wet and gasping for air,” recalled the princess. “A man, who fearing even the slightest danger to my person, was willing to risk drowning, willing to ford any obstacle to aid me. On that day, so long ago, our story had begun.”

Rowan kissed his wife sweetly on the forehead.

“I suppose I did catch something marvelous that day,” he whispered lovingly.

Rowan twirled his wife, who circled him as gracefully as falling autumn leaves, before drawing closer once more into his warm embrace. The song had come to an end, leaving the newlyweds silent, intertwined, and in blissful harmony with one another.

After a moment, a new song strummed to life. Just as the couple stepped again, a massive arm fell between them like a fallen oak.

“May I have this dance?” questioned Marcus.

Rowan and Anabelle laughed at the source of the abrupt halt.

Marcus flexed his arm, bulging his bicep in a comically threatening way.

“I guess I have little choice,” Anabelle replied as she took her friend’s hand and was spun off in a circle of motion.

As the two moved among the revelers, Rowan watched from a growing distance. While he understood the underlying necessity of the tribe’s ritual, the reality was he was now happily married to the woman he loved – a kind, honest, and beautiful woman. The exact circumstances of his joy held little sway in his mind. Of course, they would do their part, but he knew with utmost certainty, that his future with Anabelle was certain to be bright, despite the doomsayers of Tora.

Soon Rowan and Anabelle were joined once more. They danced into the night, until Rowan, taking one final gulp of wine, gave way to fatigue.

“Anabelle, my legs grow tired,” Rowan stated. “Perhaps we can head home.”

“Oh no, I hope not too tired, husband,” she replied suggestively.

Rowan took his wife by the hand, placed a soft kiss upon it, and guided her through the thinning crowd to begin the walk home.

Their abode was just on the outskirts of the shire, a fine dwelling in the countryside. The land was granted by Anabelle’s mother and the home constructed to their liking by their own hard work. It had sat idly unoccupied for about a month. Rowan and Anabelle wanted their first night there to be as a married couple.

As the pair reached the threshold, Rowan leaned his weight on the doorframe, steadying himself.

“I’m sorry dearest, I am spent. They say marriage does this to a man. I just never believed I would be so susceptible.”

Anabelle laughed at her husband’s feigned excuse. He grinned.

“Then to bed with you!” she ordered in jest. “You are of little use now.”

As Rowan slid beneath the thick covers, Anabelle started a fire. Logs burned bright and warmth began to permeate the space. She changed into her nightclothes and slipped into bed next to her husband. Cozying up to him, she wrapped her arms around Rowan and pulled him tightly closer. He was already fast asleep. She passed her hand over his cheek, a caress she hoped would touch him in his dreams. Before long, Anabelle drifted off to sleep, happy and madly in love.

 

 

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The Dead of Night

Anabelle felt the icy touch of night upon her skin. Her exposed foot had found its way out from beneath the blankets, dangling in the air. She could tell the temperature had dropped, an aching chill now running the length of her body. But, as she regained full consciousness, she noticed the flames in the fireplace were still burning strong. Something odd had sapped the heat.

Nestled into Rowan, dread gripped her heart. He laid silent and cold.

“Rowan,” she whispered, shaking him softly. “Rowan?”

He did not move.

“Rowan,” Anabelle called again, desperately seeking a response.

He did not stir.

“Rowan!”

He was gone.

 

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The hall’s grand archways were still cast in shadow. The sun had not yet risen on the new day, and Anabelle was certain it never would. She kneeled next to the shroud-covered form of her husband.

Anabelle had run to her mother’s regal estate in search of help, and seeing her panic, Queen Weltress of the Willows immediately sent her best physicians. It was all for not. Rowan Reignview laid upon an altar at the center of Willow Hall, lifeless and mourned.

“I do not understand,” Anabelle said tearfully. “How could this be?”

“We fear Jorza’s Plague may have befallen young Reignview,” replied the royal physician.

Jorza’s Plague was a disease born out of the Grave War. At the hasty insistence of his lord, a young mage named Jorza called upon the darkest of arts to help aid the armies of men. Using arcane ritual, he summoned a deadly djinn who he could not control. The djinn rendered death indiscriminately, requiring the most powerful guild of mages to band together and drive the demon back into the otherworld.

Unfortunately, the djinn had already spent too much time in this world, and a fraction of its deadly essence wove itself into the earth, unable to be fully exorcised. On occasion, the essence would manifest and claim the lives of whoever it touched, pulling their soul from their body and leaving them instantly lifeless and cold.

Although Rowan’s death was sudden, and his body grew astonishingly cold in so little time, Anabelle refused to believe Jorza’s Plague was the cause.

“Look,” she demanded. “His skin is not tainted. He does not bear the blue binds!”

It was true, Rowan’s flesh was without blemish. Those afflicted with Jorza’s Plague were marked with a net-like pattern on their skin. Victims’ veins were frozen fast, causing them to bulge blue and ridged, a binding network of dead cells that would rise to the surface.

The physician cleared his throat. “Yes, my lady, he does not display the binds, but maybe you could not see them in your dimly lit home and they have since thawed. It is not uncommon. It would be understandable to overlook such a thing in a panicked state.”

“Do not patronize me!” Anabelle shot back.

Her mother placed a calming hand upon her shoulder.

“No…no…NO!” Anabelle cried out in distress as she rose to her feet. “This was not the way! Old… gray…lines worn thick with years of love and laughter…embracing for a final night’s rest… hearts content with days well spent and children well raised. That, that was the way. No, not this.”

Overcome, she fell to her knees once more, tears flowing in salty streams of anguish.

“This was not the way,” Anabelle whispered to herself. “This was not the way.”

Anabelle screamed, a terrifying, heartbreaking roar of anger and grief. The very walls of the manor shuddered. Then…silence. It hung, warning permanence.

A moment later, its grip was broken. The sound of shuffling feet and dragging trinkets echoed throughout the chamber. From an adjacent alcove, an old woman clothed in a worn red robe adorned with a cornucopia of odd ornaments came into view.

“Mugma,” Anabelle sobbed, greeting her friend while swaddled in sorrow.

The woman placed a kiss upon Anabelle’s forehead, an affection she had offered the young princess a thousand times before. No one could be certain how old Mugma was, but it was without question she was the oldest living member of the Willow Clan. Legend held that she was once an adept soothsayer, but age had dulled her skill in that respect. Now, the elder served as an advisor to the Queen and a respected keeper of history, with wisdom spanning many ages.

The Willow woman moved from the princess to the queen, grasping her liege’s hand in a comforting manner. She then turned her attention to Rowan. As Mugma moved to examine his body, the royal physician cleared his throat to speak.

“We are fairly certain Jorza’s…”

“Pep, pep, pep,” Mugma interjected, halting his diagnosis.

It was well known that Mugma and the royal physician were often at odds when it came to matters such as these. She held to the old traditions and was often dubious of the physician’s modern methods.

As the room grew quiet again, the old woman reached into her braided, silver hair and loosened a ribbon, freeing a small leather pouch. Clutching the item in her withered hands, and muttering indistinguishable words, Mugma began to circle the corpse. She would occasionally run the pouch over the decease’s frame. At one point, she leaned in and whispered into his ear, then quickly lowered her own to his mouth, intently listening. Those in attendance heard nothing.

Mugma lifted her head and stood straight and broad overtop Rowan. Holding the pouch a few feet above him, it was suddenly overturned, dropping its contents upon the dead man’s chest.

Two small bones, a sparkling red jewel, a polished stone, a gold coin, and a raven’s talon were now scattered across Rowan’s torso. Mugma intensely examined the items, taking note or their orientations. She mumbled under her breath again and poked at a few of them with a long, sharp fingernail. Then with a sudden sweep, she scooped them all up and put them back in her pouch. As the elder Willow wove her talisman back into her braid, she approached a silent Anabelle who was still kneeling in mourning. Anabelle tried to read Mugma’s expression as she drew nearer, but the old woman held her head low in shadow.

“Mugma,” the young princess implored, “was it truly Jorza’s that stole my love?”

“I do not know. The nature is clouded in your husband, concealed in a dark fog,” Mugma replied with regret.

She then took Anabelle by the hand. “But, what I do know is Rowan has not yet passed.”

Anabelle could not believe Mugma’s words. It was as if she was given vital breath amidst a suffocating reality.

“Rowan is very, very sick,” the old woman continued. “He travels the final path, but his steps are heavy and labored. While the ominous gates of the underworld stand in view, he resists their pull. They beckon him, but he fights, ever so faintly, to remain.”

Queen Weltress looked toward Mugma and the royal physician. “What can be done?” she asked with insistence.

The royal physician, having already counted Rowan among the corpses, was at a loss. This came as no surprise to Mugma.

The old woman searched her mind for any solution she thought may help, but unsure of the exact nature of the illness, and realizing how far gone Rowan was at this point, she struggled to find one. Her silence fed Anabelle’s dread.

Suddenly, it came to Mugma. “Heaven’s Mead!” she shouted.

The physician laughed aloud. “Heaven’s Mead is a fairytale,” he stated with haughty dismissal.

Anabelle had an answer, the only answer, and she clung to it without hesitation.

“Heaven’s Mead? Acquire it with haste!” she demanded as she rose to her feet with renewed strength.

While Anabelle had never heard of the elixir, the Queen had, and her brief optimism all but vanished.

“My dearest, I’m sorry,” Weltress stated with disappointment, “There is no more Heaven’s Mead. It hasn’t existed since the days before the Grave War.”

“Aye,” Mugma interjected, “but it could.”

The royal physician scoffed. Mugma glared at him.

“Heaven’s Mead was plentiful in the days of peace oh so long ago,” Mugma explained. “It would be distilled at a monthly lunar festival at which all the tribes gathered – the Doppels, the Fang, the Bree, and man. Each one would contribute their own enchanted essence, concocting an elixir of such nourishment it could make the harshest of land fertile, the most polluted waters pristine, and the gravely afflicted well again. All were given a share, but after ages of harmony, the evilness of greed crept in. Tribes demanded more than their fair allotment. This led to thievery, which led to distrust, which led to rigidity, which led to war.”

Anabelle approached the altar where Rowan laid still. She drew back the shroud and took his cold hand in hers.

“If I get the ingredients, can you craft this mead, Mugma?” she spoke with determination.

“Aye,” the woman replied, “but there is untold peril ahead, and little time to acquire the elements. All three must be obtained and brought to the fourth, man’s contribution, the altar of the Grendel Horn overlooking the sea. This must happen by the dawning of the second day. Rowan will last no longer.”

“Then waste no breath. What is needed?”

“Daybreak is fast approaching. That is when the first essence must be acquired,” Mugma began.

As she spoke, Anabelle kissed Rowan and whispered loving assurances into his ear.

The Willow advisor continued.

“In the Northern Mountains stands two mighty peaks, side-by-side. They jut out of the range like twin hands piercing the sky. Legend says that in the dawn of Tora, a great meteor of solid ice fell from the heavens, threatening to destroy our world. But, these Hands of Gaia caught the meteor, wedging it between their stone grip and keeping it from piercing the land below. There, the crystalline structure sat, secure and nourished by the cold of the mountains. Known as the Heart of the Mountain, evening’s chill would fortify it until sunrise. At this time, bathed in the new day’s warming light, the meteor heart would drip. These first few drops were the most cherished. They were said to be the purest, most nourishing water source in all the land, an essence born of the heavens. The first ingredient is a flask of this water.”

Anabelle immediately looked toward the window. It was still dark, but she could sense the sky beginning to gray.

“And the second, Mugma? What is the second ingredient?” the princess demanded as she walked across the gallery to a statue clad in Willow armaments.

Mugma pulled a dried flower from her belt.

“This,” she stated, “is Dragon’s breath. It is one of the few things hardy enough to grow in the arid Western Desert. It is also a staple food source of the Fang clan. They cultivate the red blooms in carefully manicured plots, the only place it exists in all of Tora. While the serpents can eat it raw, the ruby spice which falls from the petals is highly toxic to most lifeforms…unless it is mixed, still freshly cut, into Heaven’s Mead. This ancient flower’s dust contains minerals drawn from the ages, an invigorating essence of unparalleled potency.”

Anabelle had disappeared from view behind a massive, ornate tapestry hung in the gallery’s corner, but upon hearing Mugma grow quiet, she made her presence known.

“And the third? What is the third ingredient?” came Anabelle’s echoing voice.

“The third need is deep in the heart of the Southern Jungle, at the center of the Bree’s Celestial Hive. There, in their most sacred chamber, The Moon Chamber, the Bree produce the Golden Nectar. Left to bath in the glow of the full moon, the honey absorbs a potent magic only emitted during that time. It is said that the entire universe can be seen reflected in the suspension. But, the trapped orb’s kiss fades with time, losing its vigor with the waning gibbous. Mixing it into the mead solidifies the essence, but it must happen before the next moon rises.”

Mugma paused for a moment, stricken with the realization of an added complication.

“The full moon will rise this evening, Anabelle. The Golden Nectar must be gathered tonight.”

The Willow Princess stepped out from behind the tapestry and strode across the hall. She had changed into the chainmail and plate of a Willow warrior, a mighty shield strapped to her back.

Queen Weltress objected.

“Daughter, you cannot undertake this quest!” she pleaded, fearing for her child’s safety and doubting the quest could even be accomplished.

“Time is of the essence, mother,” Anabelle replied, as she moved to stand beneath a life-sized portrait of her deceased father, and last King of the Willow Clan, King Altestein.

Looking deep into her mother’s eyes, Anabelle asked, “If someone came to you at this very moment and said you could have Father back, even for one day, what would you be willing to do?”

Tears rushed to the surface of the Queen’s eyes, forming shimmering pools of remembrance.

“I would do anything,” she replied, kissing her daughter on the cheek.

Anabelle reached out and drew an elegant sword from its mount below the portrait. It was her father’s sword, a truly magnificent blade whose beauty was only matched by its lethality. Wrapping her gauntlets around the leather handle, she could feel her fingers fall into the grooves of her father’s.

While his sword had seen the battlefield, Anabelle marveled at the numerous occasions when he had kept it sheathed when a lesser man would have drawn in anger or fear. He had always told her that it often takes more strength to not wield the weapon than to swing it mightily at an opponent, for once you do, they are forever an enemy. While resting in the scabbard, an ally can still be made.

She prayed that she would be blessed with such keen judgment.

Anabelle and her mother embraced, a final hug of well-wishing and encouragement. While there were safety and security in the moment, Anabelle knew the sun would not halt its ascent, and so she quickly drew away from the Queen.

“I will see you at the Grendel Horn tonight, Mugma,” Anabelle yelled across the hall, smiling at her friend.

“Yes, we will see you there, Princess, your husband and I,” Mugma replied, blowing a kiss to the young woman.

With that, Anabelle ran from the room. Dawn was on the horizon and she could wait no longer.

 

 

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The Cold Heart

Anabelle’s steed made quick work of the Tora terrain, and it was no surprise to the Willow Princess. She had enlisted the aid of a robust horse named Sigmund. A grand stallion of white, Sigmund was the fastest and most skilled of all the Willow horses. He had also been groomed since he was a colt by the most gifted trainer in the Willow Clan, Anabelle herself.

Sigmund and Anabelle had grown up together and shared a deeply held bond. Save Rowan, there may not have been another living thing Anabelle trusted more than Sigmund, and the animal was just as devoted to her.

Although she had been bound to the realm of men for her whole life up until now, Anabelle’s parents made sure her education was robust. Like so many of her royal peers—Vadik, Marcus, and Gwendolyn of the Greys—the Willow Princess was sent to the High Academy where she learned about the topography of Tora, the history of the lands, its inhabitants, its beauty, and its dangers. Anabelle was a prize pupil in every respect and now relied on her lessons.

While the academics were thorough, King Altestein was sure to espouse practical knowledge handed down from his lineage and personal experience. How to navigate by the stars, strike fire even on the dampest days, and harvest wild sustenance while avoiding poisons. Anabelle always marveled at the stories of adventure and folly that accompanied his teachings. Sitting at her father’s side as he recounted marvelous tales were some of her fondest memories.

Beyond the relative security of the Eastern Shore laid a great expanse of trees. Known as Markim’s Forest, it was cut through by many worn roads and trails. For generations, traders, trappers, hunters, and gatherers of every tribe used these routes to move between numerous settlements.

Markim’s Forest was a shared resource for many, but during the Grave War, it became the site of several brutal battles. Parts of the forest became twisted and burned as supply routes were destroyed by machines of war. Pockets became cursed. Dark groves hid the wandering souls of warriors lost in battle, forever seeking combat with an insatiable bloodlust intent on dragging to hell anyone foolish enough to stumble upon their haunting forms.

Everyone knew that traveling through the forest at night would spell certain doom, but here in the dusk of a new day, Anabelle cast aside any hesitation. While the light was not yet full, it was weakly present, and she felt if she rode hard and fast, she could outrun the lingering demons.

Sigmund could sense the forest’s foreboding aura and Anabelle’s rapid heartbeat. For this reason, he pushed hard through the region. Both woman and beast kept their eyes forward, concentrating on the path that would lead them through to the Northern Mountains. They were not to be deterred, despite the threatening forms of misty wraiths and the glare of eerie red eyes peering at them from the shadows. Anabelle knew the creatures were just waiting for a faltering step or a momentary lapse into weariness. Gripping tightly to the reins, she refused to let that happen.

Soon the loud clap of Sigmund’s hooves on the hardened roads turned to a sharp crushing sound as the pair moved from the forest’s lowlands to the snowy base of the Northern Mountains. Her studies had paid off and had guided her, without error, to her first destination. High above the cliffs, Anabelle could see the Hands of Gaia backlit by a sky that had turned from a pale yellow to one of cool blue.

Sigmund continued to grind his way up the rocky surface, but as his footing became less stable, Anabelle dismounted. She guided him a bit farther until the path became too narrow.

“Wait here,” she said to him, running her hand across his snout while tying the horse to a frozen stump.

Sigmund whinnied his understanding.

The pathway to the Hands of Gaia wound around the base of the mountains, moving ever higher with each turn. As Anabelle ascended, she could feel the cold breeze growing stronger. It’s chill bit at her exposed face, and she was forced to lower her gaze in search of some relief.

Farther up the mountain she trod. Each step became increasingly more treacherous as the wind was joined with swirling flakes of snow and combined with patches of ice and crumbling stone below her feet. She slipped more than once, but was quick to right herself and continue.

A bit farther, and the wind was a constant howl now, drowning out all other sounds. The snowfall had turned furious as well. Anabelle struggled to see the path ahead, now virtually blinded by a sheet of white. Another step and her footing gave way again, forcing her to drop to a knee to keep from sliding off the trail completely and plummeting to certain death.

There, kneeling in the snow, Anabelle could hear the wind’s tenor change. It had been joined by another, equally powerful roar. The sound was fierce and threatening, and she immediately knew what it was. Mugma had actually taught her how to mimic the sound when she was a child as a means to scare off harbor trolls. The roar was that of a Doppel Beast, and soon it was joined by another, and then another.

The cacophony was growing and the Willow Princess could feel the ground below her begin to shake. The beasts’ booming calls were now louder than the wind. Anabelle covered her ears, unable to bear the sound.

But suddenly, the bellows ceased, only to be replaced by an even graver echo. A sickening crack brought Anabelle to focus. From above, an expanse of rock had given way and an avalanche of crushing snow was now rolling down toward her. In a desperate attempt to affix herself to the ice-covered mountainside, she drew her father’s sword and thrust it into rock.

The action did not provide the stability she had hoped for. Instead, the frozen stone face crumbled, sending her tumbling head first into a deep cavern. As she fell into the darkness, she could see the torrent of snow cascade past the new opening with a force mighty enough to crush her bones. She would have surely died had she tried to hold her ground.

With a painful thud and the clang of metal on stone, Anabelle hit bottom. The crash had knocked the wind out of her and she rolled onto her back gasping for breath. It soon came, and there, staring up at icy stalactites, she noticed the entire cavern was bathed in a dim, blue glow. Further into the chamber, she could see the source of the light, an opening high above covered by a sheet of topaz-colored ice.

As Anabelle rose, her eyesight continued to adjust to her surroundings. For once, fortune smiled upon her. The opening was at the end of a long incline, easy to traverse from below. She gathered herself and began to walk the distance, weaving through a forest of rocky columns stalagmites.

While it was far better to be sheltered from the blizzard, the cavern did possess a deep, penetrating cold. Each breath Anabelle exhaled appeared as a puff of thick, dense fog that lingered longer and longer with every step she took. Halfway through the chamber, the Willow Princess noticed tiny crystals of ice refracting light from within the clouds of breath. Her steps were becoming heavy and strained. She glanced down and noticed a thickening veil of ice covering her armor.

Worry crept into her mind, and was only heightened when she came to the sudden and shocking realization that the stalagmites surrounding her were not born of sediment, but instead the frozen and contorted bodies of once living creatures. Troglodytes and trolls, mountain bears and men, stared at her with fearful eyes trapped forever within tombs of ice. If Anabelle did not escape the cave soon, she knew she would be forced to join this morbid, subterranean garden.

Fighting the freeze, she raised her sword and smashed it against her body, shattering the ice encasement. She then began to run. Without the crystal shell, Anabelle made several unhindered strides, but within seconds, she could feel the weight return, growing heavier than before. Even more troubling was her breathing. With increased effort came deeper, more frequent breaths, and as she drew air more rapidly, she could feel the cold seeping into her lungs. This, in turn, made it harder to inhale and threatened to freeze her solid from within.

The exit now stood in clear view, only feet away, but the supernatural cold had virtually overtaken her. Another step was met by the hardening of her limbs. Another, and her back foot stuck fast to the stone floor. Anabelle reached out in panic, her fingertips just touching the frozen doorway separating her from the outside. She was so close, but now fully within the frigid grip of the unholy cave.

She thought of Rowan, he too trapped in an embrace of bitter stillness. She would not let that stand, and she would not let this stand. With every last bit of strength, she pulled against the intensity of the cold, screaming a silent, frozen scream as she thrust her sword into the transparent wall of ice.

The blow struck true, and the wall shattered, ushering in a gust of wind. While the brisk breeze was still cold, it was a degree high enough to break the spell of the frozen cave which had trapped Anabelle. She shook against her icy shell and cracked free, bursting into a high mountain valley bathed in the rising morning sun.

Anabelle could feel her wheezing loosen and warm, strengthening her body and reinvigorating her soul. The sun had crested the horizon, but her goal was now in sight. Across the valley stood the majestic Hands of Gaia. At the base of the peaks, a stone staircase rose between them, ending right below the source of the first ingredient, the Cold Heart of the Mountain. All that stood between her and the Heart was a peaceful field of pristine white dotted by low dunes of gathered snow. It was quite a lovely enclave protected from the raging snowstorm by high ridges of rock.

Walking across the field, Anabelle’s footsteps fell a few inches deep. The soft crush of fresh snow beneath her sounded wonderful. While the Eastern Shores did have an occasional winter’s storm, the flakes there were wet and fleeting. Mountain snow was much more robust and sturdy. The noise which accompanied each stomp was satisfyingly crisp. At first, Anabelle only noticed the pleasing patter, but soon, she realized an eerie stillness in the air. The wind had gone, and when she halted and stood quietly amongst the snow dunes, she was surrounded by silence.

With frightening intensity, the momentary calm erupted into a chorus of terrifying howls. The snow dunes exploded into a shower of powder as several massive Doppel Beats bursts from their hiding places beneath the drifts.

 

 

 

 

The creatures towered over Anabelle, standing well over seven feet tall. With the sharpened horns and stout hooves of mountain goats, and the bodies and fierce jaws of polar bears, the Doppel Beasts were terrifying abominations. Anabelle counted at least a dozen of the wooly monsters surrounding her.

The Doppels were heaving and huffing in anger, snorting billows of sharp breath from their enraged snouts. Each beast clutched a massive stone club in their hands, the weapon alone the size of Anabelle’s entire body. Covered in thick hides of white hair, it was no wonder Anabelle had overlooked their camouflaged presence.

One among their rank stepped menacingly toward the Willow Princess. He was the largest of all the Doppels, with a fierce glare held beneath a crown of ice.

“Huuummmaannnn!” he shouted with fury. “You have broken the treaty! How dare you mark our mountain with your unworthy tracks. Your prints are weak and lowly before the Doppel Tribe. You have no right to be here, and as is written, we have every right to crush you beneath our mighty hooves.”

The Doppel Beast then raised his leg and struck the ground with such power the resulting tremor knocked Anabelle clear off her feet.

“Ha!” he laughed with contempt. “You humans are as pitiful as the legends account.”

Rising from the snow and dusting herself off, Anabelle could see the sun inching ever closer to the Cold Heart. It would not be long before its rays warmed the ice and produced the precious, first few drops of water she needed for Rowan’s mead.

“I need water from the Cold Heart,” Anabelle demanded.

“Water from the Cold Heart?!” the Doppel Chief responded in amazement. “You are not worthy of the honor.”

“I must insist, it is of grave importance,” Anabelle pleaded.

“The Cold Heart does not bleed for the weak. Only the strongest are allowed to gather its essence.”

“I have scaled the cliffs of your Northern Mountain, braved the blinding blizzards, and even broken the grip of your Frozen Cave. Have I not proven my strength?” the Willow Princess questioned with defiance.

The Doppel Chief guffawed heartily.

“Those are but petty feats. The Doppel Tribe lives well among your perceived hardships. No, to prove your true strength, you must prove mightier than the Doppels themselves.”

The Chief’s grip tightened around his club, cracking his knuckles with foreboding intent. The message was not subtle, and Anabelle knew she was being goaded into a fight. She reached down and gripped her sword, slowly drawing it from the scarab. But, before it was fully unsheathed, she recalled the words of her father. Once the blade was drawn, an enemy would most certainly be born. There had to be another way to best the beast in a trial of strength. She slid the sword back into her belt, much to the surprise of the Doppel Chief.

“There,” Anabelle pointed to the rock staircase beneath the Cold Heart. “See those two gigantic boulders on either side?”

The Chief and his tribesmen looked toward the enormous hunks of stone. Each one was as large as a Doppel and almost twice as wide.

“If a test of strength is your demand,” Anabelle continued, “then I challenge you to move one of those boulders across this valley quicker than I can.”

The Doppel Chief and his tribe burst into laughter.

“For you to budge either of those boulders but an inch would be an amazement,” The Chief chuckled, “let alone move it across this entire expanse faster than me.”

“Then, you should have little worry,” Anabelle retorted.

The Chief grinned, “And when I do drop my boulder on the other side before you, you will not struggle as I hoist you high above my head, tear your arms and legs from your body, and throw your dying remains from the cliffs, as is my treaty right.”

While the result of losing was graphic indeed, Anabelle knew she had no other option. She had heard tales of the Doppels’ strength and brutality in battle, many stories telling of their ability to overcome whole squads of armored men with a single warrior. She could not possibly best the Chief in combat.

“As is your right,” Anabelle replied in agreement.

While the majority of the tribe remained at the finish line, Anabelle, the Chief, and one of his warriors walked towards the start. Standing before the boulders, the Willow Princess had the realization that she may have bitten off more than she could chew. The stones were even larger and more imposing up close.

With supreme confidence, the Chief took his position behind one of the stones.

“I’ll leave you the smaller one,” he stated with a mocking tone.

Anabelle moved to the other stone, glancing back over her shoulder at the Cold Heart. She was at the very base of the staircase, mere yards from her goal when the white mass of the Doppel Chief’s warrior moved to block her view.

“I would not want you to take advantage of my inevitable distance, and run to the Heart in hopes of stealing its blood,” the Chief declared prudently, having thought it may have been Anabelle’s strategy all along.

The warrior scowled at the tiny woman.

“On your mark then, Doppel Chief,” Anabelle offered.

The beast bent down and wrapped his colossal arms around the boulder, nearly spanning the circumference. Anabelle did the same, barely able to cover a quarter the distance.

“Begin!” he shouted, releasing the stone from its frozen rest and immediately carrying it off at a furious pace.

Anabelle knew she had to act fast. She quickly moved to the front of the rock and unlatched her shield from her back. With great haste, she began to dig into the snow at the base of the boulder. As she angled her thrusts she dislodged more and more snow creating an uneven slope beneath it. Then, with a final and forceful shove, she wedged the polished steel shield into the newly dug crevice.

Rushing back to the other side of the stone, she thrust her entire weight into the mass. With the sloping cut she had just produced, her force was enough to move the boulder ever so subtly, and that motion turned into momentum as the rock wobbled downward onto the shield wedged underneath.

Now carefully positioned on the makeshift sled, Anabelle could move the boulder with far less effort, allowing it to slip across the frozen plain with every shove.

The Doppel Chief was far ahead at this point, but his rate had slowed. Anabelle, refusing to be beat, used all her brawn with every push, and as she did, the boulder slid gracefully across the valley. Upon seeing this, the Chief’s tribesmen howled with urgency.

While the sled was working, fatigue was still a factor. Anabelle could feel the burn as her legs trudged through the snow. Her arms and back were growing weak, each push taking a greater toll on her than the last. The Doppel Chief was also wearing out. He had stopped carrying the boulder and was now forced to roll it across the field. Only yards from the finish line, Anabelle had caught up to the Chief and the pair locked eyes, daring one another to match each advance.

With an angry roar, the Chief shoved the stone end over end. Anabelle answered with a courageous shout of her own, driving her boulder ever closer to the finish. The Chief, sensing the end, threw all his might into a final push, but he was spent, and instead collapsed into the drifts. Anabelle summoned all she had left, and with one final burst, willed the stone over the line, winning the race and her right to the Cold Heart’s pristine waters.

Laying exhausted next to one another in the snow, Anabelle and the Chief drew in heavy breaths. The trial had taken everything out of them. Between the gasps, the Chief reached out and gripped Anabelle forcibly by the arm. Fear immediately overcame her, but it was not to play out as he forewarned. The Doppel Chief raised her arm in triumph, signaling her dominance and his submission.

“Get this human to the Cold Heart,” he ordered.

One of his warriors scooped up Anabelle’s weary frame and began to run to the Heart. The sun was just breaking past the shadow of the Hands of Gaia. In seconds, it would flood the meteor in a wash of warming, yellow light.

The warrior’s goat-like physiology had evolved to make quick work of the snow and uneven rock. It took him no time to reach the stone staircase leading to the Heart. There he set Anabelle down. As was tradition, the final climb could only be done by the singular sole deemed worthy that day. The Doppels feared that sending more than one up to the Cold Heart would appear greedy in the eyes of the Mountain.

Despite her debility, the Willow Princess began to move up the frozen stairs. Foot by foot she pulled, at first stumbling, then crawling, and finally dragging herself to a spot just below the Heart. In the full radiance of the new sun, the Heart had already begun to sweat. Beads of condensation gathered into pools, and Anabelle marveled at the beauty of hundreds of tiny, shimmering rivers forming on the icy crystal’s surface.

They twisted and turned down the slick sides, gathering to a single point at the bottom of the sharp Heart. There, the first drop fell…and Anabelle caught it in her flask. Several more drops followed as the stream gathered speed, quickly filling the vessel. After sealing the flask securely, Anabelle slid beneath the miniature waterfall, taking in the most quenching liquid she had ever tasted. By the time her mouth was full, the sun had passed and the flow had reduced to but a drip. With a gulp, her fervor was instantly restored. The invigorating essence of the Cold Heart’s blood was without question.

After securing the first ingredient to her belt, Anabelle descended, with strength and confidence in her stride. Passing back through the valley, the Doppels had gathered on either side, nodding their heads in a show of respect. At the end of the line stood the Chief.

“Blessings on your journey. You are truly a wily human,” he said, pointing to the princess’ now battered and broken shield crushed beneath the enormous stone. “If we meet again, be certain I shall not underestimate your determination.” He then directed her to a pass which provided a much easier pathway down the mountain.

Before departing, Anabelle stood at the edge of the precipice and looked across the land stretched out below. Off in the distance, she could see the Western Desert calling her, a thin stretch of auburn nothingness, threatening her from afar with its hostile, barren landscape. But, just at the Doppel Chief had said, nothing should underestimate her fiery, love-born determination, not even the vast wasteland of the Western Desert.

She still had two ingredients left to obtain, and though this day had begun with triumph, she knew Rowan would not see another unless she was successful in both the Western Desert and Southern Jungle.

Empowered by her morning success and energized by the blood of the Cold Heart, Anabelle confidently began her descent.

 

 

===========

 

 

 

The Dragon’s Breath

From the mountaintop, the princess had taken careful note of the terrain, laying out her path to the desert. Sigmund obeyed her every command as they crested rolling hills on the outskirts of Markim’s Forest and then cut hard through the tall grasses of the Trocken Plains.

Sigmund’s hoof prints stamped down tall wet stalks of valley weed. A bit further in they crushed pale yellow reeds. By the time Anabelle and her steed reached the far end of the lowland, stiff, brown straw cracked beneath their path. Then, there was nothing, only a vast sea of orange sand as far as the eye could see.

The sun was arching towards its apex and the desert was warming fast. Sigmund reared up as his hooves sunk into the sand. The sudden swell in temperature below his steps had taken him by surprise. Anabelle calmed her steed, dismounted, and drew him back to the desert’s edge.

Removing a gauntlet, she stepped into the sands and scooped up a handful. Within seconds of holding it, she was forced to dump the entire clutch due to the heat. Anabelle knew Sigmund would push through if she demanded it, but if the sands got any hotter, which she was certain they would, his hooves and ankles would surely be damaged. Not only would it be cruel, but it would definitely render Sigmund lame and unable to continue the journey afterward.

So, snatching a thick blanket and hefty length of rope from a saddle bag, she cut the materials needed to bound his legs in protective outer socks. After fastening the leggings securely, Anabelle mounted and directed Sigmund back into the desert. This time the horse trod through without hesitation.

For hours, they tore over a virtually unchanging landscape. Save a few undulating dunes and an occasional stone jutting out from the ground, the wasteland proved to live up to its moniker. She could see why these harsh conditions proved such a benefit to the Fang. Sheltered in the center of the desert, any invading force would have to first endure the energy-sapping trek, before arriving weak at the walls of the Fang settlement.

Dripping with sweat the Willow Princess could feel the draining forces of the sun’s rays bearing down on her. Sigmund had also slowed. A break was needed, but to do so in the open would prove fatal.

Prior to the Grave War, the desert did harbor sparse oases, but many had been poisoned through vengeful plotting, left as thickening mud that had dried up due to spite. Gazing through the haze in front of her, Anabelle spotted a rocky ledge. While not as prized as a water source, it did offer shade. The princess directed Sigmund towards it.

As they approached, the outcrop came into greater focus. The recess beneath was deep and dark, three times the height of Sigmund and offering a substantially cooler temperature than outside of its confines. Nestling into the darkness, Anabelle and Sigmund felt instant relief from the scorching sun.

The young woman jumped down from her horse and examined the surroundings. What appeared at first to be but a shady retreat proved instead to be a much larger cavern. A row of large stalagmites rimmed the entrance and a matching line of stalactites hung high above. Unlike the glistening, transparent forms in the Frozen Cave, these growths were opaque, solid stone. This was indeed a welcomed discovery, for the presence of these rock forms meant that water could be nearby.

 

 

 

 

Anabelle walked deeper into the cave with her ear turned upward.

Drip…drip…drip.

She could definitely hear water, and a few more feet back, just at the extent of the light, she spotted a small shimmering puddle. The calm shallow rippled with tiny concentric circles as another drop struck its surface from the darkness above. Kneeling down, Anabelle cupped a handful and quenched her thirst. She then whistled for Sigmund.

She could hear the low percussion of his clothed hooves slowly approaching, but in the quite echo the dripping sound had ceased. Anabelle waited by the pool’s edge for another drop to strike, but it did not. What was odd though was that the water continued to reverberate without the droplets. This time its surface shook with hundreds of tiny ripples across the whole face. At first, Anabelle thought it was Sigmund’s approach, but when the horse stopped and drank, the reverberation did not cease. It became even stronger than before. Suddenly, she could feel her feet moving out from beneath her.

Sigmund bayed and kicked, a clear sign of his unease, and Anabelle immediately vaulted into his saddle with the swiftness of a cat. She turned his reins toward the cave opening and struck hard, signaling the stallion to drive ahead.

What was previously a vast cavern entrance was closing fast, falling smaller with each passing second. The tremors were thunderous now and Sigmund struggled to keep his footing. Another frantic strike from Anabelle kept him on task. By the time the fleeing pair reached the edge of the chamber, their exit was but a sliver of dying light.

Anabelle was uncertain they would fit through, but Sigmund did not halt. With a mighty leap, the steed pulled its legs in tight, Anabelle gripping his sides and holding herself as flat as possible. She could hear the falling stalactites screech across the armor plate on her back, the gouging accompanied by a shower of glowing sparks.

The final lunge had been well timed, and it catapulted them from the collapsing dark back into the harsh light of day. But, the danger was not over. Just as Sigmund touched down upon the hot sand of the desert, Anabelle could feel his footing giving way. Looking back, the rocky ledge that jutted out from the dunes had shifted. The cave entrance was closed shut, but a cave-in was no longer the horror. The slab continued to rise as more and more of it thrust upward, slowly revealing the humanoid features of a colossal jaw and nose.

As the form rose, the land surrounding it was drawn rapidly into underground cavities creating a gritty, earthen whirlpool which threatened to drag Anabelle and Sigmund to a deep, sandy grave. The princess urged Sigmund further, the falling sands nipping at their feet. He quickly dug into the ground with his muscles pushing like powerful pistons, strong and fast.

Behind her, Anabelle could hear the roaring cacophony of undulating earth and stone. It was a deafening thunder that shook her to the core. Not until she was several yards away, when the sound grew fainter and she could feel Sigmund’s slipping strides growing sturdy and strong, did she slow her horse.

Now, with some separation from the chaos, she looked wide-eyed upon a staggering monstrosity, a colossal stone giant. The creature was gargantuan, capable of blocking out the sun, and almost as tall as the Northern Mountain. As dust rained down from its structure, an ancient pattern of scars and markings revealed themselves to Anabelle. She knew in that instant that she had foolishly sought shelter in the mouth of one of the Titans of Tora.

The Titans of Tora were seven massive giants that were thought to have carved out all of Tora’s terrain. Over the span of eons, they would rise from hundreds of years of slumber and move from one spot to another, in the process creating a desert with their footsteps, digging out lakes with their hands, or smashing their bodies into the land to create a new mountain range. These were not believed to be conscious decisions, just the end result of the Titans moving to a new location of hibernation. The Doppel Tribe worshiped these monsters, believing the Hands of Gaia were but frozen appendages of a titan sleeping beneath the mountain.

Anabelle watched in awe as the creature stretched beneath hot rays. Large chunks of stone fell loose from its arms, striking the land below and sending blooms of sand shooting into the sky like geysers. She could feel the tremors of each impact beneath her. She was certain the creature had no clue she was looking on from afar. Much like she might easily overlook an insect scurrying past her feet, she would have been surprised if the titan even realized they were there.

Turning its gaze to some distant location, the colossus began to walk across the desert. Each step was accompanied by an upheaval of sand and stone. While the Titan moved slowly, every stride covered an amazing distance and before long, it had disappeared beyond the horizon.

Anabelle’s haste in escaping the gaping jaws of the giant had actually served her quite well. Not only had she avoided being a snack, her fleeing path had moved them much farther into the desert, ever closer to the home of the Fang. Spotting the eerie, skeletal form of a large dead tree at the top of a nearby dune, she knew she was not far now.

As the brave lass and her horse passed under the tree’s dappled shade, Anabelle could sense the ominous history of the site. With dozens of wind-worn, tattered ropes hanging lifelessly from its sun-bleached limbs, it was assuredly the infamous Traveler’s Tree. King Altestein had told tales of many brave men who had been caught by the Fang and hung from the tree by their ankles, left to burn in the sun as their flesh rubbed raw from their bodies by violent sandstorms. The Fang used the torture as a warning post to anyone foolish enough to push deeper into their domain.

Anabelle’s father had told her that during the Grave War, there was no fiercer opponent than the Fang. The slithering beasts were man’s greatest adversary and had claimed more lives than any other tribe. Vicious and unyielding, their hatred for man ran as hot as their ancestral home. Once she came into view of the tall, jagged walls of their settlement, the Willow Princess knew it would be best to prepare herself for the inevitable, bloody combat. Unfortunately, the high sun had other ideas.

The heavenly blaze was now burning directly overhead, baking Anabelle in her armor. Sigmund, too, was struggling once again. Against her better judgment, she knew she had to lessen both their loads. Armor would be wise in a fight against a Fang Serpent, for their speed of strike was matched by very few. But, that fight would never occur if she did not reach her destination, and so she reluctantly unlatched her breastplate, dropping it to the sand. Leggings followed, and soon after the tightly woven tunic of chainmail. She instantly felt relief from the lost weight, as did Sigmund, but it came at the cost of the worry associated with losing her protective coverings. Anabelle reassured herself that it was for the best, and the only way they would be able to make it to the Fang settlement.

The tactic soon paid off. Lighter and cooler than before, the pair crossed the desert with greater ease, and soon, they had reached the sharp, pointed walls of the Fang village. The giant spires of stone jutted out of the ground like massive reptilian teeth. Beyond them would lie Fang burrows and buildings, and beyond that, the long fields of Dragon’s Breath blooms.

Anabelle clutched her sword and prepared to address the serpentine sentries she knew would be stationed at the gates. But, as she approached, there was no guard in sight. The giant, metal barricade that she assumed would be closed tight to the outside world, was instead partially ajar. Dismounting from her saddle, Anabelle approached the scene cautiously. The crack in the portcullis was just wide enough to squeeze under, but Sigmund would have to be left on the other side. She patted her friend’s back and then slide under the heavy beams.

Once past the wall, Anabelle’s gaze fell upon a sight she had not envisioned. The settlement looked abandoned. Quiet and desolate, there were no signs of activity. Bones and talismans, which hung from poles at the entrance of each Fang burrow, swayed and knocked in the warm breeze. Their lowly clangs produced an ominous and eerie tone.

Walking carefully through the village, Annabelle could see a grand pyramid at the end of the burrow lanes. An ornately decorated building, the entire exterior was etched with hieroglyphics and patterns. At the front, a wide incline led up to two intricately carved stone dragons standing like staunch guards at their posts. Anabelle saw no other building as prominent as this one and she knew this had to be a place of importance for the Fang. Between the two dragons, an arching doorway stood wide open, and from within its area, Anabelle caught the faintest glint of two yellow, venomous eyes peering out at her.

She halted and struck a strong and confident stance.

“I am Princess Anabelle of the Willow Clan!” she shouted toward the pyramid. “I am in need of your Dragon’s Breath!”

Her declaration was met with silence.

“If I could have but a single flower, I will gladly go in peace,” Anabelle added.

Still, she received no reply.

The Fang were as devious as they were fierce, and the princess worried that she may be walking into a trap. But, with no other option, and gathering sufficient courage in her heart, she ran boldly toward the building.

As she passed swiftly into the hall’s interior, she ducked and rolled, hand on her hilt, in hopes of evading a first blow and positioning herself for an effective counterstrike. The attack never took place, and she soon saw why.

Lining the tiled floor were dozens and dozens of weak and writhing Fangs. Their long, slender bodies showed clear evidence of sickness and starvation as their tails whipped listlessly from side to side. Anabelle had only ever seen drawings of Fangs, broad and powerful, legless torsos, as big as a man, with two sinewy arms ending in clawed hands. Their serpentine structure was topped by a sharp, lizard-like head inherited from their dragon ancestors. In their current state of ill health, the creatures before her bared little resemblance to the ominous pictures in her mind.

A few among them slithered slowly between the aisles of the infirm offering small rations of food and water. Those with enough strength partook of the minimal sustenance, but many lacked even the strength to eat. It was a pathetic sight awash in the scent of death and decay.

“Human,” one of the stronger Fangs weakly hissed from among the sick, “have you come seeking your revenge? You live up to your cowardly lineage, appearing generations later when we are at our weakest!”

The Fang continued to move toward Anabelle, but it lacked the power and agility she had thought to expect. Unlike most of the others, this creature still wore the plated armor of their warrior class—thick, wide plates of etched steel covering its entire back from the base of its head to the end of its tailed body. It also clutched a large, serrated blade in its hand, the cruel weapon of choice for Fang soldiers. Anabelle prepared herself, fearing a sudden strike could be unleashed at any moment.

“You seek to bury use forever in the sands of time?” the Fang warrior continued, inching closer and closer. “Erase us from the annals of Tora’s history?”

Anabelle had no such plan, she just needed a Dragon’s Breath bloom, but the delirious snake was sure she had appeared with vengeance in her heart. The creature coiled up and raised its sword, struggling even manage that small feat. Now but feet away, the Fang lunged at the princess, swinging wildly, missing its target, and collapsing in a failed heap of scales.

Crumpled into a dejected ball and welcoming its fate, the Fang hissed, “Draw your blade. Take your glory, human.”

Anabelle stood silent and still. Her hand had left her sheath and she looked down at the creature with pity. This was hardly the Fang of legend. Something catastrophic had come to pass.

“What happened here?” the princess asked.

“Do not feign concern. Our fate is of no import to you,” the warrior replied.

Anabelle could tell that the serpent, while on the verge of death, still clung to its warrior’s pride.

Time was not on her side, so she stated her concern bluntly, “I need Dragon’s Breath.”

“Dragon’s Breath. Ha. Don’t we all, human. Don’t we all,” replied the Fang warrior choking against laughter.

“What do you mean?”

The warrior rolled onto its belly and raises its weak arm toward a passageway at the far side of the hall. “There, help yourself,” he hissed slyly.

Anabelle looked down the passage. The sun burnt strong at the end of the stretch, with vibrant white light streaming in from outside. Slowly she walked toward the exit. She could hear the warrior dragging itself behind her.

As she stepped from the cooler, shaded interior of the pyramid into the harsh rays of day, her eyes strained to focus. The sting was sharp but brief, and after her sight adjusted, she was greeted by another shocking scene.

The Dragon’s Breath fields were said to have stretched for miles, but all Anabelle saw was a small, single patch of wilted weeds among the orange desert sands. Horror surrounded the pathetic growth. Littered all across the vista were the skeletal remains of Fang warriors, their empty armor tarnished by wind-swept sands. It was more a burial plot than a garden.

“We no longer tend the blooms,” the Fang explained. “The Grizsel Hawk rules the field now.”

The warrior pointed to the other end of the scorched farm. High above the land, nestled in the spires of the village’s far wall, was a huge, thorny nest. A massive, hulking shadow sat in the center, bobbing menacingly up and down.

“At first, it was but a single demon bird, darting from the sky to pick a field hand from the crop. Then, the flock grew. Despite our best efforts at defense, their numbers were overwhelming, their layered feathers like a shell of impenetrable steel. Dive bombing down from the blinding sun, they fed on us at will, and all the while, death poisoned the ground and the Dragon’s Breath was left to spoil. Cut off from our food supply, we grew weaker, and as we grew weaker, we became easier to snatch from the garden. Men, women, and children became but meaty morsels for the Griszels.”

Anabelle shivered at the thought of the brutality. Birds feeding on the snakes, pulling them apart before the eyes of their brethren.

The Fang shielded its gaze while inching further outside.

“The scourge is but one now. As our numbers fell, the hawks had less food, and, eventually, they flew off to feed elsewhere. All, except him. He is the strongest, having fed on our scales the longest. He still sits there upon his nest, with a row of golden feathers atop his head, like a hungry lord waiting to be served his next meal.”

“Was there nothing you could do?” Anabelle questioned.

“We tried using the bow, but they were too swift, their feathers too thick. We tried lining the fields with sharp spears but were unable to complete the task without being torn from the ground by the beasts. Even utilizing the cover of night proved futile. The devils see just as clearly in the shadows. Finally, we set about moving the entire plot to an area not blighted by blood and more easily defended.

“One of our warriors found promising soil protected by a rocky shelf. The fertile ground holds the nutrients needed to propagate the Dragon’s Breath while keeping the Griszels from attacking from above. We were planning on using giant mirrors to reflect sufficient light onto the patch. It could serve well, but, the discovery has come too late. Our lot weak and feeble, no one is agile enough to retrieve a bloom for replanting, and, now, there are only but a half-dozen or so left. We are destined to starve, to wither away, once again joining the sands of our homeland.”

The tragic plight of the Fangs notwithstanding, Anabelle needed a Dragon’s Breath flower. Failure was not an option. Just on the edge of her sight, she made out tiny dots of red and green amongst the faded stalks of yellow and brown. As the Fang had indicated, there were still a handful of blooms in the field, and one of those would be hers.

Anabelle surveyed the setting, shifting her eyes from her current position, to the flowers, up to the monstrous shadow of the Griszel still gyrating in its nest, and all back again. She looked across the field at the countless corpses, many now only specks of white bone consumed by the rising desert sands. She counted off distances in her head.

“Give me your armor, Fang,” she demanded.

The scaled creature stared back at her. “You have no chance, human, that is, unless, the Griszel finds your flesh as repulsive as I do.”

Anabelle did not flinch. She only held her hand out expectantly.

“Very well,” the Fang acquiesced. “At least I’ll have the pleasure of seeing a human torn asunder. Never thought I’d be so blessed.”

As Anabelle placed the Fang’s metal plates on her back, she marveled at their segmented build and flexibility. The Fang clearly favored maneuverability over more solid protection, and the princess hoped that benefit would offset the drawback.

From her position, there was no way of telling if the Griszel Hawk was looking her way, but she could no longer delay. Anabelle quickly descended the stone incline that led down to the field. She then took off in a full sprint to the nearest set of Fang armor in the sand. Once there, she laid down, covering it with her own encased frame. After waiting a moment to see if the hawk had stirred, she gathered her heels under her and sprinted to the next set of remains, again halting to see if the bird gave an indication that it had detected her.

Do her best to blend in from corpse to corpse, across the span Anabelle moved with cautious intent. Before long, she had reached the flowers. The handful of blooms were fragile but still fresh. She began to dig one free, carefully scooping out the sand below the roots. She needed to be delicate so as not to break the stem or shake the flower too violently causing it to loose its potent dust. As the Willow Princess worked, she looked towards the nest for any indication the bird was going to take flight.

She was close enough to see it in detail. It was preening itself. Its sharp, hooked beak dug into layers of thick, black feathers, each one as long as Anabelle’s leg. She could see the gloss of its mighty talons, the thick muscles of its thighs at it strutted about, and the golden plume upon its head, shining in the sun. Then, she caught a glimpse of its gleaming yellow eyes…staring directly at her.

With a shriek of rage that pierced Anabelle’s very soul, the bird stretched out its wings, a length twice as wide as Sigmund is long. No, the princess thought to herself. I’m not finished. She quickened her pace, desperately trying to preserve a bloom with sufficient dust, but more and more sparkling, ruby particles fell from the petals, mixing into the desert sand.

A thunderous wing clap cut through the air. The raptor had taken flight. Anabelle winced as she quickly yanked her treasure from the soil. Turning with fevered haste, she began to run back to the stone pyramid. There was no need to carefully wind her way back. She had been spotted and it was nothing more than a footrace now.

Halfway back, Anabelle could hear the powerful wing beats of the Griszel dissipate as it rose ever higher. The Fang warrior had told her that the hawks would dive out of the sun to seize their prey, and she knew that final descent would be swift and silent. As the beats fell quiet, Anabelle prepared herself.

The Willow Princess dropped to her belly, pushing into the desert and drawing her arms and legs in tight beneath the long, tailed Fang armor on her back. Then, she felt it. A powerful, crushing thrust, driving her further into the ground and filling her mouth and nostrils with sand. She heard the slicing sound of talons cutting through steel and felt a massive gust of wing-propelled wind swirl around her. As the beast began to lift, Anabelle unlatched.

Just as a snake sheds its skin, the princess shed her scaled armor, and the Griszel Hawk took flight with its meatless prey firmly in its grasp. Anabelle emerged from the auburn grains and began to run again. She wasn’t sure if or when the bird would realize it had not snatched its full quarry, but now, without plated protection, she was even more vulnerable.

Sand kicked up forcefully with every stride. Anabelle was now only a few yards from the pyramid. She could not hear the hawk’s flapping. Maybe the creature had made it all the way back to its nest and was fruitlessly pecking away at the Fang armor. Unfortunately, in that moment, the princess realized that was not the case. A shadow was moving overhead. It grew and contracted, grew greater still, and contracted once more. The wing beats had returned, and they, too, gained intensity.

She was so close now, only feet from the incline leading to the safety of the pyramid’s tiled halls. She could tell the Griszel was near, her fear compounded by the bird’s piercing, diabolical shriek. Racing up the incline, Anabelle closed her eyes and prayed.

Suddenly, the shriek grew frantic and frustrated. The Willow Princess re-opened her eyes to a surprising sight. The Fang warrior that had shown her the way to the garden was lashing out with his serrated blade, doing all he could to dissuade the bird’s advance.

 

 

 

 

While the hawk was halted, it was not deterred, and it violently pulled the sword from the weakened warrior’s hand. Harnessing its power to gain momentum for another strike, the Griszel dropped the weapon into the sand and then shot back toward the defenseless Fang. Anabelle leapt, and in one, bold motion tackled the warrior and propelled them both into the shaded interior of the pyramid.

Within the narrow confines of the hallway, the pair watched the shadow of the enraged predator shake violently as it continued to shriek with anger. Its huge build made it impossible for the hawk to enter and pursue its prey and that frustration compelled a tantrum. But, it was not long before it disappeared, dejected and still hungry. Anabelle and the Fang warrior looked at one another in astonishment. They could not believe they had survived the encounter.

“Did you get it?” the Fang asked.

Anabelle reached into her satchel and pulled out a magnificent Dragon’s Breath bloom. Even in the darkened hall, it’s ruby dust glowed brightly. The Fang smiled in admiration. But, the princess was not through. Delving back into her bag, she pulled out two more specimens, each as beautiful as the first.

“Start your new garden,” she said, handing the Fang the two flowers.

The reptile marveled at her generosity. Anabelle had delivered hope to his people. With any luck, they would propagate their crop in a new field, feed their people, and rebuild their ranks. This was not the act of a feeble human. This was the act of a benevolent hero.

“Thank you,” the warrior replied, bowing his head in gratitude.

Gathering herself, Anabelle rose to her feet and turned to walk away but a unique set of hieroglyphics etched into the wall caught her attention. She paused and gazed at the familiar-looking drawings arranged in a geometric diagram.

An angular, heart-shaped stone dripping a single drop of liquid was joined by a line to a flower with petals ablaze. From there another line moved to a circle encased by a pattern of hexagons, and from that, an extension directed toward a giant horn set upon an altar. These four elements sat at the four corners of a square and each radiated with a singular line to the center ending at an object Anabelle could not decipher. Its form had been eroded away.

“Yes, the recipe for Heaven’s Mead,” the Fang assured. “It is why you sought the Dragon’s Breath, isn’t it?”

The princess nodded.

“I have the Cold Heart’s Blood, and now the bloom,” she stated. “I will get the Golden Nectar next.”

The Fang smiled. “But do you know the answer to the riddle of the Bree? Uttering the correct response is the only way they will let you take the Golden Nectar from their Moon Chamber. Only a fool would try to by force. Their warriors are mighty, and many, and myth says they possess powers unlike any other race.”

With his long, sharp claw, the warrior pointed to the symbol at the center of the diagram.

“There is a fifth element in the recipe, one that binds the suspension. An element lost in the age of war. Only the Bree held on to its secret. Without this element, the Heaven’s Mead is but a swill. They will ask you what this element is.”

Anabelle gazed at the shallow chisel of the ambiguous shape under the Fang’s claw. She had no idea what it could be and was further burdened by the knowledge her list had unexpectedly expanded by one item. Whatever the case, it could not be helped. Just as with all the challenges she had faced, and overcome, that trial would be tackled in due time.

“I wish I could offer you more information, human, but I cannot. The riddle, and the answer, have fallen silent over these hard years.”

The Fang slithered closer to the princess and extended his hand. The princess did not leave the gesture unanswered as both joined in the mutual show of respect. No more words were exchanged. Anabelle hurriedly left the Fang’s presence and exited the great pyramid.

The sun was now drawing down, and as she made her way back through the settlement’s main gate, the young woman gazed to the south. Beyond her sight, miles away, stood the dense, tangled trees of a tropical jungle, and within those thorny growths, the hive of the Bree. She had to be there when the moon hung high and full. Only in that moment could the Golden Nectar trap its celestial essence.

To cover the distance in time, Sigmund would be hard pressed once more. As she mounted, she gave the horse a loving pat on its head and he returned a relieved greeting of joy. With a sharp snap of the reins, they embarked, the dark Southern Jungle their next waypoint.

 

 

===========

 

 

 

The Call of the Underworld

A vast sea of sand still laid before her, but the optimistic princess knew that the Fang village had marked the midpoint. The sun had also passed its apex, bringing with it growing shade. If Sigmund and she could stay the course, they would soon find themselves rid of the wasteland and surrounded by the streams of the jungle.

The ride was arduous as the day’s trials had weighed on them both, but Anabelle urged her steed to keep up a steady pace. She had a keen sense of Sigmund’s limits, and when she felt the need arise, the pair would halt for a brief moment in the dark cast of a boulder. Drawing strength again, another span was crossed, and another, until, just on the edge of sight, a jagged line of green rose up from the ground.

Anabelle could see it, the Southern Jungle, emerging from the barren terrain in a wall of woven vegetation. Just a few more miles now. She snapped the reins and gave Sigmund firm encouragement. The stallion answered her with a quickened stride.

Suddenly, she felt a crushing pain in her shoulders. With a disorienting yank, the Willow Princess was torn from her saddle. By the time she realized what was happening, she was soaring a hundred feet off the ground.

A demonic shriek of retribution rang in Anabelle’s ears, and looking up, she could see the golden crown of feathers upon the Griszel Hawk’s head. After failing to capture a meal for such a long stretch, the bird must have finally given up its hunting grounds at the Fang farmlands. Unfortunately for Anabelle, it was given another chance to catch its prey.

Speeding above the dunes, the Griszel moved at a fantastic rate causing the wind to thrust forcefully across the princess’ body. Her legs flailed beneath her as Anabelle desperately tried to regain composure. She could feel the razor-sharp talons of the hawk burrowing into her shoulders. The pain was searing, but would pale in comparison to being eviscerated once the creature found a suitable spot to land. If she was going to escape its grasp, she had to act.

The Fang warrior had mentioned the raptor’s armor-like mat of black feathers, but every suit has its weak points, usually at the joints. Drawing her sword, she gazed up at the hawk’s massive wing. As it rose, the feathers underneath splayed out much thinner between the wing and the torso.

The Griszel snapped its span down, then up, down, then up, down then…Anabelle struck hard and true. Her blade found the mark, piercing the wing clean through to the other side. The creature screeched in anguish and released its hold, sending the princess hurtling to the desert below.

While she was free from the hawk’s talons, Anabelle was not free from the grip of gravity. Falling through the sky, she braced for impact. It inevitably arrived in an explosion of sand as her body struck a dune and immediately tumbled end-over-end down an embankment before eventually coming to a stop beneath a rocky ledge.

The soft sand pile she initially struck, combined with the angle, had saved Anabelle from serious injury. Her body was sore, her shoulders throbbed, but she was alive and conscious. While she imagined the Griszel Hawk would struggle to fly with her sword lodged in its wing, let alone mount a third assault, the Willow Princess laid under cover for a bit, surveying the scene for passing shadows and listening intently for the shrieks and wing beats of the hellish bird.

When she was fairly confident the hawk had moved on, she emerged, scanned the sky for any sign of it, and then sighed heavily in relief. The attack and subsequent fall had taken a lot out of Anabelle, but what vexed her, even more, was that she had lost her bearings. While the sun gave her a sense of what direction to head, she had no idea of the distance and could no longer see the cusp of the jungle. She was effectively lost among the hot hills of sand, now forced to walk alone for she knew not how long. Realizing her options were as scarce as water, Anabelle hedged her bets and began to hike south.

The afternoon rays poured down on the princess. They were heavy and sharp, and she could feel her exposed skin sting and redden. The bloody wounds on her shoulders had dried and bound with her torn tunic, creating an uncomfortable dressing that pulled against the exposed nerves with each step.

As Anabelle trudged across the finely ground earth, she thought of Rowan. She recalled the many times they laughed, the many times they embraced. She thought of the kisses, the small pecks of affection and the lingering locks of passion. Those sweet moments of memory were to be but the forward, an initial passage in their book of life. She counted on many more, but that future lied on the brink of decay. Her fond recollections suddenly turned dark and doubtful, so, to protect her heart, she banished the thoughts.

In their absence, her body cried out as an insatiable thirst crept in. The heat of the cursed plains was sapping her strength. Anabelle knew that if she did not find water soon, she would be overcome by dehydration.

The Willow Princess examined every stone she passed in hopes a puddle lived in its shade. She broke every sparse and hollow plant stalk seeking even a single drop of relief. There was none to be found, and with every step, her desperation mounted. Then, in the low roll between two nearby dunes, she saw a glistening blue. It was a sparkling pool, about eight feet in diameter and covered in tiny wind-born ripples. Anabelle raced to partake of the life-giving source.

Just as she reached the edge, the surface of the water contracted, pulling itself toward the center. At the same time, a column of shimmering azure rose from the middle. Anabelle fell back in shock and dismay. The water was cloth, the ripples the many folds of a brilliant robe that hung like a shroud upon the frame of an unknown being. What once appeared as a pool on the desert floor was actually the laying body of a man wrapped in cobalt, a man now standing before her tall and lean.

From within the dark recess of the robe’s hood, a voice quietly whispered, “What do you seek, traveler?”

The voice was low and rough, like the grinding of stone in a mill. Anabelle shifted her posture to try and get a view of the speaker, but his hood cast his whole face in shadow.

“Water,” the princess replied.

“This way,” the stranger stated as he began to walk away from her.

With thirst being of utmost concern, Anabelle did not hesitate to follow. The man moved swiftly across the sand, and the Willow Princess did her best to keep up.

“Where are we going?” she called to him.

“Over the next dune,” was his reply, with words that seemed to drift off into the air.

Anabelle looked up ahead. With a consistent wash of red-brown before her, it was often difficult to judge the undulations of the terrain. While she saw no obvious rise or fall, she wouldn’t be surprised to stumble upon such a shift in only a few yards. She quickened her step in hopes the oasis was close by.

“While it’s water that you seek, you would not be wandering the desert without purpose,” the robed stranger prodded, directing his words toward his trailing companion.

“I sought the Dragon’s Breath,” Anabelle replied.

“Ahh, the Dragon’s Breath, such a potent flower. But, you cannot consume such a plant. Only the Fang have the stomach for it. Why did you risk the journey?”

“My husband, he lies on the brink of death,” stated the princess. “The Dragon’s Breath will be used in a healing potion.”

“Death? What ails him?”

The stranger’s voice was growing fainter as the distance between them steadily increased.

“Jorza’s Curse is believed to be the affliction,” Anabelle stated between heavy breaths.

She was quickly growing tired in an attempt to follow the swift-footed figure. Suddenly, she dropped to one knee in the sand, her energy all but spent.

Looking back for a moment, she noticed the winding trail of footprints she left in her wake. But, the markings were a singular path. She did not see the tracks of her escort. She turned back to her guide, but the blue-robed man was nowhere in sight.

“Wait!” Anabelle cried out between cracked lips.

Silence was returned.

“Wait!” she shouted again, falling to all fours.

Suddenly the stranger’s voice whispered in her ear.

“Jorza’s Curse? I do not believe that is the case.”

Anabelle stumbled back in surprise. The man reappeared out of thin air, right next to her, leaning in close. His breath on her face was cold and haunting.

“If it was my touch, he would not be on the brink. Your husband would have been cast into oblivion the second I grazed his skin.”

Anabelle froze with fear.

The man then raised his arm, and from beneath his loose sleeve, a withered, white hand slowly appeared. Covered in a thin layer of skin, it was skeletal and abnormally elongated with fingers tipped by discolored nails as sharp as razors. He then extended a single finger towards her, moving it slowly, menacingly closer.

The Willow Princess, consumed by exhaustion and horror, could do little else but hold her ground. The stranger’s touch now hovered just inches from her forehead.

“Jorza’s Curse! My curse! I find it amusing that your legends refer to me in relation to that pathetic soul. I proved, with unquestionable and uncontainable wrath, that I would not be a servant to the pathetic musings of a neophyte. He could not quell me. Hell, an entire guild of mages was unable to banish me completely. You humans suffer such delusions.”

Anabelle felt her mind failing. Was it the demon’s words or dehydration? Maybe both? In either case, she struggled to stay in the present.

The demon lowered his finger and grabbed hold of the flask of water affixed to Anabelle’s belt.

“If it was water you so desperately wanted, why not drink from your flask?” he asked coyly while playfully tapping the vessel with his nails.

Anabelle, now struggling to even utter words aloud, responded, “That is not my water. That is my husband’s, the Blood of the Mountain’s Cold Heart.”

The demon laughed.

“A lot of good it will do him latched to your dried-out corpse. Why not drink? Go ahead. A sip won’t hurt.” The demon lifted the container, directing Anabelle to partake.

Anabelle took the flask and uncorked it. Slowly she brought the rim to her lips.

The demon smiled.

“Yes, that’s it. Drink. Regain your strength.”

The princess began to tile the flask…but stopped just short of letting the water roll onto her tongue.

“No,” she whispered. “I will not drink.” She drove the cork back into the vessel.

The demon smiled again.

“So be it. You will see your husband soon enough, welcoming him into the abyss yourself.”

“Why? Why have you done this?” Anabelle asked, her eyes swelling.

“While my touch brings the chilling embrace of death, there’s more than one way to send souls to my master. Sometimes, it’s just more fun to lead them astray.”

With that, the demon vanished into the wind.

Anabelle laid on the ground. She felt her breath grow shallow as the vibrant sunlight began to gray and dim. Her eyes closed, consuming her in darkness. She heard the swirling sands, felt their rough grains batter her skin, and then…nothing.

Anabelle existed in this state for an immeasurable amount of time, but eventually, she woke to find herself on an alien plain. There was an uneasy lightness to her step, as if she was no longer bound by gravity despite her feet resting on dark, stone-lined terrain. She was surrounded by a black fog and unable to see but a few yards in any direction. It was as if she existed in the heart of an ominous storm, knowing innately that should she misstep, she would be dragged into the great, bleak beyond.

Standing in the nothingness, she could see dark shadows moving on the periphery. She walked towards them, and as she grew nearer, figures of people appeared. All of them were traveling on the same stone road she was on, all walking in the same direction, and all moving in silence.

“Where are we?” Anabelle asked, running up behind the nearest traveler.

The woman did not respond. She just kept lumbering along.

Anabelle walked around to speak to her face-to-face. What she saw was nightmare. The woman’s chest cavity was split open. Exposed organs beat and pumped to the rhythm of her labored breathing. Blood oozed from the massive wound, but despite the trauma, the woman just stared off into the darkness, continually marching down the stone road.

The princess caught sight of another figure on the ground up ahead. She ran to him in hopes he would have answers concerning their whereabouts. It appeared as if he was crawling, but when he came into full focus, it was clear he was dragging his own legless torso across the ground. His entrails dragged like dead serpents, trailing behind him.

Quickly scanning the scene, Anabelle realized that every person on the trail was in the throes of suffering. A mother wept as she walked, her skin an icy glaze, clutching a small child in her arms who appeared frozen and lifeless. An elderly man, his malnourished frame struggling to stay upright, tore as his abdomen in shear agony.

It was a road of the wretched and all were traveling the same path to some unknown end.

Anabelle had moved further along, too. Not a single soul had uttered a word indicating they were aware of anything but their own suffering, and so she continued on in vain, seeking an explanation she began to think she may never hear. That’s when she saw him.

Walking slowly, with head bowed low, it was Rowan! She ran up behind her husband and hugged him tightly. He did not respond. His large frame just dragged Anabelle along the path.

“Rowan!” she shouted. “My love!”

Anabelle looked into his eyes. Sunken and circled by darkness, they were dim and without the spark of life she was used to seeing. His flesh was pale as well. It lacked the vitality and warmth her husband had always possessed.

“Rowan, please stop,” Anabelle pleaded, desperately trying to gain his attention.

He turned and looked at her, but his face registered no recollection.

With tears in her eyes, the Willow Princess extended her hands, trying to halt her husband’s advance. That’s when she noticed her own skin. Her arms and hands were red and blistered. Patches of dried skin cracked and peeled before falling from her body like autumn leaves.

Anabelle pounded on Rowan’s chest.

“No!” she wailed. “Stop, Rowan! Stop!”

Suddenly, her husband grabbed hold of her arms. With force, he shoved them aside.

In a faint and failing voice, he uttered, “Go.”

He knew she was there. He responded. Anabelle’s heart lifted. But, Rowan persisted, shoving her again.

“Go,” he said again, this time with more conviction.

“I will not leave you!” the princess shouted back.

“GOOOO!” Rowan bellowed with great rage, shoving her to the ground.

Anabelle fell hard, striking her head in the process. As she laid there with her eyes clenched closed in pain, she felt continued shoving. Each nudged was more powerful than the last, until, finally, she opened her eyes once more.

Accompanied by a mighty huff of sand, Sigmund’s snout struck her forehead. He repeated the prodding a few more times until Anabelle reached out and touched his nose. The horse moved to her side allowing the dangling, leather reins to brush her hands.

Once again finding herself in the Western Desert, Anabelle was far from well, but survival instincts kicked in. With every last ounce of energy, she pulled herself into the saddle. Wrapping her hands in the straps, she collapsed on her steed’s back. Sigmund needed no instruction. He carried her off, running as fast as he could.

 

 

===========

 

 

 

The Prince of Corts

The sound of gently rolling water roused the princess to consciousness. She urged herself off her mount and fell like a stone to the soft ground below. It was cool, moist, and refreshing on her burnt skin. Feeling a bit further, Anabelle’s fingertips broke the transparent surface of a calm pool. She pulled herself closer and consumed, wetting her parched lips and quenching her biting thirst.

Sigmund had already gotten his fill and stood by on diligent guard overseeing his master. As Anabelle drank, she could feel her senses returning. The pool was clear and crisp, fed by a small waterfall that churned and bubbled with a calming serenity. Night had come, but the water was illuminated by the stars above. It shimmered like a million fireflies dancing in the dark.

Gazing to the heavens, she searched for a pattern she recalled from her studies. Ancient texts indicated that the Celestial Hive would be found in the center of a constellation of stars known as Musca. A small constellation of the South, it was commonly referred to as the Bee or Fly. With the stars shining bright and many, it took some discerning, but it wasn’t long before she spotted the sequence that would guide her to the Golden Nectar. While the sky appeared as hundreds of pinholes pushed through black velvet, the moon was yet to rise.

Anabelle waded deeper into the water and submerged herself fully to wash away the rough desert sand and grime. When she rose, she noticed the twisting trees and winding vines of the surrounding Southern Jungle. The entwined vegetation created a tightly woven, organic labyrinth lit by pockets of luminescent plants. Their auras created an alien landscape of glowing colors juxtaposed by oddly shaped shadows.

Due to the dense growth, it was difficult to traverse the terrain on horseback. So, taking Sigmund by his lead, Anabelle began to guide him on foot through the jungle. Every step was a choice—a matter of jumping a stump, ducking a branch, navigating slippery stone or thick mud. This made for a tedious advance, but the pair moved on undeterred.

Not only was the footing an ever-changing obstacle, but Anabelle kept an ear to the air. The jungle was alive with sounds, especially at night. Anyone could be the harbinger of danger. While it had been decades since man passed through this land, tales of the grotesque beasts and mutated minions of the jungle lived on in legends. The shadows provided ample cover for a stalking creature on the hunt for an evening meal.

As the Willow Princess cut between two huge trees, she spotted an odd sight bathed in the red light of a large, glowing mushroom. Sitting upright and oddly stiff on top of the fungi’s cap, was a small humanoid figure with green skin covered by random tufts of black hair. It was about two-feet tall and had its hands resting on its knees as its legs swung playfully over the mushroom edge. It was also staring creepily, and unblinking at Anabelle.

The creature’s clear obsidian eyes glistened in the red aura like two polished stones. They were set over a parted smile as wide as the imp’s face with rows of sharp, clenched teeth catching the glint of the ebbing light.

Anabelle stopped in her tracks. Despite its diminutive size, the creature’s eerie posture gave the princess pause. Her hesitation caused the imp to jump to his feet, still atop the mushroom. Its stare and smile did not fade, only joined by a frantic wave of hello causing its faintly red, straw-woven clothes to sway to-and-fro.

 

 

 

 

“Ello!” it shouted.

The Willow Princess, unsure of the being’s nature, smiled back out of courtesy.

“Ya’ looking for something?” it asked in a high-pitched voice similar to that of a child.

Anabelle knew that the Bree Hive was in the deepest part of the Southern Jungle and that certain markers passed down in her studies would lead the way, but the exact path was unknown. If this creature gave her some idea, it would be a great benefit.

Taking a few steps closer, the princess said, “I’m seeking the Celestial Hive.”

“Ahhhh,” the imp replied, “da Brees. I know where to go.”

The little elf then directed Anabelle to follow him as he hopped down from the mushroom and moved towards a small trail leading beneath a patch of lacing stalks.

“Fast path over this way, but too narrow for da horse.”

Anabelle petted Sigmund on the neck and then lashed his reins to a tree.

“I’ll be back,” she said to him lovingly, before running to catch up to the creature.

The imp had scurried into a small, dark tunnel crafted out of supple vines. Anabelle could make out his tiny frame further down the dark path. Apparently, the creature was adept at navigating in the low light, but Anabelle wasn’t as fortunate. She grabbed a glowing mushroom from a nearby stump and used it as a lantern, crouching down low to fit into the tunnel.

“On other side of tunnel, da path opens up,” the imp shouted back encouragingly.

That was welcomed news to Anabelle because navigating the cramped, organic passage in a hunched over position was not comfortable in the least. It was slow going, and in a matter of seconds, she could no longer see her small guide. He had traveled much farther into the darkness, but the princess could still hear his movements.

Suddenly, the soft pitter-patter of his feet was drowned out by the distraught cries of Sigmund. He was wailing and bellowing in distress, causing Anabelle’s heart to race. Unable to turn around in the confined space, she was forced to back out of the tunnel as swiftly as she could.

With every passing second, Sigmund’s cries became more remote and muffled. By the time Anabelle emerged from the tunnel and returned to the scene, she only caught a fleeting glimpse of the waning chaos.

Six imps stood in the clearing where Sigmund was fastened, but the horse was not there. Just beyond the edge of the grove, Anabelle could see evidence of a struggle. Hoof prints were encircled by dozens of tiny footprints leading to a path of downed foliage where, apparently, something large had been dragged off.

Yelling in anger, she charged the pack of imps. The creatures shrieked and quickly scurried off into the shadows before the princess could catch any of them. Anabelle then immediately turned and followed the trail of crushed brush and snapped twigs in hopes she would catch up to Sigmund’s kidnappers.

The tracks led for many yards, winding through dense growth and over rough stones and roots. A muddy print here and a scuffed mark on bark there kept Anabelle on the path, even as the jungle terrain became increasingly wild and ambiguous.

Eventually, just up ahead of her position, she could hear the diabolical cackling of a pack of imps. Their noises were simultaneously joyous and unnerving. Anabelle quieted her steps and held close to a large tree trunk in front of her. As she slowly peeked around its width, she spotted a dozen of the fiends circling Sigmund, who was muzzled and bound, laying helplessly on his side. Anabelle could see the fear in his large, equine eyes as the devils sung an eerie tune.

Then, in unison, each of the beasties pulled a long length of straw from their grass tunics and converged on Sigmund like a pack of wolves. In the blink of an eye, the creatures drove the hollow needles into Sigmund’s hide and commenced drinking. Blood flowed instantly and freely from these diabolical feeding tubes as the imps frantically sucked it up.

Anabelle rushed the creatures, screaming at the top of her lungs. The imps, suddenly caught off guard, left their straws and bolted into the surrounding shadows. Anabelle wasted no time pulling the hollow spikes from Sigmund’s side, some still spurting crimson like tiny geysers of sanguine fluid. Sigmund snorted. It was obvious he was in pain.

“Damn wicked devils!” Anabelle shouted into the jungle. “Vile beasts!”

As she tended to Sigmund, she could hear movement just beyond sight. It then turned to whistling, the same unsettling tune the imps had been singing before. The sound was growing as it surrounded the Willow Princess and her steed.

Dozens of imps then emerged from the darkness. Each one clutched a new blood-stained straw in its hand and all had their sights set on Anabelle. Between humming unholy notes, the imps would cackle and spit, frothing at the mouth to continue feeding. The princess worked to untie Sigmund, releasing his legs and unbinding his mouth as the pack of devils closed in around them. Although free from the ropes, Sigmund was still too weak and shaken to rise. Anabelle was not about to abandon her friend. Striking a defensive posture, she grabbed a sharp-edge stone and raised it to the ready.

The beasties skipped and whistled, gnashed and laughed, all the while, closing in inch-by-inch with their obsidian eyes glaring, unblinking, and still. A tubby little devil let out a mighty burp, grabbing the princess’s attention. As she turned towards the sound, another sneaky, little pest leapt onto Sigmund and drove its straw in deep. It got a few sips in before Anabelle swung around and smacked it squarely with her stone, sending the imp flying with a howl of pain. No sooner had she knocked one imp aside, then another fiend attacked Sigmund, then another and another. Anabelle feverishly lashed out, dislodging as many as she could. Her horse whinnied and cried as he was repeatedly stabbed. He kicked out in a futile attempt to protect himself but was too weak to be effective.

Anabelle crushed one imp with a solid hit, then bashed another who rolled off Sigmund’s back but quickly returned to feed again. She swirled and swung, desperately trying to keep the attackers at bay. But, she was failing. Their numbers were too great, and she couldn’t keep up.

Suddenly, she felt a deep, stabbing pain in her leg. Looking down, one of the imps had thrust a spiked straw into her calf. It was beginning to draw blood when Anabelle, in a murderous rage, thrust the stone downward, cutting the creature in two. The weight of a second imp struck her in the back followed by the sharp sting of another needle. She reached back, grabbed the demon and hurled it into the darkness. Anabelle and Sigmund were being swarmed as the pool of crimson beneath their feet grew wider and wider. The blood-letting seemed to have no end.

Anabelle’s spirits were falling fast. Her strikes were losing force as the devils sapped both her energy and her blood. After kicking another fiend in the face, the Willow Princess caught a glimpse of a large figure moving on the edge of the grove. It descended upon the scene with a vicious quickness, and, with a flash of silver, a mighty blade cut down a half-dozen imps with a single blow. Two more were crushed beneath the hooves of the mounted warrior’s black steed.

The stranger dismounted, and in doing so, laid waste to another imp, crushing its head with his steel boot heel. The pack was now in a fearful frenzy. They began to scatter as the warrior, adorned with magnificent golden armor and a billowing purple cape, cut down several more with precise sword strikes.

As the chatter and cries of the imp army faded into the night, the stranger drove home one final blow, impaling the slowest of their remaining lot against a wide jungle tree. The creature twitched in agony, only stopping when the warrior thrust his metal gauntlet through its contorted face.

Anabelle tended to Sigmund, pulling out the remaining straws and doing her best to slow the flow of his deeper wounds. The warrior quickly ran to her side and aided in the task. As he did so, he removed his helmet. He needed no introduction for the Willow Princess had immediately recognized him from his armor. It was Lord Vadik Grenwald, Prince of Corts.

“Vadik, my deepest thanks,” Anabelle said, compressing a puncture on Sigmund’s shoulder.

“The demons here are many, and fierce, my princess,” Vadik replied. “Here, use this.”

Vadik tore lengths of fabric from his cape, offering it to Anabelle as a dressing. She balled it up like gauze and held it tightly to Sigmund’s flesh. A tug on her leg then diverted her attention. Vadik was wrapping the wound on her calf with another torn length of cloth. Anabelle quickly turned her focus back to her ailing steed.

“Those imps are hell-born,” she grumbled in frustration. “If you hadn’t come upon us when you did, we would have been drained, lifeless husks of skin.”

“I ran into a smaller pack when I first entered the jungle. They were imbibing upon a large stag, but were quick to disperse when I drew near,” Vadik stated.

Having sufficiently tended to one of her horse’s wounds, Anabelle moved to another. Sigmund snorted his discomfort.

“Speaking of that,” the princess continued, “how is it that we cross paths in the Southern Jungle?”

“Your mother sent me,” Vadik responded. “Well, actually I volunteered. She reasoned that if another party could head in the opposite direction as you and obtain at least one of the ingredients you seek, you’d have them all that much quicker. Knowing the dangers you had undertaken on Rowan’s behalf, I could not withhold my service.”

Anabelle looked skyward. The moon had risen above thin clouds. It hung like a giant, glistening pearl stark against the dark, night sky.

“And were you successful, Vadik? Do you have the Golden Nectar?” Anabelle asked.

Vadik reached into his tunic and pulled out a glass vial filled with amber honey. Anabelle’s heart filled with joy. Without saying a word, she reached out and hugged the Lord of Corts.

“That’s it!” she declared. “That’s all three! Now we must get to the Grendel Horn.”

With Vadik’s help, Anabelle’s blood-soaked hands aided Sigmund as he attempted to stand. The horse was weary and still a bit shaken, but he was able to rise and hobble a few steps. It was clear he was in no condition to carry a rider.

Vadik mounted his steed and held out his hand to Anabelle.

“My lady,” he said.

The princess grabbed hold and swung herself into the saddle, positioning herself snuggly behind Vadik.

“I’ll hold Sigmund’s reins,” she stated. “He should be able to keep up as we slowly plod through the undergrowth. At least I pray that will be the case.”

Leading her horse while on the back of another, Anabelle rode off with Vadik into the jungle. As the group navigated the uneven terrain of rocks and roots, the princess was forced to grab hold tightly to the Lord of Corts so as not to lose her balance.

“Do you think this Heaven’s Mead will heal Rowan?” Vadik asked.

“Most definitely,” Anabelle stated with confidence. “I believe in Mugma’s wisdom. Her words have never led me astray in the past.”

“But if this should be the first time?” Vadik prodded.

Anabelle grew silent for a moment. She had not allowed herself to even fathom the results of failure. Her focus was on the task at hand, obtaining the ingredients and reaching the Grendel Horn before the new day’s sun rose. With all three essences in her possession, she only needed to reach her final destination, and Vadik’s deed in obtaining the Golden Nectar had provided ample time for that.

“Vadik, can you hand me the Golden Nectar?” Anabelle asked. “I want to keep it with the Cold Heart’s Blood and the Dragon’s Breath Bloom.”

Vadik reached back and handed the Willow Princess the vial.

Anabelle stared at its contents. Inside, the suspension of translucent amber would hold within its body the magical essence of the moon. Remembering Mugma’s words, and wanting to marvel at the beauty, the princess held the vial up to the lunar light, anticipating the revelation of stars and galaxies swirling in its midst. She saw nothing. The mixture was dead and still. Worry and fear flooded her mind.

As the growing unease festered, Anabelle sought out a reason. Perhaps Mugma’s words were not true. Perhaps Vadik had been tricked by the Bree. While both were possible explanations, neither felt right. She trusted Mugma wholeheartedly, and Vadik’s keen intellect could detect a ruse like no other. Anabelle knew him as a man inherently cautious and calculating, not easily fooled and often doing the fooling. That thought held there, captured in her mind.

“Vadik, head for that pond,” the princess ordered. “Sigmund could use a drink to ease his pain and energize his step.”

The Lord of Corts did as he was asked. As the group reached the edge of the pond, Anabelle jumped from the saddle and gently led Sigmund to drink. The horse eagerly lapped up the cool water.

Clutching the vial of honey in her hand, Anabelle looked up at Vadik.

“So, the Bree, are they as grotesque as the myths say?” Anabelle questioned.

“Very much so,” Vadik replied. “Bug-eyed insects as tall as a man and walking upright, they are creatures of nightmare.”

“And the Moon Chamber, you were granted access without delay?”

“Yes,” stated the Cort Lord plainly.

“So, what was the answer then?”

Vadik stared at Anabelle with a blank look on his face. Caught off-guard by the questioning, he leapt down from his mount.

“Answer?” he asked.

“Yes, to the riddle. Without the answer, the Bree would have forbidden your entry. Without the answer, we cannot complete the Heaven’s Mead.”

Vadik stammered a response, muttering words Anabelle could not make out. She knew in that moment that he had not obtained the Golden Nectar. Pulling the vial from her belt, she held it up to the moonlight.

“Look, look here,” she demanded. “This vial does not glow like the heavens. Its contents do not contain the trapped essence of the cosmos. It is not the Golden Nectar!”

The Lord of Corts had been slowly moving toward Anabelle. He knew that she had caught on to his scheme, but he would not let the unplanned discovery damn his mission.

“Listen,” Vadik said in a calming voice, showing his empty hands and taking on a softer posture as he came within arms’ length on Anabelle. “My reasons were just. Your mother had great concern, and grave news, both of which meant there was no reason for you to continue on this foolish quest.”

The Willow Princess searched Vadik’s expression for signs of dishonesty.

“Rowan has died. He could hold out no longer.”

“You lie!” Anabelle retorted.

“Your mother knew you would not come home unless you believed you were returning with an antidote. I only sought to ease your burden and usher you back to the estate without further delay, usher you back to your dead husband’s side.”

Anabelle scoffed at his tale. “Vadik, just as in our days’ past, I can tell when your tongue spits venom.”

“No,” he contested, “I speak the truth.”

Just as those words left his lips, Vadik reached out and snatched Anabelle by the arm, dragging her to the ground.

“This is for your own good, princess,” he growled, thrusting his weight upon her. “If a vial of bottled sap won’t sway you, I must use more direct methods. Don’t you realize? You had no business marrying that peon!”

“Ah, there it is. See, I can tell the difference, liar. Those are words you truly believe,” Anabelle replied while struggling against Vadik’s grip.

“A prince!” Vadik yelled. “A princess marries a prince!”

Vadik rolled Anabelle onto her stomach, pinning her arms to her back.

“I will take you back to the Eastern Shore, your husband will breathe his last breath, and you will be married to a prince! That is the proper order of things!”

Anabelle could feel the rough texture of rope being drawn around her wrists. The threads rubbed and burned as Vadik pulled them tightly against her flesh.

“You will not take me as a lamb, helpless and docile!” Anabelle screamed, thrusting her head back with great force and striking Vadik right in the face.

The blow caused the prince to stumble and allowed Anabelle to skirt away. She quickly rose to her feet as Vadik righted himself, standing ankle deep in the water.

“Princess, please” Vadik pleaded while rubbing his swollen lip. “This is for the good of our race. We are royalty for a reason. We come from the purest lines, and therefore it is our duty to propagate that superiority. It is the only way our tribe will survive.”

As he spoke, Vadik again slowly crept toward Anabelle.

“You are foolish, Lord of Corts,” she yelled. “Purity is a trait you never possessed.”

“You didn’t always hold me in such contempt,” he replied.

“I was young and naïve, but you could not keep your true self hidden for long, could you, Vadik?”

The Lord of Corts gritted his teeth. Anabelle had stabbed at an old wound.

“That cretin thought he could best me,” Vadik said bitterly, recalling an old unsavory, memory.

“He was just a boy, no different than you or I at the time, and it was harmless fun,” Anabelle prodded.

“Harmless?” he shot back with agitation. “He sought to dishonor us both!”

“It was the musings of school-aged adolescents, Vadik,” she retorted, “and you took the bet.”

“Fentin was dim. Not in a million years would I think he would beat me in a game of king’s stones.”

Anabelle backed further toward the jungle brush as Vadik maintained his stalking approach.

“Ah, but he did,” she stated. “And he claimed his prize, didn’t he? A meaningless peck on my lips.”

“Far from meaningless!” Vadik shouted as he gripped his sheathed sword in anger. “Everyone watching knew what it meant. It meant I was inferior to him. It meant he could claim what was mine. It meant…”

“It meant I was nothing more than a prize to be won in your eyes,” interjected Anabelle.

Vadik shook his head in frustration as Anabelle’s words continued.

“But, your purity would not let it stand, would it? Your great lineage did not afford you a humble heart, did it? Vadik, you poisoned Fentin in retaliation for this hollow slight.”

The Lord of Corts laughed. “An upset stomach was hardly a poisoning, princess.”

“He was bed-ridden for days, Vadik! His mother wept at his bedside.”

“I could have done far worse,” the Lord of Corts said with a smirk.

In that moment, Anabelle felt a frightful chill run up her spine.

Vadik’s smile grew ever wider and more devilish. “While my mixture was potent, that lumbering fool, Rowan, needed to take another gulp or two. I believed him to be a far greater drunkard. Alas, the end will still come. There is no changing that now.”

The Prince of Corts drew his sword. The sharp, crisp sound of the steel blade leaving the scarab cut through the night air.

The confession shook Anabelle to the bone.

“You are not a man, Vadik,” she said with utmost disgust. “You are a demon.”

“Oh, princess, there are far greater demons than I in this world.”

Vadik lunged, but Anabelle was prepared this time. In the heat of the verbal exchange, she had pried a study tree limb from the thicket. As Vadik launched his assault, she parried the attack, striking him in the side of the face with a vigorous blow. The Lord of Corts crashed into a thorny brier of tangled vines.

“Damn you, Anabelle!” he screamed in a fit of rage, feverishly yanking and pulling in an effort to free himself from the mess of branches.

But, his violent spasms only served to fasten him more securely to the nest of barbs as the tiny hooks dug deeper into his clothing and flesh.

Suddenly, Anabelle heard a hauntingly familiar sound. From deeper within the jungle, a whistling tune of terror was slowly building. Vadik looked toward the princess with absolute fear in his eyes.

The song continued to rise, and soon the Willow Princess could see dozens of black, shiny eyes hidden among the trees and peering in their direction.

“Do not leave me, princess!” Vadik cried, desperately trying to free himself from the vines.

Anabelle gathered Sigmund’s reins and then leapt onto Vadik’s horse.

“No, no!” the Lord of Corts shouted. “I am a prince. A prince. My life matters to our race.”

Anabelle stared at him, her face expressionless and cold.

“Goodbye, Lord of Corts,” she stated with an ominous foreboding, before turning from the scene and departing further down the trail.

In the background, she could hear the shrill screams of Vadik and the increasing cacophony of slurping suction. It was not long before his shouts became bloody gurgles, which then turned to lowly moans, and finally…silence.

 

 

===========

 

 

 

The Golden Nectar

Vadik’s deceit had cost Anabelle dearly. It had stolen away time, but she would be damned if she would let it steal away Rowan. As the moonlight splintered the dark ceiling of jungle leaves, she journeyed ever deeper into the wilderness seeking the Bree’s Celestial Hive.

After wandering in search of an appropriate watchtower, Anabelle arrived at the base of a massive tree. She dismounted and began to scale the trunk using the deep crevices in its hardened bark as hand and footholds. After quickly managing the ascent, the princess situated herself above the treetops. From there, she found the view she was seeking, one that would allow her to see the sky without obstruction.

The moon was massive, a lunar lord overseeing all the heavens. But more importantly, the Musca constellation was directly overhead. That meant the Celestial Hive was close by. Anabelle swiveled around, surveying the blue, lit landscape for signs of the structure. She reasoned that the Celestial Hive would have to be enormous, for it was documented that the Bree’s numbers were many. Unlike the other tribes, they had not lost many in battle. The Bree only involved themselves in the Grave War when it was unavoidable. They preferred to remain neutral, and when the pact to end the conflict was agreed to, confining them to their jungle homeland, they had little quibble.

That said, Anabelle saw nothing around her indicating the location of a massive hive or a building of any sort. All that she saw was a sea of stars above and a canopy of leaves below.

Then, without warning, she was knocked from her perch. Only her quick reflexes saved her, allowing the Willow Princess to grab hold of the branch she had been sitting on and keeping her from plummeting to her death. There, dangling from the limb, she saw the cause of her peril. From the central trunk, positioned directly behind her, a camouflaged portal had sprung open and struck her squarely on the back. From within the hole, a massive insect emerged.

It stood at least five feet tall, moving along the branch with two sets of legs jutting out just short of a large, striped abdomen from which a sharp, central prong protruded at the tail. A third set of appendages was positioned as arms at the creature’s thorax. From the top of the thorax, two elegant lengths of silky lace hung down and over the insect’s body. The patterns on the lace were intricate, refined, and unlike anything Anabelle had ever seen. Atop the thorax stood a large, smooth head set with large, multi-faceted eyes. The heavens refracted in their surface, creating the effect of two sparkling diamonds. Segmented antennas were fixed at the crown of the beast, and they twitched and turned, independent of one another, in the night air.

The entire being was encased in a metallic sheen from head to toe, with both a deep black gloss and lines of brilliant golden hue intersecting in very defined patterns. Anabelle likened the appearance to a knight in armor, and there was no question in her mind that she was staring at a Bree.

As the creature reached the end of the branch, it’s silky gown grew stiff and powerful before separating into two glittering wings. They beat at a rapid pace, and a second later, the Bree was in flight, zipping across the night sky.

Anabelle swung herself back on to the branch. She watched as the arthropod darted from point to point waving a long staff in its hand. The staff was topped with a headpiece that looked like a densely-woven net of silver string. With each swipe, the net collected more and more particles of a mysterious substance unseen until it hit the silver trapping. Tiny specks of clinquant matter stuck to the tool, and when it was sufficiently covered, the Bree stuck the headpiece in a sack, wiped it clean, and went back to collecting more.

After a few more moments, it appeared the Bree had harvested enough, and it pivoted back towards the tree. Anabelle quickly dropped down to the underside of the branch to avoid being seen. The creature landed gracefully on the limb and then reentered the portal from which it had previously emerged. Just as the door was about to close, the Willow Princess wedged a thick twig into its path, keeping the portal from closing completely. She waited a moment, and then propelled herself upward and into the entrance.

Anabelle was not prepared for what lied inside the tree trunk. She thought she may find a ladder descending a dimly lit hollow shaft, but instead, she found herself sliding down a smooth silver barrel lined with light. The tube had not a single protrusion and its slick surface afforded zero friction. In a state of panic, the princess fell swiftly down the metallic chute, unable to slow herself in the least.

Nearing the bottom, she braced for a hard impact, but fortunately, the tunnel angled into a gradually receding slide which swept her from a vertical path into a horizontal one. Her momentum continued for a few feet farther before finally running out and leaving her lying on her back in another metal-lined passageway.

Rising to her feet, Anabelle gazed around in amazement. The structure and building materials were unlike anything she had ever seen. The hall she stood in was a long, seamless cylinder of silver metal which grew slightly transparent every few feet where a ring of lights positioned beneath the surface radiated a vibrant, penetrating glow. The diameter of the tunnel was close to ten feet high and, upon closer examination, was covered in a vast pattern of small, interlocking hexagons. As the Willow Princess walked the span, her movement was mirrored by a parallel row of hexagons glowing gold as she passed by, as if they were following her…or perhaps leading her.

At the end of the tube, Anabelle could see an even more brilliant source of light emanating from a connected room. As she grew nearer, she felt a low vibration. After a few more steps, the vibration grew stronger and was accompanied by a high-pitched hum. Now within feet of the next room, the vibration was so strong and the hum so loud, it made walking difficult and forced Anabelle to cover her ears. She thought about turning back, but there was nowhere else to go and no way she could scale the slick, metal-lined tree trunk back to the surface.

By the time she reached the end of the tunnel, the vigor of the vibration and hum were of such raw power that they forced Anabelle to the floor. It was as if gravity had suddenly risen to unbearable levels. Straining against the tension, The Willow Princess dragged herself to the edge of the next chamber where the glare of searing light caused her to shade her eyes. Within the blinding white light, she could see hundreds of winged forms gliding about the space like divine beings, moving effortlessly from portal to portal inside a massive antechamber.

The vibration, the hum, and the light all combined to overwhelm Anabelle’s senses, and try as she might she could not move another muscle. She was held fast to the tunnel floor, every cell in her body seemingly burdened by an invisible weight.

Then, as if caught in a sudden and acute updraft, she was yanked into the air, left hovering in a horizontal position feet above the floor. The vibration had stopped, the humming had ceased, and the sheer white light began to fade. It was as if the whole world had grown silent and clear. She was still powerless to the forces surrounding her, but the crushing weight had been replaced by an ethereality.

Floating in the air, an aura carried her into the chamber. It moved the princess into a vertical position and slowly spun her form as she began to ascend the space. All around her hundreds of Brees hung in stasis. They had all halted their work and stared stoically at Anabelle as she rose past them. Higher and higher she soared in the alien world until finally, many stories above a floor she could no longer see, the princess was moved onto a platform and released from the invisible grip.

In front of her was another silver hallway that stretched for a great distance before ending at a circular door almost three times Anabelle’s height. As the princess walked towards the door, she was once again joined by an illuminating trail of hexagon lights. It felt as if the lights were shadowing her movements and monitoring her actions like a type of autonomous surveillance.

Having reached the end of the hall, the princess was confronted by the towering portal. Running her fingertips across the barrier, she searched its smooth and flawless surface for a latch or handle, but there was no obvious mechanism for opening the barrier. Anabelle was at a loss as to how to proceed. With no clear way of opening the door, and having ascended to this point in the manner she had, an unease was beginning to set in. She was effectively trapped in the space.

Just as Anabelle’s worry was taking hold, the portal began to alter and morph. The circular portal revealed an increasingly more protuberant surface as a vast series of protruding hexagon forms took shape from the mass. Once bound to hardened forms, the hexagons began to slide into one another overlapping from the center of the circle and traveling outward in a swift, interlocking retreat. In the blink of an eye, the barrier was removed, and standing before her were three Bree.

The middle insectoid stood like a statue, hard and immobile. Flanking the creature were two more, each one brandishing a long spear at their side and standing at attention behind their apparent superior. Gazing beyond the three, Anabelle noticed another door. It was exactly like the one that had just opened. Without question, the trio were stationed as guards.

Anabelle was still surrounded by complete silence. Her footsteps hadn’t even made a sound as she traversed the previous hall. It was an odd sensation, but, within the calm, she began to hear a soft whisper. It was diminutive at first, but the word grew louder and clearer with each passing second.

Welcome, Anabelle heard, but not in the depths of her ears. Emanating from an unknown source, the word seemed to manifest itself in her very mind. It did not echo in the hall and the mandibles of the Brees standing before her did not move.

What do you seek?

The question formulated as language, without spoken words, in the princess’s head. As she gazed into the eyes of the Bree positioned in front of her, Anabelle could sense a growing connection, as if an invisible bond between the two was taking shape. It was then she realized the creatures were using telepathy to communicate.

The Golden Nectar, Anabelle conveyed through her own thoughts.

The message caused the three Bree guards to stir. The two in the rear moved their spears aggressively, crossing them behind their commander and creating another blockade in front of the door, as the creature standing at the center took a powerful, imposing step forward causing Anabelle to step back. The main sentry’s antennae grew ridged as their sharp tips pointed threateningly toward the princess.

Answer the riddle of the mead, the large Bree stated.

Anabelle could feel the gravity of its demand. She swallowed hard. Not only did she fear giving the wrong answer and being denied entrance, she feared an even greater consequence. If her experience of utter helplessness in the antechamber was any indication, this race possessed magic she was powerless to combat.

The Bree sent another message. It was clear and bold.

In its true form, it is purer than the Blood, nurtures greater than the Nectar, burns fiercer than the Bloom, and fortifies mightier than the Horn. What is this binding essence, human?

The Willow Princess pondered the solution. She thought back to the hieroglyphics on the Fangs’ temple wall and the words of the serpent warrior. Whatever the fifth essence was, it seemed to be the binding ingredient in Heaven’s Mead, a catalyst more potent than any other. It was lost in war and had gone missing for generations.

Anabelle’s silence caused the Bree sentry to advance, its piercing appendages readying for a strike. The princess’ mind raced. What could it be? What binds? In her mind, she ran through years of academic study, all of her father’s stories, the countless lessons shared by Mugma.

The memories gave no clues, no answers, until she rested on Rowan. There, contemplating the power and purity of her feelings for him, she realized what had long nurtured their relationship, gave her the fierceness to persevere through challenges, and had fortified her soul in this very moment. She was bound to Rowan through love.

Love, Anabelle’s mind screamed out. Love!

The Bree sentry stepped back, while the two in the rear pulled in their spears. The walls surrounding them began to light up with warm, golden hexagon tiles, the same type of patterns and forms which had followed Anabelle as she walked the halls of their hive. The number of glowing hexagons continued to grow, surrounding the princess on all sides, until she was completely bathed in the light.

Then, the surface of these geometric forms dissipated until the walls were revealed to be a network of small, hollow cavities. From within the encasements, dozens of pudgy, bioluminescent worms crawled out. Each one, the size of a man’s hand, quickly moved towards Anabelle, clinging to the surface of the structure and propelling itself forward with the rapid retraction and expansion of sparsely set, white whiskers lining their bodies from head to toe.

Anabelle was unsure of what was transpiring. Had she failed? Had she answered incorrectly? Was she now to be consumed by the larva as food? As the bugs closed in around her, she could see their small black eyes, widely spaced, staring at her with a type of curious innocence. Then, came their gentle whispers, echoing in her mind.

Love. Love. Love.

From deep inside, a feeling of calm overtook the princess. She knew she was not in any danger.

The worms converged around her. They quickly inched their way up her body, tickling her skin with their whiskers. Soon, they had covered the princess entirely, creating an orb of organic light that encased Anabelle within. Their embrace was warm and comforting, and it infused the princess with a euphoric joy. She could feel her wounds healing and her bruises fading beneath their rejuvenating touch.

After a moment held in their wrap, the larva’s light dimmed, and they withdrew. As quickly as they had come, they retreated back into their nests, which once again sealed shut within the surrounding walls.

You have been purified. Proceed.

Anabelle recognized the voice in her mind as that of the sentry. The trio of guards stepped to the side as the door behind them fractured and retracted. The room beyond was darker than the hallway, but the princess did not hesitate. She walked forward into the Moon Chamber.

Within this new space, Anabelle was greeted by a marvelous sight. While not illuminated by the sheen of slick, refracting, silver metal and bright hexagons of light, the room was still awash in a soft, twilight glow. The chamber was without a roof and beyond spanned the night sky in all its beautify. Thin wisps of clouds swayed like ripples as stars twinkled and comets raced in a majestic, celestial sea. Like a mighty stone island, the moon stood at the center, casting its lunar light down upon the chamber in rays of cool blue.

Though these rays, Anabelle could see small specks of glittering dust, much like the ones the Bree she first encountered had been collecting. They fell like tiny, drifting snowflakes from the night sky above. In the chamber below, dozens of glass funnels filled with a clear liquid trapped the sparkling specks in a thick suspension. A network of twisting and turning crystalline tubes, monitored by several Bree workers, pumped the mixture along a line. As it traveled, the mixture changed hue, turning from a pale yellow to a deeper daisy then an orange copper, and finally a shimmering gold.

At this point, the thick liquid flowed into large, ornately decorated tanks arranged as the grand backrest of a golden throne, on which sat the largest Bree Anabelle had ever seen. The creature was many times bigger than the others with soft, flowing wings wrapping around it like a layered gown of lace. It had several more antennae than its brethren, and the appendages grew to a resemble a crown upon its head. Below this crown, the Bree’s forehead was emblazoned with a brilliant star pattern that shined unusually bright in the pale moonlight.

Sitting there nobly upon its golden thrown, the being sipped from a tube connected to the tanks behind it. Each time it drew a mouthful from the store, the star on its visage would radiate even more dazzlingly.

 

 

 

 

Welcome, an angelic voice rang in the Willow Princess’ mind. I am the Queen of Brees.

Anabelle, having grown up in the tradition, knew proper courtesy should be afforded and so she bent down on one knee and bowed her head in respect.

I am Princess Anabelle Reignview of the Willow Clan. I beseech you, I need the Golden Nectar.

The Queen stirred. You have traveled a great distance, undoubtedly faced many dangers, and broken a treaty held for generations in the process. Why? Why does the Nectar drive you so?

Anabelle looked toward the Queen, locking eyes with the massive insect.

For love, love of a dying husband desperate for a drink of Heaven’s Mead.

Ah, love, the Bree Queen replied with a smile. It is a force to be reckoned with, is it not? It moves us to lengths we never dreamed, whether across a harsh, decaying land or the vast stretches of the cold cosmos.

The Queen momentarily looked skyward in reverence.

It is for love that we came, that we remained, but now, that same love calls us back home. We need the Heaven’s Mead to fulfill that oath. So, you shall have the Golden Nectar, and in exchange, you will retain a dose of the magical mead for us. A drop is all that is required.

Mugma’s words had convinced Anabelle of the potency of Heaven’s Mead, but she was unsure what a single drop could accomplish. But if the deal meant she could have the Nectar, she would agree, wholeheartedly.

I see your thoughts swirling, Princess, the Queen stated, able to read even deeper into Anabelle’s mind than she had realized. The mead will deliver your loved one back into your waiting arms as it will do the same for the Bree.

The Queen again looked up, this time pointing to a wide ledge running the circumference of the open ceiling. Anabelle followed her gaze, examining a polished, metal rim embedded at the top of the Moon Chamber’s tapering walls. It was of such sheen that it almost disappeared into the starry night sky, reflecting the heavens like a mirror. Positioned at even increments around the ring, several bulbous leads jutted towards the center. At these points, the slick surface of the material was slightly transparent, and beneath the glassy membrane, Anabelle could see arrays of crystals, gears, and wound wire filaments. This structure was clearly a mechanical device of some sort, but she had no idea as to the exact purpose.

Our world was in peril, the Queen stated, and so we fled, looking to survive and prosper until we could return home once more. We came to find Tora. Here, we carved out our place, working the land to sustain us while constructing the tools needed to deliver us home, if and when that time came. While constructing a return portal was possible, fueling it proved problematic. We tried and tested many things and, in the process, came in contact with many species. Over time, alliances were formed, friendships even, and through those bonds, our fuel was found, the Heaven’s Mead. But, the fallout from the Grave War squashed our efforts just as we had reached the cusp of salvation.

Why not take what you needed by force, Anabelle questioned.

Here, in the Hive, we possess great power, but as we travel further from it, that power dissipates. We could never amass the strength needed to compel the tribes by force, and we would never want to. While violence may achieve momentary victory, only love can sustain true triumph. The Bree have understood this for ages. Some in Tora have yet to learn that lesson, even in the unflinching face of calamity.

With the Bree having waited for generations for the day they could return to their homeland, and Rowan lying ever closer to finality, Anabelle knew the Heaven’s Mead could wait no longer.

A worker approached the Queen and handed her a pearlescent vial. The Queen placed a feeding tube into the vessel and filled it to the brim with Golden Nectar before sealing it shut.

Take this Princess, she offered. Make the mead, save your love and provide us the means to go home. We implore you.

Anabelle grasped the vial. A feeling of utter jubilation overcame her. There, in her hand, she held the final essence she required. All that remained was to meet Mugma at the Grendel Horn before dawn. While that would be no easy task, she continued to believe, in her heart, that all things were possible.

Thank you, Queen of Brees, the Willow Princess said with a bow.

We will see you again, Anabelle Reignview, when we come for our share, the Queen responded.

With that, two Bree approached the princess and wrapped their arms around her. Extending their large wings, they took to the air, carrying Anabelle with them. The trio soared out of the Moon Chamber and into the night. The sky was starting to gray, a sure sign that sunrise was not far off.

Surveying the land below, Anabelle could not see Vadik’s horse anywhere, but she did spot Sigmund, alone and lying on his side. The Bree immediately lowered her to the location. Sigmund’s injuries still plagued him. He was breathing heavily, and Anabelle realized he had been pushed to the brink. She laid her hands on his side, feeling the slow undulation of his lungs filling and emptying. The breaths were labored and slow.

The stallion fixed his gaze on Anabelle. His large eyes were misted with tears and looked to his master for comfort. Anabelle laid her head down on his, soaking his cheek with tears of her own. Sigmund had done all he could. He was unable to move any farther. Not only did the fate of her steed appear grim, without his swift and sure stride, the fate of Rowan was all but sealed. The Willow Princess cradled his head in her lap and began to weep uncontrollably. She had come too far to be stopped now, but that reality was hardening before her.

As with all challenges, Anabelle quickly set to finding answers. She rubbed her own shoulder in silent contemplation and, in doing so, felt the sealed scar of the Griszel Hawk’s talons. Maybe the brilliant larva could heal Sigmund’s wounds as they had done for her.

A voice of one of her escorts entered the princess’ mind. He had been listening to her thoughts and was saddened to interject.

The young ones only possess their skill within the confines of the hive, and while they can heal the wounded, there is a limit. Your beast’s injuries are deep and many. I’m sorry, but…

The Bree escort did not have the heart to utter another word, but Anabelle knew what he was saying. The limits had been reached, and now, sitting in the dirt with Sigmund, she wondered if the end of her entire journey was truly at hand.

We can carry you, princess, the Bree’s voice rang in her mind. We can fly as far as our abilities last, and maybe, just maybe, it will be far enough to deliver you in time.

While the Willow Princess sensed some doubt in the Bree’s words, they still bore some hope in Anabelle’s heart. The idea gave her a chance, a chance to continue, and she was willing to take it.

We must go now, princess, while we can still draw on the moon’s energizing glow.

Anabelle knew what that meant, leaving Sigmund. She wrapped him tightly in her arms. She did not want to abandon him, but she knew she must. Rowan’s fate was at hand. The tears of sorrow were many, soon joined by the trembling of anguish. But, there was nothing more to be said or done.

As she felt the Brees’ strong appendages wrap around her torso, she blew one last kiss to her friend with the hope it would send him on his way to a pasture or pristine grace. A second later, Anabelle was thrust upward, carried high above the jungle under the wings of the Bree.

 

 

===========

 

 

 

The Grendel Horn

Soaring high above the land, Anabelle felt the cool night breeze begin to warm as the sky continued to brighten. While the moon remained visible, stubbornly claiming the heavens, many of the stars had faded into the growing gray. But, the rate of air travel was far superior to the overland route, and the princess was confident that as long as her wing chariot maintained their pace, she would make it to the Grendel Horn in time.

The Southern Jungle was soon left behind, giving way to the high grasses of the Verdant Lowlands. This span was quickly crossed without incident, other than the high-pitched hum of Bree wings disturbing a gathering of grazing Trunter Bison. The fly-over sent the entire herd stampeding off in all directions, worried that the odd configuration of woman and Bree was some type of airborne predator.

The Verdant Lowlands grew thin and marshy below Anabelle’s dangling feet and she could begin to smell the faint scent of sea salt in the air. It was a welcomed aroma, meaning they had entered the outer edge of her homelands, the Eastern Shore. The salt marshes would lead to the harbor, and there she would find the fir-lined cliffs overlooking the sea, upon which sat the Grendel Horn.

The Grendel Horn was a landmark that had stood on the wooded coast of the Eastern Shore for eons. Legend stated it once belonged to a giant, human-devouring ogre that plagued man’s earliest descendants. The beast feasted on them at will, gouging itself on their meat, until one brave warrior was able to vanquish the abomination. He savagely cleaved it down in its very own den. During the battle, the warrior severed one of the creature’s horns, and when the ogre finally fell, the warrior brought the humongous spike back to his tribe as a trophy of victory.

A tribal elder soon discovered that the horn, despite no longer being attached to a living creature, retained wondrous magical properties. Elements mixed inside its hollow cavity would combine in unexpected ways, defying both time and matter. Potions would fuse in a matter of seconds when normally the concoctions would steep for days, and their resulting potency was unrivaled. The horn was a caldron unlike any other.

The tribe of men erected an outdoor altar for their treasure, setting the eight-foot artifact in a stone holder overlooking the sea. Many ceremonies and rituals were conducted on that hallowed ground.

When the idea of Heaven’s Mead was first discussed among the tribes of Tora, it made sense that the Grendel Horn was the only vessel capable of brewing the mystical elixir. The theory soon proved true, and the location became the shared site of the monthly lunar festivals. But, after years of harmony, war changed all that, and the altar of the Grendel Horn was abandoned high upon the wooded cliffs, left to dull in the salty air of the shoreline.

Anabelle knew she was not far away now, and soon the marshes would give way to the sandy shoreline, but despite the increasing light of a day, the princess’ vision was limited by the appearance of a thick fog rising from the ground below. It was moving like a lumbering mass of white smoke bellowed from the bowels of an ancient dragon. Anabelle knew that if the Bree could maintain their path for just a bit longer, they should be okay. But, then she felt a sudden dip in altitude.

The Bree were growing weary. She could hear their voices in her mind warning her as such. But, they stubbornly pledged to continue, doubling their efforts and carrying her higher above the mists.

It wasn’t long before her winged chariot dipped again, this time falling even farther than before and giving Anabelle quite the shock before regaining elevation. Unfortunately, that was not the only worry to set upon her mind. The Brees’ wing beats had begun to produce a strong echo, and when the Willow Princess peered through the mat of fog, she could see the tall, thin Pillars of Poseidon dotting the ground beneath them.

The Pillars of Poseidon were a scar of battle torn into the land. In the raging violence of the Grave War, one of the Doppel mystics called upon the elemental power of the sea in hopes of crushing an entire battalion of men. Her magic proved exceptional, and an angry tsunami ripped into the lower portion of the Eastern Shore. The destructive nature of the attack not only claimed the lives of many, it carved a labyrinth of deep crevices into a wide stretch of land. Eventually, these corroding waters receded, and in their wake a forest of fragile stone pillars, hundreds of feet high, were left as the softer land around them eroded back into the ocean. These Pillars of Poseidon were many, and were spaced in an erratic pattern situated high above an ever-turbulent tide below.

The fields of stone columns made stopping almost impossible. If the Bree gave out now, Anabelle could be stranded upon a pillar unable to move in any direction. The fear of such a predicament struck her like a bolt in that very instant.

I’m sorry, came the defeated cry of one of her escorts.

The Willow Princess’s stomach fell as she dropped several feet in a flash. To her right, she could see a flightless Bree spiraling through the air before striking thunderously into a pillar and falling like a lifeless mass amongst the shattered rubble. His broken, careening form was then consumed by the fog.

The second Bree pushed on, but it was clear he was not going to be able to make it across the expanse of pillars. In a desperate attempt to save his cargo, he released Anabelle as they passed low overtop one of the columns. Anabelle hit with a hard thud, rolling end over end, but stopping just shy of the pillar’s edge.

She looked up to see the remaining Bree land on another stone platform a few yards away. The insect smacked the stone surface just as hard, but the tumble had even greater momentum and he was sent hurtling over the far edge.

Anabelle watched in terror as his form disappeared from view. She prayed she would hear his humming wing beats or his reassuring voice in her mind. She heard neither.

Rising to her feet, Anabelle took stock of her predicament. As the mist ebbed and flowed about her, she could see numerous pillars surrounding her position. The closest one was directly behind her, but to turn back would mean having to find a way around the entire area. If she could forge ahead, the pillars would lead her right to the pine-covered cliffs of the Eastern Shore.

 

 

 

 

The column the princess stood upon was about eight-foot wide, distance enough to get a good bit of energy behind a jump. Timed right, Anabelle could propel herself to a pillar just a bit further ahead. With utmost confidence, she took several paces back, swung around, and then sprinted toward her target. Just at the edge of her footing, the Willow Princess leapt into the air, soaring several feet before touching down safely upon her new perch.

The fog was still coming in waves, and Anabelle took a moment to assess her next move. She was allotted mere seconds of observation. A clear view of the pillars came as fleeting figures in the thick veil of white. To her right, one pillar appeared, but the distance was too great. Then, in front and to the left, another one broke through a thin sheet of mist. It was further than her last jump, but close enough that Anabelle did not hesitate to seize the opportunity. She readied herself, ran, and leapt again.

While the distance did not seem, at first, to be that much greater, in reality, it was, and halfway through her arching jump, Anabelle knew she would not land on her feet. She reflexively, and desperately, stretched out, leading with her hands extended in front. The edge of the pillar raced past her line of sight. Anabelle gritted her teeth and strained, just catching the lip of stone with her fingers, and saving herself from plummeting into the void. Sweat covering her brow, she steadied herself against the pillar and pulled herself to the top.

Sprawled out in the center of the column, the Willow Princess exhaled a deep sigh of relief, but her reprieve was short-lived. As she rose to a knee and began to scan the scene for her next move, it appeared as though not a single pillar was close enough to jump to. Several columns ripped through the moving mists, but each one mocked her with their distant stances. Then, through a clear break in the fog, she caught the glimpse of a pillar just beyond her range of comfort and closely situated beyond it, the tall, green grove of pine marking the cliffs of the Eastern Shore. If she could just manage to reach that last column, she could easily hop to the cliffs and be on firm footing all the way to the Grendel Horn.

But, to make that last vault seemed almost impossible. It was even further than her last one, and that she only survived by her fingertips. Pacing the surface of the stone perch, Anabelle debated her options, of which there were few. The sunrise was coming, there was no way to delay it, and turning back would assure she would not make it to the Grendel Horn in time. While she could save herself in the process, Rowan would be lost. Summoning all her courage, she knew what she had to do.

The pillar she stood on was narrower than the others, so even her momentum would be stunted, but it didn’t matter. There was no way to twist the reality of her situation. She walked to the far edge, dug deep with her boot tread, and ran toward her jump. But, a stride from the edge, she balked and drove her weight into the ground, spitting up loose stone beneath her heels. Doubt had taken hold. The expanse seemed to widen as she approached, even though Anabelle knew that was impossible. Her mind was screaming against her heart, urging her to think with a more level head about the ultimate cost of her passion.

The Willow Princess spat on the ground in frustration and then screamed aloud. The cry was magnified amongst the stone trunks causing a flock of nesting seabirds to burst upward in a panicked mass from the darkness below. She had to jump. There was no other way.

Back to her starting mark, Anabelle glowered at the far pillar. She would not be defeated. Just as Rowan had once forgone his own safety to ford a raging river to aid her, she would leap over this treacherous chasm for him. The thought had righted her mind and so she ran with all her might and then, defying gravity, dove into the salt air.

Having fully committed to the act, she leapt with a heart of faith allowing fate to be burdened with the outcome. This approach severed her well. The Willow Princess knew she would not land on her feet, so, fully prepared this time, she clenched her fingers and burrowed them deep into the top of the far column. They stuck true. She made it.

Atop the next pillar, she could see the pines more clearly. It was but a smaller jump to the cliffs now. Wanting to delay no longer, the princess ran to make her final vault, but a troubling sound accompanied her steps. The echo of cracks and crumbling rose from below, followed by gyrations of grinding stone reverberating beneath feet. This column had been battered by the sea for too long, it was barely standing, and Anabelle’s shifting weight was the catalyst for collapse.

Heart racing, she rushed her attempt and leapt as the stone pillar below her gave way. What should have been an easy transition had turned calamitous. Unable to generate sufficient speed, the Willow Princess’ effort had fallen short. Her outstretched grip skimmed the surface of the cliffs but did not grab hold. She was in a freefall with only the crushing waves and cutting rocks to halt her descent.

Unexpectedly, the plunge halted, and she was propelled upwards to the cliffs. The mysterious force shot her back up to solid footing, dumping her safely onto solid ground before withdrawing again. Gazing through the fog, she saw her salvation. One of the Bree had survived and had caught her just in time. However, deliverance came at the ultimate cost. The insect had spent its final reserves and so fell, once again, like a stone into the abyss.

Unsure of whether the message would be received, Anabelle telepathically sent her undying gratitude regardless. Whether the Bree heard it in this world or the next, she hoped her love would be transmitted to the noble creature. The Bree had sacrificed for her, remaining ever true to their dogma of love. The Willow Princess renewed her pledge to repay them with Heaven’s Mead. It was the very least she could do.

Dangers still lurked in the cliff’s wilderness, especially in the shadows of a new day, but here, in the realm of man, Anabelle was more attune to their omens. The harpies’ song, which sounded like children crying for help to the untrained ear, sung from the nearby rock ledges, but the princess ignored their lure. Crossed log archways set as the markers of the bark trolls were traveled around, not through, and the nettle patches of the thorn pixies were leapt over and not trod upon.

Avoiding these traps allowed Anabelle to arrive at the Grendel Horn in good fashion, and as the princess peered through mature pines at the stone altar ahead, her heart swelled. There, waiting for her was Mugma…and Rowan, still covered in a thin burial cloth. He was resting lifelessly upon the polished granite altar directly in front of the horn.

“Princess,” Mugma called. “Hurry!”

Anabelle bounded from the tree line and ran towards her friend clutching to her chest the three essences she had obtained. With great haste, but delicate hands, the princess placed the full flask of Cold Heart’s Blood, the fresh spring of the Dragon’s Breath Bloom, and the vial of Golden Nectar, upon a pedestal next to Mugma.

The Willow Elder smiled and hugged Anabelle, a silent congratulation on a job well done.

“Anabelle, are you alright?” came a bounding voice.

It was Marcus Braun. He was lashing two horses to a pine, having just locked down a wooden cart that one of them had been pulling.

“Marcus!” Anabelle replied with excitement. “Yes, yes, I’m fine.”

“Marcus helped bring Rowan to the altar,” Mugma explained.

“There could be no better man to undertake the task,” Anabelle replied with a warm smile and sincere embrace of her friend.

“Now, we must get to work,” the elder stated, turning to the matter at hand.

Mugma took the ingredients and began the rite. The water was emptied into the Grendel Horn, with every last drop shaken from the flask. Next, Mugma placed a small plate below the blossom and carefully shook the ruby dust free before dumping the accumulated red pollen into the horn. Finally, she uncorked the vial of nectar and waited as the thick suspension dripped slowly into the caldron. After the vial was all but emptied, the elder used a long, thin spoon to scrape out the clinging remains and add it to the concoction.

Turning from the horn for a moment, Mugma referenced a leather-bound tome she had placed at Rowan’s feet. She turned the fragile parchment pages, searching the text for the information she needed. Anabelle looked on with nervous excitement. Her heart was pounding and she could feel the sweat of anxiety rising upon her forehead. She walked over to Rowan and clasped his cold palm in hers. Marcus followed and placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

After finding what she needed, Mugma procured a large iron ladle from a stack of supplies she had brought. The old woman lowered the instrument into the horn and began to swirl, mixing the potion clockwise for so many turns, before changing direction and counting out circles in the opposite direction. All the while, she mumbled an ancient language Anabelle could not comprehend.

As this ritual of movement and sound continued, Mugma’s turns became more frantic and her words became increasingly louder. Anabelle could see a glow emanating from with the Grendel Horn. Its mounting vibrancy grew with Mugma’s added intensity.

“Come, Anabelle! Come now!” the woman ordered, directing the princess to take hold of the ladle and join her in the brewing.

“Concentrate on Rowan,” Mugma instructed. “Dwell on your love for him. Get lost in its blissful splendor.”

The Willow Princess did just that. Closing her eyes, she visualized her husband alive and well. She pictured the two of them walking amongst the falling leaves of autumn, huddled together under a wool blanket, stoking a winter’s fire, gathering the fresh flowers of spring still fresh with dew, and laying side-by-side upon the warm, green hills of summer.

“That’s it, Anabelle!” Mugma said excitedly. “That’s it!”

The pair had reached an apex, and just as their arms were about to give out, the old woman halted their efforts.

“Anabelle,” her friend whispered, “We have it. We have Heaven’s Mead.”

Opening her eyes once more, the princess gazed into the Grendel Horn. There, in its ancient depths, glistened a potion of pure vitality. It smelled sweet, like honey, and within its golden aura, small crystals of red shone like tiny stars.

Mugma grabbed a nearby chalice.

“Marcus, tilt the horn,” she instructed, pointing towards a wide hinge built into the Grendel Horn’s stone brace.

Marcus was quick to the mechanism. Taking hold of a thick, wooden handle with his crushing grip, the Braun Prince threw his massive muscle into the job. The Grendel Horn had been left to decay for many years, and it was no easy task breaking through the generations of rusting neglect, but Marcus was up to the task. He lifted with all his might, and slowly the horn broke free of its atrophy, tilting on an axis, and emptying the Heaven’s Mead into the chalice Mugma held beneath. As the prince released the lever, the giant horn rocked back, snapping into place again with a powerful clang.

Mugma held the cup high and uttered the final, sealing words of the archaic ritual. Hanging just above the raised chalice, the last remains of the fading moon dissipated into the dying night. Anabelle could feel the growing warmth behind her as the sun’s orange rays cut a saffron sliver of light across the ocean’s calm surface.

“Anabelle, give this to Rowan,” the Willow Elder directed, holding the cup out for the princess to take.

As Anabelle reached for the prized culmination of all her hard work, the sought-after salvation of her love, and the promise of a continued future together, it was suddenly swiped away by the prodigious hand of Marcus Braun.

Anabelle looked to her friend in shocked silence.

As he placed his meaty palm overtop the cup, Marcus’s stone face slowly cracked a twisted grin.

“As much of a vermin Vadik is…or was based on your unaccompanied presence here, there is no denying he was right about one thing. A princess should marry a prince,” Marcus’ stated with a cruel haughtiness.

Anabelle could only stare at her friend in stunned disbelief. The horror playing out in front of her was born of the deepest deception. She struggled to regain herself, fighting the effects of paralyzing betrayal.

“Marcus…,” the Willow Princess strained to utter above mounting tears, “The Lord of Corts also spoke the truth when he said there were far greater demons in this world than himself.”

Marcus chuckled at the insinuation.

“It’s always been you and I, Anabelle. Ever since we were kids. But, I sat back. I waited. First I let that vile Vadik reveal himself, as I knew he would, and then before I could state my case, that serf Rowan snatched your favor. I was certain you’d tire of his clear weakness and dirt-handed upbringing, especially coming from such an esteemed house of nobility as that of the Willow Clan. But, alas, you were wooed by his shortcomings. I reasoned your predisposition for charity had clouded your judgment, but when talk of marriage became reality, I knew I had to act on your behalf—save you from a pathetic life of splinters and callouses.”

“Oh, Marcus, you speak of callouses when I believe it is callousness you know infinitely more about. Rowan was your friend!” Anabelle shouted. “I was your friend!”

“And, you’ll soon be my wife,” the Braun Prince chortled.

“What about Emilie, Marcus? The woman you married?”

“It seems she had the same aversion to libations as Rowan. Took far less in her case.”

Anabelle’s eyes narrowed. “You are a monster.”

“If that braggart, Vadik, had done what he said he could do, this wouldn’t be so dramatic. His venom would have been potent enough. He was all too eager to help, or course. The scorn you had branded deep into his heart still pained him. He knew you had forsaken him, and if your husband’s death could hurt you as intensely, he was game.

“Rowan should have passed swiftly,” Marcus continued. “Then, the two of us would have mourned at the fresh graves our spouses, and through shared sorrow, our hearts would finally have found one another. Unfortunately, this hag Mugma gave you hope, and Vadik doubled his failure when he was unable to lure you back without the Golden Nectar.”

With disgust, Marcus shot the Willow Elder an angry glare.

“But, you know what?” he ruminated aloud. “Perhaps this is all for the best. Not only will I finally have you, I will have the last dose of a legendary mead, one that will magnify my already considerable strength and inoculate my body against the inevitable demise of this frail land. I will live many, many years, rearing a race of man fortified to survive these increasingly turbulent times, and you shall be their mother.”

Marcus raised the cup to his lips, prepared to gorge himself on the magical elixir when, abruptly, he halted. His face contorted in a most painful expression as he let out a creeping howl of anger and pain.

Turning to the source of his distress, Marcus clutched the hilt of a knife which had been buried into his shoulder. Behind him, Mugma stood unflinching and bold.

“You pathetic witch!” the towering Braun Prince yelled at the diminutive woman.

With a chillingly slow pull, Marcus drew the blade from his body. He then carefully set the chalice of Heaven’s Mead upon the stone altar before stepping toward Mugma with an intimidating gate.

“Son of Braun, you are a disgrace!” Mugma shot back, spitting at the prince’s feet.

“Ha! That is a grand declaration from a withered shrew,” he replied as his grip tightened menacingly around the knife handle.

“Your time passed long ago, hag. Now I will be certain your body catches up.”

Marcus reached out and snatched the woman by her cloak, lifting her effortlessly off the ground and readying his blade for a fatal strike.

“Nooooo!” came a defiant yell, as Anabelle leapt upon Marcus’ back, causing him to stumble and drop Mugma to the mossy stone below.

Marcus, enraged, wheeled around, flinging the princess from his frame and sending her tumbling. The distraction provided enough time for Mugma to reclaim the chalice, but as she moved towards Rowan, she felt the heavy fist of Marcus strike her side. The blow was like a sledgehammer, crushing and solid, and the force caused the woman to crash into the Grendel Horn, dropping the chalice back into the ancient cauldron.

“Surprisingly quick, Mugma,” Marcus snickered. “But, not quick enough.”

Marcus pulled Mugma to her feet and, without further hesitation, drove the dagger into her chest. The Willow elder’s eyes grew wide and fearful. A low gasp seeped from her lips, and then she stirred no more. Marcus turned in the direction of Anabelle, still holding Mugma’s small, lifeless body in his hand. He smiled, and then dropped her corpse before the princess.

 

 

 

 

“All of this could have transpired differently, Anabelle,” stated the prince with insincere regret. “I wanted it to transpire differently. I wanted it to be clear and obvious that you and I were the only ones capable of saving our race. You, the most brilliant and caring, and I the strongest and most respected among our tribe. But you were blind, Anabelle. You could not see what was obviously your destiny. That blindness is why we find ourselves at this point. This is your fault, princess.”

Anabelle could not believe how twisted Marcus’ mind had become. His friendship was but a ruse, camouflage to cover his deep-seeded desires while remaining close and trusted to their source. Now, with the sun but moments from cresting, the princess found herself at the brink of ruin. Her oldest friend laid dead, her truest love but a single sunbeam away from finality. A myriad of emotions churned within her, coming in sweeping waves of sadness and sickness. Then, they crystallized into a single sensation, that of vengeful rage.

“I will never be your bride!” Anabelle shouted as she whipped a stone at Marcus, striking him in the face.

Marcus winced in pain, clutching a deep cut that had opened above his eye. Through a bloodied gaze, he could see Anabelle running full speed toward the cliff edge at the far side of the ceremonial grounds.

“Anabelle!” he called out with concern. “Anabelle, don’t be foolish!”

At the rate she was running, it was clear to Marcus what her intentions were. He gave chase, hoping to catch her in time.

“No! Don’t do it!” the prince pleaded, trailing the sprinting princess.

But, Anabelle did not halt, she did not slow. She continued to run haphazardly toward the edge. With her husband’s death all but assured, and the bleak reality of being a servant bride to an evil monster, in her mind there was no use remaining.

“Please, Anabelle! Pleeaassee, noooo!”

Marcus’s cries caught the ocean breeze, and nothing else. With one mighty and purposeful leap, the Willow Princess launched herself over the edge and toward the jagged rocks of the surf far below.

Grief-stricken, the Braun Prince cried aloud. This was not what he wanted. Anabelle had been his obsession for years. He never imagined she would choose suicide over a life with him. He could not believe it had come to this.

With the slow march of a ball-bearer, he stepped to the end of the line and gazed down to glimpse his lost love sinking beneath the sea. Instead, he felt his footing suddenly give way.

From a thin ledge just below, Anabelle grabbed Marcus’ ankles and pulled with all her weight. The surprising offensive caught the man unprepared and he tumbled, his large frame hurtling past her like an enormous boulder. In a last-ditch effort to save himself, Marcus grabbed onto the stone outcrop below Anabelle. His body jolted against gravity as it was left dangling above an assured death below.

“Anabelle, help me!” Marcus beseeched.

His words did not move her. She simply stood indifferent above him, looking into his scared eyes with an unwavering, cold stare.

“You must understand, it was all for our tribe! It was all for our future!” the Braun Prince offered in shallow appeal.

“You have no future, Marcus.”

Anabelle stuck down with her heel, dislodging the rock Marcus was clinging to. The earth gave way and the Braun Prince plunged towards the razor rocks and pulverizing swells of the sea. A moment later, his bloodied and broken body was consumed by the white caps, dragged off to the salty deep.

Reaching high above, Anabelle grabbed hold of the dirt and quickly dragged herself back to higher ground. She sprinted to the stone altar and rolled Rowan onto her shoulders. The upper arch of the sun was forming on the horizon. Within seconds, the fiery orb would lay claim to the heavens.

Struggling to move with Rowan’s weight on her back, Anabelle refused to collapse. She lurched forward, her legs straining. The end was within sight, and she would not be deterred. Inching closer and closer to the Grendel Horn, she carried her husband in a desperate race against the new day.

Finally, within range, the princess dropped Rowan at the mouth of the horn. She quickly peeled back his shroud and exposed his open mouth to the morning air. Then, she swiftly positioned herself at the wooden lever of the horn’s mountings.

The muscular Marcus had struggled to unseat the Grendel Horn, but Marcus was not fueled by an indomitable love. The Willow Princess was, and she used that to energize her efforts. With every last ounce of strength left in her body, and a rebellious cry to the heavens, Anabelle lifted the lever and titled the horn.

The sun had breached the sky. It radiated like a majestic halo behind Anabelle and illuminated the Heaven’s Mead, causing it to shine like a river of molten gold as it flowed between Rowan’s lips. Anabelle watched with unease as the mead cascaded down, bathed in dawn’s blonde light.

She had done all she could do, and with her strength drained, the princess released the lever, causing the horn to rock back into its seated position.

Now awash in the bright glow of morning, Rowan’s body remained motionless. His chest did not move. His eyes did not open. She had not given him the dose in time. Anabelle crawled to her husband’s side, tearful and defeated. Nuzzling into his unresponsive body, she realized she had failed. It all ended here, quiet and broken. She closed her eyes and drifted into the darkness of misery.

A weight suddenly fell across her back. She peered through her misty lashes and saw Rowan’s arm draped across her, clutching her and pulling her closer to him. Wiping away the tears, his visage became clear to Anabelle. His eyes were open. His smile was wide. They kissed as the warm sea breeze washed over them.

 

 

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The Reunion

With Heaven’s Mead coursing through his veins and the loving, healing care of his wife, Rowan Reignview eventually regained his full strength. During his recovery, Anabelle regaled him with stories of her adventures across Tora, the challenges she overcame and the inhabitants she met. The pair also visited Mugma’s grave several times, paying solemn respect to a friend who had given them everything through her unshakable hope and vast wisdom.

Days became weeks, weeks months, and in the waning days of summer, the tribe of man gathered once again in celebration. This time, it was not the annual marriage ceremony that united them, it was the birth of a child, Ren Reignview, first son of Anabelle and Rowan.

The tale of Anabelle’s deeds had quickly grown to legend among the clans, and the couple’s already esteemed reputation grew even greater as a result. With that came the lauded arrival of Rein, a child standing as an irrefutable symbol of the power of love and the indomitable hope of all mankind.

The festival marking his birth rang with music and laughter as the four clans gathered in the shire square. Amongst the merriment, Rein was held by many and blessed by more. Even despite losing a son of their own, the Corts, too, honored the newest Reignview. They had always known of Vadik’s penchant for dark ways, and when the end came, they accepted the karma.

The Brauns were less forgiving. While they attended the celebration out of respect, some of their clan kept themselves at arms’ length. A contingent among them could not fully believe that the affable Marcus harbored such ill intent, but, Anabelle’s word did give them pause, and as such, they joined in the festival, if not whole-heartedly.

Rein continued to pass from one fawning embrace to another until he finally found himself, escorted by his parents, among the gathered group of clan leaders. Each, in turn, marked the infant with a unique sign of good fortune, but just as the final gift was bequeathed, an armor- clad warrior regretfully interrupted the occasion.

Between rapid breaths, the border sergeant relayed a dire development. Three armies had amassed at the edge of Markim’s Forest. All came under their standards and each remained at a fixed position, just shy of encroaching fully into the province of the Eastern Shore.

The sergeant instructed his battalion to uphold protocol and not open any sort of dialogue. They simply fanned their numbers in defense, doing their best to cover all three fronts with at least the semblance of a resistance.

Harboring a strain of judgment against Anabelle for the loss of his son, Maximus Braun, chief of the Braun clan, leveraged the development to cast blame toward the Willow Princess.

“Anabelle broke the treaty with her foolhardy quest,” he bellowed, “and now the tribes of Tora have come to repay the treachery! Sergeant, rally the guard, draw your swords and raise your shields to the ready!”

Maximus’ words were delivered quickly and definitively, and before debate could spring amongst the consort of leaders, the sergeant moved quickly to the task. Word spread among the gathered revelers, and enlisted men and woman departed with haste to prepare for war. The festival’s happy atmosphere fell immediately grim.

Putting aside any misgivings, the chiefs of the Corts and the Greys followed Maximus’ lead and headed off to rally their warriors. Lady Welltress Song, Queen of the Willows, remained behind, unsure if such aggression was the best course of action.

Anabelle was certain it was not. Handing a sleeping Rein to her mother, she grabbed hold of Rowan and urged him to follow her to the front lines. If she could do anything to disarm the combustible situation and avoid a cataclysmic war, she would, even if it meant turning herself over to the aggrieved as reparations for her trespass.

Once on horseback, it was not long before Anabelle and Rowan reached the edge of the frontier. From their position atop a grassy knoll, they could see the four armies converged at the perimeter of a grove. From the north end, the Doppel Beasts huddled in a large mass of white, their gigantic clubs of stone strapped to their backs. In the west, the princess struggled to make out the exact number of Fang. She could see a few slithering between the pines but knew their camouflage and technique hid many more among the lush trees of the forest. Lined up in evenly spaced columns to the south, the shiny exoskeletons of the Bree warriors glimmered in the sun. Their numbers were few, but they clearly stood at the ready, prepared to engage at a moment’s notice.

All three armies were confronted by a growing company of men in the east. The resistance was abuzz with action as officers on horseback arranged their squads into positions they felt would best serve the unified defense.

The rising tension was palpable, but Anabelle knew what she needed to do. With the encouragement of Rowan, the mounted pair galloped down the hillside, through the closing ranks of their tribe, and into the center of the grove, now surrounded by all four factions.

All eyes fell upon them as the leaders of each army looked for a sign that would call for escalation. It was not long before a move was made. A large Doppel Beast broke from formation and approached Anabelle. She signaled back to the tribe of men to hold, for she could see the beast was a familiar face, that of the Doppel Chieftain. He walked out alone, and, in silence, laid before the princess a gift. It was her shield, repaired and without blemish. Anabelle bowed her head in a show of thanks, and the chief smiled back.

No sooner had the Doppel Chief placed her father’s shield at Anabelle’s feet, that a Fang warrior slithered out from the brush. He too approached without an escort and was no stranger to the Willow Princess. It was the Fang she had spoken with in their desert abode, and he came bearing her father’s sword, polished and pristine. Handing it to Anabelle, she once again nodded in gratitude.

Finally, the third party made its introduction. Coming as a whisper at first, the telepathic bond grew strong in seconds. It was the Bree Queen. Flanked by two warriors, she approached.

Do you have our mead, princess? the Queen asked.

I do, Anabelle responded while drawing out a tiny glass vial lashed to a length of leather from beneath her robe.

The princess had stayed true to her word and was able to preserve a small dose of the magical elixir, leftover in the pit of the Grendel Horn.

She handed the vial to the Queen whose joy was immediately perceived in both their minds. The Bree ruler then motioned to her entourage. From amongst the tall oaks, an insect warrior guided forth a most miraculous sight. Well and strong, it was Sigmund.

It took many days, and many treatments, the Queen explained, but our little ones of light were able to heal your hooved friend, Anabelle.

The princess leapt from her saddle and ran to her horse, grabbing hold of his side as the stallion whinnied in delight. The reunion was second only to that shared with Rowan.

The four members of the four tribes remained in the grove, taking in the moment and relishing in a renewed respect for one another. It was a moment many feared would never be seen again, but Anabelle’s quest had broken down those long-established barriers and reignited a unity once thought to have gone extinct.

It was not long after this display that dialogue was restored among the tribes, and soon thereafter, the traditional, monthly Moon Festival and brewing of Heaven’s Mead was resurrected. All tribes contributed to the cause. The Doppels brought their water, the Fang their spice, a remaining group of Bree, who had volunteered to stay in Tora while others traveled home, brought their honey, and man provided access to the Grendel Horn, now returned to its former state of reverence.

Through this shared celebration, the flora and fauna of Tora were rejuvenated as the four tribes worked in harmony to heal the wounds of past conflict. With each passing day, the bonds of life strengthened and the land blossomed once more.

 

 

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About the Author

Jeremy Neeley is a graphic and multimedia designer who is driven to writing when an idea creeps into his mind and cannot find any other way out. In addition to The Willow Princess, he has digitally-published two prior novels, Infinite Meat and The Royal Perfects. He sincerely thanks his family, friends, and the internet community for their support and feedback and is very appreciative of the time they spend traveling through his tales.

 

Mr. Neeley currently lives in Pleasant Hills, Pa., with his wife and three children.

 

Please connect with the author on Facebook at:

http://www.theroyalperfects.com

 

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Continued love for my four great joys in life,

Amanda, Libby, Abby and Timmy

 

 


The Willow Princess: A Reignview Tale

  • Author: Jeremy Neeley
  • Published: 2017-09-23 14:20:13
  • Words: 31783
The Willow Princess: A Reignview Tale The Willow Princess: A Reignview Tale