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'Destiny' Ice and Fire (book cover)

Author's Note Edit

This is my One Year Adventure Novel contest story, the one I've been going on about. I'm afraid it's not moving super fast right now, I still have a lot of book work to do, but I wrote a fragment of the first chapter. I want the rough draft done by early June, which means sooner or later, this may slow my progress on 'Tears of the Ocean'. Never fear, both will be finished ;) I love them both .. but sadly I can't really write them both at the same time. I sort of can. But not once I really get going on this.

So! 'Destiny' is first of, dedicated to Astar Goldenwing. Because she is a great friend and a constant support to me. And it's dedicated to my parents, and my OYAN teacher, Mr. S. :D

And I will add more later. I have made Destiny Steampunk now, so I reeeeally need some new cover art XD

Here's some music for it :) [1][2]

Chapter 1 Dark Horizons Edit

I sat in the rather worn velvet seat, staring at the scenery sweeping by me, outside the train. My nose and the side of my face were pressed against the window; I could see the faint reflection of my blue eyes, iridescent gray fur, and black bangs in it.

The world outside was gleaming white with snow, clean, untouched, and lovely. I wished I could actually touch such beautiful snow, unlike the poor, muddy kind in the stop we had just left, trampled by over a thousand boots.

Mountainous cliffs rose up above the old train, sections of them cold and gray, other pieces covered in snow.

“Coffee? Tea? They have either.”

I looked up, tearing my gaze from the outside, though I could probably gaze blankly at it forever.

“Humm ..” I yawned. “Coffee.”

Martes sat in the seat next to me, handing me the cup. “Ok, I’ll take the tea in that case.”

He adjusted his jaunty black hat, taking a drink. I tasted my own, making a wry face .. it was watered down, not dark and bitter like I preferred. Still, it might keep me awake and it was better than nothing, and honestly, I was surprised a train would have any such luxuries at all.

I looked over at my best friend, noting how his silky, dark brown tinted ears were cocked back a little. I couldn’t resist teasing him a little. “I thought you were the one who liked weak tea.”

“It’s not that.” Martes licked some off his brown muzzle. “I think it’s stale. It sort of tastes like the hay the cab horses eat smells.”

The pine marten scowled at his cup, before setting it on the armrest between us. “You know, I think I’m good.”

I shrugged, half-asleep and unable to put much of any emotion into my words. “With the war, you can’t expect much more unless you eat off the king’s table.”

“Which we do.” Martes pointed out. “I suppose we’re spoiled.”

I had often thought that. Part of me felt guilty that we lived as lavishly as we did, while I knew so many practically starved day by day .. but the other part wanted to turn away and enjoy what little there was to enjoy. I was sheltered, aside from the beggars I saw on my way to and from work, I could nearly ignore the poverty of Svellcrest, and all of Asguard.

I should not, I knew I should not .. but deep down, I was afraid to do anything else. Why I was, I could not tell even myself. Martes and I had often talked of joining the elite forces when we completed our training, to defend our land, but that seemed a long ways off. Or at least we pretended it was.

Really, I knew, and he as well, it might be in the next two years or so. But part of me wanted to keep what little comfort I had for as long as I could. I did want to fight, I did want a challenge, and I did want conflict .. yet I couldn’t decide between the two. Peace or war. Comfort or pain.

I knew I would eventually have to make that choice. But I could ignore it for now, and so I did, like I did about everything.

“Hello .. is Azul in there, I’d like to speak with her.”

I shook my head, staring into Martes large, dark eyes, ones that made him look younger than he really was. “What about?”

“You were muttering to yourself.”

“What’s new there?” I couldn’t resist the sarcasm in my voice.

He raised an eyebrow, before I sighed. “I feel like a loser.”

Martes made his best unconvinced face, a very good one, at that. “How come?”

I never got a chance to answer him, as Konan, a middle aged cat and a sort of chaperon to us at the moment, walked into the car. Martes looked confused. “Where’s Icicle?”

“In his cage, where he belongs while we’re on the train.” He sat down across the aisle, face blank as always, but I noticed his paw curl gently around his six-shooter.

“Is something wrong?” I could not help asking, Konan had been a faithful friend to me since my parents died years ago, and I saw him like an additional uncle to my real one, the king.

He looked up, shaking his head. “Not yet, but Esmerld commonly targets modes of transportation.”

I was not convinced. “Come on .. we’re still in the heart of Asguard. They can’t reach us here.”

“Oh can’t they, young lady?”

I looked around to see the shabby snowshoe hare sitting a few rows behind us, the only other occupant of the car we were in, aside from the two guards standing on either end. This creature wore the torn and patched dress of a mechanic, and one of his dingy white ears was half gone. My statement must have upset him, for he spoke firmly. “Those scum can attack wherever they please, dependin’. I suppose you are too young to remember when they invaded the capitol, eh?”

This time, it was he that had touched a soft spot. My ears flicked back, and my voice was tight as I tried to keep anger from it. “Oh I remember.”

In truth, the memories were faded, and I was glad. That was the night I first saw death .. the night my father had died to save me .. the night I first smelled shed blood. Despite the years, it was hard to forget.

“Well then, don’t underestimate them. Learn the first time.” The hare seemed a little disgruntled by my hard tone, as he was many years my senior.

I wanted to counter that I had, but I knew, despite the fact my status was far higher than his, age was highly respected in Asguard .. so many died young for various reasons. So I simply nodded, and he returned to the tattered newspaper he was reading .. probably from several weeks back.

It was cool in the train car, and I turned the collar of my black jacket up, before pulling my fluffy blue-gray, white-tipped tail into my lap and burying my paws in the thick fur. I leaned back against the seat, finishing my coffee and looking out at the sweeping landscape .. so wonderful, so different from dark, hazy Svellcrest.

My eyes began to close, before there was a sudden jolt, the squeal of brakes, and hissing steam. Martes’s tea fell into my lap, soaking the front of my short, dusky turquois skirt completely. I made a face as he grabbed the now empty cup, and the old hare stood up. “What is this? This can’t be the Winterdell stop, we aren’t even close!”

Konan stood quickly, tail switching as it always did when he was unsure. “I don’t know ..”

“Let’s find out.” I stood, pulling my pistol from under my coat tails, just in case.

At this second another guard burst into the front of the car. “Bandits! Raiders .. we’re under attack!”

His two companions tensed instantly, pulling guns from holsters as Konan spoke quickly. “What rank?”

“Jundi, I think. Maybe a few Rytsar. No Elite of any kind, but even at that ..”

“I know.” Konan replied.

I knew too. Even the lowest ranks of Esmerld could inflict terrible damage. I could hear the faint sounds of fighting from outside as Konan turned to Martes. “Protect Azul ...”

I didn’t wait for the rest of the sentence, just ran toward the back of the car .. I knew what I had to do first. I would have to reload my gun after six shots, and there wouldn’t be time .. I needed my sword from the baggage car.

“Azul stop!” I could hear Konan yelling behind me.

I flattened my ears. “Fight them, I’ll join you soon!”

I shoved past the guard and out onto the platform. The train wasn’t moving, so jumping to the other car wasn’t an issue. I shoved open the door and was greeted by a screech from Icicle, who seemed glad to see me, tired of his tarnished cage. I didn’t hesitate, just pulled the door open. “Hey buddy, come on, I need you!”

He hopped onto my forearm, and his weight really was astounding, as I was reminded now. I caught sight of the glint of my sword hilt under Martes’s old carpetbag, and yanked it out and from its sheath in the same moment.

Martes jumped into the car at that moment, glaring at me instantly. “Oh no, Konan says ..”

“I don’t care what Konan says! This is life or death Martes, and I am old enough to be responsible for my own decisions; let me pass.”

“Nope.”

I sighed. “Very well, you asked for it.”

He had time to tense, before I shouldered him powerfully out of the way, yelling, “You can die fighting or die hiding, make up your mind!”

As these words left my lips I landed in the soft, cold snow, having jumped, and Icicle flew up with a squawk.

I could hear clashing steal and a few gunshots toward the front of the train, and as I ran through the snow, Icicle flying above me, I thought on my training of Esmerld.

The rank Jundi is the lowest in the army, they are the pawns that take the brunt of the battle. They are normally accompanied by at least some Rytsar, the next highest rank. All fight brutally and mercilessly, skill level is the only difference.

“I pray there are no Elites.” I muttered, as I swung around the front of the train, my boots digging furrows in the ankle-deep snow and rocks beneath.

On the instant I was faced by a burly weasel, and I could have kicked myself. What had I spent time in tactical battle training for anyway, if I didn’t use it? Stay low, always stay low!

I ducked as his sword whizzed above my head, holding my pistol out and pulling the trigger .. at such close range, nobody could miss. He collapsed as a sable jumped at me, poleaxe ready.

I dropped to the snow, shooting again, my ears conditioned to the deafening bang. He fell over me, axe falling to my side, and I seized it, using the pole to catapult him away.

There wasn’t time to move, honestly, I never saw who shot at me. There was a flash, the clap of the gun going off, and snow flew into the air beside me .. the next second there was a sting like the lash of a whip on my cheek, and a spontaneous flood of sticky warmth.

I let out a tiny yelp, even as I used all four paws to throw myself forward, my hackles raising in pained aggression. I swung my sword with a two handed grip, slashing through the fur and flesh of the nearest Esmerldian, though I landed hard, and rolled to avoid whatever type of weapon might be descending on me.

As I shoved myself onto my paws, I froze .. I was looking down the shaft of a wickedly barbed arrow, aimed directly at me. I threw myself to the side as the arrow whizzed past me angrily, tearing through my jacket, my fur, and my shoulder.

The flash of pain drove me forward as Icicle fell about my attacker’s head, clawing viciously. I plowed the beast over, and his bow flew from his paw. I had my sword pinned across his throat in a split second, and I probably would have shot him then and there, but I suddenly came to the understanding I had lost my pistol somewhere along the way.

The beast I had bowled over me stared at me for a moment, and for that one moment, I did not see the battlefield around me, I only saw his bright emerald eyes. I could not look away, honestly, I was incapable to do so.

He was a fox like myself, only with fur the color of fire. Or carrots. Or the bright orange of badly rusted metal. In contrast, his hair was like bright sunlight, and it spilled out behind him a decent ways.

“You’re not an Esmerldian. Thought you were. Now let me up.”

I was broken from my frozen state, and I growled in his face. “Yea right, you’ll kill me!”

He shoved the blade of my sword away with his bare paws, ignoring the blood that spilled because of it, and he threw me off. “No, but they might. Get out of here, Esmerld spares no one. I have a lady to protect!”

I had fallen, but now I pulled myself to my paws. The fighting had thinned, most of the Esmerld soldiers lay dead around me, though some of the guards and passengers did too. Everybeast was fighting, Martes, Konan, even the old white hare.

Now I could see that there were others fighting, not just my people and Esmerld. One of these was a tall weasel in a long coat. She spun around, cutting one attacker down with a long, thin rapier, and walked forward.

She strode like she owned the battlefield .. like she was invincible .. afraid of nothing, and maybe she was. For those fierce soldiers now fled from her, their numbers and more than likely their moral quite diminished.

In fact, they all fled now, leaving the silence of death behind them.

I felt my legs tremble beneath me, and suddenly, I felt sick. I had seen death, but I had never killed before now. Maybe that was the reason.

Or maybe it was the fact my left arm was practically soaked with blood.

The pain suddenly hit me hard, and I clamped my right paw on the jagged tear across my shoulder, biting my lip, but not holding in the groan that escaped me.

Martes was next to me in the next second, looking worried. “Are you ok .. that’s a dumb question .. of course you aren’t .. here, let me ..”

I shook him gently off, my voice strained. “No, I’m fine .. I’m fine ..”

I tried to take a step toward the train, but my knees buckled, they wouldn’t hold me. I fell face first in the snow, and the world swam.

Could I hear Konan .. maybe even feel his paws on me? Was that Icicle’s screeching that made my head ache?

That silly bird .. wonderful, but such a nuisance when he wanted to be ...

><><

“I’m honestly sorry .. promise .. will she be alright?”

The first voice I heard was vaguely familiar from somewhere .. but I couldn’t place it, something that irritated me beyond description. I despised it when I could remember having heard something, but not remember where.

The reply was obviously Martes, however, and he sounded angry, something that was odd for him. “You should know, you shot her, you .. beast!”

“I swear I didn’t mean to!” The voice I could not place defended whoever it’s owner was. “It was an accident; I thought she was from Esmerld.”

“That’s the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard!” Martes’s voice was harsh, and I slowly opened my eyes, to see the aisle of the train at an odd angle, the pine marten and the fox who had shot me in the battle standing in it .. my friend aggressively berating the stranger.

I cast a glance at my arm, to see it was bandaged tightly, and I slowly pulled myself into a sitting position. “What .. happened?”

Martes bounded to my side like a cat escaping a bath. “Azul! Don’t do that to me, ever again!”

“What? Push you into a rack of shelves?” I allowed sarcasm to seep into my voice, remembering how I had gotten past my friend in the baggage car.

He looked blank for a moment, like he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. “No, almost die!”

I raised an eyebrow. “I got shot in the arm. That doesn’t qualify almost dying, does it? Please stop being hysterical?”

Honestly, he was freaking me out. Making it feel like I really had just teetered on the edge of death .. I hadn’t really, had I? No .. no of course not.

I spoke to take my mind out of that train of imagination. I had a vivid one, and almost anything would trigger it .. from the possible life story of my old china doll to a dark shadow cast in an empty hallway.

“How long was I out?”

“Oh, only a few minutes. Ten or so .. something like that ..” Martes really was a nervous wreck, from the way he was talking in fragmented sentences and spending way too much time polishing his goggles.

I had to remind myself that while I had seen death at a very young age, Martes never had. The guilt of killing another creature and my injury, combined with all the death inflicted upon innocents in the battle, must be too much for him.

My legs were unsteady themselves; the amazing rush of adrenaline I had when fighting had drained away, leaving me feeling like a limp piece of over-cooked pasta. Still, Martes looked wane .. and I didn’t see Konan anywhere, just the old hare, trying to engross himself in his newspaper, and the dog fox my friend had been yelling at when I awoke.

“Hey .. do you need some coffee? The tea didn’t sound like it was worth much, but you look sick.”

“I am sick.” Martes shivered, and I realized the train car was even colder than before the attack.

The fox in the aisle spoke up. “I’ll get you some .. where would it be?”

I glared at him, and once again, his gaze caught mine. Once again, I was captivated .. frozen. Somehow, for a moment, my suspicion eased .. then it escalated again as I broke through whatever it was that kept me staring into his deep green eyes.

“Who are you anyway? Where do you come from, and why did you shoot me? And you don’t think I can get a cup of coffee for my own friend?”

He looked surprised, before sweeping off his feathered hat and bowing rather elegantly. “I am Ronza, an ambassador from Eastgate. Owe you my humblest apologies miss, of course. I certainly did not mean to shoot you .. in the rush of battle, it can be hard to discern friend from foe, and I hadn’t had the distinct pleasure of ever meeting you before.”

His explanation made sense, but I didn’t relax. He was the kind of guy that probably could pick up a girlfriend anywhere he went, what with his striking blonde hair, stunning eyes, and easy going demeanor. Maybe it was that realization that made me instantly dislike him, or maybe it was the way he made me feel.

Like my stomach was tied in a knot. It was the feeling I had in dark hallways, or in high places, or when I couldn’t get to sleep at night.

I realized I was staring at him, and the most irritating thing of all, was that he didn’t seem to mind. “And what’s your name?”

My voice was pretty cold, admittedly; maybe a few degrees colder than he deserved. “Azul. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to get my friend some coffee.”

“No need to strain your arm like that, after all, I do feel responsible for it. I’ll get the coffee.” His smile was far too sincere for my liking.

Yea, sure he will. He’ll probably poison it too.

I shook my head, both to say no and to knock my insane imagination back into place. “Really, I’m perfectly fine. I’ll be back in a minute, you just rest Martes.”

The pine marten leaned against the worn velvet bench and heaved a sigh. “Thanks.”

I’d hoped Ronza .. if I had remembered his name right .. would not follow me, but he was the sort of irritating beast that stuck around. “I feel like I should repay you in some way.”

I really, really wanted to whirl around and growl, “Start by leaving me alone!” .. but I remembered what he’d said about being an ambassador from Eastgate, and the last thing Asguard needed was for their best trading partner to be offended by the king’s disagreeable niece.

“I don’t need anything.”

He did not seem to get my clipped undertone, and dug in his purse, pulling out a pawful of gold coins. “Honestly, I’d hate to be left with a stinging conscience. Will you take some money as token of my apology?”

I stared at the golden gleam in his paw .. I might have that much, but it was tarnished, chipped and old. This was brand new .. it looked freshly minted, and for one second, I was tempted. But I remembered my pride in time. “Sir, I am of royal blood, in direct relation to the king; I am his niece. I do not need money.”

I said these words with some condescending, though they were a downright lie. There were always uses for extra funds, but royalty could not accept such things.

This caused honest surprise in his eyes, and he bowed again, taking my paw. “I am sorry milady, I didn’t know ..”

I pulled my paw away before he could kiss it, there was no one watching and having my paw kissed by admiring males was something I truly despised, tradition or no tradition. “It doesn’t matter.”

I pushed open the door of the train car, jumping across to the other and hurrying in, hoping he would not follow. My arm ached dully from the movement, but it didn’t hurt too much. Maybe it was one of those injuries that bled a lot, but wasn’t really that bad.

There were quite a few beasts in this car, including the tall weasel lady I had seen in the raid. A wiry ring-tailed cat stood beside her, cradling his bandaged arm, and two other strangers were nearby. Konan and the guards were talking to them, and I slipped forward to listen in.

“How long until help gets here?” The weasel sounded .. almost haughty. At least, haughty was the only word I could find to describe her.

Yet it was deeper than that. While she obviously took great care with her appearance, she also could fight, and well. Perhaps haughty was not the right word .. maybe it was really commanding.

Konan answered her stiffly. “I am not sure milady, as soon as possible.”

The weasel looked around, stating, “There are wounded that need help, my creatures, and your fellow citizens. How long do you think it will take?”

“Five to ten more minutes at least, Lady.” One of the guards answered. “We are almost halfway to Winterdell. I propose we all settle down. I will post my guards to watch for further attacks, and any who know healing can see to those badly hurt.”

Konan looked to the beast. “If I can be of service?”

The guard nodded. “Yes, protect Lady Azul.”

I felt sort of irritated. Why was it everyone seemed to think I was in need of protection? It was an inescapable bane of being related to royalty.

The weasel looked around, frowning. “Ronza? Where are you?”

He slipped from behind me, hurrying to her and bowing stiffly. She had a way of making creatures stiff, it seemed. “Milady Anirah?”

I turned away, looking for any signs of the coffee I told Martes I’d bring him, and was spotted by Konan. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine. Where’s the coffee?” I liked Konan to treat me like an adult, not worry about me. After all, didn’t I do an adult’s work, to some degree at least?

“I’ll get it.” Konan waved me off. “How’s Martes?”

I shrugged. “Sort of in shock, I guess.”

“Go look after him, and stay put. I’m in enough trouble already.”

“Konan, don’t worry about my uncle.” I stated. “I got him to agree to this trip, it wasn’t your idea. If he’s mad at you he has no reason to be, and I’ll convince him otherwise .. after all, I’m tired of being sheltered by everyone.”

I made an exasperated face. “If I convinced him to let me go with you, then he can be mad at me. I’m tired of not getting the blame for the things I do! If I did it, no one else should suffer for it. And I’ll see he leaves you alone.”

I realized I was snapping at him, and maybe that’s why his eyes darkened a little. “Azul. Leave relations between your uncle and I alone. There is much you don’t understand.”

“Why won’t you tell me?” I demanded. “He has no reason to shun you, you’ve been nothing but loyal! He rewards others, but never you .. it’s rotten of him, really ..”

My older friend cut me off in the instant. “I said enough. Go back to your seat and never judge your uncle for the way he treats me. I do not want to hear it, go.”

I shot him a rebellious glare, but I knew he was serious. I made my way back to the other train car and Martes, who was starting to look considerably better. At least he was feeling well enough to notice I was empty-pawed. “Hey, where’s my coffee?”

“Konan’s getting it.” I sat rather sullenly by the window, blowing a frosty sigh onto the glass.

“What’s up?”

I traced a squiggly line down the patch of condensation, looking at the fields of snow through it. “Nothing.”

Martes was not convinced. “Come on, you’re mad about something.”

“I’m thinking.”

“About the thing you’re mad at.” Martes always had a smart reply.

I scowled, digging in the bag at my feet. “Forget it, ok?”

He smirked. “And who’s going to make me?”

“I won’t help you with your glider if you don’t.” I threatened.

“Ooohh I’m so terrified.” Martes put on a feigned look of horror.

I snickered at his façade, and we both laughed. “Ok, fine. I take it back.”

I knew he’d probably given up finding out the reason for my sulking anyway, as he wasn’t all that interested in the first place. I sulked about a lot of things. Konan appeared to give Martes his coffee, then sat on the other side of the aisle and stared out his window.

I let my dog-eared, battered journal fall open in my lap, picking up my pen and looking at my last line of writing, wondering where to begin. Martes looked over my shoulder. “Need help?”

“No.” I didn’t like to admit that he had ideas that were better than mine sometimes.

“Come on, you’re stuck and I know it.”

I rolled my eyes. “I am not stuck.”

Martes shrugged. “As you say. What’s Aurora up to today?”

“When the castle is attacked.” I fiddled with my pen.

“Oh come on!” Martes sighed. “Didn’t you write that part last week?”

I made a face. “Yes, but it was awful.”

It was his turn to roll his eyes. “I thought it was fine. You’re way too critical of yourself, so there. I’ll leave you alone so you can get something done for once.”

He turned away, and I allowed myself to be pulled into my own daydreams I was putting on paper.

She ran down the corridor, keeping a tight hold of the sword .. they could not be allowed to find the great symbol of Asguard. They did not know where she was, but they knew she was there, that was certain.

The stone halls of the castle echoed with the sounds of battle as the snow-white vixen slipped into an alcove, getting her breath back. She would have to use the caves to escape, but how would she get there? Esmerld would have patrols searching everywhere!

But the sword could not be found, it would give Esmerld exactly what they wanted. Aurora bolted back into the open, and regretted it. Two guards froze upon seeing her, drawing their swords.

“The princess! Drop the sword and come quietly, we might let you live.”

Aurora snarled. “You will never get this!”

She turned and fled the other direction, the two hard on her tail ...

There was a sudden jolt, and I looked up from my writing as a hiss of steam filled the air again. One of the guards stepped into our car, remarking, “No need for alarm, they’ve sent another engine and healers, as well as more guards. We’ll be heading toward the Svellcrest stop as soon they’ve worked out switching onto the other tracks.”

He hurried out again as others entered, taking their places at both entrances. I slowly set my pen down, looking at Martes, then Konan.

The cat looked at me, shaking his head. “The trip to Winterdell is off Azul, I’m sorry. If Esmerld would attack once, they’ll attack again. It’s not safe. There hadn’t been raids this far in for years, but it seems they have the upper paw at the moment.”

I didn’t answer for a moment, before I snapped my book shut, putting it back in my satchel. “Great, back to dirty, hopeless Svellcrest, where I’ll never be more than a king’s niece and a waiter. I should have known.”

“What are you looking for, Azul?” Konan met my intense gaze without flinching as the train started to move. “What did you think two weeks above ground would really give you?”

“I don’t know. Freedom, maybe.” I scowled, keeping my voice low. “Is it really that hard to see Konan? I hate living in that soot factory. I hate being told what to do all the time. I hate having no time to myself. I wanted to get away from it.”

Martes shrugged. “That was kind of my idea too. But you know .. we’d have to go back.”

“Yea. Maybe it’s best we didn’t get far. We might as well get used to it forever, or at least I better. Uncle’s going to make me choose my profession for good when I get back. I know what he wants, he wants me to be an advisor to Blue.” I slumped against the seat, growling. “So that’s that. Good-bye life, I’ll be miserable forever, and Martes can tinker in my basement. Yay.”

I pulled my goggles over my eyes since I didn’t have a hat on to serve the purpose, and no one spoke, probably because they knew I was in a foul humor and decided to leave me alone. That was good, I didn’t want to talk to any one anyway.

“Bah, an advisor.” I muttered to myself. “I’d rather get blasted to pieces by Esmerld. It’d be more exciting.”

The journey home was made in silence, at least silence of voices. The clacking of the train wheels, the wind sweeping across the cars, and even the crackle of a newspaper all created a strange rhythm that slowly lulled me to sleep, because the next thing I knew, we’d reached the Svellcrest stop and Martes was shaking me awake.

I nodded blearily at him, yawning and picking up my satchel. My uncle would likely be overprotective of me for the next few months, like he usually was after I almost got killed. The last time I’d got in a fight with some thieves on the street, and he’d monitored every move I made for weeks afterward.

All it really did was frustrate me.

I stepped out on the platform, drawing my coat tighter about my shoulders to ward off the cold mountain air.Even above ground, Svellcrest was a center of activity. Horses pulled cabs through streets packed with trampled snow, beasts hurried about on foot, and there were guards everywhere.

The ancient stone wall from the olden times still stood, though only the watchtowers were kept in good repair. The heavy metal portcullis graced the main gateway, and while dented and crumbling in places, the massive walls still stood whole. Factories had taken the places of dwellings inside, and the great castle stood atop it all, the blue flag of Asguard fluttering proudly atop it’s time-worn turrets. It was once the residence of the royal family, but it had since been turned into a military base for the large group of soldiers that protected Svellcrest, the most densely populated city in Asguard.

“Hey! Cabby!” Martes waved one of them over to the edge of the stop, and I recognized him, a young bay who normally frequented the underground. The most memorable thing about him was likely the bright crimson points on his black mane and tail, it made him hard to forget. His brown eyes were dull as he stopped to let us in, and he looked over his shoulder as we did, asking, “Where to?”

“The palace.” Konan ordered.

The bay tossed his head to show he understood, before turning and trotting through the gates, shod hooves making metallic clunks on the snow-covered cobblestone.

Above ground, Svellcrest looked like a conglomeration of factories, devoid of civilian life. But while the air was clearer up here, it was true that a strange sort of life thrummed through the real city below us. The cab horse took us down the stone-enforced tunnel leading home .. hadn’t I just come up this shaft early this morning? Yes, it was the same one.

The white of a mountain sky faded to darkness lit by dimly burning lights rimming the top of the tunnel’s wall, and the horse’s hooves echoed eerily. At least five guards stood at the entrance, but they did not detain us, as they were mostly there to observe.

The tunnel stretched a good ways, finally opening into a vast cavern, so vast it really didn’t seem like a cave except for the lack of light and thick air. Cobblestone streets stretched before us, the main ones lit continually by black iron lampposts. Houses, most of them large buildings with many homes in each, rose high above the streets, like towers of brick, old metal, and dirty glass. Shadowed alleys were formed between them, the residences of the beggars and petty criminals, untouched by the street lamps.

The street our horse was taking intersected with quite a few others as he approached the inner caverns, the home of the moderately well to do. Calling anyone rich in Asguard was laughable.

Other carts and cabs filled the streets, as horseless vehicles were banned in Lower Svellcrest due to the fumes they put off. The caves were ventilated, yes, but keeping the air as clean as at all possible was crucial.

Houses of the inner caverns were nicer .. actually designed to hold one family, though most had been converted into flats. Toward the center of the cavern, the dwellings became close to mansions, old, worn, but still grandiose. Some were now multiple homes, some were places of business. We passed the original town square, used as a market, with its once glorious and now crumbling fountain.

The palace sat amidst the crumbling echoes of a magnificent city, it too an echo of our past glory. It was made almost entirely of metal, inside and out, with a stone foundation and outer courtyard wall. The cab horse stopped at the well-guarded gate, giving us a questioning look. Konan nodded to him as he stepped out. “That will do.”

I got out as he pulled five tarnished coins from his pocket and dropped them in the satchel the horse had around his neck. Martes jumped out after me as the cab moved away, its owner intent on finding a new costumer.

The four guards at the courtyard gate looked rather confused, but once Konan explained what had happened, and that Captain Vivere was on his way, escorting ambassadors from Eastgate, they led us in and dispatched one creature to bring the message to my uncle.

I cast a glance at my bandaged arm and prepared myself for the lecture I was doomed to face. The guards let us into the great hall, where the intricate engraving of Asguard’s three gods spread magnificently across the floor, and my uncle hurried down the steps of the dais. I stepped forward, standing tall, every inch of five feet .. I was tall for a vixen, and I liked it.

My uncle’s stormy blue eyes were worried, but he read my stance correctly .. if he was going to lecture me, I was asking he do it in private. He nodded shortly, and I was relieved. The dog fox turned to Konan, voice hard. “You try me Konan.”

Despite my desire to be silent in front of the guards, and now Captain Vivere with the ambassadors, I could not help but speak out against this unfairness. “Milord, Konan protected us as best he could.”

“He also led you into danger.” His voice was cool. “I will talk with you later.”

“I changed my mind.” I snapped. “It was my idea, I wanted to go, so take it out on me and leave Konan alone. The way you treat him is despicable.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could call them back. But they were spoken, and there was nothing I could do to annul their effects. King Indigo glared at me, before his eyes dulled. “Go about your duties Konan. And you Azul, go to your room and wait until I come.”

Vivere was watching me with a disgusted expression, and I knew I would hear from my trainer. Openly rebuking the king in front of ambassadors was about the dumbest thing I’d done yet, and I knew they were thinking it.

I stood still for one moment, before bowing stiffly and walking past Vivere and the ambassadors, where the red fox watched me questioningly. I lifted my chin, ignoring Martes’s subtle frown and shake of his head, meaning; ‘You idiot.’

“I am sorry for my niece.” Indigo was speaking to Anirah. “She does not always know her place.”

The weasel’s voice made my stomach sour a little. “It’s quite alright milord. Adolescents are always rebellious.”

I closed the door behind me with a silent snarl at how condescending she was. No one cared about my opinion.

Admittedly I didn’t know how to tactfully present it, but it was’t like they would care anyway. I walked through the halls in silence, stopping at my door and pulling my pocket watch out, glancing at the filigree numerals on its ivory face. “Great. One hour past Zenith.”

I slipped my key from where it hung on the tarnished chain with my watch, and unlocked my metal door, designed much like what might be found in a ship. My satchel plopped to the ground as I lay down on my couch, resting my head on a decorative pillow and propping my legs on the opposite armrest as I stared blankly at the ceiling. I wished I could go tinker on Martes’s glider with him, but I knew I was in enough trouble already; disobeying direct orders from my uncle would only make it worse.

After a few moments, I swung my legs off the armrest and stood up, looking at my reflection in the mirror, and scowled at the rip in my favorite .. and only .. leather coat. Blast that Ronza fox, whoever he was!

I pulled the damaged coat off, laying it on the couch as I carefully rotated the hardened muscles in my shoulder, and winced. Obviously, I was going to have to let the wound heal and not push it for however long it needed.

It hindered my changing into my dress subtly, but as long as I didn’t move it upward, it didn’t bother me much. I pulled my hat on, before pressing a key on the small control board fixed on my dresser top.

About two minutes passed before there was the scurry of shod paws, and a knock on my door. “Yes milady?”

I picked up the coat, opening the door to see a female chinchilla waiting. “Rosie, I need you to mend this.”

She took it from me, smiling jokingly. “Ah, I mend your clothes enough milady, this won’t be a problem. What did you do this time?”

“I ran into some Esmreldians.” I smirked.

Rosie blinked. “Honestly?”

I knew the chinchilla loved gossip, so I refrained from telling any details. “Yes. I want that done by tomorrow morning if it’s possible.”

She got my drift, and nodded, tightening the apron around her waist. “Right milady, apologies. I’ll get to it.”

I watched her walk away, before returning to the couch and picking up my belt of weapons. Undoing my saber, I found I had neglected to clean the blade, and set about it immediately. It was shining nicely, when my door suddenly opened, and my uncle walked in.

He shut it behind him, crossing his arms and looking at me. I stood quickly, wishing I could forget what I’d said to him, but I could not, and it taunted me with how I could never control my words.

Neither of us spoke, and I certainly didn’t plan on starting this conversation. Indigo took a deep breath, stating, “Azul ..”

He was struggling with something deep down, something I couldn’t explain. Why didn’t he chide me for the things I had said?

“Azul, I understand you are loyal to those you care about.” He rubbed his head. “But there is something you don’t understand .. about being a king. I can’t make exceptions, and what I have declared, I must follow. If I am not true to my words, what king am I?”

“But Konan has only served you well, he has done no wrong uncle. Why do you despise him?” I protested.

Indigo looked away, before growling sadly. “Enough. Enough about Konan. He trains my messenger birds and fixes the boilers. That’s all he does Azul, and I should never have agreed to let you go with him. I know sir Evrick gave his consent for Martes, but he has been called to inspect a breech in the border just three hours ago, and how could I face him if his son had been killed?”

I was silent, and his eyes softened, his tired, rugged features showing both fear and anger, and the sorrow of a thousand defeats. “I fear Esmerld may take our entire border by nightfall.”

“What?” I’d expected him to come in here and scold me about my poor actions, but now he was confiding in me?

He shook his head. “Walk with me as I tell you.”

I followed him, and he explained. “We received word the central western outpost had been destroyed thirty minutes after you left this morning. It was too late to stop the train, so Evrick went to see if we could reclaim the border, but .... what sort of soldiers attacked the train?”

“Jundi, uncle.” I shrugged. “It doesn’t make sense that their pawns could infiltrate us that far!”

He nodded. “And that’s why I worry. There were no Rystar? No Elites? No Fae?”

“No. Just Jundi.”

“That confirms my worst fears.” Indigo winced. “It means they have taken the borders and are disposing of the soldiers so effectively, word of the total damage has not reached us.”

I swallowed hard, my eyes darting behind me at the dark tunnel. My uncle was very seldom wrong, and his hypothesis made total, terrible sense. He continued. “The ambassadors .. you have done a good thing by helping them. They may be our salvation .. they come from Eastgate. It would take almost everything, but I might be able to convince Eastgate to come to our aid. It could be our last chance.”

Slowly, I nodded in agreement. Neither of us even suggested surrender; as impoverished as Asguard’s people were, defeat meant an apocalypse of killing, and the survivors faced slavery.

“So do not trouble them. I want you to treat them as royalty Azul, do what they want, and for once, do not pick any fights! Can you do that for me? Asguard could hang in the balance.” After my outburst in the great hall and his decision to apparently spare me the normal lecture, I agreed. After all, they were guests, and like other ambassadors, it should be easy to simply bow, converse about a few trivial things, welcome them, and then escape to Martes’s ‘Workshop for Geniuses’ as he called it.

Indigo smiled wearily. “Thank you Azul. Do I have your word on that?”

“On my honor.” I promised. “I will do what needs done to protect my country.”

“That brings me relief.” My uncle sighed. “I hope you can hold to it.”

He pulled his watch from his waistcoat, frowning. “Vivere is probably waiting. I moved your training session up for today, since your tutor was given the next two weeks off, and your work was postponed for the same amount of time.”

I said nothing, as the disappointment of my ruined trip came back. It probably didn’t matter at all in the face of this new threat, but it still hurt, like I had lost something unexplainably wonderful. Something I hadn’t even gotten to lay eyes on.

“I will see what I can do to make it up to you, if we .. survive this. And I won’t make you decide on what you will train to be until after this settles down.”

I knew I needed to say it now, if I didn’t .. well, who could tell when I’d get another chance to. “Uncle, I know what I want. Deep down, I’ve known for a long time. I want to join the army.”

He stopped, before turning around. “Azul .. I need you here. You know what I need for Blue, I need someone smart enough, and who I can trust with my son’s life.”

“And that’s just it. I’m not that smart, you should be able to see that. I don’t want to be an advisor, I will be nothing but miserable .. I want to actually do something! Something firsthand.”

Indigo’s eyes sparkled with something I couldn’t describe. “Royalty doesn’t have a choice about their dreams, Azul. There were many things I sacrificed to lead my country. I wanted to be a mechanic, I didn’t care if I was the crown prince, that’s just what interested me. But I had to let go of that hope to rule Asguard, because my people needed me. I couldn’t let them die, it was my responsibility to rule.”

He sighed. “Now go. I’ll see you at dinner.”

><><

“Down! Stay down! For the last time Azul, I can see you, and that means Martes can too!”

Vivere was already displeased with me, and now my poor performance was making it worse. I dropped to the ground of the training arena, trying to breathe silently as I used all four paws to bound behind a pile of rock.

There was a subtle scraping sound, and I flicked my ears forward, sniffing the air as I tried to pinpoint Martes. I leapt onto the rocks, boots skittering a little as I tried to keep my balance. There was a quick flash of brown fur, and I launched myself toward it, plowing Martes head over heels and flat onto his back.

The pine marten gave me a look, groaning, “Is it about time you went on a diet? You weigh a ton!”

I helped him to his paws, rolling my eyes. “I’m a fox Martes. I’m naturally larger than you.”

“Sure, sure ..” He brushed himself off. “How about you learn to control your landings better?”

“Azul is taller and stronger than you Martes. It’s your job to be faster and more silent than her.” Vivere walked over to us, bushy silver tail flicking in annoyance. “I have told you a thousand times, Martes, work on strength, Azul work on silence. It’s quite simple.”

The chinchilla rubbed his forehead. “Now let’s move to swordplay.”

Martes and I grinned at each other, fencing was something we both liked and exceled at. I got my saber from where it was waiting for me at the side of the arena, and I drew it. Martes met me in the center of the circular practice ring, where the pallid lamps gave off a dirty, yellowish light.

Vivere nodded. “Nothing too advanced. Just simple techniques you’re used to. I need to check the guard soon, so this isn’t to be one of your crazy all over the arena battles. Keep it quick and effective.”

I advanced with a simple combination of two slices and a thrust, and Martes countered easily, counter attacking with a sweeping cut at my legs that I leapt over.

The clashing of steel filled my ears, and I preferred it to gunfire .. so loud, and so invisible until it was too late. Not that I didn’t like shooting my pistol, but with fencing, at least you couldn’t be killed from a hundred or so feet away.

Our swords hit with a metallic explosion, one that momentarily drowned out the slam of the arena’s door. However the guard, a ferret that I recognized as being second to Vivere, came running up to us quickly. “Captain Vivere, you’re needed at once!”

The chinchilla sighed, before nodding to us. “That’s all for today.”

He hurried after the ferret, and I slowly sheathed my sword. Martes shook his head. “What was that about, I wonder?”

“Why don’t we find out?” I went to the door, walking into the short hallway that led out into the courtyard.

Martes’s boots tapped on the metal floor behind me, as he asked, “What’s up with you? You’re preoccupied with something, what is it?”

I sighed. “I’m not sure my uncle wants me to tell you.”

“Oh come on, you tell me everything. We don’t keep secrets, remember, we agreed on that long ago.” Martes prodded.

“I know that.” I looked down. “But my uncle has never told me something like this before. He wasn’t his normal self .. he was unsure and afraid.”

Martes shrugged. “My father’s the general of the entire army, I think you can tell me.”

“Ok, you have a point.” I gave in. “Uncle’s afraid we’ve lost the border.”

“What?” Martes’s eyes widened. “No! How could they do that? Dad said security was at an all-time high and we’d even taken ground from them!”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. But you know how wicked Esmerld ...”

I broke off as we’d come to a place where the hallway split in four different directions, and the ambassador fox Ronza walked out of one them, stopping and looking at us. Martes blinked, asking, “So do you want to tinker on my glider tonight?”

“Uhh ...” I was uncomprehending for a split second, and then I nodded. “Yea, of course I do.”

I’d hoped Ronza would move on, but he didn’t. “Hey. I hope you’re arm’s better, princess.”

My ears flicked back a little, but I remembered my promise to my uncle. “I am not the princess. There is no princess. And my arm is fine.”

He bowed slightly. “Well then, milady, I’m sorry for the mistake.”

“Please.” I rolled my eyes. “Just call me Azul. I don’t like titles much, especially from creatures my own age.”

Something like amusement flickered across his face. “Very well Azul. I didn’t catch your friend’s name.”

The pine marten gave him a hard look. “Martes. What are you doing here?”

“Just doing some exploring.” His smile was charming, and I disliked it. “Anirah gave me some time off, since there’s no shooting or scouting to do. And hey, this place is pretty amazing.”

I met Martes’s gaze for a moment, before I shrugged. “Ok. We’ll be going now, if you don’t mind.”

Ronza wasn’t about to let us go that fast, apparently. “Mind if I come along? I’m a bit lost.” I scowled inwardly, but nodded. “Sure. Why not?”

If he caught what I really meant, he ignored it. “How’s life here?”

“It’s fine.” I really didn’t want tell him much about our life, since he probably had a freer one. He certainly was freer with money than I was.

“What do you two like to do best?”

Martes and I exchanged another look. Since when were ambassadors so .. curious? Of course .. he was probably the youngest ambassador I’d ever seen as well. My friend shrugged. “I like to invent. I happen to be inventing a glider, a practical one.”

I sighed. “Oh I’m not as neat as him. I’m trying to write a book. Not half as interesting as flying.”

“I don’t know about that.” He seemed to want to talk to me the most. “They both sound interesting.”

“Yea. How about you?” Martes raised an eyebrow questioningly.

Ronza shrugged. “You might say I’m sort of a .. jack of all trades. I have several skills.”

I pushed open the door leading into the courtyard and hurried through it, stopping dead at the mayhem that greeted me. A contingent of soldiers, that I recognized as mostly scouts were there, most of them wounded in some way. My uncle had a paw on Evrick to steady him, while Vivere helped him stand to give his report.

Martes was tense, and he grabbed my arm. “Are you .. thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Yea.”

There was no need to say more, I just moved closer until I could hear their voices.

“I’m sorry milord .. we could not stop them ..”

Indigo’s eyes betrayed more fear than he showed outwardly. “It’s alright Evrick, you did your best, and your creatures did too.”

The pine marten shook his head. “It wasn’t enough .. the border has fallen, at least half the army is dead. All we have left is Svellcrest, and we’ll be under siege before the moon’s zenith.”

I looked at Martes, gripping the hilt of my saber tightly. He shook his head, hurrying over the Evrick. “Dad, are you ok?”

The general nodded breathlessly as Indigo gave orders. “Take him to the healers. Vivere!”

“Right, I set up a defense on the palace.”

“No.” Indigo shook his head. “Leave twenty guards here, and gather all military left in Svellcrest to fortify the upper realm. If they break through, get as many as you can through the tunnels and drop the gates. We will hold lower Svellcrest at least.”

I held in my fear, though it wasn’t easy. There was a pawstep behind me, and I turned to see Ronza. “Hey, it’s alright. Maybe there’s something we could do.”

“It is not alright.” I said it stiffly, before relaxing a little. “But if you will help us ..”

“It’d make up for the arm?” He raised an eyebrow.

I let myself smile ever so slightly. “An uncountable amount of times over. Yes.”

Ronza tugged on the brim of his hat. “Well then, I’ll report to Anirah. She always has a plan.”

He walked off, and I sighed, before heading up the staircase to the grand entrance. I paused at the top, looking across the courtyard, it’s fountain, and the wall surrounding it. It looked the same, but I knew it had been forever changed.

The world as I knew it was no more.


Chapter 2 Evil Amongst Us Edit

At first I did not want to believe it, but it was true. Before morning the city was in a state of near panic. It didn’t affect me as much as it must have others, but the air was thick with more than soot.

I saw it in Rosie’s eyes when she returned my mended coat, and I saw it in my uncle’s when he met me by chance on the way to breakfast.

“Are we under siege?” No one else was in the corridor, so I did not use his proper title. I saw him as family first, then the king, and referring to him as ‘your majesty’ made me think of formality and stiffness.

He nodded, but didn’t say a word, and he didn’t need to. After a moment he spoke. “They have made several advances, but we’ve kept them out of Upper Svellcrest .... so far.”

I flicked my ears back. “What about Lady Anirah? Can she help?”

“Maybe. I have to make an agreement with Eastgate for their aid, and then the trouble is getting a messenger out of the city.”

We had stopped outside a door that led into the lesser dining hall, and I raised an eyebrow. “She should be just as concerned for her own life as ours! Why is she demanding trade for this?”

My uncle sighed. “She is concerned, very much so; for her life and the lives of her creatures. But she doesn’t rule Eastgate, she must make it profitable for Queen Isabella to risk everything to save her and us.”

I made a face. Political leaders could be such disloyal backstabbing snakes when it was profitable to them. “That mink rules from an ivory tower. She probably knows nothing about real life or how her choices affect it.”

“Azul.” Indigo’s voice was stern. “I don’t want to hear that sort of thing about Eastgate. I think I already made that clear.”

“Yes uncle.” I scowled, before sighing. “I’m glad you’re not like that.”

He smiled ruggedly. “As am I. Life never allowed me to be that kind of king, and quite honestly, that attitude is pathetic. A king is the protector of his people. But enough, Vivere is coming.”

I smirked inwardly, justified that deep down he felt the same as me. I let the captain of the guard walk into the hall with Indigo, speaking softly to him, probably of some new development. Martes was already there, as was my cousin Blue. I sat between them, and the fox cub poked me. “I thought you said you were going to be gone two weeks!”

“Yea, well. Plans change.” I grumbled, hoping breakfast would come soon.

“You mean you don’t get to go?”

I had the feeling a lot was being kept from my cousin, and I also assumed I wasn’t supposed to tell him. “Uhm .. yea. I don’t.”

Blue frowned. “Why?”

Martes looked around me. “Because life is like that sometimes.”

“Oh.” Blue grinned. “Does that mean you’ll play castle with me?”

I tried to scowl, but gave up with a smirk. “Yea. Probably.”

“And Martes too!” He insisted. “Martes has gotta be my squire and you’ve gotta be my horse.”

“Oh, that’s just great.” I snickered. “Yea, if we have time.”

And if we aren’t all dead by zenith, I thought to myself.

Indigo sat at the head of the table, his mouth a grim line, and I noticed Vivere had left. The doors opened again, emitting Anirah, Ronza, the ring-tailed cat, and the others that had been with her on the train.

They sat down on the side of the table across from us, which was fine in my opinion.

“I trust you slept well, Lady?” Indigo greeted her cordially. “And I hate to press you, but we need to discuss a plan of action as soon as possible. In private, if you would.”

She dipped her head. “Of course your majesty. I understand the lack of time, and I will comply as long as Tavin is allowed with me. He is my advisor and scribe.”

Indigo nodded, and everyone fell to eating in relative silence. Even though I was done long before the others, I had to stay sitting until Indigo dismissed us. I slowly fiddled with my spoon, watching Anirah and her creatures.

Eastgate sure had a lot more money than Asguard, that was evidenced by the clothing they wore. I notice Ronza watching my observations, and I looked away, but I saw his questioning expression.

After what seemed forever, likely five minutes or so, Indigo stood, addressing Anirah and her ring-tailed cat. “Would you accompany me, lady?”

She stood with the rustle of fabric, and I saw something shiny and circular fall from her belt, landing on the hem of her trailing burgundy skirt that muffled the clink it would have made.

I expected her to pick it up, but she must not have noticed, because in stepping away from her chair, she kicked the object under the table. It spun across the polished metal floor and stopped inches from my foot, the noise drowned out by Tavin getting up.

Indigo nodded to us. “The rest of you, go about your duties.”

I watched the three exit the hall, before putting my boot atop the piece that Anirah had lost. It was a matter of a few seconds to seize it, stand, thank Rosie for the breakfast, and hurry out into the corridor, empty excepting one guard.

As I walked along, I opened my fist and examined what I had found. It was a sizeable gold coin, with a beautifully embossed bird on the side I had up. I flipped it over, and blinked. This side was free of all decoration, just flat, and so polished I could see my reflection in it.

I was confused .. whoever heard of a coin with no printing on one side? To be honest, I’d planned to give it back to Lady Anirah at supper, or if I chanced to meet her, but it fascinated me. I’d never seen it’s equal, at least for oddness.

What would Martes think of it?

He hadn’t left breakfast with me, but I knew where he’d be .. in the basement, with the boilers and his glider.

I averted my course as soon as I thought this, leaving the main corridor and heading down a side one. This hall was dark and narrow, empty of guards, and pretty well empty of light. However I’d been down it thousands of times and knew the way by habit .. getting a lamp would just take unnecessary time.

My boots made soft clicks on the metal flooring, and being a fox, all I had to do was let my eyes adjust to the dim light. It was still dark, but I could see enough. Some animals were so blind in near darkness .. at least Martes didn’t have that problem.

I laid my paw on the handle of the door leading into the lower level, just as there was a distorted, echoing sound from somewhere, like someone had tripped.

I lifted my head, sniffing the air for any foreign scent, but smelled nothing aside from a musty hallway. “Hello? Martes? Blue?”

There was no answer, and after a moment, I shrugged. These corridors could carry sound amazingly far. I pushed the door open, stepping onto the metal stairs leading down and shutting it again. Down here, the elegance of the palace turned into a twisting maze of pipes, stairs, boilers, and furnaces, all the inner workings that kept the lights on and the place running.

I stepped down onto the stone floor, unique to the lowest level, ducked under some pipes, and opened the nearby door, walking into the next room. This one was bathed in honest lamp light, unlike the sickly light of the upper floors; light that was somehow generated from the coal-burning furnaces. Martes had tried explaining how to me once, but I think I must have fallen asleep during his lecture. I certainly remembered none of it.

The pine marten was there, working on a metal frame with plenty of gears and rivets. Honestly, I comprehended almost nothing of what he was building aside from the fact he’d told me it was a glider, so it must be one.

Martes looked up from where he was using a wrench on one of the bolts. “Arg .. give me a paw here, would you?”

I brought my strength to bear on the stubborn bolt, twisting it into place with some difficulty. “Huh, you sure these need to be this tight?”

“Positive. You wouldn’t want this to fall apart under you while in the air, would you?”

“No. But you wouldn’t get me on that thing anyway.” I rubbed my arms with a shiver. If there was one thing in the world that truly brought me terror, it was heights.

I shook myself, changing the subject. “So, Anirah dropped this at breakfast. What do you think?”

I dropped the coin in his paw, and he studied it closely, tilting it this way and that, an odd expression on his face.

“Well?” I pressed him, since he seemed in no hurry to tell me.

He smiled at the smooth surface in a rather silly manner. “I am rather good looking, aren’t I?”

I snorted, snatching the coin from him. “What? Since when were you that conceited?”

Martes looked slightly insulted. “I was just making a random observation, no need to be so touchy.”

“Random indeed.” I rolled my eyes. “Look, don’t you find it strange there’s no embossing on the back?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe they make coins like that in Eastgate.”

“You know enough to know better than that.” I was frustrated at his lack of interest. “Seriously.”

Martes shrugged. “Maybe it’s a new thing. A mirror-coin, so you don’t have to carry a pocket mirror.”

“That ....” I sputtered. “That’s the dumbest invention I’ve ever heard of. What happens when you spend it?”

“Somebody else gets the pocket mirror.” Martes always had a smart remark. “Now I’m busy.”

I scowled. “You’re terribly helpful too.”

He shrugged, but didn’t really answer. I might have left, or sat down and written, but now that he had acted so weird, it sparked my interest more. What was it about this coin?

Now that we weren’t talking, I could hear the muffled noises coming from a little ways away. “Is Konan down here?”

“Yea, fixing some pipes.” Martes nodded, and I walked toward where I guessed the cat would be.

I walked through several different rooms before I found him, tightening some rivets on a few pipes. He flicked an ear in my direction, though he didn’t look at me. “Can you hand me the large wrench Azul? It’s in my toolbox.”

I retrieved the item, handing it to him. “How come you always know who’s behind you?”

“Hearing and smell.” Konan twisted a bolt into place. “You are stealthy however, and that’s one way I can know it’s you. Also, everybeast sounds slightly different when they walk. But what are you doing down here?”

“I’m off work for the next two weeks. You forgot that, didn’t you?”

“Yes.” He admitted. “I thought you’d rearrange that and start again.”

I shrugged. “I guess I’m enjoying a little time off.”

We were silent for a while, before I asked. “Konan, do you think Esmerld will .. defeat us? I know they’re out there .. but it doesn’t seem .. totally .. real.”

He looked up, before flicking his ears back. “It’s real. And I don’t know. They’ve invaded Svellcrest before, even lower Svellcrest, and we drove them back. You know what I mean.”

I did know what he meant, the last time they had advanced that far was eleven years ago, and my parents had been killed, along with many others. “How did they get in? Did they rush the guards?”

“No. One guard was not vigilant like he should have been.” Konan shrugged, his voice sad. “And that’s all it takes.”

A shiver ran down my spine, and I curled my lip. “I will fight them to the end.”

Konan smiled slightly. “I’m sure you would, like your uncle, like me .. but it would avail little.”

He went back to working, and I didn’t move for a moment, I could envision what defeat would look like. He was right, one beast could not stop them. As Esmerld had desired to overrun us for hundreds of years, and my line had stood in their way .. if Asguard fell, I would be killed, that was certainty.

I shook myself, pulling out the coin. “Konan, have you ever seen a coin like this?”

He took it from me, turning it over in his paws. His golden eyes narrowed, and his voice was tense. “Where did you get this?”

“Anirah dropped it at breakfast .. is there something wrong with it?” Maybe Konan could shed some light on this mystery.

He shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m not worthy to make assumptions.”

I sighed. “Seriously though. Do you think it’s strange?”

“Yes.” He sighed. “But it is no more than a feeling.”

He rubbed the side of his head, wincing a little. “Agh, the heat from those boilers I was working on earlier must be getting to me.”

I slipped the coin back into my coat pocket, asking, “Do you need any help?”

“No, that’s fine. I’m done here anyway .. I think I’ll drink some water and rest a bit.” Konan lifted his hat and rubbed his forehead. “I have a headache.”

I watched him go for a moment, before following him out and back to Martes. The pine martin was still working on his invention, and I sat down on a stool in the room’s corner. I felt unsettled, this entire situation was unnerving and becoming more real every moment.

I knew good and well Esmerld was out there. As long as I could remember, it had been in my understanding, and with what had happened on the train, that knowledge was heightened. But to think they were at our very doors .. no longer just out there, but frighteningly close to being in here .. that was disturbing.

I slipped the satchel off that I always carried, pulling out my worn journal, the victim of many scribbled ideas and failed sketches. I read the last line of writing mentally as I picked up my pen.

She turned and fled the other direction, the two hard on her tail ...

My pen slowly began scratching down words, picking up momentum as I fell back into the pattern of writing.

They were likely faster than she was, but she had one advantage. She knew every inch of the castle, and they did not. Aurora ran down a set of steps, skidding to a halt at the bottom and breathing as lightly as was possible. Maybe that would throw them off her trail and she’d be able to escape. The fox continued down the hall, turning a corner and running down another set of stone steps. Downward, ever downward she went, heading for the caverns below and her only hope. Even if she did reach them, she had no horse, no supplies, and no friends, but it was better than facing the attackers.

And why, why had Esmerld done this? Why would they turn on their neighbors, looting and killing without warning? What had happened to turn an alliance into an untrusting peace, and now war?

“Writing?”

I looked up at Martes, before rolling my eyes. “I was.”

He shrugged. “Sorry. Where’s Aurora now?”

“Still escaping the castle.” I was sarcastic. “This takes time.”

“Did she really escape?” Martes raised an eyebrow.

I sighed. “Of course, how else would she lead three rebellions and reclaim Asguard? You really should pay more attention to history.”

“Probably so.” He looked interested. “What happened to her?”

“No one really knows.” I stated. “Some say she was killed while killing Esmerld’s king, but her body was never found. It’s thought she either ran away and lived her days alone to escape the responsibility of becoming queen and hide the hideousness of her injuries, or that she disguised herself and became a general in the army, later dying in battle against Esmerld. Either way, she’s a hero .. the greatest hero Asguard has ever had.”

I paused, adding, “In this story, she becomes a general.”

He nodded. “I know, you’ve told me exactly what happens in the story. I wish you’d get it written so I can read it, cause it sounds like it’ll be pretty good.”

“Maybe.” I looked at my watch, before putting the journal away. “Blue’s probably looking for me. I did say I’d play castle with him, so I better go find him. I’ll come down here later.”

Martes examined some blueprints laid out on his desk. “I’ll join you soon.”

I flicked an ear to show I understood as I walked out the door, closing it behind me and heading up the metal stairs. I pulled the door open, pausing as I let my eyes adjust to the darkness again.

The door closed behind me with a creaking thump, and the next moment all my senses told me I was not alone in this dark hallway.

“Who’s there? Answer me!”

There was the sound of footsteps, and I could make out the outline of another creature, at least as large as me. A sudden, freakish thought entered my mind .. what if Esmerld had invaded? I whipped out my pistol, growling, “Stop right there!”

The other animal froze in their tracks, holding up their paws. “Hey, hold it milady, I’m not going to hurt you.”

I inhaled their scent, before letting my weapon fall to my side. “Ronza?”

I could just make out that he had nodded, as he laughed, “You know, you’re awfully jumpy. Quick too. Maybe I’ll call you ‘Your Feistyness’ .. you’ve got one fast draw there.”

I scowled; I disliked to be caught off guard and startled, much less to have him call me something so crazy. “My name is Azul. And what are you doing down here? In the dark? I suppose you were exploring again.”

“Actually no .. I took a wrong turn and ended up down here. I’d have brought a light if I’d been exploring.”

“Ok ..” I was still sore that he’d startled me, but his explanation made sense. “Fine. Do you want me to tell you how to go back to the guest quarters?”

“I’d actually like to go with you, if you don’t mind.”

I couldn’t make out his expression properly, but I was taken aback. “Why would you want to do that?”

Even in the dark, the way he cocked his head told me he was confused, and I was honestly baffled as to why. “Look, I’ll be upfront with you. We didn’t get off on a good foot; I was impolite, so why don’t you try to avoid me? It’s almost like you want to keep running into me.”

His voice told me he was smiling. “Well it’s not intentional, but I don’t mind it.”

I flicked my ears back in bewilderment and suspicion, and I huffed. I could not understand this one; he defied all I was used to. “I’d rather have this conversation where I can see you properly.”

I walked stiffly away, subtly wishing he’d leave, but as I suspected, that was not to be. I could hear him behind me, and I despised having creatures follow me in dark hallways. After a few moments, I grumbled, “Would you mind walking next to me?”

He quickened his pace. “Why’s that? I thought you didn’t like me.”

I lifted my chin a little. “I don’t really. And neither do I like the notion of being followed when I can’t properly see.”

“So you don’t like me.” He didn’t sound disappointed or angry, just like this was an interesting piece of news.

I scowled in the cover of darkness, before answering tactically. “I am grateful for what your nation might do for mine. Beyond that, I don’t know you, and you act very strangely, that is a certainty.”

We’d reached a better lit corridor, and he raised an eyebrow. “How am I strange, exactly?”

“You’re too friendly to me. I don’t really trust you.”

He stopped, and I turned to face him, crossing my arms. “What?”

The fox smirked. “Apparently I’m not the only strange one. How is being friendly untrustworthy?”

I scowled. “That’s why I don’t like it, because it shouldn’t be, but you put me on edge somehow. You’re an ambassador. Your time here has to do with business, and nothing more.”

I turned on my heel, stalking away, and naturally he followed me. I was getting frustrated. Wasn’t there anything I could do to get him to leave? Short of punching him in the jaw of course.

Ronza was full of surprises, and he proved it as he spoke again. “Well, can I ask you a question?”

I gave him an odd look. Since when had anybeast I didn’t know treated me like this? He was acting like he’d known me forever, but it hadn’t been a full day cycle since I met him. Still, if I turned his own game on him, maybe he would go away.

“Fine, as long as I can ask you one in return.”

“That seems fair.” He was compliant.

I stopped walking, spinning around to face him. “Alright. Ask.”

“What would it take for you to trust me?”

I got the feeling he was playing at something, and it made me trust him less. “Why is this so important to you? What do you really want?”

He grinned. “Hey, that’s two questions.”

All the good humor I’d possessed was draining away .. he was toying with me, and I despised arguing with words. Far better to leap into a real fight, leave the verbal battles to smart creatures .. I could never keep up and always said something stupid.

“I don’t trust many, I know enough not to be so blind. I don’t know what you’re after, but if you’re looking for a lonely gullible lady friend, I’ll make it simple. You’ve come to the wrong place. I want none of that, and if I seem lonely, I’m not. Besides, I like isolation. It gives me room to think, and you do not.” I glared him down. “My country needs yours, and that is what I care about .. at the end of the day, romance matters nothing, what matters is if we live or die.”

“You are a fascinating mystery.” He shook his head. “I pride myself as a judge of character, but you do puzzle me. And I said nothing about romance.”

I imagined I looked unimpressed. I felt unimpressed. “It’s written all over you. And if I puzzle you, good. You puzzle me. May I ask my question?”

He raised an eyebrow, looking mischievous. “But you just did.”

I growled, reaching in my pocket and pulling out the coin, shoving it in front of him. “What’s this?”

His reaction was by far the most interesting yet, as he stared dumbly at it, almost trying to look away, yet seemed unable to do so. I raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

My voice seemed to snap him out of whatever trance he was in, and he diverted his gaze. “What do you mean .. I don’t have any idea .. how should I know?”

“Your Lady Anirah happened to lose it at breakfast .. I would have given it to her, but she left with my uncle. I’ve showed it to several others, and everyone seems to have a strange .. and strangely differing reaction to it.” I narrowed my eyes. “So? What is it?”

He looked at me, but not the coin. “I don’t have a clue, how am I to know what my lady has on her possession? It’s none of my business to go around snooping and digging through other’s pockets.”

“I did nothing of the sort!” I snarled at his implied accusation. “But this coin is not regular, there’s no printing on the back, and that, along with the strange reactions it gets, leads any intelligent creature to believe there’s more here than meets the eye.”

“Look ..” He sputtered a little, the first time I’d seen him at a loss. “Anirah picks up a lot of strange things on our missions, and this is nothing compared to some of the things she’s owned.”

I slowly slipped it back into my pocket, glaring at him. “Something about you screams deception. I think you’re a liar.”

For the first time, he looked hurt, and deeply. Like I’d stomped on the wrong nerve, or found some truth he hated. “I’m not a liar!”

As he said it, his green eyes sparkled with something indiscernible. “I never insulted you like that.”

“You insinuated I was a thief.” I pinned my ears. “Is that not the same thing?” He closed his eyes for a moment, before crossing his arms. “I don’t see why you act this way. And there are plenty of reasons you shouldn’t.”

Any remorse I might have had was drowned out by anger. “Do I interpret that as a threat?”

He rubbed the side of his head. “Look, just give me the coin, I’ll take it back to Lady Anirah, and I’ll forget about this whole situation.”

“Is that supposed to be manipulation?” I clapped my paw over my pocket. “Since I picked it up, I feel a certain obligation to return it to its owner myself. Lest I be thought a thief.”

Ronza scowled, but groaned the next second, rubbing his forehead. “Fine .. fine. But I am not a liar, and it might go very poorly for you if you said it again.”

I growled. “Do not threaten me, don’t forget who’s a guest here!”

He glared at me, clenching his teeth together. “You seem to have forgotten it.”

I watched him stalk away, muttering, “Hypocrite. And a liar if I ever saw one.”

What if he isn't?

I was confused at my own thoughts. Of course he was to blame, he was up to something. But as I thought, I found myself cringing at my own words.

Liar? Hypocrite? Manipulator? Was he really, or had my imagination run away with me again?

But what other reasons would there be for him to act that way? Over-friendly, far too tolerant, and caring more about getting to know me than thinking about his mission. He had to be up to no good!

Unless ... unless he was just lonely.

I thought about the ambassadors. They were all older than him. They never seemed to include him, not from what I'd seen. In fact, he always seemed to go last, and get the least of everything .. and spend most of his time wandering around by himself.

"Just like me."

My words were for no one, just for the sake of hearing myself think. I had insulted him, snubbed him, and accused him of something he likely knew nothing about. No wonder he'd acted the way he did .. he just wanted to find out more about me.

I slumped against the wall, sliding to a sitting position next to it. "Well, he found out."

It was best, of course. He was rather strange and irritating .. but I had once again ruined everything. I was good at that. I wrapped my arms around my knees, scowling at the floor. "I hate myself. I really do."

“What did you do this time?” Martes had walked up behind me, and he sounded inquisitive, though not exactly surprised.

“I told Ronza off.” I muttered, knowing he would not approve, and he didn’t.

“You know we need them!” Martes protested. “You promised King Indigo!”

I scowled. “I know! But there’s something about him .. something ..”

Martes consented there. “Yea, I’ll agree with that. He did shoot you after all. But we can’t ..”

I rubbed my shoulder, as it was still sore. “I don’t care about that anymore. There’s something else .. something about how he makes me feel. I can’t describe it, but something is off about him.”

Martes raised an eyebrow. I nodded. “I know it’s crazy, but it’s there.”

“You know that supposed sixth sense of yours gets you in more trouble than you can deal with.”

I made a face. “I don’t think they won’t send for help. It’s as much their necks as it is ours.”

“That’s probably so.” He admitted. “But you’ll hurt later relations, mark my words.”

“I suppose I should apologize.” I grumbled. “I hate apologizing, I always sound .. idiotic. But if he’ll even speak to me, I guess I will do it at dinner.”

“What did you call him that was so terrible you think it demands an apology?” Martes asked, a little surprised.

“A liar. And a hypocrite. And a manipulating creep ... essentially.”

The pine marten put his forehead in his paw. “Thank the Lords you aren’t the princess. Asguard would be in ruins before half a moon cycle.”

“Very perceptive of you.” I sighed, slowly standing up. “I didn’t mean to say those things .. not really. I’m an idiot.”

Martes elbowed me out of comradeship. “That’s an understatement. Is there any way to keep you out of trouble?”

“Mabe if I lock myself in my room. I think I’ll do just that.”

><><

I’d have liked to have claimed I spent the entire day writing and sketching, but it was in no way true. I stopped to read a book and polish my saber, and somewhere along the way, I fell asleep on my couch. When I awoke and looked at my watch, I discovered I was already late for training.

Vivere was not there, and his replacement was not pleased with me in any way. Training itself was not worth remembering; I did most of it by habit, as it was nothing new. As we walked toward the dining hall, Martes raised an eyebrow. “Are you really going to apologize to him?”

I straightened my shoulders. “Yes. Yes I will.”

Martes smirked. “Well then. I hope it goes well.”

“It won’t.” I snorted. “Come on, it’s me apologizing. How can it go well?”

“Hmm.” He nodded. “Fair point.”

“Still. I’ll do my best.” I opened the doors to the hall. “I hope I can just get it over with quickly.”

As I walked in, I bumped into one of the guards by accident and muttered an excuse. Dinner was always a far more communal atmosphere than breakfast; more beasts came, and mingled with each other. Breakfast was only for the royalty and a few high ranking officers, but dinner included everyone who worked in the palace, from king to kitchen maid.

I saw Anirah and her scribe Tavin right away, standing near my uncle and sir Evrick, still recovering from his wounds. However Ronza was nowhere to be seen.

Blue saw me before I saw him, and made sure to tell me what he thought. “Azul! You were supposed to play castle!”

He pouted. “You said you would.”

“I did ...” I sighed. “Sorry Blue, I .. guess I forgot.”

My cousin was in no way going to be satisfied with that, and I knew it even as I made the excuse. He wasn’t. “But you forget a lot! Don’t you like playing with me?”

My ears drooped guiltily. “I’ll make it up to you .. I promise.”

“But you said that last time ..”

I held up my paw. “No, I said probably. But this time I promise, ok?”

He didn’t look convinced, but he nodded. I looked around, asking, “Have you seen the orange fox that came with Lady Anirah? I .. need to talk to him.”

Blue shook his head. “He’s not here. Maybe he’s not hungry.”

I highly doubted this was the case, rather, I got the feeling it had a lot to do with my behavior. However I simply nodded. I rejoined Martes, who shrugged. “He’s probably hiding from you.”

My goggles were slipping off my head, and I deftly pulled them back on. “We’ll see about that.”

Martes laughed, clapping me on my shoulder. “I’m glad you’re my friend Azul. You liven up everything.”

“Yea, well Esmerld’s livening up a lot more than me ... what do you mean?”

“Oh never mind.” He picked up a plate, pointing to the doors. “There’s your fox now. Good luck; have fun.”

“Ha ha.” I said it in the least amused way possible, before taking a deep breath and squaring my shoulders.

As I watched Ronza walk slowly in, my confidence tried to drain away, and I knew I had to act fast or I would chicken out as usual. No! I had to. For Asguard!

I realized I was stiff as a board, with an intense determined glare plastered across my face. No .. no that wasn’t what I was going for .. was it? I scowled. What was I thinking? I just needed to make amends before my harsh words hurt trading relations with our neighbors. And that meant now.

I stalked forward, iridescent gray tail swishing irately behind me. I must not lose my nerve .. I’d made this mess, and I needed to clean it up. It was my responsibility; and mine alone.

Ronza saw me coming and flattened his ears, I subtly wondered why he looked more unsure than angry. I took a deep breath, stopping sharply in front of him and crossing my arms. “Ronza. I .. I’m sorry for what I said earlier.”

His ears shot up again, and he stared at me. “Huh?”

“What I said. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have called you a liar, I don’t have proof that you are.” I narrowed my eyes. “Of course, I don’t have proof that you aren’t ..”

I lifted my chin. “But until I have sure proof either way it is wrong for me to make judgements. You have my sincere apology.”

He didn’t move for a moment, and I sighed, my bravado fading a bit. “If you want to be angry at me, that’s fine, I deserve it. But I ask you to bestow all bad feeling upon me and not my country or my uncle.”

He seemed frozen, staring at me a little dumbly. I met his gaze for a moment, before scowling. “Oh .. say something! Be mad .. challenge me to a duel for your honor .. just do something!”

Ronza blinked, before coughing into his paw, and regaining his composure. “I .. did not expect you to speak to me again, honestly.”

I slowly let myself relax, before sighing. “I understand. I expect you will never want to speak to me again after this, and I can’t blame you, so perhaps it would be better for us to consider our relations strictly business from now on. I’m sorry I insulted you.”

I turned to walk away, feeling only slightly better.

“Well, actually .. I’m not angry.” He stopped me.

I raised an eyebrow. “Why not? I’m pretty sure you have every right to be.”

A slow smile grew on his face. “I suppose I do. But no one has ever apologized to me before.”

“Honestly?” I was not convinced.

“I’m completely serious.” He looked sincere. “I may say a lot of things .. but that is true.”

I frowned. “Why?”

He was very good at masking negative emotion, but a glimpse of it flashed across his face, before his usual good humor returned. “I guess you could say I’m not considered .. the most important in our group. Rank is earned, you know?”

He paused, before shrugging. “What am I saying, I’m talking to a princess .. you would never understand, you can’t.”

“You seriously underestimate me.” I scowled. “I am not a princess; I am the king’s niece, without parents or wealth, so my life too depends upon me proving my worth.”

He slowly smirked. “I was wondering .. is it totally impossible for us to have a friendly conversation without becoming angry with one another?”

I shrugged. “Why would you bother? I thought we were going to stop having conversations.”

“Maybe.” Something about his smile told me he was enjoying this, and again I felt I was being toyed with.

“You won’t leave me alone, will you?”

“I suppose I should.” Something strange flickered in his gaze, something I could not understand, and it bothered me.

“You are troubled, aren’t you? Is it my fault?”

He did not exactly answer me, just raised an eyebrow. “How is it that you are so observant?”

I thought on this question, trying to find an answer better than the one I had, but it was in vain. “I do not know.”

“Yet you have some knowledge of it. I wonder ...”

I looked oddly at him. “How do you know my thoughts?”

“I ..” He looked like he’d been caught at something, and he looked around the hall, before something seemed to occur to him. “I thought I was the only one.”

“What do you mean by that?” Something about this whole situation was sending odd chills up my spine.

Ronza looked over at where Martes was watching, and flicked an ear. “Look .. that’s sort of personal, you know? I’d tell you, but we happen to be standing in the dining hall, and your friend is watching me like I need it.”

The pine marten walked over, asking, “Well, I take it you apologized?”

For once I wished Martes would leave me to do my own investigation, but I nodded. He shrugged. “Well then, I’ll add mine to hers. I’m not normally .. as upset as I was on the train, so I’m sorry for that.”

Ronza looked honestly confused. “You did not accept me at first, so why do you act like this now? I truly don’t understand.”

“I guess you could say .. our guilty consciences caught up with us.” I shrugged. “I have chosen to give you a chance.”

Martes nodded. Ronza had an odd look on his face, before it vanished, though a remnant of it sparkled in his eyes behind his smile. “I .. guess that works.”

I felt the tiniest smile twitch at the corner of my mouth, out of politeness, and I turned away, stopping as I saw my uncle walking towards us. I instantly had misgivings ... what if he knew how badly I’d messed up?

However, upon closer inspection I could see he was relieved, and it made me feel guiltier that he did not know. He did so much for me, not even his own child, and I did nothing but fail his expectations. But I could not change what I was.

“I trust your stay has been pleasant, Ronza?” Indigo clearly wanted to hear his side of the story.

He cast a glance at me, and I met his gaze in a sideways fashion, knowing he could repay me in full for my temper. However the dog fox truly was full of surprises. “Yes, thank you milord.”

My ears perked forward .. it was like he could read my mind and decided to cover for me. But why did he bother?

“You two are getting to know each other?” My uncle raised a skeptical eyebrow in my direction.

I stammered a vague answer, still caught in my own wonderings. “I .. guess.”

“You could say that.” Something in Ronza’s tone was almost teasing.

Indigo looked content, before asking, “Is there anything we can do for you, young sir? I normally would see the you all would get a tour .. but there is so much to work out at this time ..”

He paused, turning to me. “Have you shown him around?”

“Me?” I asked in confusion.

“Is that too much to ask? At least take him around the palace .. I haven’t the time, and you know it’s a tradition.” Indigo stared me down.

I sighed. “Yes uncle .. I mean milord.”

He nodded, walking away, and I shrugged. “I’m sorry, I guess you’re stuck with me awhile longer.”

Ronza looked both glad and at the same time, not. “It’s ok, I could get used to you.”

I gave him a long look, before sighing. “I fear the more time I spend around you, the more confusing you become. I’ll show you around after dinner .. because my uncle wants me too.”

I added the last part pointedly, before walking over to Martes and sitting beside him. “Great, now I’ll have more time to make a fool of myself. Uncle wants me to give Ronza a tour.”

“Really? He trusts you that much?”

I rolled my eyes. “Thank you for that wonderful vote of confidence.”

Martes shrugged, taking a bite of his dinner, roasted meat and vegetables. Upon my first taste, I knew it was blind cave eel, a common dish in Svellcrest and not one of my favorites. At least the cook knew how to season it, and roasting made it less slimy, but I still ate it as quickly as I could and tried not to think about what I was putting in my mouth. The potatoes and mushrooms were worth eating at least.

“Say, did you ever give that coin back to Lady Anirah?” Martes asked at length.

I clapped my paw on my coat pocket as I remembered. “I am an idiot .. thanks for reminding me, I’ll give it back right now.”

I took a drink of water and wiped my muzzle with my napkin, before sliding out of my chair and walking over to the table the ambassadors were sitting at. I reached into my pocket for the coin, stopping as my claws connected with it. Did I really want to give it back?

They hadn’t noticed me, as I was behind them .. I wouldn’t have to do it. I could keep just awhile longer, couldn’t I? When it was so strange .. and when it had evoked such strange reactions .. surely there was much I could learn from it.

I looked around to see nobeast had really noticed me, as they were concerned with conversation, not with somebeast who was likely going back for seconds. Suddenly I met one beast’s gaze .. Konan’s, watching me closely from where he sat alone at the end of one of the long tables, and my conscience pricked me. Yes I had to give it back, it wasn’t mine.

I took a step forward, feeling awkward, and paused as I noticed Ronza was sitting on Anirah’s left side. Odd, since he’d seemed to think he was the least in the group.

“Why can’t you get somebeast else to do this job?”

I froze as my sensitive ears caught Ronza’s angry mutter. Anirah’s reply was smooth. “You know what’s at stake, and you know what I hold over you. I’m surprised you bothered to ask me .. is it that you’re becoming emotionally invested in this?”

His ears clamped flat against his skull, and he growled softly. “I do not become emotionally invested in anything.”

She smiled in a sickening way. “Liar. Just remember what happened to everything you loved, and don’t try it again.”

The fox swung his head away, eyes closed, and somehow, I was far less interested in returning the coin as I’d been a few moments ago. I walked away as inconspicuously as I could, the suspicions I’d dulled reawakened tenfold.

I sat back down beside Martes, stiffly. He cocked his head, eating what looked like at least a second helping. “Did you return it?”

“No.” My voice was tense.

“Oh come on Azul .. do you really want to cause trouble between Eastgate and Asguard because the princess is a thief?”

I glared at him. He shrugged. “I couldn’t resist. But seriously.”

“Seriously, there is something wrong with them. I’ve felt it all along and I’m almost completely certain now. They were having .. a most suspicious conversation.” I cast a glance at the ambassadors, to see they were all still sitting at their table across the hall.

Martes looked unimpressed. “Really? It’s not the sixth sense again is it?”

I growled. “It is the sixth sense, and you ought to know I can’t keep from listening to it no matter how much trouble it causes.”

The pine marten laid his head on the table. “Here we go again.”

“But it’s a little more real than my gut feelings this time, I swear ..”

“What are you talking about?” I jumped as Blue pulled himself onto the chair next to mine, expression questioning.

I tried to cover for myself. “I .. nothing. Nothing important anyway.”

Blue wasn’t convinced. “Aww come on, tell me! I won’t tattle.”

“Well .. maybe if I get more evidence.” I shrugged.

“Evidence?” Blue was even more interested than before. “What evidence?”

I rolled my eyes. “Shh, not here.”

“Ohhh ...” Blue smiled in a sneaky fashion. “So it’s a secret .. tell me!”

Some might have thought he was adorable with the expression he had on, but I’d never been a good judge of things like that. Personally, I found it irritating. “Blue .. please .. I can’t, not yet. And what is with that look?”

He grinned cheekily. “I’m being sneaky so we won’t get caught.”

“Well stop it, if you keep this up, everyone will notice us!” I hissed, seeing a few creatures were already looking our way.

I grumbled, before sighing, “Look, it’s a game. And I’ll let you play it with me if you stop talking in your sneaky voice.”

“Ok!” Blue sat up straight again, all pretense of sneakiness gone. “When do we play?”

“Uh .. well .. right now I think.” I was formulating a new game in my head as I spoke. “It’s called ‘Castle Spies’, and we go around the palace, trying to sneak up on each other without the other one hearing.”

My cousin was obliging. “Cool .. you come up with the best games! Can Martes come too?”

“Yea .. if he wants.” I raised an eyebrow.

He snickered. “Why not? I bet I can sneak up on Azul.”

I sighed, really wishing I could sneak up on the ambassadors. “I doubt it. Maybe. Let’s go.”

I stood up, to find Ronza watching us. He raised an eyebrow, asking, “Is this not a good time for a tour?”

There was nothing I would have loved more then to go to bed and deal with this in the morning, but it was unavoidable. Blue cocked an ear. “Are you playing too?”

“Playing?” Ronza looked at me, and I groaned.

“I .. promised Blue earlier today I’d play a game with him, but I haven’t yet.” I paused. “Of course, I also agreed to give you a proper tour. So I hope you can see how this is frustrating.”

Ronza shrugged. “Oh. Well, in that case, I suppose I can wait until morning.”

“Please play with us!” Blue interrupted. “Four’s more fun than three!”

“Blue, Ronza is an ambassador. He doesn’t have time for games.” I protested.

Blue was smarter than most gave him credit for. “Yes he does, he hasn’t done anything important and official since he’s been here.”

“Blue!” I exclaimed. First me, and now my cousin .. what a wonderful impression of the royal family he must have. Besides that, what I had heard put me on edge .. did I really want this one stalking me though dark corridors, even if it was a game?

“No, he has a point.” Ronza shrugged. “I’m nothing but a scout for Anirah. When we’re not traveling, I really don’t have anything to do.”

He looked down at Blue’s pleading gaze, and a sad smile crossed his face. “I .. suppose I could.”

“Yes!” Blue skipped next to Ronza. “How well can you hide? Cause you’re going to have to be awful sneaky .. sneakier than me!”

Ronza looked uncomfortable from the attention, but somehow, he also seemed to like it. “I guess I’m pretty .. sneaky.”

Blue grinned. “I bet you’re not half as sneaky as Azul though. Azul’s the most sneakiest!”

“Is she?” Ronza cast a glance at me. “How good would that be, do you think?”

“Oh very good. She wants to be in the army, you know.”

Ronza looked surprised and interested at the same time. “Really?”

I looked at Martes, who sighed with longsuffering. “It’ll be fine Azul.”

I followed him slowly, stroking the hilt of the knife in my belt. I wasn’t so sure.



Chapter 3 Of Storms and Secrets Edit

I stood as still as I could in the shadows, listening to Blue attempt to surprise me. I always heard him coming however, even if occasionally I pretended not to. For some reason I was feeling generous, or maybe in truth it was that I was preoccupied.

He suddenly jumped on me from behind, dragging me to the metal floor, laughing happily. “I got you, didn’t I? You didn’t even hear me coming, did you?”

“Uh .. You did pretty well that time. Keep trying, I did hear just a little. But .. you’re getting there.”

Blue was satisfied with this, and he scrambled to his paws, whispering, “Now I’ve gotta find the others.”

I watched him disappear down the dimly lit hallway, a smile on my face as I stood.

“He’s sort of like your brother, isn’t he?”

I jumped at Ronza’s disembodied voice. “Wha .. where are you?”

The fox dropped gracefully from above, landing perfectly and near soundlessly. “You didn’t sense me? I thought you might have.”

I looked up at where he’d come from, a small catwalk allowing the dim lamps to be reached in case maintenance was needed. “How did you ..”

“Get up there?” I could tell he was smiling. “You know there is a stairway.”

“Yes .. of course.” I shrugged my surprise off. “I forgot about that.”

“I’m sorry I scared you.” His crooked grin told me he was not truly sorry to find I could be startled, even if he was apologizing for the action.

I gave him a cold glare for a second. “I was not in any manner scared. You startled me, but I hope you realize if you hadn’t spoken and just dropped down from nowhere, I would have defended myself.”

“Yea. Sure.”

I could tell he didn’t believe me, and I growled a little. He held up his paws. “Ok, ok. You are touchy, aren’t you?”

“You insult the one thing I take full pride in.” I narrowed my eyes. “My ability to fight.”

I sighed. “Maybe we should stop talking. If you haven’t noticed, I’m too high-strung for my own good, and I often say things I regret.”

I turned to go, before pausing. “How did you drop like that? It was impressive.” Ronza grinned. “It’s not easy .. it’s taken me years to perfect that move.”

“Years?” I raised an eyebrow. “You’re dedicated, aren’t you?”

He stopped for a second, as if thinking about his answer. “Well, yes. I appreciate the old ways of fighting.”

“You mean of hunting and spying.” I pointed out. “But I agree, the old ways are admirable .. to rely on one’s cunning, strength, and instincts instead of machinery and firearms. I wish .. I could execute that move as well as you.”

“You’re agile enough, from all I’ve seen. Is it because your footing’s wrong?”

I flattened my ears slightly. “No.”

The last thing I wanted to tell him was the embarrassing truth.

Ronza looked like he was about to ask more, but he suddenly lifted his head, flicking his ears as if listening. I did likewise, sniffing the air.

“You know you two, the point of this game is to make the least noise possible. Not the most.” Martes materialized from the shadows, smirking. “Good job Azul, Blue has now officially bested you.”

Blue popped out from behind the pine marten, tapping Ronza with a paw. “And I found you, so I win this round!”

“That’s right.” Martes laughed. “And Azul loses, so she’s the spy this time.”

I sighed. “Fine.”

Blue grinned, before scurrying off. Martes shrugged, and did the same. However Ronza didn’t move. I raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“You didn’t answer my first question.” He smirked.

I could not remember how he had started the conversation. “What was that?”

He didn’t say anything, and I looked at him again. This shook him out of his state, and he blinked. “You honestly don’t remember?”

“No, not really. Was it something about Blue .. yes, I think it was. But I can’t recall quite how you phrased it. Something about him being like a brother to me .. and yes he is.”

A smile returned to his face, one of understanding. “It is based on emotion .. of course.”

I was confused, but he seemed fascinated. “I wonder if it is because your skills have never been developed .. I can see how a connection based on emotion would be both a hindrance and an asset.”

“What in the name of Ignasa do you speak of?” I scowled. “Connection? Emotion?”

I saw it in his eyes. He had said too much, and he knew I knew it. The fascination was replaced by dread, smoothed over with indifference. “I find your .. awareness of the world around you much like mine, that is all.”

“Is it?” Nothing he could have said would have convinced me of his sincerity. “And what is yours, in that case?”

“It is ... the ability to interact with the world on a deeper level.” He was struggling .. there was a greater meaning to his words. “You use it without meaning to .. you use it now to suspect I know more than I say.”

“What?” I took a step back, snarling, “How do you know my thoughts so plainly?”

He held up is paws. “Please .. please let this slide Azul. I am like you .. is that enough? I have simply learned to train my senses better. You have the same capability.”

“Do you mean to claim I am some sort of witch like those filthy Esmereldians? I have no magical powers .. I am an Asguardian through and through!”

“And I am of Eastgate!” He protested. “The plain fact is there is a greater reality than what we see, and it affects all nations, not just them. You simply have a link into the spiritual side of the world, and so do I .. I am sorry to have used my strength against you.”

I met his gaze defiantly for several moments, before turning on my heel. “Martes and Blue expect us to be playing the game.”

“But you have felt the effects .. just from the way you act, you have!” He seemed desperate to get me to listen to him.

I had experienced strange hunches and feelings that turned out to be correct, but my guesses were sometimes off as well. That was all it was, just hunches and guesses, but he had a greater power. And it could only come from one place. “It was just feelings; I’m not a witch.”

I pinned my ears, giving him a glare before walking down the hallway. Now I wondered .. after what I’d heard at dinner, what I’d seen over the last twenty four hours, and what he’d mistakenly told me .. was he truly what he said he was? I might not have total proof, but I had to tell my uncle. If this was what I thought it might be ..

I ducked into a doorway, stopping to think properly. If this was what I thought it was .. then the plain truth was he wouldn’t want me to tell my uncle. He would be desperate that I not tell my uncle. So the question was .. how far would he go to stop me?

All of a sudden, I realized I should have tried to play his game .. because somehow, I understood this was not a game anymore. I grabbed the handle of the door behind me, silently turning it and stepping into a storeroom. It was even darker here, and my eyes struggled to adjust to it .. every mortal creature had their limits, even those with good night vision.

Softly, slowly, I crept through the maze of crates, stopping behind a large stack of them and watching the door. If he came through it, I would know for sure.

My paw instinctively cradled the hilt of a knife concealed beneath my coattails as the door opened silently as if by ghostly paws, but I caught sight of the flash of fur in the dim light from the hallway, and I regretted my decision.

I’d hoped I was wrong. But I was right. And now I was in a dark storeroom with him .. probably with no way out but the way I’d come in. Unless ..

He was in here, I knew, but I couldn’t hear him, I couldn’t even smell him, but I was not fool enough to think he was the same. Ever so carefully, I backed up, trying to keep a cool head, even though I was cold all over. Fighting was no problem .. being alone in the dark with someone as dangerous as he was .. that was another matter.

My paw touched the cold metal I was hoping for .. the railing of a staircase. I slipped around to the front of it, keeping as close to the wall as I could and trying to disguise my steps as I made my way up it. Still, he did not reveal himself, and I had the terrifying and illogical thought that he would be waiting for me at the top.

I drew my knife silently, holding my tail slightly off the metal steps as I reached the top. The space was narrow here, and lit by the faintest light. My paw collided with metal and what seemed to be engraved crystal, and then I knew. It was a window and door in one .. one that led out onto a balcony. How in the world could this get worse?

There was a soft sound from the bottom of the stairs, and I knew .. I was more the fool for thinking such thoughts.

I unlocked the door, opening it and stepping out onto a balcony high on the palace walls, with a wonderful view of the city. Strangely, I noticed every sparkling window and streetlamp .. even the little cab horses trotting through the streets and the miniature creatures going about their business.

I spun around as Ronza walked out, shutting the door behind him. He glared at me, and I returned the look. “You’re not an ambassador from Eastgate, liar .. you’re a witch from Esmerld!”

He growled. “I’m not a witch, I’m a mage .. and you know you force my hand. You just won’t be fooled.”

Regret glittered in his eye as he drew a knife. “For the record, I didn’t want to do this ..”

I whipped my pistol out, leveling it with his chest. “Spare me your groveling, sniveling coward of a spy! You are a filthy Esmerldian, and your mistress is too .. we will have no mercy, you will die before the sun’s zenith tomorrow.”

He froze for a second, and I snarled. “Drop the knife.”

His empty paw twitched, and he rotated his wrist with a sharp motion. My weapon was wrenched from my grasp, though nothing touched me .. it spun across the balcony, plummeting over the edge and into space. Seconds later I heard the faint clack of it hitting the cobblestones below.

I hardly had the chance to throw myself to the side as he lunged, and as I did, his knife ripped across my cheek directly under my left eye. Pain lanced through my jaw and cheekbones, blood flowing spontaneously.

A snarl of pain escaped me as I held my own knife out, blocking his next thrust. “You’ll regret that!”

“Yea, I will.” His growl was angry. “I regret every day of my life, but that doesn’t change what I am, so shut up!”

I sneered wordlessly, attacking with an air-slicing slash .. one he blocked expertly. The bandage on my shoulder began to unwind, and splinters of pain lanced down my arm from the movement.

Ronza spun around, throwing his knife at me as he drew another. I was adjusting, and I dodged, the knife splitting the air a fraction of an inch from my neck.

“You are a liar, I judged you right the first time, you traitor!”

He snarled defensively. “I have to be, it doesn’t mean I have to like it .. you know nothing!”

I drew another knife, leaping forward. “I know enough.”

I slashed with both blades at once, and he blocked them both. He moved like lightning, smashing one of my knives back and slicing into the paw I was holding it with. “You can’t win this.”

“What makes you so sure?” I kicked him hard in the legs, slashing a knife down his jaw. “I’m not dead yet.”

He hurled a knife at me, before shoving the empty paw in my direction. I felt myself be thrown from my feet like I’d been hit by something though I saw nothing, and I instinctively rolled once, before lashing out with both feet. My booted hind paws connected with his torso, and as he doubled over, I recoiled and smashed the heavy soles of my boots into his face, one catching him in the muzzle, the other the jaw and throat.

A little blood splattered on me and the ground, and Ronza’s legs buckled beneath him, though he struggled to keep his torso off the floor. I stood, holding both knives ready. He coughed, blood from his nose dribbling into his mouth. “H .. how ..”

“How can I do that?” I snarled. “I am training in hopes of fighting in the army, witch.”

“I .. am not .. a witch ..” He protested breathlessly. “And what .. do you really think .. you will accomplish through .. this?”

I sneered. “Let’s see, I’ll preserve my life for one thing, assassin. And second, I’ll save my country from a dirty bunch of infiltrators.”

He struggled to rise, and I kicked his arms out from under him, raising a knife threateningly. “Don’t move an inch, I will throw this.”

My voice was ice cold. “And from what I’ve already done, you should perceive that as no empty threat.”

“I .. have come to that .. understanding.” He glared up at me. “But now .. that you have discovered things .. you should not, be careful what you .. attempt.”

“Do you dare order me? I hold death over your head.” I growled.

He smirked, a strange sight coupled with the blood staining his face. “Yes .. I cannot deny it .. but you hold it over .. your uncle as well. If you kill me .. you also kill him.”

I stared at him. “What lie do you dare tell me now? Do you really think I would believe that, fool?”

“You should .. think about it Azul, just for one moment.” He was getting his voice back, though it was still raspy from the kick to the throat I’d delivered him. “Anirah is a powerful witch, and all her fellow creatures .. are at least somewhat skilled in magic. Do you .. really think the puny guard your uncle has on this palace, thinking the threat .. is outside .. do you think they can honestly defeat her?”

“So your dear mistress will avenge you, you suppose?”

He snorted in mirthless laughter, an action that splattered a little blood on the floor. “My .. dear mistress? Ha! She’d love to kill me .. just as much as you would. I didn’t want to be the one .. to assassinate you .. I rather liked you .. but she forced my hand. And then when I tried to put it off .. you insisted on this.”

I said nothing for a moment, before flattening my ears. “Well I rather despise you, for the record. And explain why you think me killing you would kill my uncle.”

“If Anirah suspects one thing, just one thing out of place, she will give the order herself.” Ronza glared at me. “And from how I see it, you’ve just ensured she will, because at this point, she’ll know either way you turn.”

I growled. “What do you mean .. give the order?”

He sneered back. “Your nation has already fallen. All you have left is this city, and in a few days, Anirah plans to see you don’t. However now it seems she’ll execute her plan a few days early. And don’t think she’s stalling for time, everything was in place the moment we set foot in Svellcrest .. she’s just playing with you.”

A cold sliver of dread shot down my spine, and I clenched my paws. “Then it seems we are at an impasse. I cannot kill you, but I can in no way let you go.”

“It appears that is true.” Ronza tried to sit up, but I growled aggressively. He smirked, before relaxing again, though I could tell every fiber of him was waiting for the right moment to pounce.

I glared at him. “What do you really hope to gain by this? Winning your mistress’s favor I suppose.”

“Winning her favor?” Ronza spat hatefully on the ground. “I don’t want her worthless favor, and she won’t give it to me. No, I want her dead!”

“Really?” I didn’t lower my guard. “Another of your lies?”

He snarled. “It’s no lie; the only thing that would satisfy me more than being free of her, would be to see her dead on the floor.”

The anger on his face faded slowly. “In fact .. you might be able to help me with that.”

“What?” I snarled viciously. “Do you honestly think I would help wretched double-dealing scum like you?”

“You don’t really have a choice, the way I see it.”

I flattened my ears. “How do I know you aren’t lying again? How do I know Anirah really is that powerful .. how do I know we can’t defeat her?”

“Then kill me, kill me here, and see how far it gets you.” There was total certainty in his green eyes, and I felt sincerity from him. “Anirah always has a plan. And she never loses, because in Esmerld .. if you lose, you die.”

I said nothing for a few moments, before snapping bitterly. “What is your suggestion?”

Ronza’s crooked grin returned, though somehow it seemed more sinister than before .. maybe because of the blood staining his mouth. “You want Anirah dead? I might be able to help you with that. But only if you return the favor and speak for my life if we succeed. Remember, you can’t do this alone.”

The last thing I wanted was to speak for his life. Rather, I’d have liked to see him on the gallows ... but this wasn’t about what I wanted, it was about my uncle .. Blue, Martes, Konan .. and all of Asguard. If I gave my word, I would feel honor-bound to keep it as long as he held up his end of the deal.

“As I said. What is your suggestion?”

“Then I have your word?”

I glared at him. “Tell me your plan first.”

He looked defiant for a moment, before sighing. “I suppose I owe you that. Now look, I’ve worked around Anirah long enough to tell you a few things about her. For one thing, she is extraordinarily cunning, good with the sword, and her knowledge of magic surpasses the average creature holding her rank.”

“And what is her rank?” I asked.

“She is a Fae Bruxa.” Ronza snorted. “A rather inferior rank of fae, if you ask me.”

I paused, curling my lip. “What’s your rank; if I am to work with you, I demand I know.”

He smirked, reaching up and brushing his blonde bangs away from his forehead, revealing a small branded star, four pointed and within a thin circle. “I assume you know this mark?”

I took a step back, staring at him and gasping, “You’re .. you .. that’s the mark of their king!”

“I am of the highest rank, it’s true.” He snorted. “But I doubt I will ever be the king, as I am a sorry disgrace to my kind. I don’t possess enough ability to take down that worthless Bruxa, let alone enough to win in the tournaments. I would die in the first round. May I sit up?”

I glared at him, before sighing. “I suppose .. but one wrong move and I will throw this knife into you.”

He sat up, rubbing his jaw. “Much obliged. Now look. The only chance we have is to kill her before she strikes .. in other words, within two days. Also, physical weapons will not stop her, not even a gun behind her back; she can stop a bullet in the span of time after it leaves the barrel and before it hits her. Need I say we’ll only have one chance at this? Only magic can defeat that level of magic.”

“So?” I sneered. “Use yours. You seemed able enough to use it on me.”

Ronza scowled. “You had no defense against it and no way of sensing when I was going to unleash it. She has both. No, this is something you need to do.”

I gaped at him. “Me? You say fight magic with magic .. I have none! How can you be serious?”

“You do have magic, or at least the capability to wield it. It is your interaction with the spiritual that makes me believe you would have a better chance than I would.” He sighed. “My magic works upon logic. Logic is intellectual and consistent, it doesn’t vary like emotion and therefore, my connection is always very consistent, just like its core.”

“And so? I would think that would aid you. How do you figure I have any chance at all?”

Ronza rolled his eyes. “You Asguardians really are hopeless in this area, aren’t you? Because logic is consistent, it is very easy to sense. It can’t be suppressed. You on the other paw, seem to connect through emotion .. emotion is the core of your connection, so your magic will never feel the same. It will always vary slightly, which is why Anirah might not feel it coming before it’s too late. Fae are not all knowing, they can only feel what they are looking for. She knows what I feel like, but she’s never faced you. Do you see my point?”

I frowned .. honestly only a small extent of what he was saying made any sense at all. “I suppose, but there’s an integral problem. I don’t know a thing about wielding magic. Maybe you are right when you say I have the capacity, but I don’t have the skills.”

“You make a good argument.” He sighed. “But the way I see it, it doesn’t take much to do it, she just can’t see it coming. Even the most powerful mage can be killed from behind .. though it’s not easy. So here is my idea. I will teach you a few spells.”

A thousand thoughts crossed my mind, memories, promises, things I’d said, and things I’d heard. Disgust, desperation, and curiosity collided into one. Was I honestly contemplating this?

“Daddy? Are the Lords real? Is magic real?”

My own voice rang in my head, young and foolishly naïve. His answer did too, though seasoned with far more understanding.

“It is a hard question Azul. I for one, believe the Lords are real, and I believe in Lord Ignasa. Magic .. yes, it is real. All too real, but it can seldom be used for anything good. Magic is dark and bloody and possessing .. it’s not the kind of thing you should ever experiment with.”

“It’s always evil?”

“I .. don’t really know, my little terror. But it isn’t something you should worry about right now.”

I had seen what magic could do the night my parents died. I had sworn to myself I would fight it. But I had never considered fighting with it.

“I understand the struggle.” Ronza didn’t meet my gaze. “But sometimes you just have to fight fire with fire.”

I looked at him in a sideways fashion, sighing. Fighting fire with fire. Use the thing that killed my parents and so many others throughout centuries to save my uncle and my country. I clenched my teeth. “Isn’t that a twisted form of treachery?”

He scowled. “Like it or not, no matter how hard you try .. you’re always a traitor to something.”

“I don’t have to be.” I growled angrily.

Ronza huffed. “Look, to put it plainly, is it going to be your pride or your uncle? What’s more important to you?”

I flattened my ears. “Cur. You dare say I’m too proud to defend them?”

He said nothing, just shrugged. I glared spitefully at him a moment, before I had to admit defeat. “Fine. I will work with you, but only if you swear ..”

“Upon my honor?” He asked.

“Honor?” I snorted. “You don’t have a shred of honor in your entire cowardly existence. No, just swear. Swear that for once, you will tell the truth and be loyal, or may Lord Ignasa strike you down where you stand.”

He stopped, looking slightly worried. “Are .. you a servant of the great lords?”

This threw me off .. threatening someone with the punishment of Lord Ignasa was a saying, I’d never really stopped to think about what I was really meaning. As I thought this, relief flashed across Ronza’s face. I understood he must have read my mind, but it was the relief that baffled me. “Do you serve Ignasa?”

I asked this incredulously, and he slowly shook his head. “No, the Lord of Esmerld is Malimore. I serve him.”

A chill ran up my spine. Malimore, the demon of legends, the shadow of all evil. What was I really getting into? For once, I was honestly thinking about my choice before I made it. The Lords were immortal, spiritual beings who were said to have made the foundations of the world, life, laws, and justice ... as Malimore in turn was said to be the instigator of evil and depravity. He was the arch-enemy of the three. Did I want to meddle that deeply in things I did not understand?

Ronza stood with a subtle clink of boots on metal, wiping a little blood from his mouth. “It is a good question.”

I snarled. “Will you stop reading my mind?”

“Your thoughts are so unguarded it is nearly impossible for me to do that.” He shrugged. “Guard them, and I won’t try. I don’t have to try at this point.”

I growled wordlessly, before holding out my paw. “Very well. I will work with you, and in exchange for your help, I swear to speak for you.”

He shook my paw quickly, before letting go. “And I swear I will not play you false.”

“You’d best not. How much time do we have?”

“Until your uncle tries to send a message to Queen Isabella of Eastgate. That is the signal, that is his death warrant.” Ronza shook his head. “At most, two days. If you can’t pick up on magic that fast .. which is indeed possible, I’ll count on you to distract Anirah, and I’ll use mine on her.”

I scowled. “Yea, why don’t we do that? You’re the one with the freakish powers.”

“Ha! Freakish powers? Haha .. funny, but not practical.” He seemed to find this amusing. “I can barely do what would be considered a few tricks. Wait until you face Anirah. That’s why I want you to learn just enough. She won’t pick up on you as easily.”

“You said that. What do I have to do?” I shivered a little.

“First of all ..” Ronza placed his paws together, closing his eyes and muttering a few words. An unnatural glow spread across his palms, one of which he reached out with, stroking it down the wound on my cheek.

I flinched away, snarling, “What are you doing?”

“Healing you. It’s going to look suspicious if you have a knife slice under your eye.” He said it as though it was completely mundane, and then rubbed a paw across his own muzzle and throat. “Ah .. better. You can kick hard.”

I rubbed the place where the wound had been, feeling nothing more than a slight ridge of skin beneath the fur, a scar. The glow on Ronza’s paws faded, and he shrugged. “Wash the blood out of your fur, and it will look like nothing happened. Though my healing spells are incomplete, and it will likely reopen in a few hours. Bandage it just in case ..”

He suddenly coughed, bringing his arm up and putting his muzzle in the crook of it, hacking for a few moments. I raised an eyebrow. “Are you alright?”

He slowly lowered his arm, trying to grin, but grimacing more than anything. A little dark blood trickled from his mouth, something I had the feeling I hadn’t caused. “Yea .. fine. I just need some rest. Just used .. a few too many spells.”

“Ok ..” I paused, asking, “When do we start?”

“First thing in the morning .. let me replenish my strength. Magic feeds off it, and I’ve used all I could today.”

“You can’t use any more tonight?” I asked.

He winced. “I could, but I’ve used what energy I had, and any more spells will start to use hours of my life. That .. hurts. I’d rather not.”

He coughed again, and another thin trickle of blood ran down his jaw. “In fact, it already started to, just a little. I’ll see you in the morning .. how about we train here?”

“You can find this place again?”

Ronza nodded. “Don’t worry about that. Let’s start six hours before the sun’s zenith. That will be before breakfast.”

He slowly walked past me, giving me a sideways glance. “It may sound odd, but I’m glad I didn’t have to kill you. Goodnight.”

I watched him disappear, before I realized I was still holding a knife in each paw. I slowly sheathed them, walking to the railing of the balcony and looking out over the city again. Svellcrest .. dirty, worn, and forever shrouded in shadows. But it was home. As much as I wanted to leave the caves, to see the sky and the stars and breath clean air .. this was still home.

If I didn’t do something drastic in two days’ time, I wouldn’t be alive to see it, and it wouldn’t be home any longer. Not mine, and not anyone else’s.

I turned away, walking back to the door of the balcony and slipping through it, head tilted down. Like it or not, I held their fate in my paws. Could I tell my uncle? If Ronza could read my mind as easily as he could, and he said Anirah had much more magic than he .. I could avoid her without much difficulty, but Indigo couldn’t.

No, if I told him, she would know of it and all would be lost. This was just me .. me and that traitor. Could I even tell Martes?

My boots made soft clicks on the metal stairs as I descended into the darkness .. Ronza hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights, and I had the cold feeling something might jump out at me .. like him. What if it was all a fake, and he still planned to kill me?

He’d have done it already if he really planned to, I told myself.

The outer door of the storeroom was still ajar, and I hurried to the dim light flooding in from the hallway. I shut the metal door with a soft scraping, turning the handle silently. The first thing to do was wash the drying blood off my face; that was a dead giveaway of foul play.

“Azul?” An echoing cry rang through the hallways. “Where are you?”

That was Martes. If he saw my face he’d inevitably get the truth out of me whether I liked it or not. I considered fleeing, but then decided I’d have to give an explanation eventually, and concealed myself in the shadows of the doorway once again. If Blue was with him .. Blue simply couldn’t know, he couldn’t keep a secret even if he’d wanted to.

I heard Martes’s steps first, and I cast a glance around the doorframe. He was alone, and looked worried. “Azul, answer me! Are you alright?”

I made the decision in a split second, stepping out into the dim light. “I’m fine. Is Blue with you?”

He gaped at me, stammering, “There’s .. blood all over your face! What in the heavens happened?”

“Would you believe me if I told you a fell down a set of stairs?”

Martes frowned. “That’s lame .. what happened? Where’s Ronza?”

“Is Blue anywhere around here?” I demanded.

“No, he got hungry and wanted more supper. Now for the last time ..” Martes was getting flustered. I grabbed his arm, twisted the door open again and pulled him into the storeroom.

“Let’s turn on the lights and I’ll tell you.”

Martes grumbled under his breath, fumbling for the handle. Suddenly the lamps spaced at intervals near the ceiling flared up softly, their pallid light flooding across the room. I shut the door as Martes sat down on a crate, crossing his arms. “Now. How did you manage to hurt yourself like that?”

I sat down across from him, sighing, “I had a little help. Now look, I’m going to tell you the truth .. but you can’t freak out.”

Martes raised an eyebrow. “Give a good reason why I shouldn’t.”

“Because Taevar may rest in our paws .. Martes, Anirah’s from Esmerld.”

His ears shot up. “What? How do you know that? Did she ... wait, did that fox try to hurt you?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, he tried to kill me. Apparently that was his purpose all along ..”

I broke off at the look Martes was giving me. “He didn’t .. I fought him.”

“Ronza’s an assassin?”

I nodded quickly. “Yes, but the point is ..”

Martes growled. “I knew he was no good! The dirty liar!”

His words sparked my anger again, and I scowled. “Yea, you’re right about that. I never should have apologized to him.”

“Well, where is he?” Martes paused, asking, “You .. didn’t kill him, did you?”

I sighed. “No .. I almost did out of terror .. but in a way I’m glad I didn’t. He .. I .. well, we agreed .. It’s .. complicated.”

My friend stared at me. “You came to an agreement? How? On what?”

“I didn’t have a choice.” I looked away. “Anirah .. is about to kill my uncle and Esmerld’s going to take the city. In two days! I wouldn’t do this if I thought there was another way, but ..”

I hung my head, growling, “There isn’t.”

Martes said nothing, watching me blankly.

“So I agreed to help him. Because if Anirah feels like just one thing is out of place, she’ll give the order to her friends outside, kill everyone in the palace, and overrun Svellcrest! I .. can’t let that happen.”

“How can he help? He’ll just run back to his mistress and tell her to start!”

Martes was dismayed. “We’ve got to tell your uncle!”

I shook my head. “No, we can’t! She can read minds! Ronza can read minds! He says all those so-called ‘ambassadors’ are really Esmerldian Fae!”

“Hold on.” Martes pinned his ears. “You mean to tell me ..”

“They’re all witches Martes.”

We were silent for a few moments, before Martes growled. “Then there’s no way we can trust him.”

“I’m not trusting him!” I protested. “But .. as much as I despise saying it, I think we need him. He doesn’t seem to like Anirah much. In fact he claims he wants to kill her.”

“That’s just a trick, Azul, I can’t believe you would buy something like that!”

“You didn’t see his eyes when he said it.” I scowled. “There was something very real and genuine. I don’t think he could fake that. Anyway, I think I would sense ..”

Martes rolled his eyes. “Senses .. this is time for action, not lame feelings. We need evidence, not some flitting emotion! You know what happens when you trust that sixth sense .. bad things. Has anything good ever come of it? And you’re going to place the fate of Asguard in that fickle sense?”

“If you remember rightly, nothing good comes of it mostly because it only seems to sense bad things.” I sighed. “And yes. At this point .. I think me and my stupid sixth sense are all Taevar has left.”

“I didn’t mean it like that.” Martes grumbled.

“Just forget it. The point is, I have to work with Ronza for the time being.”

He sat up straight again, gaping. “What? No! Why?”

I growled, mostly due to my own frustrations and fears. “Because we’ve got to find a way to stop Anirah without her finding out. I guess the only way to do that is with magic. Apparently Fae can sense when another one uses it against them .. so he thinks the only chance .. is for me to stop her.”

“You can’t use magic.” Martes looked blank.

“He .. wants to teach me.”

“And you agreed?” He gasped. “No! That liar is nothing but trouble, I won’t let you ..”

He broke off as I gave him a cold look. Martes sighed. “I mean, that is stupid.”

“I know.” I sighed. “I know, but let’s face it, I’m good at doing stupid things.”

“There has to be another way! I won’t let you .. we’ll poison her .. something.

You know what they say magic can do to a creature .. that’s why it’s punishable by death here.” Martes stared at me. “You wouldn’t try it .. would you?”

I glared at him. “If there was another way .. I’d take it. But I just don’t see one. Do you?”

There was silence for a moment, before Martes shrugged. “Like I said .. maybe we could poison her. If we put poison in her glass .. but .. Rosie tastes everything, doesn’t she.”

“And if one thing .. just one thing seems wrong, they’ll kill my uncle, and I’ll be next. Martes, I don’t want to die .. I don’t want him to die, or Blue .. or let’s face it, you!” I held a paw out. “You’re the general’s son, do you think they’ll take that lightly?”

Martes’s eyes slowly widened, before he grumbled, “You’re serious. This .. is really happening.”

“It is.”

We were silent a moment, before he sat up straight. “Alright. Alright. What exactly are you doing .. learning black magic to defeat black magic? It sounds backwards, and aside from that .. how can you learn enough to counter Anirah if she’s as powerful as Ronza claims? In two days?”

My shoulders slumped. “I know .. it’s hopeless.”

“I didn’t ... say that ..” He protested.

I sighed. “But it’s true .. I can’t stop this .. but I can try. After all .. what other choice do I really have?”

Martes shrugged. “Ok. But if you’re going to meet with that creep, I want to be behind a crate with a pistol.”

“Seriously?” I raised an eyebrow. “I’m not helpless.”

“He’s a witch and an assassin. Quite simply, you’re at a disadvantage.”

“Oh .. fine. Fine, I am.” I scowled at having to admit this. “And since he’ll have his guard up if he tried to fight me again .. yea. He’d win.”

A chill ran up my spine as I admitted to myself I truly was Ronza’s inferior in almost everything .. if I hadn’t pulled the trick I did .. I would be dead. Martes nodded. “Point proven.”

I sighed. “Alright. But not all the time .. if we all vanish, it’ll look suspicious. And above all, nothing can look suspicious.”

“And you’re sure we can’t tell king Indigo?”

“If we can think of a way to do so without looking out of place or letting Anirah know.” I paused, before setting my head in my paws. “I wish we could.”

“Yea.” Martes fell silent, and we sat numbly for a few moments. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was pondering what the end of our world would look like.

Slowly, he stood up. “What time will you be here?”

“Six hours before the sun’s zenith.”

“Right, and I’m going to be behind a pile of crates with my pistol at his back.”

I groaned. “Fine. But don’t do anything unless I start it.”

Martes smirked. “You mean unless you’re in obvious danger.”

“Whatever, same thing.” I grumbled. “I .. need to bandage these wounds before anyone else sees them. Blue will have had to go to bed by now anyway.”

I cast a glance at my pocket watch to see if it was true, and sighed. “It’s moon’s zenith, and I need sleep. I’ll see you .. later.”

As I walked out the door, I tucked the clock into my waistcoat pocket. Martes didn’t move, just watched as I left.

I hadn’t prayed since I was a kit, when my mother would tell me to ask the three Lord’s blessing before I went to sleep at night. But as I stalked quietly through the dingy halls, I breathed a silent plea, that this would work.

My door awaited me stonily, and I pressed the small metal keys on the lock in the needed secession. The lock clicked, and I spun the handle, walking into the room and closing the door behind me. Normally I would have gotten nightclothes on, but at this point, I was past caring.

I flopped on my bed, flicking on the lamp on the wall above it. The lights in Lower Svellcrest always made me think of something sick and dying. Of course, when I’d tried to creep Martes out with my theory the city was alive and dying around us, I’d gotten a long explanation about how burning the lights at their full capacity consumed too much fuel and wasn’t economic.

Martes could be so logical and boring sometimes.

And in turn, he said I thought like a twelve year old. So it was fair to say we were even.

However, despite the lecture on physics that was dancing in my memory like a haunting spirit; the deep shadows cast by the pallid light awoke my imagination, filling the room with witches and assassins lurking behind every piece of furniture.

Sleep was long in coming.

><><

I hated getting up early, I would rather sleep until sun’s zenith. Not like that ever happened, but being awake at six hours before zenith ... let’s just say I’d rather listen to Martes explain how aerodynamics worked.

Being as stupid as I naturally was I’d forgotten to bandage my wounds while picturing the non-existent beings behind my armoire. Consequently, I’d awoken to find my face glued to my pillow with dried blood.

One shower and some gauze had done the trick, but I was late and my fur was damp, half spiked and half slicked down. I subtly wondered where Martes was, but he was probably already in place .. if he was here. Part of me hoped he was, and then also wished the opposite.

The door of the storeroom was open a crack, and I peered in. Ronza was already there, and as I came in I caught him in the act of balancing a knife on his finger tip. It clattered to the floor as I interrupted, and he swiped it up the next second. “You’re late.”

“I had to clean up.” I explained it tersely, not wanting to show my own incompetence.

“You forgot to bandage those wounds, didn’t you?”

I glared. Him and his mind reading! “Yes, and who’s fault is that?”

His ears flicked back, but he didn’t really answer. “I expect you’re ready?”

“As much as can be expected.” I grumbled, trying to push all the stories about the effects of black magic out of my head.

“Good.” He sat down on a crate, crossing his arms. “How much do you already know?”

For some reason, I felt like countering with a smart remark, laced with dry sarcasm. “You serve a demon and I’m about to tap into the thing’s power?”

Perhaps it sounded sarcastic in my head, but it came out as fearful. Ronza rolled his eyes. “First of all, Malimore is not a thing. He is a winged wolf, or is depicted so in legends ..”

“And he is the eternal spirit of contention and all things foul, I know.”

“Of all darkness.” Ronza corrected my interruption. “Now, tapping into the dark spiritual is far easier for us mortals than using the light spiritual. In fact, light Fae have been extinct since Taevar banned all spiritual interaction five hundred years ago at the start of the war.”

“And that was your fault.” I grumbled. “So all that’s left is the bad side.”

Ronza looked at the ceiling a moment, before growling, “If that’s the way you want to see it. Now stop getting side tracked or we’ll never get anywhere.”

I wanted to say something positively evil, but I held it in because there was wisdom in his words. “Fine. I won’t say a word until you’re done explaining.”

“Good. Now, as I said, your connection to the spiritual is through emotion. So your emotions is what will dictate your magic, it’s your core.”

“In other words, negative emotions will let me use magic.” I interrupted before I thought.

Ronza sighed. “Yes and no. Any emotions will let you use it, but some will channel it better than others. In theory.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean, in theory?”

He rubbed the back of his head. “Well .. to be honest, I’ve never met someone who’s core was emotion. That’s .. rare. Almost as lost as the light Fae. There are three types of connections; logical, irrational, and emotional. As most are, I’m logical. Irrational is less common and potentially more dangerous, but harder to control. You however have the strongest and hardest connection to control .. emotions have terrible power over a creature and they will rule you if you don’t rule them.”

I waited, and he shrugged. “If you fail to contain it, you will become a Possessed.”

A shiver ran up my spine. A Possessed?

“Ok. No. No, there’s got to be another way. There’s no way I’m becoming a mindless demon’s puppet!”

Ronza held out his paws. “Hey, settle down! It would take a lot of magic to make you like that; you’re just using a little. I’ve used little tricks for years, and

I’m not a Possessed. In fact, I likely never will be .. I could never use enough for my mind to degenerate like that. Neither will you. If this works, you’ll probably never use it again.”

I glared at him in silence. He was probably right .. but still!

Ronza returned the look, though his was more exasperated than anything. “Look, I’ve been forced to use magic since I was six, ok? I’m not a brainless lunatic that runs around killing everyone, am I?”

Perhaps it was unwarranted, but I raised an eyebrow. I was far too disgusted with this creature to care about his feelings, aside from hurting them.

“Will you quit that?” Ronza’s eyes flashed, and he lashed out with his claws. They swiped across my muzzle, cutting into my lips and whiskers.

A little salty blood dripped into my mouth as I clamped my paw over this new wound. I gave Ronza a death glare, but was surprised to see a look of dread on his face. A trickle of something blackish dripped from one of his eyes like a sooty tear, and he clamped his other paw over the claws that had injured me. “I .. I ..”

His emerald eyes suddenly looked fearful, like a young kit’s. His words came in a rush. “I’m sorry! I .. didn’t mean to, I promise! It just took hold of me ... please believe I didn’t plan to do that to you.”

I rubbed a smudge of crimson off my stinging lips, mumbling, “It?”

“My ... temper.” He rubbed his claws almost nervously. “You .. just need to stop. For the sake of this plan .. do you even know how to not be insulting?”

I slowly looked down, clenching my teeth. He was right, I was wasting time and instigating trouble. “Probably not. But I can try.”

“Alright. I can work with that.” Ronza crossed his arms. “Just don’t mess this up. I’ve been waiting forever for a chance to escape and maybe I picked to wrong one. But I made my choice, and I at least will follow through with it.”

“And so will I.” I snapped. It might have been his plan to get me to stop bickering, but there was no way I was going to let him upstage me. “I will be silent. What do I have to do? Find my inner voices or something?”

“Ugg ...” Ronza rubbed his head. “No, not unless you’re a Fae Seer, and I doubt you are. You don’t have the wisdom for that. You can probably control normal magic. Just try to find the spark of emotion that’s the strongest, and bend it into energy.”

“What about chants and incantations?”

He grumbled. “That’s for more experienced Fae. Anyway, they’re overrated, pure energy works better as it is. Magic feeds off energy. Because emotions like anger can heighten strength, you can potentially use more magic longer than I could. Emotional cores can be the strongest of all. What emotion do you feel the strongest right now?”

I rolled my eyes. “Disgust.”

“Should have seen that coming.” Ronza snorted. “And I suppose it’s directed toward me.”

“No, it’s directed to everything.” I grumbled.

A look of understanding crossed his face. “Then that’s your problem, you’re spreading your energy over too broad a spectrum. Pick one thing .. one very small thing, and direct your emotion to that. Like that slat right there.”

He pointed at an old crate slat lying cracked and dusty on the floor. I sighed. “Oh really. How am I supposed to be mad at a stick?”

“Um ... pretend it’s me. That is, if you’re any good at pretending.” He shrugged.

You have no idea ...

I glared at the slat, pretending it was Ronza. No .. Anirah. Wasn’t she behind all this anyway? She would pay for this .. she had to.

I’d been angry before, but it was rare that I concentrated this much feeling into one thing .. I was always too busy finding multiple things to blame. A sudden splintering crack ran down the board, shattering the silence, even if the sound was soft.

I gaped at it, taking a few steps back. “Wh .. what .. did I just do?”

“You ... actually succeeded?” Ronza was staring at me. “You bent magic with that little training?”

He shook his head. “I’m playing with a snake.”

“What’s .. that supposed to mean?” My voice shook a little from the strange feeling of oppression settling in my gut.

Ronza cast a glance at me, before looking away. “I’m just an air mage who learned a couple good tricks. You ... if only I had your raw abilities, I’d have no reason to fear anything!”

I raised an eyebrow, saying nothing. He sighed. “That .. was too good. How do you feel?”

I frowned. “Queasy.”

“I’m not surprised. Do you want to quit?”

“I don’t need to.” I shrugged, pulling out my watch and flipping it open. “There’s still a good hour before breakfast.”

Ronza shook his head. “I meant, are you tired?”

I gave him a cold look. “No.”

“Very well. Try it on something else.” Ronza gave in.

I looked around, thinking about the moves he had used on me last night .. especially knocking the gun out of my paw. Could I do that too?

I focused on one of the glass light fixtures, concentrating my anger on that. Nothing happened at first, and I tried harder, pretending it was to blame for all my problems, and a tiny crack spread across the surface.

I twisted my paw in a sharp motion, feeling an instant tug on what might very well have been my soul. Hairline cracks spread over the lamp’s surface, and I made a pulling motion with my paw, expecting it to fly into my grasp ... instead it shattered into a million bits. I let out a little cry, doubling over and then falling to my knees.

Blackness swirled in my vision and a wave of nausea flooded my senses, ten times worse than before. I felt paws grip my shoulders, shaking me a little. “Hey, hey, look at me! Can you see?”

My vision was slowly coming back, though it was edged with black. I shrugged Ronza’s paws off, nodding. “Yes ...”

A twinge of pain ran through my chest, and I couldn’t hold back a whimper. “I’m ... fine ..”

“You aren’t.” Ronza said it forcefully. “That’s enough. You need to rest.”

“I do not ... need rest.” I growled. “I’ve got to be able to stop Anirah!”

Ronza shook his head. “No, too much too fast has serious effects. I’ve seen some who can master it very quickly, but you obviously aren’t capable of that.”

To tell the truth, I felt insulted ... but also sick. There really wasn’t any way I could argue, just wince at the jolts of pain running through me. “What then? What am I supposed to do?”

“Yea, what?” Ronza scooted back a few feet, leaning against a crate. “I thought ...”

I glared at him. “You thought what, that I would be some sort of natural talent at this? I’ve never even considered this! I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, all I know is it hurts.”

Ronza scowled. “Pain is part of it. And yes, you do have natural talent, it’s just ...”

“It’s just what?” I grumbled.

Ronza looked downcast. “I can’t teach you.”

“What?” I snarled. “You said ..”

“I know what I said! And I thought I could ... but that was stupid. I’m a logical core. You’re an emotional core. I don’t have the slightest idea how to teach you.”

I stared at him dumbly, and he slumped against the crate. “I was just so desperate to get free of her ... I was willing to try anything. But it didn’t work.”

“Oh no. I’m not going to give up like that, and neither will you. Do you know of any creatures with an emotional core? That I could study?”

He didn’t answer right away, before muttering, “One.”

“Who?” I was frustrated with his hesitation.

He looked up, green eyes glittering with suppressed fear. “Anirah.”



Chapter 4 The Demon's Curse Edit

“Anirah?” I exclaimed in dismay.

Ronza nodded. “I’m afraid so.”

I blinked, groaning, “Aren’t there any others?”

“No, I already told you, emotional cores are nearly extinct. Anirah is the only one I know, aside from you. That’s why while she may be only a Fae Bruxa, she has greater power than many of her superiors.”

“Great. Just great. So I have to study her.”

“No you don’t ...”

I interrupted him. “Yes, I do, or else I’ll just be able to crack and shatter things.”

“You can’t!” Ronza was dismayed. “You’ll get caught. You don’t have to resort to that yet .. you could seek assistance from Lord Malimore.”

“What!” I snarled. “No! I don’t want to have anything to do with demons!”

Ronza sighed. “Look, sometimes apprentices find it hard to channel their abilities, and have to turn to greater power. It’s not ... nice, but it’s part of being a mage.”

“I don’t want to be a mage.” I growled. “I don’t want to become an evil witch, I want to save Taevar, and I want nothing more, do you hear me?”

“I hear you.” Ronza looked unimpressed. “Sometimes you have to make sacrifices to save what you love.”

His shoulders suddenly slumped. “And sometimes it does no good anyway. Sometimes you give up everything and save nothing. Life is a bargain. You have to take risks.”

“And will that risk really make a difference? If I try to make a deal with some ... demonic monster, will it really help me stop this?”

“Only if he accepts you and your request. Unlike me.”

I flattened my ears. “I’m going to make this clear right here and right now ... I will not make deals with demons!”

Ronza slowly stood. “Then you have doomed your world, and me too.”

I jumped to my feet. “What do you plan on doing?”

My voice was suspicious. “Just because I’m smart enough not to meddle with magic, it doesn’t mean you get to tell. I swear you will not leave here alive .. you’re still bound to your promise, keep it or die!”

“You can’t kill me, with your puny physical weapons.” Ronza sneered. “But I’m not telling. I’m going to think. Now you should clean up your face and go to breakfast.”

“Clean up my face ..?”

“Just look in a mirror, ok?” The orange fox rubbed his head. “And just think about it. It may be your only chance.”

I huffed, turning on my heel. “No, there has to be a logical way to defeat her without magic.”

Ronza’s voice, a growl of pure frustration, echoed in my ears as I stalked away. “Taeverians .... proud fools!”

I wanted to counter, I wanted to make him take it back, but I didn’t. What could I say? Maybe I was being proud and an idiot, but I had heard the stories of the possessed. Of how the three lords judged those who practiced magic.

As I laid my paw on the metal door leading into the hallway, Ronza’s voice reached me, almost like a plea. “If you don’t take the risks, you’ll never win anything!”

I paused for one second, before slamming the door shut behind me.

I didn’t have to answer that witch, I owed him nothing. I didn’t have to listen to a word he said! Those were the thoughts that spun through my mind as I stalked down the hallway, tail twitching behind me.

I didn’t get too far, before Martes scurried out on one of the matience catwalks for the hall lights, running along it to a staircase and hurrying down to the floor. “You’re not going to do it, are you?”

I noticed how he looked at me, unlike he ever had before ... with fear.

“No!” I snarled. “Of course not, Martes, you know me, I don’t make deals with evil! I may be cold and selfish and bad tempered, but I’m not ... like that.”

He still stared at me with wide eyes, as if unable to believe something. “You ... you can do magic though, I saw! How? Why? Can we all do things like that?”

“I ... I don’t know. You’d have to ask Ronza, he showed me how. I had no idea ... until ... him.” My voice was rather accusing, I couldn’t seem to keep it in.

“Do you ... feel alright?” Martes winced. “You look horrible.”

I rubbed my stomach, muttering, “I feel sickish, yea.”

"No .. it's your eyes."

I reached up, rubbing my cheek beneath my eye. I brought my paw down where I could see it, staring at the blackish smear on my glove. "What ..?"

Martes pulled out a pocket mirror, handing it to me. I started; there were black streaks under my eyes, like sooty tears. "Ugg! What in the heavens?"

My friend handed me his handkerchief, and I quickly set about wiping the stuff away. It was resilient, but I was more so. Martes took the cloth, asking, "Mind if I analyze this? I've never seen the like."

"Sure." I rubbed my head, groaning, "Martes, what have I gotten into?"

"I ... don't know." He sighed. "I really don't know."

We fell into silence, broken by the clacks of our boots on the metal floor. It wasn't a nice silence, like what was normally between us if we weren't talking, it was tense. Martes was afraid of me. It was a scary thought, but what could I really do?

"You ... know why I have to do this ... right?" I asked. "I'm doing it for everyone ... I'm not going to turn into a Possessed, ok?"

Martes looked away. "I sure hope not."

I was silent. He thought I could turn into such a thing. But I couldn't ... I couldn't!

"Look, Azul .." Martes sighed. "I still trust you, if that's what you're thinking. But I don't approve of this. We are an advanced people, we have technology and resources, there has to be another way to stop this witch without resorting to such filthy measures."

"You've always trusted our technology too much." I grumbled. "There comes a time when it does no good. But if you can come up with a plan that won't use magic, I'm all ears. Now I'm going to breakfast before Uncle misses me and gets his dander up."

Martes nodded. "Ok ... ok. I'll go to the lab and work this out. Bring some food for me .. tell dad I'm not hungry."

I watched as he disappeared into the dimness of the hallways, before turning and walking in the opposite direction, muttering, "Sure thing."

My mind was made up ... Martes was all about the power of science, but I didn't need science right now. I needed solid advise from another firm believer in the spiritual, and I knew just who to consult.

><><

Breakfast was good, but I couldn't enjoy it. Not with Anirah sitting across the table from my uncle, a prim smile on her face like she already ruled Svellcrest. I kept my eyes averted after my first nod of greeting for politeness's sake, then ate quickly.

I was more than ready to leave once the meal was over, and made a swift exit .. neglecting to collect the food for Martes or tell his father anything, anyway, Sir Evrick wasn't there.

My paws took me outside the palace, into the courtyard. As I made my way across it, I looked up into the cave's vastness ... above ground, the sun must be gracing the white snow ... but I wasn't privileged to see any of that. The soot in the air was worse outside, and I coughed into my sleeve.

Lampposts lit the path to the storage buildings and royal falconry, the place where I was headed. Gardens adorned the grounds, filled with subterranean fungi and lichens of all kinds, some small, some large, some even faintly glowing. The Lunaria moths flitted here and there, they were glowing, butterfly-like insects that normally had at least a two foot wingspan. Entirely harmless, they were attracted to the phosphorescent fungi that grew here.

I passed them without stopping to watch appreciatively as I normally did. The old falconry was unique as it was made of stone, dating before Tavaer started using metal to build, like the ancient castle sitting far above. Its door wasn't wood though, it was metal like most things ... wood was precious, reserved for luxuries and fuel.

I walked in, ducking as Icicle flew at me, landing on my shoulders and back with a thump. That bird could never cease to amaze me with his size and weight.

Konan looked up from where he was sitting at a plain metal table, tarnished from the ages. The cat stopped writing, asking, "What is wrong Azul?"

Heavens and lords above, if only he knew. If only I could sit at that table and pour my heart out to him, like I'd done many times in the past. Konan was my solid anchor, the closest to a father that I had ... it felt wrong to keep secrets. But I had to, for the good of all Tavaer .. and more selfishly, to save my tail from a talk more severe than anything I had ever experienced.

I knew what I was doing was wrong, but I also knew why I was doing it. I just wanted advice on how to handle it.

"Konan ..." How could I word this? How could I make it seem ... impersonal? "You believe in the Lords. What will happen ... if we have to face Esmerld's magic? What is their power really?"

Konan's eyes seemed to drill into my soul. I had not even hardly mentioned Esmerld or magic since the day both had left my parents bleeding out on the floor of our manor. I hated both things, and he knew it.

"I am surprised to hear you ask that. But I suppose I can see your reason." He was looking at me in a thoughtful way, the way he always did while evaluating a beast's truthfulness. "We may all be facing that very soon."

Konan was silent for a moment, before placing his claws against each other. "Esmerld's magic is pure evil."

Great. Well, deep down, I knew that. I waited for him to elaborate. And elaborate he did.

"It's not magic as such ... magic is just a word we use in place of power. It's power, and it's not theirs, it's Malimore's."

"So the dark fae and light fae really have no magic of their own?" As soon as I asked this, I wished I could take those words back and strangle them.

Konan gave me a very odd look. "What ... and should I say how .. do you know of the light fae?"

"Uhh .. books." I lied. "I found some old ones in the library. How do you know of them?"

He was silent, before sighing. "I knew one. And yes, their abilities are powers gifted by the Lords."

I just stared at him, and he continued on. "Now, light fae don't have the same relationship with their lords as dark fae do, trust me. Dark fae's so-called power .. well they pay for every inch they use. Malimore never gives anything freely."

I felt a shiver run down my back. "What .. does that do to them?"

"Well ..." Konan sighed. "It's a horrible thing to watch. They become addicted to that power, they continually want more. They go as far as to sell their very souls to Malimore, and it eats away at their minds, until they have nothing left to sell and no service left to offer. Then they become ..."

"A Possessed." I finished, in a stunned manner. Oh Lords above, no! I already had visions of the lord of darkness corning me and demanding my soul. In fact I cold already see him, pitch black, with glowing red eyes and three sets of dragon wings, his jaw-bone crown dripping blood ... just like the effigies of him engraved in the walls of the Hall of History and the murals in books, of course.

"Azul?"

I met Konan's gaze again, to see he was looking grave. "Azul, what's really wrong? Do you know someone who's experimenting with this?"

I shook my head ... maybe if I was silent, my lie would be more convincing. Konan was not convinced. So with a sigh, I fell to blaming what was very easy to blame. "I ... I kind of suspect those ambassadors. Don't they seem ... off to you?"

Konan nodded slowly. "Yes. Indigo is desperate for help, he fails to see it. I cannot tell him, I can't bring myself to shatter his last hope ... my friend, why must he always look for the best in creatures?"

I blinked, and it was Konan's turn to look caught. "I meant ... my king."

"Friend? Konan, you were friends with my uncle?" I asked incredulously.

He looked down at his paws, before sighing. "That is history. Yes, I was once. It was a lot like you and Martes, to be honest. But it is over and done. Now about the ambassadors, what exactly have you seen that made you this concerned?"

Could I tell him? Even as I asked myself this, I knew what I planned to do. "Nothing really. They're just ... odd."

"They are at that." Konan looked grudgingly away, not saying anymore.

"Konan .." I paused, asking, "If you had a choice between doing something terrifying and saving your family .. or doing nothing and letting them die .. what would you do?"

He met my gaze levelly .. he knew me, and he knew I was asking for advise. "Can you tell me what makes you ask that?"

I sighed. As long as he didn't get anywhere near Anirah .. nothing would happen, right? "I think those ambassadors might really be from Esmerld. And that there's going to be an attack soon."

Konan didn't recoil in shock, he didn't even widen his eyes. He simply answered my original question. "I would do everything in my power to protect the ones I love, and my nation."

I felt relief that he agreed with me. I knew he would, but it still brought comfort.

However, he wasn't done talking. "But Azul, do not be rash. Make certain what you are doing is right .. seek the help of the lords."

I frowned, asking, "You're not going to say this is crazy? You're not going to stop me?"

"What can I really do?" Konan shook his head. "I don't know what you're planning, and I don't get the feeling you're going to tell me."

He was right, I couldn't tell him. I just couldn't. I stood up, sighing, "You're right .. I can't explain myself. Thanks though."

He moved quickly, standing and putting a paw on my shoulder. "Azul, I won't always be able to follow you wherever you go. I know that. I'll try, but I'm not all-powerful. The lords are .. call to them."

"How?" I turned, meeting his gaze. "I haven't prayed .. really prayed .. in years. You have, I've watched you. You speak to them as if you know them .. I don't."

Konan sighed, before smiling faintly. "There's never a better time then the present. Just talk to them."

I blinked at him, thinking that over fully. Well, yes, my father had always spoken freely to the Lords. But I .. didn't feel .. special enough. Or worthy enough. Besides that .. I was toying with dark magic. I shuddered just thinking about what Ignasa might do to me if I tried to pray to him while doing that. No .. better to wait until I was out of this mess, and then ask their forgiveness.

"Azul, you matter to them. To Ignasa. Just seek them." Konan was watching me sadly, as if he knew well my thoughts of being unworthy. Because he knew it was an excuse I used. "Think about it."

I nodded. I would think about it .. I doubted I would be able to evade the feeling of guilt clinging to my pelt, making my heart heavy. "Yea. And .. thank you Konan .."

Suddenly, for some reason, I wrapped my arms around the larger creature, hugging him tightly for a moment. He looked surprised, before awkwardly patting my hair as I wished I could say, 'I love you.' But I just pulled away, sighing, "Sorry. Just ... keep an eye open."

He gave me a long, rather confused look, before nodding solemnly. "I'll keep both open, if you don't mind."

He pulled a battered old watch from his coat pocket, asking, "Not to change the subject .. but aren't you late for combat training?"

I glanced at the item, exclaiming, "That's not really the time is it?"

I whipped out my own watch. It was. "Aw heavens, I'm in so much trouble. I've got to get in there."

“Well move your tail.” Konan smiled as he shooed me off, though there something hiding behind it I couldn’t quite name. Fear? Worry? Or resolve .. I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t slow to ponder it. I ran out of the old falconry, pelting across the brickwork courtyard.

It didn’t take more than five minutes to reach the palace, and I strategically chose to go in a side entrance instead of the main one. Usually, even this wouldn’t help me avoid guards, but with so few on duty in the royal residence and lower Svellcrest in general, no one noticed me or my tardiness. Vivere would, of course, but I could deal with that when the time came.

I soon reached the training arena, and with a sigh of resignation at the thought of the lecture I was sure to receive, I pushed the door open. The room was pitch black. I frowned in bewilderment as I flicked the lights on, listening to their tired hum as the arena was flooded with wane, sickly light.

No one was here .. or at least, that was how it seemed. Was this some sort of odd exercise Vivere had planned for me as punishment for being late?

I slowly walked in, calling, “Vivere? Martes?”

There was no answer, and I didn’t like it. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong. Why weren’t they here? I was fifteen minutes late, they should be here and chewing me out .. but they weren’t. Suddenly, I felt my skin crawl as my sixth sense warned me I was not alone after all. And that feeling of cold shivers running down my spine was all too familiar .. that was evil.

I wheeled around, whipping out my pistol. Ronza jumped back, exclaiming, “Hey, whoa! Calm down, it’s me!”

I grumbled, tucking the weapon back into its holster. “Why must you always creep up on me in secluded places?”

“Well you seem to like wandering off by yourself.” He sighed. “But where have you been?”

“That’s none of your business.” I was still cross at being startled.

Ronza rolled his eyes, blurting, “No, this is serious. If we’re going to do something … we’ve got to do it now.”

I felt the cold in my chest grow as I started guessing just what he meant. “Wait .. what has that witch done?”

My growl was, admittedly, more afraid than angry. Ronza blinked, as if confused at who I was calling a witch for a moment, before he shook his head negatively. “Anirah hasn’t done anything yet .. but she’ll have done it by moon’s zenith tonight. I just overheard some of the guard talking … they’ve taken upper Svellcrest.”

I froze. Upper Svellcrest had fallen .. that would mean all the guards defending the walls were either dead, or captured, leaving hardly any to defend the citizens of the capitol. The only thing standing between them and destruction were several sets of heavy metal bars blocking off the tunnels to the upper realms. If those and what could only be a pitiful number of guards failed ... Svellcrest would be no more. No .. all of Tavaer would be gone.

“So are you going to stop it?” Ronza broke into my thoughts .. in more ways than one, but I decided to let it slide for once.

“What can I really do against her?” My voice was desperate. “You’ve seen what I can do .. it’s nowhere near enough!”

I could almost feel his worry, his fear, his desperation, and I was surprised to find they seemed a lot like mine .. obviously for different reasons, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that he actually was invested in the outcome of this. That did bring me a minimal amount of comfort at least.

He sighed after a moment, and part of me desired his ability to easily rifle through another person’s thoughts, as he just said, “I’ll work something out. Come on, hurry.”

For lack of better options, I followed him, wishing to be pretty much anywhere but alone with the fox. “How long do we have?”

“I’d say until tonight .. this advance is just part Anirah’s little game.”

I cringed, blurting, “Well, what’s the plan?”

He met my angry gaze hesitantly. “I hoped you’d have some ideas.”

“Me?” I looked at him incredulously. I didn’t have ideas .. at least not practical ones.

“I have one .. but it’s vague and shaky. Let’s find her first, just don’t let yourself be seen.”

I kept up easily, nodding. “Ok. But where is she?”

He shrugged, stopping for a moment. I slid to a stop and turned to face him as he closed his eyes, standing perfectly still. I opened my mouth to ask what he was doing, but he held up a paw. After a few moments, he looked up. “She’s somewhere in this general direction.”

He pointed down another hallway, and I followed him. As I did, I pulled out my pocket watch, reading the time in the dim light. It was just a little after sun’s Zenith.

The watch snapped shut with a ‘click’ as my paw clenched around it. We had until nightfall, but the sun set early this time of year. There was no time to waste.

We were somewhere in the dimly like palace halls, and if I could venture a guess, I would have said we were near the old archives. While most of Tavaer’s history had been destroyed in the long war, the bits that had survived were stored in a rarely-used wing of the palace. I liked to visit them though, when I had the time. There were mostly books, and the occasional item, such as the ‘crown of so and so’ and the ‘dress of princess someone’. I’d not bothered to remember most of them, though I always recognized the names when I read them.

Ronza suddenly stopped, pointing to the wane light that spilled into the shadowed corridor from an open doorway. I nodded silently, wondering if he could use telepathy, as that would be preferred to talking.

He gave me a look, and shook his head. Evidently, he couldn’t.

“And don’t use magic until we take her out. She will sense it .. in fact she may had already sensed me, but that’s ok. She doesn’t know I’m against her yet.” Ronza’s voice was a soft whisper.

“Hey.” I muttered quietly. “This is probably stupid. But can I .. explode some vital part of her? Like her heart?”

He rolled his eyes. “Not unless you were stronger than her, which isn’t the case. She’d sense that instantly and make short work of you.”

The fox pulled out a small metal box, showing it to me. “This is a mine .. only magic can activate this. I’ll distract her, you throw it at her and use your magic on it.”

“In the archives?” I hissed.

“What, you’d rather let your country die? Besides, it won’t be that big of an explosion, but it’ll give me a chance to kill her.”

I bit my lip, thinking regretfully of what we’d probably destroy. But I nodded, gingerly taking the box and waiting for him to continue.

Ronza gave me a long look. “Don’t think anything. If you’re anywhere near her, she will know.”

His emerald eyes were so full of certainty, I shivered. I couldn’t help it. “How will I know when to throw it?”

He shrugged. “I’ll look over at you .. you’ll be hiding somewhere behind her. I can’t nod, she’ll catch that. So I just won’t look in your direction until I want you to make your move.”

I just nodded, and he returned the gesture, moving forward slowly but calmly.

The orange fox had a way of pretending to be calm when he needed to be .. honestly, I couldn’t believe how good he was at hiding his true feelings. I was actually jealous of him in that respect.

He walked into the large room of archives, with its vaulted ceiling and many shelves of books lining the walls. It was a miniature museum, with cases of jewelry, clothing, and coinage on display .. even the occasional weapon or antique piece of technology.

Anirah was nowhere to be seen, but Ronza moved forward with certainty. I followed him, muttering, “What is she even doing in here?”

He shrugged, face expressionless, and I didn’t voice the speculations running through my head. I knew it wasn’t the most important thing at the moment, but I couldn’t help but wonder.

The archives took up several rooms, though the others were merely storage. We were walking past a display of ancient books, when Ronza suddenly shoved me hard in the shoulder, causing me to stumble behind their shelf.

Sometimes I really wanted to punch that fox in the face. I staggered upright again, glaring at him .. or rather, the spot he’d once been .. he’d obviously kept on walking. While I would have liked to inflict my anger upon him, I held it in as I realized he likely had a good reason.

“Milady?” His voice rang out from the room beyond the bookshelf, and I pushed some of the old tomes aside to make a small hole to look through.

Anirah had walked out of one of the side rooms, and was now looking at Ronza in an uninterested manner. “What are you doing here?”

Her voice was condescending and flat. “Have you killed her yet?”

“No, she doesn’t suspect anything.” Ronza said it evenly. It wasn’t hard to guess they were talking about me.

Anirah sighed. “Fine. Though you are the worst apprentice anyone could have. You can’t do anything, can you?”

“What would it really avail us at this point?” Ronza asked incredulously. “You’ll have killed her by tomorrow anyway.”

“Me? That’s your job. And you haven’t answered me yet. Why were you looking for me? I hope, for a better reason than to report your many failings.” Anirah gave him a testy sideways glance.

I might have felt the slightest bit sorry for him, but the casual talk of my death numbed what little pity I had. Ronza remained cool, to his credit. “I was just wondering when our soldiers will overrun lower Svellcrest. So I can be ready.”

Anirah moved towards the shelf I was hiding behind, answering. “A few hours after sundown .. I thought I told you already.”

I ducked away from the peep-hole I’d made, creeping toward the end of the shelf so I could get a shot at her if Ronza gave me the signal. Honestly I thought this whole assassination was ill-planned .. could I even manipulate magic fast enough to do this?

Wasn’t he supposed to be a professional at this?

Anirah rifled through some of the old books, reading their titles and then casting them aside with little interest. I remained as still as I possibly could, though I’d never been good at that and my tail wanted to twitch.

“What are you looking for?” Ronza put a touch of concern into his voice. “If the guards find you here it will look suspicious.”

“I’m not concerned with that.” Anirah sounded bored. “I’ve got my own agenda aside from my orders, and I intend to fulfil it as well. Don’t you have a princess to kiss up to?”

Ronza sighed, bowing. “Yes milady.”

He turned to face me, and our gazes met for a split second. It was now or never.

As I raised a paw to throw the mine, allowing my hatred of this entire situation to bubble up, Anirah looked up. “Do you feel ..”

She didn’t get any farther, as I hurled the explosive in her direction, clenching my claws in its direction as I focused all my anger on it. The item actually hit the ground near Anirah’s feet before my magic took effect, but when it did, there was a brilliant flash of light and a sound akin to a gunshot, but much louder.

I coughed as the smoke from the explosion assaulted my nose, burning in my sinuses. My eyes watered angrily, and I regretted not pulling my goggles down to protect them .. it seemed like smoke was everywhere. I tried to catch sight of Anirah or Ronza, to no avail.

There was a sudden flash of green light, and the smoke receded from around the lady of Esmerld .. it fled from her like melting snow. Ronza was standing near her, frozen … for a moment I couldn’t understand why he was doing nothing.

She glared at him, snarling, “What is going on?”

He didn’t even blink, and she didn’t look like she expect him to as she turned her gaze to the rest of the room, looking for her attacker .. me.

The faint aura of green keeping Ronza in its grasp was enough to let me guess she had him caught in some sort of spell. I pulled out my pistol .. she was looking the other way, and I had to do something!

I leapt into the open to get a better shot and pulled the trigger just as Anirah wheeled around to face me.

I’d never seen anything like it .. she didn’t let go of Ronza, but the bullet stopped in midflight. The weasel smiled at me, letting it drop to the ground with a pitiful clink. “What did you really think you’d accomplish with that, sweetie?”

I wanted to run .. shoot again .. but I couldn’t as her magic wrapped around me with evil, chilling, faintly glowing tendrils. She released Ronza, and he staggered, gasping in air. She glared at him, snarling, “She doesn’t suspect anything, does she?”

He clutched at his throat, rasping, “I don’t know what she’s doing here!”

If I could have, I’d have screamed at him. Deep down, there was the vague thought he might be trying to salvage this somehow, but all I could think rationally .. if there was a drop of rationality to it at all, was how he was betraying me to my face.

Anirah sneered nastily, raising her chin. “Really? Are you certain of that, Ronza?”

“I thought she knew nothing!” There was a certain stark fear etched on his face, a fear that bordered on the edge of desperation and insanity. “I don’t know why she’s here, she must have double-crossed me!”

I couldn’t move, or breath, but I could hear. And I could tell he wasn’t faking this betrayal, he meant it. He meant to blame me for all of this, and deny he had part in it.

If I had been free, I would have likely leapt upon him and strangled him to death. If I could have moved, I would have been trembling with anger, and even if I was held still by magic, I could still feel chills running down my spine from a terrible fury boiling in my soul.

How dare he?

I had trusted him!

I shouldn’t be surprised. My mind knew it .. he was a witch, a coward, and a con artist. But it still hurt, and it still filled me with a horrible rage, a rage I had never felt so strongly before.

“Is that so?” Anirah curled her lip, sneering at him like he was the lowest being alive .. I could have almost pitied him, once. But oddly, I felt a sick sort of satisfaction.

Ronza nodded .. not frantically, not quite .. he was very good at acting. “I don’t know why she’s here.”

“Oh, I know why she’s here.” Anirah smirked. “It’s one of two reasons. Either you were using her to attempt my assassination, or you’re an incompetent failure who can’t even fool a stupid little princess. Neither paints a good future for you.”

Ronza pinned his ears miserably as Anirah glared him down with a sort of twisted amusement. “I could read your mind, but I think it would be more interesting to let her tell us both.”

She rotated her wrist, and the magic released me. I fell to the floor, gasping in air .. while in her grip, I hadn’t seemed to need to breathe, but now I found my vision swimming as I nearly passed out. I didn’t, but it took a few seconds before I could look up.

Ronza was staring at me with a miserable, nearly pleading look on his face, and it only infuriated me more. “You traitor!”

My voice was a strange sound, almost a scream of fury. “You have no right to make me pay for what you started!”

I struggled forward, seething, but Anirah waved a careless paw at me, sending me flying backward several feet and flat onto my back.

“She is not lying.” Anirah wasn’t even looking at me, but she was fixated on Ronza. “Did you really think that would work? I can read her thoughts like an open book.”

She stalked over to the fox, who seemed frozen in fear .. nothing like his usual self. Anirah lashed out, her claws biting into his lips and ripping across his mouth, sending him staggering back. “And how dare you teach magic to a Tavaerian! You were born into the king’s rank, how dare you betray Esmerld in such a filthy way!”

Her voice was filled with the same anger I felt. “The king’s rank is sacred, Lord Malimore gave you the greatest honor, and you have spit on it! You will die as the law demands for this transgression!”

I tried to stand, and she hit with another blast of power. I snarled. As much as I wanted Ronza to pay, I didn’t want that witch to be the one to make him. I should get to kill him.

Anirah had her paw poised over Ronza, a little green swirling around it, as I thought this. She paused, slowly straightening up and looking at me, a thoughtful look on her face.

I shuddered, cringing away from her .. truly, she scared me, especially after experiencing her magic firsthand. She slowly smiled at me, her rage morphing into a demonic grin, and suddenly, I wasn’t thinking about Ronza .. I was thinking about my own safety.

The weasel’s fangs gleamed bright white as she spoke. “I have thought of a better way.”

Ronza tried backing up, but she threw both her paws out, one in my direction and one in his, pulling us onto our feet and keeping us there. She closed her eyes, and her lips moved slowly and distinctly, though her voice was low enough I could not hear it.

A green glow formed around each of her paws, sparkling and flashing. As she continued to speak, it intensified until it was hard to look at .. I wanted to close my eyes against it, but I was held in an unblinking state.

Suddenly a strange circle appeared under Anriah’s feet, glowing green with letters of a foreign language inside it. With a sudden flash, the green power shot into my face .. or more accurately, my torso, and the pain it brought was unlike anything I’d previously felt. If someone had thrust a sword of pure ice into my chest, I doubt it could have been so painful.

I screamed, or at least, I did my best. Whether or not the sound in my head left my mouth didn’t really matter. The fire (or was it really ice?) burned through my body with a horrible intensity, sweeping from my heart to the tip of my tail, and I felt myself fly back, out of Anirah’s magic as she released her hold on me.

Green fire glowed in my vision, blocking out all else as I felt my body slam into the floor, and I was sure I would black out. I desperately wanted to fall unconscious, anything would be better than the pain splintering throughout my being. Never before had I wanted to die, but now I would have welcomed it. I could hear my own whimpers as I struggled to breathe, and every breath was torture.

I don’t know how long I laid there, but slowly, the jolts of pain became less terrible. My vision was clouded with blackness and tears, but I could hear groans that weren’t mine from nearby. I tried to lift my head, but could not.

Slowly, I started to regain my sight, though it was still blurred with tears and I felt extremely light-headed. Why wasn’t I dead? Hadn’t Anirah meant to kill me?

She was standing several feet away, slowly wiping black tears onto a white lace handkerchief. Anirah didn’t seem fazed by them, or even surprised. Ronza was lying in a heap on the other side of her, teeth clenched against his moans and tremors running through his body. His fur was singed here and there, and as I looked down at my paws, I realized they were the same.

The other fox slowly looked up at Anirah, groaning, “What did you do?”

She glared at him, suddenly kicking him in the side. “You have no right to speak to me. She is your judge now. And I think she can make you far more miserable than I ever could.”

I struggled into a sitting position, still finding it difficult to breathe properly. Every part of me hurt, and I could smell the slight acrid scent of my singed fur. Ronza wasn’t moving, but I did my best to struggle to my feet, though I couldn’t get past kneeling. My gun was laying several feet away, and above all I wanted to grab it, but I doubted the action would do any good anyway.

Anirah didn’t seemed that concerned with me or Ronza, and I snarled at her, though my voice seemed broken, raspy, and strained. “What are .. you doing .. I thought you planned .. to kill us.”

She barely looked at me. “I did. But I really don’t have to anymore. Anyway, it would be a waste of a perfectly good curse. I think this will work out better.”

She was casual about this .. she didn’t speak to me with hate in her voice, just calmness and uncaring. I forced myself to stand, and I did, though my legs were shaking. I wanted to say something .. to vent my fury .. to kill her .. and for some reason I felt cold.

I didn’t have time to ponder why as Anirah faltered, suddenly falling to her knees and hacking, a little blood dripping from her muzzle and staining the floor. I staggered .. my knees wanted to buckle as well, but adrenaline was rushing through my veins, and it kept me standing. Ronza looked worse off than both of us, curled miserably on the floor, trembling .. I wondered if he was even coherent, or if he was in shock.

There was a sudden shout, and my uncle and several guards ran into the room, stopping as they saw the three of us. For a second, everything froze, and relief flooded through me. “Uncle ..” I began, but he stopped me, looking confused and shocked. “Azul, what’s going on here?”

His voice was almost .. suspicious? I was bewildered .. why would he be suspicious? Then I realized that I was standing, and two creatures he believed to be friendly ambassadors were on the floor. I felt frozen .. he thought I did this?

As I was trying to gather the right words, Indigo shook his head. “Did you attack ambassadors?”

He stepped toward Anirah, holding out his paw. “Lady, are you alright?”

I couldn’t move. I honestly couldn’t .. and I saw why too, Anirah’s paw was pointed in my direction, and clenched. I saw the glitter of a knife hidden in the sleeve that covered it, and my heart froze .. she meant to kill my uncle!

She didn’t look up as she placed her mechanical paw in Indigo’s real one, and I would have given anything to move in that second. He helped her to her feet, but the lace veil hanging from her hat still hid her eyes, and the black stains under them.

Her paw unclenched, and I staggered, gasping in a breath. Indigo looked at me with eyes that showed how much it hurt him to think I would be such a traitor. “Tell me you are innocent of this!”

I would have answered, I wanted to, but Anirah moved her paw and that hidden knife closer to him, feigning a thrust. My eyes flashed, and I bolted forward, crying, “Uncle, get away from her!”

My paw clenched around his arm as I shoved him away from Anirah, and as I cast a split-second glance at her, I could have sworn she was smiling.

There was a flash of clear blue light and my paw stung horribly .. like I’d touched a piece of frozen metal with wet fur. We were both falling, as I’d thrown all my weight against Indigo to shove him out of harm’s way, and I briefly saw the crystalline frost race across my uncle’s body before we hit the floor.

The sound of shattering glass rang out, splitting the silence horribly. Several bursts of sharp pain splintered on my face and arms, but they were drowned out as my chin slammed into the metal ground.

For a second, I knew nothing .. then the cries of horror rang out, flooding my senses. I forced my eyes open, struggling to get my paws beneath me in hopes of sitting, and I saw it. I was too shocked to do anything but stare in genuine fear .. my uncle was solid ice.

Solid in that his body was composed of the element, but broken from his fall. One of his ears was snapped off, as well as his arm up to his shoulder, and his tail, which lay in multiple pieces. I heard myself sob in a shaking breath, before whispering, “Uncle? How …?”

A layer of frost had fastened my paws to the floor, but I broke it easily as I crawled forward, crying, “Uncle!”

I turned on Anirah, snarling, “Undo it now!”

She had the audacity to look shocked, taking a step backward and staring at me like I was insane. I was shaking, partly from terror at what had happened, and part in fury that Anirah dared to act innocent, even though I expected to less from her. “Bring him back!”

I hadn’t really intended to scream, but that was what I did. Anirah backed away, looking at the guards with an expression of bewilderment, as if I was accusing her of some great wrong.

For an agonizingly long time, everything seemed frozen, even if it was really only a few seconds. I wanted to scream again, to yell, to tear someone to pieces .. but I couldn’t do any of it. All I could do was cry, and neither that, nor any of the other things I desired to accomplish to vent my fear and fury would bring my Uncle back.

The stillness was broken as one of the guards grabbed my shoulder, probably to pull me away, but he yanked his paw back in the next second, biting back a sharp yelp. There was frost everywhere .. running across the floor, running up my arms, and cold mist almost flowed from me. Every shaking breath I exhaled left a frosty cloud of white hanging in the air. I was shivering from my ears to my tail, and I was just beginning to notice how terribly cold I was.

I heard the clatter of boots as more guards ran in, and I heard the loud sounds of their confused and desperate voices, but my brain couldn’t seem to discern what was being said. My uncle .. wasn’t dead .. was he? He couldn’t be! More than ever before, Tavaer needed him. I needed him!

A sudden commotion made me look up, and even with my tear-filled vision, I could tell it was caused by Ronza.

“I didn’t do anything!” His voice was somewhat slurred. “I did nothing!”

“Don’t listen sire, he used magic too, I saw it!” Anirah sounded deathly afraid. “He’s been with my creatures all this time, and I never thought .. he might be .. that.”

Two of the guards dragged him to his feet, and he struggled weakly, but could not break free. His gauntleted paw connected with a guard’s chest in his attempts to escape, and there was a flash of white light.

The guard staggered back with a cry, his uniform burning where Ronza had struck him. The fox fell to his knees, wisps of flame circling his paws and wrists.

I felt a chill run down my spine, he had never displayed that sort of magic before .. whatever Anirah had done to us had brought this about. But why would she give us more power? What sort of sick scheme was this?

Vivere walked in, stopping dead at the sight of the aftermath. I stared into his eyes, silently pleading with him to fix this, even if I knew there was nothing he could do.

The look he gave me in return was one of absolute shock, confusion, and some fear. “Azul, what is this?”

“Anirah is a witch .. she’s from Esmerld!”

Part of me really expected him to believe me .. to arrest the weasel at once and force her to undo whatever spell she had cast on me, which in turn would return Indigo to normal. But he just stared at me, his shock slowly morphing into anger.

He looked at Anirah, who had her handkerchief over her mouth and seemed too stunned to even plead her case.

“Is this true?” Vivere seemed .. uncertain to say the least.

Anirah just shook her head, not saying anything .. if I hadn’t known better, I would have likely believed her and pitied her, she looked about to cry.

I whimpered as a jolt of pain shot through me, and I spoke quickly. “She’s a witch .. she cursed me!”

Vivere looked like he wanted to believe me, but couldn’t. “Azul …”

His voice was shaky. “You are the one who looks like a witch.”

I was stunned beyond belief. “This isn’t me! I would never do this .. she did this to me!”

Vivere looked at me gravely for a moment, obviously torn between what was staring him in the face and the claims of a beast he was sworn to protect, but who’d been known to lie before.

“Vivere, I don’t want this! I would never want this!” I almost shouted it. “We can’t argue about this .. you have to trust me .. we have to find a way to save my uncle! She did this .. you can make her talk, I know!”

Anirah broke down, genuine tears in her eyes. “I don’t know what she’s talking about sir, I have no ill will against the king! How could I, when he is the closest ally of Milady Isabelle?”

“Enough, I will get to the bottom of this. Lock them all up until we have proof.”

“Vivere, there isn’t time!” I protested .. couldn’t he see that every second we did nothing, my uncle remained a block of ice?

“Azul.” The chinchilla’s voice was gruff. “Don’t make this worse than it is. Already I may not be able to save you.”

I froze .. I didn’t resist as the guards motioned that I stand, being careful not to touch me. I could have broken free and ran, but I was shocked .. magic use was punishable by death, and if I truly had been the one responsible for the ice that wouldn’t stop dripping from my fingertips .. than I would have frozen my uncle. But I wasn’t! I hadn’t done any of this! I hadn’t!

I hadn’t .. had I? No, and my uncle wasn’t dead, he couldn’t be dead ..

I stared wildly over my shoulder as they forced me to leave him .. frozen, shattered. I hated magic! I hated Anirah .. I hated myself! I hated everything.

A glance at my paws showed the ice was spiraling up my forearms in frost that clung to my jacket. I brushed it away, but it just resiliently returned.

For once, if was so afraid I was actually acting fearful, instead of bursting into a fit of rage. I allowed myself to be led into an empty storage room .. there were no cells in the palace, but there were many empty rooms, and getting out of some of them was none too easy.

I looked pleadingly at Vivere, but he wouldn’t meet my gaze as he motioned Ronza be put in with me.

He could barely walk, and collapsed to the floor as soon as the guards released him. The next second, the door slammed shut, leaving the two of us in total darkness.

Earlier, I might have thrown myself at Ronza in a whirlwind of anger, but now I just sank to the floor, my tears returning. My uncle! I could barely even comprehend what happened, just that my uncle was ice, and stupid Vivere was too concerned with stupid formalities to let me save him.

The world was dark and cold, and I sneezed, shivering. I wanted to force myself to my feet again, but I couldn’t seem to find the willpower to try. I closed my eyes; I couldn’t see anything anyway, and as I lay there in the blackness, I wept.

><><

The next thing I knew, there was a sharp pain in my shoulders. I jolted awake with a gasp, throwing myself away from it and rolling across the floor. “Ahhg!”

Ronza was kneeling a few feet away, the flames dancing around his paws. He didn’t say anything, and I stared blearily at him, suddenly recalling all that had happened.

“You ..” My voice was a guttural growl. “You betrayed me!”

He flattened his ears, muttering something, but he didn’t look up.

I seethed at him .. it was easy to seethe at him. “You coward!”

“What would you have done?” He barked suddenly. “You would have done the same!”

“I wouldn’t have!” I snarled.

He snarled back. “Oh really? Because if it’s between an enemy you had a shaky alliance with and your life, I think you’d make the same choice I did! I know you would, because you’re just as mortal as me, you’re just too proud to admit it.”

I pointed an angry claw at him. “My uncle is a statue thanks to what you did!”

There was a brilliant flash of icy light, and a blast of snowy wind slammed into his chest, sending him flying back. A sudden pain flared in my own torso, and gasped, staring at my paws as he sat up again, brushing his coat off and blinking.

We were both silent for a moment, before he grumbled, irritatingly unhurt, “It’s not my fault Anirah cursed us.”

“You .. you .. it’s all your faults!” I exploded, getting to my feet. “Do you have any idea how much we’ve suffered thanks to you filthy Esmerldians? My parents are dead because of you! My country is in ruins, and the young rarely grow old, all thanks to you! Esmerld started this war, five hundred years ago, so it’s your fault any of this had to happen!”

He stood as well, eyes flashing. “I never asked to fight this war! Malimore take Tavaer, and Esmerld as well! I was told what to be from the moment I was born, and not complying meant death! I’ve just been trying to get out all my life, and the one I thought could help me had to be someone like you!”

“You thought wrong! I never wanted to help you, I only wanted to help my family!” I roared in fury, ice spreading along the floor from under my boots as I let my anger loose.

He was silent for a moment, before laughing mirthlessly. “That’s the game, isn’t it? We use whoever we need to in order to protect what we love, and we lose anyway. You’re more like me than you realize.”

I pinned my ears against my head, clenching a fist at him. “I’m nothing like you!”

A burst of light brightened the near pitch darkness as ice shot from my fingertips, this time forming into jagged icicles that impaled Ronza in multiple integral places.

I wail of pain escaped my lips, and I collapsed to the ground as every place an icicle had stabbed into his body seemed to translate to mine. I clutched at my collarbone, gasping as I felt the ice digging into my flesh, even if there was none.

“Woah, cool it!” Ronza yelled to get my attention.

I looked up with a groan. “I’m plenty cool!”

The jagged ice impaling him was melting away, and as it did, the pain racking my body faded.

Ronza rolled his eyes. “I think Anirah used some sort of bonding curse on us, you’ve got to stop impaling me before you make yourself pass out.”

He scratched his chin. “On second thought, maybe that’s not such a bad idea.”

“Bonding curse?” I groaned, trying to sit up, but failing. “What in the heavens do you mean by that?”

“A bonding curse fuses two beasts, in other words, the pain I feel, you will feel, and vise versa.” He explained.

“Then why don’t you feel this?” I moaned, letting my head rest on the floor as the glow of my ice faded, leaving us in darkness again.

Ronza honestly looked bewildered. “I don’t know, I’m asking myself that same question. I think it has something to do with the fact you’re using the curse’s power.” I stared in his general direction as I got my breath back, even if it was too dark to see. “Do you know what this curse is?”

“No, I never actually was powerful enough to learn any.” Ronza sighed in the darkness. “I did learn about them, but there’s only a few I know of that would match what’s happened to us.”

I really hated talking to him, but I knew nothing about curses. “How do we break it?”

He sounded thoughtful. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”

Both of us were silent for the next few minutes, listening to the dead silence, broken only by an occasional scuff outside the door, presumably of the guards Vivere had left to see we didn’t escape. Honestly, now that I was thinking a bit clearer … I could summon ice .. well, without thinking anything of it. I was pretty certain I could destroy any guard foolish enough to stand in my way.

But I just wanted to save my uncle, I didn’t want to make myself an enemy of Tavaer, and I didn’t even want this power. I sneezed as I thought this, and the action caused a spontaneous shudder to run down my back.

“Are you cold?” Ronza asked from the darkness several feet in front of me.

I ran a paw across my nose as runny liquid dripped from it, jerking my head back as the frost on the back of my paw stung my tender muzzle. “Uggh .. what do you think?”

“I thought so.” I heard the rustle of fabric, like the sound of clothing being removed. “I’m hot.”

“I wish I was.” Truly, the cold wasn’t too bad, but it was irritating. I’d have really enjoyed a fire at that moment.

There was silence for a moment, then a nasty, scraping sound rang out, and I flicked my ears back. “What are you doing?”

“There’s some old crates in here.” He replied as though I should have already known it. “And you said you’d like a fire.”

I bit back correcting him that I’d said nothing as he dropped something on the floor, causing a clatter. There was a pause, but nothing happened. I heard Ronza grumble, and I frowned, even if he couldn’t see it. “What’s wrong?”

He sounded frustrated. “I can’t make fire. Of course that part was too good to be true, Anirah would never give me true power .. I’m as useless as always!”

A sudden flash of light split the darkness, and Ronza jumped back as fire sprang from his paws, leaping to the pile of broken crate slats.

I shrugged. “It seems to be back.”

“No.” I looked oddly at Ronza, somehow, he looked smaller than usual without his heavy black coat. In his light, loose fitting undershirt, staring at his gauntleted paws like he’d seen a ghost, he looked .. vulnerable.

“No. It never left.” His voice was soft.

I scooted closer to the small, crackling fire. “Well, whatever. I just want to get rid of it. Why are you acting so weird right now?”

He slowly sank to the floor, staying away from the flames he’d created. “Not that curse … any curse but that ..”

Ronza was staring at the floor like he might have a mental breakdown. Personally, I couldn’t care less what his mental state was, but the last time he’d acted all crazy I’d gotten my muzzle clawed. So I sighed. “Well, you might as well tell me the horrible news and get it over with.”

“You don’t want to know.” He groaned. “This can’t be!”

“Oh yes I do want to know!” I argued. “How will I find a way to break it if I don’t know?”

Ronza looked up, shaking slightly. “You can’t break this! She used a High curse .. a curse that’s never been broken! We’re .. going to die.”

A chill settled in my heart, but I couldn’t truly believe what he was saying. “But Anirah cast it, so she can break it!”

He laughed, perhaps at my ignorance, but it was by no means a happy laugh. “She can’t break it any more than anyone else, this curse has never been broken, didn’t I say that?”

“There’s always a first time.” I shrugged.

“A first time .. no, you don’t understand.” He snorted. “It’s not her curse, it’s Malimore’s. If I’m right about this .. this curse hasn’t been used in hundreds of years, but every recorded instance of it being used has resulted in death. There is no known way to break it .. it’s unbreakable.”

“That’s stupid, it’s a curse right, curses can be broken!”

He moved like lightning, grabbing my shoulders and shaking me roughly. “Shut up! What do you know about curses or magic? You’re just a stupid Tavaerian, where’d you learn about magic, story books? Well it’s not like the stories! There are some curses that have never been broken in the history of their use. Those are High curses .. always fatal, and always torture the victim in horrible ways! I’ve seen beasts lose their minds .. kill themselves just to end the suffering!”

I stared at him, terrified, and he didn’t move, keeping his paws clenched on my shoulders. A slow burning sensation was growing where he was touching me, and the full magnitude of the pain seemed to hit us spontaneously.

He yelled, jerking his paws away in the same second I cried out. We scrambled away from each other, and my shoulders felt like they were burning. I clutched them, gasping, and he clenched his paws against himself, bending over them as he showed his teeth in pain.

It took a few moments to dissipate, and when it did, I spoke breathily. “Let’s never touch each other again!”

Ronza nodded in total agreement. “I didn’t think it’d do that .. uggh .. stay away from me!”

“My pleasure,” I panted snarkily, learning for the first time that was actually possible.

The darkness was barely penetrated by the tiny fire, consisting of three crate slats. It didn’t ward off the cold either, as much as I desired it to. And I was so very cold.

><><

I might have liked to have not known how much time was passing, but I did, every agonizing second. Ronza didn’t say anything more, just silently kept the fire going as I sat by it like a lump, moodily watching my pocket watch’s hands slide from one number to the next.

Vivere had to come soon! Any second now, the watch hand would slide to the next mark, and the door would open, with Vivere saying how sorry he was for blaming me.

But the hand moved with its metallic click, and the door never opened.

Still, I kept hoping the next second would be the lucky one. But it never was.

Hours passed in this manner, and I was getting restless. What was Vivere doing, wasting all this time? We had to save my uncle! There was a cure, there had to be, and if Vivere would just help me, we could save Indigo.

What was he doing?

Ronza spoke suddenly, flatly. “Are you that much of an idiot, that you don’t know? Your general is fighting .. dying, as Esmerld takes over Svellcrest. Anirah’s plan had to be put into motion a long time ago.”

I stared at him, realizing how right he was. “Well why are we sitting here? Are you just going to let them capture you?”

“Why not? What do I have to lose, I’m dying anyway.”

I flattened my ears. “Shut up. We’re not dying .. I’m not anyway.”

“If one of us dies, so does the other.” Was his disheartening answer.

“Snap out of it!” I growled. “That’s not the point .. I don’t even want to think about that right now, if we can just save my uncle ..”

Ronza snapped suddenly. “Your uncle is dead, what part of that don’t you understand? And even if he wasn’t, would that change a thing? Your country is doomed, your family is dead, you failed!”

He seemed determined crush what little hope I had left. He read my thoughts, and snorted. “Hope? To the Netherworld with hope, all it does is make you more miserable when you’re proven wrong. I tried that once.”

I snarled, standing a little shakily. “Well I haven’t, and I’ll learn the hard way. So just shut up! I’m getting out of here, now!”

He sighed heavily, and as I knocked on the door, I heard him stand.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” I asked the hallway, with no answer.

Ronza grumbled from behind me, “Why don’t you yell a little louder? Who knows where the Esmerldian soldiers are by now?”

I scowled. “Well, what should I do?”

“Break the door down, what else? If you rip the lock off with your ice, opening it should be easy.”

“Oh and that’s quiet?” I snorted.

“Just do it.”

I grumbled for good measure, before taking a few steps back from the door and holding out my paws, palms facing the lock. Emotion seemed to be a ruling factor of the curse, so I allowed my anger to build up .. anger was the strongest emotion I knew.

The glowing cold swirled around my paws, before a sharp jag of ice sprang from nowhere, smashing through the door and knocking it at a crazy angle. A few seconds later, it fell outward into the hallway with a loud crash.

“They’ll have heard that for sure.” I couldn’t resist the jab.

Ronza didn’t answer me, just stepped out into the hall, one that was forebodingly empty. I followed him, peering around in search of anyone, but it was still as death.

I reached for my saber, only to realize the guards had taken it, along with my pistol. Stupid Vivere, I thought again. Why couldn’t he believe me?

With a sigh, I followed my only companion out into the palace, and I wondered where Martes was. Where Konan was .. if they were even alive. And what about Blue?

I froze as that thought crossed my mind. What about Blue? He was just a little cub, he couldn’t defend himself, he wouldn’t know enough to hide .. he was trusting and innocent. I had to find him. Fast.

From far in other parts of the palace came distorted, unrecognizable noises, crashes, clashes, and cries of wounded beasts. But they were few and far between. And in that moment, I knew Tavaer was dead.



Chapter 5 Fleeing Fate Edit

I followed Ronza through the palace, even though I would have been quite happy to never see him again. The only problem was I happened to be weaponless in a city overrun with beasts who would probably kill me on sight.

I didn’t know where we were going, and I really doubted he knew either, but surviving was our top priority.

As we passed through a dim hall, a hiss came from the shadows, and a paw clamped over my arm. I wheeled around, fur spiking, in time to see Martes yank his paw away from me, wincing. “Ahh!”

His cry was soft, but pained.

“Don’t touch me!” I said in dismay. “Anirah cursed me, I’ll only hurt you.”

He stared at me, before gasping, “You were right .. Lower Svellcrest’s been overrun .. and what is he doing here?”

That was directed at Ronza, who scowled, looking away from us.

I didn’t directly answer Martes instantly, instead just taking in the horrible truth. I’d known it for a while, somehow, I had the gut feeling on that train, that something had gone terribly wrong, and that something would never be the same again. As much as I had known it, hearing Martes, a beast I knew would never exaggerate or lie about something like this say those words with such certainty, just set the truth in stone.

More than that even, Martes was scared, downright terrified. His large eyes were even wider than usual, and honestly, he looked like he’d been crying.

I took a deep breath, asking, “What do we do?”

Martes looked miserable. “I don’t know .. I was in the lab when I heard them .. I got away through the basement! But they’re everywhere, and they will find us! Where’s King Indigo?”

A wave of sorrow hit me suddenly, and I struggled with my tears. “I .. he’s not ..”

“He’s not dead is he?” Martes forgot my current predicament and grabbed my wrists. He jerked his paws back the next second, gasping as spirals of frost raced up his forearms.

“No!” I snapped. “And don’t touch me, please!” “Snap out of it!” Ronza sounded desperate as he thrust his muzzle in my face. “Yes, the king is dead! And unless you two want to share the same fate, we have to get out! Now!”

His eyes were alive with desperation, and his bared teeth were so close to my face I could feel his steamy breath. I recoiled in disgust, shoving him out of habit. “Get back!”

Martes interrupted our fight. “Stop it, just stop it. We don’t have time for this, listen!”

At his command, the three of us fell silent, and I could distinctly hear the sound of beasts running down a hallway, and with a hissing groan, the lights all came on.

I saw the Esmereldian soldiers about the time they saw us and I knew there were two many, even if we hadn’t been weaponless. “Run!”

I started down the hallway as I gasped this, checking over my shoulder to see if Martes was behind me. He was, along with Ronza.

“Azul, where do we go?” Martes kept pace with me easily. “We’ve got to get out of this hall, there’s too much light!”

“I don’t know!”

It was the only answer I had at the moment. All I could fabricate for a plan was to run, run until we could run no more.

The hallway we raced down intersected with several more, but I never had to concern myself with which path we should take.

A beast jumped into plain sight from an adjoining tunnel, thrusting its paws out in front of it.

I felt like I’d hit an invisible brick wall. The air was knocked forcefully from my lungs and I reeled back, collapsing to the floor. From the twin heavy thuds that followed me, I guessed Ronza and Martes had met the same fate.

I struggled to sit up, realizing the soldiers had us hemmed in, and Martes was groggily sitting up, while Ronza knelt nearby, ears pinned flat with fear.

The beast standing in the hallway was Anirah’s ring-tailed cat, the one she’d pretended was her scribe. Tavin, if I recalled correctly. He stood still as he surveyed the three of us, and suddenly smiled. “Well, well, if it isn’t milady’s lost test subjects. Anirah will be pleased to have you two back.”

He curled his claws into a fist, and Martes was dragged forward by nothing I could see. He struggled, but it was no use as Tavin carelessly lifted his feet off the ground. “And what are you? Some noble’s son I assume? Not worth saving.”

Tavin drew the pistol at his side, and Martes kicked harder against his invisible chains, to no avail. The ring-tailed cat leveled the gun with Martes’ chest, but I stumblingly threw myself at him, holding a paw out. Icicles shot from my paw, but Tavin saw me, and jerked away. My icicles did nothing more than slash across his arm and shoulder, but it was enough for him to drop Martes. The pine marten scrambled backwards, and I sprawled on the ground at Tavin’s feet, hitting my nose hard on the metal.

The next second something yanked on my hair, lifting me forcibly from the floor. Tavin wasn’t touching me, but he was lifting me by my hair, and my scalp screamed in protest. To be honest, so did I.

He glared at me, blood dripping down his arm. “If it was up to me, you’d die for that.”

I stood on the tips of my paws to relieve the pain in my head, and Tavin suddenly released his hold on me. I toppled backwards onto the floor, and for a second, I lay there, feeling as though every fiber of my body ached.

I shoved myself upright with a wince, as Tavin gave Ronza a disgusted look. “You really are pathetic, aren’t you .. won’t even give me a proper fight? I guess I can’t blame you, you’d never win.”

He turned to the soldiers that were blocking the hallway behind us. “I’ll make sure you don’t lose them.”

The Ring-tailed cat met my gaze, sneering a little. “You seem attached to this pine marten. You can keep him then, I’m sure Anirah will make him suffer more than I ever could.”

Tavin waited as the soldiers surrounded us, and one of them snarled at me. “Get up.”

I did, and so did Martes. Ronza just stood, looking warily at Tavin as her turned his back, starting down the hallway.

The soldiers were not keen on touching us, but they kept us surrounded and forced us down the hallway. I looked at Martes, wishing I had the power of telepathy and could ask him if he had a weapon hidden anywhere.

It probably was futile, as he looked disarmed, and I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t fight against Tavin if he’d had the means. We were forced to walk through multiple hallways and finally forced out into the courtyard. I found this odd, but I got the faint idea we might well be being led to our deaths and they didn’t want to clean our blood off the palace floors.

However as they led us across the courtyard toward the outer wall, I got another suspicion .. did they plan to lock us in the falconry?

My guess was proven correct as the three of us were shoved roughly through the doorway one by one, and Tavin slammed the door behind us, locking it with a click.

The interior of the smallish stone building was almost entirely black, the only light came through the high, small grate-covered windows. At that, it was very dim and barely noticeable, as the whole city sat in a cave. There was a flash, and a burst of fire flickered above Ronza’s right paw. He maintained it until he found an overturned lamp, which he lit.

We looked at each other in silence. The falconry was as good as a prison, the only windows were near the ceiling, narrow, and covered with metal grates. The walls were solid stonework, and the only door was the one we’d come through.

Martes and I knew all this well, and Ronza really didn’t have to ask questions to understand our situation.

There was no electricity, so the lantern was our only light. I picked it up, intending to look around for anything that might be useful to us, but ice spiraled across the metal, killing the flame almost spontaneously.

Ronza grumbled, snatching the lamp from me and relighting it.

He held it up and I hurried toward the far wall, where Konan kept the cages of the few birds he tended. They were all empty, with no traces of the hawks or Icicle. Upon further inspection, nothing truly seemed all that out of place .. none of the sparse furniture was smashed, though a few chairs were overturned.

Still there was no blood, or destruction worthy of the fight I knew Konan would put up against Esmerldians.

On a sudden inspiration, I ran to the cat’s cot in the corner, rummaging under it in hopes of a spare pistol, but there was nothing. As I looked up, Martes held up an empty ammo belt. “That’s all that’s in the cupboard.”

“What do you make of this .. there’s barely a trace of Konan! But I saw him just this morning .. right here!” I was bewildered, and already in a bad mood, and my words came out with a snappish quality.

“It looks like he left. Maybe he’s hiding from the soldiers.” Ronza’s input got him a vicious glare from me.

“Konan is no coward, he would never leave us out of fear!”

Martes shook his head, agreeing with me. “Yea, that’s true. But he’s cleaned this place out … do you think he might have some plan to help us?”

He asked the last bit with some excitement.

I smiled genuinely, thinking that perhaps Konan was planning to save us .. if anyone could, it was him.

Ronza of course, had to damper that hope. “How could he possibly know where we are, or that we’re even captured? For all he knows, you two are dead. Maybe he’s dead.”

“Shut up!” I snarled. “Just shut up!”

There really were no words to describe how much I hated that fox. It was all I could do to keep from shooting a flurry of ice-shards into him, but the remembrance of the pain I’d experienced previously stayed my paw.

I let myself fall against one of the stone walls, and ice spiraled down it. In fact, during my outburst, a patch of ice had spread across the floor beneath my feet. I oozed ice .. it was almost like I was bleeding ice. Whenever I allowed any emotion to take over, the freezing magic flowed out all around me, like when illness makes one’s nose run relentlessly. In fact I could liken it very much to that feeling, that it was a result of sickness .. only unlike the mucus that came with colds, I got the subtle feeling that once all of the magic drained from my body, I was not going to get better. That something very nasty was to happen after it had run its course. The thought made the nape of my neck crawl even more than it already did, and I sneezed suddenly.

As it often is with sneezes, I had to go through two or three of them before they stopped, and then my sharp intake of breath sent me into a fit of coughing. The air was quite nasty in the falconry, thick with soot, and that didn’t help anything.

Martes was looking at me, large eyes wide with worry. “Are you alright .. what’s going on .. tell me what happened to you from beginning to end!”

His demands would not end, I knew, until I told him all, but really, my throat was dry enough I didn’t want to talk much. I shook my head, still regaining my breath. “Can’t. It’s too long a story .. I tried to take out Anirah, and she cursed me.”

“We tried to take out Anirah.” Ronza corrected in a dark mutter, a subtle glow growing around his paws.

He was angry for getting no credit, I knew, and honestly, that was a good feeling. I wanted him to feel angry, just as angry as me.

“You betrayed me!” I snapped. “If it wouldn’t kill me, I’d end you right now.”

“As if you even could.” Ronza’s green eyes were growing darker, dark like the time he had scratched me. “You know what you are? You’re a spoiled little princess and a sniveling brat and I’m sick of how full of yourself you are! I risked my life for you and a slim chance of freedom, and just cause I wasn’t brave enough to die for someone who hates me, you treat me like this?”

His voice was growing ever louder, the flames around his paws glowing ever brighter. “I wish I’d killed you, really, I do! When I first saw you, I should have just shot you, no one would have even known the difference, ha! I doubt anyone would have even missed you, nasty little wench that you are. So keep your mouth shut, before you make me do something we both regret!”

I should have listened to him. But I was a deaf fool, I never listened to anyone. “You have no right to insult me, you’re nothing but a liar!”

His eyes went black. Pitch black, with glowing green pupils.

With a sudden lurch, my fury morphed into a cold wash of fear, and all other insults I’d meant to fling at him froze on my lips. But it was too late. I’d triggered a demon.

He lunged for me, and backed against the wall as I was, I couldn’t flee. I flung an arm up to shield my face, and he sank his teeth into it like a feral animal, tearing at my face with his claws. The lantern smashed to the ground and the light went out, and I shrieked in pain, regretting my temper.

Braced against the wall, I did the only thing I could, I kicked, and kicked with complete desperation to free myself from whatever Ronza had turned into, which I had no doubt intended to kill me.

The next second he was torn off me, and his teeth held onto several shreds of skin from my arm. There was a heavy thud as Ronza, and what I could only assume was Martes fell to the ground, and a crash as this knocked something over.

There was a flood of sharp pain in my jaw, and a spontaneous sound of someone being hit, hard. “Don’t Martes!”

I cried the words out in a half sob. “Stop it!”

There was a moment of silence, then a flash, a yelp, and a scurry as Martes scrambled away from Ronza, and I smelled the acrid sent of burnt fur.

I clutched my arm against myself, feeling the sticky wetness run down my face. There was a scuffle for a moment, and then the light flared up again, Martes holding it this time, a flint in his other paw. He ran to me, though he was careful not to touch me. “Are you ok?”

“Think so ..” I glanced down at my arm, to see it was bleeding badly and some of the skin was torn back. But as we watched, a layer of frost raced into the wounds, solidifying into ice .. almost like a strange bandage .. a very strange one.

As I could feel a coldness on my face, I imagined the same thing had happened on it.

Ronza was laying limply on the floor, staring blankly away from us at the opposite wall. He was shaking uncontrollably, but his eyes were normal again. A few seconds passed before I realized he was crying, not furious and about to attack as I’d first thought.

Martes looked shaken by the whole incident, and he glared at Ronza, though his voice trembled a little. “Stay where you are .. don’t even think about attacking us!”

The orange fox didn’t respond directly, just muttered flatly under his breath, still staring at nothing. Slowly, he turned his head fractionally and looked at me, and when I met his gaze, a jolt of sorrow so profound hit me, I felt lightheaded.

For a second, I didn’t see a witch who’d just attacked me, I saw a sobbing kit, a terrified kit, and I could feel nothing but pity.

“I .. I’m sorry ..”

Martes, apparently, felt no pity. “You’d better be! And don’t come near us!”

My anger returned, numbing the remorse, and sympathy, though it wasn’t as bad as before.

“What happened?” I demanded sharply, though shakenly.

He whimpered a little, holding his arm, the same arm as the one of mine he’d torn into. I imagined it hurt him. “You .. can’t make me .. angry like that .. I can’t .. can’t control it ..”

“Control what?” I snapped, cradling my arm. He closed his eyes tightly, curling into a ball and mumbling. “I .. I can control it .. the darkness .. I’m not .. not a possessed .. I can control it ..”

I froze. I’d had my suspicions, but I’d tried to ignore them. “A possessed?”

“I’m not .. I’m not! It .. only happens when I’m angry .. I can control it otherwise .. I won’t lose it again .. I won’t .. I won’t ..”

He sounded as though he was trying to convince himself, not me. I shuddered. I had to wonder how many times he had lost control of whatever side of him that had just been unleashed.

“Only several.” He answered my unspoken question. “They made me use so much magic .. I still couldn’t learn it right .. I always had to use more .. it would strengthen me, they said. I’ve known for awhile I’ve used too much .. I need my power, I can’t give it up .. but I fear .. Malimore .. is coming to take my soul.”

His voice was trembling with fear. “But .. I can control it.”

Martes sounded deathly afraid. “For how long?”

Ronza closed his eyes tightly, and said nothing. Martes looked at me, muttering, “What do we do with him .. should we kill him?”

“No!” I snapped quickly.

“He’s obviously a danger to us, and a servant of the dark lord! Why not?”

“Because the two of us are bonded!” I growled. “Anirah used a curse on us that causes whatever happens to him to happen to me, and vise versa .. if you kill him …”

Martes’s eyes widened. “Then I’d .. kill you? That’s crazy!”

“But it’s the way it is!” I insisted.

Ronza had heard our conversation despite our hushed voices, and his voice was dull. “It’s true. And the curse she used will eventually kill the two of us anyway.”

“What?” I felt bad for Martes, he was dealing with one crazy thing after another. “Azul isn’t dying! I won’t believe that!”

“Believe whatever you want.” Ronza snorted, still not getting up off the floor, or looking at us. “It doesn’t matter much anymore, does it? We can’t get out of here, we’re fated to endure whatever end Anirah has for us. It’s not like I can use my fire, stone doesn’t burn.”

I was still shaken, but a thought came to me suddenly. “What if I could smash the walls in with my ice?”

“Highly unlikely.” Was the discouraging answer.

“Well at least I could smash one of the grates out of a window, right?” I slowly got to my feet, taking a deep breath. “I just need the table.”

Martes nodded, and we grabbed opposite ends of it, dragging it across the floor, as my wounded arm was too weak to lift it, even if the ice had completely numbed the pain.

The table scraped against the rock wall as we set it down, and as best I could without using my arm, I scrambled onto it. I glared at the window grate, mentally calculating if I could actually fit through the narrow space if it was open.

I didn’t rightly know, but I knew I was going to try. Ronza sat up as I held out my uninjured arm, clenching my claws a little as I focused on my anger .. of all the emotions could activate my newly acquired power, anger seemed the most efficient. That or sorrow, and at this moment, I resonated with fury more.

The blue glow was growing around my claw-tips, when there was a muffled cry and a heavy thud from outside. I stopped my efforts, and all three of us listened as there was a sudden clash of steel, and a second afterward, another thud.

I tried to peer out the window, but it was too dark to see anything in detail.

Then the door’s lock started clicking, and I braced myself, seeing Martes do the same from the corner of my eye. Suddenly it swung inward, and a creature leapt in, shutting it swiftly and silently behind it.

In the lantern light, I could see it was Konan, and I’d never been quite so happy to see him. I forgot everything, and jumped off the table, hurrying to him and throwing my arms around him.

Almost instantly I realized my mistake, and I jumped away, visions of what had happened to my uncle racing through my mind.

Konan winced, staring at the patch of frost that had sprung up on his coat where I touched him. To my relief he didn’t freeze solid, as he brushed the ice away. “So it’s true, you’ve been cursed.”

“How did you know?” That question sprang from me instantly .. how could he know?

“It’s no great secret.” He clarified. “Quite a few of the Esmereldian soldiers are spreading rumors about it, I overheard some.”

Martes seemed to deflate as he relaxed, he’d been so very tense. “Thank the Lords you’re here Konan! You can help us .. what do we do?”

“Do?” The tabby cat snorted. “Don’t look at me. It’s never been this bad before. The army is dead, Martes. There’s not much we can do.”

“So .. my father ..?” Martes stammered, a fearful gleam in his gaze.

Konan shook his head, sorrow written all over his face. “Probably. I’m sorry, both of you .. I should have told Indigo, I should have made him listen even if it killed me. But now ..” I looked away, tears pricking at my eyes. I didn’t want to tell him what had happened to Indigo.

He didn’t ask, and I was thankful. “But I am here to get you two out. I am here to serve you to the end, my queen.”

My heart stopped for a good few seconds, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I barely choked out my question. “Blue?”

Konan shook his head. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen him. And until I do, you are as good as the queen to me. Now we must escape, I killed the guards. But it won’t be long before more come.”

He looked at Ronza, and a snarl grew on his face. “And this spy ..”

He drew his sword, and both Martes and I leapt on him, each grabbing one of his arms and crying, “No!”

I let go quickly, and the cat looked at the two of us in confusion. “What? Why not?”

His amber eyes were stern, and I blurted, “Anirah used a bonding curse on the two of us, we feel the other’s pain! If you kill him, you’ll kill me!”

Martes nodded, reinforcing my argument. “What she said!”

Konan stared dumbly at me for a moment, almost as if he was trying to discern if I was being honest. Slowly, he lowered his sword. “What do we do with him then?”

Ronza was shifting his gaze quickly from one of us the other, and he sounded desperate. “You have to take me with you .. if you leave me here, Anirah will kill me or torture me, and then .. Azul will suffer the same fate. The only way to keep her safe is to take me with you!”

I felt a spark of resentment. As dangerous as he was, and for as much as I hated him .. as we all did, I legitimately couldn’t live without him. He had a good bargaining tool.

Konan looked disgusted. “You stay where I can see you.”

He didn’t add ‘or I’ll kill you’ even though I could tell he’d have greatly liked to do so.

Ronza slowly stood, looking warily at Konan. I felt a pang of guilt .. the only reason we couldn’t get rid of Ronza was because of me. I was inevitably going to hold Martes and Konan back, in this situation.

No. I told myself. It’s not my fault, it’s Anirah’s. And Ronza’s. And Esmerld’s.

Konan was looking out of the door, cautiously. He motioned to Martes. “Put that lamp out, we can see enough without it, and it’s a sure way of being spotted.”

Martes did so, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.

Once they had, Konan whispered, “Now, this way. And you ..”

Even in the dark, he looked straight at Ronza. “You stay beside me.”

We slipped out of the falconry one by one, Konan first, then Ronza, then me, and finally Martes. I stumbled over one of the dead guards, and just kept myself from falling into Ronza.

The movement made me sneeze, which in turn made me cough, thanks to the sooty air. I clamped my paws over my mouth, shivering a little involuntarily. Konan didn’t say anything, just continued to lead us along the outer courtyard wall, in the shadow it cast, darker than the rest.


We were approaching one of the gates that led out into the city, and already, I could make out the shapes of at least five guards around it.

Konan silently drew his long, thin-bladed sword, drawing his pistol with his other paw and tossing it to Martes. “Cover me, don’t shoot unless you have to.”

With that, the cat ran forward, so light on his paws I heard nothing until he cut down the first guard. I could only stare in amazement … I’d always known Konan was brilliant with the sword, but I guess I’d never known how brilliant.

Three of the guards fell before they got a chance to turn around, and Konan didn’t pause as their bodies crumpled to the stones. He lunged for the living two, who began to draw their weapons in defense, but Konan swung his sword, slashing one’s throat open, before turning and thrusting the blade through the final guard’s chest.

He withdrew his sword, letting the corpse fall to the ground. “Now, out of here, quick!”

No one voiced any complaints, and we followed Konan out onto the street that ran perpendicular to the palace. As I ran, I suddenly realized I should have grabbed some of the dead guard’s weapons, but it was too late.

Konan led us into a dark alley behind some towering buildings that, from the look of them, had once been grand residences but had since been converted into flats.

Almost instantly, he was beset by a large, white blur that swooped onto his shoulder. Icicle pranced from one of his master’s shoulders to the other, tsking low in his throat, as if scolding the cat for not letting him come along to save us.

Konan stroked the large bird’s head, and he slowly calmed down, rubbing against the cat’s cheek.

A moment passed, before Konan pointed down into the alley, where I could now see a small pile of dull metal. “Weapons. For you two.”

He indicated Martes and I, and not Ronza.

I nodded, and walked over to the pile, suddenly smiling and snatching my saber up. “How did you get this?”

“I have my ways.” Konan smiled faintly. I quickly buckled the weapon’s belt around my waist, having to brush of a thin layer of frost that my paws had left on the hilt. Martes picked up a six-shooter pistol, tucking it into his belt, and grabbing the other sword. I settled for the other pistol, and Konan nodded. “Now we must get out of the city.”

“How? Where are all the Esmerldian soldiers?” I asked softly, and sneezed.

Konan looked at me. “Most are in Upper Svellcrest, and there are a lot guarding the exits. Getting out will be almost impossible.”

“Then where will we go?” Martes asked. “If we can’t get by them.”

I looked over at Ronza, but he shook his head. “By now, Anirah will have made my actions widespread. I’m a traitor, I can’t get you out.”

I couldn’t hold in my disgusted huff, even if there was nothing he could have done about it.

Konan took charge. “We’ll get out. I’ll see to it.”

He motioned we follow him farther down the alleyway, and he kept a constant, wary eye on Ronza. Icicle did the same.

In fact, as we walked down the alley, the large bird flew off Konan’s shoulder and swooped around Ronza’s head several times, much to the fox’s discomfort.

Then with a pleased squawk, Icicle dropped onto Ronza’s head. Ronza jolted to a stop, wincing as the bird settled down into his blonde hair, making a contented purring noise in his throat.

We all stared, waiting for Icicle to fly back into the air with a pained cry, feathers singed, but he just settled deeper into Ronza’s long hair, folding his wings across his back. Ronza stared at Konan, pleading, “Get it off me! Please!”

Konan paused, and then snorted. “He seems to like you, and he’d be the only one. But I’m pleased with this arrangement, Icicle, keep a sharp watch on that one.”

The cat peered around the corner of a building, ensuring there were no soldiers. I caught up to him, asking, “Where can we go? Tavaer .. it’s ..”

I didn’t like to say the words aloud, as much as I knew them to be true. Konan shook his head. “We will go to Eastgate and seek the help of Queen Isabella. Not only is Tavaer long been an alley of hers, it’s in her own best interests to drive Esmerld back. Even she can see that if we fall, it means Esmerld’s knocking on her door.”

Martes broke in. “What about Azul being cursed? We can just ignore that .. we’ve got to do something about it.”

Konan’s eyes grew .. tired. At least, that was the best description I could come up with for the look on his face.

“I can’t break curses.” His shoulders slumped a little. “I’m sorry Azul .. I have no idea what to do for you.”

I sneezed, and Ronza grumbled, “What part of this do you not understand? The two of us are cursed with a High curse .. an unbreakable curse. It will run its course and kill us, probably in a few days. It’s hopeless!”

Konan glared at him, looking around quickly for any soldiers approaching our hiding place, before he turned on Ronza. “What do you know about this curse?”

Ronza scowled at Konan. “I already told her.”

He pointed at me. Konan wasn’t having it. He thrust his muzzle a few inches from the fox’s, growling, “And now you’ll tell me.”

Konan had a certain persuasiveness about him. Ronza took a step back, muttering, “What is there to say? If I’m correct, this is a curse that’s only been used twice since it’s invention. But I don’t know for sure, several of the High curses behave in much the same manner. And the whole fire and ice powers seems … out of place. I’m quite certain this will kill us, but I can’t understand why Anirah would curse us with more power.”

Martes frowned. “I don’t see why such a curse even exists. Why give a beast you intend to kill such great power?”

“It wasn’t created to be used on enemies.” Ronza gave Martes a dark glare .. a haunted glare. “It was created to give weak Fae greater power, if only for a short time.”

Konan’s eyes shone with sudden understanding, and also dread. I had a sinking sort of feeling in my gut as Ronza finished, “A more experienced Fae may curse their apprentice to draw attacks off of them and take out the threat. Afterwards, of course, they drop dead, or are in so much agony they wish they would have. But that’s an apprentices lot in life. Still, why did she give use it on us?”

For the last several sentences, he seemed to be talking to himself.

I shuddered. I did not want to think about curses, or ice, or Anirah, so I suddenly snapped, “How do we get out of here?”

Konan nodded, stating, “What about the old escape tunnel from the upper palace?”

I blinked at him, realizing he was probably right about it being our only chance, but it posed plenty of risk as well. “Won’t they have taken over the old castle?”

“I’m sure, but getting out of the exits would be futile, and suicidal.” Konan was firm. “We would never get through.”

Martes was alternately peering out of our hiding place for guards, and giving Ronza long glares, but now he asked, “Is that even still intact? Also, it’s on the opposite side of the city from us.”

Konan clenched his paws. “It’s our only chance.”

For a second, there was silence, and then I couldn’t hold down my question any longer. “What about Blue? He could still be alive … we can’t .. leave him.”

My words cracked, because I realized it was futile. From the look in Konan’s eyes, he knew I knew, and that I just couldn’t bring myself to admit it.

He laid a paw on my shoulder, and then quickly drew it back, before sighing, “If he’s alive, getting Queen Isabella’s help could be his only chance.”

It felt terribly wrong to leave my cousin, but I realized there was nothing to be done. After a good few moments of struggling with myself, I hung my head, muttering. “Let’s just get out of here.”

He’ll be alright. I forced myself to hold onto that shallow lie. As long as we can get Eastgate’s help, he’ll be alright. We just have to hurry .. if we just hurry …

We did hurry, as much as we could. I’d walked through Lower Svellcrest many times before, but I’d always kept to the nicely lit, respectable streets .. well, most of the time, anyway. But now I ran through dingy alleyways, struggling to hold back the coughs that tickled my throat with every single breath.

Martes was hacking off and on, and Ronza was too, the air was so bad sometimes. Konan seemed to have a sort of immunity to the soot however, maybe it came from working with boilers and generators and things that put off fumes. Even still, he coughed occasionally.

The streetlamps only lined the main roads, which, from the glimpses I caught at the ends of alleyways, were forebodingly empty.

I wondered why there wasn’t mass panic, and I realized most of the citizens must still be hiding in their houses, as they’d been ordered to when the attack on Lower Svellcrest had begun. Little did they know, the army could not save them from certain slavery.

And neither could I.

After what seemed like an eternity of running, we reached the place where the high walls of the cavern met the high walls of the city. Here, I knew, was the ancient passageway leading into the castle of Svellcrest. Once used as an escape tunnel, and now blocked off from the public with a large iron door set in the cave wall.

It wasn’t all that hard to find, but getting through the lock was another matter. It wasn’t a key-coded lock like the doors of the palace, it was a stout iron lock the required a physical key, one we didn’t have. At least, I didn’t have it.

I turned to Konan, who was digging through his satchel. Incredulously, I asked, “How did you get the key?”

He shook his head. “I have no idea where that is.”

He pulled a drawstring pouch from the bag, tossing it into the air and deftly catching it. “Gunpowder.”

I blinked as he began stuffing the black powder into the keyhole, and Martes protested, “That’s going to make an infernal noise, you know.”

“With any luck, the cavern’s echoes will distort it enough the soldiers won’t know where to look.” Konan reasoned back, not missing a beat.

He finished packing gunpowder into the lock, and dug in his satchel, likely in search of matches.

Ronza was looking over his shoulder every few seconds, and now he pushed Konan out of the way, holding out his paw so his clawtips were about a foot from the lock. He concentrated for a second, before fire shot from his fingers, and there was a spontaneous explosion.

I threw an arm in front of my face, recoiling as smoke seemed to fill the air. I fell into a fit of coughing, almost falling to the ground, but I caught myself.

The smoke cleared a little, and Konan rubbed soot off his face, grabbing the door handle and giving it a sharp yank. The lock moaned, and it moved a little with a nasty scraping, but it did not open.

Martes sighed. “Not enough.”

A sudden inspiration came to me, and I raised a paw, focusing on all my fury .. fury that I had to leave Blue behind. Fury that Anirah had frozen my uncle.

Ice sprang from my paws, slamming into the lock, spreading across it, and smashing forcefully through the keyhole. Creaking and grating rang out, and I slowly dropped my paw, sneezing.

Konan grabbed the handle again, yanking on the door, and it swung open, though with a ponderous moan.

“This hasn’t been opened in years.” My voice sounded small in the near silence. “Is the tunnel still intact?”

Martes found a few torches in a pile by the wall, and he picked one up. “Tavaer does not build things to be destroyed in a day. I imagine it is.”

Ronza lit the torch, and I took one last look at Lower Svellcrest as Konan reached to close the door behind us. It was too dim to see much, but in the distance, I could see the lights of the palace. And then with a creaking, the door was shut on all I had known, and I turned around to face what I didn’t.

My boots made echoing thuds on the crumbling rock floor, and I didn’t have much time to pay attention to my surroundings. I took in a few things however, one was the fact that in certain places the tunnel’s roof and sides were crumbling, leaving rubble on the ground. Another thing that occurred to me was that this tunnel was large, but certainly not large enough to provide escape for an entire city, or even an entire castle. It must have been created solely with royalty and nobles in mind.

The tunnel’s floor sloped ever upward, sometimes steeply, and presently, we came to a sheer rock wall with metal rungs running up it.

A moment of silence passed, before Martes handed the torch to Konan, and grabbed the bottom rungs of the ladder. He hoisted himself up it quickly and gracefully, scrambling onto the rock ledge far above us. “It’s safe, come on up.”

Konan nodded to me, and I swallowed hard. But I couldn’t let fear best me, no matter how high that ladder went, or how positively unsafe it looked. I grabbed the rungs and started climbing as fast as I could .. I would not look down, if I didn’t look down, I could pretend the ground was only inches below my feet.

Ice grew around my paws wherever I touched the rungs, and it only got worse as I forced down my panic.

With the least grace possible, I reached the top of the ladder and almost frantically clawed my way onto the rock ledge. I was breathing heavily and shaking, and Martes sounded concerned. “Are you ok?”

“Yes!” I gasped, and then coughed. I crawled away from the horrid drop, farther into the tunnel, before staggering to my feet.

Ronza climbed onto the ledge next, irritatingly unaffected. Icicle swooped up, closed behind him, and quickly reclaimed his perch. The next second the dim light of the torch far below us vanished, and I heard the scraping of claws on metal. There was a flash of light above Ronza’s paw, and a dancing flame hovered over it until Konan joined us and relit the torch.

He hurried on into the tunnel, and no one remarked about my undignified climb. Ronza did look at me strangely, however, something I countered with an angry glare.

Presently, we reached a blank wall. The ceiling was around four feet about our heads, and there seemed nowhere else to go.

“What now?” Martes’s voice was small in the silence, and almost forlorn.

However I knew, I’d always paid more attention to history than he. “Feel for a sort of lever. There should be one on one of the side walls ..”

I ran my paw along a wall, quickly finding an oddly jutting rock. I pushed on it, and it move inward, but there was no spontaneous click, and nothing else shifted. Martes was feeling the other wall, and he suddenly looked up. “I’ve found another lever .. let’s push them both at the same time.”

We did, and there was a muffled click. A second later, a part of the wall pivoted inward. Konan cautiously opened it, peering out. After a moment, he slipped through the doorway, holding up his torch. “It looks like a storeroom. And I see no Esmerldians.”

I followed him, and the others were close behind me .. Martes was the last out, so he shut the door.

We were standing in a mostly empty room, one with a few barrels and boxes stacked against the walls. I looked up and the stone ceiling, muttering, “So we’re in the palace .. I guess on one of the lowest levels.”

“Our best change of escape is probably the old scullery.” Konan reached for the storeroom door, spontaneously putting out the torch. “Let’s see if we can get there.”

The hallway was dark, but lit by faint and sparse electric lights that looked very out of place in the rustic architecture.

I reached the door leading out first, and opened it very slowly, fingering my pistol. But it just led into a wider corridor, with a large staircase leading to a set of closed double doors.

Collectively, our boots made far too much noise, and we were as quiet as possible. When we reached the doors, Konan pulled out his six-shooter, quietly flicking the safety off. He pushed one of the doors open slightly, and almost instantly ducked away.

He flattened his ears, putting a claw against his lips, and waited a second, before looking again. A few minutes passed, each one seeming like an hour, before Konan motioned for us to follow him. “Now, quickly!”

He pushed the doors open wide enough for us to run through one at a time, and as I did, I found myself in natural light. It was dimming, throwing shades of orange and pink through the high gothic windows of the room we stood in. For all its beauty, I could not take time for more than a quick glance.

“Where to now?” I whispered. I knew history, not the layout of the castle, and I couldn’t imagine Konan was much better off.

Martes grabbed my arm, dragging me toward a doorway leading out, before he quickly let go, realizing what he was doing. He shook his paw ruefully, before grumbling, “This way!”

He pulled open the door before Konan could stop him, and came face to face with three soldiers.

Martes staggered back as they quickly raised their halberds, but I was far enough away to draw my sword. I launched myself at them before I could properly think, all my training with Vivere flooding my senses.

My saber sliced deep into the nearest Esmerldian’s torso, and he fell backwards, his corpse thudding to the floor. I spun around to the side, landing a critical blow on another of the soldiers, my blade penetrated his chest to the hilt.

I struggled to yank it out, catching a glimpse of steel in my peripheral vision, but a strangled cry and the sound of a body hitting the floor was all that occurred.

My dripping blade came free with several more determined tugs, and I wheeled around to see Martes pulling his long knife out of the final soldier’s throat.

He looked pale, and I couldn’t say the feeling rising in my chest, making it hard to breathe, was a nice one. However I collected myself enough to wipe my bloody saber off on the Esmerldian I’d killed with it, and sheath it.

Martes staggered to his feet, and shuddered, forgetting to clean his knife before sheathing it. “Let’s get out of here .. this way.”

Before I could ask him how he knew where to go, Konan stated, “Evrick brought you here, didn’t he?”

Silently, Martes nodded. He led us through several more hallways, finally reaching what appeared to be the kitchen. Finding the scullery was not a problem, and as we hurried through it, I couldn’t help but wonder why we hadn’t seen more soldiers.

“You’ll see.”

Ronza’s voice ran in my head. I froze, gaping at him .. since when did he have the power of telepathy?

From the look on his face, I could tell he was surprised as well, but after a second, we both started running again. There was no time for questions.

As I hurried down the stone steps and my boots made their first crunches in snow, I could see the reason so few Esmerldian’s were in the castle. The factory filled city was awash with orange from the setting sun, and every street was dark with soldiers, all marching in the directions of the entrances to Lower Svellcrest.

For a few moments, we stood there, before Konan urged us onward. “Come, we must leave the city .. more will be coming.”

I shook my head, asking, “How do we do that though .. from this vantage point, it seems as though all the exits are guarded.”

“From this vantage point.” Was all Konan would say on the subject.

I followed him, thinking this would likely end in all our deaths.

“You’re right about that.” Ronza’s voice spoke, in my head.

I focused on him, doing my very best to impart, “Shut up, get out of my head … please.”

I added please due to the fact the last time I’d angered him, he’d tried to rip my arm off; but even still, it was an icy please. From the exasperated look on his face, it must have worked.

I did not like the way he just knew my thoughts .. and now he could speak in them. Oddly, it seemed I could do the same … but still, he had no right. I pulled my train of thought away from Ronza, and focused on the task at paw.

Seeing the sun was always a bit of a shock for me, and also, seeing the empty sky so far above. I was glad night was approaching, when the blackness of the sky could remind me of Lower Svellcrest. The ever-fading day worked in our favor, creating deep shadows next to the high walls of factories and warehouses. This offered a place to hide from the steady stream of soldiers marching through the streets.

I did my best to block out what I imagined must be going on in the subterranean city, but snippets of my imagination caused terrifying images to appear in my mind’s eye. Citizens being herded out of their houses, any who resisted or tried to protect others being remorselessly murdered.

I could hear my imagination too, as odd as it was to actually think about. And in it, I could hear the distraught cries of my people.

“Why didn’t the king stop this?”

“The army should have saved us!”

“Indigo failed us!”

He didn’t! I wanted to shout at the voices in my head. He never meant for this … I never meant for this!

I was backed up against the wall of a factory, the others nearby, and I dug my claws into the cracks of the stones, lying desperately to myself.

No! If we just get to Eastgate, we can fix this! Everything will be ok!

Suddenly, Ronza’s voice broke into my thoughts. “Will you quit screaming, it’s giving me a headache .. more of one. Focus! Do you know how to focus?!”

His voice helped. I hated to admit it, but he jolted me back into reality, and just in time to scurry into another protective shadow. The four of us crouched the deep shadow cast by a tall building, watching the boots of the enemy walk past us .. a contingent of at least forty.

I did my best to think of absolutely nothing save escape. As soon as the soldiers walked around a corner, Konan motioned we run.

My boots sounded far too loud as they skittered across the cobblestones, and I followed Konan and Martes .. they had a far better idea of where to go than I. We ran around a corner, and I could see the high walls that protected Upper Svellcrest. In fact, I could see the faint light of sunset spilling through an open gateway!

I pushed away my relief as Konan grabbed my arm, yanking me into the shadow of the building we were almost backed up against. A group of ten Esmerldians walked past us, and now I noticed the soldiers standing guard around the gate … far too many to fight off.

The light had mostly faded from the sky by now, and that alone was the reason we were not caught then and there. Also, the fact that they were not on the lookout for us helped.

After they’d passed, Martes whispered, “We need a plan! We can’t get through the gates, there are too many of them.”

Ronza .. was not looking very well, to be honest. He was swaying on his feet ever so slightly, and his eyes were dull. He pointed across the street, to a large building that appeared to be a warehouse of some sort. Some of the windows were smashed in, and a large door that looked like the main entrance was hanging askew. “It looks empty in there .. we could hide and figure out what to do. We can’t stay in the street.”

His point was proven as several more soldiers walked past us. As soon as they turned a corner, Konan nodded. “Stay low .. get through that door.”

I obeyed him first, crouching low to the ground and staying in the shadows as I made my way to the old warehouse. I slipped past the leaning door, taking great care not to knock into it and bring the whole badly balanced situation crashing to the floor.

Inside the large building was even darker than outside, and I could plainly see every opening outlined by the fading sunset. A lot of the windows were intact, at least the ones off the ground level. But most of the doors hung wide open, probably knocked down by Esmerldians when the initially attacked.

Martes slid in behind me, Ronza behind him, and finally Konan.

Ronza leaned against a wall, unwrapping his scarf from around his neck, and knotting it about his waist. Despite the freezing temperatures of our surroundings, he seemed to think he was in the Great Desert, a place so far away I’d only learned of it through geography books.

Icicle was still perched comfortably on the fox’s head .. the crazy bird was even grooming himself, he was so unconcerned.

We moved farther into the warehouse before Konan was willing to speak in anything but a hoarse whisper. He sniffed the air for a moment, before stating, “We can’t break through the guards at the gate .. at least, it’s very unlikely. The only thing that’s in our favor as of now is that they’re occupied with enslaving the citizens, and that won’t last forever. We have perhaps six or eight hours at best .. after it’s truly dark is when I suggest we make our move.”

He looked at us, as if hoping one of us would have a better idea, but Martes and I just shrugged, and Ronza looked ill.

Konan sighed. “Very well. As of right now, let’s look around to see if there’s anything in here that could help us.”

We all did as he said, splitting up a little. Except Ronza, who was forced to stay under Konan’s watchful eye.

I dug through some crates as well as I could in the near darkness, relying a lot on smell and touch to tell me what I was looking at.

I found some thick ropes, something that, as near as I could tell was bolts of cloth, and a lot of tin cans of food. What they contained, I wasn’t sure, but I stuffed some into my satchel, figuring we might need rations if we survived this. When it was so dark I truly could not see my paw in front of my face, probably five minutes or so, I climbed down from the stack of boxes I was looting.

As my boots hit the ground, I could have sworn I heard a soft thud from somewhere behind me, and the fur on the back of my spine bristled. I told myself it was probably Martes, Konan, or Ronza, but my mind began conjuring up plenty of nasty possibilities.

I sniffed the air, smelling a musty warehouse, with the scents of leather, gunpowder, and so many different kinds of creatures I couldn’t tell them apart. Then I caught a whiff of something a little stronger than the others .. horse?

As my apprehension grew, ice began to drip from my claws again, forming a soft blue glow around my paws.

Suddenly, I knew someone was behind me, even before they spoke.

“You’re Lady Azul, aren’t you?”

I spun around, to find myself face to face with a horse, though thanks to the dim light, I could discern nothing more about the creature.

“What are you doing here .. wasn’t the whole royal family trapped in the palace?”

I took a step back, clenching my paws, ready for anything. “Who are you? Whose side are you on? How do you know who I am in this light?”

“I’ve been watching you for a while, trying to decide who you were, or at least who you were for. But you look like the king’s niece, as far as I can tell. I’m a citizen of Tavaer, for what it’s worth.”

Soft but hurried footsteps surrounded us as Konan’s quiet voice asked tensely, “What is going on?”

There was a sudden flare of light thanks to Ronza, and we could all see the horse clearly. Now, he looked rather familiar, a bay with a red and black mane. I spoke quickly. “He’s a cab horse in the city, I’ve seen him before.”

No one could disagree with my statement about his occupation, he was hitched to a cab .. at least partially. The traces on one side looked like he’d tried to remove them, but only succeeded in tangling them badly.

He nodded. “I was taking wounded soldiers from the wall to the castle with a lot of other cab horses when they broke through. I was on my way to the wall to pick up another load, and I just managed to duck in here. They ransacked the place .. or tried to, but their superiors forced them to leave before they found me. Something about doing what they came to do. I’ve been here for twenty-four hours, by my cab’s clock. And now you came in, and I wasn’t sure who you were at first.”

Konan seemed to believe him readily, and nodded. “You tangled your traces so you couldn’t remove them and escape, didn’t you?”

“Yea. My harness has seen better days .. things are rusty and tend to get stuck. I figured I was done for .. can you unhitch me?”

Martes nodded, asking, “Who are you though .. we may as well know.”

He walked to the horse’s side and started tugging on the buckles as the creature replied, “I’m Shatteredice. Shatter is what I’m known as though.”

“Wow, this is a mess.” Martes grumbled at the traces.

Konan broke in. “Don’t do that, wait a minute.”

Martes and Shatter both looked questioning, before Konan shrugged. “There’s no way we can move fast enough to break through the guards at the gate. But you can, if we rode in your cab.”

He addressed Shatter directly, and the horse blinked. “Wait .. you want me to rush the guards? But I ..”

“It’s the only way. Other than that, the Esmerldians will eventually find us here, and then we’re either doomed to slavery or death.” Konan was firm.

Shatter wouldn’t meet his gaze for a moment, before sighing heavily. “My little sister’s still in Lower Svellcrest ..”

Konan laid a firm paw on Shatter’s withers, and I knew the look in his eyes .. it was a very persuasive look. “I know, we’ve all had to leave family behind too. But our goal is to reach Eastgate and see that Queen Isabella keeps her treaty .. it’s the only chance we have of saving Tavaer.”

“Will that really work?” Shatter countered.

Konan was earnest. “It has to. We will make it work. And anyway, it’s better than hiding until we’re found out. If you do this, you’ll be doing your country a great service. You’ll be helping your sister.”

Shatter hung his head for a moment, before snorting and looking up. “Then I’ll do it. Get in the cab .. and hold on. It’s a rather jarring ride at anything over a trot.”



Chapter 6 Journey to the East Edit

Shatter was right about his cab, I discovered quickly. It wasn’t bad as he cautiously walked out of the warehouse, in fact, from the small amount of attention I gave it, he kept it in the best condition possible. Nothing squeaked or looked rusty.

However, once he started running for the gate, everything changed. I squeaked a little as the cab bounced .. at least it felt that way. At very least, I bounced out of my seat and smacked back down on it hard enough to bruise the base of my tail.

I heard the confused shouts of the gate guards as we plowed through them .. I wondered subtly at why they hadn’t tried to stop us the moment they heard us. Then it hit me that in the darkness, they’d probably thought Shatter’s hooves belonged to a horse ridden by another Esmerldian.

Now we sped through the gate, out into the open. The next second there was a sharp crack of a gun going off, and I instinctively ducked down, as did Martes.

Multiple gunshots followed, but in the dark, I couldn’t imagine the Esmerldian’s aim could be very good. I hung on to the jolting cab, just able to make out the shadowed buildings of the train stop ahead of us.

Shatter went around the first building’s corner so fast his cab tilted onto two wheels, and all of us fell in an ungainly heap, resulting in angry squawks from Icicle.

The bird clawed his way to the top of the pile of fur that had resulted, and a sudden burning flowed up my arms. I struggled away from Ronza, who did the same. Martes didn’t bother moving out of the place he’d fallen; the cab was rocking so badly.

I dug my claws into the fraying padding of the side wall to prevent myself from pitching onto the floor again. Icy wind whipped past my face, stinging through my fur, and Shatter’s hoofbeats thudded dully on the packed snow of the stop.

Shouts split the air, but they sounded hollow, far away. Konan clung to the driver’s seat, wind whipping his cap off and flinging it into Martes’s face.

The cab groaned with every pounding hooffall, and I could envision it shattering around us at any moment.

My eyes watered from the driving air, making the dark surroundings even more vague. Still, I couldn’t imagine we were still in the stop; it wasn’t that big.

We were slowing down now, and I could hear Shatter’s heavy breathing .. sharp breathing, like he was in pain. In the next few moments, the horse stumbled to a stop, head lowered as he gasped in air. “Sorry … can’t run .. anymore …”

He had gotten the cab clear of Svellcrest, and out into snowdrifts deep enough he could no longer budge it.

Faint shouts sounded in the distance.

Shatter stood in snow up to his knees, still trying to struggle forward even as he said he could not.

Konan jumped from his seat, running to the horse and tugging on his harness. I pulled my claws from the upholstery of the cab, moving forward to help, but Ronza was faster.

He jumped out into the snow, landing with a soft thump. Ronza stumbled a little as he grabbed one of the stays, flames leaping from his paws as he snapped it in half. Shatter shied a little, but the fox repeated the process with the other stay.

“Run, now!”

Ronza took off. I was close behind him, though I looked back to see Martes jumping out of the cab, and the others following us.

No questions were asked; no suggestions were given. The only mutual thought was to escape. Shatter passed us, though I noticed he was floundering. As I did so, I tripped and fell into the deep snow.

I dragged myself to my paws, coughing. Martes ran past me, and I followed him. It was only a matter of time before the Esmerldian’s caught us .. only a matter of time before our legs gave out.

Icicle swooped past my face in a blur of light, before circling around us.

Suddenly, Konan stumbled, and a second later, his yell brought us all to a halt. “Stop!”

Shatter snorted, sliding into Ronza and knocking him over. I stumbled and fell too, feeling exactly as though I’d been hit by the horse.

Martes wheeled around, large eyes wide. “Why! They’ll catch us!”

“They’re going to anyway, we have to eliminate the threat before we can escape!” Konan drew his sword.

Ronza pulled his head out of the snow, gasping, “You’re mad!”

“Most likely!” Konan readied himself, for the sound of pursuing soldiers was growing ever louder. “But you can’t run forever!”

The first three pursuers floundered into view .. the snow was deep enough, running was impossible. With less grace than before, Konan threw himself at them, tearing his sword across the first’s chest.

A shot rang out, and another fell to the snow with a heavy thud. Martes changed his aim, shooting again and felling yet another, before they were atop us.

I drew my sword, blocking a soldier’s blade with a metallic clash. Almost instantly I withdrew enough to dodge his imminent thrust and slash his torso open.

Gunfire was everywhere, and as I drew back to attack the next soldier, a sudden, shocking pain blossomed in my side.

I doubled over, gasping in agony .. subtly wondering if it was me that had been shot, or if it was Ronza.

My knees sank into the snow, and I caught a glimpse of the battlefield, in time to see Martes be knocked to the ground. He cried out in pain as a soldier’s ill-timed thrust tore across his shoulder.

The rage against Esmerld took over.

White swirled in my vision as the snow obeyed my wishes, lifting from the ground and solidifying into ice shards.

I screamed as freezing cold penetrated my being, burning like fire, but my fury held.

Screams of agony split the night as I launched the ice in every direction with every bit of strength I had.

They smashed through the soldier’s bodies, the ones that didn’t sank into the snow. Warm wetness splattered onto me as the Esmerldian nearest me fell with a sickening gurgle, ice lodged in his throat.

Martes, Konan, and Ronza had thrown themselves face down in the snow, but Shatter staggered away from me, several large pieces of ice in his shoulder.

I stared around me .. I’d killed or mortally wounded every last soldier.

My knees buckled and I fell face-first into what little snow was left in the area, which left me with a hard landing. Blackness crept across my vision, and I wanted to sink into it; to embrace it, but mercy eluded me.

The snow around me was cold, but in comparison to the way my soul felt .. it was warm.

Vaguely, I could hear Ronza yelling at me. “What are you thinking! Don’t use that much that fast … you fool!”

His voice sounded .. strained. Had what I’d done taxed him as well?

I didn’t move; perhaps if I didn’t move, the pain would go away. I could hear the agitated thudding of Shatter’s hooves, and I felt bad for what I’d done to him.

Konan sounded worried as he spoke. “Azul, can you hear me?”

“Yes.” My groan was muffled.

“Don’t do that again.”

I didn’t answer as such, or lift my head. It was too much work.

Martes said nothing, but I sensed him staring at me .. probably unable to comprehend my new power. Well, he wasn’t alone in that.

Konan sighed, and I heard him stand. I slowly turned my head and watched him walk over to Shatter, whose shoulder and foreleg were slick with blood.

The horse shied away, but Konan said something to him, and he took a deep breath, forcing himself to stay still. He neighed wordlessly as the cat yanked the melting ice out of him, before he reached into his satchel and pulled out a vial.

Konan poured the liquid onto Shatter’s wounds, and after a moment, the horse started to relax. “That’s all I can do for now, we must hurry.”

I got my paws beneath me, painfully dragging myself onto all fours. I felt numb, sluggish, and terribly cold.

Forcing myself onto my feet was agonizing, but I did manage it.

Ronza was standing nearby, holding his side, blood trickling through his metal-clad fingers.

Mostly out of concern for myself, I asked, “What happened?”

“A bullet grazed me.” He muttered. “It’s not bad. We have to go.”

The night was nearing its end; just a few hours away, as we neared Winterdell, and I could tell

Konan was nervous. He walked along the snowy tracks with more vigor than usual, leaving the four of us several yards behind.

Martes was balancing on one of the train rails, something he was enviously good at. Shatter’s head hung down a bit as he plodded along long tail drooping. Ronza staggered behind the horse, Icicle still comfortably roosting in his blonde hair. I brought up the rear.

My feet felt like solid ice, and my nose was constantly running, causing me to sneeze every so often. Also, my head was starting to ache. Like I had a fever, one that made me want to crawl into my warm bed, bury myself in every blanket I could find, and sleep for hours.

But I forced myself to keep walking, and I was growing more disagreeable by the second, I just did my best to bear it in silence.

Suddenly, I bumped into Shatter’s hind legs, and he started, before snorting and tossing his head. “Watch where you’re going please .. I might have kicked you.”

I quickly sidestepped, muttering, “Sorry.”

Konan was standing a little ahead of us, on the crest of a hill. He looked stiff, and as I walked past Ronza, toward the older creature, I understood why.

A town sat nestled in the valley the train tracks ran into, and even from here, I could tell it had been ransacked.

After a few moments, Konan started walking again, then running. Miserably, I followed, though not half as fast, as I was starting to feel dizzy.

Martes looked grim. “So Esmerld did destroy all of Tavaer. I expected as much.”

The city of Winterdell looked broken and forlorn in the waning light, buildings crumbling from the devastation that had been wrought.

I felt my heart slow for a second, as I said, “They fought back.”

“It looks that way.” Martes agreed.

We reached the Winterdell stop, and I saw the first body, draped across the stairs to the platform, and covered in frost.

More lay all around us, I realized, just mostly buried in snow. Snow that was stained red brown with blood, not just dirt from boots.

Konan’s footprints, the only fresh ones, marked his path down the central street, and quickly, I followed them. We couldn’t get separated in this place.

Ronza groaned, but staggered after me, Martes behind him; Shatter bringing up the rear.

I stepped over some rubble, remains of a stone and metal building that was so badly damaged it was crumbling into the street. We reached the square, taking care not to tread on the frozen, half buried corpses that littered the ground.

I tripped on one suddenly, falling to my knees. As I staggered to my feet again, I saw the face of the dead creature … he was a young weasel, probably not much older than Blue.

I pinned my ears, and continued to follow Konan’s footprints.

I found my mentor kneeling in front of a modest dwelling, head hanging forward. He was holding the body of a middle-aged cat; white, with dark tabby stripes. Her dress was torn where a sword had sliced into her side.

Martes walked up behind me, but he didn’t say anything. Neither did Shatter, and Ronza had the decency to keep his mouth shut.

Another cat, a ginger-furred male lay on the porch of the house. I didn’t have to ask .. this must be Konan’s sister, and her husband.

The wind was cold, and I wrapped my arms around myself as it keened through the village. Ronza coughed, groaning, “Can we please find someplace to rest?”

Martes and I glared at him. However, Konan slowly looked up, and I started. There were tears in his eyes .. I had never once seen him cry.

He nodded slowly, laying his sister down gently, and standing. “We will find a place to spend the night. Then I will bury them.”

His voice was gruff. I’d never seen him quite so emotional about anything, but I understood why he was.

The Inn was fairly intact, and best of all, its doors were large enough for horses to enter the building. As soon as we walked in, Shatter wrinkled his nose. I saw why, at least five corpses littered the main floor. At Konan’s orders, we removed them while Ronza built a fire in the stone fireplace .. Icicle left his perch on the fox’s head however, in favor of Konan’s shoulder.

Then the cat walked out, without saying another word, tail dragging limply behind him.

I watched him go for a moment, before stumbling to the fireplace. I collapsed in front of it, letting myself slump to the floor. My eyes closed, and blackness engulfed me almost spontaneously.

But it wasn’t entirely black.

I blinked my eyes open, expecting to see the inn, expecting the flickering flames in the stove to be illuminating my sleep, but I saw a different scene altogether.

A lavish room, richer than anything I’d seen in Svellcrest, greeted me. The warm electric light shone off of velvet furnishings and gold tapestry curtains.

My vision was a little blurry, and everything was happening very slowly .. like an intercom with a bad connection. The picture I got was distorted and broken.

Slowly, I came to the realization I could hear someone crying. Seconds later, I realized that someone was me .. tears rolled down my cheeks, though I was confused as to why.

Suddenly, my sense of smell seemed to work, and the sharp scent of blood assaulted my nostrils .. I glanced down at my paws, to find they were not black, but red, dripping red. I gaped at them, my mind sluggishly trying to recall who I had killed, and why I had done it, but no memory returned to me.

Then I saw the body. It lay face down on the floor, a knife in its back. Multiple stab wounds pierced the creature’s shirt, and blood stained the carpet.

I cried unashamedly, although I was sure I had never seen the dead creature before. Still, I couldn’t stop. It was as if my tears were not my own.

“I .. I never wanted .. to kill .. anyone!” My sobs sounded foreign in my own ears, and I could not place them.

A sudden, rough paw grabbed my arm, yanking me onto my feet. “Funny, how much a beast will compromise to save their own life.”

I wanted to look up more than anything, but my body would not obey my wishes, and my vision was fixated on the corpse.

The smooth voice caressed my ears again, making me want to cringe. “I didn’t think you could do it, and I can’t say I’m impressed. But you salvaged your life, apprentice. For the precious little its worth.”

“Leave me alone!”

I tore myself away from the creature, crouching in a heap on the floor.

“If that is your desire. But killing is your destiny. I suggest you get used to it.”

I jolted awake with a gasp, blinking rapidly as the room morphed back into the foyer of the Winterdell inn.

That voice .. it made my skin crawl. I had heard it before, I knew it.

I looked around a little, noticing Martes was curled up against a sleeping Shatter, his eyes closed and he breathed evenly.

A whimper made me turn toward the door. Ronza was sleeping as far from the fire as possible, but I could still make out the distressed look on his face as he tossed and turned restlessly.

I sat up, rubbing my arms .. even near a fire, I felt cold. I noticed said fire had died down to embers, and hauled myself onto my paws, walking over to the woodbox and adding a few logs to the coals. The flames brightened again, and I noticed that Konan was nowhere to be seen. Had he still not returned?

As quietly as I could, I walked to the door, opening it a little and peering out. Nothing moved in the streets, except some windblown snow.

I returned to my seat by the fire, reaching in my satchel for my book .. only to find it gone. Of course; it was back in Svellcrest somewhere, lost forever.

I groaned, leaning wearily against the warm wall of the fireplace. I felt far more depression that such a little detail warranted. It wasn’t as if I’d have ever finished that book anyway.

As I looked across the inn’s foyer, I noticed the guest log, still laying on the counter. I stood, slipping over to it and picking it up. It had been left open, and the current pages had a splash of blood across them. A few had been torn as well.

Still, at least half the book was blank. Upon turning the pages, the blood had soaked through a lot of them; but I didn’t see any other books laying around.

I picked up the dipping pen from where it fallen on the floor. A quick search of the shelves under the counter provided me with several inkwells.

I went back to my seat beside the fire, and found the first blank page in the guest log. A few moments passed before I started writing, and the comforting, familiar sound of scratching filled my ears. Words seemed to flow, now that I had lived through a daring escape myself. They were clumsy, ineloquent words, but at least I was writing something.

Aurora ran through the caves, paws skittering along the rough floors.

Skittering. I liked that.

Desperation filled her heart as she heard the thudding pawsteps behind her. She could hear the breathing of the Esmerldians who chased her, closer and closer. She clutched the cold steel of the great sword, Legend, and prepared herself for whatever would come.

For the first time, I felt .. one with Aurora. Or at least, I felt her desperation, her fear. Because I knew that fear.

Aurora reached the end of the tunnel, the only light in the vast sea of blackness being the torches her pursuers carried. Her legs felt weak, like she couldn’t run another step, and in a sudden decision, she spun around to face the ones chasing her, raising Legend high.

Just like I killed those soldiers, I thought. Only minus the ice-curse.

She attacked the first, slashing his head off ….

No, that wasn’t right. History books always said Aurora had not initially been the amazing swordsbeast she became.

She tried to attack the first, but he blocked her cut, knocking her backwards, and her paws clenched tightly on Legend’s hilt as she almost fell over.

Yes. Better. But now what to do? Hadn’t I had .. what, five Esmerldians chasing her? I needed to make that ten. Or a full score. Or fifty. She was going to get killed if I didn’t do something.

Suddenly, there was a scraping from the darkness, of a sword being drawn …

Hmm. Who could I send to save her? Some random creature who’d escaped down the tunnel earlier and happened to be an amazing swordsman? Would anyone think that was convenient?

I dug in my satchel to consult the history books, but they were back in Svellcrest along with my journal. Of course.

Did Winterdell have a library?

My thoughts were interrupted as Konan walked in, his jacket covered in white, his whiskers drooping. Icicle sat nestled under his chin, black eyes hooded.

“Why aren’t you asleep? We have a long ways to go tomorrow.” The cat’s voice was flat .. dull. He looked exhausted as he leaned against the counter.

“I .. don’t know.” I sighed, slipping the guest log turned journal into my satchel, and wiping off my pen and placing it with the book and ink. “Nerves, I guess.”

I curled up in front of the fire again, watching Konan climb onto the counter and stretch out on it like a bed. Icicle moved to his chest and slunk into the folds of his jacket, though his glittering eyes didn’t close.

Mine did, however.

><><

When I awoke, the sun was already high in its ascent of the heavens. Light streamed through the broken front doors of the Winterdell inn, making the snow outside sparkle.

The others were already up, I could see Martes digging through cabinets in the adjoining kitchen area. While I couldn’t spot anyone else, their sleeping places were empty.

I groaned and got to my feet, walking stiffly to my friend. “Where’s everyone?”

“Ronza was too hot, so he went outside. Shatter said something about rebinding his legs and Konan went to help him. I’m looking for food .. care to help?”

“Why not?” I consented, starting to look through some cabinets on the opposite wall from Martes.

He hadn’t looked up, but now he did, stating, “I already looked ...”

His voice froze on his lips, and I turned to meet his startled gaze. “What?”

“Your hair!” He stammered. “It’s turning white; blue-white!”

I stared at him. “What? Where’s a mirror?”

As I looked around for one on the walls, Martes pulled out a pocket mirror and handed it to me. I brought it up to my face, looking in it with something akin to blank shock.

The tips of my black hair looked like they were covered in frost.

“Your ears and tail too.”

A look in the mirror and a quick inspection proved he was right. I handed the mirror back to Martes, leaning against one of the cabinets, pondering what this could mean.

“Do you feel ok?” My friend was concerned.

I nodded. “I mean, as well as I can with this curse. I don’t even feel all that cold as of this moment.”

Martes didn’t look like he believed me, but he nodded. I didn’t like the silence between us.

“So .. you think getting Eastgate’s help will change anything?”

I felt bad for being so blunt, but Martes sighed. “I’m forcing myself to believe it will be.”

Again, we fell into silence. I sighed, but didn’t try and force a conversation.

Konan walked in moments later, stating, “Oh good, you’re awake Azul. We need to move out, every second we waste is one Esmerld gains.”

I pulled a few cans from the cupboard I was searching, and followed him out of the inn. Martes came behind me. Shatter was standing near the door, holding his head high, his ears trained intently forward as he kept watch.

I looked around, and found Ronza was sitting on the iced-over fountain in the town square, Icicle roosting in his hair. I rolled my eyes. Like that should have surprised me.

Shatter turned to face Konan, stating, “I haven’t sensed anyone coming. But it’s so blasted cold out here I think my sense of smell froze over.”

I looked at him, noting there actually was frost clinging to his scruffy whiskers.

Konan shook his head. “They’re after us, of that I’m sure. Especially after what Azul did to our pursuers.”

“What we need is a fast and practical mode of transportation.” Martes spoke from behind me. “And I say it’s a train.”

“That would pose some problems, but solve some too.” Konan stated.

Shatter tossed his head. “I think there are several at the stop.”

Martes rubbed his paws together, a little sparkle returning to his eyes. “I call driving it!”

“So long as it runs.” Konan consented. He gave Ronza a dark look. “You, with me. Don’t leave my sight.”

As we walked toward the stop, Ronza’s voice complained in my thoughts. “He’s incessant … tell him to lay off a little, please?”

I smirked darkly, thinking back, “Not on your life.”

“I hate you, I hope you know that.”

“I feel the same way.” My thoughts sneered.

Ronza’s only reply was a non-descript grumble.

The stop looked far different in the morning light, and now I could see the shelter for the trains properly. It couldn’t even be considered a roundhouse, it was so small. Martes ran forward eagerly, quickly reaching the doors and yanking them partway open. He ran inside building and one by one, the rest of us followed him.

Two engines sat in the dim building, and neither looked wonderfully promising.

However Martes seemed interested in them and set about observing them to decide which was best. Konan made Ronza stand a little in front of him, and I had the feeling that if my friend could have his way, he would drag the fox around by his ear.

“This one!” Martes shouted presently, from the cab of one of the engines. “It’s even fully filled with coal.”

I raised an eyebrow. “We need at least a passenger car to fit everyone.”

Martes looked around, asking, “Will the caboose do?”

“It’ll have to.” Konan assured. “Let’s get to work.”

I helped out where I could, but trains weren’t my area of expertise. Martes seemed at home, however.

Sooner rather than later, I found myself standing on the boarding platform with Shatter and Ronza. The horse was still favoring his bandaged right shoulder, and I winced, stating almost automatically, “I didn’t mean to do that, you know.”

“It could have been worse.” Was all he would say, and he didn’t turn his head to look at me.

I felt as though my apology hadn’t really been acknowledged, and I sighed, “Is there any way I could make it up to you?”

The sound of the train pulling out of its shed tried drown out all else, but I heard his reply, and it chilled me. “Save my sister.”

I looked away. I couldn’t hold his gaze. He nodded silently, but I could hear a scorning voice in my head, whether it was his, mine, or Ronza’s I didn’t know anymore. “That’s what I thought.”

I hung my head in shame and frustration, cold flowing throughout my being as a crushing wave of depression hit me. I did my best to shove it forcefully away, but my efforts were in vain.

“All aboard!” Martes’s voice cut through my thoughts, mercifully slashing them apart. He’d backed the engine and caboose up to the platform, and was looking .. rather proud of that accomplishment.

Somehow his boyish grin brought a weak smile back onto my face, and I quickly boarded the train, Ronza behind me. Shatter had a harder time, but he managed to get into the caboose .. and take up most of the space therein. At any rate, a good half of it.

I left Ronza with the horse and Icicle, and made my way to the engine.

Konan was shoveling coal and Martes was in the act of pulling several levers. He noticed me come in, and grinned. “Azul, take a look at this! I think I know how this works, it’s very simple really. See, pulling this lever allows the steam from the boiler into the cylinders, which moves the pistons, which in turn moves the wheels. Once we get up to speed, our momentum will push the piston back into place, and the steam will push it out, keeping us moving forward. Of course, that’s a very rudimentary explanation ..”

“I think I understand.” I assured him, though his enthusiasm improved my mood.

The engine jolted forward with an ear-splitting hiss of steam, and Martes pushed the lever forward with more determination, grinning wider as the train responded.

I braced myself against the doorframe as there was another jolt that almost knocked me over, and the train picked up speed, pulling away from the ruins of Winterdell. I gazed out the window at the ruined town, its crumbling buildings and their shattered windows. Already the snow was drifting around the houses. Several good snowfalls without inhabitants to maintain it, and it would be buried .. lost in the endless sea of white that was Tavaer.

I felt another pang of sorrow as our train crested a hill and the remains of Winterdell vanished from my sight.

To keep my mind off of all the depressing things I had to think about, I look over at Martes. He was grinning widely as he pulled different levers and examined gauges. Konan wiped soot off his brow and leaned the shovel against the coal bin. “That should do it for a little while. I’m going to check on that miscreant to see he’s up to no mischief.”

“He certainly needs watching.” I muttered as my older friend left.

Martes looked over his shoulder, asking, “What will we eventually do with him? Also, sorry for punching you earlier. When I punched him. Cause it’s like punching you … you know what I mean. Seriously, you .. really feel what he does?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” I rubbed my cheek, reassuring him the next second, “But it’s fine. It doesn’t even hurt today.”

I paused, remembering the first part of his question. “And .. I don’t know.”

There were a few seconds of silence, before Martes blurted, “And Azul, things have been crazy, but I want you to know, I’m not mad at you or anything. I looked at all the angles to this situation and I get why you chose to do what you did .. it was stupid; but I probably would have done the same thing. So .. sorry for acting aloof, I just … I just don’t know what to think of all this … stuff.”

He finished lamely.

I shrugged, about to reply, when he added, “Oh, can you shovel a little coal?”

I nodded, grabbing the shovel and digging it deep into the coal bin. I tossed the fuel into the crackling fire, feeling the warmth reach through the curse; and I sighed. “It’s so nice in here .. I actually feel warm again.”

Martes was giving me a worried look, so I changed the subject, responding to his previous comment. “And .. it’s fine. Everything is totally insane right now. But .. don’t be scared of me Martes, I would never hurt you. And I never thought you were mad.”

My disjointed sentences were interrupted as Konan walked in, and wordlessly took the shovel from me. I took a step back, asking, “How far will this train take us?”

Konan thought for a moment, before stating, “We should be able to get near Eastgate’s border if nothing interrupts us. If.”

I knew what he meant, and Martes confirmed it. “Yea, the Esmerldians will catch wind of this at some point.”

“Most of them are in Svellcrest though, right?” I asked.

“For now.” Konan nodded. “Shatter’s keeping watch.”

I nodded, a shiver running down my back. Nothing was said for a few minutes, so I sat down on a bench built into the wall of the engine and pulled the guest log I had taken from the inn out of my satchel. My scribbles on the blood-stained pages seemed less inspired than they had the previous night. Maybe because I was actually coherently awake.

Still, I pulled out my dipping pen and an inkwell, and flipped through the pages until I found one relatively far from where I’d begun writing.

What character could I create to save Aurora and then train her how to fight? The history books never mentioned a mentor, but she’d had to have had one in order to go from defenseless to conqueror. Just like Vivere had trained me most of my life.

Maybe I could model that character after Vivere? No, I was mad at him. He thought I was a witch and let Anirah …. kill my uncle.

I started as a droplet of water dripped onto the page, adding to its stains. A few more angry tears landed on the book before I forced myself to stop. Vivere just did what he thought was best .. but I still couldn’t forgive him.

I looked up, and noticed Konan .. of course. I would model Aurora’s teacher after him, who else was worthy of such a role?

My pen made comforting scratches as I made notes on what I knew about Konan; it was difficult at first, but as I forced myself to think on it, words presented themselves in my mind. When I had a page full of notes on this new character, I then ran into the problem of a name.

“Martes?” I asked. “I’m making Aurora a mentor, what should I name him?”

“Christopher.” My friend never seemed to miss a beat.

I raised an eyebrow. “Um, why Christopher?”

Martes tapped on a gauge. “I have no idea, it just sounds mentor-y.”

“Hrrmm.” I nodded. “I’ll think on that.”

I looked down at the book in my lap, sketching a weasel in a fur lined coat on the page opposite the description. Tall boots and a greatsword completed his outfit. Above him, I wrote ‘Kristopher’; with a K instead of a C in honor of Konan.

I nodded. “I like it, thanks Martes.”

I was about to start writing the actual story again, when Ronza opened the door and stuck his head in. Icicle still nested in his hair, and tsked low in his throat every time his host moved. “From everything I heard, the was going to be an encampment of Esmerldian soldiers in a city called Icehaven .. Shatter said that we might run across it and to warn you ..”

“You couldn’t mention that any sooner?” Konan snapped. “What other wonderfully illuminating military secrets would you like to tell us before we run into them head on?”

“I don’t know, I just heard Anirah mention it in passing.” Ronza insisted. “Something about it being the base for launching the attack on Eastgate.”

Konan stared at him for a moment, before sighing, “That’s logical.”

“Well, what do we do about it?” I asked.

“We’ll need to leave the train several miles from Icehaven and make the rest of the journey on foot to avoid detection.” Konan shoveled more coal into the fire.

I looked out the window; we were passing through a valley framed by tall mountain peaks, bare and lifeless, their crevasses outlined with white. What would surviving a night in this wasteland be like? Just thinking about it made me sneeze abruptly.

Ronza’s voice almost instantly broke through my thoughts.

“Are you alright?”

“Why do you care?” I snapped back.

“I can’t live without you.” Somehow, his unspoken words managed to sound sarcastic. “So, how cold are you?”

I shrugged. “No more than last night .. better even.”

He nodded. “Good. I wish I had Anirah’s book of curses right now, but I’m trying to recall more of it .. especially the counter-curses. Just .. whatever you do, don’t use the magic.”

“I'm not stupid.”

He raised an eyebrow, and I replied angrily, out loud this time. “I’m not! I get how serious this is, I won’t use it!”

Both Martes and Konan were looking at us now, and Ronza frowned, muttering, “I’m not sure you do.”

He turned and left the engine. Konan was staring intently at me, and Martes asked, “What .. was that all about?”

I felt almost guilty admitting our telepathy, as if I had done something wrong by using it. “I .. he .. the curse gives us the ability to talk in each other’s minds. It’s .. really freaky and I don’t like it but .. yea.”

Martes look disturbed again, and went back to driving the train. Konan however, kept staring at me for a moment, before looking away and shaking his head.

I didn’t know what to say, and I felt it would only make things worse. Konan shoveled coal a little too intently, and I wished I could read his thoughts, not Ronza’s. Did he think I was a witch too now? Did Martes?

Was I totally alone in this?

I leaned my head against the wall of the engine, slipping my new journal into my satchel. After a few moments, I closed my eyes.

The wall moved continually beneath my cheek and shoulder with every rotation of the pistons. It became almost soothing, lulling my tired mind into repose … ever since I’d received this curse, I was finding it quickly sapped at my energy. And in the warm, noisy engine, I almost felt comfortable again.

I opened my eyes moments later .. only to blink, look out the window, and find the sun was beginning its decent in the western horizon.

After stretching, I pulled out my pocket watch and looked at the hands; five hours past the sun’s zenith.

Martes was still acting as conductor, and Konan was still shoveling coal. The older cat looked tired. I stood up, asking, “Do you want to rest for a while? I’ll do that.”

He paused, nodded, and gave me the shovel.

I was a little surprised and concerned with how easily he gave in. He stumbled over to the bench I’d previously sat upon and almost collapsed onto it.

“Are you alright?” I asked.

“Last night was a long one.” Was all he said.

I threw a shovel-full of coal into the fire, noticing how empty the bin was becoming. “We don’t have much longer before we’ll have to walk.”

Martes looked sad, patting the engine’s panel of gauges. “I’ll miss this train …”

Konan snored, and not in fakery. Martes gave him a somewhat disapproving glance, but sighed in the next minute. “He needs a rest before we have to trek across the rest of Tavaer.”

I nodded, and threw more coal into the fire.

This only lasted about thirty more minutes, before I scraped up the last of the coal and tossed it into the furnace. Martes looked rather sad at the prospect of leaving his newly acquired train.

I tried to cheer him up. “Hey, maybe on the way back you can .. get a new one. Or drive something else. I don’t know, we’ll work something out.” He smiled halfheartedly, but nodded in agreement. “Yea, maybe I can.”

Eventually, the fire started to die down, and the train slowed. It took a good while, but finally, the wheels ground to a halt.

Konan awoke with a snort, half choking on his own snore. “Uugh .. ran out of coal, did we?”

Martes nodded sadly. “Yea ..”

Konan stood stiffly and pulled a map from his satchel. “There should be a small town in this general area. Maybe we can find it before dark.”

I didn’t like leaving the train, the last bit of familiarity in a vast land of nothingness, but it had to be done. I exited the warm engine and jumped down onto the tracks. My boots scraped through gravel as I slid down the embankment the rails sat on, and into the thick snow.

A clinking thud rang out as Shatter jumped out onto the tracks. Ronza and Konan followed him, while Martes slid down behind me.

We met on the tracks in front of the train, and Konan motioned we follow him as he pulled a compass out of his pocket. Again I found myself trudging along frost-covered, endless railroad. The light quickly started fading, and I thanked the powers above that the evening harbored no wind.

Tall mountains were all around us, standing like jagged, unmovable sentinels over the bleak world they watched.

They created a gaping canyon that the tracks stretched into, and a name echoed in my mind; Mortsvell pass. A neck of the mountains once nigh impenetrable, and now the gateway to Eastgate, Icehaven guarding its end.

I did a lot of looking up. Never in my life had I seen such mountains, at least, not outside of books. The bitter-cold air stung my sinuses, but at least it was clean. The brilliant white snow hurt my eyes accustomed to rust browns and soot blacks.

“One would think you never left the capitol.” Ronza telepathically told me.

I scowled at his intrusion, but conceded for a moment. “Well, I didn’t. This is the third time, and the others barely took me an hour away. Somehow I think I’ve told you that before.”

“You probably did.” He conceded. “This curse is making it hard to think. Everything’s a blur.”

I tried to think of a stinging comeback about his intelligence level in the first place, but found the thought of angering him most unwise. Aside from that, for some reason, I felt too drained to enjoy an outburst of hate with Ronza. For once, I wanted the peace of my surroundings to never stop, I wanted the silence to sooth my weary brain forever.

“Does Tavaer have any books on magic .. any at all?” Of course, Ronza interrupted that peace.

I sighed, resigning myself to a conversation with him. “Only history books. All books on the usage of magic were destroyed when the war began.”

“Of course they were.” Ronza’s voice held annoyance. “Why would any of this be simple in any way?”

“Look, what are you hoping to find? A cure to this curse?”

“Foolish, but yes.” He admitted. “If I don’t or can’t preform the counter-curse, we will die, I assure you.”

He looked down. “Who am I fooling. I never did manage to successfully preform a single curse. I could never counter this one.”

His depression hit me like an avalanche, muddling my thoughts. Again, I truly felt remorse on his behalf.

Sentences echoed through my mind, ones like, “I’m sorry I can’t help ..” and “We’ll figure this out, it’s going to be ok ..” Each one so meaningless, and thankfully, unspoken. The heavy, suffocating weight that had fallen on me lifted somewhat.

“You really mean that?”

I sighed. Of course, I didn’t have to speak for him to hear me.

“No. I mean yes. I mean .. I don’t know anymore. I really don’t. Everything’s messed up and I have to fix it, but I can’t .. I just can’t.”

He met my gaze, eyes large and partly questioning, but partly ashamed. “If anyone should fix this, it’s me.”

We were staring at each other now, and I suddenly realized we had both stopped walking. Yet I simply couldn’t look away. He was all I could see. His golden hair, freckled cheeks, and glowing green eyes .. hypnotizing eyes.

The silence stretched on, and slowly, I started to lift my paw. Spontaneously, he did the same .. maybe my eyes had the same effect on him that he had with me.

Our claw tips touched.

Instantly, energy sparked from our paws, stinging like the slash of a whip and forcefully knocking me back. My cry of pain was mirrored by his, and I clutched my burning paw against my torso, gritting my teeth.

In that second, the back of my ankles caught on the train rails and I fell over backwards, collapsing into the soft, deep snow.

“What’s going on?” That was Konan’s voice. Konan’s stern, worried, and maybe a little angry voice, to be exact.

I did my best to struggle from the snowbank as Konan looked from me, to Ronza, and back to me again. “What insane thing have you two done now? Are you alright?”

That was directed toward me. I nodded, floundering in the stupid, heavy snow. “Fine! I’m fine. I don’t know what happened .. something curse-related, I guess.”

Ronza nodded silently, and I was relieved he didn’t mention it was because we’d been gazing into each other’s eyes like smitten lovers. Uggh, why? Why did I have to compare us to that?

I dragged myself back onto the train tracks, shaking cold flakes from my coat. Dusted in white, I had to be a least a shade lighter.

Konan looked like he wanted to reach out and steady me, but he withheld his paws. Martes and Shatter had stopped walking, and were now looking at the three of us in confusion.

Konan heaved a sigh, before stating, “We need to keep moving.”

He motioned to Ronza. “You walk with me.”

Ronza didn’t argue. As he followed Konan past me, he telepathically muttered, “Sorry. For whatever that was.”

I forced my cold body into motion, involuntarily shuddering. I didn’t even want to be bothered decoding what had just happened, my brain was numb to begin with.

Time passed, how much time, I didn’t care to know. I had all I could do just to keep taking the next, dragging step. The darkness was complete now, broken only by the glittering stars, moons, and glowing flame dancing above Ronza’s left paw.

At long last, the darker shadows of buildings stood out against the night before us. I stopped when the others stopped, striving to keep my eyelids from falling. The air was growing so bitterly cold it was burning my lungs, making me hack violently every few minutes.

Then I heard it.

A metallic click so faint, only fevered ears could have perceived it.

In that moment, I knew what to do, and I hurled myself forward, moving faster than I could have dreamed of just seconds ago.

Shatter snorted in surprise as I pushed past him, and I shoved Martes out of my path, leaping in front of Konan and Ronza. Light nearly blinded me as the crack of the gun going off did its best to deafen me, and I honestly expected to feel the horrible pain being shot throw me back.

But an entirely different sort of pain engulfed me, one that coursed through every vein within me, ripping a scream from my throat.

I jerked my head up, gaping at the glowing wall of ice that separated us from the sniper, who I could now see was standing in the shadow of one of the buildings, his figure blurred by the magic between us. I even took note of the shining bullet, lodged in the ice only inches from my face.

Fear washed over me, and my wall crumbled, shattering on the train tracks around me. The sniper moved, whether to raise his gun or flee, I’ll never know.

I trust my paw out, gasping in pain as ice jutted from the ground near my feet, growing across the distance in a flash.

There was a sudden, broken cry as my ice found its target, impaling our assailant through the chest and lifting him several feet off the ground before it stopped.

Several yells rang out, and I took a staggering step forward, before my knees hit the snow, gravel, and wood of the tracks beneath me. My vision swum as the loud crack of gun came from behind me; Konan’s or Martes’.

I forced my head up, several creatures were running towards us. As much as I wanted too, I simply could not force myself to rise .. almost as though my paws were glued to the tracks.

Or more realistically, frozen, because that’s what they were.

The swish of metal on metal made me look behind myself, to see both Konan and Martes draw their swords, running forward to engage our attackers. I struggled to pull my ice-encased paws from the tie they had bonded with, to no avail.

Clashes rang out in the dark, Martes was fighting one and Konan two, but more were one their way.

The ground trembled slightly as Shatter galloped past me, planting his forehooves in the snow, wheeling around, and kicking an oncoming creature so hard he flew backwards nearly ten feet, stopped only by smashing into his comrades.

The horse whinnied, but from the strain in his voice, I safely assumed it was from pain, not triumph. He staggered, just as the two remaining guards made straight for me and Ronza.

I violently tried to rip my paws free, but Ronza’s growl flashed into my thoughts.

“Don’t move.”

He ran forward, fire flashing around both of his paws.

A shot rang out and Ronza spontaneously jerked his head to the side, not hesitating for even a second. He went straight for the one who’d shot at him, thrusting a metal-clad, flaming paw out and grabbing the creature’s face.

Despite myself, I winced at his muffled but desperate scream. Ronza threw his mortally wounded opponent to the ground, hair, shirt, and facial features still burning.

I nearly gagged, but somehow, a little warmth flowed through me, and I felt the ice binding my wrists weaken.

Ronza attacked the next creature, who, at the sight of his comrade’s brutal end, had foolishly stopped his charge and was turning to flee. He never got the chance.

Ronza thrust his paw out, and fire streamed from it, blasting into the escapee’s back and sending him face first into the snow. It added even more acrid, burnt flesh smell to our surroundings.

The ice around my paws shattered, and I staggered to my feet as Martes withdrew his sword from his opponent. Konan had ended one of his, and as he ducked under the remaining one’s blade, he drew his pistol and shot the soldier.

Once again, silence blanketed to world, and I let out a shuddering breath.

TBC~ Untamed We are wild 08:24, October 13, 2017 (UTC)

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