Waltario’s two-seat vehicle swept through the open gates of the palace out onto the road. It flew one foot above the earth without making any noise. Sitting astride on it, the prince, clothed in a brown hooded robe, marveled at the speed and the sleekness of the vehicle. It was like a long horse’s back made of steel plates with a comfortable saddle for two passengers. It had no wheels as it was designed to fly, and it was powered by a big piece of crystal which sat hidden in the front case, glowing bright yellow. Some plates on one side of the vehicle were missing offering view to a cluttering of wires and tubular iron objects, as Constantine still had some fixes to add. Nevertheless, the prince gaped joyously in every direction, fascinated by this metal thing that could fly and take them fast and smoothly to their destination. Its creator was proud of it, too.
“You see these wheel tracks, my prince?” Waltario asked looking ahead on the path banked by tall trees.
The prince nodded, swiveling his head to look around the vehicle.
“They are going to lead us to the carriage,” the general explained. “Now, hold tight. I’m going to try to go even faster.”
He squeezed the antler-like handles of the vehicle and, with a jolt, it accelerated, the foliage around seeming to mingle into a long green wall. Soris was pushed back against the general’s chest armor as his clutch onto some knobs on the casing hadn’t proven to be reliable. Regaining his balance, he pulled up the hood and gasped with fascination. Rainbow Mist was so close and big, looming like a canopy of clouds above the treetops of the forest on their right.
In just a couple of minutes, they reached a fork in the road and the wooden barrier the Ariden soldiers had set. Waltario halted, but then a frown darkened his face. The tracks were visibly going behind the barrier and a dust cloud could be grasped in the distance. When he turned his head in the guards’ direction, they all winced and gave an awkward bow.
“Did the merchant pass by here?” he asked, without leaving his place.
The soldiers mumbled some answer as they elbowed one another to step forward. No answer was required. The general took the boy with both arms and put him on the ground.
“Your Highness, I’m going to leave you here for now. It’s too dangerous to take you on a road that’s so close to the mist.”
The boy protested, but the general didn’t stall to listen to his complaints. The vehicle flew above the barrier and sped after the merchant’s carriage. Soris watched him shrinking into the distance. When two soldiers came to him, he let his shoulders drop and obediently followed them to a temporary tent they’d erected in the safe forest on the left side of the road.
The merchant was driving his carriage without care when suddenly he noticed a fallen tree across the road. He commanded the horse to slow down. “Bandits?” he wondered, scanning the surroundings. Could the thieves be so bold and use the mist to their advantage? Many soldiers were patrolling the area. It couldn’t be.
The merchant stopped the horse and leaped down from his seat, listening carefully around. The wind was weak, barely moving the leaves, but some loud tree crashes echoed now and then. The merchant dared to walk closer to the misty forest, peering through the branches fading in clouds of ever-floating white particles. Even an eagle wouldn’t be able to see through that, so how could a bunch of thieves manage to hide and watch the road by hiding in the fog? A clasp of thunder made him jump back calling his ancestors’ names. Some natural phenomena. Why was he so scared? The horse shook its brown head, oblivious of its eerie surroundings.
The man pounded a fist against his chest to summon his courage, then marched to the fallen tree. At close range, the obstacle was a slim young tree that he could easily remove. The merchant put his hands on his hips and laughed at himself. “These superstitions…” He pushed the trunk to a side, then returned to the carriage. The horse started walking again as his master instructed him to. The merchant kept an eye on the mist, acknowledging the risk he was taking by traveling so close to it. Thieves could lurk in the forest without being noticed and trees could fall right on his carriage or horse. He put his hat on and pulled his collar up, the chill air sending shivers down his spine.
The misty forest belonged to the White Castle, marking the boundary between their small territory and the Arid Kingdom’s land. Some rumors said that many queer things had happened to those who ventured deep into that forest and that the White Castle inhabitants didn’t welcome strangers.
The merchant had taken his eyes away from the forest, when all of a sudden a loud snap made his heart stop beating. Another tree had fallen right behind his carriage, then another two fell in the forest, their canopies dropping on the road in front of them, covering half of it. Sensing danger, the horse panicked and started galloping wildly past the obstacles and sped up with each new crack or snap that echoed from the forest. The merchant tried to regain control of it, but the horse didn’t respond anymore to the reins’ movement. It ran mindlessly, stimulated by fear. The man searched for a whistle in his chest pocket, one of his best tricks to calm down the horse. When he finally managed to blow the whistle loudly, the horse slowed down its pace. The merchant wiped his forehead and let out a sigh of relief, but then, as he looked around, fear crippled him once again. The mist was everywhere. It had stretched onto this part of the road, blocking their vision. Maybe the horse hadn’t reacted to the whistle but to the fog.
“You damn horse,” he cursed, barely seeing the animal’s back. “You walked us right into the fog.” He searched for a lamp in his bag and lit it up, then left his seat and took the horse by the bridle.
“All right, Jack. Let’s walk together now. It shouldn’t take too long to reach the plains. We’ve traveled a lot already,” he spoke to the horse, hoping it would understand his words. Now that they were walking side by side, hearing the animal’s breath and its clopping hooves, he didn’t feel alone anymore. As they advanced through the illusory cloud of cotton wool, the lamp didn’t prove to be of much help. At best, they could see one meter in front of them. “Jack, when we reach home, I’ll feed you well and let you rest. No more riding for you tomorrow,” the merchant mumbled to keep the fear at bay. The horse shook its head gently, so the merchant went on, “Oh, so one day is not fine? He, he, you want to sleep and play more. All right. Two days of vacation for you.”
Continuous furious snaps of branches made his mouth run dry. “It’s fine, Jackie,” he uttered, his voice breaking. The noise seemed to intensify and he was sure he was not mistaken when he heard some men’s grunting and heavy breathing as if they were fighting. One more tree fall swooshed close to the road and Jack reared on its hind legs, snatching itself free from the merchant’s grasp and doubling back. The merchant went numb from fear when he saw himself left alone in the mist.
“Jack, come here, boy,” he begged, trying hard to regain his composure. He broke into cold sweat when rushed footsteps approached him. How foolish of him to travel on a day like this. He shut his eyes as a strong arm wrapped around his shoulder pulling him close and bringing a knife to his neck.
The merchant dropped the lamp and raised his shaky hands in defense. “Spare my life,” he said, gulping to bring more power in his trembling voice. “Take everything from me, but spare my life. Please, spare my life!” he pleaded, standing on his toes as the attacker was much taller than him.
“Stand back or I’ll kill him!” he heard his attacker’s gruff voice. So there was somebody else out there in the mist. But how could they see each other through that fog? He wasn’t able to glimpse a shadow in that chalky cloud. He whispered a prayer, calling his grandmother’s name. The thief must have been some lunatic fighting with another lunatic, and he had fallen victim to their mad game in the Rainbow Mist. He shouldn’t have taken the general’s safety measures so lightly. But now it was too late to regret. The other person didn’t speak a word to defend him and he felt the blade touching his throat.
Soris sat on a soldier’s bag, playing with his fingers. Waltario had said he could do many things if he had a strategy, but he didn’t mention there were limits to everything. Being a cute, smart child didn’t mean he could take part in rescue missions. As he glanced up from time to time through the large door gap of the tent, he could tell the soldiers were very uncomfortable to have him around. Being a prince had both advantages and disadvantages, Teacher Coldpeak had always insisted on making him understand that.
He took out his pendant and stared at the dark piece of crystal. “I guess you’re not a good lucky charm,” he mumbled, nervous and frustrated that the liqueur bottle had disappeared along with his princess. Lady Voronchi’s sardonic laughter replayed in his ears making him shut his eyes with indignation. He didn’t want to admit defeat.
A warm hand pressed on his shoulder, so he opened his eyes and looked up. “Master!” he gasped, excitement returning to his face.
“Why do you still call me that, little Soris?” the man said, barely hinting a smile.
“You’re the one who taught me many things and gave me this lucky charm. I’ve missed you, Master.” The boy got up and clutched the hand of the tall visitor. He was a man with a fair complexion that failed to reveal his real age. Watching his profile, one could’ve said he was in his late twenties, and when he turned a little he could’ve been any age between thirty and fifty. His eyes, however, reflected the wisdom of a centenarian.
“I sensed you summoning the talisman’s power. Was I wrong?” he asked, squatting to read the child’s expression.
Soris glanced at the man’s short, graying hair then started recounting all the events that lead him in his current situation.
“It was urgent, so I had to call the crystal’s power,” he added as a conclusion, noticing a slight frown of disapproval on his mentor’s face.
“It was urgent, but it didn’t threaten your life, nor the kingdom’s future. Haven’t I taught you that?”
The boy hung his head, yet in his heart, he was happy to have his mentor scolding him. He’d always felt this man was the only one who treated him like an adult, never seeing him as a kid. “Yes. But you don’t need to worry. The pendant didn’t do anything,” he replied.
The man heaved a sigh then told him, “Never do that again. I won’t be here for the next few years, so I want to be sure you’re not going to do anything foolish in my absence.”
“I’ll be good. I promise. But why do you have to go?”
The man stood up and looked toward the mist in the distance. “Things are getting complicated. My stay in this area seems to bring trouble, so I must go and solve what comes from outside of the continent.”
The boy blinked repeatedly trying to figure out what exactly he was referring to. “But you’re going to return, right?”
“Maybe. If you want me to return, you better behave yourself,” the mentor replied with a stern face.
Soris clasped his hands at his back and nodded politely. “I will.”
“Good,” he said, pulling the hood of his long coat over his head. He then snuck out of the tent as enigmatically as he’d come in, leaving the prince staring at the door. His friendship with this man was a secret he’d been keeping from anyone, mostly because he was convinced that this mentor was a special person.
Constantine rode his flying vehicle until it reached the area where the mist spread across the road, breaking its normal limits. He halted and pondered what to do next. He knew the mist could be also the White Castle’s doing to hide whatever was going on into their woods, so going through it could mean he was entering their fight. Still, the carriage tracks were not stopping there. After some heavy rustling in the forest, he heard the horse’s frightened neigh and then the merchant’s desperate cry, “Spare my life, please! Somebody help me!”
At first, the general rushed to turn on the vehicle’s powerful lamp, but then he thought it would be better if no one knew of his presence. He took a knife and two guns from the vehicle’s side pockets and equipped himself with one of his lamp-inventions, then crouched low through the mist and looked ahead. Just as he’d surmised, the fog was slowly settling over the road, so the ground was mostly clear. He advanced carefully, noticing the carriage’s wheels, then the horse backing steps, and then three pairs of men’s boots. He recognized the merchant’s black shoes standing close to some shiny boots covered with silvery scales. Close to them, were some green boots with golden details which the general guessed they belonged to a White Castle soldier. He shook his head annoyed by the merchant’s reckless obstinacy to take this road home. Interfering in this fight could mean breaking their laws and agreements with the White Stronghold, so he waited to see what the green soldier would choose to do despite the merchant’s pitiful cries.
“Let him go. If you do, I’ll spare your life,” a determined voice said.
“Heh, why would I believe you?” the demon snickered, slowly taking steps backward, dragging the merchant after him.
“He seems serious. You should believe him,” the merchant recommended although it was obvious no one would listen to him.
Waltario prepared a gun, readying himself to attack when suddenly he noticed some movement. A pair of leather boots passed by him almost flying then caught the demon off guard and killed him. The enemy fell to the ground, and the merchant was released, yet he did not know which way to go.
Everything had happened so fast, that it took a few moments for the general to get back to his senses and shout at the poor victim, “Crouch! Get on your knees!”
The merchant mumbled some scared shrieks and words then dropped to his knees, unaware that his savior and the other White Castle soldier had taken the demons’ body and fled. Shaking on the ground, it took a while until he looked in the general’s direction.
“Walk this way,” Constantine beckoned to him.
“Oh, General! Thank you!” the merchant exclaimed, tears blurring his vision. “I’m terribly sorry I didn’t listen to you.”
“We’ll talk about that later. Now let’s get you out of here. Come and help me move your horse and carriage backward.”
Although pale from the terrifying experience, the merchant found some strength to get to the general, then making use of Waltario’s powerful lamp, as well as squatting from time to time to determine whether they were going in the right direction, they managed to get the carriage out of the mist.
“I’ll turn Jack around and I should be able to go back,” the merchant explained in a low voice revealing a mixture of shame, regret, and guilt.
As he did so, the general went to his vehicle and took a moment to let out a sigh of relief. The most difficult part of the trip should be over now.
Thank you for reading this chapter! I hope you enjoyed it!