Chapter 5 – The Hero (The Prequel)

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Ines took a seat on the soft carpet of the long hallway and held back her tears to prove herself as brave as her mother believed her to be. The bloody lines of the multiple scratches on her legs had dried, but she felt cold, and minutes later, she learned she was hungry as well. Holding her shins close to her chest, she pulled down the ragged hem of her dress to better cover her legs, then folded her arms around them, and let her head rest atop of the knees. The racing beats of her heart slowed down to normal rhythm as she thought back to her parents and the fierce attack. Her mother’s powers had surprised her and her father’s composure in a fight where he was outmatched assured her that they would be victorious. They would definitely come back and continue the trip to the sea.

The door of the hallway opened and two servants, a man, and a woman slid in.

“Oh, who’s this little girl?” the man asked squatting before her. Ines lifted her head, staring at him apprehensively.

“She must be some beggar,” the woman said, taken aback by the child’s purple gaze.

They saw the ragged and stained clothes, but they also noticed the high quality of the material, and the seams and decoration were something they’d never seen before.

“Her feet have fresh scars,” the man noticed. “We can’t just chase her out.”

The woman fumbled with her apron for a while, then stooped and whispered, “All right. I’ll mend those scars and give her some bread. But you have to help me. If the supervisor sees us with a beggar here, she’ll get really angry.”

“What if she’s not a beggar, though? She has golden earrings. Little kid, how did you get here? Where are your parents?”

Ines drew her chin to her chest, casting scared stares at the two. “I don’t have parents,” she mumbled. “I have a message for General Waltario.”

The two frowned incredulously, then widened their eyes with surprise. The man turned to the maid. “She’s here for the general. Let’s take good care of her.” He took the child in his arms and hastened to the kitchen.

*

Soris sprinted to Waltario’s studio, proud of his feat, but also afraid that his father will come after him. With a wide grin on his face, he closed the metal door behind his back, jumped over the few steps and landed on the grey ground of the room.

Pacing up and down, he was anxiously waiting for Waltario. What would the general say about his mischievous strategy? It had been definitely a success. Acting all sweet and nice, he’d managed to ruin the king’s farewell to the mistress. However, as minutes went by and the studio’s chilliness crept on his arms, worry took over. Maybe he’d get punished for hitting the king.

Scary steps trotted towards the studio and the general’s furious voice echoed unintelligibly in the corridor. The boy jumped in place. Waltario must have gotten upset. Soris started trembling. He didn’t have the courage to receive the great general’s scolding. Waltario, usually a calm man, was known to be terrifying when he got angry. The prince opened a cabinet and huddled inside, doing his best to make it look perfectly closed.

The door opened and the Waltario brothers trotted in. “He’s started making decisions based on that woman’s desires,” Waltario said, propping himself by his large, cluttered desk. “This must end right now. Lady Voronchi has gone too far with this. She’s slowly gaining power over the country. It’s like she’s the queen now.”
Little Soris frowned as he heard all these.

Young Waltario patted his older brother on the shoulder. “Still, what can we do? He’s totally bewitched by her.”

Waltario closed his eyes and plunged into deep thought. He said in a low voice, “We must find out who is the messenger, the one who sends and retrieves their letters. The king was the only one who knew that Lady Voronchi will come to visit the palace today. That means they are exchanging secret letters.”

Young Waltario scratched his head. “But I train the messenger pigeons and none of them has been missing.”

“He might not necessarily use a pigeon to communicate with her. Whatever it is, we must find out.”

“And what are you going to do after we find the messenger?”

Waltario opened his eyes, sketching a smile. “You’ll see. Now, let’s get going. Marshall said there’s something we must check out in the woods.”

Behind the cracked open doors of the cabinet, Soris remained quiet, promising himself to be the one who finds the messenger first. After all, he hated Lady Voronchi the most, and he knew all his father’s secret places. Making sure the general had left for good, he darted from the cabinet and went to gather clues. He already had a lead in his mind.

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In the royal kitchen, Ines sat at a table, nibbling some biscuits with the help of a glass of milk. She would have eaten a lot more heartily hadn’t the servants been staring at her, exchanging secret comments.

The door opened and the servant who’d first found her rushed in. “I was too late. The general has already left. We’ll have to wait until he comes back.”

“What are we supposed to do then? Keeping her here will only slow us down,” a maid said, seeing a bad omen in the little girl’s eyes.

The servant sighed. “Well, it’s pleasant weather outside. I’ll take her to the courtyard. Maybe she’ll like to play with the other children.”

Some of the maids rolled their eyes over the floor with a grimace, unpleased with this solution. Their kids were playing outside and they didn’t want them to get in touch with the strange girl.

The door opened again and a stout man in a long white apron strode in, followed by a short maid who beamed with excitement. Arms akimbo, the man stopped before the little girl, peered at her from above, then said with a commanding voice, “Well, I am General Waltario. What ya have to tell me?”

The maids muffled their chuckles in their hands, while the small maid gave them a nudge to keep the act. The little girl sipped some milk, watching the man’s round belly covered by stained cotton. Everyone waited in silence, aside from the main who servant thought this was a silly game.

“You’re not General Waltario,” Ines said, laying her glass on the table. The group gave a cry of disappointment.

“She knows the general. It’s no use to pretend,” the servant said, hurrying to take the girl outside. Had she stayed longer, the group’s minds would have set on searching for other sneaky tactics to find out the child’s message to the general.

Out in the courtyard, there weren’t any other children. The maids had made sure to call them back in the palace. The servant patted Ines on the shoulder. “Well, just wait here in the garden. The other kids should be here, too. I’ll come back to you after the general returns, okay?”

Ines nodded, although she didn’t want to be left all alone. As soon as the man departed, she went back immediately to thinking about her mother and father. Last time she’d seen them, they were both injured and fighting dreadful creatures. What if they couldn’t come back for her? Taking a seat on a long bench, she dabbled her feet in the air, mostly to keep herself awake. Now and then, she yawned, and soon it became hard to look at the bright sky. The hedge behind her invited her to rest her back against it.

Just when her eyes were about to close, a group of children came running by. Some were of her age, some were older or younger with a year or so, but they were all dressed in beautiful clothes of bright-colored silk. They were the nobility’s children, and at her sight, four of them approached her with curiosity.

“Hey, who’re you?” a boy asked. “You’re new here.”

She lifted a wary gaze at them, shrinking inside herself. “Who’re you?” she asked to get away from answering.

“I’m Thomas, the son of Boyar Taylor. But, wow, look at those eyes! Are they purple?” he asked, drawing the others’ attention. Pressured by their suffocating curiosity, Ines got off the bench and took a few steps back. Why were they so surprised?

“Oh, she really has purple eyes!” the tallest of them exclaimed, getting the rest of the kids to gather around. As they almost surrounded her, marveling at the color of her eyes, Ines started shaking inside. What if they tried to harm her? She kept a hand close to the pocket where she’d hidden the magical crystal of invisibility.

The chorus of gasps and remarks of admiration got to the ears of Annette, a little girl who, as the daughter of a highly-appreciated boyar, was used to receive everyone’s admiration all the time. When she saw that she was no more the center of attention, she rushed to Ines. “Stand back, everyone!” she demanded, planting herself in front of Ines, frowning with envy at the newcomer.

“Oh, gosh!” she exclaimed, taking a few steps back, and frightening the others. “Guys, don’t be fooled by her looks. She’s a dragon. That’s why she has those eyes, and, oh, look at her feet! She has scars on them! She pretends to be a human to fool us all until she recovers. Stay away from us, you freak!”

Ines stepped back, aghast. The fear became real, her eyes brimming with tears.

“Go away, monster!” another kid screamed, thinking Annette’s idea was fun. As the rest joined the anti-dragon team quickly, Annette pushed Ines into a bush. Before the rest could surround her, Ines got up and started running, tears glistening down her rosy cheeks. She clutched the piece of crystal, thinking of turning invisible, but just then she bumped into someone. Sobbing and wiping tears, she looked up. It was Prince Soris. He’d come to see what the commotion was all about.

“Uh, sorry,” he said, bowing respectfully. Noticing her tears, he smiled. He’d finally found the occasion to prove himself a worthy knight just like the heroes in the stories Teacher Coldpeak had given him to read. He had a damsel to save. “Who’s bothering you?” he asked, buffing his flat chest. Ines rubbed her eyes, sniffing loudly.

He took out a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it heroically. “Don’t worry, princess. I’m here to save you.” Ines covered her face with the handkerchief, then sheltered behind his back. When the kids gathered around, Soris stood before them.

“Why are you attacking her?” he asked with a dignified voice.

“She’s weird. She has purple eyes,” Annette stated, lifting her chin.

“So what if she has purple eyes?” the prince said, not having noticed that by himself. “She’s a girl just like you. If a person has something that you don’t, it doesn’t mean they’re weird.” He said, gladly citing from his favorite collection of hero stories. “Everyone, return to your place. If you think she’s weird then I don’t, so go away and play with your common friends.”

The group mumbled and grumbled, but listened to his words and went back to their playground. No one dared to confront the prince. Soris turned to Ines, “See, I told you I’ll save you.”

Ines hinted a shy smile. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, err… what’s your name?”

“I don’t have a name,” she uttered, fearing he might become unfriendly just like the rest.
Soris blinked in confusion for a couple of seconds. “Well, then I’ll call you ‘Princess’.” He grinned. “I’m the prince of the Arid Kingdom, Prince Soris Ardensis. Call me Soris. Follow me, Princess. You’re my guest today.” He grabbed her hand and scampered toward the castle.

On their way, as they passed close to the building’s white walls, Soris noticed his mother’s withered appearance on one of the balconies. The companions had advised her to go out and take a breath of fresh air. Soris started jumping and waving until she cast her eyes on him. The queen feigned a smile, waving back at him. The boy pretended to be joyful, although the sorrow in those eyes was hard to ignore. When she returned to a meditative state, Soris let his arms at his sides and hung his head with a sigh. Ines saw everything and pitied the boy.

Dragging his feet, Soris brought her to the garden. Ines watched his sad face that had some resemblance to that of the lady on the balcony. “Was that your mom?” she asked. He nodded, ripping a leaf from the hedge and pretending to play with it.

“Why is she sad?”

The boy let the leaf fall and heaved up on a bench. “Dad is bad. He wants to replace Mom with a crone.”

“How come?”

“She bewitched him. That’s what everybody says. But I want to change that.”
Ines took a seat next to him. “How?”

He looked her straight into the eyes. “Promise not to tell?”

“Promise.”

“Okay. I’ll tell you a secret, but you have to tell me one, too.”

Ines nodded. Staring at her purple irises, Soris told her that he must find the messenger.

“I spied Dad a lot and I saw that he often puts something in a bottle before calling a servant to fill back the empty bottles. I think one of the servants is the messenger.”

“I can help you.”

“Really? How?”

“I have a stone that can make us invisible.” She pulled out the piece of crystal from her pocket.

Soris watched her in mute silence for a couple of seconds, then chuckled. “Hey, those things you read in stories are not real. Nobody can turn invisible.”

“Why? You’ve never heard of the crystal of invisibility?”

Like a wise man, the prince lifted his eyes to the sky. “I heard of Tooth Fairy, ogres and monsters, but those are just stories. When you’ll grow up like I, you’ll understand.”
Ines pouted. “Oh, so you don’t believe me. Fine, I’ll show you.”

As she closed her eyes, readying herself to say the spell, the boy let out a wise sigh.

“Leave it. I believe you. You’re just too little.”

Hearing Clark’s voice, the boy winced. “Oh, no. Let’s hide. If Clark finds me, my mission is over.” He grabbed Ines by the hand and ran to hide behind a hedge. Clark passed by the bench, talking to a friend who looked almost like a twin brother. “The prince hit the king! Oh, mother of the stars, he’s such a trouble-maker. Just as I left him into Waltario’s care, he made another blunder. I swear this is the last day I let him play with the ball.”
The prince tightened his fists. “How dare he…”

Little Ines whispered behind him, “Did you really hit the king?”
The boy turned. “Well, he was bad, too. He never talks to me, and he’s bad to Mommy.”

When Clark left the garden, they went back to the bench.

“So what’s your secret?” the boy asked. “You promised to tell me.”

Ines remembered her mother’s warnings and sighed. She wished she could tell more to the brown-haired boy who’d saved her and was so nice to her. “I have a message for General Waltario,” she said, glad that she found something that was allowed to speak about.

He lifted a brow. “What message?”

“I don’t know. I just have a letter to give him. Mommy said that I should not give it to anybody else.” She bit her lip, regretting that she’d mentioned her mother.
Soris nodded with curiosity. “Oh, I see. Well, I can lead you to the general. He’s my friend.”

“Really?” Ines beamed with gratitude, her clear stare making the prince uncomfortable.

“Yes. I’m the prince after all,” he replied, lifting his chin with fake pride. “As soon as he comes back in the palace, I’ll take you personally to him.”

“Thank you,” she said and chuckled.

The sound of some clinging bottles of glass drew their attention. A man carrying a bottle crate was passing by the garden. Soris jumped on his feet. “That’s the messenger! Quick! Let’s follow him!”

Ines left the bench and went after the prince who was excited to find the proof of the messenger.

Next chapter coming soon! Thank you for your kind support!

Chapter 3 – Rising Tide – Part II

Part II

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In the courtyard, the little boy searched for something to play with, as his supervisor was no fun. All this tall man wanted was for him to stay still, preferably do nothing. But little Soris was bursting with energy and curiosity. He wanted to explore, to make friends, play until he couldn’t breathe, let his child mind free to do anything that caught his attention.

The placid face with sucked-in cheeks of the supervisor was the most daunting image he could see now, scolding him for getting out of his sight even for a moment. The over-protectiveness of this man, at first, made him want to be disobedient and enjoy hearing curses and whinings following from his back. But, in less than a week, Soris understood that he was actually causing pain to someone, so he chose to become obedient.

As days went by, however, the little boy couldn’t stand the stillness anymore and noticed that the supervisor wasn’t becoming any friendlier. Soris looked around himself. The yard was big, the towering castle had countless rooms waiting for him to discover them, yet there weren’t any children today, only busy adults roaming around with thoughtful faces.

He sighed and turned to the supervisor, squinting against the strong rays of the morning sun, “Clark, may I play with the ball?”

The head from above lowered hooded, grey eyes on him. Clark hated being disturbed from his endless meditation.

Silence hovered for a couple of seconds, so the boy added in a sweet tone, showing his small white teeth, “Please?”

Clark let his shoulders drop and dragged his feet toward a bench with a wooden box upon it. He took out the smallest ball he could find there and slouched back to the prince who dashed to take it. As he snatched it with increasing joy spreading on his face, Clark hurried to lecture him, “Be careful not to hit someone; don’t bang it on the floor, don’t hit the walls with it, don’t throw it too up in the air as you can’t predict where it’ll fall…”

He went on and on about what not to do, but the boy didn’t care about anything he had to say. After all, according to Clark, the safest way to play was to just keep the ball in his hands. Soris, however, was bursting with energy. So he banged it against the floor and kicked it towards some soldiers who were passing by. The men in grey armor of fabric and plates of steel were happy to send it back to him. The prince got caught in the game quickly, so he continued to pass the ball to them, delighted to see the men’s smiles under the plain helmets which covered their eyes with smoky glass.

Clark stepped in between and scowled at the two tall playmates. “I think it’s time to get back to work!” he said, then turned to the prince, “Your Majesty, let the soldiers guard this place. You shouldn’t play with people that are of lower class.”

Soris pierced him with a brown stare. “Then who?” he snapped stretching his neck up to the supervisor who gave him the ball. “The noble children are going to arrive here after their lessons. Have a little patience, Your Highness.”

The boy took the ball and kicked it angrily toward the castle. It lobed far away from him, and got lost behind a hedge of the garden. Clark rolled his eyes, annoyed that he now had to run after the boy who scampered off retrieve it.

Soris reached the garden, then searched around until he got lost. Being away from the lecturing Clark felt way too good to regret this. He meandered until he got to an opening in the hedge. It led to a shadowed side of the castle. To his surprise, the ball was there, very close to the wheel of a wooden carriage. It had beautiful, embroidered curtains and the wood carvings glistened with fresh varnish. On its round back, it sported a symbol with a grand peacock made of gold. At that sight, the kid frowned. For long moments, even after Clark showed up by his side gasping for air, he sat still, enraged to see this cart sitting in the yard of his home.

Clark laid a hand on his shoulder. “There you are, Your Majesty. Can you imagine how dangerous it was to run away like this? What if someone kidnapped you? What if something heavy crushed you? What if you tripped?”

Soris didn’t hear any of his blabberings. He was fully focused on the carriage. Forgetting about the ball, he shifted and kicked the cart’s door, demanding, “Show yourself! Get out!”

Clark gasped in terror. “Your Majesty!”

The boy grabbed the handle and yanked the door open only to notice nobody was inside. He slammed it back, then peered up to the castle as if he declared war to someone invisible.

“Clark, I’m done playing for today,” he stated with a stern posture.

“Wise decision, Your Majesty,” Clark said, wiping his forehead. “But where are you headed to?” he asked behind the boy’s back.

“I’m going to talk to my mother.” He marched toward the castle, Clark following him with a pleased smile, thinking they’d left the yard, a place full of hazard, for a safe building. As long as the boy wasn’t playing or trying something other than walking and talking, everything was going to be just fine.

However, when they came before the queen’s door, echoing sobs infused shivers into their limbs. The prince grabbed the handle and cracked the door open. His mother sat on the bed’s margin, wiping tear after tear, trying hard to recollect herself as Queen Suzanne, the boy’s grandmother, was comforting her along with two of his aunts.

One of the aunts saw him and immediately went to usher him out of the room, then said after closing the door gently behind her back, “Kid, let your mother have some time for herself.”

“Why is she crying? Let me see her! I must tell her that…”

The young aunt lowered herself to meet his eyes properly. “Boy, she already knows that. You don’t have to confirm it any longer.” Soris went mute, trying to find more answers in her bitter gaze. She got up and looked at the feeble supervisor. “Clark, take him to Waltario. He’s in his studio now.”

Clark quickly bowed his head and grabbed the boy’s hand, glad to leave the kid in someone else’s care. He dragged Soris through some corridors, hoping the child wouldn’t oppose too much. He didn’t, until they reached the corridor where his father’s office was, and its door opened soundlessly.

A proud woman of thirty emerged, dressed in a sunset-red gown set with ermine. Soris narrowed his eyes, watching her advancing like a queen on a crowning day. The boy couldn’t temper his anger any longer. He pulled himself out of Clark’s grasp and ran back toward the staircase where he knew some guards would be stalling.

“Guards!” he shouted, making everyone’s heart jump in place, especially Clark’s, who turned pale. “Guards! Come quickly! There’s a thief here! Come and catch her!” he railed, pointing desperately at the woman who’d stopped in place, hazel eyes rounding wide under the fine dark make-up.

Noticing the guards’ movement, the boy started running back on the flower-patterned carpet, toward the lady who watched him with a stiff neck. “Catch her!” he insisted, satisfied to see he’d managed to take down that defiant smile from her face.

As the guards marched after him, a few steps behind, another door of the corridor opened and two maids showed up, eager to pry into the royal family’s matters. Clark was about to pull his hair out, thinking this was the death sentence for him. He grabbed the boy and covered his small mouth, begging him to stop.

The guards halted, confused about what was happening here. Clark looked at them almost crying. “Go back, guards. He was only playing around. Go! Please!”

The two men with bulky arms looked back at the maids who were red-faced from the spuming giggling at this sight, then right forward at the woman who shot flaming glances at them. They bowed their heads and excused themselves, then hurried back to their positions on the stairs.

As Clark was fighting to keep the erratic prince in check, the woman commanded to the maids, “Back to your work, ladies! Stop being so disrespectful to the prince!”

The two dropped their smiles and snuck back into the room they’d come out from. Soris tried to throw kicks and punches at the lady, his words muffled completely by the supervisor’s sweaty hand. The woman sauntered to him, offering him a vicious smirk.

Clark kept him trapped like a snake clutching on its prey, and gibbered incessantly prayers, begging the boy to calm down. But it was impossible for the prince to stop fighting. He felt like he let go of the most wicked criminal in the kingdom.

The lady stopped before him to enjoy her victory, then stooped to whisper in his ear, “You’re stupid just like your mother.” The boy grabbed on her golden necklace and pulled at it aggressively. Managing to snatch back the necklace, she rose to her feet, scolding Clark, “His mother’s failed miserably to educate him. Make sure next time we won’t get to see this savage instead of a prince.”

“My deepest apologies, Lady Voronchi!” Clark muttered humbly. “Do please forgive him. He’s only a kid and he just wanted to play.”

She turned and left, outraged by this event.

When she wasn’t in the corridor anymore, Clark let go of the prince, grabbed him by the shoulders with trembling hands and faced him. “Your Majesty, don’t you ever play like this! You’ve done enough trouble for today. Now, let’s get you to Waltario. He’ll know what’s best to do.”

Soris threw a deep scowl at the supervisor, fire burning in his brick irises. He didn’t oppose anymore, just accepted the supervisor’s guiding hand, knowing there was no use in trying to talk to such a coward.

To be continued…

Chapter 3 – Rising Tide

Part I

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A gust of chilly wind blew veils of sand on the narrow beach, announcing a storm. Kendel, Vlin, and Inerishia looked up. White clouds descended like a mist, billowing and swirling as their color changed to stains of ash and coal.

“This is really bad,” Vlin gasped, wrapping a bracelet around his wrist. “Maybe our tribe is indeed meant to disappear, Kendel.”

Kendel cast dark eagle eyes upon his friend. “We will not disappear. We’ll become something better.”

Ines’ giggles echoed in the wind as she jumped in the boat and played with the paddles. Rushing to her with a pale face, Inerishia shouted, “Ines, get off the boat right now and come here.” The kid saw the seriousness of their expressions, so she got back on the wet sand of the shore. Arms outstretched, her mother was about to grab her hand, when a big wave swooshed up out of the calm sea and lunged at the child.

Kendel darted toward the wave, thrusting his hand toward it. “Water, listen to me!” he commanded, making the sea retreat greatly and suck back the wave, revealing the underlying cause of it. A tall man with muscular arms carrying a shiny spear advanced on the pure sand uncovered from under the sea. Water dripped down his boots and summary armor made of silver scales, while his wet hair stuck to his tattooed temples, and a smirk stretched on his fawn mouth. “What a surprise! Kendel himself,” he hissed, arriving on the shore washed by a gentle wave, the sea returning to its normal course. Inerishia took Ines by the hand and hurried back to the carriage.

“What are your intentions?” Kendel asked, recognizing the race of the tan-skinned man.

“I am Divian, the son of the great demon Saulten, the one you chased away from the Coral Islands.” He pointed the leaf blade of the spear at Kendel. “I’m here because my clan felt a call coming from here.”

Kendel frowned. “No one called for you.”

Divian smothered a laugh, then pierced him with a topaz stare. “Not you.”

Ushering Ines to the cart, Inerishia heard a ripple of rustlings and branch snaps coming from the trees which bordered the beach. Those were definitely not Shion. She released the horse and lifted Ines on its back, preparing to get up on it as well. However, a multitude of demons with spears and swords snuck out from the forest, blocking the escape route, and when she turned to look at the sea, she saw many more enemies coming out from the water.

Marching proudly, Divian extended his arms. “Kendel, you were once the one who chased us out, now it’s our time to chase you. I’ll bring your head to Saulten.” He thrust the spear into the darkened sand and roared, “Devils! Rise!”

The demons swarmed the beach, targeting Kendel. Inerishia swung an arm and blew them away with a powerful stroke of wind, Vlin standing shield between her and the demons emerging from the forest. Kendel pushed aside an incoming attackers’ troop by telepathically controlling the sea water to wipe them away with furious waves.

Divian was, however, left untouched by the water. The waves were avoiding him. Eyes closed, he spun the spear with one arm. “Do you think you’re the only one who can control the water?” he asked, then hit the land once again. A sand-eating crack appeared and spread, swiftly reaching under Kendel’s feet. Seawater gushed out of there and swirled around his shins, blocking him. Kendel soon realized that these wave spirals would not listen to any other than Divian, so he called his own wave to attack the demon and distract him, hoping the demon couldn’t control more than one water attack at the same time.

Inerishia dodged a rain of poisonous daggers that were thrown at her child, then blasted a group of demons who’d surrounded Vlin. Shion slithered down from a nearby tree and took back his human form of a man with long, grass hair. “Inerishia, take the kid and go back to the White Castle. This matter here is more complicated than it seems,” he said with a stern face, taking a moment to get lost in her azure eyes. “Also, my apologies for following you,” he mumbled.

Inerishia gave an understanding nod, then listened to the child who tugged her by the sleeve. “Mommy, look up!”

Plunging from the expanding steel clouds, winged demons with spears and daggers roared and surrounded Vlin, and Kendel, who was caught in a fierce fight with Divian. Inerishia raised a hand and forced a quick spell. The clouds spiraled, winding into dozens of foamy swirls. Bolts of lightning darted from the sky and struck the sand, burning many devils and sending the others tumbling for cover. She made sure to aim at Divian, too.

The demon-leader had sunken Kendel into a pool of waterlogged sand, up to the waist, when suddenly his spear absorbed a blinding thunderbolt, protecting him from being turned to ashes. Divian stepped back to regain his balance, then scanned the beach, quickly identifying the woman with bright ginger hair. “How dare you…” he growled, thrusting his shiny weapon up in the air. The lightning show ceased instantly, fitful incandescence lingering between the thick clouds.

Inerishia grabbed her chest as a heavy pain spidered inside of her. Gasping for air, she propped herself by the horse. Before she knew it, Shion was right behind her, helping her remain standing. “I told you to leave,” he scolded her, then glanced up at the frightened child who cried for her mother. “She’s fine,” he assured her. “Your mother needs to stop fighting until she recovers.”

When her breathing normalized, Inerishia searched for Kendel. He was out of the deep slump, fighting Divian with a spear he’d snagged from a burnt demon. The beach was mostly clear, but Devils were still emerging from the sea, the winged ones, who’d survived the lightning attack, darting at Vlin.

Weakened inside, Inerishia turned around. “Shion, please help them. I promise to come back as soon as I leave Ines in a safe place.” Shion stared at her coldly, then shape-shifted into a great dragon with red scales, spewing hot air on all the demons that blocked the entrance into the woods.

Inerishia didn’t wait for a reply. She mounted the horse, the child’s weeping calming down when a warm, gentle arm embraced her. They drove off, retracing the path back to the stronghold. However, the mother had no intention of entrusting her daughter to Gladiole’s care. The war with the Devils was solid evidence that, this time, her vision had been accurate, so she was determined to get in touch with General Waltario.

A tree slumped before the horse, blocking their way. The panicked horse neighed, rearing up, almost throwing down Inerishia. She pulled the reins and regained her balance when a demon dropped from a tree right on the horse’s back and stabbed her in the shoulder. Muffling a groan of pain, the lady summoned the air to push him, then unmounted the horse that had become listless and unresponsive to her commands. Presently, it jumped over the obstacle and galloped away, raising clouds of dust on the path to the White Castle. At least it would alarm the stronghold members to come after them.

Inerishia let the crying kid slid down from her good arm so she could attempt a healing spell at her injury. The bleeding stopped quickly, but the flesh opposed to her foggy energy that radiated from her palm. “Argh, it was a poisoned dagger,” she cursed, shutting her eyes.

“Mommy, are you okay?” Ines said between sobs.

“Yes. Don’t worry. I’m going to be fine. It will only take longer and more energy to heal,” the woman explained with a weak voice. The white energy grew brighter on the injury. She had to hurry up to pull out the poison before it would render her unconscious.

Leaves rustled and soon, four demons plummeted from the green arcade of the trees, raising their weapons and surrounding the two. Ines shrieked and buried her face into her mother’s long robe. Keeping the healing constant, Inerishia spun to analyze her opponents. It was too late. They’d already thrown their daggers at her heart. She ducked, covering the kid with her arms, then stood and blasted them with a circling current, clearing the way for a couple of moments which allowed them to run.

As long as she was going to follow the path, the demons could easily anticipate where she was headed at and block her way. With the injury superficially healed, she entered the woods.

Flying demons darted upon her from the sky where the tree crowns were thinner, the lady blowing them away before reaching close. It was impossible for her to carry the kid at her chest and also fight, so she’d let Ines run on her own, glancing at her once in a while to make sure she was keeping the pace. Ines ran as fast as she could, one hand clutching the corner of her mother’s sage robe, the other wiping tears.

Inerishia didn’t run aimlessly. She knew that somewhere in the woods was a cave where she could take a break. As soon as she noticed a clearing in the forest, she swerved that way, grabbed her child’s hand and took out the piece of crystal she’d stolen from the stronghold, making them both invisible. The flying demons halted in the sky, baffled at that sudden disappearance, while the ones on the ground gathered from all sides, gawking at one another.

“Don’t be fooled by her trick!” a winged demon said. “Search for her. She can’t stay invisible forever. If we catch her, we can conquer the White Castle as well, and then this land will be all ours!” Enthralled by this promise, the demons set on searching, sniffing with their sharp noses as they searched for the smell of a human. However, Inerishia had long ago flown from there, riding on a blaze of wind and reaching to the cave.
Finally getting some moment to catch her breath, she put the crystal back in a pocket, then knelt to check her child for any bad injuries.

“Mommy, what’s going on?” Ines cried watching her mother’s face covered by a couple of wet strands of hair, heaving with exertion.

She didn’t answer as she had to make a quick decision. Every use of her powers was consuming from her energy which she later needed for the fight with Divian, and at the same time, she had to leave her little girl in a safe place, the Arid Kingdom’s castle. Flying was energy-consuming, but it was the fastest way.

“I’m going to let you in Waltario’s care, Ines.” She embraced the girl and activated the stone of invisibility again, then flew on a powerful gust of wind to the great palace of the Arid Kingdom, a building which was not too far from the White Castle. Its people were simple humans, who had no idea about the existence of demons or people with magical powers, except for General Waltario and King Martin.

High above the treetops of the forest, the two observed the shiny golden roofs of the grand palace and a miniature of the courtyard: people in colorful robes and dresses meandering and talking, soldiers patrolling carelessly, servants carrying baskets of water or laundry, and gardeners pruning the numerous bushes of roses. None of them had any idea of what was going on the faraway shore of the sea.

“This might be the safest place, indeed,” Inerishia murmured to herself, then started instructing her child about do’s and don’ts for the time she would be staying there.

The Prequel – Chapter #2 – The Secret Trip

 

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GreatLady Gladiole leaned against an arch of fluffy red flowers, glancing at the small carriage which sat stationed on a wide stone path, a couple of meters to her left. She gave a nervous sigh and crossed arms on her chest, pushing back her long shiny hair. Taking her eyes away from the wooden vehicle, she watched the garden with a sour look imprinted on her mature face while a little girl with long dark hair played around, searching through the grass.

A tall man in sage clothes emerged from behind the carriage, ambling toward the little girl.

“Ines, are you ready?” he asked, stroking gently her long hair. She nodded, lifting a smile at him, barely grasping sight of his face covered by the sunlight.

“Let me take you to your mother.” He lifted her up from the meadow, enjoying her giggles as he touched her little nose. “Look how cute you are. I’m so proud to be your father.”

Gladiole’s lips grew thinner as she listened to their chatter.

“Everyone who sees you can tell that Inerishia and I are your parents. You have her eyes, while your hair is just like mine. You’re perfect!” he said cuddling her in his arms.

“A perfect monster!” Gladiole snapped, barely maintaining her position by the flowers.

The seemingly young father glanced at her, not letting that remark wipe off his smile. Ines clutched his right thumb, pretending to shake his hand, oblivious of what the grandmother had said about her.

“Mother-in-law, I see you’re still mad at me,” the man with short hair said, amused by the woman’s stiff frown. “Our daughter is something special, maybe that’s what you’re trying to say. She’ll be ten times stronger than us and will make a great change in this world. She’ll know no boundaries.” As the little girl squeezed his thumb, he shut his eyes, feigning a groan of pain, “Ow! Look how strong she is!”

Ines released the finger, her eyes rounding up with worry. Her father opened a squinted eye, then started laughing. “Look! My little girl cares for me,” he said, leaning his forehead over hers. “Such a gentle girl will do no harm to anyone.”

Gladiole watched them with disgust, her fingernails piercing the silvery sleeves of her long coat, then she burst with anger, “Kendel, you’ve brought only disaster to my daughter. I shouldn’t have ever let you marry her.”

“I shouldn’t have ever called you ‘mother’,” Inerishia said, passing confidently by her. “You’re the monster here,” she added, shooting a sharp glare behind her shoulder.

Gladiole stepped forward, avoiding making an eye-contact. “Don’t talk to me. You’re still bewitched by this charlatan. One day you’ll wake up from his spell and face great disappointment.”

“I woke up a long time ago, and the only one who disappointed me was you!” Inerishia retorted hopping in the carriage, right next to Kendel.

Gladiole watched the carriage growing smaller, then fading away behind the magical barrier which protected the stronghold from curious people. Back in the arch of flowers, two leaves curled up and shape-shifted into a pair of green eyes. “Shall I go now?” a male voice asked.

The woman nodded, her long golden hair barely showing some movement. “Yes. Find out where they’re leaving the child,” she replied, then mumbled to herself, “I’m sure this trip is only a masquerade.”

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In the middle of a tall forest of the Arid Kingdom, the cart’s wheels spun slowly on a dusty path. They traveled in silence for a while, Kendel carrying a subtle smile while Inerishia had her lips slightly pressed together, her mind plunged into deep thought. Kendel stole glances at his wife out of the corner of his eyes, then broke the silence, “So you had a vision again.”

Inerishia winced but managed to maintain her composure. She couldn’t get caught.
“What calamity comes this time?” he asked, watching the horse’s calm pace.

The woman turned, bewildered by his guess. “Why do you say ‘calamity’?”

“Well, isn’t it true that you have these sudden visions whenever something bad is about to happen?”

She fumbled as she stared at his calm and careless ivory face. “So far, yes, that seems to be the case. I’m still trying to control this new power of mine, although it seems impossible. The future is always subject to change, and interpreting those visions is such a nuisance. They’re vague. I can never let them guide me.”

“Except for today,” Kendel stated, leaving Inerishia speechless. He turned his head to look into her rounded azure eyes. “I saw you preparing for this day.”

Inerishia swallowed in silence then lifted her chin. “Why are you surprised? It’s only normal to prepare in advance for a trip like this. We’re taking our daughter outside the stronghold. I’m a mother. It’s only normal to be worried.”

Kendel kept the reins swinging. “You took a piece from the barrier’s crystals. What would make you do that unless you really felt threatened by something? I know pretty well all the restrictions of the White Castle. Taking out invisibility crystals is one of them. ”

Inerishia quickly glanced back through the narrow window of the cart only to notice that Ines sat lounging on the bench of soft cotton, her closed eyelids twitching gently from time to time, under the spell of a dream.

Kendel smiled without disturbing his posture of a calm driver. “She’s sleeping, right?”

“Yes. How did you know that?” Inerishia returned to him, surprised by all his guesses.

“I hid at least ten red stones in the garden for her to search. You can imagine that after running ten times around the stronghold, she must be tired.”

“Why did you do that?”

“You and I must stay focused on the road. I had to make sure she won’t be agitated during the trip. A kid of her age has the energy of two adults. That was the only way to make her want to sleep on her own.”

Inerishia turned once again, this time to glance behind the carriage. Kendel cleared his throat. “If you’re wondering whether we’re being tailed, allow me to tell you that we are. Grandma Gladiole sent Shion, the shape-shifter, to spy on us. Thankfully, he can’t turn himself into air, otherwise, we’d lose our right to privacy completely. Grandma, I mean, you mother is definitely hard to trick. She sensed we were going to hide our little one from her before we go on our lengthy mission.”

Inerishia frowned. “I know she figured out we had a plan with this trip, but I won’t let her stop us. I can’t leave Ines in her care, not after seeing how she took our girl to that ramshackle temple. I think she wanted to force our daughter’s powers to surface out, risking killing her.”

Kendel tilted his head as he pronounced each word, “Your grandma suspects exactly what you suspect or maybe you know for sure but won’t tell me exactly.”

“Kendel, please don’t start this discussion again. I’m already anxious about this day.”

“Sure, my dear. All I want is for you to share your burdens with me because you’re keeping too many worries only to yourself.” Kendel paused, his smile vanishing. “I feel like I deceived you back then when we first met. I had no idea that I was only a magician, a wizard who learned to trick the laws of nature, that I was different from you, who had your inner powers awakened.”

Inerishia gave him a nudge. “Hey, you didn’t deceive me. Even if I knew that, I wouldn’t have given up on you.”

Kendel clutched the reins with a heavy heart.
“Still, I am proof that you people of the White Castle are not a superior race, as your leaders imply. I am proof that any human being has an inner power that can be awakened. It’s just that it’s easier for someone who’s had both parents with awakened inner powers.”

He glanced back, trying to identify Shion in the peaceful forest, hoping that the shape-shifter hadn’t slid under the carriage in the form of some reptile. Unable to notice anything unusual, he continued, “Gosh, I still remember that day when everybody discovered that I was different. When I saw a hundred of calm faces suddenly turning to kill me, all my insides contracted. I think there was no more air in any part of my living being.”

Inerishia laid a hand over his. “I know how you felt, Kendel. It’s unbelievable how my own mother could be so harsh.”

“I can’t wait to get to my home village. Here. Take this part of the reins.” Inerishia grabbed the reins and watched the horse swinging its long, black tail as if it felt the change of driver. Kendel released the reins, then slid one arm around Inerishia’s back and pulled her close to him, pretending his intention was actually to grab back on the reins. “Sorry, I’m not sure I can let you do this alone.”

Inerishia chuckled, letting her head rest on him. “You’re unpredictable as usual.”
Kendel glanced back, then returned with a smirk. “His jealousy betrayed him. He’s now pretending to be a snake.”

“Are you saying Shion is jealous of us?”
A shrug. “I’m not saying anything. It’s just his disguise didn’t last well for a couple of moments after I took you close and that was enough for me to identify him. Let’s move.” He swung the reins and urged the horse to speed up its pace.

Passing by a long beach, they stopped and got off. One mile away into the sea, the long Smarald Island was waiting for them. The door of the cart blew open as little Ines jumped out. “Yay! The sea!” she exclaimed, to her parents’ surprise who thought she would be sleeping.

Close to a boat, a lanky man in a large, sleeveless shirt, waved at them. Kendel ambled toward him and hugged him. “Brother Vlin, I missed you!”

“I missed you too, buddy! Your mother is busy like a bee making food and baking sweets for her granddaughter, and your father is crafting a new bed for her. They’re so happy you’re letting her stay with them,” he shouted, his sharp eyes taking note of Shion, who’d taken the shape of a branch.

Kendel asked in a whisper, “Is everything prepared?”
“Yes. There’s a boat waiting for you on the other side of the island.” He patted Kendel’s back, then went to greet Inerishia who gazed into the sunny horizon, wearing a concerned expression. “Vlin, is there anything wrong with this place?” she asked.
Vlin was taken aback, but forced a smile and kissed the back of her hand, whispering,

“You mean the guy who’s now a branch?”

Inerishia shook her head. “No. There’s a strange aura in this place. It wasn’t like this before.” Vlin turned an askance face toward his brother. Kendel got close to them.

“What’s the matter?”

Inerishia pulled out a piece of crystal from a pocket, and before opening her fist to show its color, she sighed bitterly. When her palm showed the crystal, they all noticed it was black.

Vlin gasped. “The devils!”

Exchanging concentrated glances with Vlin, Kendel closed his wife’s palm to cover the stone. “We should go back.”

Next chapter coming soon! I hope you enjoyed reading “The Secret Trip”.