You know that feeling you get when things are just too good? When life is going so well, that you know something bad is about to happen? Torin didn’t have that feeling. His day was quite average, absolutely normal, so the end of the world caught him completely off guard.
He was sitting, quite contentedly, in the tavern after a long day of work, enjoying a hot bowl of hearty stew, when the first fireball came careening by. It burst through the wall of the tavern, crushing a row of tables and spewing sparks and bursts of flame across the room. Torin rolled smoothly over the table he was sitting at, putting the sturdy wood between him and the fire. As soon as the smoke cleared, he hurried across the room to the door and out onto the street. All around him, the city was in chaos, with people screaming and running in every direction. The next fireballed hurtled past him down the street, lighting most of the marketplace on fire.
“That’s new.” He made the comment entirely to himself, since no one else was really in the right mindset to listen. A short distance down the street, a man knelt in the middle of the chaos. He faced the (now very angry) volcano that loomed over the north end of the town, wailing at the top of his lungs.
“Woe!” Torin heard as he approached the man. “Woe and ruin! I have brought destruction upon us all!”
“Easy there, buddy,” Torin said as soothingly as he was able to as he knelt beside the distressed man. “What’s going on?”
The man thrust a glowing golden orb into Torin’s hands, looking up at him with wild eyes. “I was tempted by the treasure! I have stolen the heart of the great Fire Mountain, and now the wrath of the Great Spirits is upon us!”
Torin looked down at the glowing orb and then back at the man. “Why would you steal something from inside a volcano? Doesn’t that just seem like something you definitely shouldn’t do?”
Unfortunately, the man was far beyond listening to reasonable inquiries. He staggered away from Torin, continuing to rant loudly. “It must be returned! You must return the heart to the Fire Mountain’s center or we will all be doomed!” As if to punctuate his point, the volcano belched a thick cloud of black smoke, and orange lava began to ooze down its sides.
Torin looked back down at the golden orb in his hands. “... and apparently that’s now my problem,” he remarked, again, to himself. He pushed himself to his feet, tucked the orb into his satchel, and began casually strolling toward the volcano. “Well, I guess someone has to save the world.”
He was almost to the base of the volcano before things got difficult. A strange whistling sound cut through the air, giving him just enough warning to leap to the side before a fireball hit where he had just been standing. But this one was different than the others. After it hit, the outside of the fireball cracked and peeled away, revealing some sort of vile creature. It was almost like a small dragon, except that it had six legs instead of four and its largest feature was its oversized pair of bat-like wings. It also had a far worse temperament than a dragon, at least any dragon that Torin had met (and he had met quite a few).
The creature leapt at Torin, causing him to dive to the side once again. He rolled to his feet, wishing that he had more weapons than just the long knife tucked in his boot (remember, this was just an ordinary day). Still, he had to work with the resources at hand, so he pulled the knife from its sheath with one hand and hefted a nearby tree branch with the other. The creature snapped its jaws at him as he swung the stick at its head. It was clearly unhappy that its opponent had escaped death twice now. As it reared back on its hind legs, Torin glanced up toward the top of the volcano and thrust the stick into the beast’s chest. It staggered backward, putting itself in the perfect position to be crushed into the rocky ground by another fireball. Thankfully, this was just a regular fireball with no nasty surprises inside, so Torin was able to hurry past it and up towards the small opening in the side of the volcano.
Unfortunately for him, his adventure wasn’t quite over when he made it into the volcanic passage. Almost as soon as he slipped through the narrow opening, the rock around him began to vibrate (which, as you can imagine, is a very concerning sensation when you are inside a volcano). Torin broke into a sprint, knowing that the vibrating had to be a precursor to something unpleasant. He was right. As he ran, the ceiling of the passage began raining stalactites down on him. He wove between the spikes, squinting through the ash and smoke in an effort to see where he was going. Finally, he saw it. The passage opened into a small cave just ahead. In the center of the cave, a stalactite and a stalagmite reached toward each other from the top and bottom of the cave, leaving a space between them just large enough for the orb. Torin gave one last push through the debris to shove the golden orb firmly back where it belonged. And then everything went still.
As Torin pushed himself to his feet, not wishing to spend any more time than necessary inside of a volcano, wisps of red and black vapor began to fill the cave. They curled around him, almost as if they were hugging him. He chuckled. “Yeah, yeah. You’re very welcome. In return for me being so amazing, I’d like to make a suggestion. Maybe next time someone steals your stuff, you can just smite them or something. Maybe take it easy on the world destruction. Just a thought.”
The vapors faded away as he stepped back out into the sunlight. And there was actual sunlight now, not blocked by thick clouds of ash and smoke. It had returned to being a fairly normal day at least, although Torin now knew that anything could happen.
There was a dark fortress in the middle of the Enchanted Wood. For years, it had been impenetrable, although not for lack of trying. Many knights, sorcerers, and even kings had attempted to force their way into the fortress, eager to find what was hidden inside (not that there was any evidence of something being hidden inside, but they were absolutely convinced that the fortress held some sort of treasure). Most of them didn’t even make it past a mile into the forest before the branches would rustle and wave and they would be tossed out from the foliage. They would scramble to their feet and run back to their homes, never to speak of what they had seen. But they didn’t have to. The darkness under those leaves spoke for itself. Those who did make it to the fortress never made it inside. It had no doors, no windows, just solid black stone stretching above the ground. They returned home defeated, exhausted, and perplexed. And so, after so many failures, there wasn’t anyone even willing to try anymore.
Except Lukus. He was never very concerned with how probable something was or how many people before him had failed. Lukus was not a knight, sorcerer, or a king. He lived on a farm, where he tended to his family’s horses, and his favorite adventures were those that involved a fun time with the people he cared most about. Still, he was a naturally curious person, and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t intrigued by the mysterious fortress in the Dark Wood. So he packed a bag and set out to see just what he could find.
As he ducked into the cool shadow of the forest, his eyes took a minute to adjust to the thick darkness. Only the smallest amount of sunlight flickered through the leaves, leaving most of the forest murky and shrouded in unsettling shade. But just a few steps later, a string of blinking lights caught his attention. He stepped closer and ran the tip of a finger along the branch, letting out a quiet “ooh” as they changed from one neon color to the next. The massive serpent above him cocked its head to the side. Any other adventurer would have already been pulled up into the branches to be briefly terrorized and then expelled from the forest. But the serpent just couldn’t bring itself to interrupt such wonder. And so Lukus continued on.
Some time later, a rare gleam of sunlight settled on a patch of the most vivid and beautiful flowers Lukus had ever set eyes on. Each petal gleamed with a sparkling luminescence that highlighted the rich hues in just the right way. He knelt to the ground and pulled a small knife from his belt. “I hope you don’t mind,” he murmured as he worked, just in case anyone happened to be listening, “but my friends’ mother likes flowers, and I have a reputation to keep as her favorite child.” The manticore crouching behind the bushes nearby relaxed its muscles. Its scorpion tale drooped from the ready position. It had heard many reasons for taking those flowers, but there was a playfulness and undeniable kindness to this one that caught it off guard. And so Lukus continued on.
For the sake of time, I won’t mention each and every stop Lukus made in the Enchanted Wood. There were many fascinating things, and he didn’t want to just pass by any of them. But eventually, he made it to the mysterious fortress, a large assortment of dangerous magical creatures trailing behind, just out of sight. Lukus didn’t hesitate as he strode up to the craggy black wall and rapped out a quick rhythm on its surface (everyone knows it’s just too boring to knock normally). There was a brief silence as even the fortress considered what to do with this optimistic stranger. But then, the unblemished surface of the wall cracked open to allow in the first person who had ever stepped foot inside those walls. Lukus stepped in and went straight to the kitchen. There would be plenty of time to explore the other treasures of the fortress. Outside, the creatures caught a glimpse of a candle flickering to life just before the door closed. With nothing else they could do, they turned and went back to their homes in the forest.
Now, as we end this story, I don’t want you to think for even a moment that Lukus was unaware of the creatures that crossed paths with him on his adventure. He was not a clueless adventurer, and he knew exactly when he encountered each one. But he also knew that the greatest darkness cannot extinguish even the smallest light. And as long as he was himself every step of the way, as long as he continued to shine his own unique light, he knew there was no darkness that could really threaten him.
Becca dropped an extra cloth napkin on one table as she passed by, a refilled mug on another, and finally a full bowl of steaming soup at the table she had actually been making her way towards. “You are always such a dear.” The elderly woman at the table patted her hand as she spoke in a soft voice high and crackling with age.
“Oh, Mildred,” Becca replied with a quiet chuckle. “You give me too much credit. You know I love seeing you here.” And it was true. She had actually worked a few minutes past the end of her shift, as usual, but it never felt like a burden. She loved working at the Second Home for the Elderly. As far as she was concerned, it was one of the best operations in the capital city, giving shelter, food, and plenty of love to any of the older citizens who needed some extra support. Becca waved a cheerful goodbye to Mildred and the other nearby patrons as she collected her coat and made her way out of the building.
The planks of the porch off the front of the building creaked under her feet, reminding her that all was not well at her beloved workplace. Becca felt a pang of sadness as she looked over her shoulder at the old building. Vines of ivy crawled across almost every surface. The window sills and frames were cracked and weathered. It was plain to see that funding was low, and despite her hope, it didn’t seem like the home would be able to function for much longer.
As Becca walked down the main street of the city, a conversation on the porch of the nearby tavern caught her attention. “Course I can’t tell you anything about the dragon!” One broad young man exclaimed, his flailing arms showing his agitation. “When that thing came blasting out of the mouth of the mountain with smoke and flame and red eyes blazing, I ran! That dragon is going to stay in that mountain no matter what, you mark my words.”
“But the queen said-” His companion tried to interject.
“Look, congratulations to the king for finding someone he thinks is so fantastic, but this quest is a fool’s errand. ‘Bring the dragon to the queen and you will be granted whatever you wish.’” The man huffed out a derisive laugh. “Sounds like such a great offer. Until you realize it’s impossible. That dragon is unbeatable, and you can’t have any wish granted if you’re charbroiled.”
Becca continued on her walk home, her thoughts now whirling with new ideas from the soldiers’ conversation. She had heard of the new queen’s offer months ago- that whoever was able to bring her the dragon that lived on top of Shadow Mountain would be granted whatever they requested from the king. Many people had thought it was a strange quest, but the king’s new wife was, after all, from a land far away with many different customs. Becca, of course, hadn’t thought much of it at all. But now… the queen had never said anyone had to slay the dragon, which Becca reasoned made the task a bit easier. And the image of the crumbling Second Home for the Elderly was still fresh in her mind. That evening passed as it usually did. In the morning, Becca left to seek out a dragon.
Shadow Mountain was a bleak landscape, the dark gray rock that was its namesake dry and crumbling into a fine dust that choked travelers. Still, Becca wasn’t eager to escape the barren surface of the mountain by entering into the gaping mouth of the cavern before her. But she hadn’t climbed all the way up the mountain to turn back now, and so she continued on. After all, no dragon had come “blasting out with smoke and flame and red eyes blazing” yet, and she took that as a good sign.
The inside of the cave was dark and warm, but not too hot. A light haze of smoke drifted on the slight air current, curling around… a dragon. A rather large dragon. Becca stopped mid stride, her heart suddenly caught in her throat. Very carefully, she settled her footing, figuring that her falling over and causing some sort of loud noise wouldn’t be a very good way to wake up the sleeping dragon. “Excuse me?” Her voice came out soft and timid, but still seemed far too harsh in the quiet cave.
The dragon’s amber eyes drifted open, focusing lazily on Becca. No red eyes- that was another good sign. Still, it didn’t do very much to reassure her in the current situation, as she was finding that it is very hard to breathe normally with a dragon’s gaze fixed on you. “You’re excused.” The dragon’s voice was low and melodious, underlaid with just the slightest growl. “Can I help you?”
“Well,” Becca began, fiddling with the strings of her apron. It occurred to her in the lull of this very strange and unexpected conversation that she didn’t look like much of an adventurer, with her blouse and skirt and apron. She shook her head. That was probably not what she should be focused on. “I’m not sure if you know this, but my queen has said that whoever is able to bring you to her will be granted a wish. And so I was wondering if, maybe, you wouldn’t mind… paying her a visit?”
The dragon lifted her head, tilting it slightly as she regarded Becca. There was a warmth and humor in her eyes. “Did you know that dragons can sense the intentions of those who seek them? We only allow those with pure intentions to walk so freely into our homes.”
“I- no. I didn’t know that.”
“Would you like a ride? It’s quite a long walk back to the castle.”
Becca’s eyes grew wide as she looked up at the magnificent creature. “I’m not sure if I would ever forgive myself if I turned that offer down.”
A short while later, Becca and her newfound dragon friend landed in the courtyard of the castle, to the astonishment of everyone present. The queen, on the other hand, did not seem surprised in the slightest, and greeted the dragon like an old friend. When she turned to Becca and asked what her wish was, Becca was ready. “Your Majesty,” she began with a curtsy. “I would ask only for funding for the Second Home for the Elderly. I want to be sure that it can continue providing services to those who need them.”
The queen went above and beyond in fulfilling her promise. The Second Home for the Elderly was restored to a condition that it had likely never been in to begin with. There was plenty of food and only the finest accommodations for their patrons. Becca delivered Mildred’s usual bowl of soup to her and let her eyes sweep over the dining room, feeling a swell of happiness.
Mildred patted her hand. “Thank you very much… my dear dragoness.”
And… I’ve made it to the last forest! Mumzie pulled her notebook from her satchel and checked off the last item on the list just inside the front cover. She tucked a lock of her short brown hair behind her ear and put the notebook away, keeping it close to the top of the satchel so she could get to it quickly if she wanted to jot down any notes. After a few months of adventuring across the continent, she had finally reached the final forest on her list.
This one possessed an unusual beauty. The trees were grouped close together and stretched up proudly. Their bark was a purplish-gray, with silver highlights on the peaks of the craggy texture. The leaves were a deep teal, as were the delicate vines that hung down. Mumzie stepped into the cool shade eagerly, noting the way that the mossy forest floor cushioned her steps. As she began to weave between the trees, she heard a rustling sound off to her right.
She turned towards the source of the noise just as a small creature bounded out from the undergrowth. It was small, no larger than a common cat, and its fur was a glossy silver. It had a long, thin tail with a tuft of blue fur at the end. Small antlers the same hue of blue crowned its head. It stopped and sat back on its haunches when it noticed her presence, its head tilting to the side and whiskers twitching.
“Oh, hello there,” Mumzie said, offering a friendly smile. “What’s your name?”
The creature’s eyes widened slightly, since it wasn’t used to being spoken to. It wiggled its nose once before responding. “Well, I’m Cherry, of course!” Cherry’s voice was slightly squeaky and full of enthusiasm and friendliness. She skittered a little closer, deciding that Mumzie wasn’t a threat. “It’s been quite a long time since I’ve seen an elf this far east. What brings you all the way out here?”
“Well, I was looking for an adventure,” Mumzie replied.
“And did you find one?”
“I found a whole lot more than one.” Mumzie smiled, recalling all she had seen and experienced on her journey. “And in fact, I’m looking for some more.”
“Ooh!” Cherry squealed. “I like the way you think! Could I join you for your next one?”
“Of course!” Mumzie laughed, her blue eyes sparkling. “Everyone knows adventures are always better with a friend. And I was looking for someone to show me around this forest.”
Cherry hopped in place, her excitement too great to just stand still. “Oh goody! I’ve never been a guide… and for an elf, no less! This is going to be the best! Day! Ever!”
Mumzie chuckled to herself as she followed behind her energetic little guide. This would certainly be a fun adventure… and she was excited for whatever other adventures the future held.
Zara stood at the prow of her ship, her dark eyes scanning the horizon in front of her. Her boots rested lightly on the bulwark, and she held on to the rigging to keep her steady. The same breeze that fluttered the black flag at the top of the mast tousled her unruly hair. The men working on the deck behind her glanced up occasionally at the slight silhouette of their captain, wishing they knew what thoughts were swirling in her mind as she kept her quiet vigil.
At the sound of a slight scrape behind her, Zara smiled and plucked a peanut from the pouch on her belt. She held it up for Blackbeard, her monkey, to take. Her ear was soon filled with the sounds of happy crunching as he perched on her shoulder and tore into it.
“I hope you’re not here because you’ve been tormenting Scully again,” she commented. She cocked an eyebrow at the brief guilty pause before the crunching resumed. Zara sighed. Her parrot was often the victim of the mischievous monkey’s playful schemes. Still, they usually got along just fine, and they were lovely companions to have on board. As soon as she found another animal who loved the sea as much as she did, she would have that one join them as well. As far as she was concerned, there was no such thing as too many animals.
An unusual movement in front of her pulled her attention away from Blackbeard, and she grinned at the sight that greeted her. Her crew, on the other hand, was less excited, and unease rippled across the deck. Just a short distance in front of the ship, the ocean surface opened into a gaping, swirling hole. It certainly wasn’t the largest or most terrifying whirlpool they had encountered in their many adventures, but the fact that they were headed straight towards it was definitely cause for concern.
Except for Zara. She bounded to the ship’s wheel, taking it from her skeptical first mate. Her confidence never wavered as they continued to sail straight to the whirlpool. Zara relished the feeling of inevitable freefall as they hovered for a heartbeat at the edge. And then they plummeted.
The fall was brief, but powerful. The ship was immediately pulled into the current, twisting and turning them all the way down to the seafloor and dousing everyone on board with thick sheets of saltwater. As soon as the ship’s hull touched the sandy bottom, the surface of the ocean closed above them, leaving them safely in an inexplicable pocket of air at the bottom of the sea.
Zara barely waited for the ship to settle before she flicked her wet curls out of her face and leapt from the side of the ship. Each step shifted and pulled in the wrong direction as she ran across the sand to the ornate chest sitting on a small boulder, her crew following eagerly behind. Without hesitation, she flung open the lid, the rusted hinges creaking in protest. The crew skidded to a halt around her and watched with wide eyes as she lifted the mysterious treasure from the chest…
“A book?” Her cabin boy couldn’t hide the disbelief in his voice as he stared at the large tome in her hands. “We went through all that for a book?” The crew shifted uneasily. Although they would never voice the thought out loud, they agreed with the young boy.
But Zara just smiled and quietly replied, “Don’t you know that books are the greatest treasure of all?” And she was right, of course, in the metaphorical sense (books and stories truly do hold treasures more valuable than gold and jewels). But she was also right in the literal sense, since the particular book she was holding was a record of all the incredible treasures only mentioned in legends. She would explain that to her crew, of course, but as the current shifted to carry them and their ship up from the ocean floor, she decided to keep it to herself for a little while longer. She smiled to herself as they breached the surface, curtains of water pouring off the ship. A short period of uncertainty would soon be forgotten when they were the richest pirates to ever grace the seas.
The torches flickered merrily in their sconces, casting playful shadows on the stone walls (of course, “merrily” and “playful” aren’t often words used to describe things in a tomb, but Bri thought they were quite lovely). The firelight glittered off of her silver earrings and the lenses of her glasses, which she thought added a little bit of a magical flare to her entrance. She perched cross-legged on a ledge near the open coffin, adjusted the sleeves of her leather jacket, and cleared her throat. “Rise and shine!”
A blue vapor glittered over the coffin, condensing into a human shape as the soul of the old king returned to the mortal world. The blue apparition sat up and blinked a few times. Then, as you might expect from someone who had been dead a full century only to return to life in a see-through blue form, he screamed. Naturally, Bri screamed in response. In the quiet stillness that followed, the king looked at her in disbelief. “Are you afraid of me?”
“Oh… no,” Bri replied casually. “But you were screaming and I didn’t want you to feel weird, so I just figured it was the thing to do. Anyways… hi! I’m Bri, and I’d like to ask you a few questions, if that’s alright.”
“O-okay…” The king squinted at her, very unsure of what to make of this girl.
“Just one minute,” Bri said, smiling apologetically. “Erasthmus, come in here!”
The king’s eyes rounded in fear at the intimidating name. “Who- who is that?”
“Oh, it’s my dragon friend. His full name is Erasthmus, Breaker of Worlds, but that’s a bit much to be saying all the time, so,” she waved her hands in a vague gesture, “just Erasthmus. He likes to wander off and I want to make sure I give you my full attention.” Just as she finished speaking, the sound of claws scratching on stone could be heard at the entrance of the tomb. The king waited anxiously as the sound grew closer and the “breaker of worlds” made his way towards him.
Finally, Erasthmus rounded the corner, his tiny blue and purple wings flapping furiously as he landed haphazardly on Bri’s shoulder. He tilted his head to look at the king and licked his eyeball. “Right then,” Bri clapped her hands together, “let’s get started!” She produced a small notebook and pen from her pocket and flipped open to an empty page. “So. According to my study of the weather patterns over the past few years, this kingdom is going to experience a drought in a few months. Seeing as how the last drought was during your reign, our rulers don’t have a lot of experience to deal with this. Do you have any suggestions of how we could best prepare for this?”
The king cleared his throat, his gaze flickering between Bri and Erasthmus. Never in his many years alive, and even more years dead, had he been so confused by a meeting. “Well… it is important to begin stockpiling resources now, so that you have plenty when the drought comes and resources become scarce. The… present ruler should also form strong connections with allies outside the reach of the drought to have other sources of help and resources if needed.”
“Mm-hmm,” Bri murmured as she jotted down her notes. “Thank you. That was very helpful. Now, if I may ask one more thing before we part ways, could you give me your best piece of advice for ruling well?”
“Of course,” the king said, nodding decisively. This was something he always had prepared. “The ruler must care for their people. Genuine care and love for the people is the source of decisions made for their good, which is the most important thing as a ruler.”
Bri smiled as she put away her notebook and pencil. “Wow. It’s no wonder you’re considered one of our greatest kings. Thank you so very much for your time. And now… I can let you go.”
The king returned her smile, only a little hesitant this time. “You are quite welcome. And,” he paused to fully make up his mind before he committed to anything, “should you ever have any more questions, I would be glad to answer them. You and your… Erasthmus are lovely interviewers.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. Sweet dreams!” With a wave of purple vapor, the king’s form disappeared and the coffin was resealed. Bri stood and stretched. “And now, off to the palace!” Of course, Erasthmus had fallen asleep on her shoulder and didn’t respond, but she didn’t mind. It would be easier to stop by the library and learn more new things without him trying to light the place on fire anyways.
Cari leaned against a pillar on the side of the ballroom, bubbles swirling up around her from her quick approach and abrupt stop. The ballroom was full of other mermaids adorned with glittering shells and chains of exotic plants. Everyone was wearing their very best for the prince’s birthday ball. That was just another reason why Cari wasn’t sure why he had chosen to dance with her. And not only that, but he had promised to return for another dance soon!
As she leaned against the pillar trying to catch her breath in her excitement and disbelief, she felt a cold snout press into her hand. “Oh, hello there, Aquina,” Cari said, giving the dragon’s head a soft pat. Aquina blew a few bubbles her way in response. Cari was just about to turn back to watch the dance floor when she realized that something, or rather, someone, was missing. Her eyes widened. “Aquina, where is Coral?” Aquina only lifted her front legs in her version of a shrug, as Cari looked nervously around them.
It should have been quite easy to find an exuberant pixie with bright pink hair, but there was no predicting where Coral had run off to. She was incredibly mischievous, which was partly why she had been in the situation where Cari had found her. Both Coral and Aquina had lived in one of the shelters around the kingdom before Cari had found them and took them in. Now, they traveled with her everywhere she went.
“Come on, Aquina! You know we can’t just leave Coral alone… who knows what she’ll get into!” Cari wove through the pillars framing the ballroom, her eyes flicking back and forth searching for the pixie. The entire time, she just kept hoping the prince wouldn’t see that she moved and decide he didn’t want to return for another dance. Thankfully, it didn’t take long to spot Coral’s pink hair and bright orange wings.
Cari swam up to the pixie and grabbed her just before she dove into a platter of cookies. “Of course you would be at the food table,” Cari sighed. Coral only huffed at her and crossed her arms. “Oh, come on… you know you can’t just go throwing yourself into everyone’s food. Here,” she said, handing Coral a cookie to placate her. “Now, let’s go. I don’t want to miss the prince.”
Cari placed Coral securely on her shoulder and spun around… only to find herself smacking straight into the prince. Her eyes grew wide. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Your Highness. I was just…” She waved her hands around as she searched for the right words, realizing belatedly that her gestures didn’t really make anything clear. She cleared her throat, trying to ignore the blush that heated her cheeks. “Umm… this is Coral and Aquina. They’re my friends.”
The prince’s gaze flicked from Coral, to Aquina, and finally back to Cari’s face. He smiled, happy to have such a sweet dance partner. “Well,” he said. “Perhaps they would like to join us for a dance as well."
Alex opened her eyes to a dimly lit, spacious hall. Even if an ornate throne hadn’t been sitting right in front of her, she would have recognized the place immediately from the impractical lighting and the hideous pattern of the marble floor. She raised her eyes to the man sitting on the throne and smirked. “Well, hello there, your majesty.”
The king’s mouth twisted in displeasure as he stared down at the unapologetic young woman chained to a pillar in front of him. “Perhaps you should be more careful with the things you say about me.”
Alex only tilted her head and fired back, “Perhaps you shouldn’t oppress your people.”
“I will not be disrespected by some puny peasant!” The king’s face flushed red with anger and he gripped the armrests of his throne. “You will stand there, chained and defenseless, and die for your insolence!”
“First of all, I know I’m short, but it’s incredibly rude to call someone puny. Second of all, I’ve been free from these chains since we started talking. And third of all… I have no intention of dying.” She dropped her chains to the floor just as the cages around her opened and the king’s demons streamed toward her.
The first line was taken down by a slew of darts shot from the cartridges on her wrists. Seeing her deal with their companions so effortlessly caused the other demons to pause, giving her time to unfold her bow and dispatch a handful more. They soon realized that standing still was a death sentence. Alex converted her bow to a staff to meet the next round, twirling it in complex patterns and meeting her mark every time.
The king watched in horror as the ends of her staff ejected to reveal shining blades, and she cut through even more of his forces. His guards had assured him that she had no weapons, but they must have overlooked them due to the clever hidden sheaths she used. He scowled as it occurred to him that they likely made the mistake because they underestimated her (of course, he was guilty of the same mistake, but would never admit it). But clearly, that had been a fatal mistake, as she seemed to have no problem fighting through his horde of demons. With her staff twirling in one hand, she produced an array of small knives in the other and sent them flying into an oncoming group. Only a handful of demons were left now, so she broke her staff into two parts and left each end implanted in a demon’s chest. Alex sent the remaining few demons toppling to the floor with a few well placed knives.
Carefully stepping over the fallen demons in front of her, Alex smirked up at the king. As she reached behind her and pulled her sword from its sheath, he shrunk back into his throne. “How do you still have weapons?!”
Alex only tossed her brown curls over her shoulders and casually twirled her sword. “Now, where were we?”
Kaitlyn watched from a shadowed corner of the room, as three soldiers fought over a rusted axe. Her brown eyes were impassive as two shouted about who needed it most and the third launched into a rant about how they weren’t going to survive anyway. To most people, the soldiers’ panic seemed reasonable. The northern outpost of the kingdom was vastly underfunded, and there was an entire army of vicious goblin warriors headed straight for them through the mountain pass. However, Kaitlyn saw no reason for concern. Her whole reason for being there, after all, was to eliminate that threat for the kingdom. She brushed her straight black hair over her shoulder and walked quietly across the room to join the trio of bickering soldiers. “Fighting amongst yourselves isn’t going to help anything.” Her voice was quiet, but it was laced with an unmistakable air of command.
The three men looked up, their eyes widening when they saw the sorceress. All of the soldiers at the outpost were wary of the powerful woman from the far southern reaches of the kingdom, especially with all the stories of the magic she wielded. One of the soldiers swallowed thickly and spoke up. “D’you have a plan, m’lady? We’re just simple men, an’ we can’t fend off a whole goblin army.”
“You won’t have to,” Kaitlyn replied simply. “All you have to do is stay here and do your job. Not fight among yourselves, not run away in fear. Stand firm and fight.” She hid her irritation at their inclination to just give up, keeping her voice level and calm. “Besides, you won’t have that many to deal with once I’m done with them. I’m going into the pass. Stay here, and don’t let any that get past me enter the kingdom.”
A short while later, she crouched on the edge of the cliff on one side of the mountain pass. She could feel the hum deep in the rock that she pressed her hand to. Most people would have missed it, but Kaitlyn knew all about the Hidden Song. It wasn’t by mistake that she was the most powerful sorceress in the kingdom. Just as the first ranks of the goblin army rounded a turn of the mountain pass, she began to sing, her voice low and melodic.
“Sweep and sway,
tumble and roll.
Block the way
and make a hole.”
Of course, her songs didn’t have to rhyme (or even have any words, for that matter), but she thought it was far more fun to manipulate the elements like that. And, as everyone knows, it’s always a good idea to have fun while destroying goblin armies. As the last note of the song slipped out of her mouth, the walls of the pass trembled and massive boulders detached themselves to tumble down. The army was thrown into a panic as they scrambled to avoid the boulders, too distracted to notice the gaping hole in the center of the pass until it was too late. Kaitlyn continued on down the pass to prepare for the next attack they would face.
When the goblins finally made it past the boulders and pit, she was waiting with another song. Her voice dipped and rose fluidly as she sang:
“Rise and roil,
come break free!
Flow and boil,
cleanse this pass for me!”
This time, as her song ended, the sound of breaking rock and rushing water echoed in the pass. Geysers of boiling water erupted from various spots in the walls of the pass, bombarding the goblin army with powerful jets of scalding water. Once again, Kaitlyn left to wait for them a little farther down the pass. The bedraggled goblins came into view a short while later. Kaitlyn began another song, her voice higher and slightly breathy.
“Winds high and strong
come out to play.
Right this wrong,
and wipe these goblins away.”
The dust from the ground rose and swirled, immediately setting the goblins on edge. The wind whistled through the narrow pass, picking up more dust and escalating until there were three separate funnels racing towards the army. Kaitlyn moved to her final post, confident that the high winds would do significant damage to the goblins. Their forces had dwindled considerably by this point, and she knew her final song would be a devastating blow. This time, her voice rang out with unmistakable strength and power, and the goblins could hear it echoing around them.
“Burn and blaze,
ignite your flame!
Your power I raise-
power no one can tame.”
Immediately, the ground of the pass ignited, creating an impenetrable wall. The fire burned a bright yellow, the tips flickering white. Kaitlyn leaned back against a nearby rock, still humming softly under her breath. After a few minutes, the fire flickered out, and she watched as a handful of stragglers ran from the pass. Now that was a force the garrison would have no trouble handling.
The thin bough of the tree bent slightly as Seefer landed on it. Her soft-soled boots made no sound, and she smiled, pleased that the ogres below her still had no idea she was watching. She had been moving around their camp for days without them noticing, not that she was surprised, since her natural quietness meant that she was often overlooked. She was the best spy the SilverLeaf Elves had. And that was exactly what they needed in this seemingly endless war against the ogres.
The leaves rustled as Seefer’s loyal companion dropped down on the branch beside her. The cat studied her with bright blue eyes that matched her own and preened its silver fur. “And now we wait,” Seefer remarked in a whisper, tucking her short blonde hair behind her pointed ears. The cat’s front paws slid out in front of her, and she flopped down on her stomach. Seefer glanced over and sighed, recognizing the message its behavior sent easily after so many missions together. “You know, Misty, a lot of the best plans require patience and waiting for just the right moment.”
Misty shifted her haunches and swished her tail, as if to say, You could have at least picked a more comfortable place to wait.
“You know I have to oversee the camp to make sure no one gets suspicious and everything goes as planned.”
Again, Misty shifted her haunches. This time, she also blinked lazily, which was about as close to rolling her eyes as the cat could get. I’m still not sure why we’re even here. The ogres are the humans’ problem, not ours.
Seefer looked at the cat disapprovingly. “We’re here because defending the humans is the right thing to do. The whole idea behind joining the ranks of the SilverLeaf Elves was to do better and protect others. So,” she continued before Misty could protest any more, “I am here because I care a whole lot about doing the right thing, and you are here because you decided to come along.”
As she turned back to survey the camp, a firefly flitted in front of her nose. Its pale yellow glow shifted to orange and then back to a warm gold. Seefer smiled and nodded, confirming to the firefly that she had understood its message. As it turned and darted away, she rose from a crouch and bounded over to the next tree. She ran lightly, her feet barely touching the branches as she raced through the treetops, Misty close behind. Just as she landed on the field bordering the forest, she heard the first telltale crack from the ogre encampment. She continued to run across the field until she reached the other SilverLeaf Elves waiting for the ogres to inevitably flee from their camp right into the field. Seefer grinned as she saw the results of all her hard work over the past few days.
Fireworks burst in bright colors over the treetops. All around the ogre encampment was chaos and panic as things sparked and popped. The ground was covered in thick smoke, and the fireflies zipped through, causing more confusion. The ogres bellowed and ran to the field, desperate to get away from their ruined camp.
Seefer swung up into her saddle and pat the side of her unicorn’s neck. It tossed its white mane proudly and reared up. As the ogres burst from the trees, Seefer drew her sword and prepared to charge. The ogres roared, and the elves answered them with a battle cry of their own. Seefer’s unicorn reared again, its horn beginning to shine. She smiled. And just as the rising sun lifted over the horizon, they charged.