Pandora’s Adventures: Parallel

Just a dumb story I wrote once upon a time for Camp NaNoWriMo. Don’t consider this canon. And it has an awful plot and characterisation.

PARALLEL – BY NICOLA

PROLOGUE

 

 

London, Tuesday, 1997.

No matter how special the day was, it seemed like the rest of the world didn’t care. People went about their business like any other day, hurrying to where they were meant to be, but something was about to happen. This day was special, because today would set one child’s destiny.

London, Tuesday, 1997: the most important point in history… and nobody cared.

There was an eerie feeling in the air. The sound of ringing bells rode ominously on the wind and dark clouds gathered in the sky above, a warning of the coming storm. A young woman with soft eyes lovingly clasped a bundle of red cloth to her chest and rushed down the empty street, her eyes flitting from left to right. Times were dark, and the alley she ran through was known for its high crime rate. If Campton Alley wasn’t the quickest way to her destination, she would never go through such a dangerous alleyway. Each of her rapid footsteps crunched the old gravel beneath her shoes. Twilight approached, while the daylight slipped away. Clutching the red cloth closer to her chest, the woman with the soft eyes picked up her pace, keeping her gaze cast downwards.

As she weaved through the abandoned carts and bikes that blocked her path, she could faintly hear the jovial shouts of children playing in the distance. The woman made sure never to raise her eyes, should any muggers lurking around see the clear vulnerability in the stressed lines of her eyelids and the hollowness of her cheeks.

She pulled her hood over her head when gentle drops of cool rain began to fall. Within minutes, she reached a gloomy, oppressive building, looking as though it had been abandoned for centuries. Pausing to catch a breath, the woman took a moment to marvel at how well Lucas had managed to disguise his home. The windows were dirty and cracked, the brick walls crumbled like bread and the front door hung wide open, ripped off one of its hinges. It was perfect; no one would want to go in there.

Taking a deep breath and remembering not to be fooled by the charm, she entered cautiously, listening for any sounds apart from the slight echo of her footsteps in the large, trashed halls. Rusted picture frames and broken vases once containing wilted flowers were strewn across the floor, and dust coated the peeling black wallpaper. It looked as though a cyclone had raged through the room.

“Lucas?” she whispered. “Lucas, where are you?”

Fright flew through her as the oppressive silence consumed her nervous whispers. She carefully stepped around the broken glass shards scattered on the floor and checked the baby inside her blood red cloth.

A beautiful baby girl with ivory skin and bright blue eyes stared up at her, her chubby fingers reaching for her mother’s skin. The woman planted a kiss on her child’s cheek and cradled her in her arms as she ascended the creaky stairs. The dull brown wood made dangerous noises beneath her weight, yet she pressed on, climbing the spiral staircase until it led to Lucas’ bedroom.

The messy, dilapidated state of the rest of the building was a dark contrast to the warmness of this room, with its salmon lamps, pretty golden blankets thrown atop a double bed and forest green curtains. In the middle of it all sat a man of about thirty, clutching a small red gem in his sweaty hands and looking out the window. He gave all the signs of a nervous man, clenching his jaw and balling his fists so tightly that his knuckles turned white.

“Elizabeth,” he sighed with relief when he saw his wife, the tension in his jaw subsiding. “Thank God. I thought you weren’t going to come.”

“I managed to get through Campton without being approached. Our little girl is safe.” Elizabeth’s words were hurried, rushed. “Are you ready?”

“Yes. Let us depart before dusk arrives,” Lucas said, anxiousness lacing his voice.

“Remember to change the glamour charm before we go,” Elizabeth reminded her husband and waited as he muttered a spell. The wind changed at that moment, and although Elizabeth and Lucas could not see, they knew that the appearance of the building had changed, as it did every week.

Making sure her baby girl was comfortable, Elizabeth grasped her husband’s sweaty hands and squeezed the ruby, her cold hands tingling. She felt the great power emanating from the red gem and breathed in the indescribable scent of magic, before her eyes turned black as night and she whispered a spell of otherworldly words.

They disappeared into thin air.

In a second they were at the edge of a glistening lake lined by dark evergreens somewhere in the middle of England.

Breathing hard, the family crouched on the damp mud. It was too dark to properly see, but the gem in Elizabeth’s hand was glowing like a torch. Kissing the gem, she gently pressed it once in between her daughter’s blue eyes, and then placed it on the ground.

“There,” Elizabeth said. “It is done. When the time is right, she will fulfill her destiny.”

“How can you be sure that crossing over is at all a part of her destiny?” Lucas asked doubtfully, stroking his daughter’s cheek.

Elizabeth turned to her husband with sincere eyes. “Kalypso’s songs showed me.”

“But you know how unreliable they can be,” Lucas argued.

“It’s already done, Lucas. You cannot do anything to change her course. Our daughter has a set path to follow now. And it wasn’t just Kalypso. The nymphs told me too.”

Lucas sighed and turned to the red gem half-buried in the fresh, rain-sprinkled earth. As its red light slowly faded, he conceded. “I trust the nymphs. I only hope her path is a safe one.”

“You know it won’t be. But she is protected. The nymphs promised. And Kalypso promised.”

Elizabeth grasped her husband’s hand and squeezed it. In the weak light of the dying sun, the raindrops sliding off the leaves of the forest trees glinted like tiny diamonds and the dead autumn leaves blew across the grassy forest floor.

“What should we name her?” she asked, lowering her head to nuzzle her nose with that of her daughter’s.

Lucas paused, before turning to his daughter.

“She shall be named Pandora, and she will be the greatest sorceress to ever live,” Lucas whispered. Then he said the spell, and as his eyes opened they were once again in London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 THE BEGINNING

 

 

Fifteen years later, Pandora sighed.

“Must I go?” she muttered, poking her cereal with her spoon. Rain violently pounded the windows like drums, and over the noise, Pandora could hear the unmistakable crack of thunder. Seconds later, the room flashed stark white with lightning. It was only morning, about six o’clock, yet outside it looked as though night was approaching.

“Yes, you must,” her mother said for the hundredth time, flipping the pancakes in her pan. “It’s either this or Sunday school at the Caseys’. And you know how much you don’t like them.”

Pandora groaned. “This is – this is inhumane. The cruelest of choices. How am I to choose between the two tortures?” She moodily scooped up her Cornflakes and munched on them with a vengeance.

Her mother raised her eyebrows, turning away from her pans. “Which torture will be easiest to endure?”

Pandora ate sullenly. “Camp. I can’t stand Raelynn Casey. I feel like throttling her every time she’s in the same room as me. Going to her parents’ Sunday school will be dangerous – for her, I mean.”

“So to camp you shall go. Besides, you’ve already packed all your bags,” her mother said, going back to her cooking.

Pandora pouted while stirring her cereal. She glanced over at the luggage standing readily by the front door of her house.

“What is it about Raelynn that you despise so much?” her father queried curiously, looking at her from over the top of his newspaper.

“I don’t know. Her attitude. And her accent,” Pandora mumbled.

“It’s hardly fair to judge someone by their accent,” her father scolded, “wouldn’t you agree? What if Raelynn had an English accent?”

“Well, she doesn’t,” Pandora said. “And, in any case, if she were to be stripped of that annoying accent, her attitude would remain. Arrogant… totally disdainful towards the way we do things here… determined to turn London into New York…”

“Oh, come now,” her mother patronised. “What gives you that idea?”

Pandora’s thirteen-year-old brother, James, sniggered. He knew what was to come. While most fifteen-year-old girls looked down at their little brothers with disapproval, Pandora thought of James as one of her best friends, and he was in fact the person she got along with the best. They would share nights exchanging jokes and snorting in laughter until their parents yelled at them to get back to bed.

Pandora cleared her throat and adopted an over-exaggerated imitation of an American accent, though it was alarmingly similar to Raelynn Casey’s. “Oh my god, your music here is so cute. I love it – but I totally think American music is better. Have you ever heard of Rihanna? I bet you haven’t; she’s American and, like, way better than Amy Meredith – here, take a listen…”

“Enough,” Pandora’s mother ordered sharply. “You’re being unfair on her. She’s only been in England for a few weeks. Imagine if you had to suddenly move to America and leave all your friends behind.”

“I wouldn’t be that annoying. Granted, I’d probably try to aggravate everyone, but it wouldn’t be my normal personality,” Pandora said, ignoring her brother who was silently giggling.

“Give her a chance,” her father said, returning to his newspaper.

Pandora ignored his order. “At least she won’t be at camp. She needs to help out at Sunday school.”

“Speaking of camp…” her mother mumbled distractedly, checking her watch. “You’d better get going now.”

“Yes… yes – I should,” Pandora said when checking her own watch. She brought her dirty dishes to the cheek, kissed the cheeks of her parents and grasped the handle of her suitcase.

“Ah, Pandora, before you go… there is something you must know,” her father said suddenly, placing his newspaper on the table. He and her mother shared a look of significance – one that meet the two knew what this meant while Pandora was left absolutely clueless.

“Yes?” Pandora asked, smiling.

Her father took a deep breath, and suddenly he like an old man who had seen so very much, like a war veteran. But when Pandora was younger and begged every night for bedtime stories, her father would rarely speak of his own past and remained taciturn, while her mother told tales of magic and adventure.

“Today, something important will happen. Something very important,” her father said seriously.

“And what we need you to know is… don’t have fear,” her mother added.

Pandora frowned, puzzled. “What’s going to happen?”

“By midnight, you will know,” her father promised.

“And, please, Pandora, when it happens – we need you to be cautious about using your powers. Only use them when absolutely necessary. Be very, very careful, sweetie,” her mother said urgently.

“Aren’t I always?”

“You are, and you have done very well in keeping such a large secret. But you will need to be twice as cautious. You may meet others like you, but beware. Some cannot be trusted,” her mother warned.

“I’m going to meet a lot of new people at camp, but what makes you think they’ll tell me if they have magic?” Pandora asked, utterly perplexed by all this.

“You will no longer be at camp come midnight. You will be somewhere entirely different, a place that cannot be reached by any instruments of mortal man…”

“Enough,” Pandora’s mother softly silenced her husband. “The less she knows right now, the better.”

Pandora frowned in incomprehension. “What are you talking about?”

“You need to go now,” her mother said, a pleading look in her eyes. “You must.”

“Tell me what you mean!” Pandora cried out as her mother ushered her out the door, and then the door clicked closed and she was standing outside in the rain with her suitcase and duffel bag.

Fuming that her parents had not revealed their meaning to her, Pandora opened her umbrella and walked along the flooding path.

Since long before her earliest memories, Pandora had been warned about the dangers of exposing her magic to anyone. For all these years, she had kept her secret and fought against the almost irresistible urge to scream it out to the world. Things would be better if she was viewed as normal. No one would try to dissect her brain, no one would force to use her powers for someone else’s benefit. Things would just be… simple.

But her parents had never approached her about her secret like this before. Never had they spoken with such urgency and sincerity. It scared Pandora, while also exciting her. What adventures awaited her tonight?

 

 

It turned out that Raelynn Casey was there at camp, and Pandora was seething.

“Why is she like that?” Pandora muttered angrily, sitting with her best friend and watching the red-haired American with narrowed, criticising eyes.

“Like what?” Morellina asked, casually chewing on a toasted marshmallow. They sat on one of the logs by the warm, crackling fire. Several others had joined them, but the majority of camp-goers were walking around the forest clearing, chatting and fooling around.

“Like… so proud of her country,” Pandora spat, moodily ripping her sausage into two pieces with her teeth.

“Aren’t you?” Morellina said, turning her toasting stick over in her hands. She was focussed on toasting another marshmallow with the other five sticks that joined her, while Pandora was busy being irritated by the mere sight of Raelynn, as she had been for the whole evening. Apparently, her parents had encouraged her to go to camp instead of helping out at the Sunday school hosted at her rich parents’ manor. Maybe it would have been better to go to Sunday school, after all.

“Of course I am,” Pandora said, affronted. “But if I travelled overseas, I wouldn’t be so rude about their customs and ways. Just look at her.”

Sighing, Morellina turned her attention from the fire to Raelynn.

“I do like her hair…” she remarked, referring to Raelynn’s crimson, choppy hair, partially obscured by that blue beanie of hers.

“No, don’t look at her hair, Morellina. Look at what she’s doing; parading around with her… corn dog talk and bloody pictures of New York.”

“Corn dog talk?” Morellina repeated disbelievingly. “Honestly, what have you got against her? We all know how she acts but you’re the only one who seems totally offended by it.”

“I am the only one who sees sense,” Pandora huffed. She was completely lost in her disapproval of Raelynn Casey, and even she had to agree that it didn’t really make sense to hate someone she barely knew.

“Campers, gather round,” the principal called out. Everyone began to make their way towards the fire, while Pandora and Morellina stayed where they were. In the orange light of the fire, ghostly shadows danced across the twigs of the forest floor.

Back at school, everyone saw a prim and proper man who wore a crisp suit and never joked or smiled. But in camp, he turned into the ultimate maker of fun – he was apparently a passionate fisherman and had received a Boy Scouts badge for best joker. No one believed either claim.

The principal cleared his throat. “As we can all see, daylight is almost gone, so we must begin walking soon if we are to make it to the lake before nightfall.”

“We’re going to the lake, sir?” Morellina asked excitedly.

“Yes, Miss Silver. We are,” the principal confirmed, and quiet hisses of excitement were echoed by everyone standing around the fire. “The camp leaders will take care of our belongings, so everyone should go get their swimmers now. And don’t forget towels, either.”

The students retreated into their cabins and dressed into their swimmers. As they walked into the thin scattering of trees that separated the forest clearing and the lake, Principal Markham began telling ghost stories, making several giggle. The majority, however, were so engrossed by Markham’s storytelling that they didn’t notice that they had come to a large forest glade. In the middle was a serene lake with mirror-still black water, reflecting the constellations in the night sky. Animals called out in the night, and everyone heard the birds singing to their families, telling them they were coming home.

The strange, jagged shadows of the forest disappeared, to be replaced by clear, damp grass that surrounded the lake. Principal Markham lit the lantern he had brought with him while the several others with torches waved their lights around, inspecting every inch of the setting.

“Wow,” Morellina whistled. “This is some lake.”

“I agree,” Pandora said, watching as people began running into the pool and splashing each other. From the screams and cries everyone was emitting, Pandora could tell the water was freezing. Her desire to swim was suddenly lessened, but Morellina was excited.

“Are you going to swim?” Morellina asked, grinning madly and tossing her towel onto the grass.

“I doubt I will,” Pandora said, frowning. “Looks too cold.”

“Wimp,” Morellina teased, running towards the water. One of the boys, Cobalt, saw her coming and grinned mischievously as he drenched her with a single splash. Poor Morellina screamed like someone had just tried to murder her. Pandora couldn’t help the giggle that escaped her throat.

Morellina began swimming out into the lake to exact her revenge on Cobalt, so Pandora looked around for something to do. About half of the group had gone in the lake, while the other half were standing around, looking at the cold water with apprehension. They hung around Principal Markham, who seemed to be explaining the basics of fishing. That would be interesting. Pandora had always liked fishing with her dad.

Principal Markham started handing out fishing rods to the group, so Pandora jogged over and thanked him as she was handed her own rod. They walked along the side of the lake, joking and fooling around.

“Where’s Morellina?” said an unmistakable voice in Pandora’s ear, making her jump. The accent was clearly recognizable; Pandora tried not to let too much bitterness show on her face.

“What’s it to you?” Pandora shot, tossing her towel over her shoulder.

Raelynn shrugged, adjusting her crimson fringe. Even for this little trip to the lake, she had still brought that silly dark blue beanie with her. Pandora thought it looked ridiculous, especially when it was worn all the time, but Raelynn seemed quite content to wear it everywhere.

“I’m just curious,” Raelynn replied innocently.

I’m just curious, Pandora mocked in her head with an exaggerated American accent.

“She’s gone swimming,” Pandora told the girl beside her with a trace of coldness in her voice. Raelynn was about half a head shorter than her and it was easy to talk down to her.

Raelynn frowned. “You don’t like me. Why’s that?”

Pandora narrowed her eyes. “How–?”

“Okay, everyone!” Principal Markham called out, stopping at the front of the group and facing the students. “We’re going to be fishing on the south side of the lake, which is where we are. The people swimming are on the north side. I want you all to have fun – but there is one very important rule!” Markham told them, his voice adopting a serious tone. “Every year, there is always at least one person eager to lodge their fishing hook into someone else’s skin.”

“Ouch,” Raelynn hissed, and her remark was met with nods of agreement.

“This year, anyone who tries such a thing will be sent home immediately. I highly doubt our fishing lines could reach the people on the north side, but don’t even try. And make sure you don’t try to do it with the other people here on the south side!”

“Yeah, whatever,” Raelynn said under her breath. Pandora tried not to gag from the lack of respect Raelynn gave anyone in England.

Well, that was what she told herself. Her inexplicable hate for the American teenager came from something deeper that she did not yet understand; Raelynn showed just as little respect to Principal Markham as any other normal student of Campton High. Pandora was a girl who usually liked to stay out of trouble if she could help out; it was because of this that Pandora refrained from making rude comments about any teacher in the school.

“Shut up,” Pandora hissed quietly as Principal Markham continued explaining. “He’s trying to protect us from getting a fish hook in our eye and all you say is, ‘Yeah, whatever’!”

She could practically hear Raelynn rolling her eyes.

Principal Markham then left to supervise the swimmers on the north side. Pandora took a place on the lake bank as far away from Raelynn as possible. She found herself standing next to Cobalt and exclaimed in surprise, almost dropping her fishing rod.

While fixing a worm onto her hook, she nudged Cobalt.

“I thought you were swimming,” she said, her fingers nimbly working away with the fish bait.

“I was,” Cobalt replied, swinging his line out into the middle of the lake. “It got pretty cold soon enough.”

“You mean Morellina got too dangerous,” Pandora translated, smirking.

“Yeah, basically,” Cobalt confirmed, nodding. “She’s insane when she wants to be.”

“Which is just about all the time,” Pandora laughed. She followed her friend’s lead and swung her line as far as she could. While standing there peacefully, listening to the murmurs of people quietly chatting, she felt tired and happy. She wished things could always be as tranquil as this. She wished that deadlines and due dates didn’t have such power over a person’s stress and that people wouldn’t forget how to have fun every once in a while.

“I think I’ve got a nibble already,” Cobalt bragged arrogantly, turning his nose up in faux-haughtiness as his line went taut.

Pandora blew a short raspberry. Immature, maybe, but he deserved it.

The next few minutes passed by in relaxed silence. No fish came to Pandora’s rod, but by the time an hour had passed, Cobalt had caught three small fish and one large one about the size of Pandora’s forearm. It was unfair.

“I think I’m going to take a break,” Cobalt said suddenly. “I’ll have a short stroll in the woods, if you know what I mean.”

“You’d have to be really careful,” Pandora warned. “There are a lot of people here – you might get caught. And the principal will be wondering where you are.”

“That’s why you’re going to cover for me, right?” Cobalt asked, smiling charmingly. Pandora didn’t even bother to slap him. She simply rolled her eyes and conceded.

“Don’t go for too long. There’s only so much time a guy can spend answering the call of nature in the bushes,” Pandora said, just as her hook caught on something.

“Thanks,” Cobalt said, his voice dripping with sarcasm as he reeled in his line and set his rod on the ground. “I’ll be back soon, mother.”

“Good boy,” Pandora muttered distractedly. The pull on her line was becoming stronger, Pandora’s excitement growing.

Cobalt dashed off into the trees.

They had become good friends since their first day together in high school. Pandora was unable to make friends with the superficial girls in her class and Cobalt found the boys either too engrossed in studying or too dumb. Around the end of their first year, Pandora had revealed her biggest secret to him; she was telekinetic. But she had been taught from birth to refrain from using her powers as much as possible, and had distanced herself from her gifts. She felt no need to levitate things and had no idea what she would do with her magic. As far as she knew, she could have even had more powers!

Cobalt, however, was the complete opposite to her. He embraced his own strange power – the ability to transform into a blue-eyed husky dog at will. Like Pandora, he had no proper use for his gift, but he used it just about every day anyway. He had once said that if went too long without going in “dog mode”, he would feel restless and aggressive, just like a dog.

They both gained good new friends when they went to new classes, but their friendship stayed firm.

Pandora strengthened her grip on her rod and turned behind her to see a flash of white fur, and then nothing. She grinned and turned back. As she did, something bright in the corner of her eye caught her attention.

Narrowing her eyes, she turned her head back to the rather thick and dark mass of trees. In the ground, about five meters from the clearing’s edge, was a red stone that beckoned to her. It was so tempting – she felt an overwhelming urge to go and investigate, and hold the stone in her hands. It was as though the stone sung to her, whispering “Hold me….” She closed her eyes and deeply breathed in the scent of trees and rain-sprinkled grass.

When her eyes opened once more, Raelynn Casey was glowing, and Pandora dropped her rod.

Everyone seemed completely oblivious to the white patterns covering Raelynn’s skin. Her whole body was covered by strange shapes and patterns, like symbols from a cave, and every single one of these odd drawings was glowing like the stars in the sky. She looked positively ethereal.

“You’re glowing!” Pandora cried out, causing everyone to look at her strangely.

Raelynn, alerted by Pandora’s outburst, whipped her head towards her with wide, frightened eyes.

Pandora could see the swear word on her lips as she traced one of the symbols on her skin with one slender finger. At once, the glowing disappeared and she looked normal once again.

“Di – didn’t anybody see that?” Pandora yelled frantically, pointing a shaking finger at Raelynn, who was stark white and looked ready to run.

“What are you on about?” the girl behind Raelynn, Miranda, asked suspiciously.

“You didn’t see it?” Pandora whispered faintly. “How could you not have?”

“Is there a problem here, Miss Moreau?” Principal Markham’s voice came from behind her. She jumped and turned to face him.

“No, sir,” Pandora said, picking up her rod once again. “No problem at all.”

He went away and everyone on the south side started talking about Pandora’s strange behaviour. Pandora avoided sending her gaze in Raelynn’s direction, instead focusing on fishing once more. Whatever had just happened, she knew she wasn’t crazy – she saw it in the fear in Raelynn’s eyes. When they walked back to camp, Pandora would interrogate her.

Still, though, Pandora felt the faint pull of the strange red stone she had seen before.

With a sigh, she gave in to the temptation. The stone had seduced her.

Pandora reeled in her line and turned away from the lake, entering the south side woods. She was intent on finding that weird stone – and this, this would be a moment that shaped her fate for all her years.

Raelynn discreetly watched Pandora with shaky breaths, before gently setting down her rod and following the English girl.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 THE STONE

 

 

Pandora shivered, wishing she had brought some sort of decent clothing with her – she remained only in her swimmers. The cold air bit at her bare skin, raising goosebumps as she entered the dark, frightening mass of trees. Her heart pounding in her chest, she cautiously stepped towards the stone, trying her best to ignore the loud animal sounds from deep within the forest.

The forest on this side of the lake was so thick that Pandora was barely three meters in and found it difficult to properly make out the figures of the other campers fishing by the lake. She continued on, and with the stone in her sights, the pull was ever so strong.

Was this what her parents had been talking about? Raelynn glowing and her finding this stone? It had to be. As Pandora crouched beside the dirty red gemstone, she found herself almost suffocated by the magic that protected and surrounded it.

She knew she shouldn’t be going into the forest by herself, but she found herself not caring as her cold finger gently tugged the stone out of the damp earth. It burned in her hands, but in a pleasant way. Its red glow turned her hands red and she caressed it, inspecting the jagged cut of the stone. The feel of the immense power of this stone’s magic was almost too much, and Pandora stumbled a little.

She used her palms to wipe away as much dirt as possible. The stone was beautiful, she realised. It looked perfect for a queen’s crown jewel.

Now, she had no idea what to do with it. She could have put it back on the ground and walked away with her normal life, but that wasn’t how it happened.

No, Pandora felt the need to use her magic in the presence of the stone. She reached into herself, felt magic brimming and swirling around in her veins. Unused and waiting to be played around with.

For a moment, her cornflower blue eyes glowed with light caused by magic, and then the stone lifted itself out of her hand. Pandora focussed her power on rotating it, inspecting it while her magic held it in the air.

All of a sudden, Pandora saw nothing but darkness. When her sight returned to her, the very matter of the earth had been ripped open.

 

 

Raelynn hid behind a true, her amber eyes watching as Pandora scrutinized the stone. In the reflection of the stone, Raelynn saw two small circles of glowing blue light – Pandora’s eyes.

The stone was raised by an invisible force and twirled in the air.

Raelynn had suspected it for quite a while, especially when Pandora had been the only one to see the runes on her body when her glamour charm lost its grip on her. It was unnecessary for those without magic, but she still wore the glamour charm in hopes of avoiding scenes like the one Pandora had caused.

Those with magic could see her – truly see her. Her skin, carved into hundreds of times by either her own fingers or the jade pin in her hair, was the very base of her magic. She was a rune crafter.

And it seemed Pandora was telekinetic. Things had just gotten interesting.

What happened next lasted barely a millisecond, but Raelynn saw every detail with the piercing gaze of an eagle. She studied the wisps of darkness that ensnared Pandora’s body like ropes. She watched as the strange, magic mist made Pandora’s mouth open in an eerie silent scream and her hair fan out around her creepily.

Then it was over, except there was something else there.

A rip in the fabric of time and space. Raelynn knew it at once. She had left New York with the intention of escaping all these otherworldly crossovers, but her hopes had just been stamped into the ground. Small tears in the universe were everywhere, waiting to be torn open by magic like what had just happened.

The rip was strange looking, rimmed with the dark mist that had just been choking Pandora. Through the rip, Raelynn could see a city stuck in the past – a medieval castle, knights walking through the markets…

Raelynn knew how pesky rips were. She knew that when Pandora looked through the rip, she was seeing somewhere different. It would be somewhere in the vicinity of where Raelynn would go, should she be pulled into the rip, but they would take a while to find each other.

“Pandora!” Raelynn called out. Pandora, alarmed, whipped her head towards Raelynn. “Get away from there!” she warned.

But it was too late. Even as Pandora ran from the rip, the red stone slipping through her hands, the insistent pull of magic made her struggle to go forward – she looked as though she was swimming through quicksand as her muscles strained and her face contorted in concentration. Her bare feet slipped on the damp ground and she landed on her stomach. The gravity pulled her ever closer and Pandora grasped at the ground wildly, before her hands found a root. Like a vacuum, the rip sucked in all things.

Raelynn rushed to help Pandora as the pull grew stronger, and Pandora’s body literally lifted off the ground. Only her hold on the root was helping her to stay away. The branches of trees groaned in protest as they, too, succumbed to the pull.

Raelynn’s glamour faded and her runes glowed stark white as she held onto a root of her own and held out her hand for Pandora to take. Raelynn was unsure of what to do. She had encountered one too many portals in her lifetime for her liking, and this one was different to all the others. This one was a hundred times stronger than the others, and everything outside a three-meter radius was safe from the invisible pull. It seemed to be intended only for Pandora. But why?

With the other rips, one could simply choose to walk away and they would succeed without effort. But this one – this one would not let that happen.

Pandora used her free hand to hold onto Raelynn’s, but it was sweaty and her grip was weak. With a scream, Pandora was whisked straight into the swirling rip.

“Pandora!” Raelynn shouted, panic taking over her body. She felt her heart leap to her throat as her own root began to edge out of the ground, and then she, too, flew into the rip.

Someone else followed, but Raelynn and Pandora didn’t know that yet. The rip sealed itself after that. The campers on the south side, alerted by all the noise, turned their heads and saw nothing.

They continued fishing.

 

 

Pandora groaned.

What the hell had just happened?

Her head was pounding and felt like it was filled with heavy stones. Every inch of her ached – she felt like she’d been through a terrible ordeal. And she knew she had, but her memory was hazy. Where was she?

Oh, yeah. Her parents had warned her about this happening… whatever this was.

She blinked twice and opened her eyes.

Leaves, and golden sunlight filtering through. Beautiful light blue flowers, a yellow and white bird cawing at her softly.

She was lying on the floor in her swimmers, and it was warm. Soft leaves provided a comfortable bed for her sore and aching body. Her muscles felt terribly stretched and strained. She tried to relieve some tension in her body, but failed, because she was not meant to be here.

The other campers were not here. She knew that immediately.

“I think she’s come to,” said a male voice faintly, making all Pandora’s senses rush back to her.

She jumped up at once. Her legs were shaky beneath her and she almost fell back down again.

Three people stood around her, each one varying in appearance as much as the next. Who were these people?

As though reading her mind, the first spoke up. “Let us introduce ourselves. I am Raven Avelina, daughter of Hecate. Born of dark water, sister of the rain and snow, educated enchantress and sorceress.”

She truly intimidated Pandora. Her gaze was piercing and perceiving, and her high chin and posture made her seem awfully important. Her eyes were dusk blue, swirled with molten silver, her lips were red like blood, her hair black like night, and her skin pale like snow. She was beautiful and wise and had the eyes of an old person – eyes that had seen many different things. She wore the clothes of a female warrior and her quiver of arrows was strapped to her back.

“Gabe Webber. I’m a Being of nature – king of plants and animals. I’m their ruler, despite my being human. I speak to them, and they understand me.” A bird came to rest upon the teenage boy’s shoulder as he spoke. He looked like any normal person, but there was a twinkle of magic in his forest green eyes. His hair was like the wood of trees, and his smile was kind. He stroked the bird’s soft feathers as the third spoke.

“I am Kalypso, spirit of mortal dreams, seer, and keeper of the Lantern of Oversight. I sing songs of warning to mortals while they dream – I play a part in everyone’s destiny, but it is always their choice whether or not they wish to heed my words.” The third person looked entirely nonhuman, yet she had all the features of a normal person. Her hair was a vivid violet, her eyes shrouded in shadows and her pale hands carrying a black, metal lantern of acid green fire. Her purple dress seemed to be made of everything and nothing, and she was beautifully eerie. The only word to properly describe her was ethereal.

“There are more like us. More who have magic. But I doubt you’ll be seeing the others very often; they have other places to go. Avelina and I live close to the forest, though, and Kalypso lives in it,” Gabe told Pandora.

Pandora stared at them for a moment. Her breaths were uneven and she felt scared and perplexed by everything that was happening. They looked so convincing, but this couldn’t be real, just couldn’t be…

“GREAT PRANK!” Pandora yelled out. “ALMOST GOT ME!”

Gabe frowned and turned to Avelina, who raised her ivory shoulders in a shrug.

“WHERE ARE THE LIGHTING EFFECTS FOR THE ‘RIP’, HUH? WHO’S IN ON THE PRANK?” Pandora screamed, wanting her voice to carry on for miles.

“Quiet!” Kalypso spat, her eyes turning furious. “You’ll alert the whole of Mir!”

“This isn’t a prank, Pandora,” Gabe said sincerely. He sounded so genuine that Pandora almost believed him.

“It has to be, because none of this is possible. None of it at all,” Pandora muttered breathily. She felt her common sense slipping away, and wondered if this was what it felt like in the early stages of insanity.

Avelina raised her hands, and two balls of water manifested just above her fingers. The pure water moved beautifully, creating a perfect sphere while keeping in constant motion.

“Oh, god,” Pandora mumbled, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Stop it – just stop it.”

She didn’t even realise she had activated her own magic until she heard the splashing of water against a tree and saw her own hand splayed open in the position that allowed her to telekinetically “flick” things away.

“Impressive,” Kalypso commented, surprised, “but extremely dangerous where we are.”

“So, this isn’t a prank. Not a prank. Real.” Pandora felt light-headed, and knew she would faint from the disorientation caused by the rip, along with the confusion and meeting all these new people with magic.

“That’s right, Pandora. This is all very real,” Gabe said.

Pandora covered her eyes with her hands and sighed. “I don’t want to be here – wherever it is that we are. I just want to get back to camp and forget about this.”

“You can’t,” Gabe said apologetically.

“You’re stuck here. For the time being, at least,” Avelina said. Pandora groaned. She didn’t want any part of this.

“By the way, what are you wearing?” Gabe asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s a bikini,” she spat coldly. “And completely none of your business.”

Bikini? Gabe mouthed to Avelina, who ignored him.

“But the nakedness of you – it’s degrading!” Gabe implored.

“I feel fine like this,” Pandora said.

“I mean it’s degrading for me to be around you,” Gabe corrected. With a sigh, Pandora rolled her eyes.

“Okay, just – just take me through everything. I want everything explained to me,” Pandora sighed.

“Not now,” Avelina said. “Not yet. We promise to you – if you come back here to the Mistwood at night, everything will be explained. You simply have to follow our instructions for today.”

Pandora clenched her jaw. Finally, she conceded.

“Your instructions are?”

 

 

Raelynn Casey was frightened.

She was alone and confused in a whole new world – she had landed in a chicken pen behind a house that seemed to be of middle class in this city, but the house was made of the most basic materials.

Squinting against the morning sun, Raelynn could see a castle rising from the middle of the city. Its light stone walls looked impenetrable, and flags bearing what seemed to be the royal crest – a white bear against a navy blue background – rose from the castle turrets. Lost in her examination of the castle’s grandeur, she didn’t notice the dog at her feet and tripped over it, sending her sprawling against the ground of the pathway, which was dotted with little stones that dug into her skin.

“Ouch!” Raelynn cried out. Passers-by gathered around her to help her up. She was still trying to get over how old their clothing looked – it looked like it belonged in a time five hundred years behind Raelynn’s own era back in modern day. She looked extremely out of place with her loose white singlet and bright yellow shorts over her swimmers.

“Stupid dog,” Raelynn growled at the husky barking noisily and looking up at her. Its white fur was like pure snow, and its cobalt eyes were rather familiar.

Cobalt… Raelynn frowned at her strange choice of words. Why cobalt? Why not just blue? Odd.

“Thank you,” Raelynn muttered to the strangers that had helped her, before hurrying onwards in the general direction of the castle. That, she felt, was where she needed to go first.

The houses and markets and little cottages passed by in a blur as the very disorientated Raelynn made her way to the castle. She had seen heaps of portals before, but she had never actually stepped through one. No, she wasn’t stupid. She knew the dangers of going somewhere when you didn’t at all know what to expect. And Raelynn definitely hadn’t expected that the portal would lead to a medieval city called Mir.

She blamed it all on Pandora for picking up that stupid red stone.

 

 

You can do this, Pandora. Just act all… medieval. You’ve seen plenty of movies.

Pandora took a deep breath as she tried to calm her agitated nerves and reassure herself that everything would turn out fine. She’d be home before midnight.

Or would she? How could she know? Avelina, Gabe and Kalypso had all given her short answers that revealed almost nothing. She was clueless about – well, everything. All they had told her was to go to the castle and try to get a place there. How in the world would she do that? None of the movies she had watched had ever featured a modern-day teenager wearing a demigod warrior’s cloak waltz into a castle and ask for a place in the castle to stay.

Citizens of Mir passed by without a second glance at the frightened girl in the large cloak. Her light brown hair fell down her shoulders, all messy from her trip through the rip. She stood in the City Square, neighboring Mir Castle. Little market stalls lined the cobblestone ground, the vendors selling all different types of products – handmade jewelry, fruit and vegetables, cloaks… Everything imaginable was on sale.

Okay, Pandora. You’ve got to prepare. Forget Lady Gaga and Johnny Depp and frozen yoghurt. Think castles and cloaks and all that… stuff.

Pandora groaned loudly, causing a few people to look at her oddly. How could she prepare for something like this? There wasn’t a class in the world called How To Survive Being Trapped In A Medieval City.

Ugh. Pull it together, Pandora. Think movies. Review vocabulary. Court physician… chambers… sire… the Round Table…

She sighed. This was as prepared as she was going to get.

Pushing her hood’s cloak off her head, she exited the Square and approached the castle’s tall, oak doors. She passed a grand fountain of limestone upon which a harp-bearing cherub stood, wings spread, and climbed what felt like a hundred stone steps (though there were probably only about twenty). Two guards manned the oak doors, standing as still as statues with their frightening spears in hand. They wore the royal crest over their chainmail, and under their helmet, in their eyes, Pandora could tell that they were a loyal pair.

“I request an audience with the king,” Pandora said, sounding much more loud and confident than she felt.

The guards stepped aside and, with almost robotic movements, pushed open the doors.

“Straight through and to the left,” one guard said monotonously.

“Thank you,” Pandora said gratefully, bowing her head slightly as she had seen so many actors do in her rather extensive collection of movies back in modern-day London. She raised her head again and stepped through, gasping immediately.

Watching castles on TV was nothing compared to actually being in one. The doors shut behind her and she was left to examine the castle by herself – excluding the guards that stood by each pillar, obviously supervising her in their peripheral vision. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling and all the pillars and the roof were covered with carvings of flowers, ivy, angels and what seemed like picture stories. There were also words here and there – words that didn’t make sense to Pandora.

Giant vases stood on the rich red carpet, and torch brackets holding unlit sticks were on every pillar. Pandora supposed, though, that the entrance hall was the best the castle was going to get. After all, that was the area people entered and saw the most.

She faintly heard the murmuring of voices and decided to follow the sound. Just as the guard as instructed her to go, the sounds took her straight ahead and then to a large corridor on the left. Beyond the corridor, Pandora could see what had to be the throne room.

She cautiously walked through, suddenly extremely conscious of her bare feet. At least her cloak slightly obscured the view of her pale feet and fluorescent pink toenails.

The throne room was just as grand as the entrance hall – stairs led up to level where four golden thrones stood, and at these thrones sat a queen, a king, a prince and a princess.

Oh god… Pandora could feel her nerves returning. Calm down, Pandora.

A deep red carpet led from the back of the room, up the stairs, to the lead throne, occupied by the king. He looked old and weary, yet intimidating and strong at the same time with his golden crown atop his head.

The princess was more beautiful than Avelina. Her hair was black, long and dotted with gems. Her eyes were navy, rimmed with midnight blue, just like the royal crest. Sharp cheekbones made her look assertive and independent, but at the same time she remained incredibly feminine.

The queen looked old, but even with the wrinkles that started to form, hints of her previous beauty would reveal themselves in the sunlight of morning. Her lips curved upwards at the sides just like a permanent smile.

And the prince, Pandora knew, Morellina would approve of.

Wait… Morellina!

With wide eyes, she turned her gaze back to the princess and realised with a start that she was Morellina.

Don’t say anything… this is a parallel universe, Pandora. You’re bound to see people you knew back in London. Pandora gulped and studied Princess Morellina. She’d always known that Morellina was pretty, but she didn’t know she could look that beautiful. The princess had been unrecognizable with her satin dress, light makeup and beautiful raven hair.

She took her place behind the short line of people talking to the royals. Knights stood to the side, either to listen to the citizens’ problems or to stop anything from happening to the royals.

Pandora could barely hear the person at the front.

“Darren is a murderer… pigs dead… must arrest him…”

She could only hear snatches of what the person was saying, but at the end the king murmured something to her and the queen bowed her head in agreement with whatever the king had said. The woman kneeling before him got up, smiling gratefully, and left the room.

The line moved forward.

It was about half an hour later when it was finally Pandora’s turn. She had been practicing what she would say in her head, making the words sound like they belonged to this era. But now, faced with four people of immense power and wealth, she felt all her prearranged words slip from her mind.

“I – my name is Pandora. Um…” she stammered. The prince raised an eyebrow at her verbal stumbling. She was kneeling before the king, and glad that she could look down to slightly hide her blush. “This morning, I woke up in the Mistwood. I have no memories of how I came to be here. All I remember is my name, my age, things like that… I have nowhere to go, and… I am asking you if you would allow me to occupy one of your free chambers somewhere here in the castle, for I am without a place to stay, and I would be forever grateful if you would grant me somewhere to sleep until I find somewhere else.”

“Do you remember where you come from?” the king asked, leaning forward in his throne. He, Pandora realised, was Principal Markham – without the bushy brown beard.

“Yes, sire. I come from, um, the village of… Bangladesh, in the land of… Australia…” Pandora said, internally cringing at her lame choices.

“Bangladesh of Australia? I’ve never heard of such a place…” the king said, turning to the queen.

“Nor I,” said the queen.

“It must be very far from here,” Pandora said quickly.

“What about your parents, Pandora?” the prince asked. “Do you remember their names?”

“Yes, sire,” Pandora replied, glad to have a question she could easily answer. “Lucas and Elizabeth.”

“Moreau?” Princess Morellina asked, startling Pandora.

“That’s correct, sire.”

“Ah!” the king said, smiling and clasping his hands together. “I suppose you don’t remember, but we were good friends with your parents. Lord Lucas and Lady Elizabeth…”

Pandora’s eyes widened. Her parents were nobles in this universe?

“We were terribly saddened to hear of their disappearance,” the queen said sympathetically. “We’re sure they will be found soon.”

Disappearance?

“Of course, we will grant you a place in the castle of Mir for as long as you should wish,” the king said.

“Thank you very much,” Pandora said distractedly, plastering on a brilliant smile. Her mind was elsewhere. Just what had happened to her parents? Why had they disappeared?

“Guards, please escort Lady Pandora to our guest chambers,” the king ordered, and the line moved when Pandora dumbly followed the guards. They led her through the castle, through its twists and turns and dark corridors brightened only by torches. It would take some getting used to here, but Pandora wasn’t thinking about the castle. How could she?

We were terribly saddened to hear of their disappearance…

She needed to find her parents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 THE CITY

 

 

Pandora sat at her dressing room, gently and cautiously examining the beauty products given to her to use for the time being. Her cold fingers prodded bowls of onyx powder and the finest silk ribbons she had ever seen in her life. As she fixed a mint blue ribbon into her hair, the loud sound of her oak door opening made her jump.

“Good morning, my lady; I am to be your maidservant,” the young girl said graciously, bowing her head full of straight, crimson hair. Pandora regarded her new servant in the mirror with narrowed eyes, thinking that her strange accent was vaguely familiar, and her eyes widened in surprise as Raelynn lifted her head.

Raelynn mirrored Pandora’s surprise as she took in the image of Pandora sitting at the gold-framed mirror, dressed in an uncomfortably tight yet rather beautiful dress of royal silk and satin. Pandora simply sat there, and wondered for one moment – just one hopeful moment – that Raelynn might know of their situation. But it was impossible; after all, Pandora had entered the rip by herself. Hadn’t she? Raelynn had seemed to know a thing or two about these rips and would have known not to enter. Plus, Raelynn hadn’t been there when Pandora had woken up in the Mistwood.

She cleared her throat and composed herself, smoothing the blue fabric of her dress as a nervous habit.

“Your name is…?” Pandora said expectantly.

“After knowing me for a year, I’d bloody well hope you’d know my name,” Raelynn muttered, rolling her eyes and unceremoniously dumping her pile of fresh sheets down on Pandora’s soft bed.

Pandora grinned and stood up. “Spoken just like a pommy.”

Raelynn let out a whistle of relief. “Thank God. For a moment there, I thought I was all alone in this place. I’m glad to have you,” Raelynn told Pandora sincerely. “I am… I’m scared right now – I mean, I don’t know anyone and I don’t know how this place works and all this curtsying I have to do is freaking me out – although that Prince Matthew is really quite cute…”

“Hang on,” Pandora interrupted, halting Raelynn’s rant. “You entered the rip after me, didn’t you?”

“Duh. Wasn’t it obvious? No one could escape that rip. I’ve never experienced one like it. I saw you being sucked in, so I went to help you. That’s the part you know… I tried to get away, but its pull was too strong. So now we’re stuck in this Mir place and have no way to get back to modern-day England.”

“You mean to say that you’ve seen other rips before?” Pandora asked, shocked.

“You saw my runes glow. You know I have magic, so don’t look so shocked,” Raelynn said, rolling her eyes. “Rips are quite common in New York.”

“Huh…” was all Pandora could say in reply.

“By the way – Bangladesh, of Australia? That’s the best you could come up with?” Raelynn said disbelievingly.

“Hey!” Pandora defended. “I was under pressure. Bangladesh and Australia were the first names that came to mind.”

Raelynn scoffed. “You couldn’t even say London, England?”

Pandora shrugged. “Like I said, I was under pressure. Besides, how did you hear what I was saying?”

“I was standing outside. Apparently, in this dimension, I’m a maidservant for guests. They all recognize me, and they were bossing me around like I was a child.” Raelynn sniffed, as though reliving the memory disgusted her.

“No one recognises me. That means Pandora of this dimension isn’t from Mir.”

“Right, because she’s from Bangladesh, Australia,” Raelynn laughed.

Pandora seethed. “I had to say something, okay?”

“Well, you should have said you couldn’t remember, because I doubt the royals will be so friendly to you once they realise that Lord Lucas and Lady Elizabeth aren’t from Bangladesh, Australia.”

“Oh,” Pandora breathed as the realisation washed over her. “I didn’t think of that.” She would have to keep her lies in check here – she needed a back-story, one she could effortlessly use to respond to any questions directed at her from suspicious royals, knights, or commoners.

“So, Lady Pandora, what are we to do?” Raelynn sighed.

“I honestly don’t know,” Pandora admitted. “But I do know that at midnight, you’re going to meet me by that statue of the angel with the chipped wing on the first floor. Did you see it?”

“Yep,” Raelynn said, nodding. “Why so secretive?”

Pandora turned back to the mirror. “Because this is how we’re going to get some answers.”

 

 

“My lady,” Raelynn said that evening, her tone almost sarcastic as she raised her eyebrows. “King Vance has requested that you dine with him this evening.”

“I accept his invitation,” Pandora said graciously, doing a little princess twirl for effect. Raelynn couldn’t help but laugh.

Pandora had spent the day exploring Mir with Raelynn. In any other situation she would have left her behind, but she decided it was better to put up with the fury Raelynn gave her, rather than explore a medieval city alone, not knowing what to expect. Mir was a truly beautiful city – chaotic, yet peaceful, and a perfect example of the simple life.

“Then follow me, my lady,” Raelynn beckoned.

Pandora got up from her previous position – legs and arms lazily splayed across her bed – and followed Raelynn.

“You know, that frock looks wonderful on you,” Pandora said with a smirk, referring to Raelynn’s servant gown, which had quickly dirtied during the course of the day.

“Oh, shut up,” Raelynn growled. Pandora laughed madly.

When Raelynn and Pandora reached the dining table, they couldn’t help being surprised once again by the tasteful décor of the castle. Everything was just so… fit for a king. As one would expect.

The mahogany dining table was long and narrow, with the king at the head and the queen, prince and princess sitting on either side of the table. A candlestick in the middle of the table illuminated the feast on offer.

“Ah, Lady Pandora!” King Vance said, noticing Pandora and Raelynn, who stood in the doorway. “Please, join us.”

Pandora smiled and made her way to an empty seat beside Prince… Matthew, was it?

“I was pleased to have received your invitation for me to dine with you,” Pandora said as Raelynn started filling her goblet with juice. “Perhaps you could tell me a bit about Mir? I spent the day with my maidservant exploring your wonderful city, but I know that there is still much to learn,” Pandora told the family.

“Oh, certainly,” Queen Whatever-her-name-was said with a wide smile. “We’d be happy to tell you more. But there is so much to say – I haven’t any idea where to start!”

“Let’s tell her the legends of Mir, Mother,” Prince Matthew said from beside Pandora.

Yes! Pandora rejoiced in her head. My talking is over for now.

“Wonderful idea, Matthew,” the queen said, popping a grape into her mouth. “You see, Pandora, Mir is a very famous city. Our economy is blooming, what with our being so close to the sea, and only the Mistwood separating us from the neighboring cities like Fiern and Astewell. So everybody knows of our wealth and prosperity. Because of this, so many legends have been based around Mir. I should think that the most famous legend, perhaps, is the story of the Shadow Labyrinth…”

Pandora didn’t talk for about half an hour, instead listening to the fascinating stories told by the royals while she munched on delicious chicken and sweet, sweet grapes. She only stopped to make little noises of interests: ahs and oohs. It was, of course, Raelynn’s fault that Pandora had to start making an effort to talk once again. She honestly had no idea what to say to four people of royal blood – they weren’t exactly the type of people Pandora usually had conversations with.

Darn Raelynn.

When there was a momentary lapse in the conversation, Raelynn took this as her chance to aggravate Pandora.

“I am truly sorry to interrupt, but I just thought that Pandora should perhaps talk about where she comes from?” Raelynn suggested with a dazzling smile.

“Oh, I can’t,” Pandora said quickly, laughing nervously and internally cursing Raelynn a hundred different ways. “As I told you, I have no memories of my past.”

“How is it that you were telling me about Bangladesh just this morning?” Raelynn said with a mischievous smirk that only Pandora could detect as she refilled Pandora’s goblet.

“I – I don’t seem to have any recollection…” Pandora began, stumbling over her words.

“Don’t you remember, my lady? You were telling me all about the fascinating inventions of Bangladesh and such,” Raelynn tormented, that infernal smirk still somewhere in her seemingly genuine smile.

“Ah yes, I remember…” Pandora said through gritted teeth.

“Oh, how interesting! We’d love to hear all about Bangladesh,” Princess Morellina said, a large smile brightening her features, illuminated by candlelight.

Pandora’s hand “accidentally” slipped, causing the orange juice to go all over Raelynn’s dress.

“Oh no!” Pandora said, using her school Drama lessons to act shocked and apologetic. “I’m so sorry, Raelynn!”

“It’s no problem, my lady,” Raelynn said smoothly, though she narrowed her eyes just for Pandora to see. “I’ll just have to go get changed.”

Which actually meant, No more juice for you.

Raelynn left and the royals looked at her expectantly.

“Uh, well… where to start? Um, Bangladesh is an awfully innovative place, and we have inventions unique only to our city. We have these things called cameras, where you can capture a moment and preserve it forever by pressing a single button,” Pandora began.

“Is it… sorcery?” Princess Morellina asked.

“No, actually, it’s all thanks to our clever scientists. It’s all to do with photons of light, you see, but I shan’t bore you with the details…”

“No, please,” Prince Matthew said. “Do explain how this… camera… works.”

“Oh, okay. Uh…”

And so began a long and arduous explanation of the workings of a camera, of which about ninety percent was made up by Pandora’s imagination. She really had no idea how they worked – just that you clicked a button, and got a photo.

The royals were fascinated by her explanation, and practically begged to hear about more inventions. Pandora internally sighed. This was going to be a long dinner.

 

 

Raelynn was sitting on a chair by the bed when Pandora got back to her chambers, smiling mischievously.

“I trust you had a fun time at dinner?” she asked innocently, turning a page of her book casually.

“Argh – you – damn you – stupid…” Pandora blabbered angrily, violently flinging her wardrobe door open to search for a nightdress.

“I’ll take that as a no, then?”

“Do you know how much time and effort it took for me to explain the workings of a camera? And I didn’t even get any juice,” she spat venomously.

Raelynn smirked and got up. “Good night, my lady. See you at twelve.”

“Whatever.”

Pandora huffed and changed into her silk nightdress, though she had no intention of sleeping just yet. The door clicked closed, signaling Raelynn’s exit.

The candles were still lit and Raelynn’s book still sat on the bedside table. With a sigh, she picked up the book, flung herself onto her bed, and began to read.

Hours passed, and bells rang at the stroke of midnight. The sound startled Pandora out of her stupor; she was tired from the events of the day, and reading, combined with the soft light of the candles, had only helped lull her to a pseudo-sleep. She shook her head, closed her mouth (which always went wide open when she was about to fall asleep), and put a cloak over her nightdress. This time, she made sure to put on some shoes.

She quietly left her room, making sure that the door didn’t creak too much. She shuffled down the corridor, following the dim night torches casting faint glows of light down the empty halls. The tired girl, dressed only in a nightgown and a cloak, continued through the maze of the castle, trying her best to remember where she had seen the angel statue.

At last, she found it, and Raelynn was already waiting there in a tatty cloak of her own. She nodded curtly, and they moved in silence, not daring to make a sound and alert someone that they were being sneaky at night.

Every now and then, they would spot guards walking through the castle for their usual nighttime patrols. Pandora simply pulled them into an alcove or behind a corner each time and waited for them to pass.

Outside the castle, the stillness of midnight was disturbed only by two silent figures hurrying through the shadows, made scarce by the full moon. Their billowing cloaks did little to shield them from the frigid night.

Raelynn only let out her breath when they exited the castle walls.

“Thought we’d get caught a moment or two back in there,” Raelynn said with relief, sticking her thumb behind them as they walked quickly down the dark, empty streets.

“Shh,” Pandora whispered. “A few guards still roam the city. And someone else might hear us and see that I, Lady Pandora, am doing something sneaky and odd.”

“What does it matter, anyway?” Raelynn whispered back.

“Well, I don’t want to caught in the dead of night looking all suspicious. I’d rather keep my nighttime adventures a secret from the royals, thanks. You know how much I suck at lying.”

Raelynn shrugged in submission. “That is true.”

The pair continued on in relative silence, thankfully not meeting any other guards. They passed through half of the entire city within an hour and finally came to the Mistwood.

Raelynn looked at Pandora with a doubtful expression on her face.

“We have to go inside the woods at night to get answers?” she asked, squinting to try and see inside the woods.

“You’re not scared, are you?” Pandora teased, raising her eyebrows.

“No,” Raelynn scoffed, though her eyes flicked from left to right.

“Great!” Pandora beamed. “Then you won’t have any problem coming in with me!”

Pandora pushed Raelynn in, and was rewarding with a smack to the back of her head.

“I am a noblewoman!” Pandora said, pretending to be affronted.

“And I don’t care, because we don’t belong here, and all I want to do is get home!” Raelynn retorted angrily.

Pandora didn’t say anything to aggravate her after that. Raelynn sighed and pulled her sleeve up, while Pandora tightened her hold on her cloak. As they moved through the forest, light dissolved and it was much colder. Pandora could barely see anything.

Raelynn’s runes started glowing, casting a faint light over the trees closest to them. Pandora stopped as Raelynn traced one of her runes with her nails, her amber eyes glowing just as Pandora’s had when she had levitated the stone. Then, a fireball manifested above Raelynn’s hands, beautiful yet frightening. As Raelynn’s runes disappeared once more, Pandora took her time studying the flames. They danced and spun, so eerily gorgeous.

She used her own magic to move the fireball out in front of them, extending their vision. With a start, Pandora realised why the place was called Mistwood.

During the day, it was clear and sunlight filtered through the trees. But at night, a swirling fog obscured the vision of all the wood’s wanderers – it was the mist after which Mistwood had been named.

“Avelina?” Pandora called out after a few minutes of walking. “Kalypso? Gabe?”

Kalypso materialised in front of them, swirling within a mist of violet. Her eyes were dark and her green lantern glowed more than ever in the darkness of night. Beside her, Avelina and Gabe appeared in a flash of light.

“Excellent,” Avelina said tonelessly. “You’ve brought the Other One. Let’s begin the interrogation.”

“All we want to know is how to get back to where we came from,” Pandora said angrily. Raelynn was speechless beside her.

“Ah, but you see,” Avelina said, raising her eyebrows, “there’s the root problem to everything. I suppose you’re also going to ask, ‘Where are my parents?’ and ‘Why was I brought here?’”

Pandora didn’t reply. Her jaw tightened.

“I’m right,” Avelina said, beginning to pace. “The most important thing you need to know, Lady Pandora, is that your parents brought you here. They activated that stone. They made sure that the rip would appear only when your magic came in contact with its own. They made sure that you would not escape the rip. What they did not foresee, however, was the two companions that entered the rip with you.”

“Two companions?” Pandora interrupted, frowning. “I thought only Raelynn came in with me…”

“Hush, child,” Kalypso whispered. “There is much for you to know, and we must feed you this knowledge slowly.”

“Why did my parents bring me here, then?” Pandora asked.

Avelina smiled a cold, cold smile. “To save us, of course, from our imminent doom.”

“Imminent doom? What?” Raelynn finally said.

“It’s not often that people interfere with the destinies of other dimensions, but then again, your parents didn’t really interfere with a different dimension. What you never knew, Pandora, is that your parents come from this dimension.”

“So is that why my parents have disappeared from here? Because they went to my own dimension?”

“A clever deduction, but no,” Avelina said, still pacing as all the information rushed out of her. “Your parents from this dimension swapped places with the parents that were really meant to be your parents. The Lucas and Elizabeth currently in this dimension really have disappeared. Does that make sense?”

Pandora was starting to get a headache, and they had only been talking for a few minutes.

“Uh… I suppose,” Pandora said, struggling to keep up.

“Lie,” Avelina said at once. Gabe looked at the wise woman disapprovingly, but she ignored his gaze. “Lucas and Elizabeth’s reasons for doing so remain unclear, but all that isn’t important. What is important is that the only way you’re going to get back to your own dimension is if you find the stone, and your parents.”

“How can she do that?” Raelynn asked at once.

“All in due time,” Kalypso said softly.

“So – what’s this imminent doom you were talking about?” Pandora’s question was directed at Avelina, but it was Kalypso who spoke.

“For now, you don’t need to know.”

Pandora took a deep breath and closed her eyes. She’d just had an information overload, and Avelina’s explanation of things had been rather confusing.

“Okay – so I was brought here to save you from this doom of yours. Why me?” Pandora asked.

Gabe’s eyes crinkled at the sides as he smiled. “Because you’re the Chosen One, of course.”

“Oh, of course,” Pandora groaned. “It couldn’t be simple. I just had to be the only one in the world to save you from your pesky imminent doom. And why did Mum and Dad feel the need to send me here to save you?”

“We were good friends… They owed us a favor,” Avelina muttered.

Raelynn interrupted with a question of her own. “Right – my head’s about to explode. So, for now, what else do we need to know?”

Avelina looked at Gabe, who turned to Raelynn and Pandora. “You have to keep your magic a secret. That is essential. Beings in Mir are prosecuted on sight.”

“Beings?” Pandora repeated, puzzled.

“Those with the power of magic. There are only a few of us in Mir. We come to the Mistwood to meet sometimes at night. We integrate ourselves into the society of Mir,” Avelina explained, “but we never tell others of our abilities. Tomorrow, Pandora, I’m going to get you a job at the tavern with my boss, Astraea. I’m assuming you’ll be wanting some money?”

“I get all I need from the castle, but some extra money would be nice, yes,” Pandora said.

“Can we wrap this up?” Raelynn said, a little impatiently. “I’m quite cold and I think we should head back before someone notices we’re missing.”

“One last thing,” Gabe told them quickly. “A necklace, for each of you. Squeeze it when you need us. At least one will always come. We all wear one.”

Gabe took out a shark tooth necklace from beneath his shirt, waggling it at Pandora and Raelynn. He then reached into his pocket and gave one necklace each to them.

Pandora inspected hers carefully. It was a blue glass butterfly, dotted with silver and surrounded by golden swirls. When she stared long enough, she could have sworn the wings twitched. After all that had happened today, she wouldn’t be surprised if that had actually been the case.

She put it around her neck, Raelynn mirroring her actions.

“Thank you,” Raelynn said.

Gabe bowed his head. Avelina turned to walk away, and so did Gabe.

“I expect we shall be seeing each other soon.” Kalypso bade goodbye and turned around with the other two Beings.

“Wait!” Pandora said suddenly. The three froze and turned back to her. “Tell me about… about magic.”

Gabe grinned. “All right. Magic is a tree, Pandora, a tree with branches everywhere and some connecting on the way. It all stems from the seed, the thing that gave birth to it all – Old Magic. It is very scarcely used these days, for only the wisest and most powerful sorcerers can wield its power. From the Old Magic stems two branches – White Magic and Black Magic. Then, there are many more branches. On the White side, you will have healing, counter curses and such, while on the Black side, you will have things like necromancy and killing spells. Sometime, though, the branches cross over, because it just depends on how you use the power. One example is levitation, or telekinesis.”

“You mean I could go either good or bad?” Pandora asked.

“That’s right,” Avelina said.

“But for now,” Kalypso whispered, “I think you are firmly on the light side.”

“And also – it isn’t just telekinesis you can use, Pandora,” Gabe said. “You are a sorceress. You can say spells.”

“You can rhyme in English, or you can read off the Ancient Script,” Avelina told Pandora, “just in case you were thinking of saying a spell.”

“Thank you for telling me all this,” Pandora said gratefully. “I will admit that our little meeting has raised more questions than answers for me, but I am glad to have more knowledge than before.”

“Let’s go, Pandora,” Raelynn coaxed.

Pandora tipped in her head in farewell and rushed back to Mir Castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 THE GIRL

 

 

Sleep came easy that night. Her dreams were of trees and magic, and swirling purple mist.

In the morning, she stretched and yawned. Sunlight poured into the room through the window, making Pandora squint. She sighed as the reality of her location came rushing back to her. She wouldn’t be seeing her friends for a long, long time. Or maybe she would never even get back.

No, don’t think that way. You’ll get back.

A roar of cheers came from down below. Frowning, Pandora wiped her eyes and groggily walked over to her window. What she saw made her lips part in shock.

Looking down from her window on the third floor, she could see absolutely everything. She could see the people of Mir gathering around the center of the Square. She could see the guards standing everywhere, stiff and unmoving as always. And she could see the beautiful young girl – perhaps around eleven years old – strapped to a wooden pole amidst tinder and firewood. Tears streamed down her face and she begged for mercy – begged for it like nothing Pandora had ever heard before. Her bloodcurdling scream wrenched at Pandora’s heart.

One guard stood by the pile of wood, a burning torch in hand. Pandora’s breathing became erratic when she realised what this all meant.

This girl, this young girl, was about to be burned at the stake.

Pandora’s breathing became shallow as she watched the girl thrash about in her binds. The people looked on with hard faces – some cried, but the majority seemed truly hateful towards the girl.

“My lady, you have a visitor,” Raelynn suddenly said from the doorway. Pandora turned around. Raelynn looked like she’d just run a marathon, with her cheeks flushed and her crimson hair flying everywhere. Beside her was a young woman in her twenties, crying uncontrollably. She looked to be one of the commoners of Mir.

“It’s Astraea, Pandora,” Raelynn said softly. “Remember what Avelina said? She would get you a job at the tavern with Astraea? Well, this is her.”

“Oh no – what’s wrong?” Pandora asked, snaking an arm around the thin woman’s shoulders and rubbing her back comfortably.

Astraea wrenched herself out of Pandora’s grip and rushed to the window, screaming out the girl’s name. Lilith, it sounded like.

“Lilith,” Raelynn whispered to Pandora as they watched Astraea sob and scream from the window. “Almost like Lilianna, the queen. She’s just as brave.”

“Why does Astraea care for her so much?” Pandora asked, feeling sorrowful.

Raelynn took a deep breath. “Because Lilith is Astraea’s little sister.”

Pandora could feel tears burning the back of her eyes and she gulped down the lump in her throat. “That’s just horrible. I can’t imagine what I would feel like if my little brother, James, was killed.”

Pandora was suddenly overwhelmed by her longing for home.

“She’s not just my sister,” Astraea choked. “She’s my best friend.”

“Why is she going to be…? What is causing all this?” Pandora asked tentatively.

“Just you listen. It’s the cruel tyrant, our king,” Astraea spat. “He wants to stamp out magic forever. So many innocents have died by his hands. He might as well be stark red with all the blood he’s soaked in! These people never did anything; they are punished for something they can’t help – being born with magic.”

Her breathing was erratic, and fury stirred in her eyes. “LILITH!” she screamed, loud as a horn.

Astraea… Pandora could see Lilith mouth.

“Let this be an example to all those who dare to defy one of the main principles of Mir: letting this be a safe, magic-free city,” King Vance boomed, probably from a balcony somewhere.

The people roared with agreement. “Hear, hear!” they shouted. Pandora was filled with sudden hate for the king.

“Lilith Harman has been found guilty of using sorcery within the walls of Mir. In accordance with our law, she will be burned at the stake,” Queen Lilianna announced.

Raelynn had been wrong. Lilith wasn’t brave like Queen Lilianna, because Lilianna and Vance were cowards who hid from magic and shied away from the goodness it could bring, making darkness of the things they didn’t understand.

Lilith closed her eyes and the guard set fire to the bottom of the woodpile.

Astraea turned away, sobbing hysterically, and Raelynn closed her eyes, eyebrows drawn together in sadness. But Pandora watched. She watched as Lilith screamed while the flames licked at her skin, burning her alive. She watched as a girl died because of a beautiful gift: magic.

All of a sudden, Lilith looked Pandora straight in the eye. The young girl’s blue eyes glowed, and she disappeared into thin air without a trace. The binds that had trapped Lilith now hung loose from the stake.

The people yelled out in surprise.

“FIND HER!” the king yelled out furiously. The warning bells sounded at once, ringing through the air.

“Astraea, she escaped!” Pandora said giddily, her heart beating fast.

Astraea did not smile.

“Now she will be hunted for all her life,” she said quietly.

“But at least she still has her life!” Pandora said, smiling despite everything. “She’s safe.”

“Where did she go?” Raelynn asked, rushing to the window.

“I… I don’t know.”

The three girls watched as the crowd dispersed and the guards ran, intent on finding Lilith. Astraea tried to calm her breathing, but she looked like she’d just seen a ghost.

“There’s only one place she would have gone. My tavern, The Brave Phoenix,” Astraea whispered, looking horrified. “The guards will search there first.”

“Then let’s go!” Raelynn cried out.

Pandora grabbed a cloak to hide her nightdress and ran with Astraea and Raelynn, her bare feet pounding the cold castle stone. They raced down the spiral staircases and never-ending corridors, until they finally came to the entrance hall.

Pandora cleared her throat and began to walk at a normal pace, so as to avoid suspicion from the guards. Raelynn and Astraea walked on either side of her, flashing smiles at the guards.

“Good morning, Lady Pandora,” a guard at the door said promptly, while the other guard opened the door.

Pandora sniffed in the morning. “Good morning. Lovely day, isn’t it?” she said with a smile.

She and her two companions stepped through. Pandora pretended to relish the feeling of sun on her face, but sped up her pace a little. When they left the castle grounds, all three simultaneously began running.

 

 

“What’s under that blanket?” the guard demanded menacingly.

The Brave Phoenix was a jolly old tavern, but the events unfolding inside were not so jolly. Three guards had drawn their glinting swords, pointing them threateningly at a young man whose cerulean eyes betrayed him and showed his fear. Yet, despite his cowardliness, he remained outstandingly loyal to the little girl under the blanket.

Unfortunately, the only thing between the blanket and the guards was the man himself.

“Um – uh, fabric. For my friend to give to her tailor,” the man stammered, thinking up lies on the spot.

“Mind if we take a look?” the guard asked, tightening his grip on his sword. The man turned paler than he had already been.

“I’d rather that you didn’t – I don’t want… dust on the fabric.”

“The King of Mir has commanded that we thoroughly search the city for the girl – Lilith. If you do not step aside, we shall have to make you,” one the guards spat.

The man’s face turned resolute and confident. He raised his chin and folded his arms. “I will never step aside willingly for you.”

“So be it,” the guard growled. He raised his sword and the two others copied his actions.

“Ah, my fabric!” Pandora yelled a little too loudly. “Thank you, dear. Now I can give this to the tailor to make that new dress I’ve been wanting… Is there a problem here?” She pretended to notice the guards for the first time.

“No, my lady,” a guard said immediately, and all three put their swords back in their belts. “We’ll be on our way.”

“Ah, well, good luck with the search,” Pandora said with a kind smile.

“Thank you, my lady.”

They left straight after that. Pandora grinned. Oh, how grand it was to be a noblewoman.

“Thank the gods,” the man breathed. “Thank you.”

“Lilith!” Astraea cried, running out from her position beneath one of the tavern’s tables. The younger girl threw the woolen blanket off her crouched body and flew into her older sister’s arms. The sisters embraced tightly, and Raelynn smiled as she watched the heartwarming scene.

“What’s your name?” Raelynn asked the man.

“Charles Bryant – pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said, kissing Raelynn’s hand charmingly.

“Please, Charles,” Astraea said with a relieved giggle, “no poetry for today.”

“Ah, but the sweet scent of – no poetry?” Charles said, seeing Astraea’s deadly stare. “Okay then. No poetry.”

“See, Charles grew up in a city where you only saw stars when someone punched you in the face. He saw them on a regular basis,” Astraea explained casually, pulling away from Lilith and joyfully smiling down at her, though Pandora knew she was talking to Raelynn and her. “He was – is – a poet. Quite annoying, really. You can imagine the kind of treatment he got in a city of bandits and mischief-makers. The poor man wasn’t appreciated back in Astewell.”

Charles nodded in confirmation. “Although my poetry is still little appreciated in Mir, I must confess that the temperament, hospitality and kindness of Mir’s busy citizens warm my heart, and have ever since I arrived. They accept me as one of their own brothers…”

“And you’re lucky I let you work here at all, Charles. You’re still doing the whole poetry thing,” Astraea said disapprovingly.

“It’s not something I can control. It is like a beast within me – a beast that knows the magic of words and weaves its beauty every day…”

“Charles. Try to stop, please,” Astraea sighed, hugging her sister once again. “But… I do thank you for remaining loyal to my sister. Despite your lack of bravery, there’s another type of courage in you. You wouldn’t step aside for the guards.”

“Despite this, I was merely an ant in their way,” Charles protested humbly. “They could have tapped me on the shoulder and I would have flown out of the way.”

“That is true,” Astraea considered with a slight shrug. “But it’s the thought that counts.”

“I think you owe your thanks to this young lady,” Charles said, flourishing his hands fancily at Pandora, as though presenting her in a show. “Had it not been for her clever improvisation, both Lilith and I would be dead right now.”

Pandora waved it away, grinning. “It was nothing. Good timing, and luck.”

“I disagree, fair maiden. What is your name?” Charles asked.

“Lady Pandora Moreau of Bangladesh, Australia,” Raelynn answered for Pandora with a smirk. She was met an exasperated noise from Pandora.

“Are you ever going to let that go? I was under pressure!” Pandora hissed defensively.

Astraea, Lilith and Charles all looked puzzled, but let the matter pass.

“Anyway,” Pandora said smoothly, choosing to ignore Raelynn’s wide grin, “Lilith isn’t safe yet. She needs to be smuggled out of the city – she’ll never be safe here again.”

“She could go to a small village in the Mistwood, called Ignatia. We know some people there. She’ll be safe from the guards, because Ignatia isn’t situated in Mir’s land,” Astraea suggested. “How about that, Lilith?”

Lilith nodded in consent, her white-blonde falling over her eyes. It was then that Pandora remembered what she’d just been through.

“Are you hurt? The fire – is your skin burned?” Pandora asked worriedly.

Lilith smiled a small smile and shook her head.

“Wh – how come? I saw you be enveloped by those flames, Lilith. How?”

Lilith didn’t say a word. Instead, she slowly moved her hand through the air, like a mime pretending to be standing inside a glass box, and her eyes glittered with light. A trail of gold floated off her hands – it looked fairy dust. And it was truly magnificent.

“Magic…” Pandora muttered.

Lilith closed her hands and looked into Pandora’s eyes, not speaking, not making a sound. She just stood there, maintaining eye contact with Pandora and holding her sister’s hand.

There was an inexplicable bond Pandora felt with the young girl she’d never met before. It was as if they had connected through the air, and their bond was as strong as the one between Lilith and her own sister. Pandora knew what Lilith’s crystal blue eyes were saying: You have magic. We are one in the same. You have magic. You have magic.

Pandora looked away, feeling overwhelmed. If Lilith were to expose her secret, her life would be in danger. Yet despite how little the time they’d known each other was, Pandora had no trouble trusting her.

“I could take her. I’ll ride out with her to Ignatia by horse. When I find someone reliable enough to run my tavern, I’ll join her in Ignatia.” Astraea looked resolute, but Raelynn shook her head.

“The guards will know you’re Lilith’s sister. They’ll know you’ll be trying to let her escape,” Raelynn said rationally.

“Ah, the under-appreciated intelligence of women,” Charles remarked.

“She’s right. You can’t do it, Astraea. But… I can,” Pandora suggested, shrugging. “In fact, I’m the perfect person to do it. I am a trusted – well, slightly trusted – noblewoman. My parents were friends with the royals. They won’t think I’m doing anything against their law.”

“Yes – but you can’t ride Lilith out yet. You’ll have to do it in the middle of the night,” Raelynn planned.

Pandora looked back at Lilith, whose eyes were trained on the floor. What really made Lilith look young was the vulnerability and innocence in her eyes. Pandora had never seen a child, even as young as Lilith, with that same look in their eyes.

“I think I’d better bring Lilith into my chambers first, because I have a perfectly good reason to be lugging around carts. Then I’ll bring her up to you, Pandora, because she’ll be safe in your chambers. They won’t be searching there. Tonight you can ride out with her,” Raelynn said, her eyes brightening as the details of the plan formed in her mind.

“We’re forgetting one thing,” Pandora told the group.

“Exactly. Wherever shall Lilith go to sleep?” Charles cried.

“And how will you get her food?” Astraea questioned, frowning.

“No, not that,” Pandora said, laughing. “There are plenty of comfortable places in my chambers and Raelynn can bring up some snacks. She is my maidservant, after all. If they ask why the snacks are so big, she can just tell them that Lady Pandora is feeling shamelessly gluttonous tonight. The important thing we’re forgetting is that I have never ridden a horse in my life.”

There was a small silence. They could faintly the chirping of birds outside and the warning bells’ chimes.

“Well, that certainly is a complication,” Charles sighed. “But you are the best person for this job who is trustworthy.”

There was another silence as everyone contemplated the problem. Pandora was chewing on her fingernails, trying to find a solution. Surely there had to be someone else who could ride instead of Pandora. Astraea was too suspicious because she was Lilith’s sister, Charles worked for Astraea, Raelynn was a lowly maidservant and they couldn’t very well make Lilith go by herself.

Raelynn gasped suddenly, clasping her hands together.

“I’ve got it! You’d think that we were the only people who could be trusted with Lilith’s secret, since the rest of Mir pretty much hates sorcery. But that’s not entirely true, Pandora! Remember?”

The Beings… of course!

“But I don’t understand…” Pandora whispered. “Why can’t Lilith just disappear like she did when she was at the stake?”

“It takes a very strong, intense feeling to provoke power like that at a such a young age. A feeling that only comes before one’s death,” Astraea explained.

Pandora didn’t speak. She was still thinking over Raelynn’s idea. The Beings were trustworthy, but if they were caught, would the guards simply let them pass?

She would have to visit them.

“By tonight, we will have an answer,” Pandora promised. She gave Raelynn a meaningful look, before dashing away in an instant. Raelynn sighed.

She looked at Astraea and Charles. “Got any carts?”

 

 

Pandora walked quickly to the Mistwood, casually tipping her head in greeting to anyone she met on her way. When she passed the final huts of the city, she ran into the trees until she could no longer see the grand city.

Her heart pounding in her chest, she reached into her lilac dress and pulled out the necklace Gabe had given her. Without a moment’s hesitation, she squeezed it tightly in her palm.

The butterfly suddenly came to life in her hand, startling Pandora. She watched as the beautiful creature’s wings melted away from the chain. It positioned itself on the tips of her fingers, ready for takeoff, and then flew up into the air by beating its sparkling wings. Then, it whizzed into the trees as fast as an arrow.

Pandora loved magic.

Within a few seconds, Kalypso appeared before her in a whirl of purple smoke.

“Kalypso!” Pandora said with relief. “I have a question. See, Avelina’s boss, Astraea, has a little sister who was meant to be executed this morning, but we need to smuggle her out of Mir and I can’t ride horses–”

“Hush,” Kalypso interrupted, her fingers wrapping around the outside of the Lantern of Oversight. She brought it to eye level and watched the acid green flames intently. Pandora tried to look in, too, but saw nothing except green fire.

“I foresee your mission, Pandora, and I see the danger you will put yourself in for this girl. Do not trust her.”

Pandora’s heart stopped. “What?”

“I can see the distant future, and I see that Lilith will play a part in Mir’s downfall–”

“Stop it. You’re lying. Just tell me who’s riding out with Lilith tonight,” Pandora said coldly.

Kalypso looked down upon Pandora disapprovingly. “You ought to heed my words, child, for in the future you will regret how easily and quickly you trusted this monster.”

“Lilith is not a monster!” Pandora said heatedly. “She understands me!”

“How do you know this, Pandora? She does not speak,” Kalypso said, grasping the Lantern tighter.

Pandora shut her mouth.

“You are young, Pandora, and you have much to learn. But, if you so wish, I will aid you in your mission to destroy Mir–”

“Just tell me who rides with her!” Pandora spat, having had enough of Kalypso’s negative attitude towards to the innocent child that Pandora knew Lilith really was.

“There are many possible futures, Pandora – a number beyond your comprehension. Some are clearer than others, though, and the clearest depicts the rider as you.”

“Me?” Pandora exclaimed, genuinely surprised. “But how? I’ve never touched a horse in my life, let alone ridden one.”

Kalypso sighed. “There is so much you don’t know… You, Pandora, are the most powerful sorceresses in the world. And though you may not know it yet, you are destined to save thousands of lives, once you have more experience with your magic. One thing you will learn over your years is that you are a weaver of the Old Magic – the force that rules all.”

“But how can Old Magic help me ride a horse?” Pandora asked, her brow furrowed.

“Because Old Magic is everything, and everything is bound by it. Those who tap into the ancient force can connect with any natural material or living being in the universe. They say that alchemists are weavers of Old Magic,” Kalypso explained.

“Turning lead into gold…” Pandora muttered to herself.

“Exactly. Tonight, Pandora, you will have no problem riding a horse, so long as you believe.”

“Right. Okay. I believe.” Pandora took a deep breath in. “Thank you, Kalypso.”

“Just remember, child, this may not be the future that destiny selects. Future-telling is a guessing game.”

She turned away, but Kalypso’s whisper made her pace falter.

Heed my words…”

Pandora turned around – there was nothing but trees. Kalypso had disappeared.

She continued on through the soft sunlight, trailing her hands along the dew-dotted leaves as she thought about the plan to save Lilith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 THE PLAN

 

 

“Afternoon, guards,” Raelynn said casually, pushing her cart in front of her. The gravel path leading to the servants’ entrance cracked under the weight of her cart, while Lilith lay inside in a fetal position, hidden under blankets.

They made a cross with their staffs.

“Halt. What business do you have in the castle?” one of the guards asked.

“Why, I am simply bringing in food that the Lady Pandora requested. She’s feeling slightly gluttonous today – must be her undernourishment from her voyage here, I’d presume,” Raelynn thought up quickly, flashing her best smile at the guards. “I’m her maidservant.”

The guard nodded curtly and both retracted their staffs. “Pass through.”

“Thank you,” Raelynn muttered, quickly pushing the cart through the limestone arch. The sun seemed to shine brighter, and the fluffy clouds drew together block out some of the sunshine created the perfect temperature. It was a beautiful day. Everything was going according to plan so far.

She tried to look inconspicuous as she pushed her cart into the castle. From there, she drove it through the maze of sun-bathed corridors and into her own small sleeping area beside the other servants. It was a very small and bland room, consisting of only a small, head-sized window and a hay-stuffed bed with slightly odd-smelling linen sheets.

She locked the door behind her immediately and pulled the blankets off Lilith’s unmoving form. The beautiful girl opened her eyes and smiled with their current victory – Stage one was complete.

Unfortunately, there was still the matter of bringing Lilith up to Pandora, and then Pandora bringing Lilith to whoever would be riding out with her. She hoped Avelina was secretly the king’s best friend or something like that. It would be awfully convenient, should Avelina get caught.

“Would you like to rest, Lilith?” Raelynn asked kindly, helping Lilith jump out of the cart.

She shook her head and pointed to her stomach, a subtle hint to Raelynn that she was hungry.

“We can get you food at midday,” Raelynn promised. “I don’t think I’ll go with the whole ‘Pandora wants snacks’ excuse. I think it’d be better if I simply went up with her food at lunchtime.”

Lilith nodded in agreement and perched herself on the end of Raelynn’s bed. She sunk into it slightly, but not as much as Raelynn usually did at night, and it was that moment that Raelynn realised how thin the poor girl was. She looked so peaceful, though, looking down at the city from the square window.

Raelynn cautiously walked up to her and crouched down to her level, as though she might scare her away like a bird. She swept her crimson hair away from her face and held Lilith’s hands.

“Do you speak?” Raelynn asked quietly.

Lilith shook her head.

“Is it because you can’t, or you won’t?” Raelynn asked, tilting her head.

She never got her answer, though, for all of a sudden a large, white dog came bounding at her and knocked her over. Raelynn squealed with fright as the dog licked her wherever it could reach.

When she gained sense once again, she pushed the dog onto the floor and growled with frustration. “It’s you! The dog who tripped me over when I first came here!”

Lilith was grinning in amusement, petting the dog silently. It whimpered and melted into her touch, and Lilith smiled as her soft fingers calmed the husky beast.

It barked something at her, but Raelynn knew it wasn’t an aggressive bark. Merely its own form of speech. Lilith turned to Raelynn and rotated her fingers, indicating to her to turn her back.

“You want me to turn around?” Raelynn asked, puzzled. Lilith nodded and turned with her. They faced the window together, and while they did, there was a strange cacophony of noises coming from behind them. Howls turned to moans and screeches, and nails scraping the floor turned to thumps.

“Is everything okay in there, Raelynn?” one of the servants tentatively asked from outside the door.

“Fine!” Raelynn shouted back quickly. “I just… stubbed my toe!”

“Okay…” the servant girl muttered doubtfully, but they heard the quiet taps of her footsteps as she retreated.

Lilith rotated her fingers once more, and Raelynn screamed.

“Calm down, Raelynn!” a very human Cobalt hissed, his body covered by the sheet he had whisked from Raelynn’s bed. He looked frantic and confused, yet still managed to have that slightly arrogant smirk that Raelynn detested so much.

“You’re a dog?” Raelynn screeched, panicking.

“No!” Cobalt scoffed. “Well, not the typical definition of a dog…”

“So, what? You’re a werewolf?” Raelynn cried hysterically. Lilith was raising her eyebrows in an unimpressed manner. “Do you have your own special ‘time of the month’?”

“For your information, I am neither a dog, nor a human. I’m a shapeshifter, but the only shape I know how to transform myself into is a husky dog,” Cobalt informed Raelynn, clutching his sheet as it was the only thing protecting his dignity.

Raelynn growled in frustration, like a child having a tantrum. She opened her eyes, seething.

“Why, may I ask, have you chosen this exact moment to show yourself. And why don’t you have any clothes?” Raelynn fumed.

He dodged her slap. “I only just found you, okay? And a dog can’t exactly go around wearing human clothes. It’s a little suspicious.”

Suddenly, the sun was shining much less brightly for Raelynn. In school, Cobalt had annoyed her to no end, and he certainly hadn’t changed in Mir.

“That’s not true!” Raelynn shouted irritably. “You made me trip over yesterday.”

“Yeah, and I followed you. I knew I had to get to you. But, in case it has escaped your notice, huskies aren’t exactly the trend here. When you were busy in the crowds, this weird family took me in! I escaped last night while they were sleeping. Staying a dog too long makes me lose my human mind.”

“You could have gotten some clothes before you came here, Cobalt,” Raelynn cried, spitting the name.

“A naked teenage boy walking around Mir – not exactly low-profile.”

Lilith giggled at that. Raelynn sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. Midday was in a few minutes – she didn’t have time for this.

“Cobalt, you were a dog. You could have stolen some clothes with your stupid mouth, and run away. Ever think of that?” Raelynn hissed, eyes flashing dangerously.

Cobalt obviously had no answer, because he changed the subject. “Where’s Pandora?”

Raelynn frowned at his subject change. “She’s a noblewoman in this dimension. Staying in a nice room. And this is–”

“Lilith,” Cobalt finished for her, smiling down at the silent eleven-year-old. “Yeah, we’ve met. She was part of the weird family. She and her sister were the only sane ones in the household.”

Raelynn sighed as Lilith grinned. The midday bells began to chime throughout the servants area, signalling lunch time. “Look, just – do you want some clothes?”

“Yes, please,” Cobalt responded with relief.

“Great.” Raelynn’s lip curled in amusement as she reached beneath her bed, and pulled out a pair of pink shorts and a Charlie Sheen shirt.

“You’re kidding me, right?” Cobalt looked horrified as he viewed the outfit Raelynn had assembled for it.

“Just put it on. And get in the cart.”

 

 

“My lady, I have your lunch,” Raelynn called out when she finally reached the door to Pandora’s chambers. She tried to add a meaningful edge to her voice.

“Thank you, Raelynn,” Pandora said graciously, opening her door to allow her in. She gripped the handles of her cart and pushed it in the room. As soon as the door closed, Pandora directed her to the back of the screen, should anyone come bursting into her room.

“Have you got her?” Pandora asked in a low voice.

Raelynn nodded. “And I’ve also brought our ‘second companion’.”

“Ah.”

Pandora tentatively held the corner of the woollen blankets in her fingers, then peeled it away slowly. She made a gagging motion when seeing what was underneath and quickly put the blanket back.

“That’s disgusting,” Pandora muttered, her forehead in her hand. “That’s simply disturbing.”

“Face your fears, Pandora,” Raelynn encouraged.

Pandora took a deep breath and began to slowly pull off the blanket, but Cobalt jumped up immediately and threw the blanket off his face. He looked murderous, while Pandora was sickly pale. Lilith sat up slowly and hopped out of the cart.

“Cobalt,” Pandora hissed, turning away, “why are you wearing tight, pink shorts?”

Raelynn couldn’t help but giggle.

Cobalt sighed. “I didn’t have any clothes, okay? Raelynn gave them to me. When she followed you to the rip, she brought her spare clothes in case someone wanted to nick them.”

“No one would want to nick those shorts,” Pandora said firmly. “They’re bloody hideous. I mean, no offence, Raelynn.”

“Oh, none taken,” Raelynn assured Pandora. “I agree with you, actually.”

“Cobalt – I can’t talk to you like this,” Pandora sighed.

Cobalt rolled his eyes and yanked the blankets out of the cart. He wrapped it around his shoulders and muttered, “Happy?”

Pandora studied him with approval. “Much better. Tell me – how did you come across us?”

“I saw you walking into the woods and wanted to know what you were doing. And then that very inconvenient thing sucked me in. Thanks so much, Pandora,” Cobalt said sarcastically.

“Hey, how was I supposed to know that when I picked up the stone it would take us to a whole different freaking dimension?” Pandora cried madly.

As all three schoolmates began to shout at once, Lilith cleared her throat.

They went silent. Pandora turned to the younger girl with surprise. She’d almost forgotten her presence there, what with her being so quiet.

“Er, right. Lilith, where would you like to sleep tonight?” Pandora asked, gently leading her outside the screen. Lilith surveyed the room. It was a very grand place, with velvet carpet and a beautiful marble fireplace. There were also padded chairs with embroidered cushions and miscellaneous other soft areas everywhere – it was like a furniture warehouse, in Pandora’s opinion. Oh, how she missed furniture warehouses, and cars, and phones, and television…

Lilith pointed to a body-length, reclining chair by the empty fireplace.

“There? Great.” Pandora brought the blankets over to the chair and turned back to her three companions. “Did you bring any actual lunch?” Pandora asked Raelynn with raised brows.

“I may not have been trained to be a maidservant, but I can still do my job,” Raelynn said, lifting what looked like the bottom of the cart. In actual fact, it was a false bottom, and platters of delicious food sat beneath.

“You should have put Lilith and Cobalt in that compartment,” Pandora suggested, while Raelynn put the food on her mahogany table.

“Cobalt’s fat ass would have squashed Lilith to death,” Raelynn replied with a smirk, causing Cobalt to roll his eyes.

“Charming,” Pandora quipped.

“Anyway, lunched is served,” Raelynn said, plucking a grape from its vine and popping it into her mouth. “Everyone, eat up.”

And so the four ate their feast and talked (though with Lilith nodding more than talking), until the prince knocked on Pandora’s door.

“Lady Pandora?”

Panicked, Pandora yelled out, “Just one second, sire.” With wide eyes and frantic hands, she shooed Lilith and Cobalt behind her screen and threw the blankets over them.

Raelynn quickly stepped away from the feast, as though she hadn’t touched anything, for it was common knowledge that the maidservant never ate her mistress’ food.

Pandora composed herself, plastering a brilliant smile onto her face, and opened the door. “Prince Matthew! How lovely to see you. What brings you to my door?”

“I apologise – did I interrupt your lunch?” His eyes moved to the half-eaten feast on the table and he raised his eyebrows. “You were hungry, I imagine?”

Pandora smiled again, though awkwardly. “Yes, sire. Uh, I missed breakfast. Watching that poor girl almost get executed made me lose my appetite.”

The prince nodded in understanding. Pandora noted that he made no comment to insult magic or even Lilith. “I’ve just come by to ask how you’re doing, and if you remember anything more?”

“I’m doing fine, sire. My maidservant, Raelynn, has been providing me with all I need to make this a comfortable stay. Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything more, though I dearly hope to soon,” Pandora said.

“Ah, well. We were hoping you might like to dine with us again tonight, if it you would like to,” the prince invited.

Pandora bowed her head. “Certainly. It would be an honour.”

A laugh that was quickly stifled into a cough came from behind the screen, no doubt the work of Cobalt.

“What was that?” the prince said, startled.

“What was what? I didn’t hear anything, sire,” Pandora babbled quickly.

“It must have been a rat knocking something over – a rat family has actually decided to make itself at home here in the castle,” Matthew told Pandora, drawing his sword, ready to poke a hole in an imaginary rat’s body.

“That’s terrible, but I doubt it was a rat–”

“I shall kill it for you,” the prince said resolutely, stealthily walking over to the screen. With patience of a cat, he wrapped his fingers around the screen and prepared to jump out.

Pandora panicked. “Sire, I saw the rat!” she shouted loudly, pointing a finger at any random point on the wall. “It – it went through one of the wall cracks.”

Prince Matthew looked at the wall doubtfully, obviously seeing no wall crack, but he dropped the matter of the invisible rat anyway.

“Well, I’ll see you tonight. If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask,” the prince said, grinning.

“Awesome. I mean, thank you, sire. I shall keep that in mind. Good day!” And with that, she closed the door in a surprised prince’s face.

She locked it quietly, in case the prince could hear, and she and Raelynn ran behind the screen. Lilith and Cobalt had thrown the blankets off in relief after the prince’s departure – never before had Pandora seen a person so thankful.

“Oh, god,” Cobalt sighed, running his hands through his hair. “That was too close.”

“And it’s not even one o’clock yet,” Pandora said with a lopsided grin.

 

 

They were all lucky, though, because by the time dinner came around, no one else had knocked on Pandora’s door, meaning that Lilith was safe. She slept peacefully on her reclined chair by the crackling fire, while Raelynn slumped in another chair.

Cobalt was doing whatever he wanted in Raelynn’s room, because Raelynn claimed that no one ever went there apart from herself, and so Pandora decided that the safest place for him was in Raelynn’s room. Until they bought some Mir-type clothes, a guy in bright pink shorts was going to draw quite a bit of unwanted attention and suspicion.

“Dinnertime,” Raelynn said with a sigh, setting her book down.

“Great,” Pandora mumbled. “More bad lying to do. What fun!”

She dressed into a proper gown, since she’d been wandering around in her nightdress and cloak all day. (Thankfully, the cloak hid the nightdress but looked odd when she wasn’t outdoors.) Her evening dress was strewn with tiny red gems and embroidered with golden thread. As was the case with every outfit in Pandora’s wardrobe, it was beautiful.

Lazily undoing her hair and shaking it around, she presented herself to Raelynn.

“How do I look?” she asked, doing an exaggerated twirl.

Raelynn shrugged. “Revolting, as usual.”

“That’s good enough for me.”

They left for the dining room, casually greeting the guards on their way there. Pandora dearly hoped that no one would enter the room while Lilith was still in there.

“Lady Pandora!” Queen Lilianna greeted. “Please, join us.”

Pandora smiled graciously and took a seat. Tonight, the feast was absolutely magnificent. Simply the scent of the sauce made Pandora’s stomach churn in desire.

“Thank you, once again, for your invitation,” Pandora began, while Raelynn poured her some juice.

And Charles was pouring Prince Matthew some juice! He had to be his manservant. It was strange that she hadn’t noticed last night – perhaps she had been too busy eating or making up lies, or Charles hadn’t come to work at all that day. Either way, Pandora was quite surprised to see him here, so much so that she only realised the queen was talking to her when she looked down.

“I’m sorry, Your Highness? What did you say?” Pandora asked, trying not to show too much embarrassment.

The queen smiled. “I was saying that Mir welcomes you with open arms, especially as we and your parents were great friends.”

“Yes, indeed,” the king said jovially, cutting up his pork. “They were always very friendly, and never said a boring word.”

Pandora laughed quietly. “I suppose the trait hasn’t been passed on.”

“Nonsense, child,” the queen protested. “We can assure you that you are very interesting – if you were not, would we have invited you to dinner once more?”

Pandora paused. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Charles and Raelynn whispering fervently. She wondered what they were talking about, and how Astraea was feeling.

The king, obviously taking Pandora’s pause for a contemplative one, emitted a little satisfied, “Ah,” and pointed at her. “Something to think about next time, eh?”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Pandora agreed politely.

Or is it Your Highness? Or sire? Or my liege? Or my king? Or my lord?

Pandora killed that train of thought and focused on the conversation. She needed to get through dinner as quickly and smoothly as possible.

It was about two hours later when something mildly interesting happened.

“My king, I am sorry to interrupt!” a young messenger boy panted. “I have something very important for you.”

“Bring it here, boy,” the king said, the slightest bit drunk from the wine he’d had that night. The boy ran over and presented a letter to the king. The boy bowed when the king took the letter and he dashed out of the room to attend to other errands.

The king opened his letter and scanned it quickly.

“Ah,” he muttered after a while. “King Damien iss coming to visit soon.”

“Damien?” Princess Morellina repeated, evidently surprised. “Isn’t he from Astewell?”

Didn’t Astraea say that’s where Charles is from? The town where you only saw stars when you were punched in the face? Pandora sneaked a quick glance up at Charles, but he was simply chatting with Raelynn.

King Vance. “Indeed, he is Astewell’s ruler.”

“I thought it had been destroyed,” Prince Matthew said, brow furrowed.

The king set the letter down on the table and locked his fingers together. “It seems he has survived, even after his land suffered from Aren’s wrath.”

Pandora seized that short silence to excuse herself, having had enough. Four courses for just one meal was too much. How she pitied the poor in Mir.

The royal family bade goodbye as Pandora made her way out of the dining room, Raelynn not far behind.

“So? How did it go?” Raelynn asked when they were in the corridor.

“A little better than last night, actually,” Pandora admitted. “There wasn’t as much lying to do.”

Raelynn swerved suddenly to the left, away from the path they usually took to get back up to Pandora’s chambers.

“Where are we going?” Pandora asked, confused.

“Stay here,” Raelynn commanded. “I’m getting Cobalt.”

“Why?”

“He can be our lookout for tonight.”

Raelynn went down up the spiral staircase and entered her room quickly. What she saw surprised her.

“You have… normal clothes?”

Cobalt was lying across her bed, wearing clothes that looked normal for most young men in Mir. Although the outfit was a little big, it suited him rather well. Raelynn’s Charlie Sheen shirt and – as Pandora had put – hideous pink shorts were lazily tossed on the floor.

Cobalt grinned, sitting up. “I took your advice. Went dog-mode, and nicked this from one of the other servant’s room with my ‘stupid mouth’. I’m not totally unreliable.”

Raelynn ignored what he said. “You’re coming with us. At least try to avoid the guards.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Cobalt muttered.

They met with Pandora outside in the torch-lit corridor, and together the trio made their way to Pandora’s chambers. The plan had passed relatively smoothly, so it was obvious that fate had to stuff things up by bringing about six guards to Pandora’s door. She violently shoved Cobalt into an alcove when she saw them and pulled Raelynn along with her as she confidently walked up to the group.

“Is anything the matter?” she asked innocently.

“You tell me,” one of the guards growled. He jabbed a finger at the girl who knelt in a heap inside their circle, tears streaming down her young face. Lilith.

Pandora’s blood ran cold. She swore she could sense Raelynn tensing up.

They were so screwed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 THE ESCAPE

 

 

One thing Pandora learned that night was that the dungeons were not a pleasant place to be.

Especially when shackled to their walls.

The dungeons were damp, dark and had the faint, metallic scent of blood. The only light provided came from the guards’ torches and each cell was as plain and gloomy as the guards’ stony expressions. It was quiet and sad in the dungeons. Short sentences weren’t served there; either you died from old age, or you were held in a cell until your execution.

Pandora was an exception. Being a noblewoman, she was to be held in the dungeons until the royals figured out what to do with her. Lilith, however, was not as lucky. Her execution was imminent.

Lilith was crying silently, while Pandora had her head in her hands. She’d known that she would end up in the dungeons some day, but she was hoping it would be a little later than her second day in Mir.

Faint voices and a new flickering light startled Pandora. She watched as the shadows of two men came closer, their voices growing more urgent and argumentative.

When they came around the corner, Pandora wasn’t all that surprised to see King Vance and Prince Matthew.

The king sighed. “Matthew, there is nothing I can do. The evidence is overwhelming–”

“Father, I searched Lady Pandora’s entire chambers for the girl just moments before she was found,” the prince lied angrily. “Lady Pandora was not hiding the girl in her chambers – of that, I am sure. The girl must have entered her room while no one occupied it.”

The king looked surprised. Pandora supposed this was a lie the prince had just created. “Is that true, Matthew?”

“Yes, Father,” the prince said resolutely.

“Well then… Release her,” the king sighed to his guards. They unlocked the cell at once and escorted Pandora out.

Thank you, Pandora tried to make her wide eyes say. Thank you.

“What about Lilith?” she blurted out when she realised that the guards were closing the cell door with Lilith still inside.

The king began walking out of the dungeons, while Matthew stayed behind. He gave a Lilith a serious, apologetic look, and Lilith rushed to the bars. She sobbed violently and wrapped her hands around the metal bars with heart-wrenching desperation.

“She will be executed at dawn,” the king said without remorse, and Lilith screamed as her tears made paths down her dirty face. Even in such a distressed state, she remained innocently beautiful.

Pandora exhaled sadly, shaking her head.

“Matthew, come,” the king said sharply, turning around the corner.

Prince Matthew turned to the guards. “Leave us.”

“Yes, sire,” the guards said curtly, marching away to another part of the dungeons.

“Please, sire! If there was anyone who could do something to save Lilith, it would be you,” Pandora begged, wrapping her hands around Lilith’s tense knuckles through the bars.

Matthew sighed, taking a torch from the wall. “There are many traits that make my father who he is. One of them, I regret to say, is stubbornness. Once he makes his mind, no one can change it. Not even his own son.”

“But – she’s only eleven,” Pandora said desperately, turning back to the prince.

“I don’t want to see this girl executed any more than you do, Pandora, but by the laws of Camelot, it states that all sorcerers are to suffer punishment of death. The only thing that can stop Lilith’s execution is evidence that she does not have magic, and after her disappearance this morning, nothing can convince the king that she doesn’t have magic. We both know she does. Everybody knows now. Her fate is sealed,” the prince said, despondency etched into the faint lines on his face made from a whole adolescence of stress.

Lilith cried even harder, letting go of the bars and running into the corner, where she collapsed in the heap of her dress.

“But – if you could just – make the king banish her or something,” Pandora begged.

“I cannot,” the prince sighed. “My father detests the very essence of magic.”

“But – but magic is everything,” Pandora protested. “Magic is the trees, the skies, us… Magic is the essence of everything in existence. Magic made it all! The gift of magic is not something to be ashamed of. Sorcerers should not have to be ashamed of who they are,” Pandora said, and there was such power in her voice that Matthew was quite surprised. Lady Pandora had seemed dainty enough at dinner, but it seemed she was more like Princess Morellina: stubborn and resolute, and firm in her own beliefs.

Prince Matthew gave her and odd look. “You’re awfully passionate about magic.”

“I – I do not wield its power,” Pandora lied quickly, “but I am fascinated by it, and I have seen its true beauty. I have seen that magic is like anything else in this world – it can be used for either good or evil. It depends on the person who wields it.”

The prince looked thoughtful. Perhaps, Pandora thought hopefully, she had provoked some thoughts that might encourage him to speak to the king.

“What does King Vance believe, sire?” Pandora asked, softly, watching Lilith fall apart in her dark corner.

“He believes that all sorcerers are driven mad with their power.”

“That’s not true. He is misguided. His position of power makes him believe that everything he believes is correct,” Pandora hissed, getting slightly carried away.

“You ought to hold your tongue. You might be arrested for treason,” the prince said, but his blue eyes were light and joking.

Pandora said nothing. Instead, she turned back to Lilith, whose body racked with great, soundless sobs.

“You are strangely fond of the girl. Why?” the prince asked curiously.

Pandora didn’t answer, because she didn’t know. It was that bond she couldn’t explain…

“Am I correct in guessing that you hadn’t met her before this morning’s events?” the prince asked.

Pandora nodded. “Yes.”

The prince was bemused. Mir’s newest visitor was an odd one. “And yet you fight for her like she’s your own sister.”

Pandora’s thoughts roamed to Astraea. She felt immense pity for the young woman, knowing that Astraea was quite fragile, and that news of her sister being caught could not have been easy to take. Pandora hoped that Astraea would understand she had tried her best to protect Lilith.

“She’s only eleven…” Pandora whispered. Her life did not deserve to be ended so soon.

“Sire!” came a familiar voice. Charles Bryant, dressed in his normal manservant clothing, came awkwardly jogging around the corner. His eyes gave a faint flicker of recognition as he spotted Pandora, but he hid it from the prince.

“Sire,” Charles panted. “The king has requested that you resume attending court matters with him. He seemed rather impatient, too.”

“Uh, I’ll be there soon,” Matthew said distractedly. He turned back to Pandora. “Dine with us tonight. And every night you can,” he requested.

“Of course, sire,” Pandora said, but she lacked the brightness she’d had before. Lilith’s situation was bringing her down. How could it not?

He turned to make sure that no guards were around, before leaning down towards Pandora’s ear. “I promise you,” he whispered, “Lilith will see tomorrow’s sunset.” Pandora was pleasantly surprised, but could not yet bring herself to smile at him.

With that, he fell in stride with his manservant, and Pandora was left with the despairing Lilith. The guards returned after Matthew left, standing like statues by the cell once again.

“I’ll see you soon, Lilith,” Pandora said softly. Her voice echoed through the dungeons, as did her footsteps as she left.

 

 

Pandora was restless.

What Matthew had said implied that the plan would still go under way. All was not yet lost. But how? How could Lilith possibly escape all those guards? Surely, with the amount of sorcerers the king put in the dungeon, he had to give the guards some anti-magic protection of some sort, meaning Lilith couldn’t use magic.

And Matthew was the prince, for goodness’ sake! By helping, he was defying his own father – the king of Mir. All for a little girl he was meant to hate.

Well, she supposed, not all princes have to be snobs claiming they have nobility. Maybe Matthew is worthy of his title.

Pandora tapped her fingers on the wooden dressing table.

“Stop,” Raelynn muttered in annoyance, not even bothering to look up from her book. They were sitting in Pandora’s chambers by the fire, waiting together for midnight.

Pandora had told Raelynn about her conversation with the prince. They’d agreed to go down to the stables at twelve. Their job would be much easier, because they wouldn’t have Lilith. From what Pandora could deduce, Matthew would be bringing Lilith.

Cobalt was going to be their lookout. After Pandora had (rather violently) shoved him into the alcove, he’d plodded back to Raelynn’s room in the servants’ quarters. He was now lying by Pandora’s fire in his human form.

Cobalt yawned. “It’s been really tiring today, hasn’t it? All this excitement…”

“Cobalt,” Raelynn snapped, “it’s not right to call a little girl almost being executed ‘excitement’. Twit.”

Pandora continued drumming her fingers on the hard wood, and Cobalt stared into the fire.

“Pandora, I don’t think I should come with you two,” Raelynn said suddenly, breaking the momentary silence.

Cobalt scoffed. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of the dark?”

“Really, Cobalt?” Raelynn raised her eyebrows, unimpressed.

“Afraid of being caught…?” Seeing Raelynn’s expression, Cobalt tried again. “Afraid of horses?”

Raelynn groaned. “You are so annoying. No, okay, I’m not afraid of anything. I just think it’s safer if only you and Pandora go. There’s a much less chance of you being caught.”

There was yet another silence as Pandora thought about this, and Cobalt grew tired of making irritating remarks.

“Okay,” Pandora conceded finally. “But I still think we’d have a better chance of getting through the castle undetected with those runes of yours.”

Raelynn chuckled. “They only work when I’m calm and concentrated. I certainly won’t be calm if I’m sneaking around the castle with guards at every corner.”

“But I don’t know any spells,” Pandora whined. “All I know is how to make things move.”

“Which is a very powerful and useful ability,” Raelynn told her. “You just have to use it well.”

“And all my life I’ve been told by my parents not to use it, and I haven’t. Not unless I really, really needed to. I haven’t had enough practice,” Pandora sighed.

“You’re stressing about this too much, Pandora,” Cobalt interrupted from his position on the floor.

“Easy for you to say,” Pandora muttered. “You’re going to be a dog.”

Cobalt blew a raspberry.

While Raelynn and Cobalt bickered like an old married couple for no particular reason, Pandora thought about her conversation with Matthew. She’d told him she’d seen the beauty of magic – but she hadn’t really.

Perhaps the only time she’d seen beautiful magic was when her Being-summoning butterfly necklace had sprung to life. Now that had been beautiful. But now that she really thought about it, she was very inexperienced in the field of magic.

She dozed off when Raelynn and Cobalt had quietened. When she opened her eyes at the sound of midnight bells tolling from her grandfather clock, Raelynn was gone, while Cobalt was snoring comfortably on the floor.

Pandora stretched and wiped her eyes, feeling groggy. She hadn’t had a sleep before midnight for a while, and it was tiring her out.

“Right,” Pandora said loudly, startling Cobalt into consciousness, “let’s make this short and sweet. I can’t wait to get to sleep.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Cobalt muttered, his voice slurred. He yawned loudly, rolled over onto his stomach and told Pandora to turn around.

While he transformed into Cobalt the dog, she put on a more comfortable dress and a hooded cloak.

She nudged Cobalt in the stomach when she saw his dog body resting against the floor. Cobalt growled and jumped to his feet, and Pandora led him to the door.

“Sniff the air, boy,” Pandora coaxed, prodding him out the door. “Any unfamiliar scents?”

Cobalt obeyed and sniffed the air, concentrated and alert. He gave a low, quiet growl, signalling to Pandora that it was all clear.

Dog and girl sneaked through the castle with a constant routine – Pandora would hide behind the corner, while Cobalt would put his canine nose to good use. They worked well as a team. Cobalt was discreet with his signals, so as to leave the other guards unaware of their presence in the darkened corridors. He growled only very softly.

But when they reached a corridor where guards were patrolling, Cobalt gave Pandora an alarmed look and ran backwards as quietly as possible. Pandora rolled her eyes and hissed, “Psst!” almost inaudibly.

Cobalt’s sharpened sense picked up the sound and he turned back to Pandora. She nodded her head towards the direction of the guards and Cobalt came to rest beside her.

Pandora wrapped her fingers around the corner of the wall and stuck out her head. Two guards were playing a game and laughing loudly, a few meters away from a gleaming suit of armour.

Pandora squinted and took Raelynn’s advice. She reached for the magic inside of her heart, and found that it took a while. She really needed practice.

Eventually, her eyes glowed bright cerulean and the magic was released. She looked directly at the suit of armour; it rattled loudly for a few seconds, causing the two guards to look away.

Pandora tip-toed after Cobalt. The guards got up to investigate the mysterious moving armour, while Pandora and Cobalt continued their little adventure through the castle.

She cursed it for being so big. It took a long while, but eventually, Pandora and Cobalt reached the corner of the entrance hall. She poked her head around the corner and surveyed the situation.

Six guards stood straight as statues by the front doors of the castle.

Pandora bent down to Cobalt’s level.

“There are too many,” she whispered quietly. “Only a few will fall for a diversion. We need to find another way out.”

Cobalt seemed to narrow his eyes, which looked strange on a husky. Then he did something very odd, and transformed his head into his human head, while his body remained in dog mode. Pandora doubled back in disgust, making Cobalt roll his eyes.

“Yes, I can do that,” Cobalt hissed impatiently. “If the guards won’t be distracted by one diversion, then make several. I don’t know any other castle exits, except for the one for all the servants, and that’s too risky.”

Cobalt morphed back into full dog, and Pandora turned back to the six guards.

She breathed in deeply, reached into herself with invisible hands, and when she opened her eyes, they were glowing brighter than they ever had before. She shot her intense gaze at a large vase and made it fall over, thumping loudly. The guards, alerted, squinted at the vase.

Then, Pandora made a flower box fall from a pillar, a torch go out, more vases fall over and, after straining with exhaustion, made some stone of the wall actually crack. Afterwards, she panted and closed her eyes. Cobalt nudged her, reminding her to stay alert.

“Sorcerer in the castle!” the guards yelled out, running everywhere to try to find the culprit. It was now or never.

Pandora and Cobalt sprinted for their life across the length of the entrance hall. All the while, Pandora was shooting her gaze at statues and breaking off bits of stone, and displacing dust to swirl around them.

She yelled as she swung the door open and slammed it closed, skipping steps as she raced down. Cobalt howled in victory and Pandora hissed at him to shut up.

They didn’t slow down.

“Hello, there!” said a voice, scaring Pandora out of her wits. Princess Morellina was running along side her, both of their cloaks billowing in the night’s wind.

“I – I was just,” Pandora stammered.

“You don’t have to explain yourself,” the princess said, grinning. “My brother sent me.”

They sprinted behind a house, breathing hard. Pandora hoped that the princess hadn’t been inside when she’d created all those diversions.

“I do not care for my father’s views; a child is a child, whether she has magic or not,” Morellina said.

“Did you… follow me?” Pandora asked, trying to sound as polite as possible when panting behind a house in the dead of night.

“No,” the princess replied, and Pandora almost fainted in relief. “I was waiting for you near the castle.” Morellina paused. “Why do you have a dog?”

“Oh,” Pandora said, remembering Cobalt’s presence. “I think I brought him with me from Bangladesh. He was waiting in my chambers. He seemed pretty eager to come…”

No guards had gone out of the castle, meaning that Pandora and Cobalt must have run out unseen. The night was peaceful and still, crickets chirping and the stars shining brightly.

“I think we’re safe,” Morellina said. “Let’s go.”

Pandora followed the princess. Their journey through the streets of Mir was not disturbed and they weren’t seen by anyone. It was easy finding the stables, even in the darkness of night, because torches were held on either side of the door.

Morellina took a torch and entered the stables with Pandora and Cobalt. In the light of the fire, Pandora could see rows upon rows of majestic, powerful horses, and one girl petting a white horse soothingly.

“Lilith!” Pandora said happily. Lilith smiled at her.

“She loves horses,” Morellina said cheerfully. “Could get to the stables from any point in the city.”

“How did she get out of the dungeons?” Pandora asked, amazed at how well everything had turned out in the end.

“My brother,” Morellina answered fondly. “He, er, took a trip to the kitchens and burrowed a few tools… The guards’ heads might be hurting for a while.” Morellina laughed. “He sneaked around and hit every guard in the head without them seeing him.”

“Scary,” Pandora quipped.

Lilith jumped up on her horse with surprising ease, obviously ready to go.

“You and Matthew… you’re going against your own parents to save one child,” Pandora said in disbelief. She hadn’t known royals to be like that.

“And we would gladly do it again,” Morellina said with a lopsided smile. Pandora saw so much of the old Morellina in this princess version of her.

The princess mounted a horse of her own – a stunning beast with a long, snow white mane and black eyes.

“Are you coming?” Morellina asked.

Pandora shook her head. “Not if I don’t have to. I’ve never touched a horse before.”

Morellina gave her an odd look. “Then how did you get from Bangladesh to Mir? It must have been a long way, because I’ve never heard of it.”

Pandora shrugged. “I can’t remember my journey here. I’m only glad I arrived.”

Morellina smiled. “I’ll be seeing you soon, then. To Ignatia, we go!”

Pandora raised her hand in farewell as Lilith and Morellina rode off into the night. She watched the two horses ride into the trees together, until they were lost from her view and she silently made her way back up to the castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 THE SHIPS

 

 

The warning bells woke her at the break of dawn.

She jerked upwards. Her dreams had not been pleasant – once again, there had been swirling purple mist, but this time she saw people screaming, and fires burning in her eyelids, and a mother holding her dead baby in her shivering, bony arms.

The warning bells carried throughout the whole city. As they were held on top of the castle, it was loudest where Pandora was because of her high room.

Sweating from the horrors of her dreams and knowing she wouldn’t be able to go to sleep again, she went behind her screen and began dressing.

The door opened not a moment later. It was Raelynn, sounding quite frantic.

“Pandora,” she said, “they’ve discovered that Lilith is gone. The king wants to see you in the throne room. I think he suspects you.”

Pandora calmed her nerves. She would get out of this somehow. She knew she would.

“I’ll be there soon,” she told Raelynn, smoothing the fabric of her dress.

She sighed and tied her hair up in a bun as quickly as she could. She then followed Raelynn to the throne room. Because the sun had only just peeked up from under the horizon, it was still rather dark, and torches were lit in the throne room. The royal family sat on their thrones, the king and queen questioning the quiet Astraea while Morellina and Matthew observed the interrogation. The king, seeing Pandora approaching, let Astraea go.

“Pandora,” the king greeted warmly. Pandora wasn’t fooled. She knew he was suspicious about her. Nevertheless, she curtseyed in greeting.

“Your Majesty,” she said.

“I apologise about yesterday,” the king said quite sincerely. “I hope you can understand how it must have looked to me.”

“Of course, sire,” Pandora said.

“But once again, I must treat you as I should not – for the sorceress girl has escaped, and you are one of the few who cared for her.”

Pandora bowed her head. “I will gladly answer questions, sire, but you can be assured that I did not aid her escape in any way.”

“Where were you last night?” the queen asked, though softer than one might speak when interrogating someone.

“Why, I was in my chambers the whole time,” Pandora said innocently.

“Can anyone vouch for you?” the queen asked.

“I…” Pandora faltered. “My maidservant, Raelynn, can.”

The king looked at the crimson-haired girl with an almost undetectable trace of disdain.

“Can anyone else?” the king asked.

Of course. Servants were lowly and their word counted for nothing in King Vance’s world.

Pandora didn’t speak. Instead, Matthew did.

“I can, Father. I went with her to her chambers last night in hopes of finding the rat family that has decided to reside somewhere in her room,” Matthew lied smoothly.

“And I, Father, can confirm this. I saw the both of them entering the chambers while on my way to my own chambers,” Morellina added, looking perfectly truthful.

“Wonderful,” the king said, smiling at Pandora. “Then there is no need for any more questions. I am sorry to have caused any convenience, my lady.”

“None was caused at all, sire,” Pandora replied politely. She did an awkward curtsey in farewell and left the throne room, Raelynn in tow.

Charles was waiting outside.

“Did you free Lilith? Is she liberated at last?” he whispered.

“I didn’t free Lilith,” Pandora said with a smile. “Matthew freed her, and then Morellina rode out with her to Ignatia. Cobalt and I didn’t really need to do anything. I suppose it was good that I was able to say a last goodbye, though. Or a wave, anyway.”

Charles looked sad. His eyes were cast downwards. Pandora felt pity for him.

“Do you miss her a lot?” Raelynn asked.

Charles looked up at the both of them. “Sorrow comes in pairs; its despondent ache leaves my bones brittle and cheeks sullen, for she has left for the stars and here I stay amongst its laurels,” he recited woefully.

“That was… um…” Pandora didn’t really know what to say.

“Beautiful?” Raelynn suggested.

“Yes, that. But I don’t understand. Lilith hasn’t left for the stars; she’s only gone to Ignatia,” Pandora said, confused.

“Ignatia is the stars,” Charles said, as though that cleared everything up. He took in a deep, shuddering breath, sounding as though he was about to burst into tears.

“I still don’t understand.”

Charles looked at her like she was the dumbest person in the world.

“Ignatia is a small gathering of escaped sorcerers and sorceresses named after a constellation in our sky, Ignatia. If one lines up the stars, the image of a tree is formed, which represents magic,” Charles told her. He brought the two girls to a window and pointed up to the Mir sky.

“You see that bright star there, next to the red one?” Charles asked. Pandora nodded. “Try to connect the stars.”

And Pandora did, and it made the most beautiful tree she’d ever seen. A tree made of stars.

“The tree represents magic because magic is everything – magic is nature’s mother. And one of nature’s most basic beings is the tree,” Raelynn said, grasping the concept easily.

Charles nodded. “Exactly. Once again, a woman’s intelligence is wrongly underestimated.”

“So Lilith’s gone off to Ignatia, to live a life of magic, which you can see in the stars,” Pandora continued, also understanding.

Charles sighed as the three looked at the tree in the stars. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”

Pandora made a lopsided grin. Maybe Charles would be this world’s own Shakespeare. Or maybe he would write it down somewhere, and when Shakespeare would be born he would steal the line. Who knew?

Like Kalypso had said, there were so many different futures. She had predicted that Pandora would ride with Lilith, but that had not been the case. Morellina had. That meant that the world was beautifully unpredictable, and its future was written in the stars, where Lilith resided.

 

 

A whole week passed without the occurrence of any interesting events.

The king and queen found no more suspects for Lilith’s escape from the dungeons, and decided that she must have escaped on her own, however unlikely the possibility was.

Charles wrote more poetry and Astraea ran her tavern, and told Pandora that once she caught a certain member of hers being drunk again, she would fire him and hire her, if she so wished. Pandora was grateful.

She and Raelynn didn’t visit Kalypso, Gabe or Avelina in the Mistwood, though on occasion they would see either Gabe or Avelina in the streets and exchanged curt nods, so as to not draw attention.

Pandora dined with the royals every night, finding it easier and easier each time.

Charles and Astraea’s sadness over Lilith was as inevitable as the rain, and lately there had been an abundance of both. On one day though, the rain cleared up, but the sky stayed overcast. The people rejoiced at the disappearance of the rain and celebrated by either visiting the taverns or doing activities with their families.

But Pandora rather liked the castle. She enjoyed watching the city from afar, and so it was that she found herself sitting by the window more than one would probably consider healthy back in Pandora’s own dimension.

On the day that the rain went away, Pandora went outside of her chambers and stood by one of the windows in the walkways. Raelynn was reading, as she usually did when Pandora decided to stare out the window.

All of a sudden, Raelynn startled Pandora yelling out, “Oh!”

“What?” Pandora snapped, irritated at having been scared by Raelynn’s outburst.

“I just remembered – you said things have been getting boring around here, yeah? Well, Charles told me yesterday that King Damien’s arriving tomorrow. The royals will be leaving soon. Maybe you should go with them, get a change of scenery.”

Pandora groaned exasperatedly. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“Whatever, my lady,” Raelynn said, smirking. The pair walked down to the castle’s stables – on the night that Lilith had escaped, Morellina had led her to the town’s main stables, but only because going to the castle’s stables was too risky.

“I still don’t know how to ride a horse,” Pandora said, watching the animals move around in their stables. She felt a certain respect for them – after all, they were a lot bigger than her, and a hundred times more powerful, yet the majority looked delicate and beautiful, like royals. The others were tough-looking, and had a sort of gritty air about them.

“I think it’s time you learned, then,” Raelynn said with a grin. “The royals must have already left – some horses are missing.”

Pandora rolled her eyes and approached what looked to be the friendliest horse. It had a silky, black mane – almost like the hair Pandora used to see in shampoo commercials – and chocolate coloured skin.

“I’ll do the saddle, but you’re own your own with the riding, I’m afraid,” Raelynn said, feigning disappointment.

She saddled the horse Pandora had chosen and then did the same to another horse. When she finished, Pandora narrowed her eyes.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

Raelynn grinned and nodded. “Very much so.”

She made grabbed her horse’s reins and gently directed it out of the stables. Pandora cautiously held onto her own horse’s reins and gave them a little tug.

The horse made no move to follow Pandora.

“Raelynn! Help, please!”

By the time Pandora’s horse was outside and Raelynn had reluctantly aided her in mounting the horse, they imagined that the royals were probably halfway to their destination.

“Where are we even going?” Pandora asked curiously.

“The beach,” Raelynn replied promptly. “Astewell is an island city. King Damien is coming over by boat. The beach is just beyond the Mistwood.”

“Right… Now, how do I make it move?” Pandora asked. She felt awfully uncomfortable just sitting on the back, and knew she would feel horrible once the horse got going. That is, if she ever figured out how to make the horse trot.

Raelynn simply smiled sweetly and galloped away.

Pandora sighed. She probably should have expected that. A week as a noblewoman was probably making her the slightest bit arrogant.

Right, what did Kalypso say?

Pandora closed her eyes, trying to visualise their last meeting once more.

Old Magic is everything, and everything is bound by it. Those who tap into the ancient force can connect with any natural material or living being in the universe… You will have no problem riding a horse, so long as you believe.”

Believe

“Right,” Pandora muttered to herself. “I believe I can ride this horse,” she announced.

Nothing came to her. She still felt utterly stupid.

“Um… I do believe I can ride this horse; I do, I do,” she chanted, taking advice from Peter Pan.

Apparently, that didn’t work either.

I believe I can fly…” she hummed to herself quietly while she thought about the situation.

How was she meant to make herself believe?

She couldn’t. She just had to really believe. But how? Animals weren’t her thing – Cobalt the husky included. A week ago, she was stressing about assignments, and now she was meant to know that Ancient Magic would help her ride a horse in another dimension while wearing a cloak and a dress draped over the horse’s butt.

Pandora sighed and stroked the horse fondly. Maybe it was uncomfortable to sit on her, but she sure was a beautiful creature.

What has magic done so far, Pandora? she asked herself.

Destroyed the castle’s entrance hall. Made a necklace come to life and summon a future-telling spirit. Created a pathway between dimensions and sucked me in. Transformed Cobalt into a husky, and Raelynn’s skin into Glow City. Saved a girl from being burnt at the stake.

And Pandora remembered what Charles had said about the constellation, Ignatia, and she looked up in the sky.

If she could survive a week in a parallel universe, she could ride a horse.

Now she believed.

With a sharp intake of breath, all of Pandora’s senses sharpened yet dimmed at the same time. Her mind was focussed on the creature under her; her sharp eyes saw every separate strand of the horse’s mane. Her ears heard every small breath, every crunch of sticks under the horse’s hooves. She sniffed the air and smelled the odd but not displeasing scent of the horse. Her skin was sensitive to every little movement the horse’s muscles made and every change in balance. And she could taste the air, and she knew immediately that what she tasted was magic.

But the outside world – how dim it was! The world was in black-and-white, despite the horse’s colour being sharpened immensely. The trees and the people were blurred, and she heard only a faint muttering of voices, while before it had been loud shouts and joyous laughter. She smelled nothing, felt nothing and tasted nothing, and her entire mind was connected only with the horse.

Go, she nudged through her thoughts. Follow the royals to the beach. Quickly.

The horse obeyed.

Pandora yelped and grabbed the reins as her horse neighed loudly and sprinted for the Mistwood. She faintly realised that the passers-by of Mir were screaming and jumping out of the way, but in this moment she didn’t care, because she loved the horse with all her heart.

Magic was freaky.

They dashed through the city in no time and entered the Mistwood at the same pace. She thought she passed a very shocked Raelynn after a while, but her outside vision was too blurry to tell.

After what felt like a few minutes, though was probably half an hour, the horse slowed to a trot. Pandora’s vision of the outside world cleared up, and she thought she might have lost her magical grip on the horse, until she saw the beach through the trees and realised that the horse must have willfully pushed her out.

“Halt, boy,” she whispered to the horse. It gladly obeyed, gently stopping at the edge of the trees. Pandora hopped down clumsily and didn’t bother to tether the horse to a tree; she knew it wouldn’t run away.

Composing herself once more and getting used to her returned senses, Pandora walked down the bright white sand, relishing the feeling of sand creeping into her useless shoes. She took them off and tossed them next to her horse.

The royals were standing at different positions, surveying the horizon. The water looked calm and pleasant, thanks to the sky completely clearing up. Pandora had to refrain from jumping with joy at the sight of a beach – how she managed to handle her homesickness without breaking down, she would never know. What she did know was that the beach reminded her of home and family. She missed her parents, and even her little brother, James.

The prince turned around, noticing Pandora for the first time.

“Lady Pandora! I wasn’t informed that you would be joining us this morning,” he said, turning back to the horizon when Pandora came to stand beside him.

“I decided I needed some excitement, sire. The beach looks lovely! Will we be having a swim later?” Pandora asked, joyfully running down to the water and letting it wash over her bare toes.

“A swim?” Matthew repeated incredulously. “Maybe in Bangladesh, swimming is a common occurrence, but most people in Mir will never see the beach, and those of the castle will see it very rarely. We haven’t any place or time for swimming.”

“No swimming?” Pandora gawked at him. How boring their lives must have been after a while. “Surely there are lakes?”

“Yes, but–”

Morellina interrupted them. “It’s awfully cold and there are tales of monsters that lie within its depths,” she finished for her brother.

“Ah. Okay then.”

“Why aren’t you two wearing any shoes?”

King Vance interrupted their little chat by calling for his children. “Matthew, Morellina – I see the ships of Astewell on the horizon.”

Matthew and Morellina joined their parents, and Charles joined Pandora.

“Bit overcautious, don’t you think? With all those knights?” Pandora muttered.

Charles turned behind him. Around thirty knights and guards were scattered in different positions, swords tucked away but still easy to grab at a moment’s notice.

“No, not really,” Charles replied honestly, “for the relationship between Mir and Astewell has always been a frosty one. There are ancient feuds that go back many years.”

“What feuds?” Pandora asked, crinkling her brow. The sun was wonderful on her face, and she squinted as she watched the brown dots on the horizon.

“Oh, old wars and battles… Trivial things that the two kings have not yet learned to forget.”

Raelynn arrived after a few minutes, looking shocked and amazed.

“Pandora!” she yelled from the trees, beginning her awkward trudge down the sandy hill. “What the – how on Earth…?”

Pandora smirked. “Oh, it was simple enough,” she said, sounding unconcerned. “Just a tug of the reins and away she went.”

Raelynn grumbled when she reached Pandora. “My horse didn’t do that.”

“Maybe your horse doesn’t like you.”

“I doubt yours loved you any more than mine loved me,” Raelynn retorted.

“But then how do you explain my horse sprinting all the way to the beach – just for me?” Pandora asked innocently.

Raelynn rolled her eyes.

“Anyway, don’t you have some kind of rune that can help you…?”

“No,” Raelynn scoffed. “The only runes I’ve made on my skin are totally anti-animal.”

“Poor Cobalt,” Pandora sniffed. “Where is he?”

“In my room,” Raelynn shared reluctantly. Pandora burst out laughing and ducked down to avoid Raelynn’s slap.

They waited for half an hour, watching the two brown dots on the horizon grow bigger and bigger until they made out the outline of two grand ships, and then they saw the details: the unicorn heads at the bow, the grand white sails, the people doing their jobs on the ship decks, rows of cannons at each side and a rather frightening man at each wheel. Pandora was awed by the ships’ size and magnificence; it wasn’t every day she saw ships like these.

A square section of the hull at the front of the ship slowly descended, revealing a man who was quite clearly the king. He walked down the stairs formed by the fallen hull section with his head held high, a golden staff in hand.

King Damien was every bit as grand and pompous-looking as Pandora had imagined. He wore gold wherever it would go on his body, and his grey hair was coiffed. His robes were made of fur and silk, and he eyed the king with an expression Pandora couldn’t quite identify.

“Vance,” Damien said curtly.

“Damien,” Mir’s king said in return.

One ship, Pandora realised, was for the king, the servants and the knights, while the other was for commoners. But why would Damien bring along all his people?

“What is your business here?” Vance asked. His tone was smooth, yet cold and indifferent. Hidden resentment lurked in his words.

“I have come to ask for your help,” Damien said, putting his staff into the sand. Charles, Pandora and Raelynn watched the exchange from a distance, squinting slightly against the sea breeze tousling their hair.

“What kind of help?”

Damien sighed. “No doubt you have heard of the misfortune that has befallen our land.”

“Yes.”

“This… magical battle… destroyed half of our land,” Damien said woefully. “So many innocent people died.”

Pandora gasped when she felt another presence behind her. Raelynn and Charles seemed perfectly unaware of Raven Avelina lurking behind them. Pandora felt the wind change when the wise sorceress was around; the air crackled and was infused with an inexplicable energy.

“Aren is here,” Avelina whispered hoarsely. If Pandora didn’t know better, she would say that Raven Avelina was frightened.

“Who is Aren?” Pandora whispered, taking a slow step back. Raelynn and Charles didn’t notice, intent as they were on focussing on the two kings’ exchange.

Avelina took in a slightly shaky breath and grabbed Pandora’s wrist, startling her. Her touch was ice cold and sent shivers up her spine. She knew that Avelina wasn’t here – but then how exactly could Pandora see her?

“Aren is the most dangerous man I’ve ever known. He was my best friend,” Avelina continued in her quiet whisper. “When he turned against me – and the other Beings – we battled to the death. Our battle caused the destruction of much of Astewell, but I thought I had won. I thought our world was free from Aren.”

Avelina paused. “I am wrong. I sense him here, right now. He is somewhere here, hiding in plain sight…”

Pandora scanned the line of knights beside King Damien – they all seemed knight-like enough.

“I was lucky to survive that battle…” Avelina murmured, her grip tightening on Pandora’s wrist. “So was Aren. And it was all for nothing. He shouldn’t be here. He is malicious, Pandora. Take care. He will stay in Mir. He’s a shadow, you see, a shadow you can’t chase, and he slips through your hands like time.”

Pandora was chilled. She felt goosebumps rise from her skin, despite the warm sunshine.

“Be careful. He is deceitful and merciless. Be careful.”

“I will,” Pandora promised, “but I don’t even know who he is.”

“You will,” Avelina whispered. Pandora turned around, but then the grip on her wrist disappeared and all she faced was the trees of the Mistwood.

Shaken, she took her place once more beside Charles and Raelynn and listened to the two kings.

“My surviving people now live on a boat,” King Damien said bitterly, flourishing his staff at the other ship, “and you won’t aid us at all?”

“I am deeply sorry, Damien,” Vance said without a trace of apology in his tone, “but money is currently scarce in Mir. I must put my people first before the other kingdoms.”

“He’s not lying,” Raelynn muttered. “They talk about it all the time. Guess Summer’s a little too hot for their crops, but I think it’s Autumn now.”

King Damien’s face turned very hard.

“CURSE THIS LAND!” he roared, making Charles whimper.

The king angrily stomped back into his ship. As the knights followed him, Pandora saw one particular knight with odd, amber eyes smirk, before following the lead of the other knights.

That was Aren.

The hull repaired itself, and the ships turned around and sailed back to the island city of Astewell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 THE CURSE

 

 

The real trouble began the next day.

It all started with the messenger boy running up to the king and saying, “Your Majesty, our water is gone, to be replaced by the most gruesome of creatures!”

So the king and the queen went with the messenger boy to the closest well. He attached a bucket to the rope and let it down the well, squirming in displeasure. When he pulled the bucket back up, the king and queen gasped in disgust and the commoners peered at the bucket with concern, for there was not a single drop of water in the bucket. Instead, the bucket was filled to the brim with centipedes, spiders, scorpions, beetles, maggots and all sorts of horrible creatures.

The messenger boy led the royals to every well in the city. Pandora followed, shocked and perplexed. How could this have happened? Not a single well contained any water.

The prince and a select few knights travelled to the city’s water sources. When they came back later that day, they told the king regretfully that the waterfall was no longer made of water – only bugs and tiny rodents.

The prince travelled out of the city again, this time with a much larger group for company. They brought many buckets with them and went to a rushing waterfall nearby.

But every time they tried to scoop up some of the water, it would magically disappear. This time, Matthew returned in anger, telling Vance that sorcery had touched their city.

And so the first day passed. The children cried in their thirst and the adults were extremely distressed; all they could live off was other people’s personal stores. They wouldn’t last long.

Pandora sat in her chambers with Raelynn that night, not talking, simply pondering the curse that had befallen Mir.

Her throat was dry as she dozed off to sleep, but she ignored it.

The second day brought more horror.

The people cried that day and their faces were red and despondent. They came to the king, and the throne room was so full that the guards had to lock out others.

The citizens spoke of their crops’ fate. Every single crop, in every little field, had been burnt by a spontaneous fire that had no reason to appear.

King Vance and Queen Lilianna travelled to the farms and fields, surveying the dead crops sorrowfully. All the kingdom could eat was, once again, other people’s personal stores.

Pandora tried to secretly connect with the Old Magic to revive the crops, but even the magic as ancient as time couldn’t bring the dead back to life. Her stomach growled for the whole day, but she refused to eat more than a handful of grains for each meal, because she knew that many would be eating even less than that.

That night, the people were hungry and thirsty. When Pandora dined with the royals, she noticed that the feast was half its usual size; the king had made sure that the food they didn’t need went to his people. Despite his hate of magic, Pandora knew he was a good king.

On the third day of the week, massive swarms of bugs attacked the land. They ranged from fruit flies to bees to bugs Pandora had never heard of before. The city was dark as dusk, because the swarms covered the sun and shielded everyone from light. The noise of buzzing was deafening, and the people ran around with their hands tightly clamped over their ears.

Hundreds of Mir’s citizens came to the court physician that day. He tried his best to heal everyone, but even with the many volunteers including Pandora, Raelynn and Cobalt, not everyone could be saved. Those who had been undernourished didn’t make it. The makeshift hospital in the middle of the city was full of sick people, and several were being taken away, for they could no longer be tended to.

Pandora stayed inside the hospital or the castle for most of the day, knowing that it was best to stay indoors. Several small swarms managed to enter the castle, but eventually the guards caught them all.

She watched from her window, Cobalt looking horrified, as the black masses blocked the daylight. At night, they left, but the damage had already been done.

That evening, the people wept for their dead or dying loved ones and prayed to the stars that the misfortune would stop. In her chambers, Pandora looked up at the sky and saw the constellation of Ignatia. She whispered to the tree, “Please help the people.”

On the fourth day, the curse continued.

This time, it was a terrible storm. The guards barricaded the doors, ensuring the safety of everyone in the castle. Everything ran normally – the servants continued to serve, and the king and queen attended to court matters, and the prince trained his knights in the largest empty room of the castle. But there was something else – a sort of sad desperation, because they knew that the consequences of this storm would not be light.

Pandora sighed as she watched the storm, her book forgotten. Rain fell like war drums against her window and the force of the winds reached that of a cyclone. Every minute, lightning struck and the whole city was blinded by the white light, and deafened by the crack. Pandora could hardly see out of her window because of the horrible weather, but she stayed in her chair, warming her hands by the fire and feeling sick to the stomach for the people who didn’t have the protection of a castle’s walls.

Once again, Cobalt and Raelynn were lounging around in her chambers, as they did most of these days anyway. There wasn’t much to do but be sad about the curse; Cobalt wasn’t meant to exist and Raelynn was serving a girl that did nothing but talk and look out the window and read. Pandora desperately wanted some excitement in her life – and not excitement that included people dying.

The storm stopped at dusk, though a light pattering of rain still fell.

Cobalt transformed into the husky, and he, Raelynn and Pandora ran outside to survey the damage. Children wailed in the streets, crying for their unmoving parents and screaming for their demolished homes. Roofs were strewn all over the streets, precious grain lay scattered on the ground and almost every single house had collapsed in on itself.

At night, King Vance provided shelter in the spare rooms of the castle and in linen tents in the courtyard for the people. Some said they were fine sleeping anywhere, so as Pandora went up to her chambers after dinner, she passed many people sleeping peacefully on the cold, stone floor with only a blanket for comfort. Pandora, feeling sorry for them, used her magic to light more torches.

Her sleep was restless.

The fifth day was the worst so far.

As soon as she woke up, Pandora rushed down to the throne room, needing to know what the curse brought today.

“This is just horrible,” Pandora murmured to Raelynn as they rushed down the spiral staircase. “I just wish it would all stop.”

“We’ve been lucky so far,” Raelynn said in reply. “The curse hasn’t affected the castle too much.”

“Excluding the shrinking amount of water, the tiny meals and the people sleeping in the corridors?”

“No need to be smart,” Raelynn muttered.

They entered the throne room together. As Pandora had expected, there was a long line of people standing before King Vance’s throne, but this time was different, because she couldn’t immediately see anything wrong.

Morellina whispered the latest news to Pandora as Vance talked to his people.

“Around fifty died from hunger, thirst or both yesterday,” she said, making Pandora closed her eyes in despair. “Twenty from the storm. Twenty more from insect bites. Ten from… well, the court physician said that they became too cold…”

Hypothermia

“This is just – how in the world can we stop this?” Pandora asked frantically, noticing how long the line was today.

“I don’t know,” Morellina answered sadly. “That’s the problem.”

Pandora moved closer to the king so that she could hear what the people were saying.

“My eyes, Your Majesty,” the woman sniffed. “They’ve been touched by black magic. I lost my sight this morning. I see nothing but the darkness.”

An eerie chorus of, “I, too!” echoed throughout the throne room.

“My skin, sire! I feel nothing. I am eternally numb!” another commoner cried out with despair. Once again, a chorus of agreement came from the line.

“My tongue is without taste,” a young girl said sadly, wiping tears from her eyes.

“I smell nothing,” a young man choked out. “No longer can I smell the rosy scent of my beautiful wife, nor the smell of fresh spring rain.”

And Pandora knew what was coming next. The pattern was simple enough to see. One of the blind people nudged a middle-aged woman who had not yet spoken.

When she did, her speech was slurred, like she didn’t know what she was saying. She obviously wasn’t drunk – her balance was steady. She held back tears as she spoke of her problem.

“I do not hear, Your Majesty. I don’t know what you have been saying to the people, for there is nothing but silence in my mind,” she said, her words sounding odd.

The king placed his head in his hands, horrified by what had happened to his people.

“NO!” Matthew shouted all of a sudden. His voice carried loudly throughout the entire room, silencing every last sob. “I will not let this carry on any longer!”

“Matthew – sit down,” the king begged wearily.

“Father, I cannot bear to see our people suffer anymore. I must travel to Astewell and right this wrong,” the prince said determinedly.

The king looked at his son fondly. “You will make a great king one day.”

“Thank you, Father.”

“Your loyalty to the people is admirable. Be careful on this quest, Matthew. Gather your most trusted knights,” the king commanded.

“Yes, Father,” the prince said, a hint of a smile on his face when he realised that the city of Mir might have a chance to survive, but the flicker of happiness faded when he saw his people.

“I will leave at dawn,” the prince said.

And so the day passed. The court physician tried to heal the people’s senses, but nothing at all helped. It was useless to try, because the curse had been created by black magic. Pandora knew it could only be countered by white magic, but the king would never authorise such a method of healing.

The sixth day of the curse jabbed the heart of everyone in Mir.

A hundred people died overnight. The prince decided to postpone his trip until tomorrow, to attend the funerals of all who had died by the curse’s hand.

Raelynn rapped on Pandora’s door at dawn, almost screaming at her to get dressed. Pandora hurried to slip into her dress and followed Raelynn downstairs.

It was then that she found out how the people died. The king had reserved one, giant, sun-bathed room for the hundred. Pandora was shocked to the bone.

A hundred ice statues lined the walls of this room, so real and frightening. Pandora stepped up to the closest statue, studying the face. It looked so fearful and sad, its mouth parted in a silent scream. Pandora knew that these statues… they were of real people.

She hurried out of the room, a shiver running up her spine.

~

She spent the rest of the day doing nothing, and then in the evening she went to the tavern, because that was the place she felt like going.

The Brave Phoenix had great business; everyone was coming there to drink away their troubles. They laughed and drank and sang without a care in the world. Pandora envied them, but she knew she was too young to drink.

Sighing, Pandora pulled Raelynn to the counter.

“Astraea!” she said over the noise, smiling. Astraea looked pleased to see the both of them.

“Hi, there! What can I get you girls?” she asked.

Raelynn, ridden with fatigue, answered first. “A flagon of brandy, two flagons of whisky…” she muttered unhappily.

“Who’s the most interesting person to talk to in this tavern at this moment?” Pandora said over Raelynn.

Astraea looked surprised at her request. “Why, you’ll be wanting either Charles or Six-Fingers Jack over there.” She pointed to a large group sitting around a single table.

“Thank you,” Pandora said gratefully. She wanted to escape the horror of the curse, at least for a few minutes, and she figured that if it was too dangerous for her to drink she should talk with someone who had something fascinating to say.

“They look dodgy,” Raelynn said reproachfully as Pandora began walking over to the table.

“All the better,” Pandora said distractedly. Raelynn moaned.

“…And so I stabbed the beast, and it – who are you?” the man telling the stories said as Pandora and Raelynn pulled up a chair.

“Lady Pandora of Bangladesh, Australia,” Pandora replied automatically, “and my maidservant, Raelynn.”

“What would someone like you be wanting in a tavern?” the man asked curiously. “This is no place for a lady.”

He was a tough man, looking as though he’d been through enough fights to last him a lifetime. He had scars all over his skin, and some of his yellowing teeth were missing. Pandora realised that the man had a gloved hand of six fingers.

“Are you Six-Fingers Jack?” Pandora asked, ignoring the man’s last question. “Because if you are, Astraea said you would be interesting to talk to.”

“Well, I am,” Six-Fingers Jack said, and rather haughtily too, Pandora noticed.

“Great!” Pandora said brightly. “Let’s hear how fascinating you can be, then.”

The man accepted this as a challenge and his face turned determined and slightly arrogant. He turned to all his audience, took a swig from his drink and pointed at them all.

“I’m going to tell you all a story,” Six-Fingers Jack growled, “that’s going to make you think a little.”

The other men sitting around the table brightened considerably after learning that there was another story; they were like children – children chanting for a bedtime story.

“Once, not so long ago, there was a great war between two kingdoms. The kings were sensible and had tried to negotiate, but so bitter were they towards each other that they could not speak without seeing red. They sent their men out to fight – knights, guards and all willing commoners.”

Everyone at the table was hanging onto Jack’s every word. They looked at him intently, willing him to continue.

“But this story isn’t about the kings, and it isn’t about the war. It’s the story of a knight’s loving father. The knight was called Vincent the Valiant, for he was the bravest in all the land and had slain more beasts than the two warring kings ever dreamed of slaying.

“On the final day of the war, when the kings agreed that they lost too many men and that this would be their final battle, Vincent the Valiant fought heroically. He killed many men that day, but met his own death within the final minutes.

“The knight’s father cried at his son’s funeral, but after a single night knowing that a monster had slain the thing most precious to him, his eyes grew dry and his thoughts cold and merciless. The people of the kingdom, though victorious, were sad about all the losses, and they cowered in fear when the knight’s father turned on his friends in a fit of rage. From then on, he was banished from the kingdom.

“The knight’s father set out to find the man who had killed his son. He travelled to the other kingdom that had participated in the war and talked to the king. The knight’s father was intelligent and deceitful; he pretended to praise the king about his men, and let him bathe in glory, despite his loss. And so the father, after feeding the king many a flagon of brandy, managed to get the truth out of the king. He told the knight’s father that the person who had killed his son was without a true name, but that the people called him the Dragon.

“That night, the knight’s father hunted the Dragon. He found him in his sleep and pressed the cold tip of his blade near the Dragon’s throat, but then thought better of it, for death would be a blessing for the Dragon. Instead, the knight’s father slit the throat of the Dragon’s son, so that he might feel the same heart-wrenching pain.

“The Dragon ran the next day and the knight’s father followed him to the ends of the world, taunting him, torturing him. The Dragon saw the father’s crazed eyes every night before he went to sleep.

“This went on for twenty treacherous years, until finally the Dragon went mad. He brandished his own knife and brought to his throat with determination, but the knight’s father would not allow that. He used black magic to encase the Dragon in an ice coffin that kept breath in his body, so that the Dragon would never meet his son again.

“Then the knight’s father, having accomplished his mission, took his own life and joined his son in the afterlife.

“To this day, the Dragon remains somewhere buried in the ground, still breathing.”

The men around the table murmured with amazement, whispering about the story and the characters. Six-Fingers Jack was as imaginative as they came.

Raelynn was wide awake, looking horrified by the tale. Six-Fingers Jack was satisfied, leaning back in his chair and drinking his brandy with the vigour of someone who’d seen water after a year in the desert.

“Is that a true story?” one of the men asked.

Six-Fingers Jack smiled tightly. “That’s the excitement to my stories. You can’t know.”

“I don’t understand, Jack,” Pandora said with a frown. “You said you would tell a story that would make us think, but what about?”

Six-Fingers Jack leaned forward, so close that Pandora could smell the alcohol on his breath and see all the hills and valleys in his green irises.

“The moral of the story is that bitterness is one of the most powerful motivations known to man – the knight’s father was enveloped by it. Bitter thoughts never left his mind, so he had to satiate them,” the storyteller said in his gravelly voice. “But that isn’t the strongest motivation. Can you guess what the strongest is?”

“Love,” Pandora whispered at once. “The knight’s father grew bitter because of his love for his son. His immense love drove him insane.”

Six-Fingers Jack nodded with approval. “Exactly. Love and bitterness are the main emotions of this story. Now, I want to tell you something else.”

“What?” Pandora asked curiously. The men were still chatting about the latest story, and the only person listening in was Raelynn.

“This curse, as we all should know, was created by King Damien of Astewell. But not because King Vance refused to aid Astewell, as one would imagine.”

“He did it because of love,” Pandora said automatically.

“Yes,” Six-Fingers Jack said. “Love. Love is universal, and runs through families for centuries – even millennia. And love had made King Vance and King Damien so bitter towards each other, even though they, themselves, have not wronged each other.”

“You mean their ancestors did?” Pandora asked.

“Their fathers, to be exact,” Jack said with a short nod. “One of the most important rules of war is that feuding kings must never lay a finger on the other’s queen. Both their fathers broke that rule, and each grew up without a mother.”

“So Damien has unleashed this curse on Mir – killing hundreds – because of what Vance’s father did years ago?”

Six-Fingers looked sad. “Love can be as bitter as it is sweet.”

Pandora was silent for a while. She was glad to have come to the tavern that evening – Six-Fingers Jack had been fascinating.

“Thank you for telling us the story,” Raelynn said.

Jack turned to the girl with the crimson hair. “Come by any time. I spend most of my life here nowadays.”

Raelynn didn’t really know what to say to that, so she said goodbye and tugged on Pandora’s dress. They left the tavern and walked into the night, each lost in their own thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9 THE VOYAGE

 

 

The curse stopped on the seventh day, though the effects remained.

The first thing Pandora did, after she ate her tiny handful of wheat for breakfast, was go down to the ballroom that served as the tribute room for all the ice statues. She and Raelynn perused the beautiful sculptures, studying the faces and the eyes. Of course, the ice hadn’t melted one bit. Doing so would provide drinking water for the people.

“This place gives me the creeps,” Raelynn muttered, shivering.

“Of course it does,” Pandora murmured, tracing the cheeks of a young woman with her finger. “It’s a graveyard.”

“Let’s go, please,” Raelynn said quietly, stepping away from the statues.

Pandora watched her slightly pale maidservant eye the statues apprehensively. She sighed and left the room with her.

As they walked, they crossed paths with Matthew, who was dressed up in what Pandora had to dub “casual armour”. He looks surprised to see them.

“Sire – are you going to Astewell this morning?” Pandora asked hopefully.

“Yes, I am,” the prince replied.

“Please allow to accompany you,” Pandora said. Such exciting events couldn’t be missed – being a noblewoman was boring and monotone, and the novelty of being able to boss around Raelynn Casey had worn off several days ago.

The prince looked conflicted. “I can’t, Lady Pandora. It is much too dangerous.”

Pandora pretended to look offended. “I may dress up in gowns and brush my hair and curtsey all the time, but back in Bangladesh most of my friends were male, for I feel that the lives of men are much more interesting than those of ladies. I am not a typical noblewoman, sire. I can defend myself, and I am certainly not afraid to journey to an unknown land.”

Pandora wistfully remembered the twice weekly karate lessons she’d taken back in her own dimension. Maybe she was only an orange belt, but she knew five different ways to kill a man with a single jab. (The only problem was that Pandora was too scared to try.)

The prince looked slightly impressed, but his defiance didn’t waver. “I’m sorry, my lady. This is a quest only for my knights and I. And I thought you didn’t remember anything from before your arrival in Mir?”

Pandora internally blushed at her stupidity. “I – I had a sudden flashback.”

“Flashback?” Matthew repeated in confusion.

“It’s a Bangladesh term…” Pandora mumbled. “Anyway, please allow me to come, sire!” she begged.

The prince shook his head. “I cannot. Farewell for now, Pandora.”

He flicked his hand in a lazy wave and walked off down the corridor. Raelynn looked unimpressed by the prince, and Pandora briefly stuck out her tongue at his back.

“You can still go, you know. We both can,” Raelynn whispered, because Matthew was still in earshot.

“How?” Pandora whispered back.

Raelynn grinned. “There are certain things you learn when you’re a servant.”

“Like how to scrub the floor and plump the pillows?” Pandora supplied.

“No, twit,” Raelynn said. “You learn that some servants are so incredibly loyal to whoever they serve that they join the knights and the prince on their quests, even when specifically told not to. Now, anyone can get a servant, so long as they have the money. You could pose a servant – no one will know whose servant you are, and they’re probably not going to ask questions. All you have to is keep your head down and follow.”

Pandora was so happy at the prospect of getting a change of scenery that she smiled from ear to ear, and decided to suffer the humiliation of actually paying Raelynn a compliment.

“That’s brilliant!” Pandora squealed, and Raelynn looked slightly pleased. “What about you?”

“I’ll do the same. Pose a servant.”

“But all the servants might recognise you,” Pandora said, feeling disappointed.

But Raelynn smirked. “And the knights and the prince might recognise you. But not if we use certain… help.”

“Ah…” Pandora trailed off, smiling as she watched a symbol on Raelynn’s wrist glow stark white.

Prince Matthew turned a corner, and the two girls rushed into a dark alcove. Two glowing lights appeared in the darkness.

~

“How do I look?” Pandora muttered quietly, briefly pulling her red hood up.

“Repulsive. And not at all like yourself,” Raelynn replied with a grin as they power-walked down to the royal stables. Satisfied that no one would recognise her, Pandora pulled her back down and joined the knights preparing their horses.

“Ah. Who might you be?” the prince asked, noticing the arriving girls.

“We are servants,” Pandora said quickly.

“Gina and Delilah,” Raelynn added for good measure. “I’m Gina.”

The prince studied their hooded faces for a moment, and Pandora was so sure that he was going to ask whose servants they were. But then, he smiled and clasped his hands together.

“Your voices sound very familiar,” he hummed thoughtfully. “A loyal bunch, I’ve got.” And with that, he mounted his horse.

Pandora breathed out in relief and immediately made her way towards the horse she’d ridden before. Raelynn took a random one and petted it fondly.

There were around seven knights altogether, obviously Matthew’s most trusted. Looking around, Pandora realised that the only other servant there was Charles.

“Not too many overly loyal servants, then,” she muttered under her breath.

“Actually, Matthew’s the only one out of these guys who actually has a servant,” Raelynn said quietly, grunting as she hoisted herself onto her selected horse.

“Great. Just great,” Pandora sighed. If the knights talked among themselves and discovered that no one had bought a servant, this would not end well.

She willed her nerves to calm down and tentatively stroked her horse’s mane. For the time being, she decided to call her London, because it made her feel comfortable, as did the horse.

She breathed in deeply and reached for the bonds of it all – Old Magic. Her ghostly hands reached in the void, and grabbed a ribbon. Pulling it an a way she would never be able to explain, the ribbon vibrated and filled her with the most beautiful feeling of magic.

Her whole world was about London just then.

She stroked London soothingly and mounted the horse with ease. As her eyes realised that the knights were riding off, she whispered to the horse to follow.

London rode with the knights and Pandora thought it okay to retreat from her magical hold on London’s mind. Raelynn rode alongside her, face scrunched up in concentration as she grabbed the reins tightly.

“I can see the rune,” Pandora told her warningly.

Raelynn quickly pulled her sleeve down to hide the shining symbol that disguised them both.

“Apple’s a difficult horse to ride,” Raelynn sighed, pulling her sleeve down over and over again. Each gallop made her sleeve ride up. Eventually, she just bunched up the fabric in her hand with the reins.

“You named your horse Apple? Like the Big Apple? Like New York?”

“Maybe,” Raelynn said indifferently, staring straight ahead. “I supposed you named yours London?”

Pandora stopped grinning, and looked straight ahead as well. “Lucky guess.”

She immersed herself back in Old Magic and raced Raelynn.

The ride lasted for an hour before they arrived at the beach. The Mistwood had been warm, but as the hour progressed clouds had gathered over the beach, making the sea look gloomy and grey. The sea breeze was cold and Pandora could see Raelynn shiver beside her.

They hopped off their horses and trudged down the sandy shore. They must have come out somewhere different from last time, because there was a great big ship floating in the water.

Raelynn and Pandora followed the knights into the water, pulling up their dresses as the cold seawater went up to their knees. They waded further in and watched as Matthew grabbed a rope that had been tossed over the edge of the deck. He grabbed it firmly and used it to climb up the height of the ship, then jumped over and gestured for his knights to follow.

“Welcome to the Ruby,” the prince announced. “No doubt you’ve never seen this ship before; it’s not off we venture into the seas. The ocean can be treacherous.”

Pandora scanned the ship, fascinated, while the knights all hoisted themselves up. The ship was beautiful; the builders had taken delicate care to add in gorgeous details, like the little salt-encrusted carvings and the swirls around the word “Ruby”. At the bow was an eerily real statue of a roaring lion, and the sternum had drawings that depicted great wars. Despite this, Pandora noticed that unlike Damien’s ships, there were no cannons at the sides – this couldn’t be a warship.

“Do you need help?” the last knight asked. Pandora snapped out of her reverie and focused her attention on the knight.

“Um, no thank you,” Pandora said lamely.

“But I’ll take the help!” Raelynn interrupted eagerly. “I mean… if you’d be all right with that…”

Pandora refrained from rolling her eyes as Raelynn swooned at the sight of the knight in shining armour. He helped her climb the rope, and Pandora followed after them, putting her martial arts lessons to good use. Learning upper body strength had not been an aspect of the course that she’d liked, but now she appreciated it with all her heart.

When everyone was on board, Matthew taught the knights how to raise the sails. As the ship began to retreat from the shore, Pandora saw Charles going down the stairs and into the interior of the ship. She nudged Raelynn and they followed him.

The grandeur of the interior surprised Pandora; even though this was a ship for knights and royals, she’d thought that they might have decorated a little less extravagantly then the castle. It seemed she was wrong, for gems lined the bottoms of the walls and wonderful paintings of either scenery or previous royals hung from the walls.

Charles, though, was walking past all of this. Pandora and Raelynn followed him through the ship and into what had to be the servants’ quarters.

“Well then,” Charles said with his back still turned, startling both the girls, “who might the two of you be?”

“Gina and…” Raelynn faltered. She couldn’t remember Pandora’s alias.

“Delilah,” Pandora said quickly.

“And you’re servants, are you?” Charles turned around, facing the pair. Pandora was confident that he wouldn’t recognise her; Raelynn’s rune had squashed her nose, grown a mole, thinned her lips and made her eyebrows as bushy as a beard. And Raelynn – well, she didn’t even have to look to know how good her disguise must have been.

“Yes, we are,” Raelynn said, trying to sound more confident than she felt.

He squinted at them. “Both of your eyes look strangely familiar. The colour, the curve of the lashes…”

Pandora tensed up. One thing the rune couldn’t touch was their eyes; they stayed the same.

“But I haven’t seen you before. You are servants to…?”

Pandora looked at Raelynn, trying to stop her body from showing her franticness.

“Uh… um…” Raelynn stalled, racking her brains for any knight names she might have heard while she was a servant. “Sir Crandigon and Sir Tristan.”

Charles narrowed his eyes. “Why do you lie? Sir Crandigon and Sir Tristan told me not five hours ago that they would never buy someone to do things for them. I must tell the prince that we have intruders on the Ruby.”

Raelynn looked desperate. “Charles, it’s us. It’s Pa–.”

Pandora interrupted, knowing that if Raelynn told Charles their true identities, they would have to reveal their magic, and Pandora wanted to keep it as secret as possible.

“Don’t even think about it,” she said threateningly, stopping Charles’ beeline for the door. “We know about Lilith.”

She could see all his muscles tensing up in shock and, perhaps, fright for Lilith. Her plan was working.

“We know where she is. She’s gone to the stars,” she said slowly. “And we will gladly tell the king if you tell Matthew that we’re not meant to be here. I would tell you that we are no danger to you, or the knights, or Prince Matthew, but I know you wouldn’t believe me. So are you willing to sacrifice the safety of your prince for the child you care about the most?”

Charles looked conflicted. Finally, he gave in.

“Fine,” he muttered. “I shan’t tell the prince about you, but if you put any danger in his path, I won’t hesitate to bring you to him. And by then, Lilith will be moved to a different home.”

Pandora knew it was a bluff, but she accepted his terms anyway. “Deal.”

Charles threw one last poisonous look at them before doing his servant duties.

Raelynn and Pandora left. “Now what?” Pandora asked.

“Now, I suppose we go up on deck. Since we’re not servants to the prince, we have less duties to do.”

“But you’re only guessing, right?” Pandora sighed.

“Right.”

They walked through the ship and climbed the stairs, coming up on deck once more. The air was cold and damp and tasted like salt; a blanket of clouds covered the entire sky, and the grey water churned like a washing machine. A large wave suddenly caused the ship to lurch upwards violently, and all the knights, not being used to sensation of being on a ship, fell down.

It was the first time the thought occurred to Pandora that the ride might be dangerous. As the knights recovered, Pandora and Raelynn grabbed onto the railings of the side of the ship. They had an advantage over everyone else, what with boats being so common back in their dimension. Pandora had crossed the English Channel by boat many times while on holidays, and her parents often took her and James whale-watching. She didn’t know about Raelynn’s boating adventures, but it seemed that the both of them had well-developed sea legs. And all the while, the knights were stumbling around like a group of dressed-up drunks.

Another wave caused the ship to rise and then slam back down on the water. Water sprayed all over the deck, and the knights yelled in surprise, while Raelynn grinned madly and Pandora felt glad that they’d come. This really was exciting.

But within five minutes, the knight named Sir Crandigon was emptying his stomach over the side of the ship, two knights holding his arms so that he wouldn’t fall overboard. The prince seemed quite unfazed by the bad weather and remained steady behind the wooden wheel.

The ship was tossed around the water like a mere toy, and in the distance Pandora could see lightning. The knights held on with brute strength, seeing as they couldn’t rely on their awkward legs to held them upright on the boat. Raelynn and Pandora also held onto the railings tighter, because with each great rise and fall of the ship, seawater came spilling onto the deck, drenching everyone in minutes.

Shivering, Pandora thought about going back down, but decided against it. If she couldn’t see when the ship was going to rise and fall, she would get seasick, as so many of the poor green knights were at that moment.

It started raining then. Pandora’s fake black hair was plastered to her ugly face, and in the dim light she could make out some crimson strands in Raelynn’s disguised hair. Her own hair was turning back to the normal, drab brown she was used to.

“Gina!” Pandora shouted over the noise of the waves and the whistling wind. “The rune!”

Raelynn turned her back to the nights and pulled her sleeve up. The rune’s glow was fading, like the last remnants of sunlight before dusk.

She traced the rune and it glowed brightly once more. Satisfied, Raelynn pulled her sleeve down and held onto the railings again.

The boat lurched around in the horrible weather. Pandora could faintly hear Matthew yelling at his knights that the ride would be longer than expected, and that they needed to hold on with all their might.

Pandora’s knuckled turned white around the wooden railing. She breathed in, and turned around to avoid another spray of water coming straight for her face.

~

“That,” Sir Tristan moaned, “was the worst experience of my life.”

He was still green, and he stumbled around a little after he jumped down onto Astewell’s shores. Prince Matthew grinned and slapped him on the back.

“You’ll experience worse later, Tristan,” he said cheerfully, and then began walking.

Charles gave Raelynn and Pandora a venomous look before clumsily jumping onto the sand. The two girls followed straight after.

Pandora straightened her dress and ran after the knights, her feet digging gratefully into the warm sand. The sun shone invitingly down on Astewell, making the sand golden and hot.

“Welcome to Astewell,” the prince said, and the party observed the city.

The first thing Pandora noticed was how empty it was.

It reminded her of the rare times she would speed through Campton Alley as a last resort shortcut when she was late for school. There were shops and there were houses, and there were bikes and carts that littered the narrow, cobblestone path. But every house was abandoned and uncared for, and every shop was closed, locked up and messy inside. It was a ghost street.

And Astewell – well, the city was much worse, simply because there were so many more empty houses and shops. Tumbleweed and leaves were strewn everywhere, and children’s playthings were carelessly tossed away. It looked as though Astewell had once been a grand, thriving city, but with no citizens the city looked as empty and uninviting as the desert.

“Cheerful place,” a knight muttered.

“I don’t get it,” Sir Crandigon said to Matthew. “If they have all these places to live, why did Damien say his people live on a ship?”

Matthew looked grim. “Because the land is cursed – after an explosion of magic, the surrounding areas are greatly affected, both by light magic and dark magic. Father told me it just depended on what the Old Magic was leaning towards at that moment, and it seems it was being penetrated by powerful black magic, despite the Old Magic being entirely neutral. So a great curse befell the city – at least, the part that wasn’t destroyed – and the curse vaporised anyone daring to enter the land within a second.”

“So then how are we going to pass through?” Sir Crandigon asked, perplexed.

“We go around, of course.”

And go around they did. The seven knights, the prince and the three servants trudged through the sand, following the outside of the city, but never entering it. That way, they managed to go north but never touched the cursed area.

They didn’t get very far, though, because a figure walked down from the edge of the city – a girl, perhaps a year older than Pandora, dancing and twirling in the breeze. Her dress swirled around her as she pranced, and then she came to an abrupt stop when she noticed the prince.

“Ah, hello!” the girl said brightly. “Who might you be?” She stumbled dizzily, but her wide smile remained on her face.

“Prince Matthew of Mir,” Matthew replied cautiously. “You are?”

“Nireth of Normandy!” she said. “I suppose you’re not here for a casual stroll, are you?”

The girl was pretty and had a kind face, with the slightest hint of mischief in her eyes. She beamed at everyone, and when her eyes locked with Pandora’s there was a flicker of recognition in there – but it couldn’t be, because they’d never met. And then Pandora realised that it had not be recognition of her face, but rather of the fact that she had magic, meaning that this Nireth of Normandy had it too.

“We are here to see the king of Astewell,” Matthew announced.

“Well, then. Isn’t this your lucky day?” Nireth said with a smirk, though her eyes remained kind. “Am I right in assuming that you plan to go around the whole city?”

“Yes,” Matthew answered.

Nireth frowned. “That’s not a very good plan, if I may say so, sire. The rip would take days.”

“There is no alternative,” the prince said.

Nireth moved closer, eyes widening with enthusiasm. “Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. If you come with me, I can allow you to pass through the city safely, and you will reach the castle within a few hours.”

“The land is cursed,” Matthew said confidently.

“Every curse has a counter-curse,” Nireth said happily. “That’s a law of nature. It applies to everything. There is no good without evil, no darkness without light, no peace without war…”

“Does this counter-curse include the use of magic, Nireth of Normandy?” Matthew interrupted.

“But of course,” Nireth said.

“Then we will circle the island,” Matthew said resolutely. “Mir is not a friend to magic.”

Nireth’s eyes briefly met Raelynn’s eyes, and then Pandora’s. Both lowered their heads.

“You may be a prince, but you are still impressionable – very impressionable. It would be wise of you to ally your city with magic, for the Old Magic surrounds everything and everyone, including yourself. I ask you again – will you come with me, to allow your knights to pass through the city safely?”

Matthew’s face remained firm and confident, but Pandora knew the inner conflict he must have been feeling.

“I remain loyal to the morals and the principles of Mir,” the prince said.

“And one of them states that magic is a horrible, despicable thing to be shunned and detested?” Nireth asked disappointedly. “Perhaps it is time that Mir enters the new age. But for now, I suppose, I bid you farewell.”

And Nireth of Normandy danced back up to the city, and the prince continued on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 THE DISGUISE

 

 

“Invisibility rune,” Pandora whispered, grabbing onto Raelynn’s shoulder.

Raelynn made sure that the knights were all looking straight ahead, before bending down to her ankles and tracing a symbol there. For the briefest second, their disguises melted and it was simply Raelynn and Pandora standing by the waves, before they disappeared entirely.

“He saw us,” Pandora moaned in panic, raising an invisible finger towards a stark white knight frantically looking at the area the girls had been not a moment ago.

“Sir Graeme?”

“I don’t care what his name is; he saw us!” she cried.

“But… he’s not doing anything…”

Pandora paused for a while, and watched the confused man. Raelynn was right. He stood there for a while, before turning around and catching up to the group.

“He definitely saw us,” Pandora said certainly.

“Maybe he doesn’t disapprove of magic as much as the royals?” Raelynn guessed.

“Maybe,” Pandora murmured. Then she reached for the air and grabbed a handful of Raelynn’s cloak. “Quick, let’s follow Nireth!”

They raced up the shore, and Pandora was painfully aware of how two sets of footprints were appearing in the sand with no apparent cause. Luckily, Matthew and the knights were intent on walking down the beach.

They followed Nireth all the way up to what seemed like the beginning of the city, where the floor turned from mud to sand to stone.

She stopped right in front of the stone and hummed a spell with words that Pandora could not recognise, and as Nireth’s honey eyes glowed like the sun, there was slight change in the atmosphere that Pandora could both feel and see. What looked like a giant dome encased all of what Pandora could see of Astewell; it was translucent, wispy and barely there, and she knew she could just be imagining things, but she felt the darkness from the dome go straight through her body. And it was horrible.

“Nireth!” Pandora called out.

Nireth spun around, her dress spinning with her. She beamed straight at them, confusing them at the same time. Raelynn looked down at her arms: still invisible. But Nireth seemed to be able to see them perfectly.

“Hello, Pandora and Raelynn! How did I do?” Nireth asked, sounding worried. “Did I act good, or do you think they weren’t convinced by me? I hope they were convinced!”

“Do good?” Pandora repeated, evidently puzzled.

“Oh,” Nireth said, surprised. “So she didn’t tell you anything?”

“Who?” Raelynn asked, narrowing her eyes.

“Raven Avelina, of course,” Nireth said adoringly. “The smartest Being there ever was. She knew you would seek something to get rid of your boredom, and deduced that you would join the prince on his quest to reach the king of Astewell, either by disguise or simple hiding. She asked me to do what I just did down there – though I do feel I was rather mean, don’t you? And Avelina said that the prince wouldn’t go with me, but you would follow me. How clever she is!”

“So Avelina knows we’re here?” Pandora asked.

“She knows just about everything,” Nireth said with a wide smile. “We can only begin to guess what it must be like to be as clever and cunning as her.”

“It would be cold,” Raelynn said quickly. “She’s cold.”

Nireth smiled again. “Only to strangers. She has soft spot for very close friends, such as Phoenix or sometimes even Radiance.”

Pandora had never heard of those names before, but she guessed that they were other Beings.

“So,” Nireth continued, “now that you can have safe passage through the entire city, where would you like to go?”

Pandora looked at Raelynn. Raelynn frowned at Pandora. They blinked.

“Uh, where do you recommend?” Pandora asked, turning away.

Nireth stood on the tips of her toes and pointed to a point within the city. “Just beyond the roofs, there is the Astewell Palace. It’s a cheerful name for a not-so-cheerful place. If we travel up there, we will be able to see the entire city, and I also want to show you something that can only be viewed from the palace. What do you say?”

Pandora nodded. “Let’s go.”

“Wait,” Raelynn said. “Shouldn’t we go there at the same time as Matthew, so that we hear what King Damien has to say?”

“Well, since there are quite a few obstacles on the beaches and they’re taking the long way around, I think they’ll reach the palace at least by sunrise tomorrow. Unless you’re willing to wait that long…”

“Nope, let’s go,” Raelynn said.

Pandora chuckled and Nireth put her hand through the dome. Nothing happened at all – no vaporisation, no sudden death.

“It’s safe,” Nireth said. She stepped through quickly and Pandora and Raelynn followed.

Pandora felt the black magic that trapped the city in a curse, but she also felt the warmness emanating from Nireth, protecting them. It was like drinking hot chocolate on a cold, cold winter’s day.

Oh dear. There went another onslaught of nostalgia and longing for home.

Pandora ignored her distracting feelings and observed the city. It was so eerie, so vacant and hopeless. Rubbish flew down the walkways in the cold breeze, and the silence was pierced only by the fluttering of dying leaves, the calls of crows and the whistling of the wind.

Raelynn rubbed her arms. “Bit gloomy here.”

“All this was the fault of the curse, the remnants of the magical battles between Avelina and Aren,” Nireth told them quietly, as though speaking too loudly might anger the curse.

“Avelina and Aren?” Pandora repeated incredulously. “They were the ones who had the big magical battle?”

Nireth blushed. “So you don’t know? Er, I’m not sure I was allowed to tell you that – silly me…”

“We won’t tell anyone you said,” Raelynn promised. Even though her rune was still making her and Pandora invisible, she knew Pandora must have observing the city as much as her eyes allowed.

“But tell us more about this battle,” Pandora added. “Please.”

“Of course – where to start?” Nireth paused for a moment, seemingly having second thoughts about sharing information with the two modern girls, while in truth she was thinking about what exact information to share.

“Perhaps with their relationship?” Raelynn suggested.

And so as they walked through the city, Nireth told them all about Aren and Avelina, the palace coming closer with each quiet footstep.

“Well, they were best friends,” Nireth said sorrowfully. “Did everything together. And then one day, Aren just snapped. He turned on their neighbours and friends, and killed so many that day.”

Pandora thought that Aren was strikingly similar to Vincent the Valiant’s father from Six-Fingers Jack’s tavern story.

“Do you know why?” Raelynn asked, surprised.

Nireth shook her head. “No one knows. It just happened.” She moved on. “When Aren turned evil, Avelina felt lost and she didn’t know what to do. Kalypso told her that in the rare instances Avelina found Aren again, she would be able to bring him back to the light side. But she never managed to, and one thing led to another, and then they tried to kill each other.”

“Not exactly a children’s bedtime story,” Raelynn muttered.

“At the end, Avelina was certain that she had killed Aren. Unable to face the shame of everyone knowing that she was a murderer, she moved to Mir and met other Beings, and everything started getting better,” Nireth told them.

“Until the day King Damien came to visit,” Pandora whispered.

“Exactly. She senses Aren’s presence. She knows when he’s there. She hadn’t felt it for a long time, so I imagine it was quite a shock for her when she sensed him there,” Nireth sighed unhappily. “And now, God knows what he’s up to.”

There was a silence as the three figures hurried through the ghost city, white magic protecting them from their otherwise certain death.

“That day,” Pandora said quietly after a while, “the day King Damien came to Mir, she talked to me. Told me things. But she wasn’t there – I know she wasn’t. Yet, at the same time, she was right behind me.”

Nireth emitted a little, “ah”.

“Astral projection is another gift of Avelina’s. How envious we all are,” Nireth said with a small smile.

Raelynn sighed. “Why is she so cold?”

Nireth contemplated this. “She is not unkind – she does have a warm heart, and she belongs on the light side. She very rarely uses black magic, and when she does it’s only to defeat other users of black magic. Yes, the question is interesting. Why is she so cold? I suppose that’s just how she was brought up – alone and needing to learn to be independent. She is the daughter of Hecate, and you can imagine that Hecate’s not exactly the best parent to have. She may or may not have siblings – her first conscious memory is of waking up in the back of someone else’s barn. So the need to be independent, to be detached from others around her, must have stayed with her for all her years. And dear God, I’ve said too much. She only reveals this to close friends

“And you’re close friends with her?” Raelynn asked curiously. They didn’t seem like they would be good friends – what with Nireth being warm and kind, and Avelina being so indifferent and sharp.

Nireth looked happy, and she nodded. “I sailed her over here when she left Astewell.”

Pandora closed her eyes while Raelynn and Nireth continued to talk. What was it Raven Avelina had said to her when they’d first met and Pandora had screamed out what a good prank this had all been?

Let us introduce ourselves. I am Raven Avelina, daughter of Hecate…

“Born of dark water, sister of the rain and snow,” Pandora interrupted suddenly. “She said that to me. What does it mean?”

Nireth turned to her. “It represents something that Avelina has told no one, yet she continues to introduce herself in this way – that is, when it’s okay to reveal her magic.”

“Odd,” Raelynn quipped.

“She’s a complex woman, and I don’t think anyone will ever really understand her. All we can do is marvel at her power and gloriousness.”

Pandora raised an eyebrow. “You really admire her, don’t you?”

Nireth grinned. “I cherish all my friends with all my heart, and I admire them all, but Avelina more so simply because of all her power and intelligence.”

“Why do you think she became friends with you?” Raelynn asked.

“That’s simple. It’s because I’m the first person, apart from Aren, who didn’t admire her for her beauty, or respect and fear her power rather than admire it. Her intelligence and magic are what she holds most dear, and when people admire it, rather than run from it, she will break down some walls for them in return.”

“That’s…” Raelynn began, but Pandora interrupted her.

“Guys,” she said, her voice low. “Who’s that person there?”

Nireth froze and slowly turned in the direction Pandora’s still invisible arm pointed.

“Aren,” she whispered hoarsely, her legs refusing to move.

“Come on, Nireth!” Pandora cried out quietly, pulling the stationary girl to the edge of a wall. They poked their heads around the corner, and Pandora was faintly reminded of the time Cobalt had helped her sneak out of the castle to go the stables. He was probably really worried about them, seeing as they’d left without telling him where they were going, and she hoped no one was asking too many questions about him.

They watched a figure in a black cloak – Aren – move to a body lying dead on the ground. The dead person’s arms were twisted in all the wrong ways and his face was stark white, and Pandora realised with shock that the body was wearing a crown.

Nireth’s eyes widened and her mouth began to form a scream, but Pandora quickly clamped her hand over her lips.

King Damien was dead.

But how? Why was he lying in the middle of the city, not vaporised into the void? And if Aren had killed him, as it very likely could have been, why would he bother to protect the king’s body?

Aren slipped his hood off. All Pandora could really see was the back of his head, but the black-as-night, slightly messy hair was identical to the hair of the smirking knight.

He bent down over Damien’s body and whispered an incantation, the crows flying away at his voice. He hovered his hands over Damien, and suddenly, he wasn’t there. But Damien began to breathe.

“Possession,” Raelynn whispered.

Damien – or Aren – got up from his position on the ground. Pandora heard the unbearable scream of black magic as the body’s arms clicked into place. Aren dusted off his robes, adjusted his crown and began to walk up to the castle with the gait of a king.

Pandora let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding.

“Possession!” Nireth cried. “This is horrible – he’s dead…”

“Aren killed him to possess him,” Pandora sighed. “Damien died sometime between his visit to Mir and right now. The question is, why does Aren want to possess him?”

“Riches?” Raelynn guessed.

“No, it couldn’t be,” Pandora murmured. “He’d choose a city that isn’t cursed.”

“I think it has something to do with Prince Matthew’s visit. But we’ll have to wait and see what they say to each other to know just what Aren wants,” Nireth said.

“Do you think we should tell Matthew?” Pandora asked.

“No…” Raelynn answered. “For now, let’s just allow things to unfold.”

~

They reached the small hill upon which the palace of Astewell stood a little before twilight; Astewell had been huge. Climbing the dead grass took no less than five minutes, and they stood behind a shrivelling, dying tree, breathing in the cold air and looking out at the expanse of land before. The city seemed so much more desolate and despondent when they looked down on it, as opposed to walking through it.

Nireth tapped the two other girls, making them turn around.

On the other side of the hill was a whole new world – a giant plain of nothing but dry, rocky ground until the ground where the snow fell. It was like a blizzard out there, and probably only about a kilometre from where they stood. The white wonderland looked impenetrable, and the violent winds shoved the snow in every possible direction.

“This is what I wanted to show you,” Nireth said. “It always snows down there. Always has, probably always will.”

“I suppose that’s the half of Astewell that wasn’t destroyed?” Pandora guessed. Nireth nodded. “And it’s uninhabitable,” she sighed. “Poor Damien.”

“Well, he’s dead now,” Raelynn muttered bitterly. “I wonder where his people live?”

“In the castle,” Nireth said promptly. “The battle between Aren and Avelina took place right in that snowstorm. The explosion placed a curse over the city, but the palace was infused with centuries-old white magic, and therefore was protected.”

“What’s that in the distance?” Pandora asked. Sometimes, when the snow wasn’t as thick as it was in other times, she could see a black dot.

“Obsidian Castle,” Nireth shivered. “An evil, terrible place.”

“Why, what goes on there?” Raelynn asked.

Nireth then sounded like she was reading from a book. “Twice it has protected some powerful beings bid of domination of the world, twice is has been foiled. But the Castle is patient, and is already nurturing the third, who has already begun his march.”

“Aren?”

“Yes. The Castle is made of jet black obsidian; each block is exactly the same size, mortared to the next with a dull brown film, the blood of the victims sacrificed to build it. Enchantment runs through the entire structure, ordinary weapons can make no mark upon the walls. The castle is black – gloomy, and horrific. Light cannot travel far within it, absorbed by the walls.”

There was a silence as the trio tried to spot the Castle beyond the snowstorm.

“Well, it sure is well-protected. No one would be stupid enough to try and get through that blizzard,” Raelynn commented.

“There are other means of entrance,” Nireth said regretfully.

“How do you know all this?” Pandora asked.

“When Avelina found Aren’s journal after he left, he had written detailed descriptions of the appearance and all the workings of the Castle. I simply learned from them.”

The faint mutter of male voices reached their ears and they turned away from the snowstorm. Prince Matthew and the knights were marching up to the dreary palace’s front doors. Nireth uttered a faint noise of surprise.

“I suppose I underestimated the speed of the knights and the prince,” Nireth admitted. “I was very rude, wasn’t I? I wish I hadn’t been; I do feel quite uncomfortable making people unhappy…”

“Are we just going to hide here until they come out and then ask what Aren-slash-Damien said to them?” Raelynn asked.

“We’re invisible, remember?” Pandora said.

“But Nireth saw us,” Raelynn argued.

“You were revealed to me because, one I expected to see you, and two, you wouldn’t mind if I saw you. Those are the rules of magic – if the two parties are compliant, magic will make an exception. Magic made an exception for me, so I can see you, even though you’re invisible,” Nireth explained. “Now, go follow them!”

Raelynn and Pandora ran to the back of the group and watched as Matthew opened the unguarded doors with determination. Today, he would stop the curse – or at least find out how to.

The palace was as dreary on the inside as it was outside. There were no gems, no giant vases, no deep red rugs like Mir’s castle. Instead, the floors and walls were completely bare, except for a painting or two every so often. But there was still a sense a sense of grandness and royalty Pandora felt; it was probably the immense size of the halls. She supposed that all the decorations had been to other cities for things like food and water.

She also felt the white magic, and the black magic, and it was bittersweet.

Raelynn and Pandora followed the knights as quietly as possible, making sure to skirt around floorboards that creaked when others stepped on them. The hall was much longer than Mir’s, and much narrower and taller. Perhaps the hall went for the entire length of the castle.

She was right. When they arrived at the throne room, King Damien’s body, possessed by Aren, was sitting there, and in the windows Pandora could see the other half of Astewell: the great plain, the snow and the faint outline of Obsidian Castle, where Aren should have been at that moment so that the Castle could “nurture” him.

“I was expecting you,” Aren murmured with a smirk. He lay back in his throne, two guards standing by him. “You’ve come a long way to visit to me.”

“I will travel to the ends of the earth for my people,” Matthew said, a hidden rage barely staying tame.

“You’re strangely loyal,” Aren commented.

“You’re acting different,” Matthew countered. “Strange. You’re not yourself today.”

Aren sighed. “Oh, how would you know what I’m like when I’m not on your shores, young prince? I find myself… disappointed with your lack of intellect at the moment.”

“I care not what you think,” Matthew spat, losing his cool slightly. “All I want is for you to take away the curse you have placed upon Mir.”

Aren shifted slowly in his chair, crossing his legs and placing his hands upon the armrests. “Shall I tell you a little secret?” he asked with that same, smug smirk.

Matthew clenched his jaw, choosing not to reply.

“I’ll tell you one anyway,” Aren said, raising his eyebrows at the prince’s silence. “Mir isn’t the only kingdom suffering from the curse. You can’t be too selfish, young prince.”

“And I suppose you think that loyalty and love for my people is selfish? I’m disappointed with your intellect – if I and the knights of Mir were selfish, we would not be here. We would be lounging in our riches, eating feasts while our people starve. But we cannot bear to see them suffer, and each new death wrenches at our hearts. You, King Damien, are the selfish one,” Matthew retorted angrily.

Aren rose at once, though his face remained calm and indifferent. “You dare to call me selfish?” he said scornfully. “Selfishness is for commoners; for the weak kings and princes who don’t dare to seek more power.”

“How do you hope to achieve more power by placing curses over entire kingdoms?” Matthew asked disbelievingly.

“All in due time, young prince.” Aren tutted, his smirk returning. “You will learn in due time.”

His cool regained, Aren sat back down in his throne, stroking the fur at the end of his rich, red sleeves.

“Take it away,” Matthew demanded forcefully. “Take away all the bad fortune you have given us and other kingdoms. Take it away, or you will pay with your life, King Damien.”

The guards drew their swords at once, the sound echoing throughout the room. Aren looked faintly surprised, but raised his hand at his guards.

“It’s all right,” he murmured to the guards. “The prince doesn’t mean now. I’m sure he wishes to take my life in battle. Don’t kill him yet; we’ve only begun chatting.”

“I wish to end this discussion as soon as you promise to alleviate the curses. Every last one.”

“Hmm,” Aren hummed, pretending to look thoughtful. “Well then, prince, it’s going to be a long conversation.”

“Please,” Matthew shouted through gritted teeth. “Take away our suffering. We beg you.”

Aren rose once again, moving so close to the prince that their noses almost touched.

“You claim to love your people,” he hissed, his voice low and dangerous, “yet you do not beg with the same vigour sorcerers beg as they watch their loved ones burn at the stake or get their heads chopped off.”

He growled in anger and took a step back, putting space between them. “I feel… reluctant to aid you. I wonder why that is?”

Matthew took in a deep breath, looking enraged. “Magic has brought our kingdom suffering and hardship in the past, just as it is now. Magic is what is killing our people every night and every day, and now my people weep helplessly in the streets, mourning the loss of their loved ones to magic.”

Aren didn’t look taken aback by the prince’s outburst; he simply tutted.

“You ought not to lose your temper to a king, young prince. It won’t do you good,” he advised condescendingly.

“Stop this game of yours,” Sir Graeme spoke up, surprising everyone. He stepped forward, his hand resting just above his sword. “Stop this crazed game of revenge. It will only bring death and sorrow, for all involved.”

Aren clenched his jaw, looking at Sir Graeme with fury. Then, he turned back to Prince Matthew.

“I made a deal with all the other kings and princes who came to visit. I’m considering sharing it with you…”

“What is it?” Matthew demanded at once.

Aren smirked. “A game, my prince. Or, a task, if you like. Complete it, and your city will be free from the grasp of the curse. Fail, and the curse continues for every single day. Notice how nothing new happened on the seventh day? If you fail, the cycle will continue, on and on, and it will never stop. Your people will die out within a month. Your city will become a wasteland, a mark of skull and bones on a sailor’s map. But if you win, the rewards will be glorious,” he whispered. “Glorious.”

“What is this task?” Matthew demanded.

“A test of just how good a prince you are,” Aren told him. “I will not reveal anymore, for it will give you an unfair advantage; the other kingdoms weren’t even told what the test was for.”

“When does the task take place?”

“We can’t have you knowing that, now, can we?” Aren said innocently, smiling.

He turned and began walking out of the room. The knights and the prince followed his movements.

His cape flowed behind him, and stepped with slow and large strides.

“Goodbye,” Aren said casually, slamming the door behind him.

They all stood there for a moment, the guards eyeing them carefully. Then Matthew began a brisk walk for the door. The knights followed.

“Sire,” Sir Crandigon said, “how will you prepare for the test?”

He didn’t reply for a long moment. When he did, he sounded tired.

“I can’t.”

Pandora and Raelynn followed unseen from behind. Nireth gave them a small wave before dancing down the hill, the prince taking little notice of her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11 THE LAKE

 

 

No one really noticed the absence of the still invisible Raelynn and Pandora. No one except Charles.

He kept his questions to himself, though, because he didn’t care for “Gina and Delilah” and their threatening nature, and decided he would do nothing in their favour, such as telling the prince that the two new servants were missing. The prince would immediately send someone to search for them, but Charles seemed quite content without them nearby.

He muttered this to himself while he did his servants duties quickly, Pandora and Raelynn sitting in the corner. So preoccupied was he that he didn’t notice the two strange bottom prints on the chairs in the corner.

While he busied himself, Pandora and Raelynn tried their best not to make any sounds as the violent seas tossed the Ruby around and the great ship swayed side to side, making everything inside shift and slide. The two girls held onto the chairs with death grips, their eyes focused on Charles. The prayed to the heavens that he wouldn’t turn around, and that he would just keep on washing the bowls of food.

Pandora didn’t enjoy it when Charles hated them. It was unpleasant.

They stayed down in the servants’ quarters because it was too dangerous up on deck; if one of them fell overboard, they would never be seen. They chose not to go in a different room, simply because they thought the other rooms were quite lonely compared to the warmness of the servants’ quarters, and they had to make sure Charles didn’t talk to the prince about them anyway. Everything would just become too complicated if the prince knew that two strange women had mysteriously appeared and disappeared without a trace.

The Ruby continued its voyage back to Mir.

~

“Eliana,” Aren greeted, closing the door. As soon as he heard the click of the lock, King Damien’s body slumped to the floor and the real Aren floated out of his mouth, materialising in front of Eliana.

“My lord,” the woman said, bowing her head. She was a beauty, with her honey hair and and rose lips, but it was her sinister smile and the malicious curve of her sea eyes that made her frightening. Aren treated her as an equal, and that was refreshing. Despite this, she insisted on calling him her lord.

Her silver dress was gathered around her ankles, and in the dim lighting of the candles her usually pale skin glowed gold.

He drew a seat on the opposite side of the long, oak table, laden with candles and almost suffocated by cobwebs. They rarely spoke in this place, but Aren supposed that secrecy was essential.

“The task? Have you prepared it?” Aren asked, taking his seat and locking his hands together.

“Not yet. But it is only a matter of time,” Eliana promised, watching the shadows on Aren’s face dance in the crevices of his face. “I was wondering what exactly you are looking for.”

“You, dear, are the most powerful mage I know. No sorcerer or sorceress has power exceeding yours in the entire land. Am I correct in saying that all I ask should be given to me?” Aren said, leaning forward.

Eliana smoothed her dress, smiling. “Of course. You can always rely on me, my lord. I will not fail you.”

Aren leaned back in his chair. “Well then. You ask what I am looking for. I look for a way to humiliate the prince, to show his people that he is not worthy, and ultimately, kill him.”

Eliana seemed unsurprised, but narrowed her eyes in thought. “The last can be achieved so easily, my lord. Isn’t your ultimate goal to destroy the family?”

“It is, Eliana. Yet you said to me that all requests would be granted. I trust you – do not betray that trust,” Aren ordered, his words sharp and cold.

“Yes, my lord,” Eliana said, “but I must stress that if I am to grant all those wishes, it will take time.”

“As long as they are granted, all is well for us,” Aren said calmly. The candle flames flickered as he spoke. “Now, you must think. I shall leave you.”

He did as he said he would, and slowly left the dimly lit room.

The mage named Eliana stared into the flames, and didn’t stop until night came.

~

Cobalt was waiting for them in the trees. The last knight climbed down the rope, and he looked panic. His wide cobalt eyes watched the prince and the knights begin preparing their horses for the ride back. It was nearing the end of the day, and the sun was almost touching the bare horizon. The clouds had cleared up halfway through their voyage back.

Cobalt had no horse with him; he must have come to the beach as a husky, and judging from the wet patches all over his clothes, Pandora guessed he had carried clothes in his mouth. She poked her invisible elbow outwards, intending to get Raelynn, but instead she felt only air.

“Raelynn?” she hissed. “Where are you?”

She watched Cobalt tense up suddenly and saw the hand-shaped indent over his mouth. Ah, there she was.

Pandora jogged up the sand hill. Cobalt began walking back into the trees very stiffly, and she followed him.

When they were a safe distance away from the prince and the knights, Raelynn did something to undo the effects of the invisibility rune, and the charm washed off Pandora as well. They formed before Cobalt’s eyes, and Raelynn sighed in fatigue.

“You scared me to death, Raelynn!” Cobalt began shouting, but Pandora and Raelynn both quickly told him to shut up, swerving their heads around to check that none of the knights or the prince had heard him.

So he reverted to hissing at them. “How would you feel if someone invisible came up to you and made you walk into the woods?”

“I didn’t really have a choice!” Raelynn defended.

“Guys,” Pandora sighed. “Let’s just… let’s just go home. I’m tired. We can talk on the way.”

Raelynn groaned. “Does this mean I have to redo the invisibility rune?”

Pandora nodded. “Just for a little bit.”

Raelynn was pensive, and Cobalt waited for their plan.

“It hurts, you know,” Raelynn said quietly. “Just a little bit. Using the runes. But the worst is how tiring it is. The invisibility rune – that doesn’t require very much effort, but if I use certain other runes I’d be unconscious, probably.”

“Just for a while,” Pandora said coaxingly. “Cobalt – when we start riding, go dog-mode and run with us. Eventually, we’ll stop and you can ride with us. Sound okay?”

“Yep,” he said.

Raelynn traced the rune and they faded into the wind. They moved sneakily towards the horses and mounted them as discreetly as possible.

They couldn’t appear as Gina and Delilah, because if the knights caught them, they would be executed, for sure.

Pandora reached into her soul, and grabbed the strands of Old Magic, which became easier to wrap her hands around each time. She tugged and the increasingly familiar wave of knowledge and of wonder washed over her.

London whinnied as they connected, and Pandora stroked her mane lovingly, before London blast into a sprint. The knights yelped in surprise, Matthew looking alarmed, and Apple followed her from behind, going just as fast. The knights made no move to chase the runaway horses; they knew that their horses would not be able to keep up with the spectacular and unexpected speed of the horses running away.

Pandora laughed as the wind stroked her invisible hair, Cobalt running alongside the two horses. They weaved around the great oaks, dashing through the leaves and ferns as the sun filtered through the treetops, and everything was so joyous in that moment.

They stopped after five minutes. Raelynn and Pandora turned around as Cobalt turned back into a human and quickly changed into the clothes he’d carried in his mouth. Raelynn took off the invisibility charm with relief after Pandora’s long inspection of the distance to see if they had been followed.

“Let’s go,” Cobalt said. “I’m hungry.”

They remounted their horses, and Cobalt wrapped his arms around Raelynn’s stomach. Pandora grinned and urged her horse forwards.

They galloped quite leisurely back to Mir. The Mistwood was peaceful as it neared sunset; the fading light turned the sky pink and gold.

“Why did you go to the beach?” Pandora asked Cobalt, retreating from her bask in the beauty of Old Magic.

“I was scared,” Cobalt replied. “I tried to find you two but I got nowhere, and I didn’t enjoy the prospect of being stuck in a medieval city without people to accompany me. But when I heard that Matthew had gone to Astewell, I knew Pandora would have insisted on going with him, so I waited by the beach. I couldn’t very well go back into Raelynn’s room at that time of day; servants were passing by every second.”

“You stay in her room all day?” Pandora said incredulously.

Cobalt scowled. “Of course I do. You’re the one who told me I can’t be seen, so where else am I meant to go?”

Pandora was quite surprised. She’d known he had stayed out of sight most of the time, but she didn’t really give any thought to where he would have stayed. It must have been so boring just sitting in Raelynn’s room.

“And I’m so sorry about letting myself be seen this morning,” Cobalt muttered sarcastically.

“No need for the sarcasm,” Pandora said quickly. When Cobalt became sarcastic, there was no stopping his angry rants and sarcastic comments.

“No need for being so bossy,” Cobalt retorted heatedly.

“No need for holding so tightly,” Raelynn choked breathlessly.

Cobalt loosened his grip immediately, looking alarmed.

“I – I am not bossy!” Pandora said indignantly. “What are you talking about?”

“Stubborn, too,” Raelynn added with a cheeky grin.

Pandora narrowed her eyes and let Raelynn know that she was having visions of shooting her down with her laser eyes.

“Maybe I’m stubborn,” Pandora admitted grudgingly, “but I’m not bossy.”

Cobalt sighed. “Must I spell it out for you?”

“B – O – S,” Raelynn began condescendingly.

“’Stay hidden, Cobalt! Let’s go here, let’s do this, we have to do this, stop doing that! Blah blah blah!’” Cobalt quoted.

“S – Y.”

Pandora stopped looking at them; their faces now made her irritable. She stared at the trees as she retorted.

“I’m simply taking charge,” Pandora said. “We need a boss if we’re going to get out of here.”

“Very stubborn,” Raelynn and Cobalt sighed at the same time.

“Pair of charmers, you are,” Pandora spat. “Very courteous. Great friends.”

“We all have our flaws, dear,” Cobalt said patronisingly.

“Friends?”

The confusion with which Raelynn said the word made both Cobalt and Pandora turn to look at her. She looked kind of… innocent, in a way, along with perplexed. Her slight frown almost made Pandora cry – either with laughter or sadness, she didn’t know.

“Of course,” Pandora muttered. “Isn’t that what we all are?”

“I thought you guys hated me,” Raelynn mused. “With all my corn dog talk, and stuff.”

“You heard that? How could you possibly hear from so far–?”

“We still do hate you,” Cobalt interrupted, patting Raelynn’s head.

“Oh, shut up – I’m not the dog, you are,” Raelynn said touchily, pushing Cobalt’s hand away from her head.

“That’s just rude,” Cobalt said disapprovingly.

Pandora and Raelynn both laughed as they rode back to the castle of Mir.

~

By morning, the candles had melted into their bowls and the soft whisper of a breeze came through one of the open windows, disturbing Eliana’s intent thinking.

The door opened with a slight creak, and Eliana jumped up. Aren stood in the doorway, looking refreshed and amused at Eliana’s paranoia.

“Fear not, Eliana. ‘Tis I,” Aren assured, opening the curtains to let the dawn’s light in.

“I’m sorry, my lord. My heart has accustomed to the silence,” Eliana breathed. She sat down, suddenly feeling faint.

Aren stopped opening the curtains. “You’re strangely pale.”

“I did not sleep, my lord,” Eliana sighed tiredly, slumping almost unnoticeably in the high-backed chair. “The candles collapsed before me.”

Aren looked at Eliana, and in the sun’s light she looked sickly and weak. Bags blemished the skin that she was known for, and her eyes drooped like a leaf weighed down with rain.

“You must sleep. You are human. Rest is essential,” Aren said sharply.

“I am sorry, Aren. My brain is my centre, and if I seek an answer that lies in my brain, I will not rest until it is found,” Eliana muttered, holding back a yawn.

“You are a most extraordinary woman, Eliana,” Aren said with a frown, sitting down across the table from her.

Eliana smiled, despite her fatigue. “You do not fail to flatter me, my lord.”

“It is well-deserved. You are loyal. You say you do not rest until you have found your answer – are you ready to rest now?”

“Of course.”

“The answer is found?”

Eliana smiled once again, placing her hands on the table. “You will not be disappointed. Allow me to make the preparations for the task,” she said.

Aren smiled happily, grasping Eliana’s hands softly. “Sleep.”

Eliana closed her eyes. Her mouth relaxed and the stress lines in her face disappeared.

“Sleep.”

She breathed in deeply and held her head in her arms.

“Sleep.”

She slumped in her seat and breathed with an even, content tone.

~

Eliana wasn’t exactly one for humiliation, or slow, torturous deaths. She liked to get it over with – eliminate the problem as quickly and seamlessly as possible. She found no pleasure in dilly-dallying and delaying the inevitable final outcome.

That’s why she felt her plan wasn’t as humiliating as she had previously thought. But still, there was no turning back now. Mir’s guards were escorting her to the throne room, where Vance, Matthew and the ladies of the royal family sat waiting for her announcement.

Eliana smiled pleasantly at the guards when they let her go, seeming entirely innocent.

“Your task is simple enough, Prince Matthew,” Eliana said. “You will go to the Lake of Nermedu, and you will swim from the shore to the sand island at the centre of the lake.”

Matthew raised an eyebrow. “That’s… all?”

Eliana smiled. “That’s all. I assume you know how to swim?”

“More or less.”

“Then you will have no problems completing the task.”

Matthew narrowed her eyes at her suspiciously.

“You will complete this task by yourself, and you will have no one watching you.”

“It sounds… oddly simple,” Matthew commented. “I assume that the lake will bring me challenges.”

The corners of Eliana’s lips quirked in a smirk. “The type of challenge you can’t prepare for. Fail, the city is forever condemned to the curse. Succeed, and you will be rewarded. Good luck, prince.”

Matthew stared at Eliana’s retreating form, and the smirk never left her face. Earlier that day, she had charmed the lake, and if Matthew knew what awaited him, he would be very afraid.

The prince set off for the Lake of Nermedu only moments later. Pandora watched him and his horse from the window of her chambers, Raelynn joining her.

“I suppose this is our time to stalk Matthew?” Pandora asked.

“Spot on.”

They borrowed two horses from the stables and followed Matthew from a safe distance. Nothing seemed odd or off. Not yet, anyway.

They reached the lake in less than an hour. It was a serene, pleasant place; soft grass that served as the shore, the sun was free to illuminate the whole area, and the lake was wonderful. Its water was as clear as crystal, and right in the middle of the lake, the ground rose and formed a small, sandy island.

Pandora and Raelynn rushed behind a tree as Matthew walked towards the tranquil lake. He bent down on one knee and touched the water with tentative fingers.

No monsters jumped out at him. It seemed like a good sign.

He took off his armour, and then worked on his shoes.

Pandora groaned quietly. “If he strips anymore, we’re going to have to look away.”

Luckily, he didn’t. He stayed in his shirt and pants and began slowly wading into the cool water. It came up to his waist easily, and it only took five more seconds for it to come to his neck. The lake was deeper than it looked.

Matthew began swimming then. It wasn’t a long distance from him to the sand island. His mind gears were whirring away, wondering why Eliana had given him such a simple task. Swim forty metres? Piece of cake.

Pandora frowned. “It’s too easy. Something’s not right.”

“Maybe he’s really struggling to keep swimming?” Raelynn suggested.

“Does he look like he’s struggling?” Pandora asked incredulously.

Raelynn didn’t reply, and they continued watching. Matthew was already only ten metres away, and approaching the sand island fast. For fun, he decided to submerge himself, swimming like a streamlined merman.

Pandora and Raelynn tensed.

He wasn’t coming back up.

~

Matthew gasped as the water suddenly turned as cold as ice and his vision clouded over. He was losing sense, losing his awareness… He was falling asleep. In the lake.

Everything suddenly disappeared from his senses, and he only had a vague awareness of the fact that he was drowning. Dying. His entire body was paralysed, but not by fear or coldness. No, he knew that magic had ensnared his mind.

The blackness disappeared, but when he opened his eyes he saw a young girl smiling up at him. The sky was blue, and the evening sun shone on the fiery leaves of Autumn. A river streamed behind them, beautiful and blue and bubbling like a peaceful fountain. The world was sunshine and nature and wonder, and it was glorious to stand in its midst.

The girl in front of Matthew had sparkling eyes, and she seemed familiar. Very familiar.

It was only a few seconds afterwards that he realised he was staring at an eight-year-old Morellina.

“Brother, let us frolic in the stream!” Morellina said happily, her voice seeming distant and far away.

She took his hand and pulled him forcefully, giggling playfully. Matthew followed behind dumbly, confused by the current events.

“Where are we, Morellina?” Matthew tried to ask, but his mouth would not move. In fact, he was not even moving his legs; they moved of their own accord. It was like he was a spirit inhabiting another body, simply observing rather than interfering. This felt like a memory, but he couldn’t remember ever going to a place as beautiful as this. He would have remembered it easily.

Morellina laughed and ran into the river, her hand slipping out of Matthew’s. She splashed around, joy evident on her face.

This was the task Eliana had set him? To swim, drown and dream happily? Odd.

Morellina looked so joyous that Matthew couldn’t help internally smiling, even though he could very faintly feel water stroking his skin and knew that he was falling to the bottom of the lake. The dream was just so nice.

Morellina turned her back to her brother, splashing herself and giggling loudly.

And when she turned around again, her smile was no more.

“Brother,” she spat coldly. “Your heart is as cold as Father’s.”

“Morellina, what are you saying?” Matthew tried to say, surprised and perplexed, but his body’s mouth would not make a single motion.

“You pretend to care for your people and your family, but it is a lie,” she spat. Clouds gathered in the sky, hiding the sun, and the river water turned grey and cold. Morellina slowly began to walk out of the stream, the water droplets running down her pale, ghostlike skin.

“A lie,” she hissed. “You are a liar, Brother. You care only for yourself and your aim in life is to gain power. No one can love you.”

Morellina, stop, he begged helplessly in his mind.

“That night in Fiern, you let twenty knights die for you. You think you are superior to all, that your life is the most important.”

Matthew watched her sister growl and scream at him, unable to do anything. She was right, he realised. In Fiern, twenty-two knights had died protecting him from a group of bounty hunters wanting to get the prince. They died unnecessarily.

“You let people take your suffering, you let them take your torture,” she hissed.

Matthew would have cried, had he gained control over his body. He was feeling so helpless, so desperate and melancholy as his own sister shouted what a cold man he was.

“You don’t care that they are hurting, that the curse is killing them off one by one. You just want the glory of winning this task.”

The task!

It’s just a trick.

“NO!” Matthew roared, and this time his voice complied with his instructions. The scream echoed throughout the area, and Morellina’s images fuzzed in and out of focus. Then, she disappeared entirely, and Matthew woke up.

The lake was so cold.

He was descending into the darkness of the bottom, the last rays of bent sunlight fading out of his vision, and he was too weak to move. He wanted to give up, to let life go. Fighting to reach the surface seemed like too much of an effort.

So he let himself sink.

And then, out of nowhere, someone was grabbing his shoulders and swimming him up to the surface, just as he blacked out.

~

“I’ve got him!” Pandora gasped, her head breaking the surface. Panting, she dragged Matthew’s unmoving body up the shore of the sand island, her dress soaking and gathering sand as it dragged across the ground. Raelynn rushed to help drag him, and together they managed to get the young man out of the water.

“He’s not breathing,” Raelynn whispered faintly. “We need to do something!”

Pandora wrung her hands in panic, crouching by Matthew’s side. “What? What do we do?”

“CPR!” Raelynn shouted, looking as though she might grin if it weren’t for the unfortunate circumstances. “I’ve forgotten how to do it, but…”

“At my house, by the pool, Mum and Dad nailed a CPR sign on the pool gate. I know it off by heart,” Pandora said quickly.

“Then go,” Raelynn urged.

Pandora took a deep breath, pinched Matthew’s nose and began.

This is so awkward.

She blew her breath into his mouth and pumped his chest with all her might, feeling adrenaline and a horrible urgency fly through her veins.

“Come on, come on,” she hissed.

A minute later, Matthew still wasn’t moving. Pandora sighed and let her hands fall to her side.

“That’s it,” Raelynn said sadly. “We were too late.”

Pandora buried her face in her hands, and when she looked up, Raelynn was grinning joyously. She pointed back down at the prince, who was coughing madly, water pouring out of his mouth.

“Only the knights can know,” he gasped hoarsely.

“Welcome back,” Pandora whispered with relief, falling onto the sand in exhaustion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 THE VICTORY

 

 

He was meant to have died. And it was meant to look like it was all because he couldn’t swim.

Eliana sighed as she descended the steps of the royal castle. She held her dress in her hands and raised her chin, still confident, despite being outsmarted when she was so sure she would have won against Prince Matthew.

The sky was overcast and the air was icy to the touch, a sure sign of the approaching winter. Eliana shivered in her dress and narrowed her eyes at the servant boy attending to her horse. He seemed unfazed by her cold expression – perhaps he was even expecting it. He simply continued to brush the mare’s mane, unconcerned about his surroundings.

“What are you doing?” Eliana asked sharply, reaching the end of the steps.

“Why, I am saddling your horse, my lady,” the servant boy said, bowing.

“You are not a servant of mine,” she said angrily. “You attempt to do me harm.”

“No, no, not at all, my lady,” the servant boy said quickly, bowing again. “Master Aren sent me. He gave me to give to you.”

Eliana crossed her arms, looking expectant. The servant boy hummed and went back to brushing the mare’s mane soothingly, without a care in the world.

“The message, you useless dunderhead!” Eliana spat loudly. The servant boy jumped and whimpered, bowing quickly.

“Er, right. Sorry, my lady. Aren said…”

“Why so cross, Lady Eliana?” came a voice from behind her. Eliana resisted the urge to roll her eyes. She was irritated enough at the prince winning, and now he was here to taunt her further.

She plastered on a mask of graciousness and turned around, smiling ever-so-slightly.

“I’m not cross, sire. I am happy for your victory,” Eliana lied, batting her eyelashes prettily.

Matthew raised his eyebrows. “I got the impression you were displeased…”

“No, not at all. King Damien will be surprised that you won the task, but I’m sure he’ll now think of as a worthy, honourable city.” The words were sour in her mouth.

Matthew smiled. “That’s good to hear.”

There was a short silence. Eliana had no desire to continue the conversation, but she did anyway.

“Did you come to see me for a reason, sire?”

“Ah, yes. You said there would be a reward?”

Eliana breathed in. “Yes, sire.”

“It looked like you would be leaving without giving the reward.”

“Oh – well, I wasn’t planning on leaving straight away.” It was the truth. Eliana was a woman of her word, and she knew that whatever the outcome of the task, she would keep her end of the deal.

She closed her eyes, clasped her hands together and mumbled a spell. Pandora watched from the top of the steps with fascination as a gold liquid began to pour out of her hands and onto the ground.

“My words are laconic,

My requests are terse

I call upon Old Magic

To reverse this curse.”

The gold liquid seeped straight into the ground and disappeared without a trace.

“There,” Eliana said finally. “Listen.”

Rejoicing cries came from the lower town, building in a crescendo until they were screaming with joy. Water began to pour from the fountain and Pandora could see destroyed houses repairing and righting themselves. The fields and farms further immediately sprouted new crops, and people once covered in deadly sting marks walked out of the castle, looking happy and clear of blemishes.

Matthew laughed with happiness. “This is wonderful. Thank you.”

But Eliana had already ridden off, the servant boy running to catch up.

Puzzled by her eagerness to leave, he turned back to the castle and found Pandora smiling wildly.

“Lady Pandora!” Matthew greeted.

“Sire,” Pandora said with a quick curtsey. All these formalities annoyed her. “Let’s check the glass graveyard – I am sure we will find more happiness in there.”

Matthew ran to check up with her; she was running as fast as she could, holding her restrictive dress in her hands.

“The ‘glass graveyard’? That’s an interesting name,” Matthew commented as they swerved around a corner.

“I came up with it myself, sire,” Pandora replied.

The glass graveyard wasn’t too far away; they found it in a few minutes.

But it could no longer be called a glass graveyard, because in place of the glass statues, there were living, breathing and smiling people.

All was well, but not for Aren.

~

Aren slammed his hands onto the table, startling Eliana.

“I am sorry to have failed you, my lord,” Eliana sighed, but she made sure that tone showed she was not inferior to Aren. Maybe she was following Aren’s orders, but he was not her superior.

“I want him ridiculed – and I want him dead!” Aren roared, looking furious.

“He won, my lord. He was more noble and honourable than we had expected him to be,” Eliana said disappointedly.

“Are you paying the prince a compliment?” Aren hissed poisonously.

“I merely speak the truth,” Eliana said calmly.

Aren retreated from the table and began pacing around the room, taking long, agitated strides. He was an angry man, consumed by bitterness, and he was not someone who would go down without a fight.

“We cannot let this sabotage our plans,” Aren growled, still pacing.

“How are we to get through this stage when the prince has already proved himself worthy?” Eliana asked, leaning her head to one side.

“Use your common sense, Eliana!” Aren barked.

Eliana was silent, pondering this.

“The answer is so simple, and you overlook it, Eliana. You must remember not to focus on the details,” Aren hissed, though exactly unkindly.

“We bring the prince another task?” Eliana guessed at once. Aren nodded curtly. “But – I’m a woman of my word, and I promised to rid him of the curse if he succeeded.”

“Indeed you did, Eliana,” Aren said, a spark coming over his face as he walked towards her. “But you did not say for how long. The prince has shown his loyalty toward his people – there is no doubt that if he sees his people suffering, he will do another task.”

“What of the other kingdoms, Aren?” Eliana asked.

“Bring them together. Bring them together in one, single, brutal challenge. I care no longer for ridicule – I want death, and I want it to be entertaining.”

Eliana sighed. “As you wish.”

She clasped her hands together, and as her blood red lips formed the words of a spell, black sludge poured from her and slithered towards the west, where Mir lay.

~

The festivities were wonderful. Pandora had been invited to the feast, and of course she hadn’t hesitated to take the chance. Raelynn, being her maidservant, came too, and was laughing her head off at the entertainment.

The clatter of goblets and plates and the joyous laughter bounced off the walls of the dining room. The knights sat at the feast too, munching on the available food like there was no tomorrow.

Pandora tried to restrict herself from being gluttonous, pushing back the urge to eat whatever she wanted that she had back in London. Instead, she contented herself with cutting up some boiled carrots for now.

“Look at that guy,” Raelynn giggled in her ear as they ate. “He’s crazy.”

The jester performed in front of them, dancing around and doing his little tricks to impress the royals. Vance clapped loudly and Princess Morellina was giggling, maybe under the influence of a little too much alcohol for a princess. The songstresses sat in the corner, singing and plucking the strings of their harps in a quirky song.

Pandora clapped as the jester seemingly pulled a rose out of Princess Morellina’s ear.

“So epic,” Raelynn commented ecstatically.

“I’ve seen enough on TV,” Pandora said, only just managing to hide her yawn. Acting like a noblewoman was so stressful sometimes. All she wanted to do was pig out at the feast, burp when she wanted to and collapse in her bed in whatever clothes she wanted.

“But it’s like magic,” Raelynn said excitedly, jumping up and down with rapid claps at the jester’s tricks.

Pandora turned to face her and gave her a pointed look. Raelynn looked confused, until a look of realisation dawned on her face.

“Oh,” she uttered.

“No normal jester can make roses appear like that,” Pandora sighed, leaning back in her chair and watching the jester pull roses out of thin air. “The king is oblivious to magic when it’s under his nose, and when actually finds people with magic they’re usually innocent.”

“Don’t let anyone catch you saying that,” Raelynn warned.

“I won’t,” Pandora reassured tiredly. “Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’m going to retire.”

Raelynn pouted. “I suppose I’m coming.”

“Of course, maidservant.”

The pair walked out of the feasting room; Pandora was overcome with fatigue, while Raelynn was grinning madly and rambling about how she would like to learn to be a modern-day jester when they got back to their own era. If they got back.

Pandora slumped into her bed as soon as they entered her chambers.

“Sweet dreams, mistress,” Raelynn said sarcastically, shutting the curtains and walking out the door.

Pandora slept with no interruptions, and in the morning everything seemed perfect and wonderful, until Raelynn burst in and started yelling.

“Pandora! Get up! The curse came back,” she cried despairingly.

Pandora grumbled with irritation until her groggy mind registered the words that had spilled out of Pandora’s mouth. She jumped out of bed, glad that she’d fallen asleep in her day dress so she didn’t have to dress again.

She followed Raelynn, who hurried out the door and down the staircase with urgency. It was only when they arrived at the throne room and watched discreetly from the doorway that Pandora began to truly feel a sense of panic.

There was a long line of people in front of the king, who gripped his throne’s arms so tightly that his knuckles turned white, and all these spoke of lost senses, burnt crops, destroyed houses, inexistent water and family members turned to glass. And in front of the line, smirking and narrowing her eyes sinisterly, was Eliana.

“One more task, for the prince and his favourite knights. A competition. A race. That’s all that is needed for the curse to be undone forevermore,” Eliana persuaded.

“This is a trick!” the king roared. “We have been deceived! Is it that my kingdom shall suffer even after many a victory, until my son finally meets his demise?”

Prince Matthew clenched his jaw, completely agreeing with all his father had said.

“No, my king,” Eliana said. “I promise you – win, and your city is never touched by the curse again. Lose, and it stays.”

“It is repetitive to the ears,” Morellina spat with venom unusual for a princess. “I have heard this once before.”

“I told you I would rid you of the curse, but I never said for what period of time. This time, I promise it won’t come back for as long as time continues,” Eliana said, raising her chin.

“Then I accept,” Matthew barked.

“Matthew,” Vance hissed. “We must ponder this first.”

“No, we must not,” Matthew said confidently. “The wellbeing of our people is not something to be debated upon.”

“You have made your decision, then,” Eliana announced. “To undo the curse, you must travel to the infamous Obsidian Castle.”

The words were met with gasps of horror from all the commoners who still had their sense of hearing.

“There,” Eliana continued, “you must find the secret of the curse, the very thing that keeps it going.”

“And how are we to gain access to Obsidian Castle?” Matthew asked.

“You will travel through a maze, the Shadow Labyrinth, in the city of Reefs,” Eliana informed the prince. “Do you know the location of Reefs?”

“We do,” Matthew confirmed, nodding.

“Sunset tomorrow, Prince Matthew,” Eliana whispered. “Sunset, it starts. You are competing against other kingdoms who detest the curse as much as you do, so do be thoughtful when picking your companions.”

Matthew dropped his gaze to his knights, who all stood to the side, watching the witch intently.

“Goodbye, Eliana,” Vance all but growled.

“Goodbye, indeed,” she said airily, walking out of the throne room. The guards stepped aside to let her pass and the line, which usually comprised no more than two or three people, moved on. The twenty there cried with despair as they wailed on about their lost senses and their burnt crops and glass friends.

Pandora and Raelynn retreated from the throne room.

“What now, Pandora?” Raelynn asked. “I feel helpless.”

“Then we need to find people who can help us,” Pandora said, her strides quick and urgent. “First, breakfast. Then, the Mistwood. We’re going to pay our friends a visit.”

Breakfast was a quick affair, and then Pandora and Raelynn were riding as inconspicuously as possible down to the Mistwood, their paces casual and their faces relaxed. The guards at the entrance to the city let her pass without a second glance, and then they quickened their horses’ pace to a trot.

They rode down the dirt path that curved through the Mistwood cleanly, before veering off into the woods. When the trees became too thick and the ground too inconsistent, the pair left their horses and Pandora took a deep breath.

“I’ll summon them. We need them,” Pandora sighed. “I was kind of hoping we wouldn’t be needing them much, but…”

“But this is urgent, right? The earlier we find how to stop this, the better. The curse was meant to go away! You gave CPR to the prince!” Raelynn said exasperatedly. “Hurry up and summon them.”

Pandora reached into her dress and her hands grasped the familiar butterfly necklace. It seemed to twitch in her fingers, and as she pulled it out of her gown, she squeezed it tightly. It slipped away from the chain, looked up at Pandora and soared into the air with its fluttering, gemmed wings.

They were greeted no more than a minute later by all three of their “forest companions”.

“All of you?” Pandora said with a raised eyebrow. “Surprising.”

“Sundays are always boring,” Gabe commented, shrugging.

“You make me feel loved.”

“Enough,” Kalypso snapped. “I sense your urgency, and I assume our meeting has something to do with the curse that has befallen Mir?”

Gabe crossed his arms, ready to listen. He looked refreshed and excited for action, while Kalypso was unreadable, and Avelina was cold and indifferent as usual. Pandora hasn’t seen her since the day on the beach when she astral projected to Pandora and told her about Aren. Avelina looked like nothing had changed, though, and seemed quite eager to leave Pandora and Raelynn and continue whatever it was that she did in her spare time.

“What do we do, Kalypso?” Pandora asked helplessly. “How do we protect Matthew? No doubt he’s going to be in danger when he goes to the next task.”

“Go to the nymphs,” Avelina said sharply.

Kalypso looked like she was about to roll her eyes. “Wait for my advice tonight. I’ll come to you. But, I suppose, Raven Avelina is right in this case. The nymphs would be a better source of advice. Their queen has millennia of knowledge in her mind.”

“In the meantime, I have some stables to muck up. How exciting,” Gabe said sarcastically. “So, good luck with the nymph thing.”

He began running out to the path, and Kalypso disappeared into her own lavender mist.

Avelina tipped her head in farewell.

“Wait! How do I get to the nymphs?” Pandora asked, but Avelina had already disappeared into thin air.

“You called for us?” came a voice.

“Creepy,” Raelynn muttered.

The two turned around slowly, and the breath in Pandora’s throat hitched. Twenty or so nymphs stood scattered in the trees, looking suspecting and curious, while the nymph who had spoken to them looked welcoming. They all wore the same frock; a leafy green, wispy kind of dress.

“I am Pandora – and this is Raelynn,” Pandora said, leaning her head to see all the nymphs half hiding behind the sun-illuminated evergreens.

“We know,” the friendly nymph said calmly. She smiled, her hazel eyes curving. “I am Meredith, and we are the nymphs of the Mistwood. We are peaceful, and we strive to help those who ask for it.”

“We need help,” Raelynn said, surprising Pandora. She hadn’t been talking much. “We need your help to ensure the safety of Prince Matthew.”

“He’s going to go to a labyrinth in Reefs and compete against other kingdoms,” Pandora announced, worry lacing her voice. “I worry that it will be a dangerous, brutal event. Competitive men are a force to be reckoned with.”

“You are right, Pandora.” And then Meredith… changed. Her skin paled and her whole body spasmed. The sky seemed to darken ominously, and Meredith reared her head, closing her eyes and gasping. When she opened her eyes, they were completely white. She had no irises.

“The one they call the Revolutionist will meet his end in the Castle,” she gasped hoarsely, her eyes cast towards the frightened Raelynn and Pandora without really seeing them. Pandora gripped onto Raelynn’s arm, her unclipped nails digging almost painfully into her skin.

“And in the Castle a new threat will rise, and we will all meet our end!” she hissed quietly. “I see a path of trickery and deceit, and it is unavoidable. But there is a way around the death that will hit the kingdom with force like no other; if the ones they call the Saviour will aid the Revolutionist, the path will lighten. The ones destined to die will keep their lives, the sun will penetrate the darkness.”

Then she cleared her throat, and returned to normal. The sun brightened once more.

“I hope you have your answer,” Meredith said, clearing her throat.

“I… I do,” Pandora said, still shocked about what had just happened to the nymph.

“Then we bid you farewell,” Meredith said. “Come away, my children.”

“Yes, my queen,” they replied in unison. Pandora cocked her head at them as they walked away. Queen Meredith led her nymphs away into the trees, and it was all thanks to Raelynn that Pandora managed to snap out of her reverie.

“We’re going to Reefs, aren’t we?” Raelynn asked worriedly. “We’re going to reach the labyrinth before Matthew and the knights.”

“No… not just yet,” Pandora said. “We’re going to do some research in the library.”

“They have a library?” Raelynn said, surprised.

“Of course they do. Well, I assume they do. I’ll just have to figure out where it actually is.”

“Oh. Of course,” Raelynn muttered.

~

“So, um…” Pandora said awkwardly.

The knights stared at her. She stared at them.

“Uh, I’m here to teach you some life-saving techniques I learned back in my home village… Bangladesh.”

At the back of the group, Raelynn barely managed to conceal her giggle. She, Pandora, the knights and the prince all stood out on the field, the noon sun high in the sky. This was Pandora’s first health lesson for the knights, and it was all because she’d given mouth-to-mouth to Prince Matthew. He’d requested that his knights learn what she knew about preventing death.

“I suppose I’ll, uh,” Pandora said, clasping her hands together, “teach you what I did to Prince Matthew to save him. Yeah, we’ll start there.”

“We need no explanation, my lady,” Sir Astonance said with a smile.

“Indeed,” Sir Crandigon continued for him. “It was the kiss of love that saved our prince; alas, the bedtime stories we dismissed as fiction hold true meaning.”

“No!” Pandora denied quickly. She didn’t want any trouble. “No, no, no! Nothing to do with love! It’s more about science.”

“Science, my lady?” Sir Tristan asked, puzzled.

“Oh – alchemy, of a sort. Science, well – science is the study of… anything. The science of the heart is the study of the heart, the science of the sky is the study of the sky…”

“Science…” Sir Tristan repeated, fascinated.

“Anyway, moving on,” Pandora announced. “What I did to the prince was no kiss. It was something called CPR, something that is drilled into our heads back in Bangladesh, something written on signs everywhere, especially beside – uh – lakes.”

And on pool gates.

“Whatever does CPR mean, my lady?” Sir Gareth asked curiously.

“Uh – um…” Pandora trailed off, looking helplessly at Raelynn.

“Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation!” Raelynn said quickly.

“Yes – right.” Pandora would have to pay her back later for the quick save. She was actually slightly surprised that the American knew what it stood for, although she had underestimated her a lot lately.

“What it does, this Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, is create a way of artificial breathing. I suppose that’s a way of describing it,” Pandora explained, pacing calmly as though she was a teacher. And really, she was. “What you do is hold the subject’s nose, breathe into the subject’s mouth, and pump the chest a certain way. I’ll demonstrate it first, and then you’ll have to practice on each other.”

“On whom will you demonstrate this… CPR?” Sir Crandigon asked. It was like Pandora had her own group of bubbly, bright pupils.

“Um – any volunteers?” Pandora asked, raising her eyebrows. She didn’t exactly relish the thought of giving these big, burly knights mouth-to-mouth.

The rest of the lesson was almost traumatising for Pandora – but at least her students learned a lot.

~

“God, I never want to do that again,” Pandora whispered, shivering.

“When’s your next lesson?” Raelynn asked with a smirk.

“Next week, same time,” Pandora said tersely.

“What are you going to teach the knights?”

“I have no idea. I’ll probably teach them how to swim. That would be a good idea,” Pandora muttered. “Anyway, we need to find the library.”

Raelynn stopped their brisk walk through the castle, smiling accomplishedly. “No need to worry. I already asked one of the knights.”

“Brilliant!” Pandora said, grinning. “That’ll save lots of time. Lead the way, maidservant!”

Raelynn led Pandora down a corridor, dragging her by her wrist. “Poor Cobalt, being confined to my tiny room,” Raelynn sighed disappointedly.

“Oh, he’ll live. We’ll think of a way to make his sudden appearance unsuspicious after this is all over. The task and everything, I mean,” Pandora said. “But Cobalt will adjust until then. He’s born to adapt.”

They continued their way through the maze of castle corridors, until Raelynn stopped them in front of a large, wooden door. She opened it quietly and flashed Pandora a thumbs-up, confirming that she had found the library.

They began a long quest to find the right books.

They looked in every aisle, on every shelf, and the sun continued its descent. Fatigue overcame them, yet they persevered, not letting their tired eyes bother them as they skimmed through promising books.

“I think I’m just going to sit down with a pile,” Pandora muttered, yawning. She grabbed a whole load of books from the shelf she faced and climbed down the library ladder. She slammed the books onto the nearest table and began reading.

“Labyrinth of Reefs… Labyrinth of Reefs…” Pandora mumbled to herself, lazily flipping through the pages of a book called Outstanding Monuments and Landmarks. Sunset would come soon, but their search seemed pointless. They hadn’t found a single scrap of information in the quiet, old library.

Before she knew it, her head came to rest on the table and she was taken away by the arms of sleep.

~

There was purple everywhere.

Pandora stood in a field of barley, surrounded by bright pink trees and flags of England. A giant chipmunk materialised in front of her, large and frightening, with fur as sharp as spears and teeth as big as Pandora.

All of a sudden, the dream was snatched away from her. There was more purple.

Pandora watched from far away, letting her dream take its course. Everything was sped up, as though someone had pressed the 16x on her dream remote. She saw a labyrinth as dark and mysterious as the night Mistwood – a maze of stone three times the height of a man.

She watched Prince Matthew and his knights rushing through the maze at the abnormal speed, and although she was far away, she heard every word clearly and at the right speed.

“The Shadow Labyrinth is dangerous!” she heard Matthew say to his knights. “This is the time to show what our daily training has given you. We may cross paths with the other kingdoms, we may not, but know this: the obstacles that stand in our way will not be easy to overcome.”

“Shadow Labyrinth…” Pandora said to herself. “So that’s what it’s called.”

They continued their strangely fast pace through the maze, until they reached a monster twice as terrifying as the giant chipmunk. This monster, covered in the most gruesome of goo and moaning eerily, had taken the maze’s darkness to its own advantage. The fog and the shadows helped to hide the monster as it roared and groaned.

Pandora’s dream was misty and everything was just weird. It was like she had just fallen down and was seeing everything in a disorientated state.

The dream sped up even more – a 64x on her remote. The prince managed to defeat all obstacles and came to the stairs at the middle of the maze, just as several other parties arrived.

Someone started singing to Pandora.

“The Labyrinth, the kingdoms, will not defeat our prince;

He shall not struggle, he shall not wince.

In the Labyrinth, no, he will not meet his doom;

But in the Castle, yes, the Castle of gloom.”

The melody was eerie and sent shivers up her spine. She thought the voice was familiar, but she couldn’t quite put a finger on who the voice belonged to. The dream faded, and for a mere moment there was complete darkness, except for Kalypso and her acid green Lantern of Oversight.

Of course.

Another scene appeared, this time in a castle, but Pandora could not seem to make out the details, no matter how hard she tried.

Prince Matthew was in deadly battle with another man: Aren. All his knights were dead, lying on the floor with sickening gashes across their chests and blood coating the marble floors. Matthew was alone.

All Aren had to do was mutter a quick spell, lean his head to the side, and then Matthew was burned alive.

“NO!” Pandora screamed. “Wake me up from this nightmare, Kalypso!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 THE TAVERN

 

 

Pandora gasped as Kalypso granted her request. Her whole body was covered in sweat, and she was shivering, though not from the cold of dusk. The librarian had lit candles, and in the orange light, Pandora could see Raelynn’s worried face. She was bent over a thick, dusty book, but her eyes were focused on Pandora.

“Are you okay?” Raelynn asked concernedly. “I heard you whispering Kalypso’s name, and I thought it would be best not to wake you up.”

“I’m fine,” Pandora said hoarsely, her mind groggy with sleep. “Totally fine. I just had – I just had an unpleasant dream,” she mumbled.

She stood up suddenly, and vertigo made her stagger in dizziness. She came crashing to the floor when her balance failed her, and her weak legs buckled.

“Ow.”

“Pandora! Are you alright? How are you?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Pandora gasped, wincing when she moved her probably bruised stomach. “Only hurts when I breathe. I feel splendid.”

“… so do you want help or not?” Raelynn asked, coming to Pandora’s side.

“No, I want to know if a granny skirt is fashionable this year. Yes, I want help. Twit,” Pandora said sarcastically.

“No need to get snarky,” Raelynn chastised, grabbing Pandora’s arms. Pandora grunted as Raelynn began to pull her up, almost pulling her arms out of their sockets in the process.

“Wait,” Pandora said suddenly. Raelynn let go, making Pandora wheeze as she hit the library floor once again. “I saw something.”

She squinted from her awkward position on the floor, trying her best to see into the shadows under the book shelves. She could see cobwebs, dust, and… a book.

“Somebody put a book under here,” Pandora whispered, in case anyone in the library was listening. She stretched out her arm underneath the bookshelves, pushing aside the cobwebs to get to the large, thick book.

“A book of magic,” Raelynn whispered as soon as the cover was visible to her. “Those are runes.”

Pandora brushed away the cobwebs and sat up on the floor. The book was heavy in her arms and she struggled to hold it up. Instead, she let it sit in her lap, marvelling at how large it was. The title, at first, looked like a jumbled mess of characters, until she looked closer and found that it simply said Magic.

“Excellent,” Pandora breathed.

“Dangerous,” Raelynn said darkly. “If Vance finds that in your possession, he’ll have your head.”

“I won’t let him find it,” Pandora declared.

The leather cover was decorated with golden symbols – runes, according to Raelynn. It was beautiful and ancient, and Pandora found herself against the idea of reading it in the library. It seemed wrong to have it in the same room as someone against magic: the librarian, obviously.

“I’ll look into it tonight.”

“We will. I want to look – I have magic too, remember?” Raelynn said.

That reminded Pandora. She stood up, and this time, having had time to recover from the bad dream, she remained steady on her feet.

“The dream,” she said quickly. “Kalypso – Kalypso said…”

“What?” Raelynn asked, standing as well.

Pandora closed her eyes, trying to remember Kalypso’s eerie song.

“The Labyrinth, the kingdoms, will not defeat our prince,” she began, reciting the poem as well as her memory let her.

“He shall not struggle, he shall not wince.

In the Labyrinth, no, he will not meet his doom;

But in the Castle, yes, the Castle of gloom,” she finished, opening her eyes.

“The Castle of gloom?” Raelynn repeated, frowning. “Does that mean Obsidian Castle?”

“I assume so,” Pandora said. “So, Kalypso’s saying that we shouldn’t be focusing on the Shadow Labyrinth, because Matthew will be fine without our help. What we have to do is get to Obsidian Castle to help him, or otherwise… he’s going to die.”

“We should leave tonight,” Raelynn said with conviction. “Under the cover of darkness.”

“I agree,” Pandora said, nodding her head in agreement, “but first we need to find another way to get there. We can’t very well go through the Shadow Labyrinth. There must be another way to access Obsidian Castle.”

Raelynn smiled. “I bet it’ll be in there.” She nodded her head towards the book in Pandora’s arms.

“Then let’s go to my chambers.”

They put the magic book into Pandora’s dress and she wrapped her cloak around her stomach. They smiled politely at the bearded librarian as they rushed out of the library.

~

“Spells and enchantments for every witch and wizard,” Raelynn whispered when they arrived in Pandora’s chambers that evening.

“Love potions…” Pandora muttered.

“Magical creatures and beasts…”

“Healing chants…”

“Magical power bases…”

“And famous magical locations!” Pandora and Raelynn squealed in unison. The book was perfect. It had everything; every spell they could think of, myths and legends, monsters and how to defeat them… It was all there. Pandora knew she would protect the book as best as she could, which included hiding it.

“Great!” Raelynn said. “Obsidian Castle must be in that chapter.”

“Let’s look.”

So they looked. And they found places they had never dreamed of, places that seemed figments of a madman’s imagination, places that were as great or as terrible as heaven and hell. And, at the very end of the chapter, was Obsidian Castle, marked with a frightening picture of a skull and bones.

They skimmed over the description, more interested in what it said about access.

The Castle is a dangerous place, it said. Enter preparing to embrace death.

Raelynn and Pandora exchanged a look.

There are two ways to access Obsidian Castle. The Shadow Labyrinth is one such entrance; at the centre is a tunnel, which leads to a certain area in the blizzard that surrounds the Castle. This certain area is magically protected of all snow and wind, but not the cold.

“So Matthew’s going to go there,” Raelynn deduced.

“But we’re going the other way.”

The second method of entering the Castle is through a tavern in Fiern named The Little Dragon. Warning: the tavern owner does not welcome strangers.

“The Little Dragon,” Raelynn said. “That’s where we’re going, then?”

“Yep,” Pandora replied.

Of course, you can always go through the Great Blizzard, but it is almost certain that you will die.

“Well then,” Pandora sighed, closing the book. “That was cheerful.”

“The Little Dragon. The Little Dragon…” Raelynn muttered to herself. “The Little Dragon.”

“Let’s go.”

~

Sneaking through the castle was easy, because it wasn’t that suspicious too be walking around at such an early time in the night. Hiding the magic book, however, was an entirely different matter.

They thought of everywhere in her chambers, imagining that they were guards ordered to search Pandora’s chambers. It was only when they finished their pretend search that they realised the only place they avoided was Pandora’s underwear draw.

They put the book there.

All Pandora had to do to distract the guards (so that they weren’t suspicious when she didn’t return) was charm a few things to fall and break. The guards abandoned the doors within a few minutes, searching for the culprit, and Pandora displaced the dust to swirl around them as they sprinted from behind a pillar to the oak doors.

They didn’t stop running until they were sure the guards weren’t coming. Then, they went to the stables, saddled London and Apple, and mounted the horses.

“Wait,” Pandora said as Raelynn grabbed London’s reins. “Isn’t it dangerous going to Obsidian Castle all by ourselves?”

“Of course it is,” Raelynn said. “So what?”

“I was thinking… shouldn’t we bring along some companions? Maybe Charles?”

“No,” Raelynn shot down at once. “He’s too wimpy, and the prince will be suspicious when his manservant goes missing.”

“Then Astraea?” Pandora suggested.

“I don’t think we should put people in danger if we don’t know that they can defend themselves,” Raelynn said slowly. “How about the Beings?”

“Of course!” Pandora exclaimed, smacking her head. “Why didn’t we think of this before? Let’s go.”

Raelynn yanked the reins and her horse trotted out of the stables with a neigh. Pandora closed her eyes and grabbed the fabric of Ancient Magic. It became easier and easier the more she did it.

The two horses rode through the stillness of night, their riders being careful not to make too much noise and wake the people of the city. They trotted across the city square, through the houses and markets and into the Mistwood. Pandora whispered to London to stop, and then she grabbed her butterfly necklace and squeezed it as hard as her fingers would allow.

Kalypso appeared in a violet haze, but the two others did not.

“I heard your songs,” Pandora said. “We’re on a quest to go to Obsidian Castle.”

“And what do you hope to achieve there?” Kalypso asked, her face – skin stretched over bones – illuminated by the electric green fire of the Lantern of Oversight.

“We’ll protect Matthew with what he doesn’t have: magic,” Raelynn said.

“And, there was something Eliana said… She said, ‘You must find the secret of the curse, the very thing that keeps it going.’ We’re going to do that.” Pandora stroked London’s mane as she talked.

Kalypso narrowed her eyes. “Why have you summoned me?”

“We would like you to accompany us,” Pandora said. “And, also, we want to bring any other Beings that are willing.”

Kalypso then smiled, which a strange sort of thing to see a fortune-telling spirit do, but then again, Pandora had been getting many surprises lately.

“I’ll be back,” she promised quickly, before dematerialising.

Raelynn looked at Pandora. “Well then. Waiting. I love waiting.”

It was about five minutes later when Kalypso came back, but this time, she was not alone.

Her lantern seemed to glow brighter to help the lighting needs of all the other Beings. To her right were Gabe, and the sleepy Avelina. To her left were Nireth and Cobalt, both looking slightly confused.

“Cobalt!” Raelynn said, shocked. “We forgot about you!”

“Yeah, thanks very much for that,” he said sarcastically, rubbing his arms in the frigid air.

“Nireth,” Pandora greeted with a smile. “Nice to see you.”

“You too, Pandora,” Nireth said with a grin.

“We’re on a voyage to Obsidian Castle. It will be dangerous,” Pandora said to the group, lifting her chin like they did in the movies she’d watched. “And it will be terrifying. Are you all up for it?”

Nireth grinned, Cobalt shouted, “Yes, sir!” and the rest nodded.

“Awesome!” Pandora cried with a smile. “Now – er – which way is it to Fiern?”

Raelynn smirked. “I took the liberty of bringing the book with us, in case we need it on the journey.” She pulled a thick book out of her bag. “Took it out of the drawer just before we left. You didn’t think of doing that now, did you? It has a map and everything.”

She flipped through the book until she landed on the desired page, and Kalypso held her lantern over the yellowing pages.

“There,” Raelynn said, satisfied. “A map of Mir, Fiern, Reefs, Astewell and all surrounding areas.”

Pandora took the map from Raelynn’s hands. “Well, Fiern is west of here… And west is…?”

Raelynn traced a rune and closed her eyes as it glowed.

“That way,” she said after a few seconds, pointing in the direction opposite to Mir.

“We only have two horses,” Pandora observed.

“I have no need for one,” Kalypso said.

“Nor I,” Avelina said. “I have my own horse.”

Avelina muttered a summoning spell, and a white horse almost as beautiful as Avelina herself came galloping up to the group in record time.

Cobalt sat with Raelynn, Gabe sat with Pandora, and Nireth sat with Avelina. Kalypso spontaneously turned into an acid green dot in the air, much like a glowing fly.

And they set off.

Their horses rode at a brisk trot through the swirling fog that came to the Mistwood at night. Every movement they made caused the mist to whirl and change, like water in the air. The eerie calls of nocturnal animals rang out through the trees, and crows squawked at the ink sky. It was a new moon, and because of the near-darkness, Avelina had to mentally cast a fire spell. Pandora manoeuvred the fireball out of Avelina’s hand and separated it into smaller balls. She then cast the smaller fireballs around them in a ring of candle lights. She smiled, and they rode on.

Pandora didn’t like the silence between them, but according to Kalypso, there were guards that did patrol in the Mistwood during the night. Adding talking to the soft sound of their horses’ hooves wouldn’t be a good idea.

They firelights swirled around them, casting light over the nearest charcoal trees and slightly rough ground. They couldn’t very well go on the path that wound through the Mistwood, but their horses could not handles the hilly, unstable terrain of the deeper parts of the wood. They had to stay somewhere in between, keeping on high alert for any sounds of guards.

Hours passed like this.

Pandora sighed. “Why can’t you just disappear into thin air and bring us with you?”

“Not an option,” Avelina replied tersely.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Kalypso added to Avelina’s information. “We can’t bring people with us when we do it. They have to learn it themselves, which would take days, and we need to get to the Castle quickly.”

Pandora didn’t ask anything after that. They just rode through the tangle of trees, each lost in their own thoughts.

After a while, Gabe sighed.

“I’m tired,” Gabe complained. “Let’s retire for the evening.”

“Tired?” Cobalt scoffed. “All you do is hold on to Pandora’s waist and sit.”

“As do you, with Raelynn,” Gabe shot back.

“The difference is, I’m not tired,” Cobalt retorted. Pandora could practically sense Raelynn rolling her eyes.

“Are you not?” Gabe asked. “Then why do you conceal your yawn?”

Cobalt clamped down on his yawn at once, seething and looking ahead. Pandora grinned in amusement.

“He’s right, though,” Raelynn said. “Let’s get some rest. We have a long journey ahead of us still.”

They got off their horses and Raelynn set down the blankets she’d brought. Avelina simply multiplied them, and turned away from everyone as soon as she got comfortable in her blanket.

“Um… I’ll get some firewood, then,” Nireth said. She began to gather up sticks in her arms, and Pandora sat on a log with Raelynn.

It wasn’t long before Nireth returned, her arms full. She dropped the firewood in front of the log and brushed the dirt off her hands.

“Whew,” she exhaled. “Let’s get that fire going, then.”

Pandora was about to ask Avelina, when, to her surprise, Nireth narrowed her eyes and a fire began to burn, its flames crackling and dancing in the soft, icy breeze.

Grateful, Pandora began to warm her hands in front of the fire.

“I didn’t know you could do that,” Raelynn mused, copying Pandora.

“There are a lot of things you don’t know about me,” Nireth smiled. “For example, my family comes from a long line of Vikings!”

Pandora raised her eyebrows. “That’s – that’s, uh…”

“You also don’t know that I was the best sailor in all of Astewell, and that I had a friend named Berry who was a cat, and that my mother liked to bake, and that I was a songstress, and that my original eye colour is actually blue!” Nireth finished with a toothy grin.

Raelynn frowned. “What?”

She leaned into her face suddenly, startling her. She dragged her bottom eyelids down, revealing the pink flesh beneath the eyes.

“You can still see some blue around my pupil.”

Raelynn inspected her honey eyes without a sound.

“It changed one day, for no apparent reason.” Nireth pulled back, shrugging and releasing her eyelids.

“That’s odd,” Pandora murmured.

“Yes,” Nireth agreed with a slight incline of her head, “but it was very exciting. Anyway, good night.”

“Good night,” Pandora and Raelynn said in unison, and then only they and Cobalt were left by the fire.

Cobalt sighed wistfully. “Reminds you of camp, doesn’t it?”

Pandora leaned her to one side, staring into the mesmerising tongues of fire, illuminating their surroundings. He was right. It reminded her of that moment before this had all started, when she made fun of Raelynn and Morellina had admired her choppy, red wine hair. Pandora knew now that the American wasn’t all that bad, although she wouldn’t dare to say it for a while. No, that would be a kick to her pride.

“We’ll get there soon,” Raelynn said, nodding as though reassuring herself. “We’ll get back to camp, and return to our normal lives.”

“The only problem is figuring out how to do that,” Cobalt whispered.

Pandora kept quiet, feeling strange secretive about her parents.

They sat on that log for a while, until soft snores came from the four others already asleep.

“My parents,” Pandora whispered, disrupting the silence.

“Sorry?” Cobalt asked.

“My parents,” Pandora repeated, sighing. “When I landed in the Mistwood, they told me the only way to get back was to find my parents. The only problem is that in this dimension, they’ve disappeared. We have no way of finding them.”

Silence ensued, and all they did was continue staring at the flames.

“I’m turning in,” Pandora said finally.

“Me too,” Cobalt added.

“Good night,” Raelynn murmured, and the night wasted away.

~

“Gabe,” Pandora mumbled sleepily. “Gabe. Stop.”

“Hm? Oh, sorry.”

Pandora opened her eyes, awake thanks to Gabe’s flailing arms hitting her body. She wiped the crust from her eyes, and smiled as she saw the sunlight above the roof of leaves and branches. Morning time.

“MORNING!” she heard Cobalt yell.

“Cobalt!” Raelynn hissed, still half submerged in her sea of dreams and sleep.

Pandora yawned, stretched and pushed the woollen blanket off her body. The welcoming temperature of dawn encased her body. The first thing she did was pile leaves upon their charred mess of firewood to hide any evidence of them being there, and then Gabe stretched and muttered, “What’s for breakfast?”

Nireth looked Avelina, who had evidently risen long before the others. “Can you magic up something for us?” she asked, though she looked like she was doubting her own suggestion.

Avelina shook her head. “I know many things, but the art of creating sustenance from the air is sacred knowledge of which I know not. But,” she added, when she saw Nireth’s disappointed look, “I can hunt. I’ll be back soon.”

She hopped on her majestic white horse and left without another word.

“I did bring food, you know,” Raelynn said. “I suppose I was a little late in saying so.”

“Just a little,” Cobalt agreed.

Raelynn unloaded the bread and fruit in her bag, cutting it up in equal proportions and passing it around. While she fed the horses, Avelina returned with a deer slung over her shoulder, an arrow stuck in its head.

“Poor deer!” Nireth cried.

“Deer to eat,” Avelina corrected.

“Yum,” Gabe said.

“Gross,” Raelynn said.

Kalypso was indifferent.

Avelina cooked the deer and the majority of the group responded with enthusiasm, either suppressed or vocalised, since they hadn’t had dinner last night. They spent a while munching on their filling breakfast, the sounds of eating and occasional chatter accompanying the morning bird songs. But when all the food was gone, they remounted the horses and set off for more riding.

Pandora knew that by now, the prince and his knights must have been travelling towards Reefs, while Pandora and the Beings went the other way to Fiern. It was extremely unlikely that they would cross paths.

They rode peacefully, their horses trotting a little faster than last night. The Mistwood was charming during the day, with its sweet bird songs and honey and green leaves rustling in the breeze – but during the night, when the mist rolled in, it was frightening.

The three horses rode on and on.

They reached Fiern a little after a noon, and Pandora was shocked by the city’s beauty. Avelina was smiling slightly – perhaps she, too, liked the city, though Pandora imagined that she had come to Fiern many times before.

Fiern was a city that very much embraced nature.

Ivy encased all the limestone houses and constructions, though not in a way that looked unpleasant and strangling. Flowers lined the grassy pathways, and between the houses were either immaculately cut hedges or short, young trees with pink blossoms.

The sun shone comfortably down on the city, and everyone looked friendly and happy. How could a city be so amazing?

“Wow,” Gabe said. “I’ve never been here before. So many plants!”

“And birds!” Raelynn added, pointing up at a willow. Multi-coloured birds sat on the branches together, singing and calling out.

“I can hear the plants speaking,” Gabe said, closing his eyes. “They’re happy. Content.”

They walked the horses through the city, exclaiming at the sights and laughing. Eventually, Pandora decided that the time for sightseeing was over.

“Excuse me,” she said suddenly to a passer-by. “Would you happen to know where we could find the Little Dragon tavern?”

The man smiled. “Just to the left, and then to the right.”

“Thank you,” Pandora said with a polite incline of her head, before the party of six people, three horses and one glowing green dot followed the directions. They found themselves staring at the Little Dragon. Perfect.

The Little Dragon was a warm, inviting place on the outside, with its homely shades of dark wood and dull red, but as they opened the door, they found it to be a little less welcoming. The place was dark and musty, with only candles for light, and all the men who sat around tables with their mugs of whisky spoke loudly and angrily, letting out harsh barks of laughter every so often. The bartender was a burly, bald man with an eye patch and yellowing teeth, who sneered uninvitingly at the group in the doorway.

“Nice place,” Gabe muttered. “What do we do now?”

“The book said we had to talk to the manager,” Pandora informed them, closing the door behind her. “The only problem, we don’t know who that is.”

Cobalt shrugged. “So what? You can just ask the bartender guy.”

Pandora looked at Cobalt with wide eyes, laughing nervously. “Oh, no. I couldn’t do that. Why don’t you try, Cobalt?”

Cobalt rolled his eyes. “Yes, m’lady.”

He walked up to the bartender and asked something, but the group was too far away to hear anything. All Pandora could hear were snatches of unpleasant conversation from the tough-looking men.

Cobalt gestured for them to come over.

“He’s the manager,” he said quietly, making sure the bartender couldn’t hear. “Actually friendlier than he looks.”

“Good day, sir,” Raelynn said politely.

“Torren, please,” the man said in his gravelly voice, smiling brightly in a way that seemed so strange with such a rough appearance. Pandora realised that the sneer on his face looked permanent; he couldn’t help looking menacing. “What would youths such as yourself be wanting in my tavern?”

“We have… reason to believe that you can bring us to Obsidian Castle. Is that true?” Avelina asked.

“Of course,” Torren answered, smiling again in that odd way.

“Great,” Pandora said. “If you wouldn’t mind – could you bring us there? It is important that we get there as soon as we can. We’d be willing to pay you a reward.”

“Aye,” Torren growled, “I’ll bring you there, but I warn you, you’ll be walking straight into a death trap.”

“We know,” Raelynn said casually.

“Say, before I bring you, tell me your names, will you?” Torren asked expectantly. Perfect – no money reward required.

Torren seemed friendly enough, so Pandora didn’t bother to create aliases for them. “Oh, I’m Pandora. This is Raelynn. And that’s Avelina, Gabe, Cobalt and Nireth.”

She hoped Torren wouldn’t too suspicious about the glowing green dot buzzing around them like a bee.

“Aye, that’s what I thought,” Torren said with a smile, but this time the smile suited him. It looked sinister and malicious, and Pandora’s blood turned cold. He tapped his head, as though emphasising his intelligence, and then every single person in the tavern had stood up, brandishing a sword.

“Beings of Mir,” Torren spat. “I’ve had quite a few… disagreements with them in the past – now, I can have my revenge.”

“Oh,” Raelynn squeaked. “Oh dear. Oh – oh no. This is bad.”

The group formed a circle, though they had no weapons of their own. None except magic.

Too bad Torren had that, too.

He clicked his fingers, a spark flying off his thumb, and then tavern customers began to close in on the small circle with eyes glazed over like they were in a trance

Avelina blinked and effortlessly pushed five men away with her magic, but all they had to do was get back up on their feet and come rushing towards the group.

The fifty or so men came charging towards them in an instant. Pandora’s heart beat erratically in her chest as she attempted to use her magic to push them away, but she was unfocused, and was not reaching in herself far enough.

This was not good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 THE DRAGON

 

 

“It was nice knowing you,” Raelynn squeaked.

“Runes, Raelynn, runes,” Pandora hissed.

“Right,” Raelynn gulped. The symbols on her skin glowed bright, and she frantically tried to trace them with her nails, but nothing happened. She was too scared, too concentrated on the men running at them.

Avelina yelled out and a stream of raging fire flew out of her tense hands. Her face was hard in concentration, but her eyes boiled with anger and conviction. Kalypso had changed into her human-like form, but she looked helpless and apologetic. It seemed that she had no violent powers.

Cobalt roared and shrunk into his husky form, growling dangerously in the pounce position. His snowy fur seemed to flutter in anger, and his cobalt eyes were alert. Ready.

When the men were close enough, he jumped with such force that he knocked down three men, and all Torren did was laugh with amusement. Avelina’s fire had scorched one man, but then the flames faded. She panted in exhaustion; magic was tiring.

Pandora was putting all her heart into coaxing her magic out of her body, but it was fruitless. She had next to no experience with her powers and had trouble even touching them, let alone using them.

“We can’t keep this up,” Raelynn said, just as helpless as Pandora. Cobalt was barking madly and sinking his teeth into a tall man, who screamed in pain while the blood flowed from the punctures. “We need help.”

Avelina was yelling out spells at the top of her voice, her hand outstretched in front of her. Her eyes turned golden every second, the magic rushing out of her like a river.

Gabe was whispering something, his eyes closed. Pandora looked around and saw ivy sneaking in through a window that was slightly ajar. The deep green plant snaked across the floor with the help of an unseen force, and all the while Gabe was whispering instructions with urgency.

The ivy coiled around some of the men’s ankles, pulling sharply and making them fall on their backs. When the ivy did it enough, it looked like the men had fractured their coccyges.

And the door flew open, and thirty more men entered, while the small group had only managed to completely stop ten.

All the men flew at them at once. Avelina summoned the swords of the men lying on the ground and groaning, and the swords flew at their little circle. Pandora snatched the gleaming weapon out of midair, feeling uncomfortable with strange, heavy thing. She struggled to hold it up, and when one of the men brandished his own sword, Pandora was almost paralysed in fright.

He had to swing his sword at her to make her move.

She grunted with effort, blocking the sword with her own. The man pulled back slightly to swing again, and Pandora was so happy with her first ever sword block that Avelina had to knock him over to stop him cutting her head off.

“Thanks,” Pandora breathed.

“Concentrate, Pandora,” Avelina said disdainfully, moving on to fight with the men and knock them back with magic.

Pandora felt useless. What could she do? She could not wield the sword, and she could not wield her own magic. She knew Raelynn felt the same.

“We can’t do this!” Gabe gasped, pulling out of his stupor-like state. The ivy dropped to the ground.

“The dragon!” Avelina yelled.

Raelynn’s face plainly said, What?

Gabe nodded. “DRAGON!” he screamed, so loudly that several covered their ears and cringed.

The sound of swords clanging together replaced the scream and everyone resumed fighting.

The dragon came only half a minute later, smashing the roof away with a deafening cacophony of cracking and banging. It was frightening and massive, so much so that Pandora gulped and dropped her sword with a loud clang. She heard others doing the same, looking up at the giant beast with fear and awe.

It was so horribly oppressive and fearsome that Pandora just couldn’t move. It roared and threw back its snout, the blade-sharp teeth poking out from under its lips clearly visible. Its whole body was armoured with dark red scales, like blood, and its tail was lined with spikes as big any one of the men in the tavern. Its wings beat at the wind with a vengeance as it came down to land in the middle of the tavern. The men ran away with panicked roars and Raelynn pulled Pandora away, right before the dragon’s feet crushed the spot she’d just been standing.

“It’s a – it’s a dragon,” Pandora choked. Raelynn was as pale as Pandora felt. This was just crazy.

Everyone smashed the walls with their weapons, eventually bringing down the tavern in a haze of smoke and wood dust. Only half of the men had gotten out, but all the Beings were fine.

“Pandora,” Avelina said, hardly out of breath but looking alert. “I need you to listen to me.”

“I’m listening,” Pandora choked out, her eyes wide and watching the dragon’s feet crushing the wreckage of what was once the Little Dragon tavern, steadily approaching the group of men and Beings.

“This was so risky!” Gabe shouted from a few metres away.

“Pandora,” Avelina hissed with such urgency that Pandora tore her eyes away from the dragon and met Avelina’ piercing, midnight blue gaze. “You are a Dragon Whisperer.”

Pandora laughed a very high-pitched chuckle. “I never thought you capable of humour, Avelina,” she said, her voice laced with nervousness.

“Get serious, Pandora, or we are going to die!”

That made Pandora shut up.

Avelina sighed exasperatedly. “Look, you being able to focus is what makes the difference between life and death.”

“But – but I can’t be a Dragon Whisperer… I’m Pandora, a normal girl from London…”

“…who was sucked into a portal that brought her here to save us, and this is the first step, though I can guarantee you you’ll be having to save us plenty more times!”

Pandora gulped. Adrenaline and panic was overtaking her body and Avelina was stressing her out. The dragon was growling dangerously, smoke pouring out of its nostrils like a steam engine.

“Pandora, look at me. You have one of the rarest gifts in the world; the ability to tame dragons. Men cannot kill beasts like dragons, but they can tame them, and you are the only person here who can save our lives,” Avelina said hurriedly. The dragon was getting ready to scorch them all with his flaming breath.

“Can’t you?” Pandora cried. “You’re so good at all this magic stuff – I can’t even push back a man, let alone tame a dragon.”

“Do it, Pandora!” Avelina roared. “Reach into yourself, and save us all!”

The dragon was opening its mouth, revealing its rows of sharp teeth. It was taking a deep breath in, and in a moment of panic, Pandora closed her eyes and instantly grabbed the elusive strands of Ancient Magic, the only thing that connected her and the dragon.

Time almost stopped. Pandora was leaving her body. Flying through the air.

Entering the dragon’s mind.

She heard its thoughts, and they mingled with her own.

Dragon, she said sharply, watching the world with the dragon’s eyes. It closed its mouth in surprise, obviously shocked to find another presence inside its mind.

Don’t hurt the ones with magic, she whispered in the ears of the mind, and then she willed herself with all her might to return to her body.

It worked.

Her bright as fire eyes turned its normal cornflower blue again, and she turned to the Beings.

“Run,” she said sharply. They complied.

When they were a safe distance away, they watched the dragon’s flames burning all of the men alive. None could escape – none except Torren, who growled in anger and blinked, instantly disappearing with a crack.

The dragon looked back at Pandora for only a moment, before taking off into the dusty sky.

“We’d better find the way to Obsidian Castle before people see the mess here,” Gabe said, shaken.

“I was thinking we could look around for clues,” Kalypso said, “but I guess that’s not really an option.”

They observed the charred wreckage with a contemplative silence.

Avelina walked forward, and the rest followed slowly. She raised her hands, and some of the debris floated in the air. She charmed the raised debris to go in a pile by the side of the tavern and continued her work.

Without the disconcerting rush of panic, Pandora could concentrate easily and helped Avelina to clear away the black debris and skeletons. The rest watched, not having any powers that could help.

Everything was cleared away and put in a massive pile of junk within a few minutes. They rushed forward to where the floor of the Little Dragon tavern had been. Gabe exclaimed in satisfaction, finding a hole in the ground.

“Here, everyone!” he called them over, and began his descent down the stone steps.

“I – I can’t go on,” Nireth whispered, clutching her side. When she pulled her hands away, they were covered in shining blood.

Kalypso rushed to her side. “I’ll heal her and take her back to the Mistwood. Go to the Castle quickly. Matthew won’t stand a chance.”

“Are you sure?” Raelynn asked.

“Yes,” Kalypso answered without hesitation.

Gabe, Cobalt, Pandora, Raelynn and Avelina all cautiously began their descent down the steps. They had no idea what awaited them.

~

“Sire,” Charles whispered, gently shaking the prince he served. “Sire, dawn has arrived.”

Matthew groaned groggily and wiped his eyes, pulling himself up.

“Your armour is polished, sire, and your clothes washed. Many of the knights have already risen.”

“Then I shall prepare myself swiftly,” Matthew muttered, still quite sleepy.

“Yes, sire,” Charles said promptly. He bowed and left the chambers, leaving the prince to dress.

Matthew and his knights assembled in the royal stables a few minutes later. They were dressed in their armour, their navy blue capes flowing behind them.

Matthew cleared his throat. “Today, knights of Mir, we ride out in the hope of alleviating the evil that has intruded our city. We may not come back with our lives; who knows what kind of obstacles Eliana has put in our way? But we will keep going until our bones burn and our soul leaves, because every single citizen of Mir is depending on us. And we will succeed!”

“Hear, hear!” the knights shouted in unison.

They mounted their horses and set off for the rising sun with a firm determination.

Reefs, being such a long distance away from Mir, was half a day’s ride on horseback. It was because of this that the knights and the prince arrived at the Shadow Labyrinth when the sun was touching the horizon like a feather to skin. They stood on a hill that overlooked the maze, its misty depths growing darker as the sun descended. The mist hid everything and Matthew saw nothing of what was to come; all he saw were the giant, stone walls that were impossible to climb and loomed over the narrow passages taller than the tallest trees of the Mistwood. The Shadow Labyrinth was a feared place, and legend had it that the gods of evil and chaos built it to drive men mad.

“Hello, Matthew,” Eliana’s voice said from behind them, making a few knights jump in fright. Her lip was curled almost mockingly, her eyes daring and challenging. “You’re the last kingdom to arrive.”

“When do we start?” Matthew demanded of the woman, his tone hard.

Eliana smirked. “Not one for pleasantries, are you?”

“Not when all I care about is the business,” Matthew growled coldly. He had such a strong hatred for the beautiful woman that it almost frightened him.

“Very well,” Eliana sighed, pretending to be disappointed. “There are four entryways at the north, south, east and west points. The three other kingdoms have taken their places, and are waiting for you to come at the south point. It is very unlikely that you will cross paths with the other players.”

“The aim?” Matthew asked tersely.

“Get to the middle,” Eliana answered. “Well, stay alive first, while searching for the middle. At the centre of the maze you will find a gem – if you are the first to find it, you and your knights must form a circle around it, and the gem will transport you to a place in the blizzard that protects Obsidian Castle. This place is shielded from the dangers of a blizzard, and you and your party may pass through it freely. The last challenge is finding the thing that keeps the curse going.”

“That’s all, then?” Sir Crandigon said sarcastically.

Eliana smiled at him sweetly, her eyes venomous. “Goodbye, men of Mir.”

“Goodbye, Eliana,” Matthew said. His low voice was devoid of any warmth.

He and his knights marched down the hill towards the Shadow Labyrinth, Eliana watching the group of cape-clad men with crossed arms and a smug smirk.

“This will be your end,” she whispered.

~

The horn rang out over the Labyrinth, and all four kingdom representatives began a brisk walk into the maze.

Matthew found that the mist was not so bad in the Labyrinth; the mist hung over the top of the stone wall, much like a permanent cloud, and no one could see outside. It already seemed like it was midnight – if they didn’t know better, the cold and the darkness would make them believe so – when in fact it was just sunset. They had split five torches between them, and the burning fires provided sufficient light for them to move through the narrow walkways.

The stone walls were tough and unmarked, despite their age. They rose above the knights, reminding them of how inferior they were to the gods – and also to Eliana. The fate of their dying city rested in the hands of that one woman.

“It is eerily quiet, sire,” Sir Tristan commented. He was right. The silence was chilling.

“Perhaps the obstacles we are sure to face will be easy to defeat,” Sir Graeme guessed.

Matthew shook his head. “I doubt it. Eliana was taunting us – hinting to us that we may die in this maze. I don’t know of what nature the obstacles are, but I imagine that they are very dangerous.”

“Perhaps we will all survive if we fight as one,” Crandigon said.

Sir Austen scoffed. “That is how we always fight.”

“Quiet,” Matthew said. His senses were on high alert, much like how the ears of the deer he hunted perked up when he approached. His heart jumped at every change in the almost inexistent wind, every rock cracking under his shoes. “We will approach these obstacles with stealth, should they have a beating heart.”

They came to their first fork soon after. There was a choice of either left or right, and that was it. As they turned their heads each way, all they saw was an endless walkway ending in mist.

“Which way, Matthew?” Sir Crandigon asked.

Matthew sighed. “We cannot know, we can only guess. Left, it shall be.”

They turned left, and continued on.

Five turns and hour later, Matthew groaned. “This is hopeless.”

“Don’t give up hope – think of Mir,” Crandigon suggested.

Matthew took a deep breath in and nodded. Priorities.

They had encountered no obstacles and had no idea if they were heading in the right direction.

“Sire, it’s a dead end,” Austen pointed out gravely.

Matthew turned around swiftly. “Then we will retrace our footsteps.”

They did so, and at the next fork they chose the other way. Within a few moments, the mist was so thick that Matthew was barely able to see an arm’s length in front of him. He walked through it blindly, his knights muttering disconcertedly.

He bumped into stone, and several knights followed in doing exactly the same thing.

“A dead end,” Graeme sighed exasperatedly.

“No,” Matthew murmured, running his hands over the smooth, grey stone. “A door.”

“A door?” Austen repeated, surprised.

Matthew grasped a rusty door knob and opened it slowly. When he peered in, he saw insects and spiders scurrying all over the walls and floors, their sounds echoing through the tunnel.

“Through here,” Matthew said firmly.

“Sire!” Austen said, his tone almost whiny. “It – we – we can just go another way. We don’t need to go through – through that thing.”

“Austen, this is no time to be cowardly,” Matthew said, already putting a leg in. “We must save as much time as usual. This has to go towards the centre; otherwise, why bother putting it there if we could just go the other way?”

Austen grunted with concession, agreeing with his logic. The insect tunnel could have been trap, but Matthew was beyond the point of changing his mind. He was already fully in. Insects scurried up his body and he shivered with the unsettling feeling of knowing that creepy crawlies were all over him.

He moved through, having decided that getting through as fast as possible was the best idea. The knights followed in single file, and the door shut behind them.

The tunnel was pitch black, which magnified their other senses. They could smell something akin to rotten eggs and excrements. They could hear the chirping and squawking and scuttling of the insects. They could feel the insects crawling up their legs in the most horrible, shiver-provoking way.

“The obstacles can only become more fearsome,” Graeme’s disgusted voice echoed through the tunnel.

“Exactly right, Graeme,” Matthew muttered.

They passed through quickly and came out the other side in a short period of time. Immediately, they shook their limbs to shake away the bugs, and for a moment, Mir’s most highly-regarded men were thrashing around their limbs in a crazy sort of dance.

They moved on quickly afterwards, deciding to throw away the memory of the creature-infested tunnel.

“One obstacle down, hundreds more to go,” Tristan sighed.

“Don’t exaggerate,” Crandigon snapped.

“I only hope he’s not exaggerating,” Graeme said worriedly.

“Onwards,” Matthew ordered quietly, leading them through the walkway. The air was cold and sharp to their skin and the mist was thin. They moved stealthily and efficiently, like snakes, but when they encountered another fork and chose to go right, they were suddenly lost in another sudden misty cloud.

Matthew squinted, unable to see anything but the white, wispy fog. He realised it must mean that danger was coming.

And how right he was. It was not long before the eerie stillness of dusk and the squawking blackbirds were disturbed by their next obstacle.

“Sire!” Austen cried out in shock. “It is a beast; a monster!”

“On me!” Matthew shouted, gazing up at the obstacle in awe. They roared as they charged.

~

The giant was dead. It still stunk like a cellar of rotting vegetables, the sour fumes making the knights cringe. The giant was thrice as tall as man, and still much shorter than the Labyrinth’s walls. It wore clothes of patchy leather and linen, clumsily fashioned into a shirt and skirt-like thing, Its face was gruesome and twisted up in agony, which had been its last expression before it fell to its death. The giant’s sickly green, dirty skin was pierced by two swords; one in his heart, and one in its side. Blood pooled from both pierces.

“Well done, men,” Matthew panted. “We are crawling further, slowly but surely.”

“And we have managed to bathe ourselves in giant’s blood, and let spider legs still tickle our skin,” Austen said humorously. The men laughed, and even Matthew let himself grin a little.

“Let us continue,” Sir Darlton said solemnly. “Sire, I fear that the parties we’re competing against will have already reached the centre by the time we get there.”

“A wise thought, Darlton,” Matthew said, nodding his head in agreement. “Onwards, knights.”

“A giant is no match for us, the knights of Mir,” Tristan said, puffing his chest out. “I am proud to be a kni–.”

“Oh, quiet down, Tristan,” Austen scoffed. “Pride is a sin.”

Tristan almost pouted. “I think pride should be permitted – I mean, we have just killed a giant.”

“And we walked through a tunnel full of spiders and bugs, but we were not prideful then,” Darlton said, raising an eyebrow.

Tristan had no response to this; instead, his face twitched in what was definitely not delight, and he decided to hit both Darlton and Austen on the backs of their heads.

“Enough horseplay,” Matthew said firmly. “We must stay alert.”

“The mist, sire – does it indicate an obstacle approaching?” Crandigon asked.

Matthew turned to him, surprised. “You have an astonishingly analytical and questioning brain, Crandigon. Perhaps you would have better served as the Court Physician?”

Crandigon shook his head. “I feel comfortable with a sword in my hand, not a vial of herbs.”

Matthew shrugged. “All the better for us. I think that, yes, the mist signifies danger. Perhaps we should not avoid it – I believe we should pursue it.”

“Why?” Austen asked, perplexed.

“I’m assuming that the more frequent the obstacles are, the closer we are to the centre, which is our ultimate destination,” Matthew guessed. “We’re navigating the maze blindly.”

The group of blood-covered knights continued on.

 

 

 

 

 

15 THE LABYRINTH

 

 

Pandora groaned as the sickly stench of rat droppings and rotting corpses invaded her senses. The tunnel was wide enough for two people to move side-by-side, but they walked in single file, small fireballs circling around them and illuminating the rough, yellowish stone. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and rats scurried down the sides of the tunnel, but other than that, their paths were relatively unobstructed.

“This place is disgusting,” Raelynn complained, the sourness resting on her tongue.

“Let’s just try to get out of her as soon as possible,” Pandora suggested, stepping over a rat’s skeleton.

“Agreed,” Gabe said.

The five walked through the tunnel, cautious not to step on anything unpleasant. Avelina had moved to the lead and was casting her eyes downwards to watch for any booby traps or pressure points in the ground. They would be problematic.

“The tunnel ends soon,” Avelina murmured from the front after a while. “But we can’t possibly be at Obsidian Castle yet. It’s all the way in Astewell, and we’ve only been walking for twenty minutes.”

“I still think we should have brought the horses down with us,” Raelynn said.

Avelina ignored her. She had explained twice that the horses could stop on a pressure point or set off a booby trap at any moment.

They kept walking, Avelina alternating between watching the ground and squinting ahead.

“It’s a… a lake, of sorts,” Avelina breathed in surprise. “It really is beautiful.”

The stone tunnel widened dramatically into a large, cave-like area. A limestone cave, filled with phosphorescent and bioluminescent minerals, mushrooms and lichens, and other interesting glowing things. Mirror-still pools reflected the light everywhere, and wherever a white cavefish broke the surface, its ripples sent light flickering and bouncing. In the distance was the steady drip-drip-drip of water. The moss was, in places, thick enough to lie down and have a nap on. It was unlikely Pandora would have such luck, though. This was no time to sleep.

“Wonderful,” Cobalt said, and Pandora knew he meant it with no sarcasm.

“Do we just wade through the water?” Gabe asked, doubting his own suggestion.

“No,” Avelina said at once. “We don’t know what could be in that water. I sense Ancient Magic here – whether it is good or evil, I don’t know.”

“Then how do we get across?” Raelynn asked.

They were standing on what seemed like a giant, limestone rock, looking out at the cave’s glassy water. On the other side, the tunnel resumed.

Avelina walked to the edge of the rock and raised her arms. She shouted a spell in Ancient Script, and it echoed throughout the cave, the sound reaching every hidden corner.

A path of stones peeking out above the water suddenly materialised in front of their eyes, leading from one side of the cave to the other.

“Perfect,” Avelina said, satisfied. “It was a glamour charm, now gone. Hop on.”

Pandora jumped onto the first stepping stone. She felt like her feet were glued onto the stone by some unseen force, until she lifted them with ease. Hopping onto the next stone, she felt exactly the same thing happen. Perhaps it prevented her from falling in the water. Good. She didn’t want to know what creatures lurked in the water’s depths, other than the harmless cavefish. (Or were they harmless?)

The rest followed and they crossed the lake with ease.

Until Raelynn put her finger in the water.

Nothing happened. She stood up, shrugging at Avelina’s alarmed and shocked expression, and wiped her finger on her dress.

Then, all of a sudden, a slimy, strong hand flew out of the water and grabbed onto Raelynn’s ankle with a vice grip.

Uh oh.

Raelynn screamed and tried to shake it off, but it held onto her like its life depended on it. She cried out as she lost her balance, and the charm holding her to the rocks faded because she had broken the unspoken rule of not touching the water. Her body swayed to the side as flailed her arms around in a futile attempt to regain balance, and she was coming face-to-face with the surface of the black water…

Cobalt grabbed her arms while Avelina scorched the hidden creature’s hand. He let go at once and swam away.

“Don’t touch something if you don’t know what’s in it,” Gabe warned, looking slightly pale from Raelynn’s close call. Who knew what would have happened if she had fallen into the water?

“That’s what my mum said about food,” Pandora said with a dry laugh.

They recovered from the shock quickly and hopped along the stepping stones with a renewed swiftness, a fear of the creatures of the water.

Once onto the other side, they entered the tunnel and Avelina created more fire for them to see. This tunnel was identical to the previous one, with its sharp and uneven yellow stone, and small rat corpses littering the sides of the tunnel. Avelina took the lead, watching for booby traps, and they continued their walk through.

“I don’t like this place,” Cobalt muttered. “We don’t know what will happen next.”

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Pandora said grimly.

~

“I see mist to our left, sire,” Graeme whispered, pointing down one of the possible paths. They all raised their swords at once, moving as a group towards the white cloud.

The walk was slow, almost torturous, as their hearts beat erratically in their chests and their knuckles turned white against their dirty, red swords. They approached the mist, and there was no way to pass it except go right through it, so they did that.

Once again, they were blinded by the white fog and were careful not to hit each other with their raised swords. There were no more blackbirds, the moon was nowhere to be found, and there only light source was a few slowly dying torches that flickered away feebly. A breeze could snuff out their lights at any moment. Matthew felt shivers crawl up his arm, both from the cold and the anticipation of the next obstacle.

When the mist cleared, what they saw was not what they expected to see. The knights let their swords hang to one side as they warily observed a shining, palm-sized fairy.

She glowed like a torch and smiled cheerily, translucent wings fluttering so rapidly that they were a blur. Her hands were outstretched, her dress was floating around her tiny ankles, and she was flying in front of a barrier made of magic. One that Matthew and his knights could not possibly penetrate.

“Good evening, men of Mir,” the fairy greeted, flying loops in the air in what seemed to be a show of joy.

“Good… evening,” Matthew replied, frowning at the fairy. Was he meant to kill her? Trick her? Force her to take away the barrier? What kind of obstacle was this? “We wish to pass,” he ended up saying.

“Indeed,” the fairy beamed. “I will let you, but only if you prove that your mind is as strong as the hands that grip weapons in battle.”

“How?” Matthew asked.

The fairy was beautiful, and surround by an entrancing light. She smiled at the prince.

“I will ask you the simplest of riddles; one that has been passed down my family for many generations. It is up to you to use your common sense,” the fairy explained.

“And what if we answer incorrectly?” Matthew asked.

“Then you will never be able to try again, and you will never pass this barrier,” the fairy said grimly.

Matthew raised his chin. “Very well. Tell us the riddle, and we shall decide our answer together.”

The fairy bowed her head.

“What can run but never walks, has a mouth but never talks, has a head but never weeps, has a bed but never sleeps?”

Matthew studied the glowing fairy for a few moments, before turning to his knights and listening to their suggestions.

It was a good twenty minutes before they emerged from their huddle, and everyone had been pulling their hair and groaning in frustration. Matthew had stabbed his sword into the mud beneath their feet, getting rid of some anger, but eventually, after lots of hard thinking, they came to an answer.

“A river,” Matthew said confidently. “We came to the answer thanks to Crandigon.”

“Do explain your response,” the fairy coaxed. Her whole body glittered and shined.

“A river runs, a river has a mouth that leads to the ocean, a river has a head, and it runs over a riverbed. It all fits,” Matthew said.

The fairy smiled, and the barrier behind her faded. “You may pass.”

The knights whooped in celebration of their little victory and followed Matthew, who was running with determination. He and his knights needed to be the first ones to get to the centre. No other outcome would be acceptable – otherwise, Matthew would drown in despair. So they ran as fast as they could.

“Crandigon, how much time do you suspect we’ve been in this maze?” Matthew asked as they sprinted by the looming stone walls.

“Uh… perhaps two to three hours, sire,” Crandigon guessed, panting.

Matthew frowned. “Then it remains a mystery to me why the sun is rising.”

He was right. Despite the mist that hid the sky from the competitors, orange and pink rays filtered through. The last of their torches had been extinguished, but there was enough light from the sun that when they squinted, they were able to see the miniscule cracks in the stone wall.

“It must be the maze,” Austen suggested. “This is a place of magic.”

“Our perception of time has become… different,” Tristan deduced.

“Or,” Graeme added, “the night is as short as we believe it to be.”

“It is Autumn time, Graeme,” Tristan said. “The days are fairly short, and the nights long. Winter approaches.”

“We’re in a strange, strange place, men. It would be best that we hurry,” Matthew said.

They picked up the pace, and continued to take the paths where vision-impairing mist swirled.

Their next obstacle came what felt like minutes later, and by then the men had burning chests and tired legs. It took a while for their minds to fall away from despairing thought and the desire to stop running, and to come back to the real world. It then took another moment for them to realise that a single snake lay in their path.

It was a small, brown snake, no longer than their own forearm. The serpent hissed loudly, attempting to seem frightening than it truly was, but the men were no more afraid of the snake as they were of a simple tree.

“Curious,” Crandigon remarked. “Such a simple obstacle… Easily defeated.”

He withdrew his sword and cut off the snake’s head with ease.

Matthew watched the decapitated snake’s body for the swiftest of moments, before he shrugged and said, “Let us proceed.”

“Sire!” Sir Ulrich exclaimed. What surprised Matthew was that he spoke at all – usually, he was quiet man, immersed in his own quiet thoughts, and his face was one of deep thought and subtle mystery. He was impossible to read.

So when Ulrich spoke, Matthew turned around immediately, sensing his urgency.

The snake, of course, would not go away that easily. Eliana would not make their path through the maze easy for them.

The snake’s body, lying limp on the grassy ground, pulled matter from the air formed a new head, like sand gathering to make a sculpture. And the head that Crandigon had cut off was slowing growing back its body, a mere wispy gas gaining colour and becoming so dense that it turned into a solid.

Two living, breathing snakes hissed at them – and, to Matthew’s horror, the head that had grown a body was twice as long and thick as the original snake.

“Do not cut off the snakes’ heads!” Matthew ordered sharply as Austen raised his sword determinedly. He left it fall to the side, looking disappointed.

“Then what do we do, sire?” Tristan asked frantically as the snakes began to advance, hissing dangerously.

“I don’t know,” Matthew murmured. “Perhaps we can go around them somehow?”

The snakes turned their heads towards the prince and hissed. Venom shot out of its mouth, and where it landed on the ground, the grass turned black like it had been scorched and fell limply to the mud.

“Or not,” Matthew corrected, stepping back from the dead grass. “This is bad.”

Then, it all happened so fast. One moment, Austen was standing with his sword to the side, and the next, he was crawling away backwards, with the larger snake approaching like a predator approaching its prey. The knight panted in fear, crawling as fast as possible, but the snake was no match for him, and raised its head, ready to bite.

Matthew roared and sliced off its head.

Austen stood up at once and leant against the stone walls for support. His face was pale and his sweaty hands barely managed to hold onto his sword.

“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again,” Matthew breathed, “because now we have three snakes. Our only advantage is the three seconds when the dead snake is still dead… which has now passed.”

A third snake, covered in glittering emerald scales and as long as Matthew’s leg, hissed with the other two snakes, creating an eerie cacophony.

“Three seconds, men!” Matthew roared, and cut off all the snakes’ heads.

They ran for their lives, jumping over the snake body parts. Three seconds passed, and they passed the obstacle.

The sun had risen higher, creating more light. Time was running out.

~

“I knew this tunnel wouldn’t last long,” Cobalt sighed.

“This certainly is… odd…” Avelina murmured to herself, tracing the smooth stone of the dead end.

After all that travelling, they had come to a dead end. Raelynn’s complaints about her aching feet had been nothing. Pandora couldn’t help but be extremely disappointed.

“Do we just go back now, then?” Pandora asked sadly.

“No,” Gabe said firmly. He stepped forward, and the three modern-day teenagers were left to watch Avelina and Gabe study the walls of the tiny chamber they stood in. Compared to the rough and uneven stone of the main tunnel, this chamber was very different. The chamber was round, like a cylinder, and the stone was as smooth as human skin. Every inch of the walls was covered in carvings, including the ceiling, but they were covered with symbols Pandora could not understand. Avelina was tracing them with subtle, feather-light touches, whispering something to herself. Gabe closed his eyes in the hope of talking to any animals or plants that might know something about this place.

“They’re runes,” Raelynn said finally. “These walls are covered in runes.”

“Indeed,” Avelina said, “but these are far more advanced than my knowledge extends… they’re old, ancient. These runes had to be someone’s precious treasure – I mean, to have a whole chamber covered in these ancient, now unknown runes would be very valuable.”

“The book!” Pandora exclaimed. “Maybe it can tell us what they mean?”

Raelynn took the book, Magic, out of her satchel bag and flipped through to the rune section. She looked it through it quickly, shaking her head in frustration.

“Even the writer of this book didn’t know about these runes!” she said angrily.

Gabe opened his eyes. “I can’t reach anything. We’re too deep in the ground.”

“The runes must be the clue to getting us to Obsidian Castle,” Cobalt said. “But how can we solve the clue when we can’t understand the runes?”

“Maybe it’s the placement of the runes, or patterns they form, or something like that?” Pandora suggested helplessly, before she was interrupted by Raelynn muttering.

“Sun,” she said.

Gabe and Cobalt shared a look of confusion.

“Sorry?” Pandora asked.

“Sun,” she said, louder this time. She strode towards the wall and jabbed her finger towards a rune with two circles connected by five thin lines. “This means sun.”

“You understand them?” Avelina said incredulously.

Raelynn didn’t enjoy how Avelina thought her inferior, and frowned at the woman. “Yes, I do. I was born a Rune Crafter. It’s like a language to me, my native language.”

“So what would the ‘sun’ rune do?” Pandora asked.

Raelynn shrugged. “I know only the meaning, not the effect. My guess is that it gives us sunlight or creates a tiny sun or something along those lines.”

“Only you can help us find the way forward,” Gabe said. “Think, Raelynn, think.”

Raelynn took a breath in, and began reading what had been carved into the circular wall.

“Stone… star… hide… light… safe… pouch… game… bird… shrink…” Raelynn mumbled to herself, her eyes sweeping over the symbols in a narrow, calculating stare.

“I wonder how long this is going to take,” Pandora sighed to Cobalt quietly.

~

Matthew held out his arm, stopping the knights in their tracks. The sun was still steadily rising, meaning that they had no shadows to hide in, and all they could do was strain their ears to hear a bit of the conversation that floated from somewhere near them.

The talking was sharp and serious, and quiet. The talking group was moving briskly, so Matthew whispered to his knights to follow the noise with making as little sound as possible.

They moved down the walkway with light steps, aiming their strides towards whatever direction the talking came from. The voices were low and growling; these had to be the representatives of another kingdom, though which one, Matthew was not sure.

The men of Mir turned a corner and saw another group in chainmail and armour. Perfect. Matthew motioned for his men to follow and they tip-toed behind. As they edged closer, Matthew noticed the vibrant orange hair of who had to be Prince Marcus of Darlan.

The Darlan knights were completely oblivious to the fifteen or so men, clad in chunky armour, creeping behind them.

The two parties turned a corner, and gasps rode on the cold air.

The walkway had widened, and would probably allow five men to walk side-by-side. The mist above had cleared, revealing the golden sky of early morning. Ahead of them was a small, marble table with a single object upon it. A gem.

The gem.

They were at the centre.

“RUN!” Matthew roared, startling all his knights into a lung-burning sprint. Marcus, taking a few moments to realise what was going, growled in anger and shouted at his knights to run after them.

For a few short moments, they were running as fast as their bodies would allow them, and Matthew heard and saw nothing but the gem. Marcus’ threats were distant in his mind – he didn’t care, didn’t care about anything, he just needed to be the first to reach that gem…

Then Marcus stabbed one of his knights.

He fell to the ground, wheezing his last breath. His eyes glazed over, and for a second, everyone was watching in silence as the knight, Sir Harem, died at Prince Marcus’ feet.

“NO!” Matthew roared, snapping out of his mind-clouding lust for the gem. “Marcus of Darlan, you will pay!”

They fought.

All the knights in navy blue fought against the knights in aureolin, and Matthew was attacking Marcus with all the energy he had left. It didn’t matter to him that Darlan and Mir were meant to be at peace with each other, and it didn’t matter to him that his actions would most certainly start war. He killed one of his knights, and to Matthew, there was no sin greater than murder. Especially when it was the murder of a knight of Mir.

Everything happened in a swift haze of red rage, and seconds later Marcus was lying on the floor, breathing hard, with Matthew’s sword softly pressing into his throat.

“Withdraw from my knights,” Matthew yelled to the Darlan knights, “or your prince dies.”

The aureolin capes retreated quickly.

Matthew turned back to Darlan to make a poisonous remark, but then decided to just do what he came to do. He and his knights quickly formed a circle, and then the magic of the gem whisked them away.

~

“Dove… mark…” Raelynn was drawling slowly an hour later.

Pandora’s eyes were drooping. Gabe was tapping his finger impatiently against his arm.

“River… illusion… GOT IT!” she screamed, frightening Cobalt so much that he jumped slightly.

“What? Which rune?” Pandora asked frantically.

“This one,” Raelynn announced with satisfaction, stabbing a rune that looked like a cloud behind a tall, thin tower. “Fly.”

When she said the word, all the runes on her body glowed stark white, and Avelina’s upper lip curled in what could almost – but not quite – be called a smile.

The chamber started rumbling violently, causing all but Avelina to fall. She held out her hands, balancing despite the earthquake-like tremors. And suddenly, the wall of runes fell away and landed in a heap of debris at their feet. When the dust cleared and they stopped coughing, they saw the most beautiful of sights.

They stood on a rock jutting out from a cliff, overlooking a gorgeous valley. The tunnel behind them had sealed, and they were probably thirty metres off the ground. The dazzling dawn sun made the drops of a waterfall beside them shine like falling gems. Down below, the tumbling water fell into a pool that then turned into a river, and wound through the bottom of the valley like a sapphire blue snake. Dark green trees lined the river banks – the scene was breathtaking.

“It’s beautiful,” Raelynn said cautiously, “but… aren’t we underground?”

“I think so…” Pandora replied with a frown. “This must be a trick.”

“A very good one,” Avelina commented. “I can feel the water spray, and the breeze. And I smell the trees.”

“And I can hear all the trees and grass calling to me,” Gabe added.

Pandora turned to Gabe, surprised. “So, this is place is real, but… not?”

“Well, that’s not confusing at all,” Cobalt said, raising his eyebrow.

Pandora ignored him. Avelina was right. She, too, could fell the warmth of the sun on her skin, and the breeze playing with her hair. “What are the plants saying?” she asked Gabe.

Gabe took in a deep breath. “They’re just saying one word.”

“What is it?” Avelina urged.

“Jump.”

Then he jumped.

He launched himself from the rock and let gravity pull him down at n alarming rate. He seemed unconcerned as the wind made his clothes flap rapidly. Pandora watched with her heart in her throat as Gabe’s body grew smaller and smaller, falling faster than the glittering waterfall.

She willed herself to calm down and let her heart slow down, like a sprinter slowing after his run.

“I trust him,” she said with a shrug. And she jumped too.

Over her screams of adrenaline and the loud whistling of wind in her ears, she heard Raelynn yell out, “Are you crazy, Pandora?”

Her stomach leaped to her mouth and the rush of free-falling wiped out all rational thought. The ground was approaching so fast, so rapidly, and she was sure to hit the bottom where the ants were scurrying and the grass was waving to her…

And the world went black.

“Ah,” she heard Gabe’s voice mutter. “Nice to see you, Pandora.”

Pandora opened her eyes blearily. Her muscles felt twisted and overused, and she was weak. “Where are we?” she asked, not recognising their surroundings.

“I think we’re in… Obsidian Castle,” Gabe replied.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16 THE CASTLE

 

 

Pandora gasped as her vision sharpened, and she only barely realised that Avelina, Cobalt and Raelynn had appeared next to her.

It was confusing, really. She could see – but at the same time, she was blind. There was no light at all; that much she knew, but she could make out every detail of the freezing, ebony floorboards. They were lying on the floor of a small, almost empty chamber, decorated only by torches of black flames that rimed the walls with frost, and when Cobalt reached out to touch it, he hissed that it burned like frostbite. Pandora detected no trace of colour or of light, yet she could see perfectly. Her lungs struggled to fill up with the suffocating, freezing air. Obsidian Castle was not a pleasant place.

“What now?” Pandora asked, hating the way her throat burned and her breath came out fogged, all thanks to the cold temperature.

“Wait,” Gabe wheezed, seeming to have more trouble with the air than his four companions. In the darkness of the pitch black fires, she saw him close his eyes and frown in concentration.

His eyes flew open a while, and he almost looked strangled. “I can’t… I can’t sense anything. No leaves, no vines, not even you guys. I can’t feel any life. All the death here is too strong.”

“That’s nice,” Cobalt said, rubbing his shivering arms and looking around. “How do we get out?”

“I don’t know if we should,” Raelynn said slowly. “Someone’s probably going to kill us the moment we walk outside – I’ve no idea who, but I’ve just got this feeling…”

“I think we’ve all got that feeling,” Cobalt corrected.

“The only reason we came here was to protect Matthew and the knights,” Raelynn continued, “but why step outside if we don’t know whether or not he’s even here yet?”

“Stop,” Avelina hissed sharply, startling everyone. “You’re overthinking this. Your mind is straying from what is important.”

“No, it’s not,” Raelynn argued hotly, which surprised Pandora. Avelina was a force to be reckoned with. “I just told you – the whole reason we came here was for Matthew and–”

“Yes,” Avelina interrupted, “and you said why bother going outside if we have no way of knowing if he’s here? The only way to know is to go outside, so that’s exactly what we’ll do.”

And before anyone could protest, she had found a barely visible door and was kicking it open with her mud-caked hunting boots. Oh, joy.

~

The knights groaned in weakness and pain. Matthew hissed quietly as he felt a sudden, intense sting in his shoulder, but he was barely heard over the noise of… what was it?

Whistling wind.

Matthew pushed himself up, feeling dusty, red rock beneath his fingers. When he stood up, he saw that they were standing in the middle of an arch-shaped walkway, which led to the front door of Obsidian Castle. In the protection of the invisible force that made the archway, the wind was warm and pleasant, and the ground simply a red stretch of cracked rock. Beyond the sheltered area, snow and wind raged – a violent blizzard. The eternal winter was a solid block of ice blue and ivory.

“Let’s go,” Matthew barked to the knights, invigorated by the image of the blizzard, which he was in awe of. He began his walk down the stretch of snow-free rocky ground before half the knights even got up, but soon they were all joining, muttering observations of the blizzard and the castle.

The walk lasted for a long time, and it was almost like the horrific Castle was mocking them, laughing at them amusedly at how slowly the small humans walked. The two turrets stabbed the permanent cloud under which it resided, spikes disappearing into the great mass of dark grey fog. Frightening gargoyles guarded the upper levels and looked down at the knights with an eerily realistic glare.

“What’s that in the moat?” Austen asked Matthew, sounding horrified.

Matthew squinted to see properly. The moat was filled with neither water, nor a hungry pack of crocodiles, but delicately balanced sheets of glass strategically placed so that whoever fell in, even with armour, would be pierced in every part of their body by the razor-thin edges. Matthew didn’t relish the thought of being cut up into bite-size pieces, and resolved to go across as quickly as possible, but it was then that he realised there was no way to get across.

As soon as the thought crossed his mind, a bridge unlocked itself from the walls of the castle and began to fall with an ominous creaking sound. Matthew and the knights ran back, just in time to avoid the massive slab of wood that served as their path over the moat.

“Well,” Tristan cleared his throat, “that was certainly quite convenient.”

“Can we trust it?” Graeme asked suspiciously.

“We have no choice,” Matthew said resolutely. He took a single, slow step on the wooden platform, and we it gave no indication of snapping in two, he continued on slightly more comfortably.

“I feel really horrible,” Crandigon said uneasily. “I actually feel sick.”

“You’ll be fine, Crandigon,” Matthew said with raised eyebrows. He slapped the knights’ back. “You’ll get used to it.”

“I highly doubt that, sire,” Crandigon shivered.

When all the knights had crossed the bridge, Matthew climbed the steps and rapped on the obsidian doors with both cautiousness and confidence.

They creaked open slowly, exposing the interior to the men of Mir.

“And so begins our nightmare,” Sir Ulrich muttered to himself.

The doors shut behind them, shutting out any real light, until all that remained was the intriguing, incomprehensible light of dark torches, making frost crystallise upon the surface of the obsidian walls. The hall was menacing and empty, lined only with tattered charcoal rugs and the odd black torches.

They turned back to the door. Matthew tried the lock and had no luck.

“Where do we go now, sire?” Austen asked.

“I’m not sure… but I’m sure that King Damien can give us a few ideas,” Matthew hissed through gritted teeth, and turned around slowly.

King Damien was standing in the spot they’d just been looking, grinning madly and looking eerily ghostlike in the darkness that turned his skin pale. He looked at home here, with his narrowed eyes and worn, sagging skin. He looked as old as the Castle, but just as strong and horrifying.

“Congratulations on winning the little Labyrinth game. Did you enjoy it?” Damien asked with feigned sweetness, as though he was talking to a child.

Matthew ignored his mocking. “Tell us how to stop the curse.”

“Oh, no no no,” Damien tutted. “It wouldn’t do for you to have any clues.”

“Then leave us,” Matthew spat.

Damien cocked his head, a poisonous smile lingering on his lips. “Certainly. Do explore the Castle, won’t you? I would hate for you to miss any of the fabulous décor.”

“Of course,” Matthew scoffed. “We wouldn’t want that, would we?”

Damien smirked and walked into another room, disappearing from their sights. Matthew narrowed his eyes, and he and his men began their march through Obsidian Castle. They had no idea what was in store for them.

Aren – acting as Damien – shut the door behind him and left Matthew to search the Castle, even though they had no idea what they were looking for. Eliana’s signature sinister smile was pulling at her ruby lips.

“Everything’s in place,” Aren announced after pushing his spirit out of Damien’s body. “We just need to wait until they find the room, and then…”

“Then it will all be over,” Eliana sighed. She looked almost wistful. “I will miss this, when Mir is finally destroyed. Us working together. It’s nice.”

“Eliana, my dear,” Aren said soothingly, moving towards the silk-clad witch. “It doesn’t have to end there. When we earn our place as royalty in Mir, we can still do more. Claim more land, and such.”

Eliana smiled in happiness. It was an odd sight.

“But for now, this plan cannot fail,” Aren said seriously.

“Of course, my lord.” Eliana bowed her head and grinned.

~

“It’s not so bad,” Avelina commented unconcernedly, raising her shoulders in a noncommittal shrug.

Pandora, the last person in the room, poked her head out the door. After detecting no threats, she stepped outside cautiously and observed her surroundings. It was quite a bland, boring place. The only thing that broke the endless strips of obsidian and ebony were the torches and tattered rugs.

“It’s some sort of hall,” Raelynn analysed. “There’s a door over there.” She pointed to their left and Gabe walked over, pushing it open easily.

“Looks like some sort of armoury,” Gabe told them calmly.

They walked through, gazing at the weapons either hung neatly on the wall or stacked in black carriages with glass shards sticking out of the wheels. Suits of armour seemed to leer at them creepily as they walked through. Coal-coloured carpets lined the floor, and black torches illuminated the scene. Cobalt stepped up to one of the torches, and out of sheer curiosity, put his hand in.

He screeched and flung his hand back out.

“Idiot!” Avelina hissed.

“It’s like putting your hand in liquid nitrogen,” Cobalt growled. “The cold burns.”

“You’ve done that before?” Raelynn asked with a raised eyebrow.

“What’s liquid nitrogen?” Gabe asked, perplexed.

The three modern-day kids ignored Gabe, and continued on in silence.

“So how do we even know what we’re looking for?” Pandora asked no one in particular.

“Well, Prince Matthew is quite tall, blonde, charming, wears armour and a blue cape…” Cobalt began.

“I mean the – the thing that keeps the curse going! How do we find that?” Pandora stammered, frustrated at how difficult it was to express herself.

“Our first priority is the prince and the knights, and the curse comes second,” Gabe said.

“Perhaps we can keep an eye for both,” Raelynn said in Pandora’s defence.

“To answer your question, Pandora,” Avelina’s voice rang out from further ahead than Pandora expected, “we have no way of knowing where anything. All we can do is search – we’ll search every nook and cranny of this castle until we find what we came here for: Prince Matthew’s life.”

“And when we find him, we will help him to destroy the curse, right?” Pandora said expectantly.

There was no reply, but it bothered no one.

The air was chilly, raising goosebumps on Pandora’s skin. Her creased dress brushed the carpet, coming close to the chariots of pure ebony. She watched her pale face and the ashen torches of shadows burning in the reflection of the glass shards. She felt black magic brimming from every flaw in the carpet, every tiny crease in the stones that formed the walls, and she felt it emanating from every single weapon or chariot or suit of armour in that room. It was a horrible feeling, and it chilled her to the bone. She wanted to get out of there – and she wondered if the Castle drove people insane, if it drove them to become evil and a part of the Castle. Maybe Aren thought he was the boss of the Castle, but really, the Castle was dominating. The Castle pulled all the strings. It was like it had its own brain.

Twice it has protected some powerful beings bid of domination of the world, twice is has been foiled. But the Castle is patient, and is already nurturing the third, who has already begun his march.

Already nurturing the third…

Maybe the Castle raised the new dark lords like a father – like a greedy, manipulative, brainwashing father.

All sorts of crazy theories began to formulate in Pandora’s head, until she had an epiphany.

“We need to destroy its brain,” Pandora announced firmly. Her voice echoed throughout the long armoury, accompanying the soft sounds of their footsteps.

“I’m sorry?” Gabe frowned in confusion.

“The Castle – it needs to have a brain, a power source, just something. I don’t what it is that keeps the magic running through the walls, but there is something. A block of rocks couldn’t possibly turn evil like this without help – the Castle has a heart, a weak spot,” Pandora rambled loudly. “If we find it, we can destroy it. The Castle will fall, the curse will stop, Aren won’t have so much power and our mission will be complete!” She finished her explanation with something akin to a shout, and then took deep, uneven breaths.

“Pandora,” Raelynn said quietly. “That’s smart, but you need to calm down.”

“No,” Pandora gulped. “No, I can’t.” She held her face in white hands and closed her eyes in the agony her mind was going through – because she was in so much pain, and she needed people to know what she was thinking, and she needed them all to hurt so badly. She wanted to see them writhing on the floor in agony.

“NO!” Pandora screamed, clenching her dull brown hair. Her eyes scrunched up in pain. “NO, I CAN’T!”

She was yelling at her own mind, her sanity slipping away.

“The Castle has claimed her,” she faintly heard Avelina cry, before all rational thought slipped into the void.

“What do we do?” Raelynn cried out in horror. Pandora opened her eyes, and when she did, they were blacker than the night. Blacker than charcoal, obsidian or ebony. There was no soul there in her irises.

“What do you mean, ‘claimed her’?” Cobalt roared in panic. Gabe looked simply horrified by the turn of events, and was slowly backing away from the rising Pandora.

“There are always people who come to the Castle… Curious travellers, or stupid men… And every time, there is always one certain mind ripe for the picking, which is fresh and intelligent and impressionable. And the Castle has chosen Pandora as the new dark lord,” Avelina said gravely. “The Castle is a powerful thing. This is not good.” There was the slightest hint of fear in her eyes.

“Pandora?” Gabe hissed. “She’s not evil.”

“Perhaps not, but her mind is a desirable target. The Castle is already doing its work,” Avelina said with an urgent tone.

“How do we stop it?” Gabe asked.

Raelynn answered this time, pacing while Pandora slowly regained her strength.

“Before she turned, she was about talking the Castle’s brain… She’s right. If we destroy it, the magic dies, and Pandora becomes happy again and the world is rainbows and unicorns.”

Avelina narrowed her eyes. “What have unicorns got to do with this?”

Raelynn waved her hands impatiently. “Never mind. The important thing is, I think we should run!”

They yelled and sprinted through the armoury, ignoring the swords and breastplates they knocked to the ground. They could almost feel the Castle trembling in anger at the disturbance, and it sent Pandora running after the four others in rage.

“FACE ME!” she screamed, but the voice that spoke was not Pandora’s. It was the voice of a demon without a soul.

~

Matthew halted his men. Graeme looked around in confusion. All he saw were the same black, icy torches and ripped rags serving as carpet.

“What is it, sire?” Graeme asked.

“I…” he stopped, and turned to the perplexed knight. “Do you not hear that sound? It is the sound of music. The flute.”

“I do not hear anything, sire,” Graeme answered uneasily. “Perhaps my hearing needs to be checked.”

“I do not hear anything, either, sire,” Austen spoke up.

Matthew ignored them, tilting his head. What he heard was something that made his heart melt into a wonderful type of butter; he heard a tune that reminded him of enchanting days in the forest where the sun shone on flying dandelion seeds. It induced a strong sense of nostalgia in him, and it was so wrong to feel it inside a place as horrible as this, but he just loved the feeling.

He began to follow the sound, and the knights came too, still oblivious to the slightly sad melody Matthew heard. In his mind, it was as clear as though someone were playing it right beside him.

A memory flashed through his mind… Chocolate brown hair. A beautiful woman with large eyes, playing a wooden flute in the middle of the midday Mistwood. His mother when she had been young.

He smiled and followed it faster.

“Sire,” Tristan said, “we do not hear what you hear. We are sure it must be a trick. Please, Matthew, you must see reason.”

Matthew ignored him easily, lost in a trance. Suddenly, Obsidian Castle didn’t seem so gloomy and oppressive anymore. In fact, it was rather inviting. Everything reminded him of days in the Mistwood with his parents. Nostalgia overwhelmed him.

The flute’s tune led him to another corridor, and then a door. He pushed it open without a moment’s hesitation.

A troll smiled at him, showing his grotesque yellow teeth. He snapped his giant flute and stood up, cracking his neck in preparation.

“Not this again,” Matthew groaned, finally snapping out of his trance.

“This will be different,” Crandigon gulped. “The troll has blood of black magic. It will not be so easy to defeat.”

“Well, at least we get some variety, then,” Austen said sarcastically, raising his sword.

“Knights – circle!” Matthew yelled. They roared and formed a circle around the putrid troll. Matthew quickly flicked his eyes around the room to search for anything that might help them, but found nothing except for more black torches. Maybe they could try to burn the troll with the ice flames, but it probably had some sort of protection against it.

“We’ve learned about troll weaknesses,” Matthew yelled, feeling alert and awake. “Put your knowledge to good use.”

They moved in a circle, swords positioned like spears, should the troll come running at them. It grunted happily at a chance to fight something, to do something. He was trapped in that castle, a creature of the darkness, and he was forever a prisoner.

It growled like a cat ready to pounce, and with one great swipe, knocked every armour-clad man onto his back. The swords made only pinpricks on the tough skin of the monster.

“I changed my mind,” Matthew wheezed breathlessly, still recovering from having the wind knocked out of him. “Let’s leave it be.”

“No!” the troll roared in panic. “No leave! No hurt for you – or for me. Me help.”

“You just knocked us all down,” Matthew bellowed up at the giant troll.

“Me sorry,” the troll apologised woefully. “Me want to help.”

Matthew stood up, adjusted his armour and watched the troll curiously. It had had a sudden change of heart, which was odd for a beast with a brain the size of a peanut. It made Matthew suspicious.

“If you really want to help us,” Matthew said slowly, “you will tell us where I may find what powers the evil curse of Mir.”

The troll smiled happily, clasping its hands together in delight. He pointed out the door and gruffly muttered, “Left. Far.”

Matthew nodded. “Thank you, troll.”

The troll grunted contentedly.

The knights ran out of the room and back into the chilling main halls of the Castle. They followed the troll’s directions, and ran to the left, going as far as they could.

“That was odd,” Ulrich commented quietly.

“Indeed,” Matthew replied. “But now we have directions.”

They entered the door at the very left and found a room bare of anything but a trapdoor cut into the dirty floor.

“Perfect!” Matthew exclaimed.

“Sire,” Crandigon said, halting the prince’s strides. “Are you sure we can really follow the directions of a troll? It has probably lived here for a long time. Its mind will be cunning and full of deceit…”

“It’s the best we have,” Matthew reasoned. He pulled up the dusty trapdoor with a grunt of effort, and jumped in.

~

“Which way?” Raelynn cried out, panting. Her boot-clad feet pounded the stone floors loudly, echoing down the armoury.

“OUT!” Avelina replied laconically.

They sped down the armoury, Pandora following close behind. She was expertly wielding a swords encrusted in black opals, trying to swipe at the group she pursued. Gabe grunted with exertion and sprinted like he’d never sprinted before. He flung open the exit to the armoury, yelled at the others to encourage them to go faster, and then slammed the door in Pandora’s face.

They heard a howl of pain from Pandora. Avelina quickly muttered a spell to lock the door, and they kept on running.

“What’s that noise?” Gabe gasped, panting in exhaustion. Already Raelynn could feel her legs slowing down, having been exhausted by their sprint towards the armoury door. But it would only be a matter of time before Pandora found a way to unlock the door, so she forced herself not to fall behind.

“Voices!” Cobalt exclaimed with a happy laugh. “Looks like fortune’s taken pity on us!”

“Let’s hope it continues to,” Avelina muttered.

They ran through the bare hallways, following the voices and turning around corners every few seconds. They finally came to the source of the voice, and saw the knights descending a trapdoor for a few seconds. Then Crandigon pulled it shut.

“What now?” Gabe asked, worn out and gasping for air.

“We follow them,” Avelina said calmly.

They waited for a few minutes, not wanting Matthew to know that he was being followed. He would simply order them to get out of the Castle. But when they heard what was unmistakably Pandora’s roar of rage approaching them, they hurried down the trapdoor and shut it quickly.

Raelynn coughed as she dropped down and landed clumsily in a suffocating tunnel. With both the knights and the Beings sharing the limited air, there was no doubt that it would run out soon.

“Quick,” Avelina said sharply. “Before the air is lost.”

They jogged down the pure black, circular tunnel, taking as little breaths as they could. Raelynn wasn’t sure if the fact that they couldn’t hear the knights was a good or bad sign. The walls were slick and damp, and totally lightless. Yet, just as in the rest of the Castle, they were able to see perfectly. Logic was useless in a place like this.

“Just keep following the tunnel,” Avelina instructed.

“I doubt there will be light at the end of the tunnel,” Raelynn drawled, “but, hey, we can hope.”

Avelina ignored her joke, while Cobalt snickered.

The tunnel stretched for only a little longer, surprising Raelynn. It ended with a circular wall, and an iron ladder leading up to a trapdoor similar to the one they had entered to get to the tunnel.

“I can’t breathe,” Cobalt wheezed faintly. “Hurry up.”

They ascended the ladder quickly, cringing at how slimy the rusted rungs were. It was like a sewer down there.

When they came out, they breathed with relief, despite the fact that air was also limited in the main parts of the Castle. But really, this couldn’t be a main part. This room had to be special.

“Legend tells of a room deep within the Castle,” Avelina told them in a slow, deep voice, “that no living being has ever seen before, or knows exists. The room is paved with gold, which is uncharacteristic for the Castle. And in this room dwells the evil spirit of the Castle, or its ‘brain’. Until the spirit is destroyed, new dark lords will continue to rise.”

Raelynn stood there, her breaths slow as she waited for Avelina to continue.

“I think we are in that room,” Avelina whispered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 THE CRYSTAL

 

 

The room was ten times as wide as Mir Palace’s throne room, and twice as high. The walls were of tiny gems, silver cloth and black and white marble, in whose reflection one could see the flickering of bright orange flames from the candles of the chandelier hanging from the ceiling. It was an enormous crystal chandelier, glowing almost as bright as the sun. Raelynn had to turn her eyes away from the star-like decoration, and when she did, her eyes landed on something amazing.

The chandelier’s bright glow was nearly eclipsed by the ginormous gem on a low dais in the middle of the room. It sat next to a throne of solid gold, more grand than any throne in any kingdom. The gem was a composite, made of thousands of smaller gems, from fist-sized sapphires, to tiny grains of emeralds, to gems of every shape and kind. They were packed into a great sphere, facet-to-facet, edge-to-edge, and the sphere was alive with light of every colour in the visible spectrum. Bolts of light flashed from point to point within, while tiny dots in many colours swirl about inside. It seemed almost alive, all the lights churning within the gem’s heart.

“This must be the core of the Castle,” Raelynn deduced. “That gem gives it its power, its magic.”

“We must destroy it!” Gabe said.

“But how?” Avelina murmured quietly. “Ordinary swords will not make a scratch upon the gem’s surface – of that, we can be sure. It is a thing of great magic and power. To destroy it, we will need the same.”

“What about using Aren to destroy it? Let’s say that, hypothetically, we could get him to use his powers to destroy it. Would that work?” Raelynn asked.

“No,” Avelina sighed. “Aren is no longer the master of this Castle, though he may not know it.”

“Then who is?” Cobalt asked, puzzled.

“Pandora, of course,” Avelina said. “But she, I hate to say, will probably not be joining us in this room.”

“Wait,” Gabe said suddenly. “Where are the knights?”

Everyone was silent. No one had an answer.

Raelynn walked towards the gem, her arm outstretched. Nobody stopped her, and for that she was grateful. She needed to satiate her curiosity – what would happen if she touched the strange gem?

And so she pressed her palm flat against the smooth, cold surface, feeling magic surge through her veins.

She dropped to the ground.

~

The world was black and white, and the sky was deep violet.

A solitary girl stood in the middle of New York City, right between two lanes. Lights flashed all around her in a mix of headlights, party lights and advertisements as big as a house. The buildings reached out to touch the violet sky and sounds of honking, shouting and rumbling engines filled the air.

The girl was silent and unmoving. Her hair swirled around her in the smoky air.

All of a sudden, all the sounds disappeared, to be replaced by Raelynn’s singing. It was her voice that sang the enchanting melody, but Raelynn, the girl standing between the two lanes, was not moving her mouth.

“I did not dare to heed his call

When Death spoke loud my name

But now my ears are deaf to all these sounds

As lifeless silence reigns.”

Everyone dropped dead. Everyone but Raelynn. In the reflection of the department store, Matthew and his knights stared at Raelynn with a deathly, cold stare.

The eerie voice morphed into Kalypso’s.

“Sweet dreams.”

~

“Raelynn!” Cobalt yelled.

“Yes, yes,” Raelynn muttered groggily. “I’m awake.”

“You spontaneously fell asleep,” Gabe said matter-of-factly.

“I’m aware of that,” Raelynn said, sitting up.

“It must have been Kalypso. That gem contains a spirit, thus making it a gateway to the spirit world, or at least a point of close contact. Kalypso is a spirit. She must have entered Raelynn’s mind when she touched the gem, and induced a dream,” Avelina deduced.

“Well, then, tell us about your dream,” Cobalt urged, pulling Raelynn up to her feet.

“It was… weird,” Raelynn said thoughtfully. “I didn’t really understand it. I was back in New York, which is where I come from. And then I was singing about me dying, and everyone in New York died. Then the knights looked like they hated me, except they only existed in reflections.”

“That is weird,” Cobalt agreed.

“Well, we shouldn’t ponder your dream now. Right now, what we should focus on is figuring out where Matthew and the knights actually are,” Gabe said.

“You mean these men?” said a cold voice.

The four turned around, coming face-to-face with Aren. And this time, he was in his own body.

Eliana stood beside him, smirking. Avelina’s jaw was clenched as she observed the men behind Aren. Empty suits of armour were holding Matthew and his knights in a tight, inescapable grip. They were looking at Raelynn and the three others with desperation.

“Leave them, Aren,” Avelina hissed venomously.

“Oh, dear Avelina,” Aren chuckled mockingly, “you still think I take orders from you? Last time I checked, we weren’t exactly allied.”

“What happened to you?” Avelina growled.

“The world,” Aren replied with a shrug. “Besides, I decided to actually use my magic for myself – you, on the other hand, became a saint. A tainted one, for sure, but you stayed on the side of the light. How frightfully uninteresting. You could have been great, with such powerful magic.”

Avelina’s jaw clenched tightly. Matthew and the knights could easily hear their exchange. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

For a few seconds, Aren looked confused. Then, a smile slowly spread across his face.

“Oh, I see. The dear Prince doesn’t know you have magic, does he?” Aren smirked. “Well, I suppose a demonstration will have to be in order.”

Now it was Avelina’s turn to be confused, until arrows shot from Aren’s milky palm, aiming for Gabe’s heart.

Avelina’s eyes glowed like a midnight star, and the arrows dropped to the ground mid-flight.

Aren clapped. “Very good, Avelina. Very good.”

Avelina panted, her eyes looking through her curtain of raven hair menacingly. The arrows had been a surprise. Raelynn’s face was stark white – what if Avelina hadn’t been to make sense of her surroundings before the arrows pierced Gabe’s heart?

She shuddered.

“Well well – I see you have company. Care to introduce them?” Aren asked, gesturing at Avelina’s three companions.

“No, I don’t care to,” Avelina spat.

“We mustn’t forget the pleasantries, now,” Eliana said softly, her voice like bitter honey syrup.

The trapdoor opened.

“I’m Pandora,” Pandora spoke up before Avelina could send a biting remark at Eliana. “And this is Raelynn, Cobalt, and Gabe. And you’re dead.”

And Pandora reached into herself with the swiftness of a cheetah, pulling at the strings of Ancient Magic, and the room shook slightly. When Pandora opened her eyes, Eliana was lying on her back, wheezing.

“Very good,” she spat, standing up and smoothing her dress. “But I’m better.”

Suddenly Pandora was thrown all the way across the room, all her joints throbbing painfully. Her head knocked against the wall and she groaned.

“Pandora!” Raelynn exclaimed in surprise. “What – you were evil!”

“The effects, er, wore off in the tunnel,” Pandora said faintly. “Ow.”

Raelynn spun on her heel, facing Aren and Eliana with a look of rage on her face.

“You hurt my friends, you answer to me!” she yelled, her American voice echoing through the glittering room.

Aren threw his head back in a scornful laugh. Raelynn, hating his disdain, traced a rune on the inside of her forearm. But this wasn’t any ordinary rune – it was one she had copied from the circular room they had encountered.

Aren roared and Eliana screamed – the two of them were sent flying back into the suits of armour they had charmed. There was a cacophony of loud, clanging noises. A few moments later, all the knights and the empty suits of armour had drawn their swords.

“Oh, dear,” Pandora said with dread clear in her voice.

They battled.

Matthew roared, wrenching himself free from the slightly loosened grip of his captor. The suit of armour seemed to make its posture intimidating, the unoiled joints suddenly extremely flexible.

The sound of swords on swords rang throughout the room. Aren approached the stunned Beings furiously, while Eliana trailed behind, looking almost passive. Indifferent.

“How we are all on this fine morning?” Aren asked pleasantly, spreading his arms.

“Bloody brilliant!” Cobalt cried out, running up to Aren. Aren tilted his head, as though oddly amused by a dog performing a trick. Cobalt’s steps did not falter until Aren raised his hands.

Black magic lifted Cobalt in the air and began choking. He wheezed and scratched at his neck, trying to get the invisible ropes to loosen, but it was no use. Cobalt’s face turned purple from the lack of oxygen – not that there was much in that room – and his eyes began to bulge.

“Stop it,” Avelina snapped. “Just stop it, Aren.”

Aren let Cobalt drop to the ground and slump in a heap. Raelynn rushed over to him, while Aren turned his blazing gaze towards Avelina.

“I think the pleasantries are over,” Aren said in a low voice. “Would you be so kind as to not obstruct me?”

Gabe turned to Avelina in confusion.

Aren began striding towards Matthew, unnoticed by the knights, who were all engrossed in their fight against the suits. Eliana her back to the Beings, lacing her hands together contemplatively to watch Aren do his work. With a start, Avelina realised what Aren was about to do, and ran after him. Her heavy hunting boots thudded against the ground.

Eliana made a noncommittal noise and raised two fingers, preparing to whisk Avelina away with magic.

It was then that Pandora took the bold move to tap on Eliana’s shoulder. The older woman turned around gracefully.

“Yes?” she said airily. “I hope you don’t mind, I have somewhere I have to be.”

“Not anymore,” Pandora growled. And she took a blind swipe with her sword, plunging the weapon into Eliana’s side.

Eliana wheezed and fell to her knees, holding her stomach. Her once beautiful face was now twisted up in pain.

“That was frighteningly satisfying,” Pandora quipped, while in truth she was shaking in fear. She’d stabbed someone. Stabbed someone.

She ran away from the silent Eliana, whose blood was slowly forming a pool on the marble ground. Pandora’s throat turned dry. Aren turned around slowly, wearing an almost blank expression as he observed Eliana’s dying form. Then, he swung around and let charcoal tendrils of black magic flow from his palm.

Avelina kneed him immediately and he groaned, his hand dropping. The tendrils disappeared and he turned to Avelina in anger, but he wasn’t fast enough. In a flash, Avelina kicked him to the floor and held a sword to his chest.

“I won’t let you carry on,” Avelina spat warningly.

“What will you do to me, dear Avelina?” Aren chuckled. Even from his position on the ground, he still held a certain air of superiority and calmness. “Will you kill me, right here, right now? Will you torture me until I go insane?”

“You’re already insane,” Avelina hissed.

She moved the tip of her swords from his chest to his throat, lightly pressing into his skin. A small drop of blood glistened at the tip.

“We’re all insane,” Aren sighed. “Even you. You’re insane if you would kill me for revenge – if you’d betray your own morals. You’re completely insane, Avelina, if you’d put blood on your hands out of petty spite.”

“PETTY SPITE?” Avelina roared. “You think I want to kill you out of petty spite? You are much less intelligent that I had previously assumed, Aren. I want to kill you because you killed hundreds of innocent people, and destroyed half a city.”

Aren grinned. “Go on, then, Avelina. Murder me. See, I’m encouraging you.”

Avelina clenched her jaw, her hands shaking in anger.

Aren chuckled heartily, as though he were having an amicable conversation with the woman holding his life in her sweaty hands.

“I knew it. You’re too weak to kill me. You’d never dare,” Aren sighed disappointedly.

Avelina squared shoulders and looked in Aren’s eyes with the most piercing, sincere glare she’d ever shot at someone.

“You think you know me,” Avelina whispered slowly, “but you’ve barely scratched the surface.”

And with that, she raised her sword with both hands, ready to strike Aren’s heart.

With a weak grunt of exertion, Eliana wheezed and used her magic to pull Aren’s body to the left. Aren scrambled to his feet, his eyes blazing in anger.

“Run, Aren,” Avelina hissed, disappointed that her opportunity to kill him had gone. “Run far away. Don’t ever come back.”

Aren looked at Avelina with loathing, before running over to the trapdoor. Just before he pulled it open, he turned back to the girl who had once been his best friend.

“This isn’t the end.”

He jumped down.

Avelina’s blood thrummed angrily in her forehead. She barely registered Eliana approaching her, wincing slightly each time pressure was put on her right leg. Her stomach was covered in blood, and as she covered her wound gently her hands turned blood red. Her eyes were soft, weak. She was floating away.

“You have bested us,” Eliana hissed. “But the curse continues on. And I promise you, we will meet again.”

“I don’t doubt it, Eliana,” Avelina said icily.

Eliana paused her slow walk for a few seconds, and Avelina was almost sure that she was about to collapse in weakness. Then the wounded woman closed her eyes and disappeared with a crack.

Avelina took a deep breath in, trying to clear her thoughts. The fight wasn’t over; the suits of armour were still battling with the knights. Gabe and Raelynn were trying to help the knights.

Gabe was taking command of the discarded swords, swiping blindly at the suits of armour whenever a knight looked in distress. Raelynn, despite her inexperience, seemed to quite adept at identifying every single rune on her body. Her only problems, it seemed, was choosing them and them tracing them in time.

The anger and determination in Matthew’s eyes burned brighter than the chandelier flames illuminating the golden room, but in that moment, Avelina couldn’t share his enthusiasm. She felt entirely deflated – all feelings of rage had dissipated, and her motivation to fight was gone.

She wasn’t really sure why. The outside world was a blur, far away. The image of Mir’s knights could not bring her to move. It was something about Aren. Something about how quickly he had chosen the path of cowardice – to run. It had shocked her, because Aren had always been stubborn.

She’d told him he thought he knew her, but he didn’t. Was the same true for herself? Was she not as wise and perceptive as she’d thought?

Raelynn shrieked a bone-chilling, blood-curling scream. That certainly snapped Avelina out of her thoughtful reverie.

Raelynn was stark white, edging away from Pandora.

And Pandora was holding a sword with both hands, aiming straight at Raelynn’s stomach.

“Pandora…” Avelina said cautiously, approaching the furious girl as though she were a bird that might fly away. Or perhaps a lion that might turn on her. “Pandora, put the sword down.”

Pandora stopped in her tracks, but when she turned her face towards Avelina, the colour of her eyes was clearly visible. Pitch black. Blacker than night. Just like the castle.

“You said you stopped being evil in the tunnel!” Gabe cried. Behind them, the knights and the suits of armour continued on, swords clanging and clinking endlessly. But the five young Beings had their own fight going on – one that had to be treated sensitively.

Pandora was dangerous.

Her mouth twisted in a crooked grin. With her obsidian eyes and strange smile, she looked positively eerie.

“Why, Avelina – didn’t you know that,” – she gasped mockingly – “perhaps I have the ability to lie?”

“I always knew you had a hidden cunning side,” Cobalt muttered.

“I have a job to finish,” she murmured. “This is my castle, now. I’m afraid I’m not one for uninvited guests.”

She brandished the sword threateningly. Raelynn’s eyes became desperate, and tears hinted at the edge of her eyes. This was not exactly how she’d imagined that she would die. Killed by the person she’d once detested because she was evil all thanks to the spirit of an evil castle? Not entirely plausible. At least, it wouldn’t have been back in modern London or New York. But know all of reality was rushing back to her as Pandora grasped the weapon that would cause her death. She realised that there was so much she didn’t know. She hadn’t even gone to Paris yet.

“Dammit, Pandora!” Cobalt suddenly yelled. “This isn’t you.”

Pandora seemed quite shocked.

Matthew approached the group, holding his own sword. He pointed it towards Pandora and let his eyes flicker over the group to make sure that they were okay.

“I will have to kill her,” Matthew warned them. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Pandora gasped all of a sudden, dropping to her knees. “Matthew, help me.”

Gabe lifted her chin with his finger and was shocked to find cornflower blue irises.

Like murky oil spilling into clear water, the blue of her irises was taken over once more by the black eyes of the spirit. She laughed harshly.

“Fools.”

“Before, when she said she’d become good again the tunnel – maybe it was the truth. Look, she can fight it!” Raelynn said.

Pandora groaned in exertion, opening her eyes to reveal their shining blue. “Help… me…”

They turned to bottomless pits of darkness.

“You will not live,” she spat threateningly. “YOU WILL ALL–”

Matthew cried out and stabbed his sword right into the right side of her chest.

“NO!” Raelynn screamed in anguish. Cobalt grabbed her arm tightly, not to prevent her from rushing to Pandora’s side, but to prevent himself from falling apart.

“Heal her!” Matthew barked to Avelina.

Avelina simply stood there in shock.

“HEAL HER WITH YOUR MAGIC!”

“Sire, I don’t understa–”

“Do not take me for a fool, Raven Avelina! Yes, I am against magic, but I know that like all things it depends on the user of such a tool to determine whether it is a force of good or a force of evil. More often that, I have seen it used for the selfish pleasures of men, but I know that it can do good. And I know you are her friend, so heal her! That is an order by the prince.”

Avelina was still stunned and confounded by the prince’s uncharacteristic outburst, but she dropped to Pandora’s side anyway and began muttering a spell, closing her eyes in concentration.

Raelynn was like a marble statue, frozen in surprise. She watched the spirit leaving Pandora’s body as death approached, black smoke escaping from her mouth. And she saw the steadily growing pool of blood that Pandora was lying in.

Raelynn felt sick to the stomach.

“I’ve done all I can,” Avelina said quietly after a while. Pandora’s body was completely limp on the ground. She would not make a single movement.

Matthew breathed in deeply, and with a loud noise that frightened Gabe so much he jumped, he smashed his sword upon the composite gem they needed to destroy.

Not a single thing happened.

Matthew used his sword to strike it, again and again, but no marks were made.

“I think she’s dead,” Cobalt whispered.

Matthew turned back. He rushed to the pale Pandora, pressing his fingers against her neck and near her heart.

No pulse could be found.

“You killed her…” Raelynn whispered faintly. “You killed her…”

“I had to,” the prince murmured. “Or else she would have killed us and lived her life as Obsidian Castle’s puppet.”

Raelynn punched him in the face.

 

~

Within the bowels of the Mistwood, a gigantic crack like a clap of thunder sounded in the night. Animals shrieked and scurried away, frightened of the intruder. In the shadows of the trees, Eliana staggered around wildly. Blood flowed from her untreated wound and she took great, shuddering breaths. Having spent all her energy teleporting such a long way, she collapsed to the ground. The mud and leaves of the forest coated her dress and mixed with her deep red blood. She needed Aren to help her… but he was gone. He had abandoned her.

How had she been so delusional? Of course an alliance could not last between two people like her and Aren.

Her strength was slowly fading away. She moaned in pain. It echoed through the forest, such a lonely and solitary sound. Even the animals didn’t want to be around Eliana. This was the worst moment of her life – she had nothing left. Even death was approaching quickly; it was inevitable, but least she would die surrounded by majestic trees and the enchanting glow of moonlight… She had always liked the moon…

No. There’s something about losing your dreams that makes you stubborn– broken, empty, but full of fire against a world that’s turned from environment to antagonist. So she won’t die, not yet, not here, because then the planet wins. Seven generations of traveller blood won’t be denied the stars for long…

If she had the ability to form words, or someone beside her to form words to, her dying wish would be that Pandora die with her. Pandora Moreau had been the one to strike her. Pandora Moreau needed to die.

“Are you hurt?” came a soft, tempting voice. The voice of a child. Oh, how Eliana detested underdeveloped minds – but in this particular moment, she almost heard the gods whispering their blessings to her.

“Yes,” Eliana whispered hoarsely. “Please – please, it hurts.”

“Come now,” the little girl said. “I’ll take care of you.”

She waved her arms, and in one smooth motion, Eliana was lifted into the air, held up only with the force of the girl’s magic. Immediately, Eliana could tell that the child was extraordinary.

The child smiled, her innocent eyes warm and welcoming. “My name’s Lilith. What’s yours?”

~

Raelynn’s hand stung like nothing she’d ever experienced, but she didn’t mind. It was satisfying.

She didn’t know how to cope with Pandora’s death. She felt empty inside, and all that could surface was rage towards Matthew. The same thought was repeating itself over and over again in her head: Prince Matthew did this. Prince Matthew did this.

“Our end is looking grim, and imminent,” Avelina whispered. “Your soldiers are tired, Prince.”

“They are men. Men experience fatigue.” Matthew sighed, realising the truth behind Avelina’s words.

“While suits of armour do not,” she added.

Prince Matthew tended to his nose quietly, observing the number of knights lying on the ground as still as Pandora. He also observed the increasing number of glistening suits of armour approaching Matthew, Avelina, Gabe, Raelynn and Cobalt.

That was it. The five of them, and the odd living knight here or there.

“I thought our biggest threat would be Aren,” Avelina confessed. “I assumed that if we eliminated him from the picture, everything would turn out fine.”

“It seems your assumption was wrong.” Gabe sounded sad. “I was quite fortunate to have made your acquaintance in my lifetime, Avelina.”

“As was I.”

Their final goodbyes were exchanged, and Raelynn closed her eyes when the suits of armour all raised their swords at once.

She was prepared to die, now.

But the blow never came.

Raelynn opened one eye, letting the other remain squinting. Pandora was standing there with a huge grin on her face, every single piece of armour lying scattered on the floor. One piece, quite unfortunately for the prince, had managed to hit him on the head. He lay at their feet, knocked out cold.

“Hey guys, I’m not evil anymore! See?” she pointed to her blue irises excitedly. “Although I will admit that Matthew did deal me a painful strike. Lucky he avoided my heart.”

“He did?” Raelynn asked delightedly.

“Heart’s on the left, not the right,” Pandora reminded her. “Um, anyway… Down to business.”

Avelina, though she would never admit it, was probably ecstatic to see Pandora alive. Pandora just couldn’t tell because Avelina seemed to always be a closed, reserved person. Her face betrayed no emotion.

“The gem thing,” Cobalt reminded them, a large smile stretching across his face.

“Oh. Right. That,” Pandora muttered. “Hmm.”

She clapped her hands and the gem exploded into a thousand shards.

The group yelped, ducking down in a futile attempt to avoid the pieces of flying gem. Little bits still managed to find their bodies, and they all gasped out in pain.

“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” Pandora assured them, wincing as she pulled a small piece of emerald out of her forearm.

“Pandora!” Cobalt laughed. “How in the world did you do that?”

Pandora shrugged. “I don’t know. I just… I just did. It felt natural. And simple, too.”

“I couldn’t do that,” Avelina said. “Something happened today with your power. I want to find out what.”

“But I think that first, we ought to get back to Mir,” Gabe reasoned.

“And bring the knights with us,” Raelynn added.

“And have a shower,” Cobalt added.

“And check out this thing,” Raelynn said suddenly, standing up when she pulled all the bits of shrapnel out of her red-stained skin.

“What?” Pandora asked curiously, hissing when pain shot through the wound Matthew made.

“Where the gem was…” Raelynn said, pointing.

Pandora walked over to the low dais, frowning in confusion. The bits of the composite gem lay scattered all over the gold-paved, blood-soaked room, but one thing had remained on the dais. It was a small, spherical stone.

“A cut opal,” Raelynn remarked, inspecting it with Pandora. “How pretty and not useful.”

“It has magic,” Pandora said weighing it in her hand. “We should probably take it back with us. But maybe we shouldn’t tell Matthew.”

“Agreed.” Raelynn nodded her head slightly.

They heard Avelina sigh from behind them.

“Come, all. I am quite fatigued. I would like it that we sleep – preferably in a nice, warm bed in Mir,” Avelina mused.

“Amen to that,” Pandora whistled, stretching in tiredness. Adrenaline surged through her veins, but she was also very weak. It was time to go home.

Home? Did she really just think of it like that?

Well, after the whole ordeal to do with Aren and Obsidian Castle and Shadow Labyrinth, how could she really blame herself for calling Mir her home?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

18 THE AFTERMATH

 

 

“Good evening, Pandora.”

Pandora groggily opened her eyes. She was in an unfamiliar place, golden warmth streaming in through the windows. The bed below her was comfortable and the sheets around her let her rest in the perfect temperature. She hadn’t had a sleep as satisfying as this one for quite some time. It put a slight smile on her face.

She rubbed the crust from her eyes, coming face-to-face with Six-Fingers Jack.

“It’s you!” Pandora said in surprise, though not the bad kind. Her voice was still hoarse from sleep.

“Aye, ‘tis me. I’m the Court Physician of Mir,” he explained.

“Wow! I never would have guessed,” Pandora said truthfully.

“I know – someone like me, who takes care of people’s health, shouldn’t be wasting away in taverns,” Six-Fingers Jacks said thoughtfully, then shrugged as a noncommittal gesture.

Pandora pushed the sheets off her body. Her skin was covered in bandages and stitches, while the less severe cuts were left to heal by themselves. Her dirty dress had been replaced with a clean, white one, which revealed the giant bandage wrapped around her bust to protect the wound on the right side of her chest.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Well, your friends say you fell asleep on the boat home. We brought you here, and Astraea and I have been patching you all up since noon. I’ve removed every last gem and shard of glass from your skin, and your chest wound is healing up nicely,” Six-Fingers Jack explained.

“Oh! How is everyone else?” Pandora asked worriedly.

Six-Fingers Jack grinned. “Look around.”

Pandora did. Matthew was sitting up in his bed, reading. Raelynn, Cobalt and Gabe were snoring away peacefully, Avelina was nowhere to be seen, and the rest of the knights were murmuring quietly to each other, so as to not disturb the sleeping patients. It looked like they were in some sort of infirmary.

“Everyone is recovering well, and we haven’t encountered any complications so far,” said a female voice. Pandora looked up and smiled brightly.

“Astraea! What are you doing here?” she asked warmly.

“I’m the Court Physician’s assistant when I’m not running the tavern,” she told Pandora with a small grin. “It is a satisfying job.”

“Good for you,” Pandora congratulated.

Raelynn moaned and sat up slowly. Astraea moved to her bed to tend to her bandages.

“God, my wrist hurts,” she hissed.

“You fractured your wrist sometime during the voyage back here to Mir, and your friends rendered you unconscious to stop you from feeling the pain. At this moment, herbs are running through your body that will aid the reparation of the bones. You will have to relieve pressure on it for a while, and do most of your jobs with your left hand. The king has allowed you to take leave while your wrist heals.” Astraea turned to Pandora. “If you want, we can assign you a temporary maidservant.”

Pandora waved her hand. “No, I’ll be fine for a few weeks to do things by myself. But I will want Raelynn back as my maidservant when her wrist has recovered,” Pandora finished with a grin.

Raelynn poked her tongue out in a childish move.

Matthew raised his eyebrow from behind his novel. Raelynn almost jumped in shock when she saw him.

“Sire! I’m so sorry about what I – when I – er…” she stammered, lifting her uninjured wrist. Her knuckles were slightly bruised from the punch.

Matthew smiled a genuine smile. “I think that, given the circumstances, such action is quite forgivable. I was acting on impulse, though; I felt that the only way to save Lady Pandora was to free her of the spirit.”

“And it would only do so when its host body began to die,” Pandora continued on for him.

“Good news, though!” Matthew informed them brightly. “The curse has lifted. I was informed so by Jack, who has been telling me that all the men, women and children who were once glass statues have now regained their flesh and bone. They are alive.”

Pandora was ecstatic, and the same was visible on Raelynn’s stressed face.

“What happened to Obsidian Castle?” Cobalt asked, startling the three youths with how suddenly he had woken.

“It still stands, but magic no longer runs through its walls. No new dark lords of Obsidian Castle will rise. Thank the gods for that,” Matthew sighed. “I do have one question to ask you all, though, and I don’t mind who answers. How exactly was the gem destroyed?”

Raelynn looked uncomfortably at Cobalt, who looked at Pandora with unease. Pandora chewed on the inside of her lips as a nervous habit.

After a long moment of silence, Matthew placed his book beside him. “Okay, you don’t have to tell me.”

Pandora smiled slightly in thanks.

“I have a question for you, sire,” Raelynn said politely. “How come you weren’t in that room when all of us arrived?”

“Aren and Eliana were waiting for us. They transported us somewhere else in the Castle, but when they realised that you had come, they brought us back. They were going to kill me.”

Cobalt frowned in surprise.

“Speaking of which,” Matthew continued, “why did you come?”

“We had a hunch,” Pandora blurted before the other two could say anything. “We felt that the trip would be dangerous. Fatally dangerous.”

“Well, I’m glad you came,” Matthew said with a grateful tip of his head.

“Thank you, sire,” Pandora said.

She sincerely hoped he wouldn’t ask how they came to Obsidian Castle. And if he did, she hoped he wouldn’t ask how they knew about the Little Dragon way of access. The book, Magic, needed to stay as secret as possible

Luckily, Matthew became distracted as Gabe rose. They talked lightly; apparently, they were acquaintances.

Charles entered soon, greeting Astraea, Pandora and Raelynn.

“Pandora,” Matthew said after a while. “I am extremely grateful that you and your companions came for us. Otherwise, we would not have survived.”

“I rather think we were nuisances. Burdens.” Pandora smiled humorously. “You were faced with the decision of whether or not to stab me. I think that must’ve been quite difficult.”

“It was, but in no way were any of you burdens. I owe every one of you. Tell me what you wish for, and I will grant your request.”

Pandora grinned. “I want permission for me, my friend Cobalt and my maidservant Raelynn to accompany you and your knights on any quest we want. We don’t care about the danger; we just need something to cure our boredom while we stay in Mir.”

Matthew chuckled. “I see. An adventurous trio, you are. Very well, I will allow you to accompany me, but you must follow my orders.”

Pandora shrugged. “Sounds fair.”

“And for your friends?” Matthew encouraged.

Raelynn hummed thoughtfully. “I’d like a raise in my pay.”

“Sure.”

Cobalt grinned. “I would like to have accommodation in the castle, if it’s not too much trouble.”

Matthew nodded. “The room next to Pandora’s should be available.”

“Thank you so much… sire,” Cobalt added quickly.

“Gabe?” Matthew coaxed.

Gabe shrugged. “I am content with what I am currently in possession of.”

“You are a simple man, Gabe,” the prince remarked. “How very… quaint. It’s lovely.”

“I just don’t understand why everyone is so enamoured with material goods. I search for love and adventure,” Gabe confided.

“And how are you doing with that search?” a girl a few beds away asked with a mile-long smile.

“One half has been fulfilled. Now I should focus on the other,” he replied with a smile equally as large.

“Nireth!” Pandora greeted. “How is your stomach?”

“Fine!” Nireth answered enthusiastically. She looked like she was healing well; the last time Pandora saw her, Nireth had been covered in the blood from her stab wound, and her face was sickly pale. Now, her cheeks were rosy red in the evening light, and her stomach was bandaged up nicely.

“Well, this isn’t where I imagined we would be reuniting. But, hey, I suppose it was inevitable that we would all end up in here,” Raelynn said in passing.

“Yes, and now I’d like to cut this reunion short, if you don’t mind,” Astraea interrupted. “It’s nearing sunset, and all of you are either getting ointment or new bandages.”

“Oh, yay!” Nireth rejoiced. “This one’s been smelling for a few hours.” She patted her linen bandage fondly.

“I guess our sleep patterns are going to be all messed up,” Pandora predicted. “We’ve just woken up and it’s in the evening.”

Astraea and Six-Fingers Jack then got to work, applying ointment to cuts and wounds, and then all the bandages were redressed. Everyone was given a tonic to aid healing for their specific wounds.

“We’ll let you go soon,” Six-Fingers Jack promised when he and Astraea had finished their jobs. He was passing around glasses of water to help the disgusting tonic go down.

“Please, trap me in here for as long as you wish,” Matthew said rather sincerely. “As soon as we leave, the Hero Parade will take place.”

“Hero Parade?” Pandora questioned, raising an eyebrow.

“Yes,” Matthew replied glumly. “When the knights and I come back from a quest, we are featured in the Hero Parade and must tour the city – well, after the big quests. You and the others, having taken part in saving us, will join us.”

“No!” Pandora gasped. “No thank you!”

Matthew grinned at Pandora’s discomfort. “It’s mandatory. If I can’t get out of it – and I’m the prince! – then you are definitely accompanying me.”

Pandora pursed her lips. “Fine then,” she acquiesced.

But Pandora needn’t have worried.

They were all released on different days. Prince Matthew, Gabe, Cobalt and many of the knights went out first, and from the screams and cheers clearly audible in the infirmary, Pandora guessed that the people of Mir were quite joyous to see them. At night, jolly music played and lanterns lit the streets, creating a beautiful light show. This was the Hero Parade.

It seemed that word had spread about Pandora and the other Beings’ involvement in the journey to destroy Obsidian Castle, because the next morning gifts were stacked in an orderly pile by her bed like some sort of mountain, and the others remaining in the infirmary had also received such presents.

Pandora sifted through them, finding all manner of gifts – she had been given sacks of gold coins, bouquets of flowers, beautiful dresses, and even a little wooden flute. The instant she blew into it, Astraea began chastising her about disturbing the sleeping patients. (Astraea had failed to realise that everyone had been awake in the first place.)

Raelynn was then released, but there was no Hero Parade. It seemed that there was only one parade – but then again, Raelynn had gotten more than enough thanks in the form of gifts and letters.

A few long, boring weeks passed until Pandora was finally released, along with several other knights.

She relished her newfound freedom. Before she left the infirmary, Six-Fingers Jack listed all the instructions for letting the wound continue to heal. When he finally left her alone, she ran out the door, through the castle and out the open archway with a goofy smile on her face. As soon as the warm sunshine hit her face, she sighed in content.

She then realised that it was actually quite cold and went off to buy a cloak (she couldn’t be bothered to go to her chambers – being cooped up in that castle while in the infirmary had driven her crazy).

The streets were buzzing with vibrancy and a sense of purpose. Now that everyone had had a close touch with death because of the curse, they were all living life like they wanted to but never got around to doing. The items sold in carts were original and innovative, the sellers of fruits attracted customers with vigour, the children weren’t yelling or crying, and Pandora was happy.

The cold, autumn day was lovely, albeit slightly chilly. Pandora strolled around the city aimlessly, enjoying the look of delight and liveliness on everyone’s face. Several people came up to her, thanking her for her participation in the quest. Pandora simply waved it off humbly.

After a few hours, sometimes during noon, she found herself at the edge of the city. In this area, shops were scarce and it was mostly just small families happily living in their houses. She scanned the edge of the Mistwood with a lazy gaze, simply enjoying her walk. But soon she decided that it would be nice to enter the forest, and so she began to stroll up the wide, dirt path that curved through the Mistwood.

The birds sang cheerful tunes while the sun broke through the canopy of leaves and beautiful cherry blossoms. Pandora took off her shoes, letting her toes feel the ground beneath her feet. The mud felt renewed and refreshed, thanks to the return of the city’s water.

Pandora reached beneath her cloak and her dress and grabbed the silver chain that she hadn’t once taken off. She squeezed her butterfly, watching silently as it came to life and summoned the Beings.

Avelina was the one who came.

“Pandora,” she greeted coolly.

“Hello, Avelina,” Pandora said cheerfully. “Would you mind terribly if we went for a walk?”

There was an almost unnoticeable pause before Avelina replied.

“Not at all. Let’s.”

~

“Were you going to kill him? Aren, I mean.”

Pandora picked up the flat, smooth stone. She was reminded of obsidian and became uneasy, so she threw it across the lake with too much haste. Its angle caused it to wobble in the air and plonk unceremoniously into the water of the lake. She frowned in disappointment.

Avelina sighed and picked up a stone. She whizzed it through the air and watched it bounce gracefully on the water.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I really don’t. My mind said yes, but… my heart said no. It was screaming no, really, because we were friends, and I remembered what he was like before he turned away from the light side. I knew if I killed him then, I was destroying any chance of getting that man back.”

Her stone finally stopped bouncing and fell into the water with an elegant shower of droplets.

Pandora grunted unhappily. She rubbed her fingers over the back of a black stone and, after deeming it suitable, took her time to adjust her angle. She then launched her arm and watched with satisfaction as it did three full bounces over the glistening lake.

Avelina threw her stone casually.

“Well, you didn’t get the choice anyway. I suppose it was a relief?” Pandora guessed.

Avelina nodded, the stone still going on. “Yes, it was.”

Pandora threw her stone huffily.

“What about this Eliana person? Did you know her before?”

Avelina nodded her head. “A family friend. Seemed to have a bright future. At that time, she was the assistant to the war strategist of our home city, for she was cunning and intelligent.”

“And she began using powers for evil instead of good?” Pandora asked with a raised eyebrow.

Avelina needn’t answer. She simply picked up a stone and threw with more force than she should have. The stone didn’t make a single bounce.

Pandora smiled victoriously and threw a stone across the water. It bounced twice until it dunked under the water.

“Beat you,” she said smugly.

Avelina raised her eyebrows. “Let’s see about that.” She bent down and grabbed a stone, watching Pandora challengingly.

An hour later, Avelina had beaten Pandora spectacularly, and Pandora was celebrating her fail by deciding to take a cheerful trip down to the dungeons. She brought Cobalt with her, since Raelynn was off listening to Six-Fingers Jack in the Brave Phoenix.

They ran into King Vance on the way.

“Ah, Pandora! And…”

“Cobalt,” Cobalt replied promptly.

Pandora discreetly nudged him.

“Cobalt, sire,” he corrected.

“Well, Pandora and Cobalt, I’d just like to congratulate you on your success. Without your assistance, my son would have lost his life,” King Vance said. He looked all the part of a king in the window light, crown gems gleaming.

Pandora laughed. “Please, sire, I’m sure he didn’t need us at all.”

King Vance beamed. “You are awfully modest. Well, there is one lesson we’ve learned from your journey. Magic really brings nothing but despair to the world.”

Cobalt bristled, turning defensive. “Just so you know, sire, it was magic that heal–”

Pandora stepped on his toe, interrupting him mid-sentence. Vance gave him an odd look, bid them farewell and brushed past them.

“Be more careful, Cobalt!” Pandora hissed when the king disappeared around the corner of the castle corridor. “This secret is the difference between life and death.”

“Whatever,” he grumbled like a typical teenager.

They continued their trek down the castle.

“You know, I feel like we’ve changed since we arrived here,” Pandora mused.

Cobalt grinned goofily. “You’re getting homesick. How sweet.”

Pandora swatted his arm, frowning. “Well, of course I am! We’ve been dumped in the middle of a parallel universe. It will take quite some getting used to.”

“We’ll never have another awkward conversation. Oh, the stories we’ll tell,” Cobalt sighed. “I mean, if we ever get back.”

Pandora pushed him playfully. “We will.”

He pushed her back. “I do miss London. Every day that I wake up I’m surprised I don’t see red double-deckers rushing past the window,” he muttered wistfully. “Then again, I’m surprised I don’t even have a window.”

“Well, thanks to your thoughtful request to Matthew, you’ll soon have a room with windows and everything!” Pandora said ecstatically. “We can paint London buses on your window if you want.”

Cobalt raised his hand. “I’m fine.”

They shut their mouths as they approached the entrance to the dungeons. The brightness of the castle interior dissolved into the murky darkness of the dungeons; they walked through quickly, the guards stepping aside for the noblewoman and her friend.

They stopped in front of one particular cell.

Pandora stared at the crimson symbols written on the wall of the dungeons, then at the red-eyed man sitting directly below it.

His red eyes disappeared as he focused on his two visitors, his lip curling.

“Pandora Moreau. And…”

“Cobalt,” he said exasperatedly. “Doesn’t anyone know my name?”

Aren smiled tightly. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“We want to ask you why you did it,” Pandora sighed. “King Damien did it because of friction between fathers, but then I saw him dead, and I saw you possessing him!”

Aren grinned. “I suppose I can tell you of my brilliant plan. It won’t be too much use to me now.”

Cobalt crossed his arms expectantly, while Pandora tilted her head.

“I was beginning my reign,” he explained, leaning back in his bed casually. “I was going to make Mir and Astewell mine. I already had Astewell within my grasp – being a trusted consultant to King Damien, it was surprisingly easy to kill him.” He grinned at the memory.

Pandora scowled in distaste. “How were you going to get Mir, then?”

“I would kill Matthew when he came to the castle, possess him, impersonate him, and then kill Vance. I would then become the new king, and reign over my two kingdoms,” Aren finished with a lopsided grin.

“Talk about big dreams,” Pandora muttered to Cobalt.

“Where did Eliana come in the picture?” Cobalt asked Aren.

“She was intriguing. Someone who could challenge me intellectually,” Aren said, sitting up. “She will return.”

“You abandoned her,” Cobalt reminded him with a raised eyebrow. “She’ll never return to you.”

“Oh well,” Aren shrugged nonchalantly. “She will, though, return. I look forward to the day.”

He smiled coldly and stood up, walking right up to the edge of his cell. He wrapped his fingers around the bars – from this imposing height, Pandora had to look up. Despite this, she tried to keep her cool demeanour.

“You, on the other hand, will never return to where you belong.”

Pandora’s face twitched almost imperceptibly in shock. Aren grinned triumphantly.

“Yes, I know that you, Cobalt and that little maidservant are not from this universe. And it’s only a matter of time before I spill your little secret,” he whispered threateningly. “You’re never going back there. I know where your parents are.”

For a moment, Pandora was still.

Then she had moved up to the bars in a flash and was screaming in his face.

“You will do nothing to them!” she shrieked.

Aren smirked. “Someone has a temper.”

He sighed, as though bored of the conversation, and moved back to the symbols on his wall.

“Anyway, do tell Avelina that Phoenix says hello,” Aren hummed. Pandora frowned. “In the meantime, I do rather think I’ve overstayed my welcome in this dungeon.”

He muttered a spell, and Pandora was temporarily deafened by the explosion. Her body was thrown across the dungeon like a ragdoll; she winced in pain when her chest wound stung suddenly.

When the dust settled, Aren’s cell door was on the floor, and he was gone. Escaped.

Pandora heard Cobalt coughing. Guards came running in – when they realised that Aren was gone, they helped Pandora and Cobalt to stand.

“Phoenix…” Cobalt whispered as the guards ushered them out of the disaster zone. “We need to ask Avelina about her.”

Pandora nodded in agreement. “Soon, though. We won’t visit her just yet. I feel I may need another trip to the infirmary.”

When she came out, the ladies of the city had heard of Aren’s escape. A large number of the women were crying and wiping their noses with their handkerchiefs, like ladies are supposed to do. But Pandora? She was striding out the castle with Cobalt and waiting for the next adventure. Like human beings are supposed to do.

~

“I thank you all for your help,” Eliana addressed Ignatia sincerely. The small village in the middle of the woods was quaint and homely – these people had become accustomed to the simple life. They had learned to wash their clothes in the river, to pick berries from the bushes and strike stones together for their warmth at night. But they were happy, and more than once Eliana had wished she could live a life like that. However, she was an adventurous soul, having been born with her family’s traveller blood. She needed to always be on the move. Staying in one place would eat away at her mind, despite how much she loved the caring Ignatia. And they all understood her, too. Everyone had magic, and knew what it was like to run from those who hated magic.

“I wish to go, now,” Eliana continued. The placid villagers listened to her intently. “You saved my life – but, more importantly, it was Lilith who first found me in my lowest moments. I want to thank her personally.”

Lilith dislodged herself from the small crowd and ran into Eliana’s open arms. Lilith was crying, though she tried to hide it, discreetly wiping away tears. Eliana pulled her back and wiped them away for her, whispering soothingly.

“Don’t cry, Lilith,” Eliana soothed. “I’ll come to visit you every once in a while.”

“But I’ll miss you,” Lilith sobbed. “I want you to stay.”

“That’s not who I am,” Eliana explained. The villagers watched the heart-warming scene sadly. “I am constantly moving.”

“Then I want to come with you,” Lilith whispered.

Eliana froze, considering the option.

Over the past month, she’d grown to love Eliana as though she were her own daughter. She, too, would be incredibly heartbroken if she left Lilith behind. But if Lilith were to accompany her… Now, that was an enticing possibility. All she needed was permission.

“Please,” Eliana said to the Ignatians. “Allow me to take Lilith under my wing. I will take care of her, explore her powers…”

The head of Ignatia spoke without a moment’s hesitation. “Of course. We will be sad to see Lilith go, since she was such a promising young girl, but I am sure you will develop her potential.”

Eliana couldn’t keep the wide smile off her face. “Thank you so much! Come, Lilith.”

Lilith slipped her hands into Eliana’s and they walked away from Ignatia together.

From there, they trekked through the woods for the next two days. Lilith was skilled at collecting berries and water, while Eliana used her archery skills to hunt for deer. Their journey was pleasant, and at night they would tell stories by the fire.

When they finally emerged from the edge of the Mistwood, they came out in the city of Maidenstow. A slight smile pulled at Eliana’s lips as she pulled Lilith through the streets; she knew this city well. It was one of innovation and art – Maidenstow was always sending new inventions to Mir and Fiern. The walkways were crawling with drunken sailors and workmen, as it was near midnight. The streets were bathed in the orange glow of lanterns that magnified a flame’s flickering light, which was one example of Maidenstow’s bright thinking.

Eliana kept Lilith as hidden as possible, sneaking her into dark alcoves or alleyways whenever they heard the intoxicated chanting of men who had had one too many whiskies.

“I’m going to teach you how to live like me,” Eliana whispered while dancing men staggered by.

“Now she shows me her pretty ankles, and I think they look quite nice, but I don’t care unless she gets me some rum and ice!” the men sang joyfully, slurring in their drunken state.

“What are we going to do?” Lilith asked innocently.

“You’ll see,” Eliana said with a bright smile. “But you must remember to stay alert. Be aware of your surroundings, and react fast.”

“Okay.”

The men passed and Eliana ran with Lilith out of the alley. They crossed the street, Eliana turning her head quickly to make sure that they weren’t being watched.

Reaching the other side, Eliana hoisted Lilith up onto a sturdy wooden ladder, shooing away a shrieking black cat. It hissed and retreated in the shadows.

Eliana followed Lilith up the ladder, encouraging her to climb up faster. They pulled themselves up the rungs sneakily, the shadows hiding their movements.

“Where are we, Eliana?” Lilith whispered quietly.

“We’re on top of a tavern, and a rather rich one, at that. Let’s interrupt their joyful festivities,” Eliana told her.

Lilith nodded.

At the top of the roof protruded a semi-circular window. Eliana ripped her dress so that it only came up to her mid-thighs, and then threw the discarded fabric over the edge of the roof. She kicked in the window and jumped in with a yell.

Lilith followed, surprising Eliana with her agility. She crawled along the beams the created the roof structure while Eliana dropped down and began kicking the drunk men out of her way. The bartender brandished a silver dagger and swiftly threw it through the air.

Eliana caught it into the air with ease. She threw the dagger above her – it lodged itself in the wooden roof. Lilith grinned and yanked it out, slipping it into her pocket as she crawled along the beam.

Men started running towards Eliana in anger. The first to reach her launched his fist her way – she deflected the right hook easily, twisted his arm and kneed him in the groin. As soon as he fell to the ground, moaning in agony, she let go and tended to the several other men.

“Ugh, I smell the alcohol on your breath,” she murmured in disgust, bending one man’s arm backwards while ignoring his howls of mercy, “and I envy you for the blissful oblivion you will meet in the morning. But tonight, you will not receive mercy.”

She pressed a long finger onto the pressure point behind his neck; he was down in an instant and yelling out in pain. She then put all her force into a kick to his ribs, hoping to break one or two of them.

She continued to kick, scratch, poke and punch until the tavern was still, save for Lilith and the frightened bartender.

“Go, Lilith,” Eliana encouraged quietly, breathing hard from her recent exertion. She began emptying all the men’s pockets, taking the gold coins and unpolished wedding rings for her own.

Lilith grinned and swung down from the beam, holding on with only her two hands. The dagger was clenched between her teeth while she pulled herself across the beam. As she neared the end, approaching the wall, she suddenly let go and landed on the tavern’s counter.

With a small smile, she used the bartender’s shocked surprise to her advantage and slit his throat.

He fell to the ground. Eliana rushed to the counter and jumped over it with the skill of an acrobat. She frantically rummaged through the drawers, pulling out all the valuable items.

“Quick, quick!”

Eliana took the hand that Lilith wasn’t using to hold the blood-streaked dagger. They rushed out of the tavern and sneaked back into the night, relishing their success.

“Well done, Lilith,” Eliana panted as they ran.

“That was fun,” Lilith said innocently.

“We’ll do it again tomorrow night,” Eliana promised.

Lilith smiled.

“I look forward to it.”

 

END OF BOOK ONE

and there’s never gonna be a book two oh well

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