The Five Fledglings

You can read our story, The Five Fledglings, here in chronological order.

Chapter 1

Sitting cross-legged on a thickly woven rug,  she sharpened her saber on a small smooth stone, her brow furrowed with worry.  A sandstorm raged outside, sending a seemingly never-ending hail of sand against the sides of the tent.  When the tent flap lifted, it took all her training to keep herself from jumping up in expectancy.  Instead, she lifted her eyes slowly and watched as the man unwrapped his turban to reveal his face.

Though disappointment was heavy in her heart upon finding that this man was not her father,  her emotions never surfaced on her face.  Her father had trained her well not only in the art of war, but also in diplomacy.

“You are requested in the Thurid.  And you are to hurry,” her older brother, Shuild, said.

Her heart dropped at his words.  No one was ever summoned anywhere in the middle of a sandstorm like this.  Worries for her father washed over her again, but she pushed them down.   Shuild locked eyes with her for a brief moment, and she caught something in his eyes: sadness, anger, jealousy?  Turning his back to her, he wrapped his turban back securely around his head and headed out into the storm.

With a resolved deep breath she stood, and grabbing her own turban and wrapping it around her head, she set out into the storm.

The Thurid was a tent, just like every other structure in a Sanhildin town, but there was one important thing that made the Thurid stick out.  It was enormous.  Standing almost five times as large as the normal dwellers’ tents, its center poll rose over sixty feet into the air.

Even if she had been in the Thurid a thousand times before, she was sure that she would still get nervous.  It was a place of official business, but more than that, it held an almost sacred air to it.  She had been in only twice.  Once when she turned five and received her name, and again when her brother turned eighteen and received his Standing.  She had expected to enter the Thurid in just a few days to receive her own Standing, but being summoned  like this…

Suddenly, she stood before the Thurid.  She tried to collect her thoughts.  Her brother stood waiting.  Two Elthim, guards for the Thurid, opened the heavy tent flaps for them to enter.

It took a brief second for her eyes to adjust to the dimness of the Thurid’s interior.  She was shocked to find that it was all but empty, holding three occupants, of which she and her brother were two.  The Thianin stood tall in the center of the room.  Bowing deeply, she unwrapped her turban and then re-wrapped it around her waist, as was custom, before bowing again.  Her brother did the same, only wrapping it diagonally over his chest, before bowing.  They kept their heads down until the man spoke.

“Athadius Unradus, you have been called here on a matter of urgency,” the Thianin said.

Athadius lifted her dark brown eyes and found that the man before her was grim.  And not merely the official-of-the-Thurid-grim, but a deeper grim that seemed to vibrate off his very being.

“As you know your father left one week ago with all our young men who were almost of Standing age.   It was a large caravan of twenty-eight young men, headed to the Heart of the Desert.”

Athadius did her best not to portray impatience.  She knew all of this.

“This journey has never been a safe one.  Your father knew this.”

The tall man’s face, which had been cold and unrelenting as was the Sanhildin way, softened for but a moment as he spoke his next words, words which made Athadius’s heart drop deeper than the village well.  “There was an attack on the caravan.  There were no survivors.”

Those were not the last words the Thianin said, but they were the last words Athadius heard.  Though her regal posture never faltered and her chin never even so much as quivered, inside she was falling apart.  How long she stared at the fraying of the Thianin’s robe, she did not know.  The next thing she knew, Shuild’s hands were firmly on her shoulders and his voice was speaking softly into her ear.

“Ath, I am afraid it is not just that father is gone.  They said you will be sent…” His voice broke.  Shuild’s words alone were enough to snap her out of her despair.  He sounded as if he actually cared.  For years he had treated her with jealousy, almost contempt, saying that she was a disgrace to their father.  “Why could you not be born a boy?  You were born in the sacred year, but had the audacity to be born a girl.  There is no greater shame you could have brought upon your family.”  Even just the thought of his words stung her heart.

Athadius pulled from her brother’s embrace and looked him in the eye.  “Only my father can call me Ath,” Athadius said, though her words only served to deepen her sorrow.  Lifting her chin even more, she faced the Thianin.  “How can I be of your service?”

For a moment, the Thianin’s eyes were soft and thoughtful, as if he were reconsidering.  Then he too raised his chin.  “Ever onward,” he said, as if to convince himself that this was indeed the right thing to do.

“Ever onward,” Athadius repeated, the old Sanhildin saying bringing comfort to her shaking soul.


By R. Shinnick

 

Chapter 2

Kaulakoru- A necklace each person is given at birth. The necklace gives them the ability to live in the clouds. If they lose the Kaulakoru, they fall.

Äiti-Mother

Isä- Father

Posti- Posti are given to children on their thirteenth birthday. Posti are little bunches of cloud which deliver letters. They start out very small and weak, but as you add to them they grow.  

Date: Day 3, Month 10

Dearest Annani,
I have felt your absence greatly as of late. I wish time could move backwards and I could have you all to myself again. Although I must admit, your wedding was very beautiful. Hodei, I know you are reading this as well. (Of course you are. It is proper.) This is for you: You are a very lucky man. I have told you this many times, but you must never forget how much Annani is above you! (Annani, I know you would scold if you were here, but Äiti says it is an unspoken law that all men marry above themselves.) Take care of her, Hodei. Make sure she is well dressed. She is not used to the cold, wet weather of Kumpupilviä. Äiti is calling. I must go, but I will finish this soon.

Date: Day  12, Month 10

You will never believe it, Annani! For my birthday Äiti and Isä are taking me to Sumupilviä. We are leaving tomorrow, traveling by Pilviä! I must go pack. I will write when we arrive.

Date: Day 14, Month 10

Oh, Annani! If only you could be here with me. Sumupilviä is beautiful! The colors! Oh, the blueness of the sky and the warmth of the sun. Hodei, you must bring Annani here one day. She will love it, I am sure. Everyone is strange here. They look at us in a strange manner. Apparently they do not like new people. Annani, traveling by Pilviä is wonderful! The sights you see are unthinkable. You know this, of course, you traveled to Kumpupilviä. But one day, we shall both go to Sumupilviä together.

Date: Day 28, Month 10

Today was frightening.  My Kaulakoru suddenly began to glow! Äiti says not to worry, but somehow, I cannot help but think something will come of it. And I think Äiti worries too. Whether it will be good or bad I cannot say, but I wonder about it.

Date: Day 19, Month 11

Annani!! My Kaulakoru is glowing again! I do not understand it. What is happening?

Date: Day 13, Month 12

I know this letter is taking a very long time to write, but Jacqueline is still little and cannot go to you very much. I know you just asked Hodei who Jacqueline is, so I will tell you now. Jacqueline is my Posti. Yes, I know a Posti is just a little cloud so it is not alive, but somehow I felt I had to name it. I thought you would like to know.

Date: Day 23, Month 1

Annani!! Hodei!!! Äiti just told me! A baby! I am so happy. I will come down when you have the child. I know you cannot name the child yourselves, at least not without the Namer, but will you suggest any names? I think that if it is a boy you should name him Mazin, and if it is a girl, Kalani. I hope the Namer chooses a nice looking Kaulakoru, for the baby must wear it forever. Imagine! Having an ugly Kaulakoru! Having it around your neck in plain sight for everyone to ridicule. I am glad I have my Kaulakoru and not somebody else’s. Oh, my Kaulakoru has not stopped glowing. And it has begun to change color. The silver chain is now gold! And my gem has changed color, too. It used to be green, and now it is blue! It is very beautiful, but I do not understand.  

Date: Day 2, Month 2

It is the second day of the second month! This was the day you and Hodei met. It is a happy day today. We are celebrating. Be happy with us! I know the little one inside of you is celebrating too.

Date: Day 5, Month 2

Well, I have decided to send the letter. I think Jacqueline is strong enough. I have given her extra pieces so she is bigger. I will start another letter immediately. I love you so much.

Your adoring little sister,

Alya


By A. Choi

 

Chapter 3

Gwendlyn stood glancing at the twilight sky over the Forest. Everything felt so peaceful and familiar. She almost let herself believe she could trust it… but she knew better than to trust something as mysterious as the forest.

Gwen grew up “moving with the wind” as her princess called it. She knew all of the small villages and pathways through the forest. Such was the life of a lady in waiting. Her life was a buzz of moving, helping, and pretending to have a sense of poshness that didn’t belong to her. Princess Lairelithoniel told her that she was, “born with a grace so great, she had to hide it  behind those harsh words”. Gwen supposed that the princess might actually think she was graceful… But it was nothing compared to Lairelithoniel.

Every day working for her, Gwen wondered how she could be real. She was so perfect in every aspect of life. She practically exuded charm and grace while being the sweetest woman to grace the earth. The princess was five years her senior, and acted as the older sister Gwen never had. The princess was quickly approaching her twenty-second year… That meant one thing. Marriage.

The same marriage that had been both the topics of Gwen’s sharp jokes, and the source of tears in the dark. Lairelithoniel had been arranged to marry the prince of, “who cares where”, at the age of seven. Ever since, they had conferences each summer to get to know one another. The prince had nothing to get to know but his ego and arrogance. He made Gwen feel sick at the sight of him and the prince wasn’t too fond of Gwen either. Apparently, Women, let alone COMMON folk, weren’t to speak their thoughts with the likes of HIM. Gwen smiled as she remembered the sharp words she threw at him afterwards… it was worth every lashing he ordered her way.

She promised herself that she would protect her princess from his gloom and oppression. Gwen took a deep breath. “Lairelithoniel will be of age tomorrow,” Gwen half whispered and half groaned to herself. “Goodbye happiness! I’ll remember you when that monster snuffs you out for good.” With that cheery thought, Gwen went back to her princess’s chamber.

“We’re leaving at dawn,” Lairelithoniel whispered as she gracefully pulled herself into bed. Gwen took a breath wondering how her princess could be real. How could one be so beautiful and good all at once? Quickly picking up on Lairelithoniel’s remorse mood, Gwen decided to try and lighten the air.

“I take it you will be the first to rise, princess? You really must learn how to sleep past the sun. This nonsense confuses nobility and servants alike! You should hear the talk in the kitchens! ‘Did you see that Princess Lairelithoniel?’ I hear the women whisper to one another. ‘I saw her up at DAWN this morn! What is a pretty thing like her doing up at that ungodly hour? She ‘ought to go back and have a lie down. Goodness knows we’re only up because it is our job!’ Oh dear, I’m afraid you’re causing quite the uproar.”

Gwendlyn finally stopped just to laugh at the scene she had retold. It was true. Everyone was baffled as to why nobility should rise with the sun, be friendly around “simple folk”, or care for anything other than her well being. Lairelithoniel was like that since Gwen could remember: caring. She looked back over at her princess. Gwen could see that she was glad of the light topic, and the princess lightly smiled at her.

“Oh, hush now! Your sharp wit will be the death of us both, if you don’t watch it!” She laughed and pulled her knees to her chest. Gwen could see that her smile didn’t reach her eyes, eyes that were still flooded with fear.

“You can hide behind that sharp facade all you like, but I know the real you,” the princess sighed.
“Yes? If you know her, tell me. I would very much like to meet her. She’s always changing about in my view. She’s quite pesky about staying steady… I find it worries her.” Gwendlyn paused for a moment, realizing what she had just said. “She also enjoys talking about herself in the third person, naturally.”
Lairelithoniel paused for a moment looking thoughtfully into Gwen’s eyes. “If I told you now, what would be the fun in that?”

Lairelithoniel looked up from her blanket where she had been hiding from the eyes that knew her all too well. Gwen saw her happy facade crack, leaving behind not a princess… But a girl.

“I’m scared,” the girl one day shy of being twenty-two finally whispered.

“I am too,” the usually all too witty seventeen year old responded.

In that moment, Gwen realized words could not heal the wound being created. Late one night, deep in a forest, a princess and a friend wept and clung together in the darkness.


By E. Crowther

 

Chapter 4

“Petar! Petar, where are you? It’s your turn to help me with the dinner! Stop hiding and come out. Petar!”

Lynn was curled up in a cushioned chair with a book, laughing silently as she listened to her grandmother calling. It sounded for all the world as if she was searching for a naughty little boy.

The exasperated voice called again. “Lynn, dear, do you see your grandfather anywhere?”

Lynn opened her mouth to answer, but then laughed again. She closed her eyes and called back, “No, Ama, I don’t see him.”

Lynn could hear her grandmother’s frustrated mutters trailing off as she started back to the kitchen. “I give up. That man… I love him, but sometimes, I swear…”

Opening her eyes and raising her eyebrows, Lynn frowned at the old man from across the room, the same man who had just wildly beckoned at her to keep quiet. His gray hair hinted at his age, but the twinkle in his eyes and his mischievous smile made it quite clear he was still young at heart.

“Dato…” Lynn began, but her grandfather stopped her scolding with a wave of his hand.

“I’m going, I’m going.” He chuckled as he went out the door. “Emmi would never appreciate my help enough if I didn’t put up a fight.”

Lynn rolled her eyes but couldn’t keep back a smile as she returned to her book. She didn’t always join in her grandparents’ teasing, but she always enjoyed it. She didn’t know for sure, but she suspected many of the lighthearted jokes were made for her own benefit. Petar and Emmi felt that Lynn was sometimes too quiet and reserved and they did their best to bring out the laughter in their granddaughter — their little granddaughter who had her mother’s great ocean-blue eyes and thick brown hair.

They ate dinner that night on the back porch. Lynn loved these nights, sitting in the old rocking chairs made by her grandfather, watching the sun set over the sea. She had lived with her grandparents on the seaside since she was young, and her grandparents had been in the little house for many years before she came. But they had never tired of the salty winds and the hot sun, or of the way the ocean stretched on and on — miles of deep blue that continued until eventually reaching the embrace of the sky. Nor did they tire of the quiet life in the little village of Kerya, although others found that living on the end of a peninsula was too isolated and boring to bear for long. Petar, Emmi, and Lynn were perhaps the most isolated (their house being on the very tip of the “island”, as everyone called it), but they loved it all the same. Petar and Emmi, since they had lived in Kerya longest out of all the residents, and since they were the oldest, were greatly respected and loved by the whole village. Most everyone called them Dato and Ama along with Lynn, making them the official village grandparents.

Dinner was delicious. Seafood, as normal, but there were warm buttery rolls, and the summer season meant fresh greens from the market to add to the table. Dato claimed all the credit for the meal. Ama laughed, saying, “Oh yes, he tasted everything.”

Dato spread his hands innocently. “This meal would have been impossible without me.”

Ama shook her head fondly. “Lynn, don’t believe a word he says. You have the most ridiculous grandfather in Kerya.”

Dato smiled and leaned over to kiss his wife on the cheek. “And Lynn has the most beautiful grandmother in the world.”

Ama tried to hide her blush by standing and reaching for the dirty dishes, but Lynn stopped her with a smile. “I’ll take care of the cleanup, Ama.  You and Dato stay out here and enjoy the sunset.”

Lynn’s grandparents watched her walk into the house. Ama nodded approvingly. “She’s a good girl.”

Dato reached over and squeezed her hand. “She learned from the best.”

Inside the house Lynn started scrubbing the dishes with sand and soap. She would get water from the well outside to rinse them later. She hummed to herself as the waves pounded on the sand and the red sun slowly melted into the ocean. Life was good. 


By M. Choi

Chapter 5

The thought of having more than twigs, critters, and berries was almost too much to bear.

Jade slowed her heartbeat, careful as not to disturb the rhythmic rustle of the leaves, the gentle trickle of the creek bed just below.

The creek wasn’t the only thing below. It was, however, the only thing standing between Jade and what she had come here for—the boar. It took everything for her not to drool as she spotted it drinking from the creek.

Jade’s fingers gripped the splintered bark of the trunk tighter as she remained crouched on the branch of the Needlewood that loomed over the boar from across the water. The dry, frigid cold crackled what little moisture was in the air.

Jade peered into the tree across the creek, and a pair of eyes stared back. Jade gave a small nod and the pair of eyes mirrored the gesture, understanding instantly.

Ten seconds. Give or take.

The figure melted back into the leaves. Jade’s heart lurched, and a flicker of doubt made her question whether or not it was wise to bring him along. But who else would she bring?! Jade dug her fingernails deeper into the trunk. He was the only son of the Kaciot’s ruler, Elder Kahn.

Elder Kahn, Jade smiled. He might be considered one of the greats even. The people of Kaciot adored him dearly. Matter of fact, the reason they were even out risking their lives  in the hunt was because the next day marked 20 years of Kahn’s rule. Jade couldn’t think of a better way to honor him.

The piercing squeal of the boar demanded Jade’s attention. Careful not to lose her footing, she sprinted from the base of the branch outward and felt it splinter as she glided toward the thinning wood. Just before the branch buckled under her weight, Jade lept into the air, her arms unfurled. She tensed the muscles in her shoulders just enough to grab hold and swing off of the lowest branch of the adjoining tree, allowing the bed of snow below her to break her fall.

Jade glanced up and was surprised to see Arik still struggling with the boar. He had once slain a boar in 6 seconds. It was cold, she’d give him that. But still, they had been playing this game for years now. Arik would get the first ten seconds to take out the boar, and then it was her turn. But today…he was distracted—panicked even. Jade clicked her tongue as Arik rolled aside just in time for the boar to be leveled by the roots of the tree. It was her turn.

Jade frowned when it stumbled to its feet and she saw its tusks. That had to be at least two feet of ivory death. Usually they were a foot smaller. Nevertheless…

In a single movement, Jade unsheathed her dagger from the strap in her boot, scooped up a decent-sized stone, and chucked it at the wild boar to get its attention. The boar blew out an irritated puff of air.

A smirk played on Jade’s lips as she twirled the knife between her fingers. “Come here, little piggy piggy.”

Not interested in talk, the two charged at each other. But only for a moment.

Just before the boar’s tusks clipped her knees, Jade eased into a front aerial flip over the boar while simultaneously plunging the seven-inch jagged weapon into boar’s neck.

The boar unearthed a strangled cry and a pang of pity rippled through Jade’s heart as it always did. Jade landed on her knees with a satisfying thump. She didn’t bother to gaze behind her at the boar. She knew it was dead. She felt the cut. It was clean.

Jade ran her knife across the snow before sheathing it.  Gazing up and seeing the faraway look in Arik’s eyes, she forced herself to keep the grimace off of her face. She wanted to be concerned, but how much did Arik have to worry about as the son of Elder Kahn?

Jade nodded at the pig. “I’d say a solid two hundred and fifty pounds.”

When Arik finally came back to the planet, he studied the boar for a moment, “Uh, yeah.” His eyes flittered elsewhere.

Jade rose slowly, studying Arik’s face. Surely he had something more to say about that. Arik knew these hogs better than anyone. He’d been hunting them since he was four. That boar was no less than 300 pounds and he knew it, and he rarely passed up an opportunity to brag about the fact.

Jade plopped down in the snow. She killed the piggy and therefore refused to carry it, even though she was sure that Arik would need help.

Arik looked at her warily but didn’t speak.

“Trouble in paradise?” Jade finally asked. She tried to sound genuine, and she sounded genuine enough, but Arik knew better. The mock that hinted at her tone was undeniable and frankly, she didn’t care in the least. They teased each other all the time. What she did care about, however, was the fact that he wasn’t teasing her back.

Arik settled in the snow next to Jade but didn’t make eye contact, didn’t speak.

Jade squinted her eyes at Arik but allowed the silence to linger. She had a hard time deciphering the cocktail of emotions on his face. All she could distinguish was worry and sweat.

Jade sighed. “Worry does not look good on you, my friend.”

Arik leaned forward and rested his chin on his fists. “Jade, my father is sick.”

Jade felt her heart drop, and she sucked in a sharp breath, her hand shooting out to grab a handful of snow in hope that it would numb her nerves. Arik’s father was just as much her father as he was a father to the Kaciot people.

Jade stared at the creek, afraid to ask anything else but even more afraid of not knowing.

“How bad is it?” Jade asked finally.

“Mazel’s poison.” Arik said through gritted teeth.

Jade let out a low whistle. “Somebody does not like your father.”

“You’ve heard of it then?”

Jade raised an eyebrow at Arik. Sure, mazel was old, but she would think that Arik would know of the Mazel Massacre that occurred a little over a century ago. It was a silent killer at first, but before long, it wiped out a third of the Kaciot population.

Arik turned to Jade. She felt his gaze but kept her eyes on the creek.

“The elders aren’t sure what’ll happen to him, Jade.” Arik’s voice didn’t so much as waver. “Will my father live?”

Jade clenched her jaw, her head slightly rocking from side to side. How in the world would she know? The last thing she wanted to do was give him false hope. Lifting him up with hope just to be crushed again?

“Jade,” he repeated, this time his voice cracked.

“I don’t know anything for sure, but there may an antidote-cure-thingie.”

Arik shot to his feet. “Well, what are we waiting for? We have to tell somebody.”

“It’s in a kingdom outside of the mountains.” Jade tried to remember exactly where, but nothing was coming to her.

“My father would never let me leave.”

Jade waved her hand. “Then he can send one of his soldiers to get it.”

Arik paced, his footprints mixing in the snow. “I don’t trust them with my father’s life.”

“Hmm.Well then, it’s gotta be you.” Jade was talking about it like it was simple though she knew it wasn’t. The news of Kahn being sick had her mind spinning, but she had to stay grounded for Arik’s sake.

“I guess you’re right,” He said quietly.

The two locked eyes for a moment. “Well,” Jade said, “what have you got to lose?”


By F. Rendles

Chapter 6

It was an impossible task.  A task that would likely end, if not begin, with her death.  That is what she had been told.  Sand swirled around her in currents.  The storm was strong- stronger still as she crested each hill.

Easing her camel to a stop at the ridge of a hill, Athadius pulled out her map and compass. A sudden gust of wind flashed by her and ripped the map out of her steady hands.  “By the scorching sun, there had to be a sandstorm today of all days!” she murmured to her camel. Then she shrugged.  The map was of no use anyway.  Sand whipped and whirled all around her, making it impossible for her to see more than twenty feet in front of her, much less landmarks or the sun.  Pulling her turban down for a moment, she allowed the sand to lash against her face.  Invading her nostrils, stinging her cheeks, and pelting against her lips. She changed the direction her camel was heading, licked her lips, spit, and pulled her turban back up.  It was a trick her father taught her.  Your face has the most sensitive skin, so is the best area to tell which direction the sand is coming from.  And since everyone knows wind always blows from the Heart of the desert, as long as you knew where you were and where you were going (and her father had made sure she always did), you could tell your direction by the sand that was so kindly whipping itself into your face.

Letting her shoulders sag for a moment, she closed her eyes against the desert storm and pulled her cloak tighter.  There, in the middle of the year’s worst sandstorm, Athadius wept.  Her camel plodded along beneath her, rocking her back and forth like her father had when she was young and the storms raging outside frightened her.

“Don’t worry, my darling Ath,” he would say, “the storm can’t harm you.” Then he would peer down into her dark eyes and smile, “Today you are wrapped in my arms, but one day you will learn that the desert itself is protection.”

Feeling her camel clomp to a halt beneath her, Athadius opened her eyes, about to urge the stubborn animal back into the journey, when she saw what lay before her.  Wiping the tears from her eyes she said, “I guess this is it.”

She dismounted, slipped her satchel, water pouch, and a coil of rope off the camel and then slapped him hard on his rear, shouting at him to ‘go home!’  Camels were sturdy animals and could always find their ways back home, so she did not even spare a thought to worry over him.  She did worry for a moment that maybe she should have tied him up for her to ride after, but she quickly dismissed that thought as well.  Either she would die, and therefore not need a camel, or she would survive what lay below and be rewarded. Rewarded with what, she had no idea, but she hoped it would make a camel useless.

Straightening her shoulders, Athadius looked at what lay before her.  She stood on the brink of a large cone shaped basin, whose sandy slopes spiraled down until it met with a small, round well bordered by a short stone wall that then dropped off into darkness.

“The Heart of the Desert,” she muttered under her breath.

She took one step down the sandy slope, before her feet slipped out from beneath her and she found herself sliding down the basin at an alarmingly fast rate.  Peering down past her feet, she watched with wide eyes as she slid closer to the edge of the well.  Bracing herself to feel the impact of her feet slamming against the stone side of the well, Athadius closed her eyes.  But the full impact never came, instead she found herself falling, or perhaps being sucked, through the well’s stone walls and down, down, down- into the Heart of the Desert.


By R. Shinnick

 

Chapter 7

Alya was lost and terrified. Being frightened was not a new experience for her. Not since the Kirottu Kaulakoru, as her glowing necklace was called. There was not a moment in the day now when Alya was not scared. She herself had begun to think the name was accurate. The Cursed Necklace. That is exactly what it felt like. Always she felt scared. But no reason ever occurred for her fright. But this time, it was different. She was not simply scared; she was absolutely petrified. And this time, she knew why: she felt hunted. She ran through the crowded streets, searching for her parents.

“Äiti! Isä!” Her frantic call was lost in the busy streets, and no answer returned. Alya stopped. Suddenly, she had the terrible feeling that someone was watching her. She spun around. Only the downcast eyes of passing strangers met her gaze. No one looked at her. Once it had been rumored that the girl with the Kirottu Kaulakoru had poison in her eyes, no one but Alya’s parents would look her in the eye.

***

Era and Miku were looking through the crowd, asking, searching, but no one would help them. As soon as their daughter had disappeared, a terrible sense of horror had come on them. Era looked at her husband desperately.

“Miku, we have to find her.”

Suddenly a piercing scream rang through the air. Everybody turned.

“No, you fool!” shouted an angry voice. It belonged to a large man in black. His partner was holding a girl by the arm, a knife pointed at her neck. She struggled in vain to get free. “He said gold and blue, not silver and blue!” continued the first.        

The second man grunted, then pressed the knife point closer to the girl’s neck. Everyone gasped as she groaned in pain and a bright red droplet of blood rolled down her neck.  “Bring us the girl with the gold and blue necklace, or this one dies!” shouted the man, breaking the silence.     

The whispers began to spread through the crowd.

“Gold and blue? Isn’t that the color of the Kirottu Kaulakoru?”         

“No, that wasn’t blue, was it?”

“It was!”                   

Alya began to run. She dodged around the people. But it was too late. In one swift motion, she was caught up and captured. The man with the knife was holding her by the arm. The knife was at her neck instantly, pressing into her skin. “This is her!” He shouted. He swiped the knife at her neck, scoring a long gash. Alya’s Kaulakoru slipped off her neck into the man’s hand          

“No!” Miku dashed forward in the crowd to save his daughter, but it was too late.

One minute, there was Alya, blood running down her empty neck, the next minute she was gone. Everyone gasped. Yes, the girl was said to be cursed, but no one, NO ONE ever had their Kaulakoru cut. The now angry crowd turned furiously on the men, but just like Alya, they had vanished.

As soon as the man cut Alya’s Kaulakoru, she fell like a rock. She spun randomly about as she fell, screaming in terror as she plunged to the unknown land beneath her. Between the force of impact as she fell and the pain from her neck, Alya fainted.

***

The two men knelt before the hooded tyrant. “Sire,” said the first, “it has been done.”
“Good,” came the muffled reply, as the man in the mask turned toward them. “Now get the others.”


By A. Choi

 

Chapter 8

Gwen groaned as her horse came to a stop after days of traveling. The castle of Rhydderch stood before her in all of its glory. Trees framed the picture of the stone castle that seemed almost too big for comfort. The maroon colored flags that were scattered throughout the grounds fluttered and danced through the wind as the sound of rustling leaves sounded through the air. Gwen would usually stop for a moment, stunned by the magnificent sight, but this visit changed her view on the castle completely. A place that she usually thought of with sweet summer memories now seemed more like an enormous cage.

Gwen’s thoughts were interrupted when a voice she was well acquainted with, against her wishes, yelled in their direction. She made eye contact with Lairelithoniel and the two of them let out a synchronized groan. That stupid prince was already demanding something from both of them. Gwen couldn’t stop her eyes from doing her signature eye roll, the same that the prince told her on many occasions that he loathed.

“If I see you do that blasted motion one more time, you won’t have any eyes left to roll,” Kernan said, with his own characteristic look of entitlement and disgust.

“Is that a promise? I’d love to be rid of seeing that face of yours every day… Come to think of it, they might fall out just from the mere act of seeing you at all times.” Gwen felt it: she had gotten to him. She looked into his brown eyes. They were very similar to hers, and it haunted her every time she thought of it. Gwen had always poked fun of it, saying at the birth he begged the Lord for the eyes of the smartest girl he’d seen. She rolled her eyes one more time for extra measure, making sure to exaggerate the motion as much as possible. The boy two years her junior straightened his posture and took a short breath, as if gathering ammunition for battle. He planned to fight back.

“You think you’re clever with your words?” he said, scoffing at her. “You hid behind them like a babe hides behind a mother. You think you’re so clever. I know you’re really just scared of me. ‘Fear is a leader’s finest tool.’ The king has told me, and so it is the truth. Attack me all you wish… I have much stronger allies on my side than words,” Kernan wheezed out. His face was the bright red color it usually turned when someone didn’t comply to his every will. Gwen laughed at the thought of being scared of Kernan. He was completely delusional.

“Words are much stronger than a person of your wits could make out. I wouldn’t expect a prince,” she said with a mocking tone, “to understand the subtleties of a language he uses only to order people about,” Gwen finished. The prince cleared his throat.

“I’ve become annoyed at talking to common folk,” he said, briskly turning his back to Gwen and walking towards his future bride. “I think it should be proper for you to hire a new lady in waiting after the wedding… dear.” He swallowed the pet name with a gulp of disgust. Walking over to the princess, he put an unloving hand on her shoulder. Stepping even closer, he whispered something in her ear. Lairelithonniel pulled away with her own look of disgust plastered on her usually charming face.

“No, I will have Gwen by my side,” Lairelithoniel spoke out in a quiet tone.

Gwen saw the fear in her eyes. Whatever that prince had whispered, it was no pet name. It was a threat.

“Or she won’t be by YOUR side at all,” Gwen finished with a flourish.

In that moment, a princess and a common girl locked eyes. Lairelithoniel’s soft blue eyes crashed across Gwen’s brown. They were both scared.

“Gwendlyn,” the prince started as they were only steps away from the castle, “leave us.”

“No.”

“You will, or you will suffer. I will-” Kernan looked like a child having a tantrum. The prince was in such a state of rage as this point, that he didn’t realize his mother, the queen, coming up behind him. He was still unaware when he yelled at Gwendlyn with a spark of anger behind his eyes.

“You are nothing! Don’t ever say no to me!” he said, pushing Gwen to the ground. Back slamming against the dirt, Gwen couldn’t help but think how it would be an amazing time for the queen to emerge from the shadows.

“Stop,” Queen Rhiannon said right on queue, in a strong voice that rung through the forest, calmly forcing everyone to listen. She held herself with the sort of authority that was quietly steadfast. She faced the situation as not only the prince’s queen, but also as his mother. Gwen looked up from where she lay on the dirt and the prince suddenly stilled.

“Stand up. Both of you,” the queen demanded, looking softly over at Gwen. Just as Gwen was getting back to her feet, Kernan walked over to his mother.

“Mother, I was handling the situation fine on my own,” Kernan said, pride seeping through his voice. “I needed to teach her respect!”

He paused to brush some of the mud off his finery. Gwen could see him avoiding the queen’s eyes, knowing all too well the look being thrust on him. He squirmed a few seconds more, darting his eyes to anything but his mother. Gwendlyn could feel his anxiety radiating off him. Before she knew it, her heart was beating a thousand times a second. Why was she feeling anxious? Gwen opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She felt she was being tied up with a rope that was looped around her neck, hanging her in emotions that weren’t even her own. Gwen turned to Lairelithoniel and saw the princess standing there, frozen. Lairelithoniel stood with her light eyes brimming over in tears. Gwen could feel the fear that consumed the princess rush over her all at once. She looked up to Queen Rhiannon and forced the feeling of helplessness through her eyes, hoping the queen would understand. The queen nodded in her direction, giving her a knowing glance.

“Kernan! Go. Now.” The queen spoke in a low whisper, her eyes never leaving Kernan’s. Gwen wondered if she had ever seen a look so intense. Gwendlyn glanced over at Kernan; he was shooting back his own look right back at his mother. The prince’s eyes were filled with the confusion of a boy thrust into the world of ruling without a choice. His eyes were filled with so many things, but he felt even more. Gwen could feel all his pride, rage, confusion, ignorance, and fear rolled into one. He was afraid too.

“Mother-” Kernan started, but he was hushed by the queen.

“Go. Now.” She took one step into the castle pulling him along with her.

“We will talk of this later. Leave these girls be. I did not raise you to be like this.”

The prince trudged out with his head hanging and his steps ringing with anger. Once out of sight, Lairelithoniel and Gwen let out a sigh of relief. There was a moment of silence between the three women… The sort of silence that falls after a storm. All was calm.

“Well, hasn’t he grown! Is he out of diapers now? He is just the spitting image of his father.” Gwen couldn’t help but comment. Gwen let out a ring of nervous laughter, glancing over at the blank stare of the queen.

“Sorry… I can’t help it. I, uh, have a problem speaking my mind. Everything just seemed too quiet,” Gwen looked back again, her eyes found yet more blank and hopeless stares. One more second passed and just as Gwen was turning around to leave, she heard a chortle and sob mixed together. Gwen whipped back around looking for the source of the noise. What she saw both amazed and startled her. Queen Rhiannon bent over in a mix of laughter and tears, clutching her stomach. Lairelitoniel soon joined in with this odd mixture of emotions… and soon everyone was in a state of hugging and laughing, tears stinging their eyes. The tears were a reminder of the past and the laughter was their hope for the future. In that moment, a princess and a queen joined a girl in a fit of senseless laughter. They stood like that for a few minutes, not even knowing what made them laugh, but glad to fight away the sadness for just a moment. Joy washed away the fear, and titles slipped away at the sound of happiness. What were they happy about? Gwen didn’t have the slightest clue, but it didn’t matter. The queen started to recover from her fits as she smoothed her dress down and wiped her eyes. She mumbled something to Lairelitoniel and the princess silently left with a graceful nod and a swish of her skirt. Suddenly unaware of what to do, Gwen started turning to leave when a small hand touched her own.

“Yes, my lady?” Gwen asked in a whisper. The queen rushed towards Gwen and pulled her into a warm embrace… her tears lightly wetting Gwen’s dress. Gwen held her there, unsure of what to say, or do. This was the second time words had failed her in one day, Gwen realized. Before she could think much on this the queen pulled back. She looked into Gwen’s eyes, pausing as if thinking about what to say.

“Gwen, I am your mother.”


By E. Crowther

 

Chapter 9

Ama tried to peer into the storm, but the winds lashed the rain against her face, making it nearly impossible to see. She gave up and shut the back door. She didn’t normally worry about her granddaughter, but this was the worst storm she had seen in several years, and Lynn had gone out on a walk two hours ago.

Just as she was getting ready to find Dato and go out looking, the back door opened and Lynn walked in, dripping wet.

Ama heaved a sigh of relief before rushing over. “Lynn, you had me worried sick!”

Lynn smiled — the weary, gentle smile that always concerned Ama and Dato. “I’m sorry, Ama. I just wanted to clear my head.”

“But you should have come back when the storm came up! It’s dangerous!”

“I’m fine,” Lynn reassured her. “It was only a little rain.” She walked towards her room, stopping at her door to say, “I think I’m going to rest a little, Ama. I’ll be out before dinner.”

Once in her room Lynn sat down on her bed and pulled her long hair over one shoulder. No matter the thunder and lightning, the rain outside had felt warm and friendly. Now that she was inside, however, her wet hair felt cold and damp against her skin. She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair, drawing the water out into her hand until her hair was dry again. She shaped the water into a round ball with practiced hands, as if she was a potter and the water was her clay.

Lynn sat there for several minutes, staring at the water in her hand silently, no expression on her face until a sudden burst of emotion made her clench her fist around the sphere. The water splattered across her floor as she turned and collapsed onto her bed. The storm raged on outside as she lay there, her face buried in her pillow.

Half an hour later Lynn exited her room. She could hear her grandmother in the kitchen, bustling around, but she didn’t want to have to answer Ama’s questions. There wasn’t anything to tell — Lynn had just had a bad day, that’s all. Just one of those days when you wake up and don’t want to get out of bed; one of those days when you feel angry and sad and depressed for no apparent reason. Everyone has those days, don’t they? Even people who are… different.

Lynn went off to find Dato instead. He met her in the hallway, pipe in hand. “I’m going to sit on the porch. Join me?” Lynn nodded and followed him out.

The storm had calmed, leaving behind a tossing ocean and a world dripping with water. Dato and Lynn sat quietly in the rocking chairs, Lynn looking at the sea, Dato smoking his pipe and watching his granddaughter. He saw more than Lynn thought he did, and he knew some of what she felt. But she had never opened up about her feelings, or sought the comfort he was ready to give. And he hadn’t pushed her. But he felt he had to say something.

Finally, Dato took the pipe out of his mouth and said, “You are strong, Lynn, stronger than you know.”

Lynn responded without looking at him, a trace of bitterness in her voice. “You mean me, or my powers?”

Dato tried not to react — this was the first time Lynn had voluntarily spoken of her powers since her mother had left. He shrugged casually instead. “Both. And I prefer to call it a gift.”

Lynn didn’t answer.

Dato hesitated, and then said, “Tears are not always meant to be held back.”

Lynn looked up, shocked. Was that a chance phrase, or did Dato know how she had made the decision as a child to stop her tears? To never show her pain and to never make more trouble for her grandparents? The sympathy and love evident on his face made her think he did indeed know. She suddenly felt tears forming in her eyes. Dato’s kindness seemed to be the tipping point for her tumultuous emotions. Automatically she stopped her tears, but the lump in her throat did not go away.

“Dato, I’m sorry, I just –” Her voice cracked a little and she stopped.

“Sometimes it’s good to open up,” Dato continued in the pause.  “We would never see the beauty of a flower if it kept itself closed off.”

Lynn stayed quiet for a moment, pondering her grandfather’s statement. When she looked up again, her gaze was steady and her face calmed. “Thank you, Dato,” she said seriously.

Proud of his success, Dato plowed on enthusiastically, gesturing with his pipe and speaking with half-closed eyes. “Tears are… dew drops, rolling down the stem of our life as we dig down to the depth of our roots.”

Lynn laughed now. “What does that even mean?”

Dato laughed too. “It means I’m hungry and it’s time for dinner.” He stood up and walked to the door, but turned back to say one last thing. “Kaimana Lynn, remember that you are never alone.”

Lynn stayed outside a little longer, chin in her hands, looking out over the ocean. Things looked almost the same as they had this morning — the sky dark and ominous, the waves rough and turbulent. But somehow, the world seemed a little brighter, things seemed a little better.


By M. Choi

 

Chapter 10

She didn’t mind.

Jade closed her eyes as the last drops of lentil bean soup burned down her throat. She lowered the cup from her lips but didn’t let it go , allowing it’s lingering warmth to seep into her fingertips.

She stared at the empty wooden bowl. She would have preferred the boar she’d slain. However…complicating circumstances had arose and the what she was looking forward to all day would have to wait for another chance. For another pig.

Someone had made a second attempt on the King Kahn’s life. That meant the second time in a week. They caught the guy waiting in the king’s chambers with a knife. Grant it, that was bad but in an odd way she was relieved. God forbid they believe that she was the one who tried to kill him.

They already had her father in the Kaciot dungeon. The king’s personal cook and childhood friend. Convicted of conspiracy to kill. As if her father had the resources to get his hands on a mazel plant.

Jade didn’t believe it for a second and she wanted to say that the king didn’t either. On a typical day she would be sitting around the table with some of the most irritating people on the planet. But they were her family. The attacks on the king’s life had rearrange the world Jade lived in.

As soon as Arik and Jade returned from their little hunt the day before the king’s 20 year reign anniversary a pair of burly men came and took Jade spit venoming at her and claiming she was the daughter of a traitor. Arik stood by as Jade was dragged to a little compound on the outskirts of the mountains.

“Temporary living quarters.” That’s what they called it. A logbox -that’s what she called it

Jade dreaded the distraught expression that would be on her mother’s face when she opened the door. That was at least what Jade assumed until she forced open the heavy plank of wood to find no one else there.

A table, a kitchen, living room, fireplace. She was sure they spared no expense on the young girl who was close friends with the son of the king. Jade had no doubt that the logbox had eveything. Yet…without the people she loved, it was nothing.

Alone.

Still feeling empty, Jade pushed herself away from the table. Fresh air would always do the trick. She braced herself for the cold before stepping out of the back door. The icy wind slapped Jade across the face and against her better judgement was convinced that it was personal.

Jade climbed to the roof of the logbox. Climbing meant escape, and right now that’s all she wanted to do. Whatever she had to do to not allow herself to feel.

The lights of the city intermingled with the trees. They were blue to contrast the pale snow. The older houses were high off the ground. Now the citizens of Kaciot were becoming accustomed to being low to the ground so the buildings were being constructed at ground level. Jade’s mother said the city planners called it evolving. Jade didn’t care what they called it. She called it unnecessary. Jade preferred to be higher. To be safer. To have the advantage.

Worry melted from her mind as the sunlight embraced her, sliding onto her face a second skin. In that moment nothing mattered. Needless to say, moments are just that. Moments.

Jade nearly fell off the roof at the sound of a knock on the door. She peered over the roof and her eyes narrowed.

It was Arik.

Jade felt something she hadn’t felt in a while. Relief. Finally some good news. Or at least hopefully some good company.

She hung off the roof before dropping down in front of him.

He didn’t looked the slightest bit surprised.

Jade raised her eyebrows now that she and Arik were face to face. His eyes were bloodshot and glazed over with worry. There were enough bags under his eyes to feed the Kaciot people for a week.

Everything hadn’t just changed around them. Something had changed between them. Sure they had been at odds before. But this tension was deeper than disagreement. This was distrust. In that moment, Jade did something she had never done before. She pitied him. She truly pitied the son of the king.

“Leaving  so soon?” Jade asked, her eyes glued to where his arm hung limp by his side. He was clutching a worn backpack was obviously stuffed beyond its capacity. Her heart dropped as her mind went back to the conversation the two of them had earlier that week.

Arik let the bag fall from his fingers. He looked away and took a deep breath as if he has rehearsed this moment a million times. “No.” The chill in his voice caught Jade off guard. “You are.”


By F. Rendels

 

Chapter 11

Awakening to a splitting headache, Athadius squinted to try and decipher the sight before her.  The moon was bright and yellow in the night sky and was shrinking—no, it was disappearing!  Shaking her head, she realized where she was and leapt to her feet, an action done too hastily, thus sending white sparks into the darkness around her.  She pushed through the dizziness to regain her focus just in time to see the well’s opening close, and utter darkness consume the very air around her.  

“Ever onward,” she said to the darkness, her tone thick with sarcasm.

Finding that her satchel had remained on her, she reached in and pulled out some of a special flint she had brought.  Grating the two rocks together, she let loose a small burst of sparks that lingered and began to grow even in the air.  Under their glow, she took in her surroundings.

Her breathing began to come in labored gasps, as her deathly pale hand clamped over her mouth.  The flint-sparks had faded and her feet remained unmoved, but the horror of what she had seen imprinted in her brain, so that the darkness offered no comfort.

When the dread had begun to fade, Athadius kicked herself for wasting the flint so, but when she sparked the flint again, the light fell on the still and recognizable figures of her Sanhildin brothers, and it took all of her well trained grit to step over their bodies and retrieve a touch that hung on the wall.

Lighting it quickly, Athadius began to hurry down the tunnel.  Away from the bodies.  Away from the memories gone death cold.  Then she stopped.  Her father’s voice echoed in her head, “Never rush on until you have observed all there is to see.  Knowledge is a warrior’s most valuable weapon.”

The torch burned steadily in her right hand, flickering in whooshing breaths through the air beneath the desert.   It was too much.  Facing it was too much.

She turned on her heel, her face showing no more emotion than the night sky, and walked back into a large round room.

The ceiling rose upward and narrowed until it disappeared in the darkness.  On the floor lay five dead men, and if the red cloaks had not given away the fact that they were her brothers, their faces did.  They lay fallen in various positions, and upon further inspection she found that at least three had died by sword.  The other two, she could not tell, but did not care to turn over their bodies to find out.  Picking up her coil of rope and water pouch, which she had hastily forgotten before, Athadius took in every detail of the room; the footprints on the ground, the stray turban, the seven torch holders hanging on the wall that now lay empty, but her gaze once again fell on her five fallen brothers.

Memories flooded her brain, causing an ambush of emotions to come rolling through her chest.  They had grown up together.  They had trained together.  They had laughed together.  She bit the inside of her cheek.

They were warriors.  She was a warrior.  A warrior with a mission to reach The Heart of the Desert.  She faced the dark void of a tunnel, and putting the fallen warriors at her back, she began once again to head down the tunnel.

What had happened to them?  Had they been attacked?  But then who had the attackers been?  The possibility of them fighting among themselves never even entered her brain.  They were a family, and entering the heart of the desert, though a dangerous journey, was something they would do together.  While they all knew that the odds of even more than one of them surviving were near impossible, that fact never lessened the hope.  But then who attacked them?

When another body entered into her sphere of torch, she did not even hold back the shiver that crept down her spine and through her fingers.  She was almost relieved when she found that he had died by a trap and not by some mysterious murderer, though the sight was more gruesome for it.  He had been impaled by a large spear thrust up from the ground.  Taking a step closer, she found that he was not the only one.  The floor, she realized.  Step in the wrong palce and you would be impaled.   

Following a path marked by the stray sandal or helmet, Athadius walked in her brother’s footsteps.  Her gaze moved quickly over the bodies, just enough to make sure they wore red and not some other foreign color, not enough to recognize their faces.   They were just warriors.

The torch burned at her side as she continued down the tunnel.  The obstacles that followed were all but expected.  Everyone knew that the journey into the Heart of the Dessert was the chief of all challenges.  Legends say that it was created by the winds themselves, wanting to pose a challenge to man, to see what he was worth.

Athadius faced pits of vipers she had to cross (place your torch in a snake’s face and they will clear a pretty path for you), doors locked by puzzles (the answer is always simpler than you expect), and huge depths to pass over with only small stepping stones rising up at scary distances from each other (all that is needed there is balance, light feet, and some good leaps), along with the occasional stray arrow whizzing through the air to keep you on your toes (when you hear it coming, duck!).

Through it all, she kept a sharp eye on her surroundings… and counted bodies.  She was at thirteen when she stepped through a doorway and into a round, stone room.  The count went to twenty.  A stone rolled behind her, closing off any exit.  And then water began flooding in.  She stared at the room.  Water began to slosh at her feet.

“Ever onward,” she said, daring her voice to tremble.  It did not.


By R. Shinnick

 

Chapter 12

Caden entered the small hut, immediately walking to his make-shift bookshelf. It was made out of a hollowed out tree trunk, which was bursting full of any books he could get his hands on. The one he was looking for now was a book on flowers. He pulled it out of the shelf carefully and began flipping through the pages as he walked to the table.

“Aha!” he cried triumphantly, when he found the correct flower. His eyes narrowed as he looked at its name. “Coreopsis verticillata… Very common. Easy to grow…” he sighed, closing the book and leaning back in his chair. “Fine. You win. I gotta hand it to you, you really got me this time,” he muttered to no one. He lowered the legs to his chair and placed the book back into its place.

“Well, gotta get to work. The Inori won’t harvest itself.”

He brushed his hair off his face, but the dirty blonde locks simply fell back, refusing to follow his wishes. He walked briskly out of the hut, not bothering to stop and lock the door, for there was simply no one around to lock it from. The large, strong oak trees that formed the forest around his hut waved gently in the wind, as though they were greeting the young man. Caden made his way through the forest to his Inori plants. The Inori was a very useful plant, as it could be used for many things. This made the demand for it high, which made being an Inori harvester an excellent profession. Now that Caden had come of age, his grandfather’s Inori fields could be officially passed on into his care. His grandfather had died many years before, but for reasons of law, Caden could not technically own the fields himself until he came of age.

Caden knelt down to check his plants. The yellow and purple plant was now about 8 inches high. By the time it was ready to harvest, it would be a foot. Caden walked along the rows of Inori, checking on wilting plants, feeling to see if the larger ones were ready, and harvesting the ripe fruit. The hard shelled fruits were really quite soft on the inside, after you had cracked them open, and the hard shells were as useful as the fruit itself.

Caden sat back on his heal after picking yet another ripe fruit. He wiped the sweat off his brow. Inori harvesting wasn’t that tiring, but the hot noon sun could still reach him, even through the leaves of the trees. As scanned the horizon absentmindedly, his keen blue eyes noticed a dark object far away. His curiosity was instantly pricked. He rose to feet, groaning slightly as his tired legs adjusted to weight on them. As soon as they were back to normal, he set off on a jog toward the object. He reached it quickly -his long legs saw to that- but when he did, he froze.

On the ground in front of him, unconsious, was a girl. She was a stranger to him, which meant she was not from nearby. (As an Inori harvester and seller, Caden knew almost everybody.) On her neck was a gash, which seemed to have been bleeding quite a lot. The blood had mostly scabbed over now, but it had already soaked the front of her white tunic. The olive green leggings were torn and dirty. Caden didn’t know how she had come there, but he did know she was in trouble. Squatting down beside her, Caden scooped her gently up in his strong arms. Being careful of her injured neck, he strode quickly back to his hut. By the time he reached it, his arms were tired and aching, and his pace had slowed considerably. He laid the girl on his bed.

Retrieving a cloth and warm water, he began to clean the wound. First he cleaned blood that had dripped down, then he tried to clean it out of her long hair. Next, Caden began to clean the cut itself. It was a tedious business, but eventually it was done, and he bandaged it carefully. The only thing to do now, was wait.

When the girl finally awoke, Caden was at a loss for what to do. “Er…” he began awkwardly. “My name’s Caden.” The girl scrambled backward a few feet, then stopped and the tears rolled down her cheek as she put a hand to her neck.

“It’ll hurt for awhile, but it’ll heal,” he continued. “But you don’t have to be afraid of me. I won’t hurt you.”

She had covered her face with her hands, but her green eyes continued to stare intently at Caden, the fear plain in them. Then they darted over to the open door. She put one hand on the ground and tried to stand up, obviously trying to run out the door. For an instant she half stood up, then, with a squeal, she fell back down onto the bed, whimpering. Her eyes closed tightly, and Caden could see the tears squeezing out of them. Caden watched her helplessly. Finally, through tears and whimpers, she fell asleep. Caden looked at her, his eyebrows furrowed.

“I’m in over my head,” he said quietly, standing up. “You stay here,” he told the sleeping girl. “I’m going to get Dato and Ama.”


By A. Choi

 

Chapter 13

“Gwen, I am your mother.”

Gwendlyn paused, taking a step back.Had she heard correctly? The woman she had seen every summer since her eighth year was her mother? This had to be some joke that Kernan persuaded her to tell. Gwen scoffed at the idea of it all, her eyes glistening with silent laughter.  

“Very funny,” Gwen managed to blab through her now very evident state of heiving hilarity. “That was a good one! Have you ever dabbled in the art of acting? I feel you would be great at it. My lady, you looked so convincing!”

“Gwendlyn, this is the truth. I would never lie to you. I am your mother.”

“Still such a comedian at heart, I see!” This woman really should try her hand at acting, Gwen thought. Her eyes were very convincing and looked as if they spoke nothing but the truth. Gwen was utterly amazed. No one ever fooled her into falling for lies. She usually saw right through them. Gwen pushed this aside, telling herself she had surrounded herself with horrid liars.  It was a genius prank, she had to give Kernan that. That dumb little cow finally thought of something almost good enough to stump her! He really was making his way out of diapers now.

“You can let the act fall now. Tell Kernan that I found this one almost clever! Well, this was fun, but I’m afraid I have other things to attend to. I only wish your claims were true, maybe then I wouldn’t have to scurry away to the kitchens to clean everything in sight. Alas, we can’t all be born royal. Goodbye!” Gwen went to leave yet again, but the queen wrapped her arms around Gwen’s arm. This woman was truly persistent.

“Gwendlyn, look at  me. You cannot hide from the truth forever.”

Gwen did as she was told and took a closer look Queen Rhiannon. Why was she still holding up the performance? Why was everything pointing towards the truth? Could this be so?

No.

It couldn’t possibly be so. How could she be a queen’s daughter? Gwen grew up knowing she was no one. Her parents were never mentioned; just how she would never be mentioned after she was no longer living, or even when she was for that matter. She wasn’t to be seen or heard. She was meant to fall in her princess’s shadows. Gwen was meant to fall into every one’s shadow. She decided long ago she would not stand for this. She always tried her hardest to be heard in a crowd… no matter how much trouble it got her in.

“Gwen, I know you can see it. Please listen to your instincts, I would never lie to you,” the queen said with pleading eyes, stepping towards Gwen.

Gwen’s instincts were screaming at her. It all came crashing around her at once. Gwen could not process it all. Did the queen expect her to take this all with a smile, and fall lovingly into her arms? How could this happen? The queen must have known all those years. All the years of blind servitude. Why did she even bother to tell her now? So many questions poured around Gwen all at once. She was fuming.

Gwen did the thing she knew how to do with blind certainty.

She spoke.

“You would never lie to me? Never lie?” Gwen took a shaky breath. She could not hold back her anger. Words shot out of her mouth with a new found vigor and harshness. Gwen’s sharp speech shot out of her mouth like a weapon.

“If I am indeed your daughter, as you keep saying, why have you just decided to tell me? You saw me grow up here, you must have known I was your daughter. What were all those years of visits, if not lies? Have you known all this time? Is that why you were so nice, I–” Gwen stopped, looking into her mother’s face.  “Don’t lie to me. I hate lies, and I’ve now realized my life has been one.”

Silence rippled through Gwen and chilled her from the inside out. Gwen met eyes with the queen, her mother. What Gwen saw made her pause, tilting her head at the sight at what was written on her brow. Regret was written as clear as black ink sprawled across white parchment. Gwen was momentarily overcome by the emotion. She fought it back. She had much more to do than feel bad for this women she barely knew.

“I’m listening.” Gwen paused for a moment giving her a chance to cut in. “I see I did not get my affinity for conversation from you then.” Irony spilled through her voice. There was another pause. “Yes?” Yet another pause sang through the air. “I see. I get no explanation whatsoever, that’s great! Swell! It’s not like you suddenly told me I’m your daughter, or anything!”

“Gwen-” Queen Rhiannon whispered tears still clinging to her eyes.

“Yes? Now, let me guess, ‘I love you, you were stolen at birth and I suddenly realized you were my kid.’ Or maybe you will go with, ‘You magically flew away at the ripe young age of 2 weeks old!’

“Gwendlyn, this is not as simple as what you may think… or say for that matter,” the queenly mother said in her all too queenly tone.

“Well, maybe I’ll never know how, ‘not simple’, it is if you never speak up and tell me, Mother Dearest,” Gwen added with her signature sarcasm dripping out of her voice.

“Your father,” the queen began with yet another whisper. Did this women ever speak up for herself? “Your father he-” She paused yet again. It is sad when a serving girl is more outspoken than a queen, Gwen thought.

“Is the king, yes, I know.” Gwen couldn’t help it, she had to add that in.

“You were born a girl-” the queen said with a growing confidence, her back straightening back into her normal queenly state. Sadness still shone in her eyes.

“Yes, I was born a girl! You are so observant my lady!”

Before Gwen could finish her remark, lightning and thunder crashed all around them. Water quickly fell from the sky, pelting them with cold drops of rain. Wind carried the water into a horrid frenzy.

Gwen had found herself caught in more than one storm.

Two warm arms circled around Gwen and sheltered her in a warm embrace. A queen and her daughter clung in the rain. Anger melted into despair. Water flooded on Gwen’s back as sadness flooded into her heart.She stopped hiding, and heaved a sob in her mother’s arms.

Gwen wouldn’t be able to say anything to erase the pain she felt. Hiding had drained her and she shook as tears and rain wet her face. For the first time in Gwen’s life, someone held her through the sorrow. Gwen relished in this moment of silent sadness. The queen had not rushed her to say or do anything. For the first time in her life, Gwen felt loved.

When tears and sobs softly quieted, Queen Rhiannon looked up into her child’s face. She brushed the tears away, but she could not brush the mess she had caused.

“We should get inside, you look cold,” Rhiannon whispered, tightening her arms around her. “Oh, dear! Gwen, you are shaking.” Without a word more, a mother led her child into the walls of a castle. They stood there, still clinging together not wanting to let go. They were both scared that when their arms parted, this moment would fade. Time passed, and eventually all moments pass with time. Queen Rhiannon let go first, stepping back slightly.

“Gwen, I promise I have real explanations for all of this.” The queen shut her eyes and opened them again, and took a quick breath. “There is more I need to tell you.”

Okay,” Gwen replied in a small voice. Her throat was still sore.

“You are… not normal,” the queen managed to say after pausing for what seemed like an eternity.

“Thank you! Would you mind being a little more specific?” Gwen’s voice was starting to allow her to slip back into her old self.

“Gwendlyn, you have the power people would kill for, some are already plotting.”

Gwen stared at the queen with an exhausted look on her face.

“I do not think I heard you correctly, I have… what?” This woman was insane. She was crazy.

“You have a strange gift that needs training. That is where I will come in,” Rhiannon started, pacing in a small circle around Gwen. “Dear, have you noticed that you can…” She stopped pacing for a moment. “Have you noticed you can… discern… Emotions? Do you find it easy to read people’s motives? Do you see the feelings of others written so clearly on their face that you know it is fact. Has this ever let you down?” the queen paused looking at Gwen. She was met with yet another stare.

“Do you need to lie down? You seem a little out of sorts.” Gwen managed to let out with a snort of a laugh.

“Gwendlyn, stop hiding from the truth.” The queen said yet again. Did she collect tax every time she said the phrase, or was she simply partial to repeating herself?

Gwen could feel the queens urgency pour into her. What was going on?

“Are you telling me that I have some… fantastical magic that would be found in a poorly written story scribbled by some full of herself halfwit?” Gwen stopped hoping for a response. Of course there was none.

“Did you ever plan on telling me or, ‘training me’, on any of this before?” Gwen shouted.

She felt as if she did not even know herself anymore. Identity is a fragile thing, and Gwen’s cracked.

“Oh, and did you say, someone is plotting against my death?” the seventeen year old princess finished with a dramatic flair, throwing her arms in the air.

Before the queen could respond, the sound of footsteps echoed through the walls. In that moment Gwen and Queen Rhiannon knew exactly who they belonged to. The king was coming.


By E. Crowther

 

Chapter 14

Lynn wiped the dirt off her hands on a towel and stood back, proudly surveying the product of her hard work. Growing a garden by the seaside wasn’t easy, and there weren’t many plants that could live in the sandy, rocky soil. But Lynn had persevered, trying this plant and that, determined to succeed.

Right now her garden was in full bloom. There were her grandmother’s favorite, the bright yellow, daisy-like flowers called Zagreb. And the Common Bearberry, which was just beginning to produce its pink and white petals, a sign that its delicious red berries would be coming soon. Lynn’s personal favorite, the Bellflowers, were strong and healthy, growing in blooming pinks, blues, and whites. The strange new flowers she had just finished planting, the Giant Alliums, were perfectly sphere-shaped, looking suspiciously like dandelions that had been dyed purple.

All that was left was to water her little garden. No one was around, and so Lynn didn’t bother going to the well to get water. She could sense there was moisture beneath the layer of rocks that made the foundation of her flowerbed. Kneeling down, she placed her hand in the dirt and concentrated, drawing the water up through the ground until it reached the roots of her plants. The soil was just beginning to feel moist when she heard someone calling her name.

Lynn started guiltily and snatched her hand away from the dirt as if she had been burned. She stood up and put her hand over her eyes, shielding them from the morning sun. A tall, brown-haired boy was coming in through the gate, waving his hand at her. Lynn broke into a smile and waved back.

“Good morning, Caden! What brings you here?”

“Oh, I was at the market this morning, so I thought I’d stop by to say hello!” Caden paused as he reached Lynn. “How’s the garden coming along?”

“See for yourself!” Lynn started pointing out the different plants, pleased to show off her little garden. “Did you know that Alliums are actually part of the garlic and onion family?”

Caden cleared his throat self-importantly. “Well, you remember I actually know quite a bit about flowers now.”

Lynn rolled her eyes. “How could I forget.” There was an ongoing competition of sorts between the two, and when Lynn had started her garden, Caden had gone out and bought a book on flowers (it took a month’s wages) so that she wouldn’t know more than he did.

“Let’s see,” Caden said, pointing to the Zagreb, “this must be the othocolobrocco plant. Very rare.”

Lynn laughed. “Those are Coreopsis verticillata, and they’re actually quite ordinary.”

Caden grimaced and opened his mouth to respond, but was prevented by Ama’s voice calling from the front door.

“Caden, is that you? Come in, we’re about to have breakfast!”

Caden pretended to hesitate. “Well, I wouldn’t want to barge in, but…  if you insist.” He started up towards the house eagerly, already able to smell Ama’s delicious cooking.

Lynn followed, saying sweetly, “Oh yes, Caden, come in. We’re having othocolobrocco for breakfast.

He pretended not to hear.

Breakfast passed quickly, filled with laughter and light-hearted teasing. There was no formality or reserve with Caden — he was part of the family. Dato and Ama looked on him as a grandson, and to Lynn he was the older brother she never had.

After the meal was over, Caden reluctantly said his goodbyes. Ama urged Caden to stay longer, but he refused. “I’ve stayed long enough already. Besides, I need to get working on the Inori!” Caden turned and pointed to Lynn as he walked out the door. “But I’m checking my book about that plant of yours.”

The rest of the day drifted by slowly and sleepily. The afternoon found Dato, Ama, and Lynn lounging in the sunroom and yawning one after another. All was quiet and calm.

Suddenly the front door burst opened, the crash making Ama and Lynn jump. A figure appeared in the doorway of the sunroom. It was Caden, panting as if he had just run a long way.

“Caden?” Ama said. “What on earth is the matter?”

      ~~~

Dato, Ama, and Lynn hurried through the forest, trying to keep up with Caden’s long legs.

His little hut came into view and Caden quickened his pace. He paused abruptly at the door, and then looked at Ama.

“Maybe it’d be better if just you went in. I think all of us would only frighten her more.”

Ama nodded, concern written across her face for the poor girl Caden had told them about. “Lynn, you come with me. Perhaps seeing someone her own age will help calm her.”

Lynn nodded and then followed close behind as Ama quietly opened the door and stepped inside. Dato and Caden stayed outside, but watched anxiously through the half open door.

Caden said he had left her asleep on his bed, but she was awake now, sitting with her hands around her knees and huddled against the wall. She had a bloody bandage around her neck, although it was hardly visible through the dark tangled mess of hair that reached down past her waist. Her wide green eyes met Ama’s and Lynn’s gaze.

Silence reigned in the room.

Finally Ama spoke. “Don’t be frightened, dear, we’re here to help.” But the girl flinched at her voice and cringed further away into the corner. She shut her eyes for a moment, as if to shut out everything, and then lifted her gaze to Ama and Lynn. A faint whisper came from her mouth, and Lynn could hardly make out the words. “Please, don’t hurt me.”

Lynn’s heart reached out to the terrified girl, who looked to be only a few years younger than herself. She stepped forward impulsively and said gently, “It’s alright. You’re safe here, you don’t need to be afraid.”

Behind her, Ama drew a sharp intake of breath, but the girl gave a great sigh of relief. Then she winced and brought her hand up to her throat, feeling the bandages. “Did you…?”

Lynn shook her head. “That was Caden.” She pointed to the boy standing in the doorway. He was staring at them, his mouth hanging open. “He found you in the forest and brought you here.”

She paused, uncertain what to say next. She looked to her grandmother for help, but Ama was staring at Lynn as if she’d never seen her before. Lynn turned back to the girl. “I’m Lynn. What’s your name?” She sensed that the girl wouldn’t want to talk about what happened to her yet, so she limited herself to simple questions.  

The girl was quiet for a moment. “Alya,” she said at last.

Lynn smiled reassuringly. “Well, Alya, is there anything you want?”

Alya shuddered a little. “I want to be alone.”

Lynn blinked, but nodded. “Of course. We’ll check on you in a little while.”  She walked towards the door, and Ama followed silently. Dato and Caden moved aside for them to step outside.

Lynn closed the door carefully behind her and then turned around. She froze as she realized Dato and Ama were staring at her. She frowned in confusion, and looked at Caden.

He was gaping at her as well. “How did you– what did you — how?” He stuttered.  

“What’s wrong?” She turned to Ama. “And why didn’t you say anything?”

Ama cleared her throat nervously. “Lynn, dear, I — I couldn’t… You were — she was…”

  Ama turned to Dato helplessly. Lynn looked towards her grandfather as well. “Dato,” she said uneasily, “What is it?”

Dato answered slowly. “We couldn’t understand you or the girl.”

“What do you mean?” Lynn asked, apprehension building in her stomach.

“You were… you were speaking in a different language.”


By M. Choi

 

Chapter 15

Arik and  Jade were inside now, shielded from the elements. Arik would have much rather faced the elements outside than the ones tearing him apart on the inside.

He sat motionless, his eyes fixed on the empty wooden bowl between them. He scrunched his nose, the smell of lentils still lingered in the air.

‘She should be eating the meat from the boar that she killed,’ Arik thought, ‘Jade doesn’t deserve this.’ Arik was at a loss for words as his childhood friend hung off of the table, her body shaking with laughter. Arik sat and waited for Jade to surface back into sanity. He didn’t mind the waiting. His eyes traced her hair, two thick black braided pigtails that just reached her shoulder blades. As Arik breathed in Jade’s fading laughter he noticed the tears in her eyes.

There were tears in his too. He knew that the next time they would be in the same room it would be on less than friendly terms.

When Jade finally sat up and caught Arik’s gaze, she realized two things.

  1. She was losing feeling in one of her toes–yep just one of them. The pinky one for sure.
  2. This was no joke…or at least it wasn’t funny.

Arik had explained it twice already and really wasn’t sure how else to put it. “Jade you have to leave.” Arik said quietly.

“That’s not your decision to make.” She said simply.

The wooden chair scraped along the floor as Arik stood abruptly with his hands on either side of the table. “You think…after all we’ve been through I would choose to send you away? So no, it wasn’t my decision to make! I didn’t have a choice!”

Jade was startled at his sudden outburst of emotion but regained her composure and gritted her teeth, leaning forward until their faces were but inches apart. “You always have a choice.”

Arik blinked and stepped back. “Well, the Council has had no choice but to charge your father with treason. He’s…he’s in line for execution.”

Jade cocked her head, her eyes turning into narrow slits. “What?”

Arik instinctively stiffened, recognizing her tone as one she typically used with animals right before she killed them. He held his hands up. “Hear me out.”

Jade scoffed. “Are you serious?” You didn’t tell those crazies to hear you out when they were dragging me here.”

“I–”

“And who heard you out when my father was thrown in prison?” She hated that her voice was shaking.

“I can help him!”

Jade pinched the bridge of her nose, shaking her head. She choked on the words that caught in her throat. On the flurry of tears that streamed down her face. She was suffocating. Maybe there was something she could’ve done. If only she would’ve stayed home that day. There must’ve have been something she could’ve done. But no, she had been out hunting pigs. Pigs. Surely her father was worth more than that, wasn’t he?

In that moment Arik hated himself. He wanted to wrap her in his arms and tell her that everything was going to be okay. “Jade I know he didn’t do it.”

“Do you now?”

“All you have to do is bring back the cure for the mazel–”

Jade laughed bitterly, “You’re bribing me with my father’s life?”

“I have to start making the tough decisions…I have to start acting like a king!”

Jade crossed her arms and let out a low whistle. “You’re talking like King Kahn is already dead…or he will be soon.”

“Jade.” Arik warned. “Not if you want your father to live.”

“You wouldn’t…” Jade took another look at the person that stood before her. He look as if he had aged 20 years in 20 seconds.

Arik ran a hand through his hair. “Jade I know we were friends.”

“I thought we were family.” Jade lowered her voice, speaking almost to herself.

Arik’s face hardened and he turned up his nose. “Then you thought wrong.”

Jade smiled, “Right, I forgot. If I don’t have a golden crown in my blood, I’m not worth the ground I stand on.”Jade spat.

The silence that ensued was heavy, the air around them dripping with tension.

“I’ll do it,” Jade said through clenched teeth, “For my father.”

Arik held out his hand, “That’s all I ask.”

Just as Jade stretched her hand forward the door flew open nearly breaking off of  its hinges.

The intruder had fiery red hair that was a wild nest on his head. There was a savage look in his eyes that pierced Jade’s soul. Eyes the color of fire.

“Felix?” Jade stepped toward the eight year old. Jade knew him as the son of the head messenger of Kaciot…and incidentally also her cousin.

“Heh som’ fo ya.” He was panting like he had lost a lung.

Two men came barreling through the open door, and instantly Jade recognized them as the men who forced her to come there. “There you are you little devil!”

Jade noticed something by Felix’s side. “Whatcha got there?”

“It’s from Uncle Imago.”

Jade inhaled a sharp breath. “My dad?”

Felix nodded enthusiastically, holding a brown envelope out to her. She noticed a bulge that ran along the bottom. Jade eyed the men by the door, daring them to move, and then inched toward the outstretched envelope. Felix returned Jade’s gaze at the same time her fingertips met the sealed paper.

The goons by the door watched Arik. Arik watched Jade. Jade’s focus was on the  unfolded paper she had removed from the envelope. Jade lifted her eyes from the paper and looked at the only person in the room she didn’t want to impale with a spear. “Are you sure this is from my father?”

Felix nodded, his bottom lip quivering.

Jade looked in the envelope and spotted something. She scooped it out with her finger. A look of utter relief washed over Arik’s face.

It was a stick. Well, not quite a stick. Then something clicked in her mind. She recalled seeing it in her grandfather’s hands before he died.

“You recognize it?” Arik studied Jade’s carefully.

She glared at him. “Of course I recognize it. There are plenty of sticks lying around the forest.”

“Um, what does th-the paper say?”

Jade hesitated and then ripped the message from her father seemingly in half. “Doesn’t matter. It’s blank.” She was surprised at how easy lying came to her.

Save Felix, no one saw Jade purposely drop a single strip of paper to the floor and cover it with her boot. She gave the two halves to Arik and he ran his eyes over the paper. It was indeed blank.

“Prince Arik?” The men by the door had finally caught their breath, “We should go.”

He nodded. “So we have a deal?” Arik gave Jade a meaningful look.

She didn’t bother to meet his eyes. “Yep.”

With a guiding hand on Felix’s back, Arik was the last one out of the door.

“Wait!” Felix broke free and ran toward Jade. She knelt down and allowed herself to be tackled by his tiny torso. She squeezed him tight and felt him slip something into her coat. Jade pushed his hair back and gave him a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Send my love back home.”

He gave a curt nod and left, slamming the door behind him. Jade stared at the closed door and then at the letter Felix had just given her. This one actually had words on it.

When she opened it, she recognized her father’s handwriting:

Jade I’m sorry I must be brief. There isn’t much time. I love you. Never forget that. You must leave as soon as you get this letter no matter what. You have power you can’t imagine. Embrace it. Take what I gave you(it’s not a stick Jade) and keep it close. It will channel your power and help you control it. It’s too dangerous for you here. Follow the directions in the first letter. I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust me.

Love,

Pa

Jade looked up from the letter and stared into the dark abyss of the cold that lay before her. After she read the letter the first time she couldn’t stop crying. But now, the moon and the sun had changed shifts, and she felt something different.

Something that burned on the inside of her. Grant it, it could have been frostbite.

Jade opened her palm and there lay the piece of wood her father had given her, and in the shadow of the trees Jade’s brown eyes took on a different color, reflecting orange from the fire of the blazing wood in her hand that slowly grew into an eight foot staff blazing before her eyes.

She gazed up at the sky and recited her father’s directions from the first letter. ‘Follow the stream. Follow the trail in the sky. Find Lynn.

With that, she set into the night.


By F. Rendles

Chapter 16

Her eyes flew around the room with quick and precise movements.  She knew she had no time to spare, so wasted no time in worrying for her life.  The walls were round, made of square blocks roughly two feet long and one foot wide.  There was no way of telling how deep they were, but they looked thick. Walking briskly through the water, she ran her hand over the walls.  The stone was rough.  She banged her fist on the wall.  The stone was also hard.

The water was gushing past her knees as she wondered if there was a button hidden along the walls that opened the exit, but the bodies now drifting beside her did not make sense if that were the case.  Trying not to think of them as who they really were, she reasoned further, that as she had yet to count twenty six, some of her brothers in arms must have made it past this.  But how?  

Her eyes flew to where the water was pouring out from.  There were four openings, the size of the stone blocks located high in the ceiling, through which water was overflowing into the room.  That couldn’t be, she thought.  Then she remembered where she was.  It could.  The Heart of the Desert offered no sympathy to the weak.

Continuing to search the room, she hoped that her growing suspicion was wrong.  She felt the walls for hidden latches, swam to the bottom of the floor to look for a place where the water was exiting, looked for hidden messages throughout the room, tried to force her way out the way she came, spoke ancient words that meant open, all to no avail, and all while the water grew higher still.

Soon the water was so high she had to swim to keep her head above the water.  She eyed the gushing flows with her dark and methodical eyes.  Her water pouch and rope had long since been abandoned, but it was here that she took off her satchel, removing one small item and tucking it in a pocket before she let her satchel fall to the bottom of the watery grave.

The water inches away from the ceiling, she took large gasping breaths, expanding her lungs, and then filled them with as much precious air as she could, trying not to think of them as her final breaths.  When the water had flooded the room completely, Athadius swam to one of the openings which had previously been bringing about her doom and forced her way in, determined to make it her way of escape.

The space was cramped, keeping her arms uselessly pinned to her side, so she used her feet to kick with all her might.  She swam like this for roughly seven feet until her head bumped into something.

Holding her breath tightly, she looked up through the dim water saw the bottom of two sandals.   It took all that she had not to gag and drown right there.  Picturing the resistance as simply a log in her way, she kicked and tried to barrel her way through.  But it was to no avail.

Her lungs burning, she fell into dread at the impossible task.  Impossible.  The word her father hated.  His voice rang clearly in her oxygen deprived brain.  “Impossible is only an excuse used by fools.”  A small, determined smile flashed across Athadius’s face.  She looked again at the ‘log’ in front of her and saw that it’s cape was snagged on a rough outcropping of rock.  Pushing herself all the way to one side of the small tunnel, she wiggled a hand forward past her side and up to the snagged cloth, ignoring her burning lungs.  Determination searing inside of her, she yanked the cloth free, and then shoved at the log with all her might.  Soon there was movement, but Athadius did not even notice.  The world had become simple to her.  Push, kick, shove.  Push, kick, shove.  Fight through the battle.  Don’t let go of the breath in your lungs.  She lived with a blind fury.  Push, kick, shove.  Push, kick, shove.

But every person has a limit, and Athadius found hers.  Her lung blaring warnings and screaming in protest, Athadius realized calmly that she could hold her breath no longer.  She said a silent farewell to the world, briefly consoling herself that she would soon be reunited with her father and her brothers in arms.  Resolving to die fighting, she pushed, kicked, shoved, and then breathed–She breathed again, gasping for breath and finding it there.  Choking and breathing Athadius lay like a wet dog on all fours in another stone room.

Laying like that for some time, Athadius drank in the air in wheezing gasps, staring at the gray stone beneath her, as the world came back into focus.  Her red capped log lay beside her, and it was then that she saw his face.  A muffled sob escaped from her still gasping lungs.  All of the sorrow and grief of her past day overflowing and bursting to be let loose.  Clenching her jaw, she refused her emotions  freedom, and instead turned her anguish into anger.

“’A dangerous task’ they said,” her voice hoarse and harsh through gasping for air “‘no one knows when someone last made it,” she huffed with indignation. “’But this is an honor for you to be given the chance.’” She pushed herself up to her feet, refusing to let the black dots that swam in the air consume her.  Refusing to be weak.  “’Never before has a girl been allowed into the heart of the desert.  Go and do us proud!’” She raised her fists and shook them in the air.  “Are you proud of me yet?!?” She yelled to the empty halls, picturing the Thainin standing before her.  “How have I done?” She performed a mock bow.  “Have I endured to your satisfaction?” She took a step forward, her face contorted with rage. “How dare you say ‘Ever Onward’ to a task such as this?”  Her voice quieted, her sensible and controlled mannerisms taking over.  “Had you sent me here to my death, I would have walked with unreserved loyalty to my people.”  Her eyes were sharp, cutting deep into the imaginary Thainin, with diplomatic ferocity.  “But to succeed while passing my fallen brothers in arms is too cruel a task to ask even the loyalist of soldiers.  So please understand my anger.”

Sitting down cross-legged against the stone wall, Athadius let out a huff.  And then gasped for breath yet again.  Her face was as devoid of expression as the stones behind her, as she sat clearing her thoughts.  Surveilling the room with mild interest, she noted where the water had flowed in from (a large trough that was now sealed, but stood between two lit torches), where she had escaped from (a hole low in the wall), and the further on in the room, a hallway that led into darkness.

Deciding that she could either die of hunger here or die of something a bit more heroic down the path, Athadius stood.  Eyes falling on her friend, she bent down and pulled his turban from across his chest, and wrapped it around his head, as was Sanhildin tradition in burial.  It was far from a proper burial, but it would have to do.  Standing, she grabbed a torch, wondering why the boys had left it behind, and headed into the darkness… yet again.

She walked for a while, the dark halls being lit up briefly as she passed.  She kept a keen eye out for traps, but found none.  Obviously there were none to find as she kept on walking without being crushed or impaled.

After traversing beneath the desert for perhaps a mile, she reached a large stone door.  Engraved above it were the words ‘Choose Wisely’ written in ancient Sanhildin.

 Pushing open the doors she found two open doorways before her.  One led to a room tinted red by crimson flames.  Athadius stepped forward and looked in, the red room held a pedestal raised upon a thousand steps of gold.  Athadius did not even need to count in order to know there number, this was the room of legend.  The sight sparkled before her eyes, almost blinding her after the dark halls.  She had reached it.  The Heart of the Desert.  However her victory was tainted as the remaining five were strewn on the stairs.

Beginning to step forward to aright their turbans as she had for her last friend, she caught herself, having remembered the warning engraved above the door.  Turning, she stepped forward to see what lay in the other room.  It was dim, the dark making it hard to see after brilliance of the last room.  Holding her torch out, she was able to light up the room enough to see a huddled figure in the corner, and then watch in horror as she saw it’s chest lift in a shaky breath.

Instinctively, she stepped forward to help, only to be frozen by one word.  “Wait,” said a weak voice.  The figure coughed and raised her face to the light.  Matted silver hair stuck to the side of the old woman’s head, blood streaking down her forehead.  Athadius hesitated in the doorway.  “I must warn you,” the old woman spoke again, her voice slightly more clear this time.  “If you step through that doorway there will be no going back.  You can only enter one room.”

Athadius hardly had to think for a moment before stepping in.  “Whatever secret the Heart of the Desert holds, it is not worth one more drop of blood.”

The old woman’s eyes sparkled an unearthly flaming hue, the fervency only growing as Athadius rushed to her side searching for a way to help.

Suddenly the woman was no longer in her arms but standing before her, nor was she old or dripping with blood, but young and dressed in a gown crimson as blood.  Athadius gaped, shocked.

“Athadius Unradus,” said the woman. “You do your people proud.”

“I…I don’t understand.” Athadius managed to say.

The woman smiled.  “The Heart of the Desert is not a destination, it is a standing.  A standing which you have just reached.”

Athadius’s dark brow was quizzical, so the woman continued.  “I was the final test.”  She held out her hand, inviting Athadius to take it.

Looking deep into the woman’s fiery red eyes, Athadius took her hand.  A scorching wind flooded her being, and when she could bear the pain no longer, the world went black.

~~~

Athadius lay on the scorching desert sand.  Her eyes were closed.  Her face as one in a deep sleep.  Around her the winds were alive.  They danced and sang all around her, keeping the sand from covering her form, and bringing clouds to offer her shade.  Lifting her right hand in the air, they kissed her open palm- her palm scarred by the Wind, marking her as she who possessed the Heart of the Desert.


By R. Shinnick

 

Chapter 17

Alya awoke suddenly. The bright light of the rising sun streamed through the closed curtains. Alya smiled to herself. She had been more excited everyday to see the sights around her. Thanks to Lynn and Caden, she was able to see everything. They had been kind to her from the start.

Unaccustomed to the heavy weight on her legs, it had taken Alya several weeks to build up the strength to walk on her own. She was shamefully aware of her complete helplessness without someone to support her. However, the days passed quickly, and almost everyday, she was transported to Caden’s small hut, where Lynn began to teach her the language. Alya had been surprised to find out that it was not that much different from her own. She progressed quickly and was soon able to understand most of what Caden and Dato and Ama were saying. As she learned more everyday, Alya grew more and more grateful to Lynn for her time spent in teaching her the language.

She lay thinking for several minutes before she noticed the covers on the bed beside her moving slightly.

“Lynn?” she whispered, so as not to wake her if she were asleep. “Are you awake?”

There was no answer for a few seconds. Then, “Yes. What is it?”

“I- I want to tell you what happened.”

Lynn sat up. “Alright,” she said slowly, pulling her knees to her chest.

Alya sat up too. She covered her face with her hands. Now she was beginning to change her mind about telling Lynn. Her story was, well, strange, and perhaps unbelievable?

“I’m from the clouds,” blurted Alya suddenly.

Lynn’s mouth opened slightly, and her eyes widened considerably. “So what happened?” she asked finally.

Alya peeked out through her fingers. Lynn’s response had not been as she had expected, one of total disbelief or absolute terror, but simply one of surprise. She lowered her hands slowly. “You-” she paused gathering her thoughts. “You believe me?”

Lynn nodded, looking at her seriously. “Yes, I do.”

Alya sighed, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

“Now,” continued Lynn, “you’d better tell me how you got here.”

Alya nodded, laying back down and looking at the ceiling. “Up there, we have what you call necklaces. Every child gets one when they are born. These necklaces are called Kaulakoru. A person’s Kaulakoru is what keeps them in the clouds. Without a Kaulakoru, we can’t live there. If a person loses their Kaulakoru, they fall. My Kaulakoru began to act strangely. It glowed and changed colors. For almost a year, it stayed that way. Then recently, two strange men arrived at our village and threatened our people. They wanted me. One of the men captured me. He-” Alya stopped and shuddered. “He took out his knife-”

“And cut the Kaulakoru from your neck,” finished Lynn. “That’s why your neck was cut.”

Alya nodded, sitting up and drawing her hand gently across the large scar on her neck.

Lynn laid back in bed. “I wonder…” she said slowly.

“What?” asked Alya, sitting up in bed.

“That might be why I can understand your language!” Lynn slid her feet over the edge of the bed and ran to the window. She gestured for Alya to follow her and drew back the curtains. Sunlight poured into the room. She pointed directly out the window. “Look all the way to the edge of the horizon,” she told Alya. “What do you see?”

Alya squinted, shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. “I see the edge of the ocean and the sky-”

“And the clouds,” Lynn finished. “The water and the clouds meet. Water and clouds are really quite similar… Maybe that’s why I can understand you. It’s in my blood.”

Alya looked at Lynn blankly. “What’s in your blood? Why does that have anything to do with you speaking my language?”

Lynn bit her lip. Seeming to decide something in her head, she glanced over to a small table by her bed. On it was a small wooden cup half full of water. She looked at Alya hesitantly and put her hand out in front of her, facing the cup. Alya smothered a cry of disbelief as the water flew out of the cup into Lynn’s hands. She shaped it into a ball and tossed into the air, then caught it again. Slowly, she walked over the the cup and dropped the water into it. She turned back to Alya. “That’s why. I thought you should know.”

Alya took a deep breath. “Then you should know something else about me,” she said. She closed her eyes. And vanished.

It was Lynn’s turn to smother a cry of surprise. Alya appeared in front of her again. She looked at Lynn.

“Now you know.”

~~~

Right after supper, while Lynn and Alya were doing the dishes, a heavy knock sounded at the door.

“I’ll get it!” volunteered Lynn, wiping her hands on the fresh towel. She was surprised at who she saw. “Good evening, Councilman,” she said quietly. Even though this particular Councilman was a good friend of Dato’s, it was still uncommon to receive visits from him.

“I am here to see Petar,” said the man gruffly.

Lynn turned slowly and called to her grandfather. “Dato! It’s for you.”

Dato came hurrying to the door. “Arkhan! How wonderful to see you!” He patted the Councilman on the back.

Arkhan did not return his warm greeting. “Petar,” he said grimly, “We need to talk.”

Dato’s smile faded from his face. “Come with me.” He led the Arkhan in his study, waited until he had gone inside, then followed himself. Lynn stared after him. As Dato turned to shut the study door, he gave an encouraging smile to Lynn. The encouragement never reached his eyes.

Alya looked at Lynn curiously, then whispered something in her ear. Lynn looked shocked, then nodded slowly. The two girls tiptoed through a short hallway and sat down next to the study. They could hear the Councilman talking plainly. Through a few small holes in the door, they could also see the two men in the room:

“Petar, I am here as friend now, but you must understand I will be forced to take action soon.” He repositioned himself in his chair. “The rumors have begun to spread. They have reached the Council. And soon, they will hear. People are wondering why Lynn can talk to the strange girl.”

Dato rested his forehead in his hand.

“I’m sorry, Petar,” Arkhan said, “I’m afraid too many people know about those girls of yours.”

“Arkhan! Please… Not again.”

“Kaimana was a brave woman. But she couldn’t stop the inevitable. You can’t either.”

Dato closed his eyes for a moment.

Arkhan waited a moment longer, then continued. “They could be hearing about it this very moment. They’ll be taken away.”

Dato’s face was a grimace of pain. “I lost Kaimana, I cannot lose her daughter too!” he exclaimed.

Arkhan’s face became hard. “Don’t make me come again and be an enemy. You would be wise to heed my warning.” Suddenly, he was directly in front of the door. His words were simple and clear:

“They have to leave.”  


By A. Choi

 

Chapter 18

The sound of stomps sounded through the whole castle as the king marched on his way to the entrance. Gwen and Queen Rhiannon locked eyes. The queen abruptly looked away, painting a false sense of confidence over her quaking insides. Her back was perfectly aligned, and her head slightly pulled back to create the illusion of blind bravery. Perhaps, this was all in the pursuit to ease Gwen’s mind, for it was reeling with uncertainty. Maybe it would have even worked, but masks aren’t of much use when one knows what’s hiding behind it.

Gwen could not help from wondering why the queen was so fearful now. She knew the king’s reputation, she had seen and served him herself, but she had also seen Queen Rhiannon stand up for herself countless times. Gwen had always respected the queen for for standing her ground. Now the queen looked like she was about to fall through the ground… let alone stand on it.

After the long, suspenseful pause, the king finally entered. All was silent for a drawn-out moment as the king seemed to wonder why a serving girl was alone in a room with his wife. He  was actually wondering what his wife… and child were doing in a room alone. The silence stretched on and the room grew tense with each second. Gwen broke the silence. It was her job to do so. Gwen opened her mouth about to address the king as ,“Father dearest”, but she looked into her mother’s eyes and decided against the idea.

“Hello…” Gwen paused and cleared her throat.  “Mr.King, sir.” As soon as Gwen said those words, she cringed. Mr. King? Sometimes things flew out of her mouth and she couldn’t control it. Most of the time it ended up sounding witty, but everyone has an off day.

The king tore his eyes away from Queen Rhiannon to meet his with Gwen’s. His demeanor seemed to stiffen even more as Gwen spoke. Taking one step closer to the queen, he cleared his throat and adjusted his finery.

“Why is this-” He paused and looked up and down Gwen. “This… simpleton still here? Surely she has other duties to attend to.”  He turned his head away from Gwen, and was now ignoring the very existence of his daughter. Just as Gwen was wondering if Queen Rhiannon would stay frozen like that forever, she finally sprung to action.

“We were just discussing matters for Princess Lairelithoniel. It was nothing to worry you about,” the queen hid her fear well behind her voice.

“And what matters need to be attended? We have already taken care of all her needs.” The king said with his booming voice seeping with arrogance. He started stepping closer to Gwen, his feet marching to the imaginary beat of a drum.

“I know you. I have not forgotten your shortcomings and deficiency in your trade, if you can even call what you do a trade,” the king was very close to Gwen, all she could think of was how she feared his spit would reach her eyes.

“I do not suppose I could call what you do a trade, Your Majesty,” Gwen quipped. “I only wish I could be praised nationwide for sitting on my bum all day ordering people about.”

There was a stale pause in the air. Gwen could see the anger bubbling inside of the king. Looking her in the eye, he lowered his voice down to a menacing tone. “I would be careful how you speak, girl.” He looked at Gwen, expecting her to coware in the corner. Gwen straightened her back, took a deep breath, and looked him straight in the eyes.  

Just as Gwen was about to dig herself in even more trouble, a knock rung through the air.

“What do you want?” The king yelled across the room. Gwen let out a small chuckle as she realized how much she was affecting him. A guard came hesitantly through the door.

“The cook has requested Gwen, sir.” The poor little guard looked as if he was about to faint.

Gwen took this opportunity to make her dramatic exit. “Oh, no! You see, my dear royals, some of us have actual things to do with our time. It is a shame we could not carry on with such… civil conversation, but I am afraid that I have matters to attend to!” She took her time exiting the room, making sure to flip her hair over her shoulder with an extra amount of flair.

                                                       ~~~~~~~~

The marble floor clicked as Gwen’s shoes skid across the vast ocean of murky white after hours of work. Gwen started to slow her pace down as she reached the doorway coming up before her. It was her room. She hadn’t been here in a few months, and it reminded the mess it was when she left it. She smiled to herself. The poetic justice of a servant being taught her whole life to clean, and choosing to live in a state of clutter and disfunction suited her. There were very few things in life that Gwen had full control of. This was one of them.

It was nearing night… Finally. Gwen looked at her small room. She just couldn’t stand being alone right now. The morning had turned her world upside down. The rest of the day she had to trudge around the maze of nobility and servants pretending nothing had changed. She was exhausted in every way possible. She needed a friend right now. She needed Lairelithoniel. Gwen strode across her room in two steps. Throwing her dresses all around the room, Gwen finally found her nightgown at the very bottom of her trunk. Gwen looked down on her floor. Sitting there, in the corner, was a slice of Gwen’s favorite food in the whole entire kingdom.

Pie.

Next to the slice of apple pie that sat so tantalizingly on a blue china plate, there was a note written on cream parchment with gold leafing on the sides.

My dearest Gwen,

I remember how fond you are of pie. Meet me tomorrow morning in the library. I know what you are thinking, and no, I do not think that pie will restore the gap between us. Pie may help, though. Yes Gwen, I can joke around as well. Now eat the pie and remember to meet me in the main library at first light.

Your “Mother Dearest”

A smile stretched across Gwen’s face as she read the note. Maybe Queen Rhiannon had a little more bite to her than met the eye. She was right, pie wouldn’t fix the gap between them, but it would definitely help. Gwen quickly devoured the pie, all excluding the crusts. She set the plate back on her floor, slipped the note in her apron pocket, and snuck across the castle to Lairelithoniel’s bedchamber.


By E. Crowther

 

Chapter 19

They have to leave.

The words reverberated in Lynn’s head, growing louder and louder until it was all she could hear. The world was spinning as she broke away from Alya’s questioning grasp and ran for the back door. She needed to breathe.

The salty wind blew her hair behind her as she stared at the ocean. She had always loved the sea, ever since she came here so long ago… When she was so little that Dato and Ama thought she had forgotten.

It galled Lynn that her grandparents thought she could forget. Forget saying goodbye to her beautiful, laughing mother for whom she was named? Forget how she had cried and wriggled out of Ama’s arms and run after her? Forget the tears and fear in her mother’s eyes as she kissed Lynn and hugged her tight and whispered into her ear?

No. She hadn’t forgotten.

She had been so careful. Young as she was, Lynn understood the danger of her powers. Ama and Dato took her back to their home, far away. Far enough away that after the years passed, no one remembered what had happened to Kaimana’s little daughter. And in the small village, it was quiet. It was calm. People minded their own business. And Lynn never spoke of or showed her powers to anyone. Barely even to Dato and Ama. She was safe.

But now she wasn’t. And it was happening again. If she and Alya didn’t leave, they would come and take them both away.

Lynn allowed herself a few more moments of blessed silence and aloneness, and then she stood up. She had to be strong. Strong for Dato and Ama, strong for Alya.

She walked inside.

Alya was waiting at the door for her. She said nothing, but followed Lynn into the kitchen. The councilman had gone. Dato stood stony-faced with his hand on Ama’s shoulder as she buried her face in her hands. Alya and Lynn stood in the doorway.

No one spoke for a moment, until Alya asked in a hesitant accent, “We must go?”

Her words broke the silence. Dato looked up at the two girls, his jaw clenched. “No,” he said. “We’ll find another way, but neither of you are leaving.”

Lynn spoke firmly, almost harshly. “We have to, Dato. We can’t stay and wait for the Council to take us away.”

Ama wiped tears from her eyes. “But there has to be –”

“There isn’t. If you ever hope to see me or Alya again, we have to go.”

Silence pervaded the room as the reality sunk in.
Suddenly Ama jumped up. “There’s no time to waste. We need to make plans and figure out where you can go and get your supplies together and…” She was still talking to herself as she rushed out of the room.

~~~

It was the next night. The goodbyes had been said, the hugs had been given, the promises had been made. Lynn and Alya had waited till the cover of dark to carefully make their way to Caden’s house. Right now Caden was taking them to the house of Conri, a farmer who lived about an hour’s walk away. Caden had asked to borrow Conri’s wagon to go to Sindri, the nearest village. The farmer was a friend of Caden’s and readily agreed, and Caden had allayed any suspicion by saying he needed to get there early to set up his Inori in the market. Lynn and Alya would catch a ride from Sindri to Aruna, where they would find Ama’s sister’s family and stay with them long enough to gather supplies and prepare to move on to Lacity.

The night was filled with silence, save for the soft tread of their footsteps on the path and the chirpings of crickets. Lynn looked over at Alya and Caden. Caden had been protective over Alya ever since he first found her in the woods, and he walked next to her now, making sure the path was clear before her. Lynn and Caden were used to being guided only by the stars, but Alya’s eyes had not yet adjusted to dark shadows of night on earth.

Caden glanced over and met Lynn’s gaze for a moment before looking away. Lynn felt her stomach twist. Whether with guilt or shame or sadness, she wasn’t sure. Telling Caden of her powers that morning had been one of the hardest things she’d ever done. Alya as well had been shy and tentative of telling him the truth, but her story was almost easier to believe. A strange, mysterious girl, found with a cut on her throat and speaking a different language, was actually from the clouds and could turn invisible? Why not. But Lynn? Someone Caden had practically grown up with, someone who had always been like a little sister — Lynn had powers?

It didn’t help that Lynn had flatly refused Caden’s attempt to go with them. As soon as he understood that Alya and Lynn had to leave, he had crossed his arms, his eyes steeled with determination. “I’m coming with you.”

But Lynn had been just as determined. “No. I need to know that Dato and Ama are safe. Stay at the village, take care of them for me.”

Lynn knew that Caden was hurt. And she hated that she was the cause.

They reached Conri’s house and loaded up in his wagon. The rhythm of the wagon rolling along made the girls sleepy. Alya nodded off quickly, her head falling onto Caden’s shoulder. Lynn lasted a little longer, but she soon felt her eyes closing and shook herself awake. The sudden motion caused Caden to glance over her.

“Go to sleep, Lynn. You’d better get some rest while you can.”

Lynn opened her mouth to refuse, but Caden cut her off with a smile, a shadow of his normal teasing grin.

“You better listen to me. It’s the least you can do after having secret water powers… How am I supposed to top that?”

The tension between them seemed to disappear with his words. Lynn smiled in return, and settled down to sleep.

The sun was just beginning to rise when they reached the edge of Sindri, and the village was beginning to wake up. Caden stopped the wagon a little ways outside of the village.

He cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Well… Stay safe. Don’t do anything foolish, and write if you can… Send me your letters and I’ll make sure they get to Dato and Ama.”

Lynn tried to speak, but there was a lump in her throat that made it extremely hard to talk. But she couldn’t cry now. Later, maybe, but not now.

Alya stepped forward. “Peace be with you,” she said, inclining her head in the custom of her people.

Then she ran to Caden and hugged him tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered. “For everything.”

Lynn followed Alya’s example, grateful not to have to say anything.

Caden swallowed. “You girls better go.”

Alya nodded. “Goodbye.” She and Lynn turned and walked towards the village. At the edge, Lynn looked back one last time. Caden was standing straight, jaw clenched. Lynn lifted her arm in farewell. Then she set her shoulders and set off with Alya.

The public wells was the departing point for any travelers, but when the girls made it there, only one wagon was getting ready to leave. The driver was a surly, middle-aged farmer. Alya and Lynn didn’t like the looks of him, but they had no choice.

“Excuse me, sir.”

The man grunted in response.

“Where are you going?”

The man gave a sneer. “I don’t normally tell my business to little girls.”

Lynn tried to smile politely. “My sister and I are looking for a ride to Aruna.”

“I ain’t no fancy carriage giving rides. Besides, I ain’t going to Aruna. That’s two towns further on then where I’m headed, and I don’t plan to go no extra.”

Lynn pulled out a small bag. “We have money. If you’ll just take us as far as you can, we’d be most grateful.”

The mention of money changed the man’s attitude, if only a little. He grunted again, and then said, “I got some room in the back.”

He walked off, leaving Alya and Lynn to stare after him. He pulled himself onto the driver’s seat and called back, “Well, get a move on! I ain’t got all day.”

They rode in the back, not speaking for fear of being overheard by the man, but he paid no attention to the two girls.

It was several hours before they entered the first village. It was much larger than Kerya and Sindri. All around them there were incomprehensible cries and conversations. Lynn didn’t feel comfortable with so many strange eyes on them, and she had a sinking feeling when the man stopped in the middle of the market.

“Gotta get some feed,” he said grouchily, in answer to Lynn’s questioning look. He disappeared into the crowd.

The crowd pressed closely around the wagon, jostling the sides and sometimes glaring at the two girls, angry at the obstacle in their path. Lynn tried not to make eye contact with anyone. She had no idea how far the rumors had spread, if they were common knowledge, or if the Council had kept it secret. She turned to warn Alya to keep her head low.

But Alya was gone.

Lynn was frozen with fear for one heartbeat of eternity. “Alya!” She cried out in alarm.  The people around her turned to look at her, and Lynn sank back down, mind racing. What could have happened to her? Did someone pull her out of the wagon? Should she go look for her, or wait here?

Several agonizing minutes passed until suddenly the wagon shook. Lynn looked around in alarm, but saw no one. Then a hand on her shoulder made her heart jump into her mouth. She whirled around to find Alya crouched behind her.

“Alya!” She cried in relief. “Oh thank goodness–”

Alya interrupted her with an urgent whisper. “We have to go.”

“What? Where were you? What happened?”

“Lynn, we have to go now!”

Alya pulled Lynn out of the wagon and pushed her way through the busy street. She didn’t slow down until they were lost in the crowd. Then she ducked into an alley and paused, leaning against the wall to catch her breath.

“Alya.” Lynn said. “What’s going on?”

Alya peeked her head out and pointed back at the wagon in the distance. “Look.”

Lynn looked. Two men were climbing into the back of the wagon. One of them gestured angrily at the other.

“Who…?” Lynn asked.

“One of them is our driver,” Alya said grimly. “I followed him. He went straight to the Councilman.”

Lynn watched as the two men split up through the crowd. One of them seemed to look straight towards the alley where Lynn and Alya were hiding. A sudden panic overtook Lynn and she grabbed Alya’s hand.

“We’ve got to get out of here!”

The girls ran, as far away from the wagon as they could get. They darted through alleys, winding through the streets until they could scarcely breathe.

They finally paused, trying to rest for a moment. “Alright,” Lynn said. “This is alright. We’ll just find another ride and –”

She stopped abruptly. There was a clatter nearby, and then a rough voice.

“They can’t have gone far… No one is leaving this village until we find them.” Then the sound of footsteps grew slowly louder.

Alya stared wide-eyed at Lynn. “Wait here.” She disappeared for a brief moment, and then returned. “Change of plans.” She grabbed Lynn’s hand and pulled her down the alley and around the back of a house. Lynn halted at the broken down fence that was suddenly in their way. Alya hopped the fence, and turned back to Lynn. “Lynn, we have to go!”

Lynn hesitated, but the sound of distant shouts urged her on. She jumped over.

The two girls ran up the hill together and disappeared into the forest.


By M. Choi

 

Chapter 20

Jade didn’t think fish could be evil until that very moment.

“Why won’t you just let me eat you?” Jade growled and drove her dagger into the lake for what must’ve been the millionth time. The fish slipped from her grasp and wiggled down the stream. Jade could swear the fish just wiggled it’s butt at her to rub it in.

The sun and moon seemed to enjoy mocking her lack of progress.

The sun’s beams , ‘Ah, I know the snow melted a while back but now you seem to be melting as well.’

A cascade of moonlight would then bear heavy on Jade’s shoulders. ‘Wow, still no food?’

The hope that was fresh in her heart after reading her father’s letter had dissipated. In it’s place was hunger. And even more than that, anger and confusion.

‘Follow the stream. Follow the trail in the sky. Find Lynn.’

“Doggone…wandering…riddle.” Jade grumbled under her breath. The name Lynn had been her only kind of direction. Jade figured that Lynn was the plant King Kahn needed to be healed. Then she could go back home…maybe. Now that she thought about it, her dad hadn’t said anything about saving the king at all in the letter. He just said to leave. So Lynn probably wasn’t a plant.

Jade shivered as a breeze nipped at her nose. The air was crisp and the amount of snow decreased as she made her way farther and farther from the mountain. But it was still cold. Not only was she cold but because of the wonderful fish she was wet.  

Jade stopped in her tracks…she was wet. Cold+wet=her turning into a snowman…woman. Or hypothermia. Either one was unfavorable.  She rolled her eyes at her own mind jumping to conclusions. It was still daylight, and she had a flaming stick in her pocket. Well it wasn’t on flames but it had been the night Jade set out on her journey.

She removed the stick from her pocket. Seeing it sent a pang through her heart. She hadn’t taken it out since that first night. It grew into a flaming staff, but now it felt cold in her hands. She hadn’t been able to channel the fire since that first night. And that had been how many nights ago? Weeks? Jade neither knew nor cared.

The only thing that she could tell was that the stream had brought her to a city somewhere nearby.

Jade decided to stay clear of the borders. She didn’t want to look suspicious. She would just make her way around and front…if cities had fronts. In that moment Jade became aware of how isolated her people were on the mountain.

Jade yelped as something suddenly bulldozed her to her back, and swept her feet out from under her. She cried out as her head slammed into a jagged rock along the creek. Jade laid motionless for a moment, both her hands tight against the gash on her head.

 She gritted her teeth in attempt to bear the searing pain.  

Then she opened one eye. Sprawled out on the ground in front of her was a young girl, terror sealed in her eyes.

Jade closed her eyes and couldn’t help the whimper that escaped her lips. When Jade opened her eyes, she was gone.

All Jade could hear was the rapid crunch of leaves.

Both running away from her and coming toward her.

They were men running towards her but they were shouting like monkeys.

“Found one. ” A man’s gruff voice settled on her ears. A man grabbed her shoulder roughly.

Jade blindly swung her fist and narrowly missed the man’s nose.  She let loud a yell of anger and pain as the man forced her head into the ground.

Another man knelt in front of her. He was bald, his teeth near rotten. “This isn’t either one of them you idiot…still.” He raked his eyes across her eyes. “She’s no Alya or Lynn but she’s snooping around the borders. We’ll take her in.”

Panic seized Jade and fire erupted across Jade’s body…then the man’s body…then the other man’s body until one by one all the monkeys were dancing. Rather horribly but at least in the opposite direction.

A deluge of water rose from the river and baptized Jade so that she dripping from head to toe, quenching the flames. Jade broke into a coughing fit and water spluttered out of her mouth.

Standing behind the water was another girl? Her armed were raised and they slowly fell down by her side. She had somehow gotten older…and changed eye colors.

That was until the little girl appeared out of thin air, holding out Jade’s staff.

Jade’s eyes rolled back and her world turned to darkness.


By F. Rendels

 

Chapter 21

Awakening groggily, it took a while for Athadius to realize that she was struggling to breathe.  Slowly her consciousness began to return, and she focused all her effort on taking one laboring breath after another.  Something was different about her lungs– oh why was it so hard to breathe?  Paying no heed to anything else around her, she focused solely on sucking air into her chest, and then releasing it in wheezing gasps, but instead of getting easier, it only became more of an uphill battle.

The air is getting thinner, she realized.  Her body wanted to jolt into panic, but she controlled herself.  Taking a labored breath, she opened her eyes and saw she was in a round stone room.  The walls were short and devoid of any openings.   She sat up quickly, the jerk flinging her into darkness before her body caught back up and cleared things out.

Thoughts of how she had gotten to this sealed room, and what was going on, swirled around her head, but she silenced them.  Wheezing in another gasp of air, she realized she was running out of time.  Her eyes ran around the room, analyzing it and running through every possible outcome of escape.

Wondering if this was the last of the air as she gasped for dear life, Athadius clenched her fists.  She didn’t have the air to force her way out, and as her brain was getting foggier by the moment, she did not have the brains either.

It was then that she remembered the woman and her words, along with the wind ripping through every fiber of her being.  She remembering thinking that she was one with the wind.  Laying back down, she almost laughed at the thought.  She tried to breathe again, but there was no more air to breathe.  So she lay still and fumed, for what a frustrating way to die.

But what if she were one with the winds?  She wondered at the idea, through her muggy thoughts, though truth be told, had her brain been working normally, Athadius probably would have died right then and there, for she is a practical thing, and believing in fancies such as being one with the wind was as foreign to her as ice.  A determined smile spread across her lips.  She would die fighting.  She reached out with her nearing-unconscious-mind and searched for her friends the winds.  And to her surprise, she found them.

With blackness closing in all around her, Athadius summoned the last of her strength and urged the winds into her room.  The wind pushed at the mortar that sealed the stones together, looking for any point of weakness they could push their way through.  

The winds  came with a crash, and air rushed into her lungs.  Taking deep and glorious breathes, she wondered if the fight would ever stop.  Would the battle ever end?  Was her life always to be pledged by near death experiences?

~~~

When Athadius was seven, the Sanhildin, a people group whose main goal at that time was to survive in the harsh climates of the desert, were attacked by Vugriels, a race that were neither human nor animal and were notorious for pillaging the land and all that it held.  They caught the Sanhildin by surprise, something Athadius’ father made sure never happened again.  Days of battles followed, in which young Ath had found herself in the arms of a disgusting Vugriel and only lived thanks to another boy her age who stomped on the Vugriel’s toes.  In the end, the Sanhildin had to abandon their homes and retreat across the desert into the forest.

It was there that they asked and were granted to take refuge in the capital of the forest, the city of … Ath’s memories of the place were few, other than a run in she had with a servant girl.  The girl had long light brown hair, sharp brown eyes, and a tongue that had a lot to say about the newcomers.  When Ath lifted her chin and marched past the girl, the girl saw her and said, “Do you  have a title to go along with that entitlement or is it self-proclaimed?”  Shuild, who was walking next to her, let out a chuckle at the girl’s words, which only furthered to infuriate young Athadius.

It was in the strong city that the Sanhildin regrouped and readied to go back in and face the Vugriels, determined that this time they would win.  Battles like this peppered the next decade of the Sanhildin, and made the Sanhildin the strong and determined people that Athadius had called her family.  Never again did the Sanhildin need to retreat to the castle in the forest, but the bond between the people only grew.  Soon her father was leaving once a year to talk strategies with the Forest People, as the Vugriel’s began to attack them and surrounding people as well.

The years were filled with wars.  One after another.  The young were trained for battle, Athadius going out in her first at the age of ten.  The old focused their energies on creating weapons.  The Sanhildin went from peaceful desert dwellers to warriors.

~~~

The memory of the forest city came back to her when she looked out of the gaping hole in the stone wall and looked upon that same forest city she had seen long ago.  Poking her head through the wall, she began to scheme her escape.  The ground was too far to go down, but there was a windowsill to her left that she was pretty sure she could jump to.  Before her head could convince her otherwise, she leapt out of the stone prison and through a window.

She landed lightly on her feet, surprisingly enough, and suddenly she found that she had no idea what to do.  She knew where she was, that was something.  But how had she gotten here?  And why was she here?  And what was going on???

It was then that she heard, or almost felt, a servant coming down the hall.  Opening the first door she saw, she leapt out of the way, painfully conscious of the fact that she very much stood out in her tan jerkin, brown leggings, and rusty orange turban, still tied as a sash around her waist.  Finding herself in a servant’s stairway, she headed down, hoping to find it empty and hoping that she could find some clothes to borrow.

The air seemed to be alive all around her, Athadius noticed with a confused frown as she hurried down the steps.  She felt a rush flick across her skin coming from a doorway, and stepped behind the door just in time to hide from a bustling servant.  She headed still downward.

When she found the servants’ quarters, she walked past doors until she found one whose air seemed stale from the other side of the door, though she was not quite sure how she knew that.   Rushing into the room she was surprised, but relieved to find that it still held belongings.  For whatever reason, the occupant did not stay in her room much.  Looking over the unmade bed, open chest with dresses strewn all across the floor, and a plate with old pie crusts on it, Athadius curled her lip in mild disgust.

Before she knew what she was doing, the bed was made and the clothes folded back in the chest, minus one brown dress which she laid on the bed.  Opening the window, Athadius almost cried in alarm as the wind rushed to her face and greeted her with a thousand kisses.  Shocked, Athadius curled into a ball beneath the window, the wind still flying over her head and pulling long locks of her dark hair to play with.

What had happened to her?  What had she become?  The voices of the wind were loud.  They shouted in Ath’s ears until she could hear nothing else.  They spoke of the world outside her window; they spoke nonsense; they laughed at the girl who clenched her hands over her ears in a futile effort to quiet them.  “Quiet!” She shouted, when the frenzy had become too much for her.  And quiet they did.  Silence filled the air, as the wind had stilled.

Athadius breathed a sigh of relief, and before her thoughts could carry her away, she rose and slipped on the brown dress she had left out of the chest.

The effect was far from pleasing.  Whoever wore the dress was terribly short, and while she could slip into the dress without problem, the skirt swung stiffly at the middle of her shins.  Chewing on her lip in thought, Athadius unfolded her turban and looked at it.  It just might do.  The width of it being more than long enough to reach from her waist to her toes, Athadius wrapped her turban around her waist like a skirt and then looked at the end result in a mirror smeared with who knows what.  While it may not have been the height of fashion, the brown did not clash terribly with the orange of her turban.  Satisfied, Athadius sat on the bed to decide what to do next.  It was then that a terrible bout of weariness rushed over her.  It couldn’t hurt to nap here, Ath thought, the girl obviously has not been in here for a while.

With a stretch, Athadius lay out on the small bed.  Her eyes had been closed mere seconds, when she flew to her feet, grabbed the plate and threw the pie crumbs out the open window.  Setting the now clean plate back down, Athadius went to sleep with a satisfied look on her face.   


By R. Shinnick

 

Chapter 22

“Alya!”

Alya jerked awake, the sudden movement causing the all too familiar ache in her neck to return. She ignored it, trying to actually open her stubborn eyes. Opening them slightly, she could faintly see Lynn sitting directly in front of her.

“Lynn,” she said, yawning. “It’s still dark. Why did you-”

The hand that clamped over her mouth brought her fully awake. Her eyes adjusted quickly to her surroundings. She pulled Lynn’s hand roughly off her face. “What’s the matter?” she whispered. Lynn pointed into the woods. A faint light sparkled through the trees. It sparked her curiosity.

“It could mean something,” Alya told Lynn, rising from her place on the ground. “I’m going to check it out.” She blocked out the sound of Lynn’s frantic protests, and disappeared into the blackness.

She ran swiftly and silently through the forest, careful not to crack any dead branches on the forest floor. The light grew brighter and brighter until- She stopped dead still.

The fire was dying, and it’s bright glowing embers had given the light. All around her, in a circle of trees were the bodies of five large men. Alya froze. She immediately pushed aside the first fear that had grasped her heart- they weren’t dead. However the next thing she noticed sent tingles down her spine. Fear poured into her, its icy fingers chilling her entire body. She could see his face plainly, and she recognized him instantly. It was the farmer. Realization stuck her instantly. All the men were heavily armed. And they were after her and Lynn. She turned and dashed away, the long ribbon that held her hair back, coming loose and drifting down to the ground.

Alya ran back through the forest. Up ahead she could see Lynn, her head laid on her knees. She knelt next to Lynn shaking her gently.

“Lynn!” she cried in a hoarse whisper. Lynn awoke instantly and blinked her eyes several times. “We’ve got to go. Now!”

“What’s the matter?” asked Lynn, immediately packing their few belongings.

“They’re following us! The farmer and four men.”

Lynn stood up. “We’re headed that way,” she said, a little uncertainly. “At least… I hope so.” She glanced up to the sky, peering through the trees. “I’d say it’s about one,” she said. “I think it would better to go slowly. We can get along faster and easier if we start slow. We can have a good enough head start by dawn when they begin.”

Alya nodded a little hesitantly. “Let’s go then.”

They started off into the woods.

~~~

It was the sound that woke him. He had slept uneasily all night and the *crack* had woken him. He opened his eyes groggily and looked at the dying embers of the fire. He sat up slowly, rubbing his eyes and looking for the source of noise. There was no one around. But what was that lying in the leaves? He smiled to himself as he pulled the ribbon from the dirt. “Wake up boys,” he called to his four companions. “It looks like we’ve had a visitor.”

~~~

The sun was just beginning to rise. The two girls stopped, both exhausted from their long night. Her eyelids heavy, Alya leaned against a tree, wiping the sweat from her forehead.

“I think it would be alright to take a short rest,” said Lynn, dropping to the ground.

Alya nodded. “Get some sleep,” she said. “You were on watch when we had to leave.”

Lynn smiled gratefully. “Thanks,” she said. “I am pretty tir-” She stopped. “Did you hear that?” she asked in a whisper. Alya stopped, listening. She could hear low murmurs. She smothered a gasp.

“They must have continued during the night!”

Lynn nodded, already on her feet. “Run!” she hissed.

Alya and Lynn dashed off again through the forest. Alya quickly fell behind, her legs still not strong enough to keep up with Lynn. Behind her, Alya could hear the sudden shouts as their pursuers began to chase after them. Already, Alya’s breath was coming in short gasps. The chase was full on. Up ahead, Lynn suddenly realized her companion was not beside her. Looking back, she screamed in horror. Alya glanced backward. One of the men had already caught up with them and had drawn a sharp blade. He was ready to pounce on Alya. She froze in absolute terror for one instant, then disappeared.

“This way, Alya!” shouted Lynn. Alya looked back and to her utter amazement, Lynn headed back toward the men. She cut to the right, then swerved around branches. And there it was. Bubbling, dancing, laughing, was a stream. The fast paced water seemed to be talking to them, as if to say, Oooh, tag? Can I play too?

“Go on, Alya!” shouted Lynn. “I’ll hold them off!”  

She stepped lightly into the rushing stream and slipped arcoss. Alya ran on. She looked back, fearful that the men were still pursuing her. She turned around, and someone or something was directly in front of her. They collided and Alya landed a couple of feet away. The shock of it made her reappear for an instant. The girl in front of her opened an eye, then closed it and whimpered slightly. Alya disappeared. She scrambled to her feet and ran.   

“Found one.” Alya heard one of the men say, as he grabbed the girl’s shoulder.

The girl tried swing a punch at the man. He pressed her head mercilessly into ground and she yelled in pain.

The farmer knelt in front of her. “This isn’t either one of them you idiot…still.” He paused. “She’s no Alya or Lynn but she’s snooping around the borders. We’ll take her in.”

Alya crouched on her toes, ready to spring and charge the men. Foolish, she thought, yet heroic. However, before she could act, the girl took matters into her own hands. Fire erupted across her body. One by one, it spread to each of their pursuers, who danced away, pulling off the fiery garments.  Alya gasped. Then, out of the stream came a wave of water that washed over the girl, putting out the fire. Alya could see Lynn standing in the river, her arms stretched out in front of her. She lowered them slowly. Alya walked up and picked up staff that the girl had dropped. The girl’s eyes shut, and she collapsed on the ground.

Lynn came out of the stream, shaking her head. “What on earth-” she began.

Alya looked at her blankly, then knelt next to the girl. The dark hair was matted with blood. Alya reached out tenderly and turned her face slightly, revealing a gash on the side of her head. Her stomach turned. Lynn dropped down beside her.

“We’ve got to bandage that,” she said, already searching through the small bag the two of them shared. She tore two long slips of cloth from a small blanket, then drenched one in the water. Alya looked away as Lynn pulled away the hair and carefully cleaned the wound, wiping away the blood.

“Unbraid her hair,” commanded Lynn. Alya silently did as she was told. The two tight braids were undone and in their place was a mass of curly black hair. Together, Alya and Lynn cleaned the bloody hair, then Lynn bandaged the gash carefully.

“What now?” she asked uncertainly, after a few minutes of silence.

“Now you get some sleep,” said Alya forcefully. She could see Lynn’s face light up for a moment at the mention of sleep, then she protested slightly.

“You should first.”

Alya glared at Lynn as best she could. “Get. Some. Sleep.”

Lynn laughed and walked a little ways over to a tree. “Alright, then. If you insist. And by the way,” she said, laying her head on the ground. “You’re terrible at being angry.”

It seemed like hours that Lynn slept and Alya thought over everything that had happened. It was all so strange. The strange girl. The flaming stick. She laughed inwardly. I guess it was pretty mysterious when I came down, too. She sat looking into the bubbling stream, next to the strange girl. Still thinking, she stepped forward into the stream, letting the cool water sooth the many scratches on her legs. Hopping out of the water and she watched the droplets run down her legs, then glanced over to where the girl was.

“Oh, no!” she cried running over. The girl was gone.

The sound of  a twig cracking behind her, caused her to spin around. She squealed in terror as the stranger held a sharp dagger to her throat. Involuntarily, her hand flew to her neck, half shielding the scar. To Alya’s surprise, the girl was actually a few inches shorter than her.

“Who are you?” demanded the girl fiercely.

“M-m-my n-name’s Aly-ya,” said Alya, her teeth chattering with fear. “Please… d-don’t hurt me.”

The girl seemed to notice the long scar across Alya’s neck, then slowly lowered her blade. “I’m not going to hurt you,” she said. “Well, it’s been nice knowing you, but I have to be going.”

Alya’s mouth dropped open. “But you can’t just leave!” she blurted.

The girl turned around. “And whyever not?”

Alya racked her brain for a good reason. “Well, I, uh… You haven’t told me your name.” She mentally kicked herself, as the girl raised her eyebrows.

“Jade,” she said. “Now may I be going?”

“But you haven’t even met Lynn!” exclaimed Alya.

Jade’s eyes widened. “Lynn? Who’s Lynn?”

Alya smiled, feeling she had won. “She’s right over here. C’mon. I’ll take you to her.” Jade followed Alya to where Lynn had laid down. They ducked under a couple of low hanging branches. “Lynn!” called Alya. She gasped.

Lynn was gone.


By A. Choi

 

Chapter 23

Gwen tapped softly on Lairelithoniel’s lavish door decorated with silver engravings of vines. She heard muffled noises throughout the room and a small series of light steps coming towards the entrance. Lairelithoniel cracked the door open, peeking her head through. Her eyes wore a mixture of fatigue and sadness. This had been a big day for her, too.

“Shall I come in? Or should I go get Kernan to come and occupy your time?” Gwen said with playful intentions. Joking usually helped, but Gwen could see that it didn’t this time. Lairelithoniel was not mad at Gwen, she was just tired.

“Please do not even joke about such things.” Lairelithoniel opened the door with a dramatic flair, her arms quickly circling themselves around Gwen. Lairelithoniel let out a huff of hostile air.

“Gwen, how I’ve missed you! You have no idea the things I have been through today! That boy! So help me, Gwen, Kernan gives me such an ache in my head and-” Lairelithoniel was talking and talking. She had not insulted someone since… come to think of it Gwen couldn’t remember the last time her sweet princess said something like that. This must have been some day indeed.

“I am sorry, what have you done to my sweet princess? Is this the same girl that had a major breakdown after killing a fly?”

“Gwen, that was once,” Lairelithoniel said with a slight chuckle.

“Hey, I’m here, just like I was yesterday. Just like I will be always.” Gwen locked eyes with Lairelithoniel. Her light green eyes softened at the sound of the word always.

Always.

It was so definate. So secure. In that moment, in a room ten times the size of Gwen’s, two girls made a promise that would not be broken. They would go through all of this together. The mood was sombering and Gwen took a try at lighting it back up.

“Hey, If it makes you feel any better, I am pretty sure my day has brought more surprises than yours,” Gwen said with a laugh. Joking about it all might make it easier… but it also made it all feel like a lie. She could feel herself pushing her emotions away trying to lighten them. Maybe some emotions are not meant to be lightened, Gwen thought.

“Yes?” Lairelithoniel was waiting with an expectant and watchful eye over Gwen. “Does this have anything to do with your meeting with Queen Rhiannon?” She added in a faint whisper. The two girls moved to sit on the freshly turned down bed. Lairelithoniel’s bedchamber was decorated in the same silver vine design that covered her door. Each room of nobility in this castle had a distinct design of nature to show the person’s status. Lairelithoniel’s was about to be changed. She would soon be upgraded to gold. They were preparing her for a life as a miserable queen in a glimmering cage. Gwen looked around the room taking in its superficial splendor. This was the life that she had always seen and never envied. And now it was hers.

“Yes.”

~~~

Gwen woke to the chirping of birds coming through the large window. Oh, no. She had overslept. Gwen kicked off the blankets of Lairelithoniel’s bed hastily but carefully, trying not to wake the finally sleeping princess. Without taking the time to get properly dressed, Gwen simply threw a sweater over her nightgown. She didn’t pause for a moment as she tore across the halls, her hair knotted in several different directions.

When Gwen finally made it into the large library she heaved a breath of sleepy exhaustion. When she finally caught her breath, Gwen surveyed the room looking for the queen. After looking about for several seconds, Gwen finally spotted her mother in the corner curled up with a book. The library seemed to suit her like a form fitting glove. The shelves of leather bound books seemed to be the queen’s natural habitat. Gwen wondered if her mother would ever look up from the lavender tinted tome she was so engulfed in. Gwen decided that she would have to make her presence known.

“Hello, did you call me here for a nice little chat on stories, or more pressing matters? Maybe you could clarify some things like, oh I don’t know… How people are plotting to kill me!”

The queen lifted her head with a chuckle and rose from her corner looking graceful as she got up from the ground. A hair fell out of her carefully crafted updo, framing her face in loose curls. Her muted blue gown flowed around her making Gwen wonder if someone this beautiful was really her mother. She had the same chocolate brown eyes, light brown hair, and characteristic height that Gwen had. Gwen was always being teased by the servants on her, ‘height of a child’. Gwen did not mind being small. She felt it gave her a whole new perspective of the world, and she could get away with children prices at the market if she tied her hair up in pigtails.

“Oh, Gwen-” The queen let yet another graceful laugh as she came over to her daughter. “First off, you are late young lady.” She paused looking at Gwen inquisitively. “I noticed you didn’t come from the servants side of the castle.”

There was a stilling pause in the air.

“I needed to be with my best friend.” Gwen said in a slightly quiet tone. This was not a normal tone for Gwen and the queen picked up on that. She is softening towards me, Queen Rhiannon realized.

“I would not expect anything less from you… And that is a good thing,” the queen added on with a wink. “Now, onto the reason you have been called here. I realize how much all of this has shocked you.” Gwen broke her speech with a huff of sarcastic laughter. “I can’t fix the past. I am sorry for that.”

A string of emotions were threaded together and sewn into that moment. Gwen felt all of the regret flood the room. Was regret an emotion or an action? What made things emotions and when did they simply become thought? Regret washed through the queen, covering her features in a vial of sorrow. A small flicker of hope and pride for her daughter started to unravel part of the vial, but a remnant of the regret would always hang over her. Gwen started to understand her mother more and more. Through the whirlwind of emotions, Gwen could start to see a blur of thought behind them.

“It’s okay. I like new and exciting things! What is more exciting than being a secret princess with special… powers?”

Gwen could see that Queen Rhiannon was glad of her enthusiasm. Gwen hoped she could help to sort out the cluttered halls of her mind and heart… She could see clearly now how well the queen acted to be calm. She was everything but calm in the privacy of her mind.

“Gwen, keep up what you are doing. Use your powers to help others and not use it against them. I have known too many royals who used this for destruction and pain. You know too many, in fact.” The queen let out a breath of regret. “This kingdom is under the power of people obsessed with manipulation and power. This is a gift that has been given to the royals for the purpose to understand and help the people. We have had this skill since the dawn of this reign.”

Gwen paused taking this all in. This was a gift given to royals? If that was the case who gave it to them? What exactly was it? All of the questions surrounding this made her head ache.

“We do not know who gave us this ability. There are plenty of myths around the subject. Some say it was a ability some figure in the clouds gave us. Others think that we are simply born with this skill… It is an unsolved mystery that royals have speculated over for hundreds of years.” Gwen stared at her mother with her mouth hanging wide open. How did she read her thoughts? Just as Gwen was wondering how this could be possible the queen opened her mouth yet again.

“I could not understand exactly what you were thinking, but I had the general idea. Believe it or not, you and I think quite alike.” The queen winked at Gwen, lightly pushing her arm in a playful manner. “Darling, close your mouth, you are not a codfish.” She let out a lyrical note of laughter.

“I am sorry –” Gwen took a shaking breath. “Are you telling me that I can read… minds?!”

“The gifts vary from royal to royal, but from what I can tell you will be much better than me. I only have a faint sprinkling of the power. You, however, have more of it than you know what to do with. I have had years of practice to train this craft. You seem to be using it naturally. That is very rare.”

“If they vary, then how do you know that I am as rare as you say I am? Yes, I have been able to feel and read emotions from people. Does that make me the… mind reading genius that you seem to think I am? No, it does not.”

“Gwen,” The queen started. “You have no idea how advanced that is for someone who not only knew nothing of these powers but also knew nothing of this way of life.” Queen Rhiannon looked at Gwen with memories of being hurt flashing through her eyes. “You have the heart and the head for this gift, dear. Not many share both of those qualities. Your father and brother have been driven mad by the power of the ability. You are our kingdom’s last hope.”

This woman seemed to have a flair for the dramatic, Gwen thought to herself. All that babbling on about her being the last hope must be the product of all those novels. She was right about one thing though. The king and prince were completely bonkers.

“I am not some ‘chosen one’ as you may think. I know you will not believe me; however, so I am willing to be trained in this… art.” Gwen took a look to see the queen with a sad smile on her face. “Only if I get some more of that amazing pie.” She added on the end, hoping that it would make the queen’s smile less sad. She also just really loved pie.

“You have a deal.” Queen Rhiannon said through a series of laughter. This was the real kind that bubbled up through your throat before you register what is going on.

“Shall we begin now, or have I scared you away too soon?” The queen said in her playful banter that Gwen was growing more fond of.

“You will have to try harder than that to scare me.”

~~~

Gwen snuck back to the servants quarters after a long morning of training. This was all so new to her, but she could feel it all coming to her rather naturally as she practiced with the queen. There was one thing, however, that she was horrid at. Gwen had a problem not feeling every emotion as her own. She felt them all so strongly that it was hard to read the emotions rather than be consumed by them. Thoughts were coming to her easier now, though they were still blurring in the storm of emotions swirling around her.

Gwen was suddenly stopped in her tracks as she neared her room. She heard  the sound of loud snoring coming through her door.

Someone was in her room.

Gwen opened the door with a swing and she whipped her head around to survey the room. Anger ran over Gwen as she saw her room before her. It was spotless. Before she could dwell too much on this fact, Gwen finally looked over at her bed.

Someone was sleeping in her room. Who was this?! It couldn’t be a fellow servant, for everyone knew to stay out of Gwen’s room. She took another look over the sleeping youth. She was wearing her gown… Very badly. She was a far too tall for the plain brown dress she tried in vain to fit over herself. An orange… Cloth wrapped around her waist in an effort to cover how ludicrous she looked.

Gwen looked around her room, trudging out a large book to defend herself. She walked over gingerly as she pulled the book over her head about to strike. As soon as she did this, the girl shot awake. The girl looked panicked for a very brief moment before evening out her face in grim look of black features. Before Gwen knew what was going on, she was on the floor with this insane… Thing, about to strike her with a hair brush. Gwen couldn’t help it, she laughed in her face.

“Do you plan on brushing my hair so harshly that I cry and run away?” Gwen managed to blurt out during her fit. She took another breath. “This is my room you know. I think I have the right to whack sleeping strangers awake.”

The girl looked so confused at this point Gwen almost took pity on her.

“Are you going to keep standing there and staring at me like a baboon, or actually explain yourself?” Gwen paused hoping she would respond. Of course, she didn’t. “I don’t bite you know.” Another pause. Yet another silence. “I am Gwen, and you are?”


By E. Crowther

 

Chapter 24

Lynn awoke suddenly. She stayed motionless, taking in her surroundings.

It was dark. She was sitting, a wall against her back. Turning her head slowly to the side, she tried to peer into the darkness. Her head throbbed at the movement. Lynn winced and reached her hand up to touch her head. She felt something warm and sticky. It couldn’t be… blood? Lynn tried to stand to her feet, but the floor felt like it was moving from underneath her. She put a hand on the wall to steady herself and stayed in a half-kneeling position, letting the dizziness stop. Several moments passed, but Lynn still felt like she was moving. A chill of apprehension ran down Lynn’s back as she became aware of a quiet rumbling. She knew that noise. She had been forced to listen to it for hours only days before. It was the sound of wheels on the ground as they carried her farther and farther away from home.

Lynn would have quite liked to sit down and cry. Unfortunately, the logical part of herself said very firmly that now was not the time. She couldn’t afford to waste time indulging in tears. Lynn began to stand again, but slowly, with her hands above her head. Her hands met a hard surface. A ceiling. She couldn’t stand all the way up without bending awkwardly, so Lynn crouched back down and moved further along the wall. She soon hit another wall. This one had a small window in it. It was about the size of her hand. An air hole. Which meant… It was as she had supposed. She was in some sort of box, or rather, a cage.  

Lynn sat back down against the wall, trying to think back to what had happened. The last thing she remembered was Alya, telling her to get some sleep. She had relented, gratefully, and fallen asleep instantly. Then… then what? Her memory provided no answers. But the thought of Alya made Lynn’s heart sink with fear and guilt. What had happened to her? And the strange girl?

She hit her fist against the ground in anger. The pain of her hand meeting the hard substance cleared her head. What was she in, anyways? It wasn’t wood; this material was cold and smooth and hard. There was no use trying to break out. Lynn closed her eyes instead, searching for any water nearby. She soon stopped her attempt in surprise — she hadn’t sensed any water. She could always find water if she tried: streams, puddles, moisture underground, even water in the air. But this time, she hadn’t sensed anything. Then Lynn realized. It was the box. Whatever the substance was, it was stopping her from using her powers.

Lynn sank down to the floor in a sort of calm despair. She cushioned her aching head with her arm and closed her eyes, letting the constant motion of the wagon lull her to sleep.

A sudden jolt awoke Lynn. She sat up slowly, moving her head as little as possible. The wagon had stopped. She listened carefully, trying to find a hint of where she was or what was going to happen next. There was the background buzz of voices from a large crowd, an occasional shout, and an odd clanking noise… It sounded like a gate being opened.

Then her stomach lurched as the wagon began to move again. Now that she was awake, every movement made her head throb. She also realized that her throat was extremely dry, and she had no idea when she had last eaten.

The noise had died down and it was mostly quiet, quiet enough that Lynn could again hear the sound of the wheels creaking. Then it stopped again, and a thump sounded, like someone jumping down from the driver’s seat. Minutes passed in silence and then voices came nearer, until they were right next to the side of the box where Lynn’s head rested.

A rough voice was speaking. Lynn felt a wave of anger as she recognized the same farmer from the town of Sindri. “I nearly emptied my pocket buying men and wagons to come with me, just to get that girl here! I ain’t going till I get that reward the Councilman told me about.”

A cold voice answered him. “And the Council thanks you for it. We’ll take her off your hands now.”

The farmer began to protest, and then there was a snap. The man with the cold voice spoke again. “Guards, escort this man and the rest of his company back outside.”

A scuffle, and then the farmer shouted, “I’ll see the King about this!”

“Go ahead.” The voice was sneering now. “Don’t you know he’s the Head of the Council?”

There was the sound of something being pulled away, as if a blanket had been over the box. Then the fumbling sound of a latch. Lynn crouched, ready to jump as soon as the door opened.

But when the front of the box swung open, and Lynn forgot her brave plans of escape as the sunlight flooded in. A cry of pain escaped from her lips as the bright rays of light pierced her eyes. She could see nothing, much less be able to get away from whomever was there.

A pair of hands grabbed her and pulled her out of the cart. A strong grip held one arm. Lynn kept her free hand over her eyes, trying to block out the bright sun. The man began dragging her along and Lynn stumbled to keep up. The exertion was too much and the world began to spin around her. She gulped in the fresh air, but she felt only fainter. Black spots appeared in front of her eyes. She felt herself falling but she couldn’t stop it and then — nothing.

Lynn opened her eyes slowly. She was laying on the ground, but at least this time she could see. Light was streaming in from a high window, but thankfully not too bright. Lynn looked around. As far as she could tell, it was a cell. Stone walls, wooden door, and an earthen ground. Perhaps mostly underground, for the room was damp and cool. On the floor there sat a wooden mug and plate. Lynn lurched towards it. The plate held pieces of bread, extremely dry, but Lynn ate it eagerly. The water from the mug was soon drained, the few sips only serving to make her more thirsty.

Lynn pressed her hand on the damp dirt and drew the water to the surface. She wanted to gulp it down immediately, but she made herself wait until she had drawn out all the dirt and mud from the water. The last thing she needed was to get herself sick. When she was no longer thirsty, Lynn carefully began to wash the wound on her head.

A hissing whisper from outside the door interrupted her. “Lynn! Lynn!”

Lynn’s heart jumped. Was it just a hallucination, a dream? Or… She stumbled to her feet and made her way to the door. “Alya?” she whispered back. She heard a gulp of relief and then a hoarse cry, “Jade! Jade, she’s here!”

Lynn barely had time to wonder who Jade was when smoke began curling off the wood door, only around the handle. The wood started crackling, and Lynn stared in astonishment as a reddish-orange color overcame the dark brown of the door. Flames of fire burst through, carving a hole straight around the handle. Suddenly the door swung open. A girl was standing there, with black hair in braids coming down on her shoulders. She stood several inches shorter than Lynn, but her eyes were fierce and her mouth was set with determination. And her hand was on fire.

Without thinking Lynn doused the girl with all the water left from the cell. The fire was extinguished, but the girl was soaked. The water ran down her body and started forming a puddle on the ground. Lynn looked at the puddle.

The drenched girl stared at Lynn. “We keep meeting like this, don’t we?” She said drily.

Alya peeked her head around the door. “You didn’t need to do that, Lynn. She’s learning to control it.”

Lynn didn’t blush very often, but she blushed now. “Um, sorry. Let me dry you off…” She quickly drew the water off the girl, who watched with eyebrows lifted.

“Handy trick,” she said. “I’m Jade, by the way.”

“Pleased to meet you… I’m Lynn.”

Alya broke in, her eyes lit up with excitement. “Don’t you want to know how we found you?”

Lynn frowned at Alya. “Of course I do, but shouldn’t we get out of here first?”

“No, we’ve got time,” said Jade offhandedly. “They’re having a celebration… Some sort of party for a Princess Larry-something. No one will come down here for hours.”

Lynn didn’t know whether to laugh or get angry. “What do you mean, we’ve got time? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not be put in a box and carried off to who knows where for the second time in… in… ” Lynn paused. “How long has it been?”

Alya answered. “Two days.”

“Two and half, actually,” Jade corrected her. “And we’re at some kingdom… Rhydderch, they call it.”

Lynn stood stunned. “Not Rhydderch as in Rhydderch ruled by King Arawn and Queen Rhiannon?”

Jade nodded. “That’s the one.”

Lynn didn’t respond. Alya took it as a chance to tell her story, falling back into her own language in her excitement. Lynn heard Alya’s words in sort of a daze.

It seemed that when Alya had discovered Lynn was gone, Jade had been able to follow the tracks… They had made it out of the forest just in time to see the group of men load an unconscious Lynn into a container and cover it with a blanket. The farmer, obviously worried someone would try to get the reward, had hired a train of wagons to accompany him. Alya and Jade had snuck onto the last wagon and hidden there for the journey.

“And then when the wagons stopped here at the castle, we hopped off and ran to hide. Then we watched where the man took you, and came to find you!” Alya finished with a smile on her face, quite proud of Jade and her heroics. Lynn stared at the two girls in disbelief. Alya spoke as if it had been easy, fun even. But Lynn knew that their journey must have been full of danger. “Thank you,” she said earnestly.

Jade shrugged, looking uncomfortable with Lynn’s gratitude. “You helped me first, I was just returning the favor.”

Lynn suddenly remembered where they were. “But now, can we please get out of here?”

Jade gave a mock curtsy. “If you insist.”

Lynn followed Jade and Alya down several hallways, making a left turn and then another left and then a right. Lynn was much more apprehensive than the two girls, who didn’t seem to care that they were helping a prisoner escape the King’s palace. Alya looked back at Lynn. “Don’t worry, Jade checked everything out. We’re safe.” Then she added with a mischievous grin, “For now.”

Lynn rolled her eyes.

They were walking up a set of stairs now, towards the door at the top. Jade peered cautiously through the barred window, opened the door quietly, and motioned for Alya and Lynn to follow. The door shut behind them and the three girls set off into the castle.


By M. Choi

 

Chapter 25

The walls were bare, but there was a window, which allowed just enough of sun into the room to keep it from being depressing.

Tharrheo lightly ran his fingers along the woven fabric of the glimmering golden tapestry that hung on the wall.

He squinted his eyes, enthralled at the tiny depiction of stick figures knit into its circular pattern. He smirked. It looked like an army. They were holding up tiny little  swords at…his smile faded when his eyes locked on what looked like the opposing army, if they could be called an army at all. They were sorely outnumbered. Tharrheo’s stomach churned into a pit as he realized they all had powers. His gaze locked onto a figure with its sword raised above its head engulfed in flamesJade.

The creak of door beckoned Tharrheo’s attention.

“King Kahn!” Tharrheo was relieved to see that the king was alive and well…surprisingly well actually. He rushed forward to greet his long time friend.

The king’s face was clean-shaven, and there was a glow in his eyes that gave off a youthful aura. He wore a silk burgundy robe, with gold lining. “Ahhh, Tharrheo Imago.”

“You’re looking healthy.” Tharrheo smiled, but then King Kahn noticed a glint of something else in his eyes.

Kahn dropped his head momentarily before meeting Tharrheo’s gaze with a grim smile. “I suppose we’ve known each other too long to try to hide anything from each other. What say you?”

Tharrheo was silent, uneasy as to where this was headed.

“Arik, come in here, please.” The king stepped aside and his son filed in, shutting the door behind him so that it was just the three of them.

Arik shuffled into the room with his gaze glued to the ground.

“I’m sorry to hear your daughter is gone. Ran away, that is, I mean.”

Tharrheo was silent. ‘So she did make it out,’ He thought.

“Your son is the one who let her go. To save your life.” Tharrheo put an emphasis on the word your.

Arik’s whole body tensed as his father clasped a heavy hand on his shoulder. “So I am aware.” The king said through gritted teeth. “But seeing as though I’m healthy now, she can make a safe return.”

More silence.

King Kahn looked deep into Tharrheo’s eyes. “My son here said that you gave a letter to your daughter just before she disappeared.”  

Tharrheo stepped back and crossed his arms, his face expressionless. “And?”

King Kahn sigh deeply. “I am…concerned—”

Tharrheo held up a hand. “Drop the act. You know I didn’t poison you. Why did you fake it? Why am I still here?”

“Don’t interrupt me!” The king was not one for patience and his face contorted into something beastly with anger. “I know what you are.” Arik looked at his father, horrified as the venom from his words seeped into the air like poisonous gas. “Imagos.” He spat, “All of you a plague, a stain on this planet.”

Tharrheo didn’t respond. He knew the day would soon arrive. The day that he would have to let her babygirl go, so that she could survive to fight another day. That’s why he sent Jade away. To be safe, to save the legacy.

King Kahn fought to get back his air of smugness. “We’ll see how silent you are at the execution.”

“Even if you kill me

“You?” King Kahn laughed. “I’m talking about the execution of your family!”

The control that Tharrheo had spent decades cultivating snapped in a fraction of a moment. Lightning erupted out of Tharrheo’s body as he lunged forward and sunk his fingers into Kahn’s throat.

Arik sprang into action, trying desperately to pull Tharrheo off of his father. But he couldn’t be nearly strong enough to stop a father from fighting for the life of his family. “Stop! You’re going to kill him!”

Tharrheo’s rage of electricity rippled through Kahn’s body, the king’s body vigorously convulsing.

Then everything stopped. Both men collapsed to the ground. One still and one not. One with holes in his robe and one with a hole in his chest.

Arik sank to a heap on the ground, his hands shaking as badly as his father’s body. He looked at the blood on the blade in his hands, his eyes glazed over with tears. “Jade, I’m so sorry…”

————————————————————————–

As wrong as it was, Jade thoroughly enjoyed irking Lynn.

“Jade,” Lynn sounded exasperated, “If you keep humming, someone is bound to hear us.”

Jade and Alya locked eyes for a moment, Alya’s green irises holding a glint of mischief, and a grin slipped across their faces. Jade turned around and gave Lynn an apologetic look. “You know what, you’re right. We need to be more careful.”

Lynn stopped walking. “Where’s Alya?”

“Rahhh!”

“Ahhhh!” Lynn spun around as Alya appeared out of thin air behind her.

Alya and Jade both collapsed to the ground,  clutching their stomachs and gasping in laughter.

“Is this all a joke to you? Do you not care that you’re putting our lives in danger?” Lynn’s tone sobered the atmosphere.

Jade temper flared, and she shot to her feet, ready to defend herself, but when they locked gazes Jade saw that Lynn wasn’t angry. Jade was taken aback by the flood of concern in Lynn’s deep blue eyes. Suddenly Jade was conscious of the bandage that was on her forehead. How Lynn and Alya stopped to save her even though they didn’t know her.

Jade bowed her head slightly and cupped her hand in front of her face, and then extended it toward Lynn. “In my land, this is a gesture of apology.” Jade was tempted to add ‘Don’t get used to it.’ Lynn’s expression softened and all the emotion was just too much for Jade to handle. She was sure that she was going to hurl.

“Come on,” Alya said moving forward, “This party isn’t going to last forever.”   

Alya was met with grim determination as the girls keeping going.

Jade was relieved that Alya knew where she was going. Otherwise Jade would’ve had them following the smell of food.  

“Who goes there?” A voice called out from behind them, down the hallway. Jade wasn’t sure how far down.

The three girls stopped, and they could feel the anxiety of their heart creep into their throats.

No one so much as breathed.

“Hey! I said who goes there?!”

“Hey guys,” Alya breathed, “There is a door up ahead.”

“What’s behind it?” Lynn asked.

“Whatever it is, it has to beat rotting in a cell right?” Alya tried to sound upbeat.

 “Fantastic.” Jade muttered.

Without another moment to waste, the three sprinted to the door of the promise land, their arms pumping wildly by their side. Lynn was the first one to reach the door and swung it open without a moment’s hesitation, and the others followed suit.

Before them was a hallway with even more doors.

So with their lungs burning and their chests heaving, they kept running.

Jade drove her legs against the ground until she was in stride with Alya. “You got a lucky door for us? I can’t keep running forever.”

“Lynn!” Alya pulled to the right and barged into the door…literally into the door because it was locked.

Alya winced but kept moving.

Panic seizing their limbs they tried the next door over and it swung open, revealing…the three of them weren’t quite sure what they were looking at.

They had nowhere else to go.

Alya tentatively closed the door behind them.

The five strangers stared at each other.

“Death by hairbrush.” Jade nodded. “Unorthodox, but I like it.”

One of the girls waved her arm. “Great! Join the party! I thought I forgot to send out the invitations for more random strangers to nap in my bed!!!”

“Please,” Lynn said, “We need your help.”  


By F. Rendels

 

Chapter 26

Sleep had never felt so good as it did the moment before a subtle creak brushed through Athadius’ consciousness.  She lay there for a moment, knowing that someone had just opened the door, but unsure if she wanted to wake for it.  After all she had been through, didn’t she deserve a good sleep?  Ahh, but sleep was futile, for soon those pesky wind voices warned her that a short, scrawny, always-using-us-to-speak-nonsense-girl had raised a book (of all the things she could choose as a weapon, she chose this?) and was about to strike.

Shooting awake, Athadius was taken aback by what she saw.  She knew this girl.  Regaining her composure quickly, Athadius swiped the girl’s feet out from under her, and grabbed the only thing handy as a weapon: a hair brush.

The wind teased her at her choice.  Brush Brush Brush MUUCH better than a book book book Ooooooo a blue bird  It took all of Athadius’ will to shut off their chatter: it was still too new and startling.  But the wind was not the only one to chide her on her weapon choice.  The girl she had pinned to the floor laughed in her face!  Now that was a first.  Not oh not the last last last, the wind foretold.  Athadius scowled.

Between laughing, the girl managed to blurt out, “Do you plan on brushing my hair so harshly that I cry and run away?” The girl gasped for breath, and Athadius decided that she sided with the wind on one account: this girl did waste air, what between her sharp tongue, giggling fits, and the gasps she had to take in between them all.

“This is my room, you know.  I think I have the right to whack sleeping strangers awake.”

Sleeping strangers Sleeping strangers Strangers strangers strangers Cow outside Strangers in the bed Strangers on the floor Strangers in the hall hall hall  Watch out Wind Daughter more strangers strangers Strangers you are about to make not strangers

Athadius took on a look of utter bewilderment at this point.  She was having a hard time focusing with the wind always twittering in her ear.

“Are you going to keep standing there and staring at me like a baboon, or actually explain yourself?” The little weasel interrupted her thoughts.  Athadius shook her head, she was going crazy.  First she hears the wind talk and then she calls a girl a long rat– though the title did seem to fit.  Her father would be so ashamed.  Or would have been, Athadius corrected.  A sudden flood of grief washed over her, a flood that she quickly pocketed away.  There was no time for such weakness.  Staring down into the girl’s eyes, she saw that the we..girl was waiting for her to speak.

Strangers strangers strangers, the wind whispered.  How could she speak with the wind going on like that?

“I don’t bite, you know,” The girl said.

Athadius tried to silence the wind. Thankfully the w… girl was loud enough to be heard over the wind.

“I am Gwen, and you are?”

Strangers strangers strangers Books on shelves Strangers coming Nooooooowwww

Athadius looked up to see an odd looking threesome burst through the doorway and then meekly close it behind them.

One was extraordinarily short, so short that Ath wondered if she was just a child… a child with a dagger on her hip and a staff taller than herself in hand.

Another was only slightly taller than the child-girl, but this one actually looked like more child, what with her long black curls surrounding a round, rosy face.

The last was the tallest of the bunch, though still far shorter than Ath herself.  This last girl had thick straight brown hair and startling ocean blue eyes.

“Death by hairbrush.” The Child-Girl nodded. “Unorthodox, but I like it.”

Gwen wiggled like a weasel underneath Athadius’ feet as she waved her arms. “Great! Join the party! I thought I forgot to send out the invitations for more random strangers to nap in my bed!!!”

“Please,” Ocean-eyes pleaded, “We need your help.”

The metal clad The metal clad The metal clad, the wind chanted, only confusing Athadius until she heard soldiers stomp past their door.

The odd threesome swung towards the door.  A ball of water erupted in Ocean-Eyes hand, while flames licked the fingers of the Child-Girl.  Gwen squirmed so that she could see the girls better.  Athadius and Gwen stared in awe together.  Keeping her hairbrush at hand, silly though it may be,  Athadius let Gwen scramble to her feet.

“Are magical powers growing on trees these days or have we hit the mythical jackpot?” Gwen said.  Everyone else in the room, including Ath herself, stiffened at the remark.

Weasel found your secret Ribbon under the bed Weasel found your secret

Gwen’s eyes darted to Athadius.  “No way.  Miss. Cats-Got-My-Tongue has powers too!  What are they?”  Athadius remained silent.   “Or is that them, that you can’t speak?  What can you do, read people’s minds?  Oh wait, that’s my power, so you can’t have it.”  When Athadius just glared, dumbfounded inside, but all politically peaceful on the outside, Gwen showed a sliver of doubt cross her face.  “You can’t, can you?”

Look at all you Fledglings Fledglings Fledglings Way up in the high tower tower they talk talk talk of you Fledglings Fledglings

“What on this side of the mountain is going on?” the Girl-Child almost bellowed.  Ocean eyes hushed her with a worried glance at the door.

“I could ask you the same thing,” Gwen said, seating herself comfortably on her still-made-bed.  To Athadius’ disgust, Gwen grabbed one of the pillows and tugged on the covers until they looked downright sloppy.  Satisfied with her work, Gwen turned back to the others.  “Or is it normal wherever you came from to just storm into a girl’s room without asking permission, or forest forbid, knocking!  Wherever you live must be far from here, your odd clothes give you away.  Oh my!  Is that animal hide you are wearing?  You do realize that there is a thing called cloth, don’t you?  You don’t even have to end a life to get it.”

“Is it normal where you come from to talk so much?” The Child-Girl asked.

It was then that Athadius realized that the curly headed one was not standing next to the others, where she had last seen her.

Wondering wondering when you would notice notice Horse lost a shoe Behind you Behind you

Through the wind Athadius felt the girl standing behind her, head cocked in curiosity.  Reacting on instinct, Athadius pinned the girl against the wall, one hand pressed down on her chest, the other holding her hair brush, raised and ready to strike.  Shocked, Athadius watched as she seemingly held nothing beneath her hands.  Before her eyes, Curly Head suddenly appeared, eyes startled and lips trying to form a pleading smile..

“Well, I guess we know what your power is now, Chameleon.” Gwen said.  “And don’t worry about her, she doesn’t say much, apparently she thinks her raised hair brush speaks for her.  Just wait a few moments and she will let you go.  I should know, I was in her grip not two minutes ago.”

Curls just stared into Ath’s dark brown eyes and swallowed hard.  “Hhhh-hi.  Mmmmy name’s A-ayla.”

“Tried that.  Doesn’t work,” Gwen commented from the bed.

A faint hint of a smile touched Athadius’ eyes, though it never made it to her mouth.  Athadius let Ayla scamper back to her friends.

“I’m Gwen,” Gwen said, more because she wanted to know the other girls’ names than that she wanted them to know her own.

“Nice to meet you.  I’m Lynn,” Ocean-Eyes said with a kind, if not slightly flustered, smile.

Child-Girl looked over Gwen, sitting comfortably while everyone else was standing stiffly.  Letting out a little huff, she said simply, “Jade.”

Gwen again looked at Athadius, hoping to finally figure out who this destroyer-of-her-dirty-room and loud-snorer was.

But Athadius only stared distractedly at the door.  Truth be told, she was having a very hard time concentrating now.  The wind was loud, loud and all around.  There was not one moment where it was not brushing past her skin bringing news of tidings, sometimes completely random, other times useful, but all loud.

Metal Clad Metal Clad coming your wayyyyyyyyyyy

“Aren’t you going to tell us your name?” Alya asked.

Metal boots clanged to a stop right outside their door, cutting off any chance for Athadius to answer.

A flaming and a drenched hand appeared yet again.  The door was kicked down, revealing on one side seven soldiers with swords raised, and on the other five girls with five different reactions.  Jade snarled.  Lynn raised her wet hands with a fearful yet determined look on her face. Alya disappeared.  Gwen cocked her head, a mixture of shock and curiosity at the day’s events showing on her face.  Athadius hardly reacted at all.  She beckoned her wind friends to surge through the door, picking up the flames and the water as they went.  An eruption of boiling steam flew in the faces of the soldiers, knocking them back a good few feet.

“Follow me,” Athadius said as she rushed out the door.

The girls followed, Lynn sending another wave of water over the soldiers, Alya not to be seen, Jade knocking each of them on the head with her staff, and Gwen muttering to herself, “She speaks!”

Athadius led the way, feeling with the wind as to which way to go.  They took a left down a long corridor, then a right through a servant’s passageway, then headed through a door that led outside.

Being outside for the first time since waking with her new… oddities, the wind shocked Athadius with an onslaught of thoughts.

Grass frog dirt lady with a pink skirt Bakery fly closed gates food heaped on top of plates Wet well wagon wheels letters bearing king’s seal Furnace hot…

Athadius closed her mind, searching only for the information she needed.

“This way.” Athadius led them to a forge… A forge that sat right next to a well.  Soldiers still on their tails, the girls hid in the forge.  Turning to the fire and water duo, Athadius said, “I assume you draw your powers from their substance.” She looked at Jade and gestured to the fire in the forge, and then looked at Lynn and pointed to a well.  With a glance over her shoulder, she saw that soldiers were arranging themselves in formation outside the forge.

More more more metal clad cominggggg

Remembering what she had heard from the wind, Athadius said, “Alya, I am going to ask you to do something, but it will be dangerous.”

Alya shifted uncomfortably.

“Someone is hunting us.  There is a tower at the top of the castle that I believe will have some answers for us.”

“You don’t have to,” Lynn told Ayla, grabbing and holding her hand.

“No, but what if they know about my Kaulakoru?”  A look of fierce resolve welled up in Alya’s eyes.  “I’ll go.” And with that, she disappeared.

Off she flies flies flies Dog stole a bun Metal clad come come come

Already Jade had done her thing and was blazing all over, while Lynn had begun pulling water from the well.  Athadius turned to Gwen.  “What are your powers again?”

Gwen stood tall, “I…. I can read things off of people.”

Athadius raised an eyebrow, “Right, you can read people’s minds.” She turned towards the growing army outside.  Great, how is that going to help us fight? She thought. “At least I know you don’t like broccoli,” Gwen quipped.

“What’s broccoli?” Athadius responded.

Man speaks speaks speaks of such when eating Broom is sweeping

“Are we going to start fighting, or just stand here like fawn caught in brambles?” Jade asked.

“See if you can find us anything useful,” Athadius told Gwen, not wanting her to feel like she did not have a job.  Gwen rolled her eyes as she left, muttering under her breath about “insufferable girls who order people around and clean up their rooms.”

A few of the twenty or so soldiers began to march forward.  Athadius sent a gust of wind to try and push the soldiers back.  It barely ruffled their uniforms.

“Huh, I remember someone calling MY powers useless.” Gwen said, peering past her.  “Funny how this all plays out.” She paused.  “Oh!  Did that make you mad?  Or are you always like that?”

The wind seemed to laugh at her statement.

Determination and a bit of frustration welled up in Athadius and she sent a strong gust of wind at the feet of the soldiers, burying their boots in a foot of sand.

Gwen closed her gaping mouth quickly.  “I can build sand castles too, you know.  You should try figuring out what’s going on in that maze of a head of yours.  You wouldn’t be able to… But I know that you were feeling pretty good about yourself just then.  Now you are mad again because I called you a Sand Castle Constructor.  Hey, that is not a bad name for you!”

“Athadius,” Athadius grumbled, in between sending gusts of wind alongside heaps of water and blazes of fire.  There was now a host of soldiers just outside.

“What?” Gwen asked.

“Athadius,” she repeated.  She risked giving a fierce glance at the loud girl, “That is my name.”


By R. Shinnick

 

Chapter 27

“Aye,” said Old Sawyer, slamming his jug down on the table. “That’s what ‘appened. ‘eard it with me own ears!”

Palmer leaned forward, along with the many other men, young and old. “E’ery lit-le bit then?” he asked.

Old Sawyer nodded self-importantly. “Aye,” he said again, welcoming the unusual attention. “All five of ‘em, dancin’ ‘round with their clothes burnin’ up. I ‘eard ‘em talkin’ to the Councilman. And-” he grew quiet and everyone leaned in, including the brown haired stranger. “They say afta they were all fixed up, they went back inta the forest and caught one of ‘em. I ‘eard they’re plannin’ to go back for the other one. Invisible they she was! And the other! They say she flamed up all the sudden. ‘Ey? What’s that?” Old Sawyer cocked his head as the question was repeated.

“The water girl, they say it was. Took her far ‘way, they did. I even ‘eard that- Oi! What’s all this?” he exclaimed as a chair clattered to the ground. “Come back ‘ere, lad!” he shouted to the stranger.

But Caden had already disappeared out the door, his eyebrows furrowed and his eyes full of worry.

~~~

As soon as she disappeared, Alya went into action. She knew that with every second she wasted her task would get harder. Not stopping to decide whether or not it was a good idea, she plunged through the doorway, trying to get past the soldiers without them noticing if she could, but not really caring. She managed to cause havoc among the soldiers within her first few steps outside the door. Not even taking the time to swerve through the never ending soldiers, she dove underneath the legs of one, kicking his legs out from under him as she did so. Realizing what had happened, the soldier immediately swung his club randomly in the air, swiping for Alya. In the process, he scored a perfect shot right on the head of his neighbor, who in turn recoiled  and swung his weapon… and so on and so forth. Alya managed to escape them with minor injuries, a stubbed toe and slightly sore arm. Barely able to keep herself from laughing, she hurried down the open hallway.

Unsure of the way, she walked silently to a door, trying to see through the small keyhole. But what was that noise? She gasped. The door was flung open and Alya scrambled backwards just in time as more soldiers ran towards the forge. The door began to swing shut. She jumped forward and slid her fingers in between the door just in the nick of time and slipped in.

Running silently down the short corridor, she found what she was looking for. She opened the creaking door, wincing at the sound. Determined to keep going, she plunged up the flight of stairs, then stopped. She was sure… Yes! There were voices at the top. Arriving at the top she found a closed door. It was wooden, and the handle was rusty. There was a metal grate near the top. She tried to see through, but even on her tiptoes, she couldn’t see who was talking. They were two men, both middle aged, judging by their voices. One of them laughed and said something to other. Alya couldn’t believe what she had heard. She shifted her position to listen more comfortably.

“You’re sure?” One of the men said.

“Quite. Kahn was certain.”

“But his daughter-”

“Was sent away. We have not located her yet. The boy saved her.”
“I see… She will be found soon enough. In the meantime, what of the other girl?”

The other man cleared his throat awkwardly. “She… escaped. A few others helped her escape. They’ve been cornered, though.” He sounded rather amused. “Among them is your daughter.”

The other man snorted. “Ha! That insufferable girl may be my daughter, but she will always be a slave.”

“Perhaps. Shall we send the next batch then?”

“Indeed. However, it might be preferable to wait a few days, so as to make the journey to Adorshado as quickly as possible. The Pool of Dolor is not always the easiest to find. Your soldiers must be sure of their directions.”

His companion coughed. “Sire, meaning no disrespect, but my soldiers are fully trained and up to the task.”

The answer was like ice. “The disrespect was evident, General. I want it done.”

The door burst open and for the second time Alya scrambled backward…  this time onto the steps. She tumbled downward head over heels, screaming at the top of her lungs.

“Who’s there?!” shouted the two men together, bolting down the steps.

As soon as she regained her footing, Alya, despite her aching body, dashed toward the door and out, sprinting down the corridor. Opening the nearest door, she flung herself inside and sat down panting. She heard the footsteps run past the door. Still gasping for breath, she reappeared. Calming herself, she began to look around. It was a large room, nicely furnished, with a giant bed coming from the wall.

A lady walked out of a connecting side room. Alya froze.

“Hello,” said the beautiful stranger. It seemed hours before anything else happened. Alya stared at the lady with round scared eyes. She wore a forest green dress that matched her eyes, with long sleeves that hung loosely around her arms. On her head was a circlet made of golden leaves. Her golden hair hung down on her back.

“I’m not scary, you know. It’s just a scary room.”

“Don’t turn me in,” squeaked Alya, finally.

The lady looked utterly astonished. “I’m not going to turn you in, I-” She swept across the room and wrapped her arms around Alya. “Don’t be afraid. Come,” she led Alya into the other room, where several servants were waiting. She leaned down and whispered a few words into one of their ears. Before she knew what was happening, Alya was soaking in a hot bath, a plate of food, by her side. The hot water soothed her aching body. The kind lady herself brushed Alya’s hair after she was dressed and fed.

“Excuse me,” asked Alya finally. “What’s your name?”

The lady smiled. “Lairelithoniel,” she said.

Alya smiled. “My name’s Alya-” she stopped. “Lairelithoniel?” she gasped. “You- you mean, P-p-princess Larielithoniel?”

“There’s no need to be frightened, dear,” the princess paused. “Oh my, I’m afraid I must be going. You must stay here tonight and rest. I’ll be back later.” She ushered Alya to the enormous bed and left the room.

Shocked and confused, Alya lay back on the cushions, and instantly fell asleep.

When she awoke the next morning, Lairelithoniel was already awake.

“Good morning,” she said cheerily. Alya smiled back. It was impossible not to. Breakfast was brought to Alya in bed and she ate it gladly, though she felt a little guilty that the others had no food. She was just getting dressed when a knock sounded at the door. Lairelithoniel signaled for her to remain back. Alya tried to see who was at the door.

“Come in quickly,” came the princess’s voice. Alya could hear several pairs of feet shuffling in. She peeked out, and…

“Jade! Lynn!” she called joyously.

~~~

Lairelithoniel made sure all the girls were given hot baths and as much food as they could eat, though Athadius (Alya had finally discovered the tall girl’s name) and Jade protested when the servants tried to dress them in the beautiful clothes. After they had been bathed, fed, and dressed, the five girls sat down to hear what Alya had found out.

“I know where they’re taking them!” she exclaimed. “And where they were planning to take you, Lynn.”

“Taking who?” asked Lynn, voicing the general question.

“Everyone like us, everyone else who has powers. Yes, there are more,” explained Alya.

Gwen looked mildly surprised. “Oh, I see, now everyone has magical storybook powers.” Alya stopped, wondering whether her story was believable. “No, don’t worry,” continued Gwen, “everyone believes you.”

It was Athadius who asked the next question, after glaring at Gwen. “And where are they taking them?”

“They’re being taken to Adorshado,” Alya announced, proud of her accomplishment.

Gwen smiled, rather awkwardly, “Mmm…Very well done, Alya. Now would you please tell us where that is?”

Alya opened her mouth to speak, but Jade spoke first. “You mean you don’t know?” Four  pairs of eyes turned to her and asked the same question.  Jade shuffled her feet. “Adorshado doesn’t exist,” she said finally, “It’s a fairy tale.”

Everyone looked at her blankly. Jade shrugged her shoulders. “I guess I’ll have to tell you.” And she began.

“Once upon Time there lived a little girl. She had no parents, no friends, no money. The only thing she had was the moon and Time. With Time by her side and the moon up above, she bravely continued and the days would pass by. The moon and Time pitied the girl and thus one night, when the world was asleep, Time stopped for her sorrow, at the break of tomorrow. The moon shone its shadow and the girl entered into the land of Adorshado. After that, every night, Time would stop at the break of tomorrow, and during the hour that doesn’t exist, the girl would go to Adorshado. But, slowly, as every child does, the girl grew up. She grew into a beautiful young lady. Finally, she was rescued from the forest by a handsome prince, who took her back to his own land and married her. She taught her children the secret of Adorshado, and in turn they taught their own children. And so, child by child, generation by generation, the royalty learned of Adorshado’s secret.”

Not even Gwen found anything to say that would break the silence. Finally Alya spoke. “It’s not a fairy tale. I heard them talking! It’s at the Pool of Dolor. ”

“Sure. Whatever you say.” Jade didn’t sound convinced.

Alya looked around. “Don’t you believe me?”

Not even Lynn would meet her eyes. Jade sighed.

“Alya, the Pool of Dolor is near where I live. I’ve grown up hearing these fairy tales, and I’ve explored the woods around that pool for miles. There’s nothing there. It’s just an ordinary pool. No magic, no nothing. No Time stopping, no Moon’s shadow.”

Alya was stunned. “But-” she began.

Jade continued. “Besides, even if it did exist, legend has it only a descendant of the girl could learn the secret and enter.” She paused, then laughed rather hysterically. “I guess we could kidnap the King and Queen, though I don’t think that would go too well with the soldiers.”

Gwen jumped slightly. “What do you mean?”

Jade shrugged. “Didn’t you know? The prince was said to have come from Rhydderch, so only the royalty of Rhydderch can know the secret of Adorshado.”


By A. Choi

 

Chapter 28

“It really is such an amazing experience to causally run for one’s life,” Gwen uttered as she slowed her pace down ever so slightly to catch her breath. Yes, she should keep running because big scary men with sharp looking weapons were chasing this new found group of gifted misfits. Running like a madman beside her was one of the many insane girls that had somehow decided her room was the place to be. Which was it again? Gwen was horrific at remembering names, especially ones that were thrust upon her in a matter of seconds.

Gwen’s train of thought stopped along with her feet as she watched the show all around her. She had never actually been to a circus, but this felt like it fit the description. Guards and girls ran and went at each other in a frenzy that was comedic to say the least. Fire, water, and wind danced together in an attempt to push the never tiring guards out. The room looked as if it was meant to host some sort of tea party, not a battle against guards. Regal maroon tinted curtains hung from the enormous windows. This room seemed to be situated in the middle of the castle grounds just to impress people. Tall glass figures and age old tomes were being blown about by that tall girl that had passed out on Gwen’s bed. All that felt fitting while watching this scene before her was to blurt out in laughter. Gwen was brought back to reality as a very tall, colossal sized guard towered over her. This would be a perfect time to realize that she had superhuman strength. How did she get stuck with some emotional mind reading “gift” when everyone else had much more useful powers?

There are better times to complain about your place on the superpower lottery game, Gwen reminded herself. Focusing her mind on the task at hand, Gwen tried to somehow use her powers to aid her in combat. Just as the guard swung at her with his very sharp sword Gwen dodged out of the way, reading the map of his future actions as the thoughts entered his head. Gwen danced around the guard, laughing as he became more confused and Gwen became more confident. Confusion quickly spilled into anger as he began to swing with reckless abandon. The map of his thoughts flew away as the guard let his emotions take full reign of his actions. Not knowing what to do, Gwen took a long shot in trying to sway his emotions to something less… murderous. What could she do to influence him so much he would calm down? She could speak. Queen Rhiannon had told Gwen that emotions, thoughts, and speech were three pieces of a puzzle that when placed together correctly had the power to change everything.

“I do hope that you make it out of here alive. It must be such a chore coming out here and fighting girls with deadly powers that don’t know how to use them, let alone control themselves from doing anything… too bad.” Gwen added a wink to the end. The guard seemed to be all but moved by Gwen’s words. She decided she would try again.

“I bet you have a girl you would like to get back to.” Gwen looked at his face as he slightly flinched. Oh, his girl had just walked out on him… ouch. “Oh, I see. You were good to get rid of her! If she did not see the…” Gwen looked at the guard’s scared face, black and blue eye, and  staggering scowl. “If she could not see the oh so sweet complexities of your very being than you are one lucky man to be able to move past her!”

One thing this little speech had done, was get the guard thinking once again. The guard’s thoughts were occupied with getting this infernal girl to stop her talking. Gwen shuddered as she read how he planned to carry out his plan.

“That is very rude,” she paused for a moment filtering through his mind to discover his name. A bubbling laugh escaped her as she discovered it.  “Sunny, did your mother never teach you that it is not polite to plot a perfectly innocent young girl’s death?!”

Sunny was taken aback once again when Gwen spoke. He shocked himself into combat, as all guards do, naturally. Gwen was having trouble dodging his many blows, she found herself slipping and falling on the floor. Sunny had his sword lurking very close to her throat; taking his time trying to intimidate Gwen.

“Maybe this’ll shut ya’ up.” Sunny the cheerful guard spoke in a even sunnier voice. Just as Gwen thought to herself that perhaps insulting a big scary man with a pointy sword was not her brightest idea, Sunny fell to the ground, leaving a face behind that Gwen knew all too well. Jumping up with an excited laugh, Gwen ran over to her defender. Standing there smiling, he laughed as she practically ran into him.

“Liam!” Gwen said, as she wrapped her old friend in a spine cracking embrace. “Liam! Oh, my goodness, how I’ve missed you!” Gwen buried her head further into Liam’s chest. “You always have had quite the habit of pulling me out of trouble, haven’t you?” The two of them let out a chuckle as they both took a small awkward step away from each other.

Liam stood before Gwen looking at her with the mischievous smile she had memorized. Many things had changed in the few months they had not seen each other. He had grown taller and stood with more of a confidence than he used to. His dark hair had not changed as much as his height… it was still the mess it was then. His eyes were still the hazel tint that always shone with joy.

“Are you going to keep standing there gawking at me like you are not already accustomed to my strapping handsome features?” Liam spoke with his stylistic sarcasm spilling through his tone as he pulled his face into many different and repulsive directions. Gwen’s favorite involved crossed eyes and a smile hiding his lips. Gwen took this opportunity to throw the faces right back at him. They were both in a fit of laughter now, clutching their stomachs and having a hard time breathing properly. Liam took a deep breath, regaining his composure. “Or are you going to tell me why you were almost killed because you were insulting a guard on his romantic life?”

“Oh, you were here for all of that?” She let out small chuckle. “You know, I was just trying to help him on the road to self acceptance.”

“Or you were just having some fun while trying to talk yourself out of getting clobbered in the head,” Liam added with his twinkling eye. Leave it to him to turn a murderous madman with the death of his victim the only thing on his mind, into a joke. The joking tone slowly transition into something much more serious. “How did you even know all of that? Sunny never speaks to anyone. It is almost as if you knew everything about him in just a glance.” Liam took a small step forward and cleared his throat. Gwen said nothing. She was not even trying to read his emotions, for she felt he would probably like them kept to himself, but Gwen could feel his worry for her seeping him.

“Is everything okay, Gwen? You have been here for two whole days and you have not called me for a midnight pie run yet. I feel hurt.” Liam let out a small chuckle trying to lighten the air once again. Gwen stood still without so much as a laugh. There was a chilling pause in the air. “When I got orders to come down here and take care of…” Liam paused and looked around at the scene before him. “This. I figured you would be here watching and laughing but not… fighting a guard. What’s going on? Are you alright?” It was Gwen’s turn to look around now, and saw several different fights at once. How had she not realized everything that was going on? Perhaps it was because she was fighting for her own life just seconds before. What she saw stunned her and made her jump towards the fight. Liam stopped her.

“I stopped the new wave of guards from coming… for now. The ones your friends are fighting now are already failing. Give them a second and they will run away for fear, or be on the ground in a matter of seconds.” Gwen and Liam locked eyes and as Gwen opened her mouth to speak she felt wind tickle her ankles.

The group was standing behind her. Gwen whipped her head around to face the one she was the least fond of. That tall self proclaimed warrior stood before her about to strike Liam. Stepping forward, Gwen knew she had to stop her from doing anything crazy to Liam.

“Hey there, miss! Could you not wind power him, or whatever it is that you think you can do?” Gwen hoped this girl would listen, but her track record so far has not been the best. The girl just looked at her like she had asked for her not to breathe. Gwen would try to appeal to her good side… if she had one. Gwen had forgotten her name, so she went filed through her messy corners of her mind to find it. Just from a quick scan Gwen knew that this girl had been through horrible things.

“Athadius, he is not what you think!”

“Is he a guard?” Athadius asked her eyebrow cocked in question.

“Well, yes but-”

Before Gwen could finish Liam was on the floor.

“Really?! What part of, ‘don’t use your crazy wind powers’, don’t you understand?! Are you really that stubborn to-”

Gwen was once again interrupted mid-speech but this time it was from the other warrior of the group.

“I’m sorry to break up this little love fest, but I’m pretty sure we should get out of here.” Jade said stepping in-between the Gwen and Athadius.

“Yes, we need to leave now. We have fought off this set of guards, but more are sure to come.” Lynn whispered trying to calm down the now red faced Gwen. Deciding she did not want to be calmed she opened her mouth to speak once again.

“If you all really think that I will leave with him on the ground like that, you are mistaken! Now wake him up with your wind since you are the one that did this to him.” Gwen turned to Athadius.

“We don’t have time for this-”

“You really are a genius, aren’t you?! First you go around knocking out the person that distracted the new wave of guards from coming, and then you have the nerve to treat me like a child and tell me that you do not have time to fix the problem you started?!”

Athadius said nothing. As always.

“Fine! If you will not do anything I will try.” Gwen yelled at the girls.

“I hate to break it to you, but how are you going to wake him up when all you can do is read minds?” Jade said slightly stepping away from Gwen when she shot daggers into her with her eyes.

“Maybe I’ll wake him up by having you lean over him and say something as stupid as you just told me… I bet it would scare him awake.”

Everyone was suddenly silent staring at the unconscious Liam. An idea suddenly came to Gwen.

“Lynn, you have a gift with controlling water, correct?” Gwen turned to face her. She was greeted with a look of confusion and uneasiness. Gwen hoped that this girl could gain enough confidence to wake Liam.   

“Yes, I do– do you really think this will work?” Lynn said with an unbelieving glance.

“I am going to try and wake his mind while you wake his body… Try not to drown him, okay?”

Lynn rolled her eyes at the last comment. She took one staggering breath, then nodded her head towards Gwen in reluctant a non-verbal agreement. Gwen took a deep breath and started to work inside Liam’s mind. She was careful not to snoop too much, for she had to be quick about this. Gwen focused on the task of waking him. As if she was walking through rooms of thought, Gwen would open the window in each one, letting light pour through the dark room. Just as she was jogging his mind back to waking she let out a shrill cry for Lynn to do her work.

Right as Gwen felt she was about to fall to the floor herself out of sheer exhaustion, Liam opened his eyes. Gwen let out a sigh of relief when he finally woke.

“Hello there, sleeping beauty,” Gwen said as Liam looked around in a confused haze.

“We have to leave now.” Athadius said in a harsh tone.

Just as she spoke those words the doors swung open. A flood of guards filled the room. Liam suddenly shot up from the ground stepping in front of the group of girls.

“I know you think you are all strong and want to defend us and all, but you have a better chance of living if you step behind me.” Jade quipped.

Liam nodded sadly in agreement.

The guards filled every space in the room, making Gwen start to feel slightly uneasy. The worst part of all of this was that even as Gwen tried her hardest she could feel no emotion or read no thought in the crowd of place guards. How could this be possible?

Feeling utterly useless Gwen stood and watched as Athadius, Lynn, and Jade work together in vain to try and push the army out. It was useless. The sheer number of guards was incomprehensible. Guards flooded every corner and crevice of the room. It was a very large room.

It took Gwen a moment to realize Liam was trying to tell her something.

“Gwen, the king has just revived these guards from some other kingdom. They do not tire easily. We need to get out of here. Now.”

Desperately looking around Gwen tried to think of something to aid them in their escape. She tried in vain to read the plans of the guards, but their minds were blank canvases… Which meant one thing. Blank canvases are meant to be written on, Gwen realized. Taking one deep breath, Gwen used all of her willpower to control them. It took all the strength that was in her to write on the blank pages.

Before Gwen could fully register it, she was controlling a small portion of the guards like pawns in a game of chess. Gwen laughed as she made pawn against pawn fight one another. Swords and shields clashed between the mob of men. Suddenly feeling as if she would faint if she kept it up, Gwen muttered something that she hoped was along the lines of, let’s get out of here!

It probably worked, because before she knew it she was being carried by Liam as the group left the confused pawns to keep playing.

~~~

“What do we do now?” Lynn asked as they all snuck across the castle.

“We find Alya,” Athadius responded. Who put her in charge, Gwen thought. By now Gwen was walking on her own, with no assistance from Liam. She was still horribly tired, though. Apparently, playing mind games with an army of guards required a nap. Gwen slumped down leaning up against the wall.

“I just need a bit of rest,” Gwen started. Before she could think anything else, she drifted off to a land of her dreams.

~~~

Gwen slowly opened her eyes as she felt a soft tap on her shoulder.

“We found the girl in the Princess’s room,” Liam whispered. “The others went ahead into the chamber… I said I would wake you and walk you back.” Stretching out her arms, Gwen let out a long yawn.

“It’s been a long day,” Gwen managed to blurt out through her yawn. Liam reached out his hand to help her up. When she was fully stable, he pulled a slice of pie behind his back.

“I picked up something to help you regain your strength. I figured controlling a room full of guards like puppets is hard work.” Liam pulled a fork out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Hard work means pie,” He looked up at her as she started to shovel the pie into her face. “But you already knew this.”

“Thank you Liam,” Gwen somehow managed to choke out after swallowing down a bite.

“I figured I owed you a slice of pie for saving my life back there.”

“Considering the fact that you had saved mine just moments before, I would say that this pie is just an award for my general splendor.” The two of them both laughed for a moment, and Gwen shoved more of the pie down her throat. She took a sobering breath. “Liam, thank you for everything. I don’t know when I’ll see you again… I have a feeling that these freaks are going to drag me away on some sort of adventure.”

Liam smiled sadly at Gwen as the mood softened. He chuckled quietly.

“I suppose that is the way of life for a hero.”

“I’m not a-” Gwen started but Liam stopped her.

“Yes you are, do you realize what you did just moments ago? You controlled a whole room full of men three or four times the size of you. These guys are new here. From what I can tell they have been sent from some other kingdom to aid the king in whatever scheme he has at the moment. Everyone of them are strange. They seem to care for nothing and feel nothing. One would think they are the king’s pawns in a game of chess, and after what you did out there I am starting to wonder if I was right. Soon I have a feeling the pawn’s will be all the king cares to have in his army.” Liam looked at Gwen with the eyes of a scared soldier.

“You could come with us! We could be like the heroes in stories like we’ve always dreamed!”

“Gwen,” He took a shaking breath. “I can’t do that. I’m not special like you… I don’t have special powers. Besides,” he laughed. “Who would look after Princess Larry if you left?” Gwen knew he was right, but she did not want to believe it. Just imagining a life as a disguised monster made Gwen shiver, she couldn’t even imagine being one. Changing the subject Gwen decided to address only the last statement of his speech.

“Princess who?” Gwen said with a half hearted laugh.

“It’s what I heard your new friends calling Lairelithoniel, apparently foreigners have a difficult time pronouncing our names.”

Liam did not wait for Gwen to protest, he just stepped away from her and took one last look.

“They need you in there.” Fear and sadness for what lied ahead for the both of them hit Gwen all at once. She felt it radiating off Liam too.

“I will see you soon. We will need one major catch up after all of this.” He paused and winked at Gwen with a sad smile. In that moment two best friends took one last hug before stepping into the heart of war. Liam brushed back the tear that had fallen from Gwen’s eyes.

“Go and be a hero.”


By E. Crowther

 

Chapter 29

Another snore came from the other side of the room. Lynn sat up in the pitch black, exasperated at whichever of the crazy girls she had met in the last day was keeping her awake. It wasn’t Alya. Lynn had already shared a room with Alya, and she didn’t snore. And of course it wasn’t Princess Lairelithoniel, because a perfect princess such as Lairelithoniel never snores. It was most likely one of the other three — Athadius, Jade, or Gwen.

Snooorrreee. Lynn gritted her teeth and felt around her blanket for an extra pillow to throw at the person. Part of her hoped that the snorer was Gwen… She couldn’t believe how rude that girl had been yesterday! Calling Jade stupid? Making fun of Alya? Although, she had sort of saved them all from the strange powered guards… Still, however, that didn’t give her the right to lord it over everyone else and say whatever she wanted! Finally finding a small tasseled cushion, Lynn flung it in the direction of the noise. A thump sounded. And then — another snore.

Lynn sighed and laid back down. There couldn’t be more than two hours until sunrise, but for the life of her she could not fall asleep. Her mind was running like crazy, as if it was just now processing the events of the last day. Well, the majority of her morning had been spent in a box. That was loads of fun. Next, she was broken out of a cell. Then a lovely afternoon spent fighting soldiers and trying to stay alive — oh yes, and awaking an unconscious guard.

Unintentionally, Lynn drew water droplets from the air into her hands and started shaping them. The encounter with the guard had started her wondering about her powers. For the first time Lynn wanted to experiment, to push the limits of her gift. Dato’s words came back to her: You are strong, Lynn, stronger than you know. For the first time Lynn wondered, how strong was she?

A sudden throb of pain from her bandaged head brought Lynn back to the present situation. She and the four other girls were in Princess Lairelithoniel’s room. They had been there since the previous evening, when Gwen led them into the largest, most beautiful room Lynn had ever seen. Alya had been sitting on the bed, and next to her, the Princess. After a busy next hour, the four girls found themselves bathed and dressed. While Athadius and Jade looked rather uncomfortable in their new outfits, Lynn thought they were the prettiest clothes in the world. And last, but certainly not least, Alya had told them of her discoveries about the fairy-tale land of Adorshado and the mysterious Pool of Dolor.

It was with these thoughts of Adorshado and the King and the Council and the powered guards that kept Lynn awake. For some idiotic reason, Lynn had never made the connection between the King and the Council. Always, in the tiny village of Kerya on the outskirts of Rhydderch, stories of the beautiful Queen Rhiannon and her husband the king had sent Lynn into daydreams. Maybe one day, Lynn would see the rulers of the land. And when she did, she would pour out the horrific story of her mother and the terrible, secret Council that took the powered people away. The queen would weep tears and the king would be outraged at the injustice and put a stop to the Council. And perhaps — perhaps all the people who had been taken would be released, and Lynn would have her mother again.

This extremely impractical fantasy often made Lynn roll her eyes at herself, knowing that it would never come true. But she didn’t stop herself from dreaming, perhaps because imagining that her mother was still alive made her past less terrible.

And then, that cruel, cold-voiced man had sneered, “Don’t you know that he’s the head of the Council?” It was a cold dash of reality to find that the King, and perhaps the Queen, had been the ones behind her mother’s ‘arrest’…

Finally, after tossing and turning and considering throwing another pillow at the snorer, Lynn fell asleep.

The next morning the sun peeked into the window to find the five girls arguing in intense whispers. They were all rather hungry. Alya was the only one who had a full meal the night before, although the other girls had some, since if Princess Lairelithoniel had asked for four more plates of food, it might have raised some suspicion.

Gwen crossed her arms and tilted her chin defiantly. “Name one good reason why Alya shouldn’t go down to the kitchen and get us some breakfast.”

Lynn stared at her. “Well let’s see. It’s dangerous. She might be caught. Someone might notice food being stolen from the kitchen –”

“I said ONE good reason. And it wouldn’t be stealing. It would be –”

Jade cut in here, with a smirk on her face. “Borrowing it? Not sure we could return it after we ate it.”

Gwen narrowed her eyes. “I was going to say overdue payment for my hard work, if you hadn’t so rudely interrupted.”

Athadius made a sound that was suspiciously close to a snort.

Gwen’s head whipped around towards her. “Did you say something? Would you care to enlighten the room with your oh-so-intelligent thoughts?”

Athadius barely moved a muscle. “No.”

“Besides,” Lynn broke in, as Gwen opened her mouth, “can Alya even make other things turn invisible?”

The four girls –plus Princess Lairelithoniel, who had been watching the conversation with a small smile — turned to look at Alya. The girl blushed at being the center of attention.

Jade looked curiously at her. “Can you?”

Gwen rolled her eyes. “Of course she can. Her clothes turn invisible, don’t they?”

“Actually,” Alya said, “I don’t know… I’ve never tried. And I don’t try to make my clothes disappear, they just do.”

Jade tossed Alya a small pillow. “Here. Try it.”

Even Athadius looked mildly interested as Alya placed her hand on the pillow and then disappeared. The pillow stayed visible.

Athadius lifted her eyebrow at Gwen, who shrugged nonchalantly.

Alya’s voice came from nowhere. “I think I just need to concentrate a little more…” Then after a moment, the pillow disappeared. Alya reappeared, a triumphant grin on her face.

Lynn and the Princess applauded while Gwen said, “She can do it. How about some food then?”

Jade opened her mouth to speak, when suddenly the pounding of feet was heard down the hall. There was a crashing of doors being forced open and indistinct yelling. The five girls froze and stared at each other. Jade turned to the Princess instead of answering Gwen. “Is there anywhere to hide in here?” she demanded.

The Princess looked helplessly around the room.  “Nowhere they won’t look.”

Athadius clenched her fists. “We won’t go down without a fight.”

Gwen stared at her in disbelief. “Is that your answer to everything? Oh look, it’s a girl half my size holding a book. I should fight her. Oh look, there’s a harmless, friendly guard. I should fight him. Oh look, a legion of soldiers is coming to kill us. I should fight them!”

“What would you suggest, sticking my tongue out at them?” Athadius responded evenly.

Lynn clutched her head. Call her a coward, but she didn’t want to be put in a box again. “Jade, Alya!” she hissed. “Look for a hiding spot!” She ran to the other side of the Princess’s room. Thank goodness, there was a window. She flung it open and then ran to Princess Lairelithoniel’s side.

Two and a half minutes later the Princess stood seemingly alone in the room. She drew a deep breath and then gave a long, high-pitched scream. “Someone, help!!”

The pounding feet drew near until the door crashed opened. Guards poured into the room and stared at the screaming princess. “What?” The front guard asked. “What happened?”

The Princess pointed a timid finger at a side door. “Th- th- there.” she stuttered. “Four girls just ran out from there and one of them — one of them had a knife!

“Where did they go?” The guard asked urgently.

“They – they – they jumped out the WINDOW!”

Three guards rushed to the open window and peered down below. “But how did they get down? We’re two stories up!”

“How should I know?” the Princess exploded angrily. “They’re the ones with the strange powers, not me! Maybe you should ask them after you’ve caught them and brought them to General Zharo — Oh!” She sank down onto the bed, and closed her eyes, fanning herself with her hand.  “I think I’m feeling faint…” She opened an eye and saw the guards still there.

“Well, what are you doing still standing there?” she shrieked wildly. “Go after them! What if they come back and try to KILL me?”

The guards looked at her with wide eyes and rushed out of the room. Several minutes later the clash of swords and armour was heard below the window, and shouts of “Spread out!” and “Get to the gates!” rang out from the leading officers.

The Princess waited several more moments and then crossed the room quickly to a tiny closet and opened the door. A tangle of bodies fell out against the floor. There were a few cries of pain as knees and elbows were taken from stomachs and heads. Gwen was the first to wriggle her way out. She looked up at the princess and grinned. “I didn’t know you could be so dramatic!”

“I learned from the best,” the Princess said with a wink.

The girls picked themselves up and brushed off their clothes. Alya started giggling, and Lynn and Jade looked at the Princess with new respect and awe. Lynn was about to say how wonderful Princess Lairelithoniel had been when Athadius spoke abruptly. “We need to leave the castle. Today.”

Gwen was the first to get over her shock of the silent warrior-girl actually starting a conversation. “You mean the four strange powered girls have to leave a castle where they’re surrounded by guards who want to kill them? Surely you jest.”

Athadius looked at Gwen. “Not four. Five.”

Gwen’s jaw dropped. “Excuse me, I don’t know who you think you are, but you can’t just barge in here and tell me what to do!”

Lynn cleared her throat, a little apologetically. “Actually, I think Athadius is right. Gwen, you’re not safe here.”

Gwen whirled around to face Lynn. “Oh, ganging up on me? Well, I’ve got news for you –”

“Gwen.” Princess Lairelithoniel interrupted her. “Can I speak with you for a moment?”

Gwen faltered in her angry rant and closed her mouth. “I – Of course.”

The four girls watched silently as the Princess led Gwen out a side door. Time passed slowly until finally Gwen re-entered. The Princess was not with her. Gwen swallowed and then faced the girls, saying in a stiff voice, “Princess Lairelithoniel had to join the King and Queen. She has made sure we will not be interrupted and wishes we begin making plans to leave the castle.”

Lynn thought she caught a glimpse of tears in Gwen’s eyes, and she quickly turned away, trying to give Gwen some privacy.

Jade settled down on the floor and crossed her legs. “Well then, where are we going?”

“We’re going to the Pool of Dolor.” Athadius’ face was devoid of expression, but there was a grim determination in her eyes that seemed to say, “No matter what you say or do, you’re not changing my mind.”

“Okkaaay.” Jade said. “When are we leaving?”

“Why don’t we wait until tonight? Then we can sneak out in the dark!” Alya suggested.

Athadius shook her head slightly. “They’ll be expecting that. It would be better to leave during the day.”

Alya’s eyes widened, but Lynn nodded, a little surprised at herself for agreeing with Athadius. “They would be guarding everything much more closely at night. If we left sooner rather than later, we can slip out right under their noses.” She paused and looked at Alya. “We might need you to go down to the kitchens for supplies…”

Gwen gave an offended gasp. “Oh! I thought it was dangerous! I thought it was stealing!”

Lynn would never have admitted it, but she was relieved to hear Gwen’s sarcasm again. She responded with a small smile.  “It’s not stealing, it’s overdue payment for your hard work.”

“But how?” Jade asked.

Gwen and Lynn looked at her. “How what?” They both said together.

“How do we get out of the castle without being caught?”

Gwen pounced on the question and turned accusingly towards Lynn and Athadius. “Yeah! How do we get out of the castle in broad daylight? And for that matter, how do we get out of the courtyard? How do we get through the gates?”

Lynn looked at Athadius for a brief moment, but she showed no sign of speaking again. Lynn looked back at Gwen, who said, “Well? I thought the geniuses who declared we have to leave in the middle of the day would at least have a PLAN to get us out! Or did you forget that minor detail? I for one would prefer not to walk out in broad daylight and be caught immediately by the hundreds of guards looking for us, but then, that’s just my opinion.”

“Well,” Lynn said slowly. “I do have an idea…”

    ~~~

Lynn and Alya laughed outright when Gwen was finished getting ready. Even Athadius seemed to be keeping a tiny smile hidden. Already shorter than average, Gwen had put her hair up in pigtails and dressed herself in a child’s smock. Add this to a wide-eyed, innocent expression and Gwen looked hilariously alike to a tiny-child-girl.

Gwen let out a short laugh as well. “Glad you all are enjoying this.”

Lynn turned to each of the girls. “Now, you all remember everything?”

A chorus of exasperated “YES’s” answered her.

Lynn looked worried. “Are you sure? Maybe I should go over it one more time…”

Gwen heaved a sigh. “Lynn, please. You’ve gone over it too many times already. Here, I’ll say it back to you. First, we wait by the stair doorway. Athadius will let us know if anyone is coming through the hallways by listening to her special little wind friends. And maybe she’ll actually talk to us and tell us if someone’s coming…” The last sentence was muttered under her breath, but no one heard her as Jade picked up with the next step.

“Alya will take us one by one down to the kitchen, where we’ll hide behind the supplies until we’re all there. Then we’ll make our way to that midway building –” Lynn opened her mouth to add in, but Jade rolled her eyes and continued, “– carefully and quietly, yes, I know, Lynn. And we will wait there quietly while Gwen does her thing.”

Alya chimed in the last step. “She’ll drop her bucket of fruit under the horse’s feet and get the driver to take her to the market. While she’s talking with him, we’ll hide in the wagon!”

“That’s the general idea, anyways,” Lynn sighed. “But Gwen, make sure you drop the fruit –”

“Under a wagon that has a friendly, grandfatherly driver who will want to stop and help me! Yes, I know!” Gwen patted her hair and practiced her wide-eyed expression. “But who wouldn’t want to help such a sweet little girl like me?”

“Well then,” Lynn said. “I guess we’re ready. We just have to wait for the Princess to come back with the money.”

There didn’t seem to be anything to say after that. The finality of the plan seemed to be sinking in, and the girls sat quietly until the Princess returned. She silently gave the money to Athadius and then embraced each of the girls in turn. Lynn pressed a piece of paper into her hand and said, “Can you write a note to my grandparents for me? Just let them know that I’m — safe.”

The Princess hugged Gwen last, and longest. She whispered something to Gwen, who nodded and said, “Don’t forget to say goodbye for me.”

Then, with Athadius leading the way, the five girls turned and walked out the door.


By M. Choi

Chapter 30

If Gwen said one more thing about food, Jade was going to burn the pigtails off of her head.

Jade would be the first one that Alya took downstairs, but before then she had a serious question.

“Hey,” Jade poked Athadius’ side.

The silent wind-warrior gazed down at the girl who was nearly half her size with a stony expression.

“Can you fly?”

 No words. Almost intimidating. Almost.

“I’ll take that as a maybe.”

“Jade, we should go.” Alya shifted uncomfortably.

“Are you sure about this?” Gwen looked up and down the hallway warily . “I mean, Jade is small—like really small—”

“I get it—” Jade said.

“Buuut she’s not a pillow.” Gwen helpfully pointed out. “Unless you secretly have the ability to turn us all into little fluffy pillows…”

“Enough.” Athadius’ voice brought down an invisible hammer. They went silent, but the atmosphere was tense and Jade could feel the tension creeping into the crevices of her bones. This was real. This was happening. If they didn’t escape…Jade didn’t dare to think about what would happen.

Lynn knelt down so that she was face to face with Alya and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Be brave, Alya. You can do this.

“I can do this.” Alya repeated, a focused determination taking over her face.

Jade scooped Alya’s hand into hers. “I’m a pillow.” She said.

Alya closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Jade braced herself, not exactly sure why. She didn’t know what being invisible was supposed to feel like. The next time Jade looked down at her hand…she didn’t? A glint of mischief sparked in her eyes, and her mind began to reel at the possibilities of all the pranks they could pull together in the future.

The two girls descended the stairs, not sure what to expect but trusting the plan. While they were on the stairway, Jade was barely able to push away the feeling of suffocation. Gwen’s voice rung in her head. She was kind of right. Jade was small and inarguably cuddly, but was quite bigger than a pillow—a small pillow. Grant it, Alya was gifted but the amount of focus it took to keep a whole person invisible…Jade would keep her hand on the hilt of her dagger. Just in case.

Jade blinked when they reached the bottom of the staircase. At that moment Jade wondered how early it was. There wasn’t a lot of hustle and bustle about.

Gwen had given them a brief layout of where the kitchen would be. The directions were straightforward enough, but everything seemed so big. In comparison to Jade, everything was.

The faint echo of feet marching against the stone floor reached Jade’s ears. She whispered, “You hear that too, right? Probably their stupid guards…” Jade trailed off when she noticed that she suddenly became visible.

“Alya…What’s going on?”

“Sorry!” Alya’s voice was quietly panicking beside her. “I—I just have to focus.”

Alarm seized Jade as the footsteps sounded closer and closer until the definition of close became around the corner. She gulped down a wave of nausea as her fight or flight instincts started kicking in.

They were going to see her.

“I can’t do this, Jade!” Alta hissed. “Maybe you should run…”

Running sounded good. That way she probably wouldn’t get caught. Probably wouldn’t die. Then Jade remembered the way Lynn spoke to Alya earlier.

Jade didn’t have to kneel but looked in what must’ve been Alya’s general direction. “I trust you.” Jade took her companion’s hand and strode straight in the direction of the marching guards. They turned the corner, the man in the front caught Jade’s eye. He had cruel, lifeless eyes and scraggly gray hair that was in patches around his chin. He wore a sly sneer accompanied by a look of disgust that was permanently etched onto his face. His unpleasant features were interrupted by a scar that ran from the tip of his brow to his cheekbone.

He stared dead at Jade. Her breath caught in her chest, and she found herself reaching for her dagger only to realize she couldn’t see her hand. She couldn’t help but smile in relief.

They were able to make it past the guards without so much as a hiccup. She could breathe again. The kitchen was obvious to spot—and smell—once they were close. The entrance was an arch nearly reaching to the ceiling. The kitchen was magical! The aroma from the steam of the sizzling pots rose into the air.   

“Keep moving,” Alya said softly so that only she could hear.      

Jade shuffled her feet and absentmindedly ran her finger across the marble counter. She was glad they were invisible, so Alya couldn’t see the tears welling up in her eyes. This reminded her so much of home!

Home! Jade could barely contain her excitement. She looked around. The way the cooks maneuvered around each other was a dance. It was eloquence. To Jade, it was art. Jade’s spirit was soaring when they reached the kitchen supply closet. Alya gingerly shut the door.

“How’s that for carefully and quietly?” Jade said.

“Okay, I’ll be right back.” Alya slipped out of the door and left Jade alone in the dark. But that was okay.

She would be seeing her family soon! Finally she would have the chance to set her father free! The antidote for the mazel poisoning was nearby—she could feel it. And all they had to do was escape. Her dad could probably help with saving the powered ones too!

Jade lit her pointer finger aflame and scanned the supplies. All the lentil soup in the world didn’t need all of these spoons.

~~~

“Let’s go.” Athadius was the last one in and she didn’t bother keeping her voice down. When Jade stepped outside she saw why. Three unconscious cooks were sprawled out on the ground.

“I couldn’t stop her.” Alya said.

All eyes were on Athadius. “They were looking at me.” She said plainly.

An expression of utter exasperation overtook Gwen’s face. “What do you mean they looked at you? You were invisible! You just couldn’t help yourself—could you?”

Jade smirked. “You’re hard to take seriously right now, pigtails.”

The five of them quickly dragged the limp bodies to the kitchen supply closet and shut the door.

“Because the party hasn’t started until we tossed around some unconscious bodies.” Gwen said. Shaking her head, she lead the four others outside using a door adjoining the kitchen supplies. As it opened, its hinges sang, making Jade grimace.

When Jade saw the forest in the distance, she almost ran for it. It was too far away, but oh she could try. A wave of crisp air engulfed her senses. There was a path leading to the midway building carved in a squiggly pattern. Not bothering to use the path, Athadius walked in a straight line.

 “Athadius, you need to be careful before anyone sees you.” Lynn said.

Athadius’ shoulders stayed rolled back as if daring anyone to spot her.

“Fantastic! We got a one man army over here!” Gwen waved.

Lynn sucked in a sharp breath, and everyone instinctively tensed.

“What?” Alya disappeared in an instant.

“It’s a garden house!” She said pointing at a building about 30 meters off.

Jade’s breath hitched when Lynn said the word “garden.” Garden could mean antidote.

The midway building that they were trying to get to was only a little farther, but Jade wouldn’t be going with them.

“I have to make a stop at the garden,” Jade said.

Gwen nodded in agreement. “Finally you’re making some sense! I’m hungry!”

“We were just in the kitchen.” Lynn said pointedly.

Jade waved a hand. “Gwen, I’ll bring you something, but—”

“No.” Athadius’ said. “We stick with the plan.”

“I wasn’t asking. I’m going to the garden.”

Athadius studied Jade’s face and realized that the child-girl was not going to change her mind.

“Be careful,” Lynn said.

Jade nodded. Careful was like her middle name or something. Not wasting any time, she jogged over to the garden and could feel the air thicken as she got closer. Jade gingerly opened the door and slipped inside. The first thing she noticed were the plants hanging from the ceiling in a ring. Vines climbed up the walls across rows of plants that Jade had never seen in her life.

‘I’m on a mission,’ she reminded herself. Jade didn’t know what the antidote for mazel poisoning was called, but back home there were paintings of the plant everywhere. “The plant that saved the Kaciot people.” And now it was going to save the king and set her father free.

Ah! There it was. On some sort of shelf. It was unmistakable. It was a plant about 13 inches tall with a purple stem, star shaped leaves, and an ugly red flower topping it off.

She couldn’t reach it. Jade found herself getting worked up. It would have even been too tall for Ath to reach. The plant was coming down, or this whole garden house was coming down. Because burning down everything would totally save the plant.

Movement over by the door caused Jade to freeze. She kept her back toward whoever the sound. It was probably Athadius coming to get her. There was no way she was leaving without that plant.

“Hey,” a voice called out. Jade turned around to reveal a frail old man with a deep hunch in his back. Jade ran toward the intruder and tackled him with a hug that she was afraid almost broke him.

“Papa Juko!” Jade’s face lit up. Papa Juko used to be the most famous chef in Kaciot history. He could make anything taste good. He was the one who taught her dad how to cook. “Kaciot misses you! Why’d you leave?”

The old man’s face darkened. “Leave? I didn’t leave. I was banished.”

“But Kahn said—”

“Jade.” Papa Juko held up a shaking hand.

“How could he do that?”

“I found out the truth behind the Mazel Massacre.”

Jade was silent.

“It wasn’t poison that killed one third of the population. The former king was paid to have all the power ones killed.”

Jade’s head was spinning.

“Mazel doesn’t exist—”

Jade shook. “Then why did Arik send me away?”

The old man shrugged. “Have you heard about your father?”

“Yeah, I know. He’s locked up.” Jade didn’t break her eyes from Juko’s gaze.

Alya peeked through the door, “Gwen found her grandpa…” Alya trailed off when she saw the old man.

Jade embraced Papa Juko one last time headed towards the door.

“Jade, wait!” Juko called. He lifted his hand at the plant Jade left on the shelf and it slowly wiggled out of the dirt before levitating into Jade’s hands. “Find out for yourself. Good luck.”

Something was wrong, and there was something Papa Juko wasn’t telling her, and she would find out soon enough.


By F. Rendles

 

Chapter 31

Grass twigs leaves leaves Hive of bumblebees bees

Athadius turned her back on Jade and kept on walking towards their destination.  And they call me a ‘one man army’!  What about the girl who goes off all by herself into an unknown building? Athadius thought.

Birch tree tall tall Brumble bush small small Child girl speaks her plans plans Alone she does not stand stand

Athadius ignored the wind and kept on marching.  They were headed to her hometown.  She had informed everyone their plans the previous night.

If she had seen their sidelong and agitated looks, perhaps she would have informed them her reasoning behind decision.  But then again, her ignorance of the fact that not everyone thought the way she thought just might have blinded her from understanding said looks even if she did see them.

To her, even a simpleton would see that as they would be crossing the Sanhildin desert, they would need food, camels, clothing and various other items to complete their journey.  Thus, stopping by her hometown, where she would be received kindly and given all she needed, was the obvious choice.

Thin fox trail trail Yellow brown snail snail Blue bird full grown Regal old tombstone

When the wind said tombstone, Gwen let out a gasp.  Athadius turned and saw that the girl had gone pale as goat milk.

I’ve never seen Gwen look so grave, Ath thought mildly to herself.

The wind seemed to laugh at her thought.  Oooooooo and you have have known her so so longggg  In that moment Athadius came to the frustrating realization that the wind had a sarcastic side.  Shoving the wind’s words to the side, Athadius wondered at the girl as she fell to her knees in front of an old tombstone.

Wonder wonder blunder blunder her heart has gone asunder asunder A frog and a toad toad just crossed the road road road

Athadius was about to bark at Gwen to stop blubbering and get a move on when she saw a silver tear slip down the girl’s slim cheek.  Emotions Athadius thought she had buried welled up in her chest.  The Thianin’s words echoed in her brain.   “There was an attack on the caravan.  There were no survivors.”

Athadius stood, staring at nothing in particular, lost to the world and even lost to her senses, an occurrence quite rare for the vigilant warrior.  For as the words of the Thianin rolled over her thoughts, she spotted an inconsistency.  And once she spotted one, she spotted another, until inconsistencies were sprouting, sprouting up like weeds!

Her regal posture broke.  She gasped a barely audible intake of breath.  Her senses returned to her.  Lynn was comforting Gwen.  Gwen was trying, and failing at keeping her tears back.  Alya was rushing towards them with Jade in tow.  Jade was holding a weird plant with a fierce look on her face.  And Ath was standing like an idiot, and she knew it, but she did not care.  Her whole world now seemed unsteady.  Things she would have bet her life on, now seemed as shaky as Alya when she was terrified.  Suddenly she was having doubts about visiting her home town.

It was Lynn who finally got everyone on the move again.  Gwen apparently had found her grandfather’s grave and at the same time realized that she had seen him murdered years ago.  How she had not realized this before, was explained to Ath by the wind.

Only days ago ago did breath waister Butterfly buttery way up high Meet her mother the queen the queen the queen

They traveled on foot for another day before they reached the desert.  Athadius stayed to herself, speaking only when silence was more cumbersome than words.  Disturbed by her discovery, she felt raw and vulnerable to the world.

When they began to trek across the sandy slopes, Athadius brought out her turban and wrapped it around her head, thankful for its security.  Hour after hour they trudged along, Athadius leading.  Though her town was not far from the forest’s boarders, its location was known only to those of Sanhildin blood.  This was their security from any armies who might attack from the woods.

Alya let out a cough, and Ath looked down to find that the small girl wore nothing over her face.  Looking back, she saw that the girls were trying to cover their faces with their sleeves, but to little result.  No wonder they had been quiet lately, they were having a hard time breathing!

You you you take such good caaaaaare of your fellow fellows The wind chided.  And sullenly, Ath had to agree.

Halting, she unwrapped her turban and ripped it in half length wise.  Then she bent over and began ripping her skirt off into similar strips.  Gwen let out a gasp and said something sarcastic about modesty that the wind agreed with, but Athadius paid them both no mind.  She wore a pant like clothing underneath it anyway.  Handing out the strips of fabric, she demonstrated, without words, how to wear a turban.  When her turban was covering her face, Ath let a small smile slip to her lips at the sight of Gwen with a rag around her head.

Sand sand sand common common sand Smile smile smile uncommon uncommon smile

Noon the next morning they reached Athadius’ home.  All five of them were crouched at the edge of a large dune, peering down at the city below.

Athadius pointed to a herd of camels on the outskirts of the town.  “Gwen, Lynn, pick out five camels for our journey.”  Athadius stared at them for a moment.  “Do you know how to pick a good camel?”

“Pat them on the belly and see if they sound like a watermelon, of course.”  Gwen said.  Athadius just stared.

“Check their teeth?”  Lynn asked.  Athadius nodded, relieved to have someone sensible picking out their mounts for their journey.

“Lynn, you might also want to see if you can pull up some water from the ground for them before our journey.”

Lynn nodded.  “It might take some time, but I’ll try.”

“Oh great!  And what am I supposed to do while she does that?”  Gwen asked.  She was a little grumpy.  Crossing a desert without Larry did that to her.

“You could ask the cows if they mind being stolen,” Jade said with a smirk.

Gwen rolled her eyes.  “They are camels, Jade, and I am not one of them, so how would I be able to talk to them?” 

“You could at least try and read their minds,” Alya added.  “I would hate to steal an animal without its consent.”

“We aren’t stealing anything,” Athadius interjected.  “They belonged to…” Ath found she could not even say his name.  Her heart ached again.  She had been their unofficial twenty-seventh member.  They had been her playmates, her friends, her brothers.  Now all they were was gone.  “…To a former acquaintance of mine.  He had no family.  He told me should anything happen to him, I was to get his camels.” Athadius looked at the girls, all of whom were staring at her. “So we are not stealing them,” she explained.  When all four girls just continued to stare, and the wind kept whispering nonsense in her ears, Athadius continued with her plan.

“See that tent with a small red flag?  Ayla use your powers and take Jade to gather food, canteens, clothing, and weapons.  Dress yourselves in the clothes, load up a wagon, and head to the camels as if you were Sanhildin children doing chores.”

“That will be easy enough,” Jade grumbled, thinking of how this tall girl made everything sound like a detestable chore.  Walking on foot through a desert had put everyone in a bit of a mood.

“Where are you going?” Lynn asked.

Athadius looked down at her ‘pants’ and said, “To change.”  Then she locked eyes with Lynn.  “And then to find the truth.”

~~~

He sat where she knew he would be.  Sitting cross-legged on their thickly woven rug, the man sharpened his sword.  Athadius watched from behind.  The man did not yet know of her presence.  He had trained her well.

“I figured it out.” Her voice was sharp in the air.  The man, whose posture had been impeccable, straightened impossibly.

“They said your caravan was attacked and that there were no survivors.  I should have seen through the lies sooner.  If the caravan was attacked in the journey, why did I find the twenty-six bodies of my brothers in the heart of the desert?” She paused.  “If you had been killed, who could have convinced the Thainin to send a girl into the heart of the desert?”

The man stood and faced her.  “Ath,” he said.  His words were neither filled with love nor hatred, sadness nor joy.  For the first time in her life, he said her name diplomatically, as if he were stating that it was morning instead of calling for her out for her.

At that moment, the wind saved her life.  A saber charged through the canvas behind her, and would have pierced her heart, had not the wind pushed it to the side.  The saber sliced open the inside of her left arm, but she barely felt it.  With a move that her father had taught her, Athadius disarmed the intruder and sent him spiraling to the floor.  From the floor, her brother looked up at her, shocked.  His saber was in her hands.  Athadius ignored her brother.  Her focus was on the man, the stranger, who stood before her.  Her words were even and firm, but as cold and as sharp as frostbite.

“Don’t you dare call me Ath,” she said to her father.  


By R. Shinnick

 

Chapter 32

“Princess Lairelithoniel?”

Lairelithoniel started and looked up from her book. A young servant girl was timidly holding out a small, folded piece of paper.

“I was told to give you this. I’m to wait for an answer.” She bobbed a curtsy and stepped back as Lairelithoniel took the message.

Your highness, it read, I have been listening as you asked, and just now I discovered a prisoner has been brought in. He is locked in the same cell as the others.

Lairelithoniel looked up at the girl. She stepped forward quickly, ready to take a message back.

“Please tell him I said thank you and to continue.” Lairelithoniel stopped, and the girl began to walk away. “Agnes?” called the princess. The girl stopped and turned, amazed that this wonderful lady knew her name. “Thank you.” Lairelithoniel smiled at the girl, who blushed and bobbed another curtsy.

As soon as the girl had left, Lairelithoniel rose and walked briskly back to her own room. She waited, for what seemed like hours, occasionally walking anxiously around the room. When the urgent knock finally sounded at the door, she rushed forward and flung it open. Merotin walked in, followed closely by a young man.

Merotin gave a hopeless gesture. “He don’t talk much, Princess Lairelithoniel,” he said, shaking his head. “He wouldn’t say nothing.”

“Don’t worry,” said Lairelithoniel gently. She turned to the young man.“I’m going to help you escape.”

The young man looked up, his brown hair falling in front of his eyes. “I don’t want to escape,” he exclaimed. “I came here on purpose!”

Merotin shook his head and muttered under his breath, “Go to all the trouble to rescue him and he don’t want to escape. What kind of man don’t want to escape if he’s been captured?”

Lairelithoniel looked at the young man with interest. “And whyever not?”

“I have to find-” he trailed off.

“You have to find… what?” prompted Lairelithoniel.

“Who,” he answered, after a brief paused. “It’s a who I have to find. I have to find Lynn  and Alya.”

“Lynn and Alya!?” It sounded very much like a squeal. “They’re here! That is, they were. They left the day before yesterday.”

His eyes shot up. “Where did they go? You must help me!”

“Certainly, I will…” Lairelithoniel paused. “What is your name?”

“Caden,” he answered. “Nice to meet you. And thank you,” he paused as well and Lairelithoniel smiled and stuck out her hand.

“Lairelithoniel.”

~~~

Lairelithoniel sat down with a sigh of relief. The single note in her hand had brought a large weight of her shoulders. So,  she thought, Liam and Caden got away. I only hope they can make their way.

The plan for escape had been simple enough. When Lairelithoniel had put the question to him, Liam had given it extremely careful thought.

“I’ll need to think about it,” he had said, his eyebrows furrowed. He had looked up the next second and smiled. “Yep! I’m in.”

“It will be dangerous,” Lairelithoniel had warned.

“Dangerous, smangerous!” he had scoffed. “She’s my friend and I care about her.”

Maybe a little more than I had realized, Lairelithoniel had thought, smiling.

Caden, too, had been extremely willing to follow after the girls. He had related the story of Alya’s appearance.

“What about you and Lynn?” she had asked.

He had shrugged his shoulders. “We’re as close as siblings.”

Lairelithoniel stood up and walked slowly around the room, holding the note in her hand.

*Thud*

She looked up quickly. Someone was at the door.

“Open up in the name of the King!” shouted a deep voice.

Lairelithoniel looked at the note in her hand. She slipped over and dropped it in the fire right as the door slammed open.

“Princess Lairelithoniel!”

She gulped and stood up quickly, standing in front of the fire, hoping to shield the burning note from sight.

Even King Arawn in a good mood was a fearsome thing to behold. And King Arawn did not look happy. In fact, he looked furious.

“Where is my prisoner?” he boomed.


By A. Choi

 

Chapter 33

Liam smiled as he stepped into the night. Leaves crunched under his boots as he walked with a new found vigor. Caden had asked if he could walk ahead to steer him through the maze of the forest. After a while of mindless walking, Liam’s mind started to wander.

He had always imagined that Gwen would have a legacy bigger than most, but he never expected all of this. Royalty was one thing, but mind bending powers were another. The bits of the story that the princess had quickly told him were enough to make him curious for all of the details. He only hoped to hear the rest of the story from Gwen. Liam wanted to know if Gwen was safe. No, he needed to know that she was safe. Looking behind himself and squinting his eyes in a vain effort to see through the darkness of the night, Liam saw the shadow of Caden right behind him.

“Are you doing okay back there?” Liam hollered out into the darkness. All he could hear was some faint shuffling in the background. An awkward silence rang through the air, then Caden seemed to finally realize he had been asked a question.

“Hm? Oh, yes. I’m fine,” Caden said, his voice muffled with the effects of fatigue. Liam slowed his constant stride down to a less militaristic march in hopes to slow down to Caden’s speed. Finally deciding to come to a stop, Liam laughed as Caden tripped over his feet.

“I guess I am just a little tired from all of this chasing after girls business,” Caden confessed with a laugh as he sat down, leaning against the trunk of a tree.

“I have a feeling that they don’t really need saving,” Liam responded his tone full of laughter. “But what kind of lads would we be if we didn’t go chasing after them? No story is complete without its Prince Charming, and I was being considerate for the girls by filling in for Kernan.” Before Liam had the chance to make a comment on Kernan’s oh so charming nature, Caden interrupted him.

“After a morning of hearing that boy talk, I would love to hear you make fun of him, but the only thing my mind can handle is the thought of sleep.”

“You go ahead and sleep. I’ll stay up and keep watch,” Liam said as he sat down, leaning against a nearby tree. It only took seconds for Liam to hear the sounds of heavy breathing from Caden.

Liam drifted off in a dreamlike state while keeping watch. He saw stories scattered alongside stars as he gazed up at the night sky. Memories and adventures of times past seemed to surge through him all at once. Liam would never forget meeting Gwen for the first time. It had been his first summer at the palace, and he knew nothing of the way of things at the castle. He remembered seeing Gwen hold herself with such such a sense of boldness in spirit that he had fooled himself into believing that this was the famous Princess. At the ripe young age of ten years old, Liam walked over to Gwen with as much regality as he could muster up, and bowed in what he hoped to be a guardly manner.

“It is a pleasure to meet the princess herself,” Liam greeted as he lifted his chin, hoping to make a good impression. Liam did not get the reaction he was expecting. This girl had laughed in his face! Liam smiled as he remembered standing as still as a statue as this girl went into a fit of laughter. Gwen was now in tears of laughter and tried to brush them away and calm herself down as she straightened her posture in what Liam thought was a very regal looking stance.

“If I am a princess than you are a frog,” an even shorter version of Gwen countered. She was still in a fit of laughter. Liam was stunned into silence; he had no clue what to say.

“Did you really think that I was the princess?” She let out in a shrill laugh, clutching her stomach. “Oh goodness, you must be new. I do not see how anyone could think of me as royalty, but I suppose I will take it as a compliment… and as a bit of a joke. The real princess is much grander than me, just wait until you see her,” The girl of nine said with the look of pride swelling in her eyes.

“I’m glad I could make you laugh, I suppose…” Liam finally responded after realizing the mistake he had made. “I am new, you guessed it. And you would never guess, but I am going to be a guard! I will get to ride on horses and have a sword and–” Liam was cut off by Gwen’s laughter once more.

“Nope. You’re not going to be a guard,” she said while running off with Liam’s wooden sword. “You are going to be my friend.”

And just like that, Gwen and Liam became the best of friends from that day forward. Every once and awhile, Liam would remind Gwen of how she carried herself as royalty and how he had no doubt she would be great at ordering everyone about. Who would have known that he was right all along.

~~~

“Good morning, sunshine,” Liam hollered over the sound of pouring rain and thunder. He was surprised Caden hadn’t woken up by now. You would think that a constant stream of rain would wake him up, no matter how tired he had been the night before. They needed to get going again. If they didn’t leave soon, someone would catch on that they were missing by now. If they didn’t already know. Just as these thoughts circled through his head, he heard the sound of leaves rustling behind him. Caden suddenly shot up and froze as if standing would help him identify the sound. Liam, of course, did the sensible thing, and ran towards the rustling intruder.

“Show yourself,” Liam said as he walked purposely towards the general area of the sound.

“What are you doing?” Caden urgently whispered.

Before Liam could respond, the two boys saw what was making the noise. Standing there was someone no one expected to see.

Kernan stood pathetically crying and glaring before them.


By E. Crowther

 

Chapter 34

“Go get some camels, she said. It will be fun, she said.”

Lynn grimaced in response to Gwen’s sarcasm. She felt the same way, but corrected Gwen instead of agreeing with her. “Athadius never said it would be fun…”

Gwen and Lynn were standing in front of the herd of camels. From the distance and as the two girls had crept carefully towards the outskirts of town, the camels had looked rather majestic with their long necks, humped backs, and loping walk. And Lynn had imagined it would be quite easy to grab however many they needed and lead them quietly and carefully away.

But now that she was in front of the fenced-in area, the tall animals looked neither majestic nor easy to steal. Well, borrow, anyways. The camels were crowded together, headbutting and braying. And the stench… Gwen pinched her nose dramatically and muttered something about the smell being as bad as the rotten garbage from the palace kitchen.

“Well,” Lynn said uncertainly. “Let’s start checking their teeth.”

Gwen raised her eyebrows at Lynn. “Check their teeth? Are you asking me to put my hand near one of those thing’s mouth?”

Lynn climbed over the fence railing and dropped in on the other side. “Oh, just come on.”

Gwen tossed her head and ducked under the fence. The two girls began carefully stepping between the camels, trying not to be squashed or trampled. Lynn tried to catch a glimpse of teeth without actually putting her hand near the camels’ mouths. Gwen watched and snorted derisively. “Is wittle Wynn scared of the big, bad camel? Don’t be afraid, it’s just a mouth full of teeth that could bite your hand off.”

Lynn glared at Gwen, took a deep breath, and tentatively placed her hand on a camel’s neck. It didn’t flinch, so Lynn let her hand travel up to the head and then slowly down to its mouth. The camel seemed to be used to people’s hands near its mouth, because it let Lynn peer at its teeth and stood quietly. Gwen watched impatiently. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Well, is it a good camel?”

Lynn let go of the camel. “Umm… It has a lot of teeth.”

Gwen narrowed her eyes. “Oh, it has a lot of teeth. Thanks for pointing that out to me, I didn’t notice before. Do you even know how to tell if it’s a good camel?”

Lynn cleared her throat. “Um. Well, I know you’re supposed to check their teeth. The problem is, I don’t know what their teeth are supposed to look like…”

Gwen threw her hands in the air. “I don’t believe you! Why didn’t you ask Athadius?”

“I just forgot! What, do I have to remember everything around here? Why didn’t you ask?”

“But you’re the careful, cautious Lynn! How did you forget this very important fact?”

Lynn didn’t answer, and Gwen stared at her in a moment of silence. A mischievous grin spread over Gwen’s face. “Oh, I see. This is the first time you’ve stolen something, isn’t it? And you’re scared, aren’t you? But you don’t want to show it because you’re supposed to be the calm and practical one.”

Lynn clenched her fist. “You should ask permission before you go poking around in my head, you know. Fine. Yes, this is the first time I’ve stolen something, but actually, it’s not stealing because they’re already Athadius’. And yes, I am scared.” She lifted her chin at Gwen. “There. Are you happy now?”

Gwen laughed, but it wasn’t the mocking laugh Lynn expected. “Oh, good grief, Lynn.” She leaned forward and whispered loudly, “We are running for our lives. People are trying to kill us. We all have special powers.” She leaned back and continued in a normal tone. “Of course you’re scared. So am I!”

Lynn’s shoulders relaxed. “Oh.” She gave Gwen a small smile. “Thanks.”

Gwen gave a mock curtsy. “You’re welcome, my lady. So,” she continued, gesturing to the camels, “how do we pick out the camels? Should we go back to my idea about their bellies sounding like watermelons? Or perhaps we should stare deeply into their eyes, count to ten, and then wink five times quickly.”

Lynn ignored Gwen’s suggestion. “Well, I guess if there’s nothing obviously wrong with its teeth, it’ll do.”

Feeling rather guilty and hoping that they were not doing something terribly wrong, Gwen and Lynn coaxed five camels, all with big, healthy looking teeth, off to the side. Gwen tied them to the watering post while Lynn placed her hands on the desert ground. Although she didn’t actually have to put her hands on the ground, it made it easier to sense moisture and pull it out. She filled the trough to the brim, allowing the camels to drink, and then gathered some more for herself and Gwen. The two girls sat on the ground, trying to find a little shade behind the camels.

“Well. What now?” Gwen asked, fanning herself with her hand.

Lynn looked mortified. “I forgot to ask Athadius where we’re supposed to meet everyone!”

Gwen laughed at the expression on Lynn’s face. “Don’t you remember? She told Jade And Alya to meet us here… Oh, don’t look so surprised that I knew something you didn’t. I do have some brains in my head, you know, it’s not just filled with fluff, as you might think.”

Looking at the small, sharp-tongued girl, Lynn suddenly felt sad. “Gwen, I’m sorry.”

Gwen looked suddenly wary. “Why?”

“For making you leave your home, for making you leave the Princess, for–” Lynn faltered, wondering again what Princess Lairelithoniel had said to Gwen.

Gwen looked away and was silent for one moment too long. Lynn wished she had not opened her mouth, and contemplated whether she should apologize for her apology, but decided that opening her mouth again might make things worse. When Gwen turned back to Lynn again, her face was cheerful, if a trifle forced. “Well, then. So, this was your first time stealing something? This wasn’t much like stealing, especially since we’re still sitting at the scene of the crime… But you weren’t too shabby! You’ve already got the first lesson down, which is never admit you were stealing it. Borrowing it, keeping it safe, bringing it to someone else. Any of those excuses will work.”

Lynn sighed in exasperation. “Gwen, we weren’t stealing them. The camels already belong to Athadius!”

“Bravo!” Gwen clapped her hands. “Very convincing. But try it again, with a bit more emotion. Perhaps make yourself cry, and talk about your poor starving family?”

Lynn rolled her eyes as Gwen continued to give her pointers and tell stories about her ‘borrowing’ expeditions. “Oh, I always returned everything.” Gwen assured Lynn. “But it makes a wonderful trick to play on servants who are a bit too high and mighty for their own good.”

Gwen was in the middle of one story that involved a necklace, a pig, and a piece of coal, when Lynn shushed her. “Do you hear that?”

Gwen opened her mouth to tell Lynn not to interrupt, but then paused as she heard laughter from behind them. Turning around, Gwen and Lynn didn’t see anyone until suddenly Jade and Alya appeared next to them, their arms full of cloth bundles, and shaking in laughter.

“Did you see their faces?” Jade exulted.

“And did you see them jump?” Alya laughed.

“Um, hello!” Gwen said in annoyance. “I was in the middle of a story.”

“Hi, Gwen,” Alya said breathlessly. Jade lifted a hand in greeting, clutching her stomach with the other.

Lynn looked at the two girls sternly. “What did you two do?”

“Oh, nothing,” Jade responded nonchalantly. Alya couldn’t quite manage the straight-faced carelessness, and instead said, “We’ll tell you later, I promise.”

Half an hour later the four girls were dressed in desert attire with daggers and a leather pouch filled with water at their belts. Gwen began naming the camels, Jade and Alya chiming in.

Lynn was watching the three girls and shaking her head when Athadius appeared so suddenly beside her that Lynn wondered if she had invisibility powers too. Athadius glared at the girls. “Are you trying to alert the entire town to our presence?”

Gwen waved a cheery hand. “Hello to you, too, Athadius! Come meet our new travel companions!” She pointed at a camel. “This one is —”

Athadius interrupted her. “Jade, Alya, where’s the wagon?”

Alya looked uncomfortable, and Jade answered evasively, “We couldn’t quite get the wagon.” She and Alya shared a look and Alya collapsed into giggles again.

Lynn watched Athadius with concern. The warrior-girl looked shaken. Before, she had been stiff and reserved, as if she was years older than everyone. Now, she looked young and vulnerable. Lynn remembered her last words, And then to find the truth, and wondered if she had found it.

“They didn’t get the wagon, but they got plenty of supplies,” Lynn told Athadius. “And the camels are watered and ready to go.”

Athadius nodded. “Good. Then let’s go.”

Gwen, who had been first watching Jade and Alya with annoyance, and then joining in their laughter, returned to her naming of the camels as if she had never been interrupted. “—Kernan, I thought their dispositions matched nicely.” She continued speaking as the five girls mounted their animals. “That’s Larry, in honor of Lairelithoniel… Larry because it seems such an insult to name a camel after the princess, but this one is the nicest out of all of them, so it’s meant as a compliment. Oh, and Athadius, I named this one after you! You’re both big and bossy, so it works perfectly!”

~~~

The sun beat down upon the five girls. Lynn twisted uncomfortably on her camel and wiped away a trickle of sweat from her forehead. The clothes Jade and Alya had gathered included a headpiece for each girl, but it didn’t seem to help against the heat. Turning around and peering back in the distance, Lynn tried to make out the tiny outline of the desert town. There was a black smudge that might have been the city, but it might also be her imagination.

Athadius rode up in the front, leading the girls across the sandy plain. Every now and then, the tall girl paused and looked at a round object in her hand, and then continued. Sometimes after halting, Athadius would frown, and when they began again, it would be to the left or right. These slight changes in direction exasperated Gwen. “What difference does it make if we go this way or that way? It’s not like there’s something other than desert over there!”

Lynn smiled to herself, certain that Gwen’s annoyance was less about which way they went, and more about having to make her camel turn. Out of all the camels, Gwen’s was the most obstinate. No matter how Gwen kicked, shrieked, or yanked at the reins, the camel would simply go where it wanted to, and nowhere else.

Jade slouched a bit on her camel, letting its swaying rock her back and forth. Alya sat upright, holding the reins tightly as if afraid the camel would bolt away from underneath her. Lynn, like Alya, felt uneasy on the animal, but tried to relax and follow Athadius and Jade’s example.

Lynn watched Athadius up at the front. She was glad the other three girls had listened to her immediately back at the town. Although not too worried about Jade and Alya making a fuss, Lynn had been a little nervous Gwen might put up a fight. But, she recalled, Gwen probably had been able to sense Athadius’ emotions and realize that it was not the time to be stubborn.

The camels plodded along, the sun shone with all its might, and the five girls fell silent.

An ache in her back made Lynn wince. How long had it been since they left the town? Several hours at least… Lynn remembered the soft pillows and blankets back at the castle, and the cool breezes of her home, and a sudden longing filled her to be anywhere else but here. Her camel was following its companions without Lynn’s guidance, and she let her eyes close. Perhaps if she could not see her surroundings, she could imagine them away. The swaying movement and the hot sun made her sleepy, and she was just starting to feel she could actually fall asleep, when Athadius spoke.

“We’re here.”

Lynn forced her eyes open as Jade and Alya both spoke at the same time. “What?”

“But, but, we’re nowhere!” spluttered Gwen.

Squinting in the bright light, Lynn peered around her. Still sand, as far as the eye could see. Perhaps Athadius was making a joke? But Athadius was dismounting her camel and pulling off the pack. She motioned the girls to get down as well. Jade shrugged and slid off, wincing slightly at the sudden movement after so long in one position. Gwen, Alya, and Lynn followed suit.

Athadius had walked a short distance away, and was looking at the ground, which sloped downwards at her feet.

“What is it?” Lynn asked. The four girls stretched their legs and made their way to Athadius. Lynn was expecting to see a snake, or some desert animal that would be their dinner. Or maybe they were at the top of a hill, and down below was the forest. She was not expecting the huge basin that funneled down into a dark hole.

“We’re not nowhere.” Athadius said. “We’re at the Heart of the Desert.”

Alya gaped at the hole below her. Jade just stared, her arms crossed. And for once, Gwen seemed too shocked to speak. Lynn opened her mouth, but found it was too dry to form any words.

Athadius continued speaking, quickly and stiffly. “The entire palace is looking for us, and soon that entire town will be out looking for us as well. We need a safe place to stay and hide until we can move on. This is the only place.”

“The entire town will be looking for us?” Jade asked, her eyes narrowing in anger. “Why? What aren’t you telling us?”

Gwen regained her voice. “Is that why you felt so…” She broke off and started again. “I can tell what you’re feeling, you know. But I didn’t say anything, I thought you were just worried about the palace guards. Why didn’t you tell us that we were in danger here? Why didn’t you tell us your town was going to try to kill us?”

Athadius took a shaky breath. “I made sure we were going as fast as necessary. They might still be unconscious, but when they wake up they’ll alert the town.”

“Who’s they?” Lynn asked softly.

Athadius didn’t answer Lynn’s question, instead addressing the group. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. But now you know, and this is the only place that we’ll be safe.”

Jade lifted her chin, her eyes fierce. “We’ll be safe? Even as far away as I live, I’ve heard stories about a desert hole that brings death to all who come near. What’s down there?”

Athadius swallowed and looked lost in thought, but didn’t speak.

Gwen glared at her. “Look, Athadius, you can’t expect us to follow you without explanations any longer. We left the castle, we traveled to your town, and then left your town immediately even though we’re all tired and hungry and had been looking forward to a rest. Now tell us what’s going on!”

Athadius closed her eyes and when she opened them, there were tears. “I can’t–” her voice broke, and she started again. “I’m sorry. I will tell you, but I can’t talk about it now. Please, you have to trust me.”

No one said anything, but the silence seemed to say, “Trust you? Why should we?”

Finally, Alya stepped forward. “I trust you,” she said simply.

Her words broke some of the tension between the group. They didn’t say much, but went back to their camels and grabbed their packs. Returning to the sloping sand, Lynn stared down into the hole. Did she trust Athadius? Enough to follow her into a dark hole in the desert?

Athadius looked each girl in the eye, and then slid down the sand, disappearing into the blackness below. Lynn found herself squeezing her hands, waiting nervously for Athadius to call back up.

“Alya, you’re next!”

Lynn’s hands relaxed in relief. Alya smiled anxiously and then she too disappeared into the black. Gwen was next, and after her was Jade. Lynn waited alone for her turn.

The faint call reached Lynn’s ears. She took a deep breath and slid down the sand, into the blackness, into the Heart of the Desert.


By M. Choi

 

Chapter 35

Calling Alya, the youngest of the five, to come down right after her into a dark scary pit may not have been the wisest idea, but the thought of having anyone else by her side in the darkness was just too much.  She did not have many friends, Athadius thought bitterly, but Alya was a new wonder.  

Alya landed beside her.  Athadius had sent a gust of wind to help break the fall and was glad to see that Alya landed with a gentle thump.  That was much better the the jarring fall she had experienced not… How long ago was that?  Counting back the days she came to a startling conclusion; today was… today was her birthday.  

She took a shaky step backwards and the wind voices she had so effectively silenced, suddenly burst forth.  

Home home hommmmee Known known knowwwww Home home home Slight crack Place of broken backs Death trap Home home hommmmeee Here is known known knownnn Brought back hommmeeee

It was during this bombarde by the wind that Gwen came tumbling down.  She landed with a loud “Oof!” and Athadius briefly felt bad about letting her land so hard.  Until Gwen opened her mouth and proved that even a fall of great height did not knock the words out of her chest.  

“So you lead us to the middle of nowhere, jump down a hole, call in our youngest friend to follow you, and then just leave us all up there standing in the blazing heat staring at a hole? If you want us to start trusting you, you might want to stop acting like a crazy person and expecting us to follow suite,” Gwen said in one breath.

Alya looked at Athadius cautiously, and then whispered to Gwen, “She seemed a little shocked.”

“I don’t care if she suddenly realized she was the crown princess!” Gwen said.  She cocked her head.  “Today is your birthday?”  There was a moment of silence.  Ath was really beginning to detest Gwen’s mind reading abilities.  For once Gwen said nothing.

“Ho down there!” Jade’s voice came from above.  “Can we join you in the deep dark hole, or do you want us to keep standing here under the inferno ball of fire?”

When all five girls stood in the dim room illuminated only by Jade’s fire staff, Ath suddenly did not know what to do next.  Ever since leaving the encounter with her father, she had pushed back all thoughts other than reaching this place.  This place was safe.

That last thought shocked her.  This place?  Safe?  Since when had she regarded the death trap, the place that had killed twenty-six of her brothers, as safe?  

Home home hommmeee Ocean blood yawns Home home homeeee

Down one of the corridors, past Gwen’s head, Ath thought she saw something.  But could it really be?  Thoughts of the day she got her powers and of that beautiful and powerful woman brushed past her.  She shook her head.  She was tired.  They all were.  

Before she could suggest it, Lynn spoke up.  “This looks as good a place as any to rest, how about we all just try and get some sleep.  We can decide what to do next in the morning.”

Not even Gwen opposed the idea, and soon all had drifted off into the land of sleep.  

The next morning, Ath awoke to Jade’s torch-staff burning brightly.  She was surprised to find that everyone else was up.  Jolting upright, she glanced around the room.  But all was well.  The phantoms of her dreams had stayed in her dreams.

“Don’t worry, none of us were dragged down into the scary hallways while we slept,” Jade said, recognizing the look on Ath’s face.

Ignoring the comment, Athadius sat down next to the others.  Alya offered her some bread and dates for breakfast, which she accepted them eagerly.  Glancing around the room, she found it much cheerier than she remembered.  With the tossing shadows cast by Jade’s torch, and the friendly figures Alya, Lynn, Jade, and Gwen, she could almost imagine away the nightmares that had flocked her sleep.  Almost.

“Perhaps now you can tell us what happened yesterday?” Lynn ventured.

“Yeah, I am dying to hear how your birthday went,” Gwen said insensitively. “I always thought that I had bad luck when it came to lousy birthdays, but some how I feel like yours was even worse than mine.”

Alya shot Gwen a sharp look, then smiled at Athadius.  “You don’t have to if you are not ready.”

But Athadius was not listening, she stared down the passage way she had traversed not a week ago.  Past the deadly traps and obstacles, there was the fleeting image of that woman.

“What?” Lynn asked, seeing Athadius’ gaze and turning her gaze, but by the time she looked the woman was gone.

Athadius was quiet.  The wind whispered in her ear.

Mother mother mother wind Sorrow sorrow sorrow begin Same same form Different different warm Mouse scurry Spider hurry Mother mother mother wind Sorrow sorrow sorry begin Tunnel here tunnel there Walk no fear Harm no hair

“I think I found a way out,” Athadius said abruptly, cocking her head while listening and feeling with the wind.

“You mean you did not have one before you lead us down a hole in the ground?” Jade asked, her eyes sharp.

Athadius raised a eyebrow in comical interest as she replied, “Oh no, I knew of one way out, but it involved walking through miles of of tunnels littered with death traps and relying on the powers of a woman…” Athadius did not know how to describe this woman, so simply finished, “who lives down here.”

“But you found a way to get out and not almost die?” Alya asked with sweet hope in her eyes.

Ath almost smiled at her, instead she dead stared and nodded.  

Standing, Athadius walked to the far wall and sent her wind friends scurrying to find the entrance.  She could feel the hallway behind the wall, but the bridge in-between was hard for her to find.  After a few minutes of searching, she found the smallest crack and sent the wind into it.  Soon the crack widened and before her stood a door.

Her four friends joined her side and stared in with a look of wonder on their faces.  Jade lit up the space so that all could see the horrid sight.  It was indeed a passage way, but it lacked an important aspect of an escape route: a floor.  Before them stood a large crevice stretching deep beneath their feet.

Gwen slapped her forehead.  “Really?  You throw us down a well whose best escape route is canyon of death?”

Uh oooooh Father father Brother brother Soldiers come from above

Ath let out a groan.

“What?” Alya asked, sensing the groan was of more than just the travesty that stood before them.

“My father is here,” Ath simply responded.

“Hey!  Maybe he can help us get out!” Alya said hopefully.

For once Gwen did not make a sarcastic remark.  “He is the one you went to see, isn’t he?”

Ath nodded ever so slightly.  Shouts came from above and the whole group tensed.

“Your dad tried to kill you?”  Lynn asked.

“Technically it was my brother who held the saber,” Athadius began, hoping to defend a bit of her father’s honor, only to realize there was none left to save, “But yeah.”

“Woah, now that is messed up!” Jade remarked.

More shouts came from above, and sand began to fall from the opening they had fallen down.  

“I thought you said they would not find us here?” Alya asked.

“I didn’t think they would dare come to the most dangerous place in our country,” Ath replied simply.  When she saw the girls stares, she regretted her words.  That is what she got for talking so much.  

“Well, are we going to keep standing her like oak trees or are we going to try and escape?” Gwen asked, flailing her hands in the air to make her point.

“But how?” Lynn asked, staring at the deep cavern before her.

“In my eyes we have three options,” Jade said, matter-of -factly. “We can find a way to traverse the deep death pit, we can brave the long death tunnel, or we can stand our ground and fight…” she turned to Ath.

Ath listened to the wind, “About a hundred soldiers.”

“Yeah, that,” Jade finished.  “So what will it be?”

Gwen turned suddenly to Alya. “Well, now!” she exclaimed. “That plan might just be crazy enough to work!”


By R. Shinnick

 

Chapter 36

Alya jumped. Gwen’s uncanny ability to read the other girls’ minds was still quite unsettling.

“Dangerous, crazy, most likely to result in death…” Gwen laughed hysterically. “I like it.”

Jade was rubbing her hands together in anticipation. She grinned and cocked her head at Alya. “Me too!” she paused, cocking her head to one side. “What is it?”

Athadius’ lips twitched. If it had been anybody else, Alya might have presumed it was the beginning of a smile. Lynn face was a little doubtful, but she looked expectantly at Alya.   

Athadius turned to Alya. “Tell us your plan.”

“Alright,” said Alya, setting her teeth. “Athadius, you said that this was another way out. If there is a ravine, how could we cross it? If this is another exit, there has to be a way other than across the ravine.”

“Alya,” asked Lynn hesitantly. “Are you saying-”

“Yes. We go down.”

“Wait,” said Jade. “We’re not fighting soldiers?”

Alya shook her head firmly. “We have no chance against one hundred.”

Jade gave a dismissive gesture. “Pshaw, no worse than my little pigs!” She looked around at the other girls and sighed. “Fine. How?”

“Well, don’t you think there might be a rope or something? It may be concealed, but surely…” Alya stepped to the edge, looking for any trace of a rope. There were shouts above, and a large cracking noise, and the ground Alya was standing on disappeared.

“Alya!” came Lynn’s frantic call from above.

“I’m alright!” she called back. “It’s not a long a drop! I knew there would be something here! Jade, you ought to come next so we can have some light.”

Alya stepped backwards, careful of her footing, in case there was a drop off. The ground felt soft beneath her, like sand, but not dry. Jade landed lightly beside her. Alya blinked as a blaze of light formed in front of her eyes. One by one, the girls jumped down. Alya examined her surroundings. They were in a sort of cave. There was no exit, but as she had hoped, a rope, coiled by the edge of the cave. It was already tied firmly around a large boulder. Immediately, Athadius walked over to it, checking for durability.

“Jade, get down there so we can have some light.”

Jade nodded and grabbed hold of the rope.

“There are torches,” she called, already from far below. “A bit old and rusty, but they’ll do,”

“Take one if you can, but don’t light it yet,” ordered Athadius down to Jade. “We can’t let them see us.”

Gwen rolled her eyes. “That’s very good, Athadius, but shouldn’t you lower your voice a little? They could hear us too, you know. Or don’t the Sanhildin have ears?”

Athadius didn’t look at her. “Can you tell how far down it is?”

For a moment there was silence, and Alya was horrified to think that something might have happened to Jade. But then her muffled sounded from far down.

“I’m at the bottom now. I’d say it’s a solid twenty to thirty feet, but there are plenty of footholds.”

Athadius turned to Lynn. “You’re next. Gwendolyn will be down soon after you, so don’t wait too long.”

Lynn nodded, smiled encouragingly, and disappeared into the blackness. Gwen followed soon after. Alya was left in the dark silence with Athadius. Unnoticed by the two girls, the knotted rope slipped the tiniest bit. Alya tried to peer through darkness at the older girl.

“Athadius?” she ventured.

“Don’t speak,” came the whispered reply. “They’re here.”

A loud crack sounded, and the shouts were immediately above them. Unconsciously, Alya grabbed Athadius’ hand. They stared up, barely breathing, as a man stared straight back at them. For a moment Alya was sure he had seen them, but his eyes remained unseeing, for the darkness engulfed the two girls entirely. The man stood staring for the whole of eternity, then glanced and disappeared. Athadius squeezed Alya’s hand ever so slightly.

“Alya.” Her voice was barely audible. “Go.”

With an effort, Alya released her hand and stepped toward the edge. She felt for the rope and slid over the edge. Athadius’ figure slipped silently over the edge. And then- Alya felt the rope jerk, and then it seemed to fly out from under her, and for the third time in way too-soon, she fell, unable to hold in her terrified screams, to the unknown place beneath her.

Almost as soon as it had happened it was over. She felt an extra surge of wind beneath her, and her fall slowed. The pain surged through her ankle as she landed. Athadius dropped to a landing beside her, apparently unruffled by the event.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

The tears had already sprung to Alya’s eyes, but she forced the back as best she could, and choked out, “Yes. Are they-”

“Yes. They’ll be here soon. We’ve got to hurry. Jade, let’s have some light!”

Immediately, there was light from a few yards away, and Jade’s faced appeared, then Lynn’s and Gwen’s. Jade lit a torch she had grabbed and handed it to Athadius.

“They’ll be here soon?” repeated Gwen. “You mean they’re following us?”

“Unless you think they are deaf, and I assure you they are not, than yes. Of course they are.” Athadius turned away from Gwen and faced the others. “Let’s go.”

They followed the hall-like passageway for several agonizing minutes. Alya’s ankle was throbbing painfully, but she refused to be a burden to the other girls and hurried along as best she could. Athadius led the way with the torch. She came to an abrupt stop. It was a fork. There was no time to lose. If they chose the wrong path than-

Athadius turned decidedly to the left. Not even Gwen stopped to question her, for now the running footsteps of men could be heard far down the passage. All the girls had begun to run down the stone cavern when a loud rumble was heard, and the opening behind them caved in.

Through the last small opening, Alya thought she saw a glimmer of something, and then it disappeared as a last boulder dropped into place, cutting off completely anyway for the enemy to get in, or for the girls to get out.

 

~~~

Alya didn’t know how long they traveled through the darkness. No daylight reached them through the tunnel. They ate when they were hungry and slept when they were tired. It was always the same. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Walk. Eat. Sleep. At first the pain in her ankle gave Alya something to focus on, other than the never ending tunnel. But eventually even that lost its novelty. The throbbing became just as routine as the rest of it. She didn’t realize when she added something to her routine. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Breath. Sleep hung over her like a curtain. She couldn’t do anything to stop it. Her head ached.

“Athadius?” she had managed to croak once.

“Don’t talk,” was the reply. “Don’t waste the air.”

Even that realization hadn’t awoken Alya in the slightest. Walk. Eat. Breath. Don’t talk. Sleep was no longer a part of the routine. It was too hard. Her head throbbed uncontrollably.

So it was going to happen. She was going to die down here. It didn’t seem so bad after all. Sleep. It sounded so beautiful. After so much work, it couldn’t be so bad… just to stop. She didn’t care anymore. It was too much trouble to breath. Her head ached. When would it stop? If she could only have an easy breath of air-

All the girls lifted their eyes. And breathed. How beautiful. A cold draft of air had suddenly flooded through the tunnel, rustling their hair, filling their lungs. With a sudden strength none of the girls knew they had, they raced on. The tunnel began to brighten, and suddenly, they burst through the crumbling stones into the crisp cold air of a forest.

Alya squinted to see. Long ago they had left the lighted torch behind. It was strange to see, no not the sun, but the moon again after so long. She laughed. She couldn’t help it. And then, the laughter rippled among the girls- although Athadius’ laugh was more of a snort. It was nice to have something to laugh about after so long.

When the laughter died out, Jade spread her arms wide and said dramatically, “Welcome, my friends, to the Kingdom of Kaciot!”

Alya, Gwen, and Lynn cheered, but Athadius silenced them roughly. She looked around into the woods.

“We’re not alone.”


By A. Choi

 

Chapter 37

No one else would have picked up in the obvious fear in Athadius’ voice and how it quivered like that every time she was scared, but Gwen saw it. Athadius was good at hiding her emotions, but Gwen was getting better and better at reading them… even ones people try their hardest to hide. Everyone took in a sharp breath of the newly found fresh air; their hearts and minds spilling with exhausted alarm. Everyone but Gwen turned their head towards Athadius in a silent question, hoping their fearless leader would order them about again. But before she could direct the gaggle of girls, the sound of sniffling echoed through the forest. Silence rippled in response. Whatever stood before them, wasn’t human… unless this human had a very bad cold. Gwen let out a small laugh, the girls responded with blank, scared stares.

“Lynn, you really must learn how to hold back your sniveling! One would think you caught hold of the plague with a sound like that.” Gwen let out in a light laugh, thankful to have a bit of her old spirit back. The fear and hopelessness of the girls had been pouring into her own anxieties. This was the first moment in a long while, when she was not consumed by the emotions of everyone and herself at the same time. She was interrupted, however, by the sound of howling vibrating between the girls. Everyone was quiet, listening to the eerie sound of whatever lay in store. Gwen hated the sound of silence and the thoughts running through everyone. She felt dizzy with the amount of anxiety surging through the room and needed to lighten the air. Focusing her mind on her next play on words, rather than the emotions of every single girl in the circle flooding through her, Gwen took a deep breath and straightened her back with a false smile. She felt she would explode if she did not bring at least a little joy to this situation.

“My dear Athadius, you really must lie down. Your coughs are sounding more coarse as of late.”

If there would have been a moment for the girls to respond, Gwen would have met the judgmental stares of Athadius, the scoff and eye roll of Lynn, and the reluctant but abundant giggles of Jade and Alya. There was no such pause, however, when the howling and sniffling finally caught up to them.

Within the time it took Gwen to blink, Athadius was already springing to action. It took slightly longer for the others to follow suit with determination. In moment’s like this, Gwen felt utterly hopeless. Her instincts told her that she needed to spring to action; that’s what she always did back home. That was when she wasn’t always with a group of girls with powers much more practical in the art of combat than hers were. If Gwen wanted to stop the bad guys, she could sit them down and start a counseling session about what they are feeling if she were to do anything with her powers. The only time she felt validated in her abilities was that one fateful fight with the guards in the castle. That surely must have been a fluke, though, because Gwen had not been able to do anything like that since.

Gwen ran to the scene of the action. With or without ninja powers, she had to fight too. She couldn’t quite see what was lying before her, or what they were supposed to be fighting. The sounds of the animals left much to the imagination, though. Growls and grunts sounded throughout the space from what Gwen hoped was from the animals, but realized some of them may be from the girls themselves. Athadius is a breed of animal unto herself, Gwen thought with a small laugh.

“Come here, piggy piggy!” Jade let out with an excited vigor as she ran even further into the scene of action. Gwen had never seen her with as much joy on her face as she had.

“Aren’t you running to slay some beast that will most likely try to kill us all?” Gwen questioned, cocking an eyebrow in question.

“Yeah, I really miss this. Plus, wolves this size could be called a pig,” The short, fierce warrior managed out in a surprisingly girlish squeal as she sprinted towards the apparently pig sized wolves. Wolves.

Gwen stopped in her tracks. No, they couldn’t possibly be…

Suddenly knowing what she had to do, Gwen dashed towards the girls and wolves. When she got there, she saw the the group of extremely powerful girls struggling to fight the pack of ravaging wolves before them. It was almost comical watching Lynn covering the dogs in waves of water, just to watch them shake themselves dry and continue on their rampage. Gwen stepped forward with a confident stance, knowing exactly how to address the problem at hand.

“Athadius, I know how to handle…” Gwen dramatically paused, looking at the mess around them. “This.” She finished with a slightly arrogant air. Gwen was mortally offended by the scoff and slight laugh of Athadius as she completely disregarded her comment.

Taking one more step towards the wolves, Gwen lowered herself down to their level and sat on the floor. The wolves seemed confused by this, but quickly reminded themselves to fight. Gwen was well prepared for this, and looked them in the eye with no worry covering her face.

“Sit.” She told them simply, holding her hand out to pet one on the head. The other girls let out a collective gasp as they watched in wonder as the dogs obeyed the small girl’s orders.

“How did you do that?!” Alya let out in an amazed whisper.

“I am know these dogs very well, oh yes I do!” Gwen said, leaning over the dogs and rubbing their heads gently.

“Do you have some sort of animal controlling skill we don’t know about?” Jade asked in complete confusion. Gwen let out her first genuine laugh in days. Oh, how she missed the feeling of joy, no matter how unorthodox the situation was that inspired it. Suddenly hopping up from the ground, Gwen smoothed down her now disgustingly dirty dress.

“These wolves are my old friends,” Gwen responded while simultaneously ordering the dogs to stay put. “If you think that knowing how to deal with a dog is a power then I suppose I have it. Haven’t any of you hunted before?” Her tone suggested that this was as common as brushing your teeth.

“Some people don’t need bloodhounds to hunt-” Jade responded. Gwen was starting grow fond of this warrior who wasn’t afraid to state her mind. If it wasn’t for her, Gwen would easily grow bored in her relations with the others, Athadius in particular.

“Well, maybe if I could flip about like you, I wouldn’t need them either.” Gwen let out with a slight smile, lightly teasing her. “Anyways, hunting is a tradition within the kingdom. If you don’t befriend these little guys, you wouldn’t ever step outside. I learned to love them at a very young age.”

“Who sent them after us?” Lynn let out in a small whisper. Of course she would be the one of the group to ask the important questions. Everyone seemed to let the weight of the question sink in. Someone was very close to finding them. Someone that seemed determined.

Lynn broke the silence yet again.

“Gwen, you know something we don’t. You know what is coming our way, I can tell.”

A pause rippled through the air as the seventeen year old with the all too sharp wit stood silent. Looking down at her feet, the wolves looked up at her with understanding eyes and clustered around her, picking up on her melancholy mood. The dogs understood emotions like Gwen, and the bond she had with them was above words. The moment of silence stretched on longer while Gwen avoided the patient stares of the others. Gwendlyn took a deep breath. Lynn was right. The second she saw these wolves she knew who they belonged to. Gwen straightened her back and took a bold step before her friends.

“These wolves are my father’s,” she finally choked out.

It was now the girls turn to become quiet. No one was expecting what came next. In this legendary moment, someone Gwen never expected to speak up, did.

“Who?” Athadius spoke out.  She opened her mouth and said something to Gwen that wasn’t an order or an insult. Gwen stood there staring at the long girl towering over her.

“I’m sorry, have I heard correctly? Did the girl who took ages just to utter her name actually speak? Of her own will?” Gwen let out with a mixture of mock shock and genuine wonder. She was also surprised as Lynn let out a small laugh. This truly was a day of self development, Gwen realized. Lynn lead the whole group, excluding Athadius, off in a sudden burst of laughter. They stood there like that, clutching their stomachs, and laughing for no reason when Athadius spoke up yet again.

“If I would have known you would have reacted like that I would never have spoke at all,” she said in an even tone, scowling at Gwen. “Who is your father?”

Gwen suddenly realized that no one knew she was the princess of her kingdom. She had forgot about it herself during the past few days. Gwendlyn lifted her head, pulled her shoulders back, and took another bold step past her pack of wolves and looked everyone in the eye.

“My father is the king of Rhydderch. I am the daughter he tried to keep a secret.”

Gwen let out a laugh as she looked at the faces before her. One would think they were finding out that they were the crown princess.

“Alya, dear, you really must close your mouth. You will attract flies,” Gwen managed to speak through her constant state of laughter.

“You,” Jade gulped. “Are the next in line for the throne of the most powerful kingdom in the forest?”

“Honestly, you would think that a group with the likes of you would understand sudden and dramatic plot twists!” Gwen took a deep breath and looked the still shocked girls in the eyes once more, this time with a much softer expression. “Yes, I am the princess,” she finished with an uncharacteristic meek smile.

“Is this the same king that sent deadly guards that you played with like  puppets?” Jade asked.

“Yep, that’s the one. He is a real ray of sunshine.” As Gwen said this, Lynn interrupted with the reality of the situation.

“We should leave. If the king sent his pack here to find us, he can’t be far behind.”

Everyone, including Gwen, looked over at Athadius in question.

“Lynn is right, we need to leave.” Athadius ordered, already walking towards their new destination, whatever it was. Gwen had lost track of where they were going at this point, and she didn’t feel like asking. Walking after her with a determined stride, Gwen faced the tall gaint, her face upturned.

“I’m keeping the dogs. They like me.” Gwen stated. There was no questioning her on this. They were hers now.

“No,” Athadius tried to tell Gwen, but Alya cut in.

“Can’t she keep them?” pleaded Alya, who was gently petting the head of one. “They might even come in handy, you never know!” The youngest smiled at Gwen. “Plus, she will be pathetic without them. She really hated leaving those camels, you know.”

Athadius let out a defeated huff and rolled her eyes.

“Fine.” The warrior let out in a growl.

“YES! I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED PETS!” Gwen shouted out, then suddenly cowered back. “Um, I meant, Uh, thanks… I guess.” She finished with a fake nonchalance.

“Ever onward.” Athadius said, and with that, a group of girls and a pack of wolves set off into the sunset to face whatever adventures they had in store.

Just as our group left of in a picture perfect ending, Gwen’s faithful dogs started barking and covering the girls in a protective circle.

“We really can’t catch our breath, can we?!” Gwen said, and she knew everyone was thinking the same thing.

“Well, girls, we know what to do,” said Gwen with her pack of wolves and friends following as she strided into the unknown.


By E. Crowther

Chapter 38

Lynn had to admit, she felt much less afraid now that the wolves were with them. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel safe with the other four girls… Well, actually, maybe it was that. What with Athadius’ eagerness to fight, Jade’s disregard for danger, Alya’s crazy schemes, and Gwen’s spontaneity, Lynn was just waiting for something bad to happen. For example, Gwen had decided to walk towards the noise further into the forest, where the trees were so thick the moonlight barely got through the leaves. The girls had followed, of course. And now they were in the dark, standing in a circle. The most obvious solution would be to go back out of the forest, quickly and quietly. But for some reason, having the wolves made all the girls feel more brave and daring than before, and no one suggested a retreat.

The strange scuffling noise sounded again. Edging a little closer into the circle, Lynn placed her hand gently on one of the wolf’s backs. The rough fur comforted her, and she peered into the dark shadows, ready for whatever was coming. To her right, a sudden light appeared. The top of Jade’s staff was burning brightly, and in the light it cast, Lynn could see a delighted grin on the small girl’s face.

“Jade!” Gwen’s hiss cut through the still. “Attacking is not a good idea when you don’t know what it is!”

Jade raised her eyebrows with a smirk. “Oh, but I know what it is.” Pulling a sharp dagger out of her belt, Jade brandished her burning staff and let out a yell of excitement. “Come here, little piggy piggy!”

Lynn’s heart dropped into her stomach. Here it was. The bad thing she had been waiting for. Athadius made a lurch forward as if to haul Jade back to the group, but it was too late. The ball of fire atop of Jade’s staff rushed about twenty feet away, and then paused and started dancing wildly around, giving the four girls brief glimpses of a huge tusked beast.

Then there was a strange noise and a squealing grunt that sent shivers down Lynn’s spine. To her left, Alya let out a little whimper, and she moved closer in towards the wolves.

A few moments later Jade stood triumphantly before them. She gave a little bow as she motioned behind her. “Your dinner, ladies.”

Athadius stared at Jade. “What on earth are you thinking?”

Lynn jumped aboard eagerly. “Yes, Jade! What were you thinking? You could have been killed!”

Gwen snorted. “Athadius isn’t worried about Jade getting killed, Lynn. She’s worried that if we cook that giant hairy animal, the smoke and the smell will bring too much attention to us.”

Lynn turned to Athadius in disbelief, who shrugged.

“Anyways, Jade,” Gwen continued, “what is that thing, and why don’t you have signs up here that say, ‘Welcome to Kaciot! Have a nice stay. Oh, and by the way, watch out for these giant beasts with dangerous tusks that could kill you!’”

Jade ignored Gwen and addressed Athadius. “Look, Athadius, this is my home. I know exactly where we are, and trust me, we are safe. So why don’t we have some food and get some rest.”

“That sounds wonderful,” sighed Alya. The longing in her voice made the girls laugh. Athadius seemed softened by the laughter, and she nodded consent to Jade’s plan.

Athadius and Jade quickly started a fire for the wild boar, Lynn gathered water and giant leaves for cups, and Gwen and Alya began setting up a shelter. Lynn smiled to herself as she listened to the conversations around her.

On one side of their camp area was the fire, where Athadius and Jade were.

“How far are we from the Pool?” Athadius was asking.

Jade shrugged. “Three, four days, maybe.”

“Hm. I suppose it’s a good thing this boar is here.”

Jade rolled her eyes. “Oh yes. It’s a good thing the boar just happens to be here… Just like it just happened to walk straight up to me, jump onto my knife, and then drag itself back over here onto the fire.”

Athadius nodded her head. “Like I said, it’s a good thing.”

Jade narrowed her eyes in annoyance, while Athadius turned to put another log on the fire. In the new burst of light, Lynn could have sworn she saw a small mischievous smile on Athadius’ face before it was quickly wiped away.

On the other side of the camp Gwen and Alya were arranging blankets on the ground as Gwen guessed what colors Alya was thinking of.

“Pink.”

Alya huffed in exasperation. “But what shade of pink?”

Gwen smiled. “The exact shade of the sash on the dress that Princess Lairelithoniel gave you at the castle.”

Alya sighed. “Right. Okay, now what color?”

“Purple.”

“Wrong!” Alya cried happily.

“Actually, no.” Gwen said sweetly. “You were thinking of blue and red, which makes purple.”

“Fine.” Alya glared. “Let’s play something else… How about hide and seek?”

Gwen’s grin vanished in an instant. It was Alya’s turn to smile sweetly as she tapped Gwen on the shoulder and said, “You’re it!” Then she disappeared.

Lynn walked over and joined Gwen on the blankets.

“What fun,” grumbled Gwen. “I get to find the invisible girl. In the pitch black.”

“Does it really make a difference being pitch black, since you can’t see her anyways?” Lynn asked.

Gwen frowned at her. “Just let me complain in peace without having to be logical as well.”

“You could just wait until dinner’s ready, and then Alya will come out on her own,” suggested Lynn.

“True…” Gwen answered. Then her eyes lit up. “Or…” She whistled and called, “Winter! Ebony! Come here, girls!”

Two of the wolves ran over and nuzzled Gwen’s hand. One was as dark as the deep shadows surrounding them, while the other was snow white.

“So original.”

Lynn looked up to see Jade and Athadius standing above them.

“How long did it take you to come up with those names?” Jade continued. She put her finger on her chin to imitate a little Gwen thinking hard. “Well, this one is white. I’ll call her Winter! And this one is black. I’ll call her Ebony.”

“Oh, you’re so funny.” Gwen said. “And actually, you’ve got the names backward.” She scratched the black wolf’s back. “This one is Winter–” then, pointing towards the white wolf, “–and that one is Ebony.”

Athadius raised an eyebrow. “How old were you when you named them?”

Gwen crossed her arms defensively. “I was eight.”

Jade pursed her lips. “Hm, you would think that eight is old enough to know your colors…”

Gwen lifted her chin. “It’s called poetic license.”

Lynn laughed. “Did you write poetry about them?”

“Umm. Yes. But that is beside the point right now.”

“What’s the point?” Jade asked. “I thought we were just making fun of you.”

“The point is,” said Gwen, “I’m trying to find Alya, so please stop talking.” She turned to Ebony and Winter and held a piece of cloth under their noses. “You smell that? Go find her!”

The wolves set off on the trail. A moment later Gwen let out a shriek as someone grabbed her from behind. She whirled around to find Alya laughing in her face.

“Alya!” Gwen spluttered.

“Serves you right for cheating,” Alya grinned.

“If you’re quite done,” said Athadius sternly. “Dinner is ready.”

~~~

It was the next morning, several hours into their journey. The woods were filled with birds calling to another, the occasional growls and grunts of the wolves, and light-hearted chatter between the girls. The forest grew gradually thinner, and the rays of sun that shone through the branches illuminated the pathway before them — a nice change from the past days of darkness. A good night’s rest and full stomachs had done wonders for the girls’ spirits, and Lynn could almost imagine they were just five friends out on a walk through the woods. No matter how hard she tried, however, Lynn could not forget that people were trying to kill them. And two of those people were Athadius’ and Gwen’s fathers.

A faint rushing, buzzing noise started catching the girls’ attention. At first they waved their hands by their ears, trying to get rid of the unseen insects. But after a few moments, when the noise grew louder and there were no bugs to wave away, Gwen turned accusingly towards Athadius. “You’re not playing some sort of trick with your little wind friends, are you?”

Athadius didn’t even bother to reply. Gwen sighed. “No, you’re not. What is that noise, then?”

Jade shushed the wolves and cocked her ear. Her face grew somber.

“What? Jade, what is it?” Alya asked urgently.

“If that’s what I think it is… This is bad news.” Jade’s eyes were wide as she stared at Alya. “They attack in swarms, and there’s almost no escaping them.”

Alya looked nervously at Athadius, who was gripping her saber tightly, and then back at Jade. “What do they do?”

Jade shook her head. “You don’t want to know.”

“W-What are they?” Alya asked fearfully.

Jade’s voice lowered into a deep thrilling tone. “The deadly Garcioth Grubs.”

A strange stifled burst of noise came from where Gwen and Lynn were standing. Athadius whirled around and glared at the two girls, who gave up trying to hold in their laughs.

Alya looked reproachfully at Jade. “That was mean, Jade!”

“Yeah, it was,” Jade said unapologetically. “But it was fun, too.” She turned to Lynn with new respect in her eyes. “I knew Gwen would realize what I was doing and go along with it, but how did you know?”

Lynn smiled. “First of all, I know what the sound is, and it’s not bad news. And secondly, Garcioth Grubs are completely harmless.”

“You know what the sound is?” Alya repeated. “What is it? And tell the truth this time,” she added with raised eyebrows at Jade.

“It’s water,” Lynn said. “A lot of it.”

Jade frowned. “No, it can’t be water.”

“Trust me. It’s water.”

“But I have lived in Kaciot my entire life,” Jade said. “There’s no water in this part of the forest, at least not that much water.”

“Well, let’s go see what it is,” Gwen declared. She whistled to the wolves and started marching in the direction of the sound. The other four girls stared after her.

Athadius made a little grunting noise. “We better follow her before she gets lost or something.”

The other three chuckled as they started after Gwen, who turned around and called, “I know what you’re thinking, you know!”

The noise grew louder and louder until it was unmistakably the sound of rushing water. It seemed any moment they would see a waterfall, or some form of water, but instead, it just grew louder. Finally, at the bottom of a slope, Lynn broke into a run.

“Come on!” she called. “It’s just over this hill!”

The four girls raced up the hill — and almost ran straight into Lynn, who had stopped at the edge of a complete drop off into a raging, roaring river.

The spray from the rushing water splashed into the girls’ faces, but they paid no attention to the cool relief it gave. Instead, they were looking to the left and right, and as far down as they could see, there was water.

“This is impossible!” Jade cried.

“Someone doesn’t want us getting to the Pool,” Athadius said grimly.

Alya looked over the edge into the river. “Could we swim?”

Lynn shook her head resignedly. “This current would wash you away and suck you under.”

“Well then,” said Gwen. “Lynn, I know you don’t think you can do it, but you have to try.”

Lynn gave a short laugh. “Try and control it? Gwen, I can’t even keep a tiny wave from crashing onto the shore. How am I going to do this?”

Gwen shook her head. “You were trying to push back a tiny wave that had the entire ocean at its back. This river is nothing compared to that.”

“Besides,” Athadius interrupted, stepping forward and folding her arms, “you’ll have help.”

Lynn looked at the river. Just thinking about trying to control the wild chaos beneath her made her feel weak and useless.

“Lynn.” Gwen said softly. “Remember what your grandfather said.”

Lynn looked over at Athadius, who nodded her head solemnly. Clenching her fists, Lynn took a deep breath. “Alright. I’m ready.”


By M. Choi

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