PRINCESS OF WHITE;
Princess Lilia would not call the Silverflow Council coward. The vengeance of a single man, no matter how great he had been in life, would bear no meaning when they all would suffer in consequences. And of course they knew better than to challenge the dark shadow that had been haunting this kingdom for two decades. That was how long the cruel-hearted witch had had Ironheart at her mercy.
“By the order of the Council, all public gatherings are banned until further notice.”
The princess in her white-orange robe announced out loud as the red-helm guards, following the motion of her hand, dispatched a group of vigilantes who were surrounding a farm house.
“Disobedience of the laws shall not be tolerated.”
She said they would not tolerate disobedience but the princess and the knights did not give chase when the vigilantes fled. They stood by and let the crowd peacefully dispersed.
A female knight shook her shoulders. The princess gathered her thoughts which had been set adrift ever since they left the farm house. The red-helm guards were with her on horseback. A few rugged wagons slowly trailed behind them on a drawn-out dirt path, over the ashen hills leading to a secluded monastery.
“Are you still bothered by what happened?”
The princess let out a sigh and nodded.
“You know…I think you should quit. Go teach a class at the Academy or something. Let someone else do the record keeping.”
“I appreciate your concerns, Katherine. But this is something I have to see through myself. Just in case the report was wrong, I would like to make sure no one would lose a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife to false reports. Remember that woodcutter’s son who was reported dead but not really?”
“All I remember is a man whom you thought you had saved from the brink of death but not really. I recall he ended up dead anyways.”
“I bought him a day. That’s something, no?”
“I suppose it is something…”
A smoky scent of burning grass hazed the air. The acute scent, swept into one’s nostril by the chilling wind of November, haunted the mind like a ghost. In these parts around the monastery, the smell was fresh and the air was warm. Some of the bushes they came across were still smoldering.
“Is everything alright?” the knight with the captain arm guard embroidered in golden threads asked.
“I’m tired. Let’s take a break,” the princess requested.
“This is the Dark Forest, the witch’s territory. It’s not wise to stop here. If you need a rest, leave your horse with me and hop on one of the wagons,” the captain suggested.
“Ew, with the peasants? No, thank you!”
“Serve yourself then. I didn’t join the knights to be mown by monsters.”
As soon as he said that, an arrow flung into the captain’s shoulder. Luckily, it was stopped by his chainmail.
“Bandit!? Protect the princess!” the captain shouted.
The knights circled the princess and raised their shields in defensive formation. The red-helm guards were slower to react, they leaped to cover behind the wagons.
“Protect the civilians!” Lilia ordered, raising a rosary up high and murmured prayers to her God.
“No, Lilia!” The female knight snatched the rosary from the princess’s hand, “You cannot cast magic in the Dark Forest! The blight will kill you!”
“Look out!” Another knight shouted as more arrows came in the same direction as the first one. The knight blocked them with his shield. The red-helm guards raised their crossbows, intending to return fire, but they could not see their targets hidden in the forest’s shadows. And the relentless hail of arrows threatened to turn anyone daring to leave his cover into pincushion.
Her wary eyes scanned the edge of the roadside forest as the princess hid herself inside the protective shell formed by the iron shields.
“Say, Katherine, how long do you think we have to wait before they run out of arrows?”
As soon as the princess asked the question, a flaming arrow hit the side of the wagon near the princess’s position and set the canopy ablaze. A few panic peasants jumped out of the wagons. They did not manage very far before they were shot down in cold blood.
“Dear God! The civilians! Help the civilians!” The princess cried.
None of the knights left their position to save the peasants, only the red-helm guards scrambled to put out the fire. The red-helm guards desperately torn down the flammable fabric sheet with their halberds. Without shields, these brave soldiers covered themselves with everything from wooden panels to the dead bodies of their horses and other guards.
It was a horrendous scene Lilia had to bear witness.
She pushed the knights from the inside of the protective shell but these men whose stature were that of giants, who were trained to hold their grounds and be as unmovable as a mountain, did not budge to her weak pushing.
“Forget about the peasants, Lilia! The Baron commanded us to bring you back safely.”
“If you are not going to help them then give me my rosary! I’ll do it myself!”
“No!” The female knight defiantly refused.
The knight captain sent a distress signal to the city patrols. Three bolts of crimson flares shining brighter than the dimming sun shot off into the orange sky. Seeing the flares, the attackers emerged from the forest cover and charged at the wall of shields. The battle went close-quarter as the bandits resorted to riskier tactics in hope of breaking through the elite knights’ defense. They were in a race against the clock. They must break through before the guards from Ironheart could respond to the distress signal.
“Here they come…”
“Follow us if you don’t want to die, Lilia!”
“One, two, push!”
At the captain’s shouting, the men pushed their shields hard against the charging foes. The entire unit moved at once in deadly unison and the bashing of their shields fumbled the first wave of fighters. The shielders stepped over the fallen fighters and marched towards the edge of the Dark Forest. Red-helm guards readied their halberds slew the bandits left behind by the moving shield wall.
Empowered by a wandless spell, the Princess leaped over the castle knights and rushed to the burning wagons.
She cast another wandless spell on the fire. The flame weakened but was not extinguished. And then, she began hearing the deaths lamenting their miseries. Thousands of ghastly voices overwhelmed her hearing. Her vision became surreal; she began seeing humanoid shadows walking out from the flame. Their dark, empty eyes gazed into her very soul. The color of the sky was blood red. She saw the world all around her as though through a dull grey filter. A sickening feeling rose in her stomach. Something moist overflowed from her noses. She wiped her noses with the sleeve of her white-orange robe…
The last things Lilia remembered were a sharp pain in her calf, Katherine’s furious scream as the female knight broke out of formation, and the gentle voice of her father calling her name.
The Ruby Garden: a grand old castle smacked dab in the middle of the city Ironheart. It was a political center, home of the royal family, and home of the Solaris Observatory—the world-famous institute of magic research in Ironheart. In the courtroom, one of those few places absent of cobwebs in this rundown castle, two familiar figures engaged in heated discussions.
The first person was an old knight with a large white beard. His name was Sir Richard. Sir Richard used to be a knight, then a Baron, and then the king regent. He had absolute authority over Ironheart; but to clarify, he was a regent and he was not related to the princess by blood. People still called him the Baron and not the King. It was his initiative, apparently. The Baron was always seen in his plated ironclad. A small circular shield was mounted on his right arm. Embossed on the shield was the bronze pickaxe and iron hammer crest of Ironheart.
And the young woman in sky blue garb, who was in heated discussions with the Baron, was Eliot: the princess’s multi-talent lady-in-waiting. She was usually reserved and humble but that certain day, during that certain conversation, she lashed back at the Baron in the language of equals.
“Are you stupid? Who do you think you are?”
“Cut me some slacks! What other choices do I have?”
“Let my knights do their job is one.”
“And a shit job they did. They let some meek militias grabbed her running. God knows what would have happened to your little miss sunshine had I not been there in time. Maybe you would be selling your ass off to pay the ransom, maybe she would end up a plaything for all those filthy bandits…”
“Enough! Will there be any permanent damage?”
“A scar maybe? Not really a problem, she can wear socks. As for her magic, she won’t be casting any spells for a while but her magic will come back with a lot of practice… probably.”
The princess decided to make her presence noted. She gave the wooden side door a push and dragged her feet into the spacious courtroom.
“Hmm? That door is for servants, princess.”
“Good afternoon, Lilia. How are you feeling?” The Baron greeted.
“Confused and aching all over. How long have I been out?”
“Two days. Could have been worse,” the lady-in-waiting answered, “How are you even walking?”
The princess recast a spell on herself to answer the lady-in-waiting’s question. “I tried Tenacious but it seems I’ll need my rosary to cast that spell,” she added.
Her lady-in-waiting pointed a finger at her left leg and cast the spell she requested. Strength returned to her wounded leg and she could finally bring herself upright.
“Thank you, Eliot. Eh…for the spell and for…everything.”
“Is everyone okay? What happened after I passed out?”
“The knights are fine. You managed to save the peasants, well, the ones in the cart you cast Cryophilic on. Copper was banged up pretty bad, his ears have been buzzing for days, he said. And Dave made the vegetarian’s oath again, would rather roast a tree than a peasant, but knowing the guy, he’ll beg for meat in three days time…”
“What about Katherine?”
“Reported dead, but not really,” the female knight stepped in from the main entrance, “All in all, I think the shortcut was a terrible idea.”
Katherine tucked a hard, metallic object in Lilia’s hand. It was the silver rosary she took from the princess in the heat of battle. Katherine grabbed Eliot’s shoulder and pulled her closer, “Eliot told me. Had you cast magic with this, you would have been dead. So you owe me one,” she said.
“What she said,” the lady-in-waiting nodded agreeingly.
“But I’m genuinely surprised, Lilia…Look at this girl!” Katherine lifted Eliot as if she was a child. The female knight, like the men of the elite guards, was tall and strong. When put next to the lady-in-waiting, who stood only to the knight’s breast, the two of them did look like adult and young child.
“The witch! Who would have thought?” She uttered.
Eliot flailed her arms and then pulled hard on the knight’s ponytail.
“Put me down! I’m older than you are!”
The Baron chuckled but his voice was stern: “Quite amusing, Kate, but I strongly advise you do what she says…”
“So now Katherine knows too!?” The princess exclaimed, rolling her eyes, “Are you okay with this, Eliot?”
“The fewer people I have to bury, the better. Katherine is…not at all your goody two-shoes so I’m fine with her knowing. She would probably show up in my nightmares if I buried her after the time we spent together…”
“Aww, so you love me.”
“Don’t press your luck.”
“You just suck at keeping secrets, admit it…”
“Hey! Like I said, what choice do I have?”
Ignoring the conversation, the princess casted a healing spell on her injury using the rosary she had obtained. Her leg had been itching and she would love to remove the bandages and scratch it herself.
To her dismay, nothing happened.
“Katherine…I don’t mean to be rude but where’s my Ruby Keystone?”
“What do you mean?”
“Iridescent!“, “Luminous!“, “Specular!”
She casted three basic lighting spells in succession but none of them worked.
“This is not my rosary. It is not magical at all!”
“Oh, it is magical alright. But you are not.”
“Ew, you promised you wouldn’t peek at my channels…”
“I’m not peeking, I’m looking at them openly and telling you about it. In any cases, try casting Cryophilic and Iridescent again.”
A sudden chill hit everyone in the courtroom when the princess cast the first spell. But nothing happened when she casted the second spell.
With a simple whiff of her hand, Eliot dismissed the freezing spell.
“Here’s the thing, princess. The blight is messing with your channels. I’m afraid you can only cast the same spells you cast in the Dark Forest. Are you listening?”
“No, not really. I’m trying to wrap my head around how you counter my focus spells with wordless magic. It’s just…wrong.”
“Eh, I didn’t mean to belittle you…Sorry.”
At the time when the two sorceresses were sorting out the issues with Lilia’s spellcasting, Sir Richard and Katherine had a different conversation. It started with the female knight’s comment as she observed the witch and listened to her talk:
“I don’t understand a word they say but I gather if we followed through with Lilia’s day-one plan and raided the witch’s hut…”
“Well, to put it bluntly, you would be dead, deader than death, very dead,” the Baron shrugged his shoulders and leaned back on his wooden throne a little as he continued:
“This is just how things are in Ashlora these days. Two armies fight a battle, the side with the stronger mages wins. If a warmage is the force of nature, then the witch, that woman, is the wrath of God. I admit, I was foolish before I met her.”
“I’ll let you on a secret, Kate. We were this close to wage a war against Azeth. Pause your imagination for one minute and listen to me. That woman—he gestured at Eliot—can raze Ironheart to the ground. And Sal Germini is even crazier than she is! Be my guest and imagine the outcome of the war.”
“Sir, I’m having a severe case of impulsive cold sweats.”
“You don’t have to tell me…”
“My apology, I couldn’t resist the urge to share my horror to hear such an idiotic, insane and suicidal plot exists.”
“You don’t have to tell me that either…”
“Sir, you asked me to imagine the outcome of the war but I don’t have to. I’m aware of what became of Fa’el after the Archbishop and his crusaders paid the city a visit.”
The Baron nodded. “A debris field of epic proportion, no living creature within twenty kilometers radius, no trace of battle or resistance of any forms, complete destruction overnight. A fine example of what Sal Germini is capable of.”
There was an acknowledging silence between the two of them.
“At least when it comes to Eliot, she’s rather tamed.”
“Hah! Come close,” the Baron motioned the female knight to come closer, then he whispered into her ears: “I don’t trust her. I don’t trust her at all. I don’t know the details of her relationship with Father Felacia, I don’t know what role she played in his death, I don’t even know if she had taken the Oath of Providence like she claimed or not. I suggest you exercise utmost caution.”
The knight dropped her jaws. She took a few steps back as he gestured her to step away from the throne.
“It seems I have a few things I must look up…”
“Solaris Observatory, rituals, bindings, second book on the fifth row, bottom up. Take the princess with you,” the Baron hinted with a smirk on his face.
“I hope you find what you must seek,” he said.