The crispy cold air of the late afternoon caused me to shudder. I clung to the ridges on Azure’s back that rattled from the cold. My teeth clattered and I whimpered quietly to myself. I lifted my head to see what world we had entered. Azure was flying right over a giant waterfall encrusted in ice. The water was still, as if time had completely stopped.
Two massive gates stood on top of the waterfall and surrounded a city with great statues of cloaked or fighting figures and buildings supported by columns. The city was elevated on scattered pieces of land, and the land was connected by bridges that all led to the center of the city.
At the center was a castle guarded by yet another great gate. Its interconnected buildings made the castle resemble a stone maze coated in a blanket of frost. Tall towers loomed over the massive structure, and the gates were lined with iron spikes.
“It’s so quiet,” I said, peering down to try and catch even the smallest sound. “It’s as if no one is here.”
“Would you like to check, Miss. Suzette?” Azure asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m not sure that Sophie’s here though, but we could check.”
Azure dove lower until we spotted a couple of guards walking along the castle’s fortress. They were all armed with cross bows and wore silver and red armor. Pointed helmets crowned their heads, and metal flaps trailed down their necks. They marched formally across the fortress, looking about until one spotted Azure and I. He released a gasp, causing his men to turn as well. Before Azure and I could react, the men shouted:
“W—wait!” I cried, but my voice couldn’t reach them as the guards collectively raised their bows and shot their arrows. The arrows ripped through the air and Azure retreated. Her wings flapped frantically away and her tail managed to deflect some of the arrows.
“We need to get out of here!” I exclaimed, but yelped when something sharp slashed through my arm. One of the arrows was inches away from piercing my arm, but it only left a cut.
“Miss Suzette?” Azure paused to turn to me, but her concern transitioned to anxiety as her body convulsed and a roar tore from her throat. Arrows had pierced her wings and her side. Fire involuntarily burst from her mouth and she flew away before more arrows could hit her. However, Azure’s stamina slowed and her wings struggled to break wind. She glided lower and landed roughly under one of the bridges.
“Azure!” I slid off her back and took a look at one of the arrows that pierced her wing. “Oh no, oh no, oh no.”
“Miss. Suzette . . .” Azure panted, she slowly got herself up and feebly flapped her wings, but cringed at the pain. She released another roar that melted to a whine. Azure settled on her stomach, but the frost on the ground didn’t do much to ease the pain, it only made Azure groan and hiss.
“Stay still, I’m going to see if I have anything in the bags,” I quickly rummaged through the bags and tossed out items such as food and clothes. I ignored the stinging pain on my arm as I continued to search before finding a medical box. I unhooked the box and brought out cloths and bandages.
“I hope this is good enough,” I mumbled under my breath. I wiped off the blood with the cloth and then focused on the arrows. I took hold of one of them, but before I could pull it, Azure cringed and slid away.
“Please, don’t Miss. Suzette,” Azure whimpered.
“But I have to take the arrows out,” I exclaimed.
“Don’t. Get rid of the blood, please.”
“Okay,” I said, “but we do need to get the arrows out eventually.”
Azure nodded quietly before resting her head on the frost. Her wings folded back and her legs tucked underneath her. Azure’s tail wrapped around me as I continued to wipe off the blood.
“How’s your arm?” Azure asked.
“It’s fine, we need to focus on you first,” I insisted, rubbing off more of the blood. I managed to get rid of most of it before the sound of galloping and shouts rose in the distance. I shuddered and turned to see the guards riding on horseback. They dashed across the frozen land and fought against the freezing and howling winds.
“We need to get out of here,” I whispered to myself. I took a few steps back and turned to Azure who managed to hoist herself up. She groaned but managed to get back on her feet and spread her wings.
“Stop right there!” one guard yelled. They drew closer and surrounded us in a semi-circle. There were at least eight of them.
“Get away from that monster, girl!” another guard ordered.
I clutched my hands into fists, anger boiled up inside me and I yelled: “Azure is not a monster, she’s my friend! How dare you call her that and how dare you hurt her!” I was taken aback by my words, but I nevertheless glared at the guards and firmly held my ground.
“Who are you, girl?” the same guard asked, lowering his weapon but kept hold of it for precaution as he took a brief glance at Azure. He was the tallest of the guards with a bushy red beard and a scar slashed across his face.
“My name’s Suzette . . .” I said, releasing the tension from my fists. “I . . .I’m the oldest granddaughter of Emma Montgomery, The Madam.”
“The Madam!” the guards collectively gasped and they got off their horses. They dropped to their knees and raised their right hand to their chests.
“We’re terribly sorry, Your Grace,” the bearded guard said abruptly. “We had no idea that you were coming. We did hear about your mission, but we weren’t aware that you were going to arrive on this . . .” he gestured to Azure who shot him a glare. “Your friend—”
“Her name is Azure,” I remarked sternly. “And why did you call me ‘Your Grace’? I’m not royalty.”
“You are indeed,” the guard said. “The Madam created this world and hundreds of others. She’s the ruler of these realms, and you and your sister are her kin. Her heirs.”
“What?” I asked but shook my head. “I don’t have time for this right now, I need help with Azure’s wounds, she’s terribly hurt.”
“Our apologizes again—”
“Just help her!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, yes of course,” the guard said. “We’ll take you to the castle.”
I nodded slowly, albeit hesitant. “Alright. . .”
Bronze candle sconces lit the long hallway in a dim, yellow glow. A variety of shields, armor and tapestries adorned the thick stone walls. I quietly observed all the decorations before glancing at a pair of double doors at the end of the hall. Azure was taken to another area of the castle, while I was being led down the hall by the bearded guard.
“The king will see you shortly,” the guard said once he opened the doors. “I must apologize in advance; His Majesty isn’t well so please excuse him.”
“It’s quite alright,” I said.
The guard bowed his head before shutting the double doors. I was in a room with a giant portrait of who I assumed was the royal family hanging above fireplace. The king and queen were sitting on a fancy couch, while they were being surrounded by seven children. They all wore robes with a pattern of cardinals etched into the fabric. I stared at the portrait for quite some time until the doors behind me opened. A servant had entered the room and bowed to me.
“Your Grace, allow me to introduce the Ruler of Stone Falls, the Founder of the Land and the Changer of the Seasons. His Royal Majesty, King Simon the Gifted.” The servant backed away to allow the king to enter the hall.
King Simon was old and frail, supporting himself with a cane. A crown of withered white flowers and dulled sapphires topped his head. Some of the petals had drifted off and landed in his blond-gray hair. He wore long gray robes made of wool and fur that trailed behind him. The servant helped him sit down at a table next to the fireplace.
“Leave us be,” the king said in a gruff tone before releasing a small cough.
The servant bowed his head before leaving.
“My deepest apologizes for what had happened earlier,” King Simon said. “Your friend is being taken care of right now as we speak, she should be better in no time.”
“That’s good to hear . . .” I said quietly.
“Is there anything I can do for you, Your Grace?”
“I don’t want to be addressed as that,” I said. “It’s Suzette, that’s all . . .”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m just Suzette. I came here with Azure to find my sister, Sophie. We got separated recently and I’m trying to find her, have you seen any traces of her? She looks like me, but she’s a few inches shorter and has shorter hair.”
“I haven’t, I’m terribly sorry.”
“I see. . .”
“How did you two get separated?” King Simon asked; worriedness laced in his voice. He coughed once more.
“Sophie was kidnapped along with our friend . . .he came back fine, but Sophie disappeared.”
“That’s horrible,” King Simon mumbled, shaking his head. “How old is your sister?”
“Ten. . . she’ll be turning eleven soon.”
“Oh, a girl so young all by herself . . . and you, you’re so young yourself.”
“I’ll be fourteen soon, but I can handle myself. I have to, to find my sister and grandmother.”
“That’s courageous of you,” King Simon said, followed by another cough. “But The Madam should’ve waited until you two were older to set you on this journey . . .”
“What do you know about my grandmother?”
King Simon coughed again and took in a long breath. He stroked his beard and leaned back into his chair. “We’ve known each other for a long, long time. She gave me the rights to rule this land. . . Stone Falls is its name.”
“Stone Falls,” I repeated.
“Yes, please excuse the landscape, it’s not normally like this.” King Simon revealed his wrinkly right hand where a ring was perched on his index finger. The ring sparked a deep bluish white color, almost like the frost outside.
“This ring . . .your grandmother bestowed it upon me once I became ruler. It allows me to control the winds, the storms, the sky based on my mood. Right now, I’m terribly sick and dying, thus the climate reflects how I feel. It’s a tundra out there, everything is in ice—” King Simon coughed again.
“I’m sorry to hear that, but why subject your people to such terrible weather?” I asked.
“Someone has to wear the ring or else this world would cease to exist,” King Simon said. “Only the Founder of the Land and his children can control this world, that is the wish of The Madam. Each world has a ruler so that there is order. Aleck for example is the ruler of The Castle on the Cliff. I’m sure you’ve met him, correct?”
“Yes, we have . . .” My gaze fell to the table. “But I’m unable to contact him, something must’ve went wrong a while ago. . .”
“Does that relate to the fact that there are two tears in the sky? One of the guards had spotted a giant white creature flying through one of the holes and entering another.”
“I don’t think so . . .that creature is called a Vacuus and another one appeared before we were unable to contact Aleck. The second one, the one that you saw, was killed, but it’s likely another will appear since two have already.”
“This isn’t good,” King Simon said with another cough. “There must be something in the lab that’ll get us into contact with Aleck. We have to contact him soon—” King Simon covered his mouth with his sleeve when another cough cut him off. “Excuse me. This damn sickness . . .”
“You should go back to bed, you’re not well,” I said.
“I know; I know,” King Simon cleared his throat, “but what’s a king if he can’t walk on his own two feet?” He chuckled shortly to himself.
“How long have you been sick?” I asked.
“It’s been weeks now,” King Simon said. “You and your sister should’ve seen this land before . . .the silver waters . . .the gardens growing on the roofs of the buildings . . . the bright red cardinals that sing songs every morning . . .hmmm,” King Simon sighed and his head dropped to the side. A small, albeit tired smile rested on his lips. “It would be nice to see even the tiniest bit of sunlight again.”
“I’m sure you will,” I said, providing a small smile for assurance but it quickly dropped. “I don’t understand why grandma would’ve made that sort of ring, it sounds like a curse.”
“A curse?” King Simon echoed, raising an eyebrow. “I never thought of it that way. I see the ring as evidence of my ruling privilege. I was the first man on this land after all, and I will soon die on this land and pass the ring onto my eldest son.”
“But what about your people?” I asked. “Surely they must be upset about the weather.”
“Yes, they are,” King Simon nodded, “but they understand that my health is declining and so they too are in mourning. They’re all in their homes, sitting by the fire together with their families. I made sure that everyone was given enough supplies, for it is always night and everything has frozen over. I don’t want anyone to be out there and suffer.”
“It really does sound like a curse,” I mumbled.
“Don’t speak so ill about it.” King Simon paused to release another cough. “I know this might be upsetting to you, but my people are respectful and understand the circumstance of the situation.”
My gaze fell onto King Simon’s ring. The ring glowed brilliantly by the fire’s red light.
“How long do you think you have?”
“I can’t say . . .” King Simon answered solemnly. “But every day it gets colder and colder and I feel the same way inside. It’s as if I’m a walking corpse.” He chuckled to himself but then started coughing again. “Ah, I wish I could’ve talked to your grandmother one more time.”
“Isn’t there a way to contact her?” I asked.
“There’s a mirror that we contact her through, but she hasn’t been able to answer lately. No one knows of her whereabouts.”
I huffed. “Where could she be?” My focus fell over to one of the windows glazed in frost. I could barely see anything beyond the ice. “I don’t understand how she could go into hiding . . .what’s going on?”
“That’s what you and your sister have to figure out.”
“I know, but I have to find Sophie too,” I remarked, turning back to face King Simon. “After Azure is better, we’re going. I’m truly sorry that we can’t stay long, but I have to find Sophie before anything bad happens to her.”
“I understand your concern,” King Simon said, “but you should rest for a while. I’m sure your sister is fine, wherever she is.”
I cupped my hands together and added pressure to the palms. “I hope so,” I whispered to myself.
“Come in,” King Simon said.
The doors opened and a man with frizzy gray hair and goggles rushed into the room. He wore a long lab coat with all the pockets carrying different instruments. He carried several scrolls which fluttered wildly as he ran.
“Your Majesty!” he exclaimed. “I know how to get rid of the tears in the sky!”
“That’s excellent, Dr. Aves, could you give me a second? I’m in the middle of a conversation with The Madam’s granddaughter,” King Simon said, gesturing a hand in my direction.
“Oh!” Dr. Aves gasped, his bright amber eyes lit up and a smile spread. “It’s an honor to be in your presence, princess!”
“Ah, yes, yes, please continue your conversation!” Dr. Aves bowed his head apologetically.
King Simon cleared his throat and turned back to me. “If you’re really concerned for her, I’ll gather up some of my best guards and have them search for your sister. She might not be in this world, but we’ll look nevertheless. Until then, you and your friend should rest here for a while.”
“Will the guards be fine out there?”
“They’ve dealt with worse conditions,” King Simon said.
“Well there was that one time,” Dr. Aves popped in, “that King Simon got so angry that the mountains split open and lava exploded out of the chasms. Some of the guards were patrolling the mountains when they split open and, well, let’s just say they were—caught off guard.” Dr. Aves laughed and slapped his knee, but I didn’t find that funny, and neither did King Simon.
“Were they alright?” I asked.
“Yes they were,” Dr. Aves said with assurance.
“That’s good,” I said, “but. . .why were you angry, Your Majesty?”
“It’s a long story,” King Simon dismissed, “I wouldn’t want to bore you with it.”
“Well, actually—” Dr. Aves froze when King Simon delivered a stern look out of the corner of his eye.
“Anyhow,” King Simon continued, “I’ll round up a search party soon. Do you have anything that’ll help the guards’ dogs track your sister’s scent?”
“Oh, yes,” I pulled up one of the bags and got out Sophie’s dress. I unfolded it before giving it to the king. “This is her dress, is this good enough?”
“That’s excellent,” King Simon said, bringing the dress to his arms and carried it with caution.
“Please tell the guards to give it back to me afterwards.”
I gave a last, solemn glance to the dress before turning to King Simon. “I sincerely thank you for your help . . .is there anything that I can do in return?”
“None at all, just please stay comfortable.”
“Alright. . .”
“Good, now that, that’s settled, Doctor—” King Simon gestured a hand to Dr. Aves who shot up with surprise.
“Oh, yes!” Dr. Aves unrolled one of the scrolls onto the desk and spread the thin, ivory paper out with eager gloved hands. The paper showed a blueprint of the two tears in the sky. Around the tears was a bunch of gibberish handwriting that was hard to read. “The tears are literal rips in space, nothing too serious though, well, unless you count that giant creature that flew through here a while ago.”
“It was a Vacuus,” I said.
“Ah, I figured.” Dr. Aves snapped his fingers. “I couldn’t get a good glimpse at it, but I wish I had! Such a terrifying creature, yes? Yes?” he asked eagerly, inching ever so closely to me at each word.
“Oh, uh. . .” I stammered, “I . . .don’t really want to talk about it.”
“I’ll take that as a yes then,” Dr. Aves confirmed, pulling out a piece of parchment and jotting down notes with a quill. “I’ve always wanted to see a Vacuus up close, and when I mean by that, I mean by dissecting it. The anatomy of it is sure to be amazing!”
I made a disgusted face while King Simon cleared his throat.
“Doctor, I advise that you please get on to what you want to say about the tears. I don’t have all day.”
“Yes, I was getting right on to that.” Dr. Aves rolled up the parchment and pulled up a chair for himself. “We sew up the tears.”
“Sew up the tears?” King Simon echoed.
“Yes! You see—” Dr. Aves took the quill and begun drawing a thread and needle, “—the tears are like a hole in fabric, so we use a giant needle and sew the ripped pieces back together with the strongest material. And that material is—” Dr. Aves dug into his lab coat and brought out yarn that filled the entirety of his hand. “—the silk of a blue-eyed spider’s web. We weave hundreds and hundreds of these and close the tears like fabric.”
“Are you sure that this will work?” King Simon inquired, stroking his beard and looking at Dr. Aves with a peculiar eye.
“I am ninety percent positive!” Dr. Aves confirmed. “I’ll have my hummingbirds sew the tears up. They’re intelligent creatures, y’know. They know what they’ll be doing, and they’ll be quick about it.”
“Wouldn’t the cold bother them?” King Simon also inquired. “It’ll certainly slow them down.”
“Which is why I made these—” Dr. Aves dug back into his coat and pulled out tiny wool sweaters, “—little sweaters that’ll keep the birds warm. They are like my children after all, so I have to keep them comfortable.”
“Hmmm,” King Simon continued to stroke his beard, “I want to see a demonstration before I can confirm this.”
“Yes, yes, of course!” Dr. Aves said, standing up from the chair. “If you two could follow me into the atrium please.” Dr. Aves collected his scrolls and started for the door, carrying himself rather confidently.
“It’s right down this hall,” Dr. Aves said to me but then stopped. “Oh, I should’ve properly introduced myself—” Dr. Aves stretched out a hand for me to take. I respectfully shook it. “My name is Doctor Fletcher V. Aves. It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Pleasure.” I returned with a small smile. “How long have you worked with the king?”
“Oh, twenty years I believe,” Dr. Aves stated. “It feels much longer though, I’m always cooped up in either the lab or the atrium working on experiments and tending to my birds.”
“Don’t you ever get a break?” I asked.
“Yes, actually,” Dr. Aves said as we turned to another hallway, “I used to travel the worlds until I came across this one and decided to stay here and serve the king. But every once in a while it’s nice to take a little vacation. I usually visit my dear friend, Aleck on my trips.”
“Ah, yes,” King Simon stepped in, “I must talk to you about him.”
“What?” Dr. Aves stopped in his tracks. “Did something happen?”
“We can’t contact him,” King Simon replied, “we were hoping that you would know how to get in touch with him.”
“Oh, oh certainly!” Dr. Aves exclaimed. “Yes, I have something that’ll work.”
“Great!” I exclaimed.
“And here we are.” Dr. Aves stopped in front of a pair of glass doors. He took one of the brass handles and opened them. He then stepped aside for King Simon and I to enter.
The atrium was built with glass walls and was topped off with a glass-plated ceiling. All sorts of plants and flowers flourished in the chamber, and were being tended to by hundreds upon hundreds of singing hummingbirds. The birds buzzed and glided all around the atrium, flying quickly and showing off their variety of bright colors. Their colors were reflected off of the stained glass lanterns that dropped down from the ceiling.
In the center of the atrium stood a tree with white bark and blue flowers that dropped down like lilies. I walked over to the tree and cupped my hand around one of the flowers. Two hummingbirds flew by and circled around my hand, wanting a taste of the flower’s nectar. I released the flower and turned over to see Dr. Aves who said:
“This tree is from another world, I don’t know its original name, but I call it the Blue Lilly tree. Of all the things that I found in these worlds, this is the most beautiful.”
“It is quite lovely,” I agreed. “This whole place is. . .I wish Sophie could see it.”
“Where is your sister?” Dr. Aves asked. “I thought she would be with you.”
“We got separated not too long ago, I’m trying to look for her now,” I responded quietly.
“I see. . .” Dr. Aves’s jovial tone lowered.
“Doctor,” King Simon interjected, a hint of impatience was emitted in his voice. “May we please see a demonstration?”
“Yes, of course!” Dr. Aves exclaimed and rushed to another side of the atrium. A couple of hummingbirds were playing with string. Dr. Aves held out his hand and the two hummingbirds perched on the digits. In Dr. Aves’s free hand, he dug into his lab coat and brought out a small piece of fabric and handed it to me.
“Rip off some of that fabric please,” Dr. Aves instructed.
I tore bits of the fabric off and several threads broke loose. Dr. Aves took the fabric back and tossed it in the air. He snapped his fingers and one of the hummingbirds caught the fabric in its beak before the other used the string to quickly but gracefully stitch it back together. The hummingbird wove the string around while treating its beak like a needle. When it was done, the fabric was dropped back into Dr. Aves’s hand and he raised it up for King Simon to see.
“Amazing,” King Simon breathed, peering in closely. “It’s as if the fabric was never ripped.”
“I’m glad that you’re impressed, Your Majesty.” Dr. Aves smiled widely.
“Yes, well, continue your work then. I want those holes closed up as soon as possible,” King Simon instructed sternly.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Dr. Aves bowed in respect.
“Good,” King Simon said before another cough escaped his lips. “Ah. . .I think I will lie down now, continue what you’re doing, and Suzette—” King Simon turned to me, “—please make yourself comfortable here, I’ll send in a guard to take you to a guest roo—ah!” King Simon covered his mouth with his sleeve as he coughed some more. Dr. Aves patted his back and the king raised a hand.
“I’m fine, I just need some rest. . .”
“I’ll help you back,” Dr. Aves said, he rested a hand on the king’s shoulder and guided him out of the atrium. I followed close behind, watching the two carry themselves slowly down the hall that felt colder and caused me to shudder. King Simon continued to cough and the walls shook as ice gathered around the stone. The fire that blazed from the sconces quivered and dimmed, casting a darker light as large shadows now consumed the ceiling and wrapped themselves around the iron wrought chandeliers. I kept my distance as I rubbed my arms and glanced down to watch my feet tap into the stone floor.
“Are you okay, Suzette?” Dr. Aves called.
“Yes, I’m just a bit cold . . .”
“We should get you into warmer clothes before you catch a cold, ah, where’s a--oh, hey!” Dr. Aves raised an arm, shouting to a guard passing by. I frowned slightly, it was the bearded guard. “Sir Jarrick, may you please escort the young lady to one of the guest rooms? And send a handmaiden to bring wood for the fireplace.”
“Certainly,” Sir Jarrick said and turned to me. His sharp blue eyes looked directly at me. “Come with me, Milady.”
I nodded; I gave one last look to Dr. Aves and King Simon before following Sir. Jarrick down a different hall. We ascended a long flight of stairs that led up to one of the many towers in the castle.
“I sincerely apologize again about what had happened,” Sir Jarrick said. He faced me, but I avoided eye contact.
“As long as Azure recovers, it’s fine,” I replied, though I wasn’t sure I could forgive him or his men for what they did. We remained quiet for the rest of the way until we stopped in front of a door. Sir Jarrick opened it and beckoned me to enter.
“This shall be your room, Milady, I’ll send a handmaiden for you shortly,” Sir Jarrick said before he departed.
I watched him go before I turned my attention to the room. I stepped inside and the first thing I noticed was the queen-sized bed partially hidden by a canopy. The bed sat next to an ornate bookcase filled with a series of decoratively designed books. Being the avid reader I was, I picked out a book and started reading. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to read that much until there was a knock at the door.
“O—oh, come in.”
The door opened and a young woman wearing a fur cloak over a dark green dress stepped in. Her hair was tied back in a long, fancy braid that trailed to her small waist, and her boots tapped quietly as she walked into the room. She carried a bunch of wood in her small arms.
“Hello, my name is Sybil, your handmaiden,” she said in a sweet-sounding voice. “It’s an honor to be serving you, Milady.” She walked over to the fireplace that was across the bed and dumped the wood in the small chamber. She used a match to grant the fireplace life, and gold and red flames sparked amongst the fallen wood. The flames crackled as they ate away the wood, and they performed a wild dance that entertained the once still chamber. Sybil turned back to me, presenting a timid smile.
“This should keep you warm for tonight.”
“Thank you very much,” I said.
“I’m glad to help, now, let’s get you a change of clothes.” Sybil went over to the mahogany wardrobe and opened it. She rummaged for a bit, but returned to me with a somewhat disappointed look.
“Mmm, I’ll have to see if any of the princesses has a spare dress that you can wear. I’ll be right back,” Sybil said before exiting the room.
“Okay.” I nodded and returned to my book.