When the earth was young, it was governed by beings of a superior nature. The mortals referred to them as Gods and Goddesses. One such being, with the ability to manipulate metal with only the will of his mind, was Lord Ivan.
It was not uncommon in those days, whether one was mortal or not, to favor a large family, and Lord Ivan was no exception. He and his wife, Lady Larissa, always imagined a household full of strong, brave, and handsome sons.
On the eve of a most dreadful storm, Lord Ivan and Lady Larissa were blessed with a child. However, instead of a son, they were given a daughter. A beautiful daughter she was and her name was Xyline. During the next week, the lord and lady took Xyline to the Fates, as was tradition. The Fates determined how long someone would live and tell whether they would be good or evil.
They entered the dark and very gloomy room. There was an altar in the direct center of the room which was put on a platform raised about three and a half feet above the ground.
“Welcome,” said the first Fate, “to our humble home.” There were three of them standing in a triangle formation in front of the altar, though it was like they had appeared out of thin air.
“How may we be of assistance to the lord and the lady?” asked the second Fate.
“We bring you a child,” said Lord Ivan. “We have come to unravel her future.”
The Fates nodded.
“We knew you would,” said the third and final Fate.
“Let us examine her then,” they said together gesturing to the altar.
“We shall need a drop of blood from the child,” the second Fate began. Lady Larissa looked completely taken aback.
“You needn’t worry,” they said again. “It shan’t take more than a prick of a finger. Now please, place the frail thing on the altar.”
Lady Larissa did as instructed, laying her on the altar as if she were a dried leaf about to break. Lady Larissa then stepped down from the platform and stood next to her husband.
The Fates gathered around Xyline blocking her from view of her parents. She was sleeping soundly. Dreaming no doubt. The third Fate handed the first Fate a tray of instruments which were lined up from the sharpest to the dullest. The first Fate reached for a knife with an incredibly smooth but unbelievably sharp blade. Her hand rose above the baby clutching the knife. Then, after a moment’s pause, she shot the knife down with the blade facing inward. There was a small scream from Lady Larissa but the Fates didn’t seem to notice. Then the baby started to cry. The knife had barely pierced her skin, drawing the smallest drop of blood. The third Fate took her off the altar and handed her back to her mother. When she rejoined the other Fates, the first Fate grabbed a bottle from inside her robe and poured not but a few drops onto the altar. The liquid changed from silver to purple as it mixed with Xyline’s blood. It bubbled and steamed and became a crystal blue color.
The second Fate leaned in to get a good look. It was her job to tell the prophecy. She spoke in an eerie, slimy and almost gagging voice. “Her name is Xyline. Is it not?” she said. The lord and lady nodded. She continued. “She will grow to be beautiful and intelligent. She will heal those who are ill with a touch of skin and will live for many, many generations.”
The lord and lady returned with Xyline to their heavenly ward and rejoiced for their daughter’s good fortune.
Years later, the kingdom of Delle Terra was filled with the ambience of great leadership. Lady Larissa had given birth to six more children, all daughters, and each of them played a key role in governing Delle Terra.
The second oldest, Giovanna, was the commander of fire, but her strategic prowess and grasp of the military system earned her the title of General. The third and fourth born were the twins, Yvonne and Anastasia. Yvonne could control anything that grew naturally, and so she oversaw the planting and harvesting of crops. Anastasia was known as the ‘Lady of Language’ because she could speak any foreign tongue she was confronted with. For this reason, she was head of all trade in Della Terra. Cassandra was the master of darkness; she was given the task of ruling those who patrolled during the night hours. Isha could commence light, but because the need was always great, she worked as a weaver, making clothes and linens for whoever needed them. The final sister was Jubilee. She was the caller of water, and her job was to be Master of the Docks.
“Giovanna, hold him down!”
Giovanna pressed her forearm over the soldier’s chest, keeping his upper body at bay, but he kicked his legs stubbornly, as if determined to bleed to death.
Xyline managed to get hold of the injured leg and locked it under her arm so she could continue working on his wound. The soldier had been chopping wood when his grip slipped and the axe had gone into his leg. Giovanna and some other soldiers had brought the man to Xyline who had spent that last ten minutes trying to clean the wound, but a man in pain was unpredictable, and a soldier in pain was dangerous. “Tilda, fetch that blue paste,” said Xyline to the poor girl who had only been a healer for a week. “Quickly.” As she ran away, Xyline dabbed some more at the wound, but that one vein wouldn’t stop seeping. Finally Xyline managed to pinch it between her fingers to stop the blood loss, and by that time Tilda had returned with Xyline’s special paste. It was a remedy she had concocted herself in the hopes that it would be a general all-healing palm. She wanted it to be edible as well, so that it would heal internal complaints instead of just external ones. Tilda stood a little away from the man, holding the bowl with the paste gingerly. “Good. Bring it here,” said Xyline as calmly as she could. If the girl dropped the paste, it would take Xyline hours to make it again, and this soldier didn’t have hours. “Come on,” she coaxed. “I’ve got his leg, he won’t hurt you. Right, Giovanna?”
Giovanna grumbled something unintelligible, but it sounded encouraging.
Tilda shuffled forward, still keeping the bowl as far from her body as possible.
“That’s it,” said Xyline. “Perfect, now just hold it there. We have to do this quickly” Releasing the vein in the man’s leg, she scooped up a bit of paste with her fingers and hastily applied it all over the wound. To Tilda she said, “Good. Go ahead put that down and bring me some clean bandages.”
Tilda nodded shakily and went around the other bed for the bandages.
Giovanna grumbled as the soldier’s struggling already began to wane. “Bloody lamb,” she said, nodding to Tilda.
Xyline said nothing. She wouldn’t dismiss someone with barely a week of experience in her. Tilda returned and held the bandages out to Xyline, but Xyline shook her head. “You’re going to do it.”
Tilda’s eyes grew very wide and she spoke for the first time in fifteen minutes. “N-n-no, I can’t.”
“It’s all right, Tilda. He’s settled down now. Look.” Xyline drew away from his leg and it stayed limply on the table. “Don’t worry, General Giovanna is right there is he gets rowdy.”
Tilda’s round eyes were wide and uncertain, but she edged closer to the soldier and slowly began binding his wound. Xyline fetched a small bundle of dried lavender and held it by the flame of a torch on wall. When it had just caught one of the buds, she brought it to her and blew so the entire bundle smoked, though it didn’t burn. She held the flower under the soldier’s nose, letting the aroma calm him and send him into a deep sleep. Then she went behind Tilda and pretended to inspect her work, but let the fumes of the lavender surround the girl. Xyline watched the tension lift from Tilda’s shoulders and the worry from her brows. She set the lavender aside in a stone basin and patted Tilda encouragingly on the shoulder. “Perfect,” she said as Tilda tied the bandage off.
“Thank you,” she said. “Er… may I…” She held up her hands, which had gotten a bit of blood on them. Freckles compared to Xyline’s hands.
“Yes, of course,” said Xyline kindly. When the girl was gone, Xyline wiped her own hands off on her apron, though most of the blood stained her skin and would have to be scrubbed off.
Giovanna checked the soldier’s pupils to make sure he was really asleep. She nodded her approval. “Good work.”
“Thank you for your help.”
“Will he be able to walk again?”
“Hopefully in a few days his leg will be healed completely.”
Giovanna raised her eyebrows doubtfully. “A few days? I saw that wound. You could practically see the bone.”
Xyline nodded to the blue paste on the other table. “My own recipe. Needs a few improvements but… hopefully with time…”
“Ah,” Giovanna said, smiling as if she had uncovered a secret. “You’re hoping that once you become a Goddess, you’ll be able to perfect the recipe.”
“I didn’t say that,” said Xyline, feeling her face flush.
“Shouldn’t you be getting ready for that, by the way? It is tomorrow, after all, and not everyone passes their first try.”
Xyline continued rubbing her hands, as if annoyance were the key to removing a blood stain. “You speak as if you get more than one try.”
“You do. You get three. Of course if you don’t pass the first one, you wouldn’t have only gotten one try, but I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
“Thank you,” she said forcefully.
Giovanna’s smiled broadened. “Good night, then. See you in the morning.”
Xyline waited until her sister had left to stop scrubbing maddeningly. She stared at the sleeping soldier, then at his leg. Her formula could cure boils in an hour, gashes in a day, and deeper wounds in a few days. But if there was a way to make it work faster, or if it could heal blood infections or pestilence, the number of people she could help would be unprecedented.
When night fell and she retired from the healing chambers, she escaped directly to her room through the Knight’s Escape, a secret passageway that led throughout the Heavenly Ward, including to her bedroom. She moved aside a flag hung on the wall, behind which was the entrance to the passageway. Inside it was gloomy and narrow. Two torches were lit at the entrance by a flawless red flame, but beyond these there was no other source of light. Although she knew this part of the passage by heart, she took one of the torches from its sconce and proceeded forward. She followed a narrow staircase that must have run alongside the throne room, for she could hear her father’s voice over the din of many.
She finally came to a lit intersection with three paths. The farthest one to the right had the widest staircase. It led up to Isha’s and Jubilee’s rooms as well as another pathway that led to the stables. The path in the middle was a short hallway –Xyline could see to the end of it- and led to an upward staircase. At the top of those stairs were the twin’s and Cassandra’s rooms. But the path Xyline chose was the one to the left, and it was the only one with a ladder. At the top of the ladder were two distinctly different doors. Giovanna’s was made of dark metal with gold bolts. Xyline was the only one who didn’t have a door to her passageway entrance. She kept it hidden behind a mirror, which was framed in gold. It had been a gift from her father. Xyline maneuvered around the mirror and immediately went to her washing basin. The water was tepid because of the weather. By the time her hands were decently clean, the basin looked like a sacrificial offering.
Her pet owl, Daryl, hooted lowly for attention. Xyline pressed on the lever to unlock his cage and he stepped carefully out onto her outstretched arm. She didn’t both wearing the protective gloves anymore. Daryl was a smart bird and always took care not to pierce her with his talons. She stroked his chest tenderly, admiring the red spots on his feathers. Going to the glass doors that led to her balcony, she let him out for some good hunting time, leaving the doors open to allow the breeze to cleanse the room. She sat on her bed, wondering if she should just go without dinner or sneak down to the kitchens for some bread and cheese. She knew the cooks would be preparing for her breakfast tomorrow.
Xyline laid back on her bed, staring at her ceiling without really seeing it.
Tomorrow’s the big day, she thought. The first day of her three tests to become a Goddess. She wished she could talk to Apollo, her mentor, but he would most likely helping to prepare for the events. It was customary that whenever someone was tested to become a God or Goddess, their mentors would assist in creating events to test their pupil’s strengths and weaknesses. Apollo knew Xyline’s strengths and weaknesses better than she did. Apollo probably knew her better than her mother and father. Deciding against dinner, Xyline changed out of her bloody clothes and into a nightdress. She fell asleep with the summer air in her room and the sounds of night coasting into her dreams.
She awoke well before anyone else, not because she wanted to but because she usually did. Xyline preferred to be at the healing chambers or starting her studies early, but on a day like this she knew even music wouldn’t be able to distract her. She dressed and braided her silvery blonde hair, and then headed for the kitchens.
“Milady,” said the cook Brilsa when she saw Xyline. “I be down here slavin’ over your favorite food, and I don’t need you sneaking off with some that’ll ruin your appetite, now do I?”
Retrieving an apple from the counter, Xyline backed out of the kitchens to the throne room. She had just taken a bite of her apple when she heard her father’s voice call across the room, “Good morning!”
Xyline spun around, her mouth full, and made an effort to smile.
Lord Ivan stroked her hair and gave her a kiss on the head.
“Feel ready for today?”
“As ready as ever,” Xyline replied.
“Good. Come. Let’s sit down.”
Lord Ivan walked casually to the table, but Xyline lingered by the doorway to the balcony. The sunlight filtered through, bathing her in warmth. Stepping outside, she surveyed the scene below. A giant arena had had been erected in less than a week. Men and women, sorcerers, stood around the circular arena with arms raised and voices carrying to Xyline’s ears. Before her eyes she saw the walls of the arena growing. Around the arena were other smiths and tradesmen. Carpenters carved and chopped, blacksmiths hammered and welded various shapes together, numerous people erected tents and tables, setting out food and other such festivities.
“Xyline,” her father called.
She joined him just as her mother sashayed into the throne room, dressed in a pearl-colored gown that complimented her fair hair.
“Morning, darling,” said Lady Larissa, hugging Xyline tightly.
“I spoke with Apollo last night and he said you should start getting ready straight after you’ve eaten your breakfast.”
“Yes, Mother.” They sat down and Xyline finished munching on her apple, setting the core aside when she was done. Her sisters trickled down the stairs, one by one, although Giovanna entered through the front doors since she had been training with her soldiers that morning. The servants brought them each out a plate of lamb, crispy diced potatoes, racks of bacon, and some mild cheese. Red wine was served as it was a special occasion, and large platters of fruit were placed on the table. These were all Xyline’s favorite foods, but she wondered if Brilsa would be very insulted if Xyline packed some away for later instead. Xyline grimaced at the thought of that conversation. She may have been a Lord’s daughter, but Brilsa could also make brains taste like garlic and butter without anyone being the wiser. With that thought Xyline made sure to finish off her plate before sending it back. She excused herself from the table and immediately left for the armory. She pretended not to feel the stares of the soldiers as she passed through their area of the kingdom. Xyline had been called there before, but always on a healing emergency. She couldn’t recall a time where she had gone and someone’s life or limb hadn’t depended on it. The armory was crowded, and for some reason this surprised Xyline. But all conversations ceased when she walked into the room. Xyline swallowed and tried to look as if she knew what she were doing, but their stares bore into her and when she went to pull a hauberk out of the chest, it kept getting caught on other pieces and she kept having to untangle it. She cursed internally, she eyes beginning to water. They were still staring at her.
“Everybody out,” said a voice behind her. It was Giovanna. Her command was shortly followed by a bustle of retreating footsteps, and soon it was just her and Xyline in the room. Giovanna bent down and pulled a different hauberk from the pile without it catching on anything else. “Here,” she said. “This one is good.”
“Thank you,” said Xyline. She got to her feet and laid the chainmail out on the table. Giovanna started pulling various pieces of leather and things to go under the armor. “Thank you,” said Xyline, a little more pointedly. She was waiting for Giovanna to leave so she could get ready, but her sister scoffed.
“If I left you to put this on by yourself, you’d be strutting out with your greaves on upside down and the sabatons on the wrong feet.”
“What’s a sabaton?”
“It’s a piece of armor that covers the foot. Here.” She pulled a pair of black trousers and a tunic from under a loose stone in the floor. “I always store extra armor and clothing for myself in here. And you’ll need these.” Again she pulled out what looked like trousers made of chainmail.
Xyline eyed the tiny rings of chain dubiously. “Does that go inside or outside the trousers?”
“Outside,” said Giovanna. Xyline caught her trying to hide a smile, and her shoulders slumped.
“Fine,” she said. Giovanna was right. Xyline knew nothing of armor except the names of a few pieces, now including sabaton. She dressed quickly and was indeed thankful for her sister when it came time to tying the armor together. At last when she was done, Xyline shifted a bit, testing her movement. Giovanna had said the armor had been made specifically for her, so it had never been worn. If she were a king going into battle, she would get laughed off the battlefield.
“Damaged armor means you’ve been on the battlefield and you fought your way out. It means you’re respected.” Giovanna went to the wall where a small shelf of daggers was nearly empty from all the soldiers from before. Giovanna pulled one from the shelf and handed it to Xyline. “Here. Stow this in your boot. You never know when you might need it.”
Nodding, Xyline slipped the miniature sword into the side of her boot, shaking her foot a bit to get it comfortable.
Giovanna looked her over quickly. “Not bad,” she concluded. “Don’t forget your sword. We still have some time. Follow me.”
Xyline obeyed. She was used to taking orders from her younger sister. She was a General, after all. Giovanna led her to an empty court yard.
“I want you to attack me,” she stated.
Xyline blanched. “Excuse me?”
“It’s to get you out of your head and into the world of fighting. Now attack me.” Giovanna slid into a Mabu stance and raised her hands to chest-level.
Unhooking the belt with the sword on it, Xyline set the gear aside and faced her sister. She raised her fists and swung.
Giovanna grabbed her by the wrist and swung her around, then let go. Xyline tumbled to the ground and shook her arm out. “That was terrible,” said Giovanna. “Try again. This time, keep your stance. That will help your equilibrium.”
Getting to her feet, Xyline observed Giovanna’s stance, and tried to copy it. Giovanna shuffled forward, her hands still raised. “Strike.”
Xyline punched straight out but she could feel it wasn’t right, and Giovanna dodged too quickly to be hit. She tried again, this time jabbing twice.
Suddenly Giovanna’s palm lashed out and froze mere inches from Xyline’s nose. Xyline’s arms were still up defensively, but Giovanna had gotten through anyway.
The General withdrew her palm and said, “Don’t block with your face.”
They had only practiced for fifteen minutes when Giovanna declared that was enough and Xyline should get to where she’s needed. Xyline agreed and they parted in separate directions. By that time practically the entire kingdom had emptied into the arena. Xyline stood at the massive wooden doors to the arena and wondered what could possibly be inside that warranted such a grand stadium. From beyond the wall came her father’s booming voice.
“Today is the day that Lady Larissa and I have been waiting for. Since she was a tiny baby, Xyline was always gifted. To this day, she is still gifted. She was trained by the best and finest mentor in the world. I can’t tell you how many talents she has, but luckily, I don’t have to. As you all know, to become a God, or in this case, a Goddess, there is a series of events one must pass.
“The first event will test her strength physically and mentally. The second event will test her wits and strategy. But the third and final event is always the most important and the most dangerous. The third event will test Xyline’s leadership skills. If she passes, then she will be granted a throne and many more treasures. But, if by some misfortune she should fail one of these tasks, she would be deemed unworthy of the Gods’ favor.” A solemn silence hung in the air and Xyline swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. When Lord Ivan spoke again, it was with a happier tone, as if to alleviate the tension. “And so, without further ado, let us present the Lady Xyline.”
The doors swung open of their own accord. Xyline walked out into the open stadium drinking in the deafening applause from the surrounding audience. She tried to look courageous, but in truth was quite frightened. She didn’t feel like the Xyline one would meet every day. Clad in silver armor with the kingdom’s five-fingered dragon crest upon it, she felt like a stranger to herself. Her place was in the healing chambers, not the battle field. Giovanna was better suited for any sort of fighting; she would make a grand Goddess. Shaking the unpleasant thoughts from her head, Xyline smiled stiffly as she carried a helmet under her arm along with a sword fit for a king and a shield that matched the armor. Walking to the center of the arena, she waved, feeling ridiculously like a peacock on parade.
A boxy tower for the judges had been built into the arena and it towered over the rest of the crowd like a prow. In it Xyline could make out the dark, imposing shape of her father, the smaller form of her mother, and she identified her sisters by their hair color. Giovanna’s auburn hair was unmistakable. Yvonne and Anastasia’s hair was like Xyline’s, a silvery blonde. Cassandra’s black hair was twisted into an intricate design on top of her head, Isha had a distinct glow about her, and Jubilee always sat on the end. Two other forms in the tower she did not recognize, but she knew who they were.
The strangers in the tower were two sorcerers. One was tall and thin, the other short and rather stout. They both evaporated from where they were sitting and smoke was all that remained. They reappeared inside the arena a few feet in front of Xyline.
The taller one stepped forward and, without removing the hood which hid his face from all viewers, he said in almost a whisper, “Are you ready for your first task?”
Xyline nodded, for she was too nervous to say anything.
The first sorcerer stepped back as the shorter one stepped forward. He took a small sack which hung on his belt. He opened it and took out a small oval shaped seedling. It was no bigger than a pebble and was a scarlet color. He held it out to her then deliberately dropped it on the ground. He stepped back to match his companion and they teleported back to their thrones beside the lord and lady. The seed shook and jumped and then buried itself into the sand. Xyline could feel it burrowing deep inside the ground. Though it was small, it made the ground shake. She took a step or two backward, but it wasn’t enough, for a great willow tree burst out of the ground and knocked Xyline off her feet.
Am I to axe a tree for my test? she wondered when she had recovered herself. But her theory was proven wrong at once. The branches on the tree swayed of their own accord, like drawing back a curtain. The trunk morphed, the bark stretched, and then it split up the middle to reveal a long hollow tunnel. Xyline stood up, stared at the tunnel for a moment. She took a step to see around it, but amazingly it still looked like a willow from every other angle. Only from her vantage point did the entrance appear.
Xyline looked up at the main box where the judges were and the sorcerers stood up.
The tall one spoke in a shadowy voice that stretched across the arena, saying, “For the girl’s first task, she shall need to enter into the hidden chamber and find the monster she is to battle. I will not tell you what the monster is however, because she will have to lure it into the wide, open arena. It is here where she will fight the creature. The fight will be to the death.” At this comment, the crowd started to whisper to each other. The wispy sound filled the air.
The short sorcerer then started to speak. His voice was more like a toad, for it was deep and echoic. “Lady Xyline will have ten minutes to bring the creature into sight. If she is still absent for at least five of those minutes, then we shall release this sound as a warning.” He pointed to the sky and said, “Bromista shren.” A loud sound, like a tree trunk had just been snapped in two, was the noise that rung out for only a few seconds. But it rang in their ears for at least another minute.
When the noise had faded and all was silent again, Lady Larissa stood up and said, “Let the testing begin.”
Xyline put on her helmet and then went into the tunnel at a sort of running motion.
“Ten minutes,” she kept repeating to herself. “Ten minutes.”
The tunnels were lit by sources she could not see, but the light seeped from the walls as if a torch lay nearby. But no matter how far she travelled, she never saw a single torch. Her run eventually ceased to a trot. She came to a fork in the road. The path on her right seemed longer, but drier. The path to the left had a brighter light at the end of it, but it was quite muddy. She pondered and pondered, until it seemed like she’d been pondering her whole life. Of course she hadn’t because the unbearable sound hadn’t risen again. She chose the one that was muddy because the more time she had the better. She took one step, and immediately, her foot sank about six inches. Xyline jumped backward, shaking her leg to get the mud off. She proceeded down the drier tunnel.
It wasn’t as long as it had appeared. She came to a steep drop, but there were a few notches which she could fit her foot into. Xyline climbed down as far as she could and stepped onto a narrow pathway.
She crept silently, being sure not to scrap against the boulders that were crowded near the wall. It was lighter in this room than in the tunnels, light enough that Xyline could tell the ground, and the entire cavern for that matter, was composed of a reddish-brown earth. It felt warm under her gloves like a stone that had been left near the fire. Xyline continued, her hand resting on her sword, until she heard something stir. She didn’t look to see what it was but it sounded big. Instinctively hiding behind one of the boulders, Xyline peeked her head out, and then felt her blood turn to ice. A mere ten feet in front of her, sleeping, curled up in a ball, was a dragon.
Xyline’s heart suddenly felt very heavy and petrified. She did not want to move but knew that she had to. Suddenly, the undesirable and unbearable noise filled her ears. The noise that marked the five minute warning had just gone off. Had it been that long? Xyline shook her head. She looked out again and the last thing she could want at this time had occurred. The noise had awoken the dragon! Its glassy eye skimmed the room and fell briefly upon Xyline’s head. Without actually noticing her at the moment, it started to drift back to sleep. Xyline’s heart which had risen to her throat started to beat normally again. Knowing her mission, she walked out from behind the bolder and drew her sword, wincing at the loud scraping sound it made. She walked up silently to the dragon not wanting to do what she must, but before she could take a breath, the dragon’s glassy, murderous eye was upon her once more and this time, fully aware of the unwanted intruder.
Run! Xyline hissed violently inside her head. Run! But her feet didn’t budge.
The dragon rose to its feet and gave a mighty roar. It flared its spikes in disgust and whipped its tail around. Xyline just barley jumped out of the way and fell to the ground. She didn’t need to tell herself to get up and start running because the command was already in action.
Xyline raced down a tunnel she didn’t remember, and she didn’t care, as long as it would take her away from the reckless monster. The armor felt ten pounds heavier atop her shoulders and legs, but Xyline did not hover on the negativity of the thought. She ran as fast as she could but the dragon was undoubtedly faster. She ran and ran and hope made her heart race so fast that she thought that she could defy gravity. She saw the sunlight! It was just ahead. Xyline saw an opening, then the willow branches outside, and then…
The thought registered to her brain that she had jumped out of the tree trunk and fell face down to the ground. Xyline heard a rushing of wind and strange noises, like rushing water. She looked around from where she lay and the people and creatures were standing and shouting to each other.
That would explain the wind, Xyline thought errantly. At that moment, she had forgotten that there was a giant monster chasing after her. Remembering this, she jumped to her feet and saw the horrid face of the black dragon coming closer and closer. It reached out its claw to grab her but its arm was too wide. It was determined, however, to have its prey. It ripped and struggled and it finally broke through the tree trunk.
The whole of the dragon was now visible to all. Many of the people began to scream or cheer or a mixture of both. Xyline circled the dragon as it shook off pieces of bark.
They stared each other down, examining each other’s every move. Its gaze never left hers as they waited for the other to strike, but everyone could see its shoulders and scales rippling with anticipation. Xyline had to wait only seconds before the dragon made its first move. As she circled, the dragon took a deep breath and blew a boiling fire. She fell to her knee but put up her shield. The silver repelled the fire and it shot back at the dragon.
This was good, but also very, very bad. The shield had saved her life but now the dragon was outraged! Having their own fire blown back at them would make anyone with a normal temper angry but dragons are known for three things: their size, how dangerous they are, and their fury. All of which were none to test.
Xyline scrambled to her feet, keeping her shield up and her sword poised. They continued to circle and stalk. The dragon backed up a few steps and then charged but it did not hit her. Instead, it spread its wings that were camouflaged to Xyline, and its feet lifted from the ground. She was now at a much stronger disadvantage. She had only one shot, one chance to end this dragon’s life. It flew a bit higher and just as she was about to strike, it charged from above. Xyline dodged it and rolled to the ground. It was now standing on its hind legs. She raised her sword high above her head and threw it directly at the dragon’s heart.
Everything seemed to move in slow motion. She watched eagerly as the sword flew through the air. It was now only a few inches from the desired target and then…
The sword had slipped past the dragon’s claws and pierced its cold heart. The dragon fell to the ground gasping for air and then, nothing.
Xyline had vanquished the dragon!
The noise of the people rose to a deafening roar. Xyline watched the creature’s chest, making sure it did not draw breath, before approaching it. She knelt beside the creature, afraid that even though it was dead, it would wake once more. But not just of that, but also afraid that, by simply touching the limp, black monster, her gift of healing would bring life back to its cold heart. Because ever since she was young, Xyline had shown an extraordinary talent for healing. That power literally ran through her. She could heal herself and others in seconds. For this greater reason was why she dared not to touch the dragon. And not just any dragon, either. For the first time, the girl looked at the dead creature’s feet.
She counted the toes: five. The same kind of dragon that was the kingdom’s crest. The one that represented man because man has five fingers. But how could this scaly thing represent man and yet, want to kill them as well? The thought made Xyline’s head hurt and tears started to well up in her blue eyes. The cheers of the crowd pressed upon her and then she saw the two sorcerers in front of her once more.
“Very good,” said the tall sorcerer. Xyline hadn’t noticed before, but he had a stuffy, nasally voice as if he were speaking through his nostrils. “Very good indeed. We are impressed with your performance. You must be tired. Fighting a dragon does stir up the senses a bit doesn’t it?” He made an uneven sound in the back of his throat. Was it really supposed to be a laugh?
“However,” began the second sorcerer. “Your task has not been completely fulfilled. You must now go in and seek the dragon’s egg. It is near time for it to hatch. You will find it in the same place you found the dragon. But you will not need all that armor.” He waved his hand in a twirling motion and her armor was gone. She now stood before everyone in simply her trousers and red tunic. But she had a new piece of weapon wear. A leather belt was strapped to her waist with a variety of pockets. She looked inside a few and found many useful tools and trinkets in them. “Though I warn you, it will not be as easy as it sounds. These tools are for protection only. Use them for this reason, and your mission shall prove successful. Now go, complete the final phase of your test.” They disappeared again, no doubt to the thrones beside the lord and lady.
Xyline turned to where the tree trunk would have been and to her surprise, the tunnel was still there! You could still only see it from where Xyline stood, but it was still there. With a deep breath, she entered the tunnel once more and began to walk.
Xyline walked down the dark tunnel which seemed more austere than before. She proceeded, retracing her steps and came to the marvelously remembered tunnels which still deceived the mind for taking the muddier choice. She remembered the result, however, of choosing this path because the mud in which she had been cheated of before was now crusted above her ankle and shin. Choosing the path in which she had walked down before, she found herself at the same spot, climbing down the rigid wall and sweeping down the slanted path. But she now found herself standing upon pebbles instead of the fertile, reddish earth. It was foggy and she wondered whether she had been tricked into taking the wrong path. However, thinking hard, she did not recall any other tunnels going beyond the main one.
She took in the whole room in once glance but her gaze lingered on a large lake which bubbled and steamed. It was as if the nest where the dragon had lain before had turned into a swamp. She searched the ground for a stone to skip across to the opposite side, finding one as smooth as glass. Tossing it with a practiced flick, it landed as if on sand and melted into the boiling swamp.
The egg is nowhere to be found above this steaming pot of muck, she thought. It’s probably within the swamp itself. But how am I to retrieve it? She doubted she could swim the swamp with any choice amount of luck. Her next thought was to look inside her utility belt for some sort of magic talisman that would allow her to be indestructible for only a few minutes.
Suddenly, she heard a small voice. It sounded like a weeping child. Looking around, Xyline spotted a small boy clothed in nothing more than a night dress, but his skin and hair shined like starlight. She approached the frail creature with an outstretched hand, wondering if this was a trick and the child would turn out to be a very pretty goblin. Cautiously, Xyline touched his shoulder and immediately drew it back, as if she’d been burned, for he was as cold as the summit of the mountains. The child looked up at her with piercing blue, tearful eyes.
Xyline immediately felt drawn to the child, a matronly sensation overcoming her. She went down on her knee to match his eye level and said in a whisper, “Are you all right?”
He replied in a voice that was identical to any human boy child, but he clearly was not human. “Why do you worry of me when you seek the black egg of the dragon?” he asked. Xyline was startled that the child was aware of such knowledge.
“How do you know about that?” she demanded, gazing at him in astonishment.
“I am the ghost of the tunnels. I know its every secret and content, and every content’s secret. But I do long for a bit of sunlight,” he mused. “I have rested in these caverns, and for centuries and centuries I have wondered in darkness.” His expression, which appeared slightly annoyed, changed again to a yearning, as if he’d had to watch his very desire be given to someone else. “What I would give to see the sun and its radiance one last time.”
Xyline felt pity for the creature but couldn’t help but see a way to twist the boy’s sorrow to her own advantage. “Do you know where the egg is?” she asked, a bit too eagerly.
He looked up, slightly offended, but replied, “Of course. But why in the name of Zeus would I tell you where it is? Every debt I’ve made with every fool to enter here has betrayed me and left me in my sorrow to wallow and wait.”
A smile kept tugging at Xyline’s lip but she composed her face so as to not reveal her excitement for her ingenious plan. “You will tell me where the egg is,” she said, “and how to retrieve it in exchange that I will take you outside with me where it is a very sunny day. You may remain there forever if you wish. I will also introduce you to my sister who can command light. She will be more than happy to put a little light in a pouch for you to carry around, always.”
This arrangement seemed far more than fair, but he still stared at her suspiciously. “Why should I believe anything you say?” asked he.
“Because I have no reason to trick you. And you said that you have been here for centuries, so you must know the difference between a petty liar and a truthful being. You should also realize that there is no disadvantage to my offer. It would be foolish to refuse.”
The child pondered for a minute or so until he finally nodded in agreement.
“Good. Excellent. Now come on, as you promised. Where’s the egg?”
He answered calmly but straight to the point. “The egg is within the swamp.”
“Where within the swamp?” asked Xyline, a little impatiently.
“It’s at the heart of the swamp at the very bottom,” he answered.
“Is it guarded by any magic or creatures?”
“It is protected by a crystal blue field which will paralyze you if it is not disabled correctly,” replied he in an indifferent tone.
Xyline gave a small gulp at the thought of drowning because she couldn’t move. “How do I get past the shield?”
“You must merely tell the shield to open. But you must say it in the language of the dwarves.”
Oh, is that all? Xyline couldn’t quite grasp the thought of trying to speak a difficult foreign language under water. Or swamp. “Must I swim to the prize in which I seek?” she asked. It seemed pointless, even to her, but she knew from experience that magical creatures had a tendency to leave out important details unless they were asked directly.
“Yes,” answered the child.
Then she asked, “What is the word for ‘open’ in the dwarf’s tongue?”
“It is pronounced, ah-ja-tra-nin-gia.”
Xyline repeated this word in her head and aloud until she had pronounced it perfectly. “I now face one more dilemma,” she said. “I don’t know how I will be able to say the word without choking on muck and slime from the swamp.”
He looked at her with a look that made Xyline feel completely dim-witted.
“How could you not know how to breathe beneath the swamp when you have a belt full of magic?” demanded the ghost, both shocked and annoyed, gesturing to her belt.
Xyline shifted uncomfortably but said weakly, “I’ve never used magic except when I was having lessons with my mentor.”
He grumbled in a low voice, then said, “Do you have any Molly Bark?”
Xyline just shrugged her shoulders. “What’s Molly Bark?”
“It comes from the Molly Tree,” he explained, speaking as if the she were missing something terribly obvious. “The Molly Tree is an exceedingly rare tree. It’s only grown in the Valley of the Finest. If you cut off a piece of bark from the tree and rub it on your skin, then it will grant you one of three things: wings, speed, or gills.”
“Would you be able to ask specifically what you wanted?”
“Of course,” he replied. “However, to obtain the specimen, you would either have to steal it from a merchant, go to the Valley and cut it off yourself, or just be very, very, lucky.”
Xyline wondered what the chances were to have this fascinating sample in her utility belt. The results were slim. She opened the pocket farthest to her left anyway and looked inside it, but all she found was a small corner of pixy dust. She sighed but continued to look.
She then looked in the pouch next to that one and found an old piece of shriveled up tree bark. Her heart skipped a beat as she gazed at the amber colored bark.
She held it up to the child “Is this it?”
The creature grabbed it greedily, examining it closely. Finally he said, “You are very fortunate indeed.” He handed it back to her and she held it in her hand staring at it, grinning, and waiting. “Well,” he urged her. “Rub it on your skin you slow girl. The sooner you retrieve that egg, the sooner we can get out of these wretched caverns.”
Xyline obeyed and rubbed the bark on her arm. A soft, tingling sensation swept over her like a warm blanket and she could feel herself transforming into something nonhuman.
She recited in her head, I need gills. She suddenly felt a strange gust of wind. Her fingers felt as if a piece of string was attached from one fingernail to the other and only letting them spread apart a certain distance. She felt the same strangeness with her feet, and her neck felt rugged and slimy. She looked down at her legs and feet and saw, to her astonishment, that they were covered in scales. Her feet and hands were webbed and she marveled at the sensation of gills on the side of her neck.
The small child took her hand, unafraid of her appearance, and said in the weeping childish voice, “Remember what you have to do. Don’t be gone too long; the enchantment only lasts for five minutes. And remember the word.”
She walked up to the edge of the swamp-like lake and dove in.
It felt as if she had broken through the ground and entered an icy domain. Her eyes had closed instinctively and she held her breath, but an unnatural feeling swept through her, as if her body knew she would be safe in this strange place. Xyline deliberated, but then opened her eyes.
Above the surface, it looked like a swamp filled with who knows what. But underneath, it was completely clear, sparkling even. She could see perfectly without her eyes feeling overwhelmed by the sudden ambience of water.
Remembering her assignment, she started looking around for the center of the lake. At first, she tried to swim like she would in a lake with human limbs, but these movements felt strange to her reptilian body. Instead, Xyline stopped struggling and let her instincts guide her. It was amazingly easy, to swim like a fish. She was swimming fast, in little waves, almost like a mermaid. The sand at the bottom was like feathers. It was soft and white and even clean. She saw a black speck a few yards away from her and swam towards it. As she drew closer, the black speck grew larger, and when she was a few yards away she knew it was the egg. Only when she was near enough to touch it did it become obvious that it was a dragon egg. Shining black and the size of a serving platter, veins of red webbed across the egg’s surface like a tiny fissures. Xyline reached her hand out but then remembered the hazardous shield which protected it. Just to make sure that she was looking at the egg and not an abnormal sized rock, she took a handful of sand and released it over the egg, but the sand slid away from the organism. Xyline cocked her head and squinted, and it was only when the egg shifted from the creature inside that she saw something like an aura around it. Xyline could barely see, for it blended in with the water so magnificently. She got as close to the egg as she dared and spoke very clearly.
“Ajhatraningia,” she said. The almost invisible field shivered and cracked and then a bright light shown through, then another, and another until the shield broke into many smaller pieces. She had nearly completed the second phase of the first task. All she had to do was bring it out of the caves and place it in front of the sorcerers and judges. But to be absolutely, positively sure that the egg was completely defenseless, she grabbed another handful of sand and threw it at the egg and this time, the sand hit the egg and floated gracefully away. She took it in her arms and began to swim, surprised by its deceiving weight, like a small barrel filled with ale.
Hauling the egg the edge of the lake, she managed to wrap her arms around it as she began her ascension. Xyline was only a few feet from the surface when suddenly, she started losing air. She tried to inhale, but it came in wisps and water trickled into her mouth. Xyline grasped her neck, feeling for the gills, but could feel the sharp edges retreating into her skin. The webbing between her feet and toes melted away and her vision started to become blurry. Xyline darted as fast as she could towards the surface, still holding the egg firmly, then, as her heart began to fail, she broke through the barrier of the lake and tossed the egg onto the gravel.
Pulling herself out of the water which resumed its mucky, disgusting looking appearance on top, she rolled on her back, breathing in the air which was free for her to inhale. A cold hand touched her arm and she jolted up, startled.
The ghost had roused her and said when she caught her breath again, “We must leave. They’ll be wondering what has happened.”
She got up, took the egg in her arms and said, “Let’s go.”
They walked back, yet again, through the dark tunnels which twisted and turned this way and that.
“Look,” Xyline said to the ghost. “It’s still daylight.”
“I want to see it,” the boy said, pulling harder at her hand.
They went from a walking pace to a full out run. The sun blinded them as they stepped out of the barrier. Everyone stood up and jumped up and down in praise and happiness. Some people gasped when they saw the pale, glowing child-like figure holding Xyline’s hand. Some pointed or whispered to their neighbors.
Bunch of gossips, thought Xyline with a curious urge to hide the boy from their slanderous gazes.
Xyline faced the judge’s tower with the ghost still beside her and raised the egg above her head like a trophy.
The sorcerers teleported in front of her and said together, “You have done well, my lady.” They evaporated like mist and then reappeared in the tower.
The shorter one spoke in the same booming voice as Lord Ivan. “The Lady Xyline has passed the first task. She is now one step closer to becoming a Goddess. Let us rejoice in her success.” They bowed to the lord and lady and then faced Xyline and bowed to her as well. But Xyline was not finished yet.
“Isha?” she called from the center of the arena. A slender figure with dark brown hair and a gold-colored dress skipped to them. Without a word Isha hugged Xyline tightly and then let go. Then they turned to the ghost boy.
“I never did catch your name,” Xyline realized, voicing her observations aloud. The boy turned to her reluctantly. He had been staring at the sun like a poor man discovering a cave filled with jewels. Then his face grew sorrowful.
“I have forgotten my name,” he said, something like a diamond with too many facets rolling down his cheek. It disappeared in seconds.
“Well then I think it’s time we give you a new one,” Isha chirped, right on cue. The ghost boy looked at her with an eagerness Xyline had never seen his seemingly-young face possess. Isha stroked her chin as if she were stroking an invisible beard, then held up her finger and smiled excitedly. “I know just what to call you, little ghost boy,” she announced triumphantly. Then she hit her head and laughed. “I mean, with all due respect, you’re not a ghost. You are Angelo; like Angel.”
The ghost boy… Angelo, bounced on his heels, his hand still in Xyline’s.
“Isha,” Xyline said. Isha looked at her. “Angelo was hoping that you could give him light to keep. He doesn’t like the darkness.”
“Nor do I,” Isha said matter-of-factly. She presented her hands to her sister and Angelo, showing that nothing was in them. Then she held her hands up to the sun, as if shading her eyes, rubbed them together, and blew into them twice. When she opened her hands again, she presented an eight-pointed star, the bottom point longer than the others, which glowed bright like the sun. It was attached to a long leather string tied into a knot at the ends. Isha took the star and held the string open so Angelo could put his head through. He did and the moment it was on him, he glowed a newer, brighter glow.
“Thank you, my lady,” he said to her. Then he turned to Xyline, removing his hand from hers. “And thank you, Xyline, for keeping your promise.” He bowed to them both and then faded away like fog.
The two sisters stood in the empty stadium alone now.
“Where do you think he went?” Xyline asked after a moment of comfortable silence.
Isha shrugged. “To explore new, happier places, I suppose. Or to heaven. I don’t know.”
Xyline nodded absently. Then they walked back to the Heavenly Ward and joined the celebration.
Later that evening, back at the Heavenly Ward, the guests were dancing and eating and drinking their fill. Xyline sat on the right hand side of Lord Ivan as she mingled and laughed about her success.
The next morning, Xyline woke up, rather hastily, washed and dressed herself and ran down the staircase for another enjoyable breakfast. Little was said that morning except for words of encouragement. She was leaving the feasting room to put on her armor when she was suddenly pulled into a corner by a mysterious person.
“It’s all right, it’s me,” said a voice which she now recognized as her teacher Apollo. Before Xyline could speak he said, “The next task is about strategy. You’ll most likely be faced with something that you won’t be able to defeat with mortal strength.”
“Why are you telling me this?” she hissed. “If anyone finds out that you’re telling me what to prepare for before the event, I’ll be accused of cheating and you will be put to the hands of Thanatos.” She shuddered at the thought.
But Apollos chuckled. “Thanatos does not intimidate me. He may be the God of Death, but he’s as frightening as a cupid.” After a moment, he added, “Bring a sword.”
An exasperated sigh escaped her lips. “Thank you,” she said. “But don’t tell me anything else.” Stepping back into the hallway, she proceeded to the armory. Thankfully the large stone room was empty, but her attire had been laid out for her on a large table. She donned the chainmail and red tunic with the five-fingered dragon crest, the utility belt, and her riding boots. Turning to the stands with the swords, she found the one she had trained with. Its black hilt was carved from stone, with two tiny gold chains lacing up the handle to the top where they seemed to mold into the stone, creating an intricate swirling design. The blade was not as well-oiled as it should have been, and the wear was beginning to show, but it was the sword she was comfortable with, and even Giovanna approved of it. Sliding it onto a separate belt, Xyline was about to leave, but something made her pause. She could feel the dagger from the day before in her boot, for she had kept it with her all night. She briefly considered leaving it behind, but after Apollo’s warning, decided to keep it.
Leaving by a back door known mostly to servants and squires, Xyline headed for the stables, meaning to get to the arena from there so she wouldn’t have to pass directly through the square. If she was seen out now, she would get bombarded with congratulations and good luck wishes, all of which she wanted to avoid as long as she could. One of the horses whinnied at her presence.
Xyline started as Nathaniel, the stable boy, appeared at the other end of the room. “Hello, Nathaniel,” said Xyline with a hand over her heart.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you. Shouldn’t you be at that arena?”
“That’s where I’m going. Excuse me.”
Nathaniel said nothing as Xyline practically jogged away, finding the entrance she was supposed to use for the event. It was on the opposite side as the main entrance and two guards were posted there. They saluted her as she approached and one of them held the door open for her. Xyline smiled to them and followed the hallway to a large room with a table and chairs and a basket of fruit. Beyond this room she wove through the lit hallways, passing a healing unit and a study along the way, until the rooms became less frequent, and the walls grew farther apart. Her feet scraped against the hard ground but ahead of her the torches gave way to natural light. The noise of the crowd outside echoed like a thousand small stones thrown against each other. At last she came to the end of the hall to the gate that led into the arena.
Afternoon had come and the stadium, instead of covered in sand, was covered in trees and grass. Flowers ranged from every color and every size growing on bark and in the ground. However, despite all of this, the tower in which the judges and the sorcerers sat was still present and rows and rows of seats were filled once again.
Though Xyline couldn’t see him, her father’s booming voice called out again like thunder. “Lady Xyline has passed the first task,” he said. “But today is a new day. She will have a new challenge, with new solutions. Today will test her wits and wisdom. Not even I know what dangers she must face but we wish her luck all the same.” The gate opened. Xyline took a deep breath as she walked into the arena, a practiced smile upon her face as people applauded.
Strategy, she reminded herself. She felt the warm hilt of her sword. I felt good, the way the metal was unrelenting no matter how tightly she squeezed. It calmed her, knowing there was at least one thing she carried that could not be easily broken. Walking out into the middle of the grassy arena, the ambience changed almost instantaneously. What had been, a moment ago, a cheerful, excited crowd could now have been mistaken for a graveyard, for all was silent.
She walked cautiously towards the trees which made a pathway filled with pebbles. The path went into the trees and branched off like a delta. The pebbles were mostly neutral colors, but there were a few that were blue, green, purple, or pink. Some shimmered like jewels while others were plainly dirty. Beyond the path, there were flowers everywhere. They lined the trees, around the bushes, crowded the grass. Xyline took one step and the colors seemed more vivid. She took a second step and the sounds became sharper. She could hear what sounded like a waterfall deeper in. The sound drew her deeper into the unknown forest. Another step which made her stumble awkwardly brought her back into her own mind. She looked down and there, around her feet like a strange frame, was another footprint. It was very wide and two inches deep at least. Xyline’s brow furrowed in confusion. There was something else here, obviously. But what? Or who? She heard people whispering and saw, in her peripheral vision that they were pointing at something, but she didn’t look to see what.
Xyline continued down the path cautiously but was suddenly pushed backwards by an enormous force. Regaining her footing, she looked up at what had thrown her back, and all her thoughts ceased. An ogre stood in the middle of the path, discernable now that the light shown on him, but in the shadows he could have been standing next to her and she wouldn’t have known. Xyline now understood what everyone had been pointing to. The ogre had been following her. It was easily eight feet tall and was as wide as a tree trunk. It was hideously ugly and bald, with a ring that went from one nostril to the other, resembling a bull. It carried a flail and a hefty axe was strapped to its back. Xyline stood paralyzed at the sight of the dreaded monster, then it flung its flail as she ducked, missing her head by centimeters. Xyline quickly drew her sword and swung at the ogre. The ogre, though they were not very bright, dodged the blade and caught Xyline by the shoulders. Its hand was bulky and strong and it reeked of something rotten. She felt as if with a single squeeze of its troll-like hand, the ogre could easily crumble her shoulder into pieces. As she kicked and fought with all her might, trying to escape the ogre’s grasp, he took her legs, still holding her shoulder, and began to stretch her. Xyline screamed in agony and tightened her shoulder blades in hopes to ease the pain. But the ogre simply laughed horribly and pulled some more.
With all the strength that was left in her, she unclenched her muscles, grasped her sword tightly, and swung it mercilessly at the ogre’s head. He dropped her immediately and clenched the side of his head where the blade pierced his leather-like skin. Her sword had left an excruciatingly deep cut in his head and puddles of murky green blood oozed out. He fell to one knee, holding his head with both hands.
Xyline, sore and trembling, limped towards the wounded creature, her sword dragging in the dirt. It was time to finish the task, but how? His heart was covered by at least three inches of steel and it was the same on the back. How do you kill an ogre? She pondered only for a moment because, miraculously, the ogre started to stand again. It was now boiling with anger and pulled the axe from his back. With the flail in one hand and an axe in the other, he let out a guttural roar. Xyline brought her sword up and stood her ground. The ogre charged and swung his axe, causing Xyline to duck once more and roll to the ground. A shocking pain surged up her side as she looked down and saw blood seeping from her ribs. A glance at the trail of blood along the axe’s blade told her all she needed to know.
Xyline attacked with rage as she brought her blade upward. The ogre blocked the blow easily. To him, her attempts were fairly pathetic. Xyline opened her utility belt and felt around. The first thing she found was pixie dust. She threw that at him and that ended up sprouting flowers from his ears. Another pocket, there was something that looked like a scalpel. That wouldn’t do any good. She found rocks, beads, some slimy piece of fabric, all having no effect on the battle.
A thought entered her mind at that moment. She didn’t know what triggered it, but somehow, it wiggled its way into her thoughts. The less strength and impact you put into your killing move will do the most damage. It was something Apollo would say to her. A plan began to form in her mind.
As the ogre ran towards her again, Xyline ran towards a large oak tree and climbed it. A flower rested on one of the branches. It was small and delicate and its petals were a coral pink with a royal blue iris. This flower, as Xyline had learned from Apollo, was called the Orine Flower. It was common amongst bandits, for if one was to pour the oil of the petals into someone’s food, or rub it on their utensil, the minute it would enter the blood stream, the victim would die in seconds. The oil of this flower would put Xyline’s plan into progress.
Recalling the history of mountain creatures, she focused on the bit about ogres. An ogre has three weakness points. The one at the heart stood out in her mind, but Xyline remembered ogres always wore plating over their hearts to protect it. Only a fool would try that most obvious attack. Even if she could have done it, an ogre’s skin was much more durable than any other normal creature.
The second was directly down the spinal cord. That could work, Xyline thought hopefully. The ogre was at the base of the tree, shaking it with all its strength. Leaves fell from the trees along with flowers and some kind of exotic fruit. Xyline tried to see the ogre’s back –having some difficulty, what with all the shaking- but her hopes were saturated in defeat, for the great, ugly beast’s back was shielded as well. Xyline cursed under her breath.
She thought some more about the last pressure point. If this was as well armored, then she would have to settle for more traditional methods, like decapitation. Xyline pondered through all the continuous shaking and roaring.
The last pressure point, she recalled, is behind the heel directly above the ankle. Any of the ogres’ pressure points, if pierced at least an inch deep, would either kill an ogre, or paralyze it for exactly two minutes. Of course, if pierced by a blade which had been rubbed with poison of an Orine Flower, it would undoubtedly bring the victim to their fall.
Xyline carefully put her sword back in the sheath and pulled out the dagger which was still hidden in her boot. She picked the Orine Flower and rubbed its petals on both sides of the blade. The ogre saw this action and backed out of sight, readying himself for his next attack.
Xyline jumped down from the oak and pointed her dagger steadfast at the ogre. The hideous monster took one look at the dagger, which was smaller than his thumb, and laughed loudly, but Xyline didn’t hesitate.
She didn’t even blink.
Trying to be discreet, Xyline took a few glances at the monster’s ankle. No armor; just blue, patchy, leathery skin. The Xyline slowly walked towards him as he continued to laugh.
The ogre then raised his axe and swung, but as his axe was halfway down to the ground, Xyline dived behind him and sliced the ogre behind the heel, just above the ankle. The ogre fell to the ground with a look of fear and shock in his eyes. And as he took his last breaths, he glanced down at his ankle, then at Xyline and saw his murky green blood trickling down the end of the tiny blade.
He choked on his own saliva, glared at the girl who had brought him to his fall, and then his eyes rolled to the back of his head and his lids closed over them.
The ogre was no more.
Xyline stood for a moment, her breathing heavy as she looked down at her defeated opponent. At first, she didn’t know what happened, but as the victory began to sink in, a triumphant smile crept upon her face. She faced the people and drew her sword, raising it above her head in conquest. If there was anyone still sitting, they rose from their seats and applauded and cheered with everyone else.
The sorcerers appeared next to her, nodding their head in unison. “Excellent. You were able to repeat your success. Go now and rest, for tomorrow awaits us all.” They teleported back to the judge’s tower where the lord and lady stood, still applauding and cheering.
Night came swiftly, as did morning and afternoon. All were seated and ready for the next task to begin. Xyline however, sat alone in the armor room with her hands on her knees and her gaze to the floor. She breathed heavily -almost panted- as unorganized thoughts flew through her mind. Pictures of the dragon and the ogre and the ghost child, Angelo, passed through her thoughts from time to time.
Last test, she thought with another shuddering breath that seemed to make her heart quiver. One last test.
“Xyline,” came the low, familiar voice which belonged to Apollo. Xyline looked up slowly to see his face at the doorway. “It’s time,” he said softly. Xyline nodded and rose from her seat. Apollo accompanied her to the stadium’s side gates.
They stood in the doorway, and it was almost as if he were as afraid as she was.
“You know you can ask me anything,” he said, his gaze fixed ahead at the stadium beyond the gates.
Xyline swallowed. “If… if I do make it… if I pass… What’s it like? Do you remember feeling something? Did you change?” She recognized the way his eyebrow twitched. It meant he was thinking something through very carefully.
Several moments passed and she had begun to think his silence was answer enough, but then he spoke. “I don’t think you’ll change, whether you pass or not. But… it’s not as grand as you might think. You’re not bathed in light. There’s no surge of power. But you’ll notice it in the small things, the way you remember events or how you have this assurance of your craft that you can’t quite explain. Tiny details which eluded you before will be brought to light. You become the embodiment of your craft. One thing about becoming a God is that it gives you undeniable confidence.” His smile was cheeky, joking, but his eyes were sad. “And then one day you’ll realize that everyone else has gone on aging and you’ve physically stayed the same.” He laid a hand comfortingly on her back, and Xyline closed her eyes, swallowed.
The gates opened and Apollo drew back. She knew when she left the tunnel, he would have already been in the judge’s tower.
She entered the arena as everybody stood up and cheered. The only armor she had today were the gauntlets and greaves. She had, once again, her utility belt with a new dagger and quiver, and across her back laid a bow made from the white willow tree, lined with gold filigree and the kingdom’s crest carved at the top and bottom. The string for the bow was winged horse hair waxed with the oil of the oldest olive tree from the Valley of the Finest.
Lord Ivan and Lady Larissa sat on their thrones with broad smiles on their faces.
The sorcerers teleported in front of her, bowing slightly.
The taller one stepped forward and said, “Your final task shall test your leadership skills. You will encounter things of which you will not want to choose between but to pass this task, you will have to make decisions.”
He stepped back as the shorter one stepped forward. “You will enter through the gate way we give to you,” he said with his low toad-like voice. “Once there, you will follow the lighted path. After you have done this, you will be in a giant room where your skills shall be put to the test. If you make the right decision, then you pass the test, but slip even by accident, and you shall be disqualified,” he said. “Do you understand?” Xyline nodded, then he stepped back and they evaporated back to the judge’s tower.
She waited for a moment or two for something to happen. The people started whispering to each other and gasps were shared between them. They pointed at her, making Xyline wonder if there was a bird on her head or a spot on her face. But then the ground rumbled. A shadow grew behind her and Xyline turned to see a golden gate with no hinges or pillars rise before her. Cautiously, Xyline approached the doors, but no monster leapt out and they didn’t seem likely to fall over. She touched the metal, and without warning the doors swung open, revealing a single path. Xyline looked back. She tried to remember where the sun was, and assured herself it wasn’t because she thought it would be the last time she saw it.
The pathway was lit, as the sorcerer said, so she continued down it. Though she was the only one walking down the lit tunnel, she had a strange feeling that she was being observed. She went as far as she could and, as if a curtain had been drawn back to reveal blinding sunlight, a large cavern opened up to her. It was at best two miles in width extended upward, narrowing as it got higher until it came to a point. Torches were nailed to the walls which gave the cavern plenty of light.
She saw an archway as wide as the last, walked through it, and then froze. Filling the room were hundreds, maybe even thousands of archers lined up so elegantly, their formations circular in nature, their origin at the very center of the room. Xyline peered closer at them all and noticed they each had an arrow notched. It was odd because there was nothing to shoot at except for her, obviously, but they were facing away from her; they were facing inward, towards the center of the room.
She walked towards them but they didn’t move. They weren’t statues. Xyline could see that they were breathing; the archers towards the middle were even sweating.
She approached a female archer and was astonished by her discovery. She had a hunch that needed to be proven. She looked around and examined a few other archers and confirmed her hunch.
They were all elves! Both men and women elves.
Suddenly, there was a loud crack and Xyline looked up with a start. There, on a high platform, stood the sorcerers. Xyline didn’t know if they were the real sorcerers or decoys but she kept still. Neither said anything, nor moved a muscle. She was beginning to think that they were simply a distraction to steer her away from her mission.
But as she began to walk around again, the taller sorcerer spoke, his nasal voice echoing off the walls. “For your task, we have taken two people whom you love. You must choose which one to save and whoever you don’t choose will be killed with arrows and fall into the lava.”
Xyline was taken aback at these sudden words. She stared at the tall sorcerer and a furrow began to form between her brows. Neither sorcerer looked the least bit worried or caring. In fact, they looked a little bit… bored; there really was no other word for it.
Xyline stepped forward to the front row of the elves and, just as the sorcerer had said, there was a long, flowing river of lava.
“We understand what you are thinking,” said the shorter, toad-like sorcerer; his voice echoed more so than the lanky one’s. “But a leader must make sacrifices, even if it means killing one to save another.” They both stepped back and chanted something in a foreign language. There was suddenly a cloud of red smoke which shifted into shapes which seemed to whisper things. As the smoke cleared, the shapes of two people appeared.
A knot formed in Xyline’s stomach as she gazed at Giovanna and Jubilee on the platform. Their hands were bound as well as their feet and mouth.
“Now you must choose between your sister, Giovanna, who has mocked you, made a fool out of you, and stolen from you. Or you choose your youngest sister, Jubilee, who has never wronged you, nor threatened or beaten you in any way. If you attempt to kill one of us or any of the archers, both your sisters will perish to their arrows and the lava. Choose.”
Xyline was in such a state of shock that she couldn’t move. She tried to argue, but her mouth was limp and dry. Tears started to fill her eyes as she had to decide.
Giovanna was cruel and stubborn and merciless but she was still her sister and she loved her. And Jubilee was so kind and understanding and patient. Both were members of her family which she could never pick from no matter their faults.
Xyline’s sense of control began to return to her as she raised her head and straightened heroically.
She took a deep breath and said a little shakily, “I choose neither.”
The shorter sorcerer stepped forward and said, “You cannot refuse to complete the task.”
“That’s not what I meant,” was Xyline’s response. Both sorcerers waved their hands in a Tai Chi form and Xyline was standing on a chunk of earth just big enough for her to stand steadily on. They attached the chunk to the platform as she stepped off.
She then stood between Jubilee and Giovanna, intertwined her arms with theirs and spoke strongly. “We are sisters; siblings of this earth. We were born here together, and we shall die together.” Tears now filled Xyline’s, Giovanna’s, and Jubilee’s eyes as they began to weep. The sorcerers each raised their right hand and the archers readied their arrows, pointing them directly at the sisters. The sisters cried harder, each resting their heads on each other’s shoulders. The sorcerers inclined their heads a bit and dropped their arms.
Xyline could hear the whoosh of the arrows coming closer and closer and then…
She stood waiting, waiting for death to take her by the hand. Xyline felt a warm breeze which was accompanied with a whisking sound and bird songs. She heard talking and gasping and some people screamed.
Who knew that heaven was so noisy?
She opened her eyes expecting to see her and her sisters in the heavens, but instead, she stood in a familiar empty stadium with people standing as close as they could get with their eyes wide and their breathing heavy. She looked around and saw the sorcerers in front of her and her sisters.
“You have shown incredible strength and bravery, Lady Xyline,” they said together. “A leader must make sacrifices to save those he or she loves. You thought it better to die alongside your sisters than have one killed. In this you have chosen and in this you have passed.”
Xyline dared not move for fear the words would be jinxed. Her legs began to shake from not moving.
She had done it!
She had passed the final test.
Xyline breathed heavily, and then a great smile split across her face as she fell to her knees. She looked around and saw that Jubilee and Giovanna were safe with the aids as they were bandaging their brush burns.
Xyline sat quite still for a moment and then heard three faint clapping sounds. She looked around to see who was causing the sounds and saw that Lord Ivan, Lady Larissa, and Apollo were applauding her. Everyone else quickly joined in as screams of joy and excitement filled her ears.
The prize had been won. The journey to becoming a Goddess was now over. She felt a tremendous weight lift from her shoulders as the thought began to sink in. The lord and lady appeared beside her along with all her sisters and Apollo. They were all giving her hugs and kissing her cheeks as they continued to applaud her.
The night had come and the court room was filled with Gods, Goddesses, centaurs and every other creature on two or four legs. Lord Ivan and Lady Larissa sat on their thrones with every daughter except Xyline sitting on either side of them. Trumpets sounded and drums were pounded and flags were raised as everyone looked to the door where Lady Xyline stood in a gorgeous lilac gown which had sleeves off the shoulders and crisscrossed in the back. Her hair was curled and pulled back slightly by two pearl hair clips. She walked gracefully down the center aisle as everyone bowed as she passed, reaching the steps before the thrones. Standing on the last step, she turned to face the crowd.
Lord Ivan, coming to stand beside her, said in a warm, loving voice, “From the moment you were born, I knew that your destiny would be fruitful.” A High Priest came before them bearing a golden tiara on a pillow. The tiara glistened in the light of the torches, its elegant, swirling design made more enchanting by the lapis lazuli that hung like a teardrop in the middle. The High Priest placed it on her head gently, embellishing the moment. It fit her perfectly and Xyline lifted her head and smiled. He then took a jewel encrusted sword from a scarlet pillow and tapped her shoulders lightly with it.
“Do you promise to perform your duties as a Goddess such as they are, no matter the cost, from this hour henceforth?”
Xyline swallowed the lump in her throat and said, as confidently as she could, “This I promise.”
The throne room erupted with cheers. Rose and freesia petals rained from above and in moments the place was filled with the pulsing life of music. Servants seemed to appear out of the very walls carrying trays of food and goblets of wine. A feast was served in Xyline’s honor, and everyone in attendance paid homage to the young Goddess.
Xyline’s coronation was still going on when her sisters snuck her out through The Knight’s Escape. Tonight, the torches were no just red, but also blue, green, yellow, even purple.
Yvonne entered first, her wavy, silvery blonde hair trailing behind her slightly. She pulled Xyline in by the arm and the others followed, Isha shutting the door quietly while somehow managing to bounce up and down in excitement. Her brunette hair, braided so elegantly, shimmered in a light not provided by the torches.
The tunnel seemed longer than it was and it seemed a bit narrower, but that could have been because it was being used by seven women, all who were in a hurry to go somewhere. They came to the lit intersection and, without breaking stride, each climbed up the ladder. Once everyone was up, they stood in a small, round hallway with stone walls that were not meant to hold seven people. The only light was from the single window letting in the bright moonlight. And, of course, the constant glow Isha maintained.
From behind Anastasia, Cassandra tried to maneuver herself to get a good look at the lock on Xyline’s oak wood door and brass handle. Had her white sleeveless dress and black overcoat not been thrown over multiple petticoats, she would have been able to walk right up to it, but, under the circumstances, she just had to be able to see her target. Cassandra closed her eyes and pursed her lips, seeming to concentrate very hard on something. Then, as she opened her eyes, she outstretched her hand in a strange sort of way. The palm was facing outward as she turned her arm inward. She curled her fingers like they were claws and then turned them clockwise. A loud creak came from the door as the brass knob turned and the door swung open. They all stared at her in amazement.
She grinned and said, “I’ve been practicing.” When no one moved, she frowned again. “‘A soul that gawks is beheld by a small mind.’” The quote was from her role models Garrett and Monique, two of the greatest magical beings in history.
They chuckled and walked into Xyline’s sleeping chambers.
It was very elegant. The walls were a peach color with swirls of different colors upon the wall. In one corner, there was a large wardrobe made of the same oak as the door. The secret door was hidden behind a mirror with torches on either side. The same rainbow flames danced in the night.
Along the wall was a round bed with a brass frame. The frame had a laurel wreath shape, with the leaves extending upward and the tips meeting at the foot of the bed. In the far corner of the room, near the double doors that led to the balcony, was a grey owl with yellow eyes and red spots. He was pecking impatiently at the lock on his cage, making racket and yearning to be outside, soaring in the night sky. Xyline ran over to him and took off the lock. The owl nipped lovingly at her fingers and then flew to the glass double doors, only to be stopped when he saw that they were closed. He pecked annoyingly at those doors as well.
Yvonne and Jubilee opened those and the owl flew out, sure to return when the sun rises.
Xyline shook her head. “I suppose I should invest in a less complicated lock for Daryl,” she mused.
“You should come by the market tomorrow,” said Anastasia, who had wandered in last. “We probably have a few locks lying around.”
“No, she should have Father make her one,” Yvonne protested. “Why spend money on something when you can just make it yourself?”
“Well, somebody makes them,” Anastasia argued simply. “Consider it a gift for your coronation, Xyline.”
“Oh, that’s lovely,” Giovanna shot sarcastically at both of them. “Your eldest sister becomes a Goddess and the best present you can give her is a lock for her damn owl.”
“It’s better than giving her nothing at all!” the twins said together, their minds roughly in the same place.
“Enough,” Xyline said calmly. “If this is how you react to something as trivial as a cage lock, then I’ll just go without a new one. Daryl can live with that.”
“Be quiet, all of you,” Jubilee whispered. They all looked at her, but she was watching Cassandra.
The gothic daughter was standing in front of Daryl the Owl’s cage while flipping through the pages of a small black book. She put her finger on a page, seeming to find what she was looking for, and began reading silently, mouthing the words as she read. Jubilee leaned in to get a better look, but Cassandra, not taking her eyes from the stiff pages, held up her hand to stop her. Whatever she was reading, she didn’t want her little sister to know.
She extended her index finger, glancing from the lock back to the page a few times, then whispered something so low, none of them could hear. There was a creaking sound and they all watched the lock. It shifted and morphed till its shape was completely different. At first it had been a lever that hooked on the inside of a box-like panel on the cage. Now the panel was gone, replaced by a simple chain lock. All one would have to do is remove the stick from the chain and the cage would open. It would be easy for Daryl to take the tube out when he wanted to go outside.
Cassandra turned to her wide-eyed sisters. Her expression was relatively emotionless. “Now everybody’s happy,” she said simply. Her voice was as emotionless as her face. Normal for her, strange for others.
“That was…” Xyline began, but Cassandra cut her off.
“Don’t compliment me, sister. ‘Modesty is key, and cocky is dangerous. For those who are cocky put too much faith in their skills and not enough in the danger at hand.’”
“So, in the short version,” Anastasia summed, “we shouldn’t tell you that that was amazing because then you’ll get cocky and when you think you can handle something with magic, you’ll overestimate yourself and end up failing?”
“It’s a rough interpretation of the saying, but I do not doubt Garret and Monique.”
“You know, that doesn’t really rhyme?” Anastasia pointed out.
Cassandra sniffed, but then resumed her emotionless self. “Garret and Monique think that phrases that rhyme are terribly cliché. I don’t know if you know this, but they are great and wise sorcerers and I don’t want to disappoint their teachings.”
“Of course not,” Yvonne muttered under her breath. She sighed and then said, “So, tell us about all these tasks, Xyline. What was it like?”
Giovanna huffed. “She can’t possibly tell you more than she already has. And if you want to know details, then use your imagination.”
Yvonne gaped and Anastasia wrapped her arms around her shoulders.
“That was hardly necessary,” Cassandra said from behind Giovanna.
“Yvonne,” Jubilee said then. “I don’t think Xyline wants to talk about the events. She’s just been declared a Goddess and we brought her here to have our own celebration. We might as well enjoy it.” She looked from her earth sister to her fire sister.
Giovanna literally steamed, but then she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Very well,” she said. She went over to Xyline. “Forgive me, sister. It was not my intention to dampen the ambiance.” She drew her arm across her chest and put her fist over her heart and bowed her head.
“Thank you, Giovanna. But I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.”
Giovanna looked up sharply with hard mahogany brown eyes. Then she stood up and walked over to Yvonne.
“I apologize, Yvonne. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
“It’s fine.” Yvonne insisted, wiping away a few tears. “We are here to celebrate, not fight.”
It was clear that the words were just words, but no one broached the subject again that night. Mostly because they didn’t want to ruin the aura of celebration, but also because it did not do to dwell in the past.
Throughout the night, the sisters talked and laughed and shared memories with each other.
“What do you plan on doing with the rest of eternity?” Jubilee asked sometime in the early hours of the morning. She’d had a few mugs of ale and was just a bit dazed.
Xyline thought for a moment, and then she spoke. “Well, I’m gifted in the medical field, so I’ll probably work with medicine and help heal people. I’ve been working on my own recipe for quite some time, and I’m almost finished. I just need a few more supplements.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” Jubilee nodded absently. She yawned. “Well, I’m tired. I think I’ll return to my bedroom now.”
The sisters groaned in a way that was supposed to mean “All right,” or “Goodnight.”
Jubilee stumbled to the mirror and, after much effort, managed to turn the brass knob and walk through the hidden passageway.
Cassandra left soon after and the twins and Isha continued the exodus. Now it was just Xyline and Giovanna. Giovanna cleared her throat, uncomfortable in this silence.
“So, what happened in the cave…” she trailed off. Xyline was surprised that she even broached the subject at all.
“What about it?” she asked.
Giovanna’s cheeks suddenly flushed. “I’ve… I mean, you’ve…” she sighed and started over. “Why?”
Xyline’s eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “Why what?”
“Why did you choose… not to leave me? I don’t understand.”
“I thought I made myself clear in the cave,” said Xyline. When Giovanna didn’t say anything, she sighed. “Giovanna, in the past, you have mocked me, lied to me, stolen from me, sabotaged my days and nights in more ways than one, not to mention-“
“The point?” Giovanna cut her off.
“You’re my sister, Giovanna. We fight sometimes; I don’t think that will ever change. In fact I know it won’t. But when I was standing there on the platform, trying to make sense of it all, I wondered if I could live with myself for killing my own sister. I will have to make decisions in the future that will have me choose one life and leave another. But I couldn’t live with myself if I knew I was responsible for yours or Jubilee’s death. Which is why I chose neither. My reason was selfish. I didn’t want to live with the guilt; to know that my sister’s blood was on my hands is a terrible crime to burden for eternity.”
Giovanna leaned against the wall, seeming to need the support. She inhaled slowly and blew her breath out in a puff of steam.
Then without looking up at her, Giovanna said to Xyline, “You know, they wouldn’t have killed me. It was just a test. They wouldn’t have corrupted your mind so much that you’d feel guilty. If you felt you had a debt to pay, then it would conflict with your duties.” She ducked her head lower, as if ashamed to be telling these facts to her older sister.
“How do you know?” Xyline wondered, intrigued by the assurance in Giovanna’s voice.
“Because it’s what I would do.” They stood in heavy silence for a few minutes. Giovanna glanced out the window and straightened up. “I should go. Training in a few hours. Formations, that sort of thing.” She walked to the mirror, but before she stepped through she turned back and bowed her head. “Get some sleep, Xyline. You look tired.” She began closing the door, but poked her head back in. “And, Xyline? That conversation never happened.” Then she closed the door behind her.
The silence pressed down on Xyline’s ears and then started to ring. She walked around, dusting things that were clean, fiddling with her blonde hair. She went to the glass double doors and walked out to the balcony. She placed her hands on the stone railing and looked out over the kingdom.
What a day, she thought, followed by, what a night.
Xyline had not anticipated that conversation –the one that never happened- but she was proud that her sister, probably so sensitive about showing weakness, had said anything at all.
Aside from the sarcasm, pushiness, and scheming, she thought, Giovanna might actually make a decent Goddess.
She doubted her sister would show her more kindness, even if she was a Goddess, but at least they were capable of having a conversation without setting anything on fire.
She sighed. Xyline didn’t know what to feel at the moment. She was a Goddess, so should she feel proud or serious? Was she supposed to be so calm and serene or should she be taking action? What was she supposed to do? How was she supposed to act? Of course becoming a God or Goddess was nothing taken lightly, but, to be honest, she didn’t feel any difference. Xyline wondered if it was just post-coronation syndrome, if there even was such a thing. Maybe it just hadn’t sunk in yet.
She took a deep breath and stared out at the lightening sky.
All in due time, she thought to herself. She had eternity of practice ahead of her, and she would master her abilities before then.
But all in due time.