Above their heads autumn leaves rustled in the brisk winds. The trees grew as far as the eye could see, shielding them at every angle. As the trees cleared, they could see their kingdom, the one place they felt safe. The only place they could be themselves without worrying about prying eyes. One by one they ran into the clearing, the dried leaves crunching beneath their feet while giggles escaped their lips.
They set themselves up, the boys dressing up in armor, and the girls in their gowns. Maximus placed his crown on top of his brown spiky hair, pushing his bangs to the left, away from his eyes while Xander slung his sword over his shoulder. Iris hid her head under the hood of her long, dark cloak, revealing only her smirk, and Azuka placed her tiara on a nearby rock, preparing for her multiple roles. Her princess gown was hidden under her servant costume, making her normally small frame seem strangely larger and lopsided. Once they were in their positions, they were ready to start their adventure.
“Sire, the princess has just been kidnapped.” Prince Maximus’ servant, Azuka, announced before Maximus in his very large, elaborate throneroom.
“Send in Sir Xander, I need to speak to him at once.” his majesty ordered. Azuka bowed, mumbling the usual ‘right away your highness,’ and scurried off to get the bravest knight in all the land, and the only one who could save the princess. Xander bursts through the doors, his black hair disheveled, and kneels before the prince.
“My liege, I’ve just received the news,” he looks into the prince’s aqua eyes, worry clear in his expression, “what will you have me do?”
“I want you to go on quest to find her. I know of a medium who can help us locate her.”
A smile spread across the knight’s lips, “I see,” he stands, puffing out his chest, “fear not your highness, I, alone, will go and find this medium lady and rescue the fair princess.”
Just before he could turn and march out of the room, Maximus interrupted, “Not so fast Sir Knight, I am going with you.”
Xander gave the prince a quizzical look, “Um, your majesty- I don’t think that’s such a good idea...”
“And why not? I’m trained to fight with a sword too. And besides, I’m the only one who knows where this medium lives.”
“Even so, my liege, training is different than real fighting. You aren’t ready to fight, unlike me, who’s been fighting for many years and has won all of those battles. What makes you think you can possibly come with someone as qualified as me on a quest?”
Prince Maximus stood up straighter, his eyes narrowing. He clenched his jaw, attempting to control his anger. Usually Iris would have intervened and told Xander that knights never really talked to princes like that, unless they wanted to die, but she was too busy hiding Azuka somewhere in the clearing, “Allow me to rephrase my last statement, I am the only one who can get us into where she lives.” he lifted the pendant that hung around his neck up for the arrogant knight to see. The crystal reflected it’s crimson light in the sun, “With this,” he began, “I will enter the forcefield and find the cabin where she lives. After that is done you will help me fight off any trouble we get into. Those are the conditions for the quest and they are not going to be changed.”
Xander nodded, his grey eyes twinkling with excitement, which gave Maximus an uneasy feeling, “As you wish, your highness. We’ll leave whenever you are ready.”
They packed up their supplies and set on their way. For days they trecked through the forest, stopping only to sleep and fight monsters. As Maximus was getting tired of circling the clearing, he found the entrance to the medium’s cabin.
“Now Xander stay here while I go and talk to Medium Iris.”
Before Maximus could take a step through the forcefield, Xander spoke up, “How are you going to do that without this?” he asks holding up the pendant that was around Maximus’ neck not a moment ago
“How did you-?”
“This is for your own good your highness.” he said before he stepped through the forcefield and disappeared from sight, leaving the prince behind.
Once across the threshold, Xander saw a path in the trees leading to the cabin Maximus had described. He made his way along the stone path, up the wood steps, and placed his hand on the doorknob, about to open the door. However, once his hand touched the metal, he was already inside. The cabin was small, a single dark room with a fireplace and two chairs with a small table in between them. Xander took a deep breath and a single step forward, and at the same time, the fireplace lit up, and next to it stood a figure in a dark hood.
“Who dares enter my home?” the figure asked, her face still hidden, but Xander could tell the voice was a girl’s.
The hair on the back of the knight’s neck stood on end, “Uh, I do? I come in peace and I just wanted to ask you a ques-”
“What makes you think I’d help a trespasser like you?” the medium snapped, “You aren’t even of royal descent. How did you get past my defences?”
“W-with this,” he held up the prince’s pendant for the medium to see, “the prince’s necklace...”
The medium lifted her head, walked slowly towards the knight, the shadows blocking her face as she neared Xander and snatched the pendant out of his hand. They stood in silence as she inspected the necklace. The only sound that was heard was the wind outside and the fire crackling until finally the medium spoke, “So his majesty sent you didn’t he? Fine, I will help assist you in your quest to rescue the princess. What do you want to know?”
“Why my knight thought it was a good idea to take my pendant and run off without knowing what he was getting himself into trouble.” Prince Maximus said, standing in the doorway. Xander didn’t hear him come in. He could feel the heat rushing to his cheeks in both embarrassment and anger.
“How did you get past the force field? I took your necklace.” he asked, frustration faintly audible in his tone.
“I was able to get through because of I’m royalty. But now’s not the time for explanations, except for this one: Where is the princess?”
A smile spread across the medium’s lips, “Always a pleasure,” she bows her head, “your highness. To answer your question, I can show you the way, for no one man has ever tread on this land before. The journey is long and dangerous, not to mention you will probably die and not come out alive. Will you still go?”
“Yes.” Maximus and Xander said at the same time, giving each other venomous looks as they spoke.
The medium’s smile grew into a twisted grin, “Good, we’ll leave while the sun is still out. And in exchange for my guidance, I need you two to promise me protection from the evils we will face. Fair enough?”
“More than fair Miss Iris. Please, lead the way.” Maximus said.
They left the cabin, the fire magically put out with Iris’ exit, and they set out on their journey. First they were lead through open fields, where they were able to set up camp for the night, until the morning came and they walked through a dark forest, where the trees were so densely packed, the sun’s light couldn’t escape the treetops. Danger lurked around every corner of the forest. Maximus and Xander were almost constantly swinging their wooden swords and dodging mystical creatures. The danger continued until the trees opened up and they saw a tower nestled in the trees.
“That’s it isn’t it? That’s where Azuka is right?” Xander asked.
“Indeed yes it is,” Iris replied, “Now get me to the door and you shall have your princess.” They crept up to the entrance to the tower, without any trouble from monsters, and Iris held up her hand, mumbled something under her breath, and the door opened. The boys only had a moment to stand in awe before Iris hissed, “Quick, get inside.”
They followed her up the long, winding stairs climbing the slippery stone steps one by one. The only source of light was a flame coming from Iris’ palm, which made their shadows dance along the moist walls of the tower. Once they got to the top, Iris mumbled something under her breath once more, and the door opened.
“Wow, that was much easier than I thought it was going to be” Xander thought aloud.
“Too easy...” Maximus added. Iris’ storylines usually had more challenges along the way. The boys weren’t expecting an easy rescue. Azuka was in a cell in the back of the room which was lit with torches that lit up once the door was opened.
“Max, Xander! Look out, Iris is-!” Azuka cried, pointing at Iris before Iris stretched her hand out towards her, casting a spell to keep her from talking.
Maximus and Xander stared in horror, “What is the meaning of this?” Xander demanded.
“She’s a witch.” Maximus answered, “She captured Azuka and led us here to kill us, just before we could rescue her, the ultimate failure. Isn’t that right?”
Iris cackled, letting her hood down, revealing her emerald eyes and long blond hair, which was tied into a bun, letting the rest of her hair drop to her shoulders, “Excellent observation your majesty. To answer your question, yes, you’re are right. Now, perish and die so that I, Iris, can take your throne and rule the kingdom myself!”
“But I thought your powers were taken away,” Xander cut in, “Prince Maximus took them away, didn’t he?”
“I did,” Maximus said, “and I put them in the crystal that you stole. I was going to get her to guide us in exchange for her powers, then kill her once we got here.”
“Lucky for me though you decided to take matters into your own hands and give my powers back for free, thanks Xander!” Iris smiled evilly. Xander looked embarrassed, ashamed even, to have failed Azuka and to have his plan bested by someone like Maximus.
“Enough,” Maximus said, “let’s get this over with.”
“Ladies first.” Iris giggled wickedly as Maximus and Xander, now angry more than crestfallen, charged forward, swords pointed, towards the witch. Iris started shooting fireballs at them as they split up to fight either side of her. Maximus deflected her attacks with his enchanted sword, while Xander slashed at her where she was vulnerable. However, Iris did not seem fazed by their attacks. Her powers were simply too strong.
“We need that necklace back. It’s the only way we can win!” Maximus told Xander in between deflections.
Xander nodded, “Say no more my lord, I’m on it.” He ran around Iris, trying to get a good angle while dodging magic projectiles, and used his sword to cut the chain that held the crystal around Iris’ neck. The crystal clattered to the ground between the witch’s feet. She bent down to grab it, but Maximus was about to strike, leaving her only with the option to defend herself. Xander took this opportunity to snatch the crystal and throw it to Maximus.
Maximus pointed the crystal towards Iris, “Servant of evil I taketh thine powers away for the good of all the people in the kingdom so that you may not hurteth anyone else again so long as this jewel stays away from you, which will be forever.”
“Nooooooooooo!” Iris shrieked, her hands clinging to the sides of her head as she fell to her knees, suddenly feeling too weak to stand. “I... will not-... not forget this... Mark my words pri-... prince... mark my words...” and she fainted, then disappeared, leaving the keys behind. Maximus unlocked the cell, setting Azuka free, whom Xander had decided to piggy-back all the way back to the castle.
“Now Maximus has to marry Azuka,” Iris said, breaking character, “that’s what the law says.”
“What?!” Xander exclaimed, “But I’m the one who saved her! Maxi here didn’t do anything.”
Maximus’ face reddened, “Hey that’s not true! I locked away the witch’s powers! I freed Azuka! Besides, why would she marry you? You’re too stupid and ugly to marry, and you’re not royalty.”
“Um, guys it’s okay. I don’t have to marry anyone-...” Azuka tried to cut in.
Xander continued to argue, ignoring Azuka, “Why do you care? You’re her brother so if you really did marry her that’d be really gross. And so what if you did that stuff anyways? I was braver! And the princess always marries the brave one.”
“I don’t care if she marries me, I just don’t want her to marry you.” Maximus countered.
“Hey you know wh-?!”
“Enough!!!” Iris screamed, “No one marries Azuka! She can be an independent princess who takes the kingdom when she gets bigger okay? GEEZ!” she sighed in frustration.
“Hey guys,” Azuka chimed in, “do you wanna play hide-and-seek now? We haven’t played that one in a looong time.” she added while she spread her arms out wide to show them just how long it’s been.
Iris let out a giggle, “I don’t think we have time. Xander and I need to go back to the orphanage soon, before we’re get caught.”
“Aw, phooey.” Azuka lowered her head in disappointment, kicking at the ground, just before she perked up and told her friends, “But we haven’t had our snacks yet!” She took off her costume as fast as she could before sprinting out of the clearing calling, “Race you guys back Max’s and my house!” behind her.
“You’re on!” Xander answered, leaving his props behind him to chase the red-head.
Iris smiled and rolled her eyes, cleaning up the kids’ mess behind them with Maximus. Azuka ran full speed, the wind running through her chin-length hair, her bangs pushed to her right while Xander was gaining on her, a determined gleam in his grey eyes. Giggles escaped the girl’s lips as they cleared the woods and her house was in her line of sight. Just when she was about to win, Xander came up from behind her, and beat her to the front door laughing in triumph.
“No fair! You cheated!” Azuka accused.
“No I didn’t, I’m just better than you that’s all.” Xander countered, smirking.
Azuka giggled, “Better at cheating.”
“Hey!” Xander objected, gently shoving Azuka’s shoulder while she stuck out her tongue. “Well, I think we are a lot better than Iris and Maxi.” he threw his arms in the air, “Why are they so slow?”
Azuka shrugged, “I don’t know, maybe they started planning the next adventure?”
“Without us? That’s lame. Next time they letter let the knight get the reward. They have no idea what I brave warrior like me goes through to get that kind of glory.” he said, puffing out his chest.
“You still want a reward for rescuing me?” Azuka asked, curiosity clear in her tone as well as expression.
“You bet, I mean, what kind of knight goes on a quest without getting something in return? That’s like... going to the store and not getting food! It’s just stupid!” With that, Azuka leaned over and pecked Xander’s tanned cheek. She giggled at Xander’s startled expression, “What was that for?” he asked, rubbing his face.
“Your reward,” she answered, “you said the knight always gets to marry the princess right? And since Iris said you couldn’t because Max wanted to marry me too, giving a kiss for the reward looked like the most better option, don’t you think?”
Xander’s face turned red, trying not to smile too much, “Sure, I guess so.”
“Thanks you for leaving the clearing in a ginormous mess you two!” Iris called from several yards away, “Really like to clean up your messes, how’d you know?”
“Maybe ‘cause you’re so good at it Iris.” Xander commented.
Iris let her long blond hair out of her bun and fall to her waist, “Real funny Xander, I forgot how to laugh really hard so sorry for not giving you my all.”
“Anytime.” he said, winking.
“If you two are done flirting with each other I’d like to go inside and eat thanks.” Maximus said as he pushed through the group and opened the front door to the cottage. The smell of boiled vegetables and chicken, a rare smell for a cottage in Rudens, filled their nostrils as they stepped through the door and entered the living room. The kids figured the cart must’ve gotten a good deal at the trade center in the Chasms.
“Hey Mom we’re home!” Xander called through the house.
Azuka and Maximus’ mother laughed, “Welcome home Xander, you too Iris, kids. Your snack is almost done, I was just a little busy with dinner.”
“Is it meat and veggies today Mommy?” Azuka asked, excitement twinkling in her aqua eyes, same color as both Maximus and her mother.
“Yes Azuka, as a matter of fact it is. How’d you know?” their mother replied laughing lightly.
Maximus and Azuka both gasped and smiled in excitement, “Yes!” Azuka said as she sinks deeper into her chair.
A giggle escapes their mother, “I’ll go get your snacks now.”
Once she’s out of the room, Xander asks, “Were you guys planning our next adventure while you were gone? Or were you planning your getting married to each other?”
Maximus’ ears turned red as his eyes narrowed, meanwhile Iris just rolled her eyes, “I thought I told you, I was cleaning up your mess. You and Azuka leave a mess all the time so you can race home. How old are you, two?”
“Eight,” Xander corrected, “so therefore that means I do not have to clean up my messes. The cleaning ladies do that.”
“In the Gentry division maybe, but not here Xan. Here we do things by our own selves, you know that.” Iris scolded.
“He’s just too lazy to care for anyone but himself.” Maximus said, “That’s all”
“Why you-!” Xander started as Azuka grabbed his raised arm to hold him back. He huffed in frustration as their mother returned with their food.
“Here you go kids, one for my little prince Max, once for my princess Azuka, one for my little warrior Xander, and one for my other little princess Iris.” she set down the bowls and spoons on the table for them as Iris rolled her eyes in embarrassment, “Enjoy!” The kids dug into their porridge while she went back into the kitchen to check on dinner.
“Tho,” Xander began, face full of porridge, “whapth our nektht adventhure gonna be?” he swallowed, “Find buried treasure that saves the whole kingdom? Find an undersea kingdom ruled by a good-looking merman? Slay a dragon that turned out to be Maxi the whole time?”
“Don’t call me Maxi. You know I don’t like that name.” Maximus grumbled.
“Which is why I has to call you Maxi,” Xander returned, “to annoy you.” he grinned at Maximus’ pained expression as he continued to devour his food.
“Speaking of our next adventure, I’m thinking we should do something back in ancient times. Like when there were really tall, metal houses and private schools where everyone wore the same clothes.”
“Boooring,” Xander protested, “why would we do that? It’s pretty much just school but everyone’s wearing the same thing and knows less than we do.”
“But they had these communication thingies- what were they called- iFons? We could pretend we discovered them and wanted to study them for-”
“Why don’t we just go back in time?” Azuka asked, “We could pretend to fit in with other kids that live there. That way Xander gets his adventure and Iris gets her iFon, right?”
Iris smiled, “You know what, she’s right. I like that idea. All in favor of liking that game raise your hand.” Azuka rose her hand so high she had to stand on her tip-toes to get it any higher. Maximus rose his, his expression neutral.
Xander sighed, “Fine, but only because majority rules anyways. Also iFons sound pretty cool, but only that, nothing else. Also I get to be the hero that saves everybody okay? Called it.”
Iris giggled, “Okay Xander, you’re the hero.” she looked out the window, noting the sun’s position in the sky, “I’ll come up with something when we go to bed. We have to go back to the orphanage.” she pushed her bowl away and stood up, “Come on Xander.”
“Ugh, do we have to? I just got comfy.” Xander complained, his eyes droopy.
“Yes, now.” Iris pulled on his arm, forcing him to stand, “Let’s go.”
“We’ll walk you,” Maximus offered, “let’s go Azuka.” she nodded in agreement and followed her friends out the door back down the streets and towards the woods. Slowly but surely they walked toward the clearing, making their way down the path under the multi-colored trees. Azuka paused near a tree with a hole in it’s trunk. She peered into the hole, inspecting the interior. The hole had a level platform near the bottom, then a foot or so, it had a near-level ceiling.
“Azuka? Maximus called, walking back to where she was standing, “What are you doing? We need to make sure they get to the clearing without getting caught.”
She shrugged, “I dunno, the tree caught my attention.”
Maximus sighed, “I know saying good bye to them is hard for you, but we’ll see them tomorrow definitely. Now come on, let’s go.”
“It’s got a big hole in it.” Azuka pointed out, “Why is it there?”
Iris started laughing, when exactly she caught up with them was unknown, “A squirrel probably ate it or something.”
“Or a bear punched it,” Xander added, “it’s possible.”
Iris let out a short laugh, “Maybe so, but that reminds me, I needed a place to hide this.” she took out a shell from her pocket and held it up for them to see. “It’s what my parents left me when I was a baby. The people at the orphanage say that it’s so I know where I’m from and where my parents may be, wherever that is.” She placed it in the tree, and turned to Azuka, “Perfect place to keep it safe!”
“So let me get this straight,” Xander inquired, “a bear trying to do karate reminded you of your parents?”
“Yes,” Iris answered, trying to suppress a laugh, “yes it did.”
“You’ve got a really strange idea of what parents do to raise a kid Iris.” Xander commented, clearly weirded out by the mere thought of Iris being raised by bears.
Everyone shared a laugh until Iris paused and grinned, “Okay, I hid something, now someone else’s turn to put something in the tree.”
“Wait what?” Maximus asked, skeptical.
“You heard me,” Iris replied, “your turn scaredy-cat.”
Maximus sighed, and took one of the keys Azuka’s dad left lying around the house out of his pocket. “Here, a key, happy? It’s our dad’s and I don’t want the guards to take it away in case they find everything okay?” Their dad, like every other citizen in the Foundry division in Rudens, worked in one of the many factories in the precinct. He worked all day, no breaks, for months on end until he can finally come home for the holiday, the Potentate’s birthday. Everytime he would come home, he’d bring machine parts from the assembly lines home for an invention he’s wanted to work on since he and his wife had Maximus. He wanted to make a flying machine so they could fly out of the precinct, and escape the Potentate’s clutches.
Maximus placed the key for the machine’s ignition in the tree, “So who’s next?” Xander stepped back, leaving Azuka on the spot.
“Um... okay, here I go then.” she reached into her skirt pocket and pulled out a stone the size of her palm, “It’s a memory stone. They say if you ever forget things, you just hold the stone and all your memories come back to you.” She placed the pearly, lop-sided stone in the tree and stepped back, “Okay Xander, your turn now!” Xander shifted his weight back and forth on his feet uncomfortably. Biting his lip, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a flattened round object connected to a chain.
“What’s that?” Azuka asked, leaning over his shoulder to get a better look at it.
“It’s a pocket clock-thing. You press the button on the top of it and it shows you the time.” He moved his finger to press the button, hesitating for a moment before getting the courage to push the top. Once it opened they saw, like he had said, a miniature clock, ticking away. However on the lid, there was a picture, torn at the bottom, of a man who looked familiar.
“Who’s that?” Azuka asked, leaning closer.
“His dad,” Iris said almost automatically, “isn’t it? Your father?”
Xander nodded, “Yeah, that’s him.” his voice cracked slightly, almost unnoticeable, “So yeah this is a very important family thing that I wanna keep safely so I’ll just put this in the tree and shut up before I say something I don’t wanna say by accident.” and finished off with closing the watch and placing it with the other trinkets.
Iris sighed and broke the silence, “Well, I think that’s it for today. We should hurry quickly before we get in trouble.” she hugged Maximus and Azuka, “Good bye guys. See you tomorrow!” She smiled and took Xander by the wrist and dragged him off. The siblings waved back, smiling as they walked away.
Maximus caught Azuka sniffling and stole a quick glance at her face. Her cheeks and nose were rosy, and if it weren’t for the tears running down Azuka’s face, he might’ve thought it was from the cold. “You okay?” he asked.
“Why can’t they stay Max?” she asked, her voice uneven, “why can’t we adopt them and keep them all the time?”
Maximus smiled a little, putting his arm around her, “You know why we can’t, the Gentry division doesn't like the Foundry division. And besides,” he started turning her around, “we’ll see them tomorrow. Let’s just go home, I heard dinner’s going to be very good and tasty tonight.” Azuka giggled and agreed to go with him. They didn’t realize just how wrong Maximus was about their return.