Matteo sat on the throne, amused.
In his hand, he drummed his fingers on his armrest. He wasn’t the type to be easily amused as he relaxed on the throne with his legs resting on the golden armrests. He looked up at the purple banners that had the national animal of Sofiene emblazoned on it. He snorted in annoyance. He really didn’t like owls. He was hoping for something a little more majestic.
“A dragon would have been nice,” Matteo shrugged. “Or an eagle, or a stallion – hmmm, not sure.”
He pondered for a moment. While the owl did have some form of majesty to it, he expected something a little bigger and a little more fearsome. A sigh escaped from his lips as he swung his legs over the armrest and stood up to stretch his legs to walk around.
His footsteps echoed through the hollow throne room as he looked at the bright sunny day outside. Matteo mused and twirled his black locks in his fingers. Sofiene seemed to have progressed well despite the civil war. He had not heard any complaints as of late. All he heard for the day was how the city seemed to have repaired itself despite the anarchy. He scoffed at the thought; not all wars had to end bloody. Despite the factions being divided, he just had to know how to play the game.
“In the game of thrones,” he chuckled and shook his head. “You either win or you die.”
Suddenly, the door slammed open when a soldier strode forward with a man in tow. Matteo watched in amusement as the old man resisted and struggled as the other soldiers dragged him along. A small smirk curved up his lips as one of the soldiers punched the man straight into the stomach, causing the old man to gasp and hack. The soldiers, seemingly satisfied, dragged the man across the marble floors before flinging the man to his feet.
“Sir,” the soldier saluted. “You were looking for someone who might know where the princess is going?”
Matteo nodded. “Yes?” He then turned to the man lying on the ground. “Ah, Grand Maester Kazfiel! What a pleasant surprise!”
Grand Maester Kazfiel was one of the councilmen during his father’s time. He had clear memories of the man being a kind spirit. Never the type to lose his composure, the man had always made sure that they learned their lessons well and thoroughly. But it was clear that the death of his father and the stress had taken a toll on him. His once strong stature now was that of a shriveled old man hobbling along his crutches.
“Forgive the rough treatment of my guards,” Matteo sadly smiled before throwing a withering glare at the soldiers. “They’re just very passionate about being my guards.”
He snapped his fingers and the guards stepped back. Matteo shook his head and helped the old man up. He had known Grand Maester Kazfiel ever since he was a child. The man taught him how to read three different languages and learn the cultures of many countries. A small nostalgic smile curved up his face as he remembered the days that the Grand Maester would sneak him through his robes and have him listen in courtly politics.
“Would you like a drink? I’m afraid I do not have wine on me.” He shook his head. “It’s a little too early for us to drink.”
Kazfiel coughed as Matteo helped him onto the chair. “No wine. Water perhaps.”
“Very well,” Matteo smiled. He then nodded to his servants. “A pitcher if you will and two glasses.”
Kazfiel exhaled sharply as he shifted uneasily in the seat. “Prince Matteo, Your Highness, you seem to be faring well.”
“And you... haven’t?”
“The soldiers were a clear sign of that.”
Matteo sighed deeply. Is that why he had such a hard time in gettting information? He wrung his fingers together as the servants brought in a pitcher of water and placed it on the table. He pursed his lips and watched Kazfiel stare at the water placed in front of him.
“Please, drink.” Matteo offered. “It is quite a hot day.”
Kazfiel didn’t move but continued to beadily stare at the water.
The prince chuckled, seeing the insecurity flicker in the old man’s eyes. “There’s no need for you to be uneasy.” He took a drink himself from his glass. “What do I have to gain by poisoning you?”
“Consolidation of power?”
“That would require the murder of Santino but I’d rather not. Violence is never the answer to anything.”
Kazfiel’s eyes flashed. “Your support for your brother’s waging of war against the king speaks highly of your unwillingness to fight and cause violence.”
“I was not on the battlefield. I am a little smaller than Santino after all.” He chuckled and continued drinking some water. “While he was a master of the sword and maybe a mallet, my mind is my sword. That is why I frequently read.” He plucked out a book from his stack of books sitting next to the throne. “Do you remember this book?”
Kazfiel nodded. “I constantly read that to you.”
“Yes. Do you know why I loved that book?”
“No, do explain.”
“It was a story of a dwarf who was treated like a bastard. But because of his mind and that he learned the ways of political intrigue and how to deal with courtly issues, he rose to become a conqueror’s most esteemed advisor.”
Kazfiel remained silent.
“It was he who inspired me to learn the ways on how to attain things without war.” Matteo chuckled and leaned against his throne. “At the end of the day, it is the one who knows how to play smart that wins and stays on the throne.”
Kazfiel shook his head. “Matteo, Your Highness, do you not see what the grounds of Sofiene look like?”
Matteo shrugged. “Sofiene looks glamorous as always. The sun is shining; the people are bustling around and attending to their business. Unless,” the prince’s eyes flashed with annoyance. “Santino did something stupid, again.”
“That is nothing but a facade. But when you look into their eyes, it’s fear they feel. They desire the return of the princess.”
“And if my sister returns, she will be put on trial for treason and be made to walk,” Matteo simply said. He strode back to his throne and folded his legs. “Now my guards said you know where the princess is. Kindly do tell me.”
Kazfiel shook his head. “I have nothing to tell you.”
Matteo frowned. “Is that so?”
Kazfiel remained silent.
The prince frowned. He never did like forcing people to open up and talk. It wasn’t his style to have someone physically rough the man up just because he needed some answers. But as long as Samantha was out there, she was a threat. A threat to his claim on Sofiene’s throne. But he couldn’t just kill her, no. It would jeopardize his legitimacy on the throne and also the people’s trust in him. He had to play this game wisely if he wanted to keep his throne.
Samantha swallowed nervously and clung to Brandon’s arm as they made their way down the cavern. She shivered slightly at the dark walls that slowly closed themselves on her. Her ears twitched at every sound of water dripping from the crevices of the cavern. Her footsteps echoed loudly throughout the hollow pathway. She could feel all her blood rushing into her skull as she crept through the caves.
“Will you relax?” Brandon groaned in annoyance. “I can feel your damn nails cutting into my skin!”
“It’s not my fault! You’re the one who suggested we go through this cave!” Samantha wailed. “I didn’t even want to go inside!”
“So you’d rather leave Bea in here?”
“No! Of course not! There’s got to be another way to save Bea!”
“Either way, we’ll have to go through the damn cave.”
Suddenly, sludge dripped down right in front of him. Samantha felt Brandon shudder as a chill seemed to tremble through his coat. She then couldn’t help but snicker when she remembered him wailing for Luke in the arena when the kraken started hurling ink blobs into his face.
“Still want to go through it?” Samantha raised an eyebrow, amused.
“Tch, it’s just a single puddle of ooze.” Brandon scoffed and stepped over it. He then continued walking on. “As for Bea, I’m here because I’m helping you save her ass. Secondly, she’s technically our only powerhouse in the team.”
“The one who’s got the most power to swing and have the most gall to jump into a fray and smash things to pieces.”
Samantha nodded, understanding. “So what does that make you and Luke?”
“Luke’s more the brains of the operations. I’m the sweeper kind.”
“Cleans up the mess.”
“So what does that make me?”
Brandon shrugged. “I don’t know. Haven’t fought alongside you long enough to know.”
Samantha nodded as they continued deeper into the cavern. She shivered as the lights from the surface slowly began to dim and fade. She forced down a large lump in her throat at the sight of the lights slowly dimming around her. All her hairs stood on ends. Fear filled her as she heard nothing but water dripping from the crevices of the caverns. She kept her hand latched to Brandon’s arm until she saw nothing but darkness.
“Wah! Brandon, where are you?!” Samantha wailed.
“I’m right here, lass! And quit squeezing my arm so hard! You’re going to claw into my skin!”
“But what if a spider comes out?!”
“How the hell are we going to know if it’s a spider if we can’t see?!”
“I don’t know! Don’t you have a light?!”
“Don’t you have magic to make a pilot light?!”
Samantha gawked before laughing at herself. “Oh yeah!”
Brandon groaned as Samantha closed her eyes. She exhaled sharply and focused all her mana into her fingertip. She could feel her mana running through her fibres. Soon, she saw the mana swirling around her fingertip before a small fire formed at her fingertip. The fire lit up the whole cave with a purple glow as Brandon frowned.
“What? I like purple.”
“You could have made a white light.”
Samantha pouted. “Well, quit whining. We have light.”
Brandon, sighing, shook his head and let out an annoyed snort. “Yeah, yeah – let’s keep it that way.”
Samantha nodded and followed after Brandon. She hesitantly looked around to see if there were spiders crawling around. Her body shivered as the cold winds brushed against her cheeks. Her mana suddenly began to roil inside; a strange wave of mana suddenly hit her. She stopped dead in her tracks as all the mana began to spark inside her. Her head snapped and looked around frantically. The mana around her began to swirl and rush all around her as it chilled her to the bone.
“Brandon, d-did you f-f-feel that?” Samantha stammered.
The pirate shook his head. “What are you talking about?”
Suddenly, a cold wind brushed past them. Brandon staggered back as the breeze nearly knocked them back. Samantha yelped as she clung onto the pirate.
“Okay, now I felt it,” Brandon nodded. He rolled his lavender eyes left and right. “Feeling anything, princess?”
Samantha, trembling, nodded as she heard something clattering. “Um, wh-what’s that?”
They both heard clattering on the ground, something similar to the walking of insect legs. Brandon slowly brought his hands to his gunblades as the clattering grew louder. Samantha swallowed nervously as she kept the light on while trying to get a good look at what was charging towards them. It was only then that both Samantha and Brandon realized that the clattering wasn’t going to meet them head on but was pursuing them from behind!
“Shit, run!” Brandon roared.
Samantha wailed as the pirate dragged her along. Adrenaline rushed all the way into her legs as her mind said only one thing: run. She gasped and panted as her footsteps pounded through the rocks and pebbles while kicking away the small debris. She then looked behind to point the purple light at the darkness behind her only to have her blood freeze in terror. Right behind them, she saw a horde of spiders with their bloodstained fangs running towards them. And the purple light from her fingertip seemed to illuminate even the old bloodstains, making them glow in the dark with ominous foreboding.
“S-S-S-Spider!” She screamed. "SPIDER!"
The horde returned her screams with a bloodthirsty battle-cry as they came upon them faster. Samantha wailed and in a desperate attempt, threw the purple flame at them. The flame exploded, killing the only source of light they had.
“Shit! Sam, light another one!” Brandon hollered through the darkness.
Samantha closed her eyes trying to create the flames properly only for it to fizzle out and die. She yelped and desperately tried focusing on the image of the flame again. The mana roiled inside her but the moment it got onto her fingertip, it sparkled and then fizzled out into nothing but a puff of smoke. Fear wrung her stomach in knots; her magic wasn’t working!
“I-I-I can’t!” Samantha wailed. “Slow down!”
Brandon snapped. “We can’t slow down otherwise, we die!”
“So we’re going to run blind?!”
“No, no, we’re gonna become owls and run through the dark!”
“Of course, we’re gonna run blindly through the dark without a light! So give us some light!”
Samantha panicked. They couldn’t keep running in the dark! As is, she wasn’t even sure if they were still in the tunnel. All she could feel was Brandon dragging her along through all sorts of twists and turns. She closed her eyes to try and create a small light again only for her mana to fizzle out. She panicked and tried again and again, to no avail.
“Lass, the light!” Brandon hollered. “Any time now!”
“I’m trying!” Samantha wailed. However, the princess soon spotted a glowing circle in front of them. “Wait, there’s an opening over there!”
Brandon glanced up and bolted for it. “We better keep running then!”
As the light drew closer, Samantha shivered as the sound of the spiders’ legs pattering against the stone floors. She could feel the debris shiver above her from their footsteps.Terror flooded through her and summoned all the adrenline into her legs. Samantha bolted as fast as her legs could take her until they finally got out of the dark tunnel. The princess and the pirate found themselves at the end of the tunnel with the spiders still shrieking at them.
“Tch,” Brandon quickly pointed his gunblade towards the tunnel’s exit before firing a shot. The cavern wall exploded and sent the whole tunnel exit crashing.
The spiders shrieked as the caverns crashed. Samantha gasped she clung onto Brandon with the rocks crashing down echoing throughout the cavern. The princess shuddered as her nails dug into Brandon’s arm. Where did all the spiders come from? Her blood froze. Was Luke okay? The spiders appeared to have come from the surface!
“D-do you think Luke is okay?” Samantha shivered. She swallowed nervously. “Where did those spiders come from?”
Brandon shook his head. “I have no idea. But hopefully not from the surface because we are definitely gonna be screwed if it is.”
Ariadne watched in amusement as Beatriz remained suspended in the sac of fluid. She saw the tentacles constricting around the girl’s arms. Her red lips curved up into sultry smile. She had never seen someone so compatible with Doom Mana! She remembered many years ago when dark mana was so abundant that it was literally spilling out of the forests. A chuckle bubble from her throat when she saw Beatriz just quietly hanging from the tentacles, no longer squirming and writhing.
“Now if only my sister were as accepting as you were,” Ariadne sighed. She made her way to her cushions on the ground. “Her disease would have been gone long time ago.”
She folded her arms, smirking. Arkamedon had a point; Sandor couldn’t have evolved that far. She could feel her brother’s anger. It trembled beneath her and even his mana swirled around beneath her. It was one of the few times that she appreciated being an anthropomorphic creature. Being partially a spider allowed her to feel even the slightest surge in mana.
“Well if Sandor fails,” she glanced up at Beatriz. She sneered at the dark blonde girl. “You’ll have to be the new champion. You’re my champion now.”
The moment she said that the dark blonde girl was going to be her champion, the sac suddenly began to violently tremble. Ariadne gasped as the tentacles began to struggle and tighten only to be ripped off. The sac blistered and began to swell as all the liquid began to push against the walls of the sac. Soon, the sac exploded open with all its contents splattering on the floor. Ariadne gasped as Beatriz stepped out with her tentacles dangling limply before falling onto the floor. Her eyes widened as the naked dark knight slowly made her way towards her even with her hair soaked and her pale skin drenched.
“Y-you! But how!” Ariadne gasped. She stared, admonished. “That was a heavy concentration of Doom Mana!”
Beatriz scoffed at her. “Don’t you know who I am?”
Ariadne could do nothing save shake her head in terror, trembling.
“Well, you damn should. I am Beatriz Odissea! I am the Dark Knight of the Odissea Kingdom! Daughter to the Mad Queen Julia Odissea!”
Ariadne trembled in terror. She was a Dark Knight?! And not just any Dark Knight but, a direct descendant of Julia Odissea! It was then she remembered the fires that had consumed the once consumed the great empire that was of Azaleth. The fires and the screams – it rang loud in her ears as she remembered the dark green fires that burned and petrified the city before being consumed in a bright light. It was only then she had realized that she had awakened a creature far more terrifying than herself.
“And I am nobody’s champion! I am the arrogant, bloodthirsty, obnoxious Dark Knight and champion to only one princess – Samantha da Sofiene!”
Ariadne backed up but soon regained her bearing. Although her heart trembled and pounded harder the moment the little girl had summoned her scythe, she narrowed her eyes. She was no small fry either! She was the daughter of the Witch of Azaleth! And nobody shoved her around!
“Looks like you need to be taught some manners!” Ariadne glared. She stood proudly in front of Beatriz, trying her best to disguise her trembling. “I am Lady Ariadne of Azaleth, daughter to the Witch Queen of Azaleth! I will not let some second-rate tramp scare me!”
Beatriz, whirling her scythe, brandished her scythe in front of Ariadne with an evil sneer. “Me? A second-rate tramp? Please, I’ll show you who the second-rate tramp really is!”