Book One: Knights' Festival

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Freedom

Beatriz shuddered. “Ugh, well, he didn’t age well.”

Luke shrugged. “Yeah, and they say most men age well like fine wine.”

“And who the hell said that?”

“I dunno, I just heard it somewhere.”

Samantha stood silently in front of the shattered bone shards and dust that once formed Arkamedon’s body. She remembered meeting him in the tribal festival and he welcomed them with open arms. He even gave her a nice place to stay and a place that was not completely inhabited by spiders. How could he have been that horrible? It made no sense to her!

“I… I don’t understand. He was so warm and kind,” Samantha stammered and shook her head. “How… how could he be like this?”

Azaleth shook her head. “Ambitions can change people. You of all people know that.”

Samantha opened her mouth to retort until she realized that the ethereal woman was right. Her brothers did change. They avoided her, teased her, slammed the door in her face – it was like they had gone away. She remembered asking them if they wanted to play only for them to shout in her face. A guilty feeling wrenched her heart. When did they become that way?

“We were on such good terms before,” Samantha murmured and shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense…”

Before she could get an answer, the caverns suddenly shook and trembled. The princess yelped and staggered back as debris nearly crushed her. Her eyes widened as the tremours grew more powerful the longer she stayed in the cavern. Azaleth searched around and quickly pulled Samantha up onto her feet.

“Quickly, get up on your feet!” Azaleth commanded. She glanced around as more debris shattered on the ground. “We don’t have very long until the cave crashes on us!”

Samantha nodded and turned to Brandon. “You know the way out?”

Brandon shook his head. “Nope,” he turned to Luke. “Do you?”

Luke shrugged. “Would you like the shortcut or the long way out?”

“The shortcut would be preferred.”

Luke smirked and dangled a dark blue pouch in front of them. “Well, I do hope you’re not afraid of heights and mushrooms.”

Samantha gasped and shuddered. “Do I even know what we’re going to do?”

“It’s a little something I discovered a few moments ago.”

“Is it even safe?”

“... Maybe.”

“Maybe!? Luke, I don’t think I want to do the maybe route!”

Suddenly, more debris crashed around them as the cavern began falling down. Samantha yelped as she jumped out of the way while Beatriz cleaved a rock in two with her scythe. Brandon blasted a rock away from his face while Luke hugged his body together and slipped between two boulders. The princess shuddered and looked around. Wasn’t there any way else to get out of the cavern? All the exits and entrances were blocked. Her stomach churned at the thought of not knowing Luke’s plan. What could his plan possibly be? She shuddered before letting out a defeated sigh. There was no other choice.

“Alright,” she then turned to Luke with a sigh. “What’s the plan?”

Luke grinned. “Trust me, you’re gonna enjoy this plan! Follow me!”

The princess nodded as the dryad bolted towards another exit. Samantha eyed him with jealousy as he slipped through the tiny crevices with very little difficulty. As she made her way towards the tiny crevice, Brandon leapt ahead of her and cleaved through the rocks.

“Go, go, go!” Brandon hollered.

Samantha gasped for air and bolted as fast as she could. She ignored the dirt and pebbles that fell into her flats, wincing as some of them cut through the sole of her foot. Her lungs constricted as her throat ran dry. Her knees threatened to buckle beneath her as the adrenaline began to wear off. She shook her head. She had to keep running.

Samantha and her knights bolted out of the citadel as it came crashing down. The princess looked back as the only proof that Azaleth ever existed crumbled under the weight of time. Dust and dirt flew all over the cavern as the ground beneath them began to sink. She yelped as every step she took, she could feel the ground behind her sink. Suddenly, a crack appeared on the ground before splitting into a large rift. Her eyes widened as she yelped, managing to stop herself on time. The ground had split into a large ravine, separating her from Beatriz, Luke, and Brandon.

“HELP!” She wailed. She shuddered as the dark abyss stared at her.

Beatriz hollered. “For fuck’s sake, jump!”

“I-I-I can’t!”

“Yes you can!”

“No! You won’t catch me!”

Brandon stepped forward with his arms extended. “Sam, jump!”

“Are you crazy!? I won’t make it!” Samantha wailed. More of the buildings' debris crashed behind her, causing her to scream. “Wah!”

Brandon shook his head. “You have to do it! You can do it!”

“What if I fall?!”

“You won’t!”

“What makes you say that!?”

Brandon stared her down with his lavender orbs. “I’ll catch you. Trust me.”

Samantha swallowed hard as she stared at the abyss. The abyss seemed to stare back at her with an angry gaze. The ground continued to tremble, nearly throwing her off. She swallowed hard and looked at Brandon fearfully. The princess whimpered as her heart nearly stopped. She shook her head vehemently once more until another boulder exploded behind her.

“Aah!” Samantha screamed. She trembled and snapped her head towards Brandon. “Brandon, do something!”

“I can’t as long as you’re on that ledge! You have to jump,” Brandon hollered. He then sheathed his swords and reassured her. “I’ll catch you, Sam. I won’t let you fall.”

Samantha looked up one more time into the eyes of the pirate. Her heart seemingly settled as she locked in on his lavender orbs. She could feel her heart calming down and her legs slowly stepping back. She watched Brandon’s visage slowly get farther as she stepped all the way back to the boulder that had shattered behind her. The princess forced down a large lump forming in her throat. With one look at Brandon, she knew she had to trust him. It was now or never.

“Here I go!”

She wailed to the top of her voice and charged towards the edge of the cliff. She ignored her flats being torn apart by the breaking ground and the pebbles that cut into the soles of her feet. She winced as the sharp edges of the stones cut through her flesh as the blood trickled down her feet. Her breathing quickened and her face paled. She could feel all the blood and mana rush into her legs before she finally made her way to the ledge. The moment she saw the ledge, she shut her eyes, buckled her knees, and leapt over the ravine. The wind ripped through her clothes until she felt herself falling.

“Noooooo!” She screamed, unable to look down.

Suddenly, she stopped in mid air when she felt something strong and warm wrap around her body. She kept her eyes shut, fearful at the thought of what grabbed her. Her breathing quickened and she slowly opened her eyes only to see Brandon smirking at her. Much to her amazement, Brandon was also dangling but a vine was wrapped around his waist to prevent him from falling.

“Told ya I would catch you,” Brandon smirked devilishly.

Samantha sighed in relief the moment she felt herself being hauled up. In annoyance however, she punched his arm. “You were reckless!”

“Had to take the risk, lass. Everything in life has a risk.”

“You could have died!”

“No, I wouldn’t have. Do you really think I’d jump in without a plan?”

“Isn’t that what you did!?”

“As the old adage goes, 'look before you leap.' Of course I looked before I leapt!”

The princess sighed and shook her head, letting a small giggle bubble from her throat. She looked up to see the large Sequioa tree's roots. The roots had shot down to wrap themselves around Brandon's waist before hoisting them up. Samantha sighed in relief and sank into Brandon’s arms, nestling herself. A warmth spread through her body and relief washed over her. Over the time she had spent with the pirate, she found him extremely different from most pirates. From what she knew, pirates would have just ditched her.

But the obvious difference was: he asked her to trust him.

Trust was a word that she was familiar to. But she also knew how hard it was to find genuine trust nowadays. Knights, higher officials, and many others have betrayed her trust. Small crystals began to form in her eyes when the image of her brothers flashed into her mind. She remembered Matteo's cold, calculating, and mocking stare and Santino's more aggressive attack on the citadel. She trembled at the thought of them. Her faith, ever since then, had been shaken.

But my knights are different, Samantha argued with herself. Even if Brandon just wanted The War Hammer, it was still something for him to step out of his way and save her life. She sighed and snuggled against him before taking a look at his calm expression. Although he was more focused on being hauled upward, she swooned at the sight of the serious gaze in his lavender eyes.

“Well, someone’s getting comfortable,” Brandon smirked.

Realizing she had been caught, Samantha shook her head. “What? No! I’m just trying not to fall!”

“Uh huh… sure, lass.”

“It’s not my fault you have such wonderful lavender eyes!”

“Lass, you’re just contradicting yourself.”

“Am not! It’s your fault for having such sweet, wonderful, majestic, magnificent, beautiful lavender eyes.”

Brandon sighed and shook his head. “Sure…”

Samantha sighed before sneaking one last peek at Brandon’s lavender eyes that peeked out from beneath his lashes. A giddy smile curved up her lips as she nearly swooned over. She gasped when she nearly fell over, clinging onto Brandon’s arm until she found herself right on top of the ground. She beamed as Brandon let go of her and dropped on the ground. She turned back to see Brandon slowly dropped down as well before the root unraveled itself around his waist.

“Wow,” Samantha beamed. “That was amazing!”

Brandon chuckled. “Told ya you weren’t gonna die.”

Before they could celebrate, the ground and the cavern began to tremble again. Boulders, pebbles, and all sorts of debris began to crash down on them. Samantha yelped and clung onto Brandon as Beatriz staggered back from another boulder that nearly crushed her.

“Luke, if you got a magical plan!” Beatriz punched a debris away. “Now would be a good time to do it!”

Luke nodded and pulled out a small pouch only to reveal a fistful of mushrooms.

“Wait,” Samantha shook her head. “Are you saying we’re betting our lives on mushrooms!?”

Brandon shook his head. “Mate, your plan better be good. Getting high will not get us up there.”

Luke nodded. “I know it won’t.”

“Then what the hell are the mushrooms for?!”

“You just gotta trust me. Have I ever messed up before?”

“Luke, I can make a list and you know that!”

Beatriz shook her head. “Are you gonna make us eat that so we turn into giants? It doesn’t say eat me on that thing!”

The dryad shook his head and plucked one mushroom from his hand, crushing it before dropping it on the floor. “You just have to trust me.”

Samantha jumped up and down as anxiety filled her. She yelped as more debris fell from above. Suddenly, she heard a soft humming. The princess snapped her head towards Luke, whose singing slowly became louder. Despite the crashing boulders and debris, she could still hear the singing. Her heart settled down and her mana calmed down. Soon, she saw golden rain drizzling down on the mushrooms. Suddenly, the mushroom burrowed itself underground. Her eyes widened when a large mushroom suddenly shot out.

“Jump on!” Luke hollered. He ran and jumped on it.

Samantha’s eyes widened as she watched the mushroom launch Luke into the air. Suddenly, he threw another mushroom to where he stepped. The other mushroom bounced him up again as he got launched straight into the hole above him. Samantha exchanged glances with Brandon and Beatriz before staring at the mushroom.

“Since when were mushrooms… trampolines?” Samantha blinked in surprise.

Brandon saw the cavern collapsing with a boulder shattering the bridge. “No time to ask!” He grabbed Samantha’s wrist. “Time to start jumping!”

Beatriz leapt after Brandon as Samantha yelped. The mushrooms launched them into the air as they jumped to and fro. The princess screamed and shielded her head with her delicate hands. She jumped on several mushrooms before finally being catapulted straight into the air. Her eyes widened and her throat tightened as she screamed on her way down. Nobody told her that mushrooms could propel people into the air!

“Waaaaah!” Samantha wailed before crashing on the ground with a loud thump. She gasped and opened her eyes, realizing that she landed far from the hole where the cavern was. “I’m alive? I’M ALIVE!”

Luke chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Of course you are. Would I ever given you a plan where you would die?”

“At that point, it seemed you were pretty okay with it!”

“It’s because I was confident that the mushrooms would grow into trampoline mushrooms.”

“You should have just said so!”

Luke sighed and scratched the back of his head. “Well, you wouldn’t have believed me even if I told you.”

Samantha sighed and watched the cavern collapse and crumble beneath them. The whole city of Azaleth and its last remaining true inhabitants died along with its history. She shook her head. The city only lay in ruins because of a good intention that was severely misplaced. The princess then glanced at the ring that she wore on her finger. It was the royal jewel of Azaleth – the Rose Quartz held in a golden lock symbolizing a spider. As much as she didn’t like spiders, it would have been rude of her to throw a piece of history down a hole just because it looked like a spider.

“You did well back there,” Beatriz suddenly said.

Samantha whipped around and saw Beatriz smirking at her while fixing her own wounds. “Huh?”

“Most of the time, you just rely on buffing. This time, you actually got on the offensive.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, it was the first time for me to see you get that combat hungry too.”

Samantha smiled with a sheepish laughter. “I… I don’t want to keep doing that though.”

“Yeah which reminds me,” Beatriz raised an eyebrow. “Last time I checked, you couldn’t even summon. Where did Azaleth come from?”

Samantha shrugged. “I got it from The Lady of Azaleth.”

“Damn, she gave you go-go juice?”

“No! She just transferred some of her power to me.”

Brandon nodded. “It seems like it. But still, from what I know, Summoning is an ancient kind of magic. Wouldn’t that taken you years to learn it?”

“Well, yes,” Samantha began.

“But you just did it on the spot. Mind telling us how?”

“I… I honestly don’t know.”

“How could you not know? You were the one who summoned whatever or whoever that thing was!”

Samantha fell silent. She then glanced at her hands and then at the ring on her finger. Was it the ring that helped her? The memory of warmth against her bosom flashed into her mind when she remembered her pendant shining. Her eyes went towards Sofiene’s royal crest that dangled on her neck, noticing now a large ember dancing inside the crystal.

“Wait, this whole time – you’ve been wearing the legitimate thing!?” Beatriz gawked at her. “That’s going to get you shot!”

Samantha shook her head. “It’s the only thing that can channel my magic properly! Everything else breaks!”

“You used a ring to channel magic!”

“I used Azalethian magic! If I don’t use the right magic, my medium would explode!”

“Um, Sam?” she heard Luke ask her.

“What?” Samantha snapped moodily as she glared at him, noticing that he was pointing to something in front of them. “Oh…”

In front of them, the whole Arachnos tribe stood. Their eyes were seemingly filled with mirth as white lights began to dance around them from the forest. The winds no longer bore a foul stench of dark magic but instead had a sweet, cooling smell that soothed them. One of the members of the Arachnos tribe stepped forward with a solemn smile.

“Our curse has been lifted. We may now join our other brothers and sisters,” he whispered.

Samantha blinked. “Wait, what curse?”

“The curse of Arachnos has been lifted.”

“There was a curse?”

Beatriz nodded. “Seems like it. The air smells sweet again.” She shook her head. “Plus, I don’t feel any dark magic around here anymore.”

Brandon raised an eyebrow. “Wait, what was the curse?”

“We were condemned to walk forever on this earth as half-human and half-spider,” the tribesman continued. “We sacrificed our humanity to protect the legacy of Azaleth. Our beloved Lady has now passed it to you.”

Samantha froze. “You mean, the princess?”

“Aye, for the princess has chosen you to carry our history in her stead. We are truly indebted to you.”

“N-no, it’s okay. I-I’m just as surprised as you are.”

The tribesman nodded and gave her a distant smile. “Many of life’s events leave nothing but more questions. It’s up to us however to find the answers. Answers that can only be found as you go through the journey we call Life.”

Samantha gasped as their bodies slowly became transparent. Little white wisps swirled in the air and bobbed as the people slowly began to vanish. Their bodies slowly transformed into spiritual wisps before dancing with the winds and the leaves. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing! It was one of those rare moments that she got to see actual spirits!

“This is amazing,” Samantha breathed and smiled. “I… I always wanted to see this.”

Beatriz shook her head. “Yeah, definitely.”

Brandon and Luke remained silent while watching the rest of the villagers ascend towards the sky. The two pirates then glanced back at the hole where the ruined remains of once the golden empire of Azaleth stood.

“Damn, so many souls never got to move on,” Brandon shook his head.

Luke nodded. “They say when people die. They go to a wonderful place called Heaven.”

“That’s what they normally say.”

“But, I… I think their concept of Heaven is wrong.”

Brandon raised an eyebrow at Luke. “What do you mean?”

Luke looked up to the heavens with a nostalgic smile, watching the spirits float up to the sky. “Heaven seems to be so subjective. Everyone doesn’t enjoy the same thing.”

“True.”

“And sometimes, their happiness may not even be up there. Their happiness may be here.”

“Definitely.”

“It’s like what the fox said in the book you read to me,” Luke smiled and turned to Brandon. “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.”

Brandon chuckled. “You really remember everything from that book, don’t you?”

“How could I not? It was the first book you read to me.”

As the white wisps ascended to the sky, the village that was once filled with life of the Arachnos people was now empty. Their houses were now deserted. The wells had stopped being drawn from. The branches and the leaves stopped swaying with the winds. And the only things that the princess and her knights heard were the musical laughter of the forest and the singing freed souls of the citizens of Azaleth.

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