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The apple tree got off lightly, trust me

Night fell over the city.

Like a curtain, gentle darkness covered the beautiful buildings, streets, the palace and its gardens. The city was flooded by the colorful sounds and blinking lights of the night and with every passing hour it grew more quiet, more calm, more peaceful. Until finally, the city, like the palace, were gently glowing with drowsy lusters and the only remaining sounds were the few urban night owls still fussing in the streets and the crickets in the grass and trees. Everyone felt safe.

It would be the last time for a long time.

The palace gardens were shrouded in eerie darkness. Not a single breeze was moving the luscious branches and leaves. An ominous silence laid over the whole scenery, while the palace’s residents were sleeping airily. Few ancient lanterns dimly lit the meadows and trails. Here, all life seemed to hold its breath. Not a sound could be heard. Not a single soul was to be found in those gardens. This night lay heavy on the palace parks and the air seemed to vibrate with anticipation. All sounds outside the palace walls seemed like worlds away.

And then it happened.

A ghastly snap suddenly disturbed this nocturnal peace.

It came from under the mighty apple tree at the northern end of the garden, where the misfortune took its course.

The proud tree began to creak and moan despairingly, its leaves rustling as if powerful winds were perturbing them. Ripe, plump fruit was shaken off the branches, tumbling to the ground and bursting open in the grass. The birds that had sought refuge in the tree’s crown rose up and fled with deadly terror. They fled into the gloomy sky as if feeling the imminent menace. But for the people in the palace, it was long too late.

A cruel gust was racing through the branches and the tree was crying and shaking with sounds resembling a dying beast. Branches broke and fell to the ground. It was as if the tree was entrapped in tempest. It trembled in lethal agony and then it cracked, clean through the middle, the gruesome sound echoing in every corner of the garden.

And then the garden was silent once again.

And then, ominously quiet after this horrid rendition, something slowly came to life amidst this darkness.

Inside the horrid wound of the once proud tree, something truly bizarre was happening. A thin line of light was gently glowing in the dark, as long as the crack in the tree and as dainty as its thinnest branch. It was as if space itself had cracked with the tree. Without a single sound, it extended. Its spectral glow shed a dubious light on the nearby grass and trees and ghostly shadows danced through the garden. It widened and widened, pressing the remains of the tree further and further. Faster and faster it grew. When it was finally large enough to easily accommodate a human being, its growth came to a sudden halt. Something was now in motion in its midst. A stranger was slowly emerging from the gleaming passage, into the heated air. The stranger stepped out of the passage and gracefully landed on the ground. Black leather boots were buried in the grass and the dark coat gently rustled in the breeze coming from the portal. The stranger was covered in black from head to toe, a hood pulled over the head and even the face was mostly covered with a black cloth. The only thing visible, besides a bit of dark skin, were the eyes. They were icy blue and coldly scanned their surroundings with a piercing gaze. The stranger didn’t seem surprised upon seeing the destruction this arrival had caused and the watchful gaze returned to the glowing passage. As if the stranger had sensed a change in the glowing depths, another figure broke through the portal. Distinctly less graceful, it painfully fought its way out in the open, to land right in a pile of shattered fruit. The newcomer cursed extensively but a stern gesture from his predecessor silenced him. He was dressed in similarly suspicious attire. Another four people emerged from the light and lastly, an utterly grotesque creature squeezed through the bright opening. It was very tall, with ridiculously long limbs and instead of a dark cloth, it wore a morbid mask, covering its face. When all were assembled, the stranger who had emerged first, started to speak.

“You know your orders.“, dunned the stranger and the others nodded obediently.

Her voice was strained with eager anticipation and she turned around, pacing towards the palace, her six companions following her closely. Their mission had begun.

Freyja had pondered for months, after her meeting with the Mother. Countless questions had been racing in her mind and although she was certain that the Mother might’ve deigned to answer some of them, she was too proud to seek her out.

But the other one had forgotten its pride the moment Freyja had glanced into that damn basket. It grew restless besides Freyja’s own mind, plotting and planning endlessly. Kronos was a lot more impulsive and emotional than her and he swallowed the Mother’s bait without a second thought. Freyja had planned to take the lead for a few years until they would both slowly forget about the incident, but he had other plans. Thus, as soon as he had taken over again, he gathered his most trusted subordinates and executed his scheme. It was in both their interests, he thought. He’d swiftly enter the palace, fetch the princess and off they’d be again. He agreed with Freyja that they should raise her as an apprentice. She’d grow up in safety and happiness and would have a wealthy and successful life to look forward to.

The debt would finally be paid.

Not to mention he’d get himself a potentially powerful new ally.

He walked through the beautiful palace garden, while his companions went ahead to contain the few guards and palace staff. Only one remained by his side and she turned to him as they were walking.

“Are you sure you have thought this through, sir?“, she asked.

He turned to her but his stern gaze didn’t impress her.

“Why are we even here?“, she implored.

He came to a sudden halt and spun around to face her.

“You’re free to leave.“, he said calmly.

The woman sighed irately.

“I mean no disrespect...”

He frowned.

“Sir.“, she added quickly. “But since when are you concerned with myth politics?”

Kronos chuckled amusedly.

“I couldn’t care less. But this matter concerns me personally.”

He proceeded walking towards the palace entrance from which surprised shouts and screams were already emerging.

“Now is not the time to second-guess my orders.“, he said.

“Complain all you want after we’re done here.”

She already opened her mouth to counter.

“That’s an order.”

She nodded obediently and followed him inside.

Chaos had erupted by the time he walked through the open palace gates. The handful of myth guards and palace staff were kept in check by his servants and eyed the masked intruders with horror. He paid them no attention as two of his apprentices were rounding them up. He merely stepped aside as a guard came running down the hallway to attack him and was sent flying to the floor as the tall creature behind him struck his head. Kronos walked past them, deeper into the labyrinth of luxurious hallways and rooms and the large creature quickly followed.

Finally, finally, he’d meet her again, Kronos thought. She had paid with her life to rescue him, to offer him this chance. And finally, after all this time he had the strength and power to reward her for this sacrifice. No one could stand in his way this time. This eternity of effort and patience would finally bear fruit. He already knew where to go, the map of the palace grounds his apprentice had drawn up was perfectly memorized in his mind. He walked through those pompous halls, only once halted as some courageous guard dashed towards him, weapon in hand, only to be immediately defeated by monstrous companion. No other soul was to be found on his way up to the tower. They were all held in the entry hall of the palace. Utterly terrified, as no one had ever dared in millenials to attack the heart of their kingdom so recklessly. Kronos tremulously walked up the stairs to the tower.

Would she remember him? No. With her new life, the Mother had most likely wiped her mind too. Why would she trust him? How would he convince her to accompany them? His violent intrusion into the palace would only alienate her. And rightly so. Why did he never think his plans through? Freyja would surely be furious once she gained back her consciousness. He had shut her out for now, too impatient to wait another day to reach his goal.

He had reached the top of the stairs. His companion was right behind him, awaiting orders, obedient as always. Kronos walked towards the door, trembling, now, so close to his goal, unsure and doubtful. But he couldn’t stop now, he thought to himself. He had to follow through. Now. Not tomorrow or in a few months or years. Exposing her to this hateful world and those greedy aristocrats who would brainwash her and bend her to their will. He could not let it happen. She deserved to be free. Free like him. With new-found resolution he pressed down the handle to her door and it flung open. He managed to catch a glimpse of the princess, recoiling from the door with a terrified expression, when Freyja regained consciousness and Kronos sunk back into the dark depths of his mind.

Victoria had heard the screams and shouts from downstairs. She waited in her room, hiding under her bed in frozen horror, when the thought of her sister suddenly forced her into action. She crawled out from under her hide-out and darted towards the door, almost crashing into the guard who had just walked into the room. He caught her by the collar as she wanted to leave her bedroom and carried her back to the bed.

“Your majesty, you must stay in your room until we’ve fought off the intruders!“, he demanded.

Victoria stared at him in fear.

“But what about Horizon?!“, she asked.

“She is safe. We will have defeated the criminals shortly, so for the time being, please remain here, your majesty.”

Victoria nodded begrudgingly, alighting on her bed. She watched the guard leave her room and heard him hurrying down the stairs. She waited. Patiently listening to the ongoing battle downstairs, she wondered why anyone would dare attack the palace. Surely no myth would be so bold. Everyone knew the royal palace had never been taken. It was surely a band of Aldebaran terrorists. Although Anette and Missy had always tried to shield her from more gruesome news reports, she had heard or seen a bit here and there and was aware of the occasional terrorist attacks in myth cities. Had they come to kill her and her sister? Or even worse, Madison and Helen? The sudden realization gave her heart a hot sting when she remembered that her arrival meant their imminent death. Would they die tonight? Impossible, she thought. Their guards were all highly skilled soldiers, some even sent from the training facilities up north and neither Madison nor Helen were helpless either. After all, Madison, as the official head of the army, was stronger than any Ald intruder. But the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy was long overdue. Never before had the old monarchs lived that long after their successor’s arrival. Victoria had to do something. She was almost certain that her own life was safe. But she feared for the palace staff who had no divine guidelines to grant them such certainty. Thus, Victoria once more got back on her feet and hesitantly walked towards her door. The shouting and screaming had stopped. Victoria felt cold with fear. But just when she had reached out for the doorknob, the door opened swiftly and revealed two masked figures, from head to toe in black clothes. Victoria recognized them immediately as the ominous intruders and stumbled back in panic. Just when the one who held the door-handle, a tall woman with her face covered with a black cloth, stepped over the threshold, she suddenly froze on the spot and stood there for a few moments, hand clenched around the handle and shivered visibly. Her companion, a very tall creature with a truly terrifying mask covering its face, paid no attention to this peculiar behavior and scuffled past her into Victoria’s room.

The woman seemed to regain her strength in mere moments. Slowly, she entered the room and approached Victoria, who was recoiling with tremulous limbs. The woman, a tall and hooded figure, her gait resolute yet genteel, slowly took off the cloth hiding her face. Underneath was the beautiful face of a young woman, sublime, stupendous even, evoking not fear but reverence, her presence embuing Victoria in veracious admiration and awe. She reminded Victoria of the tales and images of the angels; powerful, majestic creatures in service of the Mother. She ceased to tremble, slowly realized that she had been clenching her fists and could not help herself but to stare at this etheral creature that once more enthralled her with a soft smile. What a violent contrast her eyes were to that gentle curl of the lips, Victoria thought. Piercing and cold they were, scrutinizing her, as she failed to retort this gaze with equal dignity. But the hideous beast beside the woman, a monster hiding beneath human clothes, its limbs too long, with long claws instead of fingers, the black mask completely blank, broke the charm and reminded Victoria of the dangerous predicament she was in.

“Where are my people?! Where is Horizon?! If you hurt any of them I will -”

The woman’s soft amused chuckle made her hush with awe.

“Fear not little princess.“, she said.

Her voice was calm and quiet but as cold as her eyes.

“Your subordinates and family are unharmed. However, first things first...”

Victoria had no idea who this woman was or how powerful she was, but looking at her right now, the complacent smile, the merciless eyes, the way she was moving, unlike anything she had ever seen before, she was suddenly certain that neither the princess nor the queen or any soldier were capable of defeating her.

“Now, would you kindly deign to take a seat, little princess? We ought to converse like civilized people.”

The woman denotatively nodded towards one of the white satin chairs. Contrary to the polite composure with which this innocent request had been delivered, Victoria dared not to refuse. As she sat, she noticed her hands trembling helplessly and, hiding them in the folds of her nightgown, eyed once more the intruders.

“Who are you?“, she demanded to know. Her voice was shaking almost as badly as her hands.

The woman sat down on another chair across Victoria.

“My name is Freyja, little princess. I am an old acquaintance.”

Victoria frowned in confusion.

“But I’ve never seen you before in my life.“, she blurted.

And she was certain she hadn’t forgotten it either. Someone like her was surely impossible to forget.

The woman’s smile went slightly sour.

“Yes. I thought that you wouldn’t remember. It was a very long time ago.“, she sighed.

Questions started piling up in Victoria’s mind.

“I... don’t understand.“, she meant despairingly.

Freyja slowly leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs.

Her monstrous companion had closed the door and now stood in front of it, entirely motionless.

“The last time we met...“, began Freyja, glancing thoughtlessly into the emptiness beside Victoria as she recalled ancient memories.

“The last time we met you saved my life. You saved me from some truly... evil people.”

She watched Victoria closely, who was gaping at her in complete and utter disbelief. Her? Aiding a creature she was almost certain possessed unknown almighty powers? She could not believe it. Various questions urged to be answered, so she voiced the most pressing.

“But... but how? I wasn’t even born yet.”

The woman smiled patiently, as if it were a truly silly question.

“Yes, you were. It was another life. But you paid with it to save mine. However, the Mother seems to have given you a second chance and thus, you were reborn.”

Victoria felt the world around her spinning as her mind desperately tried to grasp this overwhelming revelation.

“But...why?“, she muttered.

“Why?“, echoed Freyja, cruelly ignorant of Victoria’s strain.

“One can only guess. Out of boredom probably.“, she ventured and then added, slightly more acerbic: “Or to torment us both.”

Upon seeing how distraught Victoria seemed after this disclosure, Freyja sighed wearily, uncrossed her long legs and bent down to the picture of misery across from her.

“I assure you, little princess, we didn’t come here to cause any pain or misery. As long as everyone behaves, there is no reason whatsoever for ugly violence.”

Victoria slowly lifted her head, eyeing the intruder with both fear and suspense.

“Then what are you doing here?”

The woman smiled once more that enchanting smile.

“You liberated me. I am here to return the favour.”

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