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A note from Acarnina
Spoiler: Warning: Tragedy

 

Chapter 24: The Black Prince

Arcane sat once more on the highest tower of the stone castle the Rose Kingdom regarded as its capital. She had woken early this morning, before anyone else in the city began to stir, and came out here to sit and watch the rising sun slowly illuminate the primitive world. As she sat, she remembered.

Love.

Long before Arcane was born it had been taken apart and put back together by the science that ruled those ages. A simple mixture of chemicals meant to cause warm feelings and happiness, they said. Nothing more than a remnant of the biological impetus to mate, the endless will of life to perpetuate itself and its genes with the best possible partner. Illogical, irrational, and pointless, they called it. Even so, despite all of that, they never managed to remove it from the human psyche. It was necessary to ensure the continuation of the species, they said, though artificial insemination and mechanical wombs had long since been perfected. It was an essential part of being human, they claimed, despite it leading to endless problems such as rape, kidnap, molestation, and harassment.

In the end, it remained a part of humanity long enough for the truth to be revealed; for mankind to discover, almost by accident, that emotions and their ilk were not merely the result of complex physical and chemical processes, but the acts of something far more fundamental to sentient life: the fluctuations of the soul. It was a form of love, what some called the purest form of love, that the great religions had utilized to awaken their long exalted gods. It was a form of desire that allowed men to bond with those gods, to inherit a portion of their powers and form a contract between mortal and immortal. It was a form of will that led to the establishment of the path of battles and the cultivators who practiced it. One by one, the realization of the truth of the soul created new paths for man to follow, culminating in the final eight that mankind codified and studied as the sum total of all possible means to wield that new power.

Yet all of that was merely an abstract understanding of history. What Arcane remembered was not lessons on the nature of the soul, nor the truth of love, but the singular feeling she had experienced only once in her extensive life.

Fate. A sister, perhaps… yet the concept of incest was not a taboo when genetic modification was able to eradicate all negative recessives and genetic diseases from the code of humanity in general. Both female, yes… but homosexuality was even less of an issue when half of all new humans, especially among the highest classes Arcane and Fate had both belonged to, were crafted in a laboratory instead of a womb. A childhood friend, indeed… Yet it was perhaps only through knowing each other for so long that two girls so aware of the enmity the universe had for them were able to come to trust each other, to open their hearts enough to confess feelings they refused to reveal out of fear of loss and betrayal.

When young and innocent they had been nothing more than sisters, but for the nine daughters of Magia that period was far too short. They were forced to compete, made into rivals and played off each other by adults seeking strength, power, and above all the ability for these girls to defend themselves against a hostile universe. It was unfair; that the very gifts these children had been born with were turned into curses so vile that they couldn’t have a normal life, could never know peace, or normality, or simple human kindness. Who knows how long the adults tasked as their guardians had wept, watching as the trials they forced the girls through warped their innocence, corrupted their happiness, then shattered their common sense and replaced it with something far darker. Who knows what they had felt as they saw masks of iron growing over their hearts, sealing their emotions and leaving only the tenuous bonds with each other that stretched and cracked but still, by some miracle beyond even the ability of the known gods, remained intact.

Arcane and Fate’s connection was, perhaps, the worst of them. Furthest apart, yet closest together of all the sisters, they fought each other with a vicious intent to vent the emotions neither were equipped to understand. Malice and hate took the place of sisterly trust and respect, constantly opposing each other in a reckless attempt to gain some recognition from their kin. Both weakened, the hearts behind the iron masks cracking even as the masks themselves remained firm. The negative emotions, the self loathing and fear, the hate for the humanity that forced them to do this, boiled over, pushing those masks aside and culminating in a weakness neither could keep bottled up any more.

By chance, one perceived this in the other. By chance, Arcane found Fate beneath that virtual forest grove, her mask discarded in favor of the fragile heart beneath it. If they were normal children, perhaps, that would have been enough. Fate, comforted by the subject of her desires, could have spoken out, and they may well have been happy then. But a single moment of weakness was not enough to change their fates.

Arcane, by her own choice, and displaying unimaginable will, cast aside her own mask and revealed the fragility of her own heart. Atop that tower in a younger world, long after the question had lost its meaning, Arcane wondered if some other choice may have been better, wondered if, perhaps, she had had slightly more strength, or slightly less, what followed would have turned out differently.

The past, though, was the past. History, the fates we made… those were already determined. Arcane knew this. Even so, she could not help but wonder… If she could have said a few more words, or if she had said a few less… how would that history have changed?

That day would never have happened, she was sure. There would have been no need to interfere with the summoning of a deity halfway around the planet, no need to influence Faith and Purity into calling to her for aid, no need to create an elaborate hoax simply to draw Fate into the confines of a mythic world by choice, not as an enemy, but as an ally. There would have been no need to pretend to struggle so that a situation where everything she did seemed heroic and necessary. The great play she had put on merely to show herself in the best light for the sister she loved so deeply would have never been. And perhaps… that ancient world would have been better for it.

Arcane sighed into the dawn wind, her closed eyes meeting the light of the sun as she looked to the East, then turned and stared into the western horizon where the last traces of darkness retreat before the rising light.

Arcane stood, stretching her legs beneath the long cyan skirt reminiscent of the one she had worn to battle with a god so long ago. Her body was less mature, far more youthful in appearance and without even the beginning stages of adulthood she had had before. But she was also older, somehow… In this age, when innocence had long since lost the value and meaning it once carried, her change could not be noticed. But there was a maturity about her now, a certain bearing of wisdom and understanding she had lacked once upon a time. It was with that bearing that she ceased her idle ruminations about a long forgotten past, one that she could do nothing to change, and turned to the present.

The morning sun illuminated her rising form, causing her cyan hair to glow with a pale emerald light against the rich blue sky. Her pale face caught it next, her skin reflecting the radiation like moonstone jewels, smooth and flawless. Her closed eyes decorated with greenish lashes, her petite brows revealed under her ruffled hair, her gentle nose and full lips, pale red against the perfect skin… All were made radiant by the sunlight she turned to face, looking up towards the distant, yellow star. Arcane smiled softly towards it, before bowing her head and walking towards the edge of the tower.

Hopping down lightly, she caught the edge of a balcony with her toes and dropped into a stone watchroom near the tower’s summit. There were no guards there, the outer watchtowers providing better views and also quicker reports to the relevant guard sections. Nor had there been for a long time, Arcane observed. Dust accumulated on the crooked table, and a three legged chair leaned against the wall to support itself. The shelves had long been emptied, and the tattered hangings on the far wall had lost most of their color and shape.

The entire room gave Arcane a feeling of age and venerability. While she herself was likely far, far older than this castle or the entire species it served, there was something about a thing that had served for far longer than it should have and kept on standing. A primitive temple that lasted a thousand years, a nation that stood for hundreds, a hero who fought on even after decades of life; though to Arcane the entire duration of their existence was but a blink of an eye, she still honored those who surpassed the limits time placed on them and fought against that inevitable current.

Arcane ran her hand along the top of the table as she directed her steps to the door on the opposite wall, and the staircase into the castle proper below. There was no door to block her path, so she simply started gliding down the stairs, her steps precise and her waist holding her upper body upright and balanced to give her the impression of floating, rather than walking. The steps were a bit larger than comfortable for her; the rectangular slabs of stone a touch further apart than a child’s legs could span easily. Yet even with that her pace didn’t break, her body didn’t jerk up and down as she descended, trailing a single hand along the well worn banister. The holes in the ancient wood were ignored, the pale hand continuing in exactly the same form and motion as they were where it was intact, as if she was feeling instead the pristine condition of the newly installed wood hundreds of years ago rather than the broken remnants forgotten by time.

Arcane eventually came to the base of the tower, the spiral staircase opening out onto a straight passageway that was similarly underpopulated. Even so, she did not change her pace.

Letting her hand fall slowly without a banister on which to rest it, the bright cyan haired girl continued her gliding walk down the hallway, not pausing, but also moving slowly enough that her gaze could trail on countless tiny details most wouldn’t notice. The cracks in the stone from cultivators fighting, the scratches from crude weapons, many marked with imperceptible amounts of blood, the neatly bored holes meant to hang tapestries or other decorations. From them Arcane read a long and bloody history of this world, listening and feeling the lament of the castle in every mark.

Yet there were others; tiny depressions, matched by larger ones, spoke of children raised within the grey halls. Traces of a different sort of blood, and of gold and other minerals, spoke of times of wealth and happiness. The castle’s story was not only one of war, but also of peace. In a hole up on the wall, Arcane caught glimpses of many colored strings that she recognized as parts of flags, those of many nations. With those were traces of ink and paper cast through the air; records on the atomic level, yet nevertheless still present for one such as Arcane to read.

No books would speak of what she saw. No history would be so dull as to record the fact that a maid tripped during one such conference in this back hall, nor that a precious vase was broken by a child in that corner, nor that a desperate last stand was prepared to prevent invaders from reaching the tower, only for those invaders to withdraw before they ever reached it. Arcane already knew much of the society and history of the elfbeasts civilization from the minds she had devoured, but this was of another sort altogether. In her mind’s eye she saw the thousand year memory of this castle, battles and banquets, diplomacy and treachery, assassins and innocents.

Arcane continued this exercise as she walked back along the hidden hallways no one in this time seemed to use. There were periods where they had been abandoned before, she knew. Sometimes after war, sometimes after peace, sometimes for no discernible reason at all. No matter; either way, she still learned something.

Arcane wandered without thinking about anything but the past until she was almost on top of the door to her room for the night. She stopped, blinking in surprise, when she saw who was standing outside the door dithering about whether to open it or not.

“... I’m sure she’ll understand… yes, I had no choice… It was all my decision…” Annabelle muttered, making up her mind and raising her paw to knock on the door. When there was no reply, she seemed surprised, tilting her head and muttering again.

“Hm? She should definitely be awake by now… maybe she didn’t use this room? Or maybe she left already… no, that’s impossible. My guards would have…” Annabelle argued with herself as Arcane approached and stood slightly behind her, watching the red haired princess with closed eyes.

“I’ll try again.” Annabelle decided, knocking on the door again, much harder this time. The loud rapping sounds would not have gone unnoticed even in the adjacent rooms, Arcane imagined. She wondered if she should announce her presence, but continued to refrain.

After waiting a few more seconds, Annabelle sighed and shook her head. “I guess I did get the wrong room after all. Haa…” She sighed again and turned away. “I guess it- Arcane!”

Annabelle literally jumped back several feet and knocked herself into the wall. Arcane tilted her head and watched her clamber to her feet, shaking herself off and seeming to have little more than a mild headache from the impact. Yet another event to be recorded by the castle walls and little else, Arcane noted to herself. “You were looking for me?” She asked aloud.

“Ah… Yes, I’d like to… um, can we go inside?” Annabelle asked after hesitating for a few seconds, looking up and down the hall nervously.

Arcane nodded and swept past the princess, easily pushing the door open and walking into the elaborate room that she hadn’t used as much as she should. Annabelle followed quickly, closing the door behind her and relaxing quite a bit once she realized no one had seen her little stunt with the walls. She took one of the chairs to the side, while Arcane seated herself on the bed and crossed her legs with her hands on her knees.

“So…” Annabelle started slowly. “You noticed Jasmina following you?”

“They were obvious.” Arcane replied. “Cultivators are unsuited for stealth.”

“Yeah, you said something like that before.” Annabelle nodded. “Well, about that…”

“Your orders, acting on the advice of your father.” Arcane explained before Annabelle could, raising her eyebrows without opening her eyes. “Also obvious.”

“How did you… oh.” Annabelle said, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath before bowing her head. “I am very sorry about that. I did not mean to imply I didn’t trust you.”

“Why would that mean you don’t trust me?” Arcane asked, which Annabelle seemed to take as a rhetorical question from her lack of response. “You sought to learn more about me; I had not told you everything. That much was obvious to both of us. Having me followed is actually on the lesser end of what you could have tried.”

“... You seem surprisingly unconcerned about this.” Annabelle observed, raising her head to look at Arcane again with narrowed eyes.

Arcane shrugged. “Curiosity is not a sin. I don’t much like secrets, either.”

“For someone who doesn’t like secrets, you certainly have a lot of them.” Annabelle remarked.

“Not wanting to talk about certain things is not actively hiding them.” Arcane rebutted. “If you can formulate the questions you want to know, I will answer them. It’s certainly easier than being followed around by a pair of romantics.” She shrugged, while Annabelle’s eyes opened wide and she started laughing.

“HAHAHA!!” Annabelle clutched her sides, gasping for breath after a few seconds of hard laughter. “A pair of romantics… from an arranged marriage that both strongly opposed till yesterday evening. I wondered why Jasmina hadn’t complained about Coleus today… You’ll have to tell me more, later.”

Arcane rolled her eyes behind the closed lids, finding it annoying that the practice and enjoyment of gossip, especially about love and lust, had not faded from humanoid races over all this time.

“Still, I am more curious about you, Arcane.” Annabelle continued once she had caught her breath. “You say you will answer any questions I ask you?”

“As best I can.” Arcane replied. “Though I would much prefer an equal exchange.”

“Equal exchange…” Annabelle repeated. “So you want to know something about me in return?”

Arcane shook her head. “Not you, specifically. Perhaps… about the Black Prince and these ‘Faceless’.”

Annabelle stiffened at that name, then relaxed. Sighing, she looked at Arcane and nodded firmly. “Of course. Ask whatever you want about them, and I will do the same about you, and we will both answer as best we can.”

Arcane inclined her head in thanks and gestured for Annabelle to go first. The Rose Princess tapped one of her fingers in thought for a while, her ears twitching, before she finally asked her question. “Who… no, what are you?” She fidgeted after asking, her ears displaying embarrassment over asking such a rude question. Arcane didn’t mind her.

“I am a human.” Arcane replied. “I am also female, unmarried, and not yet fully matured.” She continued, ticking the points off on her fingers. Then she put her hand down and looked at Annabelle. “What are the Faceless?”

“Human…” Annabelle muttered, obviously not understanding the significance of that race. She managed to shake her head and concentrate in time to hear Arcane’s own question. “The Faceless are rumored to be a secret group of assassins and warriors in the employ of one of the Western nations, the Boreal Empire. They answer only to the Boreal Emperor and, more recently, his prodigal son who is only known by his title, the Black Prince. They became a lot more active in recent years; before, you wouldn’t hear of them but once every decade or less. So…” She trailed off, thinking again from her suddenly still tail. “How strong are you?”

“In cultivation terms, above the Tenth Divide.” Arcane replied, knowing full well it would be misunderstood. That all eight tiers of their cultivation barely covered a quarter of the way to the First Divide was beyond this princess’s ability to comprehend. “Though my power does not come from that. Why are the Faceless after you?”

Arcane’s smooth transition into a question caught Annabelle off guard, as she was still wide-eyed and stiff eared at the claim of power surpassing the, in her mind, tenth tier. A correct interpretation, although severely underestimating by how much. “Oh, um… tenth… right, Faceless.” She stammered, blinking several times. “I am not entirely certain, but it is likely the Black Prince wishes to expand the territory of the Empire to cover both continents, making it the most powerful force in the world. How did you reach the tenth tier?”

“These artifacts,” Arcane indicated the swords on her back, “can boost cultivation several tiers at once.” Technically true, although an evasion of the question. Arcane followed the path of Magic, or Talent; her power was at its maximal point not long after she was born, she merely needed to refine how to use it for maximum effect afterwards. “No groups currently operate in both continents?” Arcane found that quite curious, though she already knew the answer. Maybe Annabelle would elaborate on why.

“As I thought…” Annabelle muttered. “And of course not. The cultures and people are too different, they can’t possibly get along even within the same city, much less have one ruling over the other. Where did you find those artifacts?”

“In the Great Desert.” Arcane replied, not mentioning they were powerless, ordinary sand when she found them. Such a claim wouldn't be believed anyway. “Has no attempt been made to overcome the racial prejudice between the continents?”

“Prejudice?” Annabelle asked.

“Unfair discrimination or differentiation on the basis of race or birthplace.” Arcane defined.

“There’s no such thing, then.” Annabelle declared. “Western elfbeasts are less honorable, more apt to lie and cheat, and take far more shortcuts in cultivation than Easterners. They also don’t value their families and will sell out their own parents to get ahead in life. The enmity is definitely justified.” She thought for a few more minutes, while Arcane decided to reserve judgement on the prejudice. She doubted the two continents were that different, but without evidence couldn’t say for certain. “You came from beyond the Great Desert, right? Are you strong among your kind, or are they all like you?”

“I’d say I’m among the strongest members of my species.” Arcane shrugged. “They’re not all that weak, though. Not too much different from you. Why did the Black Prince choose to attack you, of all the Eastern factions?”

Annabelle shook her head. “I have no idea. It might be because he fancies me personally, or some other reason. I really don’t know. Why did you free us from the pirates?”

“I dislike slavery on principle.” Arcane answered. “And the pirates made themselves my enemies.”

Annabelle nodded and waited, but Arcane did not follow up with a question of her own. “Um…”

“The only other question I have is about that black, burning liquid the Faceless turned into. What do you know about that?” Arcane asked after a few moments of silence.

Annabelle thought about it, but ended up shaking her head. “Nothing, I’m afraid. Water that burns is not a new trick for the Faceless, but no one’s ever seen them turn into it until the Prince got involved.”

Arcane took note of that, realizing she would have to confront this Prince to see what he knew about the forbidden spell.

“Ok, what are your plans for the future?” Annabelle asked, deciding to end the questions now that Arcane had no more.

“I’m not sure. I’d like to identify the source of that change, so I’ll probably head west soon to find the Black Prince who seems to be the source. After that, I’ll go back where I came from.” Arcane answered, tapping her fingers across her knee. “I’ll stay here at most another week, ok?”

“That’s fine by me. Stay as long as you want.” Annabelle said, rising from her chair and inclining her head before making her way to the door. Arcane watched her leave without saying anything, listening to the withdrawing footsteps (or would it be pawsteps, she wondered) until there was nothing left to hear.

Arcane lay back on her bed and pondered. The Black Prince was most likely the source of the method of creating fossil fuels from organic tissue, and as such she needed to learn from him exactly where he got it. What she knew, that everyone else in the castle didn’t, is that that meeting wouldn’t require her to go anywhere.

Kilometers away, about three days’ trip by sea from Tidewalker port, a ship with black sails and a painted black hull floated at rest, attended by numerous black robed cultivators and luxuries beyond number. Arcane had given Annabelle a week before she left; the group on this vessel, if they were to come here, would arrive in six days.

Idly, Arcane wondered which would arrive first, Annabelle’s preparations for her own departure or the Black Prince’s forces on that boat.

 


 

For the next five days, Arcane didn’t do much. Informing the Rose Princess about the approaching enemy would have been pointless; while Annabelle would certainly believe her, it would bring up questions about how she knew such a thing and cause the entire kingdom to panic as they attempted to ready themselves for war with the foreign power. So she kept her peace, and allowed the kingdom to do the same.

Annabelle was slowly acclimatizing to the burdens of rulership, playing the noble factions off against one another while making certain her own strength was paramount in their minds. It was amusing to see a feudal system play out in a cultivation based society, Arcane discovered. As always, land was owned by the crown and lent to the nobles, but in addition people, military power, and cultivation resources were also controlled from the top. That sort of made sense; cultivation changed the strategic equations so that concentrating resources to double the strength of the strongest was often more effective in boosting the national power than investing the same amount into strengthening numerous weaker entities.

Thus, while the nobles did each lead sects of their own, they were not set up as independent entities but as feeders for the royal sect which took all those who reached a certain level and trained them to a higher level. Military power was exchanged for potential military power, the royals the only ones capable of actualizing the potential of the strongest in the nation and thus holding a monopoly on true power. Except for the nobles, who were apparently tied to their families, upwards of 90% of all cultivators in the kingdom above sixth tier and all of those above seventh were beholden directly to the royal family.

Supply lines were important as always in a strategic sense. The king’s reckless waste of resources in search of his daughter had left a lot of these uprooted, and Annabelle had her work cut out for her in restoring them. Food and cultivation resources were the primary necessities, provided mostly by taxes from the nobles who were tasked with managing hunting and resource preservation in their territories. This was the largest source of complaints, too; the nobles were reluctant to divert resources they had successfully invested into their own lands to the royal military forces, even if they needed its defense.

Arcane learned a lot about the society of the time, noting it seemed to be extremely primitive, pre-medieval in fact. Currency was metal-covered stones, forged by the royal sect’s elders by melting metal onto rounded river stones, but it was not controlled in the slightest and counterfeiting didn’t even seem to have entered their minds as a possibility. The only resources worth mentioning were wood, food, and stone; the latter two were almost always plentiful, while the first was the issue. Without systematic farming, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle the elfbeasts preferred could barely sustain even this level of civilization without cultivation’s most minor benefit: a lack of need to eat. Many of the urchins Arcane had seen were more interested in money than food because money could get them cultivation resources which would allow them to escape from hunger forever.

There were, of course, some nobles who were attempting rudimentary husbandry by protecting herds of prey animals and letting them grow fat before hunting them. This practice was frowned upon, of course; those who did not saw it as without honor, while many of the common people believed that the meat obtained was inferior to that gained by hunting from the wild. As always, Arcane thought to herself, the march of progress was hindered by pointless social beliefs.

Arcane didn’t spend all her time studying the Rose Kingdom, of course. She also watched over Jasmina and Coleus, amused by their turbulent relationship that seemed to only have highs and lows and nothing in between. Both lasted mere hours, Jasmina’s loving embrace turning to a violent attack by the next morning, while Coleus was similarly stormy in his ability to go from perfectly calm when dealing with Jasmina’s fury to equally raging at a minor insult of his prowess in certain areas. They stayed together with the support of their families and their mutual inability to keep a single emotion for more than an hour, but it was difficult.

Nonetheless, they were happy together. Far more so than Annabelle and her father, who didn’t ever argue and yet were steadily growing further and further apart for reasons neither of them could discern. Arcane, looking on from the side, noticed that the King felt he was doomed to die soon and thus Annabelle would be better off without depending on him, while Annabelle resented his failure to be there for her and his continual drawing away every time she wanted to get close. She, too, felt her father was not as healthy as he once was, but despite crying herself to sleep about it twice the girl refused to talk to her father and admit the problem. Arcane was frustrated about both of them, but refused to do anything in that field. She, lacking any sort of parent figure for most of her life, felt her interference to be both unwanted and unnecessary.

It was into this turbulent situation, five days after Annabelle and Arcane had their first of several conversations (though none since had gone into anywhere near the seriousness of the first), that a messenger from the port arrived, out of breath and panicking.

“I must speak with the king!” the man shouted at the guard, who refused to let him in.

“You cannot enter without proper authorization!” a guard reprimanded him, his spear blocking the main gate.

“It’s an emergency! If he doesn’t hear about this soon, the port is doomed!” The messenger wailed.

“Do you have the seal from your lord?” The guard asked, looking the obviously ragged messenger up and down doubtfully.

“Of course not!” the man screamed. “I ran all the way here from Port Windfall, do you think I had time to grab a stupid seal?”

“Then I’m afraid I can’t let you enter…” The guard said again, before turning around at a tap on his shoulder. Standing on the step above him, Arcane pushed his spear aside and looked down at the messenger. “My lady…” He said in surprise.

While the messenger panted, barely seeing either the guard or Arcane, she knelt down in front of him and whispered a single word too softly for the guard to hear. “Prince.”

A sharp intake of breath told her all she needed to know. Straightening and brushing off her dress, she turned to the guard. “Let him in. The Rose Princess will see him immediately.”

The guard, still unable to understand what she was doing, nodded. He knew she was close to the Rose Princess and assumed she knew what she was talking about, and if not no one expected him to defy someone who could at minimum match a seventh tier cultivator such as the Rose Princess and be called her bodyguard. Thus he stood aside, along with the rest of the guard, and allowed Arcane to lead the exhausted man through the stone hallways towards the study where Annabelle was even now talking to several nobles.

“... Is this really so difficult?” Annabelle asked as the doors opened, though she glanced over and widened her eyes at seeing Arcane, who she had last seen on top of one of the bookshelves mere minutes ago. The messenger behind her, panting heavily, gathered the attention of the nobles, who looked at him askance while waiting for the princess to take the lead. “What have you brought me, Arcane?” Annabelle asked.

Arcane gestured for the messenger to proceed her. He nodded gratefully, and squinted up at Annabelle while kneeling. “Your highness, great princess of the Rose Kingdom,”

“Get on with it.” Annabelle interrupted.

“I bring terrible tidings.” The messenger gasped, taking a deep breath. “Port Windfall has been captured by a force from the Boreal Empire, headed by the Black Prince himself!”

“What!?!” There was instant uproar, many of the nobles jumping to their feet or paling where they sat while Annabelle’s own face grew stiff.

“What did you say?” She asked in a low voice that carried clearly.

“Your highness, Lord Espion has been murdered by the Prince for refusing to surrender, and the port is overrun with Faceless marauders. I barely escaped alive myself!” The messenger cried. “We implore the Rose Kingdom for aid against the foe of all Eastern nations!”

The room fell silent, waiting for Annabelle’s decision. Yet before she could speak another voice came from the door, where Arcane still stood, leaning against the wall. “Three days ride, three days march, what’s the difference for an army?”

Many of the nobles glared at her, but Annabelle herself staggered suddenly as she understood what Arcane was saying in her oblique way. Waving to her assistants on the side, she began to bark orders. “Clear the room! This meeting is adjourned for now. We will contact you with information about the Prince’s invasion shortly; I request all available forces be mobilized as soon as possible. Bring me my generals, and call the elders to a conference! Go, now!”

The room boiled like a kicked anthill, elfbeasts running every which way while Arcane and Annabelle remained exactly as they were, meeting each other’s eyes across the room, the pale red of Annabelle’s matching the sealed lids of Arcane. Annabelle slowly closed hers and looked down at her trembling paws, clenched into tight balls. Arcane saw this, then disappeared from the room. She had no interest in the preparations Annabelle would make for the army that was on its way, instead focusing on the approach of her prey. Mere seconds later a fluttering dress of brilliant bluish green waved atop the tallest tower of the castle, hair streaming backwards as the westerly wind blew into her face. With the setting sun in her eyes, Arcane couldn’t see very far, but her closed eyes did perceive, on the borders of the kingdom, pillars of smoke rising in a circular pattern.

And in their center, dressed in a suit of pure black with fur and skin of a similar color, stood a figure Arcane identified in a heartbeat:

The Black Prince.

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Acarnina

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