CITY OF HOENN
"Someone's gonna die tonight."
It was the way in which he said it that had the hair on May's arms standing on end. Harley would never be known for his tact or grace – but tonight, dark eyes reflecting the gaping mouth of the moon, his words carried an ominous warning that sent chills rushing down her spine.
May threw him a sharp look. "I thought that's where we are supposed to come in. Giving up already?"
Harley snorted at that. Slowly he tilted his head to fix the much smaller girl in his cold gaze. "What's even the point of trying? We all know that Vora's destined to die. Aren't we just delaying the inevitable?"
As much as she hated the sour defeat in his voice, May couldn't find the words to argue against him. With a sharp 'hmph' she turned away, chin leaning to rest upon her curled up knees as she watched the festival lights twirling up, up, up into the night sky and beyond.
Her hand reached out as if she could somehow follow them from where she sat.
"'Course, not like I care what happens to this dumb excuse of a kingdom." Harley's obnoxious voice jolted May out of her reverie with a reverberating snap. He picked at his nose and flung snot to the wind as if somehow, he was setting free all his burdens and unrequited dreams with that single flick. "I mean, look how they treat me! I should be among the King's Personal Guards. Instead, I'm stuck here as the underpaid royal babysitter. What joy."
It took all her self-restraint and more to not throw back some sarcastic remark. Pain in the ass, yeah, but he was also her mentor. She'd rather not face another week of cleaning the putrid stables, thank you very much! Instead, she busied herself with looking to the sprawling kingdom beyond, dressed in gold and white in mock celebration of another earnest victory within its grasp.
Of course, it was all a lie. With every passing day, their army grew weaker. With every passing second, their enemies drew nearer. The King's pride would prevent him from ever admitting that defeat was upon the horizon. And so Vora's citizens remained unaware of their encroaching demise. May's knuckles smoldered white as her grip tightened around her tree's branch. Unfair. The people deserved to know what was coming for them.
"Oh, would you look at that. Seems like someone's making a run for it."
Sure enough, a familiar green-haired figure had slipped free of the crowd. May couldn't help grinning as she leaned back against the trunk, throwing Harley a mischievous look. "That's your cue, royal babysitter. Better start running. You know how fast he is."
"Ugh. Seriously? You go. Like hell I'm spending my relaxing watch chasing that snot-nosed brat around the woods."
Relaxing and watch ought never to be paired in the same sentence next to each other; perhaps that was why he'd spent nearly ten years stuck at the bottom of the hierarchy. She swallowed the stinging remark however and pushed herself up to her feet. "Back soon!" With a final bright flash of a smile, she leaped from her perch.
Feet smashed hard into the mossy earth below; rocking back on her heels, May wasted no time in taking off at a sprinting pace. It was times like these she couldn't help but be thankful for the lack of Nox in her blood; whereas others like Harley relied on magic and sorcery as their guide, May would always be dependent on her five senses and the strength interwoven within her bones. Sometimes such authenticity was better than magic. Besides, even Nox could only do so much.
As branches whipped past her flesh and the grass tore at her soles, May attuned her mind to the world streaming out around her; the owls that cooed mournfully amid their luminescent hollows, the foxes that wore the shadows as cloaks around their broad shoulders. She closed her eyes. The wind carried with it the faraway taste of fried meats and steaming pork buns – hints of a festival that might as well serve as a pre-funeral, too.
And then –
She skirted to the left. A knotted tangle of branches exploded beneath the sudden force of her weight and she emerged on the other side of a wide-open clearing, splintered shards of moonlight slicing into her skin below. She spun to an abrupt halt as a volley of ravens erupted from their trees, their wings painting the night black. Apart from the raucous screeching of a dozen tired birds, there was no sight of Drew to be found.
No way…May frowned. She thought for sure she'd traced the echo of his distinct footsteps to this clearing here. Not to mention it was his favorite hiding place. Unless –
A shadow blotted out the moon.
Her hand yanked for the hilt of her sword.
Silver sparks flew, as metal kissed metal.
May stumbled back, the weight of surprise knocking the air from her lungs as the newcomer regained his balance and sprung forward for another attack.
Twist to the right. His well-aimed kick missed only by an inch. Drop your sword. The weapon clattered to the earth, as May swung up her fists and glared back at her attacker. He copied her actions and took the first swing.
She lurched back and returned with another punch of her own, though it was deftly reflected by his elbow. Oh no, you're not! I'm not getting beaten this time! Whilst his guard was up, she aimed a throw at his stomach and felt her fist connect hard against the soft flesh around his ribs. He staggered back, breath erupting in a torn gasp.
May drew close, shoulders raised for the finishing blow –
And then he was gone. Wait, no, not gone – the realization came too late, as he swung himself up and tackled her to the earth. They tumbled over grass and dirt, fighting for the upper hand with less than elegant kicks and punches, but as they rolled to a stop it became clear who emerged as the victor of this battle.
May spat a strand of grass off her lip. Despite her frustration, a smile had found its way onto her lips.
"You gotta admit. I put up a pretty good fight that time."
"Good doesn't mean anything if you still lose." With a bored sigh, he lifted himself up. May scrambled to her feet.
"So! Where does the great and mighty Drew think he's going? I thought you had a parade that required your attendance." She attempted to mimic the King's flowery choice of words and booming voice, but even her mocking imitation didn't seem to lift the shadows from Drew's countenance. Her smile faltered. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. Why are you here, anyway? I thought it was Harley's job to keep me on a leash."
"Our oh so reliable Harley is off picking his nose in an oak tree. Not that it's unexpected for him."
Drew rolled his eyes at that. Then, with an indignant huff, he stalked past and walked onward.
"H-Hey! Wait a minute, where are you going?"
"Why not?" He stopped in his tracks, tilting his head back to fix her in the sharp green depths of his eyes. "Vora's lost. There's no reason to stick around any longer."
Somehow, his uncharacteristically defeatist attitude fed the embers of May's temper. "Y'know, that isn't how a prince should act," she shot back, determinedly following in his footprints as he continued his merry way. "I thought you're supposed to be for the people. Not against them."
He huffed. "That's what my brothers are for, right? They've got down the whole prince shtick better than I ever will."
That wasn't true, and Drew knew it. May narrowed her eyes at his retreating figure. Sure, he was fifth in line to the throne, and therefore regarded as a 'lesser rank' within his family. But he had the princely act down to a fine art, with the girls constantly crowing over his rogue looks and the blood red roses he'd fancifully throw their way. If only they knew what an arrogant little punk he really is!
She hurried to catch up with him. "Drew, come on! We don't…we don't know if Vora's lost yet. Miracles have happened before." Her words only seemed to quicken his pace. "Okay, it doesn't look good, I agree, but we can't just abandon the kingdom and leave them all to die! That's against our duty…"
Finally, he paused and turned to face her. May stumbled to a halt, breathing sharply as she struggled to catch her breath.
"I know that." Drew's words caught her off guard. Only then did she see the clear frustration scrawled across his face, etched into the arc of his eyebrows and the coil in his lips. "But everyone here is the same. We're all supposed to trust in our shepherd like good little lambs, as he leads us to the slaughter!" May flinched, the fire in his voice smoldering to embers within the canals of her ears. Drew rubbed angrily at his forehead. "I don't want to die yet. There's a whole world out there I've yet to see. So much I still have to do."
"But you'll be an enemy of the state." Her voice emerged as a tender thread lifted by the wind. Drew avoided her gaze by ducking to stare at the ground. "They'll kill you, Drew. They'll kill anyone who carries the blood of Sir Henry in their veins."
His silence could only be taken as an acknowledgment.
For a moment, May thought she had won. She reached out her hand, extended her palm in friendship to the boy she'd known for all the short fifteen years of her life. Drew eyed her arm as if it were a viper ready to strike. Her heart sunk as he turned away with a shrug. "Better get good at hiding then, huh?"
He had scarcely taken a few steps before the air exploded into a million fragments around them.
Feathers fell like raindrops from the sky as the birds took from their trees in a flurry of wingbeats; a fox's mottled russet coat sliced through the frothing blue of a river, and it burst between May's legs with a volley of frightened yelps. May spun around, her heart buried deep in the crook of her throat.
Not yet, not here, not now –
Drew was by her side in an instant. "It's happening."
"I thought we had more time…The last report said we had a few more weeks, tops." Panic spread its cold fingers through her chest as an image of her parents flashed across her mind. Fear was no detriment to a knight, however; if anything, it spurred on the flames of determination to do something, anything, to make a difference. "We gotta go back!"
Drew hesitated. Whatever his decision, she couldn't wait. May turned away and, muscles burning under the weight of urgency, she kicked off against the earth in a frantic run back the way she had come. Harley, Max, Dad…Hold on…I'm coming.
Something sharp yanked back at her hand, pulling her to a stop. May tore her arm free, spinning around to face Drew with eyes blazing bright. "I don't have time for this! If you wanna be a coward, go right on ahead, but I've got my family to save!"
"Yeah and charging in like a wounded dragon is really gonna help you there." Before she could protest, Drew hushed her with a finger to her lips. "Think, Maple. If this really is an attack, then we have to go about this carefully."
Her eyebrow arched. "We?"
Drew sighed. With an obnoxious flip of his bangs, he drew himself upright and flashed her his most charming smirk. Whereas other girls would swoon at such a princely gesture, May only groaned. "Well I can't let my lovely pet-"
"-Charge into battle all alone now, can I?" His expression sobered slightly as he looked over her shoulder, into the distance reverberating with the screams and echoes of terror. "Besides, Max is back there right? We gotta save him. No matter the cost." His lips pulled up into the proud beginnings of a smirk. "There! Was that prince enough for you?"
His suaveness could only last so long. May would've said yes if he hadn't ruined it with that obnoxious afterthought. There wasn't any time for their usual banter, however. "No running away then?" she said hotly.
"No running. Not until all this is over." Even amid the pounding thunder of her heart and the gurgling of her blood, May couldn't help smiling in relief. "But I don't plan on dying today, you hear? Not now. Not like this."
The young knight grinned and tossed him a hearty thumbs up in reply. "That's good because neither do I."
They smelled it first; the sizzle of fire carried upon the whispering back of the breeze, accentuated by stray embers twirling around in a tango with a wind as brittle as the autumn leaves. Goosebumps erupted across May's flesh at the sight of a sprawling city now alight with the reds and silvers of war; sword meeting sword, knife piercing throat, screams meeting murderous howls as the streets were painted crimson. A young boy sobbed among the midst of it all, teddy bear clutched awkwardly within his grimy little hands, and he looked so much like Max that for a heartbeat May nearly jumped into the war zone to protect him.
But then he was swept away in the arms of a civilian. She lurched forward, his name dying on her lips, and it was only Drew's tight grip on her wrist that prevented the knight from bursting out of the shadows.
"Quiet!" he hissed. "That's not Max."
"It could've been though." Hot tears stung at her eyes. What if Max was just like that little boy – somewhere out there, dark hair a diamond mess, sobbing over the disfigured body of dad and waiting for his big sister to come find him –
She shook herself. No. No. Now was not the time to panic. A knight was supposed to be calm in even the most stressful of situations. Harley had told her off time and time again about how easily she'd allow her emotions to take control; she couldn't prove him right in her very first high-stakes test against the odds. Taking a deep breath, May leaned back and yanked her wrist free of Drew's hand. "Alright. Seems your dad was right to be paranoid about spies."
"Yeah, and look where it got him…"
"That's not the point. This isn't some outside attack. Look."
Drew nodded. Instead of enemy soldiers fighting their own, it was peasants against knights; shoddy old weapons and skinny bones against the stocky builds and expensive swords of the King's personal guards. "It's the people." Her breath snagged hard against her throat. "They're rebelling."
Drew's eyes widened in mild surprise. "A revolt. You think they found out about what the King's been hiding from them?"
"I think they're just sick of your father altogether." Drew outwardly cringed at the mention of your father; quickly May shot him a rushed apology, to which he shrugged off with an irritated 'harrumph.' Guilt wedged its icy fingers into her heart as May awkwardly turned back to survey the situation.
"Well…good news – it's not our enemies. Bad news – seems we have some other enemies we didn't know about."
Despite the gruesomeness of the situation sprawling out before her, May couldn't help but relax slightly at the realization that this wasn't some attack by an army without the mercy or patience to leave any survivors. These were the citizens of Vora. Sure, they were revolting, but this wouldn't be the first time such revolutions had occurred, and control was mostly regained after a good few minutes or so. Their target would only be law enforcement. Therefore, Max ought to be safe for now.
"This is all Vora needs." Drew leaned back against the roots of an old tree, his brow furrowed as he watched the devastation unfold. "Dad's already low on guards enough as it is. An attack from within our own ranks?" He laughed. "Now that's gotta hurt. You think Harley's okay?"
"Knowing Harley, he's probably run off until the commotion dies down." Drew made a sound within his throat that echoed his agreement, but despite the nonchalant way in which he rocked back on his heels, May didn't miss the desperate glint in his eyes as he searched the crowd for pink hair and stern, familiar eyes.
"I'm sure she's fine too," May said. "Solidad's way too tough to be brought down in an attack like this. Don't worry so much." Drew shot her an icy look.
"I don't know who you're talking about," he huffed. She couldn't help smiling as he tucked his arms against his chest and bashfully looked away.
Seventeen-year-old Solidad…a girl not only of remarkable fighting prowess but equally sharp wit to match. No doubt she was by the King's side, directing orders and working closely with the other high-ranking officers to resolve this situation. In comparison, her and Drew sitting idly by and watching the uneven battle flow back and forth suddenly seemed rather pathetic. But getting involved would just result in unnecessary injury. Her main job, first and foremost, was to keep Drew out of trouble. This was a situation that didn't require her involvement.
It took around ten minutes for the uproar to die. By then, the fires were under control, and the citizens crowded in a hobbled heap surrounded by the baying of angry war dogs. May had to look away from their tear smudged, dust-stained faces. It was Drew who left the scene first; with the sounds of sobbing and agonized groaning to follow his feet, he walked back into the gloomy depths of the night soaked woods.
May wasted no time in following his footsteps.
Drew was unusually silent as they trekked their way through the forest. Even May couldn't escape the somber atmosphere that hung like a cloud above both their heads. No longer did the sweet smells and sounds of the festival ring out to reverberate against the skies above; now, there was only a deathly silence, and the tang of metallic blood to drift languidly upon the breeze.
Nothing really needed to be said. The words hung soundlessly between them, a gossamer of unspoken sentences that curdled the air sour beneath their weight. King Henry could dress up the truth however he liked, but it would never change the fact that his seeds of corruption had long since sprouted and taken root among the people. They wanted change.
They wanted to live.
And no amount of so-called victory festivals would quench that desire.
"We could still run away, you know," Drew said, stopping still in his tracks to admire the cusp of a yellow blossom in full bloom. With a snap, he plucked the flower from its stem and tossed it in her direction. May caught it, though already the life was flowing outwards from its roots; its petals wilted sadly under the suffocating grip of death.
"You know we can't. We'll never escape this place. Even if we do make it beyond the borders."
"Why? You scared, Maple?"
She poked out her tongue in reply. "As if! Besides…Max and Dad are back there. I can't leave them behind."
"Bring them with us then."
May sighed. "If only it were that easy."
Their conversation was interrupted by a simpering voice that belonged to someone all too familiar. "Say now…is it over?"
Drew rolled his eyes. "Yes, Harley, it's all over. Thank you for your valiant bravery in the eyes of such torment."
He emerged from behind his tree with a fanciful twirl, striking a confident pose before the two as if Drew's sarcastic words held some semblance of truth. "Well, you know how it is! One of the very best and all. It's just a shame the King refuses to recognize what a valuable addition to his forces I am."
The night was empty. The moon was cold. The stars had never been so far away. But for now, even with the threat of death looming on the horizon, even with so many fears and confusing desires and questions to occupy her heart, for now, May couldn't help but laugh. Perhaps that was all she could do in times such as these.
Harley pulled himself upright to give a loathsome sniff. "Yes, because angry revolting citizens and a war that ends in the destruction of Vora really is something to laugh about."
Her finger swept up to brush the gathering tears on her lashes. Maybe they didn't have long left. That much could be true. But whilst they were still alive and breathing, there was hope. Slowly her breathing ebbed back to normal; May pushed back against the trunk of a tree, folding her arms neatly against her chest as she looked up into the wide expanse of inky sky.
"We'll see, I guess. Won't we, Drew?"
He threw her a curious glance. Then, by the tilt of his head, he returned her mischievous nod. "I suppose you're right, Miss Maple. Who knows what the future might bring?"
Harley's eyebrow cracked up a notch, before the splintered workings of a scowl fractured his oh-so-pretty face. "Oh, come on! Again with the scheming? I swear the King will hang me this time if I let you two get away with anything else!"
May and Drew exchanged playful smirks. With a flippant toss of his bangs; "guess you ought to be on your most attentive watch yet then, won't you, my loyal babysitter?"
Vora might be doomed. The war might be lost. But there had to be a way around it; there always was.
For now, at least, she and Drew would spar. For now, at the very least, the present was all that mattered. For now…she could focus on dodging the punches and dealing out hard kicks.
After all, who knew what tomorrow had in store?
Hello! Thank you for reading through chapter one of Gossamer! I'm super excited to work on this fanfic, especially since it deals with one of my childhood OTP - contestshipping, of course, will forever and always hold a special place in my heart. I've especially wanted to explore May and Drew's relationship in a medieval setting; more specifically, with a bit of a role reversal, as I've read a ton of fics where May is the princess and Drew is the knight! (Though that dynamic fits well too!) I thought that this could open up some interesting new avenues to adventure down.
I have done my best to keep things purposefully vague in this chapter. Don't worry, I will be expanding upon the politics of Vora, what Nox actually is, and, above all else, the relationship between our two leads!
Nox - The magic that resides in all nobles; unusually absent from May's blood. Simply speaking, it is the energy and life force that all living creatures thrive off of. Wielding Nox requires much training and skill.
Noctis - A prevalent deity in Vora's religion. Known as the God of Twilight.
He could taste the morning on his tongue. The air was ripened sour like the strawberries of a hot summer's day, and the strong scent of freshly bloomed roses blossomed on the whisper of a breeze. The Royal Gardens were nothing short of a magnificent masterpiece. Indeed, compared to the dusty streets of Vora that lay sprawled beyond, one might even say this was heaven.
Drew certainly thought so. With arms folded behind his neck, he tipped his chin up to catch the first winking glints of morning's light. It didn't take long for that routine shadow to squash the yellow glimmers flickering behind his eyelids. Cracking one eye open, it was – of course – none other than May's cheery face that blotted out the blue of the sky.
He hummed. "Oh. It's you. I thought it might be someone important."
As predicted, her smile cracked. "Y'know, one of these days I'm gonna shove a foot down on that precious face of yours."
"Uh-uh. Careful now. That's a royal prince you're talking to."
"Fifth in line royal prince, might I add!"
It was as normal a morning as could be; so normal, in fact, Drew could almost forget of the imminent war looming on the horizon, or the short-lived rebellion that had taken place just last night. It seemed to have become a ritual of theirs when such bad things happened. Turn a blind eye, pretend they hadn't even witnessed a drop of the injustice that had occurred, and carry on with their normal routine. To think of it was to summon a curdling in his stomach or a sharp clenching in his throat.
"So!" With a mighty plop, May slumped down at his side. "I've got the details on Harley. He's on duty with me for most of the day, but he's also been assigned night-watch tonight. And you know what that means…" Her sly grin said it all. With Harley on night-watch, they could expect their oh-so dependable guard in a sleep like death by twilight. Perfect.
"Then tonight's as good a chance as any."
"Sure is!" Drew couldn't help smirking at the excitement interwoven into her voice.
Say what you want about May. Sure, she was ditzy, a klutz, one hell of a pain in the ass sometimes – but she also had her moments of unflappable dedication and (admittedly rather foolish) kindness. Their secret monthly trips beyond the Kingdom walls were an example of that.
And this might be our last one. The realization struck Drew with a reverberating clang.
May lay back to rest against grass stained earth, bright blue eyes reflecting the hollow golden orb of the sun above. He watched her from the peripheral of his vision as one hand reached out to grasp at a sky so far away, palm open and fingers splayed as if she really believed she could touch the clouds. He could almost hear the echo of her thoughts; just a little more…almost there…!
Drew turned away. The sour chasm in his stomach opened wider, turning his insides into puddles of mush.
They might never get to touch the sky. Maybe their fingers wouldn't even graze the near future.
He swallowed his fear and laid back to lie at her side.
Drew barely heard Roxanne's sharp reprimand over the fervent crowing of a dozen girls at his chest. As per usual, his fan club never missed a beat. "Oh, Prince Drew," a student of ivory hair wailed, grasping onto his arm and pressing her chest uncomfortably close; "we were so worried when we saw the uprising yesterday! Nobody dared hurt you, right?"
"If anyone so much as touched you, Drew, you should hang them by the gallows!"
"Even better," chuckled another darkly, "burn 'em at the stake for everybody to see." She whipped out a fan to stir the golden locks of her ringlet hair. "Honestly, we'd have less trouble from the dogs if we beat some obedience into them every now and then."
Roxanne's hand smashed down upon her table, startling her class into silence. "Alright, that's enough. Everybody back to your seats." Those words were enough to summon a collective groan from all female students present. Drew was secretly grateful as, one by one, their clammy grips on his arms were relinquished, and he was finally free to breathe air untainted by their sour breath.
Teacup School. Otherwise known as 'King Henry's Official Academy for the Royally Gifted.' Big mouthful of a name that tasted like dirt on his tongue, if he were being honest, so Teacup School fit so much better, even if it was a hell of a lot less eloquent. After all, where else would you learn such fascinating subjects like what each of the ten different dinner forks was for, and perhaps most importantly of all, how to properly hold a teacup without offending your suitor. Now that was an interesting read…all 400 pages of it.
(Okay, maybe he was exaggerating a little. Didn't change the fact that sitting through one of Roxanne's ludicrously drawn out classes was akin to hearing long nails tear down a chalkboard.)
"…Now, I'm sure you're all wondering what happened yesterday." Those words were spoken just as Drew slipped into his desk at the front. Damn. No early morning lecture about the best kind of tea to brew for your significant other? It must be serious, Drew thought dryly. Sure enough, Roxanne was leaning back against her desk with arms folded tightly against her chest. The crease in her frown seemed to deepen at her mere mention of last night.
The girl of golden ringlet hair didn't even wait for permission to speak. "My mother said it was an uprising. But the guards got it under control before any major harm was done."
"Yes, well," said Roxanne, "you know how the people are. This war is a burden on everybody's shoulders. The weight of it was enough to send them into a period of madness."
"Was anybody hung for their treason?"
"As of yet, no. However," Roxanne turned back to her chalkboard, "there's a process undergoing examination to determine the leader of last night's revolt. If my information is correct, it was a boy no older than fifteen."
That snagged Drew's attention. One eyebrow cocked in a vague hint of amusement. Huh. So, he's back at it again. And here I thought Ash was dead.
…Which would likely be the case soon, if that bumbling moron didn't stop tangling himself up in politics that were none of his concern. Ash might've been spirited, but he wasn't exactly what Drew would call smart. Sooner or later, his stupidity would catch up with him. And Noctis only knew how May would react when, not if, that inevitably happened.
"We have the finest Knights working 'round the clock to ensure this won't happen again. I do urge you, however, to be careful if you plan on venturing into the more rugged areas of Vora's mainland. Tensions are already incredibly high. Nobles seem to have the people more on edge than usual."
Someone from the back of the room gave a high-pitched laugh. "As if I'd even be caught dead down in that slum. Have you seen the rats? They're huge! My dad said they're big enough to take down a human child."
"Even worse," another whispered, "I heard they keep dragons down there. Real freaking dragons! Like, what the hell? Do they want to be eaten?"
Roxanne's brow twitched. "Enough!" Gradually, the chattering within her class became a low background hum. Their teacher gave a dramatic sigh, as if all too suddenly the painful weight of her job had been hefted upon her thin shoulders. "Honestly, I'd think your parents raised you better than to believe any stupid rumor you come across. I've been down into Vora's slums and let me tell you, it's not nearly as interesting as the stories would have you believe."
No. It's worse.
"Aw." Ringlet girl made her presence known yet again in her trademark pompous way. "Sounds even more boring than this dump! Why you gotta go crushing my dreams like that, Teach'?" Her words were followed by an obnoxious chorus of giggling, and Roxanne's predictable "enough!"
Yeah. It was a day just like any other. Nothing had changed. Nothing would change.
His blood boiled at the thought.
Not yet. Not now. He had to be patient. Wait for the perfect opportunity.
One day, he'd be beyond Vora's walls for good. No leash to hold him back, no royal babysitters to tell him what he could or could not do. No stupid teacup school to preach how a prince should act. He'd be free.
Drew could hardly wait for that promised day to come.
The rest of the day passed by in a blur of motion and jumbled voices. By the time sundown had finally bled out its last drops across the sky, there was still no word of Ash's capture to carry on the breeze. Leaning back against the rails of the porch, Drew attempted something akin to words of comfort. "Even if they do catch him, his trial will take more than a week. He won't die immediately."
May threw him a glare dripping with ire. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
Drew shrugged. Secretly, he was grateful once they lapsed into the usual somber silence of defeat. The news of Ash's role in last night's revolt had spread through the castle like wildfire. For now, he'd evaded capture – but for how long? If May's concern was anything to go by, Drew could only guess that the King had his finest knights and huntsman employed to track him down.
"I thought he was gone." Her hushed murmur shattered the silence into a million tiny fragments. "It's been so long…I'd just assumed he'd taken off. Got outside the walls. Made a new life for himself."
"Who, Ash?" Drew laughed. "Nah. That would be the smart thing to do. Since when was Ash smart?"
"Since always," May replied defensively. She cast her sullen gaze back down to her feet. "I hope he's okay."
Drew found he hoped so too, if only for May's sake. She wasn't nearly as fun to tease when depressed like this.
Night summoned the wide circle of a full moon. He was directed by Harley to his chambers, May to hers, and so they seemingly parted for the night, with only solemn 'goodbyes' to follow in their footsteps. Time ticked by ever so slowly. When the chime of 1:00 am finally filled his room with its knowing breath, Drew wasted no time in slipping out of his bed and taking to hallways lit gold under the embers of their torches.
May met up with him not a moment later. "He's out like a light," she whispered. Good. Apart from Harley, there were a few guards they'd have to navigate past, but thankfully nothing too major. That was the great thing about being fifth in line to the throne; his father hadn't wanted to waste precious resources on his disappointment of a son, and so he was left with minimal security and the freedom to do (mostly) whatever he wanted.
"Brrr, it's cold!" Outside, the night sky bled darkness onto cobbled pavements below. A cold wind nipped at the skin beneath their clothes, leaving bruised goosebumps behind as a mark of its teeth. All was unnaturally quiet. It didn't take long for beautiful stone houses to melt into the dusty brick and weed-strewn pavements of Vora's slums. Flecks of embers still flickered and grasped for dear life among the dying ruins of trampled gardens and torn bodies.
Drew was grateful when they'd finally left the remnants of yesterday behind. The cool, damp air of the forest filled his lungs and stole away the last scorched blemishes of fire-bitten wind. He drunk it in, savoring its mossy taste upon his tongue.
It was a route he knew like the back of his hand. He'd traveled it enough times in his life to know every upturned rock and bush laden landmark. Unlike other nights, however, this journey was far more somber than it ought to be. Just a few months ago, May had filled the air with her laughter and him with his jibes in what had been yet another successful escape beyond the mainland. Now, they trudged on with feet formed from lead. The silence was suffocating. His anxiety, even more so.
Drew paused. "We're here."
He could hear May's breath catch in her throat.
The walls of Vora. Not actually made of tangible brick or stone, no, that would be flawed design on King Henry's part. It would be akin to their Kingdom holding a huge sign of 'here hides Vora! Come and raid us!' Drew almost chuckled at the thought. No, one didn't see Vora's walls, they felt it; ripples of energy that crackled like static through the air, and shifted to bend and melt beneath the weight of his fingertip. Fueled by the magic of Nox, these barriers prevented anyone from seeing within – or venturing out. Unless, of course, a certain someone happened to harness a certain power within their veins…
May stepped back, head bowed. Was that a glint of shame in her eyes? No matter. Drew pressed his hand to the invisible force field, feeling its weight pulsate under his flesh. With a decisive swipe, he whipped his hand across and felt the sparks of thunder jolting through his fingertips. A crack opened up, summoning with it a gush of fresh air. "Now!" Seizing the moment, Drew slipped through, May hot on his heels. Seconds later, the barrier resealed, meshing its translucent threads back together with a sizzling pop.
He could still feel the electricity of Nox surging through his veins, long after his fingers had left Vora's invisible walls and fallen back to hang at his side.
For a long, almost aching moment, Drew and his Knight stood in cold, torturous silence.
It was broken by the sound of May unsheathing her sword. "Okay. We can't stay long, lest we want to face Harley's wrath should he wake up." She fixed him with a stern look. "So don't wander off too far – hey!"
Too late. Drew was already striding the grassy depths of a land free from Vora's corrupted touch. It looked no different to the forest back in his Kingdom, if he were being honest – but the atmosphere? Oh, it was clean, pure, the air fresh as crystalized water and the grass soft and springy beneath his feet. There was no dust to cling to his skin; no broken sobs to echo within his ears.
Nothing but sinless, unadulterated freedom to beckon him onward.
He ignored her.
For the first time in a long while, the smile that tugged up at his lips was genuine.
"Drew, wait up!"
He spun back on his heels to see a frantically puffing May, her eyes wide and shoulders tense in alert. "Seriously, what did I just say?"
"Oh, c'mon. It's not like this is our first time. Loosen up a bit, Maple, would you?"
May scowled. "How can I 'loosen up' when it's so creepily quiet? I feel like I'm being watched," she added with a dramatic shudder. Drew rolled his eyes. Did she have to throw a fit now? Couldn't she wait until they were back in Vora to lecture him?
"Yeah, by who? The trees?" he tossed back icily.
May's head snapped in his direction, blue eyes blazing under the silvery light of the full moon. "It's not funny, Drew! Don't you feel it too? Or is your blood too stuffed with Nox?" He didn't miss the trace of resentment curdling in her tone, turning the words sour beneath its poisonous touch.
May seemed to realize her mistake, for she sighed and allowed her shoulders to droop. "Sorry. It's just…strange. Don't you think? No birds. No insects. Even the wind feels wrong."
Drew quirked up an eyebrow. "Wrong?"
May shook her head, exasperated. "Unnatural. Bad. I think we should go back."
"May, if anything was wrong, don't you think my Nox would let me know?" May went to interject, but he cut her off with a firm finger pressed to her lips. The look she sent him resonated with careful, or I'll bite it off.
Drew didn't doubt it.
Hastily pulling back, he signaled to the wide sprawling woods that stretched out on either side. "Nothing. I don't feel any presence of bandits nearby."
"Hang on!" May froze at the taut terseness twined into his voice. "Yeah…my blood's pounding…I think I know what my Nox is trying to tell me!"
"What?" May squeaked.
"It's saying…whoa, really…it's saying that…May…is a big cowardly pansy." He finished his dramatics by delivering a tiny flick to May's nose. "Yeah. Not like I need magic to tell me that though."
His plan worked. Her sword went clattering to the earth, and she tumbled into him in a mess of flailing limbs and feet. It wasn't rough, nor were her blows sharp; they were the playful punches and disorganized kicks reminiscent to Drew of his childhood, when they'd tossed and scrambled among the Royal Gardens in a flurry of laughter and raw bruises.
They rolled to a stop, their argument melting into echoes of laughter that resonated throughout the cold, lonely woods. This time, May had managed to have the upper hand. "Pinned ya," she teased, "Nox or none, I'm still a force to be reckoned with, huh?"
"You're alright," Drew admitted grudgingly. Seemingly pleased by his backhanded compliment, May rolled off and flopped down to lay at his side. A smattering of stars turned the black sky to silver above. For the time being, it seemed his companion had relaxed. Drew closed his eyes and listened to the thrumming in his blood. Normal. Nobody was nearby. May was worried about nothing.
"This reminds me of when we were kids." Her voice sounded distant as she stared up at the ink smudged heavens, hand outstretched in a direct parallel to what had only been hours before, under a morning sky tainted by the Castle's reek. "Is it selfish to wish I could turn back time? Because I would if I could. I miss hanging out with you before all of…this." She paused, breath tight. "I miss being oblivious to it all."
Drew didn't reply. What was there to say? Yeah. I do too. Because he did. Back before he'd had to fight to even hold a right to May's friendship; back in the days when war, Nox, nobility, none of that had mattered, not an ounce of it, and all they'd cared about was having fun amid rose scented flowerbeds.
If he could turn back time, he would. He'd do it in a heartbeat, if it meant both him and May wouldn't have to face the looming responsibilities of nobility that now weighed so heavily upon their backs.
Not a word slipped past his lips. The sad fact was, she couldn't. He couldn't. No amount of Nox in his blood could change that solitary truth.
Suddenly, May jolted upright. "Get back."
"Now!" she hissed. He wanted to snap back in response to her order, but something about the urgency in her voice kept him from making any biting remarks. Quickly, he scrambled to his feet.
"Up the tree," May ordered.
"Who died and made you Queen?"
"Quickly!" Desperation. He knew that emotion too well. It left May's face bruised with panic. His stomach turned at the sight. Though every nerve in Drew's body screamed at him to argue and bicker at these senseless orders, something akin to commonsense robbed the words off his tongue. May's breath was sharp; her eyes stretched wide; he could almost hear the reverberating thud of her heart, so silent was the night.
He nearly staggered under the plummeting force of realization's punch.
"Go!" And this time he listened. Feet scrabbled hard against the sturdy oak's trunk as he hauled himself up onto the lowest branch; then higher, and higher, until pinpricks of blood blossomed under his fingernails and his bones wailed in protest. He'd just made it over halfway, hauling his form onto a precariously thin skeleton of a bough that trembled like jelly under his weight, when finally, the threat made itself known.
Stupid. How could he be so stupid? In hindsight, it was obvious. The silence, May's tension, the lack of warning supplied by his Nox – they were here.
He'd only ever seen them in illustrations of legend, though it was a widely regarded fact that they did, indeed, exist, and they prowled the night with paws made of smoke and teeth formed from bone. In person, they appeared much less impressive than the stories had so boldly claimed, but nonetheless, their presence still hammered fear into the midnight air.
Imagine a wolf, but larger; no fur, no eyes, just slits for nose and ears, and teeth as white as polished bone. Their ribs poked out their rotting flesh, and bits of skin drizzled down to drip onto the mossy earth below, leaving puddles of melting pink and pussy goo to scorch the grass under its sizzling touch. Drew quickly threw a glance down to May. She was a branch below him, one hand desperately clasped at the empty scabbard that hung at her side.
Oh, they'd really done it now, hadn't they?
The Banetooth might've been blind, but they could navigate the woods at night as well as any hunting owl. Their hearing was unparalleled, their sense of smell even more so. It was rumored that even the slightest vibration could alert these beasts to the exact whereabouts and location of their prey. Not to mention that perhaps most infamous of all, was their immunity to Nox. Which explained why he hadn't picked up on their presence. Drew silently cursed himself for his foolishness.
But why were they here? Of all places? The Banetooth were well-known, yes, but they had never exactly been a threat to Vora. Their homeland lay beyond the Kingdom's grasp, in the distant woods where the leaves never flourished, and winter prevailed all year 'round. He narrowed his eyes as the four creatures came to a halt under their tree, sniffing, breathing, waiting.
He didn't miss May's fingers coiling around her scabbard's grip. Quickly, she shot him a careful look. He nodded his consent.
Though she might not have been the most talented knight, Drew had to admit that she had thought fast on her feet. If stories were all they had to go by, then they might as well give it their best shot. It was said that the Banetooth were deadly, yes, but not exactly smart. May unhooked her scabbard and gave it a testing swing with her arms.
It sailed through the air and crashed into the bushes beyond. Three of the beasts reacted immediately. They tore in the direction of the sound. Drew didn't miss how every paw step made by the ugly creatures left a scorched, steaming hole in what was once fresh woodland earth, a sign of the death they carried intertwined within their flesh as well as their souls.
One, however, remained behind.
It slunk around their tree with foul breath tainting the air yellow.
Then, suddenly, it paused.
Drew felt his blood turn to ice.
It looked up. Logically, he knew it couldn't see him with only those thin red slits for eyes, but it almost felt as if, somehow, it did, and he was sure that it was looking at him now, looking deep into his eyes, hearing all, feeling all, seeing all.
His hands tightened their grip on the branch. Dimly, he was aware of the dull pain of bark piercing his skin, but he hardly felt it under the tension that rendered his flesh numb as a snowy winter's day.
May looked ready to jump down and fight. He was about to break his silence and snap at her to reel it in when, suddenly, the spell was broken. The Banetooth turned away. With a rough grunt to its confused companions, the four beasts streamed back into bushes now crisp with dead ferns. In mere seconds, they had disappeared, and become fragments of darkness once more.
It felt like eons before Drew could muster the courage to speak.
"You think they're gone?"
May was more versed than he was in the lore of the Banetooth. After all, it was a knight's duty to know of every individual threat that lurked their lands and beyond. To Drew's surprise, however, she looked confused.
"No. No, I…they knew we were here. But they didn't do anything." Her brow knitted together. "Why?"
"Maybe they could smell your breath." It was an awkward jab that failed to serve its purpose of lightening the mood. He was almost disappointed when May didn't respond with her usual fluster.
"I'll tell you why."
Both heads shot to the left.
In the tree neighboring theirs, hair as pink as the fluffy swirls of cotton candy, stood a shape all too familiar to Drew's eyes. His heart sunk to the bottom of his feet. Disappointing his father, that was one thing – it was to be expected – but disappointing Solidad? His mentor and good friend? That was something else entirely.
She perched with her shoulder resting against the willow's thick trunk, a stern light of disapproval glimmering in her eyes. "Hello, Prince Drew. May."
May looked to have shrunk three sizes under Solidad's piercing stare. Drew had to admire, however, that despite the anxiety she resonated with every fidget and twitch, she still somehow had the courage to reply with an awkward, "hello, Solidad," of her own.
Drew had his own way of solving conflict. He glanced around, quickly seizing what looked to be a luscious oak leaf in his palm. Not a rose, but it would have to do. "Why, Lady Solidad," he began with a fantastical flourish of his bangs, "has anyone ever told you just how stunning you appear under the moonlight? Really, no woman could ever hope to compare-!"
"Shut it, lover boy. May." She turned her fiery blue eyes onto the awkwardly fidgeting girl. Something akin to compassion softened her stern features. Uh Oh. If there was one thing May hated more than Drew's obnoxiousness, it was pity. And Solidad seemed to be showering her with it now with just one simpering stare. "We all know your condition, but even I would hope you'd have more sense than this. Where's your sword?"
She bowed her head, perhaps to hide the frustration curling down at her lips. "Lost it."
"Drew." She turned back to the Prince, still feebly holding the steam of an oak leaf between his fingertips. "I'd ask where your obedience is, but I think we all know the answer to that question. C'mon. Let's go home."
"Home?" Even under such circumstances as these, Drew couldn't keep the distaste from soiling his tone.
"Yes. Home." With a gleaming spark of silver, Solidad withdrew the full length of her sword. "These are dark times for Vora. Darker times still loom closer. And I think all three of us need to have a good little chat."
Before he could even dwell on the peculiarity of her words, Solidad had leaped from her perch and crashed upright into the earth below. She swung her head up and grinned. May, not wanting to be shown up, gave a determined frown and copied her movements; she crashed into the ground in a clean roll, whipping up to stand on her feet just as the older knight had.
"Drew?" Solidad's grin was almost mischievous in nature. "Want me to catch you bridal style?"
He snorted. "I'll be fine, thanks."
The night hadn't turned out as he had expected. But as he joined Solidad and May to stand on firm earth once more, Drew couldn't help but hope that perhaps these mysteries were the winds of change billowing upon the horizon, beckoning him forward with an ever so dangerous allure.
A Prince could dream, right?
Happy New Years! I hope this coming 2018 will be a splendid year for us all, brimming with love and light! What were your resolutions? Mine was to write every day and smile at strangers.
Well, I won't bore you with idle chatter for too long. I do hope you enjoy the second chapter of Gossamer. Thank you so much for the lovely reviews thus far. They really warm my heart and are important in indicating to me how you guys feel about the story. So keep them coming! It really brightens an author's day.