The wheels of the old carriage groaned and screamed in protest as the horses slowed in front of a house. Before the carriage came to a stop, the driver jumped from his post and opened the door for the sole occupant. A small, dainty hand was placed in his large, calloused one. The woman stepped out, her attire far too extravagant for a journey. As she walked up to the door, her feet strode confidently and lightly. The slippers were a pristine white color—no dirt marred the exterior.
Blonde hair, blue eyes, a perfect lithe figure, the queen of Exultia stood out painfully from her surroundings. She sniffed condescendingly as she regarded the home. She never dared to make this journey before, but the current circumstances prompted her take actions normally beneath her. She paused only once, as if hesitant. But that couldn't be true. She wasn't afraid, not of these people. Excitement and curiosity overcame what insecurities she might have felt, and she stood on the doorstep, waiting impatiently for the driver to knock.
The door opened, and a surprised maid let out a shriek and dropped the basket in her arms.
"Are the lord and lady of the house home?" Cindy demanded, irritated and tired from her journey.
The maid nodded and turned to race deeper inside the home. She closed the door in the process, leaving the queen standing outside.
A few tense moments later, the door opened, and Cindy, who was enraged, was rendered speechless. It was Drusilla: the woman who had stolen Cindy's dream, who Cindy regarded as the wisest, most clever being in all the lands, who she hated more than any other, and who she'd never be able to triumph over.
"Where is Helena?" Drusilla asked, frowning. "And why are you here?" Her eyes held distrust, not that Cindy could blame her.
"I thought she'd come here," Cindy replied truthfully. "She's disappeared. We had an argument, and I had her locked in her room."
Drusilla's mouth opened in shock, and Cindy couldn't help the small smile at the sight. She really was a plain woman. Her hair and eyes were a dull, drab brown color. She didn't have a small lithe figure, but Cindy had to admit that she wasn't fat either. A pity, really.
She took advantage of Drusilla's shock, stepping past her inside the home. "Where is Alexander?" she asked airily.
Dru recollected herself quickly and shut the door. A short laugh escaped her lips. "My, how little you've changed."
Cindy walked through the foyer, into a sitting room. "Well, it seems obvious that Helena isn't here, given your surprise. You never were a good liar, Drusilla." She paused to look condescendingly.
"Oh, are you implying that deceit is desirable? Forgive me for not sharing in the only good quality you possess," Dru's tone was harsh as she spoke.
Cindy sat on the sofa and gazed around the room. "Is he hiding, then? Don't tell me that he's afraid of me!"
"Alex? Afraid of you? How absurd! Helena isn't here, Cindy. You have no reason to be here." Dru refused to sit, instead motioning to the doorway.
Sighing, Cindy stood and stepped past her former step-sister. "But it's been so long since I've last seen him. And your son: what was his name?"
"Yes, Christopher. Does he resemble Alexander? Or does he look more like you?" She paused a moment, deep in thought. "No, he must be closer in looks to Alexander, or you would've brought him along with Helena when you visited that one time."
"Indeed," a male voice agreed.
Cindy's heart raced at the sound of a voice so familiar to her ears, yet distant at the same time. She turned around slowly and let out a cry of dismay as she was met with Alexander's cold, hazel gaze. He had his arm around his wife in a possessive manner, as if she would hurt his beloved. His hair was the same brown color it had always been, tied back with a leather band. His handsome features hadn't changed except to become more prominent. This was the man who had been her obsession—the man who had rejected her heartlessly. Her. Inconceivable as it was. Yet, she still yearned for him even now.
Seeing Cindy's hostile gaze, Alex chuckled and bent to kiss Dru. It wasn't any normal kiss, though. No, this kiss gave the image of melting, of a passionate love that this woman would never feel. But his own taunt had betrayed him, as he should've known it would. His heart had belonged to one woman alone since so very long ago. And he was now looking into the large, brown eyes of a woman who held him captive without even speaking. To most, she was plain…but to him, she was the most beautiful woman to ever grace the lands. And he'd never let another hurt her again as long as he lived. Holding her close to him, he shuddered with the force of his feelings.
"Alex," she said softly. "Helena's disappeared."
Instantly, everything in his vision became a blood-red color. He glared at Cindy with such hatred, she stepped back from the sheer force. "What did you do to her?" he demanded.
"They had an argument," Dru said before Cindy could open her mouth to speak. She glanced at Cindy, and a sinister smile spread across her lips. "She locked her in your old room. Do you remember it, dear? Your father kept you in that room against your will, too, if I remember correctly."
Cindy's mouth opened in shock. Never had she ever imagined that Drusilla—meek, mousy Drusilla—would have the audacity to make him hate her. "But she escaped! And she wasn't alone. Apparently, there was a young witch with them. She disappeared as well."
Alexander was trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to quell his rage long enough to think correctly. He could only see this woman's death in his mind, and that wouldn't bring back his Helen of Troy. No, he had to think.
"What was the witch's name?" Drusilla asked slowly. She had no trouble forming thoughts in her mind. She always had a sagely calm way of thinking things through.
"Melina," Cindy replied, watching Alex's expression nervously.
Drusilla gasped and grabbed Alexander's arm, snapping his attention away from the object of his hatred. "She's gone to make her legs even, Alex!"
He relaxed. "Well, that's fine, then. Why did you gasp? You had me worried, Dru." Yet, his voice still held an edge of uncertainty because her grip had tightened with her silence.
Drusilla remembered the trip she had taken so long ago. She begged Melina to undo the curse so that Helena could have a normal life. How long ago had it been? Oh yes, right after they had visited the castle in Exultia and she had told Helena who her real parents were. The girl cried and screamed… It broke her heart. Melina told her that Helena would have to see her directly. Dru could not shelter her from everything. There was also something that the witch wanted: something that she could only get from Helena if she became…
"She has to become the most beloved in all the lands…" she whispered, terrified.
"Yes!" Cindy agreed. "Helena told me about that! She-"
"I think you've said enough!" Alex shouted, shocking Cindy into silence. He turned his attention back to Dru. "Is there anything we can do?"
She mutely shook her head. "No, her future rests in her own hands…" Tears ran freely down her face as Alexander held her to him and ordered Cindy out of their home. They continued as he tried to soothe her, and as he explained to Melissa what was going on.
Chris had crept downstairs and was eavesdropping, but he couldn't help his outburst when he learned of what would happen to his precious older sister. He raced into the room and into his mother's arms. They consoled each other, the four of them and their servants.
But there was something that Drusilla didn't tell them, something that troubled her more deeply than the curse that was to befall her daughter. Her mind kept replaying the last part of the conversation over and over again.
"The future is bleak. Your sweet daughter will never awaken again."
"What? How can you allow such a thing to-"
"But I'm going to change that."
"I thought that you didn't get involved without-"
"There will be a price. Someone dear to her will die, and another will be on the verge of death. In exchange for saving his life, she will give me a life borne from her."
"You mean that you…" Dru couldn't finish her words.
"Yes. Her first-born child will be mine. He will save us all, and I, too, will die."
But she was never told anything more. Gradually, she learned of the impending doom that loomed in the distance, not yet tangible. And her daughter—her Helena—would be a deciding factor. Would they live freely or become enslaved and killed? She heard of the genocide in other lands. The time was close approaching…but how could Helena give up her child? The very idea was impossible in Drusilla's mind.
Dreary was an awful place, just as the name suggested. Vincent couldn't help the thoughts that entered his mind: Helena would be a fool to hide in such a place. Yet, it was where they decided she would hide. Exult was too close to the castle. Of course, idiotic guards and knights didn't use the same logical reasoning. The fools had actually tried to detain him. Him! The prince of Astaire! Were they completely daft?
King Peter had his uses, though. If nothing else, he persuaded his insane hag of a wife from keeping them in the castle. He even forbade the knights from spying on the group. But those actions didn't stop Vin's hatred for him. He had abandoned Helena, and he would never forgive such a cowardly man, no matter what reasoning was behind his actions.
And as for Helena…
She was perhaps the most stubborn, fool-hardy girl he had ever known. He told her to wait for him, that he'd find a way to get her out (and he had found a way). But when he returned, she had disappeared, and the room was completely untouched. It was as if she had just vanished from the room, as if she could walk through walls…
Then there was the witch, who had also disappeared. A deep dread had filled his heart when he first heard of her absence, and it increased with each moment he saw no trace of the two of them. From what he was able to discern, the witch needed Helena to fulfill some prophecy. But it didn't make sense to him. What could she gain from having Helena become the most beloved in the lands and fall into a deep sleep?
There was no doubt in his mind that Helena could become the most beloved. When that girl decided to do something, nothing would stop her. His mother had once told him that Cinderella had been just as determined and headstrong. But he couldn't believe that such a trait was genetic. No, if she learned it from anyone, it would've been from his Uncle Alexander. That man was perhaps one of the most frightening people he had ever met.
From the start, he knew what he wanted. Nothing stopped him from getting what he wanted in the end. The man had died, if only momentarily, to achieve his desires. If that wasn't determination, Vincent would never know what it was. The man used humor to mask himself, to make others believe he was flighty and unreliable. But hidden beneath the façade was a man who was as calculating and cunning as his wife was wise and knowledgeable. Helena had called him cold, but her beloved "Papa" was just as horrible, if not worse.
Ah, Helena… If Vin closed his eyes, he could see her. There was never a girl more beautiful than her, and her loveliness only became more pronounced as she grew older. Yet, she couldn't see herself as anything other than a monster. She was a fool, a headstrong, stubborn fool. He should've been returning home, back to Astaire. He would have left as soon as she adapted, as soon as she no longer needed him. But she just had to disappear, didn't she? She was so troublesome…
And if only he were honest with himself, he'd understand why he was so frantic. It wasn't because of any obligation. No, this girl: this impudent, obtuse, problematic girl had somehow…become something more. She wasn't just a foolhardy brat. There were other…endearing qualities to her. Like, how she laughed, and how she seemed to care about everyone, even people she merely passed by on the street, and her courage, and those moments when he wasn't cruel to her, and she looked at him with an expression that he couldn't place.
But those thoughts were quickly dismissed from his mind as he continued his search for the little dimwit, the sinking feeling in his stomach making his handsome features etch in agony. Where was she? He had found no tracks…no way of knowing if she was even alive, much less…
"Would you like your fortune told?" an old woman asked, as his small group passed her on the street. A haggard expression adorned her ugly, distorted face. Cordie and Robert shrank back from her gaze, but Eve met it strongly and stepped toward her.
"We're in search of someone very important," she told the woman.
Vincent stepped up next to her, for reassurance if nothing else. "Can you tell us where she is? Is she safe?"
The old woman squinted as she cocked her head at him. "You're familiar, boy. Have we met before?" She shook her head and answered her own question before he could speak. "No, no. But I've met your mother. Is she the queen of Astaire now?"
He nodded, confused. His mother had never told him of this old woman, but she would often visit Dreary for some reason.
"Agatha's granddaughter…I remember her. Gave her good advice, I did," she said, smiling in satisfaction. "And you…" she paused and closed her eyes. "You are looking for…our princess, are you not?"
He was rendered speechless. Had she heard them talking somehow? How else could she have known? The citizens weren't supposed to know anything. Perhaps the servants had spread the news?
"You won't find her here," the old woman said curtly. "She's in Exult, but a keen eye wouldn't be able to detect her in a crowd. You must seek her not with your eyes."
A scowl spread across Vincent's face. If the woman wanted to talk in riddles, he didn't have the time or patience to listen. "Why should I believe you? How do I know that you're not trying to direct us away from her?"
The old woman sighed, her voice slightly raspy when she answered. "Beneath your shirt is a dove necklace. The princess of Exultia has the exact same one beneath her dress. You hide your true feelings, and the cost of such an action will be the loss of what you hold deepest in your heart. Don't let her disappear again. Seek her out. Do not return to Astaire without her."
A smirk spread across his face, and he shook his head. "Again, you speak in riddles, old hag. I've yet to find meaning in your words. Obviously, you want me to find Helena. Is she going to disappear again? Once I retrieve her and bring her back to Uncle Alex and Aunt Dru, I will return to Astaire…without Helena," he added in a cocky voice. "What she does then will be on her shoulders. I've grown weary of playing the part of her hero. Let someone else do it," he said, glancing at Robert, who smiled in return.
Yes, Robert would gladly be her hero. As the image of the ring Robert gave her entered his mind, he envisioned the two of them in the future. She was even more beautiful than now, if that was possible. When he placed the ring on her finger, her eyes welled with tears. She gazed up at him adoringly before she wrapped her arms around him. He swung her around, and Vinny could see the pause on her face before she seemed to discard whatever it was she was feeling. Then she giggled, and the two of them kissed.
That was what she wanted. Vincent was sure of it. Yet, he felt an odd inability to breathe when he thought of the two of them together. Agonizing, to envision something that he deluded himself into thinking he wanted. Obviously, she'd be happier with Robert. Yet, there was something inside of him that kept tearing them apart. Why?
The old woman had seemed to lose interest in him, though. Instead, her gaze was on Eve. For some reason, her expression was somber and distressed. "My dear child," she said softly, "your future-"
"I don't want to know," Eve replied evenly. "Whatever it is that you are about to say—no matter how correct you may be—I'd rather not hear it. If your advice doesn't pertain to Helena, then it doesn't concern me. What did you mean by seeking her not with our eyes?"
"If you passed her on the street, you wouldn't see her. She has been disguised by magic. Instead, you must seek her out with your heart and mind. How well do you know the young princess? You'll find her, I'm sure."
"Grandma Minerva," a young girl cried. "Mama says that you need to go back home." A little, dark-haired girl said before promptly jabbing her thumb into her mouth.
"Of course, darling," the old woman replied. She turned back to them, her eyes keen on Eve. "Sacrifice and loyalty will make you timeless," she rasped. "I have not said too much, have I?"
Eve smiled slowly before shaking her head. "Thank you for your help."
It was long after the old woman had left, while they were preparing for the journey to Exult, that she allowed herself to think about what the woman had said…and how she had acted. While her heart raced, and she felt panicked, there was a part of her that understood. Sacrifice and loyalty: her friendship with Helena was perhaps the only highlight in her life.
A short, fulfilled life was better than a lifetime of bleak insignificance. Already, she had seen far more than she'd ever hoped or dreamed. She'd met many interesting characters, and she had a true friend. To go from being a servant to the equal of a noble was something unheard of. There were things she still wanted to do: marry and raise her own family.
But Helena…she was so very important. She was the first to look at her not by her status. A child so strange as to see her as a person instead of a servant… No matter what happened, even if she had to follow her to the ends of the earth, Eve would make sure that nothing happened to her friend. She wouldn't let Helena sleep for an eternity, but the possible suitors were few and had much to be desired.
The one person who suited Helena was the one person who refused to see himself with her. Somehow, though, for Helena's sake… Yes, for Helena's sake, she'd find a way. She had to, because the alternative was bleak for not only the two of them…but everyone who lived in all the lands.
Yet, those two words encircled her head, taunting her with the possibilities of what they could mean. If they would make her timeless, then perhaps their exploits would be recorded in a book. But that didn't explain the grim expression on Minerva's face. No, there was a darker meaning behind those words. It was a meaning that she didn't want to think of, because it frightened her to such an extent that she lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling long after she had blown out the light on the nightstand.
Melina smiled as she sat behind the counter of a small shop selling various useful items. She had found "Rose" similar work and was quite pleased with herself. Already, there was a widespread panic among the seers and fortune-tellers. In fact, had she not blessed a few with a gift she liked to call threading: the ability to see possible outcomes if something changed, the Enchantment Council would've held a meeting.
Since she held a prominent seat, it would've been very bothersome indeed. Thankfully, though, the president of said council had been one of the few she deemed worthy enough to bless. Strange, though, that the old woman still didn't die. She had to give Minerva credit when credit was due. The hag was certainly tough, tough enough to learn the secret of longevity.
It wasn't the same as immortality. No, only three had ever achieved such a state, and it came at such a heavy price. Once it was achieved, though, it seemed like more a burden than a gift. Now, there were only two that remained, for even immortality could be ended if under the right circumstances. Her own future was visible to her—the paths she could choose, and, eventually, her death.
Immortality, of course, meant eternal life, so perhaps immortality really couldn't be achieved, because even she could be killed. The circumstances were painfully obvious, and she had almost fallen to them before. It wasn't easy to steel one's heart against everyone and everything. The only way for those "immortals" was to be killed by someone you loved. And she would be killed by…
The door to the shop opened, and Rose stepped inside, red-faced and outraged.
"Why aren't you managing the other store?" Melina asked curiously.
Her hand clenched at her side as she struggled to quell her rage. Finally, she breathed out and relaxed. "I quit. That man had the audacity to suggest…to suggest…"
Melina's eyebrows rose in an almost mocking manner. "To suggest…?" she urged.
Rose's gaze darkened, and she pointed a finger at the other woman. "You already know what happened, don't you?" she demanded.
It was then that Melina chuckled softly.
"That horrible, horrible man!" Rose exclaimed. "Nobody would have ever dared to speak to me in such a way before! I don't understand it. I'm hardly beautiful, and he already proposed and decided that he wanted me to bear his children! And he didn't even have a ring, as if it was normal to not have a ring!"
Melina's chuckles soon changed into outright laughter, and she found that she couldn't breathe.
Rose glared at her. "This time, I choose how I want to look and where I want to work."
Melina calmed enough to agree with her. Then, she listened as the girl described how she wanted to look, different enough to not be noticed, but not enough to be considered ugly and desperate to be married.
"It's because you appear so innocent that people try to take advantage of you," the witch remarked dryly as she pictured how Rose wanted to look.
Rose made an irritated sound in her throat. "You sound like the prince of Astaire," she replied just as dryly. "And I wasn't appearing innocent. I dropped one thing, and he thought that I was miserable and depressed. Perhaps I may have been. I've never been avoided when I was walking on a street before. And people didn't look at me as if I were a horrible monster."
An object fell from the counter to the floor, and Rose stopped talking, confused and frightened. "That was far away from us," she said softly.
Melina smiled. "Pick it up for me. It's a box with different pictures on each side. Tell me which picture is lying on the ground."
Rose walked over to the far side of the counter and bent to pick up the object. She looked at the underside before she placed it back on the counter. "It's a bird," she observed.
Melina's mouth upturned into a smile. "Your companions are coming to us, Rose dear."
Instantly, the girl fell silent. The thoughts that swirled in her head were as obvious as if they were visible. How would they recognize her? How would she be able to tell them who she was when the knights and guards were watching this town with an astute eye and ear?
The same box fell again, this time scaring a shriek from the younger girl. It was Melina who picked up the box this time, and it was the jackal that appeared on the underside. So, that had also begun. Then the wheels of fate were already beginning to turn. But she still had time. The campaign was years away from them. She closed her thoughts from the bloodshed and cries of anguish. The genocide sickened her, reminding her of a time she longed to forget.
The time when she, Lycan, Eriwyn and Ciel had all been close… It had been before the betrayal, before the Great War that lasted for fifty long years. Her ears and eyes were familiar with the needless bloodshed, with the slaying of innocents in the name of righteousness. When was it ever right to kill someone who didn't deserve to die? But she had to turn her thoughts, memories, nightmares inward because Rose was watching. Sweet, innocent Rose, who had yet to sully her hands in all of this: she had her part to play. Her innocence to the world would be lost. She, too, would know the pain of watching those around her die.
After all…the bird showed Melina exactly what she needed to know. As much as she respected Minerva, the woman had tried to hinder her plans. She didn't succeed, which was a miracle in itself. The woman had a habit of meddling, which was why Melina was holding her breath, waiting for the hag to die. She had no control over what happened to their companions with them separated as they were.
If she left Rose for only a moment, none of the futures looked good. Sighing, Melina waved her hand, and Rose's appearance changed. The girl was too vulnerable by herself, and vultures constantly circled her wherever she went. No matter how strong she thought she was, Rose had fatal flaws: compassion and naivety.
Normally, they were virtues: to care about people and trust them openly. But where they were now, in this town of brutal, indifferent, sadistic beings, they would swallow her whole. Perhaps it was a blessing that the girl was always accompanied and protected by a boy who was just as indifferent and sadistic as they were. Not that either of them would see it as such…
The wheels of destiny had already begun spinning since long ago, when Melina had first given Agatha Grayson those two doves. Their fates were already in her hands, no matter what they thought they wanted. A smile graced her face as she remembered Agatha's confusion.
She had met so many interesting people in her lifetime, many memorable, but even more forgettable and regrettable. The girl's mother had been one of the many she regarded as insignificant. And yet, the girl was raised by one of the few people who would prove to be an asset to Melina.
The future was calling, just beyond the horizon. What it held was still a mystery. Many seers saw darkness, fog. Melina saw the threads of possibility. She had found the right thread…providing there were no snags along the way.
Author's Note: This is the end of Book 1! If you're worried about Book 2, don't be. The first chapter will be up along with this one, so look for it! This is due mainly because C. Aleshi drew a picture! So, it's a double update. Although, I think that I'll make it a triple update with Lycan's story too. Yeah…that's what I'll do.
Special Thanks to the following for reviewing: miss-life, Lionesscouer, The Light of Earendil, Solestis, Riley Hunter, Iphegenia101, Written, cls81690, Faith Adeline, AestheticBreezyDoll, Crystal Royale, Pen Killer, aferdeity, Carrie, Shayla and xXReader.Desu.YoXx. Have I ever mentioned how much I love hearing what you think of my stories?
CARRY! Does that mean Helena's going to have a baby?
Yes, eventually. But she can't have a baby if she's sleeping for an eternity… Ah, what a dilemma… But you guys are smart! Hah, you picked up on that quick. And here I thought that I was doing some kind of brilliant foreshadowing, but I suppose that this chapter pretty much gives it away anyway…
Are you going to post the second book right after the first, or will there be a hiatus of sorts?
Well, thanks to C.Aleshi, I'm posting this chapter and the first chapter of the next book. So, no hiatus…which means I should actually get back to writing (only on chapter three at the moment…heh heh…but college has been getting to me!).
A/N: Wow…there wasn't much of a Q&A this time around…pretty much because everyone asked the same question. You guys are seriously astute, I swear. Oh, and Alex and Dru were back for this chapter (I know you missed them!). See you in the next book!