Responsibility is a bitch, isn’t it?
My whole life was mapped out for me even before my conception and the details of my birth, childhood, and role in society have been fashioned specifically to accommodate what would eventually be my downfall. But I’ll get to that part later. I’ve learned soon enough that everything happens for a reason.
My name is Yasmin Knine and I am the current heir of Sol, the third realm of the Veil. My older sister Nadia is the current ruler, but once she marries Tatiana, Princess of Jupiter, she’s ruling by her side and handing me the crown.
It was for that exact reason that I found myself at the edge of a cliff ready to plummet down into a valley a hundred feet below. Overlooking the barren cliffside, I pushed my worries of taking over aside and focused on the lush undergrowth below me. From this vantage point, I could see a large expanse of Caesar, the fifth realm of the Veil. Deep hues of all the colors in the spectrum graffitied the land and the trees swayed in unison as the crisp breeze swept up a whirlwind of purple dust into the sunset. The view stole my breath and if it hadn’t been for the voice down below me telling me to jump, I would have let the beauty suffocate me.
“What are you waiting for, you coward?”
I looked down to where Jude stood. He was a tiny speck amongst the tall evergreens but his pale strands burned a clear gold in the orange hue of the setting sun.
“Shut up!” I yelled back. “Don’t distract me or I’ll lose my nerve.”
As I stepped closer to the narrowing edge, my heart sped up. As far as finding distractions from my responsibilities at court I could probably go a less dangerous route, but nowhere in all seven realms could you get scenery like this. A loud screech stole my attention and I glanced up to see a Caesarian bird looming above. Its body, five times my size, was set in flight. Its bright red feathers, interwoven with a speckling of yellow glistened in the paling light, making it seem as if it were on fire.
“It’s now or never, Yasmin,” Jude called from the ground. “Jump!”
Taking one final breath, I spread my arms out and leaned against the wind. My instincts told me to close my eyes, but I had come too far to miss the view I’d be treated with once my feet left the ground. In no time I was weightless, air whipping through my dark strands as I fell. For a moment, my heart stopped before rising up into a crescendo.
Doubt gripped at me for a moment. What if I had miscalculated and this truly was my end? I realized with sudden clarity that getting crushed to a million pieces was hardly the way I wanted to go. Gods, had I made a mistake? Nadia would be so livid. The ground rushed up to meet me and I held my breath waiting for the impact, but the Caesarian swooped down below me and I landed heavily onto its backside. Relief flooded through me. Who said you couldn’t trust the birds in Caesar?
I heard Jude’s loud, “Whoop! You did it!” as the bird dived down before curving up towards the sky and then out to the valley. I held onto its thick mane and opened my eyes against the thick gust of wind rushing against my lids. What met my sight astounded all my senses. Rivers of yellow, violet and greens hummed with life and the sweet chill of glaciers sent goosebumps down my body as we flew higher and higher into the mountains. I turned back to look for Jude, but the bird had traveled too far for him to be visible now. I was too caught up in everything around me to care for very long. For a while I remained a slave to my surroundings and engulfed myself in this weightless moment. We looped through the forests unburdened with court duties and Nadia’s expectations of me.
I hadn’t realize that it had been there a while until the sun had set and the great glaciers and verdant evergreens were nowhere in sight. I wasn’t ready for my ride to end, but I knew Jude would be worried and my sister would be pissed if she came to my room only to find it empty. She made it extremely clear what would happen if I was caught sneaking out again.
I gently tugged on the nape of my carrier to get its attention and whispered, “dimissus.” The Caesarian descended and bowed its head to the ground so I could slide down from its neck. I kissed its soft down to thank it and it gave one final purr before soaring back up into clouds leaving me in the midst of hovering trees and towering boulders. At first it felt peaceful being under a canopy of stars, but a piercing growl tore through the night and it struck me that I was without a doubt alone in unfamiliar territory. Even worse, I was lost.
I had only been to Caesar a couple of times, but I never traversed farther than the valley and the cliff. I always counted on Jude to lead the way. The Fifth Realm was hardly the most wicked of all seven, but any section of the Veil held the potential for danger. Especially at the rise of the Winter Solstice when night crawlers grew nigh and dark witches relied on this time of the year to practice their most dangerous spells. It was during this season that the air grew coldest and the shadows stretched longer than the sun.
Another vicious growl echoed and a high pitched snicker followed close behind. It amazed me just as much as it scared me how easily Caesar could turn from a verdant Haven to a frozen hell in between the moments of twilight.
Despite my unfamiliarity with the realm, I remembered my training in Academy and endeavored to remain calm.
Step one: Assess your surroundings. Ahead of me lay a forest and to my right lay a shallow cave. Behind me a river flowed rapidly down into an infinite abyss that Caesar was infamous for.
Which led me to step 2: Decide the best course of action. The abyss was an absolute no go. Although I’m sure I would be able to find some good conversation were I to meet up with someone in the infinite void as we endlessly freefell.
The forest was my only option if I wanted to keep moving and the cave would do if I wished to wait till morning. If I chose the latter, Nadia would kill me for not getting home in time, but if I went through the forest I could get chewed up by the creatures of this realm.
After much thought I concluded that Jude had already gone back to Sol to tell Nadia and that she had already dispatched a band of guards to come find me. I opted to stay. I made my way to the dark mouth of the cave and for absurd reason, knocked on the entrance.
“Hello?” I inwardly laughed at how stupid I must’ve looked knocking into a dark hole and expecting a response, but nothing came. Finding the surplus of bravery that remained after cliff-diving, I enveloped myself in the swarm of darkness and sat down on the hard ground. Pulling my legs to my chest, I rested my head on my knees. My adventures of the day caught up with me and gravity pulled at my tired eyes. Giving in, I closed them and waited for morning.
A soft caress woke me. My lids were too heavy to open so I felt around me instead. Something soft cushioned my body and a sickly, sweet stench of roses intertwined with an unpleasant smell I couldn’t identify. Was I home? Had they found me and brought me back? I tried to rub my eyes open, but the movement was met by resistance. My arm dropped back down with a clang. I yanked harder, but to no avail.
“Shhh, child. Do not fret.” The voice sounded like gravel being tossed around in a bowl and fear escalated my body. That was definitely not Nadia and this was definitely not home. Without warning, the cold hand that woke me pried my eyes open and an old hag came into view. “Such pretty hair,” she cooed as she fingered her red, stringy locks. “And those brown eyes look so delicious.” She cracked a smile, but all that was visible were yellowing gums. A white film glazed over her irises and her pupils were non-existent. She looked blind, but I could feel her stare piercing through mine.
I tried to push myself up, but chains held me to a bed of leaves. I opened my mouth to talk, but my voice felt like a desert. The hag silenced my protests with a wrinkled finger to my lip. It smelled my rotting meat and roses.
I ignored the urge to vomit and my voice shook as I pleaded, “Please, let me go.”
She ignored me and instead stroked my face with longing on her features.
Hags were once witches of the Southern Veil, famed for their beauty and powers. If a one was ever found in the north, away from their homeland, it was because they had been exiled for breaking a covenant to Hetia, their goddess of light magic. Any witch that is away from their motherlands for too long turns into one. Their bodies decayed while their soul remained eternal, never having the benefit of a sweet death they could only experience in their plane. It was because of this state that hags often preyed on the flesh of young women and ate of it to attain beauty, even for just a little while. It was clear by the stench of this cave and the rotted sores on her body, that this shrew had been here a while.
Maybe this one was different, I reasoned. Maybe she just wants a friend? The possibility of ever encountering a nice hag was slim to none and I was without a doubt screwed, but I couldn’t stop the little sliver of naive optimism that escaped me.
She drew a candle close to my face and a steady flow of black wax dripped down and landed on my cheek, earning a wince from me. Then her hand came up to place a rusted dagger with a blunt edge on the bed and all thoughts of a good resolution left me. I struggled against my bonds, but the metal cut into my skin and the pain was too much to bear. She turned away from me and began mixing her ingredients together, chanting as she crushed items into her bowl.
Calm, Yasmin. Remain Calm. I stifled the bout of panic trying to escape me.
Step one: Assess. Chains, check. Loss of hope, check. Old hag about to eat my skin off, check. We were no longer at the mouth of the cave which meant the shrew had probably moved me deeper into the dark hole, making it impossible for me to be visible by any resident of Caesar. I had to rely on myself to get out of this situation.
I saw that the knife was just a few inches from my fingertips and if I could just reach it– the hag loomed over me suddenly and slathered a thick paste on my forehead. It was cold to the touch and dripped down to my temples.
I stopped reaching and waited for her to get closer. In no time, her face was inches from mine. I let instinct take over and slammed my head against hers, knocking the hag to the ground. Her eyes flooded red and I knew she couldn’t see through her anger. Literally. She rose and screeched, but it was suddenly drowned out by a cacophony of howling.
I could recognize those howls from anywhere. Wolves. But not just any wolves. These were tracking canines of the Sol realm. Which meant Jude was here. I just had to buy myself enough time till they found me.
It was then that another wave of fear threatened to strangle me. I had wolves and Jude to rescue me from this altar, but no one could save me from Nadia.