Having spent a good part of the night crossing the Howling Forest and catching up with master Khalgos, both Esthor and Rulf were exhausted from all the activity and were in desperate need of some rest. They had no time to waste, as tomorrow they would have to tackle another mission - finding the perfect parts for crafting Esthor's new magic scepter. This meant that they had to be well-rested and prepared for another journey.
"If you boys don't mind, I will leave you two alone tomorrow. I'm going to try and get that book back, and I think I could use Pepin's help with that," Khalgos said.
"Of course, master. We'll be fine," Esthor replied, standing next to Rulf and trying to suppress a yawn.
"Alright then. I don't know about you, but I'm going to turn in. I don't have much sleeping space, so I hope you boys are fine with sharing a room," the master added with just a hint of mischievousness in his voice, which Esthor didn't fail to pick up on.
"It's fine," Rulf and Esthor blurted out at the same time, shrugging it off like it was no big deal.
"I thought so," Khalgos smirked. "The room is just over there," he pointed at a door upstairs and proceeded in the other direction, to his own master bedroom.
Taking Esthor by the hand, Rulf led him slowly up the stairs, careful so that he doesn't trip and fall. As they entered the room, the Lykos stopped in his tracks, clearing his throat.
"Is there something wrong?" the blond man asked as his companion dropped his hand.
"Umm, there's only one bed in this room," Rulf mumbled, feeling awkward.
"Is that going to be a problem?"
"Uh, no, not for me."
"Ok then," Esthor chirped. "It better be comfortable because I'm exhausted!"
Once again, Rulf gently took hold of Esthor's hand and led him to the bed. With a yawn, the sorcerer sat on it, taking off his shirt and pants. Wearing nothing but his underwear, he ran his fingers through his long, blond hair and let it fall back perfectly into place.
Transfixed with the view in front of him, Rulf just stood and watched until Esthor's voice brought him back to reality.
"So which side of the bed do you prefer?"
"Sure... Uh, I mean, either is fine, you choose," he replied, taking off his own clothes and contemplating how much to undress. In the end, he decided to do the same as Esthor, leaving only his underwear on.
His immediate thought was that it was a bad idea, as he started shivering from the cold, but as soon as he blew out the candle that burned next to the bed, got under the covers and felt the sorcerer's warm body next to him, he relaxed. Once again, he had to wonder if the heat was all natural or perhaps magic played some part in it, but he mentioned nothing.
"Thanks for all the help," Esthor whispered as he turned toward him.
Although he was tired, he wanted to exchange a few words with the Lykos first. After all, he knew it would be hard to fall asleep next to the man who had already set fire to a spark inside of him.
Their legs were now touching and Rulf was finding it hard to breathe. How could this man next to him be so beautiful and stir such feelings in him?
"You're welcome. I'm glad to be here for you," he whispered back, turning just his head toward him.
As a comfortable silence settled in between them, the Lykos finally found the courage to turn on his side to face the sorcerer, moving closer and placing a hand over his waist, eliciting a shudder from Esthor. The warm, soft skin under Rulf's fingers felt wonderful, making his throbbing member fully hard. He laid perfectly still, feeling as though just one touch or word from Esthor would make him explode.
In complete darkness, Esthor listened to Rulf's breathing and could feel his warm breath on his skin. He began to imagine how the handsome Lykos looked right now, his nearly naked body next to him. Still, he dared not make a move.
A few minutes later, Rulf noticed Esthor's breathing had slowed down. He must've fallen asleep, poor guy, he was so exhausted - he thought, barely restraining himself from leaning closer and kissing him. Merely minutes later, the Lykos was out as well, oblivious to the fact that their almost naked bodies were now firmly pressed against one another.
As soon as he woke up the next morning, Khalgos quietly conjured up a light breakfast so as not to wake his guests, after which he brewed himself a hot cup of lemongrass tea. He expected the boys to sleep in so he decided not to wait for them, instead heading out immediately to visit Pepin. The sooner they get down to business the better, he thought, saddling his horse and departing.
The old healer’s house was situated by the river, overlooking large fields abounding with various herbs, many of which Pepin used for his healing recipes. That was one of the main reasons he chose to settle down at that location, as it allowed him to easily gather ingredients for his potions whenever he needed them.
About an hour later, the familiar white house appeared in front of Khalgos, and the old sorcerer dismounted his horse, tying him up to a nearby tree. Following the path made of light gray stones, he reached the house and knocked.
“Khalgos, this is a surprise!” Pepin greeted him as he opened the door and moved aside to let his guest in. “Come on in. I hope you come with good news. How is Esthor doing?” Pepin asked, turning away to pour Khalgos a drink, as the sorcerer entered and sat at the kitchen table. The healer had been immensely happy when Khalgos told him that Esthor was in fact alive a few days ago, but the old sorcerer didn’t share much beyond that.
“Good, all things considering. He actually came to visit me yesterday.”
“Really, that’s good. How did he even manage to get out?”
“As incredible as it sounds, he’s a shifter! All this time and he had no idea.”
“That is remarkable! Gods have been looking out for him, it seems! What is he then?" Pepin inquired, sitting down at the table after pouring a drink for himself as well.
“A fairyfly. Explains how he managed to get out of the damn cell they threw him into,” the sorcerer replied bitterly, still angry at the king.
“And how is he coping with… you know,” the healer asked, dropping his head to avoid Khalgos’ gaze. He still felt guilty about the whole thing and didn’t have the courage to admit his cowardice. Who knows, maybe Esthor had already told him, he wondered. Still, he regretted his role in it and was trying to make up for it as best he could.
“He’s putting on a brave face, but I think it’s harder on him that he lets on. He’s not alone, though.”
“Of course not, he’s lucky to have you,” the healer nodded.
“That’s actually why I came. We need your assistance again.”
“Of course, whatever I can do to help.”
“The thing is, he left one of his books back at the castle and I was wondering if you could go and retrieve it for us. I don’t believe I’d be welcome, considering my relationship with Esthor.”
“True… What’s the book, how can I find it?”
“It’s an old tome with dark purple covers, titled ‘Illnesses and Cures’. He says he left it in the laboratory,” Khalgos elaborated. “I think it could help us restore his eyesight.”
“Seriously?” Pepin exclaimed, wide-eyed. “That is indeed good news!”
“So, we can count on you?”
“Of course. I shall go shortly. If you wish to stay here and wait, you’re welcome.”
“Thank you, but I have to run some errands and stop by Esthor’s house, pick up some of his clothes and other items. I’ll return here later.”
After saying their goodbyes, the healer saddled his pale horse and departed to the castle, hoping to get in and out as quickly as possible without attracting much attention. He could always say that he forgot his own book, but he didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. After Arabella’s unfortunate end and Esthor’s imprisonment, Pepin wanted as little contact with King Norius as possible. Not only was he disgusted at what the king did, but he was also afraid of him.
Having greeted the guards who then allowed him into the castle, the healer headed upstairs, straight to the wing where the laboratory was located. As he took a turn, hurrying to reach his destination, he almost got knocked over as a young man bumped into him.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the man he had never seen before.
“Don’t worry, son, it’s my fault as well. I wasn’t paying attention,” Pepin replied, eyeing the man. He was dressed in the finest garments, which indicated his high standing. Must be some kind of a lord, he thought, excusing himself and continuing on its way.
Unfortunately for Pepin, the laboratory was filled with royal healers who looked busy, as if in the middle of some research. As he entered, a few of them raised their heads and greeted him, while others seemed too deep into their studies to pay any attention to him.
He quickly scanned the room, but could not locate Esthor’s book anywhere. Moving over to the shelves, he searched for the tome that matched Khalgos’ description, but to no avail. Perhaps one of them have already gotten their hands on it, he thought, observing several men sitting at a long table and reading various scrolls and books laid out in front of them. Pepin realized he would have to search the room thoroughly in private, which would not be possible right now, so he excused himself and left, deciding to try again later, when the room was empty. Tonight, perhaps…
After a big afternoon meal, Prince Terryn was relaxing in his room, sitting by the window and looking outside, observing the guards training with swords and spears. Maybe I could join them, he thought – at least I’d get some exercise instead of sitting here like a potted plant.
“I wonder how King Norius would react to that,” he muttered to himself. “And I don’t imagine that bore Zane would like it much.” That put a smirk on his face, thinking of how annoyed the commander would be.
At least there’s been no mention of marriage proposals yet, and I barely even saw the two princesses. Even better, Terryn thought, when he suddenly heard a knock on the door.
“Yes? It’s open.”
“It’s me, Your Highness,” Huck said, opening the door and putting just his head through. “May I come in?”
“Please do! I’ve been dying of boredom here,” the prince sighed.
“Then I’ve got just the thing for you,” the servant whispered as he shut the door behind him, a playful smirk on his young face.
“Oh?” Terryn raised his eyebrows, his eyes suddenly coming alive, making his whole face light up. “Don’t tell me anything even remotely interesting is happening here?”
“You’d be surprised. Turns out you can find out a lot when you hang out with other servants.”
“I’m all ears,” the prince said, gesturing to Huck to sit next to him on the couch.
“Uh, first of all, you should know it’s some rather disturbing news,” Huck warned, waiting for the prince’s approval to continue.
“Alright? What is it?” Terryn asked, nodding. He'd always had a curious nature, it was something he just couldn't help.
“Well… I found out what really happened to Princess Arabella,” the servant said, looking at the prince, whose eyebrows once again shot up in curiosity. “About a week before your wedding, she was attacked by a Lykos and infected with the Fever. Apparently, he broke into her room one night.”
“Oh my Gods!” Terryn gasped. When he was told she died from an illness, he never imagined it was something that horrible and... violent.
“There’s more. The king called some sorcerer, Esthor I think, to try and heal her.”
“But there’s no cure, right?”
“Exactly. So, this sorcerer killed her out of mercy. The king then caught him, took his eyes out and threw him into the dungeons,” Huck whispered.
The prince’s jaw dropped and without even realizing it, he just stared at his servant dumbfounded for a few moments, processing the shocking news. Never in a million years did he think King Norius was capable of something like that. Before this, he saw him as just another elderly, boring king, much like his dad, but now… He did not want to get on his bad side, that was certain.
“Oh, and guess where that hallway leads? To the dungeons,” Huck added as the cherry on top.
After his servant left, Prince Terryn mulled over the information he was just given, still finding it hard to believe. To think that the princess was killed just before their wedding, and by that sorcerer...
“Esthor, Esthor…” he muttered, racking his brain. The name rang a bell, but he couldn’t place it for the life of him. Suddenly, the puzzle pieces all fit and a knowing smile spread across his face.
“Of course! How could I forget!”
Esthor was well-known for his sorcery even in the kingdom of Thorodan. His dad even hired him a few times for some missions that apparently only he could carry out. Maybe this time he could help me out, Terryn thought, devising a plan.
If I help him escape, he could cast a spell or two on my dad, Terryn thought. That’s the only way he’d ever let me live my own life instead of making me spend my youth sitting by his side, waiting to become the next king.
Arming himself with patience and courage, the prince waited until the night fell and everyone went to bed. He considered letting Huck in on the plan, but then changed his mind. The fewer people knew about it, the better.
Opening the door to his room as quietly as possible, he stealthily snuck out and headed down the hall, making sure his boots and sword - which he brought just in case - made as little noise as possible. There were torches on every corner, providing just enough light so he wouldn’t stumble and fall down the stairs. He was also perfectly aware that there would probably be guards on duty, patrolling the halls even at night, meaning he had to be extra careful.
As he slowly turned left, looking behind to make sure he wasn’t being followed, he bumped into someone, blood freezing in his veins. That’s it, I'm going to get caught and have my eyes gouged out by the king, he thought. Looking up, he recognized the face immediately – it was the same person he ran into today, an old guy in a white robe.
“You again,” Terryn whispered.
“Yes, uh, I apologize. We seem to be bumping into each other quite often,” Pepin replied, keeping his voice low. He noticed the young man was probably as nervous as he was, maybe even more. Who was he and what was he doing here? Although he was awfully suspicious, he decided not to ask anything. It wasn't his problem anyway.
“Yes, I’m sorry about that. I was just returning to my room,” the prince said, noticing the old man was hiding something behind his back.
“Carry on,” the healer replied, hurrying down the hall and putting the precious book he had found in his satchel. As soon as he was out of sight, Pepin went to the nearest window, swiftly shifted into an eagle and flew out, heading toward Khalgos' home.
Taking a few steps back to check on the strange old man, Terryn looked back into the hallway but he was nowhere to be seen.
“What the…? Where did he go?” he muttered, before realizing he had no time to waste. This was a close call and it mustn’t happen again. If he ran into a guard, or worse yet – Zane, he would not be having a good time!
As soon as he descended down the stairs, he turned right and recognized the hallway from yesterday. Looking around to see if there was anyone present, Terryn waited for a few moments listening for any movement or other noises. Finally satisfied that the coast was clear, he hastened down the hall, unlocking the door at the end of it. As he opened it, the old, heavy door started creaking, making the prince freeze in place. To him, the slight squeaking noise sounded as loud as if the hounds of hell were released, roaring loudly at some foolish trespasser.
Squeezing through the barely opened door, Terryn saw another set of stairs in front of him, but this one was much narrower. The air was stale and warm as if no one had entered the area in years. Grabbing a torch from the wall, he descended down the stairs, finally reaching the dungeon level.
"Well, this is it," he whispered to himself, wishing he had brought Huck with him.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all, the thought crossed his mind as he observed the filthy, tiny cells, imagining what it would be like if he was trapped in one of them. He dreaded the very thought of it.
Windows were nothing more than brick-sized openings that let very little light and fresh air in, amplifying the feeling of claustrophobia and being trapped.
Passing a series of empty cells and turning a corner, he suddenly stopped when he heard some movement in front of him.
"Well, well, never thought I'd see you here," a familiar female voice was heard, sarcasm evident in the tone.
He knew that voice, but who was it... As he approached the cell and raised his torch to get a better look, he saw the familiar face, only this time dirty and with disheveled hair.
"You!" he whispered, staring wide-eyed at the pale girl with black hair.
"You sound surprised. Are you saying you didn't come here to see me?" the Shade asked in a mock-offended voice, making the prince roll his eyes.
"Don't tell me, you're here about the wizard too?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," Terryn frowned, wondering what exactly did she know about him and who else was looking for him.
"No surprise there, he seems like your type."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, you seem like one of those guys... Like Prince Patrick and Lord Cody," she smiled.
Terryn scoffed at the remark. He had heard all about Prince Patrick of Lapporoth, the first prince to marry another man. He and Lord Cody had never hidden their relationship, but they were lucky, as the northern kingdom of Lapporoth was the most progressive in that sense. The two young men had even received a blessing from the High Priest Mason, which was a welcome precedent by the church.
While he had nothing against same-sex couples, Terryn was simply not swinging that way. He thought he had made that perfectly clear when he first met the strange girl. At the time, he believed the kiss they shared could've become something more, but it all crashed down when she vanished the same night, stealing all of his gold.
"You know very well that's not the case. Being locked up here must've messed with your brain."
Looking around, the prince tried to figure out which one of the cells was the sorcerer's, but to no avail - he was nowhere to be seen.
"What do you know about the sorcerer? Where is he?"
"If I tell you, will you help me escape?" the girl asked sweetly.
"I may be young, but I'm not dumb."
"Of course not," she chuckled. "It was worth trying... Look, the thing is, you're too late."
"What do you mean?" Terryn asked, furrowing his brows in confusion.
"Someone already came looking for him and found that the guy was gone. Vanished! Don't ask me how - if I knew, I would've done it myself by now."
"You're lying, as always," he shook his head. He didn't know much about her, but he knew she was a liar. She tricked him once and he wasn't going to let her do it again.
"What would I gain from lying about this? I don't even know him."
After pausing for a few moments and contemplating her words, Terryn spoke again.
"Who was the person that came looking for him?"
"Don't know, and I wouldn't care if I never saw him again. He's a sorcerer too."
"Just great, I've accomplished nothing," the prince muttered, turning to leave.
"Hey, pretty boy!" the Shade called out, making him stop and turn. "Before you go, can you at least give me some water. I haven't had a sip in days," she asked desperately, with the best pleading look she could make.
"Uhh, sure," Terryn said, taking his flask and removing the cap.
"Could you just pour me some in that cup over there?" she pointed at an overturned cup on the floor, which the prince quickly picked up and filled with water. Carefully handing it to her, he kept his eyes on the girl, still not trusting her.
Taking the dusty cup in her hand, the Shade made a satisfied smirk, which was the last thing Terryn saw of her. As soon as she saw the reflection of her eyes in the water, she muttered some words and vanished on the spot, while the empty chains that used to hold her fell to the ground.
"What the...?" the prince gasped, looking around in fear and confusion.
"Oh, did I forget to mention? I'm a Shade," he heard the voice behind him and quickly turned around, but there was no one there. "I'm sorry for tricking you, my sweet prince, but I do appreciate you freeing me. It means more than you'll ever now."
Rushing out of the dungeons, the prince could only see the faint shimmer of the cloaked girl disappearing down the corner, but it was too late to catch her - she was gone.