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A fading lantern led the way past the chapel in the ancient cemetery up the hill towards the grim mansion. The Knight noticed an unusual gorgon statue beside a mysterious tombstone. Closer inspection found it wasn’t a gorgon at all, but a silent banshee, a woman frozen in mid wail. He found it disconcerting that she resembled the lost fairy, once a sobbing stone statue outside the chapel in Ancient Park. How strange!
The mansion was the least hospitable place on earth for keeping curious onlookers away. And its size and remoteness made it perfect for this clandestine meeting. A ghostly mail box stood at the path leading up to the mansion with a latch identical to a horn mail amulet. The Knight remembered the lore about the horn of doubt inscribed on the amulet; doubt can drive even the strongest mind mad, but can also save lives under the right circumstances. He opened the mail box half expecting to see a who’s who of past mansion residents and just chuckled to find it empty.
In the long hallway, the Knight sidestepped a fallen chandelier and lingered at a statue of the mythical crumple-horned elk sitting atop a bone pedestal. He swung around his adventure kit and quiver and laid them atop the pedestal. Always ready to go, his kit was outfitted on one side with an array of extra arrows, with one particular deadly arrow made from a mysterious metal capable of piercing pure steel while the other side held two crossed swords. Under the swords lay a perfect fork, good for eating or holding meat over a fire and a plate of truth. Ever since Jeronimo poisoned the werewolves’ wells, Anabel insisted the Knight carry the plate with him when he was away, maintaining it was magic and could detect poisoned food.
His favorite quiver was adorned with an archery award emblem won many years ago, a victory badge symbolizing his werewolf clan with an embroidered wolf howling at an embroidered blood moon. It was far more appealing to the Knight than the renegade’s coat-of-arms emblem given him by his father. That gift was presented during the time Oeland was furious with his son; livid with his choice for a bride and his perceived lack of interest in clan issues. The coat-of-arms was meant to telegraph the Knight’s rebellious streak and Oeland’s displeasure with him.
The Knight continued walking towards the cacophony of a ghostly feast; hushed voices, glassware and weaponry. The sounds led him down the hallway towards a large room they called the hall of suffering. It was rumored unspeakable atrocities were meted out in this chamber by the mansion’s former inhabitant, the Lord of Darkness. As far as the Knight knew, the Lord was just folklore. But Arabella definitely wasn’t. She had a penchant for attracting the most unsavory characters and would do anything to get what she wanted. If her association with the scythe wielder wasn’t evidence of that, her threat to unleash the Lord of Darkness and his minions certainly was.
As his large imposing figure filled the shadowy doorway, a deafening silence filled the room. Amused but not wanting to further escalate their fear, the Iron Knight took a step into the room. The blood-red eternal candle(s) from the skull chandelier illuminated his face with a fiendish cast and all eyes turned to him.
Immediately, Oeland’s soldiers snapped to attention and bowed at the sight of the prince of the clans. By his lead, a brief convivial atmosphere permeated the dour room as war stories and a dwarven bowl of ale made the rounds. The Knight knew Oeland’s warriors very well and implicitly trusted each and every one of them.
His history with Arabella was steeped in lies and deceit but to threaten the whole world of Midnight Castle was a new low even for the witch. Arabella was insane with jealousy over Anabel. The Iron Knight’s unshakable devotion to Anabel was never a secret and no potion, whether love, forgetfulness or break-up, could ever change that. Humiliated by her husband’s undying love for another woman, Arabella vowed revenge. Intensifying her fury was the fact her own father, Lord Chamberlain, found Anabel intriguing and had a soft spot in his heart for her. The truth was Arabella quickly grew bored with the Knight, realizing having isn’t as pleasing as wanting. And despite the fact she moved on to greener pastures, Arabella vowed retaliation on every last resident of Midnight Castle.
For everyone’s sake, the Knight steeled his own emotions and treated Arabella courteously whenever their paths crossed, but his perfunctory gestures only made Arabella’s blood boil. Years of watching the Iron Knight and Anabel blissfully enjoying each other, and their child, proved too much for Arabella. Normally, Lord Chamberlain could keep her in check, but with him missing, the witch’s vengefulness grew and grew.
As images of Anabel and his little girl floated by his mind’s eye, the Iron Knight’s resolve was buoyed. As his second in command noticed the Knight’s wistful expression, they locked eyes and instantly the Knight was brought back to the present. Every head turned in unison as the Knight slowly and methodically made his way to the front of the room. At the far wall, the Knight reached up and pulled aside an intricate tapestry, revealing a hidden map. When he turned to face his men, he was struck by the intensity in their eyes. Oeland didn’t let his son down; sending only the best of the best for this crucial mission.
Despite their less than enjoyable history together, the Knight knew Arabella pretty well. And that included all her secret hideaways, or most of them anyway, where she liked seclusion to hone her craft. The Knight was sure the witch and her minion could be found in one of those secluded places.
He divided the warriors into squads and each squad was assigned a specific region on the map. Stealth was needed to flush out Arabella and who better at stealth than werewolf warriors.
One-by-one, the squads searched the grids until only one small section of the map was left. All the warriors, with the Knight at the lead, focused on the land to the northeast of the Castle, the Elvyn Forest. The Knight hasn’t been in the forest since the war with the Elves that lead to the devastating poisoning of the wells in the werewolf clans’ capital. But he never forgot the irony that the forest’s peaceful façade was home to a pond of life filled with water that’s poison to everyone except elves. And just past that pond of life stood a giant hollowed-out tree soaring so high it seemed to kiss the clouds. At its base, covered by a tangled mass of gnarled vines and roots lies a subterranean cavity. The witch knows full well the bitter history between the elves and werewolves and would find this place a perfect hideout.
On a mountain ledge at the foot of Twisted Mountain, Anabel sat in the pagoda under the Tree of Sorrow. People from miles around traditionally left notes of sorrow on the tree describing hardship or heartache in their lives. A special ornate box, with a bird mail amulet, sat nearby ready to accept the private notes for safekeeping. Enveloped by all the lives represented here, Anabel absently began caressing each charm of her dwarven bracelet. The bracelet was made of moon steel, a magical metal direct from the dwarves’ mountain treasury, and said to reflect moonlight even on a sunny day. Wrapped by chains of adventurous spirit, the bracelet captured Anabel’s strong sense of self. There were two beautiful iridescent cubes akin to prayer boxes. One, the cube of whispers, contained little prayers Anabel would write on small bits of paper and the other, the cube of bright dreams, contained Anabel’s goals for the future.
Lost in thought, Anabel’s eyes suddenly focused on a lone figure making its way in her direction. Despite panic beginning to rear its ugly head along with a strong urge to flee, Anabel felt paralyzed and could only stare as the figure loomed ever larger. But by the time the man was close enough to Anabel to reach out for her hand, a curious sense of calm flooded her senses. After kissing the top of her hand, the man turned it over to perform the same welcoming ritual on the palm. Recoiling ever so slightly at the eye of self-revelation imprinted there, Lord Chamberlain sat down next to Anabel. He was grateful to her and Morisa for bringing him back and forgave that little imp Nala for branding Anabel with the protection talisman.
There was an uncomfortable alliance between them, always had been. It was certainly a sure bet that with the Chamberlain locked away, everyone was safer. Yet Anabel didn’t want any permanent harm to come to him. She also knew that ‘the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.’ And while Anabel’s motives always bewildered Lord Chamberlain, any of her attention was better than none at all. He sat a package on her lap, a surprise for Daphne. A doll with big, beautiful eyes...a hypnotic doll of sorts. She wore a dress of woven gold, a tiny bow adorned each of her colorful shoes and a comb of curls was pinned atop her long, luxurious hair.
They sat talking for the longest time as the hushed quiet of the dark night became reborn by a magnificent sunrise. The majestic beast rose up into the sky, replacing the inky black with a coat of many colors. The melodic warble of the holiday caroler, the bullfinch, filled the air as the swallow couple put the finishing touches to their nest and a magpie nest cradled the first autumn egg, the precious patterned egg. Even a bouncy squirrel was happily digging for chestnuts and roots.
Charmed and entranced by Anabel, Lord Chamberlain didn’t want this meeting to end. He couldn’t even pretend to be angry at her for sealing him in a jar after his vain attempt to flee by morphing into a butterfly. She did, after all, take him to Morisa to save him. He and Anabel were two of a kind, both vampires and both all too aware of the darker side of existing.
A sense of something menacing swirling around them got the Chamberlain’s attention. He didn’t have to look around; he knew exactly what was coming. He gently brushed the north berry pearls on Anabel’s brooch, the one Nala had prepared for her protection, and waited for the storm to hit.
A huge draft of air churned and convulsed until the maelstrom seemed to spew out Arabella. At first, the witch regretted coming alone when she saw Lord Chamberlain fawning over Anabel. In addition to the anger and bitterness she felt towards Anabel, her father’s involvement felt like betrayal. Lord Chamberlain held Arabella’s gaze intently as he rose to stand between Arabella and Anabel. Summoning all the resolution at her disposal, Arabella reminded her father of the past, how he abandoned her and her mother, left them cold and hungry, and now those primordial hunger pains demanded vengeance on a debt long overdue. But first things first. She issued a single warning to her father; stand aside or risk being caught up in the fury about to be unleashed on Anabel.
Arabella, caught off guard when Lord Chamberlain turned to face Anabel, strained to hear the words passing between the two. Sharing the kinship of a bloodthirst, Anabel simply stood frozen in place as the Chamberlain’s dark eyes held her gaze, his face awash in malevolence. Anabel had the sense Lord Chamberlain reached out to her but she wasn’t sure her senses could be trusted at this moment. It wasn’t until Lord Chamberlain turned and walked away that Anabel noticed her north berry pearl brooch was askew. And the poisoned pin was missing from its reinforced vial.
Lord Chamberlain walked deliberately towards Arabella. Basking in her dominance, Arabella was reminded of the idiom ‘catching two birds with one stone.’ She would do away with Anabel, a thorn in her side for many years, and wring every last drop of expertise out of Lord Chamberlain before he would meet the same fate. But Arabella realized too late her crucial mistake. What she saw in her father’s eyes wasn’t the remorse and repentance she expected; but torrid and incensed fury. It became difficult to breathe as Lord Chamberlain’s hot breath suddenly enveloped her body. In an instant, Lord Chamberlain sunk the poisoned pin deep into Arabella’s neck then stepped back, allowing his daughter to fall at his feet.
Anabel incredulously watched the tennis match playing out before her, looking first at Arabella then at Lord Chamberlain. In the blink of an eye, Lord Chamberlain was by her side, reaching for her hand. Anabel was completely drained of energy and her brain bereft of words but she could read Lord Chamberlain’s eyes perfectly. They were kindred spirits, the two of them, sharing a hunger that went beyond human understanding. Lord Chamberlain would never allow any harm to come to Anabel; nor she to him. From around his neck he removed a high caliber chain on which was strung blood beads representing the value of life and how brief it is. Blood is both a result of war and a bond between people.
Anabel accepted Lord Chamberlain’s gift, knowing full well the importance of the blood beads to any member of the vampire high council. As she allowed each bead to slide through her fingers, Lord Chamberlain silently returned to Arabella’s crumbled body and picked up her translucent staff as the all-seeing topaz mounted on top began pulsating and changing colors. Lord Chamberlain turned to face Anabel and touched the pendant of inevitability hanging from a thread of destiny he always wore; a pendant that alluded to the certainty of one’s fate and that there is no such thing as a coincidence. In a flash, both he and Arabella were gone.
The werewolf warriors lopped off the trunk-like vines disguising the cavern entrance. Ever mindful of Arabella’s penchant for booby traps, the Knight monitored every whack of the machetes very carefully. Once the entrance was cleared, a faint fire-like glow emanated from within the murky darkness. The Knight took the lead and gingerly stepped beyond the threshold. The reddish glow and dank air gave the cavern walls the illusion of dripping lava. The Iron Knight quickly realized the light was from brake light lanterns, so named for their revealing red eye lens that permeated the rock walls. The red light also came from old superstition among ancient miners that a ruby candle held off illness.
The main tunnel went on for quite a bit before eventually splintering off in different directions. The Knight signaled his reconnaissance teams to explore each new passage while he and the remaining forces forged straight ahead. It wasn’t like the Iron Knight at all to allow himself the luxury of memories in dangerous situations, but thoughts of Anabel were stronger than any possibility of danger. He loved her more than any other woman he’d ever known and was often overcome by a comet of feeling. The scent of her hair, the touch of her skin and the deep pools of her eyes were with him constantly, with every beat of his heart. And he would gladly die for her, if need be.
Suddenly, some sort of mechanical sound echoed through the tunnel and the Knight knew they were closing in on the witch’s hidden lair. Bringing all the troops together was now top priority, so he sent his communications team out to effect that order. Soon, the commands and responses could be heard as the howling of their wild ancestry.
Once the team was back together, they moved forward inch by inch. As the passage gradually began to widen, the troops fell into a two abreast march, warily combing the tunnel for danger. Despite being seasoned warriors, they were noticeably on edge from the obvious lack of any defensive structures. And the environment had changed. Initially, the warmth from the Elvyn Forest carried though a large part of the cavern, but now the air was bone cold. And getting colder. The Knight suddenly missed his winter companion, a cheerful husky who warmed body, heart and soul with his loyalty.
Without warning, a huge chamber emerged from the narrow passageway. Phosphorescence on the walls gave the room a glittering effect, as though lit from an emerald candle. The light danced off the massive stalactite and stalagmite formations, seemingly creating shadows of stolen souls. Their keen animal senses picked up nothing living nearby, so the Knight gave the ‘at ease’ order. Relief flooded the warriors as they set about lighting the wall torches from a lone forgotten candle while gingerly walking around the icy spears rising from the ground and dodging the sharp spires dangling from the ceiling. Then they went about consolidating the food remnants from their knapsacks into a communal meal.