by Mark Andron and Time Lady
Ayla comes up nest to Toran. “By Bastet! NO! Princess Taygana!”
“So sorry,” says the caretaker. “The young lady fell over the cliff and was pinned under some rocks.”
Toran runs to the side of the pool and begins to reach in. Alarmed, Ayla casts a spell to immobilize the warrior.
“We can not leave the princess here!” protests Keisai.
“Fool!” shouts Ayla angrily, as if to hide her own upset. “These are the cursed pools of Jusenkyo. Were either of you to touch the water, you would become cursed!” She gestures, releasing Toran.
The caretaker finishes painting his sign and sets it up at the edge of the pool. “Such a tragic story for this pool.”
Ayla closes her eyes, gathering the last of her remaining power. She concentrates. The rocks pinning the princess’ body roll off, freeing her. Taygana’s lifeless body floats to the top of the pool. The body then levitates out of the water, suffused by a glow as Ayla’s spell removes the remaining Jusenkyo water from Taygana’s body. The glow changes color. Taygana’s body floats towards the edge of the pool, then descends into Toran’s waiting arms. Ayla, supported by her staff, collapses to her knees.
“Lady Ayla!” Keisai helps her to a large rock, where she sits. The caretaker disappears..
“I will be fine... I cast a spell to preserve the princess’ .... the princess... until we return her to her family....” Further words are lost.
Keisai looks back and forth between Ayla and Toran, who is cradling the lifeless body of the princess in his arms. “I... I will fetch the horses...” He turns and follows the path back to where the horses last were.
Toran remains as still as a statue for several minutes, his eyes fixated on the lifeless eyes of Taygana’s body. He can not, does not want to move. He has lost the will to do anything ... except let one tear, then two, then many tears roll down the side of his face. Ayla remains where she sits, trying not to look at the body of the princess. In her long life, she has seen many people be born and die. Yet none of the deaths seems as painful as this one. Keisai is fighting to keep his mind from registering the full impact of what has happened, but to no avail. He feels for Ayla, but saves his greatest concern for Toran. He knows that Toran gave his vows to Taygana, and now wonders what will happen if he believes that he has broken those vows by allowing her to die like this.
Toran gently rests Taygana’s body on the ground, tears freely flowing from their ducts. “For...give me, mi...lady,” he says in a sobbing whisper.
Trying to hide her own upset at the loss of the princess, Ayla concentrates on her anger for her half brother. This time, Verlayne has gone too far... Keisai soon returns with the horses. “I ... brought the horses...” He looks at Toran kneeling over Taygana’s body on the ground. “Let us leave this unholy place.”
Suddenly, the caretaker reappears, holding a folded white cloth. “Here. I think you need this.”
“Ah... eh.. what?” stammers Toran.
“For the body,” replies the caretaker.
“Oh.” Toran takes the cloth, and wraps it around Taygana’s body. He then looks sharply at Ayla. “How could he, Ayla? How could that bastard that do this?”
Ayla tries to steady her voice. “He has no concern for life... only power.”
“Then may Pharangese damn him,” mutters Toran. He thinks: “What passes for his heart... is mine.”
“Do not act rashly, young warrior,” warns Ayla. “Though the destruction of one of the crystals of power in his circlet has weakened him, he is still more than powerful enough to destroy the likes of you. Myself and three other mages, human and cat-kind, could not completely destroy him in what became known as the War of the Magi.”
“All that mess was because of him?” asks Keisai in surprise.
“I care not for the past,” Toran breaks in. “What has happened has happened. It is only the present and the future that concern me.”
“To know the past is often to understand the present and the future,” responds Ayla quietly. “The princess must be returned to her family and messages sent to the royal family of Fan-ro. After the princess is laid to rest, we may concern ourselves with dealing with Verlayne. I managed to destroy one of his power crystals, weakening him. With the aid of my fellow mages, we may be able to mount an attack and defeat him once and for all.”
Toran picks up the wrapped body of Taygana. “And once again we risk more deaths? Is not her death enough?”
“Taygana’s death was *too much*....” Ayla replies sharply. “Verlayne must be defeated once and for all. The time to do this will be before he manages to recreate his crystal of power. Normally, this will take a wizard a hundred years to gather the energies needed. I have heard, however, that there are darker methods of quickly creating a crystal. Verlayne would not hesitate to do such.”
“Then what is our priority? Verlayne or Taygana?” asks Keisai.
“The princess first. I must contact other mages for assistance. Though Verlayne is weakened, I would not underestimate him,” explains Ayla.
Toran thinks: “And he should not underestimate me...” He puts Taygana on top of his horse, and then climbs on himself.
“Keisai, would you lead the princess’ horse?” asks Ayla.
Keisai is still looking at Toran. “Yes, yes of course.” “Do not do anything you would regret, Toran,” he thinks as he climbs onto his horse.
In all the distress and upset, no one notices a small pendant lying on the ground. The pendant Toran had given Taygana fell from her pocket during the fall. It lies forgotten, partially covered with dirt. A wind blows, covering the pendant with more dirt and burying it completely.
Quietly the group returns along the trail they came. This time, however, Ayla decides against stopping at the temple of Bastet... there would be too much time wasted in explanation. When they do stop for the evening, Ayla creates two pavilions. She encloses herself within one and silently gathers her returning energies to send a message ahead to the princess’ parents. Toran and Keisai remain outside the pavilions.
“Toran?,” asks Keisai.
“ ... “
“Toran, there was nothing you could have done. We were being overwhelmed.”
“Toran, her death was not your fault.”
“... I gave my vows to her, Keisai, and then she died. Tell me, if it happened to you, would you not feel the same way.”
“Just don’t do anything foolish.”
“I will only follow my heart, as Pharangese bade me....” states Toran.
Unaware of anything discussed between Toran and Keisai, Ayla takes quill and parchment in hand. Fighting back her own tears, Ayla writes, in detail, the circumstances of Verlayne’s attack and Taygana’s death. She knows the king and queen will be devastated... it took 5 years of trying after the birth of their firstborn for Taygana and Kiyomi to be born. Trembling, Ayla seals the parchment so it may only be read by the king or queen, then casts the spell that will send the scroll back to the palace. Silently she remains in the closed pavilion, allowing herself the solitude to cry.
“One thing troubles me, however...” says Keisai.
“Taygana’s death alone does not trouble you?!”
“Its not just that... how did Verlayne know where we would be?”
Toran is stunned. “I ... I do not know.”
“Neither do I. But for now, I believe we both must sleep. It has been a long day.”
“Then go. I will remain outside. The stars and a roaring fire will keep me company.”
“Have it your way,” says Keisai. He thinks. “Don’t do it Toran. Don’t...”
Inside her pavilion, Ayla wonders the same thing. She goes over in her mind the few people that knew the nature of their mission, and the exact route they planned. Unable to come up with answers, and still drained from her fight with Verlayne, Ayla falls into a deep, yet uneasy sleep.
With Ayla and Keisai firmly asleep in their pavilions, tears once again form in Toran’s eyes, and he soon begins to cry in earnest. “What have I done... what have I done... I let her die... how could I have loved her if I let her die... what have I done....” The crying continues for some time, and then the tears dry up. Toran’s eyes, now bloodshot, become fixated on the fire as he draws out his sword and plunges it into the ground. “Taygana, I make two more vows that I will keep. I will return Verlayne’s favor, and I will make sure that we will meet again. By my sword, I swear it....”
Meanwhile, in an enormous keep, less than a day’s journey from the kingdom... It is a day or so after Verlayne’s attack on the party. Verlayne paces back and forth in his study. Books and scrolls are scattered across every available surface.
“Damn her...,” curses Verlayne. “One hundred years of study and practice to reach the level to create the third crystal of power... and that blasted half sister of mine destroys it in seconds...” He picks up a black scroll. “I refuse to spend another century gathering enough energy to form a new crystal...” He shoves several books and scrolls on his desk to the side, then unrolls the black scroll. Verlayne studies the scroll intently. Several minutes `later, he looks up from the scroll and sits back in his chair. “So... a new crystal can be created... from a human soul...” An evil smile crosses his face. “I must memorize the incantation, then I will seek out a suitable human... the stronger the spirit the better...” Verlayne returns to studying the black scroll.
Back at the pavilions, waking the next morning is a shock for Ayla. Her body protests from the previous day’s activity. From habit, she turns to where the princess would have been sleeping. Ayla fights back further tears. Keisai wakes to the sounds of sobbing from the other pavilion. He quickly realizes that Taygana’s death may have rattled Ayla as much as it did Toran. He looks over to see Toran lying in his bed, his back turned to face him. Keisai slowly sits upright, and rather than disturb Toran, he heads outside, to the front of Ayla’s pavilion.
“Ahem... milady?” he asks cautiously.
Ayla struggles to control her voice. “What is it, Keisai?”
“May I come in?”
Ayla takes several calming breaths, then wipes her face. “Enter.”
Keisai pokes his head in, and then slowly walks in. “Forgive me, but I could not help but hear....”
“It is all right, Keisai. I mourn the princess deeply. Of all the royal families I have known, I have been closest to this one. I held Taygana and Kiyomi within an hour of their birth.”
“How fortunate. I can only imagined what they would have looked like then,”
“The king and queen were overjoyed. It was thought at one time they would have no children other than their firstborn son. They will be devastated at the news. I would have rather told them in person, but my powers are still drained after the battle. But better they should know in advance, rather than be shocked when we arrive at the city gates.”
“Indeed.” Keisai pauses “I ... <sigh> I only hope that nothing else happens to further add to this tragedy. I’m sorry, I have outrble finding any words to say this morn.”
“How... is Toran...? He seemed to blame himself yesterday.”
“He... he is one that has done was required all this time... and now... I do know what he is feeling.” Keisai thinks “I wish I could tell you the truth, but not yet, not now. It’s still too soon.”
“See if he is awake. We should resume our journey as soon as possible.”
“I suppose we must.... I will go retrieve him.”
Ayla nods, and watches Keisai leave. Sighing, she takes up her own brush. A tear escapes as she remembers Taygana brushing her hair the previous morning. Abruptly she throws the brush into cat-space. Forcibly restraining herself, Ayla stands and walks into the morning light. She sees Toran out standing by the remnants of the fire, looking onward, she also notes Keisai entering the men’s’ pavilion. Toran is dressed in armor, wearing the traditional arm, shoulder and shin guards of a holy warrior. She sees Toran’s left hand shaking as it grasps the hilt of his sword, still in its sheath.
“I think we will bypass the Amazon village on our return journey,” says Ayla.
“It is not the amazons I am worried about,” mutters Toran.
“You wish revenge on Verlayne. It will have to wait until the rites are said for the princess and mystic forces are gathered to fight Verlayne.”
“Do not worry. I will wait until the time is right.”
After Keisai steps out of the men’s pavilion, Ayla gestures. The pavilions disappear. Keisai, too, is dressed in armor, with a sword at his side and a bow in his hand. “Let us go,” says Keisai. “I would like to be in more familiar territory before the end of the day.. “
“I agree,” says Toran. “The sooner we return, the sooner ... the sooner this whole ordeal will be over.”
The three mount their horses and resume their travels. Toran rides, holding Taygana’s body close to him, Ayla’s spell preserving her until their return to the palace. They ride hard, bypassing the Amazon village. Toran feels the fires of vengeance burn stronger within him. He wants Verlayne dead for killing his love. But he fights to keep control of himself, focusing on trying to get his horse to move faster. Their hard riding, accompanied by some speed and stamina spells cast on the horses by Ayla, bring them to the outskirts of the kingdom. A black carriage waits for them, along with a funereal cart. An aide steps out of carriage.
“Lady Ayla,” says the aid,. “the king received your message. He ordered me to wait here, should you manage to speed your journey. I have brought... transport... for the princess....” The aide tries to control his voice.
“If you must take her, then so be it,” mutters Toran.
“It would not do for you to carry her in as you have,” says Ayla gently.
“The king,” continues the aide, “has set aside a room... for the princess. A messenger was sent to the palace as soon as you were seen to approach.”
“Thank you. Toran?” Ayla gestures to the funereal cart. A silk lined black coffin waits.
“Very well.” Toran gets off his horse, and then takes Taygana’s body into his arms. He carries the body over to the coffin, and hesitates before putting it in. Once he does, he crosses her arms. Another tear rolls down the side of his face as he does it. Ayla turns her head, unable to watch Toran. A lump forms in her throat.
“Toran?” asks Keisai.
Toran wipes the tears away and says to the aide: “Here. I... “ Suddenly Toran turns away and walks to his horse.
Nodding, the aide respectfully closes the casket, then covers it with a black cloth. “It is well that it is late,” says the aide. “We will not be easily seen. The king and queen have not announced the news of the princess’ death to the kingdom. All will mourn tomorrow.”
“And what of us?” asks Keisai.
“The king requests that all of you return to the palace. He has many questions, but they will wait until the period of mourning is over.”
“How much longer... I have made a vow I intend to keep,” Toran says to himself.
“Will the king and queen be waiting?” asks Ayla.
“Yes,” answers the aide as the group rides into the city, towards the palace. “Before your message arrived, all knew something was wrong. Princess Kiyomi fell into a faint and did not wake for hours. When she did, all she did was cry. Then the king and queen received your message.”
“I can only imagine what happened next,” says Keisai.
The aide nods. “The king and queen are devastated. They gave orders for the funeral. It is a wonder news has not leaked to the Populace. As soon as your message was received, mystic couriers were sent to the temple of Bastet and to Fan-ro. A message from Prince Zaden said that he will attend the funeral personally.”
“Does he care, or is it just politics again,” thinks Toran.
The aide continues. “The prince was distressed at the news.”
“I am sure,” replies Keisai dryly.
Ayla, Keisai, and Toran listen to the aide drone on until they reach the palace. A servant immediately escorts them to the room set up to receive the princess’ body. The king, queen, Princess Kiyomi, and her elder brother Prince Shinko are all waiting.
“Keisai...,” begins Toran.
“I have not truly known fear ... until this moment.”
“I assure you, you are not alone.”
The royal family is dressed in mourning. Servants respectfully carry in the casket. “Ayla, what happened? asks King Adama.
Ayla tells the events of the attack, and what she pieced together of the princess’ fall. “Forgive me, your highness,” says Ayla. “Verlayne’s attack was completely unexpected. I do not know how he discovered our journey or our location.”
Toran and Keisai remain close to the entrance of the room. “I hope to Pharangese that he does not blame us. I blame myself enough already,” whispers Toran.
Keisai notices that Toran has gripped the hilt of his sword again. “You know, you are rather nervous for a half-breed.”
“I think that I am justified in these circumstances.”
“Damn Verlayne,” curses Adama. “You have my complete assistance should you wish to march on his keep.”
“I plan to contact several mages for assistance. We will begin as soon as the period of mourning is over,” Ayla assures the king.
“More mages...,” mutters Toran. “Do they wish a repeat of the War of the Magi?”
“Toran, you’re starting to sound like me,” returns Keisai with a smirk.
Toran glares at Keisai for a moment “Maybe I am.” He pauses. “Let them talk. I go to pray for guidance.”
“Where? They have no... oh.”
“I could not help her in life. But in her death, mayhap we can console each other.” Toran leaves.
Softly, Queen Girene cries, comforted by Prince Shinko. “Taygana’s... loss...,” begins, Adama controlling his voice, “will be announced to the people in the morning... artisans are preparing her sarcophagus and priests ready the royal tomb.”
“With your permission, your highness, I would like to retire for the evening. I am tired from the long ride, as I am sure my escorts are,” says Ayla.
“Yes... by all means...” Adama turns to his wife.
Ayla turns to leave, but finds herself stopped by Keisai.
“Is there no other way to stop ... your brother?” he asks.
“He is beyond reasoning, if that is what you mean. My father tried that for six centuries before Verlayne tired of it and killed him. I have often felt it was his mother’s blood. She was one who sought power, even if it was a union with a powerful cat man. My own mother died when I was two. Verlayne’s mother hoped, by her pregnancy, to force my father into marriage. She died in childbirth-unmarried. Father still accepted Verlayne as his own.”
“Still, to risk everything in another war of magicks.... there must be some other way.”
“As I managed to destroy one of Verlayne’s crystals of power, there will be less difficulty combating him as there was before.”
“Wonderful. I only hope that we all come out of this ... alive.”
“The mages will be the only ones who combat Verlayne directly. Any others who are involved will need to distract his legions of demonic creatures.” She yawns. “If you will pardon me, I would like to retire. You and Toran should do the same.”
“Very well,” says Keisai. Ayla leaves. “Although after all that has happened recently, I wonder if any of us can sleep at all,” he mutters to himself.
The next morning, King Adama’s chamberlain makes the sad announcement. The entire kingdom is thrown into mourning. Several days are spent in preparation. Both the high priestess from the temple of Bastet and Prince Zaden arrive. Though Prince Zaden seems to mourn the loss of his betrothed, his attention soon shifts to Princess Kiyomi. Kiyomi, though extremely pained by the loss of her twin, seems to respond to the Prince.
Keisai wanders through the halls of the palace in search of Toran, finally finding him sitting next to the Taygana’s casket, leaning on his sword. “So there you are...,” he says. “How long have you been here?”
“Since everyone else left.”
“And you have been awake ever since?”
“How can I sleep at a time like this? No, it was better for me to stay here and pray that I will see her again... in another life.”
Upon hearing voices as she is passing by, Ayla walks into the room. “Warri.... Toran, Keisai ... is everything all right?”
“Milady,” begins Keisai, “we were... ah, we were paying our last respects to Princess Taygana before they take her body away.”
“No, Keisai, do not lie. I have been here throughout the night right here, praying,” returns Toran. “And I will not leave until my prayers are done.”
Ayla tries to be gentle in her tone. “And how long will they last? Whenever I pass by, you are in here with her. Servants have told me they have seen you in here late at night.”
“They will be done when they will be done,” snaps Toran.
“Toran,” implores Keisai, “please, you must rest, or you will soon join her.”
“If that is the hand that the fates have dealt me, then so be it.”
“Enough, Toran,” says Ayla. “You will rest.” Ayla mutters a brief incantation, then withdraws some dust from a pouch on her sash.
“No....” Before Toran can utter another word, Ayla throws the dust at him, covering him with it. Inexplicably, Toran becomes utterly tired. He tries to fight the sleepiness unsuccessfully.
Keisai sheathes Toran’s sword, then takes both it and Toran into his arms. “Her death has rattled him more deeply than I had imagined.”
“It has shaken many.” She looks at Toran. “He will sleep for several hours.”
“Good. He needs his rest.”
“Take him back to his rooms, so that he may rest undisturbed... and that the ones who must prepare the princess for final burial may work.”
“Very well.” He then thinks. “I should tell her why... no, not now. Everyone is still in mourning.” Keisai carries Toran out of the room.