"What about Melina?" Eve asked as she helped me pack my bags. I felt guilty for not packing them before, but my desire to leave overshadowed my embarrassment.
"She'll find us," I replied. There was no doubt in my mind that Melina could find me anywhere.
"This is beautiful," Eve whispered, holding up the dress that reminded me of twilight.
I smiled and nodded when she gave me a questioning look. She placed it in the single suitcase she was packing and closed it.
"Do you have a particular place in mind, or are we just going to wander around aimlessly?" Eve asked as she handed me my suitcase.
Truthfully, I just wanted to get away. I had no destination planned in my mind. But where could I go? Could I just lose myself in Exultia again? I wasn't sure if that would work. Everyone knew who I was, and I wasn't disguised as Rose. I couldn't go to Astaire, and I couldn't go to Kratin for the same reasons. That left Cesnar, Vierra, and Zephyr. If I wanted to get as far away as possible, I knew where I needed to go, and I knew who would hide me willingly.
"We're going to Zephyr," I answered, leading her toward the old ballroom. She gave me a confused look, sure that I had lost my mind, but I didn't want anyone to know that I had left. Perhaps it was selfish of me and cruel to do this to my parents, brother, and friends, but I couldn't face anyone. All I wanted to do was shut the world away and cry about how unfair everything was. Since I couldn't do that, I decided to act cowardly and run away from my problems.
When Eve entered the ballroom, she let out a cry of surprise.
"There's a mirror on the floor!" Her face lit up in an amused smile, and she put down her suitcase.
I tilted my head as she held out a hand toward me, beckoning me to join her. With a laugh, I put down my suitcase as well and grabbed her hands as she led me in a commoner's dance. There was no music, and I was sure that the Eve I knew before we left her with Dominic would never have acted so spontaneously. Still, I couldn't help but forget my worries for a few moments. Eve's childlike joy in the room slowly faded, and she let go of my hands so she could grab her suitcase.
"We should probably be going, Helena," she said.
I gaped at her. "You were the one who started dancing," I whined. "Why are you implying that I was the one who delayed us?"
Her eyes twinkled in amusement. "I don't know what you're talking about. You looked like you were about to cry."
A warm feeling engulfed me as I hugged her. She cleared her throat pointedly and motioned toward my suitcase. Grabbing it, I quickly led her to the piano area behind the sleeping beauty painting. Eve gave the painting a wary glare, keeping as far away from it as she could as she followed me. Once behind the wall, she glanced around the room and looked confused.
"There's no exit."
I grinned at her and pressed against the wall Lycan had shown me earlier, and her mouth fell open in shock when it revealed itself to be a door instead of a wall. Unlike the first time I used it, there were no spiders, and it was easy to travel down the corridors. We came to the opening hidden by a painting, and I glanced into the hallway. Seeing it empty, I ushered Eve out. Within minutes, we were racing toward the stables, where a carriage awaited us.
Eve watched it with skepticism before she turned her gaze to me.
"Melina," I answered her unspoken question.
The skeptical expression never left her face as she boarded the carriage. The driver was unfamiliar to me, but I welcomed the change. If it was someone I knew, they might've tried to talk me out of this foolhardy decision I made. He pulled away from the castle without asking us where we were going. It was as if he already knew. I didn't glance back at the castle, too afraid to see somebody racing towards us, a pained expression on their face. What if that imaginary person was Vinny? It would be as if I betrayed him, and I couldn't bear to see him like that.
"I'm a coward," I said softly.
Eve glanced at me and turned around in her seat. "Nobody's following us," she noted after the castle was out of sight.
I breathed a sigh of relief and closed my eyes. "You shouldn't have come with me," I said, trying to stop my guilty tears from escaping in vain.
"You have no choice in the matter. Stop feeling guilty." Eve's voice was stern, and I opened my eyes.
"I'm sorry I'm weak," I sobbed, clinging to her. "I'm so sorry. I should've confronted him instead of running away, but I didn't know what to say. I still don't!"
"What happened?" Eve asked, holding me to her as I continued to cry.
"The bargain he made in exchange for Uncle Edward's life: it was his first-born child. He should've told me from the beginning instead of dealing with it alone. He doesn't trust me."
"And the thought of giving up your first-born child doesn't bother you?" Eve asked.
"Of course it does! I'll never give up my first-born child."
Eve smiled. "Well, that's one thing you have."
"Your determination. If you don't want to give up your first-born child, I'm sure you'll figure out a way to change the bargain."
"How?" I asked, my tears forgotten.
"I don't know," she replied. "But you're cleverer than you give yourself credit for."
I paused, wondering what she meant by that. "What would you do?"
"I don't know. I'd fight to keep my child."
"He won't marry me, though. I understand why, but…wouldn't it be better to just let me fall into a deep sleep and never awaken then?"
"He's trying to not be selfish. He wants you to still be happy, even if it's not with him."
"He told you that?"
"Then he also told you…?"
"No," she denied. "He never said what his bargain was."
With a groan, I leaned back in the seat and averted my gaze to the passing scenery.
"It's not too late to go back," Eve's voice soothed.
I shook my head. "What would going back do? I have to leave with Melina no matter what, so my leaving before her will give me time to figure things out."
Eve sighed and fell silent for a few moments. "You don't suppose that…no, that would be giving her too much credit."
My interest piqued, I turned to her. "What?"
"I just wonder if she hasn't planned your actions for you before you make them—as if she can see the future."
"Melina's an apprentice, Eve."
"I know that. It was a silly thought."
But Lycan had suggested something similar. Was the witch of Exultia trying to control my actions? Were the actions I believed to be my own really formed from her meddling? Why else would Melina make sure that I knew about Vinny's bargain if not to ensure that I'd leave?
Vinny and I had been drifting apart, not getting closer together. He was avoiding me every chance he got before she arrived. But there had to be a reason behind why he had been going out of his way to avoid me. But what was it?
Then the answer hit me with the force of a storm.
He was afraid that he wouldn't be able to stop himself from kissing me. It wasn't that his feelings were waning for me, but rather that his feelings were growing stronger. But why? I didn't do anything that would warrant such a thing. Nobody acted differently toward me than they had previously. So, it must've been him.
"Well, if it isn't the beautiful princess. Although I'm not surprised, why have you decided to grace my humble abode with your presence?"
My breath caught at the voice, and I took in our surroundings. This place was completely unfamiliar to me. Where were we?
Beside me, Eve was startled from her own thoughts by my movement. "Helena?"
"Lycan?" I asked, holding up a hand to quiet her.
"Who else would it be?" he demanded. "I'm really going to have a talk with that girl. First, she steals my servant, disappearing for days without saying a word. Then, she sends humans to my home. She owes me for this."
The carriage slowed to a stop in front of a man wearing a brown robe. His long dark hair hung loosely down his shoulders and looked like black silk in the daylight. Narrowed golden eyes surveyed the two of us before turning to our driver, widening at his appearance. The corner of his mouth turned up slightly, the only hint at amusement. "Oh Wisteria, what did she do to you?" he asked with a sigh.
The driver jumped from the carriage, turning into a white wolf upon hitting the ground. Quick steps took it to the man, who bent to pet its head. The wolf turned and glanced at us with disinterested blue eyes before racing out of sight deep into the forest.
I glanced at Eve and found that she had gone pale. "We need to leave this place," she mumbled softly.
My bemusement turned to worry. "Eve, he's Melina's friend. I doubt he'd-"
"I know who he is," she replied in a shaky voice. "And now my suspicions toward Melina have been confirmed."
"She's not who she's pretending to be. I figured as much as time went on, but I couldn't say it in her presence."
Lycan's arms crossed as he regarded us with interest. "What is it that you've think you've come to understand?"
She paused a moment before replying. "Will you kill me if I utter the truth?"
"I am not Melina," he replied, a slight smile creeping onto his face.
In that moment, I found myself afraid of him. Why did we come here? Would he kill us? Whereas his words had unnerved me, they seemed to soothe Eve.
"Melina isn't an apprentice, Helena. Although I am uncertain if she's the witch of Exultia or if the witch is merely her pawn, she's much more powerful than she's leading us to believe."
"How can you say that?" I asked, glancing between Eve and Lycan, who now seemed to be relishing in this information.
"Because there were three in the tale told to me by my mother: Lycan, Eriwyn, and Melina. The three of them gained immortality and disappeared. Eriwyn reappeared not long ago as the witch who caused the White Fever with her death. The only way for them to die is to be killed by the one they love."
"You are quite knowledgeable," Lycan noted. "But, before you start spouting all the tales surrounding us, I think it'd be best if you heard the truth from me. Come down from the carriage, and I'll tell you everything I know. From the way you speak, I imagine you to be a descendent of one of the few survivors from the massacre of Isodor."
"Where is Isodor?" I asked, getting out of the carriage and stepping up beside him.
"It is a place lost to history books. The people lost their kingdom, which was a shame, really. So much history burned because Kratin wanted servants, and Isodor was a peaceful neighbor without an army. It had once been called the crossroads because, no matter what adventure you were on, or what valuable artifact you were seeking, Isodor held the information you sought. It's one of the reasons I'm glad I no longer mingle with humans. They are far too cruel."
I frowned at him. "You say that as if you aren't human."
My only reply was an eerie smile before he turned and led us into the forest. "I first met Melina when I was fourteen, and she was sixteen. My brother, Ciel, brought her into the alchemy shop we both worked at. He was seventeen at that time, and he was in love with the widow of the king Melina had murdered; Arianna. Of course, she was a full ten years older than him, but she was a beautiful witch who had snared him much like a spider would a fly. Melina also had a cousin who was Ciel's age, Eriwyn. At the time, Eri was engaged, but she ran away from marriage in favor of adventure."
A blonde-haired girl suddenly jumped out of the forest surrounding us and clung to him. "I found you," she said happily.
"I didn't think I was hiding," he replied, stroking her hair with a soft gaze on his face before he caught himself and stiffened, remembering he had visitors. "Bliss, this is-"
"The princess!" she exclaimed, stepping away from Lycan to survey me. Her mouth dropped open in surprise. "You're so beautiful," she said softly.
"I'm Princess Helena, and this is my friend, Eve," I replied, motioning to my friend, who was watching Bliss with a mixture of horror and curiosity.
"Pleased to meet you," Bliss replied, dropping into a curtsy before returning to Lycan's side and threading her fingers through his. "I had a lovely day today," she confided to him.
"What did you do?"
"I spent the day with Malcolm, learning about the sky. Do you think one day you could make me fly?" She spun, still holding his hand so it forced him to be part of it. She looked up at him with adoration, awaiting his reply.
"Perhaps one day." His response was gruff and not at all endearing. It still earned him a smile.
"Cyrus is returning home tonight."
He stopped walking, causing her to stop as well. After a moment's deliberation, he said, "I'll send Wysteria with you when you return to the castle."
Her smile grew. "I would like that very much. The last time she was with me, we had such fun." She giggled.
He laughed with her.
"Is it such a wise decision, bringing a wolf into a castle?" Eve asked me softly.
"Wysteria is very well-behaved," Bliss retorted, matter-of-factly. "She only harmed three people last time, and it was only because Cyrus believed he could do with me as he wished." For a moment, the smile was gone, replaced by anger, and I, again, wondered if there was more intelligence hiding within her than she was leading us to believe. "What were you talking about before I interrupted you?" she asked Lycan.
"I was telling them about Melina, Eri and I," he replied absentmindedly.
"I thought that Melina didn't want anyone to know about that."
"If she didn't want them to know, then she'd stop me." He returned his attention to us. "Ciel fooled even me into thinking that he'd given up on Arianna and was instead enjoying the affections of both Eriwyn and Melina. Eri really was more beautiful than Melina. She was delicate and fragile, resembling a flower to Melina's tempestuous storm. I thought that he would end up choosing her in the end. Melina would often come to me when the two of them were together, observing how perfect they looked and how she was a fool to harbor feelings for him when Eri was so much better. I, in turn, fell for Melina.
"One day, Ciel came to us with this plan to gain immortality. He wanted us to be together always, or so he said. All the while, he encouraged Melina and Eri to continue pursuing magic so that nobody could ever harm us. It was a nice lie he told, and we all believed him. We went to Isodor in search of the Fountain of Youth, the spring that would grant us immortal life. But we reached a dead end. Nobody knew anything of the fountain's location. There was one person who did—an ugly old hag with a horrible cackle. She kept saying that the secret to the fountain lay within the one who would bring ruin to the world."
We reached a clearing, and Lycan sat, motioning for us to do the same.
"Arianna was growing impatient. She was playing Ciel to get to Melina, but it wasn't happening quickly enough. She was growing old and sick. So, she confronted the hag and threatened to kill her if she didn't tell us where the fountain was. Reluctantly, the hag led us to a cave. She told us that the fountain would be at the end. In reality, it was a normal lake at the end of the cave. There was no true fountain of youth. When we reached the end of the cave, Melina grew eerily quiet. Eri kept asking her what was wrong, but she wouldn't say. Finally, she looked at Ciel. 'All those words you said were a lie. You're betraying even your own brother.'
"The lake had been normal, but the cave had not. It was called the Cave of Clarity. The hag knew when she led us to it what would happen to Melina. She knew that she'd die either way, but she'd rather die with everyone than die alone. In that cave, Melina learned how to see the future. Eri also learned, but to a lesser degree.
"Ciel denied betraying us. Infuriated, Melina turned to the lake. 'Only those not looking to harm another may drink from this lake and live eternally. The only one who can kill them would be the one they love the most. If you are here for impure reasons, you will choke on this water and die.' Her words terrified Ciel, who would not drink first from the lake, no matter how we pressured him. So, Melina turned to me and told me that if I ever cared for her, I'd drink from the lake to prove it.
"I was the first to drink from the lake. Eri followed, then Melina. As she was kneeling to gather the water in her hands, Ciel pulled out a dagger and drew near her. The moment she drank, he plunged it into her back. She screamed, and he pulled it out. In a fury, I tackled him to the ground. He was older than me, though, and stronger. I was the one who toiled and tinkered in our alchemy shop while he was out doing whatever it was he did during the day. As he was about to kill me, Melina shrieked again.
"Ciel was suddenly thrown from me with a force so strong, it hurled him into a wall. He didn't move from where he fell. 'You won't die,' she said. 'Instead, I'll make it so that the only ones who can hear you are us. If we die, then you will be unheard and unnoticed no matter how you scream and shout. You'll be the wind, Ciel.'
"We thought that her rage would end with him, but it was as if the world around us disappeared. Melina kept repeating that she wouldn't be betrayed again. It wasn't that she loved him. She had realized long before the cave that he hadn't loved her, that he had been playing with her feelings. But a betrayal was still a betrayal. It got to the point where we thought that she would even kill us."
"But then you ran to me and hugged me like a good little boy, telling me that you'd never betray me and would always love me. My temper tantrum calmed, and the world didn't end."
We all turned to where the voice originated. Melina stood at the edge of the clearing, calmly poised.
Bliss jumped up from Lycan's side and ran to Melina. "How are you?" she asked, throwing her arms around the witch.
Melina patted her head much like Lycan had, an affectionate smile crossing her lips. "I'm having a lovely day, Bliss. How about you?"
"It's such a coincidence that we're both having the same kind of day."
Melina's gaze met my own. "Yes, it is, isn't it? I see you've met Helena. Are you going to take her to the Zephyrian castle? I'm sure she'd love to meet Queen Victoria."
Bliss stiffened. "Oh yes, the castle. I was waiting for Lycan to finish telling his tale before asking if she'd like to go." She turned to me. "Would you like to come to the castle? I'm sure it'll be more comfortable to you than Lycan's forest."
"You weren't planning on sneaking away for the evening again, were you?" Melina asked, the expression on her face almost vicious as she regarded the younger girl.
"You tease me too much, Melina. I don't belong at that castle, and you know that."
"Are you afraid of leaving me alone with Lycan?"
"Why would I be? The two of you are old friends."
"But surely you know that he-"
"Enough, Melina." Lycan stood and stalked over to them, grabbing Bliss and hiding her behind him. "If you want your precious princess at the castle, take her yourself. Don't drag Bliss into this."
"I thought it only fair since you were meddling in my affairs."
The two smiled cordially at each other, but there was malice behind it.
"May I ask something?" I stood and joined them.
"What is it?" Melina smiled as if she knew what I was going to ask. For the first time, the full impact of Lycan's tale hit me. She really did know what I was going to say.
I took a deep breath before meeting her gaze as bravely as I could. "Are you the witch of Exultia?"
Her smile widened.
Author's note: I realize it's been forever and a day since I last updated. I'm sorry, but life's been getting in the way of writing lately. As always, there's school, which takes up the majority of my time. Remember that boyfriend I had? He cheated on me, and I broke up with him. It made me lose a lot of my motivation to write. Also, my parents have divorced since I last updated. Isn't it crazy how bad things seem to happen one right after the other? But, I also have good news. I have a new boyfriend now who is super-sweet and wonderful, which makes me wonder how I could've been with the last guy (such a jerk) for so long. Now that we've caught up with my life, I'd like to thank everyone who's reviewed and stayed with me for this long. You guys are seriously amazing, and you're the reason I keep coming back to Fictionpress time and time again.
Special thanks to the following reviewers: MellyMeliza, Solestis, lindsaydelina, LondonLi, Crystal Royale, Chrissy, Lovely Cat, A Tentative Possibility, SourTofu, Written, Erika-Faye, MuseofMagic, Venomous Vengeance, SpotWillRuleTheWorld, a fan of your stories, TreeHugger22, MeanGreenRene, dwpea, Arainrhod, MorningManiac_EveningElegance, Lady_of_la_Selva, , Hydrogen Peroxide, R.A.A. Edwards, curlyxcutie, Planurescape, Myme, Lorana, Pearlblue5, redambrosia, , .hannah, Ivymax1234, lovelytoxic, PoiPounder, jasminangjiamin, Si-Sidera, yhesi01, LadyOdette, ANG3LIC D3MON, …, and kawinkydink.
Again, I apologize for taking such a long time to update.