A tremor of anxiety rippled through the carriage as it swayed along the dusty road. Inside, the High Priest and the Princess found themselves captives, held hostage at the tip of a sword. The old man sighed, the weight of the city's turmoil heavy on his chest. He envisioned the gaping black pit in the capital, a stark reminder of the Council's brutality. They played with lives like pawns, sacrificing the few to manipulate the many.
His heart ached for the Knight of Spears, riding handcuffed just outside the carriage. The incident with his father cast a long shadow over what should have been a joyous victory. The Night Watch had reclaimed the City of Trousers, forcing the Delegate and Countess to flee with hostages in tow. Now, freedom lay on the other side of this forced journey, yet freedom felt bittersweet under the threat of their captors.
As they approached the City of Lovers, the carriage passed a temple adorned with banners. There, the surviving Council members, blinded by the serpent's promises and emboldened by ill-gotten gains, awaited the ceremony. From the carriage window, the High Priest and Princess observed the grim faces, consumed by power and greed.
"This entire charade is for them," whispered the Princess, disgust lacing her voice. "A spectacle to secure their stolen wealth."
"They've woven a new plan," the High Priest murmured, his voice barely above a breath. "And you, my dear, are at the heart of it. The fairy world is beyond their reach, a realm they dare not tread."
The Princess shuddered, the reality of her situation sinking in. "I can't bear this," she whispered, her voice trembling.
"You've been ensnared, my dear," the High Priest sighed, gently squeezing her hand. "Your return from fairy paradise was their trap."
"I—" she stammered, but the clanging of swords silenced her. Two imposing guards, flanking the carriage, narrowed their eyes, blades glinting ominously.
Desperate questions swirled in her mind: What options did she have? Where was the Fool in this unfolding chaos? As if sensing her thoughts, the carriage door creaked open. The Countess, her sharp eyes flashing, stood silhouetted against the sunlight.
"Join us, Princess," she purred, her voice dripping with false sweetness. "The ceremony awaits. Let the wedding commence."
The Princess recoiled, shaking off the Countess's grasping claw. "Don't touch me, you monster!"
"Don't act so innocent," the Countess sneered. "As if you haven't spilled blood yourself."
Anger burned in the Princess's cheeks, but she remained silent. The Countess, undeterred, gestured towards a gown lying crumpled on the ground.
"Put this on," she commanded, a cruel smile twisting her lips.
Indignation flared in the High Priest's voice. "You expect a future queen to undress in public view?"
"Indeed," the Countess replied, relishing his outrage. "It clearly amuses you."
Defiance simmered within the Princess. “No."
"Then the Queen of Spears, with her sharp tongue, and her son, will pay the price," the Countess threatened, her voice cold and calculating. "A small sacrifice on the grand map of the empire, wouldn't you agree? And you'll never taste the crown."
The Knight of Spears, spotting the Delegate dragging his mother into the temple, dismounted his horse with a determined leap. "Can't you hear her? She won't wear a dress," he boomed, facing the Countess squarely. "This isn't some joyous celebration, is it?" He reached out and took the Princess's hand, his grip reassuring. "Let's deal with this quickly."
The heavy oak doors of the temple loomed before them, casting long, ominous shadows. The air inside felt thick with tension, a palpable contrast to the open breeze outside. Gruff voices and the clatter of armored boots echoed off the stone walls as they were ushered in, the Delegate Envoy propelling the High Priest forward with a rough shove.
The ceremony unfolded in a blur of hushed whispers, stolen glances, and the cloying scent of incense. The Delegate Envoy practically spat the words, "The crowns! The crowns!" as he shoved the jeweled objects forward. The High Priest, however, hesitated, his gaze drawn to the crowns themselves. A peculiar tinkling and wrinkling sound emanated from them, drawing curious glances from all corners.
With a wink towards the bewildered couple, the High Priest launched into an unexpected sermon. "In the old days," he began, his voice resonating through the hushed temple, "our lessons were not etched in stone. When writing came, everything was recorded, yet..." He paused, his eyes flickering towards the Countess and Delegate, whose expressions contorted with confusion.
The High Priest's voice rose, echoing off the vaulted ceiling as he continued his tale, drawing them deeper into the temple's heart. Each word was a brushstroke, painting a vivid picture of ambition, folly, and the fragility of power.
"The dark green forest itself was our temple," he continued, his voice unwavering. "Stone temples arose, mimicking human structures, a testament to their perceived importance. But remember," he stressed, "laws made by men can be broken by men."
A collective sigh rippled through the room, laced with impatience. Undeterred, the High Priest pressed on, weaving a tale of ambitious High Priests vying for power, their disagreements leading to the construction of a colossal tower meant to reach the heavens.
The silence grew thick with tension, punctuated only by the insistent tinkling of the crowns. The High Priest finally met the Prince and Princess's eyes, a knowing glint in his own. "Laws not of our making cannot be broken," he declared, his voice ringing with conviction. "No matter what stories are spun, remain true to your hearts, this is our connection to the heavenly."
Suddenly, a trumpet blared outside, shattering the temple's stillness. The Prince and Princess whipped around, their gazes landing on a sight that made their hearts soar.
The square and streets teemed with soldiers, four armies strong, led by the Empress herself. She galloped straight towards them, her face etched with fierce determination.
"Mother?!" the Princess cried out, relief and joy washing over her.
Chaos erupted as the Empress's forces clashed with the Council's guards. The Prince, with a swift move, disarmed the Delegate and joined the fray, freeing his mother. The Council members, cornered and desperate, roared threats, their voices drowned out by the clash of steel.
"Your reign is over!" they bellowed, their power crumbling before their eyes.
"Perhaps," the Empress countered, a steely glint in her eyes. "But the world faces worse threats than ours. And if you persist in stoking chaos, then all the more reason to fight back!"
With a flourish, she snatched the crowns from the High Priest's grasp, raising them high. "How dare you defy us!" the Councilors screeched, their faces contorted in rage.
"We've heard your threats enough!" the Princess shouted back, her voice laced with newfound courage.
"Retreat!" the Empress commanded, her gaze sweeping over the stunned crowd. "This fight is far from over, but a new dawn breaks for the empire!"
As the Empress and her forces swept out of the temple, the echoes of their cheers resonated in the air, a promise of change and hope. The Princess and the Knight, hands clasped, watched them go, knowing their journey had just begun.
Effortlessly, the Empress trampled the Deputy Envoy who dared to impede her way down the aisle. Reaching the Princess, she swept her into a fierce embrace.
"My dear daughter! To see you with my own eyes, to hold you again... no one will ever take you away from me again!" tears streamed down the Empress's face, mirroring the Princess's own joyful sobs. "Mother," the Princess choked out, "I returned from the fairyland for you, to see you free. It's all I ever wished for!"
But the Empress's smile faltered. "You shouldn't have returned," she whispered, her gaze flickering towards the Countess, who watched the reunion with simmering rage. The Burgomaster's promises suddenly felt hollow, a crumbling foundation beneath her feet.
"Surrender! You are completely surrounded!" the booming voices of the army commanders echoed through the open doors, shattering the fragile moment. Fury contorted the Countess's face. With a snarl, she snatched a fallen sword and lunged towards the Princess.
"Not another step," the Bard's voice cut through the din, a playful smile etched on his face. A flick of his wand sent the Countess hurtling backwards, landing with a crash inside a gilded cabinet that slammed shut with a resounding clang.
"Much better," the Bard quipped, stepping into the chaos of clashing steel, his gaze searching for the Prince of Spears locked in combat with the Councilors. "Prince," he boomed, drawing attention, "heed my words - "
His warning was cut short by a deafening roar, the temple roof splitting open above them. Debris rained down, plunging the chamber into semi-darkness, screams swallowed by the rising dust.
HOW DARE YOU INFILTRATE MY DOMAIN!" the colossal red dragon boomed, its voice cracking the very air. "RELEASE YOUR CAPTIVE AT ONCE! HOW DARE YOU DISRUPT MY GRAND DESIGN!"
The Princess, hand in hand with her mother, met the dragon's fiery gaze with defiance. "We don't know how we dare," she shouted, her voice ringing clear amid the growing chaos. "We only know that we must!"
The dragon's fury crackled in the air. "YOU IMPUDENT INSECTS! DO YOU NOT FEAR MY WRATH? DOES MY POWER MEAN NOTHING TO YOU?"
From amidst the crumbling stone and dust, the Bard's voice rose, tinged with amusement. "Indeed it does, mighty dragon. Your power only strengthens our resolve to drive you away!"
Suddenly and without warning, a deafening roar shook the earth as the dragon unleashed its inferno down into the temple through the hole he had torn in the rood. Hellfire rained down from his mouth, engulfing the temple in a swirling vortex of flames. Before the Prince could steal one last glance at his mother, a whirlwind of magic lifted him skyward, the Bard's hand gripping his tight.
Below, the counselors perished in an instant, their screams swallowed by the dragon's wrath. The once majestic temple crumbled, bathed in the dragon's fiery breath.
Landing hard on the scorched steps thanks to the Bard’s magic, the Prince choked back a scream, the word "No!" escaping his lips in a strangled cry that echoed through the smoke-filled air. Ten times he repeated it, each utterance imbued with despair and anger as he watched the flames devour his world.