Mobius and Aurora – Chapter 1: The Two Orphans [SAMPLE]

Chapter 1: The Two Orphans

 

            Dark Morning.

            The world knew it by such an impersonal name, a grand title for a solitary moment in time. A day when legends were lost and heroes were born, converted into a harrowing tale with the passing years. But to them, it was more than a simple story. To Mobius and Aurora, those tormented bounty hunters of lore, Dark Morning had but one distinction. One claim to call its own.

            It was the day the Blue Tiger came.

 

            Arcadia’s killer vacated the shadows, a rumble issuing deep from his throat and reeking of an assassin’s hunger. Sunlight filtering through treetops traced his calculated path along the top of the stone wall. Tangled vines stirred beneath his paws. The great cat dropped into the garden, silent. A blast of ice plumed from his body with the impact, freezing the trees into crystalline sculptures. Swirls of ghostly frost danced about the beast, caressing him with skeletal fingers.

            He set a yellow gaze on his surroundings. It was the haven he had imagined, the one he came to crush. Oaks and elms, manicured grass, and ponds shimmering from the reflective light of the noon sun. A king’s oasis. The White Palace cast its dominating shade over the garden, providing relief from the summer heat. Massive towers and spires forked clouds drifting lazily across the sky.

            He would see every stone and leaf burn.

            Birds in the trees took to the sky, as if aware something evil approached. His ears perked. The ground began to vibrate, and a distant crash beyond the walls kicked dust high into the air, visible even from where he stood.

           “They’re here,” he said. Predatory ambition filled his voice. “Now… to find the Black Widow.”

            The delicate smell of a human child wafted past his nostrils. The tiger’s mouth stretched into a wicked smile of sharp teeth. He lumbered further into the garden with silent footfalls, tracing a careful path along shadowy stretches and behind foliage. Leaves rustling in the wind and water pouring from stone column fountains concealed all trace of sound. Despite blaring indigo fur, he was invisible.

            Following the scent, he peered through a thick hedge and found her: a young girl no older than seven. She sat at the edge of a pond with her legs in the water, writing in a leather journal. Her long brown hair drifted with wisps of a breeze fleeting through the garden. Radiant blue eyes that could illuminate the darkest of winter nights followed her crystal quill as it glided across the page. A happy child, oblivious to her surroundings.

            Giggling as slippery fish swam past her legs, she got up, putting her journal aside. The cloud of dust beyond the wall caught her attention. She peered at it curiously, drawn to it. In her distraction, she wandered into a patch of flowers, and an aberrant step crushed a cluster of purple blossoms. Distraught, she knelt and reached out her hands. Upon her touch, they strengthened and sprang up, as good as new. Leaning over to smell them, the petals caressed her face like a loving mother.

            A figure approached. Its shadow surrounded her, and a stern voice spoke.

           “Aurora.”

            She fell back, gasping in surprise.

            The Avalon in black looked down on her with dark eyes sharper than sleet. Each bore a blue triangular tattoo underneath. The strength of the wizard’s presence belied well-aged features: a bald head and a wrinkled grimace. A silver ring looped through one of his ears, and his hands clutched a long staff topped with a blood-red crystal.

            At first, Aurora trembled from his sudden appearance, but she quickly recognized him. “Mr. Widow! You scared me!”

           “Princess, stand up and come with me,” he said, holding out his hand. His eyes shifted left and right. “Hurry now.”

           “Why?”

           “The city has been attacked, and the White Palace will soon be under siege. Come. We must make sure you are protected.”

            She got up and took his hand, eyes brimming with fearful tears. The strange crash she had heard before now filled her ears. Frenzied shouts and animalistic roars she didn’t understand, just beyond the castle walls.

           “Where’s Daddy? Is he okay? What about Alex?”

           “The king went out to meet the Doppelganger army. Prince Alexander is away on the hunt, so he should be out of harm’s…” The wizard stopped. His eyes shifted to his left, narrowing in suspicion. A freezing wind whipped though them, making Aurora shiver. He grimaced and took a step toward her.

           “Mister Widow… what’s wrong?”

            She followed his gaze and screamed. A massive blue tiger streaked toward them, covering enormous distance in short time. The wizard snatched Aurora up with a sweep of his arm and jumped out of the way of the lunging beast. The tiger swiped his claws, so close to her head, the beast knocked her headband off as he flew past.

            He landed but didn’t turn, instead choosing to sit on his haunches as calm as if he were about to take a nap. The wizard set Aurora beside him, keeping her close with one hand while using the other to raise his staff. Aurora looked up at his face and gasped when his left eye turned an electric shade of purple, glimmering brighter than a star.

           “Mordecai of Orion,” the tiger said. He turned his head to look at him. Wispy white vapors swirled over his blue fur. “Or should I call you the Black Widow?”

            Aurora shuddered in terror, and crept behind Mordecai, who kept a steady hand on her shoulder. Just looking into the tiger’s eyes made her feel cold.

           “You know my name…” Mordecai said in an even voice. The crystal at the apex of his staff burned red fire. “…but I’m afraid I only know you as the Blue Tiger. Care to amend the situation?”

            The tiger picked up his hind legs and began to pace, not bothering to keep his eyes on the staff. “I have searched for you for a long time now,” he said. “To your credit. As the most powerful wizard in Avalon, you have done well to avoid me so long. But, your time has come, as has the time of the West.”

           “You underestimate me, and you underestimate King Tristan.”

            The cat stopped and looked up into his eyes. “Today, you die.”

           “Then why aren’t you attacking?”

            For a long moment, the tiger did not reply. His breathing became deeper, ragged with fury. The powerful exhales frosted the air with cold bursts shooting straight to Aurora’s heart. She wanted to scream, but the numbing cold made it hard to even breathe. The riotous noise of battle grew louder, surrounding them with its presence.

           “Show me your true eye,” the beast finally rumbled, baring his teeth. Lithe muscles tensed. “I want to kill you at your best.”

            Mordecai’s left eye seared with purple light, casting unnatural shadows across his face. “You have not yet earned the right,” he replied. He twisted his staff, daring the beast to attack.

            The animal lunged, roaring. Mordecai jabbed his staff through the air with the speed of a cat himself. A white apparition erupted from his crystal, forming a towering cloud of luminescent force between them. The cloud morphed into a ghostly spider that immediately assailed their enemy, slamming the ground with its heavy legs and pushing the tiger back.

            Aurora did not get to see what would happen. Mordecai snatched her up with his free hand and streaked away from the battle toward the castle. Despite his age and her weight under his arm, he reached a wooden door before she had time to think. Lugging it open, he rushed inside and set her down, facing the door at the ready. Aurora’s heart pounded as they stood in silence, watching the opening with dreaded expectation. But no tiger appeared. Mordecai closed the door and hurried through the stone halls with Aurora in close pursuit, clutching to his coat.

            She cried, still shaking. “Mister Widow, why was that tiger trying to hurt us?”

           “That particular beast was after me. You would have just been an opportune kill. Aurora, listen to me, you must be absolutely quiet now. I am going to lead you somewhere safe, and then I can go help your father. Can you do that?”

            She nodded bravely, and they continued on through musty halls. Square stones, sleek and creviced with time, encapsulated them on all sides. They noticed the shadows from the torch lights were moving, unnaturally so, as if they had minds of their own. Black, stretching hands weaved across the stone in silence, grasping for them as they rushed through the corridors. While Mordecai ignored them, Aurora watched the moving shadows warily. She had seen them before, but no one ever told her what they were. They shifted and morphed into different shapes and sizes, and she couldn’t help but shudder. Taking Mordecai’s hand, she kept close to him.

            They came to a dead end. Mordecai put his hand against the damp wall and grimaced with concentration. A green rune appeared, and the wall sprang to life, splitting down the middle and sliding apart. Beyond the secret entrance was a small room filled with supplies: cots, blankets, candles and bags of dried food. The smells of burning wax and dry grain in huge canvas sacks met Aurora’s nose, and she recognized it as a safe room where a few people could hide for months.

            A boy of twelve sat alone on one of the cots. He had brown eyes and golden-brown hair that stuck up on all ends, making his head look like a thick, soft pincushion. He wore plain black clothes and held a wooden rod, which he abruptly bore as a weapon when the door opened. However, when he saw Mordecai, his eyes lit up.

           “Father!” The boy ran to them.

           “Son, I found her,” Mordecai said. “Look after her. I must help the king. No matter what, you stay here until I come for you.”

            He turned and rushed out of the room without another word, the stone barrier closing behind him. The two children, sequestered and alone, looked at each other.

           “Hello, Mobius,” Aurora said shyly. “I didn’t even know you and Mister Widow were visiting.”

           “Aurora, you should probably call me by my real name from now on,” he said with resignation in his voice. “Mobius is just a nickname my brothers and sisters gave me. Father doesn’t want me to use it anymore. And you’re a princess. You should be more proper.”

           “I like your nickname.” She came closer. “And I’m tired of being proper. Since Alex is the one who will take Daddy’s place one day, why should I care about what happens here? It’s so lonely sometimes – I’ve never even been to Avalon. I would like to visit where you live one day.”

           “I’m always with Father, so I’m hardly ever home. We travel everywhere, seeing all sorts of amazing things.”

           “I would love to do that. You’re so lucky.”

           “Yeah, it’s great. And Father trains me as his apprentice along the way. My brothers train under him, too, but on this trip, he only took me with him.” He leaned closer to her and looked around suspiciously before whispering in excitement. “I think he likes me best.”

            He chuckled and she laughed with him. She then noticed again what he was holding and pointed to the wooden rod in his hand.

           “What’s that stick?”

           “It’s not a ‘stick!’ It’s an apprentice’s training baton. Once I master my basic sword skills, I can get a real sword.” Mobius eagerly swung his baton around a few times. “One day, I’m not only going to be a great wizard like my father, but I’m going to be a great warrior, too.”

           “I wish you were now,” she said, suddenly feeling sad. “Then you could help Daddy.” He stopped swinging his baton and sat on the bed, solemn. She sat down on the ground, using her finger to trace lines in the dust on the floor.

           “Are you scared, Moby?” she finally asked.

           “No… well, a little.” He looked at her uneasily, but then his expression filled with confidence. “Father says he’s being hunted by one of the animals – a powerful one called the Blue Tiger, but he’d never be defeated by lousy Doppelgangers – he’s the greatest magician in the world. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

            She gave him a small smile but looked worriedly at the stone wall separating her from the rest of the castle.

            Hours passed. Neither of them moved much as they dwelled on what was possibly happening on the battlefield. Every now and again, they would hear sounds and Aurora would jump, fearful the tiger had found them. She shivered, huddled against the wall. Thoughts of her father wore her down, and more tears slid down her cheeks. Mobius watched her in concern. Finally, he got up from the cot and sat down beside her, putting an arm around her shoulders.

           “Don’t worry,” he said with a smile. “There may be a war going on, but we’re definitely going to win. And no matter what happens, I’ll protect you.”

            Aurora’s eyes became hopeful. She wiped her tears away. “You promise?”

           “Promise.”

 

*                         *                          *

            Palace doors burst open with a desperate kick. The shouts and roars of battle from outside the castle gates corrupted the silence of the inner sanctum. Mordecai, struggling to support the wounded king, shuffled to a nearby, low-lying table and helped him down. Caked in sweat, blood and dirt, they had barely escaped. Mordecai looked down upon his old friend with dread. Tristan heaved in pain, bleeding profusely where vicious claw marks had ravaged his chest, right through his armor. The lesions glowed black with a curse and pulsated beyond that of a normal battle wound.

            Mordecai whirled around looking for help, left eye aglow with lavender fire, but they were alone. The purple light receded, and his eye turned back. Miserably hot light invaded through the open doors of the expansive marble court. Holy-white statues of majestic eagles lined the edges of the ceiling rims, the only adornments in the throne room. Two rows of various-sized stone tables, one on each side, extended along the aisle to a large dais at the far wall. The marble throne itself stood on the dais, secluded and destitute like a well-used gallows. A grubby linen package lay on its armrest.

            The king, gasping for every breath, squeezed Mordecai’s cloak as the wizard began to work on his wounds with difficulty. Tristan was a large man with a heavy brown beard and two blue streaks down the sides of his face similar to the triangular tattoos under Mordecai’s eyes. His golden battle crown, less than lustrous because of the blood splattered across its frame, shined nonetheless.

            Mordecai raised his staff over the king, whispering unintelligible words in hurried, but focused concentration. The marble floor beneath them responded with a rumble, tearing apart and breaking into different-sized chunks. The pieces reassembled in mid-air to form a white and gray spider that settled over the king’s chest and wrapped its legs around the table. The eyes of the creature glowed red, and it squeezed with great strength. A black magical symbol etched into its abdomen. Tristan shouted in pain, but the bleeding ebbed.

           “Mordecai,” he gasped. “It’s… too late.”

           “Don’t talk like that! Think of your kingdom. Think of your children.”

           “I am thinking of my children. Mordecai… you have been a good friend all these years.” Tristan groaned in pain. Blue eyes reflected the grief of a terrible mistake. “Please, don’t let them suffer for what we did. Take the stone and hide it. I brought this misery on my kingdom and now… I will pay for it with my life.”

            Mordecai bowed his head. “It’s as much my mistake as yours.” He looked into his eyes. “Stay with me, my friend. I will get your daughter.”

            Tristan nodded, and Mordecai left his side.

            Back to the secret room, he made his way with all urgency. White gleaming halls drove deep into the castle, much more bright and inviting than the dark side passages he had traversed earlier with the princess. But the brighter colors lent him no comfort. As he rounded one corner, he collided into someone in white robes – another Avalon. Slamming into the much larger Mordecai, the unfortunate wizard fell hard to the floor. He was a tall sorcerer, bald and gaunt, with eyes shaped as though they were constantly filled with fear. Around his neck hung a small golden amulet with an insignia of a snake.

           “My Lord!” he whimpered in a whiney, raspy voice. “Forgive my clumsiness!”

            Mordecai’s eyes became livid upon recognizing him. He grabbed him by the collar of his robes, lifting his face to eye level. “Kristopher!” he shouted, disregarding the distance. “Where the hell have you been? You are the head physician to the king, but we couldn’t find you anywhere. Why are you not serving near the battle lines? Haven’t you heard the attacks?”

           “No!” he squealed. “I have not! I was in my chamb—”

           “It doesn’t matter!” Mordecai interrupted, shoving his body against the wall before letting him go. “The king is dying.”

            The physician’s face turned horrific. “Dying?” he repeated.

           “Gather the other medics who serve this castle, and go at once to his court. Now!”

           “Yes, my Lord!” Kristopher scampered off while Mordecai hurried, once again, to the secret room where the children waited. He had the door opened in a moment. Young Mobius and Aurora looked up to see a dirty and red-eyed Mordecai. He was disheveled and exhausted, but seeing him brought joy to their eyes.

           “Quickly, children. Come quickly.”

            They got up immediately and followed him through the winding halls back to the throne room. Once inside the voluminous court, Aurora spotted her father on the low-lying table, now surrounded by wizards in white robes. Her confidence melted into horror when she noticed blood dripping to the ground from his limp hand.

           “Daddy!” She rushed over to the king, who continued to struggle. Mordecai approached one of the nearby healers and began to talk with him in a hushed voice. The sounds of battle outside had lessened in ferocity

           “Aurora…” Tristan gasped. Burning black curse marks steadily advanced up his neck. “Aurora, my precious daughter…” He reached out his hand, and she took it. Tears streamed down her face as she whimpered in fear.

            Mordecai approached the king with a wide-eyed Mobius by his side. The physicians backed away solemnly. “Tristan,” Mordecai said in a bittersweet voice, “your physicians have told me that your son has arrived and pushed back the Doppelganger force. Their attack has failed. You have defended your kingdom.” He took the king’s other hand. The healers had informed him there was nothing they could do.

            Tristan’s breathing became more strained. His face was damp and pale. “My son must become king of West Carnel,” he whispered.

           “That is for the council to decide.”

           “No!” He coughed, wincing as he fought back the pain. He squeezed Mordecai’s hand until it turned white, and spoke with newfound urgency. “No, listen to me… Mordecai. The council will choose Aurora… as the next ruler and she is too young. I cannot let that happen! There are some… on the council… who say Alexander has evil in his eyes, but it’s nonsense. He can lead our people. Please… p-please, Mordecai, take my daughter away from here. Take her, and take the stone. Do not let my daughter face a fate… that takes away her life. She should be allowed to live.” The stone spider seal still wrapped around Tristan’s chest broke apart, drained of its magic. The rocks fell to the floor, and blood streaked with black veins began pouring freely from his chest once more.

            Mordecai squeezed the king’s hand, eyes misting over. “Alright, my friend… my children and I will look after Aurora and raise her, and we will protect the stone with our lives. Perhaps one day we can find a way to destroy it.”

            On hearing that, King Tristan took back his hand from Aurora and reached up to his neck with the last of his strength, pulling out a necklace – a thin, silver chain with a strange pendant like a warped letter “W.”

           “Flying Birds,” Mordecai whispered in awe.

            Tristan took the chain and placed it in Aurora’s hands. She looked at the brilliant little charm for a moment before placing it around her neck and retaking her father’s hand.

           “Daddy, please be okay…” she cried, covering her face with his hand.

           “Be strong… Aurora,” he whispered in a barely audible voice. “Be strong and free.” His breathing slowed. “Mordecai…” His friend leaned over to listen.

           “Mo-Mor-Mordecai… once my son becomes king… he will be the one… the one who can possess… Scepter. You must… you must not allow him to take it until he… is ready. Keep it with you.”

           “I understand. I will protect your family, Tristan. You have my word.”

            King Tristan smiled weakly before breathing his last.

            Aurora shook his hand in terror, but it went limp. She let go and slumped across his stomach in tears and heaving sobs.

            Mordecai let go of the dead king’s other hand. His usually calculating eyes spilled regret. He bowed his head momentarily, whispering a chant that died away into the loud, naive cheers of victory coming from outside the castle. When finished, he took his staff and tapped it hard against the marble floor. The red crystal flashed, and the physicians in the room, including Kristopher, dropped to the ground, unconscious.

           “Son!” he commanded.

           “Yes, Father?” Mobius rushed to his side and walked with him as he made his way over to the throne. On its armrest lay a large package wrapped in grubby linen.

           “Take the stone and Aurora,” Mordecai ordered, picking up the dirty package and handed it to him. The “stone” was heavy, and Mobius struggled with its weight. He could feel a strong power emanating from it, and he became wary of what he was holding.

           “Take her to our wagon and make sure you are not seen,” Mordecai continued. “We must leave immediately. Alexander and the council will be looking for her – that is why I rendered the physicians unconscious. They will soon wake, unable to remember a thing after the king passed away. We must be off, so hurry. I will be right behind you.”

           “Where are you going?” he asked, panic rising in his voice.

           “I must retrieve the key.” He motioned his head toward the princess. “Now go.”

           “Yes, Father.” Mobius rushed over to Aurora, whose mournful wails had reduced to whimpers, while Mordecai left through another door. “Princess, I’m sorry, but we have to go now,” Mobius said, taking her shoulder.

           “Why?” she replied, looking up at him teary-eyed. “Why can’t I stay with Daddy? Where is Alex?”

           “He is safe, but come with me. Please, Princess… I told you I would protect you. Can you trust me?”

            Aurora sniffed and wiped the tears from her eyes. She looked at her father and almost thought he might be smiling, but she couldn’t tell. All she wanted was for him to open his eyes one more time, but she knew he never would again. Wiping a lock of hair from his eyes, she kissed his face.

           “Goodbye, Daddy.”

            Aurora followed Mobius, and they sped toward the side door through which they had first entered. Even though Aurora lived in the castle, she had never been allowed to wander many of the corridors of the giant citadel. But, Mobius seemed to know where he was going as he raced through door after door and room after room, all while struggling to carry the heavy parcel and making sure she kept close. Fortunately, they didn’t run into anyone; all attention was being paid to the front of the castle. After what seemed like an eternity of dashing through sections of the castle, Mobius finally opened one last humble door that led to one of the stables. Two horses waited, hitched to a large, wooden wagon.

            Mobius glanced around. He could still hear the remnants of the dying battle near the front of the castle, and smoke rose steadily above their heads, but no one was in the immediate area. He helped Aurora into the cart and then lugged the package up before getting in. They waited. Aurora huddled behind him, and they peered around carefully, on the lookout for anyone who might be searching for them, but no one came.

            Finally, the door they had come through opened again, and Mordecai strode silently out into the fading daylight. He held a long wooden box, which he placed on the seat next to him as he got into the wagon. The box looked sturdy, but the wood was weathered and cracked by time. Mordecai put on a hat and hid his face with a cloth mask. The children ducked down under heavy blankets while he looked around warily and started off. With a snap of the reins, they rode along a dirt path to a black iron gate that led to the open fields. Mordecai performed a quick spell to push the unguarded doors aside.

           He prodded the horses on. “Every able soldier was sent to defend the city and pursue the surviving Doppelgangers,” he said to the children. “We might be able to depart without being noticed.”

            The countryside opened up before them as Mordecai pushed the horses east. Grasslands as far as the eye could see, a myriad of green and golden lakes catching the rays of the dying sun. Rolling hills surrounded the castle and the capital city of Tanaerum, pinning it against the Great Western Ocean. South of the castle, two towering, identical spires, black and grotesque, rose into the sky.

           “Couldn’t we hide there?” Aurora asked, pointing to the dark towers.

            Mobius looked. “The Avernus Gate? I don’t think so. Father says it’s a place no one wants to go. We need to get home. Then we’ll be safe.”

            Home. Aurora looked back on the home she might never see again until it could no longer be seen on the horizon. Only shivering grasses now surrounded them. The sun began its descent into the ocean, a red, tired eye ready for sound sleep. All traces of the devastating battle disappeared. Mordecai drove the horses to their limit, taking a southeastern course toward the Cascading Leaf Forest. Faster and faster he pushed them.

            Three days passed. Three days that felt like three weeks, never stopping except to feed and water the horses. And just when it seemed they would ride on forever, the forests of the South appeared in the distance after so many miles of grassy hills. While Aurora watched the looming trees with apprehension, Mordecai and Mobius finally showed some relief – they would soon be home.

           “We made it!” Mobius shouted.

            A roar tore through the evening air, and they looked behind to find a blue and black blur, chasing after them and gaining tremendous ground.

           “Son!” Mordecai shouted. “Take the reins!”

            Mobius hurled himself into the front seat, taking the leather straps from his father, who jumped back into the cart. Aurora scurried beneath the blankets. Mordecai faced the beast that ran like blue lightning. The wizard’s coat whipped through the wind and the rattling of the wheels against the dirt road made them jostle and bump, but he remained calm. The vicious feline drew close.

           “Destruction…” Mordecai whispered. A white light like a cylinder rocketed from the red crystal atop his staff. The earth exploded in a rain of dirt and grass but the beast was too agile and he dodged the devastating attack. He moved closer still, now almost upon them.

            Twisted loathing stretched across the tiger’s face. “You’re mine!” he growled. In one great bound, he leaped toward the wizard, snarling. Mordecai stood his ground, muttering another incantation.

            A purple barrier of light, infused with four black runes, sprang up between them. The tiger hit it with full force, bouncing off and roaring in pain. He landed with a thud, but picked himself up and raced after the wagon again, pulling alongside it with renewed homicidal lust in his eyes. Mobius was frightened, but he forced himself to concentrate on the horses as they drew nearer to the forest. They were almost there.

            The tiger darted ahead and then swung his paw, digging up a large clump of dirt that flew into Mordecai’s face, hitting him in the eyes. Mordecai yelled in surprise, and the tiger leaped again. The wizard opened an eye in time to thrust his staff, hitting the tiger in the chest and knocking him away from the wagon, but not before he swung his paw, knocking him to the floor of the cart and slashing his shoulder. Mordecai struggled to get up, as did the tiger, who rushed after the cart again – his poisonous eyes only burned brighter. Mordecai reached into an inner pocket of his coat and pulled out a small white pellet. He closed it in his fist as the predator moved in, faster than ever. At the decisive moment, he flicked it into the air and thrust his staff.

            The pellet exploded into a stringy, sticky web that ensnared the blue tiger, tripping it to the ground. Rolling, the beast roared with murderous rage and clawed at the web, but he was stuck. The cart sped into the forest and disappeared among the trees.

           “You did it, Father!” Mobius shouted. “No one can stand up to the Black Widow!”

            Mordecai got into the front seat and took the reins from his son. He snapped them and then winced, grabbing his injured shoulder. “He will not be held for long,” he said. “We must make it back home where we can recover in the safety of our valley. He is persistent, I can say that much for him.” He looked at his son, who was staring at his wound. He smiled and placed his hand on Mobius’s head, shaking his wild hair. Mobius smiled back, reassured, and jumped back in the cart to attend to Aurora, who had remained hidden under the blankets, tucked into the farthest corner.

           “Are you okay, Princess?” he asked.

            She peeked her head out from under the cover, trembling like a newborn kitten. Sad, fearful eyes looked up at him, and Mobius felt sorry for her. She had just lost her father and now, she was being attacked by a large, scary animal. The last few days were going to be a nightmare she would never forget, and Mobius was determined to comfort her and see her through everything.

            She sat up as the horses continued to drive into the forest. It was night, but the moon overhead provided enough light to see for a safe distance. Near an open glen, she saw an old rock statue chiseled into the form of a mighty warrior. Covered in patches of green moss, the face of the monument still reflected a noble and inspiring spirit. Cooing forest doves slept on his outstretched sword, tranquil and still, as if comforted by the warrior’s protection. Aurora sighed as it faded from view. She began to cry again.

           “Why did Daddy have to die?” she asked. “Why is this happening, Moby?”

            Mobius sat next to her and put his arm around her. “I don’t know, Aurora. None of this has made any sense, but Father always said war was senseless – he reminds me never to hurt anyone who can’t hurt me… to never use force when peace might be possible. I hope that one day I can live up to his standards.” He gazed at his father with admiration before turning back to her. “All we can do now is look out for each other, okay?” She nodded and wiped her eyes, smiling a little in reassurance.

            A sudden bang caused them to rock. Mobius sat up, instantly alert. Mordecai veered the horses in another direction. Another violent bang shook the cart, and it lifted about a foot off the ground, before coming back down again with a thud that audibly cracked the wheels. Mordecai picked up his staff and looked about in all directions, his eye alight with purple fire, but he found nothing.

           “Dad, what is it?” Mobius shouted, grabbing hold of Aurora and pulling her close.

            “Stay down!” he shouted. Suddenly, the cart rocked with the force of an explosion, lifted into the air and catapulting Mobius and Aurora across the road. Mobius caught a glimpse of an immense blue tiger before they hit damp ground around a thick copse of oak. Aurora fell hard on her head, knocked unconscious, but Mobius picked himself up. He shook his head, dizzy from the plunge. He heard roars and shouts, and he could sense light coming from the direction of the destroyed wagon. He slowly made his way toward the sounds. As he approached, they became increasingly louder and more violent.

            Then… silence.

            Mobius stopped, frozen in his steps, and listened for any new sound. His heart began to pound, and his head cleared. He rushed around a large tree and stopped. The blue predator stood only feet from Mobius, staring at him with savage eyes. He was leaning over the limp form of Mordecai, whose staff lay nearby, broken into two pieces. The mere presence of the beast was an icy arrow through Mobius’s heart, and he trembled. It was as if the Blue Tiger was the very manifestation of his fear.

           “NOOOOOO!” He rushed at the tiger, throwing aside his fear. But the cat took one of its huge paws and swatted him to the ground. Mobius struggled to sit up and he watched in horror as the great tiger approached, towering over him. He lifted a blood-soaked paw, claws extended; his teeth bared, merciless, and a snort of hot breath preceded a rumbling growl.

            Mobius gasped and covered his head, squeezing his eyes shut. But nothing happened, and he opened them again. The tiger still stood over him, paw ready to end his life. But the rage in the beast’s eyes seemed to leave, and he lowered it. With another snort, he turned and lumbered off into the night, leaving them in a victorious wake of ice.

            In a panic, Mobius crawled over to his father and pushed him onto his back. When he saw his face, he gasped in terror. Deep wounds ravaged his father’s chest, identical to those of King Tristan’s, and his eyes stared up into the sky, lifeless and empty. Mobius shuddered and shook his head in disbelief. Tears streamed down his face, his attempts at bravery abandoned.

           “No…” He shook him again. “Don’t die… don’t die… Dad, I still need you… I-I can’t do this alone.” He wept uncontrollably, laying across his father’s chest and holding him as close as he could. He had already lost his mother; what would he and his brothers and sisters do?

            After a long while, he finally sat up and stopped crying. A quiet wind blew through the forest, rustling his hair and drying his tears, making him cold. He looked at his father’s face, feeling desolate. He was gone… he had been taken from him in a moment. He reached out and closed his father’s eyes, bowing his head and clenching his fist. He slowly got up and retrieved the linen package and the long wooden box they had taken from the castle, along with his father’s broken staff.

            Kneeling over his father again, he put his head on his chest. “I will take the vow you took, Father,” he whispered. “I will protect the princess and the stone with my life. And no matter what…” He glared into the dark emptiness of the forest. “…I will kill the Blue Tiger. I won’t let you down. I promise… I promise.” Mobius sniffed and wiped the remaining tears from his eyes. He bent down to Mordecai’s face and kissed it.

            Another gust of wind blew through the trees and whipped through the clearing; a low rumbling began to shake the ground and Mobius got up and stepped back, closing his eyes. The earth around the slain Mordecai lifted around him softly, swirling about by some unknown force. Dust and earth wrapped around the body like caressing hands, covering him, and with gentle strength, the earth buried him, leaving nothing behind. Mobius opened his eyes again just as his father’s face disappeared.

           “Goodbye, Daddy.”

 

*                         *                          *

            Aurora stirred and opened her eyes just enough to see the moonlight filtering through the treetops. She could hear the desperate cries of a young boy in the distance and she recognized them. Her heart had made those same cries earlier. The boy had lost something… he had lost everything. The cries eventually stopped, but her heart ached all the more. After a moment, she heard brush rustle in the near distance and the shadow of a person loomed over her, but she was too exhausted to pay much attention. In moments, she faded into the obscurity of deep slumber, and there was no more.

 

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