I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t Lorain. It was Lora. Empress Lora. I know this because the King in the funny looking hat said so. After he and the Empress walked out, he gave a big speech, and in that speech he introduced the woman as “Empress Lora”.
At first, Sprite thought he had heard the name wrong. It took Greta almost an hour to calm him down and try to convince him that what he was seeing was impossible. Now, keep in mind that Greta’s eyes were not quite as good as Sprites, neither was her nose. As such she had only his word to go by. He had started to doubt it himself at first but then he remembered her smell, and all doubt faded away. “There is no way. That had to have been Lorain.” He thought.
In the end Greta decided it was best for them both to seek an audience with their new Empress. As for Sprite it took him a great deal of self-control to not force his way through the crowd and just ask her. However he reluctantly agreed to her plan. After all, even if it ended up not being Lorain, at the very least, meeting the new Empress might help Greta with her decision to go back to being a knight.
The two of them drifted back and waited for the crowd to die down. While they waited Greta introduced Sprite to a new kind of sweet food called chocolate. The stuff, as it turns out, was really popular, as they were selling it at almost all of the local shops. It was the most amazing thing he had ever eaten.
Having just finished his off, he was about to ask his teacher for more, but seeing as the crowd was now finally thinning out, she convinced him it was time to move on. Honestly the crowd hadn’t really thinned out that much. Sure it was easier than before however they still had to push and shove their way to the front gate.
Then a new problem arose. “What do you mean you won’t let me in?” Exclaimed Greta getting very irritated with the two guards that blocked her way. “I told you I am a knight vigilant, and I request an audience with the Empress.”
“Well”, said the guard. “Your request is denied. I don’t care who you think you are. By order of Baron Kane no one is to gain admittance into the temple until further notice.
This news was more surprising to Greta than it was for Sprite, as the bottom levels to the cathedral, which made up the temple, had always been open to the public. Why then were they closed off, and why wouldn’t they at the very least let her through. After all, she was a knight and she even revealed her badge of station to validate her story. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to impress the two guards at all.
Greta attempted to get more information from the guards and argued with them for almost an hour without any success. Eventually though, she gave up. Honestly had Sprite not been there, she would have probably made more of a scene. That being said she was very angry.
“Come Jursha” Greta called grumpily and, once more, the two of them forced their way back through the crowd. A few minutes later they were back by the front gate. As Greta was obviously stressed out, this time she bought some chocolate for the both of them at a little shop just across from the stables where they had left their horses.
About fifteen minutes in Greta was feeling a little better. While they sat and went over their plans, she finally admitted that something was definitely wrong. What with the temple being closed off, the Empress’s resemblance to Lorain, and those guards not letting her in, even after she introduced herself.
While they enjoyed their sweets the two of them split up to see what they could find out about the new Empress. To both Greta’s and Sprite’s amazement not very much. It would seem no one knew who she was, or where she came from. As far as anyone else knew she might as well have popped out of thin air.
This was really strange as the Empress is chosen by the Great Spirit from among the people. Usually from among the common folk. Sprite had once asked his teacher how exactly the selection process worked. Greta explained that a priest is given a vision after he drinks from the spirits fountain in the chapel. Anyway if the new Empress was chosen from among the masses it was really strange that no one knew this new empress. Well besides him of course, but he kept that thought to himself.
In the end Greta decided to return alone to White Brook in order to see her brother Kelly. Obviously Sprite wanted to go too and was about to protest. That is until she explained that as knight vigilant it was her duty to look into this. However that same duty would not allow her to leave the Empress unguarded, and so Sprite needed to stay behind. Which he wouldn’t have minded because he was still convinced that the new Empress was in fact Lorain. Greta however, forbade him from doing anything other than to watch and wait until she returned with news.
Greta had never been much for goodbyes so she settled for giving Sprite a quick hug, reminded him to stay out of trouble, then mounted her horse and charged out of the gate leaving the young Sprite to his own devices. By his own devices I mean spying on the empress.
Not even an hour gone and he was considering breaking into the cathedral and finding out for himself just who the new empress really was. Fortunately he didn’t have to wait much longer than a day or two. In fact it was high noon on his second day that the gates to the cathedral suddenly pulled opened and out marched no less than thirty soldiers. Some on horseback, and all escorting a single carriage out through the city gates.
It wasn’t very hard for the young warrior to figure out who exactly they were escorting. The morning breeze was heavy with the woman's potent smell. However, what he found particularly strange was the fact that Empress Lora, or Lorain, was leaving at all.
You see, like everyone else in the kingdom, Sprite knew that, this Midsummer’s Eve, the Empress was expected to make her first offering to the Great Spirit. However, Midsummer’s Eve was only two days away, so why was she leaving now?
Whatever the case, if she was going by carriage, and with that many guards, it meant she wasn’t just going out for a quick trip. Seeing as it was obviously his sworn duty to follow her he intended to do exactly that. Only one problem, the gate she was taking out of the city had been barred off from travel and the guards weren't letting anyone else through.
So he stuck to the roof tops and followed them out anyway. In truth, the roof tops were only slightly less difficult to navigate than the streets. Though, once he finally made it on top of the outer wall, getting down ended up being a matter of just climbing the thirty or so feet to the ground. At least that’s what he tried to do. While he was climbing down, he thought he heard the guard coming back. Of course, when he panicked, his foot slipped and he ended up dropping the thirty or so feet to the ground.
Naturally he was just as surprised as you or I would have been when he landed on his feet with no difficulty at all. Sure he didn’t land as quietly as he would have liked but the guard currently posted on that side of the wall wasn’t paying attention, so it really didn’t matter. Also his neck wasn’t broken, so that was a plus.
Once down, he simply stood and walked as casually, and unsuspiciously as he could away from the city walls. Of course he only had to keep that up until he reached the safety of the tree line. Once inside the cover of the wood, it only took him a minute of jogging to catch up to the Empress and her escort.
Again In order to avoid being seen, since the Empress obviously didn’t want anyone following them, Sprite decided to keep clear of the roads. Instead, using the trees for cover, he kept pace a few dozen yards downwind of the caravan. This way he keep an eye on them without actually needing to see them. Being able to smell them was more than enough, and from that position he could smell everything. From the horses, to the men, and of course mixed in with everything else the faint suggestion of onions.
Then after about two hours of marching, the wind suddenly changed. Sprite stopped dead in his tracks. Because of the shift in the wind he could no longer smell the caravan. However, the scent of men and horses didn’t disappear. Rather it was stronger than ever, only now it was coming from a different direction. Something about this new wind did not sit well with the young warrior.
If only the wind had changed an hour sooner, than Sprite might have been able to warn the Empress and her soldiers.
The caravan came to a complete halt. Two large oaks, freshly cut, had been laid across the road, blocking their progress. The captain of the group was just recommending they turn around when suddenly the soldier driving the carriage fell from his seat with an arrow protruding from his chests.
“Bandits!” cried the captain before his horse reared up at the sound of another arrow throwing the man to the ground.
From all directions the arrows flew in and one by one the Empress’s men were being dropped like flies. The barrage was only kept up for a minute, before one of the bandit archers climbed his horse, gave the signal and with fifteen of his men, all rushed down to meet the soldiers on horseback.
I wish I could say that the Empress’s soldiers put up a good fight. Honestly they did their best. However that’s the thing about ambushes. They are made to get you when you just aren’t ready. Sadly, the soldiers were as unready for a bandit attack as you might be for a snow storm in summer.
The soldiers couldn’t run because the bandits had boxed them in. They couldn’t hold still either or the bandit’s archers would stick them with arrows. This battle, it would seem, was over before it even began. Less than half a minute after the initial charge, less than half of the Empress’s soldiers remained to defend her.
The next minute the bandits broke through. One of them was dragging the poor Empress out by her hair. Of course she fought back. The Empress bit, and kicked, and scratched, the entire way. Yet this did little more than make her captors angry.
As soon as they had the young monarch secure, the majority of the bandits withdrew while some stayed behind to finish off the remaining soldiers. Thankfully, it was right about this time when Sprite finally turned up.
As swift as a wolf, and as silent as a light breeze, the young warrior flew through the trees, drew his blade and in a single bound dispatched two of the bandits. They both toppled to the ground at nearly the same time. Angered at the death of their companions two more of the bandits turned and advanced on the warrior. They were dealt with just as brutally as the first two. There were now only six bandits remaining. However, instead of attack and meet the same fate as their friends, all of them very wisely, turned on their heels and ran. One of them even forgot their horse.
Of the Empress’s soldiers that remained, they all stood and gaped at the mighty warrior, unsure if they should run as well. Without giving them a chance to decide, Sprite addressed the highest ranking of them. “Captain where is the Empress, is she alright?” he asked.
The captain hesitated, wary that this strange warrior could possibly be an enemy. Then, out of options, he relented. “They took her. They fled that way only moments ago.” The captain indicated the direction with his sword and was about to ask who the warrior was, but even before the man had finished getting out the words “they took her” Sprite leapt into the saddle of the abandoned bandit’s horse and then, leaving them all behind, broke out into a full gallop.
The chase was on. Sprite pushed that poor horse pretty hard for the first minute or two. However, he knew it wouldn’t do to wear out the animal in a mad sprint. So instead, he veered off course to the left, at a more manageable pace.
Now you should know that Sprite was not in the least bit worried about losing them. Nor was he worried about them possibly hurting the Empress. For one, the bandits had taken a great deal of trouble in kidnapping her alive. So it stands to reason they wanted her alive. Second, it didn’t matter how much perfume she wore or how many baths she took. Sprite could follow that stink of onions as easily as if it had been paved.
That all being said, Sprite was still eager to end that chase as quick as possible and for that to happen the man needed to use his brains. His plan, you might like to know, was to let the bandits think they had gotten away.
Sure enough, not even five minutes later their pace began to drop. Sprite, of course, noticed this at once, and though he now had almost a hundred yards between him and his prey, he now steadily gained on them.
Soon the bandits slowed to an almost trot. Their horses too tired to continue on like before without a rest. Sprite, on the other hand, had not only spared his horse but, during the course of the chase, managed to get around and in front of the bandits. Now riding only a few yards ahead of them, the young warrior then abruptly stopped his horse, turned it about, and charged straight toward the center of their group.
In seconds he was almost upon them, and at his pace they had almost no time to react. Then they were in sight, though they had yet to see him.
Sprite noticed the Empress still trying to bite the man restraining her, despite the gag in her mouth. The man riding with her just happened to look up as Sprite vaulted forward off his horse and collided with him. As the bandit toppled off his horse landing hard on the ground Sprite managed to seat himself comfortably in the saddle behind the very surprised woman.
Then Sprite did something no one expected. Well I suppose no one really expects to have their friends face kicked in before they run off with the woman you kidnapped. Then again Sprite didn’t actually run off. No, he pulled his horse to a complete halt and dismounted at the foot of a large cliff littered with many large boulders.
The four remaining bandits pulled their horses about ready to give chase. Sprite however had no intention of running. Instead he drew his hunting knife, and asked, “My dear Empress, may I cut your bindings?”
Needless to say everyone, including the Empress was dumb founded. However, despite her hesitation she nodded and allowed Sprite to cut the ropes before helping her out of the saddle. “You certainly look like you’re all in one piece.” He observed, not smelling any blood. “They didn’t hurt you did they?” he asked just to be sure.
Unable to speak, even with the gag now out of her mouth, the Empress just shook her head no. She was just working up the courage to speak, when she noticed the bandits approaching. Sprite, on the other hand, ignored them.
Cautiously, they turned their horses about only a few feet away and began to circle around them. Boxing them in on all sides. One at a time they drew their swords and closed in cautiously, then halted suddenly when Sprite drew his own sword and spoke.
“If you throw down your weapons now and surrender, I will show you mercy.” The young knight challenged with a sneer.
The bandits looked from one another, all of them questioning whether or not they had heard him correctly. Deciding to ignore the young warrior’s words, one of the bandits repeated a similar challenge. “You are, surrounded, give us the girl.” The man’s threat was less than convincing, though this was mostly due to confusion.
In the corner of his eye, Sprite noted the fifth bandit he had unhorsed earlier slowly stumble to his feet a few yards away. The young warrior grinned savagely, eager to make his first move, when he suddenly went rigid. His blood seemed to turn to ice. Every instinct in his body was practically screaming in his ear, danger.
It wasn’t the men of course. No, the young warrior was confident enough in his skills to handle them. He had not, however, realized, until now, exactly how deep into the woods they had traveled. Otherwise he would have never dreamed of stopping.
You see, they were all now standing in the very center of the forest with which, every child in the kingdom knew the name of. The name, being Blood Paw Woods. The wood being famous for the great number of wolves and several large species of cat living under its branches. Yet most notable of all the beasts in that wood were the bears.
Great monstrous things that prayed on everything else in those woods. However there was one bear in particular, which had lived in that wood for almost a hundred years. None have yet to meet this beast and live to talk about it. Though one man was fortunate enough to spot the thing from a distance.
This beast was called the Urser and not only was he king of that wood, but he was the greatest of his kind ever, and since.
To give you a good idea on exactly what made this beast so great, try to imagine a bear so tall that when it stood up it could look clear over the roof of a small house and see the ground on the other side.
The reason I bring up this great king of monsters, is that our hero, Sprite, noticed suddenly and much too late that he was now standing in the mouth of the monsters den itself. The reason he hadn’t noticed it until now was because the mouth of the cave was, despite its size, concealed by an even larger boulder which camouflaged itself as part of the cliff face.
Whatever the case, it was much harder not to notice the den now. Especially with the monsters great head poking up and out of it. Its eyes glowing with a pale light, following their every move.
It had been the smell of blood that had woken it. It was the sound of men and horses that had drawn it out. And it was the sight of them all that turned its eyes red with rage and made its chest burn with hunger.
For a moment, no one made a sound or moved a muscle. Then suddenly one of the horses bolted with its rider. The bandits all scattered. However, as I have said before, it is very unwise to run from a wild animal. Running makes them want to chase you, running makes them want to catch you, and nothing has ever escaped the Urser.
In a single leap, the great beast emerged from its cave and barreled after the men and horses. It rolled past Sprite and the Empress, ignoring them completely and had already closed the distance with the retreating bandits. Lorain wanted to scream and run in the other direction. Sprite however held her fast and forced a hand to her mouth the keep her quiet.
The monster moved with incredible speed despite its great size. The young warrior looked up just in time to see the Urser stop in front of the two lead riders, cutting off their escape. Then with a single swing of its massive paw, it sent both horse and rider sailing through the air.
At the sight of this, the two remaining horses reared up throwing their riders to the ground before dashing off in the opposite direction.
Not even the horses escaped. After the Urser caught and killed them it returned for their two riders. One of them managed to draw their sword, though he never got to use it.
Suddenly it was over. None were now left standing, accept Sprite, Lorain, and the Urser.
The great bear sniffed and turned to face them. Yet it did not immediately charge. The young warrior locked eyes with the monster, and for a moment neither of them moved.
For the first time since he discovered his curse, Sprite didn’t entirely hate the idea of becoming a dragon. In truth Sprite was very tempted to remove the magic ward from around his wrist right then and there. I doubt you or I would have even hesitated. Sprite on the other hand could not help it.
For one, Sprite knew dragons were supposed to be big, although he had no assurance they were bigger or stronger than the Urser was now. Second, even if the transformation was instantaneous like he had been promised, Sprite had seen first-hand how fast the bear was, and he couldn’t help but wonder if it was faster. Lastly there was Lorain. Standing there beside him, and gripping his hand like her life depended on it. Even now, after everything that has happened, he could not bring himself to give that up.
The warrior stepped forward, pulling the trembling frame of his love behind him. He then released her hand and raised his sword at the ready. The bear reared up displaying its full height and glory and roared. Sprite, rather than falter at this threat, stepped forward, and matched its roar with his own. The resonating sound that winded past the warriors lips was only just short of belonging to that of a dragon. His voice carried and pierced the earth, making even the Urser hesitate.
Then the warrior charged, blade down. The bear dropped to all fours and took one step forward with the intention of meeting our hero half way. The Urser however only managed to take that one step, before the half dragon was upon it.
Again, the great beast swung its massive paw. Sprite ducked under the blow and applied a counter jab at the bears exposed limb, before rolling out of sight between its two hind legs. The Urser flinched and sped past, not expecting the bite of the warrior’s sword.
Sprite, now behind the Urser, turned and launched himself onto its back, then hopped once to its shoulder, and brought his blade down once again to deliver the killing blow.
The Urser, however was much too quick, and much too smart to be done in so easily. As soon as it felt him on its back, the bear rolled over, tossing the warrior to the ground and only receiving a light cut to its neck.
Sprite tumbled, accidently dropping his sword. Fortunately he didn’t land too hard and he managed to recover with a light roll. An instant later he was back on his feet. Sadly, the Urser, had also recovered.
It swung down. Sprite dove to the right and ducked behind a nearby tree that was almost as thick around as the monster he was fighting. The great Bear gave chase only to discover the young warrior no longer behind the tree. The beast hesitated at the disappearance of its prey. Then, movement just above caught its attention.
Sprite, once out of sight, and thinking quickly, had scurried up the far side of the tree and was now standing on one of the lower branches only a few inches above the monsters head.
The bear reared up and swung, striping the branch from off the side of the tree. Only an instant before Sprite abandoned it for a higher branch. The monster bellowed with frustration reared up on its hind legs before throwing its full weight against the large oak. The wood cracked and shook underneath the warrior’s feet, nearly throwing him free.
At the sight of his distress the empress ran forward. "Sprite!" she cried as the tree tipped and buckled.
Three things happened in the moment that followed. First, Sprite only just managed to escaped to an entirely separate tree, one that wasn’t falling. Two The Urser, seemed to have given up almost entirely on catching the nimble warrior. Third, the Urser turned, to face Lorain who had suddenly stopped in her tracks only a hundred feet away.
Changing tactics the Urser took two cautious steps toward Lorain, then charged.
Sprite did not hesitate. With all his strength he flung himself to the ground, landed, rolled and scooped up his sword. Brandishing it he charged after the beast at full speed.
Lorain turned to run, only far too late. Out of time and options, Sprite threw his blade. It spun for half a second then stuck deep in the bears back. The beast stumbled once and that was all the warrior needed.
In three quick strides he came up behind the great bear, vaulted onto its back, removed the sword, and poised again to deliver the final strike.
Again the bear was too quick. No sooner had Sprite withdrew his blade then the great beast reared up throwing him off. Then stepped sideways and swatted the warrior out of the air with, a swipe of its paw.
Sprite struck the ground hard and tumbled, again losing grip of his weapon. Before he could recover however, the bear stooped over, dropped its great paw on his chest and applied its full weight.
Sprite felt the bones in his chest creak and snap. It was a miracle they did not implode under the beast’s great mass right then and there. The Urser brought its muzzle within inches of his face.
Sprite, feeling it’s hot breath as it closed its massive jaw around his head, the young warrior closed his eyes. Then, pushing off with all his strength, filled his lungs to their utmost capacity, before once again releasing it all at once.
Heat. Unimaginable heat streamed out from the warriors open maw. His eyes watered, his throat stung, and the Urser roared.
The great bear, having been bathed in dragon fire, staggered back and stumble to escape the flames. It did not have to stumble far, as the half-dragon’s lungs were now empty. The young warrior too, stumbled to his feet, ending the stream of fire and now gasping for breath.
The wounded monster moaned in agony, as it tripped over its own legs and fell to the ground. Again, Sprite did not hesitate.
Even if the bear had managed to somehow limp away, its injuries were far beyond any recovery and the warrior knew this.
In two strides, the young warrior ran forward scooped up his sword one last time, then leaped forward. The Urser brought its head up and gave one final roar. The blade passed into the monster's mouth and up into the creature's brain.
As the beasts went limp, Sprite pulled his blade free. He then stumbled back and let his sword fall to the floor. His head was ringing, his throat literally burned, and his chest throbbed. He tried to clear his head but the ringing in his ear only grew louder.
Movement caught his attention and he turned. Lorain stood there watching with a look of… he knew not what. Fear? Confusion? Disgust?
She had seen him fight, she had seen him breathe fire, and once more she knew his secret. His vision went dark, his limbs gave out, and the world went black.