Lady Ariana, the youngest Mage of Catalia, was standing alone on a grassy knoll. An ice cold wind blew, whipping at her long skirts. A thick blanket of fog billowed all around her, clouding her vision. Questions ran through her mind. Where was she? How had she gotten here? Using her powers, Ariana tried to reach out with her mind, but all she could feel was cold, empty space. A wave of uneasiness washed over her as she realized her powers were useless. Nothing was out there, yet there was something lurking at the back of her mind. . . .something. . .evil. . .
Her thoughts were interrupted by a low, deep laugh. It was quiet at first, but then it got louder and louder until Ariana had to hold her hands over her ears. "Who are you?" she shouted above the noise.
"You know." The disembodied voice that answered was full of evil and hatred. It was dry and raspy, neither male nor female. Ariana spun around, but she could not see a thing through the thick fog.
"Where are you?" she tried.
"Thou knowest me," the voice answered, beginning to cackle again.
"Show yourself!" Ariana called out, frustrated.
The voice just laughed even louder.
"Who are you?!" Ariana cried.
"Thou willst know my power soon enough, fair Mage," this voice replied. "But know this first: I am the Essence of all Evil. I am everywhere. I am even in thee. I come to thee with a warning, little Mage." The voice paused.
"What?! What is it?!" Ariana shouted. "Tell me!"
"Remember this," rasped the voice. "Without the essence of evil, there can be no light."
"What's that supposed to mean?!" the Mage yelled.
The voice was beginning to fade away. "Protect him, Lady," it whispered. ". .protect. . him. ."
"Wait!" Ariana called. "Please!"
But the horrible voice was gone.
* * * *
Princess Zelda paced the length of her father's study before giving him the nastiest look she could muster up. "Do I have to, Father?" she complained.
Sirach, Zelda's father and King of Hyrule, was seated at his desk, looking over some decrees. He sighed, but did not look away from his scrolls. "Daughter, must we go through this again? If you're going to remain the future Queen you must invite other nobles to the Winter Solstice celebration. It's the most popular social event of the year--"
"Well, I had a lot of things planned for this week," Zelda cut him off.
"Like what?" the King wanted to know.
"Let's just say I have better things to do than spend a couple of weeks entertaining that self-absorbed, insipid prince," Zelda snapped.
"And I'm sure this boy has better things to do than spend time with an impertinent, rude, unfriendly princess like yourself," Sirach replied cheerfully.
Zelda frowned. "I am not either. Anyway, I'll be bored to tears."
"How do you possibly know that? The last time Prince Adrian visited, you two were only five years old. And I'll have you know that you both did not run out of things to do," the King responded. "Running up and down the stairs, causing trouble every which way, generally setting the whole castle in an uproar. . ."
The Princess stared down at the luxuriant royal purple carpet, trying to think of an excuse. "We were only little kids then. We have nothing in common now."
"You can talk about how aggravating and disagreeable your father is," Sirach suggested.
Zelda fixed him another baleful stare. "I plan on doing that anyway."
The King sighed again. "Fine. But I thought you'd be pleased to find out that Adrian was coming to visit. We don't see him often, you know. Catalia has been having some problems lately. Without those Mages of his he would never have gained control of the kingdom. With their magic--"
"Their magic is totally different from ours," came Zelda's reply.
"How so?" asked the King, unwilling to give up.
Zelda counted on her fingers. "Number one, they don't have a Triforce. Number two, they don't use the celestial waves in the air. Number three, most of their magic is lost. Number four, they--"
"All right, you've made your point," the King said. "Still, their magic is very powerful, and they are world-renowned for their wisdom. I'm surprised they haven't attempted world domination by now."
Zelda bit her lip. "If Prince Adrian is so special and powerful, why is he coming here?"
The King put stroked his beard and ignored her last comment. "You could show him the Triforce," he said.
"There's no way in Hyrule I'm going to do that without Link here," Zelda replied.
Sirach looked alarmed. "Where is that boy? Who's guarding the Triforce?!"
"He went somewhere," she said, twirling a strand of blond hair around her finger. "As for the Triforce, my spells should be sufficient for now."
The King gave Zelda what she called The Look. "That Triforce is an ancient, powerful artifact. Do you have any idea what could happen--"
Zelda rolled her eyes. "I know, Father, I know," she interrupted. "Don't worry about it. No one's going to get past our defenses. Besides," she added carelessly. "no one can use it except me. Who'd want the thing?"
"You'd be surprised to hear what people would do to get it," Sirach told her. "I thought giving the Triforce to you would help keep it safe. And you hired Link to do just that and--"
"Father, it's in perfectly good hands," Zelda said hastily.
"You say so, but I can't help but worry."
The Princess scowled at him. " Are you implying that Link's not good enough?"
"No! I only meant that you both should be more careful. I won't tolerate any heedlessness on your part, Zelda." The King answered.
The Princess continued to glower at him. "I am being careful. Anyway, you said I could hire anyone I wanted to guard it."
"So I did. I trusted you'd make a good decision." Sirach abruptly changed the subject. "How are the plans for the Winter Solstice banquet going?"
Zelda bit her lip and turned her attention back to the carpet. "Fine," she answered, tracing the outlines of the embroidered yellow Triforces with the toe of her slipper.
"Zelda," the King said, a tone of warning in his voice.
The Princess sighed loudly. "Father, I'm sick of this entertaining business. It's so boring," she whined.
"I'm sorry, dear, but it is just one of many duties that come with being a princess," Sirach replied. He sat back in his chair, entwining his fingers. "Now, Adrian is to arrive a week from today. You are to show him around Hyrule. And be sure to be extra cordial, my dear."
"But Father--" The Princess began.
The King abruptly got up and peered out of the large picture window. "Goodness, it looks like it's going to storm!"
"Well, I have a meeting in ten minutes, so we must continue this conversation over dinner, dear," Sirach continued, totally ignoring his daughter's protests. He headed out the door.
Zelda, getting angrier by the second, followed him. "Father, would you just listen for a moment?!" she fumed.
"Not now, darling," the King called back.
The Princess was so frustrated that she slammed the door behind him, causing the tapestries on the wall swing back and forth. She flung herself into her father's chair and sat back to think.
Zelda was never very good at entertaining. She suspected her father gave her the job of showing Prince Adrian around because he didn't want to do it himself.
Social excursions were the worst. Every noble she met was petty and dishonest. With all the corruption these days, it was a wonder that the Hyrulean government didn't collapse on top of them all. Usually Zelda avoided any social event like the plague, staying home at North Castle to busy herself with other Royal duties. She could always get out of traveling somewhere, but when nobles came to visit, Zelda always found herself stuck with some prince. She was sure her father did this to her on purpose.
Even though she didn't want to admit it, Zelda was sort of interested at the prospect of becoming acquainted with Prince Adrian. She knew from the stories her father told her that the young Prince never went anywhere without one of his Magefolk bodyguards. From what Zelda had learned from her father, she knew that they had unusual magical abilities unlike anything in Hyrule. Each one had control of at least one of the seven mysterious elements. Unfortunately, there were only around six or seven Mages left. And from what Zelda knew, they were fading fast from the civil unrest that currently plagued Catalia. The citizens of Catalia had been resenting the Magefolk for generations. All they seemed to do was keep an eye on the Royal Family and study magic all day. They lived in glorious wealth while the poor people managed to survive in poverty.
Zelda got up and headed toward the library, intending to find out as much as she could about these strange people. Why on earth was Adrian coming to visit Hyrule now, when his kingdom was in such trouble?
* * * *
Dragan, Archmage and Head Advisor to the young Prince Adrian, eyed the lad warily. He knew that the Mages were the only thing that was holding this excuse for a kingdom together. How the boy had managed to keep the throne was utterly beyond him.
The Archmage should have seen this coming from the start. Adrian's father, King Pendral, had let his son have his own way for far too long. When the boy turned seventeen, he found himself ruling a vast, prosperous kingdom rich in wealth yet plagued by troubles not even his father could have handled. The King had been taken by a mysterious illness so deadly that not even the Healer-Mage Evelyn could save him.
Dragan had never been fond of the King. He was a foolish, senseless ruler who had let power get to his head. If only I were the ruler of this country, he thought. At the time Dragan thought he himself could rule more easily through Adrian. Now it seemed as if he had been very wrong. He would have to do something about it quickly. . .
"Why so quiet, Archmage?" the young Prince spoke up.
Dragan banished his dark thoughts and twisted his features into a smile. "Why. . .I'm still wondering why you're calling the Mages together. What could be so important that you could not tell me firsthand?"
For once, Adrian looked grim. "My apologies, Dragan, but I'd rather wait until everyone has arrived. I will explain everything then," he said.
The Archmage looked around the room the Magefolk used to keep council. Everyone was assembled at the elegant mahogany table, waiting expectantly.
"Who is missing?" Adrian wanted to know.
"Lady Ariana has yet to arrive, Your Highness," Rowan, the Fire-Mage, reported.
Dragan couldn't conceal his annoyance. "Late again, I see? That girl is giving me gray hair," he complained.
"Perhaps she didn't receive the message," the Prince said.
"I doubt that, Your Highness. I sent the missives just as you requested. This is not the first time that the Lady Ariana has deprived us of her noble presence," Aspen, the Shadow-Mage, said scornfully.
"Still, we should wait," Adrian decided.
* * * *
Ariana paused outside the door of the council room before going in. She knew she was late, as usual. It really wasn't her fault. Her trainer, Sir Bracken, had kept her longer than he should have. But surely the Archmage wouldn't listen to excuses. She sighed. There was no point in putting it off any longer. The more she waited, the angrier Dragan was likely to become.
Her hand was on the gilded doorknob, but she couldn't bring herself to open the door. Ariana hated the boring council meetings. It was so lonely, being the youngest of the Mages. But actually having to spend time with all of them was almost unbearable. They were an self-centered, parsimonious group. If she didn't have Bracken, she would have no one to talk to.
The memory of the strange dream she had the previous evening deeply disturbed the young Mage. She was used to having dreams, but she had never had such a vivid vision. . .what had that voice meant, "protect him?"
All right, let's get this over with, Ariana thought. She opened the door and stepped inside, silently taking her place at the round mahogany table. Everyone was talking quietly with one another.
Tarnal, the young Forest-Mage, gave her a smile. "Late again, I see," he chided softly in Ariana's mind. All Mages possessed the ability to speak mentally.
Ariana rolled her eyes. "It wasn't my fault this time," she shot back. Tarnal just smiled. With his dark eyes and hair, he made a handsome figure. But Ariana knew him too well to let his looks get to her. Tarnal had a stubborn, mischievous streak a mile wide.
"I'll bet," he said. "I'd watch out if I were you. You're not on Dragan's good list today."
"Oh, please," Ariana said disdainfully. "Everyone's on his bad side these days.." As she sat down, she heard a snatch of conversation about her.
"Your Highness, I must advise against this. Ariana may be young, but she must learn that skipping council meetings does not come without a punishment," Dragan pressed.
"I agree wholeheartedly," Aspen put in. "She's taking advantage--"
You would, Ariana thought sourly. Aspen had always backed up the Archmage on anything he said, mostly to get on his good side. With his black hair and beady eyes, Aspen reminded her of a weasel.
Adrian chose that moment to look up. "She's here. We may now start the meeting of the Mages' council," he said, an air of dignity in his voice.
Ariana sat back in her chair, already feeling sleepy.
"I called you all together today for a very important reason. As some of you may have heard, the city of Florin was attacked late last evening by a group of raiders from the south. Despite the arrival of the knights, there were no survivors." The Prince's voice was grim. "I will no longer tolerate such tragedy in my kingdom. I must take action."
You should have taken action a long time ago, Ariana thought, quickly stifling a yawn. The fate of Florin was saddening, but it had happened many times before. In her opinion, Adrian had let those raiders run amok for far too long. It was way past the point of taking initiative.
The Prince kept on talking. "I think if we establish a makeshift garrison for our soldiers in each town and tighten security around our borders, we would be able to keep these invaders at bay. For the time being, at least," he added.
Not a bad idea, Ariana decided. The raiders were a very mysterious people. They always wore black and were never seen by the light of day. She also knew that they were excellent fighters, and they had raided many Catalian cities.
"Amazing. Did he figure that out himself?" Tarnal said, his sarcasm evident.
"Hush," Ariana said. "If Dragan hears you. . ." She watched the reaction of the Archmage. Clearly he was surprised that the Prince wanted to finally take action. But Ariana sensed something else in his gaze, something. . .dark. . .
The Archmage sensed their conversation. "Do you have anything to share with the rest of us, Lady Ariana?" he interrupted. Aspen had a smug look on his face.
"Your Highness, I think it's a lovely idea," she said smoothly, ignoring Aspen. "I would, however, like to help the knights discover the identities of these raiders. I want to know who they are and where they come from. . .and who sent them."
Adrian smiled. "I'm sure they would be grateful for your help, Lady Ariana. Sir Bracken has been telling me of the improvement in your skills. I'm sure that together you will find out who these strange folk are."
Ariana couldn't help but smile. "Thank you, Your Highness."
The Prince turned back to the others. "Now, about this drought in the east. Does anyone know the extent of the lost crops?"
Ariana relaxed, planning to daydream through the rest of the meeting. But she was aware of the Archmage's gaze on her. The thought of the look in his cold gray eyes made her shiver.
End of Chapter One
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