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The Black Knight of Stein

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Piercing through the canopy of the forest, rays of sunlight lit the grassy floor at its roots. Birds and deer darted in and out of sight as a woman wistfully skipped in between the trees. Time slowed, each leap and bound lasted forever before her bare foot felt the cooling comfort of the earth beneath her. Following the hidden path, guided by the setting sun, her lips yielded a grin each time she felt the fading heat of the sun on her face.

 

Farther and farther she skipped, the foliage smoothly transitioned from deep, cooling greens to bright, warm reds. The air grew frigid, her breath visible with each bound. Long grass no longer brushed against the hem of her pure white gown for it vanished with the greens, instead debris of crunchy leaves scattered around her feet.

 

Without warning, the sky grew angry and dark as the leaves were whisked away by a harsh breeze, leaving the ground bare and cold. The trees became unsettling, their sharp branches piercing the dark clouds above them as they swirled with mighty force. Her skin now ice, her smile left with the leaves as dread seeped into her body. A sharp pain at the back of her head, she dared to glance behind her, wisps of her hair catching in her eyes.

 

It was following her!

 

An enormous, pitch black mass sprinted through the trees behind her, swiftly closing the gap with powerful lunges, baring its fangs. Its large white eyes narrowed down to slits as its pointed ears pinned back into the thick, dark mane protecting its neck. Dagger-like claws dug into the earth, throwing twigs and stones behind as it neared its target. Closer and closer it got, the hot, wet breath nearly caressed the back of her neck.

 

Tears ran down her cheeks as she tried to scream, but nothing came out. Only seconds of a glimpse was all it took to keep her legs going, but her body wouldn’t move any faster. With tears clouding her vision, she tripped over a large root of a tree. Slamming into the ground, her arms and elbows stung as her teeth bit down on her bottom lip in a weak attempt to subdue the pain.

 

Ice swept over her, turning back to witness wide open jaws swallow her.

 

Kyshimi shot up, a loud gasp escaping her lungs as adrenaline pulsed through her limbs. Her gaping eyes carefully examined her surroundings. The warmth of the morning sun bled through lace curtains, giving solidity to her furniture. The many bottles of perfume atop her vanity shone, dozens of pairs of earrings sparkled, and the many folds and wrinkles of her sheets formed mountains and valleys.

 

A deep sigh of relief blew from her lips, now convinced that she was in the safety of her chambers, protected by the warmth of her bed. Lowering her head, her mess of ebony hair flowed over her shoulders and nearly down into her lap where her hands rested, still shaking from the vivid imagery of razor sharp fangs sinking into her.

Throwing one corner of her sheets aside, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, her toes reaching down to feel the cold marble of her floor. Gripping the edge of her mattress, she continued to stare down at her pure white nightgown, her arms shaking.

 

“That dream again,” she whispered hoarsely to herself, “why do I keep having that dream about that━” An image of nightmare mass flashed in her mind. She swallowed a hard lump in her throat before muttering, “...wolf.” A shiver trickled over her skin, her hands instinctively wrapping around herself, rubbing the back of her arms to warm back up, but it was hard to shake the fear that had been haunting her for several weeks now.

 

With a hefty sigh, she pulled herself up on her feet and made her way to her vanity. Sitting in front of her enormous mirror, she clearly saw the dark circles underneath her eyes. Tugging at her cheeks and leaning in for a closer look, she groaned. She was to leave to Stein in a day’s time and she hardly looked presentable enough to leave her chambers.

 

“I’m such a mess,” she vexed, snatching her hair brush. “I can’t let Giles see me like this or he’ll never let me go.” Fixing her hair and applying a bit of makeup helped hide the dark circles, but her eyes gave everything away, and no amount of jewelry or perfume could distract from them. Another attempt was made with the choice of dress, a long frilly skirt and a blouse to match. 

 

Twirling around in the mirror, the dark color brought a smile to her face. It was autumn afterall, her favorite season, and not only that, but she had been invited to Stein’s All Hallows Eve Festival as King Byron’s honored guest. She was a bit sad that for the first time in her life, she would be missing out on Halloween in Wysteria, but according to Nico and Albert, the All Hallows Eve Festival was a significant holiday in Stein and celebrated a bit differently than most countries.

 

The mere thought of it was exciting to her as she tried to imagine what it could be like and how different it could be compared to how she was used to celebrating Halloween. Besides being a couple of days long, she couldn’t imagine Halloween being spent any other way; spooky decorations and children running through the streets collecting candy.

 

Now ready for the day to begin, she took one last glance in the mirror. The distracting thoughts of Halloween and being with Byron cheered her up, nearly forgetting all about dark circles and the nightmarish black mass. She knew, however, that she couldn’t ignore it forever. Thoughts bubbled inside her stomach, ready to burst.

 

I wish Byron was here… he would know what to do, or at least, know what to say.

 

Placing herself at her small desk in the corner of her room, she pulled out her ink and quill along with a thick piece of paper. Taking in a deep breath, her quill hovered over the paper as she questioned herself.

 

Should I really be writing to him about this? Is this something he should really be bothered with?

 

She felt like a pest whenever she bothered Byron with her personal problems knowing how busy he was as King, but he always seemed to get upset with her if she bottled everything up without even talking to him about it. He always knew what to say to comfort her, what to do to make the situation better, but she wanted to try handling this on her own.

 

“It’s...fine,” she said with an unconvincing smile, “I’ll just write it and not send it.” Re-dipping her quill, she scratched against the paper with its tip.

 

‘My Dearest Byron,

I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow night when I arrive. I’ve missed you terribly. Unfortunately, I haven’t been sleeping very well as of late. My dreams have been plagued with nightmares leaving me with restless nights for the last several weeks. What’s odd is that it’s the same dream, over and over. 

 

They’re becoming more vivid each time, convincing me that it may be real. Because of this, it’s getting difficult for me to feel safe unless I’m locked away in my chambers. I know that’s not healthy, but I don’t know what to do about this anymore. I feel so lost…

 

 I’m hoping to find solace in your embrace and comfort in your sheets. I await to feel your lips again.

 

With all my love,

Kyshimi’

 

Folding it up nicely, she even placed her silver waxed seal over the golden thread that held the parchment together. Ready to be sent with haste, she instead placed it back in the drawer, never to be seen by the receiver's eyes.

 




Her day was ending early, heading towards her chambers with haste as Giles followed closely behind, summarizing the days events with verbal footnotes. Mesmerized by the patterns of the marble tile and the sounds of her clacking heels, her advisor’s words fell on deaf ears for her thoughts were elsewhere. It was hard to focus with such little sleep for so long.

 

“Princess Kyshimi?” Giles’s voice echoed down the corridor, loud enough to catch her attention. She stopped, turning her gaze up at him with drooping eyelids. The sight of her worn out expression caught him off guard as it was the first time he had gotten a good look at her face today. “My word! Princess, are you━”

 

“I’m fine, Giles,” Kyshimi harshly cut him off, facing down the hall to continue her way towards the safety of her chambers. “I just… haven’t been getting very good sleep as of late. Now, as you were saying, when am I scheduled to leave for Stein tomorrow?”

 

The corner of Giles’ mouth curled unpleasantly in the tuck of his cheek, hesitantly waiting for the Princess to get a few steps ahead of him. He hadn’t been talking about tomorrow’s schedule at all. Clearing his throat, he decided to match her pace and walk at her side again, trying to get a better assessment of her condition, “Ahem, you’re scheduled to leave just after breakfast with Sir Alyn as your escort, but Your Highness…”

 

“Yes, Giles?”

 

“...I believe a change in plans are necessary. I shall escort you to Stein in Sir Alyn’s stead.”

 

“Nonsense, you need to run the country in my stead while I’m away.”

 

“We’ll return in just a few days, that shouldn’t be bothersome to Leo or Duke Howard if we simply━” Giles’ words faded into silence as Kyshimi grew cold. All of a sudden, he was changing the plans for everything. She was scheduled to be gone for several weeks in order to “ learn, understand, and get well-aquainted with King Byron and the people of Stein before she becomes Queen ,” or as she liked to think of it, a nice long vacation with King Byron. During this time, Giles was supposed “run” Wysteria in her place to the best of his ability while Alyn accompanied her during her travel’s leaving and returning to the castle. Nico, and occasionally, Albert, were set to be her personal attendants and guards during her stay at Stein castle.

 

Carefully gathering her thoughts, she took a deep breath and faced Giles with a large, concern-free grin and asked, “Why are you so worried? We’re not changing the plan. You’re staying here while I’m staying Stein for a much-needed vacation, remember?”

 

“Of course, Princess,” Giles sighed, matching her quickened pace perfectly, “it’s just… I’m worried. I didn’t realize the state you were in… are you sure you don’t want to shorten your stay? Or have me accompany you?”

 

“I’m 110% sure, Giles. Besides, this will be good for me. I’ll be on a much needed vacation while learning about Stein at the same time. According to Nico, this one of their biggest festivals of the year. It would be foolish to miss out on this opportunity.”

 

“Excellent point, Your Highness, but━”

 

“AAND, I wouldn’t want to disappoint any of the monarchs and bureaucrats who are expecting to meet me during my stay, now would I?”

 

Giles was left speechless. Expressionless, he gazed down at the Princess as they finally arrived at her chamber doors, her smile almost sincere enough to hide her exhaustion. Realizing he wasn’t going to win this battle, he chuckled to himself, ‘ Of all times for my tutoring to take effect…

 

“Princess, you’re absolutely correct,” he boasted confidently followed by a deep bow, “Please, forgive my doubt in our future Queen. Now, as you requested, your maids packed little for you, as per your request.”

 

“Yes,” she nodded in agreement, “King Byron informed me that my wardrobe will be taken care of entirely, including anything that I wish to purchase while I’m there.”

 

“An excellent method in getting acquainted with their fashion, Princess. Just be sure to take a few minutes and pack any personal items you wish to bring along with you. I’ll take my leave now, so please get to bed early and get some much needed rest. We want our precious Princess looking presentable for the King of Stein tomorrow. Goodnight, Princess.”

 

With a small curtsey in response, Kyshimi watched Giles until he turned down the corridor, finally leaving her to be alone once more, a rare occurrence since Nico decided to remain in Stein after she had announced her engagement to King Bryon. She enjoyed it, though, not having an attendant or an advisor glued to her side for several hours a day, despite the fact that she missed Nico’s companionship.

 

Locking her door behind her, a wave of relief washed over her as she released a huge sigh from her chest, her back sinking against the door as she did so. The large room was tranquil and quiet, no maids, no attendants, and no responsibilities. Walking to the center of her room, she looked around at her belongings which were starting to become glazed with the light of dusk. Nothing popped. Everything she would need is already waiting for her in her chambers at Stein castle, there wasn’t any personal item that needed to come with her.

 

Her eyes slowly drifted to the small desk in the corner of her room where a letter to her beloved hid in the confines of the drawer. Fiddling with her fingers, she crept up to the desk, slowly pulling the drawer open until she saw the glint of the silvery wax seal. Placing the letter atop the desk, she stared at it, remembering the words she wrote.

 

Keeping her eyes on the letter, she backed away until she felt the edge of her bed hit the back of her legs. Sinking into the edge, her feet hovered above the floor as she flopped back onto her fluffy comforter.

 

“Even if I were to send it now,” she whispered, her eyelids growing heavier as she stared at the blank ceiling, “Byron wouldn’t get it in time.” She shook her head lightly. “No, I don’t want him to worry. Everything will be better when I see him tomorrow.”

 

A shadow swept across her room. Her eyes shot back open. Bolting back up, her head pounded from the rush, struggling to listen for any foreign sounds as she analyzed her room once again. The windows were all shut, the balcony door was closed, and none of her curtains were moving. No breeze, no draft. She turned back to look at her door, ensuring it was still closed. It was, and she clearly remembered locking it.

 

The shadow returned, swiftly traveling across her room before it vanished. It was from outside. Her head snapped towards her balcony door, the lacey curtains burning from the light of dusk, the shadows from the tops of surrounding trees were starting to bleed up from the bottom. She didn’t blink, afraid she was going to miss it again. With a swoosh, the shadow passed the balcony door once again, its wings fluttering as it neared the glass before flying away, trying to enter her room before seeing there was no way in.

 

“Spinner!” Kyshimi gasped, hopping off her bed and to the balcony doors. Swinging them open, she dashed outside, the chilled breeze of autumn kissing her face as she looked up to the tree tops. The heavy contrast of Spinner’s snow-white feathers against the orange and red leaves of the canopy made him easy to spot. Reaching her hands up into the air, the Princess couldn’t hold back a small amount of tears and a large smile as she called out to him, “Spinner!”

 

Gracefully descending from the sky, Spinner silently swooped passed the Princess and entered her chambers, landing on the wooden post of her sofa; his favorite perch. Carefully following him inside, Kyshimi sat on the sofa, soothing stroking his feathers as he rested.

 

“It’s so nice to see you, Spinner,” she said softly, scratching a spot right under the owl’s beak, “Did Byron send you to check in on me?” Byron often sent Spinner to check in on her during their extended periods apart, sometimes including a letter or a small note. This time there was none. 

 

With yet another sigh, which she made a mental note to cut back on in Stein, she happily held out her arm for the bird, who gently grasped it as she stood up and paced around her room, placing featherlight kisses on his beak as she did so. This was routine each time Spinner came to visit.

 

The sweet comfort of the large bird’s appearance allowed her to finally relax for the first time in days and the reality of her leaving to be in Stein with Byron hit her hard.

 

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” the Princess whispered, “but I can’t help but feel anxious, Spinner.” The owl’s head spun around, getting a good glimpse of the room. “I’m excited to see Byron again, there’s so much I need to talk about with him, but I don’t want to burden him with my problems… is that fair of me? To assume he doesn’t want to hear about my problems, or to assume that he even has time to hear them, being a busy King…?”

 

The large bird started preening some of his feathers, forcing a small laugh from the Princess’ lips as she gently shook her head. She knew full well that he couldn’t understand what she was saying, and if he could, it’s not like he could repeat her words to Byron. He wasn’t a parrot afterall. Glancing back at the balcony, she was ready to send him off.

 

“Sorry, Spinner,” she shrugged, keeping the smile on her face, “there’s no letter I wish to send this time, so I’ll see you━ AAH!” Spinner flapped his large wings, releasing his grasp on her arm without harm and flew across her room. He landed on the desk in the corner, his feet pinning the letter. Reaching down, he picked at the golden thread until he firmly had it in his beak. Kyshimi gaped in panic.

 

“No, Spinner!” she blurted, afraid to move in case it frightened him and he flew off, but it was too late. With a hefty thrust of his wings, the owl flew out the open balcony door with the letter in hand. Darting after him, she could do nothing but watch from the door as he flew away, most likely back to Stein. There was no sense in calling for him, he was too far gone now.

 

“Damn that smart bird,” she muttered, leaning against the frame of the door.

 


 

 

The carriage left for Stein on schedule the following morning and was now entering the forest dividing the two countries. Sir Alyn Crawford pushed the group of knights surrounding the carriage into the forest without hesitation, constantly on his guard for anyone or anything that had intentions of harming Princess Kyshimi during her journey to Stein Castle. Riding directly next to the carriage as his trusted knights led the entourage and trailed behind, he still kept his eyes and ears open for anything suspicious.

 

Meanwhile, inside the carriage itself, Princess Kyshimi leaned her head against the window, watching the passing scenery change from villages to open hills to thick forests. A normally soothing way to pass the time on her way to Stein, but she couldn’t relax.

 

Spinner had taken the letter to Byron. She blamed herself because Spinner was accustomed to delivering letters to Byron from her even if he hadn’t sent one to start each time he flew in for a check up. She concluded the bird knew what her letters looked like and assumed she would want it delivered. A foolish mistake on her behalf.

 

I never should have even written the letter to begin with. I should’ve just waited until I saw him. Why did I write the letter?!

 

Her eyelids fluttered, the scenery outside began to blur as she yawned. The rocking of the carriage and the numbing sound of over a dozen horses trodding the already beaten path enticed her body and mind enough to let her guard down just enough to leave her consciousness in a sleep-driven daze.

 

Just as she was about to surrender to sleep, a sharp pain crept up on the back of her head, threatening to become a full-blown migraine. Straightening up her posture from the sudden discomfort, she started to feel an icy chill consume her fingers and toes. Looking down at her hands, she spread out her fingers and clenched them into fists, over and over to prove to herself she wasn’t going crazy.

 

“So odd…” she commented to herself, turning her hands over and spreading her fingers out once more, “this… this almost reminds me of━” A quick flash of nightmare-black with white fangs and blood-thirsty eyes entered her mind for the briefest moment. Her entire body froze, terrified to glance out the window to confirm her suspicions.

 

“I-it’s only a dream,” she shivered, muttering under her breath as she turned to look out the window, trees and shrubbery blurring in and out of view, “it’s only a dream. It’s only a d-dream. It’s not real. It’s not real. It’s. NOT. REAL!”

 

The carriage abruptly came to a halt, Kyshimi flying forward out of her seat and landing in the cushions of the bench across from her. Several horses outside starting braying, their riders, noble Knights of Wysteria, starting shrieking in panic. Before she had a moment to collect herself, Alyn flung open the door of the carriage.

 

“Princess!” he shouted in alarm as he found her nearly on the floor. With one, heavy step, he entered to assist her back onto her seat, her hair all over her face. “Are you hurt?”

 

“No,” she flipped her hair back and did her best to fix it, pulling strands that had caught in her mouth out, “but what happened? Why did we stop?”

 

“I’m about to find out,” Alyn stepped back out, “I just needed to make sure you were all right after that rough stop.” Without leaving her side, Alyn waited for one of his knights to bring him a report as he still stood in front of the entrance to the carriage. He refused to leave the Princess’s side knowing something dangerous could happen any second.

 

“Captain!” a knight shouted as he and his horse cantored towards Alyn and the Princess.

 

“What happened?!” Alyn demanded, “Are we being ambushed?”

 

“No, Sir!” the knight’s horse nearly skidded to a halt, the creature still spooked, “the horses at the front just got spooked bad. Same with the knights riding them.”

 

“Spooked? By what?!”

 

“I.. I don’t know.”

 

Alyn’s brow furrowed in frustration as he glanced back at Kyshimi and mumbled, “Wait here.”

 

“If it’s all the same to you,” the Princess stood up from her seat and smoothed out any wrinkles in her skirt, “I’d rather come with you. I want, no, I need to know what your knights have to say about this.” Her stern expression commanded no quarrel as she stepped out of the carriage, ready to follow whoever was willing to lead her to the spooked knights. 

 

Pressing his lips together into a thin line, Alyn simply nodded. He could understand why the Princess would be upset with a possibly foolish delay, but he was wrong. The chills and the pain in the back of her head, she had to know what happened. She needed proof from these knights that what she felt wasn’t real and was just apart of her imagination and sleep depravity.

 

The knight on the horse turned around and led the way towards the front of the formation, where a group of knights were sitting on a log on the edge of the road, their horses on the other side of the road being soothed by other knights. As they got closer, Alyn could see more horses and knights than they had brought with them on their mission, except these horses were all black along with their respective riders. Worried, the Captain protectively placed himself in front of the Princess, ready to draw his sword, but the closer they got, the better he could see familiar faces.

 

“Looks like Stein came to meet us half-way,” Alyn confirmed, turning his head towards the Princess in hopes of reassuring her. Excited, Kyshimi ran ahead to see who had arrived with the Stein knights. Standing before the Wysterian knights that were resting on the log aside the road was Albert and Nico.

 

“Princess Kyshimi!” Nico was the first take notice of her. “Are you all right? Are you hurt anywhere?”

 

“No, Nico, I’m fine!” she smiled, holding back the happy tears threatening to stream down her face. She was so happy to see Nico, it took everything else she had to hold back a hug, even though most of the people around them knew about their friendship.

 

“Are you certain?” Albert stoically interjected, nearly pushing Nico out of the way.

 

“Very certain, Al,” she smiled, her body relaxing in the presence of Byron’s most trusted knights. With a quick glance around, Byron was nowhere to be seen. A twinge of disappointment was felt in her chest, but it was easily ignored. These two were more than enough comfort to last her until she saw him in Stein.

 

“We heard the commotion just before we caught up to you,” Nico reported, his expression more serious than it ever had been before, turning his attention to the Wysterian Captain. “We arrived as soon as we could.”

 

“We appreciate that,” Alyn nodded his head in gratitude, “I was just about to find out what the cause of the commotion was.” Only a few feet away from him sat the knights, still shaking with fear.

 

“S-sorry, Captain,” one of the knights shamefully looked up to Alyn, meeting his questioning gaze, “but I've never s-seen anything like it before!”

 

“What exactly did you see?” Alyn’s eyes narrowed, getting down on his knee to meet the gazes of his frightened men.

 

“A b-beast!” the knight shuddered.

 

“No! A monster !” the knight next to him shrieked. “I thought I was seeing things, Captain, but it’s there!”

 

“What did it look like?” Alyn asked, his tone a bit more comforting than before. “Can you give us any details?”

 

“Black,” a knight said flatly, his eyes cold, “black, and larger than any bear. I could barely see his eyes, but his… his teeth! His teeth could probably tear our armor apart. It almost looked like… a wolf. A giant, monsterous wolf.”

 

“Okay, anything else━”

 

The group’s words had faded as Kyshimi’s body became numb. It was everything she feared. They saw it. They saw the creature from her nightmare, it was real, and it was following her!

 

Just like it had in her dreams.

 

The world around her grew dark. Her knees started to shake, begging her legs to start running, but where? The beast could be anywhere in the forest. She was afraid to look up, afraid she would see its eyes staring right into her soul before it━

 

“Kyshimi?”

 

Nico placed a comforting arm over the Princess’s shoulder, taking notice of her suddenly solemn expression. Snapping back to reality, she felt the warmth from his touch and smiled at him, but her smile quickly disappeared and she gently pushed his arm off of her.

 

“What are you and Albert doing here, anyway?” her question was spoken louder than she had intended, catching the attention of both Captains. “It’s not normal for you to meet us half-way, I mean, you never have before.”

 

“His Majesty, King Byron, deemed it necessary that myself, along with a carefully selected group of knights, assist in escorting our future queen to Stein’s castle steps,” Albert expertly answered, adjusting his glasses as he glanced over at Nico, “not all participants were my choice, but we all happily obliged.”

 

Kyshimi lowered her gaze, thinking that Byron must’ve received her letter in time, sending his own entourage to escort her to him. Swallowing back her tears, she lifted her head back up and met Albert with a grateful grin. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Alyn’s disapproval written all over his face.

 

“Don’t misunderstand,” Albert responded to Alyn’s silent protest, “King Byron does not doubt your abilities to safely deliver the Princess to him. Instead, his concern lies with the fact that this is her first time traveling to Stein as his future Queen, therefore he deemed it wise to send extra escorts.”

 

“If you say so,” Alyn shrugged, his disapproval disappearing, “I won’t question my future King.” The two captains began to discuss formation changes peacefully, leaving Nico the opportunity to lead Kyshimi back to her carriage, holding out his arm for her.

 

That’s a good cover story ,’ she thought to herself, certain that it was because he had received her letter the night before. Gripping Nico’s arm firmly, the knights around them began taking their places in the new formation. The rush of black and white horses around them seemed a bit overwhelming as she held Nico a bit closer.

 

“I wonder what the knights really saw,” Nico pondered, weaving himself and the princess in between the busy knights and horses.

 

“What do you mean?” Kyshimi snapped her gaze at him, an eyebrow raised in question as her heart sank into her stomach. The knights saw exactly what she had been seeing in her dreams, she had no doubt it was real now. “You heard what they said, it was a giant, b-black wolf.”

 

“You really believe that?” there was a hint of a chuckle in Nico’s response. “C’mon, Kyshimi, I was there with you when you did your studies with Leo. There aren’t any wolves in Stein or Wysteria, or even the surrounding countries. There hasn’t been for centuries.”

 

“Okay…” she knew he was right as she recalled the lessons she had with Leo. Wolves were located in the western-most part of the continent, nowhere near Stein or Wysteria, but her dreams and what the knights described stuck with her. “Then how do you explain what they saw?”

 

“It easily could have been a bear. Bears can get pretty big, maybe your knights haven’t seen one in a while. They usually stay away from large, loud groups of people like this. Maybe they scared him, eh?”

 

Nico’s reasoning comforted her to a point, but the feeling in her gut wouldn’t leave. The situation was too convenient. Remembering her vivid dreams, she mentally looked over the creature she had seen over and over again, questioning if she had really been dreaming about a bear instead.

 

No… it’s a wolf, I have no doubt about that…. But what the men saw….

 

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Nico leaned in, his lips almost touching her earrings. She heard him very clearly, but her eyes were too busy scanning the trees surrounding her, careful not to seem frazzled to the knights around her, especially the captains. Feeling a cold chill on the other side of her body, she looked towards the forest on that side, and for a moment, she thought she saw a large, black mass flee from sight in the distance.

 

It was still here.

 

“Nico,” her grip on his arm tensed, “will you please accompany me in the carriage?”

 

“Of course,” Nico smiled with relief, “but are you sure you don’t… want…” His words trailed off, his eyes meeting hers. Her cheeks trembled and her teeth bit down on her lip, wordlessly pleading with him. An odd sense of knightly duty came over him as he sternly answered her, “As you wish, Princess.”

 

With every knight in his place, Albert and Alyn on either side of the carriage and Nico sitting directly across from Princess Kyshimi, the journey to Stein Castle continued. This time, with the carriage curtains pulled over each window. 

 

During the ride, Nico excitedly caught up with Kyshimi with all that has happened since they last saw one another. He barely let her get a word in, afraid she was going to look at him with those pleading eyes again. The conversations they had easily distracted her for most of the ride, filling the small space with laughter and excitement. Each time any thought of the black beast tried to enter her mind, she immediately thought of Byron and the safety of his arms which she longed for. Her worries, she hoped, would subside during her time in Stein.

 

As the entourage exited the forest into Stein, the large, black-furred creature watched from afar until it could no longer see the knights trailing behind the Princess’s carriage, daring not to leave the shadowy cover of the forest… yet.