In the fairytale kingdom of Empyrean, time has moved on. The princesses of once upon a time, like Snow White and Cinderella, have grown old and become great queens. Now, their kingdom is in danger. A Forgotten Evil has returned. In a small village by the sea, two sisters, Zandria and Olena, begin a dangerous journey to the castle for Zandria to claim her birthright as a queen. Along their journey, they meet some unique friends and terrifying enemies while trying to survive places like the DeadForest and escape troll infested castles. Will they make it to the crystal castle in time to save Empyrean or will the sisters lose each other forever? One thing is certain, before their journey ends, Zandria will learn what it means to be The Fourth Queen.
Chapter 1 - A Bad Night
Two sisters, Zandria and Olena, lived in a village by the sea at the eastern edge of the kingdom of Empyrean. Their story starts here.
The hooves of the two horses ripped the ground as they pounded forward, every muscle rippling, every sinew stretching at the speed. Wrath, the lead horse, drove them on side-by-side at this impossible pace with a will more powerful than any driver’s whip. The carriage that they pulled bounced and rocked through the ruts left by thousands of years of travel on this ancient path that had only one destination. The Castle Empyrean stood waiting in the distance.
Wrath could see the enormous castle for the last two days as they rampaged forward without stopping. An urgent message was dispatched and carried by the castle’s guardian hawks. Wrath knew the four hawks flew in four directions, with scrolls tied to their claws directing each recipient to come to Empyrean. In Wrath’s experience, this meant without delay.
After six days with almost no stopping they were now in sight of the main gate, its sheer massiveness was both inspiring and frightening every time he saw it. Wrath looked up to the tallest spires of the castle piercing the night sky and parting the threatening clouds. He sensed the storm coming since only moments before the hawks arrived for his mistress. The whole of the castle appeared to be made of glass, but he knew it was impenetrable to any army and unbreakable to any giant’s club.
Over the edge, the lowest cellars clung to the wall of the bottomless canyon that protected three sides of the structure and the towers grew out of the top in every direction like a blooming tree. Wrath had seen Empyrean in better times and knew it looked magnifi cent in the sunlight, but tonight under the full moon, even partially covered by clouds, it looked alive.
The shining, black horses pulled the carriage along the only path leading up to the entrance of the castle. The stocky driver pulled at the reigns. Wrath laughed to himself knowing that the human was not trying to control the horses, but was trying to keep from being thrown from his bench.
This face of the fortress was not protected by the canyon, but by an unyielding field of briars and thorns. Although the path was blocked, Wrath did not allow his apprentice to slow.
From inside the carriage, an aged hand pulled back the thick, red velvet curtain. The venerable woman carefully poked her head out the window and whispered to the impending vines. The thorns bowed and retracted, pulling back row upon row, like a theatre curtain at the start of a performance. Not a single twig brushed the carriage as the stallions rushed through.
Wrath knew, once upon a time, this woman was known as Snow White, but for the past two hundred years, she has only been called the Queen of the Northern Wood. He never doubted her intentions and followed every order without question. As they raced toward the thorns, Wrath did not hesitate because his queen would not fail him. He knew that only by the speaking of the magic word from one of the four queens would the floral guardians let anyone pass into this sacred place. He did not slow as the queen let the night air rush upon her porcelain white skin and ripple through her regal mane of midnight black hair. Her ruby lips parted again as she whispered another magic charm to seal the path behind her. Wrath wondered how long it had been since the first time she came to Empyrean. How long since the noble dwarves saved that young girl in the very forest of which she was now queen?
Snow White let the curtain fall closed with what seemed like the weight of those forgotten years and waited for the journey to end as her trusted steeds led the way across the immense drawbridge made from the tallest and sturdiest trees of the Northern Wood ages before she was born.
As the carriage rolled from the wooden planks onto the carved stone inlaid in the great circle courtyard, lightening flashed in the distance. Under the flash, Wrath saw two tiny scratches in the middle of the bridge that he never noticed before. He suspected it was some animal claw marks, but he did not take any more time to think about it. He got inside quickly because the storm was approaching faster than anyone had predicted. Still, the two fastest horses in all of the Northern Wood had beaten it here.
Wrath silently instructed Fury to slow their gait now safely inside their mistress’ sanctuary. The elder horse addressed his friend and student, “Fury, I told you we would beat the storm.”
Fury, the younger and less experienced of the two Friesians, shook out his mane and turned a wild eye towards his mentor. His ears flitted front to back and he was trying to catch his breath, “Come on, old dam. You couldn’t have done it without me. And you definitely could not have done it if we stopped at every watering hole you wanted to.”
Wrath let out a scoffing neigh at his friend’s overconfidence and the two stepped on in silence. Th e driver leaned back on his bench, looking happy to be at the end of the treacherous ride. Now he calmly listened to the echo of their diamond horseshoes clicking on the stone.
It had been some time since Wrath, Fury or even Snow White had been to the castle, but both horses knew to stop where the engraved stones gave way to the sculpted glass staircase. The stallions twisted their necks around to watch the driver climb down from his perch. The man was new to his post, but Wrath could tell that he took great pride in his work. He watched the man fold the steps into place and then check to make certain they were secure. Then the man held his breath as he opened the door. This caused Wrath to suck in his own breath and Fury took the cue to stand at attention as well.
Snow White, the Queen of the Northern Wood, emerged from the carriage. She was an old woman, but time had been generous to her. The vestige of her throne had instilled her with power, but underneath was the pure and simple beauty to which so many innocent men had fallen victim. The driver looked at the ground, afraid to stare at her radiance and she touched his shoulder as she stepped past him, trailing the green silk of her robe across his arm. Even Fury was not sure if he should dare to gaze.
But Wrath watched her. He had carried her on his back many times since he was a young colt and had become one of her most trusted advisors, as his father was before him. Their eyes met and she blew him a gentle kiss. The enchanted breath swirled and sparkled faintly as it drifted over to the old warhorse. It filled him with the minty smell of fresh evergreens and a musical thank you danced at his ears. The queen turned and made her way to the stained glass doors where an elven butler waited to escort her inside. Wrath knew that not one of the four queens dared the mazes of the castle without a guide who had been born inside its walls. Wrath stood, watching his queen for a moment longer, while the driver busied himself with unbridling the amazing animals.
As soon as Wrath and Fury were loose of the leather straps, they both shook their entire bodies and stretched their legs, glad to be free of the oaken carriage. Both knew where they would spend the night, but waited for the driver to lead them across the courtyard to the stables. Wrath watched his young friend staring up the castle walls. Fury responded without being asked, “You know, I thought I could see the top.”
Wrath looked up into the darkness. He could make out the shapes of the circling hawks, nested in the highest peaks of the castle and slightly beyond that, more of the curved crystalline wall that refl ected the last of the moonlight. On the brightest summer days, he had never clearly seen the opening, so far beyond even the reach of the guardian hawks, which marked the top of Castle Empyrean.
The handcrafted diamond shoe embedded in Wrath’s hoof clicked sharply on the glass surface at the entrance of the stable, so he waited to respond to Fury.
Fury was still craning his neck skyward when his front hooves left the stone to meet with the glass pathway and he lost his footing sending him hard to the ground. His legs slipped out in front of him like a newborn deer’s first time walking on an icy pond, but he recovered and was standing upright before the driver could react.
Wrath did his best to hold back his laughter. “The top, huh?” he asked. “It seems to me that the only thing you could see was the bottom. And so, you are still my student.”
“Hey, I passed your tests, old dam.” Fury was as indignant as the day he first set hoof into the academy.
“If you are so wise, then tell me what two lessons did you forget?” said Wrath.
Fury seemed annoyed, “I give up. You tell me.”
“First,” Wrath was using his gentle, teacher’s voice, “Your mind was on the future and objects in the distance and not where it should have been, on the events right in front of you. Second,” he switched to his rough military voice, the one Fury hated, “never look like a gelding in front of the ladies.”
The driver had led them beneath the pointed archway, directly in front of six glistening, beautiful, golden Andalusians. Their long, braided tails swished gently in the awkward silence, while Fury attempted to recover from his misstep. Wrath nodded and issued a polite greeting to the mares, until he could move closer to the only one he knew. Fury was now trying to posture for the two fillies and they seemed to be excited in the presence of a soldier. Wrath moved close to his friend and she whispered something in his ear. They shared a quite moment and then he gestured to Fury that it was time to move down to their stalls.
Fury began to canter down the hall, showing off , as he turned into what he thought was an empty stall. At the last moment, Wrath blocked him to keep him from crashing into the massive black shape that filled the stall. The shape, like a boulder larger than Wrath, heaved and fell with the steady breath of a creature deep in sleep after a tiresome journey.
“That is Apis. You do not want to disturb him,” said Wrath.
“Apis the bull?” Fury sounded excited by this.
“The one and same.”
Fury understood the implication, “With the girls back there and the black bull himself, that means almost everyone is here. The four queens haven’t been together at Empyrean since before your time, old dam.”
Wrath started to answer, but was interrupted by a muculent snort from Apis.
“Sorry, big fella,” Fury was trying to be friendly.
“Don’t expect a reply. He never speaks.” Wrath turned away from the stall.
Neither horse wanted to wake this hulking beast, so they continued to the far
end of the stable.
The two soldier-horses positioned themselves in silence for their hard-earned rest, quietly hoofing the straw into the shape of a bed. Wrath had slept on hard ground many times and found a comfortable spot more quickly than his partner.
Fury, despite being trained as a warrior, was used to the pampered life in the stables of the Northern Castle and so there was much stamping and brushing of the straw in his stall.
This gave Wrath time to consider what was happening tonight. He knew the six mares were responsible for the pumpkin coach of the Queen of the Western Sun and Apis in his many reincarnations was solely responsible for guiding the chariot of the Queen of the Southern Valley. The only queen yet to be present was the Queen of the Eastern Sky. When she arrived, Fury was right, that would be the first time all four queens met at Empyrean in all of Wrath’s eighty years. That meant only one thing to Wrath, that some great evil was rising across the land, something so powerful that the Empyrical Wizards summoned the queens from their four realms.
If there was to be a war, no one was prepared. Only the Northern Friesians and their men were trained as an army. And of those, only Wrath had seen an actual battle and that was when he was still a colt. Peace had reigned for so long under the skies that Castle Empyrean touched that perhaps even the queens had forgotten the old wars.
Wrath was going to warn his young friend of the threat that he suspected, but Fury had fallen asleep almost as soon as he made his bed. Now Wrath would wait for the twin Alkonosts to arrive with the Queen of the Eastern Sky or any news from the halls and chambers in the glass towers above him.
He had only met the Alkonosts once and tried hard to remember what they looked like. He pictured their feathered wings and fanned tails, identical down to the pointed black claws ticking against the tempered floor. Even he was struck by the beauty of their human heads, both young, vibrant females, who were truly as old as the mountains that marked the gateway to the East.
Wrath was used to the dwarves and occasional trolls that inhabited his country, but he was not so experienced to know the many creatures of this world. He knew that the Eastern country was by far the largest of all the domains and he knew that was where the last few dragons had been hunted, but he never imagined the possibility of so many amazing creatures sharing the same sun. He came to know a few. Aside from the extinct unicorns, the Alkonosts were his favorite.
Wrath drifted into sleep, with the sweetness of their long forgotten voices easing his worries of the impending storm.