A bustling city loomed in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, surrounded by never-ending fields of green that were divided by streams and rivers of blue. Little villages littered these lush fields and if one looked far enough into the horizon, a chain of cascading mountains could be seen, their peaks barely dusted with snow.
A grand castle rose up from within the lively city, reaching for the sky as its towers brushed against the clouds. Ornate carvings in the marble outer walls of the building told the story of the creation of the castle and the yawning double doors told the story of the kingdom of Animaria.
The celebrated kingdom of Animaria.
Where humans lived in peace for many millennia, under the protection of the Wildzords - the sacred animal protectors of the kingdom. These animals that took the responsibility of watching over those beneath them, were worshipped, but hardly ever seen, like the fabled Greek gods and goddesses. However, these animals weren't higher beings, they were simply guardians.
Guardians sworn to protect Animaria from outside harm.
However, they could not protect the land from herself - no matter how hard they would try.
The clang of metal rang throughout the grassy courtyard of Castle of Tribute, drifting with the cool autumn breeze through the window and into the room where the young princess was momentarily residing.
The sound broke the child from her studious stare locked on her teacher's lesson and almost instantly her mind shifted into other, more intriguing, thoughts. Her deep brown eyes relocated themselves to gaze out the window at the clear blue sky.
"Princess..." The voice barely reached her hearing, and even then, she didn't answer, so overwhelmed by the outside world in that moment.
"Princess..." The feminine voice drew closer in her mind, but still, she refused to answer.
Startled, the princess of seven years jumped in her seat, her white dress flouncing about her. Quickly, she looked to the annoyed teacher before her. "Yes, High Priestess Opaline?" she replied sweetly, her attention redirected.
The beautiful Opaline walked over from where she had been standing to sit beside the princess, her forest green cloak draping itself across the back of the chaise. "Would you care to recite what I just said?" the older woman asked with a knowing grin, peering into her student's face curiously.
The child blushed slightly, ducking her head. "I could never dare to repeat any of the words that flow from your delicate lips, High Priestess. Your grace and intelligence could never be equaled."
The chestnut-haired woman simply smirked at the smooth way her student easily saved herself from a scolding. "You cannot match my grace because you don't try," she teased lightly, leaning in toward Princess Shayla and poking her gently. The girl giggled and leapt off the chaise onto her feet. Opaline shook her head. "You have much to learn, Princess."
Shayla grinned widely, her little hands set upon her hips. "You worry too much, High Priestess. I have all the time in the world!" she insisted, sounding much wiser than her seven years. "I will never leave my Clan."
Opaline watched as the princess of the Animarian royal family swirled and spiraled around the study gaily, appearing to dance to a song that only she could hear. The young one's innocence was one that Opaline envied everyday, and yet, it was what endeared her the most to Opaline. She had no idea of what destiny held for her. Life was simple and would last forever.
After awhile, the brown-haired princess stopped at the large window where the warmth of the afternoon sun poured into the otherwise cold room. She pressed herself against the stone ledge of the opening, her eyes entranced by the dance she saw taking place below her in the courtyard. "High Priestess, can we-"
Princess Shayla's excited voice was cut off by Opaline's knowing one. "Yes, Princess, we can. We've finished our studies for today." She rose from the chaise with a smile as the child scampered ahead of her, out of the room and into the long hallway. "Let us go see my little wolf."
The anguished cry rose up from the courtyard as the young boy who had let it out dropped his sword once again in defeat. Throwing off his thickly threaded breastplate of hay, he fell backwards into the cool grass with a frustrated grunt. "You're cheating, General. You're bigger than me!"
Animus chuckled, sheathing his long silver sword at his side. "Size nor strength matter, Merrick. It's a matter of swiftness and skill." The young man plopped down next to the defeated boy in the grass. Unlike his partner, Animus had no armor to remove and simply wore his usual navy blue sparring tunic and pants. "You have both of these things; I've seen you use them when you train and when you play with the princess!" He hid a smile as he noticed a blush lightly color Merrick's youthful features. "Now, all you have to do is apply them to your combat and you will be the greatest swordsman Animaria has known!"
"You are the greatest swordsman Animaria has known, Animus."
"That doesn't mean that you can't beat me eventually," the dark blond-haired man remarked, grinning as the boy rolled his eyes at him. "I'm not quite invincible, Merrick."
"Laying on the grass again! You two are going to give the maidservants ten days of work with all the clothing you go through!"
Both of them shot up from the ground to face a stern-looking Opaline with Princess Shayla at her side, trying to stifle her giggles.
Quickly, Merrick began to brush at his clothes, removing as much of the dirt off his body as possible. Animus simply stood still and defiantly stared straight into the lady's stern glare.
Princess Shayla's giggles soon stopped and she gasped at the young man's defiance. Merrick also caught notice of the silent war between the two adults and stopped his actions. "General! She could strike you down where you stand! Don't-"
Just as the boy was going to warn him not to challenge Opaline, Animus did just that. "That is their job, High Priestess. I don't think they would mind a little more." His lips sported an ever-growing smirk.
Tugging her cloak tighter around her shoulders, Opaline stepped out into the courtyard and crossed it to confront the outspoken man. Frightened a bit by the prospects of what could come about, Merrick left his mentor's side and scurried over to join Princess Shayla under the stone eaves surrounding the large area. Eyes wide, both young children watched the confrontation in rapt horror.
As soon as she was close enough to him, the serious woman bowed her head slightly and shook it, a soft laugh only Animus could hear drifting from her lips. She looked back up at him, mirth quite evident in her eyes and a smile upon her face. "You are terrible, Animus. Positively terrible."
Briefly looking around to see if anyone was in the courtyard watching them - other than the two children who were a bit off - and finding no one, Animus grabbed the slight woman by the waist and pulled her against him. He pressed a feather soft kiss to her lips before whispering, "It's a full moon tonight. At dusk, in the Wolf Sanctuary?"
She nodded, her face flushed with a soft pink hue. "My ritual sacrifice."
He returned her nod, and slowly released her from his hold. She turned from him and began to walk back toward the children, but stopped and faced him. "Fool," she spat at him with a laugh, and Animus simply replied with a grin.
As Opaline headed toward them, Merrick and Princess Shayla looked at one another and smiled. They had seen everything that had transgressed between the young Animarian general and the High Priestess of all Animaria. As children did, they found it entertaining to watch the two spar continually, dancing around one another in a far more intricate pattern than the two could imagine.
Their innocence didn't blind them to the many taboos committed by the existence of the relationship. They knew enough of the life they were born into as a part of royal Animarian society to know what was proper and what was not. Their mentors' affair was not proper. Nonetheless, they kept the relationship to themselves for the sake of their elders' happiness.
"Enough with the smiles," Opaline chided them as she approached, though a momentary grin alighted her features. "You both have studies to finish up before dinner is called, don't you?"
Their heads instantly fell at the mention of work. "Must we, Mother?" Merrick pleaded, giving Opaline his pleading pup face as she usually relented to such tactics.
"Must we, Opaline?" Princess Shayla easily echoed with a similar face.
"Yes, you must," she enforced, herding the two inside into the castle. "It may be your seasonal recess, but you still have much to do."
Dusk soon arrived and Opaline found herself running across the city barefoot in order to not be too late for the ritual sacrifice of the Wolfzord. As she darted through the crowded streets, people stopped around her and stared. It wasn't everyday that the people of Tribute got to see their high priestess running through the streets alone.
Normally on the day of the full moon, just before dusk, two soldiers assigned by Animus would escort her to the sanctuary near the outreaches of the castle walls. However, that afternoon when the soldiers had obediently arrived to accompany her, she had dismissed them, as she had been busy with her son; she had been explaining to Merrick the importance of the celebration of the full moon by the people of Animaria and hadn't wanted them to wait for her to finish. When she was through with Merrick though, dusk had already begun. She sent Merrick away to his room, frantically dressed herself in her ritual garb and hastily ran from the castle to the sanctuary.
Luckily, Opaline was a swift runner and when she arrived at the Wolf Sanctuary, the sun still had awhile before it would completely disappear behind the horizon. Standing outside the small stone building covered in carvings that told the story of the lone Wolfzord, the priestess tidied herself - dusting off her midnight blue cloak and pulling its hood over her head conservatively.
She pushed the small wooden doors open to enter and was surprised to hear voices within the dimly lit sanctuary. She highly doubted Animus was talking to himself, but then again, Animus could be rather unpredictable at times.
Opaline stepped out of the small reception area and into the main prayer chamber to find two men quietly talking among the many lit candles that formed a circular pattern on the stone floor. One of them she recognized to be Animus and the other she knew to be the high priest of the Wildzord Clan, of which she presided over. "Vanault!" she called in surprise, walking around the scattered candles to join the two men. "What an unexpected surprise! What are you doing here?"
The men looked up from their conversation, allowing Opaline to join them. "I was here to offer myself for your ritual sacrifice tonight, High Priestess. However, when I arrived I found the General here," Vanault relayed, sounding a bit confused.
"Yes. I was planning on using General Animus for the sacrifice this moon," she replied, finding it not hard to explain the general's appearance away. It, after all, was the truth. "I've been using you far too much as of late, Vanault. I thought you might want to rest a bit."
"You know I would give my life for the Wildzords, High Priestess. It doesn't bother-"
"The Wildzords know of your dedication to them, Vanault, as do I. It is not necessary to give your life to the Wildzords for them to know you love them." She smiled, clasping his shoulder. "Go now. Rest." Vanault hesitated in leaving, and Opaline noted. "Please. Enjoy the full moon tonight, my friend."
The raven-haired man, just a few years her elder, reluctantly relented. "Goodnight, High Priestess, General." He turned to leave, tracing the path Opaline had taken to enter the chamber, backwards.
"Goodnight, High Priest."
Just as the wooden doors could be heard softly closing, Opaline approached the altar at the head of the chamber where a dark blue marble statue of the great howling Wolfzord resided. A faint ray of light shown on the platform before the altar from the small window, high up in the corner of the sanctuary, that told Opaline when the sun had finally set. A small simplistic clay bowl sat on the platform, a small dagger beside it.
For a moment, Opaline's eyes were locked on the vividly-colored sky she could see out the window until she felt Animus' presence by her side. "Let me take your cloak," he gently whispered, trying to keep the silence as much as possible.
Opaline simply nodded and moved her gaze over to the sacred Wolfzord, untying the cord of her cloak from her neck and letting him pull it off her. She picked up a jug from beneath the altar, and slowly tipped it toward the bowl, crimson-red wine trickling into it.
Folding her cloak and placing it aside, Animus returned his attention to the woman. She wore a simple flowing dress, the exact same shade of blue that her cloak was. Along the hems of the neck, long sleeves, and skirt, a threaded silver pattern had been stitched. Though dressed rather plainly, Animus found himself drawn to the woman who personified beauty in his eyes.
Once she had finished pouring the wine into the bowl, she replaced the jug and took the dagger into her hand. With expert finesse, Opaline quickly pricked her finger with the dagger and squeezed a single drop of blood into the wine. She then turned to Animus, drew him closer, and pricked his hand, only allowing one drop of his blood to enter the filled bowl. Setting the dagger aside, she moved back to stand among the candles, waiting for night to fall and the moon to rise.
Animus joined Opaline by her side, and slipped an arm around her. She leaned into his embrace, knowing it was safe for her to show her affections because they were alone. "Is that all?" he questioned, somewhat unbelieving. "It always seemed like there was more to this since people are forbidden to watch."
The woman grinned. "Would you want an entire crowd to watch your every movement while you ate your dinner?"
"What are you talking about, Opaline?"
"That's basically what this sacrifice is: Wolfzord eating his dinner." She looked up into his confused hazel eyes and chuckled. "Don't tell me that you have forgotten all that you learned in your studies about our guardians, Animus!"
His blush was fairly evident to her, even in the semi-dark chamber. "My training was very limited in the protectors'-"
She cut him off before he could continue to try and excuse himself. "Don't lie to me, Animus; I am the High Priestess after all." She lightly poked him in the chest. "I know that a soldier's studies incorporate a very large amount about our guardians; the soldiers are supposed to be their messengers! Doing their duty at a smaller level!"
"Fine, then. I did forget the legend of the Wolfzord," Animus admitted in defeat. "So, refresh my memory. What does the sacrifice represent?"
"It's all based on the legend of how the Wolfzord came to our aid," she began, her voice taking on a rich tonal quality as she prepared to do one of her favorite things: tell the stories of her beloved Wildzords. "Long ago, when we weren't one united kingdom of Animaria and our people were split into many tribes, an injured soldier from one of the warring tribes was separated from his party and lost. He wandered for days in the Wolf Forest, just barely surviving.
"On the third day, when he had just about given up all hope and collapsed, a wolf appeared out of nowhere. This wolf was rather mangy-looking and thin; it appeared to have not had a decent kill in quite a long time. As this wolf came up to him, the soldier feared for his life, thinking that perhaps the wolf thought him to be his next meal.
"The wolf snuffed at him, but didn't make one move to hurt the soldier in any way. It licked the man's hand and then, suddenly transformed and became the gorgeous Wolfzord.
"The Wolfzord cared for the soldier, hunting for him and bringing him needed water until he was able enough to walk; never once did the Wolfzord eat for himself, giving everything he found to the soldier. Under the light of the full moon, the Wolfzord led the man back to his tribe and disappeared, never to be seen again.
"The wine is our drink to him - our thanks to him for protecting us so selflessly. My blood symbolizes our people. Yours is to be the blood of the soldier. We give the Wolfzord thanks, reminding him of the kindness he paid our people long ago."
Animus softly kissed the top of Opaline's head and held her closer. "Now, I remember that story." He smiled, closing his eyes and remembering. "That's why all the soldiers used to call Ephane the respected wolf of our pack. He would never leave any man in need, even if he was his enemy."
Opaline smiled sadly at the mention of her departed husband's name. "He used to call Merrick his little wolf and I used to hate it; I don't think I'll understand why I did, but I did. But when Ephane passed, I missed the nickname he had for our son." Tears quietly filled her eyes, but she would not let the tears breech them. "So, I continued to call him by it. Now, Merrick doesn't even remember how his father used to call him that; he doesn't even remember Ephane..."
The widowed woman broke down into sobs, clutching onto Animus tightly and burying her face into his soft wool tunic. He simply continued to hold her, comforting her with soothing murmurs.
After awhile, Opaline lifted her face - eyes red-rimmed and cheeks flushed - and quickly wiped the tears from her face. "Ugh, enough of this," she muttered to herself, turning to look through the window and see that the sun had indeed completely set. She spoke to Animus, but faced the candles scattered about them. "Let's finish this ritual and then we can return to the castle for the feast."
Animus watched as she put out all the lit prayer candles of the people who had paid their respects to the Wolfzord in the last week - according to tradition - with one wave of her hand. Magic always steadied her emotions; he knew better than anyone, as he had been with her at other times when she had her breakdowns.
Ephane was still a sore spot in her memories - a lost love to her and a lost friend to him. Together, after his death and when Animus took up his mantle as the head Animarian general, Opaline and him had come together to mourn Ephane. They overcame the pain together and then became close friends and partners, as they worked together to train Animaria's future soldiers from boyhood into manhood. After some time, their friendship became something more, placing them in their situation as secret lovers.
Once she completely finished, Opaline retrieved her cloak by the shadowed light that the moon let into the sanctuary and returned to his side. Reaching up a bit, she kissed him sweetly and let her hand linger for a moment on his cheek before she walked away, leaving the chamber and entering the reception room. Animus reluctantly followed, knowing what was to come once they left the Wolf Sanctuary.
A return to the pretenses of their public lives.
He could stand it if she could.
Merrick fidgeted as he stared at himself in the full-length mirror in his mother's room. Leona, his mother's handmaiden who doubled as his nurse until he was of the age to receive a proper manservant, had been helping him get dressed for the feast that was being held. When she had left him for a moment, he had instantly run to his mother's room to get a proper look at himself.
He wore a dark blue wool tunic, black pants and boots - similar to the ones he knew Animus would be wearing that night - which was the formal dress of Animaria's soldiers. The tunic was very regal-looking and rather soft, but it still made the young boy itch like crazy; even after being Animus' apprentice for the past two years, he had not gotten used to the uniform.
From his neck hung a thin gold chain that carried the symbol of his family name from his father's side: Baliton. A wolf's paw with a sword on top of it was engraved on the circular piece of gold. Merrick rarely wore it, except for the full moon feasts because it had once belonged to his father and his mother always feared that he would lose it. He didn't wear a second pendant for his mother's family because she had been an orphan adopted by the Wildzord Clan at a young age; when she married Merrick's father, Opaline adopted his family name of Baliton, but seldom used it due to her rank as High Priestess.
As he finished examining himself, the door opened and Animus walked in. "There you are!" the general voiced, joining his apprentice in front of the mirror and checking his reflection for a moment. "Leona is running down the halls in a panic looking for you, Merrick!"
Merrick ducked his head slightly at the thought of getting in trouble with his mother later for driving Leona crazy. "Were you looking for me?"
"Actually, I wasn't, but it certainly is a bonus that I found you," the blond man grinned, looking at the boy through his reflection in the mirror. "I was looking for your mother. I need her to draw the wolf head on my neck. I would have my manservant do it for me, but Iryn's hands get too shaky when he tries and the wolf comes out looking like drooling pup."
Amused by the idea of the Animarian general symbolized by a drooling pup, Merrick laughed.
"My room is not a gathering place, it is my sacred place!" Opaline yapped at the two of them as she and Princess Shayla barged into the room.
"But your room has the big mirror!" Merrick protested, watching as his mother seated Princess Shayla before her large dresser, picked up a special blue pencil, and began to draw along the young girl's neck.
"And I was looking for you to-"
"-draw your wolf?" Opaline finished for Animus, while she continued to draw upon the princess. "Iryn stopped me in the hall and told me you were looking for me. Besides, I always end up drawing your wolf."
Animus grunted in reply, just as she finished drawing the image of a lion. Giving the princess a small push, Opaline herded her son and the princess together toward the door to leave. "Now, I want you two to go and find Leona and Misia. They will take you to the Great Hall for the feast. And Shayla, don't itch at your lion!"
Princess Shayla, who was almost about to scratch at the mark upon her neck, quickly hid her hand within the folds of her red dress. "I won't," she promised, not exactly sure if she could keep that promise.
The two children scurried out of the room, the door closing behind them as Opaline's merry laughter emanated from within the room. They stood in the hall that bustled with incredibly busy activity: nobles and servants ran around like chickens with their heads cut off, trying to get ready for the feast.
"I can't believe it's like this every month," Shayla whispered to Merrick conspiratorially.
"I just hold my breath and hope it'll be over as fast as possible," Merrick remarked, watching as one of the nobles almost ran into an open door.
"There you two are!" Misia, Princess Shayla's handmaiden, exclaimed, running over to the two, Leona hot on her trail. "It's almost time for the feast to start!"
Merrick cast a glance back at the door that the four of them were walking away from. "What of Mother? Won't she be late?"
"High Priestess could never be late. She would never let herself be late," Leona stated confidently, knowing her mistress fairly well. "But if anyone were to keep her from arriving promptly, it would be General Animus; she must wait for the General to fetch her and escort her to the feast."
The group continued toward the Great Hall with a descent down a flight of grand spiral stairs. Both Shayla and Merrick slid their hands along the cool silver balustrade, resisting the urge to simply climb on top of it and fly down the stairs at a much faster pace. Leona and Misia followed them, continuing their discussion.
"Animus is a brilliant general, but tends to be rather childish," Misia commented, not at all trying to be rude, but simply stating a fact.
"He's been likened many times to Ephane in skill, but he could never live up to Ephane's gallantry. He was a true noble, through and through." Leona brushed back a stray hair from her face, musing for a moment as they stepped off the stairs. "High Priestess Opaline was so devastated by his death."
The conversation stopped when the four of them approached the open doorway to the Great Hall. "Go on, you two." Misia gave the children a little nudge. "Be good."
Leaving the older women at the entrance, Princess Shayla and Merrick entered the room and the feast.
Embedded in the wall farthest from them, a soft fire slowly burned within the large hearth, warming the expansive room that was already hot. The walls to either side of the grand fireplace held towering glass windows that were wide open to allow the cooling autumn breeze to fan over the dinner guests. Long wooden tables ran alongside each of the three walls of the hall, covered in many delicious delicacies and plates and utensils of the finest silver; kitchen servants scurried at a quick pace in efforts to get all the last finishing touches of the meal to the tables before they cooled.
"Do you think they were telling the truth?" the Princess whispered under her breath.
Before she could get an answer out of him, Merrick separated from Princess Shayla, joining the training regiment of soldiers gathered in a group near one of the open windows.
A bit turned off, Princess Shayla frowned at his retreating figure joining the ranks of the rowdy group of children. "Fine, then," she scoffed, turning in the opposite direction and joining her brethren of the Wildzord Clan on the other side of the room.
"Look, I'm sorry, Opaline, but you know how much that tickles!"
The High Priestess lifted her head up from where it had been positioned near his neck while she had been drawing. Leaning back against her dresser, she shook her head at him exasperatedly. "I swear, sometimes you are a child, Animus," she chided, pressing the unsharpened end of the pencil to her lips as she mused on how she could salvage the mangled wolf on his neck.
He grinned mischievously at the remark, and easily pulled the older woman into his lap, momentarily breaking her thoughts. "Technically, I still am a child, my lovely Opaline." He tugged her closer and stole a long kiss from her lips.
Once the kiss ended, it took a moment for Opaline to gather herself. She poked him in the chest with her pencil, which was still in her hand. "You, General Animus, are twenty-five years of age. While you still act childish, you are not a child. You should start acting your age." Her voice was scolding, but it didn't quite have the effect she may have been looking for as her flushed cheeks and full lips made her look nothing like a disciplinarian.
"You, High Priestess Opaline, are thirty years of age. While you may act like a respected noble, now you are sitting on my lap and kissing me. You should never act your age around me," he retorted, sweeping her into another kiss.
The drawing pencil slipped from Opaline's fingers as her hands went to cling onto his blue tunic, stopping her from completely drowning in his kiss. Her long dark locks of wavy hair fell into his face as he held her tightly, lost completely in the sanctuary his high priestess had created especially for the two of them in that moment.
Both Opaline and Animus jumped out of their position at the voice of Leona. Opaline fell to the floor, scrambling for the discarded drawing pencil. Animus quickly rearranged his clothing to look somewhat respectable, and then helped Opaline off the floor.
"Yes, Leona?" came the high priestess' somewhat strangled response as she resumed drawing the wolf upon the general's neck.
Leona opened the door, and took a step into the room to check on her mistress and her escort. "King Parn is ready to begin whenever you are, High Priestess," she reported.
"Thank you, Leona," Opaline acknowledged, slowly regaining her focus. "I will be down once I'm finished with General Animus."
Leona nodded and turned to leave the room.
Even after the door closed behind her, a nervous air stayed in the room with the two secret lovers. Opaline finished Animus' wolf and then easily turned the pencil on herself and drew the all too familiar shape of a deer upon the right side of her neck. Animus sat back in his chair quietly, watching her.
Not a word was said between the both of them as Animus stood up and took her arm once she was done. They headed for the door and just before Animus could pull it open, Opaline leaned over and gave him a gentle kiss on the cheek. "I love you," she whispered softly in his ear.
Animus simply nodded, understanding what she had meant with those three little words: I'm sorry we have to hide like this. Thank you for loving me. I will never leave you. Those three words meant the world to him uttered from her lips.
And with that, Animus pulled the door open and together, they left the room for the feast.
"High Priest Vanault! So good to see you on this night!"
Vanault turned in the direction of the voice to see a nobleman heading toward where he stood at the head of the Wildzord Clan. "Remus!" he replied to the older man quite happily. "It is good to see you as well!"
"Where is that high priestess of ours?" Remus teased, clapping Vanault on the back. "You won't be leading the feast tonight, will you?"
At the mere mention of his superior, Vanault paled and his demeanor fell slightly. It was the same thing over and over again from everyone: they would greet him, and then ask about High Priestess Opaline. Never was there a single concern toward his well-being. Everyone was always interested in the High Priestess. "You know the High Priestess, everything must always be perfect before she arrives." The leader of the Wildzord Clan grinned broadly, hurting his face in order to hide his anger. He glanced at the double doors, which were slowly closing. "Excuse me, Remus. But I think the High Priestess should be arriving any minute and we should be ready."
Remus nodded as Vanault moved off to be closer to the closed wooden doors. He then focused his attention on the king, who sat in the middle of the table before the large fireplace.
King Parn wasn't a terribly old man - he only had a little over forty years - but he carried himself with a regality that gave him the appearance of a sage man with his warm brown eyes and dark graying hair. Dressed in a tunic of royal red, he was easily discernable as the head of the Animarian royalty; his children - Shayla, among the Wildzord Clan, and Thane, among the few soldiers - were also very visible in their clothing of red. The blue lion head was fairly prominent upon each of their necks, the real symbol of their position. From the king's neck hung the gold medallion of his family, also bearing the symbol of the royal lion.
"We gather here on this warm full moon to feast in honor..."
The voice of the king faded from Vanualt's hearing rather quickly as he felt Opaline's presence enter the room. Looking toward the door, he saw her enter the Great Hall on Animus' arm as King Parn finished his short speech. He watched as she exchanged a glance with the king, and he sat down just as the general walked away from the priestess, leaving her to her ritual.
She walked carefully to the middle of the room to begin her monthly storytelling. Everyone's eyes were rapt on her, anticipating the myth she would choose to share with them. Would it be the one of the brother Bearzords? Or would she share the myth of the Falconzord and the Tigerzord?
Vanault watched her especially carefully. The beautiful lines of Opaline's face fell into a contemplative look and her eyes became distant. After a moment, a small smile brightened her features and she gazed around the room at her audience, beginning to speak. "Tonight, on this night, we shall overcome the past together with the telling of the story of the Wolfzord; a story my late husband loved dearly."
A few gasps were emitted as surprise washed over the occupants of the Great Hall. The High Priestess hadn't told that story in over five years, since Ephane's death! The younger children didn't quite grasp the significance of the telling of the story, but the older nobles knew very well of the importance behind it; it wasn't only Ephane's favorite myth, but the first myth that Opaline told at the full moon feast upon assuming the position of high priestess over eight years ago.
As the words slowly began to flow from her lips, everyone fell under her spell, Vanault included. He had known and loved her since childhood; from the first moment he laid eyes on her in the orphanage at the age of five.
At their first meeting, Vanault and Opaline became fast friends and inseparable. When she was picked and taken under the tutelage of the Wildzord Clan, Vanault made sure that he was also picked. Together, they were the prized pupils of the clan and rose through the ranks rather quickly; Opaline eventually becoming High Priestess of Animaria at the young year of twenty-two with the passing of the former High Priest.
Vanault strived to gain her love throughout the years, but all she could ever see him as was her confidant and greatest friend. She continually turned to him for advice and friendship, but never for love. When her courtship with the great General Ephane was announced, Vanault was devastated. How could she fall in love with someone who hardly knew her? Someone ten years her elder! The young man was only more crushed by the news of the their marriage.
Vanault's eyes fell upon the young offspring of his eternal beloved and narrowed. He spited Merrick more than anything. The young boy's presence reminded him everyday of the fact that Opaline had loved someone else other than him. As much as he hated to believe it, the passing of Ephane so soon following his marriage to the beautiful Opaline lightened Vanault's heavy heart. There was still a chance for the High Priest of the Wildzord Clan to capture his childhood love's heart, especially since the five-year mourning period was finished.
Clapping erupted from all sides of the hall as Opaline finished her tale and a small smile graced her lips. "King Parn?" She looked toward the king as the noise slowly died away.
"Thank you, High Priestess," he acknowledged, taking his cue from the holy woman and standing up from his seat. "Now, with all the Wildzords' blessings, let us feast!"
"Do you think they were telling the truth?"
Princess Shayla's question lingered in Merrick's thoughts as he quietly pretended to eat; he simply shifted the food around on his plate with his fork. Around him, the children of his training regiment laughed joyously and ate heartily, enjoying one another's company after having returned from their quarterly break.
Merrick had purposely run away from Shayla after she asked her question. He didn't want to answer it. He didn't have an answer for her.
He never knew his father. Ephane. The greatest Animarian general to ever lead. The most gallant noble to grace the halls of the Castle of Tribute. The kindest soul to ever walk the earth. Merrick heard stories - so many stories - of how wonderful his father was. People treated him well simply because of his father's reputation.
And yet, Merrick had never heard one story about the magnificent Ephane from his own mother. She hid the feelings that she held toward Ephane from him. Merrick knew why, so he never questioned her motivations to keep his father apart from him.
Opaline was like glass. She was very sturdy, and could withstand many different vibrations. However, if that one vibration - one special pitch - was achieved, she would instantly burst and shatter into little, painful glass shards.
In Merrick's mother's case, that special pitch was Ephane.
She loved him dearly, Merrick knew that much. But then again, she also loved Animus as well, the only father that Merrick really knew.
Ever since Merrick could remember, Animus had always been there for him. Taking him under his wing and mentoring him, Animus taught him the basics of combat, how to find humor in life, and what it meant to live. He filled a gaping hole that had been left behind by the death of Ephane, both in Merrick's life and his mother's heart.
Merrick only knew of one great man, and his name was Animus Aerlyn. Ephane Baliton was a legend to Merrick; yes, his father, but still a legend that he heard of, but never knew.
So while Misia and Leona may not have been lying, in Merrick's mind, they had been lying.
"Why are you so quiet, Merrick?" Thane poked at the boy's arm, trying to get him to speak up. "So deep in thought. What's going on?"
Merrick lifted his head and flashed the young prince a devilish grin, pushing aside the thoughts that consumed him and allowing himself to indulge in the company of his friends. "I was just planning how I would get back at you for that last prank you pulled. You may be older than me, but I'm not letting you get away with that..."
"How goes my daughter's apprenticeship, High Priestess?"
Opaline glanced up from her silver goblet of wine at King Parn to her left. "Well, every time she returns from the Clan Sanctuary, she appears to know much more than before. I wouldn't know exactly how well she is doing, as High Priest Vanault sees her more than I do." The brunette beauty turned to smile at Vanault, who sat on the other side of her at the table.
Swallowing some wild rice down, her childhood friend acknowledged the statement. "Yes. She is doing brilliant, my king. She has mastered so much at such a young year. Soon enough, she will be able to practice her sorcery as well."
"The princess is rapidly approaching her eighth year, isn't she, my king?" Opaline questioned, clarifying what she already knew.
"Yes, she is." A wistful tone took over King Parn as he looked at his two children: his son eating and joking with the trainees and his daughter quietly feasting with those of the Wildzord Clan. "Thane is now of seventeen years and she is nearly of eight - of the age where I must be considering who her protector shall be."
"Is there anyone of skill or merit?" Vanault queried, quite curious as eventually this fellow chosen to be Princess Shayla's protector would be spending quite a bit of time at the Wildzord Clan Sanctuary. Hopefully, the boy would be someone he would be able to get along with.
"The general here seems to be supporting one of his prodigies for the job," King Parn answered with a grin, causing Animus to unsubtly choke on his food for a split second and start coughing.
Opaline and Vanault looked questioningly at the young man seated on the other side of the king. "Who?" Opaline asked. Her eyebrow was arched curiously in Animus' direction as he appeared slightly sheepish.
"Animus has suggested your son, Opaline."
The High Priestess and the High Priest both wore bewildered looks at the announcement, for two entirely different reasons.
Opaline was a bit angry at Animus for not cluing her in. As much as she did love Merrick and believed he was destined to be great, there was no way she believed he would be able to protect the princess without his feelings for her interfering. At seven years, he had already shown a slight interest in Shayla, and Opaline knew that interest would only grow further if he was bonded to her in such a way as a protector was to a princess. She didn't want him to endure the secrets and the hiding that a forbidden love required.
Vanault, on the other hand, was only thinking of himself. There was no way he would be able to tolerate seeing the spawn of the man that stole Opaline from him every day. It would only drive him crazy with jealousy and anger, two things he had never really been able to put a secure reign on over the years and did not want to lose control of.
"My son isn't qualified, King Parn-"
"Not qualified?" King Parn laughed at the notion, taking a sip from his own goblet of wine. "Simply being Ephane's son qualifies him, Opaline!"
Before Opaline could push her case further, Animus interrupted, appealing to King Parn. "In all honesty, my king, I think High Priestess is just a bit hesitant to allow her son to handle such a big responsibility. Of course, she needn't worry because he would only begin to take his place by the princess' side when she reaches her fifteenth year."
"I already knew that, General," the beauty insisted heatedly, casting a momentary glare at the general.
Noting Opaline's rising anger, Vanault quickly went into action to calm her down before she exploded at the two men and embarrassed herself thoroughly. "Opaline, why don't you and I go over to the Clan and say hello?" His voice gentle and coaxing, he took the woman's right arm into his own and they left the table, effectively removing them from the conversation.
Making their way around the tables, but in the exact opposite direction of where the Clan resided, Vanault quickly led Opaline out of the crowded, humid Great Hall and into the empty castle corridors.
A terse silence held between the two until they finally reached the doors that led out to the garden and the cool autumn wind washed over them both. "Why must we have a fire in that room?!" Opaline huffed, throwing her head up to look at the night sky filled with stars and the glowing full moon.
"The same reason I have to wear this hot tunic," Vanault replied quite easily, tugging at the green tunic he wore that was similar to Animus', "tradition." Standing by her side, he allowed a wisp of her hair to tickle his face for a moment. "Tradition dictates our lives, Opaline - especially you and I."
"Tradition!" she exasperated once more, moving away from Vanault and into the greenery before her. Leaning against a trellis covered in thick vines, she cast the angry pout upon her face in his direction, seeking answers.
Tracing her glare, he walked a straight line until he stood before her. "I'm not going to tell you what you want to hear," he warned, folding his arms across his chest casually. "We both know that you're scorning tradition right now because it is threatening to take your son away from you. In any other position, you'd probably be spelling out tradition in bursts of light and dancing in its name." Opaline arched her eyebrow at him, and he simply quirked a small smirk. "Look, I'm not thrilled at the princess gaining an entourage either, but you don't hear me crying and screaming to change it otherwise."
"I was not crying and screaming!"
It was Vanault's turn to arch his eyebrow at his old friend.
The high priestess' face softened and she looked toward the bush of blossoming berries beside the trellis. "Okay, I wasn't crying...but I know I can change it!" Her voice was lined with futility, knowing she was simply arguing for the sake of proving Vanault wrong. "They can choose another boy beside Merrick-"
"And I hate being the High Priest," he scoffed, causing a light grin to grace her lips. They both knew that each of them loved their positions 'til the death; they loved the Wildzords. He lifted her chin lightly with his finger so that her brown eyes glanced up at him through her lashes. "Merrick is the best. His father was the best. There is no other choice."
Quietly, the high priestess nodded her head in acknowledgement of the words, having no idea just how hard they had been for Vanault to say.
"High Priestess? High Priestess! Opaline!"
Startled by the cries of Animus, the two looked up just in time to see the general push open the silver gate and enter the gardens. "Oh." Animus' eyes moved from Opaline to Vanault, taking in their position.
"You were looking for us?" Opaline stepped away from the high priest - causing Vanault's hand that had been holding her chin up to fall away - and toward Animus.
"I was." No matter how much he tried to hold it back, a bit of surprise still slipped into the young man's voice. "King Parn wanted me to look for you, High Priestess, to make sure you were feeling well."
"I'm sorry for not-"
"No apology needed, General." The brunette brushed off his attempt at an apology with formalities. "We should all head inside. The feast should be ending soon."
Opaline strode forward toward the gate to leave, ignoring Animus' feeble attempt to take her by the arm to escort her back. Vanault couldn't help but smirk inwardly at the motion. When Opaline was mad, she'd flame up rapidly, then smolder for quite a bit. The young general needed to learn more about the finicky ways of the High Priestess before he dared try - or inadvertently try - to cross her again.
Watching her back as she turned around, Vanault met Opaline's gaze that past by Animus who stood off to her side. "Will you be joining us, my friend?"
The slightly roguish-looking man shook his head and waved her off. "No, continue without me. I'll catch up with you."
"Are you sure?"
Once he was quite sure they were out of earshot, he moved closer and leaned back against the trellis as Opaline had just done. Recalling the bewildered look on Animus' face when he first encountered them, Vanault chuckled softly to himself.
Long after the festivities of the night died down, Opaline found herself helping her son into bed, having already dismissed Leona because of the lateness of the hour.
As her son dressed for sleep, she stared out his window at the castle ground below and the city in the distance illuminated by the full moon's radiance. Clutched in her hands was Merrick's - once Ephane's - family medallion. Absently, Opaline allowed her fingertips to slide across the smooth gold surface, still staring out into the night and remembering Vanault's words:
"Merrick is the best. His father was the best. There is no other choice."
The words haunted her; only they could sound so true coming from the lips of her childhood friend.
Ephane was the best. The best son, the best friend, the best general, the best nobleman, the best lover, the best husband, the best father. He had to be the best. He was his parents' only child - their shining star. He used to say their love was boundless and if only for that, he was determined to fulfill their dreams of grandeur for him.
Merrick watched his mother carefully as her wistful gaze reached out farther than he could see through the window. There was a longing in the way she caressed the medallion and a soft aura of pain surrounded her that he could barely detect. He almost didn't want to interrupt her moment.
Opaline spun away from the window to see her son already lying in his bed looking back at her. "You are so much quicker than I." She walked up to his bed, shelving away the memories for that time, and sat down. "Do you better understand why we feast now?"
"The story helped," he answered, sitting up slightly. "I liked the way you told it tonight. So did all the other boys."
She smiled softly. "It's one of my favorites." Leaning forward, she kissed Merrick's forehead and tucked in his blankets around him before standing up from the bed. "Good night, my little wolf."
"Good night, Mother."
Just before she left his room, she whispered a silent prayer for the Wildzords to watch over her precious son and then stepped into the hall, shutting the door quietly behind her.
As she walked by one of the few torches still burning in the empty hall, she was caught from behind, a hand clamping down over her mouth, silencing her. She was then pulled around a corner, out of sight.
"Don't scream, Opaline." The high priestess stopped struggling and nearly rolled her eyes out of their sockets at the familiar tone.
The hand over her mouth released and she twisted around in the dark little corner to come face to face with Animus. "Is this your new pastime?" she snapped at him. "Lying to people and then kidnapping them?"
He scowled at her remark in a hurt fashion as he motioned with a finger to his lips to be quiet. "I never lied to you," he insisted in a hushed voice. "You never asked so I couldn't very well have lied to you."
"Thank you for clearing up the discrepancy." Pulling away from him, Opaline prepared to leave the tight spot. "Now, if you don't mind-"
"I want to apologize, Opaline."
"I told you that you didn't need to apologize."
"Look at me!" he demanded, spinning her around so that she was staring directly into his face. "I'm going to apologize because it's what I do when I make a mistake." Animus half-expected to her say something back, but when she didn't, he continued. "I didn't tell you about the whole Merrick-and-Shayla thing because I knew you wouldn't let Merrick do it. So, I thought maybe with a little pushing from King Parn you might allow it. I should've known better - after all, I've done a few stupid things to get you mad at me."
She ducked her head and gave a soft laugh. "You certainly have. You are an experienced soldier in battles with the High Priestess' anger."
"Am I forgiven?"
"I'm supposed to be mad with you for the next few days." Opaline slipped her arms around his waist, hugging him close and resting her head on his shoulder. "Vanault will definitely be suspecting if I'm not."
"Just tell him the truth, for once. I apologized and you forgave me." His hand stroked her hair, his fingers entangling in her soft curls. "Speaking of Vanault, what was going on in the gardens when I found you both?"
The woman buried her face into his shoulder and giggled at the jealous tone of his voice. "Possessive, aren't we?" she mumbled into his shirt, still giggling. "If you really must know, I was just about to kiss him when you found us."
Animus offered her a reproachful look as she lifted her head. "Be serious. What was going on?"
"Nothing," she answered quite honestly, kissing his lips lightly. "Vanault was the first friendly face I saw in the orphanage after my father's death and has been by my side since. He is my friend. He knows me very well. All he was doing was calming me down and allowing me to see your side of the picture."
"And that's all?"
"Good." Fully assured, Animus seized her lovely lips with his own hungrily. Since their unexpected tryst earlier that night prior to the feast, he had been craving her dangerously and the same was for Opaline. Even with their little stumbling block of an argument, their passion resided ever so close to the surface of their public facades, waiting for a dark corner to be released in.
Pulling away from him reluctantly and rather aroused as well, she shook her head. "No. Not tonight, Animus. It's late. I have to meet with the village priests and priestesses tomorrow afternoon-"
"Tomorrow afternoon," he kissed her lips, "is far," moved over to nip playfully at her ear, "from now," before settling at the base of her neck and massaging his tongue against her pulse.
Opaline tried to vocalize her resistance once more, but found her voice swallowed up by a pleasurable sigh instead. Her walls fell and she allowed herself to be won over by Animus' ministrations, the responsibilities of the high priestess left far behind in the recesses of her mind.