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Complications

When the light of the morning sun poured into Opaline's vision the next day, she found herself having to blink rapidly to adjust to the brightness. Her entire body ached and she didn't want to move one muscle. However, the knocking on the door couldn't be ignored, and she reached over to wake Animus so that he would answer it.

Except, as she touched the empty mattress, she came to the realization that he wasn't there and that she couldn't possibly be seen alone in his room in her state.

Much more alert and aware, she jumped from the bed and was about to hide when she looked around her at her surroundings. The bed was made up of fine blue silk sheets. The dresser was beside the bed, and not opposite it. There was a full-length mirror before the bed. The window was facing the rising sun when it usually didn't. She was wearing her gauzy black nightgown, and not her worn green dress.

She wasn't in his room anymore, she was in her own.

The knocking continued, but she ignored it, trying to comprehend how she had gotten from Animus' room on one side of the castle to her room on the other side of it. Eventually, her wide eyes caught upon a note on her dresser that hadn't been there before.

Opaline quickly snatched up the note and softly read it to herself.

"I didn't have the heart to wake you, so I brought you back here to your room before anyone would suspect you missing. Only Thane, Mave, and Rai knew that you were gone last night; I'll talk to them. Animus."

A soft, grateful smile graced her lips before the knocking finally forced her from her thoughts and Leona's questioning voice called. "High Priestess? Is everything alright?"

"Everything is fine," Opaline called back in reply, tucking the note away into one of her drawers with the rest of her jewelry. "Just give me one moment."

Darting over to her chest of clothing at the foot of her bed, she unlocked it and pulled out another one of her Clan uniform green dresses. She threw off her nightgown and threw on the dress, then vainly tried to make herself look presentable.

"You may come in, Leona."

The older handmaiden entered, took one glance at the High Priestess, and instantly became concerned. "High Priestess!" she gasped, running to her mistress' side. "What happened to you? You look ill!"

Moving to face her reflection in the mirror, Opaline couldn't help but agree. Her eyes were tired and sullen from her lack of sleep. Her skin was lackluster and slightly pale. Her hair was disheveled, curls going in every direction. Not only did she look ill, she felt ill, as she was sick to her stomach. "I was very tired when I returned from the Sanctuary yesterday; I simply could not get enough sleep to cure it," she explained away as she tied the cords of the dress tightly at the base of her back.

"Sit down on the bed; I'll take care of you." Her handmaiden brought her to sit on her unmade bed and the woman proceeded to groom the High Priestess of Animaria.

The two passed the time in silence - Opaline's thoughts remained occupied by the past night's revelations - and by the time Leona was through, another knock came to the wooden door.

"Who is it?"

"High Priest Vanault."

"She is currently occupied right now, High Priest." Opaline once again silently thanked the Wildzords for sending her such a wonderful handmaiden in Leona.

"I have something that I need to return to her."

Setting the hairbrush aside, Leona looked to Opaline for some indication as to how she should proceed. The brunette nodded her head; there was no point in avoiding her childhood friend. She wouldn't be able to avoid him even if she tried because of their positions within the clan.

Leona left her and went to open the door, allowing Vanault's entrance to the room. "Do you need me, High Priestess?"

"No," Opaline answered with a small, reassuring smile because she knew Leona was still worried about her. "Thank you."

The handmaiden gave the slightest of nods and then left the two alone, shutting the door behind her.

Opaline's gaze finally came to sit upon Vanault for the first time since he entered the room. In the same dark green jerkin outlined in silver, worn on top of his long-sleeved shirt of a lighter shade of green, he stood before her quietly. He held her cloak within his hands. "You left this in my room yesterday when you ran out," he softly explained, holding the article of clothing out for her to take.

Slowly, she removed it from his hands; she had forgotten that it was missing. "Thank you," she said after a moment's pause, smoothing out the cloak on her lap.

"Where did you go after you left?"

"Out."

"I'm not sorry about last night, Opaline."

"You made it clear to me that you wouldn't be, and I respect that."

"The mourning period has been over. It has been over for a season."

"That doesn't make my pain any less, Vanault. Nor does it justify you forcing yourself on me."

"Perhaps I should've used more restraint."

"Perhaps you should have."

The tension between the two friends was foreign and new to each of them. Never had things been so awkward or so harsh. Neither was comfortable with it, but neither was willing to back down, so the tension remained.

Once again, a knock came to the door. "Opaline?"

The High Priestess recognized her lover's voice almost immediately and was utterly thankful for his perfect timing. Of course, she couldn't exactly express how grateful she was with Vanault in the room. "Come in, General."

"Opaline, I was-" Animus cut himself short as he walked inside to see Vanault standing opposite from Opaline. He quickly hid his shock, and amended himself by using the proper honorifics. "High Priestess, excuse me." He bowed his head slightly. "Did I interrupt a private conversation between you and High Priest Vanault?"

Exchanging a glance with the older man, she shook her head, looking back to the general. "No, you did not, General," she answered curtly, lifting herself off the bed and unfolding the green cloak. She threw it on top of her dress, the velvet fabric settling upon her uncovered skin. "Was there something you needed?"

"The king-"

Vanault completely cut off Animus, knowing already what the young soldier was going to say. "The king had requested your presence in Royal Court."

Animus didn't dare glare at the high priest like he wanted to, but Opaline had no problem doing so. "I much would have rather heard it from him, High Priest," she almost growled at Vanault, emphasizing the use of his title.

Opaline's lover suppressed a grin that threatened to form across his lips. Though he hadn't been in the room when the priest and priestess were alone, he could imagine what had occurred between the two from the heavy tension that hovered ungracefully in the air. Yes, her fate was with the Wildzords, but that didn't stop her from fighting back and giving her fate a little help while she could. "He is correct, High Priestess," he affirmed Vanault's words, not so much supporting him as just agreeing with him on the facts of the matter. "I am to bring you to Royal Court."

Her suspicious gaze fell upon Vanault. "How do you know about this?"

"Before I came here, I went to talk with King Parn."

She didn't dare ask him why the king wanted her because she already knew, just like Animus already knew; she could read it in his hazel eyes. There was nothing either of them could do to stop it.

"Very well," she conceded, swallowing the fear that welled within her. No, she wouldn't let the fear overrun her. "Let's go. We shouldn't keep the king waiting."

***

"Sanctuary Priestess!"

Rai stopped in her steps and waited for the voice that had called out to her to catch up to her. Within moments, Opaline's apprentice was at the young priestess' side. "Good morning, Princess Shayla," she greeted pleasantly, continuing on her walk toward the Dining Hall.

"Good morning, Sanctuary Priestess Rai!" Shayla returned gaily, a smile ever-present upon her face; the young girl struggled from bursting outright into a fit of giggles.

Though her eyes were focused on some of the Virginal Does who were on their way to making their daily sacrifice to the Deerzord, the petite woman was quite aware of the girl's giddy state and grinned knowingly to herself. She knew exactly why Shayla had approached her in the corridor on the way to breakfast.

"Thane!"

At the calling of the handsome prince's name, Rai jumped, startled.

"Shayla!" Thane called out his sister who had evidently been the one to call out his name in the first place. The young woman watched in an unbelieving manner as the princess ran into the arms of her older brother, who stood only a few pillars in front of them.

It took a few moments before Rai completely recovered from the surprise and coincidence that the royal soldier should see fit to arrive just when she was thinking of him. "What are you doing here?" she questioned, inadvertently sounding much more accusatory than she had meant to.

Thane gasped, feigning hurt. He took a step backward, seeming to make a movement to leave. "Maybe I should leave; it's obvious that I'm not appreciated here."

"Please do, but do remember that I need Princess Shayla to remain on Sanctuary grounds before you go."

His eyebrows arched at Rai and a smirk appeared on his lips; he was very much impressed by her easy dismissal of him when he was so very sure she wanted the opposite. Setting Shayla down on the ground from where she had been perched in his arms, he bridged the gap between him and the Sanctuary Priestess. "As much as I would enjoy verbally sparring with you all morning, I have duty." His tone dropped significantly in loudness and he leaned closer to her to speak. "I actually was sent here by General Animus for the purpose of discussing what happened last night."

"Last night?" She tried to recall the night before, but the closeness of him brought on a headiness that nearly enveloped her. Wait, last night...last night she had been worried sick- "Oh! Last night." She knew she'd have to apologize to Opaline later for that slip.

Amused by the priestess' forgetfulness, the soldier smirked yet again. "Yes, last night. Is there somewhere private we could discuss this?"

Shayla monitored the conversation from a close position with vested interest. The Sanctuary Priestess was the only person she knew of that could keep up with her brother's sarcastic humor without becoming irritated or tired. Besides, she had seen the secret glances Thane had been sneaking at her mistress the day before. His attraction to Rai was more than obvious in his younger sister's eyes.

The older woman finally took notice of the Fawn with the mischievous glint in her eye. "Shayla, why don't you go the rest of the way to the Dining Hall by yourself? I'll be there in a little bit."

Caught red-handed, there was nothing else the girl could do but comply, so she did, heading off down the corridor.

Once she was out of sight, Rai quickly opened a nearby door and motioned silently for Thane to enter the dark room. A bit confused, he entered and she followed him, quietly shutting the heavy door behind them.

Looking around himself at his surroundings, he couldn't see a single thing in the pitch-black darkness. As he leaned against the solid brick wall, his vision adjusted slowly and he could make out Rai just across from him. "Why Sanctuary Priestess! I didn't realize you brought me to this dark room to seduce me! Had I known-"

"-you would've even more willingly entered the room," she finished for him, not allowing him to play off his innocent act; at that moment, the news of her best friend was more important than flirting.

She found the unlit torch in the corner of the room and easily alighted it with a spark of magic. With the light, Rai was able to focus on the prince's face about her. "Now, is the High Priestess safe?"

For a moment, Thane found himself mesmerized by the shadows of the flames that danced along the woman's face, caressing her sharp, beautiful features.

"Prince Thane, must I repeat myself?"

Thane quickly snapped out of his fascination. "No, no, you don't need to," he stuttered out slightly, recovering and returning his thoughts to the matters that needed to be discussed. "High Priestess Opaline is fine, yes. Apparently, she returned late last night and General Animus found her in her room."

"Where was she?"

"General Animus wouldn't say. He just said that she was exhausted and didn't want anyone to know where she had been."

"That doesn't sound like her."

"That doesn't sound like him, either," he stated, and when Rai looked at him with confusion, Thane explained. "Normally, if something like this would happen, he would insist on knowing exactly what happened and then would tell everyone involved the straight truth - not a single detail forgotten. But this time, he barely told Mave and I anything and then insisted we keep the incident to ourselves; there was no way we could question his orders, so we did it."

"Then why did you come here to tell me?"

"He told me to tell you to not say anything either. He doesn't want anyone to know what happened to the High Priestess."

"He's protecting her?"

"I can only guess."

***

Together as a silent group of three, Vanault, Opaline, and Animus approached the towering double doors that led into the Throne Room in which the Royal Court convened. Opaline tugged her cloak closer to herself, somehow hoping that it would be able to protect her from the words she knew would be issued in the court before all the nobles. Animus' arm tightened slightly at her elbow while Vanault's steadily calm hand remained at the small of her back.

A young soldier dressed in his uniform blues stood before the closed doors, a spear held upright at his side. "High Priest. High Priestess. General." Each person he recognized with a slight bow of his head.

"Announce us, please," Animus requested, his tone rather indifferent. "King Parn has requested our presence."

The soldier nodded obediently, turning to push open the grand doors and reveal them to the people within the room. Following the soldier, the three stepped inside and stopped just after the entrance as the young man announced them to the court.

"High Priest Vanault, High Priestess Opaline, and General Animus."

Once the soldier moved from in front of them, Animus was forced to drop Opaline's arm though he certainly did not want to; especially when Vanault failed to remove his hand from her back.

Walking down the aisle formed by the groupings of nobles on both sides of the room, the High Priestess struggled to keep her head high. All the nobles stared at her like she was a delicate figurine spun by the finest of glassmakers. She was rarely called into Royal Court, and when she was, it was always for something quite socially important. They were all aware of that, and so every movement she made fell victim to their overactive imaginations.

While looking around at the sea of faces, Animus' eyes caught his sister's and he stared at her in confusion. She must've been called back to the castle earlier that morning; otherwise, she wouldn't have been there. Ariene gave her brother a questioning look, and with that, Animus realized that she and the other nobles were probably as unaware of what was going to happen as he was supposed to be.

Vanault basked in the full attention that the entire room seemed to give him. With Opaline by his side, he would finally have everything he had ever wanted: a beautiful woman on his arm and the attention and respect he deserved. All the years that he had sacrificed himself for Opaline and for the Wildzords were coming to good use; he had given himself in order to one day get what he longed for.

When they arrived at the end of the aisle where the king's elevated throne was, the three of them easily fell to their knees in respect. "Rise," King Parn directed, acknowledging their gesture. They did as their king said and he nodded his head toward the dark blond. "General Animus, you may leave."

Though externally he kept his appearance calm, on the inside he became distressed. There was no way he would not be in the room when the king made his announcement. It was a good thing for him that Opaline chose that instant to speak up.

"My king, I would prefer it if General Animus remained," she requested confidently, her voice betraying the jumble of emotions that she felt. "He and I have important business we must conduct following this meeting."

King Parn considered the high priestess' words and gave her a curt nod. "Very well. If that is what you want, High Priestess, then I will not force otherwise."

"It is what I want, King Parn."

Finally, the king turned his attention away from the group of three to the occupants of the entire room. "You've all been called here on this morning to witness the rebirth of one of my favorite subjects. More than five years ago..."

Opaline quickly stopped listening to her king's warm voice at the mention of the five years. She couldn't believe that Ephane's death was being cheapened in such a manner. That five years after her husband's death she was to be reborn - reborn into what? The courting arena, where men could once again drool over her like pups with a bone in order to win her over? She was exaggerating, yes, but she couldn't help but feel that way with Vanault literally already licking at her. She could feel his gaze locked on her and his powerful magic aura trying to slowly blend with her own. She felt like she was being violated all over again.

Except if Vanault pursued her again, it would be with the blessing of King Parn.

She supposed that it was her penance for breaking the mourning period and hiding her passionate romance with the youthful Animarian general for two years. She would be forced into one futile courtship after another, none ending happily. Animus would try to officially court her, but she would always refuse; they would only be accused of desecrating the great Ephane's memory if they did.

Oh, how she loved and hated her position at the same time.

If she were a peasant, no one would care. She would be free to love whomever she wanted without hundreds of other people judging her along the way. If she was a peasant however, she would have never met Ephane or Animus - the two men who taught her what love truly was and that there was love after death. Either way, peasant or noble, she could never have everything that she hoped for.

Applause broke her from her thoughts and Opaline looked around the whole room to see everyone clapping. The king smiled down upon her benevolently and she found herself forcing a giddy smile onto her face to compensate for the overwhelming feeling of trepidation.

The congratulations applause continued as Vanault edged closer to her, comfortably wrapping his arm around her waist. "I love you, Opaline," he murmured softly into her ear, grinning madly.

Opaline's eyes darted around frantically at the warmth of the older man's voice until her brown eyes met up with Animus' hazel ones. With their eyes completely locked, she could see the disgust and pain swirling within his irises when no one else could.

He continued to clap and she continued to smile, both of their hearts breaking in unison.

***

"I know why the General was late this morning."

Merrick rolled his eyes at the sing-song tone of Ryden's voice and glanced over at Van, who just smirked. "You know, I'm thinking that maybe you should meet Misia."

Ryden gave Merrick a befuddled look, hefting his long staff - almost double the his height - in his hands; his other two friends also carried similar staffs. "Who's Misia?"

Merrick grinned wickedly, not at all weighed down by the heavy weapon as he was accustomed to it. "Misia is Princess Shayla's handmaiden; she likes to talk and gossip a lot. I know you'd like her."

Van immediately laughed at his friend's quip while it took Ryden slightly longer to register what the general's apprentice had meant. "Hey! I'm not a gossip, okay?!" the sandy-haired boy insisted, trying to brush himself of the mischievous label. "Besides, how do you know Princess Shayla's handmaiden?" Evidently, Ryden hit the mark with his well-placed words, as Merrick's cheeks and neck quickly reddened. "Anyway, I just happened to hear Trynim and Jaeth talking about it when you two were sparring."

Along with the forty or so other boys of their training regiment, the trio entered the stables and proceeded to head to the armory beyond the stalls of the horses. Once they reached the armory, everyone began to carefully pile the tall staffs into neat little pyramids along the two long, empty walls.

"Well, are you going to tell us what you found out?" Van urged, setting his own staff confidently at the top of the nearest pyramid.

"He was in Royal Court," Ryden easily blurted, happy to tell when someone wanted to listen. He set his own weapon down on the floor, beginning the base of yet another pyramid. "With your mother, Merrick."

Merrick didn't think anything odd of the two of them being in court together as Ryden obviously seemed to, indicated by the unbelievable tone of his voice. "So?" He set down his staff next to Ryden's and then moved out of the way so the next boy behind him could place his staff down. "Why were they in court?"

For a moment, the three were separated as they maneuvered their way through the room congested with boys and staffs. Eventually, they were able to regroup in the deserted stables, where they continued to walk back out into the courtyard.

"The king announced that High Priest Vanault is courting your mother."

Opaline's son suddenly stopped in his tracks, standing quite still at the entrance to the stables. His mother and the High Priest? She loved Animus, not the High Priest! The High Priest was just her friend, or so she told him. Had she lied all this time to Animus - to him, her son?

"Merrick?"

His blue eyes snapped out of the momentary trance-like state they had been in and he turned to face Van, who looked honestly concerned for the boy. "You okay?"

Merrick nodded quite eagerly, willing to do anything to rid himself of the incredible doubt that he felt within himself. Why hadn't she told him? She promised him that there were no secrets between them; in their world of two, there were no lies. Had she lied to him?

"Shouldn't you boys be headed to the library for your lessons with the High Priestess?"

"We are, General."

"We just put away our staffs, General."

Animus' apprentice looked toward him as he stood before the three boys still standing in the middle of the stables' large doorway, the other trainees shuffling around them and joking with one another. His eyes narrowed slightly as he stared up at his mentor. "How are you today, General?" he queried, quite sincere in his asking.

Animus arched his eyebrow at the seemingly peculiar question. He didn't doubt Merrick's earnestness, but was curious as to why he chose to ask that particular question at that time. The older man glanced at the other two boys in Merrick's presence and noted their discomfort at their friend's "strange" behavior. "I'm fine, Merrick, though I could be better. And you?"

"I could be better too," Merrick returned with a slight sigh, walking away from the general, his friends readily following suit.

The soldier didn't know what it was - whether it had been how he said it or the way he had appeared when he said it - but almost instantly, he knew what the prodigy had been trying to imply. He knew about what had happened to Opaline that morning.

All day, Animus had been trying to avoid thinking of what had taken place in Royal Court and had been failing miserably. He knew he had no reason to be jealous or to fear losing the love of his life to Vanault, and yet he felt both of those things acutely. There had to be a way to make everything all right - to make his love known for Opaline without the sneaking around and the hiding. Perhaps, maybe, once she rid herself of Vanault, he could officially court her-

"Animus!"

The young man snapped around to see a woman walking toward him from across the courtyard, passing the last of the training regiment, who were on their way to their studies with the High Priestess. Though it was fairly obvious from a far distance that the woman was a family noble in her cloak of bright yellow draped over her dress of the same intense color, he hadn't even needed that to recognize her; her voice was a comforting and familiar one.

He walked over to meet her halfway, sparing her the lengthy walk through the lush green grass. "I was wondering when you would find me," he snorted, already on the defensive and ready for her to yell at him. "I didn't exactly leave in the most appropriate manner last night."

Ariene shook her head at her brother, her arms folded across her chest. "No, you didn't," she agreed with him, taking a chastising tone for that instant, then changing over into one of genuine concern. "From what I could see this morning, you did your job quite well though; the High Priestess looked perfectly fine in Royal Court."

Vaguely recalling her being there when Mave told him about Opaline's missing status the night prior, he nodded his head. "Yes. It turned out that she just went to get some air in the city and ended up returning by herself later on." He paused, trying to play off the lie to the best of his ability with a smirk, but he had a feeling that somehow his sister could read through it. "I tell her all the time never to wander around in the city by herself, but she never listens; she's already done it two times-"

"She's the one, isn't she?"

Animus's brow furrowed, confused by her question. "What are you talking about?"

The younger Aerlyn pushed a little more, trying to get some sort of confession out of him; she had seen the way Opaline and him had interacted in court. There was a reason she knew everything there was to know about the family nobles; she prided herself on her ability to observe people. "Opaline was the woman you were talking about last night, wasn't she?"

Stunned, his hazel eyes went wild at her accusation, because in truth that was what it was; if anyone knew, they would be accused of breaking tradition and having no respect for Ephane's memory. "Are you kidding me?!" He laughed, putting a bewildered and incredulous spin on his reaction. "Opaline? She's the high priestess and my friend! Why would I want to propose to her?"

"Because you love her?" Ariene continued to hint, staring her brother directly in the eye and never breaking eye contact.

The dark blond was the one to turn his gaze away to look up at the window that belonged to the study where Opaline was teaching. Why was Ariene being so nosy all of a sudden? "Why do you insist that she is Opaline?" he insistently inquired. "I never mentioned the High Priestess at all last night; that is, until I had to rush off to find her."

She shook her head, a small smirk upon her lips. He was dodging her questions, but in a quite poor manner; Animus was never an incredibly skilled liar. "You seem to have forgotten who exactly you're dealing with, Animus," the petite blonde stated, lightly poking him in the center of his chest. "I am your sister. No, we did not spend our entire childhood together, but we spent enough of it together for me to know your mannerisms. You are lying to me. It is as simple as that."

Animus didn't bother to deny her claims. She did know him well, and she knew how badly he lied. He supposed it was something in his eyes that she could see better than other people. Whatever it was, he didn't really care at that moment. The last thing that didn't need to be confirmed to anyone - not even his sister - was that Opaline and him were carrying on an affair.

"There's nothing to be said, Ariene," he calmly stated in a firm voice. "Now, I must be going because I have people with whom I must speak."

As Animus strode away from her, she stood still for a moment before she decided to take a last chance on one more question. "What of the woman you spoke of last night?"

"She was never mine."

***

The food on the table before Vanault didn't seem appetizing to him in the least that evening. After struggling the entire day to focus on the Fawns, he simply couldn't focus on a simple thing like his dinner. The morning's events continued to spin in his mind, long after they had taken place; he found it all hard to believe, but he knew it was true.

Opaline was his. His to court, his to love, his to win.

"Don't tell me you don't like tomatoes tonight; I told the Does to especially make them for you!"

Sanctuary Priestess Rai retook her seat beside the daydreaming Vanault at the head table in the Dining Hall. Her light bronze hair pulled back into a tight ponytail for convenience, she peered curiously into the face of her superior. "Oh, Vanault," she teased, a grin growing upon her face as she noted his faraway gaze, "where are you?"

At her second attempt at communication with him, the high priest was pulled from his reverie and turned to focus on Rai, looking sheepishly embarrassed. "Sorry, Rai," he apologized, a light blush staining his cheeks. "Did you get what you needed?"

She nodded, tugging on the dark green cloak that was draped loosely over her shoulders. "You didn't answer my question," she pointed out, a wicked gleam in her dark eyes. "So, whom were you fantasizing about?"

Vanault became a bit more flustered, but didn't back down. "Why do you think it a person?" he challenged.

Rai drank from her goblet of water, looking around the room at the rest of the eating Fawns and Does before returning her attentions to the leader of the Clan. "I think that it is High Priestess Opaline because having known you for almost my entire life, I have never seen you as happy as you were today, announcing your courtship before giving us your blessing."

"Is it that obvious?"

"Very much so."

Both of them were silent for an instant, the other conversations that filled the room washing over them until together, they both broke out into a chuckle at each other's bluntness. As they calmed their laughter, Rai stared at her friend for a moment.

Vanault seemed more joyous and relishing of life than before. His devotion to the Wildzords was all that had occupied his days at one point, but obviously, it no longer did. Finally, he'd found joy outside of the Wildzords - not to say that they weren't important either; finding love was just slightly more important, in Rai's mind, than loving Animaria's protectors.

She leaned over and chastely kissed the once orphan boy on the cheek. "I'm so happy for you, Vanault."

He smiled genuinely back at her, his eyes shining. "I'm happy too."

***

"Leona told me I would find you here."

Merrick glanced up from where he sat at the foot of a small fountain at his mother, who towered above him. Behind her, the moon gleamed and seemingly formed a halo around her head. Her green cloak was pulled tightly around her body, the hem of her usual dark green dress barely peeking out from beneath it.

The young boy frowned as Opaline took a seat next to him. "I told Leona not to tell you where I was," he scowled, turning away from her and staring into the ever-flowing water of the fountain's pool.

Her brows furrowed in concern at her son's rejection of her. Had he already found out? "You forgot your coat." Her cloak opened and she pulled out a soft blue wool coat. "Leona was going to come out and give it to you, but I caught her before she did."

Merrick took the coat and set it aside on the grass. "I'm not cold." He continued to stare at his reflection in the clear waters, ignoring her.

For a moment, Opaline watched her son distance himself from her. All day, she had hoped that he wouldn't find out about Vanault from someone other than herself; she could only explain what was truly happening. However, with the way he was treating her, she knew he had found out. Gossip spread much too quickly through the castle.

"Did I do something wrong?" She joined him in his gazing at the water, looking at the reflection of his cross face.

With his movement away from the pool to turn his back to her, Opaline didn't need a verbal confirmation. His last action was his affirmative answer.

"Who told you?"

"Does it really matter?"

She sighed, shaking her head. "It doesn't."

"Why did you lie?" His voice was tentative as he pulled up random blades of grass, focusing on the little picture so that he wouldn't have to think so much about the big.

"I didn't lie to you, Merrick," Opaline replied, biting her lower lip gently. She threw her eyes up to the moon for a moment and smiled softly; she could somehow sense that Ephane was with her, helping her figure out what to say and how to explain the mess she had been roped into. "I never lied to you. I love Animus, but Vanault...well, Vanault claimed me first."

Spinning around to finally face his mother, Merrick looked at her, his innocent blue eyes filled with much confusion and hurt. "Claimed you?" he repeated, not understanding the concept. "How did he claim you?"

Opaline stroked his cheek in a comforting manner, wanting to take all of his pain away. "He asked King Parn's permission to court me since it's already been five years since your father's death." She hesitated on those last words, not quite willing to articulate them. "King Parn said yes; this morning he made it official in Royal Court."

"You don't love him!" Merrick insisted, his eyes narrowing angrily at the thought of his mother owned like a toy. "You should be able to choose!"

"I do choose," she returned, forcing a smile onto her face to hide the fact that she was on the verge of tears. His simple understanding of what was right and what was wrong tore at her heart. If only they could all see the world from a child's perspective of true innocence.

"How?"

"I chose your father." She turned to an example rather than an explanation, because she knew her explanation wouldn't be terribly redeeming in her son's eyes. All she could do was either like or dislike the man who courted her. That was her choice.

"You still love Animus?"

"Very much so."

"Why can't he court you? Isn't it okay now?"

Opaline suddenly stood up, and turned around so that she didn't have to look at Merrick and have him witness the tears tumble down her cheeks. "It's getting cold, Merrick. We should go back inside." She struggled to clear her voice, so that she didn't sound choked up.

Sympathetic for his mother's situation, Merrick nodded even though she couldn't see him. "Can I stay out here a little longer? I'll put on my coat."

A small smile spread across her lips at his request. "Only for a little bit. When I come to say goodnight, you had best be in your bed though."

"I will," he reassured her, his anger and frustration gone from the afternoon when he had first been told about her courtship. She had explained all that he needed to know from her; they had always been a family of few words.

With that, Opaline left the gardens to her son, who returned his attentions back to the pool where he watched the small ripples of water expand and run up against the wall of the pool.

***

Days passed drearily following Opaline and Vanault's announced courtship, and just as the High Priestess had predicted, the pretenses were kept.

Animus' and Opaline's interactions were limited to the bare minimum and strictly professional. Gone were their secret rendezvous and stolen kisses, but most certainly not at the choice of Animus. Every time he tried to bring up their personal relationship after a conversation about the training regiment or the upcoming Deerzord Festival, she would shut him down completely; she was pulling away from him and he hoped it was only due to the impending festival that kept her busier than ever.

The Deerzord Festival was never a favorite time of the year for the Animarian general, as the last remnants of the warm autumn weather faded away, allowing the cold to settle in and usher in winter; he despised the cold. The celebration of the Wildzord of the Clan lasted a full fourteen days, giving all Animarians ample time to fully celebrate their love for the Wildzords before giving in to the coming winter that would subdue their souls.

"The Virginal Does expressly are at the service of the Deerzord and throughout the coming festival days, they will be doing their part by presenting the Deerzord with great offerings for another year of protection from our Wildzords."

Animus leaned against the doorway that led into the study where within, Opaline continued to lecture to his boys about the Deerzord Festival. With her back to him, she was unaware of his presence; if she had known he was there, she would've insisted he leave as he was distracting the young trainees learning when in reality, he knew he was distracting her. Quietly, he took advantage of the moment and watched the beautiful woman pursue her passion with the young ones.

He thought she couldn't tell he was there and she could sense that in his confident gaze that followed her every movement. There was something about him - something quite magical - that allowed her to sense him, always at the very periphery of her own magical aura. He felt warm, safe, golden. At that instant, his aura was strong, yet yearning, and lonely. His desire was abated for the time being with the long, stolen looks he was able to take at these times.

As she answered a question Van asked of her, Opaline remarked in the back of her mind that she never wanted to keep Animus away and at bay. However, the rift was of necessity. She couldn't shake the touch of Vanault's aura from her own; his shadow followed her everywhere, a mere representation of the burdens she carried as a figurehead of her entire kingdom. The world literally rested upon her shoulders and she couldn't let it down. How-

"High Priestess?"

Opaline blinked, bringing her divided focus back together to concentrate on Van, who looked at her with a shocked face. "Yes, Van?" she replied with a nod, thinking nothing of his continuous questioning. That was before she glanced around the rest of the study to notice the entire regiment was looking at her with similar looks of surprise. "Van?" she prompted once more when he hesitated to answer.

Van fidgeted, trying to find the most appropriate way to phrase his next words. To his left, Merrick tried to hide his horror at his mother's actions. To his right, Ryden egged Van on to say something, fast. Finally, the boy explained himself.

"High Priestess, you called me Animus."

Almost instantaneously, Opaline blurted in a high yelp, "What?"

"Boys, I think that's enough of your lessons for today." Animus swooped in to the rescue, walking into the room and taking over control from the flustered woman. "You'll have the rest of the afternoon for study and practice before dinner tonight, so get moving."

The large group of boys slowly stood up and obeyed their general's orders, filing past him and Opaline and out the door into the hallway. The young man stood and watched each and every boy leave the room, and once they were left alone, he guided Opaline over to one of the recently vacated chairs to recompose herself.

Sitting down, she bent her head down to stare at the floor, a deep blush very evidently tingeing her neck and her cheeks. After a little while, she lifted her brown eyes to see Animus, who sat across from her, waiting. "Did I really say that?" she whispered, fearful of the truth that she knew she would hear.

"You did."

She glanced away, looking toward the shelves upon shelves of books on one side of the large study. "This can't be happening." She shook her head and stood up, pacing half of the room before coming to a stop in front of him. "Animus-"

"That is my name," he interrupted her serious voice with his teasing one.

She didn't even react to his jest, overlooking it completely. Opaline didn't dare even to talk about what she had said or why she had said it. She skipped over the deep emotional conflicts and stopped at the superficial level. "What are you doing here?" she finally questioned after an intense moment of silence, in which she considered carefully what she would say.

Slightly startled by her lack of address to the situation that had taken place, he didn't answer right away. "I came to talk to about Merrick, Van, and Ryden."

"What about them?"

"They'll be leaving in two days to go on their Hunts."

Opaline's concern immediately shifted from her own twisted state to that of her son and his friends. "Already? I thought that they weren't old enough."

Animus shook his head, knowing that she wasn't ready to let go of her son, but was going to have to. "They've all approached their third year in the regiment, Opaline. You know that. It's time for each of them to go on their Hunt."

"But they'll miss this year's festival..."

He smiled softly, as she returned to her pacing, but at a much slower rate. "That's the point, Opaline."

Silence fell yet again, but was broken when the mother spoke. Staring at her lover from across the room, she nodded her head, gently giving in, for once not willing to fight passionately to the bitter end. "I'll be going to the Sanctuary tonight to have dinner with Vanault. I'll go and pray to the Wolfzord for them as well."

Though he would never acknowledge it to her, Animus was wounded by her mention of her suitor. He shrugged indifferently, playing it off. "Good."

"Good."

***

"What are you doing here?"

Opaline felt a pair of hands slip around her waist, drawing her away from the altar where she had stood and stared at the statue of the Wolfzord. Vanault's breath brushed harshly against her ear, and once again, his dark green aura intermingled with her sea green one. She frowned slightly, safe, as he could not see her face in the darkened prayer chamber.

"How did you know I was here?"

He pressed a feather soft kiss to her neck, and she resisted the strong urge to shudder. "I was returning from the plaza after helping some of the Does carry some supplies in preparation for the Hunt sendoff tomorrow evening. I saw your guard standing just outside the sanctuary, and I figured you must've been in here."

"Do you know who is being sent off?" she queried, testing just how much he knew.

The woman could feel him as he shook his head. "No, I don't. I've been quite busy preparing for the Deerzord Festival." Vanault paused, grinning as he pressed his face into her dark hair. "You know how it is this time of the year. The entirety of Tribute will be flooded with outside travelers and nearly all of them will be coming to visit the Sanctuary. The older Fawns are used to the hustle already, but it is another matter entirely with the younger ones."

Opaline smiled to herself, for a moment losing herself in her memories of the short period of time she spent as High Priestess of the Clan. "The younger ones always get incredibly excited," she agreed, times of when she would find the groups of young girls and boys racing down the halls flashing through her mind. "They don't have the discipline or complete understanding of how important the festival is at their age..."

"...even when we may tell them over and over again," he whispered, finishing off her sentence.

The high priestess removed herself from his arms and turned to face him. "Why does it have to be this way, Vanault?" she questioned honestly, staring directly into his eyes, once again searching for answers. "You know I don't love you."

Her childhood friend was thoughtfully quiet, considering her simple, pleading words and taking in her forlorn expression. "Why must you make this so difficult?" he returned, licking his lips as he thought again. "If you let yourself, you can learn to love me."

She shook her head adamantly. "I don't want to be forced to learn to love, Vanault. No one forced me to love Ephane-"

"Ephane's gone, Opaline."

The sharp, stinging bitterness of Vanault's abrupt voice startled Opaline, causing her to step away from him. Her brown eyes narrowed on the man before her; she had never known just how much he disliked her former husband until that very instant when she saw his face contorted with anger and hate. "I'm returning to the castle." She voiced strongly, refusing to dine with him after his disgusting display of hatred for a man already dead.

Moving to walk away from him, she didn't even have a chance as Vanault wretched her arm and jerked her back to him. Burying his free hand into her hair, he brought her lips to his and harshly kissed her as she tried to pull away from him to no avail. "You are mine," he growled fiercely, squeezing her arm tighter as she whimpered slightly. "You belong to me. You will love me."

Utterly shocked by the complete change in her former friend's demeanor, she could not speak a word. She bit her lip painfully, not wanting to give her companion the satisfaction of seeing her cry at his harmful ministrations.

The High Priest of the Wildzord Clan glared at her for a moment longer, burning her with his fiery gaze. "Now, you can leave," he voiced lowly, releasing her arm and pushing her away.

Opaline didn't run out of the Wolfzord Sanctuary right away, but instead, struggled to recompose herself. Placing the hood of her cloak over her head, she hid her face from view, then proceeded to leave the prayer room and exit the supposed holy building.

Once he was sure that she had left him alone before the marble sculpture of the Wolfzord, Vanault allowed his anguish and jealously to ebb and collapsed to the ground, gasping for air.

***

The evening air was crisp, bringing with it the expectant winter winds. The darkened sky was exceptionally clear, every star blinking brightly in its given place and the moon near its halfway point. A few crickets' songs could be heard, filling the otherwise silent night.

Normally when it was cold, Animus could be found in Castle of Tribute keeping himself busy by splitting his time between King Parn, his men, and the High Priestess; he hated the cold. However, on that night, the general could be found not in the castle, but outside the castle walls in the never-ending, empty countryside.

Nearby, Fauna grazed in the darkness, quietly munching on the tall blades of grass that nearly reached her knees. The horse was quiet and respectful of Animus' need to come out into the middle of nowhere on the cold night. Animus knew she understood why he was there: to talk one on one with the horse's former friend.

Before Animus, Ephane had ridden Fauna. Fauna and his mentor had been the best of friends and had the best relationship. When Animus had been ten years, Ephane had taught him how to ride with Fauna. She had not liked the young boy at first - on the first ride, she'd bucked him right off - but she lightened up to him with a little coaxing on the part of Ephane. After his death, Animus took care of Fauna, and she eventually had come to treat him as well as she had Ephane.

"You know, Fauna, you're the second woman I've stolen from Ephane," he cracked with a somber smile. Fauna lifted her head from the grass and whinnied at him a scolding manner.

"I'm sorry. I know you don't like it when I'm all self-pitying," he remarked, turning his eyes away from the dark mare to his dark surroundings. "I'm not trying to be either, but I don't know any other way to be at times like this." He pulled his dark blue cloak around himself, shielding him from the blustery winds.

"Ephane," he began talking out loud to the stars, somehow hoping in some shape or form his mentor could hear him, "everything is going wrong down here, but I'm sure you probably already know that. Vanault is courting Opaline, and Opaline refuses to tell everyone the truth about us. She insists on ignoring everything that has happened, after saying that she was going to let the Wildzords lead her. She's spinning out of control and I feel like I can't stop or help her because she won't let me.

"Ephane, I know you watch over us, so if you could, please help us all. We need you."

***

"...Eaglezord, Lionzord, Wolfzord, Tigerzord..." Merrick trailed off, racking his brain for the select few noble family wildzords he was forgetting and when he found that he couldn't think of the missing animals, the young boy threw himself from his bed, frustrated with the memorization process.

Giving himself a short break from his studies, Merrick walked across his room to lean against the closed pane of his window. Though his room was already well-lit with a torch burning in the corner, he found himself inexplicably drawn to the clear moon in the dark sky. Glancing down into the courtyard below, Merrick saw his mother scurrying across the grass to reenter the castle; he was able to instinctively recognize her from afar, even when she was covered from head to toe.

If he remembered correctly from what Leona had told him, she was returning from her dinner at the Clan Sanctuary with Vanault. However, it was much too early for her to be through with dinner and Merrick wondered what exactly had brought his mother back so soon.

Opaline tried to hide it from him, but he could tell that his mother was deeply troubled; he could sense it. Her mistake of dropping Animus' name that afternoon when calling on Van had only given Merrick reason to believe in his mother's distressed mind. Two men occupied her every thought, pulled on every muscle in her body, vied for her attention and love.

If only his father were alive, things would be much simpler for her. He would take care of her and protect her because that was his role in her life; that role belonged to Animus now, but in his awkward position he could not do much of anything.

The Baliton boy's eyes drifted back up to the moon and soon his thoughts were traversing through unknown terrain, exploring the few memories he had of his long dead father.

"Come on, Merrick! Reach for the moon! Stand up and reach high for the moon, Little Wolf!

Ephane's voice rang faintly in Merrick's ears as his blue eyes remained focused on the half-circle shining radiantly in the sky. The memory was from when he was a baby, everything fuzzy but his father's encouraging voice. They were on a picnic, or was it a walk? It was at night, and they were trying to get him to stand up and walk. The wild grass had been tall, almost as tall as him; had he been scared? Had he even walked that night?

Merrick remembered the smoky air of another night. Before him, a fire blazed. Behind him, the howling of his mother's loud cries echoed in his ears...

"If you spend too much time daydreaming, you'll never have those Wildzords memorized, Merrick."

At the sound of his mother's scolding voice, the boy turned away from the window and returned to his bed where Opaline sat, smiling at him. "I thought you were supposed to be at the Sanctuary with Vanault?"

"I was," she replied easily, gently rubbing her arm beneath her cloak, "but he wasn't feeling well so I decided to let him rest."

"Will he be well for the festival?"

She nodded, then quickly went off on another tangent. "What were you thinking about at the window?" she questioned curiously.

Merrick glanced back at the window. "When did I learn to walk?"

Opaline's brow furrowed and she blinked, confused as to what his question had to do with anything. Nevertheless, she answered him. "You learned when you had about one year." Suddenly, the memory consumed her and Opaline fell willingly into its embrace, forgetting everything else. "It was early summer, just when it starts to get really hot. We would take walks almost every night outside the castle walls to tire you out because you could never get to sleep in the heat. One night, we were in the fields near the family house - you know, the ones near the small peach orchard - and I set you down in the grass." The high priestess giggled, remembering her son's innocent face scrunched with fear as the tall blades of vegetation surrounded him. "You got so scared because you couldn't see me or your father. You started sniffling, but as soon as your father started calling to you and encouraging you, you stopped and became determined to find us. He goaded you and goaded you with the moon, trying to get you to reach up and touch it." Gone were her giggles, replaced with solemnity. Her gaze was focused on the window, staring at the moon her son had looked at earlier. "Eventually, you stood up and when you saw your father standing just a few feet in front of you, you wobbled over to him and clutched his leg."

Her lips moved silently as she continued to muse privately on the memory. Ephane. Her lover. Her guardian. Her husband. Her friend. Why was he gone? Why did he have to be gone? She needed him to take care of her like he used to. To fix everything that was so wrong.

It seemed as if Merrick was reading her thoughts, because he reached over and took her hand into his own and whispered, "I'll take care of you Mother. I'll protect you. I promise."

She faced him and smiled gently with true sincerity. "I know you will." Opening her arms, she took her young son into her warm embrace and kissed his head. "Thank you."

No matter how much Merrick promised her or Animus tried, Opaline knew deep down that no one could protect her anymore and the painful bruise that grew upon her arm from where Vanault had pinched her told her so.

***

Books were tossed about. Pages upon pages of scorched notes littered the floor. Wooden chairs were slumped in a corner, completely shattered from their impact with the wall. Shards of glass covered the top of the bed from the broken windowpane he had created when he sent his hand through it.

In the middle of it all stood Vanault, calmly surveying the remains of his destroyed room.

Once he had been able to compose himself momentarily, the high priest dashed from the Wolf Sanctuary to return to the Clan Sanctuary and hid himself within the confines of his room. No one could see his weakness and shame; he had to regain control of his emotions. However, before he could do that he had to purge himself of the excess that already threatened to spill over the edge.

And so, Vanault unleashed himself on the room, allowing jealously to rise like bile in his throat and throwing it up in bursts of rage and fiery magic. With crashes and clatters that went unnoticed because everyone else was dining, he cleansed himself and came off his emotional spiral to return to normal.

All because of Opaline.

The woman had been his success and his downfall from the first day he had met her. She had been the one to teach him to feel and to love and yet, she was the one to deny him those very things as well. In a way, it resembled her talent to tell wonderful stories: she would draw her audience in, but by the end, always leave them wanting more. She knew how to draw people back, make them return again. She made them addicted. She made him addicted. He was addicted to her.

Accompanying a knock on his door, came Rai's voice. "Vanault?"

Vanault stepped across the mess he created to open his door just enough for him to peek outside at the Sanctuary Priestess without her being able to see in. "Yes, Rai?"

"I was just wondering where you had gone; I thought you and Opaline were going to be having dinner with us tonight."

"We were, but Opaline wasn't feeling too well, so I sent her back to Castle of Tribute to rest."

"Is she alright?" Concern for her friend outlined the younger woman's features as well as being heard in her voice.

He nodded. "She'll be fine. Just the usual stress from his time of year."

"How about you?"

"What about me?"

"Are you feeling alright? Maybe you should eat-"

Vanault smiled earnestly, thankful for Rai worrying about him. "Don't worry. I'm fine. I'm busy with some work for tomorrow right now, but I will come down later to eat, I promise."

She gave him a curt nod and returned his smile, satisfied with his answer. "You better eat or I will force you to," she warned playfully, shaking a finger in his face.

"I will!" he reassured, shutting the door and cutting himself off from the outside world once more.

His eyes stared once more at the chaos of the room around him. He definitely had some work to get done.

He had to apologize soon, before Opaline made her own assumptions. Vanault hadn't meant to hurt her, he had just kind of lost control. She had to see that everything was out of love for her; he lived his life for her.

In time, she would see that.

And they had all the time in the world.

***

Shayla was ecstatic. No, that wasn't the word to describe how she felt. She was beyond ecstatic. She wasn't sure if that was possible, but that was the exact way that she felt.

The night of the Hunt send-off had arrived and she was an escort for one of the three trainees that were being honored that night. Sanctuary Priestess Rai had even been nice enough to let her pick her trainee first.

And without a bit of hesitation, Shayla picked Merrick.

She arrived at the Wildzord Sanctuary as a Fawn three years prior, and not even once, had her fellow Fawns treated her like the Animarian princess. They always treated her like their friend and their peer, which was a refreshing change from being handled like a fragile doll by her father and the nobles of Castle of Tribute. So from the moment that some of the older Fawns had picked up on her pining over Merrick, she had never heard the end of it.

Her feelings for the young boy were a well-kept secret among the Fawns. Everyone knew, but no one really blabbered about it. They respected her feelings, even if some of them thought it a bit trivial that she believed she was in love with him at such a young age. She honestly believed in her love for Merrick however, no matter what they said. He had been by her side since the beginning, and she couldn't imagine loving anyone else.

"You're insane," a pretty black-haired girl commented, staring at Shayla as she spun around the room, her beautiful gauzy dark green dress fanning around her.

"I am not!" she insisted, then giggled slightly as she fell backwards onto her bed in the corner of the room.

Shayla's roommate shook her head, her dark hair brushing against her beautifully pale skin. "You are insane."

"No matter how many times you say it doesn't make it true, Meghana," the young princess retorted, sitting up on her bed and staring defiantly at the other girl across the room.

"I know, but I like to say it." The other girl broke into a grin, moving to join Shayla on her bed. "Looking forward to seeing Merrick, huh?" Meghana made little kissing noises, trying to embarrass the brunette.

Merrick's escort joined in on the grinning with her own wide and giddy grin. She wasn't in the least embarrassed. "So, what if I am?"

Meghana shook her head yet again at her roommate's lack of discreteness, smirking. "If you and Merrick don't get married when we're older, it will be a tragedy..."

***

"It looks quiet," Van commented as together with Merrick, Ryden, and Thane they approached the gates of the Wildzord Sanctuary. He turned around momentarily to look at the crowned prince. "Is it always like this, Prince Thane?"

"Actually, no," Thane replied, then realizing that he was probably the least knowledgeable person to answer the trainee's question. "At least, it hasn't ever been this quiet on the few occasions that I've been here."

"All the Fawns have already gone into the center of the city with High Priest Vanault." The heads of the four snapped toward the direction of the voice just in time to see Sanctuary Priestess Rai emerge from the shadows to step into the light of the torches framing the gateway opening. "Only the escorts, the Does, and myself are here."

"Good evening, Sanctuary Priestess," the three boys chorused, giving her an appropriate bow of the head.

"Good evening to you as well," she returned with a pleased smile as their group joined her at one of the torches. Her gaze fell upon Thane who silently stood behind the three boys, his hands behind his back and a smirk present upon his lips. "I wasn't expecting to see you, Prince Thane." She appropriately bowed her own head in his direction, mentally taking note of his well-dressed stature that night, which added to his handsome appearance.

"Yeah, well, I decided to take these three runts off Mave's hands and bring them here for him." Thane ruffled Ryden's errant blond hair and the younger boy quickly tried to fix it. "Can't have them missing a party in their own name."

Rai shook her head slightly at his teasing tone and allowed a small smile to grace her lips. "No, we can't have that," she retorted, indulging him yet again. "Come. The girls are waiting inside."

The woman started back into the Sanctuary and the four followed her down the outer halls of the building to eventually enter the Dining Hall. It would have been empty, except for the fact that the three young Fawns sat together at one of the tables in the middle of the room giggling with one another.

Merrick had not been looking forward to the Hunt send-off that night. It meant that he would have to leave his mother's side for fourteen days. He wouldn't be able to protect her like he should. Instead, he'd be wandering around in the Wolf Forest putting his training to use and proving himself to his elders. He wasn't terribly excited, but when he saw Shayla for the first time since seasonal recess, suddenly all those things flew right out of his head.

"Deidre, Meghana, Princess Shayla, could you girls please come here?" called Rai, waving them over.

The three girls quickly responded to the call and lined up in a neat row beside the priestess. "Now," the woman glanced at the boys and then the girls as the stood opposite one another, "Van, your escort shall be Deidre. Ryden, yours shall be Meghana. Merrick shall be escorted by Princess Shayla."

All three girls were clad in dark green dresses with long bell-shaped sleeves and a skirt that nearly reached the floor. Along the hem of their skirts, sleeves, and neck was an embroidered pattern of silver thread. Around their waists was a thick dark blue sash - the same color as the boys' tunics - the knot tying it off sitting on their right hip. Upon the right side of each of their necks, drawn in blue pencil, was the image of the Deerzord; Shayla also wore the Lion upon her neck, representing her family as well.

Never before had Merrick seen Shayla so beautiful. Yes, at every Feast of the Wolfzord he saw her dressed up and such, but it wasn't the same. Then, and at almost every other function he had seen her at, she was always donning the red of her family's Wildzord. She was fiery and bright. However, that night she looked completely different in the humbling dark green of the Wildzord Clan. The darkness of her clothing contrasted with the brightness of her face, and for the first time, he found his blue eyes drawn to her childish beauty and not the intensity of her dress.

"Shall we go?" Thane offered his arm to the Sanctuary Priestess in a purposely over-gallant manner.

Rai smiled widely at him, and took his arm without hesitation. "We shall."

Echoing the soldier's movements, the boys offered their arms to their respective escorts and together, the eight of them began to leave the Sanctuary to head into the center of the city where the send-off was being held.

Shayla felt a flush rise in her cheeks as she clutched Merrick's arm that he had offered. She would never tell Merrick that she was in love with him. No, she didn't want to scare him away. But there were times when she found it hard not to tell him, and this moment was one of those times.

As the walked out the gates into Tribute's streets, he leaned over and whispered, "Shayla?"

"Yes?" The princess felt her heart beat a little faster as he addressed her without her title, something quite common between them as friends, but still thrilled her.

"I'm glad you are my escort tonight."

"I'm glad I am too."

***

The center of Tribute was abuzz with activity as it appeared that everyone was there for the Hunt send-off that night. The streets were crowded with vendors selling delicious Animarian foods and musicians filling the air with their lovely music. The decorations of the beautifully built buildings in the center alone were enough to illustrate the importance of the festivities and torches everywhere illuminated the area on the cool night.

"A success, isn't it?" Vanault whispered into the shell of Opaline's ear, coming up from behind her.

The woman jumped, startled by his appearance. She took a moment to recompose herself before replying, "I didn't even notice you." Opaline had been so preoccupied with visually watching out for him and avoiding him completely, she had failed to even notice his approach with the strength of his magical aura.

Just as the dark-haired man slipped an arm around his companion's waist, a few nobles passed by, eyeing the couple with knowing glances. Opaline blushed in horror at their peeking gazes while Vanault simply grinned at the group. "Don't be embarrassed, Opaline." He continued to whisper, stroking her flushed cheek lightly with the back of a finger. "Everyone knows that I love you."

"No one knows that I don't love you," she hissed back at him, turning her cheek away from his petting. As the high priestess lifted her chin defiantly to snub him, her brown eyes met hazel and she couldn't tear her eyes away from Animus'; he was supposedly involved in a conversation with a few of his men, but she knew better as his gaze wouldn't leave hers.

She felt the darkness of Vanault's green aura grow stronger as he took a hold of her chin and forced her to look at him. "You will learn, Opaline," he murmured, quiet but forceful, and then stole a chaste kiss from her lips. "I will make you see."

Opaline's eyes went wide. It was like they had never had their conversation the night before in the Wolfzord Sanctuary. Except that she knew that it had happened; the large welt upon her arm beneath the long green sleeve of her dress was her proof.

She stared into his clear blue eyes, trying to find a semblance of the boy she had befriended as a young child, but nothing was there to indicate that he had ever been there. A deep passion, a need, a want, anger. That's all she could see. "Vanault, why have you changed so?" Despite her better judgment, she reached out and cupped his cheek, not quite believing that that shy, gentle, and sweet boy no longer existed.

"You changed me," he answered hoarsely, her touch temporarily dousing the fires of anger raging within him. "You-"

"Ahem."

Vanault and Opaline turned away from one another to face the person who had interrupted them. Animus.

The beautiful priestess found herself at a loss for words as she stared at Animus standing there, a wounded look in his eyes. He refused to look at her, directing his gaze entirely at the High Priest. "High Priest?" His tone was cordial, and yet very strained.

"Yes, General?"

"My boys have arrived along with Prince Thane and Sanctuary Priestess Rai. Are you ready to begin the send-off?" Glancing behind Animus, Opaline could see her son and his friends a ways off with their escorts.

Merrick stared directly at her and looked quite horrified, as did Shayla.

"High Priestess, are you ready?"

Opaline looked back toward Vanault, who had asked the question. "What?"

"Are you ready to begin the Hunt send-off?"

She glanced quickly back at her son, who was no longer staring at her, but had turned his back to her completely. The brunette felt as if she was on the verge of tears, but maintained her outer composure for the sake of her appearance. Appearance at a festivity like the send-off was key.

"Yes," she replied with a nod of her head. Honestly, she wanted to answer "no," but that certainly wasn't the appropriate answer. "I think we're all ready."

***

"With the annual coming of the Deerzord Festival, we send out a few of our most prized boys into the wilderness to prove their worth, not only us, but to themselves as well. This year is no exception-"

"Don't be mad with her, Merrick."

The young boy's attention was torn from his mother's speech to the crowd of people that had turned out for the send-off to Shayla, who sat at his feet; he sat in a raised chair along with Van and Ryden, behind the speaking High Priestess and the General, while their escorts also rested at their feet. "Mad with whom?" Merrick whispered, leaning down to hear the princess.

"Don't lean down. It looks like you're not paying attention to your mother and is rude," she told him in a hush voice. "Just whisper normally, I'll enhance your voice and mine."

He nodded his head slightly, sitting back up and watching out of the corner of his eye as Shayla produced a small ball of light in her hand, concealing it behind the folds of her skirt. "Can you hear me?"

The princess' voice resounded in his ears, much more prominent in his hearing than his mother's own loud voice. "Yes." He replied, placing his hand on his chin to hide his mouth from everyone else's view. "Mad with whom, Shayla?"

"Don't be mad with your mother. I can sense your anger."

"So I am, and I have every right to be, Shayla. You know the entire story."

"Somehow, I don't think that we know the entire story, Merrick." She paused for a moment when Ryden's name was announced as he stood up to have General Animus speak about him, and then continued. "I think she's trying to protect you."

"She needs protection more than I do!" He insisted, still talking with Shayla, but turning to look at Ryden like everyone else. "I don't need her protection; I'm fine!"

"Just don't be mad at her, Merrick."

"I hate seeing her with him. I feel like she lied to me."

"She told you she didn't lie." Again, the Fawn stopped talking as Ryden sat down and Van was announced. "Isn't that enough?"

"I believe her, but every time I see her with the High Priest, it disgusts me."

"High Priest Vanault is not bad man."

"That's not the point, and you know that. She says she has a choice, but as I watch her everyday, it seems more and more like she doesn't really have a choice at all."

"It's like she's being tossed around like a ball?"

"Yeah. I guess so." This time, Merrick paused as he could hear Animus nearing the end of his speech for Van. "Hey, Shayla?"

"Yes?"

"How'd you learn that trick with our voices?"

Merrick's name was spoken aloud, and just as he rose from his seat, Shayla answered with a small smile, "Your mother taught me."

With her last words, Shayla crushed the glowing magical light in her fist, breaking their connection.

***

Early the next morning, in a small group, Animus, Mave, Thane, Van, Ryden, and Merrick gathered together just outside the city walls on the main road that lead to the nearest village. The boys were ready to leave as were the three soldiers, but they still waited for one person.

"Are you sure she's supposed to be here?"

Animus, who was standing beside Fauna, had bee looking out into the slowly lightening horizon when he snapped his head around in surprise. "Merrick, she's your mother!" All three boys fidgeted slightly, a bit uncomfortable as Animus scolded his apprentice. "Of course, she's supposed to be here!"

Merrick's lingering anger had been stirred up from the night before, and he bitterly retorted, "Why do you always take her side? She certainly hasn't given you any reason to trust her as of late!"

Both Van and Ryden gaped at their friend unbelievingly at his words. He had talked back to General Animus! The two trainees prepared themselves for Animus' powerful anger to be released. However, when nothing happened, they looked up to see the three soldiers staring at the son of Ephane - or more precisely, beyond him - each having a face painted with shock.

Turning around, the two boys found themselves a mere arm's length from High Priestess Opaline's dark green skirt. "Good morning, High Priestess," Van and Ryden blurted out in unison, giving her a quick bow of their heads without even daring to glance upwards into her face.

"Good morning, boys," she replied politely, a small smile gracing her lips for them. However, the three older men could see Opaline's face and it in no way was happy. She appeared as if she had been physically stabbed by the words of her own son.

Just then realizing that his mother must have been standing behind him when he made his last comment, Merrick felt his entire face and neck flush with shame. He hadn't meant what he had said about her to Animus; it was just so easy to become frustrated. He bowed his head, mortified and not wanting to see the look on Opaline's face.

As a momentary awkward silence fell over the seven of them, it was left up to Thane to break it. "Good morning, High Priestess Opaline," he greeted with a smile, moving from his horse to join her at her side and kiss her cheek like the loving surrogate son he was. "We're very glad you could join us this morning."

"Thank you, Thane," she returned, affectionately reaching up to stroke the prince's cheek with her hand. "Last night's festivities proved a bit draining for me; I'm sorry to have kept you all waiting."

"Not a problem, High Priestess," Mave assured her, keeping an arm swung around the back of Marron. "We weren't planning on leaving until you arrived."

Opaline nodded at the Animarian captain, then turned around to face the three boys lined up in a row: two looking up at her, eagerly attentive, while the third continued to turn away from her; she took no offense to Merrick's odd behavior, sensing the powerful shame emanating from him. "This morning I have just come to wish the three of you the best Hunt possible," she explained. "I have already gone to the Wolfzord and prayed for you to be successful, and now, the rest is all up to you. Please, find your way back home soon and come bringing new experiences to add to your knowledge and to utilize in your education." Bending down, she kissed Van's forehead and then Ryden's before stopping at Merrick.

Taking a cue from Animus, the two quickly joined the three soldiers and began to prepare to mount the horses.

The priestess kneeled down on her knees before her son, not casting a moment's thought to the mess she was making of her cloak and dress. She placed her motherly hands on Merrick's shoulders, making him aware of her presence, but not forcing him to face her. "I'm not upset with you," she promised him with a soft murmur. "Believe it or not, I understand what is going through your head right now. You don't know what to believe: my actions or words. And since you see me do things more often than anything else, it's easy to believe in my actions." She paused, moving her hand to momentarily stroke his hair affectionately. "Don't. You can't believe everything you see, Merrick. In our world - our society - not everything is painted in black and white. Not everything we do is right and not everything we do is wrong, sometimes it is in between." Opaline blinked furtively, trying to hide the tears in her eyes. "Believe in me. Believe in the love I have felt for you since the moment you were born. You know my heart better than anyone else; you can make the judgment as to whether I am lying to you or not - whether I am purposely hurting you and Animus.

"I know you probably don't understand what I'm asking of you, but just try to understand. It will make sense as you become older, and going on this Hunt is the first step to your growth." Tenderly, she kissed the top of his head while sending up one more silent prayer to her dearly beloved Wildzords. "Now, go on." She let go of him and stood up, moving out of the way. "Come back to me soon."

At his mother's insistence, Merrick grabbed his sack of supplies and swung them onto his back. With the help of Animus, he mounted Fauna in the same manner that Van had mounted onto the back of Marron and Ryden had mounted onto Thane's young auburn filly, Pence. The boy turned back for a moment to steal a glance at his mother, unshed tears in his clear blue eyes.

Animus also was looking back at Opaline, hesitating on whether to ride up to her and say something; he hadn't uttered a word since her arrival. Just as he was about to head Fauna in the woman's direction, the brunette met his gaze and shook her head, instead motioning him off with a small wave of her hand.

The decision made, the young general easily pushed Fauna forward into a light gallop, Mave and Thane following his suit and taking them all further and further away from Tribute's outer walls.

Opaline stood there for quite some time, watching their silhouettes fade off into the ever-brightening horizon. Tears quietly dribbled down her cheeks and a queasiness rose within her, forcing her to retch right then and there in the tall grass.

She struggled to regain her composure, coughing. She couldn't consider the ridiculousness of her situation, as everything was spinning insanely out of control around her. Was this the way her Wildzords intended for her to suffer? Were they not going to save her and the ones she dearly loved?

The idea made her sick to her stomach once more, and she retched yet again, wringing her fears out of her.

Legends Of Animaria: The Story