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Forbidden

Morning swept over Tribute and Shayla found herself awakening from her deep sleep; soft rays of sunlight fell upon her face and a cool breeze brushed against her cheek. She rubbed her bleary brown eyes and yawned, stretching her arms above her head. Oh, how she wished it still were the night before - the night of the Hunt send-off. Spending all that time with Merrick was a dream come true. No matter what they talked about-

"Shayla! You must get up and look at this!"

The princess turned her head on her pillow to glance over at Meghana, who leaned her head eagerly out the window and watched over the courtyard. "No wonder it got cold in here," she mumbled sleepily, sitting up and allowing her bare feet to step on the cold floor. Shayla dragged herself over to where Meghana stood and peeked slightly out the window.

The sun had not even reached its pinnacle point in the sky, and yet, the courtyard was nearly overflowing with visitors. Nobles, merchants, and peasants alike milled around in the open area within the walls of the Wildzord Sanctuary; all were waiting for their turn to enter the Deerzord Sanctuary and give their prayers to the wildzord of the Clan. Among the crowd of gathered people, the girls could see specks of green scattered about: the Virginal Does greeting and conversing with people - the one time of the year that they associated with the population outside of the Clan Sanctuary. In the middle of it all, the smaller Deerzord Sanctuary stood above the crowd, smoke rising from a hole in the roof that indicated that the prayer fire had been lit.

"Every year it's so amazing," Shayla breathed quietly, much more awake than she had been just a few moments ago.

"No matter how many times I see it, I don't think I'll ever get tired of it," Meghana commented, placing her folded arms on the windowsill and resting her chin upon them.

"Good morning, Shayla!"

Shayla turned to her left and saw that the majority of Fawns on the second level of the North Wing with her were staring out of their windows at the spectacle below. "Good morning, Liam!" She waved at the Fawn who had called out to her; his window was right next door to her own.

"Did you enjoy last night with Merrick?" the dark-haired boy asked teasingly, leaning out his window in her direction.

The brunette giggled at the question; she was sure to be asked it at least ten more times that day. "As a matter of fact, I did!" she stated quite proudly, grinning at her fellow Fawn.

Before Liam to could offer his retort to her response, Sanctuary Priestess Rai appeared in the courtyard just beneath their windows. "You all know better than to be leaning out from your windows; go into your rooms and get ready for breakfast!" she chided them, her voice barely reaching their ears.

With giggles and snickers, the group of Fawns retreated into their rooms, already enjoying the festivities that the Deerzord Festival brought around every year.

***

Confrontation was never Ariene's strongest suit.

So it baffled her as to how she had ended up standing before the door to High Priestess Opaline's room, her hand poised to knock upon it.

She was always more comfortable observing people from a distance. She'd never interfere; she'd always let them discover what she already knew on their own. She believed that they would never learn if she shoved it all in their face. Yet, ever since Animus had declared his intention to present the family engagement necklace to the woman he loved, Ariene felt like all she had been doing was confronting people. Granted, she only had faced Animus on the day of Vanault and Opaline's courtship announcement, but it had taken her awhile to gather the nerve to deal with Opaline following him.

If Opaline was Animus' beloved, then what was she doing in a courtship with Vanault? Every time Ariene has seen the new couple together, they seemed to be quite absorbed in one another, especially at the Hunt send-off the night before. Since her new courtship, Opaline had conversed with Animus on a limited basis and always about work, as far as she could tell. Besides, having had a relationship with Animus would mean that Opaline - the High Priestess of Animaria - had broken the mourning period, and the young Aerlyn could not imagine that ever happening.

However, her brother was a terrible liar, and that she knew for certain. And while everything she had viewed with her own two eyes appeared to lean toward her believing Animus' horrendous attempt at hiding something from her, Ariene still felt the need to approach Opaline and see if she could find the real truth in the woman's answers to her questions.

Reluctantly, Ariene allowed her fist to fall on the door and made three soft knocks. The young blonde woman waited awkwardly, her fingers delving and busying themselves with the folds of her pale yellow skirt.

After a few moments, the door finally opened and the High Priestess appeared in the doorway. "Lady Ariene?" Opaline voiced in surprise, staring at her. The two women had only met each other in passing a whole three times, and the brunette certainly hadn't been expecting a visitor that morning; Ariene was certainly the person farthest from her mind.

"May I come in, High Priestess?" the noblewoman requested, with a bow of her head in respect.

Still slightly disoriented by Ariene's sudden appearance, Opaline blinked slowly and then nodded her head. "Yes, please do come in." She ushered the younger woman inside and shut the door once she had entered the room.

As Ariene turned to face Opaline, she took note of the woman's gaunt face and tired eyes. "Are you alright, High Priestess?" she questioned, very much concerned for her welfare.

"I'm fine," Opaline quickly assured with a small smile that only seemed to pronounce her fatigued features. "I just had to go earlier this morning to see my son and his friends leave for their Hunt; sleep has been escaping me as of late." She paused, switching her stance in the conversation by questioning Ariene. "What brings you to see me?"

Animus' sister swallowed hard, preparing herself. She then opened her mouth and said, "I actually came to speak to you about my brother, General Animus."

Opaline, who had moved to take a seat at her dresser, immediately felt something inside her snap at the mention of Animus. It seemed she couldn't escape him, even if he was nowhere near her. "What about him?" she replied casually, though she put herself mentally on-guard.

Ariene waved toward the bed. "May I sit?" Opaline nodded easily, and she took a seat on the High Priestess' freshly made bed. "You work closely with Animus, don't you?"

"Of course." The older woman kept a steady eye on Ariene, watching her in hopes of somehow figuring out her motivation for speaking with her.

"Do you know if Animus has been courting anyone recently?"

It took everything she had in her, but the High Priestess was able to contain her shocked reaction to the blonde's answer. To hide her surprise, she chose to be incredibly proper and polite about Animus's "personal" life. "I mean this in the politest way possible, Lady, but I don't see how that is any of your business."

Not a single flinch, Ariene noted as she also examined every little part of Opaline's face, searching for some reaction. And she was polite about it, not nosy! The Aerlyn woman planned her next words out carefully, not yet ready to completely give up on her suspicions. If Opaline didn't react to her next words, then there was certainly something she was hiding. "My brother wants to give our family engagement necklace to a woman whom he refuses to name."

"Really now!" Opaline exclaimed, knowing that if anything Ariene would be expecting her excited reaction. However, on the inside, she was becoming nauseated once again. Animus had been going to give her an engagement necklace? "He didn't even tell me! Animus and I haven't been able to talk much as of recently since he's been preparing my son for the Hunt and I've been busy with the Deerzord Festival. I wish he had told me." Her last sentence was the only genuine thing she had uttered throughout the entire conversation, as she honestly wished that she had known his intentions before she had gone about pushing him out of her life.

The guilt welled within her and quickly mixed together with the nauseous feeling in the pit of her stomach, overwhelming her with a dizziness that would've toppled her over had she been standing. She couldn't take it anymore; this conversation had to end. "Lady Ariene, could you please leave?" Opaline forcefully asked, not as polite as before because of the urgency of the matter.

Ariene was startled by the sudden, abrupt request, but respected it like she did all things coming from the High Priestess. "Of course, High Priestess," she accepted, heading to exit the room.

Opaline stood up to accompany her to the door, but before she could even take one step forward, the dizziness that had overcome her threw her to ground, dousing her world in darkness.

***

Fauna galloped happily through the open fields, Animus barely leading her as she sped through the beautiful, wild Animarian countryside. Both the mare and her rider relished the cool wind in their hair and the sun shining directly on them, as the chances to do something so simple as run around during the day were few and far between.

Unlike the pair, the boy riding behind Animus had no time to enjoy the scenery outside of the city. Merrick was far too absorbed with the words of his mother, though she had spoken them to him hours ago.

"You know my heart better than anyone else..."

That was true. Merrick knew her heart like his own because they shared one another's lives so completely and fully. That was until she started hiding things. Like why Vanault, and not Animus, was courting her. Yes, their relationship was forbidden once before, but the mourning period was over! They could be together, or that was the way Merrick saw it. All he simply wanted was true happiness for his mother, for as far back as he could remember it seemed to have eluded her. He knew Animus could give that to her - only Animus. What she was doing with Vanault was beyond him; no matter how nice he was or who he was, he could not give his mother what she needed.

The slowing of the wind against his face brought Merrick into an awareness of his surroundings and a realization that Fauna was falling out of her gallop. As Animus' gentle tug on Fauna's reigns dictated, the black mare trotted toward a small grove of trees at the bank of a small stream. "We're taking a little break," Animus remarked just as she stopped in the shade of the grove of trees, answering Merrick's unvoiced question.

The Animarian general allowed Merrick to jump off the back of Fauna first before sliding off her himself. Freeing the reigns from his loose fingers, Animus gave his horse a good, strong stroke along her back before pushing her off and watching her head toward the stream to grab a drink.

After walking towards one of the large trees to settle himself at its base, Animus shifted his look from his dear friend to his lover's son. He continued to stand in the same spot that he had when he dismounted from Fauna, staring blankly out into the sunny meadow they had just crossed. He was troubled, Animus knew, by what Opaline had said to him. It was only a matter of time before he spoke up and vocalized his concerns.

"How can you stand it?"

"Stand what?"

Merrick's pure blue eyes met Animus' knowledgeable hazel eyes and held his gaze. "How can you stand that my mother is with another man?" He began calmly, and yet, a momentary anger bubbled up within him and he could not hold it back. "A man that cannot bring her any happiness!"

"I know she loves me; I do understand that." It was quite easy to say, but Animus still struggled to convince himself of those very words. "She is doing what is demanded of her by her people; I cannot stand in the way of our society's demands."

The calmness in the older man's tone did something to quell Merrick's own frustration. "Even if it is at the cost of her happiness?" His face was open, innocent, and fearful, honestly expressing his worries about his mother.

Animus hesitated to respond to the question, not completely sure as to how to answer it. However, before he could begin to explain, Merrick beat him to the punch.

"Mother said that not everything is in black and white," Merrick informed, recalling her powerful words of that morning yet again. "Does that have anything to do with you not stopping her?"

The blond man was a bit surprised by the Baliton boy's words, having not expected Opaline to say something quite so blatant to him, but nodded his head to confirm the child's suspicions. "Come here." Animus motioned for him to come sit beside him against the tree trunk.

Merrick joined him, taking a seat on one of the large roots that rose just slightly from beneath the grassy ground and watching his mentor attentively.

"Your mother cares about many people: the Animarian people, King Parn, your father, me, and most of all, you." Animus reached out and patted Merrick's cheek in an affectionate manner. "She loves us all dearly, and because she cares for us so deeply, sometimes she has to give up certain things she may want for herself, to keep us happy and safe."

"Like her happiness with you?"

The soldier smiled at the simplistic phrase that summarized everything he and Opaline shared. "Yes, even her happiness with me."

Taking a moment to think about it, Merrick then replied, "But you aren't happy, are you?"

Slightly embarrassed by the boy's finding of the hole in his own mother's logic, Animus ducked his head, focusing his eyes on the ground. "No, I'm not happy." He shook his head. "But I am safe, and that does matter to your mother. Besides, you are safe-"

A sudden ominous feeling passed over Animus and he stopped in mid-sentence, trying to figure out exactly where it had come from. Quickly, he looked all around, making sure there was no present danger. There was none, and just as soon as it came, the strange feeling was gone.

"Animus?"

"Hmm?" He returned his attention to Merrick, who appeared a bit confused by the man's unexpected shift in focus.

"She's not hurting us on purpose, is she?"

"No, she would never do that; she's trying to take care of us. She'd rather sacrifice her own life just to save ours..."

***

Shayla hated being cooped up.

So, there was no question that she was just nearly about to go insane near the end of the day, after having been assigned to read an entire volume on the origins of the magic of the Wildzord Clan by none other than the High Priest himself; his way of keeping her busy while the real activity went on outside. Even with the gradual shortening of the days with the onset of winter, the ancient writings dragged on lengthening her time spent in the library by quite a bit.

"Done!" the royal Fawn exclaimed finally, slamming the old book shut and jumping up from the table where she had been sitting.

Returning the book to its place on one of the many shelves against the walls of the room, Shayla quickly scurried from the library in hopes of catching sight of a few straggling pilgrims before darkness completely fell over all of Animaria. Her wanting to watch people flow into the courtyard was a little odd, but she loved it. She could always so clearly see upon their faces, in their postures, what brought them to the Sanctuary to seek out the Deerzord and ask for his blessing. Their devotion and belief in the Wildzords stirred her own love for them; to Shayla, it was a glorious feeling.

The princess skipped down the staircase leading from the second level of the North Wing, and she had almost exited the building when she saw Misia suddenly appear in one of the doorways, looking utterly distraught.

"Misia!" She ran over to her handmaiden, looking worriedly up into the older woman's haggard face. "What happened, Misia? Why are you here?"

"Princess!" Misia acknowledged the girl's presence with a quick bow of her head, and then kneeled down to her height. "Have you seen the High Priest? Do you know where he is?" Her tone was definitely harried as she struggled to remain calm.

Shayla's concern only grew at the woman's forceful questioning. "No, I have not seen him and I don't know where he is," she replied slowly, staring Misia directly in the eyes and trying to read what was going on; it was more than obvious that she wasn't going to tell the young girl. Yet, she tried to ask again. "Tell me what is going on, Misia!"

The servant turned her gaze away from the girl and rose to stand up. "Nothing that you should worry about, Princess," she insisted firmly, a momentary calmness overwhelming her in the midst of her frenzied state.

She was about to walk away from Shayla to go on her busy search for High Priest Vanault once more when he found her instead, descending the stairs that Shayla had just skipped down moments before. "Oh, High Priest!" Misia called to him, a sigh of relief and the respectful bow of the head following her words. "I have been looking for you!"

As the woman moved off to meet the dark-haired priest at the bottom of the stairs, Shayla stood quietly in the doorway, listening in on the conversation even though she knew it to be wrong. Everyone chose to handle her with care simply because she was the princess of the kingdom, refusing to tell her the important things. She hated that, especially when it was obvious that there was something seriously wrong.

"What do you need from me?" Vanault queried, looking slightly annoyed as he had obviously been headed somewhere with a book under one of his arms.

"It's High Priestess Opaline!"

"What about her?"

"She fell ill this morning and has been unconscious ever since! Leona - her handmaiden -, Lady Ariene, and I have been watching over her-"

"Why didn't you call me earlier?"

Shayla was certain that Misia couldn't feel Vanault's anger and fear upon hearing of the news of the High Priestess' condition, but she could. The dark green of his magical aura grew even darker until it was almost black and expanded around him two-fold. She'd never felt that kind of raw magical energy; it was magnificent and frightening all at once.

"The High Priestess does not like to burden herself onto others, so we decided to wait until she woke up for her discretion on the matter. However, she's now started thrashing in her sleep and screaming your name, High Priest. We didn't know-"

"What of any Healers?" Genuine concern wore on the face of the Wildzord Clan's leader. "Did you not call even one?"

"She despises Healers, High Priest; you know that."

"So I do." Vanault momentarily hesitated, glancing down at the book under his arm, but then turned to see Shayla standing shyly in the doorway. "Shayla, come here please."

Shayla nodded, walking towards her teacher at his request.

"Take this," he handed her the book that he had been holding, "and take it back up to the library, please."

The young, brown-haired girl shifted the heavy book in her arms, clutching it to her chest. "Of course, High Priest."

Stepping aside to allow the Fawn to ascend the stairs once more, Vanault began walking out of the building. When he realized that Misia was still standing at the foot of the staircase, a bit bewildered by her retelling of the condition of Opaline, he turned around and motioned to her. "Come. You're going to take me to her."

Having stopped about halfway up the flight of steps, Shayla watched below as Misia anxiously led Vanault out of the North Wing of the Sanctuary to the girl's ailing mentor within the walls of Castle of Tribute. No wonder Misia refused to tell her; she was now twice as worried as before and upset by the news that she had overheard. She wished she could see Opaline, in hopes that she could somehow make the High Priestess better.

Shayla sighed deeply, hefting and adjusting the large, black book again in her arms as its heaviness was a bit uncomfortable. Her mind was so wound around the information that she had just learned that she failed to notice the nearly faded, gold writing on the outside cover.

The Animarian Dark Ages.

***

"You ready?" Animus turned to look back at Merrick in the darkness.

The young soldier-in-training shrugged. "I'm ready, I guess," he replied, somewhat unenthusiastically.

The blond man shook his head at boy and grinned privately to himself. "You could show a little more excitement, Merrick."

"I could," he simply agreed as he jumped off Fauna's back and removed his bag of supplies from where they were hanging on her saddle. "A lot has just been bothering me as of late."

Animus looked toward the grouping of trees before them that led into the dense Wolf Forest, named for the legend of the Wolfzord, and then back at the distracted Merrick. "I realize that, Merrick, but you've got to concentrate on what's before you. You'll need all your wits to get through the Hunt. Leave the worrying about your mother to me."

"But-"

"As your teacher, I insist upon it, Merrick." Animus easily cut off the young Baliton even before he could try to argue with him. "I remember when I went on my Hunt, I almost didn't find the cave. For days I wandered the forest and I was so frustrated, but only until I trusted in myself and concentrated was I able to find it. Then, there was the long walk home..."

Merrick listened half-heartedly. He honestly wanted to pay attention to the importance of the general's words, but he just couldn't. His mother was in his every thought and was a part of his every breath. He could not bring himself to stop worrying. "I'll do my best," he quietly voiced, starting forward into the woods without even a goodbye.

Animus was about to tease him - just as a last good luck message - but refrained when an epiphany struck him, stunning him speechless.

There he was, Merrick Baliton, this young boy of only eight years and he was nothing like the boys his age; Animus remembered being terribly rambunctious at eight years. Even Van and Ryden - his best friends - weren't as sullen and thoughtful as he could be; a prime example being the conversation Animus had shared with him earlier that afternoon. As long as Animus had known him, Merrick always had been a bit aloof from everyone else - withdrawn. Only a select few were let into his world. The handful of people that he did let in, he protected and cared for fiercely.

In many ways, he was a lot like his father.

Of course, that was because he was struggling to live up to the expectations to which he was held up: the son of the beautiful and wise Opaline, and the handsome and clever Ephane.

To have parents like them, Animus could only imagine.

He loved Opaline passionately; she was a special woman, and a wonderful mother without a doubt. Ephane was like the older brother that he had never had; he was brilliant, and a magnificent teacher as well as friend. However, the entire population of Animaria worshiped them, and Merrick was the blood of his parents; from the moment he was borne from within Opaline he had been trying to live up to the expectations set for him by everyone around him.

Things had only become worse with the death of Ephane as a void appeared, and the people had looked to the young Baliton of only two years to fill that void. The pressures of his position molded him to who he was, and of course, because of that he easily fell into the role his father had left behind: his mother's protector, head of his noble family, and most of all, a figure loved by the entire kingdom. For the population to watch Merrick grow up, day in and day out, their faith in the kingdom was finally restored. Their faith certainly wasn't restored when Animus ascended to general, because where Ephane had seen greatness, others only saw childishness in him.

And so, finally totally understanding Merrick's story, Animus left him alone, simply watching the boy disappear into the thicket of trees, hopefully to find his way home again.

***

"Has anyone seen the High Priest?"

Frantically, Rai raced down the halls of the East Wing, searching every room for her superior and elder. She simply could not believe that Vanault would even dare to go missing on the first night of the Deerzord Festival. No matter how dense he could sometimes be as a member of the male gender, he wouldn't forget something as important as presiding over the festivities for the first night - at least he hadn't in the past six years.

In a streak of green with hints of light brown, Rai flew down the stairs and out the door into the courtyard. Immediately, she grabbed the first Doe she came across by the shoulders and forcefully questioned one last time, "Have you seen the High Priest?"

When the woman replied in the negative, the Sanctuary Priestess finally gave up with a heavy sigh signaling her defeat. Shuffling her way toward the North Wing, she tried to figure out what to do next when she spotted Shayla sitting on the edge of the outer corridor of the building; she didn't look any happier than Rai felt. Concerned - not only for the princess, but also for her fellow clansmember -, the petite redhead walked over to where the girl sat and kneeled down beside her to the best of her ability, as she was wearing her traditional solid green dress.

"What are you thinking about?"

Not even noticing when Rai sat next to her, Shayla was startled out of her intense thoughts - all about the news of the High Priestess, of course. "I was thinking about the High Priestess."

"High Priestess Opaline?" The young woman was confused and her face showed it. "Why?"

"I thought that someone would've already told you!"

"Told me what, Shayla?"

"High Priest Vanault isn't here because he left to go take care of High Priestess Opaline; she's ill and has been since early this afternoon."

Rai could not believe her ears. "Are you sure, Shayla?"

The brown-haired girl nodded her head quite confidently. "I heard the conversation that the High Priest had with my handmaiden, who was helping care for the High Priestess; I'm very sure."

The Sanctuary Priestess didn't want to believe it, but she knew there was no reason for the Princess to lie. Also, if Opaline was sick, the news of it wouldn't be and couldn't be on everyone's lips. It was well known that she was not fond of Healers and if it was known that she was sick, people all over would be worrying for her health in a zealous nature.

Pushing aside her newfound concern for her friend and elder, Rai reached out and placed a comforting hand upon Shayla's shoulder. "Don't you worry about the High Priestess, Shayla," she told in a soothing voice. "She'll be perfectly fine."

"How do you know?"

"I know because High Priestess Opaline hardly is ever sick; she tries to take very good care of herself."

"The High Priestess has never been sick?"

"Of course, she has, but it happens very rarely. The last time she was sick..." Rai slowly trailed off as she remembered exactly when her Opaline had last been sick.

"When was she sick?" Shayla peered up into Rai's face, rather curious now that the older woman had stopped speaking.

Brow furrowed in deep contemplation, the Sanctuary Priestess repeated her words slowly for Shayla. "The last time she was sick was when she was pregnant with Merrick."

***

The moon had reached its pinnacle point in the dark night sky, or at least Vanault thought that it had from what he could see of it from the window whilst sitting at Opaline's bedside.

A yawn seized the High Priest and he stifled it, placing the back of his hand against his mouth. It was late; of this, he was sure. Ariene and Leona had been tending to Opaline with him, but Ariene had left earlier in the night and finally, just moments before, Leona had taken her leave to get a little rest. He had been at his love's side since Misia had fetched him from the Sanctuary and had not left it even once.

He had missed the first night of the Deerzord Festival completely; frantic with worry for Opaline, Vanault had let everything but her slip his mind. When he would eventually return to the Sanctuary, Rai would be terribly upset. However, he was sure she would understand once the situation had been explained to her. Opaline took priority - even over the Wildzords - when she was sick, which was almost never at all.

Ever since they had been children, Opaline had always looked after him and everyone else; she was the caretaker of the Wildzord Clan, even from a very young age. Whenever anyone was hurt or ill, she was always there alongside the Virginal Does, helping in every way she could. Of course, her intervention was always at the hope that the Healers would never have to be called.

Opaline didn't trust Healers. She respected them and the difficulty of their calling, as they continually were dealing with the gravely ill and dying, but she would never allow them to examine her. Few knew exactly why the High Priestess held them in that regard; Vanault was one of those few.

It all stemmed back to the childhood she had spent with her family before their deaths. Her father had never blamed her directly for her mother's death during childbirth, but had blamed the Healers that could not save her. Then, when her father had died under the care of Healers, Opaline couldn't help but believe everything that she had been told about them. Compounded on top of her father's passing were the deaths she had witnessed over the years of her friends - including the tragic death of Queen Lyrissa, like Opaline's own mother, during childbirth. It seemed to her that Healers brought more death to people than the life that they were acclaimed to bestow onto their patients.

He turned his gaze to rest upon Opaline once more and noted that she was sleeping peacefully, unlike during that afternoon when she was tossing and turning in a fitful slumber. He wondered what she was dreaming about in her forced sleep. Of him, perhaps? Now, whenever he slept, he was always sure to dream of her. Wonderful dreams. Dreams of his life with her-

"Vanault..."

As if to confirm his hopes, Opaline forcefully sighed the High Priest's name, shifting in her sleep ever so slightly.

Vanault smirked privately at the voicing of his name. No matter what she said, he knew that Opaline loved him. There was no reason for her to have mentioned his name while in the midst of her dreams. She was dreaming of him. He occupied her every thought, even while unconscious.

Satisfied with Opaline's supposed confession, Vanault settled back into his chair, allowing his dropping lids to fall over his eyes and sleep to overcome him for the time being. As he fell into his slumber, Opaline shifted yet again, feebly mumbling one name over and over again like a pleading call.

"Animus..."

***

Blinking her blurry brown eyes, Opaline awoke to the sight of two men standing together in the doorway of her room, appearing to be talking in hushed tones. Confused, she turned her face toward to the window and had to shield her eyes from the light - though dim - of the late morning rays from the sun. The last thing she could recall was talking with Ariene, being dizzy, and then...darkness. What had happened? How long had she been unconscious?

With her vision clear now that the sleep had been driven from them, Opaline tried to slowly sit up in her bed. However, before she could even sit up halfway, the urge to retch swept over her. She felt the bile rush up her throat, pushing her back down onto the bed. Struggling to control her bodily functions, Opaline eventually was able to win and force down whatever food she had left from the prior day. Fatigued by her efforts, she moaned softly, falling deeper into the pillows that cushioned her head.

Vanault, whom Opaline had seen talking in the doorway with none other than King Parn, immediately heard the brunette's small moan and jumped to her side. Kneeling beside her bed, he stroked her forehead tenderly with his hand, brushing away stray curls. "How are you feeling?"

Surprised to hear and feel the genuine concern in Vanault's voice and touch, Opaline was reluctant to answer. "I'm fine," she lied easily. "What happened to me?"

She could tell that Vanault didn't believe her; she imagined that she looked quite sickly to him laying still in her bed. "Yesterday morning you were talking with Lady Ariene and when she was just about to leave, you passed out and fell to the floor. You've been asleep since then."

"You gave us all quite a scare, High Priestess." Though she didn't dare turn to see who was on the other side of her bed because she feared that the nausea would return, Opaline could sense King Parn's presence near her. "We were just about to call the Royal Healer-"

"No!" Despite her exhaustion, the woman was able to get out a loud exclamation in protest of the idea. "No, I won't have any Healer touching me!"

"Of course, of course not," Vanault assured her, continuing to stroke her forehead. "We haven't called anyone; we know that you don't like Healers."

"Are you sure you are well enough to not see a Healer?" King Parn questioned, not to enrage her, but to simply be cautious. He had lost his wife many years ago, and he did not want to lose his High Priestess also.

"I've always been well enough to not see a Healer, King Parn." Determined to face her king when talking to him and prove her fitness, she turned around and laid on her other side so that she could look up at him. "Even when I was pregnant with Merrick in the heat of summer, I was never ill. Now a fainting spell is enough to call a Healer here? I think not."

The older man nodded with a small grin as he gazed down on his subject; a small grin was all he could manage, because no matter what Opaline said, she could not see what she looked like to them: a frail and tired woman. However, her spirit never waned and he was grateful if only for that. "Stubborn as ever," he teased her, kneeling down beside the other side of her bed in a rather unkingly gesture and taking her hand into his own. "You always get your way, you know that, High Priestess?"

Opaline smiled, a light momentarily sparking in her worn eyes. "That is what I am known for," she remarked. "So, if we won't bring the Healer here, then what is my punishment for my little fainting spell?" She knew she wouldn't be let off easily, but in a way, she welcomed the punishment as she truly felt that she needed the rest.

Vanault's voice carried over her, as he was positioned behind her while she continued to face the king. "I think you should rest for the next week."

"That's too long!" She instantly protested. "With the Deerzord Festival and General Animus being gone, my boys-"

"I will watch over your trainees until General Animus returns from the Wolf Forest."

She blinked at King Parn, unbelievingly. "You don't have to do that, my king-"

"Nonsense!" He cut her off before she could somehow convince him out of it. "I was once a soldier of the Animarian Army, High Priestess, or have you forgotten? I know what needs to be done with the trainees; I was one."

"You don't have to; someone else could do it or the children could be given a short vacation until the General returns..."

He smirked at her and shook his head. "There is no one else to do it, as the High Priest is preoccupied with the Deerzord Festival and caring for you, and we both know that you would rather go on teaching ill than let the boys slack in their studies."

Opaline chuckled gently; it still amazed her as tohow well the king knew her after the past ten years she had spent in his service. "So you are right," she conceded. "I would be honored if you would care for my boys while I am restrained to this bed." The end of her sentence held a teasing tone.

"Restrained indeed!" Vanault joined in, also teasingly. "I will tie you to the bed if I must!"

The High Priestess sighed, closing her eyes and simply feeling the presence of the two men surrounding her. "I don't think that will be necessary; for this once, I will concede to your wishes."

"Very well," King Parn acknowledged, and she felt him rise from his kneeling position at her side. "We will leave you to your rest."

As she sensed them both moving toward the door to leave, she called out once more. "Can you please tell me when General Animus returns? I would like to have a word with him."

"Of course," Vanault replied, and if she had been facing him, she would've been able to see the sour face of jealousy flash across his features before he left with the king.

***

After riding hard all day except to take quick breaks for Fauna to rest up, Animus arrived early that night just outside the walls surrounding Tribute. The foreboding feeling he'd had the day before still lingered with him and as he drew closer and closer to the city, it became only stronger.

Trotting toward the open gates on his horse's back, he was greeted by his soldiers' reception. "Welcome back, General!" the two men standing on either side of the gate called out, their swords sheathed at their side.

Animus nodded to them with a smile of thanks and made his way into the city. People were just beginning to wander the city that evening as torches slowly appeared, lining the streets and lighting the paths. It was the second night of the Deerzord Festival and since nothing ever took place on the night in terms of special ceremonies or parties put on by the Wildzord Clan, most of the visitors to the city used it for their own exploration purposes, sampling the best that Tribute had to offer. Vendors populated the streets like they did every night, but during the festival, there always seemed to be more than the normal amount, all hoping to profit in some shape or form from the pilgrims. Starving - he hadn't eaten since that morning - Animus was tempted to stop and grab something to eat, but he resisted the temptation as the pull of the feeling was growing stronger by the moment.

Eventually, the façade of the castle appeared before him and he rode around to the back, going around the gardens and guiding Fauna into the stables, where he demounted her and helped her into her stall. "Thank you," he whispered to his animal friend, giving her a long and loving stroke before striding up into the armory to reenter his home that he had been away from for the past two days.

Opening the door, Animus stepped into the castle hall and almost instantly, he felt like he was being crushed by the oppressive weight of the feeling that had only been a tingling sensation the night prior. Shocked by the abrupt and sudden onslaught of emotion, the young man had to brace himself against the wall in order to momentarily regroup himself.

"Animus?"

The general looked up to see his sister heading down the hall toward him, bathed in her usual yellow - a cloak over her dress. "Ariene!" he happily greeted, trying to cover the unsettling feeling overwhelming him with somewhat honest glee; he was delighted to see his sister.

She drew closer to him and he noticed her fraught appearance and the near urgency in her steps as she approached. "Oh, Animus!" She jumped into his open arms and hugged him tightly. "It's terrible!"

Allowing her to withdraw from him first, he searched Ariene's face; this nagging feeling, the overwhelming dread, was it warning him of what had Ariene so disturbed? "What's wrong? What happened?"

"High Priestess Opaline has fallen ill!"

Instantly, alarm flooded Animus and he didn't even bother hiding it from his sister. Opaline was sick. The woman he loved was ill. The same woman who despised Healers and refused to let them examine her. That must've been what had been bothering him so.

Ariene's petrified voice brought him out of his momentary shock as she began to describe the exact details of what had happened. "I was talking with the High Priestess yesterday morning and I noticed that she didn't look completely well, but she dismissed it. However, when she got up to help me to the door as I was getting ready to leave, she suddenly fell to the floor unconscious! She only awoke this morning!"

Animus gave his younger sister a questioning look. "What were you talking with the High Priestess about, Ariene?" He tried to keep the condescending, big brother tone out of his voice, but he couldn't.

The Royal Court member ducked her head, ashamed. "I was asking her about your mystery lover," she answered with a murmur.

By then, Animus had decided that standing in the middle of the hall wasn't a very appropriate place to be having a private conversation with his sister and was in the process of ushering her toward his room. He didn't react to her answer right away, but waited until they were comfortably inside his room and the door was shut behind him.

"What?!"

"I didn't mean-"

"There are times when your curiosity is appropriate and then there are times when it isn't," he scolded, pacing the length of the floor and then turning. "When it comes to my personal life, it isn't appropriate."

Ariene broke out of the rebuked little sister role and scolded him just as easily in her retort. "When it comes to the welfare of the family, it is appropriate. You were about to give the Aerlyn engagement necklace to some strange woman that Father didn't even know! I was looking out for the family!"

"Look," he stopped his pacing in front of the blonde woman, "I'm not planning on giving the engagement necklace to anyone. It was a mistake. I made a mistake about-"

"So now you're calling love a mistake?!"

"In my case, it was!"

The two of them were silent after Animus' declaration, musing on what he had just said.

Ariene didn't exactly know what to make of his statement. Just a half-moon ago, he was head over heels in love with some mysterious woman, hoping to marry her and spend the rest of his life with her. Everything had suddenly changed. Animus had changed. Something inside of him had sobered and matured - not enough to steal his wondrously childish demeanor from him, but enough to make him see the great step he was taking with the idea of marriage. It wasn't as simple as saying, "I love you," to him. It was much more complex - more complex than even she could imagine.

Animus could not fathom what he had just said. Why had he said it? He certainly knew that he didn't mean it: he loved Opaline more than his entire being. However, he knew that marrying her was out of the question. He finally understood everything she had been trying to say every time she whispered, "I love you," to him under her breath before entering a crowded room. There wasn't just the obvious, "I love you," but there was the hidden, "No matter what, even though we can never truly be together, I will always hold you in my heart." For one reason or another, he never actually registered that; he was sure that he had heard it, but comprehending it was another thing entirely. It wasn't until that moment - when arguing with his sister - that he recognized it. And it was painful and beautiful at the same time; she would love him eternally, but never would she wear his engagement necklace or family Wildzord.

The young man plopped down onto his bed beside his sister, who had already taken a seat. "When he was still alive, Ephane once told me that love is like a wild filly." He began to talk, words just tumbling from his lips. "I don't remember when exactly he told me this, but I know he said love is like a wild filly. She's beautiful from afar; you want to possess her and make her yours. You can try and try, and maybe you'll get lucky one time and she'll take to you and approve of you. Then, you'll think she's yours. But not really, because she chose you: she can leave of her own accord at any time; her spirit is forever free. All you can do is hope that she'll reciprocate your feelings and never abandon you.

He glanced at Ariene with his hazel eyes, noting her focused gaze on him as he spoke.

"I didn't believe him for the longest time; I didn't want to believe him." He smiled; it was just like Ephane to use a horse to explain something so complicated like love. "However, like always, he had been right."

Animus looked down awkwardly at his hands.

"I really wish that he hadn't though."

***

"Prince Thane!"

The Animarian prince, who had been running out of the training regiment quarters after having stolen himself a quick breakfast of an apple, spun around to face his caller. "General!" he replied, giving the approaching man a quick nod of his head.

"I didn't know you had arrived already!" Animus stated, his gaze wavering on the young trainees feasting on their breakfasts. "When did you come in last night?"

"Late." He absently rubbed the already shiny apple against his dark blue tunic. "Nearly everyone was asleep by the time I returned; Mave arrived before me."

"Did you hear about..."

Thane nodded; Animus didn't have to finish his question, because there obviously was only one thing that he could be asking about. Word had spread like wildfire through the castle about Opaline falling sick. However, thanks to the Wildzords, the "news" had yet to spread to the city inhabitants. "When I got back, the only person not asleep was my father; he wanted to tell me about the High Priestess himself."

Animus looked concerned at the mention of the king. "How is King Parn taking it?"

"So long as she doesn't die, we're both fine," Thane joked, a slightly bitter lining in his voice. "Look, I was just going to go visit the High Priestess, so..."

"Go, go," Animus encouraged with a wave of his hand. "Give her my best wishes and tell her I'll try to come see her later this morning."

Thane nodded yet again, smiling as he pocketed his apple. "I will do that, General."

With that smile nearly plastered onto his face, Thane sped from the quarters and out into the hall, where he allowed his face to take on a brooding expression. Despite what he had said to Animus, he was not faring well after hearing the news about his surrogate mother's illness; he thanked the Wildzords that no one had witnessed his breakdown after speaking with his father the night before.

He couldn't lose Opaline. It was just that simple.

Thane could remember the unexpected death of his mother like it was yesterday. He had been practicing his sword technique with Animus, who had dropped by to visit after his shift outside the main castle gate entrance, when Ephane had approached them both. Distinctly, he recalled watching Ephane's face as he struggled to tell them the news of Queen Lyrissa's death. As a young boy, he had been devastated. Her death had been so sudden and unexpected, and yet, at the same time, he had a sister - a living memory of his mother.

Everything between the moment he learned of her passing and when he returned to his training a season later was a blur. All he could remember from her funeral pyre was the intense heat of the flames; Opaline had told him the story of when he had almost walked into the fire, trying to follow the queen into her next life. All he had to remind him of that accident was a nasty pink burn mark on the inside of his left arm.

After her death, Opaline took on the role of Thane's mother. She concerned herself with every bit of his daily life - from what he had eaten for breakfast to what time he had gone to sleep; she was consistently nudging him on through life when he was unsure of what was next. He loved her and cared for her as much as he had his own mother; Merrick was as much his brother as Shayla was his sister. He couldn't bare to lose another mother. He wouldn't let it happen.

Arriving at the door to her quarters, he knocked lightly and waited until Vanault opened it. "Prince Thane," he greeted with a bow of his head. "I was not expecting to see you this morning."

The prince realized that no one had been expecting him, Animus, or Mave to return until later that night; they all had been a day early. "I realize that, but may I see the High Priestess before I go on my duty shift this morning?"

"The High Priestess is still sleeping right-"

"Who is at the door, High Priest?"

He recognized the strong voice of his surrogate mother from behind Vanault, and instantly his mood was lifted. "It's me, High Priestess," he announced himself, bypassing her suitor entirely. "Prince Thane."

"Thane!" He could hear her exclaim. "Let him in, Vanault."

Almost begrudgingly, the older man let the royal soldier into the room and exited, allowing the two their privacy.

Thane made a beeline for Opaline's bed, where she was propped up in a sitting position with the support of many pillows behind her back. Her hair was completely pulled back from her face, only highlighting the sullenness of her face and the pallor of her cheeks. However, he could clearly see that her brown eyes certainly hadn't lost their vibrancy as she motioned for him to take a seat on the bed next to her.

"You're back so early! It's very good to see you again," she greeted quite excitedly. "Tell me, how was Ryden when you last left him?"

"A little scared, but overall, excited by what lay ahead," the dark-haired prince replied politely, then easily turned the conversation back on her. "But how are you feeling?"

"I'm perfectly fine," she insisted with a smile. "Just because I fainted two days ago, everyone has seen fit to treat me like a small, incapable child."

"But aren't you having spells of nausea as well?"

Opaline was surprised for a moment, but then that quickly faded. "Your father told you?"

Thane nodded affirmatively, trying so hard to not betray the fear that was welling within him.

"It's not that bad," she explained to him, patting his hand that lay on the bed. "Just sometimes I feel like vomiting; I'm not sick."

He gave her a small smile in acknowledgement of her stubborn manner. "So you won't even go see a Healer for a second opinion?" he pleaded, knowing that he might not make a difference in her decision.

The brunette regarded her prince for a long while, appearing to consider something. She eventually broke the forced silence, taking his hand into her own. "If I tell you something, can you keep it a secret from everyone else?"

Thane's interest was piqued almost immediately. "Of course."

"I have a friend from when I was still living at the orphanage. When we grew up, she received an apprenticeship with a Healer and became one of the best in the city herself. The last time I saw her was when I first found out I was pregnant with Merrick. I was thinking about going to see her again this afternoon."

"Don't you despise Healers, though?"

"I do," Opaline conceded to the truth easily. "However, that doesn't mean that I don't know how to ask for help when I need it; I may be the High Priestess, but I certainly do not understand the inner workings of my body all the time."

"Why did you tell me?" Not that he wasn't glad to know that she wasn't about to let herself fall victim to her illness, but why she had chosen to tell him of all people hadn't quite connected in his head.

"I need you to help me sneak out of the castle, Thane."

***

She always had to go directly against him in every action she took, even when he was looking out for her own good!

Vanault knocked the back of his head against the stone wall outside Opaline's door in frustration. She couldn't see past her disdain for him; her judgment was completely clouded. Really, the question was though, if he knew he couldn't stop her, why did consistently try? Any other man would have tossed her aside already.

"Because my persistence will wear her down," he murmured under his breath, answering his own question. He crossed his arms, closed his eyes, and leaned fully against the wall, taking just a moment's rest.

"Talking to yourself, High Priest?"

Just as quickly as he took to his waiting position, Vanault was forced out of it by Animus' sudden intrusion. "I suppose you caught me, General Animus," he remarked, feigning joviality with the younger man.

He knew that Animus had come to see Opaline just as the prince had, but unlike Thane, Vanault wasn't going to allow him through. If he let every person who wanted to see the High Priestess see her, there would be an endless stream of people outside her room. No, he would not let that happen. "How do you think your boys should fair on the Hunt this year?" he queried, appearing to ask an innocent question, but in reality, diverting the conversation.

Animus could sense Vanault's hesitancy in his voice, but pursued the conversation out of courtesy. "The three of them should return within a week, at least that is my hope for them. They know the Wolfzord legend completely, and I would only think that knowing it so well would help them find their way to the cave. I only worry about the trek back to Tribute; that might prove to be a bit difficult for them."

Vanault nodded his head, taking in the information. "High hopes for the young trainee who should take on the role protector for the princess, no doubt," he commented offhandedly, bitterness heavily underlining his words.

"Of course." The dark blond paid little attention to the man's tone, his concerns focused on his protégée and how he would be fairing. "Merrick is so much like his father: resilient, resourceful, and brave. He would make a fitting protector for Princess Shayla when the time comes."

"If his mother allows it," the older man responded, doing anything to discourage the general from ultimately picking Merrick. Why had he convinced Opaline to let Merrick pursue the job earlier?!

"The High Priestess is a wise woman. She wouldn't dare deny her son something so beneficial both to him and Animaria." Animus spoke of her with reverence. "Speaking of the High Priestess, is she awake? May I speak with her?"

Though very little, Vanault seized upon the eagerness in Animus' voice. "No," he cleanly stated, shooting down the general.

"No, she is not awake, or no, I cannot speak with her?" Animus persisted, slightly irritated with the presumptuous manner of the High Priest.

"The High Priestess is currently speaking with Prince Thane, so you cannot speak with her," Vanault clarified, crossing his arms over his chest yet again, this time in a more hostile and closed gesture.

"Can I speak to her once Prince Thane leaves her presence?" By this time, it was clear to Animus that Vanault was trying to keep him from seeing Opaline, but it wasn't in his nature to take "no," for an answer so easily.

"She'll be needing her rest afterward."

Animus arched his eyebrow at the man who seemed to be quickly becoming Opaline's keeper by the moment. "She just woke up!"

"She's ill, General," Vanault growled out, no longer hiding behind proper pretences. "Or have you forgotten that?"

The young man bristled slightly at the High Priest's pointed words. As if he was the only man to care about Opaline when Animus loved her beyond all bounds? He had no right to fling around his petty and jealous jibes! "I do realize that the High Priestess is sick, but I also realize that I have a job to do and I need to consult with her to continue to do it productively!"

Vanault narrowed his clouded blue eyes on the general and stared him down. He didn't care if he was the commander of the entire Animarian Army - at that point, he wouldn't have cared if Animus were King Parn himself - he was not going to see Opaline. Period. "I do think you should calm yourself down before you see the High Priestess," he stated quite calmly, firmly maintaining control over his emotions as they yearned for their freedom. "She doesn't need to become agitated."

"I'm sure if Opaline knew of this, she wouldn't approve, Vanault." Dropping the honorifics, Animus literally spat the other man's name.

"Can you afford to go running around the castle, bad-mouthing me, in the hopes that someone is able to communicate that to her?" Vanault hardly batted an eyelash at Animus's verbal threat, which to him, held no value whatsoever.

"What do you mean?" There was a veiled threat in the Clan leader's question, one that Animus didn't quite understand.

"You may be of noble blood and the leader of our armies, General, but you seem to forget the reputation that precedes you." A twisted grin formed upon the supposed holy man's lips and he backed away from Animus to lean once more against the wall. "You are Ephane's successor...and you have never succeeded. Nothing you have done has established you from outside of Ephane's shadow. Nothing you say will carry any weight against me, the High Priest of the Wildzord Clan! You will never be anything, but the boy who followed Ephane-"

Before another word could fall from Vanault's lips, Animus balled his fist and let loose on him. His fist connecting solidly with the older man's jaw, causing Vanault to smack his head against the wall, hard. Shocked, but not unconscious, he slumped to the floor beside the door and held his lower lip, blood oozing slowly onto his fingers. Animus just glared down at him, his fist limp at his side, breathing heavily. "It was nice talking with you, High Priest," he growled lowly, walking away.

It wasn't until Animus had turned the corner and the hall was deserted, except for the slightly injured Vanault, that Thane ran out the door to check on the noise that he and Opaline had heard.

"What happened?" Thane questioned, thoroughly shocked, while helping Vanault up off the floor.

Vanault stared down the empty hallway for a long moment.

"Nothing."

***

The door to Animus' quarters nearly fell away from its frame after he burst into the room, rage flowing liberally off him from his recent encounter with Vanault. His breathing was ragged and it felt like his heart was going to leap out of his chest; he couldn't remember ever being as angry as he was at that very moment.

Looking toward the door that joined his quarters to the training regiment's, he thought momentarily about returning to his boys and simply throwing himself into his duties. However, as he stood there in the silence and heard the throbbing of his blood in his ears, he thought better of the idea and sat down before his dresser. He needed to calm down first, before he attempted to do anything else.

Animus stared at his own reflection in the mirror and shook his head unbelievingly. He could not believe that he had just punched the High Priest of the Wildzord Clan. It was more than that, of course. The situation was so ridiculous and the way the High Priest had been blowing it all out of proportion... Well, he was just as guilty as Vanault for blowing it out of proportion, but Vanault had more reason for it. He had every right to protect the woman he was courting - the woman he loved. Animus, on the other hand, had no right to challenge the holy man in the way that he had; it certainly wasn't proper.

If it wasn't proper, then why had it felt so satisfying for him?

Dropping his head into his hands, the young man sighed, knowing very well why it had felt good. Vanault had torn Opaline from him, when in reality Opaline had never truly been his. To everyone else, she was as free as a bird. She hadn't loved anyone since Ephane. His love - their love - simply could never be recognized whereas the forced courting of the High Priest and Priestess could.

He hadn't forgotten that Vanault had forced himself onto Opaline. While she seemed so easily to have overlooked what Vanault had done - kissing her without her permission - it was never far from Animus' own mind. The picture of her being pawed by the older man was one that continually haunted his thoughts. The woman he loved in the arms of another - it was a revolting thought he struggled to not think of, always in vain.

Then there was the issue of Vanault's implication and insult. That had bothered him most of all. The idea wasn't very farfetched, and the fact that it could be the truth certainly made him uncomfortable. His men respected him; he was sure of that because he saw them day in and day out, but it was a whole other matter with the nobles. They could make or break him in the eyes of the king. And since they didn't associate with him on a daily basis, they only made their assumptions from what they had heard and what they would see of him in ceremonies; neither were enough to come up with the correct impression of the young Aerlyn general. Lots of them had known him as a child, and they continued to carry those childhood preconceptions of him when they assessed him as an adult. It certainly wasn't fair, but Animus did realize that it happened. And if it happened, it was more than likely that Vanault was right: Animus' word, his reputation, meant nothing to the nobles against the word of the High Priest, when it should have carried much more weight.

He honestly didn't care what anyone else thought, if his taboo relationship with Opaline was any indicator, but in the society he lived in, appearances and reputations were everything and so, they dictated his actions even when he thought they didn't. Opaline's choice to deny their love, in turn, affected him and how he chose to live his life. The choices never had been his to make; they always had been made for him.

For what seemed like to be a long time to Animus, he just sat there before his dresser, head bowed into his hands, gazing down at the polished wood surface.

Then, with a sudden movement, he yanked open the drawer beside him and removed a small, rectangular box from within its confines. He quickly pulled the top off the container and found his family's engagement necklace laying neatly on a soft piece of bright yellow cloth. With the gentlest of movements, Animus lifted the necklace into his hands, cradling it within his palms.

"This is my choice," he murmured to himself, gazing at the beautiful piece of jewelry within his fingertips, "and I choose to give it to her."

***

"Are you sure the High Priest will not be returning anytime soon?" Thane remarked, looking out the window at the overcast afternoon sky.

"I'm very sure. There is much business awaiting him back at the Sanctuary," Opaline replied slowly, untying the back of the black nightgown she had been resting in. "We won't have to worry about Leona either; Vanault insisted on caring for me alone, without her help, even though I would have preferred that she stayed." She turned her head to look back at Thane, who continued to gaze out the window. "No peeking, Thane, or I will make sure your father hears of this!"

"I'm not looking, Opaline!" he insisted, shielding his side view with his hand. If he could have stuck his head out the window, he would have, but the temperature outside had dropped significantly in the past two days and he didn't dare risk aggravating Opaline's unknown illness.

Pulling the clothing off her shoulders, she allowed the dress to pool around her feet on the ground and snatched the green dress that Thane had brought her from where it lay on her dresser. Once she had slipped the new dress over her body, she collapsed onto her bed, not yet used to standing up for long periods of time after having lain in bed for two days straight. "You can look now," she whimpered, struggling to recover her strength.

Immediately, Thane was at her side, hovering over her worriedly. "Maybe you shouldn't do this. You need-"

"-to see a Healer," she finished for him, looking defiantly up into his dark eyes. "The more I am ill, the more I don't want to be, and the only way I can think to not be ill anymore is to know why I am ill. That involves seeing a Healer. Therefore, I am doing this." She paused, stroking his cheek in a motherly manner. "Can you hand me the cloak?"

Silently, Thane nodded his head and grabbed the large green cloak draped over the chair tucked under her dresser. Giving her his arm, he supported Opaline as she stood up once more. Together, they managed to lift the thick cloak onto her tired frame, covering her from head to toe.

Still holding onto her hand, the prince took a step away from her and examined her. "Can you even see from underneath that?" he chuckled, kneeling down to peer inside the rather large hood that concealed her head and face.

"I can, you just can't see me, which is the entire point of it," the brunette replied, her voice slightly muffled by the hood. "It's so odd, being dressed like this. It's the one thing I've never had to wear-"

"-because you've never been a Virginal Doe," Thane finished off her thought. "I have to say though, it does become you, High Priestess."

The mocking tone was quite evident in his voice, and Opaline batted him with a long sleeve. "Do you know where we are going?"

"You told me this morning."

"Just making sure you remembered."

"I remember."

"Alright. Let's go."

***

It certainly was a different experience to be walking through the city as a Virginal Doe instead of the High Priestess of all of Animaria, as Opaline quickly discovered.

As Thane led her out the front doors of the castle, everyone stared at them, and they most certainly weren't staring at the prince. From the on-duty soldiers to the children running by, all stopped for a moment and looked intently at her. Of course, the guards had more tact, unlike the children who stared at her like she was the scariest thing they had ever seen and ran away quickly; more than likely, it was the first time that they had seen a virginal doe outside the Clan Sanctuary gates. When walking down the streets, crowds of people literally parted to allow her and Thane passage.

It wasn't just the way people reacted to her that was different, but also the way she was able to react to what was around her. Appearing as a virginal doe to the outside world, she had to act like one. That meant bowing her head completely so that she was almost always staring at her feet. It also meant remaining completely silent. A virginal doe's senses belonged to the Deerzord and no one else; they could not be tainted.

The chill of the afternoon slowly bit into her - the woolen cloak not able to stave off the cold - and Opaline had to try very hard not to collapse right there on the street. She clutched onto Thane's arm like a crutch, and not once did he complain of her tight grip.

Just when she thought she would not be able to bear anymore walking, Thane whispered under his breath, "We're here."

The High Priestess lifted her head ever so slightly to see the small, quaint doorway into the home of her friend and Healer. Though she was very much sought after by nobles, as she was quite the prized Healer, Bren had never forgotten her roots as an orphan and devoted much of her time to caring for the children at the orphanage. The only thing stopping Opaline from out and out hating Bren for being a Healer was her good and trusting heart.

Taking leave of the prince's side, Opaline gathered her strength and walked up to the door, knocking on it lightly. The wooden door opened right away, revealing a beautiful petite woman. "Can I help you?" she questioned, peering carefully at the woman she believed to be a Doe.

Without even saying a word, Opaline pushed passed the bronze-skinned Healer into the house and collapsed onto a nearby table.

Quite startled, Bren threw the door shut and rushed over to Opaline's side. She helped her pull off the heavy cloak and once the hood had been pulled back, Bren gasped in surprise at the sight of the High Priestess and her childhood friend. "Opaline!" she cried and without a second thought, helped the taller woman to her bedroom to lie down.

The two limped down the hall, turning into a small room furnished with the simplest of things: a bed, a chest of drawers, and a mirror. As soon as the bed was within distance, Opaline fell forward onto the bedspread and rolled onto her back, sighing heavily in relief. She shut her eyes, slowly trying to regain her strength.

"Opaline?" Bren's sweet, melodious voice vaguely entered her hearing.

She swallowed, retrieving her own voice from within herself. "I'm ill," Opaline replied bluntly, choosing not to waste her words.

"I can see that."

The sick woman reopened her brown eyes to find herself looking up into the hazel eyes - just slightly lighter than Animus' - of her friend. "I don't know what's wrong with me, Bren," she confided softly, finally betraying the fear that she kept buried deep down. "Two days ago, I fainted and ever since I've been feeling continually weak and nauseous." Opaline's voice was becoming frantic. "I almost thought I wouldn't be able to make it here without collapsing!"

"You're here now," Bren soothed her, placing her hand on Opaline's forehead and smoothing back her hair that had escaped the confines of her ponytail. "Tell me, are you happy with Vanault?" she asked softly, gently smiling.

Utterly confused by the raven-haired woman's change in subject, Opaline blinked and hesitated to answer. "Why do you ask?"

"You are pregnant, High Priestess."

"No!" Opaline cried, almost jumping out of the bed until her body rebelled painfully and forced her to lie back down. "No! How am I pregnant?!"

Bren gave a light chuckle, tossing her long, dark braid over her shoulder. "Only you would know that," she teased, shying away from discussing the High Priestess' personal attachments.

"No, I can't be pregnant, Bren," Opaline insisted, grabbing onto the healer's arm and placing it on her abdomen. "There can't be a child there." She shook her head slightly, more to herself than to Bren. "Just tell me that I'm ill because of stress and I will do anything that you prescribe to get better!"

This time, the small woman laughed outright at her friend's antics. "Telling you that you are ill because of stress would be a lie, Opaline. You are pregnant. I remember when I first told you that you were pregnant with Merrick; I had the same sense from you." She smiled to herself, recalling the fateful day that Opaline had last appeared on her doorstep. "Your aura called to me in the same manner."

"But I was never this ill when I fell pregnant with Merrick!" Opaline was not about to give in to believing she could possibly be pregnant. She couldn't be pregnant! Not right then! Animus was the only one-

"You just said you've been stressed as of late, correct?"

"Yes..."

"Stress only aggravates your symptoms, Opaline. It's not good for you."

"Of course it's not," Opaline scoffed, but allowed her tone to soften. "A baby..."

"Yes." Bren smiled happily, watching as the pregnant woman slowly digested the new information. "The High Priest will be very excited-"

At the mention of Vanault, Opaline was snapped out of her momentary daze. "You cannot tell anyone I came to visit," she instructed, her voice ever so serious.

"I never do," Bren relayed honestly. "It is not my place to tell anyone what is happening to you."

Rolling onto her side, Opaline carefully eased herself up from the bed into a sitting position. "I must go," she explained to Bren, who looked like she was about to make her lie down again. "I was only able to slip away from the castle for a short period of time."

"Are you sure you'll be able to make it back there on your own?" Bren questioned, quite concerned.

Aided by the healer, Opaline walked into the welcoming room of the house where her green cloak had been carelessly tossed aside on the round wooden table. "I'll be fine," she assured as together they put the cloak on over her dress. "There is someone waiting outside to escort me back to the castle."

"As a Virginal Doe?" Bren arched her eyebrow incredulously at the other woman, as the High Priestess pulled the large dark hood over her head of brown curls.

"As a Virginal Doe."

Turning to stand in the doorway, Opaline remained still for a moment, gathering her strength, before opening the door and walking out of her friend's home.

The cold was the first thing to hit her as she exited the warm and cozy building and rejoined Thane, who obediently waited on the street in front of the house. At once, he took her arm into his own, lending her all of his support, which she desperately needed. Before they began their walk back to the castle, he discreetly handed her a note. "I forgot to give this to you earlier," he whispered, loud enough to be heard through her hood but not enough to be heard by the people on the street. "General Animus gave it to me before I came to help you."

She lifted her heavy arm and accepted the note, almost greedily. "I need to speak with you," she read the note softly to herself. "Meet me tonight in the stables, and make sure the High Priest knows nothing. General Animus." Puzzled as to why Animus had placed emphasis on Vanault, she turned to Thane, showed him the letter, and pointed at the latter part of the second sentence.

"The bleeding lip the High Priest received was courtesy of the General, and not running into the wall," the prince quickly explained, and then began leading Opaline down the street, obviously deciding that they had been standing before the house for too long.

Animus punching...Vanault? Vanault must've done something to provoke him, she reasoned. She wished for a split instant that she had been the one to punch Vanault, but then pushed the naughty thought away. There were more important things to consider than taking a little vengeance on her suitor.

Subtly, she placed her hand against the side of her abdomen.

"Oh my Wildzords, what do I do now?"

***

Stupid.

Sitting on a rock in a clearing in the Wolf Forest after two days of wandering around and finding nothing, Merrick was ready to call the Hunt stupid. He was even ready to scream it at the top of his lungs.

"THIS IS STUPID!!"

After screaming, the young boy felt a little better, having released some of his pent-up frustration. The Hunt was not supposed to frustrate him, it was supposed to enlighten him and give him a connection to his past! Everyone told him that, so on some level he believed it, but the wonderful and great experience had yet to strike him.

Steeped in tradition rooted in the Wolfzord legend, the Hunt was a replication of the soldier's journey in that very legend - a quest to seek out the Wolfzord. A boy in his third year with the regiment - representing the three days the soldier was lost before finding the Wolfzord - would be left out in the middle of the woods during the Deerzord Festival. Basically, it was up to him and his training to survive alone, find the cave where the soldier stayed, and return back to Tribute. During the quest however, the Wolfzord had been said to reach out to the trainees and give them guidance to maintain their course as well - thus the enlightenment.

At that point though, Merrick didn't care at all for any enlightenment or otherwise. As it had been since he had left the city, the one constant of his thoughts was his mother. He couldn't get her off his mind, though he certainly had tried for the sake of the Hunt. Nothing would get done - he would never complete the Hunt - if he couldn't focus on something other than her.

And so, sitting alone in the middle of the darkening forest, Merrick struggled to turn his thoughts onto anything beside his mother.

Mother.

Animus.

King Parn.

Thane.

Shayla.

His thoughts lingered on the Animarian princess as he remembered her from when he had last seen her a few nights ago. An image of calmness and serenity in her Clan green, she had done everything in her power to try and placate his concerns over his mother that evening. For those few hours, she had succeeded as he was much more entranced by her. His childhood friend had been exquisitely beautiful that night and even Ryden and Van had noticed as they had heckled him later that night before going to sleep.

He found it odd that they had spent their lives together and it hadn't been until the moment he had spotted her at the Sanctuary that he had taken notice of her uncanny beauty. She was quite noticeable even at eight, the lightness in her features, grace of her actions, and cheerfulness of her attitude setting her apart from the other girls her age. Merrick had heard many people claim that her levity stemmed from the tragedy of her birth; a child borne of sorrow supposedly knew value of happiness and clung to it much more tightly than a normal child.

Life, without a mother... Merrick couldn't fathom it, and yet, Shayla had gone through eight years without one. His own mother had served as her surrogate mother since birth, but he couldn't imagine that being enough. She would never hear how soft her mother's voice was as she sung to her, never be able to fall into her comforting embrace after a terrifying dream, never bury her nose into her long curly hair and breathe in her soothingly familiar scent...

The young trainee quickly swiped away the tears that had trickled out of his eyes with the back of his hand. It was too hard to even imagine... No, he could never live his life like that. His mother was his everything, as she had been since the day his father had passed away.

"That didn't work," he muttered to himself, lifting his face to stare at the clouds above him that had turned ominously dark. "Maybe I should find somewhere to sleep..."

Grabbing his pack of supplies and hoisting it onto his back once more, Merrick trudged back into the thickness of the forest, hardly noticing as small flecks of white began to descend from the sky.

***

Anxiously, Animus paced the length of the stables over and over again. The dirt beneath his continuously moving feet were worn down, creating a neat little path down the center of the stalls lined up against the walls. Every few moments, his hand would slip into his tunic pocket, making sure for the hundredth time that the engagement necklace still resided there safely.

He had been awaiting Opaline for quite some time as darkness had fallen early that night, clouds moving in to cover the moon and stars from view. As a favor to him, Mave was taking over the early dinner that night with the trainees and then planned to take them later that night into the city to see the annual reenactment of the Wolfzord legend by the city's actors' guild. The last he had checked, Vanault was still at the Wildzord Clan Sanctuary and was expected to remain there for the majority of the evening, tied up with the Virginal Does.

Nothing was in the way of his meeting with Opaline that night.

Nothing would stop him from presenting her with his family's engagement necklace.

Just then, he heard the approach of footsteps outside and quickly stopped his nervous pacing, staring expectantly at the closed stable doors. Slowly, the large wooden doors were pulled open and Opaline appeared, dressed unusually in a dark blue cape that looked exactly like the soldier's cape he donned. As he looked closer, he noted the embroidered Wolfzord insignia on her left breast and knew right away that it, in fact, was a soldier's cape.

Animus was about to question his lover's tardiness and as well as where she got her mysterious cape, but before he could, Thane also entered the stables, gently holding Opaline's arm. "Thane," the older man acknowledged, discarding of formalities as a secret rendezvous hardly required them.

"Animus," the prince returned, while Animus approached both of them in front of the large doorway.

Walking slightly past the two of them, Animus reached out to shut the stables' doors tightly, having taken notice that not only was Opaline wearing Thane's cape (which he had evidently forsaken for her), but she was also wearing her own green cloak beneath. Yet, she still trembled a little. "Are you still ill?" Animus asked, finally directing his first comment in days toward his beloved. He placed a warm, comforting hand on her shoulder. "If you are, we don't have to meet, Opaline. It's just that I had-"

"I'm fine, Animus, thank you." She stopped him from completely dismissing her, while maintaining some semblance of light formality for the sake of Thane, who was still with them in the stables. "I have some topics I must discuss with you as well, and since Vanault is keeping me under lock and key, this is probably the only time we will have to speak."

His hazel eyes darkened at the mention of the High Priest of the Wildzord Clan; his thoughts drifted back to the incident that had taken place that morning. "Yes, I have had first-hand experience with that." Unconsciously, he clenched his fist at his side.

Opaline couldn't help but slightly smirk at his comment. "So I have heard."

An awkward silence fell over the three of them after that, as both Animus and Opaline had much to say to one another, but couldn't possibly speak about everything in front of Thane. The prince easily picked up on their need for privacy and piped up, "I'll leave you two to what you need to discuss."

"Don't you want your cloak back?" Opaline called out to Thane before he left.

He shook his head, his dark, unruly bangs falling into his eyes. "I'll be fine," and with that, he was gone.

Once the departing soldier was completely gone and the doors had shut behind him, keeping out the wind of the cold night, Opaline and Animus stood only a few steps from one another, simply staring. They each had things that they wanted to say, but neither had any idea how to start and so instead, they continued to stare at one another.

Eventually, the standing and staring got to Opaline and she began to tire, her legs slowly giving out beneath her. Before she could even stumble, Animus was at her side, his arm around her waist, supporting her and allowing her to lean on him. Out of habit, she looped her arms around his neck to more comfortably lean against him, her body pressed against his.

It had been so long since he had been able to touch her intimately, and holding her so close to him was causing Animus' yearning for her to grow more and more the longer he held her. He hadn't kissed her in so long...

He wasn't able to kiss Opaline however, because she kissed him first.

Leaning against him, she arched her head and shyly brushed her lips against his for a very short moment. A bit startled, he gazed down into her eyes and saw fear. Fear of his rejection after everything she had done to him, pushing him away time and time again.

He wanted that fear gone; he could never let go, he could never stop loving her. And so he took the initiative and sought to banish her fears with another chaste kiss.

Animus had intended to kiss her only once, sensing she was still quite weak, but his intentions were swept completely away with Opaline's passionate insistence. She easily turned his sweet kiss into a hungry one as she fiercely sought out his lips, looking to quench a thirst within her that she hadn't realized she'd had. He quickly followed her lead and fell victim to his own overwhelming longing for her that had been consistently growing since they had first touched that night.

Opaline felt her strength returning to her as she and Animus continued to kiss, hanging onto one another like a lifeline. Simply being with him made her stronger. Everything else in the world around her seemed to fade away and all that was important was Animus and their love. Nothing mattered, but them.

Animus felt Opaline's legs wind around his waist as he lifted her into his arms, Thane's cape that she had been wearing falling to the dirt and hay-covered ground; he couldn't imagine her needing it right then as it was anything but cold. Propping her back against the shut doors of the stables, he continued to ravage her with kisses, moving from her swollen lips to the exposed side of her neck. He worked his fingers on the tie of her emerald cloak, hoping to strip her of it as soon as possible, when he finally noticed the heavy weight of the engagement necklace in his tunic pocket.

The concerns surrounding the necklace managed to cut a clear path through Animus's lust-ridden thinking, and he reluctantly pulled himself away from Opaline. She softly whimpered in protest at his stopping, and as hard as that was to hear for him, the determined Aerlyn stood his ground and lowered Opaline onto a nearby stool so that she wouldn't have to stand the entire time. "Is something wrong?" she questioned, her once pale cheeks completely flushed.

He thought hard for a moment, trying to think of something to say to her before giving her the necklace, but he was at a loss for words. So, he just removed the necklace from his pocket, got down on both of his knees before her, and with the necklace cradled in his palms, he presented it to her.

At first, when he had kneeled down in front of her, Opaline looked at Animus and giggled at his silliness. However, once she saw the beautiful gold necklace with the large dark blue sapphire set in the middle, the brunette immediately stopped giggling altogether, stunned. "Animus, this is, this is-"

"Marry me, Opaline."

The three simple words took all the breath out of Opaline. Her dizziness made a return visit, and she felt like she was almost going to faint again, but this time she put up a stronger resistance. She wasn't about to faint right when her lover was offering such a beautiful gift: his family's honor and his life. It was then that she decided that before either of them said anything else, she had to tell him what she had just learned earlier that afternoon.

"I'm pregnant, Animus."

Exactly as his words had done to Opaline, her words took the breath out of him. He almost thought that he might pass out! Opaline...carrying their child? It was frightening and wondrous at the same time. He would be a father to this beautiful woman's child? He couldn't believe it. The baby had to be a blessing from the Wildzords, acknowledging their love. It just had to be.

Animus lifted his face from gazing dazedly at the ground to gazing happily up at Opaline. Tugging her head down to his with one hand while holding on to the engagement necklace with the other, he kissed her passionately - his reaction to her news. "Now, you have to marry me," he teased after pulling away, resting his forehead against hers.

She nodded her head softly, a smile alighting her features and for a moment, she appeared as healthy as she'd been before falling ill. Her brown eyes glittered giddily. She took the necklace from his hand and held it up to her throat. "Care to put it on me?"

"Of course." He stood up from the ground, brushing his knees of the dirt, and then walked around to stand behind the High Priestess. Taking the two connecting gold chains from her slim fingers, he locked them together, allowing the engagement necklace to dangle securely from Opaline's neck. "I love you," he whispered against the shell of her ear, dropping a loving kiss against her neck. One of his hands snaked around her waist to rest tenderly on her abdomen, where their child was beginning his or her life.

She sighed, quite content, and leaned back into Animus. Her fingers reached behind her to climb up Animus' neck to find the soft curls of hair at the base of his nape and began to play with the hairs casually. "And I love you," she returned, ever so naturally.

In that moment together, they sat in silence, feeling only each other. The consequences of their actions - their engagement, their child, their forbidden love - were the farthest things from their minds, but soon enough, they knew they would have to confront it all. They would survive one way or another.

So long as they had each other, everything would be alright.

***

Vanault finally emerged from the Gathering Hall after having spent the entire afternoon there with a small group of Virginal Does, discussing the first three days of the Deerzord Festival and their concerns for the week to come.

Stepping out into the near deserted hallway, the High Priest privately wondered where everyone had gone. He followed the Virginal Does downstairs and headed toward the front gate of the Sanctuary, where all the Fawns appeared to be congregating. "High Priest! High Priest!" some of the children cried, very much glad to see the return of their teacher after his few days away from them.

He couldn't help but smile widely at the giddy faces of his Fawns. "It is good to see you as well," he greeted, tempted to simply return to his brood, who always seemed to draw out the best in him.

"Will you be staying with us and going to the see the Wolfzord legend with us tonight?" a random voice from within the crowd called out.

He was almost about to answer in the affirmative, but then he remembered his ill beloved; he had already left her alone for almost half the day, and he didn't feel comfortable leaving her alone for a longer period of time. "Unfortunately, I cannot, Shayla," he conceded to the voice - that hadn't been difficult to identify - as well as the gaggle of children before him. "The High Priestess and I still have much business to discuss over the next few days."

"High Priest Vanault!"

Turning toward the hallway beneath the North Wing, Vanault saw Rai heading in his direction, hiking up the long billowy skirt of her green dress in order to run. He smiled genuinely, honestly moved by his Clan sister's effort to see him. It seemed as if just yesterday she had been only five years, shy as ever. Now, she was a beautiful and bright twenty-two years. "Good evening, Sanctuary Priestess Rai!"

Rai nearly tackled him in a hug, quite glad to see her friend after so long; after living their entire lives together, two days apart was quite a long time for the young priestess. "It's so good of you to return," she mumbled in his ear, hugging the high priest tightly.

"I cannot stay."

"I know," said the young woman with a slight frown. "How is High Priestess Opaline?"

Vanault took not of the slight change in her tone and acknowledged that, as they were talking in front of the children - some who were paying close attention, while others were just playing around. "She is well," he replied with a small lie. She was well, but she was still ill also.

Deciding that it was indeed time for him to leave, Vanault said his parting goodbyes and proceeded to depart from the Wildzord Sanctuary.

He walked quickly along the city streets, hoping to beat the crowds that would soon flood the streets whilst traveling to the Wolfzord legend reenactment at the city center. The torches that lined the streets had already been lit as night had descended early with the coming of dark and heavy-looking clouds that hovered overhead. Vanault half-wondered if it would be a blizzard or a torrential rainstorm that they would bring. He didn't want to be caught in either, as he wanted to return to Opaline as soon as possible.

What had she done all day? Hopefully, she had caught up on some more sleep because even though she insisted she felt better, her face told him another story. Something dark weighed upon her, and he couldn't imagine what it was. If her illness didn't leave her soon, he would have to go to a Healer behind her back, even if she didn't like it. He loved her desperately, and he was concerned for her life.

Going around the back of the castle, Vanault entered through the castle gardens and exited through the gates that opened up to the back of the courtyard. He then proceeded to cross the courtyard, heading toward the entrance beside the stables to easily ascend the stairs up to the second level where Opaline resided. However, just as he passed the stables, he heard a sound that stopped him in his tracks.

He heard Opaline moan.

The dark-haired priest was near positive that it was Opaline who had emitted that moan he had heard emanate from the stables. The first night of her illness, he had heard moan in her unconscious state dozens of times. That was her moan. Yet, he had never heard her moan quite as...passionately?

Thoroughly confused by what he'd heard, Vanault sought to investigate further and quietly approached the stable doors, which were ever so slightly ajar - just enough to see inside.

He spotted a man - his back to Vanault - kneeled before a giggling Opaline, who sat upon a stool and appeared to be quite flushed. The priest watched from his position in the cold outside as words tumbled from both of their lips.

"Marry me, Opaline."

"I'm pregnant, Animus."

"Now, you have to marry me."

As Vanault watched the Animarian general place his engagement necklace around the High Priestess' neck, his mind spun with the new revelations that he had witnessed.

Opaline and...Animus?

The thought had never struck him. As a matter of fact, he was willing to bet it hadn't struck anyone else either! Why would the great and beauteous Opaline chase after a child in armor?! It was ridiculous! And she was to bear his child? It all sounded like some terrible nightmare...

Yet, it was the truth, as Vanault was watching it unfold before his eyes.

Feelings welled within him. Anger, disgust, hatred, betrayal... He wanted to explode on them both and call them what they were: traitors! Traitors to their friends, their family, their king...the entire kingdom! When everyone knew what they really were behind all the deception, they would be nothing but-

Vanault stopped his internal rage quickly, refusing to allow it to consume him. No, he wouldn't expose them then. He would bide his time, figure out the perfect moment, and then reveal them to everyone. They would never be able to fulfill their dreams; he wouldn't allow it.

He glared at them a moment longer through his peephole between the two doors before jerking himself up from the ground and away from the sight.

His humilation...his pain...he would revenge for what they had done to him, what they had stolen from him.

Happiness.

***

They moved to the hay pile next to the horses' stalls after sitting and leaning against each other had gotten a little uncomfortable.

He laid down on his back first and then slowly brought her down to lie beside him. He held her outstretched hands, gently tugging her toward him. She smiled at him the entire time - tired, but happy - as she took note of the heavy jewelry around her neck.

The Aerlyn engagement necklace was quite a bit heavier than the last engagement necklace given to her by her deceased husband. She supposed it was the design: the Baliton necklace's golden mount was encrusted with small diamonds and sapphires, while the Aerlyn necklace just had one large, dark sapphire at its center.

Cradling her head against Animus' chest, Opaline cuddled beside Animus' body for warmth, as it only seemed to be getting colder in the stables. How the horses could stand it, she didn't know. They probably never even really thought about it, and if that could work for them, then that was what she would do as well. Easily, she began to randomly speak the thoughts that entered her mind.

"I was being selfish."

Animus was slightly startled by her voice and was about to insist that she conserve her strength and not talk, but at the last moment, decided to simply be quiet and let her continue.

"Before, the idea of wearing this necklace," she idly fingered the jewel around her throat, "was a fantasy I could not afford to let myself indulge in. I refused even the notion of it because it meant sacrificing everything I had known.

"I loved being the High Priestess of Animaria. I loved living in the Castle of Tribute. I loved being a noble of the highest accord." She scoffed at what seemed to her materialistic-ness of everything she claimed to love. "For these meaningless things, I was willing to destroy my life and yours, by denying our love."

"You still love your position, Opaline; to love what you have worked your entire life for, it is not selfish."

"But it is! I nearly let all of my actions be dictated by my desires to retain my position!" She shook her head quite adamantly. "I wouldn't dare take the risk for our love; it was unknown territory, I didn't know what would happen."

"And when you found out you were pregnant, you changed your mind then?" Since she had accepted his proposal, Animus couldn't help but have the slightest lingering doubt as to whether she wanted to marry him because she loved him or because she was carrying his child.

"No, I did not choose to marry you out of fear or obligation to our child," she insisted lightly, craning her head so that she could stare into his intense hazel eyes looking down at her. "I made my decision while talking with your sister."

"My sister?!"

Opaline simply couldn't help herself and laughed merrily at his bewildered reaction. "Yes, your sister. I've heard many a people lament about how unnerving Lady Ariene's perceptiveness could be. Of course, I'd never experienced that first hand until I had a talk with her before my fainting spell."

"She told me about that, and I chided her for intruding in my personal affairs."

"For this once, I'm glad she interfered. When she told me about the necklace and how you were going to give it to some "mysterious" woman, I knew that you had been meaning to give it to me." Her voice slowly became softer as she grew somber. "It was then that I realized how foolish I had been, pushing you away and believing that our love was impossible. It was only impossible because I let myself be restrained by what was around me: rules, traditions, customs... They all were what I had grown up with, and I knew that if I just hid behind them, the greatest things in my life would simply pass me by. And so, I made my decision to seize my one opportunity and not let my fear destroy me."

Animus was quieted by her declaration of devotion and love. She had jumped off a cliff for him and was hoping that he'd catch her, which, of course, he did. But still, it was a great leap into the unknown; there was a price to be paid with their love, and she would pay it, as would he.

"And to think, I almost didn't give you the necklace!"

The older woman wasn't at all offended by his remark, as the bitter, sarcastic tone that his voice took told her there was more to his story that just that one statement. So, just as he allowed her to ramble, she allowed him to continue on.

"I had nearly convinced myself that our duty to Animaria was much greater than our duty to our love. After we left for the Hunt, Merrick was completely frustrated with whatever you had told him. He still couldn't wrap his mind around your courtship with Vanault. I had to continually reassure him that it was for the best, and that your motivations were purely for the sake of the betterment of the kingdom. Yet, he kept returning to one sticking point: in his eyes, you didn't love Vanault, only me.

"I tried to explain that fact away many ways, but every time, his honest innocence found its way through my jaded deceits and he only got more and more frustrated. And though I hid it well, so did I, because I couldn't explain it. Even when talking with my sister, I went so far as to call love a mistake."

The young general was no longer looking at his lover, but gazing at the wall, a haunted expression in his eyes. Opaline gently reached up and caressed his cheek with her fingers, reassuring him with her touch. "And what changed your mind?"

"My fight with Vanault."

Opaline nodded shortly. "Thane told me you were the one who gave him the bloody lip and not the wall."

For a moment, Animus turned to look at her unbelievingly. "He said the wall injured him?" His words were tinged with humor.

"He said he ran into the wall," she relayed with a light giggle.

He shook his head at the ridiculous excuse, a grin upon his lips. "If a man like that commands more respect than me, then our society truly is a corrupt one." Opaline gave him a questioning look, and he elaborated his words. "He wasn't letting me see you this morning, and we fought over it. I said that I would tell you about his eccentric behavior, and he implied that I had less standing than he did and that no one would believe my story because I couldn't compare to Ephane."

The brunette moved to prop her head up with her arm, glancing down on Animus' face. "That's absurd!" she insisted with a loud scoff. "As well as being the general of the entire Animarian Army, you are a noble! He does not have a single drop of noble blood in him! And you are just as great as Ephane!" She was silent for a moment and then murmured heatedly, "Vanault should not talk of things he knows nothing about..."

Animus chuckled at the defensive manner that she took as soon as he relayed the jibes that the high priest had taken at his character. "Thank you." An arm around her waist, he pulled her against him and kissed her chastely. "But, if it hadn't been for Vanault's ridiculous behavior, I might have been content to leave you to his ministrations! So let us be thankful, at least, for his stupidity."

She gasped at his words. She may not be in love with him, but she still cared a great deal for her childhood friend, no matter what he did. "Be a little kind. After all, he will be devastated when we announce our engagement."

"I think he will be alright. He will be the High Priest of Animaria and that should console him."

Both of them fell subdued at his seemingly light-hearted comment. Neither one of them had dared speak of the fallout of their decision until then. At best, they would be demoted from their positions in the army and the Wildzord Clan and be banished from the capital, but Merrick could come with them. At worst, they would be forced to leave the army and the Wildzord Clan, be banished from the kingdom, and Merrick would be taken away from Opaline. They both were hoping for the best.

"Where do you want to go afterward?" Animus finally broke the silence.

Opaline laid her head against Animus' chest and closed her eyes. She imagined a place beyond everything, beyond the rules and the ridicule, where they might be able to live out their lives happily. "Somewhere pretty, with wild horses, near the mountains, maybe, so we can see the snow on the peaks..."

***

Vanault's lips parted and a low, strangled cry was emitted as he crumpled to the floor in Opaline's room. He had just entered - carefully shutting the door behind him - and hadn't been able to take even one step before the onslaught of the emotions he fought to keep at bay overwhelmed him.

Sprawled on the floor in something that resembled a sitting position, his clouded blue eyes - filled with pain and anger - scanned the contents of the room, each object evoking a question in his mind.

Had he ever stood with her at that window and watched the sun rise?

Had he ever lit that torch to bring her light and warmth?

Had he ever watched her as she dressed in front of that mirror?

Had he ever kissed her in the doorway before bidding her goodnight?

Had he ever made love to her in that bed all through the cold night?

Vanault knew the answer to at least one of his questions and that alone angered him to the point where he wanted to rip the dark emerald rug from where it laid on the floor and toss it. However, before the urge became an action, he directed the energy toward a different outlet.

With a great, shuddering sigh, the High Priest threw himself completely to the floor, rocking back and forth on his knees with his forehead pressed to the cold, uncomforting stone. "Why me?" he gasped, sobs wracking his body. "Why me, Deerzord? Why do You always forsake me?"

He laid there for quite some time until he finally calmed down. Lifting himself off the ground, he sat down in the chair before Opaline's dresser. "All I wanted was to be loved by the woman who was my first love, Deerzord. All I wanted was never to be lonely again." He stared at the ceiling, somehow hoping that his words were falling on the ears of his Clan's wildzord. "Of all people, I think I was deserving. I served You faithfully, gave my life to You, in return for just one wish to be granted. To possess her and her love only for myself."

Vanault grew silent and his attention was drawn to a piece of paper sticking out of the top drawer of Opaline's dresser. Curiosity piqued, he pulled open the drawer to see many folded notes of a variety of shapes and sizes. Heat flushing his cheeks as he speculated about what they were, Vanault grabbed the one that had been peeking from the drawer and read it to himself. "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."

Furious once more, he delved through the notes much more vigorously, reading each one and only growing more and more upset. They were fairly banal notes to the casual eye, but the implications of secret rendezvous disgusted him thoroughly. He "didn't have the hear to wake" her, he could not "wait to have dinner with her," he would "meet her before breakfast to discuss" their plans... How could they be so deceptive?!

"And even when I served You devotedly, You give me this!" He threw his hand to motion revoltingly to the drawer filled with notes. "She was supposed to be mine! She should have been mine! No one could love her more than I! But You gave her away to that child-man that masquerades as a general." He tossed the notes back into the drawer and shoved it shut. "I can never forgive her." He bowed his head, shaking it softly. "I can never forgive You.

"Everything has been stolen from me. And now, I will steal everything from you."

***

Merrick yawned widely as he awoke from his night slumber. Feeling the cold air hit him full-force, he had to fight the urge to not burrow underneath his blanket and fall back into the sleep where he was ever so warm. He sat up, his blanket falling around his waist, and yawned yet again as he stretched.

The blurriness slowly leaving his eyes, the first thing he spotted was that the fire he had started the night before had gone out. Touching the cool ashes, he could tell that the fire had gone out long ago - perhaps even after he had gone to sleep - which was something he hadn't expected as there was still a lot of half-burned, dry wood sitting where the fire should have been.

It was only then that he noticed that the light was dim within the cave; it should have been at least a little brighter with the sunlight streaming through the cave opening. He glanced toward the cave opening and all he could see was whiteness.

Startled, Merrick jumped out of his makeshift bed and ran toward the opening. He peered outside into the forest and was met with another eyeful of white. The trees were white, the ground was white...he could hardly make anything out because of all the white! He simply couldn't believe it.

It had snowed last night.

He didn't dare step out into it, but he certainly could tell that the snow reached his knees, at least. How could this happen?! They had never been prepared for a winter climate! He had no equipment - no boots, no parka, nothing! And normally, relying on his own experience, it never snowed during the Deerzord Festival - always after!

Before he could get more of a taste of the sudden cold snap, Merrick scampered back over to his makeshift campsite. Grabbing his backpack, he opened it and began to empty it out, laying out everything he had on the ground in front of him.

No way was he going to let himself be stranded in that cave alone. Not when his mother needed him.

***

"Opaline, wake up."

"Hmm..." Pulling her arms out from underneath the covers, Opaline stretched them leisurely above her head with a small yawn. Tossing a quick glance to her window, she noticed the darkness and frowned. "The sun hasn't risen. There is still time to sleep."

"The sun should be appearing soon; the last storm clouds are upon us."

"Well then, I will just wait until it appears." Obviously still quite asleep, the woman turned over in her bed and pulled her blankets higher. "I'm quite tired from last night."

For a moment, Vanault simply stared at the bed, visions of what the night before might've held for her parading through his imagination. "I imagine you are," he voiced under his breath. He then proceeded to peel the blankets off Opaline in an effort to get her to wake up once more. She whimpered softly, and it took all that he had in him to keep from giving into her want for more sleep; she still held a magic over him - one that he couldn't understand - and he hated it. "Opaline, you must wake up."

"Why?" she murmured, eyes still pressed closed.

Vanault hesitated to tell her the reason, but eventually relented, knowing it was the surest way to get her out of bed. "General Animus is waiting to speak with the both of us."

"This early?!" Surprised, she immediately sat up and stepped out of the bed. She shivered involuntarily at the coldness of the floor against her bare feet, but that didn't stop her from proceeding to her chest of clothes sitting at the foot of her bed. Buried near the bottom of the chest, she found her uniform winter dress made of the richest and warmest velvet.

Stepping in front of her long mirror, she held the dress to her body, examining herself before putting it on. It was only then that she noticed her suitor standing beside her dresser, watching her every movement. "Vanault? Would you mind...?" she trailed off, motioning to the dress in her hands and saying nothing more.

With his back to her as she quickly stripped herself of her nightgown, the High Priest couldn't help but grit his teeth angrily at her hypocritical actions. She probably wouldn't have minded Animus watching her undress, and yet, as her official suitor - by the power of the Animarian king - he could barely touch her without her becoming uncomfortable.

"Done," she announced, and Vanault faced her once more, his breath taken away by her beauty.

No matter what she wore, Opaline wore it well. The clingy velvet material hugged her every curve tightly. Around the high collar and the ends of the long sleeves, bunches of silver-dyed soft wool served as insulation from the cold, offsetting the pallor of her skin from the dark green of the dress. She had seen fit to pull her curly hair back with a green ribbon as well, exposing her bright brown eyes from behind her bangs, which were much more aware than they had been just moments before.

A knock came to the door and Animus' voice followed. "May I enter?"

"Please do, General," the High Priestess acknowledged, as Vanault had momentarily fallen quiet.

The door opened and in came Animus, dressed in full-armor regalia from head to toe. The baggy nature of his flowing, dark blue clothing was restrained by his silver breastplate and gold belt, which held his scabbard where his sword laid in wait. At the center of the "v"-shaped breastplate was a golden medallion with the face of the Wolfzord engraved in it. Under one of his gloved arms, he held his helmet, and over his shoulders was his winter cloak, edges trimmed with the same soft silver wool that lined Opaline's dress.

Opaline's nose crinkled in earnest confusion. They had planned on announcing their engagement in front of the Royal Court that very day, but why he was dressed as if he was ready to do battle was beyond her. "Why are you dressed so...formally?"

"Haven't you noticed?"

"Noticed what?"

"He is speaking of what I was trying to tell you earlier," Vanault stepped in and explained, motioning toward the slowly lightening sky outside her window. "You normally rise with the sun, but today, there was no sun with which you could rise. Last night, a snowstorm passed over the kingdom; I even got stuck at the Sanctuary for the night." As he clarified the details of the situation, the High Priest also decided to toss in his excuse for having been gone the night prior.

"A snowstorm?" Opaline repeated to herself questioningly. "The snow is only supposed to fall AFTER the festival!"

Animus could only shrug at her insistence. "It seems as if my family's Wildzord has seen fit to fly on the cold winds earlier this season. However, this leaves us in a dangerous situation with the Hunt, no matter what weather the Eaglezord decides to bring us next. Those boys are stranded out there without any winter training or supplies; we must go and search for them."

At the thought of her precious son - her only son - trapped without her help, Opaline's worries grew tenfold. At the same time, her unborn child took advantage of her momentary weakness. Dizziness swept over her with nausea soon following, and she fought with every fiber of her being to stay standing.

"Opaline!" Both men were at her side instantly, flanking her and supporting her before she toppled over.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," she insisted, instinctively pushing herself off Vanault and leaning fully against Animus. "Just give me a moment."

Vanault's eyes narrowed at her movement, and Animus also took notice and quickly led her over to a chair where she would be able to sit and regain her strength.

"Perhaps I shouldn't have come," Animus spoke worriedly as Opaline eased back into the chair.

"Perhaps, you shouldn't have," Vanault echoed, a challenging tone to his words.

"No. I would've found out about the boys myself if you hadn't come."

Animus shifted on his feet uneasily and pulled at his long black gloves. "That's not the only thing I came to speak to you both about."

"You want our help?" Vanault asked incredulously, his gaze focusing on the young man on the other side of the room.

"Yes," the general admitted, though certainly not without hesitation. "The snow outside is thick and high, as you know since you came from the Sanctuary." He directed his last comment toward Vanault.

Vanault nodded his head. "I had to forcefully move through the snow with my magic; otherwise I would've never gotten here."

"We need that; we need your magic," Animus blatantly stated. "I have fifteen of my best men ready to ride out with me to the Wolf Forest to start searching for those three boys, but with only our horses, it would take two days at least. However, if there were magic users blasting the snow out of our way, we could get there by sundown if we rode our horses hard enough."

"I will go."

Both men quickly turned to look at the sitting High Priestess. "I don't think so," Vanault declared, directly opposing her decision to go. "You couldn't possibly make it out there in your condition-"

"SHUT UP, VANAULT!" Opaline finally screamed, deciding to let out her frustrations about everything that had been occurring in her life in one spew. "I'm so sick and tired of you keeping me locked away like a precious toy! I may be ill, but I believe I am capable of making my own decisions, and I've decided to go with the general and his search party and help them!" She paused, her heart racing and her chest heaving. "My son is out there and I have to bring him home!"

"Fine then," he eventually replied, quite tight-lipped as he made a valiant effort to keep his hurt and anger at bay. "If you want to drain your energy, be my guest. But I won't let you go alone; I will come along and help as well."

Animus maintained a quiet stance momentarily, looking back and forth between his lover and her suitor. For once, Vanault and him actually agreed on something: neither one of them wanted Opaline joining the search party; Animus had only wanted Vanault's help, which he was sure would have been enough. However, having just witnessed the futility in fighting Opaline on her decisions, Animus settled on letting her come with them - he simply would have to watch her carefully.

"Meet my men and me down in the stables, and wear your warmest clothes."

***

Merrick winced through his teeth as he pressed forward, the cold, wet snow seeping through his once dry pants. The thought came to him once more to simply turn around and return back to the cave, but he pushed that aside knowing that it was no longer a valid choice: he was too far from the cave to return now.

The young boy stumbled onward, forcing his legs through the snow to move him just another step into the forest. Gripping the straps of his pack that was slung tightly over his shoulders, Merrick struggled to keep his balance so that at least his upper body would remain dry for the time being. The noonday sun beat down on him, staving off the chill in the air from the fresh snow.

Eventually, he made it to a tree and collapsed against the rough bark of its trunk, obviously needing to rest. Pulling his pack so that it momentarily hung from the front, Merrick opened it and dug inside, finding a few roots and berries that he had saved up from the night before when he had gone scavenging. Famished, he gobbled them down, chewing every last piece to its fullest.

Looking back at the deep path he left behind in the snow, he considered whether it had been wise to move from the spot from within the cave. Training told him that it was stupid, since they all had been taught to stay in one place when lost, but somehow, his instinct told him that searching for the others was the best plan. Besides, he imagined that Animus was already on his way to search for the three of them; there was no way he'd leave them alone in a situation they were unfit to handle.

Merrick shifted against the tree and hissed as another jab from the icy snow shot up his leg. He wished Ryden were there with him. Ryden would know how to make fun of their situation; he was sure of that. And of course, Van would have to be there as well to make his sharp, snide side remarks. They would be laughing so much that they'd even forget that they were stranded in the middle of the forest. By the time they were rescued, time would have flown by so quickly that they would only be left to wonder where it had all gone.

In reality though, the three of them were separated and Merrick was all alone, not a friend in sight. No mother, no mentor, no friends... No father. Of course, the last missing person was not a recent development. His father had been dead for years.

No one had ever told Merrick how his father had died; whenever he asked about it, he was always given the general explanation that Ephane's death had been an accident. Of his father's death, he remembered little. There were the sad faces of all the ladies and the long solemn faces of the men. There were his mother's cries of anguish - cries he hoped never to hear again. There was the intense heat of the fire...but nothing more.

Merrick wondered if Ephane had died like this, cold and alone. Had his mother been there when he was taking his last dying breaths, comforting and assuring him to the end? What sort of accident stole away the life of his ever so great father? Everything was so long ago, so distant; Merrick honestly could not imagine that this man - his father - had ever even lived. It seemed that Ephane Baliton would forever be a legend to be heard of, but never to be truly felt.

Bracing himself against the trunk behind him, Merrick pushed off the tree and stood unaided in the snow, his pack slung over his back. One thing for certain was that Merrick would not become a simple story like his father; he would not leave his mother with only a story to remember him by.

And with one foot forward at a time, he proceeded to make sure that he didn't.

***

"Opaline, how are you feeling?" Animus gently prodded as his horse slowed with the others to approach a nearby, still-flowing stream.

Opaline, who was riding with the general, much to Vanault's chagrin, nodded her head softly. "A little break would be good," she conceded in a whisper. Her tired arm, which she had been using to project her energy forward to forcefully move the snow aside out of the horses' path, was already hanging limply at her side. She left it up to Vanault to clear the surrounding area of snow so that they could dismount.

"Here." Dropping the reigns he held in one of his hands, he took her arm into his free hand and gently massaged it, helping her relax the tense muscles. "Try not to overexert yourself; you are not the only one you are putting at risk anymore."

The High Priestess smiled lightly and naturally rested against Animus' chest, forgetting where they were and whom they were with. "Already so protective," she murmured, a little giggle escaping from her.

"Always protective of my family."

Before she could reply, Mave and Vanault rode up alongside them and the two secret lovers were startled out of their comfortable positions. "How are you feeling, High Priestess?" Vanault queried, honest concern lining his voice.

"I'm fine."

The High Priest examined the easy way Opaline seemed to curl up in Animus' embrace, the young man's arm wrapped carefully around her waist as she sat in front of him, riding side saddle. Jealously simmered just below the surface. "What of your arm?"

Opaline glanced over at her arm, still gingerly held in Animus' hand. "It was just a bit tired; the General offered to help me relieve the tension," she returned demurely, not willing to cause another fight to break out between the two men over something so little.

Animus climbed off the back of Fauna, and Vanault eagerly followed suit, climbing off the back of Marron. The two of them together helped Opaline slide off the horse and steady herself on the newly cleared ground. "How long do you think it will be until we reach the forest, General?" Vanault asked, taking Opaline's hand into his own and guiding her to his side.

"At the pace we're going, we should arrive at the Wolf Forest just before nightfall," Thane joined the conversation, answering the question for his commander. His eyes were on Opaline the entire time he spoke. "This is a walk in the park for you, isn't it, High Priestess?"

The woman silently thanked the Wildzords for the prince's light words. The last thing she needed to hear was another, "How are you feeling?" She was fine, or at least, she would be once she took a little rest. "Very easy," she relayed back to him with a grateful smile.

Thane nodded, acknowledging her words, but not believing them as she was only playing along with him. The strain that using her magic continuously caused was evident in the way she supported herself on Vanault, literally using him as a crutch. Simply seeing her in such a deteriorated state upset the young soldier. "General," he turned to face Animus, "may I speak to you privately?"

"Of course," Animus granted, walking side by side with Thane as he pulled away from the two magic users. Once they were a safe distance from the rest of the search party, the blond man spoke to his dark-haired companion. "Is there something wrong, Thane?"

"Why did you bring Opaline?" Gone was the prince's teasing tone of before; now he exposed just how upset he was. "You know she is ill, but you still let her come?!"

"She's not ill, just weak."

Thane was about to spout off a little more of his aggravation, until he noted Animus' calm exterior as he stared off into the bright white landscape. "How do you know that?"

"She told me," he stated. "She went to see a healer yesterday, Thane. You took her, or have you forgotten?"

"No, no. I haven't forgotten, but if you knew she was weak, then why-"

"Why argue with her?" Animus shrugged, crossing his gloved arms across his chest. He realized how lame the reason sounded, but honestly, it was the major reason why she had been allowed to come. That, and he felt better with her close by than back at the castle, under the ever so watchful eye of Vanault. "She has served as your mother for the past eight years. You know how stubborn she is; she would rather waste all her energy arguing her point, than give in to the other side - especially where it concerns the well-bring of you, Princess Shayla, and Merrick. She loves each of you dearly."

"I know."

"Then just support her right now. That's all we can really do in the given situation. That, and find Merrick as soon as possible."

The young man gave a curt nod, as if what he had been told was an order rather than a suggestion. It was strange, Thane thought to himself as he regarded Animus' profile for a moment. He had just spoken so genuinely, like he knew her heart just as well as her mind. Their friendship was very strong. Having been forged out of death, Thane supposed that it would have to be to survive.

Leaving the general to take in more of the scenery or lack thereof, Thane returned to Pence, who drank with the other horses at the edge of the stream.

***

"Be careful and don't stray far from this area."

"General, I insist-"

"High Priestess, I must insist that you stay here. It is for your own safety, and it will aid us in moving faster to find the missing boys. Please, stay here."

Opaline stared disdainfully at the back of Animus' head as he moved forward on his horse and mobilized his men to begin their search. Just moments before, they had arrived at the spot where Animus decided to set up camp and as some of the soldiers began to unload their supplies, he had started to distribute assignments to them all, dividing them into three search groups; he failed to include Opaline and Vanault in his appointments. Instead, he relegated the task of setting up their camp for the night to the two magic wielders, a job for which they were obviously overqualified.

"Pouting like an inconsolable child doesn't befit you, Opaline," Vanault whispered, half in honesty and half out of spite. Coming up behind her, he placed a warm arm around her shoulders.

"Shouldn't you be jumping for joy?" she spat, tired of behaving nicely with everyone around her. She was cold, exhausted, worried, and irritated. She was the High Priestess; once in awhile, she should be allowed to act a little selfish.

"I am relieved," he returned, watching the fifteen men on their horses begin to slowly move away from them as they separated into three directions, traversing slowly through the icy snow that hadn't been plowed away.

Opaline twisted herself from his embrace and stepped away from Vanault. "You can set up the camp on your own."

He kept his blue eyes focused on her as she wandered over to the edge of the cliff on which they were camping out. She easily lifted the hem of her skirt up to her knees as she waded through the snow with her protective boots. "Only if you rest," he said, setting his requirement. "You spent almost the entire day projecting your magic and you are moody and acting childish. General Animus must've seen those things just as well as I, because for once, I can say that I agree with decision to leave us behind. You need rest, Opaline."

She snapped around to glare darkly at him, the hood of her dark green woolen parka falling from her head. "I need to find my son, Vanault."

The High Priest shook his head, deciding to let her be for the time being. She couldn't exactly go anywhere as the cliff drop was in front of her, and the only way off the precipice was walking past him. He moved toward the supplies left behind by the soldiers in efforts to actually start building a camp, monitoring Opaline from a distance by listening to the crunch of her boots against the frozen ground.

Once he had managed to start a fire with some dry logs that the soldiers had brought along in their supplies, Vanault headed over to where Opaline stood at the edge of the cliff. The beauty of the sun falling on the horizon had entranced her, dousing the sky with its last brilliant hues of reds, oranges, and yellows. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her midsection and one might mistake her for being cold, but Vanault knew otherwise. He felt a sharp pang of jealousy splinter within him.

Why hadn't he picked up on it earlier, he had no idea. Her pregnancy was so visible to him, so obvious. Her magical aura reeked of the change: the calm sea green quality of her aura was no more and it certainly wasn't a duller shade, which would show it reflecting illness. It was vivid, fresh, and new, reflecting the new life within her that she carried. Of course, there could be many reasons as to why her aura was brighter, but compounded with her illness over the past few days, no reason better explained it all than her being pregnant.

Pregnant with that...boy's child.

Disgusting.

"You must be feeling well."

Opaline narrowed her eyes at Vanault. "This is no time for jokes, Vanault. I'm ill and my son is lost in this snow paradise. In no way do I feel well."

"Your aura is telling me otherwise, Opaline." He didn't know why he was pressing, but it felt right. It had only been one day, but he already was sick of hiding the secret he held. "You can't lie."

Almost instantly, a startled and mortified look passed over her face. She couldn't see her aura, but she did remember what Bren has told her the day before: her aura had told the healer that she was pregnant before anything else. Could Vanault see this as well? She certainly wouldn't be surprised if he did, as his magic ability was at a level that nearly rivaled her own. "Lie about what?" she returned, still not sure as to what he was alluding to.

He stepped closer to her and instinctively reached out to lift her chin up, so that he was staring down directly into her eyes, guilt swirling within them. Leaning forward so that their noses nearly touched, he whispered harshly, "You are pregnant."

"That's preposterous!" she cried instantaneously, recoiling from his touch, his accusation. She was well aware that she was outright lying to Vanault's face, but she couldn't help it, as it had become a trained reflex over the years.

Her ability to lie to him even when it was evident that they both knew the truth was a complete insult to him. The entire situation was an insult to Vanault! "Really? Preposterous?" he scoffed, an edge growing in his voice as his anger bubbled. "What's preposterous is the idea that you could ever love me, while you were dallying with your child lover in the stables!"

Opaline's jaw dropped at his harsh, vulgar, yet truthful words. He had seen them the night before! That's the only way he could've known she was pregnant as well with the mention of the stables! "How DARE you speak to me that way!" she yelled at him, stepping forward and slapping him across the cheek with all her might. "How dare you spy on my personal-"

"How dare you slap me...WHORE!" the dark-haired man was far past the state where he could restrain himself, and was simply letting his violent emotions run amuck. He seized her wrist and roughly pulled her close, grabbing a fist full of her hair with his free hand. "You think you are holy, High Priestess?" he sneered. "You think you are worthy of that title? Running around with boys, giving yourself freely, breaking every tradition and custom known to our society, and bearing his child?! You are nothing near holy!"

Fear overwhelmed Opaline and she could feel nothing else. Held in the painful grip of the man she viewed as her friend, she finally truly saw him for what he was: a broken and disturbed man. She had thought that their friendship from childhood had mended those emotional wounds of abandonment and loss, but apparently even she could not heal those deep, deep cuts. "Vanault," she slowly whispered, pleading, "please, you are hurting me..."

"I'm hurting you like you hurt me, Opaline," he explained simply, tugging hard on her hair and jerking her head backwards. "All I wanted was your love, and even when I gave you all of mine, it still wasn't enough. You couldn't see past your infatuation with that stupid general of yours." He laughed darkly. "Both of them! Tell me, Opaline, why always a general? Was I not good enough?"

The high priestess didn't dare respond and struggled to look away from Vanault's piercing glare. Turning her own gaze away, out of the corner of her eye she noticed something moving on the snowy forest floor below and instantly released a yelp of, "HELP!"

Vanault immediately jerked her head back viciously once more at her cry for help and took a moment to turn around to see if anyone was indeed there. There was. The last person he wanted to see.

Merrick.

"Mother?" the young boy called out, unsure of what he was seeing in the fading light of the day. He had spent the majority of the day wading through the snow doggedly and fatigue was also slowly wearing him down. All he could make out from his position at the edge of the clearing were two people above on the cliff, but that was all. "Mother?"

Opaline recognized her son's tired, but resounding call and replied right back. "MER-rick!" Vanault muffled the second syllable of the boy's name by pressing his gloved hand over her mouth.

Taking advantage of having her hands freed, Opaline quickly pushed Vanault away from herself, causing him to loose his balance and fall backwards into the snow. She quickly moved backwards away from Vanault, trying to get as far away as possible from him. Unfortunately, she forgot just how close to the precipice of the cliff she had been and within four steps, fell over the edge.

Her scream resounded in both Vanault and Merrick's ears as she fell and landed in the snow of the lower clearing, face down, the dark green of her clothing a stark contrast to the clean whiteness of the snow.

"MOTHER!" Merrick yelled; his voice strained with emotion. Motivated like nothing before, he pushed through the snow and was at his mother's side within moments. He threw aside the snow surrounding her and carefully turned her over, so that she was lying on her back, eyes shut. "Momma... Momma, wake up..." He coaxed her.

Opaline could hear his voice calling her. From the first cries he emitted at his birth, she had never forgotten the unique tone of his voice. Gradually, her eyes fluttered open and looked up into the face of her young son above her. "Merrick..." She coughed slightly, a touch of blood drooling from the corner of her lips. "I found you." She smiled slightly, her brown eyes quickly losing their brightness.

Watching his mother dying before him, Merrick could not hold any of his emotions back. Tears streamed down his cheeks, his gaze never wavering from her as he cradled her head in his lap. "Everything will be alright now," he assured her softly, brushing some stray hairs from her forehead. "Animus will come and he'll save you and-"

Opaline's head suddenly darted to one side, causing him to break off in the middle of his speech. She gazed long and hard off into the snowy distance with her cloudy brown eyes, obviously seeing something that Merrick couldn't. After a moment, a sad smile graced her lips and she nodded ever so slightly. "The Wildzords are calling to me, Merrick," she whispered, still struggling to speak as she coughed again and more blood appeared on her lips. She didn't want to go, she didn't want to leave Merrick and Animus behind, but the Wildzords had guided her so far in her life and she believed in them fully. They wouldn't lead her astray. "They say it is my time to go..."

"NO!" Merrick cried, fiercely shaking his head. "No! You can't leave me! You promised you would never leave me alone and I promised I would never leave you! No one can take you from our world of two!"

"I will never leave you," she assured him, returning her dull eyes to lock with his emotional blue eyes. "I will be with you." She coughed yet again, this time rather violently and had to pause to recover her already weak voice. "I will be with you whenever the wind blows. I will protect you always. You are my son, Merrick. I love you."

Opaline turned her head again to gaze at the same spot she had just moments before. They were there... Lionzord, Deerzord, Tigerzord, Eaglezord, Bisonzord, and beside Wolfzord, she saw her once lost love. Ephane. Oh, how she thought he had been gone to her forever! He beckoned to her with his hand, motioning to her to come to him. She reached out her hand toward him, trusting in him, and as she felt herself drawing closer to them, she felt their warmth, and then...

Merrick watched, horrified, as his mother's hand fell at her side and the last signs of life in her eyes flickered away, her brown irises falling cold. "MOMMA!" he screamed vainly, one last time, trying to call her back from wherever she had gone with the Wildzords. When she didn't revive, the reality of her passing set in and he sobbed uncontrollably over her body, the boy's shoulders heaving with the weight of his loss.

From above on his perch on the cliff, Vanault watched the scene unfold, completely and utterly devastated. Opaline was dead. His beautiful Opaline was dead. Her radiance would never grace his life ever again. And it was that brat's entire fault! Had he not shown up and drawn her attention, they could've resolved their argument...but no! He distracted her, causing her to plunge to her death.

"YOU KILLED HER!"

Merrick jerked his head up and through his tears saw High Priest Vanault staring down on him. "I didn't, I didn't kill her!" he stuttered, trying to regain control of his wavering voice.

"You distracted her! She was trying to save you when she fell!" Vanault's lies and justifications came to him quite easily; fueling his own beliefs that he hadn't been responsible for the death of the woman he loved. "You killed her, Merrick! No one will ever forgive you!"

"No! I didn't kill her! I didn't mean to kill her! It was an accident!"

"Just like your father's death! Always an accident with you, Merrick!"

The boy was standing up now, confusion painting his wet face. "What?"

"Don't you think it was a bit strange how no one ever told you how Ephane died? No one told you, because he died saving you! You were just a baby at your family home when a brush fire started near the orchards where you were with your mother; Ephane saved the two of you, but he didn't survive! You killed your father and now, your mother as well!"

"No..." The memories seemed to come quickly to him, the tall grass turning into tall, bright, fiery flames. The smell of his mother's dress as she pressed his face into it while she ran around in the thick smoke, searching for an escape. "No..." Crying as the smoke stung his eyes, and being lifted into his father's arms one last time. His mother screaming her husband's name as she ran out of the fire and he ran into it, in search of her. "NO!"

"YES!" Vanault insisted. "You killed him, you killed her...KILLER!"

"I..." Merrick couldn't find his words as the entirety of his life spun around in his mind. His mother and his father...dead, all due to him... He glanced at his mother's still body, lying in the snow. "So sorry..." he whispered, his voice cracking just before he ran off as fast as he could from the scene, into the dark forest evening.

End of First Legend: The Wolves' Downfall

Legends Of Animaria: The Story