Valerian & Dormal – Unexpected Paths

“I trust your judgement.”

“I am really sorry about all this.”

“That’s the third time you’ve said that. Really, Valerian, you don’t have to keep apologizing.”

He could almost hear the sigh in Dormal’s voice, but he got the feeling he was being diplomatic about all this.

He poked carefully at the fire they’d managed to start, checking to make sure the smoke was flowing up and out of their small hideaway as it should be.

“You’re brooding, Val, I can tell.”

He winced, unable to help himself. His brother could read him as well as their mother, if not better. It wasn’t that he meant to brood, he just couldn’t get the sight of Dormal’s shocked face out of his mind.

When he’d suggested hiking in the Ramtops, on one of his brother’s rare vacations, Valerian hadn’t expected the massive storm front that had unleashed its fury on top of their heads.

They’d been attempting a climb when the rain had started, gentle at first. He knew of a safe spot, a cave, sure they could make it, but a sudden torrent had washed the very path out from under them. He’d been pulled along by the deluge, bruised and battered, and dumped out on the valley floor.

His search for Dormal had been a short but frantic one, and they’d clasped each other tightly before they’d been forced to hurry away into a nearby cave to lick their wounds, lacking their gear, with clothes sodden with water and mud.

It was a disaster.

“Valerian.”

The voice startled him out of his thoughts. Dormal stood, moving a bit stiffly, though his stride was far better than the bit of limp Valerian was currently sporting. He laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder and squeezed gently.

“There was nothing to be done. You didn’t know the storm was going to hit. We’re both in one piece, though I think a bit of healing might be in order. You got it rather worse than I did.”

“How’d you manage to do that?” He asked, a bit of a wry grin touching his lips. He found it helped, sometimes, to inject a bit of levity into a situation like this.

Not everyone appreciated it, though a faint smile touched Dormal’s lips.

“You were watching the path, so I must have seen the water coming first. I was able to get a shield around myself before it hit. I guess all those lessons with Mother really paid off.” For a moment his smile widened, before it faltered. He hesitated. “I was really worried about you, Val. I couldn’t see anything, and I kept getting slammed into things. I was sure I’d find you with your head smashed on a rock or something. You’re lucky you’re not half dead right now.”

There was the worry Valerian had known was there. His look softened and he laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder in return.

“I know, I was lucky. That must have been one hell of a scare.” He didn’t usually have an audience when something like this happened.

“Does this sort of thing happen to you often?”

“Not often, no, but sometimes. Accidents are inevitable when traveling. I try my best to be prepared so they don’t.”

Dormal sighed. “I know traveling is your life, but it’s hard not to worry about you. What if you’d been by yourself?”

“It’s not as bad as it seems. Silverbell is usually only a thought away, if the worst happens.” Without thinking he gently rubbed his right eye, a reminder of a time when he had been alone. His eye patch had been lost in the flood and he hadn’t been able to find it. Dormal didn’t seem to mind, though, meeting both his blue eye and his yellow with equal measure.

“But that’s not always an option, is it?” He questioned, fixing Valieran with a look.

His brows furrowed lightly, but he got a feeling he knew where this was coming from.

“Dormal, I’ve been traveling for years now, and this is no different than it’s always been. I’m used to it. But what about you? Are you really all right?”

His brother looked away for a moment, staying silent.

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

The both of them were still in their wet clothes, looking a bit like drowned rats, but when Dormal looked back at him, for just a moment, he looked wretched.

“I was scared,” he said, voice almost so quiet Valerian couldn’t hear it over the rain. “All the times we sneaked out, those few attacks at the palace, none of that were like this. I didn’t have any control. All I could do was hang on and hope it ended with me and you in one piece. What would I have done if I’d found you dead? What if I hadn’t made it? The kingdom would be in turmoil. Silverbell would have to take the throne and-”

“Dormal, stop.” His voice was firm, but soft, and it had the desired effect.

Dormal was staring, a bit wide eyed, looking as shell-shocked as he had when Valerian had found him after the torrent.

“I know it’s hard, but you can’t let yourself be swallowed in ‘what-ifs’. I know how it feels. Every time something goes wrong on a trip I ask myself what could have happened. I think I will no matter how long I do this. Being third-born doesn’t excuse me from my responsibilities, to you, to the throne, and the kingdom.”

“Then how do you keep doing it?”

“I remember something Domerin said, after the first time something like this happened.”

At the mention of his father, Dormal leaned forward, listening eagerly.

“I started asking him all those same questions and he told me not to worry about all the what-ifs. He told me that I should celebrate that I was alive. I took that to heart. After all, if you can’t trust Domerin’s advice, what can you trust?” Dormal’s father had far more experience with this sort of thing than either of them did, or would likely ever have.

“And that’s all? He just sent you on your merry way?”

“Well, no. He told me I should be more prepared next time, so that it didn’t have to come to that. And I spent some time after that traveling populated places. It took me time before I ventured back out into the wilds. But, let me tell you something my brother, it is always worth it.”

Dormal nodded, and though he didn’t perk up immediately, the shock had faded, leaving him looking thoughtful.

Eventually Valerian poked him gently in the arm.

“Come on, we should get out of our wet clothes. We don’t want to get pneumonia. I really would have to call Silverbell then.”

“You haven’t called her already? We lost all our gear.”

“It should be out there. We’ll go looking before it gets dark. I thought I’d wait to see how bad off we were before I called in the cavalry.”

He winked at his brother. “Didn’t think you’d want to cut your vacation short. We should be fine if we can salvage enough of our gear, and we can try the climb again tomorrow, if it’s safe enough. How does that sound?”

Dormal looked a little hesitant, but eventually nodded. He got vacations so rarely that he didn’t really want to leave. An airship ride back home would be relaxing, but it wasn’t the sort of trip he wanted. Besides what, what sort of a man would he be if he didn’t try again?

“I trust your judgement,” he said simply.

Valerian blinked at him, in the process of stripping off his shirt.

“Well, there was your first mistake right there. You should never, ever trust my judgement.”

“What?”

“Well… you know what they say about curiosity and cats.” Only the hint of a grin betrayed his teasing.

Dormal shot him a look, and threw his sodden shirt in his direction. It hit Valerian square in the face, drawing a peal of laughter from Dormal.

“That’s not even remotely funny, brother!”

“You did laugh,” he observed as he peeled the shirt from his face, using a mock serious tone.

“At the thwack my shirt made as it impacted your thick skull.”

“Fair point.” He finally broke down in to laughter of his own, and tossed Dormal his shirt back. “Come on, lets tell stories until we’ve had a chance to rest up. The rain should have stopped by then.”

Dormal accepted the invitation, and soon the cave was filled with warmth, light, and laughter that even the rain and thunder couldn’t dull.

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Episode 52 – Clipshow

FADE IN:

EXT. KING’S CASTLE – NIGHT

In the center of the kingdom stands the castle, where King Dormal rules with a fair hand. The castle and the land around is covered in a blanket of snow, bathing the land in a quiet softness. It is the last winter holiday before the new year.

DISSOLVE TO:

INT. KING’S CASTLE – THE KING’S CHAMBERS – NIGHT

The royal family is gathered in the main room, settled on various couches and chairs. They are dressed in casual attire, no need for formality around each other. A fire burns in the hearth. Bottles of wine and mulled cider are laid out on a table nearby. A clock on the wall reads 10:30 P.M.

CRESCENT, blonde and mischievous, partner to Domerin, sits on the couch. He rests against Domerin, and he speaks animatedly.

CRESCENT

“…and I told him he wasn’t allowed to leave bodies in the kitchen anymore.”

Crescent pauses dramatically, drawing laughs from the rest.

VALERIAN, Crescent’s son, young and tanned, looking happy and full of life, holds a half-empty wine glass.

VALERIAN

(laughing)

“I don’t care how many times you tell that story, Crescent, it never stops being funny. I wish you’d tell us more about when you worked as a mercenary. There’s so much we don’t know.”

CRESCENT

“A lot of what I did back then wasn’t exactly family friendly.”

VALERIAN

“Oh come on, dad. We’re all adults now.”

CRESCENT

(grinning)

“Maybe someday, but it probably isn’t all that appropriate tonight, of all nights.”

ROSE, former Queen, still regal of bearing, has her own wine glass. Her eyes sparkle with mirth.

ROSE

“I hardly thought we’d be talking about dead bodies during the holiday.”

CRESCENT

“I’m sorry. That story is probably better in very different company.”

ROSE

(laughing)

“Oh, I know the sort of people. I’m sure they tend to have several pints in them by that point too.”

SILVERBELL, princess and only daughter of Rose. Her face is framed with curls, and she is outgoing and vivacious. She stands nearby, looking out the window.

SILVERBELL

(glancing over)

“Given how many people are drinking tonight, maybe we should have broadcast your story on the news.”

DORMAL, young king, and son of Rose and Domerin. He sits near his brother, glass of wine in hand. He has a strong, kind face, and a welcoming smile.

DORMAL

(laughing)

“And send people running out of their houses into the snow?”

SILVERBELL

“I suppose your right. And we don’t exactly want drunk people running around in the snow. It’s not coming down, but it’s pretty deep out there.”

CRESCENT

“Reminds me of that time we found that elemental. You remember, Domerin? In the middle of winter. I thought our fingers were going to fall off from frostbite.”

DOMERIN, strong elven warrior, father to Dormal, and partner to Crescent. He is relaxed and open in his family’s company, and has his arm around Crescent.

DOMERIN

“I remember that one well. It wasn’t quite frostbite levels, but it was pretty bad.”

DORMAL

“I don’t think I’ve heard that one before, father.”

DOMERIN

 “Oh, well, this was a long time ago now, back before Crescent even worked in the capital. He was still working as a mercenary and we’d contracted him to work with us on a job because he had some knowledge of the location.

DISSOLVE TO:

EXT. VILLAGE OF ASTIL – DAY

The village stands at the foot of a grand mountain range. A thick layer of snow covers the ground, bathing the dark wooden buildings in a crusting of white.

DOMERIN (V.O.)

“We had gone to this little town called Astil, near the Ramtops. They made an appeal for help, and we went in hearing stories of strange things happening in the area.”

Villagers stand outside in the snow, in front of a large wooden building, dressed in thick winter clothing. Many shift, looking nervous. The mayor addresses Domerin, Crescent, Rilan, Valia, and other members of their team.

CRESCENT (V.O.)

“They told us people had started going missing in the snow. These were people used to the area, mind. They would hear voices on the wind. Laughter rumbling down from the mountain.It was eerie.The locals said they thought had to do with this old ritual site outside town, though it hadn’t been used for centuries.”

CUT TO:

EXT. OUTSIDE VILLAGE OF ASTIL – DAY

Domerin and his group make their way up into the foothills, riding snowmobiles borrowed from the village. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, despite the chill, but the group keeps a sharp lookout for danger. They arrive in a circle of trees, and approach something dark.

DOMERIN (V.O.)

“When we went to investigate we found this mound of stones, just under the snow, not even up to my knees. It was covered in frozen flowers. The villagers told us they put them there every year. Some sort of a tradition from long ago. The place reeked of magic. We hardly probed when all hell broke loose.”

Valia kneels in front of the mound, magic light pulsing in her hands.Everything goes still, then there is a rumble, and a shake. Air and snow begin to rush down the mountain, and swirl madly at the group. It forms into a large ice elemental.

DOMERIN (V.O.)

“Valia told us later the creature had been stirring, pulling people into the snow. She felt awful for waking it up, but everyone knew it wasn’t her fault. At the moment all we could do was fight it. We couldn’t let it run rampant. It was one hell of a fight, though. Everything was blurry with the snow, and you could smell the storm in the air.”

The elemental attacks, and the group fights back with weapon and spell. The battle is fierce, and at one point Rilan is injured. Eventually, after a long and grueling fight, the elemental dissolves into snow.

FADE IN:

INT. KING’S CASTLE – THE KING’S CHAMBERS – NIGHT

DOMERIN

“That thing was a nightmare to take down. One of the hardest elementals I think I’ve ever fought. We’re lucky we didn’t lose anyone.”

CRESCENT

“It was lucky, though poor Rilan was sick for weeks after that. He got hit pretty bad by that thing. We all took turns going to help take care of him.”

DOMERIN

“He did, but the work got done. I haven’t heard any trouble from there since then.”

DORMAL

(leaning forward in his chair, wine forgotten)

“Sounds like it was terrifying. Part of me wishes I could have been there to see it, but I’m grateful to be where it’s nice and warm.”

VALERIAN

“Maybe I could steal you away this coming year and we could go visit.”

DORMAL

(smiling)

“That would be nice, but maybe we could aim for summertime”

VALERIAN

(grinning)

“Don’t have to tell me twice. You really should try to take some time away this year, Dormal. You deserve it.”

ROSE

(lifts her glass, eyes sparkling)

“Maybe you could even come and visit me.”

VALERIAN

(perks up)

“You should! It’s warm there, and peaceful. I could fall asleep in front of Mother’s fireplace. The nights are dark and it’s so quiet. You wake up, birds are singing. No traffic, or people pounding on your door all the time.”

ROSE

“Not usually anyway. I get callers, sometimes. I like my privacy, but I don’t mind seeing a friendly face every now and again.”

DORMAL

(wistful)

“It sounds wonderful. Maybe I will plan to come visit you later this year. It would be nice to get away from the castle for awhile, and all the things that are hard to escape. I’d love to take a walk in the woods around there.”

VALERIAN

“It’s not a crime to take a break, Dormal. Let me know when, I’ll meet you there. I can show you all around. It’s really lovely. (pauses, grinning) Well, as long as you stay away from the caves.”

DORMAL

(arching an eyebrow)

“What’s wrong with the caves?”

ROSE

“Your brother’s just winding you up, dear. There’s nothing wrong with the caves. (grins playfully) Not anymore, anyway.”

DORMAL

“You too, Mother?! Now I’ve got to know! You never told me about this one, Val.”

VAL

(laughing, holding his hands up in defeat)

“Sorry, sorry! One of the times I visited I decided to explore a bit through the woods, and  found a cave opening some ways away from her place. You know me and caves, I just can’t resist going inside.”

SILVERBELL

(tilts her wine glass toward Valerian’s face)

“Given that, and all the other things you’ve told us I would have thought you’d have had your fill of caves. Am I going to have to put a leash on you, brother?”

VALERIAN

(lightly rubs a hand over his one covered eye, though he laughs)

“As if that would work on me, Belle. Caves are a bit of an obsession of mine. Like climbing the highest tree for you. I can’t resist. Besides, I didn’t go far in alone.”

CUT TO:

EXT. OVERGROWN FOREST – CAVE MOUTH – DAY

Valerian stands just inside the mouth of a cave, daylight streaming in behind. The cave walls are covered in white chalk markings of all sorts.

VALERIAN (V.O.)

“The cave had been used for something, but I couldn’t tell what. So, for once, I did the smart thing and went to get mother.

CUT TO:

EXT. OVERGROWN FOREST – CAVE MOUTH – DAY

Rose and Valerian stand at the mouth of a cave. The light outside is brighter, indicating the time has changed. They examine the markings, Rose interested and pensive. They speak, and head deeper into the cave.

ROSE (V.O.)

“We went quite deep. I had explored the area when I chose to settle there, of course, but this I must have missed. It didn’t give off any sort of magical aura, and I didn’t get an ill feeling, so I thought there was no harm.”

Rose and Valerian walk the hallways of the cave, with a magic light to illuminate. Rose stops every now and then to leave a magical marking of light on the wall, to help guide them back out. The cave is beautiful.

ROSE (V.O.)

“We found more markings, though I couldn’t find any special meaning in them. I didn’t really expect to find much more than that. But, there was this massive underground lake. It was beautiful, perfectly placid. Like some sort of a forgotten shore.”

They stand looking at the lake. It extends away into the darkness.

VALERIAN (V.O.)

“The lake was; the shore wasn’t. There were these bones all over the ground, all old and brittle. They made the worst crunching, snapping noise you could imagine when we stepped on them. They were everywhere. I thought someone had been using the place to summon up ghosts with old tomes, or something of the like.”

Rose kneels down at the edge of the water, letting her hand hover over it, but not touching. Her face is reflected in the water, and she studies it, as if looking into a mirror. The water remains still and Rose stands smiling.

FADE TO:

INT. KING’S CASTLE – THE KING’S CHAMBERS – NIGHT

ROSE

“It used to be a place where people took the dead. I didn’t feel any ill presence, but performed a cleansing spell just to be safe. Still, I think that was the last time I’ll ever enter there.”

VALERIAN

“Same here, though I sometimes still see it in my dreams.”

A comfortable silence rests for a time. The family is relaxed with each other, having their shared lives in common.

DORMAL

“I suppose I shouldn’t pretend that Silverbell and I had a particularly eventful year. Dealing with nobles and ambassadors isn’t exactly the most exciting of things. They all think an overheard remark is cause for a gossip party.”

SILVERBELL

(waves her hand)

“It wasn’t all that bad. Actually… (she grins playfully) we did have one particularly memorable day.”

DORMAL

(thinks, then his brows raise in understanding)

“I don’t want to tell anyone about that. There’s hardly any time left before midnight. You really went to spend the rest of it embarrassing me?”

SILVERBELL

“Oh come on, Dormal. You’re only human.”

DORMAL

(draws a shallow breath)

“Fine. But when Mother demands her throne back, don’t blame it on me.”

ROSE

(laughs, looking curious)

“I don’t think you need to worry about that, darling, but this I have to hear.”

DORMAL

“It was one of those days where I didn’t have court and I was aching to get out of the palace for a bit. I told Silverbell, and she decided to do something about it. She couldn’t take me to distant lands, but she does know all the best ways to sneak out of the castle.”

SILVERBELL

“I thought an afternoon wouldn’t hurt.”

CUT TO:

INT. KING’S CASTLE – SERVANT’S HALLWAYS – DAY

Dormal and Silverbell are dressed somewhat down from their usual attire. They wait near an exit that will take them out into the city. Dormal casts a spell over the both of them that will disguise their appearance. Despite this, they must be careful, and wait many tense moments, before they can go. They head into the city.

DORMAL (V.O)

“I told the guards I was not to be bothered for the day, unless I called. I used that disguise magic that Valerian taught me, so no one would know who we were, and we just went out with no real plan.”

FADE TO:

The royal siblings walking the streets. They laugh, talk, and take in the sights, not in any rush. It’s a nice day, and Dormal looks relaxed as the walk, and aren’t bothered by anyone. They make their way to a store with a simple, unobtrusive exterior.

SILVERBELL (V.O.)

“Everything was fine, until I thought we should stop in this little store I’d heard some of the guards talking about, that sold this amazing tea. They sold all sorts of weird little things. I actually think you’d like that store a lot Valerian. It also turns out it’s a tea shop, of sorts.”

INT. ODD SHOP – DAY

The inside of the store sells all sorts of things, knick-knacks, historical items, things from different lands. It’s full of tables, shelves, and displays full of items. Despite the strange air, and the cluttering, it doesn’t appear menacing. Along with the clutter, there is also a section devoted to all sorts of teas and tinctures the woman happily shows some.

DORMAL (V.O.)

“Let’s just say we decided to try some of the tea. It was… an experience. “

Dormal and Silverbell buy a cup each, and take a seat in the shop to drink it.As the minutes go on they start to stare around the shop with wide eyes, and every now and again they would break into giggles.

SILVERBELL (V.O.)

“Let’s just say I think the guards were trying this tea on on their days off. You’d think it was our first time drinking, or something. I think we were giggling by the time we left the store.”

CUT TO:

INT. KING’S CASTLE – THE KING’S CHAMBERS – NIGHT

DOMERIN

(arching a brow)

“Wait, so this store was selling drugged tea?”

DORMAL

“Yes? Though I don’t think it was anything dangerous. Imagine someone wrapping you up in a fluffy rainbow and pushing you out the door. I could hear music in my head, and there were so many colors in front of my eyes. It was actually quite relaxing, in a way.”

Domerin looks torn between displeasure and amusement. Next to him Crescent’s shoulders shake with laughter, and even Rose has a twinkle in her eyes.

ROSE

“I sneaked out of the palace plenty of times, but I can’t say I ever got myself in a situation like that. You’re lucky you didn’t get yourself hurt. How did you get home?”

CUT TO:

EXT. CITY PARK – CENTRAL LAKE – DAY

Dormal and Silverbell, still disguised by magic, sit on a park bench near a small lake. There are people all around having fun, playing, reading, riding paddleboats in the lake. The royal siblings giggle and point out different things to each other. Dormal becomes concerned and hurries over to talk to some people near a group of ducks, waving his arms a bit.

SILVERBELL (V.O.)

“We walked back, eventually. I’m not even sure how long we were gone. I think we even went to the park and just sat there starting at the ducks for an hour. It felt like the right thing to do.”

DORMAL (V.O.)

“I kept telling people not to pet them, over and over. I think they thought I was crazy. I remember smiling at them, thinking I now had a duck smile to add to my repertoire.”

CUT TO:

INT. KING’S CASTLE – THE KING’S CHAMBERS – NIGHT

DORMAL

(smiles, though he looks momentarily sad)

“Looking back it’s funny, but we’re really lucky my spell didn’t wear off before the tea did. It would have been a scandal if the king and princess were found walking the streets under the influence. I don’t think I should do it again.”

DOMERIN

“It was dangerous, and it probably shouldn’t have happened. But, I think a little extra caution would have been fine.”

Rose stands and crosses the space, sitting by her son. She lays a hand on his arm.

ROSE

“Your father is right, dear. You shouldn’t change who you are, or suppress those desires. You know how to handle yourself, just be a little more cautious next time. And, perhaps, don’t let your sister choose the tea.”

SILVERBELL

(laughing)

“Hey! Well, I guess that’s fair enough.”

DORMAL

(smiles)

“Thank you mother. I’m always grateful for your advice.”

The family settles back in, enjoying their wine, and chatting.

The clock strikes the hour, letting off a cheerful chime.

DOMERIN

(hugs Crescent close, and kisses him lightly)

“Happy new year everyone. I can’t think of anyone better to pass the night with.”

Everyone toasts to that, rising and exchanges hugs and kind words for the year to come. Silverbell moves to the window, peering out. The midnight air is dancing.

SILVERBELL

“It’s snowing! The first snowfall of the year.”

The rest of the family rises and joins her, and they watch the snow falling on the courtyard, as distant fireworks sound the arrival of the new year.

CRESCENT

“Let’s make it a good one.”

FADE TO BLACK

Valerian – The bridge of brittle bones

He walked on the bridge of brittle bones. In a way, it looked as if it had been cobbled together by some strange god’s hand, as none of the bone matched. Some were small, like birds bones, which he’d had to lean down to properly see. Other sections of the bridge were made up of spines and leg bones may times his height. They were all colors, bleached white and dull grey, some black as soot, other splashed with more ghastly hues. He’d tried his best to avoid those last one. Whatever creatures these bones had belonged to had surely never walked his world. At least the bridge felt mostly solid under him, since below was a chasm he couldn’t see the bottom of.

He had an even bigger problem than that, in that he wasn’t sure how he’d gotten here or, even, how long he’d been walking. The bridge seemed to stretch endlessly on before him and he didn’t remember first stepping foot on it. The bones were shockingly hard under his boots, snapping and crunching, and in some cases grinding to dust under his step. Shards of bone stuck out at odd angles, forcing him to watch the path, lest he trip. Even the air was eerily still. Most places breathed, but this one felt sealed off, like a tomb, or a vault. Dry marrow, and old, stale death crept into his mind and lodged there.

He looked up. Above him was sky, of a sort. There was no sun, no stars, no moon. Just a murky greyness, as if a woolen blanket had been thrown across the sky. He’d been many strange and dangerous places in his travels, but this one felt off in every way. His mind went to his mother. She’d taught him about non-places, places that should not be. More than anything it seemed to him this was one of those places.

He continued walking for some time, no way to tell the time, when there was movement in the corner of his eye. He turned swiftly, hand rushing down to the sword at his belt, the sudden motion in this place alarming him. A man walked beside him, as if he’d always been there. He seemed at once as tall as the sky, yet close enough he could feel his presence. He wore long, dark robes that flowed around him like black curtains, the fabric rich and costly.

The next thing he noticed was that the man was quite handsome. There was a distinguished look to his face, like that of an older man. His angular, chiseled features reminded him of a marble statue, a work of art. His hair was jet black, with grey at the temples, and his eyes were a strange, but not off putting, shade of pale yellow. His gaze lingered a few moments too long. He was sure he’d never seen this man before but there was a sense of familiarity he couldn’t shake.

“You are staring,” the man said, cutting through his thoughts. His voice flowed like dark satin over his skin, sending a shiver through his body.

“I uh, sorry. It’s just you look so familiar, but I can’t recall your name. Have we met?”

This only drew an amused smile from his companion. “Is that really the only reason you were looking? Or did something else catch your eye?”

Valerian wasn’t the sort to get flustered, but he had to admit he’d been caught out. “I’m sure you’re aware that you’re very handsome, sir. If it makes you uncomfortable that I was looking-”

“I assure you it does not make me uncomfortable. In fact I’m rather flattered. To have caught the eye of one such as yourself pleases me deeply. I hope you’re not offended if my eyes linger on you in return.”

“I can’t say I mind,” he returned with a little grin. “Though I promise I’m not vain.” He was somewhat fond of flattery, though he knew to be careful with it.

Valerian realized he was still holding his sword, and slid it back into the sheath, though his hand hovered nearby, just in case. Something was shouting at him in the back of his mind. He was oddly calm for being in a strange place, with a person he knew nothing about. Surely everything would be all right.

“I certainly wasn’t expecting to meet anyone here. Or even to be here at all. What is this place?”

“It is a place of beginnings and endings, and quite a bit of middle, as I am sure you can see.” The man gestured to the length of the bridge.

“That could be any place, if you really think about it.”

“True, but this place specifically. You would not be here if you were not meant to be going somewhere.”

Valerian puzzled over this. Where was he supposed to be going? Was this man the keeper of this bridge?

“Who are you?”

Instead of answering, the man touched him. Pale fingers ghosted over his arm and for some reason he did not draw away. The contact did not repulse him as he’d thought it might. A sort of warmth spread through his body and mind, and he felt drawn toward the other man.

Without realizing, he began to walk closer. There was something he’d wanted to ask, but the question avoided all capture.

“What were you saying?” The man’s voice slipped in, commanding attention, and just like that the thought was gone.

“Oh, uh- I must have gotten distracted. I was talking about my family, right?”

“Yes. It was very interesting. Please, go on.”

Valerian wasn’t sure how long they’d been walking when finally, there was a change in the scenery. In the distance he saw the bridge’s terminus: a castle of obsidian. The surface shined, as if covered in oil, reflecting some light he couldn’t see. If he looked long enough he could have sworn the walls were softly pulsing, like something alive. He shuddered, and so suddenly their steps had halted.

He felt bone press into his shoulder, only a hairsbreadth away from piercing through his jacket and shirt. His back was to the side wall of the bridge, pressed up against so many different bones. The sudden change was momentarily disorienting, not sure how they’d stopped. He couldn’t move, either, as looming directly in front of him was the dark robed figured of his companion. One arm was on either side of him, effectively blocking him in.

This close the man’s presence was almost overwhelming, and he fought to keep his mind clear. He thought of his siblings, his mother, Crescent and Domerin. There was a sudden snap as he shifted back against the bone wall, and felt it shift behind him. He feared the whole thing giving way and he reached out to grasp into the only thing that felt solid right now, which just happened to be the man in front of him. His brain registered that it was like plunging his hands into warm smoke, but the man was definitely solid.

The  man’s lips drew back into a smile, seeming deeply pleased with this turn of events.

“There, there, you’ll be all right. Calm yourself. You’re safe and sound, right here.” The man leaned in, and everything seemed to go slightly fuzzy around the edges. This place wasn’t so bad, after all. Warm mist ghosted across his face, as the man closed the space between them, pressing their lips together. It was soft, seeking, sweet, and he almost instantly wanted more. An annoying voice deep down was screaming at him that everything about it was wrong, and even that began to fade.

He didn’t know how long they kissed before the man drew back. All he could see now were those yellow eyes, seeking into his very soul.

“We are here.”

“H-here?” He asked, the question coming slow.

The other man brushed fingers across his cheek, and gently turned his head. The obsidian castle loomed over them. They were directly on its doorstep now. He looked back up at the other man, as if to question, but found only that same smile on his lips.

“Welcome home, my little princeling. Let us go inside.”

Valerian didn’t move, but a sudden fire shot to life in his brain. The words echoed in his mind. Princeling? Only one person called him that. Someone he should never be seeing face to face.

“No!” He found a well of strength inside of him and surged forward. The bones behind him snapped, breaking away, but he wasn’t there to fall. He pushed the other man back, as if he weighed nothing at all, until it was he who was pinned against the opposite railing. Then he drew back to the center of the bridge, not wanting to touch again. Those eyes were still boring into his soul, pushing harder now, demanding. “I know who you are, demon.” He panted, between breaths. “I don’t know how you- did all this, but you’ll not have me.”

“Oh, I very much think I will. I’ll have my fun, then, in a couple hundred years or so, I’ll take my time devouring you piece by piece.” The demon stepped forward, not afraid of him. Valerian did feel fear, a true blooming fear in his chest. He couldn’t let that happen, but he didn’t know how he’d gotten here, or how he could escape. The cobwebs clung to his mind but he knew if the demon touched him again he’d lose himself. He looked around, and behind him, seeing the hole in the bridge that he’d made.

He didn’t waste time on words, simply jumping back and throwing himself into open air. Thankfully gravity took hold, and he fell, going as limp as he could. Blackness began to take over his vision, and he looked up. All he saw above him were two pale yellow pinpricks of light, like eyes hovering above him. A laugh followed him into the void.

He woke with a start, reaching for the knife he knew laid by his bed. He was sweaty, and it took him a few moments to pinpoint where he was. The room smelled of lavender and clean linen, his current host’s favorite scents. He relaxed. If he was here, he was safe.

It was still dark, but he could see moonlight edging the curtains. Everything was still, silent, until a laugh rang inside his mind.

Oh, my dear princeling, you are sharp. But I almost had you. Next time it’ll be you trapped in here.

Valerian shuddered, but refused to answer. Stilling his mind he checked and rechecked his mental shields and magical wards. They all held firm, so he had no idea how the demon had done what he had. Sleep was unlikely to return that night. He thought it was time to go and see his mother.

Crescent, Valerian, Silverbell – The Cycle of Years

They came back every year to lay flowers at the spot

It was a beautiful day. Three figures walked up the small, grassy hill that was part of the palace’s garden. There was a small mound of dirt, almost invisible from afar. It was covered in grass but easy to find, as it was marked by a little grey stone. The royal twins, Silverbell and Valerian, walked with a measured step unusual to them. Crescent trailed close behind, their guardian for the day. Silverbell clutched a daisy in one hand. Valerian carried a black lily in his left hand hand, and a blue dahlia in his right, for his brother. Crescent carried a golden chrysanthemum.

They came here every year to lay flowers at the spot where their first pet goldfish was buried. It might have been silly, but it was important to all three of the royal children, and so it was something of a tradition now. This year things were a little different. Dormal was with their mother on a diplomatic trip, and Domerin was with them, so it left only Crescent to take the twins. They’d promised to bring a flower for their brother. He’d been surprised Dormal had been willing to miss it, but he’d taken it well.

They reached the mound, and they each stood on either side, with Crescent at the head.

“We are here, like every year, to remember Bubbles,” Valerian began, his voice serious. “He left us four years ago, but we do not forget him. The way he would swim, and eat, and curl his pretty tail around always brought us joy.” There wasn’t much else to say about a fish. He laid his black lily down atop the mound.

“Dormal couldn’t be here, Bubbles, but he says hello to you. He said he remembers sprinkling the food in your water and loving to watch you dart around to eat it up. And he said he remembers the time he forgot to feed you, and now bad he felt. He said sorry.” He finished, and set the blue dahlia down.

“He was the best fish,” his sister continued, “even if he had that bad fin. And even if me and Valerian wanted to eat him sometimes, at first.” She looked down at the mound. “Sorry. You looked very tasty.” A hint of mirth flash in her eyes, which was matched a moment later in Valerian’s before they both quickly tried to stifle it. “We miss you Bubbles.” She laid her daisy down next to her brother’s flowers.

Crescent only just managed not to laugh. He was surprised to see that mirth. There had been tears from all three children the first few years they’d done this, but he got the feeling they were starting to grow out of it, each in their own way.

His children looked at him expectantly and he cleared his throat. “Bubbles was a fine fish, even if he did look tasty. Watching him swim was relaxing, and I sometimes sat by his tank while I did my work. I was grateful for the company. Thank you Bubbles.” His twins seemed satisfied and he laid his yellow flower down, signaling an end to the proceedings.

It didn’t take long for the mood to break and Silverbell moved to bump her brother’s shoulder before shooting away, becoming a yellow-furred streak across the grass. Her brother soon followed, shouting as he tried to catch her. It was good to see it. They’d been inconsolable the day that fish had died.

Crescent followed along after them at a slower pace, padding along in his half-feline form. He still wore his court clothes. The weight of responsibility was never far off these days.

Soon enough the twins fell in a heap of limbs down on the grass of another small hill. Untangling themselves, Silverbell rolled onto her back, while Valerian took a bit more of a dignified position while they caught their breath. Crescent caught up and joined them. No cat could resist such springy grass. His son seemed to be lost in thought, though that wasn’t unusual. He was growing increasingly thoughtful as he got older.

“You’re going to die some day, aren’t you?” His son’s voice cut through the warm spring air. Both children were suddenly looking at him, and he felt oddly pinned to the spot.

The question caught him up. He wasn’t quite sure what to say. It was one of those natural questions, but it could be upsetting to children. He wished Rose were here, but he wouldn’t deny them an answer. He’d long since learned being a parent wasn’t easy.

“Yes, someday.” Silverbell turned over, both of them staring. “Even with extending our lives, it happens to everyone, in time. We’re lucky. Cats don’t generally live all that long, naturally, but we get to now, if we want. I would have been gone long before you were born, if I’d lived my natural span of time.” Two sets of eyes, one green and one blue, widened.

“So we might not have been born at all.” Valerian’s brows furrowed. It might have been the first time he’d contemplated that they might not have existed. “Dormal could have been by himself.”

“Or Dormal might not have been either.” Silverbell wasn’t the sort who spent much time contemplating things like this, and she looked a bit upset, her ears rotating back to lay atop her mane of golden hair.

“It’s a hard thing to think about, but just remember that all three of you are here, and all three of you are loved. That will never change. I am very glad you were born.” He added quickly, trying to soothe them. “You are the finest kits a cat could ask for.” His words seemed to lighten the mood a bit.

Valerian still looked a bit pensive, and would no doubt spend much time thinking about it. Silverbell seemed more eager to move on, and her ears perked up once again.

“I bet you like me better, don’t you Crescent?” Silverbell’s brags were common, even if her voice sounded slightly more brittle than usual. She no doubt wanted to change the subject and it worked, for the moment. Valerian was already pouting, never able to resist.

“He does not. That’s not what parents do.”

“It is what parents do. They do it all the time. I heard Countess Remy say she likes her younger son better than her older one. They like the one that looks like them best.” Her teasing had gone a bit too far, but before he could step in Valerian spoke.

“That means mother likes me better than you, because I look the most like her.” There was no boasting in his tone, instead sounding as if he were just stating facts out of a book. It was something he’d started doing more, of late, and it always managed to goad Silverbell. She looked as if she were about to pounce, but Crescent got up and quickly inserted himself between them. He wouldn’t have them fighting each other.

“Enough of that, you furballs.” His tone held just enough reproach in it. Before they could start pouting, he reached out, and scooped each of them up in an arm, and with little circumstance, pulled the two of them against his chest. He nuzzled them each thoroughly, mussing up their hair and fur, drawing squeals of both laughter and protest.

“I like both of you the same. And your mother and Domerin love you both the same too, just like I love Dormal. No more of this liking any of you best business, all right?”

“Yes, Crescent.”

“Oh, all right.”

Crescent was satisfied and loosened his hold. Valerian seemed content to stay cuddled up next to him. Silverbell soon wriggled out of his arms to try and hop on a butterfly. His son looked up at him, that serious look having returned. “I don’t like to think that one day Dormal will die, or any of us.”

“I don’t like to think about it, either.” He said, seeing no reason not to be honest. This was no easier for adults to think about. “I love you all, and don’t want you to go away. The thought of my life without any of you makes me very sad. But, you will have plenty of life to live before that happens. Death doesn’t take away the good times shared with someone you love.”

Silverbell had gone still, her butterfly having flitted away, and Valerian was contemplating.

“Crescent, what does happen when we die?” Valerian had never been hesitant to ask difficult questions. He had a scholar’s mind; not at all like his own. When his son looked at him, with surprisingly knowing eyes for his young age, it reminded him a lot of his mother. He was going to grow up to be very wise indeed. Silverbell had a sort of fiery determination in her, that reminded him a lot of himself.

When he’d been younger he never would have imagined he’d one day have children. Yet, here they were and his sense of pride and his care for them could not have been stronger. For a moment he felt the weight of years upon his shoulders, but he would not have traded having his children in his life for anything, not even his youth.

“Are you okay, dad?” Silverbell was suddenly there, gently bumping against his forehead with her own. She looked concerned.

He smiled up at her and nodded. “I’m fine. I was just thinking about how lucky I am. Come,” he said, patting the grass next to him, “sit with me, and I’ll tell you what I know.” Silverbell complied, for once, and settled close, completing the circle of warmth.

“Many things. Our bodies nourish the earth, and our spirits go where they are meant to go. It is said that no two cats believe the same thing where that is concerned. And that’s where things get interesting…” He smiled down at their wide eyes, knowing they would be here for some time. Luckily the day was warm and bright, a perfect day to be alive.

Valerian & Rose – Sight and Meaning

Not everything has to mean something

It was past midnight, and Valerian padded quietly through the royal families’ private rooms. He’d been woken from his sleep by a vision, leaving his mind troubled. He almost always sought his mother out when that happened. It was far from the first time a vision had come in the middle of the night, and his mother had always told him he was welcome to come to her, if he felt he needed to. Luckily, he found his mother still awake; settled and reading in bed. She’d patted the bed by her side and he hopped up, settling close. Just being near her helped. He might not have been as small as he once was, but he always took comfort from being close.

He’d been young when he’d started having the visions. Neither of his siblings got them, and though they were both sympathetic, it was his mother’s council he always sought, for she’d always understood. She’d grown up having them too, likely from the same age he had.

“I had another vision, Mother.” Some of his tension eased as she slipped her arm around him.

“They seem to be happening often, of late. Tell me, what did you see?”

“C-couldn’t I just show you?” He blinked. His first instinct had been to share the vision through magic. The power ran strong in his blood, a gift from his mother, but she’d never it let it be his, or his siblings, only source of strength.

“Yes, but remember what I told you, dearest? There’s power in working through it out loud. Try to put it into words. Let it flow.” Her voice was gently encouraging, which helped to calm his mind.

Valerian went quiet for a few moments, shuffling back through the vision. Unlike dreams, they always seemed so clear, not fading with the day.

“I saw the palace and the throne room. The big curtains were all drawn back, to let in the light. Everything was bathed in this red light. Sort of like how it is when we open all the curtains in the evening. That bright, orange red that you get while the sun is going down. It made everything really eerie.

Dormal was standing in front of the throne, wearing all sorts of different clothing, like we do sometimes when we’d play pretend.” The twins were fond of playing by raiding drawers and throwing on all manner of mismatched clothing. It had taken a bit longer to rope their brother into that game. “He looked all serious though. Sort of like Domerin, but… grim.”

“Was anyone else there with him?” His mother looked as if she were thinking, but didn’t press or demand for information.

Silverbell, and I were there, but were in a corner, and we were in our cat forms. We were wearing clothes too. Like, little cat clothes. It would have been funny if everything hadn’t been so wrong feeling. We kept crying out, but no one was paying attention to us. You, Crescent, and Domerin weren’t there.”

“So the three of you were alone?”

Valieran shook his head. “No. Several of the magisters were there. Krenn, the big fat one,” he hesitated, knowing his mother didn’t overly like it when he referred to people that way, “was droning on and on, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He had your crown, and it started to twist in his hands, like it was made of snakes.” He shuddered a bit at the memory, and how surreal it had looked.

His mother gently squeezed his shoulders. “You’re doing well, my darling. What did he do with the crown?”

“He turned Dormal away from us and put it on his head, and it started to twist, until it became sort of a cage around his head. It looked painful, but Dormal didn’t make a sound. When it was done Dormal started to turn toward us then, but the vision ended before I could see his face properly. I just woke up feeling so sure I would see him smiling. It was terrible.”

He looked up at his mother, his gaze seeking. “Does my vision mean someone is going to try to hurt Dormal?” His brother was precious to him. Even at this age he knew there were people who might seek to harm him.

The queen reached up, gently smoothing her soft hand across his cheek. If she was afraid of what he’d Seen, she wasn’t letting it show. “I can’t say for sure. Visions are possibilities. A bit like looking through windows at potential worlds. They come for a reason, and some are clearer than others. Some are downright scary.

It’s here that you need to step back, and try to look at it calmly to understand it, even if you’re afraid, or shaken. Remember, my darling,” the queen said, her voice reassuring, “not everything has to mean something. If you try to assign a meaning to everything you’ll spend your whole life focused on it, or sometimes, make a rash action you can’t take back. Magister Krenn might have ill feelings towards your brother. It’s something to investigate, but nothing would be gained by rushing to confront him. Do you understand?”

Valerian thought he did, and gave a little nod. He wanted to protect Dormal, keep him safe from those who wanted to hurt him, but even at his age he understood that things were complicated. He’d heard his mother and father talking enough times about untangling webs and moving cautiously among the nobles and magisters. “I think so, mother. Take what I see and don’t be afraid to look at it from all angles. Think, and then act.”

His mother smiled, and it warmed his heart, dispelling the lingering ill feeling the vision had left behind. “The Sight can be frightening,” she said, “but it is a valuable guide. As you get older, you’ll understand more of what you see.”

He took comfort from that, and trusted his mother’s words. “I want to help Dormal however I can.” There was a determination in his eyes and voice. Despite being the youngest he sought to do all he could for the family.

“Your brother will one day take the throne, and he’ll need the support of all of us when that day comes. You have a unique ability, and I know it’ll come to help him along the way.”

Valerian finally smiled, deeply pleased with the idea. He didn’t think he needed to be afraid of it, if he could use it to help his family, and others.

The queen pulled him into her arms, giving him a tight hug, which he returned happily. “Do you feel better, my little Valerian?”

He nodded, whispering his thanks in her ear.

Valerian – The Vaisala

He woke to birdsong

He woke to birdsong. It filtered into the large tent, through the partially opened flap at the top, along with the morning light. He was slow to wake, tired after a long bout of travel to arrive here. Turning his head a bit to look up at the opened flap he realized it must have been later in the morning, but he was hardly in any rush to rise. The tent was welcoming, and he was wrapped up nicely in a little cocoon of furs. Even so Valerian didn’t fall back asleep, laying still and listening instead.

The birdsong wasn’t as lovely here as it might have been in another place. The land was beautiful but harsh, demanding of any creature that wished to making a living upon it. He was surprised that birds here sung at all, even if it was somewhat plain, though it cheered his heart to hear it. Along with the songs the sound of distant activity filtered in, no doubt most already up and starting their day. It was the faint scent of food cooking that finally got him to sit up, his stomach rumbling gently. He’d gotten in so late last night that he’d missed the evening meal and hadn’t wanted to bother anyone. He’d nearly stumbled into the furs and passed out quickly after. This morning, though, he would dedicate to catching up. It had been too long since his last visit.

He pulled himself out of the pile of furs and stretched, still sore from his ride, though that would fade soon enough. Groping his way across the tent, he pulled a cord hanging from the ceiling that drew back the flap over the opening all the way, bathing the space in light. Despite it being the middle of summer, the air here was slightly chill, and refreshing.

The tent was large, the walls woven out of the sturdy hides of wild animals, and propped up by solid beams of wood. It had always amazed him that something like this could be rather easily dismantled and moved. He’d seen them do it; though it would be many months before the small settlement would need moving, as the tribe headed further down toward the plains when the season changed. Not all of the tents were this large but he was staying with the chief’s family, and it held quite a bit more than most.

He dressed in clean clothes, planning to bathe later, and pulled a pocket mirror from his bag. He propped it up so he had both hands free to pull the leather patch down over his right eye, masking the demon’s taint. The people here could be superstitious. No need to upset anyone. When he was ready, he stepped out of the tent, momentary blinded by the sunlight.

As his vision adjusted, he breathed in the crisp air, looking out around him. The land sloped steadily downward before his eyes, easing out from the start of jagged rock, to softer hills, and spilling out to the wide plains that ran out for miles and miles below, as far as the eye could see. The great Sea of Grass. Even from here he could see the grassy surface move and ripple in the wind, shifting like a true sea. Herds of great heardbeasts moved across it, blobs of brown and black from this distance.

Behind him lay an even more impressive sight. The settlement was nestled at the foot of the mountains, a sparse pine forest at its back. There was no snow at this height but, above, the jagged peaks were crusted white with it. The summits reached up above the clouds, their fingertips reaching for the heavens. The locals called them the Scarhorns. They certainly fit that description. They were old and cragged, as if they’d seen battle waged upon them in the past. They never failed to take his breath away.

This place was remote, far further afield than he usually traveled. There were no trains, or airships, that could take him here. Instead he made the long trek out from the nearest proper town, three full days ride away. Despite the distance it was always worth the trip. He tried to visit every few years, and tended to stay for several months when he did.

He headed away from the tent, and right into the heart of the settlement, which was bustling with activity. A few stood over cookfires, others worked, forging, weaving, all manner of things. He greeted them all with a great smile, and as he went along others did the same. He might only visit rarely, but it always felt welcoming. He loved it here.

The many plains tribes were called the Vaisala, by outsiders. This tribe simply called themselves the Long Striders. He preferred it. They were semi-nomadic, spending the summers on the bottom slopes of the mountains, and moving down to the plains in the winter. They were strong, hardy, and welcoming, if you proved your own strength to them. Every visitor was expected to contribute, to work while they stayed with the tribe. So long as they did that, they were welcome for as long as they wanted to stay. He always threw himself into that. For now, though, he was seeking out the chief, for a proper welcome. He eventually came across who he was looking for, conversing with a small group of hunters.

“Greetings, my friends,” he called with a smile, as he approached. They all greeted him warmly, as a brother, but he waited until they’d finished their business. When they’d finished speaking of the hunt the others left, leaving him alone with the chief. She turned to look at him, pleasure shining in her deep brown eyes. Galedancer was a powerful woman, strong of body and sharp of mind. She’d won the right to rule the tribe, through their various trials, and they were prospering under her leadership. There was something he felt was regal about her too, that had reminded him a bit of his mother.

“I have missed you,” she said, as he went to her. Her voice was rich, and robust. It sent a bit of a thrill through him. She put her arms around him, drawing him in for a tight hug. She was taller than he was, and more muscular, and as she pressed up against him he couldn’t help but notice her stomach was rounder and harder than it would have usually been. He looked up at her with what he was sure was a goofy grin, which she returned with a hearty laugh.

“It is early yet.” It would be her third child, and he congratulated her. New life was always welcome in the tribe.

“Where’s Longreach?” He asked, wondering after her lifemate. The two of them were a sight to behold, and very much in love.

“He is down on the plains with the other hunters. He’ll be back in a few days.” She often led hunts herself, but being with child explained why she wasn’t down with the hunters. “He will be glad to see you, my little Val.”

“As I to see him. I have missed his touch, as I have yours.” She made a pleased sound to that, and leaned down to press a kiss to the top of his head.

As they spoke, a group of children came running up, laughing and playing. For the most part, they looked fairly similar, with darker skin and brownish to blonde hair, as did a good majority of the tribe. Valerian’s eyes caught one young child, around seven or so, who stood out. Though his skin was tanned from the sun, his hair was raven black, his eyes a dark blue. It had been several years since he’d last seen him, and he couldn’t help but smile at how big he was.

Galedancer chuckled softly. “Littleshadow will also be glad. You should take him hunting. He’ll impress you.” Valerian nodded, more than pleased. He thought he might just stay a little while longer than usual this time.

Silverbell – Prankster’s Mark

“That’s gonna leave a mark.”

<Ow! Get your foot out of my face!> Silverbell growled into her brother’s mind. The pad of his foot had just come in sharp contact with the left side of her face. It hadn’t been sharp enough to daze, which was good, considering where they were, but her left eye stung and she could taste dirt in her mouth.

<Sorry!> Came the reply from above. She knew Valerian hadn’t done it on purpose, and she relented. During a climb wasn’t the time to start a tussle anyway. They weren’t particularly high up, and both of them were natural-born climbers, but this was quite a bit different from the trees and heavily decorated buildings they were used to.

There was also the fact that Valerian had started keeping his feet more on the ground these days, his head buried in books. Silverbell’s mind had begun to turn to the outdoors and physical challenges, so her brother’s blossoming interests sometimes confused her. Age brought change; she at least understood that. They weren’t so different yet that both weren’t looking forward to the fun in store, though.

The royal twins were not a week past their tenth birthday. There had been a grand party, presents, a wonderful day spent with their family. But every year they had a smaller celebration, just between the two of them. They each chose something to do, and they went and did it together. Almost since she could remember, at least one of them had chosen some sort of prank to play. Causing mischief was in their nature and, despite their age, she wasn’t so keen to stop the tradition. This year’s prank had been her idea.

It was the middle of the night when they’d sneaked out of the palace. It was something they’d done innumerable times, but they’d never come to the pumping station alone. They were currently scaling the side wall, which didn’t offer many easy hand holds. Luckily they didn’t have too far to go before there were plenty of pipes to grab onto. Valerian stopped and Silverbell perched next to him, their furry bodies pressed shoulder to shoulder.

<This is the place.> She could hear the sound of water as it rushed along inside. Perfect. She grinned at her twin and he grinned back, and together they slipped inside through a pipe entrance. There was a protecting grate that would have been too small for a human, but she and her brother were far more flexible than that. She loved everything about being a cat. The thrill of stealing into places, of not getting caught, pleased something deep inside her. She had no desire to steal, she had everything she might have wanted, it was the challenge itself that fulfilled her.

This station provided water to the palace, so it was guarded, but the two of them moved together, like shadows, searching until they found what they were looking for. There was a cistern that provided water to the palace’s fountains and sprinklers, and it was here they would do their work.

Valerian, who was far more magically inclined than she was, had woven a simple working, creating an item infused with a color changing spell. The real kicker was that it would turn all the water it touched into a rainbow of colors when it was dropped in. It was simple, would be striking, and above all it wouldn’t hurt anyone. Silverbell might have enjoyed their pranks, but they’d never set out to do anything malicious.

They climbed up onto the lip of the cistern, each pulling on a single glove. Valerian took a pouch off his belt, and drew out the spelled item. Silverbell couldn’t quite stifle a giggle when she realized it was a rubber duck. Leave it to Valerian to be so clever. Instead of being yellow the duck’s color morphed and changed, rippling over the molded surface. It would transfer that property when it touched the water.

Valerian reached down and set the duck in the water, and in moments the rainbow had rippled out over the clear surface, the water swirling and constantly changing in a myriad of hues. Silverbell let out a soft squeal of delight, and there was a huge, pleased grin on her brother’s face. She reached down to give the duck a push, and the pair of them watched as it bobbed merrily on the surface.

<Brilliant! Oh, this is going to be so wonderful!> She couldn’t wait until everyone saw. She was sure Dormal would be delighted. Her hand still hovered over the water and she couldn’t help but dip her gloved fingers in, before flicking some of the water at Valerian. She watched in surprise as it hit his clothes, and a large color changing patch appeared. <Better be careful,> she sent, her mental tone gleeful, <that’s gonna leave a mark!>

Valerian looked down at his clothes, an obvious sign of what they’d done, and he too reached down, splashing his sister back. <Likewise!> Knowing what was coming, he twisted and bounded away before she could retaliate. Silverbell grinned and launched herself after her brother. She didn’t think he’d planned to make it affect clothes too, but it made it all the funnier. It wasn’t like people at the palace bathed in the fountains. Perhaps it would turn all the grass and flowers into a shifting rainbow too. The thought thrilled her. This prank would be even better than she’d expected!

The two of them often played like this, caring little for where they were. It often caused the palace guards no end of consternation. They were sure of foot, and for the moment didn’t seem to care they were making noise. What Silverbell didn’t notice was that Valerian had dropped the bag from earlier onto the edge of the cistern, and as she chased her brother she slipped on it. There was a long, slow moment while she fell, followed by a great splash as she tumbled into the brightly colored water. Valerian stopped in an instant, eyes wide as he looked for her.

It took only a few seconds for her head to breach the surface. Sputtering, she quickly grabbed onto the side, scrabbling out of the water. Her eyes were wide, breathing quick, but was unhurt. The sudden dunking had been a shock, and she was no more fond of it than any other cat. She was soaked to the skin, her golden fur and clothing plastered to her frame. But there was something else, and she noticed it as her brother burst out laughing.

<Oh, Silverbell!> He pointed and she looked down at herself. The glove, her clothes, her hair, and her fur were all marked with a rainbow of colors. Even as she watched they started to shift and change. Her eyes and mouth went wide, her expression no doubt asking if he could fix it, but Valerian just collapsed into a giggling heap. She jumped at him, preparing to try and haul him into the water too, but before she could manage there was the sound of footfalls, and a rough voice calling out. Their hijinks had no doubt caught the attention of the guard.

As one, they turned and sprinted away, the rubber duck and a trail of rainbow water all that was left to mark their passing. They slipped out the way they’d come, not stopping until they were sure no one was following them. Silverbell was in a mood, but her brother looked as if he were still trying to stifle his laughter.

“You know, Silverbell,” he said, his voice teasing, “that’s definitely gonna leave a mark.” Again he lost himself to his laughter. She bumped up against his shoulder with her own, but she couldn’t stay mad at him. It had been a grand adventure, and she still couldn’t wait to see the looks on everyone’s faces in the morning. Dormal would definitely get a kick out of this, and she loved delighting her older brother.

“I hardly feel like I can keep this to myself,” she said, a wicked grin finally curling her lips. “Come here, brother dear.” She lurched at him comically, trying to put her arms around him. He lept away and she followed, and the two of them chased each other home, laughing at the fun the rest of the way.