Steve pushed his food around the plate, as if changing its position would make his appetite return. He sighed and Marcellus looked up at him. "We have a long journey ahead, my love," he said. "You would do well to eat something."
Steve sighed again. "I know." He reluctantly took a bite, feeling a lot like a picky child refusing to eat. He forced himself to eat a little more before giving up and pushing the plate away. "I can't," he said. "I need to do something! When are they going to be ready for me?"
As if in answer to his question, there came a knock on the door. Steve hopped up to answer it, and a messenger boy bowed to him. "The High Priestess asks that you please meet her in the small audience chamber, Sire."
"Great," Steve said. "We'll be right there." The messenger took his leave, and Steve turned to Marcellus. He was already on his feet, headed toward the door. Steve noticed that he'd barely touched his plate either.
Mother Tatiana stood beside the oval table, along with two other priestesses with smaller headdresses. The priestesses bowed. "We have done as you commanded, Sire," Mother Tatiana said. "Please," she said, gesturing toward the table. "Come and see." Feeling a little like James Bond about to be shown his fancy government issue gadgets, Steve stepped up to the table to take a look. On the table were his sword, dagger and shield, as well as a blue bottle, a wooden box and a rolled piece of paper tied with cord. Steve passed over the smaller items and focused on the weapons. They didn't look any different than he would have expected normal weapons to look. The sword's grip was made of leather, instead of silver like the ones in his sword case. There were no jewels either, although the hilt and pommel were both made of silver and bore finely detailed engravings. The dagger matched it exactly, except of course, in size. The shield was large, round and made of wood and leather. The working side had a silver coating with the anchor and rope that made up the Pacifican royal seal etched into it.
"The Spirit of the Great Waters has granted our requests for aide, my Liege," Mother Tatiana said, "Your sword and dagger will always hit their mark if you are within range. If you are forced to throw one of your blades, it will still hit the mark you intend for it."
"You mean, even if my aim is really off, it will still go where I want it to go?" Steve asked.
"Yes, Sire," Mother Tatiana said.
Steve raised his eyebrows. "Wow."
"The shield is unbreakable as well, Your Majesty. It is impervious to any weapon, and it will not only shield your entire body from harm, but it will protect the body of any person who happens to be touching you while you are using the shield as well."
"Wow," Steve said again.
The Priestess allowed herself a small smile. "The shield is fireproof, but I am afraid it can only protect you from natural fire. We cannot guard against the supernatural fires that may be used by The Messengers."
"That's quite all right, Mother," Steve said. "You and your assistants have done an excellent job."
"Thank you, My Liege."
"Were you able to create a speed spell for me?"
"We were, Sire," the Priestess replied. She picked up the blue bottle and handed it to him. "Inside is the speed tonic. When you are ready to use the spell, you and all whom you wish to travel with you must take a sip of the potion. Then, you must recite these words: 'Spirit of the Air, carry us on your blessed wings, that we may travel with the speed of the wind'. When the incantation is finished, each step will cover ten leagues. When you are ready to move at a normal pace, simply say, 'Spirit of the Air, please return us gently to the Land's path.' Your next steps will be normal until you perform the ritual again."
"Wonderful," Steve said. "Thank you very much, Mother."
"Yes, thank you," Marcellus said excitedly. "With speed like that, we should be able to reach the Forest in less than a day." Steve made an effort to hide his shock. He wasn't exactly up on his nautical measurements, so he hadn't known how much distance a league covered. But the very idea that they could get across the country in a matter of hours on foot was just plain astounding.
"You are welcome, of course, Your Lordships," the Priestess said. "But I am afraid you will not be able to cover the distance in one march. Traveling at such high speeds is unnatural, and takes its toll on the body. The longer the spell is used, the more dangerous the effects. Taking any more than twenty steps using the potion could be fatal."
"Whoa," Steve said, eyes widening. "We will definitely have to be careful with this."
Mother Tatiana nodded. "I would suggest taking a moderate number of steps - perhaps five to ten - then resting completely before starting again."
"We will plan our journey accordingly," Marcellus said.
"What about barriers, Mother?" Steve asked. "I mean, what if one of our steps lands in a river or something?"
"You need not concern yourself with such things, Sire," she replied. "Obstacles such as rivers, or even small hills and valleys will not affect you, as your steps will be carried by the wind. Even when you are ready to stop, the incantation only allows for you to be placed on Land's path." Steve nodded. He didn't really know what she meant, but Marcellus seemed to accept the answer, so he figured it must be okay.
"I have made another charm that should help you on your quest, Majesty," she said. "We have traced the sorcer's spell, and he continues to travel toward the Badlands. Now, we are certain beyond any doubt that he plans to enter the Forest. No one now living has ever seen one of the Dreadful Ones, nor set foot on their sacred soil. All those who have tried to enter the forest in the past have never returned. However, I believe that since your mission is one of rescue, not curiosity or sport, you will most likely be spared the Messengers' wrath. The only problem is that the Terrible Ones may strike before asking your purpose, especially since the sorcerer will most certainly have violated their land with his presence before you reach them. The shield will protect you from natural fire, but the charm I shall give you time to explain your quest."
Mother Tatiana picked up the box Steve had noticed before and held it out to him. Inside the box were two plain, round pendants made of a white gem that might have been diamond. They were cut into perfect rounds about an inch thick and two or three inches in diameter. They each had an ornate silver frame around the edge. Steve pulled one out, noticing that it was attached to a heavy silver chain. Steve frowned slightly, wondering what was supposed to be so special about a see-through pendant. Then he looked closer, and gasped, barely managing not to throw the pendant across the room. Inside the pendant, where once he could only see the palm of his own hand, there were what looked like holographic images of four symbols - a stylized wave, a mountain, a flame and a cloud, all in pearlized rainbow colors. "What are they?" Steve asked.
"These Spirit Gems have been imbued with the signs of the Spirits of the Earth," the High Priestess said. "If you keep them clearly visible when you enter the Forbidden Forest, you should be safe from harm. When the Great Ones see it, they will know that you are blessed by the Spirits and they may not be so quick to punish you for entering their land."
"I see. Thank you, Mother," he said solemnly. He was still skeptical about the existence of real dragons, but he didn't want to seem doubtful, especially when he was supposed to share the beliefs himself.
"You are welcome, Sire," she said. "There is one other gift I can give you. It is not much, but it may be of help to you." She picked up the scroll. "I have altered this map so that it will track the sorcerer's progress for you. All you need do is open it, and a red line will show his trail."
Steve smiled. "That's wonderful! At least we'll know exactly where he is, and how close we are to overtaking him." Steve and Marcellus collected their magical items, thanking Mother Tatiana and her assistants again for all of their help. Marcellus took the shield, pendant box and dagger, and Steve took the sword, the map and the magical potion. He felt a surge of energy from the sword as soon as he touched it, which he assumed must be the spell at work. He still couldn't quite get used to the idea that magic was real here and he held the sword gingerly on his way back to his quarters.
Back in the study, Marcellus suggested that they plan their route to the Forest. They set their magical items down and Marcellus opened the map and studied it. As Mother Tatiana had promised, there was a thin red line on the map that showed the sorcerer's trail south, then east across the Great Plains. "He moves fast," Marcellus said.
"Scary," Steve said, seeing the red line move on its own in the few seconds that they watched it.
"Indeed. I do not think we can hope to overtake him before he reaches the Forest." Steve nodded, even though that wasn't the sorcerer's speed that he found scary, but the fact that this zero-technology paper map was tracing his trail for them.
Marcellus started to discuss their travel plans. He wanted to follow the sorcerer's route almost exactly. He planned to head south first, staying stay near the coast so that there would be plenty of fresh water. There would also be several towns where they could rest when they were ready. He told Steve that they should be careful to keep in step with one another durng their marches with the potion. "Each step will take us ten leagues, regardless of whether your stride differs from mine. However, I think it would be wise if we maintain contact with one another and try to keep in step. That way, it will be easier to ensure that we take only the agreed upon number of steps. I would hate for us to be separated."
Steve shuddered. "So would I!"
"If we take ten steps per march, and march twice each day, then we should reach the Badlands within four days at the most."
Steve shook his head. "That is just amazing. You can't even do that in a car! Not with full rest and sleeping in real beds every night, anyway."
"Car?" Marcellus asked. "Is this some magical trinket from your own realm?"
"Uh... sort of," Steve said, figuring he could save the lengthy explanations for a time when they didn't have a princess to rescue.
"Ah." Marcellus smiled. "At another time, you must tell me more of these cars," he said, before turning back to the map. "When we reach the Badlands, we will of course travel at a normal pace. Once inside the Forest... well, I am not sure what will happen then. The lay of the land is completely unknown to us. Then, of course, the Great Ones will be there." Marcellus shuddered, and Steve could feel him trying to shove down fear. "We shall see what fate awaits us."
Steve nodded, putting a hand on Marcellus' shoulder. "We have the shield, and the Spirit Gems," he said. "There's nothing to worry about."
Marcellus smiled. "I will be fine, my love," he said. "We should prepare to go. I am sure Captain Martinez must have finished with our packs by now."
Marcellus ordered attendants to dress them in traveling attire, and within ten minutes, they were both fully outfitted. Steve wore a light blue cotton shirt underneath a heavier tunic and a long, black cloak. Both the shirt and the tunic bore the royal seal, and the clasp that held the cloak together held the royal seal as well. Steve also wore sturdy black pants and black leather boots that reached his knees. His magical sword and dagger were sheathed and attached to his sword belt along with the speed walking tonic, and he had his shield slung over his back by a thick leather band. Marcellus was fully armed as well, and wore an outfit almost identical to Steve's, with a green shirt and tunic instead of blue. They both put on their magical pendants, and Marcellus picked up the map.
"Now," Marcellus said when they were finally ready. "Let us find Captain Martinez, so that we can finally be on our way."
Steve followed Marcellus through the halls, where several people were scurrying to and fro, most of them with grim expressions on their faces. Apparently, word had gotten out about the Queen's ultimatum, and spirits were low throughout the castle. The sight saddened Steve, and he tried to look confident and encouraging for all the subjects they passed. Captain Martinez was, indeed, finished with their packs by the time they found him. He tried to convince them to take a small escort, but Steve and Marcellus refused.
"Speed is of the utmost importance now," Steve said. "Marcellus and I will be using the potion for the majority of the journey, and I don't want to use any more than we need to. We may need it on the return trip as well. Besides that, I could not ask anyone to enter the Forbidden Forest with me. It is enough that my dear Marcellus will walk beside me into such danger, whether I want him to or not. I will not ask others to do the same."
The Captain nodded, acceeding the point. When everything was packed and ready to go, servants took their bags out to the courtyard to be loaded into the carriage. Marcellus had told him in their discussion of travel plans that they would be escorted in carriages to the edge of San Francisco. They didn't want to cause a panic among the people, and if they walked through town with no escort, everyone in town would immediately know that something was very wrong. After a few words with Captain Martinez about protecting the castle, and seeing to it that there were no altercations between his people and the British, Steve and Marcellus headed out to the front gates. A large number of courtiers and servants had come to the courtyard to see them off. There were solemn looks on many of the faces, but Steve tried to look optimistic for their benefit. He shook hands with Lord Edward, who was to be in charge of the castle while they were gone. "We'll be back," he said.
When they reached the outer gate, Mother Tatiana came forward to offer the traditional blessing for land travelers. "May the Spirit of the Waters bless this journey, and may the Spirit of the Land grant that nothing shall hinder these travelers along the way, nor prevent their safe return." After the blessing, and the obligatory swallow of salt water, Steve looked at his people. The faces of the people in the courtyard were drawn and worried, and he could see several servants and courtiers peeking nervously at him through the castle windows. On the upper level, he saw Queen Elizabeth, watching them with a furrowed brow. Steve nodded to her, then addressed the courtiers. "I will see you all very soon. Your future queen will be with me when I return. I have already made this vow, but now I make it to all of you. This war will not happen." He waved at the courtiers, who looked a little less depressed after having heard his encouraging words. Then, he and Marcellus got into the carriage. Marcellus put a hand on Steve's, and Steve smiled at the pride and affection he could feel coming from the prince. Their driver called to the horses, and they headed out.
Before long, the townspeople noticed that royal coaches were out on the streets, and Steve began to hear cheering. He and Marcellus opened the windows and waved at the people, pretending that they weren't really on a dangerous mission with life-or-death consequences. Eventually, they reached the edge of the city. The driver stopped in a deserted area and helped them into their gear. There was a regular-sized backpack for each of them, a roll of blankets in case they had to sleep outside, and two jugs of water for them both. "Waters bless your journey, my Lords," the driver said. They thanked him, and he rode back toward the city.
"Now," Marcellus said, pulling out their map. "San Diego is roughly one hundred forty-five leagues from here. With seven steps, we can reach Midtown and take our first rest."
"Okay," Steve said. "Shall we begin?" Marcellus nodded and put the map away. Steve pulled out the blue bottle, pulled the cork and gave it to Marcellus. The Prince took the first sip, then Steve drank some. It tasted just like plain water, and he was a little doubtful about how effective it would be. As planned, they stood side by side, arms locked together. Then, with a glance at Marcellus, Steve recited the proper words. "Spirit of the Air, carry us on your blessed wings, that we may travel with the speed of the wind."
Steve was disappointed when, at first, nothing happened. Then, Marcellus said, "Are you ready?"
"Ready," Steve said. They stepped forward together, and Steve gasped sharply. The scenery sped past, and wind blew as if he were suddenly thrust onto the freeway without the benefit of a two thousand pound car to give him a feeling of security. They stopped after the first step, and Steve could feel the shock, mingled with exhiliration coming from Marcellus. There was also a faint hint of curiosity that he thought must be from Stephen.
Steve felt exhilirated, too, and he thought part of it must be because of the spell. He felt a slight buzz, like he'd been drinking too much coffee, and a feeling of anticipation, though he didn't know what he thought was going to happen. He happened to look down, and what he saw made him cry out in shock and grab Marcellus' arm tightly. "What is it?" Marcellus asked.
"Look!" Steve pointed to their feet, which were firmly planted on nothing, about two feet off the ground. Marcellus only patted his hand, and sent reassuring feelings. Steve tried to relax. Now I guess I know what she meant by us being carried by the wind, he thought. After their brief pause, they began again, not stopping until they took their six remaing steps. They stopped a few feet from a large inn, on the edge of what Steve assumed to be Midtown. They stood there for a few moments, floating above the ground, breathing hard, bodies trembling. Steve's heart was racing fast, pounding so hard he could hear it. He took a few shaky breahts before speaking the speed-stopping incantation. "Spirit of the Air, please return us gently to the Land's path."
Slowly, they were lowered to the ground. Steve sighed, glad to actually feel earth under his boots again. They waited a few moments to get the shanking under control, then headed to the inn. Midtown was a small city specifically designed to cater to weary travelers. The lord of the Traveler's Inn was extremely pleased to have such auspicious guests, even though they'd give no notice. Steve and Marcellus were given the best room in the inn and a fine meal, which they had no problems eating this time. After the meal, they went into their room to rest. Steve found that he still felt a little wired, and he had to make an effort to calm down. After a while, when his body felt calmer again, he got up and they continued their journey, leaving a hefty tip with the lord of the inn, even though he insisted everything was on the house.
With another seven steps, they were in San Diego. Steve was a little sad to have missed Los Angeles, but he figured he could ask to spend a night there on the return trip. In San Diego, a carriage driver caught sight of them, and they were given a ride to a fine hotel on the eastern border of the city to spend the night. They were given stellar treatment again, then left alone in the hotel's finest suite. Despite the fact that it was quite early, Steve and Marcellus were both tired after their mystical walk of over 500 miles, and they fell asleep soon after being shown to their rooms.
The next morning, they turned toward the east. They walked only a few steps, so that they would stop before reaching Pacificana's border. They walked normally to the first town in the Cherokee Nation, which was about half a mile into the country. The town was surprisingly similar to the towns in Pacificana. It seemed to be about the same size as Midtown and most of the people recognized Steve immediately. Steve knew that they were close friends with their Cherokee neighbors, but he hadn't guessed how far that friendship reached.
After a few minutes, two men came to offer them an escort to the Chief's home. They were taken to a large house near the center of town, and Steve was presented to Chief Sequoyah. Steve remembered to use his monarch to monarch manners, and requested safe passage through the country. He let the Chief know that they would be using magic during the trip, and what their purpose was. Chief Sequoyah had apparently been expecting them. He was already aware of the passing of the "Evil Windmaker" as he called their sorcerer. His wizards had apprarently been able to block his use of the speed spell for a short time, but they could not fight him, and were forced to let him pass unchecked.
Steve and Marcellus were granted passage through, and the permission to use as much magic as they wanted if it helped get rid of the Windmaker. Steve was given a small leather patch with an eagle branded on one side as a token that he had the Chief's sanction. "With this seal, any of my people will give you all the help you need," the Chief told him.
"Thank you very much, Sir," Steve said. "We appreciate your hospitality, and your aide." The Chief nodded and they were shown to the eastern edge of town to continue their journey.
The rest of the trip passed quickly for Steve. Take ten steps, present the Chief's seal to the nearest villager, take a rest, then start again. As they drew closer to the Badlands, towns grew sparse, and they were forced to fend for themselves. They ate from their stores, and slept under their blankets in what protected areas they could find. They checked the map periodically to see what their villain was up to. He contiued to move ahead of them, past the Badlands and into the Forest. Marcellus was shocked that he'd managed to move into the Forest unhindered, but by the third day of their journey, the sorcerer had moved deep inside, maintaining position somewhere near the center of the Forest.
"Such is our goal, then," Marcellus said, looking far from pleased.
"We'll be all right," Steve said. However, the closer they got to their destination, the less sure Steve was that they would be okay. He had no idea what he planned to do once they found the sorcerer. Even though his sword was unbreakable, and it was impossible to miss with it, he didn't know what good that would do against someone who was invincible. All he could do was tell himself that they would cross that bridge when they came to it, and try not to let Marcellus feel his uncertainty too strongly.
Steve got quite a shock at the end of their final march, when they somehow managed to land directly above the Mississippi River. Steve gripped Marcellus' arm, and they stared at the water for a few seconds. Then, to Steve's dismay, Marcellus recited the ending cantation. However, instead of being lowered straight down as Steve had expected, they floated across the river to a safe part of the shore, and were then lowered gently to the ground. "Land's path," Steve said, smiling. "Man, I love this spell."
Steve felt amusement from Marcellus, but it was almost immediately clouded over with apprehension. They were nearing the Badlands, and Marcellus was getting nervous. Steve didn't really like the atmosphere either. The sky was cloudy, and the air was uncommonly still. They rested for about an hour before continuing their journey. The further east they went, the quieter and darker everything became. After a short time, they reached an area where the ground was cracked and scored with dark marks. The sparse trees were blackened, twisted shapes that cast strange shadows on the already disturbing landscape. "The Badlands," Marcellus said. Softly as he spoke, Steve could hear him as loudly as if he'd shouted the words.
They didn't speak again for the rest of their walk. Steve pulled his shield out and kept hold of Marcellus' hand, unnerved by the darkness, and the eerie atmosphere. They walked slowly and carefully, making sure not to fall or twist their ankles on the many holes and stones in their path. Eventually, they came to a place that made Steve stop short. It was as if a line had been drawn. On their side were the scattered, burnt trees and scored earth. On the other side, the trees were green and plentiful, and Steve could see healthy looking grass on the ground. This is it, Steve thought. The Forbidden Forest. He looked at Marcellus, who was giving off strong waves of fear. He squeezed Marcellus' hand, made sure his Spirit Gem was clearly visible, then walked forward into the Forest.