The first day of travel occurred across a trail that seemed to have hundreds of various divisions. The forest was extremely hot and humid, and instantly gave me the feeling of entering a tropical climate without the pleasure of a beach. The journey certainly felt like a slog. The road turned twisted and even doubled back a few times. The forest was thick and ever ceasing, and I was quickly getting the feeling like I was in a maze, not a road to the capital city.
“One such reason no one is allowed to enter our forests unescorted is that the entire road system is designed to be intentionally confusing and maze-like. Anyone who entered would become lost and likely never make it to their target.” Saria gestured to a road that shot off to the right. “That road ends only a few miles from here in a dead-end.”
“Actually, that road leads to Rendall, it’s a small farming community.” The lead escort casually said, but when he noticed Saria’s red face he admittedly held up his hands. “I mean no disrespect. It is very easy to lose the way for any who don’t venture it regularly. This is why even princesses must have an escort.”
Saria sniffed, turning back to me. “Either way, I hope you can see how powerful our defenses are and how difficult an invasion would be. The forests are thick and impassible, and there are various poisonous plants and animals that could attack at any moment. Even if someone wanted to forge a direct path, they would be slowed to a crawl and lose most of their men in the attempt.”
“I see…” I nodded thoughtfully. “In that case, the best solution would be to burn down the forest.”
“It’s too humid now, but a spell that created a drought and enough heat, and the forest would catch easy enough. In fact, if we took advantage of the wind and current, and the forest is truly as toxic as you suggest, the fleeing animals would definitely cause a great devastation in the cities. A well-timed fire attack and I could clear cripple the nation in a single act…”
“Only a devil-like you would think of such a shameless act!” Saria spat, turning away in a huff.
“Are the devils not the ones most likely to attack?” I muttered.
Saria didn’t bother to look back. It seemed odd to me that she recognized devils as the enemies of all the northern countries, but refused to acknowledge valid strategies they might use. I must have said something taboo, as the elvish escort were all giving me dark looks as well. I coughed lightly and then fell back, allowing them to stay ahead of me.
“Sweety, you’re much too worried. You should relax and come rest with mother.” Mother beckoned me.
She was sitting in the cart, peacefully drinking a cup of tea. After the dangers in the previous city, I had a mind to send Mother back to the Capitol where she was safe. She vehemently refused to do that. Since then, she must have been so afraid that I’d change my mind that she had remained quiet for the last couple of days of travel. She remained quiet in the back of the carriage, silently taking in all the sights of the world while almost acting zen-like. This was the first time she had spoken to me in a while.
“If Mother is tired, there is room to lie down back there.”
Mother put on pouty lips. “I can’t sleep without my son holding me. How can I rest as long as your shouldering so many burdens on yourself?”
“Mother…” I sighed. “I only burden myself as much as I need to.”
Mother’s expression suddenly turned slightly dark. “I have seen the things son burdens himself with at night. You have a different woman in your bed every night!”
“Ahem…” I cleared my throat. “That is… of course…”
“And your poor mother hasn’t been one of them! Have you been filial as a son?”
I let out a noise like a strangled cat. After a few days of her silence, I had almost forgotten that Mother’s personality bordered on the obsessed. How was bedding my Mother being a good son? Rather, why is that the thing she has a problem with? Her words seemed to imply that she didn’t mind that I slept with many women, only that she wasn’t one of them.
“Very well, mother, tonight, I will sleep with mother tonight.”
Her eyes brighten. “Do you mean it? Truly?”
I let out a sigh. She was supposedly a homunculus, and not truly the person who had birthed Prince David. Even so, she had been the one who raised him and brought him to his current state. She had protected him relentlessly and was probably the reason he had managed to reach adulthood before being killed. For me, this woman wasn’t my true mother at all. I kept her at an arms-length exactly because I knew I couldn’t keep an appropriate boundary between us. With Aeryn sleeping with me most nights, and Bala the other nights, I wasn’t such a man that I felt I had to pursue this woman for sexual gratification.
Still, upon seeing the uplifting smile on her face, I couldn’t help but desire to see this woman happy. If sleeping next to her in bed was what is required to bring her happiness, I would just need to control myself for a night. Afterward, I could release all of my built-up desires on Aeryn, as I had done in the past. Was it fair that I had made Aeryn the source of my stress relief? Probably not. However, it was a burden she would have to bear.
“Of course, Mother, I would gladly stick by your side,” I promised, drifting off into thought.
My eyes ended up landing on Aeryn. I found myself wondering how it would be to have Aeryn act like my mother. Wouldn’t it be a lot easier if Aeryn was eager and willing to please? It would definitely make my life easier if her situation was reversed with my mother’s.
“When you look at me like that, it makes my skin crawl.” Aeryn suddenly spoke, shooting me a glare.
I let out a sigh. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. And none of this really mattered, because neither Mother nor Aeryn were part of my primary goals. They were my emotional support, as turbulent and shameful as that was to admit, but my ultimate prey had to be my sisters themselves. The only reason I was coming to the elvish country was hoping to pull her out and enslave her to secure a part of the kingdom. Olivia had come to the elvish lands to learn nature magic. Well, that was the official claim. She was more like a political captive to anyone smart enough to put the dots together.
“Mother, do you know much about Olivia?” I asked.
“Hmm? Your sister?” even though she is a homunculus of Mother who also had my sisters, when she spoke of them, she spoke with a complete lack of luster or care. “What of her?”
“I’d like to know what kind of person she was, back in the castle.”
Mother made a face. “Your sister had violent tendencies and a short fuse. She blamed you for everything. I’d rather hope you can avoid her on this trip if at all possible.”
“She hated me, then?”
Mother grimaced. “She was just a foolish girl. I had to discipline a few times for trying to hurt you.”
I let out a noise. “Trying to hurt me?”
Mother shrugged. “I caught her trying to smother you in your sleep a few times. She’d try to slip sharp objects into your food. This sort of thing.”
“No, wait, why are you saying this so casually! This seemed like a very big deal!”
“Was it so surprising that she was one of the daughters your father sent away first? Besides, if you disavowed every sister that tried to murder you when you were younger, you wouldn’t have any sisters.”
I let out a cough. Just how had Prince David survived so long? Rather, Mother certainly needed an award for managing to keep me alive without severely punishing any of the people transgressing against me. Then again, knowing Mother, I had to assume she was exaggerating. She was likely extremely paranoid and defensive when it came to any other woman in my life. It wouldn’t be that surprising that she saw my sisters as a distinct threat.
“That doesn’t sound like the Olivia I know at all.” Saria had let her horse fall back as she responded to my Mother’s words.
Mother shot her an angry expression, but she knew enough not to speak over or openly argue with the princess either. Mother had grown up as an outcast in a noble society that all but disowned her as a freak. She was well versed and knew when to keep her mouth shut and how to lay low.
“You are familiar with Olivia?”
“We practically grew up together?” Saria gave a sniff and an incredulous look. “Did you not realize we were close friends?”
I knew the two had lived in the same castle, but for some reason, the idea of the two of them being close never occurred to me. I felt kind of foolish now that I thought about it. Two girls of roughly the same age, of course they must have been close. It was simply the fact that Saria had been in my kingdom for as long as I had been here, and her extreme disdain for humanity, that had given me the impression she and Olivia were distant.
“Olivia came to Greenvale at the age of twelve. She’s been living with the elves ever since. She’s more elf than human, I must say.”
“Technically, she’s a catgirl,” I responded
“Hmph! Outer appearances can be deceiving. It’s what is on the inside that matters.”
“Is that why you’ve looked past my devilkin body and come to truly love me for who I am?” I responded wryly.
Saria jerked, seemingly more caught off guard by my comment than she expected. After a moment, she sniffed.
“You’re just as vile on the inside! Truly a devil! An exception that makes the rule!”
“Then my fiancée is truly a benevolent woman to look past by bad character.”
“Hmph!” She turned away. “Do you want to hear about your sister, or do you want to continue to tease me?”
“Since you have graced me with a choice… tell me about my sister.”
She looked at me with a displeased expression, but after a moment she let out a sigh. “Very well, Olivia is a talented girl. Magically, she is more talented than I am. She’s very passionate, and thinks with her heart. She doesn’t like you, and I admit that it was her stories about you that made me so… resistant when we first met.”
She had been looking to get a reaction out of me, so she seemed disappointed. As for me, I was looking for anything that could be useful in gaining her trust. It sounded like I was going to be working from nothing. She was a woman who absolutely hated me. That was already abundantly clear. I didn’t need Saria or Mother to tell me that. All of my sisters had an issue with me. I had faced that rage personally when I had encountered Lucy.
I’m not even sure I had the time to truly gain these women’s trust. I might have to be extremely heavy-handed. I understood why God said I simply needed to impregnant my sisters. Once they were enslaved, I’d be able to control them just as I had done to Bala and Aeryn. Even the God of this world appeared to not think there was another way to maintain the balance of this world.
Of course, when it came to Bala and Aeryn, things were different. They had little choice but to fall in line with my desires. Aeryn was a maid and loyal to my kingdom. After infecting her with an aphrodisiac, she never really had a choice. As for Bala, she was isolated in another country and unable to count on her sister. She, too, was forced by my hand. My sisters had other resources and support to fall on. Olivia might be able to acquire a cure to the aphrodisiac using her knowledge of magic. The stubborn and battle-hearty Lucy might very well choose insane before allowing my blood to influence her choices.
“I remember once, my brother took Olivia and me out to a particularly beautiful clearing during a butterfly bloom. Of course, he was just trying to impress the pair of us. It was Gantar, the womanizer. There was a time he chased after both of us simultaneously. However, a particular powerful monster ended up appearing. It was a vicious Bloodrayne Bear. They rarely show in the forest, but this one had been driven into the forests because of a bad year.
“As soon as it let out one terrifying roar, Gantar fled, abandoning the both of us to be potentially eaten by the monster. He was always more of a flirt than a fighter. Actually, it’d be more accurate to call him a coward. I was no better. I had completely frozen. The bear began to charge at me, and all I could do was sit in the grass and stare into the eyes of death.
“Your sister, she suddenly leaped in front of me. She created a firewall between the bear and me. She cut its charge in half. It was so angry that it had been blocked, burning itself twice trying to leap through her wall. The bear was smart though. It could see the wall was only temporary. Rather than run back into the forest to find a different prey, it decided to wait for the wall to collapse. Of course, I could have run like my brother, but Olivia’s spell was one that required eye contact. As soon as she turned away to flee, the monster would charge her and kill her.
“So, she attacked the bear instead. Yielding her magic, she leaped across the very firewall that he had failed to breach. The sight scared the bear so much that he had frozen, giving her plenty of time to unleash a dozen spells on it. By the time the guards finally appeared whom Gantar had fetched, the bear was already breathing its last breath. Do you know what she said after selflessly saving my life and recklessly charging to destroy a monster far outside her ability?”
“What is that?”
“Can we cook it? I’m hungry.” Saria smiled softly, her eyes clearly holding a memory she saw fondly.
I think I was starting to understand the kind of person that my sister was by that story. Fierce, indeed. She was a woman who would rather go on a suicidal offensive than give up. It was exactly the kind of thing I needed to know.
“Thank you, I appreciate your help,” I said.
Saria’s smile shrank as she remembered who she was talking too. “I’m just telling you that when it comes to Olivia, you’re definitely outmatched! Don’t think you can easily seduce her as you did to my sister!”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I responded wryly to her critical attacks.
However, as I was speaking, my eyes wandered to a bush. It caught my interest because unlike the majority of the forest, that bush was completely dead. For all the life and beauty this seemingly enchanted forest had, to suddenly be confronted with something decaying was a bit of a surprise. The elvish guards seemed to eye it with frowns too, so I suspected that my eyes weren’t deceiving me.
We continued on our way, and it wasn’t more than an hour before we ran into a dead tree that had collapsed across the path. We had to move it, which would have gone much faster if Baba would just use her magic, but she was quite obstinate and I didn’t want to push the issue. Not soon after I saw more dead things. It wasn’t just plants. There were dead animals lying in the path. First, there had just been a few, but soon, the path was lined with various creatures. Some were just bugs, while other larger creatures like bats and snakes became more frequent.
Eventually, the forest all around us started looking decayed and unhealthy. The green vibrancy that we entered in had dissipated to a sickly yellow. It appeared like every tenth tree was either dead or dying. The guards now wore open worry on their faces. Bala and Saria had tense expressions and were eyeing the area very worriedly.
“You guys don’t know about this?” I asked the escort.
“We typically patrol the border. Most reports are sent to us by bird or magic. We haven’t had any announcements of the forest coming under a sickness.”
“A sickness, is it?” I asked, looking around at the dead plants around me.
“Yes? What else would you call it?” Saria snapped, her eyes clearly filled with worry and just a bit of fright.
“Remember how I said if I attacked this forest, I’d do it with fire?”
“What of it?”
“That was just a knee jerk reaction.” I shook my head. “If I really thought about it, any external attack would always be seen as an external attack. As soon as I lit a fire, the elves could always send an army. They could fight against the flames with magic or their own weather control. No… if I was truly going to choose a means of destroying the forest, I’m afraid it would look something a bit like this.”
“Wh-what are you trying to say?” Saria demanded with a shaky voice.
“It looks like Peri is already under attack. It looks like we’re late. The first move has already been made.”