The Prophecy of Next Year

The fading light of day presented itself like a desperate artist; brushed streaks of cobalt peeked through a mass of silver clouds. The moon, hidden but wonderfully full, was lost in the sky fog with its grandeur snuffed out and only allowed to cast weak shadows. A young, lanky man with pastel-white skin was dispersed among a crowd. He was dressed in a long, prestigious black split cape that flew behind his well-fitted tunic, tailored trousers, and sleek black leather boots. His name was Perry.

He silently mourned the hidden moon. “What a shame,” he whispered. “A shadowed full moon. I guess I should thank you for taking the brunt of bad luck, Sir.”

A faint smell of rain tickled his nose, making the corner of his lip curl into a half-smile, “Correct again, as always. At least you’ll pass knowing your last prediction will come true.” Perry huddled around countless others in the center of the town square. They gathered under the shadow of the gallows with their lack of patience marked by murmurs, shuffled feet, and a subtle scent of alcohol. Most complained about the cold wind, some gossiped, and the rest stood silently.

Perry whispered to himself again, “None of them care. If they can’t stand the cold, then why bother coming? Disrespectful. Such–”

“Scum! Stand up straight!” a voice rang out. A tall-standing guard on the platform barked at a frail figure tiptoeing up the steps, bearing shackles around his wrists and ankles. He hunched from age, an unkempt beard draped his face, and his skin was as white as sheep wool. He wore a loincloth around his waist, and his ribcage was sculpted and misaligned. The guard, prepared to address the anticipating crowd, was accompanied by the timid glow of poised braziers. His metallic armor absorbed the dying twilight, hiding the shimmering reflections of the many single-flamed street lamps lining the city center. The whispers and shuffles surrendered when he bellowed.

“Citizens of Helmsfurd! Here ends the chapter of the shameful prophet – The Herald of
Chance, Alfred Lewis Maxwell!” His iron-clad helmet stood no chance of muffling his voice, “Marked for treachery, invoking paranoia amongst the royal family; prophesied the murder of our beloved Lord, King Howe, within the year to come! The Monarch declared him not as a prophet, but as the assassin!” The onlookers gasped in unison, as if on command. A wildfire of confused chatter spread, but a single order from the metal guard silenced the crowd. His voice boomed again, “Let them witness how he shall perish, drenched in his prophetic lies! And he shall be remembered as the murderer who beckoned his own demise!”

Alfred stood defiantly even in the face of death, although hunched. He peered up at the cloud-obscured sky and his lips moved incoherently as the wind swallowed his words. His glance moved, and his eyes met with Perry’s immediately; he gave a single nod, which Perry returned. Their locked eyes were blocked as a black cap was drawn over Alfred’s head. The guard adjusted the noose, took hold of the lever with his iron gauntlets, and pulled. Perry winced and looked away just in time. The weights fell instantly, and Alfred was held in the air until his muscles relaxed. And with that, the crowd dispersed as quickly as it had gathered.

Over the sound of a hundred shuffling feet, a drunken, heavily accented voice spoke, “Damn wasta’ time! He didn’t squirm! Old bastard couldn’t even die right.” The once subtle scent of alcohol became much stronger; it coated Perry’s mouth and stung his eyes. A group of brutes, all dressed in wool farmer’s clothing, were lost in their drunken ramblings. They continued to mock Perry’s mentor right in front of him; he watched the group with embarrassment in his eyes. A single drop of chilled rain stopped him mid-thought, and he felt his balled fists untense. As the brutes stumbled off, Perry stood alone, watching several armored guards carry his mentor away. The rain continued to fall, becoming heavier and heavier. The braziers extinguished, but the street lamps held their dim light.

“You didn’t feel the rain in time. But you see it now, right?” Perry voiced to the sky. He sighed heavily and started to shiver. He felt a lump forming in his throat but quickly pushed it down. “I’m sorry it turned out this way. You were only trying to help. Don’t they realize that? I’ll make this right, I promise.” He turned and started to walk toward the hushed town of Helmsfurd, now dreamlike under the heavy rain.

“I’ll make this right.”
Perry stopped before a timeworn sign flailing under the bitter wind. The faded paint and handfuls of drunkenly carved initials didn’t stop him from recognizing the name – “The Second Spoon.” It was a small tavern on Helmsfurd’s outskirts, near the town’s brick factories and fisheries. It was old and worn down from its age, but seemed homey. Its foundation looked rushed with its uneven clay bricks and un-sanded tree trunks desperately holding up the roof.

Perry never understood why his mentor adopted the sad building as his workplace.

“What did you see in this place, Sir?” he mused, “It’s always smelled terrible.” He turned and saw a group of horse flies attacking a dismembered fish. “Truly terrible.”

Exhausted from the icy rain, he leaned against the tavern door with his shoulder, not daring to take his hands out of his pockets. He immediately tightened his eyelids and coughed as the symphony of alcohol attacked him; he never grew used to it. Soft light danced from torches as the smoke formed a ghoulish gray cloud that clung to the ceiling, and the walls were littered with forgotten faces framed behind fractured glass. Surveying the empty bar, he found nothing but a few drained ale bottles toppled over the bar counter.

Perry called out the barmaid’s name, “Catherine!” There was no response, so he called out again, but louder. A short groan responded from somewhere nearby. Catherine was a tall, young woman, and Perry found her cramped behind the counter with her knees up to her chest. She was cradling a half-empty bottle of ale. Her skin was unusually pale as she was always fair-skinned, but her sesame seed-like freckles were much more noticeable because of it. Crusted vomit, with the same hue as her auburn hair, covered her hands and mouth. Perry swore under his breath and hefted her into his arms with muffled grunts. He slowly marched toward a concealed hatch at the tavern’s furthest corner, barely visible through the shadows. Gently, yet firmly, he kicked the latch open to reveal a small staircase and carefully made his way down.

Alfred’s study – it was like stepping into his mind. It smelled like morning dew or tempered leather, which Perry always appreciated, and it was well-lit with many ever-burning torches hanging on every corner. No wall was empty; loads of parchment and leather-bound books fought for space on shelves that creaked and groaned under their weight like late Summer cicadas. Hand-drawn maps of Helmsfurd, adjacent towns, and other areas Perry didn’t recognize hung precariously to the warped beams; he remembered rubbing them between his fingers so his hands could smell like sea salt. He laid Catherine on a moth-eaten cot, wiped her hands and mouth clean with a worn rag, and then covered her with a quilt. He placed the back of his hand on her forehead; her skin was clammy and cold.

“She drank too much,” Perry whispered to the room. “She’ll be alright, though. I know you’d want me to scold her, Sir, but I’m sure you can understand why I won’t. Tonight, of all nights, is the only exception for this.”

Perry turned his attention back to the room. The sight of odd trinkets that cluttered every spare inch warmed his heart, flooding his mind with memories of his mentor. His eyes landed on Alfred’s messy desk covered in ink splatters and loose parchment; the wood was visibly faded where he used to rest his elbows.

Perry could envision his mentor now, sealing an amber envelope with a wax stamp. He had just been a boy, no older than six, and remembered Alfred writing what seemed like a routine letter, but the parchment addressed Perry himself. Young Perry insisted on reading it then, but Alfred refused and asserted that it was not ‘ready’ for Perry’s eyes just yet. He tucked the envelope into a secure book with weathered pages and smushed it into one of the high shelves.

With a nostalgic sigh, Perry’s gaze fell on the high bookshelf where Alfred had stowed away the envelope many years ago. It was still there; luckily, time had not stolen it from him. The dusty book was still crammed between others like it, and behind its faded pages was the envelope encrusted with the same velvet wax stamp, showing Alfred’s prophetic initials “H.C.”

“Is now the right time, Sir?” Perry questioned aloud. “You never mentioned this after that day. I had honestly forgotten about it…” Although it appeared opened already, Perry paid no mind to it. He placed his thumb under the crease, about to open it, when a liquid-smooth, feminine voice stopped him.

“Why do you keep talking like he’s still here?”

Perry turned and placed the letter on Alfred’s desk. With his back still turned, he responded, “You should be resting, Catherine. You drank too–”

“I’m fine,” Catherine interrupted. “You didn’t answer my question.”

With a silent sigh, Perry answered, “Sir Maxwell saved me from living on the streets, Catherine. You know that. He deserves respect, regardless of–”

“That asshole never deserved respect,” Catherine muttered to herself while crossing her arms. Perry turned again and couldn’t help but notice her bloodshot eyes and the heavy bags under them.

“Would it kill you to have a shred of decency?”

“Oh, cut the bullshit!” Catherine shouted. “He deserves nothing from me. I don’t care if you treat him like a ghost, but don’t guilt me for not doing the same.”

“Language, please.”

Catherine gave a short laugh, “Go to hell! You’re just like him. Only talking to me to tell me I’m doing something wrong.”

“Catherine, please, I don’t have time for this.”

“And there it is! Perfect imitation, Perry! I’m so happy for you! You’ll take his place in no time!” Perry stood still like a marble statue, waiting for Catherine to speak again.

A mocking applause filled the room, “Wow, quite the performance, Perry! I’m impressed, but let me give you some advice.” She cleared her throat, and her voice dipped as she invaded his personal space, “Maybe next time you can treat me like he did – like a dog. You might as well ignore me when I try to talk to you, and only give me attention when it’s convenient. Don’t even look at me while you’re at it! Just pretend like I’m not even there! And don’t even bother saying you love me because we both know that was never fucking true!” Her chocolate eyes swelled and her voice started to break, “Why would you? I’m only your granddaughter, right? Why would you love the only family you have left? Only an idiot would do that!”

A painfully long silence took hold, with the only noises being Catherine’s quivering, beer-stench breath and the occasional crackle of torch flames. Eventually, Perry found his voice, “I’m… sorry Cath–”

“Don’t you dare…” She bit back. “Don’t pretend like you have the right to be sorry now. You never gave me the time of day either. You’re just an orphan he scooped off the street, and he still cared for you more than me. Do you think I never noticed those glances of pity you used to give me? You didn’t do shit! You just let him treat me that way. All for your pointless ‘prophet’ training.” She swallowed and lowered her voice. “I’m glad he’s dead. He deserves hell.”

“And yet you nearly drank yourself to death.” As soon as the last syllable left his lips, his face was met with a quick and hard slap.

“Fuck you, Perry,” Catherine muttered before stomping up the steps out of Alfred’s workplace. He stood still for a moment, stunned by Catherine’s words and the burn on his face.

Perry spoke to the room again. “ I don’t know how you put up with it for so long, Sir. Always lets her emotions get the best of her.”

He turned and retraced his steps to the weathered letter and finally followed through with his initial urge to read it. Delicate handwriting danced through the page smothered in the scent of Alfred’s old ink:


Should my quill’s ink find your eyes, then time has finally been kind enough to let me sleep.
I implore you not to surrender yourself to your emotions. Embrace your strength and all will be well. The course you tread must continue.

All of my possessions are now in your care. Do with them as you wish, but all I ask is you use my belongings only when necessary. Do not be careless.

There is an old companion of mine, Ms. Calloway, still residing in Helmsfurd. Her home is close to Plainsfield Library, the one we used to visit when I first took you in. It has a crimson roof, you cannot miss it. Tell her who you are and she will give you further instruction in my stead. Show her this letter if you must.

I will be watching your journey, Perry. Do not disappoint me.

Ensure Catherine sets herself on the right path.


Perry turned over the page expecting more but was surprised to find nothing. “Always a man of few words,” he observed before folding the paper carefully and tucking it into his pocket, leaving the empty envelope on the desk.

Knowing what he must do, Perry climbed out of Alfred’s workroom. Catherine kept herself busy in the tavern, rubbing a cloth against a foggy glass with no sign of it getting any cleaner. Her French braid sat gently over her shoulder, matching the pace of her arm. Perry noticed a few missed specs of vomit that looked like dried blood on her neck; he felt a small burn in his chest when he saw her face was still pale.

“I… uh, need to leave,” he started. Catherine ignored him but he continued. “Will you be alright on your own?”

Catherine stilled her hand and glanced at him. “I’m not a child. You being older doesn’t mean you have control over me.”

“What? I’m not trying to control you. I was just asking. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

“You’re leaving now?” Her eyebrows raised. “It’s midnight, and his friend isn’t going to let you in. Not to mention it’s freezing and pouring out. Just wait until tomorrow.”

Her words hung in the air until Perry realized what she said. His eyes widened as he confronted her. “You read the letter!” She immediately rolled her eyes and started to walk away.

Perry raised his voice. “How dare you! His last words were only meant for me!”

“Oh, please,” she retorted. “Who the hell cares? It’s just a stupid letter, get over it! And honestly, Perry, that was the most half-assed letter I’ve ever read. I’ve heard drunks tell stories that were better than that.”

He grit his teeth and lowered his voice. “Don’t say that. How did you even know where it was?”

Catherine shook her head and chuckled. “Honestly–” she noticed Perry’s black stare. “I was there with you when he wrote it, dumbass. Right behind you, actually. But of course, you don’t remember because I was practically invisible to you both.”

Perry looked down. “Look, I’m sorry. This… all of this can wait until I get back. I have more important things to take care of.”

“Right.” Catherine exaggerated an impression of Alfred, “The path you follow must continue, Perry. I will be watching your journey, don’t fuck it up or I’ll haunt you foreveeeeeer.” She laughed through her teeth before slipping back to her normal voice, “Do you seriously believe in all that? I mean, do you actually want to live your life solving petty crimes and predicting the weather? Just use your common sense, Perry! If it’s cloudy for three days straight, chances are it’s gonna rain! It doesn’t take a prophet to realize that.”

“Sir Maxwell did much more than–”

“Yeah, yeah,” Catherine waved him off.

Perry shook his head and turned. “I’m leaving.”

Before he could disappear into the pouring rain, Catherine ditched her apron, snagged a short cloak from one of the bar stools, and followed. Perry finally noticed her when her knee-high boot stomps grew louder.

“What are you doing?” Perry asked against the rain.

“I’m coming with you.”

“Why? You’re still sick from all that alcohol, and frankly, I could go without your company right now.”

“I told you I’m fine. I just want to see the look on your face when you realize I’m right. She isn’t gonna answer her door right now, and even if she does, there’s no chance in hell a friend of Alfred’s is sensible. She might try to kill you, for all we know.”

Perry chose to not argue and continued at a quick pace, hoping the bad luck from the hidden full moon was gone.
Despite being lashed by the freezing rain, Perry and Catherine pushed through the slick rocky paths of Helmsfurd, journeying toward the outer edges. Perry’s eyes eventually fell on a familiar structure – a colossal stone building that was as wide as it was tall. The peak was monumental, and bore the lavishly engraved face of King Howe, accompanied by varying mythical beings, religious figures, and an etched inscription that read “Plainsfield Library.” They took shelter under the overhang held up by five carved marble columns. They breathed a bit easier now that the rain no longer assaulted them. The rain seemed to glow despite the moon’s lack of light and the echo it made within the overhang was prominent, yet blissful.

Catherine, shivering from head to toe, was hunched on the floor with her labored exhales turning into mist. Perry looked down to see her grimace, desperately trying to warm her hands with her breath.

“Are you alright?” he asked softly.

Catherine’s frosty eyes locked with his as she threw her hands up. “I’m fine! I swear if you keep treating me like a child… and stop acting like you care about me all of a sudden, it’s irritating.” She vigorously rubbed her arms while glancing up. “I’ve always hated this place. You two assholes seemed to love it though.”

“Catherine, could you please cool it with the language? That’s all I ask.” She mimicked his words with a mocking accent. Perry grew curious, “And when have you ever been here? You were always in the tavern when we were little.”

Catherine’s eyes widened, “You don’t remember… no surprise there. I always went with you guys, but that old bastard never let me anywhere near you two when we were inside. Told me my presence would ‘disrupt your focus.’ As if…”

“Oh… I’m sorry.”

“Forget it, and I told you to quit acting like you care. Let’s find this stupid house so we can go home. I’m freezing and my feet are killing me.”

“Yeah, my ankle is giving me a hard time, too. But I didn’t force you to tag along, you know. You have no right to complain”

“Oh my–” Catherine stopped and took a deep breath. “Please just go find the red roof.”

“Crimson,” Perry corrected before walking back into the downpour. Catherine gave a sassy comment under her breath but he couldn’t hear it. As Perry trudged back into the storm, Catherine took the other side. After a while, they rejoined under the library’s overhang, with Perry coming up empty-handed. However, Catherine  spotted it and led them both to a row of houses with one that boasted a radiant, crimson roof.

They both looked up at the narrow yet grand home. Perry appreciated the architecture; it was noble, decorated with dark wood and black bricks, both of which complimented the sparkling roof beautifully. The octagonal windows were placed asymmetrically and were shielded by sturdy metal grates with transparent, tan curtains behind them. A pair of unlit lanterns hung from small chains beside the dark wooden entrance, which stood atop a short flight of steps and held an eggshell-shaded door knocker that waited patiently to be used. Perry glanced to his sides, barely making out the silhouettes of the other houses lining the street. They were all the same shape; it was uniform, straightforward, and most certainly filled with well-off people.

“Told you,” Catherine announced. “Look, the lanterns aren’t lit. She’s asleep, Perry, there’s no way she’ll answer the door right now.” Ignoring her, Perry walked up the steps and gave three politely measured knocks. After a few minutes of silence, Catherine joined him and pounded her fists on the door. She kept pounding, and shouted for whoever was inside to open up.

Catherine gave an impish smirk. “I changed my mind. Maybe I’d rather see an old lady give you an earful.” Her grin widened as Perry frantically scanned the surroundings, “What do you think she’s gonna do? Smack you? Call the guards? Oh, maybe she’ll pull a knife on you! That’d be fun.” Perry opened his mouth to reprimand her but held his tongue at the sound of the croaking door. A petite and shockingly young woman dressed in a long-sleeve nightgown and thin slippers squinted at them from under her messy hair. She released a wide yawn that wrinkled her eyes and nose.

The woman’s voice was husky and heavy with sleep. “Can I help you?”

Catherine immediately lied about the two of them being emissaries of the Monarch wishing to speak with Ms. Calloway. Suddenly alert, the woman responded, “Oh! Yes, she’s here. My name’s Amy. I’m her caretaker. Come inside, I’ll let her know you’re here.” Catherine and Perry stepped inside while the woman hurried up a tall staircase.

When Amy was out of sight, Perry hissed, “The Monarch? What is your problem?”

Catherine shrugged. “Hey, you seemed pretty eager to talk to this lady. I did you a favor. You should be thanking me for getting us out of the cold.”

Perry scoffed and turned his attention to the interior while Catherine started to roam. It was impressive. The narrow hallway was decorated with a wild assortment of knickknacks, none of which he could put a name to. Whatever they were, they seemed far out of his price range. He took notice of an ivory bowl of fresh fruit that sat atop a sturdy oak desk, framed by the posh backdrop of an oil painting portraying a family of four. As Perry stared at the younger boy in the painting, a glimmer of familiarity teased him – he looked like Alfred. He leaned in to investigate until his focus was broken by Catherine’s hand digging in the fruit bowl. Perry watched dumbfounded as she sank her teeth into a yellow apple, happily munching with no shame.

“What?” She stared at him with the apple lodged in her mouth. “They’re for guests, idiot. It would be rude if I didn’t grab one. Here.” With a quick flick of her wrist, she tossed another apple at Perry. Her chuckles filled the hallway as Perry fumbled, making it roll into another room.

Amy’s soft voice interrupted them. The slow, creaking descent of footsteps made Perry and Catherine pivot toward the staircase where they saw Amy carefully assisting an elderly woman. She had the same nightgown as Amy but wore an intricate golden medallion that went past her waist, and her light gray hair was hidden behind a throw-on hood. As they reached the bottom, Amy introduced her as Ms. Calloway. Catherine accepted her frail, veiny hand for a handshake, and she noticed Ms. Calloway’s eyes – milky, vacant, and shrouded in a veil of smoke.

Catherine’s mouth moved on its own. “You’re blind.”

Perry, expecting a deadly silence to play out, was surprised to hear the woman’s husky chuckle, “Yes! Astutely observed! I appreciate such honesty in a young woman.” Catherine’s lips lifted into a slight grin, and Ms. Calloway continued to speak as her body swayed like a petal in the wind. “Amy informed me that you were sent by His Majesty himself. I was not expecting you so early, but the sooner the better I suppose. Apologies if this sounds rude, but do emissaries usually operate in the dead of night?”

Catherine and Perry shared puzzled glances before he responded, “We do apologize for our untimely arrival, Ma’am. But, did I hear you correctly that you were expecting us?”

“Indeed I was.” Her thin lips maneuvered into a soft frown. “Although, I did expect a few more days of mourning before I was taken. Poor Alfred… I warned him not to reveal too much too soon.”

Perry sighed in shame. “I’m sorry, Ms. Calloway. I admit, we have no affiliations with King Howe – we’re not emissaries. Sir Maxwell was my mentor for many years. He tasked me in finding you, he…” He gingerly retrieved the rain-soaked letter from his pocket; the ink was smudged and unreadable. “He mentioned you would be responsible for continuing my training.” Ms. Calloway’s face looked confused and shocked. Perry elaborated, “But that’s not why I’m here. We know that Sir Maxwell was unfairly accused of treason; he spent his last moments trying to protect the King. I’m unsure of your relation to him, but I know you can help me find whoever is truly responsible.”

Amy broke the silence, “Perhaps I should put on some tea. You three can continue your discussion in the dining room. Does that sound alright, Jen?” Ms. Calloway nodded and propped herself on Amy’s arm as they made their way into the warmth of the dining room.

What followed was the most lucrative conversation both Perry and Catherine had ever been a part of. They all sipped warm chamomile tea as they sewed together the complex tapestry of Alfred’s life, learning of his upbringing under the care of the woman before them – Genevieve Roy Calloway, most commonly known as The Lucid Seer. Her change to The Blind Seer had come with losing her eyesight due to a grave illness, yet her smokey eyes seemed to sparkle as she reminisced about her past. She lived for a century and implored Perry and Catherine to address her by her preferred name – Jen. The night disappeared quickly; the first light of dawn peeked through the tan curtains, bathing the room in a baby blue glow.

Catherine asked a nagging question. “So, Jen,” she began softly, “when you said you were expecting more time to mourn before we ‘took you away,’ what did you mean?”

“Oh, well, uhm…” Jen’s eyebrows knitted in thought, “My dear, that is a rather complex question.” After no one responded, she continued, “That prophecy that led to Alfred’s execution was not his to begin with… it was mine. Before I fell ill, I foresaw a murderous plot against His Majesty. I did not know who or when, just the act itself. When Alfred’s skills proved impressive, I entrusted him with the prophecy hoping he would find the missing pieces. Alas, he never managed to. Then, out of the blue, he cut all contact with me. I thought he had disappeared. He had a whole life I was not aware of. When you two told me who you really were, I was so surprised. I had no idea he had a family or a disciple of his own. I thought he informed the Monarch of the true origin of the prophecy, so I thought you were here to arrest me and put me to death along with him. Needless to say, I am glad I was wrong.”

Everyone was silent, the only sound was Amy pouring more tea into their mugs. Jen spoke again, “Before we lost contact with each other, I warned him against revealing the assassination. I told him it would only backfire, and… well. He only set his fate in stone once he lied about the murder taking place next year. I assume he wanted the Monarch to take action right then, but of course, they responded differently. I am to blame, really; I was unaware of how heavy the burden I gave him truly was.”

“So why did he treat me like an unwanted pet?” Catherine interrupted, desperately seeking answers. “None of that explains…”

Jen’s eyebrows grew sorrowful, “I am not sure, dear. I am deeply sorry you were treated that way, that is not the Alfred I knew. Something must have happened that made him lose his way. But I am certain he loved you more than anything.” Catherine’s eyes swelled and she shook her head.

After a long pause, Perry went on, “So what do you suggest we do? We can’t let Sir Maxwell’s legacy die like this. There must be something, right?”

Jen gave her advice, “Well, there is a tavern near the gallows. As far as I am aware, it is quite the hotspot for vile folk. I have solved many crimes whose suspects frequented that horrid place. Anyone plotting against His Majesty would likely find an able-bodied blade for hire there. If there is any information to be found, you will find it there. I am unsure of the name, but if you go there late enough, the scent of alcohol would draw you to it, no doubt.”

As Perry stood to take his leave, Jen interjected, “Not so fast. You two are clearly exhausted, you need your rest. You are not leaving this home until I know you are rejuvenated.”

They gladly took Jen’s offer and stayed, sleeping through the day.
As the evening washed away and the moonlight took its place, Perry and Catherine gave their thanks and made their way out of Jen’s home. They were glad to see a stormless sky as the smell of wet cobblestone filled their nostrils. The rocky roads remained slippery and shined brilliantly under the now-visible full moon.

The pair navigated toward the belly of Helmsfurd, the same place where Alfred met his end. The town square was always empty if there were no public executions being held. It was littered with trash but filled with mundane shops that somehow always managed to stay in business. Helmsfurd was a wealthy town, but the city center was uncared for. Rat squeaks made people nervous at night, but when the sun was out, the judging stares of onlookers made most visitors stay away.

Perry felt a chill creep up his spine, not expecting to return to the execution site so soon. The stillness between him and Catherine was broken by his half-hearted attempts to crack a joke, but she remained lost in her thoughts.

In the embrace of the empty town square, Perry struggled to locate the tavern Jen mentioned. Catherine suddenly raised her arm to a simple point, and he followed her outstretched arm to a dark alley.

“Do you know the place?” Perry asked.

Catherine shrugged and gestured at him to follow her. The dark cloak of night seemed brighter against the immense depth of the alley. He blindly followed Catherine, guided by the rhythmic crunch of gravel under her boots. Slowly, the fermented stench of alcohol grew stronger, followed by the commotion of rowdy drunks, scattered laughter, and shattering glass.

Perry, startled, reached out and clung to Catherine’s cloak, “Hey, is this safe? Maybe we should wait until morning…”

“You’ll be fine if you stay close to me.”

Before Perry could ask what she meant, the sudden uproar of a wild brawl stunned him. He coughed violently as he was engulfed in a billowing cloud of smoke. Through his squinted eyes, he made out shadows of silhouettes through the smog: men throwing punches, overturning furniture, and taking the occasional swig from ale bottles. Perry waved his hand to try and clear the smoke and realized Catherine was no longer with him. He frantically called out her name between his coughs until he was yanked forward.

She appeared and taunted him, “You really need to grow up. It’s just smoke.” Perry shook his head in protest, still flipping his hands to try and disperse the fumes. Catherine’s grip finally pulled him into a cluttered room, leaving him gasping and dizzy. Catherine scoffed, “Seriously? You’re such a baby. You were a street rat when you were a kid and you still can’t stand smoke?”

“How… and I supposed,” Perry gasped in between words, “…to get answers… if I can’t see or breathe?”

Catherine smacked her lips and rolled her eyes. “Stay here. I’ll find someone for you to talk to.”

Before Perry could protest, Catherine disappeared into the wall of fumes. The consistent noise of the brawl made him worry for her safety. He questioned why he grew concerned; he never paid any attention to her before, so he wondered why he worried now. After what seemed like an eternity, he heard a groggy voice, heavily slurred and peppered with burping, followed by Catherine’s unmistakable tone – seduction. Catherine reappeared with her silhouette trailed by an enormous man with the physique of a farmer. Both carried bottles of ale, which blended seamlessly with the man’s stained wool clothes; beer, blood, and charred holes littered his outfit, and he reeked so heavily of body odor that it made Perry’s stomach turn.

Perry caught the man’s attention with a quick cough. They locked eyes, and the man growled with a thick accent, “I ain’t big on sharin’, mate. Scram.”

Catherine cut in before Perry could, “We need information, Mason.”

As Perry focused more on Mason, he realized he had seen him the day before, “I recognize you,” he started. “You were at Sir Maxwell’s execution. You insulted him right before my eyes…”

Mason paused then broke into howling laughter, “You mean that wrinkly bloke from the gallows? Yeah, that was a laugh. What, did my joke piss you off, mate? Was he your husband?” Catherine’s voice sliced through the laughter and lines of spit escaping Mason’s mouth, “Someone was hired to kill the King, Mason, and you’re gonna tell us who it is.”

“And what’s it to you, eh?” Mason cocked his head, “I ain’t no fuckin’ rat.”

“You owe me,” Catherine’s voice lowered an octave.

“Here I thought,” Mason grabbed his crotch and flaunted it, “this settled our scores, Cat.”

Catherine erupted, promptly shattering her bottle against the wall, sending glass shards flying in all directions, and aimed the jagged bottleneck at Mason’s throat. He didn’t jump but chuckled instead. Perry could feel his heartbeat in his throat.

“Gotta say, Cat, you pack a heavier set than mosta’ the men in here,” Mason slurred with a wolfish grin. “Alright, alright, enough fun. Ray, yunno, that one skinny fucka from across town, he was braggin’ about some job of a lifetime last night. He insulted all of us, said he’d spare us ‘beggers’ a few coins when he got paid. Bastard said his target was the crown when we was beatin’ him, promised us some of the profit.”

Catherine pushed and asked where he was. Mason tilted his head, “Where do ya think, Cat? We buried him. You know we don’t tolerate loudmouths here.” Perry’s blood ran cold as a bead of sweat paved down his forehead.

Catherine’s responses became muffled with Perry only able to focus on Mason’s cold stare. “Fuck if I know, love. We just wanted him gone. Come on, Cat, you know how he’d do it. Do I really have to spell it out?” After a short pause, Perry noticed a thin line of blood falling down Catherine’s neck, forming a small pool on her collarbone. Perry warned that she must have been nicked by a stray shard, but Catherine ignored him.

Catherine lowered the fractured bottleneck and turned toward Perry, “Let’s go.” They quickly exited with the echo of Mason’s mocking laughter chasing them out. Once they were back in the alley, Catherine let go of Perry and stomped away. She told him to follow, and Perry held his tongue until he could look her in the eye to confront her. He couldn’t help but feel doubtful; he considered turning back to leave this self-righteous mission of his in the dirt, and simply continue his prophet training with Jen. He held little to no skills of his own, so he questioned why he bothered with this song and dance.

While Perry mimicked Catherine’s steps again, lost in his head, she suddenly stopped. A scraping sound of shifting metal resonated throughout the alley followed by rhythmic metallic echoes. Catherine’s distant voice rang out, coaxing Perry to follow. As he knelt, he stumbled on a cold, smooth beam – a ladder – and carefully descended. He found Catherine at the bottom with a freshly kindled torch illuminating their surroundings: a long, crudely dug tunnel with warped beam reinforcement. It went on for so long that Perry was unsure if it ever ended.

As Catherine moved forward without a word, Perry vented, “Catherine, stop. You need to explain what the hell just happened and where we are.” Catherine paused with her back toward him. Perry pressed on, “You knew that place and that man, Mason, and now we’re here. I’m so… lost. Since when did this become your mission rather than mine? I have no idea what’s going on anymore!”

Catherine sighed and spun around, “You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me. And what do you think I did while you and Alfred were out parading… just twiddled my thumbs? I had to let my frustration out somehow, you know.”

“I would have done just fine on my own. And I thought you were always with us, you said so yourself!” Perry retorted. “Turns out you were in that hell hole that entire time!”

Catherine scoffed, “When the hell did I say that, Perry? Sure, I tagged along to the library sometimes but that’s it. I found that ‘hell hole’ a long time ago… I was practically raised there.”

“So you chose to distance yourself, then dared to resent Sir Maxwell for being distant! You brought that on yourself! Why bother asking Jen if you already knew the reason?”

“I distanced myself because he always ignored me, Perry!” Catherine’s voice rose, “He hated me long before you came along. I just wanted to know why! I wanted to know where my parents were, and where the rest of our family was. Just once, I wished he would look me in the eye and realize what he was doing to me!” She stubbornly wiped a tear falling down her cheek, “Just forget it. We have to hurry.”

“Catherine, can we please talk about–”

“Just forget it, Perry! Ugh…” Catherine sneered.

Choosing not to probe further, Perry moved on. “Fine, but could you at least tell me where this tunnel is leading us?”

“It leads to the castle.”

“What? Wait, do you really think talking to King Howe is a good idea? The same person who executed Sir Maxwell without batting an eye? What are you thinking?”

“If you have a better plan, I’m more than happy to hear it. But until then, this is our best

“No, it’s not! This is suicide, Catherine! We need time to think and come up with a real

“Wait all you want but I’m going.”

“No, he won’t! Why do you suddenly care, anyway? After all that resentment toward Sir Maxwell, why change your mind now?”

“I don’t know…”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

Catherine distanced herself and Perry could only hear her faint reply. “I mean, I don’t know! I have no fucking clue why I care, ok! Just drop it! Are you coming or what?”

Perry buried his face in his hands and decided Catherine’s safety was more important than his return home. Although frustrated, he continued questioning where they were and what purpose the tunnel served. Catherine revealed that it was a transport system to smuggle contraband beyond the castle walls. People sneaked in drugs, alcohol, weapons, and even women. Every castle member thought they were the only ones in on it, but in reality, almost every person within the Monarch was a customer. King Howe was one of the biggest contributors as he smuggled women into his private room almost every week. Perry was surprised to find out that they wouldn’t run into anyone, as trades were always done during the mornings since that’s when the King’s guards were less alert.

“Doesn’t that make this even more dangerous?” Perry imposed. “If King Howe’s guards are lax during the day, they must be the most alert at night, right?”

“Yes, but the tunnel leads to a completely unguarded area. Almost every guard is a customer, remember? The only one who knows about it is the captain, but he’s always sent out to the neighboring cities to do the King’s dirty work,” Catherine replied.

A subtle scent of damp grass wafted through the air, which Catherine said was a sign they were close. And finally, after a few hours of constant walking, they reached the end of the tunnel that sported another metallic ladder.

Catherine secured the torch on a metal bracket and placed her hand on the ladder, ready to climb.

“Hold on. What are we going to say? We have to make this count…”

“I dunno, we’ll make it up as we go along.”

“What? Are you insane? We have no evidence and no plan, how are we supposed to convince him?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care. I just want to get this over with.”

Swiftly, Catherine climbed the ladder and pushed up on a metal grate at the top. Perry gave a frustrated grunt and followed, finding himself beside a small, two-story white-bricked building. It was plain with only a few windows and bushes scattered around the base. It didn’t look noble at all, and it was quite far away from the rest of the castle. Perry always envisioned it as unfathomably big, but now it seemed like any normal building against the backdrop of Helmsfurd. However, as far as the eye can see, massive fields were in front, holding countless flowers and crops.

Perry became skeptical. “Are you sure this is the place? This doesn’t seem right.”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Now, come on. All we have to do is climb.” She pointed upward toward an overhang attached to the second floor. A thicket of vines gave climbers easy access.

“Catherine, this isn’t safe. We should turn back! We have time,” Perry begged.

Catherine clenched her jaw and gave a cold stare, “You’re really starting to piss me off,
Perry. Either you grow a pair, or you stay here and let some guard kill you. I’m going up.”

With the situation out of his control, Perry followed her and climbed 30 feet up to the balcony. It was clear that the outside was only meant to fool onlookers; the interior was the most grand Perry had ever laid eyes on. It looked like a throne hall all on its own with its obsidian columns, military banners, coral rugs, and stone effigies all placed in perfect symmetry. A dome ceiling, graced by a stained glass tapestry, filtered the first touch of dawn into a warm multi-colored glow. One corner held a giant set of metal double doors.

Perry was so transfixed by the sight that he barely noticed the people in the room. In the center was a giant circular bed, hosting King Howe and two beautiful women, and the three were fast asleep.

He drew a deep breath and whispered, “Ok, how are we doing this?” His heart palpitated as Catherine approached the bed without hesitation. She lifted her leg and kicked King Howe’s dangling foot.

“Rise and shine, Your Majesty!” she announced theatrically, making the King and the women startle awake.

King Howe lifted his head and scowled at the sight of Perry and Catherine. The women, in their panic, desperately attempted to hide behind the King, but he commanded them to leave the room in a rushed murmur. Stripped of his normal royal clothes, the King was clad in a silk nightgown of purple and gold; quite the contrast to his usual appearance. His generously proportioned beer belly spilled out over his loincloth like putty, while his spindly, bird-like legs were bare and shivering. A shiny bald head and a maze of wrinkles composed his face.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice disguising panic as he inched toward the column nearest to his bed.

Catherine’s response was level. “That’s not important. We want to talk to you.”

“How dare you tell me what’s important,” he growled. “You’re trespassing on royal property and you try to tell me what to think?”

Perry stepped forward and slid into a respectful kneel. “Forgive us, My Lord. My partner meant no offense. We are humbled to be in your presence.” He angrily gestured for Catherine to follow his lead, but she remained still with a strong, sour look.

“Look at you…” her voice became acidic as she scolded. “You look like you belong in a nursing home. You’re fucking pathetic.” Perry’s eyes widened so high that his scalp seemed to wrinkle with his forehead. His blood boiled; he mentally abused himself for ever allowing Catherine to come along. He started to panic about what he should do next.

With the blink of an eye, King Howe reached behind the column producing a crossbow, its length matching his arm. He leveled it with Catherine and rested his finger on the trigger. He barked at them to plant their backs against the wall, motioning his head toward the edge of the balcony. They raised their hands and followed his order, pinning themselves against the wall with the cold stone biting their backs. King Howe, crossbow his hands, looked at them like a wild beast. Perry immediately used a passive tone as he desperately tried to diffuse the King.

“My Lord,” he started, voice shaking as he stared at the sharp bolt tip, “I’m so sorry for this woman’s idiocy. She was never supposed to be here in the first place.” Perry cast a judging glance toward Catherine before pleading, “Please, My Lord. We only wish to talk. Someone is going to kill you and–”

“You dare threaten me!” King Howe howled, leveling the weapon with Perry’s forehead. Perry’s voice cracked as he tried to defend himself but his pathetic efforts only enraged the King further.

“How are you able to run the whole Kingdom?” Catherine interrupted with a stoic tone. “No wonder someone wants you dead.” Her words weighed heavier than the King’s outburst, and the crossbow in his hands creaked as he tightened his grip and aimed it at Catherine. His deep, labored breaths turned into huffed growls as the weapon started to shake slightly from his unrelenting grip. As Perry heard the distant muffle of stomping metal and hurried voices, he thought about the prophecy. Maybe this was how it came true; all of this, curated perfectly to make Jen’s foresight a reality. Perry’s head started to clear, now knowing what he had to do to seal his fate for good. He glanced up and opened his mouth to follow Catherine’s lead, but the King’s trigger finger squeezed, sending a bolt flying at blinding speed.

A deafening twang echoed throughout the room as the crossbow bolt ripped through the air and plunged straight through Catherine’s throat, spurting blood out the back of her neck and a slight trickle falling down the front, dripping off her collar bone. She staggered back from the force, failing to gasp for air as she collapsed to her knees. Her icy mask finally cracked, and her jaw was left agape as she fell forward, turning her paling face toward Perry. He couldn’t breathe or avert his eyes from Catherine’s lifeless stare.

King Howe tossed the crossbow aside and his eyes became primal as he engaged Perry in a rush of fury. He bared his teeth and lunged at Perry with his hands outstretched, shrieking like a predator to his prey. Finding a moment of clarity, Perry’s head tilted up to see the King’s shadow looming over him. Time seemed to slow down; he gathered his strength, pivoted perfectly to use the King’s weight against him, and pushed. The King lost balance, and his weight carried him over the balcony, sending him plummeting to the ground below. A distant thud and crack made Perry peak over the edge, and he gasped at the sight of King Howe lying sprawled on the cobblestone with blood pooling around his head. He couldn’t think; he was out of breath, plastered against the balcony wall. His gaze darted between Catherine’s frail body and the room’s iron entrance. A dark stain blossomed from under Catherine’s cloak, and the metal stomps and shouting voices were just ahead.

Before Perry could rush to Catherine’s body, the heavy doors swung open, sending a crashing sound that would’ve brought a titan to its knees. The King’s guard, armed to the teeth, stormed into the room with their crossbows and longswords held high. Perry froze, staring at the men sworn to protect the man he just killed.

With one solemn look at Catherine, he acted on instinct and leaped over the balcony, but not before one of many discharged bolts lodged into his ankle. He yelped like a whipped dog as he seized a dangling vine and launched himself over the side. His world spun as he descended and his grip on the vine slipped from the pain. He released his hold too early, causing him to crash into the bloody gravel with a force that sent a white-hot shock through his injured leg. With adrenaline, he pushed himself up, rising into a limping run, and fled toward the nearby cotton fields. He zigzagged as much as his body allowed, narrowly evading a hailstorm of crossbow bolts from the guards above. One grazed his shoulder, making him stumble, and another embedded itself into his lower back, tripping him. He fell face-first into the soil as soft cotton brushed his face.

“Alfred,” Perry’s voice barely carried away by the gentle evening breeze, “I promised… I made it right.” His eyes moved to the rising sun: giant and reflective of Catherine’s hair color. “Catherine… I’m so… you didn’t deserve this.” His voice trailed off into mumbles as he tasted the blood dripping from his mouth. The sound of swaying cotton was punctured by more rapid twangs of releasing crossbow strings and the violent voices of guards. The pain of a few more bolts piercing his flesh was distant and void as his heart pounded in his ears. Breathing became difficult, and his world started to blur and darken around the edges like a vignette painting. He whispered their names as his mind swirled with memories of them. He extended a shaking hand toward the rising sun as if it could save him from his fading breath.

And in that moment, the sharp lines of Perry’s face softened and his eyes became vacant, still staring at the gorgeous sunrise in the cloudless sky. It painted the heavens with an array of pink pastels and bronze hues; it was painfully beautiful. As the endless cotton field met the horizon, Perry’s heart slowed and his breath hitched one last time. His outstretched arm slowly dropped into the blood-soaked soil.