“I found help!” John William heard Celeste’s sweet voice and peered down at the forest floor. Three specks lingered around the base of the tree; the smallest was green and the tension building from his agitated state was felt all the way up the tree where John William sat helplessly.
“How in Azra’s name did you get up there, boy? We have not even started our quest and you’re already in trouble!” Ferdinand shrieked and paced around.
“Yes, sorry about that. I’m not sure what came over me. I had no idea I was such a good climber.” John William fidgeted. More branches broke around him. “Perhaps you can you help me down?” His voice squeaked.
“Sure, you’re such a fantastic climber; why is it that you can’t manage your way down?” the hopper asked with his long-fingered hands on his hips.
“Hey, up there! I’m Mundi, I have some rope; do you want me to toss it up to you?” A strapping young man, around the same age as John William, stood next to Celeste. He had an oversized backpack loaded with supplies draped over his shoulders.
“Yes, please!” John William extended one arm, hoping to catch the rope. Mundi tucked his long brown hair behind his ears and gave the rope a good spin before hurling it upwards. John William dropped his arm in disappointment. The rope wrapped itself around a branch halfway up the tree.
“It’s much taller than it looks,” Mundi mumbled and scratched his head.
Celeste morphed into her bird form and fluttered to the end of the rope.
“That rope is too heavy, young lady! You’ll drop like a stone.” Ferdinand scowled, waiving his gangly arms in the air.
Celeste pinched the end of the rope with her beak and yanked it loose from the branch. The weight of the rope caused her to bob and dip. She flapped her wings faster and faster. Soon enough she was making a steady climb.
“That’s it, Celeste! Almost…” John William reached down and grabbed her up just as her wings tuckered out. “Don’t worry, I will help you down.” He placed her in his coat and tied the rope around the tree trunk.
“Here we come!” John William gripped his hands around the rope and squirmed down, inch by inch. Once he realized the trunk was strong enough to hold him, he slid down the rope as if he were on a fireman’s pole. “Woo hoo!” He hit the forest floor with a thud. “That might just be the last tree I ever climb!” He held out his hand to Mundi. “Thank you, Mundi.”
“Think nothing of it!” Mundi gave him a firm handshake. “Where are you all headed? The hopper asked for all this stuff!” He twisted his back around, revealing a fat, canvass backpack. “Not sure where you are going to keep everything. The backpack stays with me.”
Celeste popped out of John William’s jacket, ruffling his red scarf, and transformed. “We are going on a dangerous quest. Thank you for assisting us. I’m sure we will manage just fine.” She started easing the backpack off his shoulders to unload the supplies.
“Weren’t you a bird just a second ago? That is some trick – you’ll have to teach me that one. Did you say dangerous?” Mundi rambled out his questions and enthusiastically heaved the backpack up. “Count me in!”
John William gave Celeste a shrug. She let out a defeated sigh. “Okay, fine; you can come. Please, don’t tell anyone!”
Mundi perked up. “You got it! Mums the word! You need someone strong like me around.”
“Yes, yes, the more, the merrier; now lets get a move on! We are burning daylight,” said Ferdinand in an agitated tone.
“Mundi, it’s time to pack up and go home!” A screechy, nagging holler frightened the birds away.
“Sage, tell dad I’m going on a quest! I’ll be home tomorrow!” Mundi shouted with his boisterous voice. It echoed off every surrounding tree. John William and Celeste glared at him with similar scowls. “Oops…,” Mundi cleared this throat. “Sage! It’s a secret quest – so don’t tell anyone… got it?” Don’t worry – I’m sure my sister won’t tell anyone.” Mundi gave them both a sly wink.
“The entire realm will know before the day is over!” Celeste rolled her eyes and started walking east.
“I’m a big guy, but she scares me.” Mundi snickered. “I was minding my own business, taking these supplies to my family’s shop, when she ordered me to come save her, um… friend.” He gave John William a playful nudge.
“Just friends.” John William’s face burned as he glanced at Celeste.
They walked along to the clang of Mundi’s backpack and more of his rambling. “My father’s name is Mundi, my grandfather’s name is Mundi, my great grandfather’s name is Mundi, and I’m pretty sure my great, great grandfather’s name is Mundi. Our family runs a few shops in town. We sell anything. If you need it, we have it! One day, the Mundis will run the whole darn town.”
John William and Celeste looked around cautiously with every step. The forest carried a tune of strange sounds. Trees creaked as they swayed about, and the creatures made their own unique squeaks and chirps. John William had mixed feelings of comfort and concern. He took a deep breath to squeeze the tension out of his chest.
“We should stop soon,” said Ferdinand, watching the sun fade behind the trees. A raven flew overhead and landed on a nearby branch. It watched them pass before flying to another branch just ahead of them.
“I think we’re being followed,” Mundi whispered.
John William frowned. “I was afraid of that.” He had a feeling he knew exactly who it was. The raven fluttered down to join them. “Oh great,” he muttered with an eye roll. Through the raven’s feathers sprouted a midnight black cloak on a young man with hair and eyes to match.
“Okay, now I know my eyes aren’t right today. This is the second time I saw a bird turn into a human, or a human turn to a bird!” Mundi shook his head.
“Hi, Roman,” said Celeste with a polite smile.
“You look beautiful, as always, Celeste.” Roman brushed a clump of her hair off her shoulders and winked with an arrogant grin.
John William eyed the young Empyrean, not much older than Celeste, with unease. Compared to other Empyreans, peaceful by nature, something was a little off with him. Besides, he seemed to claim Celeste like she was some sort of trophy to be had. Celeste mentioned to John William she was well aware of Roman’s intentions to marry her and rule Verhonia.
He approached John William, looking him up and down with a snarl. “I see you have made the unfortunate decision of returning to the realm. I knew you weren’t all that smart.”
“I don’t know what your problem is with me; but I’m sure Azra’s Pith is big enough for the both of us.” John William stood tough with his chest out and arms folded.
“This is his home; he lives in Verhonia at the palace, Roman. He was invited by King Paraclete,” Celeste declared.
John William blushed. “I was?”
“I thought you knew that already.” Celeste nodded with a sweet smile.
“Oh…? Your father has taken a shine to him? How quaint,” Roman sneered.
“If you can’t be cordial, then I shall have to ask you to leave,” said Celeste firmly.
“I can be friendly. What are we doing? Setting up camp? Lighting a fire? Please, allow me to help.” Roman smirked mischievously and collected twigs for the fire.
“This should be a delightful night.” John William knew the only motive for Roman to stay was to throw trouble his way. Strange creatures with glowing, green eyes and sharp claws already had him on edge. Having to worry about what Roman was up to only made things worse.