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Belladonna Palace in the Umbral.jpg
Note to readers: I have changed the word "castle" when it appears to "palace," which would better describe what both Ayrie and Lauden live in in their respective realms. 
Also, I've been capitalizing Fae and not capitalizing vampires, and that will have to be ironed out later when I edit. From what I researched, it appeared that Fae, as a race, should be capitalized, which I would assume means Vampire should, too, but somehow it seems weird. I'll leave it like this for now. Let me know in the comments if you know the answer.
AI gave the Belladonna palace an oriental look, but I'm not mad about it. Again, no AI will be sued for anything in publication--the pictures here are just for kicks.

Chapter Four: Lauden

Lauden, his mother, and a dozen guards waited at the edge of the barren field. Fog, heavy and wet, rose from the mossy ground, hiding everything shorter than three feet tall.

"Did we get the place wrong?" Marona asked, looking at the parchment in her hand. "I thought I read Gugla's instructions correctly."

The mage had written specific directions to where the travelers would appear. The large trunks  filled with clothing had arrived early that morning, having come through the portal close to the palace without mishap. The Fae were traveling through the thinnest gateway between realms that was still within riding distance of the palace to give the best chance of a successful crossing. Lauden, his mother, and their guards had been waiting for hours but had seen no signs of them.

"Did Gugla trick us?" Lauden whispered to his mother low enough his guards couldn't hear. "He's been loyal to the king for many years." The mage could have sent Ayrie and his companions through a portal dangerous enough to kill them instantly, and Lauden and Marona would never have known.

"Loyalty doesn't mean he isn't glad you've taken his place," Marona whispered back. "I trust Gugla. Plus, I own a few secrets of his." She didn't say anything else. She didn't need to.

Clenching the reins in his hands, Lauden pensively stared out at the vast piece of rocky land that stretched before them. If Gugla hadn't betrayed them, something else must have happened to delay the expected travelers. Or worse.

What if the Fae hadn't survived the crossing?

To Lauden's knowledge, no humanoid had ever done so.

Lauden's stomach clenched. Without the Fae prince, the Prophecy could not be fulfilled. All would be lost.

"There!" Marona suddenly cried, so loudly the horses snorted restlessly.

Lauden looked to where his mother pointed. Through the fog, a glowing light shown in the distance.

Spurring his horse, he galloped toward the gleaming aura, the others following behind him. Reining in a few feet away, Lauden stared, mesmerized, as the light began to swirl, picking up speed until three forms on horseback began to materialize within it.

The first to solidify was a large, broad-shouldered man sitting astride a magnificent gray Lusitano. Dressed in a royal blue uniform, the man had thick, dark hair, warm-brown skin, a square jaw, and a deep cleft in his chin. By his clothes, he was obviously a guard—most likely the Fae prince's sworn defender, unless Ayrie had brought two guards with him. But the next person materializing looked to be nobility, dressed in peach silk and seated atop a palomino Mustang, his bright red hair barely reaching the collar of his tunic. That detail alone told Lauden he was not royalty. Turning his attention to the third arrival taking shape between the two others, he waited for a first look at his betrothed.

The horse became recognizable first, a beautiful Arabian stallion much like Lauden's, except rather than black, this horse's coat was a glistening champagne color. Horses were versatile creatures—one of the few that could comfortably exist in both the dark and the light realms. It was one of the many reasons Lauden admired them. He enjoyed riding and had many beautiful horses in his stables. This trio would be welcomed additions.

When the man astride the beautiful horse became as clear and solid as Lauden, he pushed the hood of his sage green cloak from his head, revealing long, dark hair that fell over his shoulders in wild waves mingled with intricate braids. The light around the three men had died, but for a moment, this man's entire being appeared to sparkle in the fog before the illusion gradually faded away. He was dressed in white pants, dark boots, and a light blue, silk shirt open at the neck where a gold pendant bore the Zambesi crest. The shirt matched the Fae's eyes, which had darker rings of blue around the irises. They were quite striking on their own, but set in the chiseled features of the beautiful Fae prince, they were even more so.

Piercing gaze landing on Lauden, the Fae prince raised his chin, arched one dark eyebrow, and spoke in a smooth, deep voice.

"Prince Lauden?"

"I am. Prince Ayrie?"

The Fae nodded.

"We were worried."

"It was…a difficult trip," Ayrie admitted.

"This is my mother, Marona, Queen of the Umbral. We are here with our personal guard to escort you to…" he started to say the palace, but for some reason replaced it with "your new home."

Lauden's mother gave him an approving smile.

Ayrie bowed to Marona from his horse. "I am honored, your majesty. May I introduce my companions?" At her polite nod, he indicated the redhead. "This is Ote Vanderbusen, my bosom friend since birth." Ote bowed to her and then to Lauden. "And this is my sworn defender, Lyles Crittendom of Littenguard."

"A trade city?" Lauden inquired of the guard.

"You know of it, Prince Lauden?" Lyles looked surprised.

"Not yours. But Littenguard has a mirror city here in the Umbral where most of the realm's trade is done."

"It is much the same in the Ephemeral," Lyles affirmed. "People come from all over to make trade there."

"You are undoubtedly tired from the crossover," Marona quickly inserted, giving Lauden a meaningful look. It was only then that Lauden realized how dark it had gotten.

They needed to leave for the palace immediately.

"Our destination is but a half hour's ride east. Shall we be off?" he said.

The group started for the road, the guards flanking them.

They'd ridden only a couple of miles when low growls took up in the shadowy hedges on each side of them.

Dammit, Lauden thought. The rapax are out and hunting.

The rapax came out at moons' rising, and they'd undoubtedly scented the Fae. They didn't like the taste of vampire, but creatures of the light would be extremely tempting. As the growls grew louder and were joined by snarls, the horses became skittish, and the riders had to fight hard to keep their mounts under control. Suddenly, Dominion reared back on his hind legs, almost throwing Lauden to the ground, but the prince held on, urging the stallion into a fast gallop again. If they could just get past the palace walls, they would be safe. Fortunately, all three of the newcomers were excellent riders, controlling their mounts and riding at maximum speed.

Lauden felt something pass in the air above them and looked up to see a chiroptera circling overhead. The giant bats lived in the high mountains and came out at night to hunt. Lauden couldn't do anything about the rapax, but he could about this pest.

As the chiroptera's third pass ruffled the hair on their heads, he yelled, "Chiroptera, be gone!"

With a loud screech, the creature veered off and headed for the mountain range.

Lauden's mother's face was pale and her nostrils pinched. Due to the dominion the vampires held over them, the chiroptera couldn't have hurt Lauden and his group, but it could easily have plucked one of the Fae from his horse and taken it to its cave to consume, and Lauden knew his mother was imaging that one taking Ayrie and leaving them without hope.

Lauden told himself they were lucky that flying monkeys didn't hunt at night—those winged devils raped their prey before killing it.

Lauden would have to warn the Fae of all the dangers of the dark realm, but right then his goal was to get them out of the open wild and to the safety of the palace grounds. So intent was he on his mission, Lauden didn't properly take a breath until the group cleared the huge wrought iron gates and moved into the outer bailey.

Dismounting his stallion, Lauden intended to turn to help his mother from her horse, but instead found himself helping Prince Ayrie off his large Arabian. The Fae prince appeared both puzzled and amused by the action.

Was the Fae prince mocking Lauden? Had he tricked him into that chivalric move?

Annoyed, Lauden barked to the stable crew to take care of the horses, and, without a glance backward, left the three Fae to his mother's care and strode toward the two high crags that concealed the forebuilding of the palace.

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