This story won a Silver Honorable Mention over at the Writers of the Future short story contest, and now I want to share it with all of you as a way of saying thanks for checking out my tiny corner of the internet!
You can read the story, or listen to it (narration provided by the talented George Kastrinos). Either way, I hope you enjoy. I had a blast writing this one–there are a lot of plot twists, and nothing makes me happier than a story with an awesome ending.
By Shami Stovall
Prince Karrin played by his garden balcony, unaware of the monster lurking in the shadows.
It was a Gloom—a dreadful creature drawn to strife, anguish, and jealousy. Its touch could kill in an instant, but even if it didn’t, a Gloom’s scythe-like claws could rend cold steel. Not much else was known about their appearance, as a sliver of light could burn their flesh. Even the Gloom stalking the castle grounds—mere feet from Prince Karrin—stayed in the moonlight shadows of the garden, its inky eyes focusing on the lantern that hung from the ceiling above where the prince played.
That bubble of light kept the Gloom from drawing closer.
Prince Karrin hummed to himself as he set up his wooden soldiers and plush horses. He reenacted a battlefield, half the soldiers on one side, and half on the other. After banging a few together, he dropped one to the floor and garbled out words.
“Save… me…” the prince said as he shook the soldier. He picked up another and rushed it over. “I’m here for you, Harid. Don’t worry! We’ll get you to safety. You have my word as a knight.”
Prince Karrin cradled the two soldiers and rushed them to the edge of his garden balcony—to the limit of his bedroom’s light. Then he placed them on the ground, one soldier standing, the other on its side.
“You’ll be okay,” Prince Karrin said. He gently patted the head of the wounded soldier. “Your family is waiting for you. We don’t want to make them sad.”
With delicate movements, Prince Karrin pretended to bandage the wounded soldier. He hummed as he worked, unable to see anything beyond the boundaries of his balcony. But he heard the rustle of leaves, and felt the icy chill of the Gloom’s breath on the air. He lifted his head, his curiosity piqued.
Prince Karrin stared into the darkness with unfocused eyes.
“Hello?” he whispered.
An uneasy feeling slid down Prince Karrin’s scalp and spine, like someone had cracked an egg over his skull and allowed the yolk to run free down his skin. He stood, and the wind in the garden picked up speed. The flame in his bedroom lantern flickered.
As a sickly boy of eight years, he hadn’t yet trained with the sword or crossbow. Where were the guards? Two stood in the hallway, just beyond his bedroom door. But wasn’t there one in the garden?
Perhaps he was no more.
“H-hello?” the prince asked again.
When no answer came, Prince Karrin considered calling for help, but he turned his attention to the wounded soldier toy. If the guards ran into the garden and found someone, there would be a fight. Would someone get hurt? Would someone die?
Prince Karrin picked up his soldiers and hugged them tight. He returned his gaze to the shadows of the garden. “If someone is there… would you want to play with me?”
The wind whipped through the trees and stirred the bushes. Again, the lantern flickered and rocked, close to falling off its chain. Prince Karrin ignored the warning of the wind. He walked backward into his room, unwilling to turn his back to the balcony. Then he knelt and picked up his princess doll—a soft plush made of velvet and silk.
Prince Karrin, despite the egg yolk feeling curdling his gut, returned to the edge of the balcony, right where the light faded into the night.
“You can play with Princess Lunastella,” he said as he held out the doll. “She rules over the kingdom, and, uh, has magical powers.”
The icy chill remained, but still, no one answered.
Prince Karrin sat down with his soldiers, and then lifted the princess doll up high. “Do you think she’s pretty? I like her white hair.” He stoked the long, silky threads. “You can play with me, if you promise you won’t hurt her.”
After waiting a short moment, Prince Karrin placed the princess on the balcony floor and gently pushed her through the railing. She fell half a foot and landed in the garden dirt with a soft thump.
“I don’t get to play with anyone else,” the prince said as he picked up his soldiers. “I get ill often. When my cousins come to visit, I have to sit away from them, and I never get to share any of their toys.”
Nothing in the garden responded.
Prince Karrin stared down at the crude faces carved into the toy soldiers. “I don’t think anyone in the castle likes me much. Everyone always whispers when I’m around. And Father never comes to visit. Just… just the healer and the cook.” He lifted his head and forced a smile. “If you aren’t a thief or rogue, would you mind pretending for a bit? You won’t get sick if you stay on one side of the balcony, and I stay on the other.”
A long minute passed. At first, Prince Karrin thought he might’ve been talking to the owls, but then he heard the soft caress of velvet and silk, and the sound of something plucked from the dirt.
Overcome with a bout of energetic glee, Prince Karrin scooted to the railing and held up his soldiers. “This is Harid, and this is Fox. They trained to become knights together. They love Princess Lunastella.” He marched them around the balcony. “What does the princess want them to do?”
The delicate princess doll emerged from the darkness, held by the Gloom, its monstrous form just out of sight. From Prince Karrin’s perspective, it appeared as though the doll were floating a few feet in the air. Even when he stared with wide eyes, he couldn’t make out the details of the holder, just the doll’s form as it swayed back and forth.
“Is she dancing?” Prince Karrin asked with a laugh. “We must be at a fancy party.” He danced the soldiers over to their horses and then rode them around in a circle, mimicking the tournament shows his father would order for each of Karrin’s birthdays. “I like when the knights give their horses names. That means they’re good friends. Harid’s horse is named Hilgrad, and Fox’s horse is named White Hare.”
The Gloom had seen many knights. Men in armor often rode into the wilderness, looking to tame the wilds and purge the world of dangerous magics and creatures. Their hate had tasted wondrous, but no such loathing radiated from the prince.
Princess Lunastella stopped dancing.
“You don’t like the horses?” Prince Karrin asked. “We can put them away.”
The Gloom placed the princess doll back in the dirt and then fled from the garden to escape the unforgiving blaze of the approaching dawn.
Prince Karrin waited until the sun shone on the garden before he slid through the railing and scooped up his doll.
The Gloom returned the next night, drawn to the woes of the castle, and the faint light of the prince’s room. It stood in the garden, watching from a distance as the cook and healer tucked Karrin away in his bed. They dimmed the lantern, but didn’t extinguish the flame.
For two hours the prince slept, but then he tossed and turned, and awoke in the dead of night. Dappled with sweat, Prince Karrin stumbled around his room, rubbing at his forehead. After several minutes, he took a deep breath and wiped the sweat away. Then he opened the lantern’s siding for the maximum amount of light.
The Gloom crept through the castle garden, closer and closer, its eyes unblinking once it neared the prince’s room. Leaves rustled, and Prince Karrin snapped his attention to the balcony.
“Hello?” he asked. “Is that you again?”
Prince Karrin scooped up his toys and ran to the railing, his steps giddy. With gentle care, he laid out his soldiers, the princess doll, and a brand new toy carriage his father had ordered for him.
“Do you have a name?” the prince asked the shadows in the garden.
But no one answered.
“You don’t talk. And my Princess Lunastella doll doesn’t talk, either. I think the name would suit you.” Prince Karrin pushed the doll back into the garden. Then he stood and offered a formal bow. “Thank you for coming to play with me, Princess Lunastella.”
Without waiting for a response that would never come, Prince Karrin quickly sat back down and snatched up his soldiers.
“Where were we? Right. A fancy party. That’s why I brought the carriage. Knights should escort the princess. That’s what knights do.”
The Gloom—now with a name of Princess Lunastella—scooped up the princess doll and waved it through the air from the safety of the darkness. The prince laughed and made his soldiers dance, but after a short period, he stopped.
“Maybe they have a banquet,” he said. “The carriage can be the table.” He set the soldiers on either side and pointed to the far end. “Princess Lunastella should sit there, to protect her knights. That’s what princesses do.”
But the Gloom didn’t understand. It held the doll for a long moment, staring at the fine stitch work and loving attention to detail around the frills of the dress. What was the purpose of the princess? Or a party? Or a banquet? Such events were foreign.
Prince Karrin tilted his head. “What’s wrong, princess? Haven’t you been to a banquet before? You sit and have food with all your friends and family.” He scooted the carriage and the toy soldiers closer to the darkness. “It’s okay if you haven’t. I’ll show you how.”
Although the Gloom never spoke, the prince made no mention of it. He acted out the scene and poured his imaginary wine with grace. The Gloom had seen many banquets, but it never mattered why such things took place. Wherever it found extravagance and luxury, a mire of treachery and anguish always lurked nearby—a feast for Glooms looking to devour those with malicious intent.
Yet the prince made no mention of anything other than the pleasantness of a fine evening.
When the prince leaned into the darkness, the Gloom got close, its icy breath creating goosebumps on the child.
Prince Karrin didn’t smell like the men the Gloom had consumed before. He smelled far better. A sweet fragrance of sadness and naïve hope. The type of melancholy only a lonely child could know.
The Gloom inched closer, the taste of prince its sole thought.
“Princess?” Prince Karrin asked. “Are you paying attention? My mom said being considerate of others was important for royalty. Aren’t you going to practice pouring the wine? Here. Give me your hand. I’ll help you.”
The prince held out his hand.
To Princess Lunastella’s curiosity, the scent of loneliness lessened. Glooms kept no company, nor did they have blood relations, or kingdoms, or servants, or worshippers. Associating with someone was a new experience, one that amused the Gloom—at least for the time being.
It moved away from the prince, refused to touch his hand, and mimicked the wine pouring motions with the doll, pouring wine for the two soldiers.
Again, the prince’s melancholy waned, as though the simple movements of irrelevant toys had strings straight to his heart. Princess Lunastella had never seen such a thing.
The playful evening continued until the hour before the dawn. Then the Gloom left, just as it had before.
A whole season passed.
Each night the prince awoke and played with Princess Lunastella.
But one night, on the eve of autumn, Prince Karrin stayed in bed, coughing. The Gloom waited at the boundary of light and dark, watching with a silent gaze. The guards and healer woman crowded around his bed, trying to make him comfortable. With each touch and question, the prince’s distress and sadness intensified.
Once the guards and the healer left, Princess Lunastella remained still for a long moment before creeping closer to the balcony. It disturbed the bushes and snapped twigs, announcing its presence.
The prince sat up, his scent of unhappiness fading as he asked, “Princess Lunastella? Are you there?” He coughed into his hand and shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t play tonight. I’ll… I’ll feel better tomorrow, though.”
His fit of wheezing resumed. No one came back to check on him. Not even the healer. The prince coughed and coughed, each one raspy, yet somehow wet.
The Gloom breathed deep and then exhaled, the chill winds rushing into the room and disturbing the lantern.
Prince Karrin patted his chest. Through a few hacks, he asked, “Do you want to come in? I… shouldn’t have company, but I’d like it if you stayed.” He slid from his bed, slow and steady, his legs weak, and stumbled over to the lantern. It took him a minute to fiddle with the latch, but the prince eventually opened it and snuffed out the light.
In an instant, the Gloom was in the prince’s room, its claws clicking across the stone floor, its massive form occupying an entire corner. A frosty breeze followed.
The prince felt his way back to the bed, unable to see in the darkness, his throaty cough continuing the entire way.
Princess Lunastella loomed over him, only a whisper away.
“I’m sorry,” the prince said he as tucked himself back into his blankets. “I’m not very good company. This happens sometimes, but—” he wheezed for a long moment, “—I always get better soon.”
The Gloom ran its claws over the blankets, slicing threads without disturbing the bedding. One touch and the prince would die, but as the moment stretched on, Princess Lunastella pulled back its claws.
Prince Karrin stifled a round of coughs and lifted his sheets. “Are you cold? You could lie with me.”
The Gloom didn’t move.
“Sometimes I’m afraid.” The prince set the sheets back down. “Everyone says I’ll be okay, but I wonder what it’ll be like when I’m not okay. When I… when I finally die.”
Although the prince couldn’t see in the dark, Princess Lunastella could. It stared down at the child, watching the boy’s face as he fiddled with the edge of his pillow.
“Princess,” the prince whispered. “Are you afraid of dying?”
Prince Karrin didn’t know, but Glooms didn’t grow old or die. They lived forever, so long as there was suffering in the world. Princess Lunastella had never understood growing old, getting sick, or slowly fading into nothingness. The Gloom had never felt any anxiety or fear of death, only a constant need to seek out those in anguish—and end them.
The prince rubbed at his eyes as tears spilled onto his cheeks. “Mom wasn’t okay. I worry… that when I die… I won’t be able to find her. What if I get lost? What if she’s not waiting for me anymore?” After a few deep breaths, Prince Karrin poked his hand out from under the blankets. “Princess, I don’t want to be alone.”
Princess Lunastella held out a freakish hand, examining the blade-like extremities. Was the boy asking for physical comfort? Such a request would end in death. And even if it didn’t, he would hurt himself on the claws. The Gloom stepped away, its chilly breath streaming out in rows of icy mist.
It was obvious they were never meant to associate. Nothing about them fit. Their relationship was as foolish as a rat and poisoned cheese.
The Gloom inched toward the balcony, its thoughts wrapped in doubts it had never considered.
Prince Karrin sat up. “Wait. Please don’t leave me. I’ll try not to cough as much, I promise.”
But soon the dawn would threaten Princess Lunastella’s life.
The Gloom turned and left through the garden. Instead of hiding in the cracks of the world and waiting for night, however, it traveled to the dark forests of the nearby mountain, intent on finding magic.
The redwoods that grew in the forest blotted out the light with their thick canopy. Princess Lunastella slid between the trees with a single goal in mind. The woodland creatures fled at even the slightest hint of a Gloom, for all of them knew of its deadly touch. Nothing stood in the way of Princess Lunastella’s destination—not the snakes, or the elves, or the werewolves that called the redwoods home.
And it didn’t have to go far to find the clearing. Once settled, it waited until nightfall. Gloom’s didn’t sleep, after all, nor did they need food or water. They sustained themselves on misery, and the world had plenty to keep the Glooms from starving.
Once the stars sparkled in the night sky, Princess Lunastella emerged from the tree line. The soft glow of the crescent moon was enough to burn, but the Gloom suffered through the pain. It turned its eyes upward, and pointed with a scythe-like claw to one of the many twinkling stars.
“Heed me,” it said, its voice so vile and dark that the trees shuddered.
No creature of the forest wanted the ire of a Gloom.
Three stars descended from the sky. Or at least, they appeared as stars. In reality they were Starlight Faeries, the rarest and most enigmatic of all the fae. They hid themselves in plain sight with their powerful illusions—often taking the form of stars so they could help or confuse weary travelers lost in the woods, depending on their mood.
The three Starlight Faeries left a line of diamond dust glittering behind them, which gave them the appearance of shooting stars caught in slow motion. They danced around Princess Lunastella until one stopped to offer the Gloom a bow.
“Oh, ancient Gloom,” she said in a sing-song voice. “Long has it been since you stalked our forest. We are a joyous community now. What business does an antediluvian have with us?”
Princess Lunastella stepped forward, and the fae scattered to the tree line. One touch—even the slightest graze—and the Starlight Faeries would cease to exist.
“I’ve come for your magic,” the Gloom stated, its sharp teeth creating a sinister grate to its speech. “For your illusions.”
Never before had a Gloom come to the Starlight Faeries asking for favors. The three came together and whispered amongst themselves. When they had agreed, one approached the Gloom, her wings fluttering fast.
“What, exactly, do you wish of us?”
“I wish to take on a new form. Seal away my touch of death, hide my body from the light, and give me an illusion befitting a young human princess.”
The Starlight Faeries swirled around the edge of the clearing, their whispers and chattering echoing between the trees. Such a feat had never been done. It was ludicrous—preposterous!—a foolish request no Gloom would ever make. Take away its deadly touch? Hide it from the light in a powerful illusion of a human princess? Silly! Unheard of! Unbelievable!
Once the fae had come to terms with their shock, they approached the Gloom as a group of three.
“What will you give us, antediluvian? Shielding you from the light will require much power.”
“Anything,” the Gloom intoned. “There is no price I will not pay.”
“Then it will cost you your immortality,” the Starlight Faery said with a giggle.
“So be it.”
The faeries collectively gasped. No immortal creature had ever given up its status as eternal! The faeries had been certain the Gloom would deny their comical proposal. How could such a thing be happening?
“Is it true, then?” one of the faeries asked. “Have you stalked the castle grounds and found yourself a human you refuse to kill?”
Another interjected, “Has this human worked its magic on you? Does this mere mortal control you now?”
“Enough. I’ll pay your price. Grant me what I seek.”
The Starlight Faeries nodded to each other. Then they darted up into the sky and used the starlight as fuel for their ritual. Only they could craft from the light of distant stars, and only they could make an illusion powerful enough to hide from the sun. They spun together strands of light until they formed a bracelet—one so elegant and transfixing it would immediately be recognized as magical, even to the most hardened cynic.
Then the Starlight Faeries returned to the clearing, their beautiful creation complete. The lead faery flew forward and presented her magic with a bowed head.
“Each strand of this bracelet cost us something permanent,” she said. “It is truly powerful. Once you place this bracelet on your wrist, you will become the princess you desire.”
The Gloom reached out with knife-like claws.
“But you should be warned,” the Starlight Faery said, shuddering. “Once you accept our illusion, you will suffer the entropy of time. And when you grow old, you’ll cease to be.”
The two other faeries nodded. “Cease to be,” they repeated.
Without hesitation, Princess Lunastella took the bracelet from the faery, careful not to touch her.
The faery continued with, “You will wear our illusion like a husk until the bracelet is broken. And once broken, it will be gone forever. You’ll return to being a Gloom… but you will never gain back your immortality.”
That didn’t matter. The Gloom had made up its mind. Never before had it touched anyone. Never before had it eased the suffering of another. Every moment with Prince Karrin had been something new and unexpected. And he had been the first to give the Gloom something—a name.
Princess Lunastella slipped the bracelet on and allowed the magic to seep into its skin. Stitch by stitch, a husk of flesh, hair, velvet, and silk wrapped itself around the Gloom, until there was nothing left but the body of a little girl with the monster trapped inside.
And not just any girl, but one who mirrored the prince’s doll. Long, white hair, a black dress made of careful embroidery, and adorable proportions. The Gloom admired the body for a long time, its hands shaking while it patted the dress and admired the way it swayed in the evening wind.
Its hands—so soft and new—looked nothing like they had before.
“Touch me,” the Gloom said, its voice replaced with chords of an elegant singer.
One of the Starlight Faeries, her eyes wide with wonderment, flew forward. She hesitated and then grazed the Gloom’s fingertips with her own.
The death touch was hidden beneath the many layers of magic.
“Why?” the faery asked. “Why would you do this? I must know.”
Satisfied with the result, and uninterested in the faery’s question, Princess Lunastella turned away from the clearing and headed back for the castle. It smiled as it hopped over fallen trees and giggled as it splashed through tiny creeks. The woodland creatures didn’t flee. The owls and the cats watched with glowing eyes, curious to see the strange human running wild through their midnight sanctuary.
Never before—never in all history, since the beginning of time!—had Princess Lunastella felt so unshackled and free. It could do anything! It could stay with the prince, hold his hand, talk to him, play with his toys, and experience the joy of menial activities. What would the prince’s skin feel like? Warm? Cold? Soft? Cracked? Would he delight in the Gloom’s appearance like he delighted in the doll’s?
Princess Lunastella laughed, enjoying the feeling of reverberation in its lungs.
What would be their first moment together? And how could they solve the prince’s coughing?
The Gloom wanted nothing more than to arrive at the castle, but the trek took longer with short, human legs. Although it ran and hopped the entire way, the speed was still disappointing, especially now that it would live for such a short period of time. How did humans put up with travel times? Such a waste of their finite lives.
Princess Lunastella’s chest tightened the closer it got to the castle. Each step brought a new sensation of anxiety. How would the prince react? The question played in the Gloom’s mind over and over.
And the daylight! Princess Lunastella dreaded the day, but it anticipated the sunshine with curiosity. Such warmth would also be a new experience. Everything would be different!
The Gloom emerged from the trees and ran toward the gardens around the castle. It snuck in through a broken piece of wall and skipped along the pathways. It knew the schedule of every guard and made its way undetected, smiling the entire journey.
The castle seemed noisier than before, and the neighing of horses rang throughout the night. It didn’t matter. Even if the entire castle was awake, the Gloom refused to be deterred.
When it arrived at the prince’s garden balcony, Princess Lunastella halted in the shadows. The prince sat in his room, playing with his soldiers, like he had many nights before.
Just as the Gloom stepped forward, a guard entered the prince’s room. Princess Lunastella hesitated and stepped back, waiting for a moment of privacy.
“Prince Karrin,” the guard said.
The prince glanced up from his games, his eyebrows knit together. “Yes?”
After a deep breath, the guard muttered, “I’m sorry, my prince. I hope you’ll forgive me, but the reign of House Elentyne must come to an end.”
“I-I don’t understand.”
The guard pulled a small knife from his belt and stabbed the prince in the gut with a forceful strike.
The Gloom caught its breath. Ice washed the garden, killing the last of the flowers and coating the pathway with rime. Without hesitation, it ripped off its bracelet, shattering the illusion and tearing free of its husk.
Gale force winds rushed into the prince’s room, toppling over the lantern and snuffing the light. The guard held up an arm to shield himself, but it didn’t matter. The Gloom was on top of him in an instant. One touch to the face—his heart stopped—but it wasn’t enough. The Gloom shredded the body, painted the walls crimson, and then smashed through the bedroom door.
The lights in the hall shriveled and died.
Nearby guards called out in confusion, but then they, too, met a sudden death.
It still wasn’t enough.
The Gloom rushed the stairway, its claws finding the throat of every advisor, servant, squire, and page. Every last person in the castle who failed the prince would share in his demise. One by one, corpse by corpse, it ripped through flesh and tore down doors, its breathing ragged and hoarse.
But when it came to the cook and healer, both hidden in the closet of the queen’s bedroom, the Gloom passed them by, leaving only icy footprints in its wake.
No amount of killing helped, however.
The pain never faded. The anger grew.
Some men fled the castle, but the Gloom didn’t give chase. Instead, it turned back for the prince’s room, uncertain of what to do. It had given everything—life everlasting—to be by the prince’s side, and that was what Princess Lunastella intended to do.
With shaky steps, the Gloom entered the familiar room.
The sound of sobbing ended all hatred.
Prince Karrin, curled on the floor in the fetal position, shook as he cried. The Gloom hesitated. The prince lived? Even through the stabbing? What could be done? Nothing. Princess Lunastella couldn’t touch the prince without its husk, and that was now lost forever.
Panicked, it walked to the bed and ripped off the sheets. Careful not to touch the prince, the Gloom threw the blankets over his body and gently wrapped him in the cloth. Its razor claws made everything difficult, and twice the Gloom almost cut through to the prince, but it avoided that fatal mistake.
Before the prince could bleed to death, Princess Lunastella picked him up and rushed through the bloody halls of the castle. Who could save him? That was all that mattered. The healer and cook weren’t qualified. Someone with actual skill—or magic—would be needed. The Gloom raced all the way to the entrance, devising a plan to head into town.
Four guards stood near the entrance, each with a lantern. The captain of the guard, a man with a decorated cloak and tunic, lay at their feet, bruised and bleeding. One guard spit on him.
“Down with King Claus Elentyne,” he shouted.
“You’re traitors,” the guard captain growled. “All of you. Look what you’ve done.”
Princess Lunastella didn’t need to hear anymore. After a blast of icy wind, the lanterns ceased to be useful. A second later, all four guards were dead. The captain, shaken, glanced around, unable to see in the darkness.
“W-who goes there?”
The Gloom smashed open the front door, allowing the moonlight to stream inside. The guard captain shuddered and moved away, his eyes wide. Then he spotted the blankets with the prince inside—a bundle of blood and linen.
Although he was injured, the captain stood and scooped the prince into his arms.
“Geoffrey,” Prince Karrin choked out between sobs.
“How did this happen? Where did you come from?”
But the prince was in no condition to answer.
Without wasting time, Captain Geoffrey rushed the boy from the castle and headed straight for his horse. Traitorous soldiers stood between him and the stables. They drew swords and advanced, but Princess Lunastella refused to let them live. After snuffing their lights, they each died a quiet death.
Captain Geoffrey, shaken, glanced around as he continued, his breathing shallow. He couldn’t see what was helping him, but he knew from the terrible chill and twisted feeling in his gut, that it was a monster.
Steeling himself to the reality of the situation, the guard captain mounted his fastest steed and rode down the main roads with Prince Karrin in his arms. The Gloom kept pace behind them, sliding through the shadows and spooking the horse enough to quicken its pace. When they arrived in town moments later, the Gloom stayed far behind, but not so far as to lose sight.
Captain Geoffrey jumped off his horse and ran for a building on the edge of town. He knocked with three hard slams. “Crone! I need your help. Please! In the name of the king!”
An old woman opened the door. Her blood flowed with the power of the fae, and the Gloom crept closer, drawn to her otherworldly scent. She took one look at the prince and shook her head.
“I want no part of this.”
“Please!” the guard captain said. “He’s dying.”
“It’s a coup, isn’t it? That castle has been a hotbed of turncoats for months. If I help the prince, the new regime will hunt me too.”
“I’ll leave,” Captain Geoffrey said. “I’ll take him with me. No one will ever know.”
Princess Lunastella stood silent as the captain disappeared into the house with the crone. If the prince died under her care, there would be blood to pay. Nothing else mattered to the Gloom. Not the approaching dawn, nor the traitorous soldiers galloping toward them. Nothing.
When the guard captain emerged, he held the prince tight to his chest. Although Prince Karrin was not completely healed, he had stopped bleeding, and he glanced around with tear-stained eyes.
“Where is Princess Lunastella?” he asked, panic in his voice. “We can’t leave her!”
“Your doll?” Captain Geoffrey asked. “No, my prince. Now is the time for you to become a man. Hush while we ride to the river.”
“She isn’t a doll, she’s—”
He dragged the prince up onto his horse and rode from town as the enemies of the prince’s father gave chase. The Gloom didn’t allow it to last long.
Each mounted soldier died as they pursued the prince to the river—the last one in the row disappearing until none were left. Captain Geoffrey glanced over his shoulder multiple times, counting the disappearing soldiers as he rode at full speed. He didn’t know why the monster followed them, but he realized then it wouldn’t come for him or the prince, and his fear waned.
“Princess Lunastella,” Prince Karrin cried. “Where are you?”
The Gloom never answered.
When they reached the river, the guard captain slid off his saddle and took the prince to a secluded dock not far from town. Boats meant for the king’s men sat tethered to posts on the river bed. Captain Geoffrey knew he could evade the traitors if he headed downstream and into the next kingdom over. Hopefully the neighboring queen and princess would find it in their hearts to grant asylum to an injured prince and his guard.
The first rays of day shone over the distant mountain.
Princess Lunastella stopped at the tree line and watched with bated breath as Captain Geoffrey and Prince Karrin stepped into one of the sturdy boats.
“We can’t leave without Princess Lunastella,” the prince said.
The guard captain shook his head. “What’re you talking about, boy? There is no such princess!”
“B-but she helped us… She followed us all the way here. Don’t you feel her?”
Captain Geoffrey froze halfway through untying the boat from the post, his heart beating fast. He refused to believe the prince meant the monster following them. No creature of death was a princess, after all. Had the young boy been tricked?
“Leave us!” Captain Geoffrey shouted at the trees. “You’re a curse! You have no business with the prince!”
“No,” Prince Karrin cried, fresh tears streaming down his face. “She’s my friend! She has to come with us!”
The sunlight stretched over the river and created a barrier between the Gloom and the boat. Was the guard captain correct? Princess Lunastella knew it could no longer stay next to the prince, not without its illusion. The Gloom crept backward into the safety of the trees, away from the river, and away from the prince and his boat.
A glint of starlight sparkled on a nearby tree branch. A Starlight Faery descended from the leaves. “I had to know why,” she muttered. “So, I followed you.”
Princess Lunastella kept its eyes on the prince as the guard captain pushed the boat out.
“I didn’t know Glooms could have such feelings.”
What feelings? Princess Lunastella drowned in a growing sense of ennui. Nothing mattered anymore.
“Ancient Gloom,” the faery said. “If you truly want to stay with the boy, I can help you once again.”
“Name your price.”
“Your deadly claws and touch. Give them to me, and I’ll fix your bracelet.”
Without immortality, claws, or a deadly touch, the Gloom would be nothing more than a sad beast. And those were the last of its powers and abilities—the only things that distinguished it as a Gloom in the first place. What if the prince needed protection? The Gloom would have nothing.
“I accept,” Princess Lunastella murmured.
It wasn’t really a Gloom anymore, anyway.
It was a princess. And princesses protected their knights.
The Starlight Faery mended the fragments of the bracelet it had gathered up in the castle garden. She handed it back to the Gloom, its inner light shining once more.
Princess Lunastella endured the changing of its body a second time. Now, clothed in its husk of magic, it ran from the tree line all the way to the river. Its white hair sparkled in the sunlight, and its silk dress glittered with movement.
Captain Geoffrey’s mouth hung open, his eyes wide. But Prince Karrin simply smiled.
The Gloom—no, the little girl—waded into the shallow waters. The guard captain slowed the boat and allowed for her to get close. Once near, he hefted her in, a permanent expression of shock etched into his face.
“Thank you,” Princess Lunastella said as she took a seat next to the prince. “Thank you for taking me.”
Prince Karrin took both her hands and held them tight, the warmth of their embrace everything Princess Lunastella had ever imagined and more.
“A knight would never leave his princess behind.”