"What a beautiful night for a stroll," Princess Merry said happily. "The moon makes it almost as bright as day."
"I am not so sure we are on the right path," Prince Karl replied, rubbing his sword hilt. "We should have reached the castle by now. I fear we have somehow been diverted from our usual..."
"Karl! Look!" Merry exclaimed. "It is so beautiful."
They emerged from the forest into a moonlit glade, the moss and grass underfoot soft as any carpet. Pleasurable fragrances drifted on the gentle breezes of the night and they inhaled them deeply. Exotic flowers bloomed in scattered clumps, their pale faces turned toward the full moon's shimmering glow.
The silence was deafening; sounds of the forest did not penetrate the glades confines, only the gentle breezes. Wordlessly, Princess Merry and Prince Karl walked to the center of the glade and embraced.
"It is as if this is our special place," Merry said, her pink tongue tracing Karl's jaw line. "I have never loved you more than I do at this moment."
"My heart and my own," Karl replied, kissing her neck. "I love you forsaking all else."
Karl and Merry were instantly alert when a twig snapped, the sound loud as a door slamming in the stillness. Their eyes widened when a hideous apparition appeared as if by magic from the darkness.
A skeleton rider on a skeleton horse trotted into the glade, bones gleaming in the moonlight. Merry barely stifled a squeal of fear as Karl pushed her behind him; his eyes were on the short sword the rider carried.
The creature waved it's sword menacingly. "How dare you Fleshlings sully the Glade of the Moon Goddess?" said a deep male voice as the skulls jaw moved. "You will pay dearly for violating this sacred ground."
Karl's hand tightened on Thunderbolt's hilt. "Have a care whatever you are," he rumbled. "No collection of soup bones threatens my Princess. Draw nearer and I shall rend you asunder."
"What spirited Fleshlings the Goddess has sent us for our amusement," said a female voice behind them. "They will be fine sport this night."
Merry whirled to see another skeletal horse and rider entering the glade, short sword waving menacingly. She dropped into a fighting crouch, withdrawing Snake Fang from it's sheath on her boot. Thunderbolt flashed in the moonlight as Karl drew his broadsword from the scabbard attached to his belt.
"You will find us much more than ready sport," Merry purred. "Come closer. My Prince and I will scatter you to the four winds."
The skeleton riders dismounted, paused for a moment and moved forward. Steel flashed and the battle joined.
Karl blocked the skeletons lunging thrust, sparks flying as his opponent recovered. It approached again more warily, sword blade shimmering as it cut savagely at Karl's chest. The swords rang together as Karl parried the blow, Thunderbolt's pommel grazing the grinning skull as it staggered back.
"You are a worthy opponent indeed," the skeleton said. "But we fully intend to punish you for your trespass."
"We meant no harm," Karl replied. "We were merely curious. Who is this Moon Goddess you speak of?"
"It is she who gave to us The Gift. She watches over us in our daily lives. Prepares a table from which we dine. She is our guiding star, our future, our destiny."
It lunged again, the blow directed at Karl's midsection. He barely dodged the thrust and as the creature overbalanced and fell forward, he struck it's shoulders with the flat of his sword knocking it sprawling. In a flash, he stamped on the bony hand holding the sword, Thunderbolt's point hovering above the creature's neck.
"I have you now," Karl growled. "Do you yield or must I carve you like a haunch of beef?"
"I yield," the creature replied, relaxing it's grip on it's sword. "I am well and truly bested. You are indeed a master swordsman Fleshling. I await your pleasure."
"You also fought well," Karl said amiably, "Stand and let us talk." He offered his hand to help the creature up and gripped flesh, not bone.
"You presume to fight me with that sliver?" the skeleton laughed as it dismounted and stalked towards Merry. "This will be a quick fight indeed."
"Come closer and see how wrong you are," Merry snarled. "Snake Fang wishes to taste bone."
"Have at it then," the creature cried, striking at Merry's chest. A second later, it reeled back from Merry's riposte, barely blocking her return thrust.
Sparks flew as sword and dagger clashed repeatedly. The Royal Armorer had forged Merry's fighting dagger from the finest steel, and then taught her how to defend herself against a variety of weapons.
It was a surreal encounter in the moonlit glade, a woman battling a gleaming skeleton, blades winking in the unearthly light. Blow countered blow until Merry saw an opening and kicked at a bony knee. The creature's leg collapsed under it and it fell heavily to the ground.
Merry leapt on her opponent without thinking, her ingrained training coming to the fore. Wresting the sword from her attackers grip, she held her dagger to it's neck, suddenly realizing she felt warm flesh not hard bone. Startled she pulled back.
"Do you yield?" she said. "I do not wish to kill you. We meant no harm to your sacred place."
"I yield," the skeleton replied. "By the Teats of the Goddess you fight well Fleshling. I am not often bested in combat, especially by my own sex."
Perplexed, Merry opened her mouth to ask a question when the creature sat up and once again she felt warm flesh against her. She was too curious to be frightened by this turn of events.
"How can this be?" she asked wonderingly. "I cannot see your body yet I can feel you?"
"Is this better?" the skeleton replied. The air blurred and Merry found herself looking at a beautiful woman. Her skin was stark white, her eyes pink, her hair silvery in color. She smiled at Merry.
Karl's opponent became visible, his skin the color of polished marble. He was ruggedly handsome, tall and muscular. "We seldom battle intruders," he chuckled. "More often than not our very appearance frightens most away. You two are quite brave to stand against us."
Karl offered his hand and they shook solemnly. "I am Prince Karl of Vard. My betrothed is Princess Merry of Lancshire. How do I call you?"
"I am Scapulus. My mate is Radia. We dwell in the Unseen City below us here."
"You live beneath the ground?" Karl asked wonderingly. "Why do you not live in the fresh air and sunshine?"
"There was a time when we did so," Scapulus began. "Then the Hunters appeared among us. No one knows from whence they came but they began to kill and devour us one by one. They moved with such stealth and swiftness it was at first impossible to fight against them.
"We dared not leave our homes to find food in the day for fear of attack and we began to starve. Darkness offered us concealment, thus we rested during the day and ventured out at night to gather what nourishment we could.
"Then one night an elder found a cavern large enough to contain us all, so we moved there and began a life underground. From time to time, we killed a Hunter and our Learned Ones studied them. They discovered our enemies relied on sight to stalk their prey and their sense of smell was poor. They prepared an Invisibility Potion so we could sally forth in daylight. Not all could tolerate it's effects and many died, however those that lived reclaimed our lands from the Hunters and drove them away."
"So why did you not return to the surface once the threat was gone?" Karl asked.
"By then our way of life was too ingrained, besides the potion rendered us unable to tolerate sunlight for extended periods. We learn almost from birth how to control our invisibility and reveal our skeletons to frighten intruders away. It works well and we are left alone."
They walked to where the women stood conversing.
"Merry, this is my mate Radia," Scapulus said. "Radia, this is Princess Merry of Lancshire and this is Prince Karl of Vard."
"We've met," Radia replied with a grin. "Welcome to our land." She paused, "How is it you two traveled this way? Where were you bound?"
"We were on an evening stroll and we became lost," Merry said. "Then we saw your sacred glade and were taken by it's beauty. We did not mean to trespass."
"No matter," Scapulus said heartily. "We are now friends. Will you accompany us to our home for dinner? We have savory meat mushrooms and spicy lichen that you must try."
"That would be lovely," Merry said. She looked at Karl who nodded in agreement.
"Then let us be away," Radia exclaimed. She whistled and two skeletal horses emerged from the woods, changing into pure white with shining pink eyes.
"Our steeds also partake of the potion," she continued, anticipating the question. "So they may take part in our defensive masquerade, and yet serve us in many other ways."
Scapulus and Radia leapt easily onto their mounts, Merry joined Scapulus, Karl joined Radia. The horses galloped through the blackness of the forest as if running in a sun-lit meadow.
"It is so dark," Merry said in a trembling voice. "How can you ride so fast?"
"It is the potion," Scapulus laughed. "It increases ones night vision tenfold so we can live underground more easily. To our eyes this is but a cloudy day."
Karl held on to Radia as they galloped among the trees. He also felt fear as they rushed through the dark forest, an emotion he seldom experienced which made it even more terrifying.
'Warriors of Vard do not fear anyone or anything' he admonished himself. Still he shut his eyes as Radia's white hair flew about his face.
Abruptly they were riding into a pitch-black cave, the pounding of the horses' hooves thundering against the walls. Karl and Merry felt a chill pass through their bodies as they emerged into a huge cavern lit with an unearthly glow. The horses slowed to a trot allowing Merry and Karl time to observe their surroundings.
They were riding through an immense city, turreted towers rising up to the ceiling of the cavern. Multi-level structures of a strange shimmering substance were interspersed with long flat-roofed buildings that glowed even more brightly.
The city's inhabitants, male and female, young and old, wore tunic-like garments, their brilliant colors in sharp contrast to their alabaster skins. Their feet shod in equally colorful sandals, they bustled about in twos and threes nodding and smiling to each other as they passed. The city reminded Merry of a beehive and it's industrious inhabitants.
They reined in before a large building and dismounted. Men and women appeared, laughing and talking all at once. Scapulus was given a red tunic, Radia a green which they donned and raised their hands. The group fell silent.