I’ve often explained that Spera began in the summer of 2009 as a 40-page novella, which was then adapted by various artists for the original online collaboration that autumn & winter, before being adapted into Volume I for Archaia in 2011. However, I’ve never actually posted that novella anywhere; the only people to have read it are the artists from the original collaboration.
I’m not sure if this novella will ever make it to print, so instead of just sitting on it, I’m going to post it here on my Tumblr, one part a day (and there are only four parts, so don’t worry about huge walls of text invading your dashboard forever).
I hope those interested in Spera’s complex adaptation history will enjoy and appreciate the many differences between the final comic version and this original novella. If you enjoy the Spera project and the work of those involved, please help support Spera by purchasing Volume I or pre-ordering Vol. II, which is out February 27th from Archaia.
Spera
1. After Words
Lono sat bored but patiently on the ornate blue cushion of her stone bench, her feet dangling over the floor. Her feet only touched the floor when she pointed her toes towards it, and she only pointed her toes towards the floor when she was paying attention to what someone was saying. For the most part, her feet dangled: the men around her were talking together in groups of two or three, and when they spoke it was of current events, of political matters Lono felt were of little-to-no consequence.
When her father was away, the castle conference room was moved to the smoking lounge, the place where advisors, officials and captains tended to resort to gambling and ribaldry in other circumstances. Lono’s presence there as princess was a mere formality – she simply needed to be in the same room as the advisors to ensure that any political planning would be rendered official. However, the room tended to make the men a bit too comfortable, and it did not take long for the smoking room to become the smoking room once again.
A man with a thick red beard spoke loudly of a recent adventure in the Fields of Nowhere. He flicked his sharp blue eyes at Lono and, when he saw she was listening in, increased the volume:
‘Gold, gold as far as the eye could see!’ the man roared jollily. Lono recognised him as one of her father’s old friends, an adventurer who sometimes came to the castle with tales of unbelievable feats and unfathomable treasure. ‘Sure, not gold as you and I know it, but gold all the same – the wheat was so bright it nearly blinded, making it all the more difficult to defeat the wind spirit which lurked within.’
Lono had to admit that what was most likely a lie about fighting wind spirits in an infinite field of wheat was far more interesting than discussing the financial responsibilities of the kingdom. She clutched the edge of her seat and leant forward, wishing to further enter into the bearded man’s make-believe world.
‘I saw it – swoosh! – out of the corner of my eye, a creature green and flapping, with a hundred tails trailing after like a badly-torn flag. I swung my sword – not where it had been, or where it was, but where it was going. The wind spirit collided with my sword and split in two.’
Lono found this climax somewhat disappointing. She began dangling her feet again, and the bearded man, noticing this, addressed her directly:
‘Princess Lono, it’s been years since I saw you last. How old have you become?’
Lono casually surveyed the room to see if it was all right for her to be speaking to a barbarous-looking man with a fire-red beard. No one in the room put up any objections, but then again no one in the room seemed to notice her.
‘Fourteen,’ she replied, somewhat grateful for the attention.
‘Your hair is still as blonde as when you were a babe.’
Lono wondered if this was a standard compliment from a family friend or if the old bear was actually coming onto her. She touched her hair uncertainly.
‘My father says it’s because I spend so much time in the garden. The sun prevents it from darkening.’
‘It also says something about the purity of the royal line,’ the bearded man muttered.
‘I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve forgotten your name.’
‘Call me Heph, Your Highness.’
An even larger man with a grey cloud of a beard landed a hand on Heph’s shoulder, drawing his attention away from the princess. The two men roared with laughter at an advisor who had accidentally set his robe on fire through a mixture of cigar embers and spilled alcohol; a flurry of hands slapped desperately at the flames before the captain of the guards poured flour onto the pour soul, dousing his robe and colouring him a ghost.
Lono sighed, the scene failing to capture her interest; a man setting himself aflame was an all-too-common event in the smoking room. She let her eyes wander from the scene to an open doorway, her gaze falling upon it as two stewards passed by, a dry smirk on the closer one’s pale face.
Her heart skipped a beat – the closer steward was Nole, the love of her life. Lono automatically stood, holding her hands to her heart. Forgetting her place, she swept the floor with her dress and poked her head through the doorway, pointing it in the direction of the stewards. They were speaking animatedly as they strolled down the hall, and Nole kept touching the other steward’s arm. The other steward was Kyle, who Lono knew to be Nole’s greatest friend.
Lono left the haze of the room altogether and trotted up to the young men. She fell into pace directly behind them, eager to be greeted. Nole and Kyle, however, failed to notice. Kyle laughed at an inaudible joke made by Nole.
The statues lining the gilded hall watched the trio indifferently. They watched as Lono, hypnotised by the berets bouncing atop the stewards’ bobbed hair, raised her hand shyly, desiring contact with Nole’s back. Before Lono could spill the milk of her gentle thoughts, however, Nole touched Kyle’s arm and kissed his cheek.
Lono stopped, her hand frozen in the air, and watched on with hurt confusion as Nole and Kyle continued to the end of the hall and turned the corner. She then returned to the smoking room and her stone seat, the bench having grown cold in her absence.
* * *
In the sole clearing of a nearby forest lay a teenage girl with short white hair, a black cotton sweater and denim pants. She gazed up at the rippling purple veil of the sky, at the stars and planets shining through, and blinked at the streaks of shooting stars – blinked in marvel at those thin white cuts in the fabric of the night.
She had tripped and fallen and used it as an excuse to rest. Now she was lost.
The girl pursed her small, reddish-orange lips and turned her head to the right, the grass scratching the delicate daylilies of her cheeks; her eyes focused on the thick of the forest but found nothing other than the elaborate tangles of charcoal trees and the serrated leaves of too-green plants. She sat up, pressing the palms of her hands into the earth around her, and heaved a heavy sigh.
‘You can’t seriously think this is a good idea,’ barked an all-too familiar voice.
The down of the girl’s skin immediately stood on end. She scrambled to her feet, still bare from the hurry to leave home.
‘Yonder?’ she called into the darkness of the forest.
‘Who else?’
‘My own mind,’ the girl suggested. ‘Something that means to hurt me.’
A sudden splash of red leapt into her peripheral vision, and she reeled towards it as her dearest friend stepped out from between two trees, first with two legs and then two others: walking proudly on all fours was, indeed, Yonder, a fire spirit in the form of a large beige dog with an aura of eternal flame. Yonder sat on his haunches and looked upon the girl with tired eyes.
‘What do you think you’re going to accomplish, Pira? A peace treaty?’
Pira faced Yonder with arms akimbo. She held the honour of being the only human brave enough to do so.
‘I have to warn them. After my mother … killed him, I knew I didn’t want to be like her. I don’t want to be like her. I have to warn them, because otherwise it’s not right. I didn’t want to see him die – I don’t want to see anyone die.’
‘Listen, Pira – I know how horrible it is to see somebody die. I’ve seen enough death to last several human lifetimes. And I know that what the queen did wasn’t right, as you think it. But it’s a part of history. It’s something that needed to happen. Right and wrong don’t really … factor into it.’
Pira felt tears of anger welling up and wiped her eyes pre-emptively.
‘The queen takes the king,’ Yonder added.
‘And the pawns—’
‘The pawns are used to it by now.’
Pira swallowed.
‘Will everything be all right if I go back?’
‘Given how chaotic everything is right now, I doubt your absence has even been felt.’
‘Which way is it back home?’
Yonder pointed his nose to the trees behind her. Pira nodded and headed in the opposite direction, towards the castle of a murdered king.
* * *
Lono looked out over the expanse of the castle garden from an ivory terrace. The terrace was lined with tall bushes that shaded a set of tables and chairs, her favourite places to read. The book she was currently reading was lying facedown on the chair she had just got up from: a book of poetry without a title, written by a long-dead elf. The best poem in it, she felt, was one about the sea.
An attempt to write a poem of her own had become a ball of crumpled paper, rolled by a breeze into a mess of ink she had made.
She wondered when her father would be coming home. A series of pillars lined the point where the length of a hallway became the terrace, and whenever she heard the sound of footsteps coming up she hid behind one, peeking out to see whether or not the footsteps belonged to the king. More often than not it ended up being someone she did not wish to deal with – someone who was overweight or someone without an appreciation for art.
Her ears perked up at the sound of yet more footsteps drawing near. She took up position behind one of the pillars and tilted her head into the hall, careful not to be seen by whoever was coming.
The owner of the footsteps turned out to be Nole, and Lono immediately retreated back to the terrace, struck by the violence of her pounding heart. The pounding was so painful that she clutched her chest in the desperate hope of keeping her heart from bursting.
She did not know whether she should hide or act naturally as he passed. In any case, she did not have time to decide – Nole was already coming into view, passing the first few pillars.
As Lono was struggling to contain the chaos of her thoughts and feelings, Pira leapt out from behind one of the bushes and grabbed her arm.
Pira had intended to tell Lono that she was going to lead her to safety, that her father was dead and her kingdom doomed, but found her own arms being grabbed and her lips being sealed by Lono’s.
Pira immediately pushed Lono away and covered her mouth with her hand, staring with mortification at the princess she had sworn to save.
Lono returned her attention to the hallway. Nole was standing between two pillars directly in front of them, one hand resting on a satchel of books, his eyebrow cocked in mild amusement. Lono knew that whatever it was she had tried to accomplish had failed miserably, that she had only given Nole something to gossip about with Kyle. She smiled meekly. Nole continued down the hall without a word.
‘I don’t want to know what that was about, and I don’t want to care,’ Pira said. ‘I spent a week coming here to tell you your father is dead, that my mother has mobilised her army, and that there is probably no hope for you unless you run away.’
‘Pira?’
The last time the girls had seen each other was five years ago, when Lono was nine and Pira was twelve. Neither of them had turned into the princesses their parents had wished them to be – Lono became increasingly passive and introverted with each passing year, while Pira had become a tomboy, a girl who spent her spare time fighting slimes in abandoned sewers.
‘Yes, it’s me,’ Pira said, composing herself. She looked at Lono with sympathetic eyes.
‘My father is dead?’
‘I didn’t come all this way to lie.’
Lono searched Pira’s eyes and saw that it was so. She then noticed the pink scratches on Pira’s face.
‘My father is really dead … My dad is gone …’
Pira pulled up a chair for Lono and Lono sat on her book.
‘I know how sudden this is, but we have to get out of here. My mother is planning on slaughtering everyone. And it will happen. If you tell anyone about this, they’ll try to protect you, keep you safe somewhere – and then you’ll die. All we can really do is warn your people with a note and head to Spera.’
‘Father …’
‘I watched him die, Lono. I’m sorry.’
Lono covered her mouth, her eyes widening as she imagined the scene. Pira smoothed out one of the papers on the table and handed Lono her pen.
‘Write. Tell them about the impending massacre. Tell them all anyone can do is run.’
With slow, dreamlike movement, Lono found herself writing as Pira requested. When the note was finished, Pira took a rock from under one of the bushes and set it on the paper. She then grabbed a chair and set it on its side near the hallway.
‘This should improve the chances of someone noticing it,’ she explained.
She pulled Lono from her chair and led her by the hand into the hall.
‘What if somebody sees us?’ Lono asked. ‘Won’t anyone wonder why you’re here?’
‘We have camouflage,’ Pira told her.
Pira knocked on a door once, twice and then three times. The door opened to reveal Heph, who gave Lono a confidential wink. Before Lono’s very eyes he morphed into a large beige dog, its body wrapped in flames.
Lono gasped.
‘This is Yonder,’ Pira said as she climbed onto the dog’s back. ‘He’s our ticket out of here.’
‘You’ll catch on fire!’ Lono called out.
Pira pushed her hands away.
‘The fire won’t hurt unless Yonder wants it to.’
Lono considered this and hesitantly sent her hand towards the fire. The flames licked her fingers but she was unable to feel any heat – there was no blistering, no pain, only a subtle disturbance in the air.
Pira helped Lono up onto Yonder.
‘This might be even more conspicuous,’ Lono pointed out.
‘Don’t worry,’ Pira said, ‘we won’t look like anything but fire in the wind. In fact, we won’t look like anything at all.’
* * *
Yonder tired of running by the time night fell. What he had accomplished until that point was nothing short of a miracle – in the span of mere hours he had covered the same distance that would have taken entire days for a full-grown human. It was enough for the trio to feel safe, and the calm it offered allowed Lono the chance to sob uncontrollably. Her tears fell from her eyes and landed on Yonder’s back with the sounds of light sizzling.
‘We should stretch our legs,’ Pira suggested.
Lono nodded. Yonder sat down and the girls slid off his back.
They surveyed their surroundings, neither of them recognising any of it – they had been transported to a field of grass by a tree-lined river, the grass as high as their ankles, the trees tall evergreens that filled the air with a pleasant scent. Fireflies flashed all around them, yellow lights dashing in random directions, while the river sparkled through the spaces between the trees.
‘I’m stiff all over,’ Pira complained, stretching loudly. ‘I haven’t done riding this intense since … ever.’
Her back popped and she let out a satisfied sigh. She then wandered the area, looking for any plants, berries or animals to snack on. A certain leaf caught her eye – star-shaped and just the right shade of purple – and she stepped down a short hill towards it.
Lono remained with Yonder. She touched his face with one hand and wiped away the remainder of her tears with the other.
‘Thank you for all your help, Heph.’
Yonder barked a laugh.
‘I doubt I’ll ever be called that again,’ he said. ‘Heph was a nickname, given to me by … well … Anyway, you should stick to calling me Yonder from now on. It’ll be healthier if you forget about your past for a little while.’
‘What about you?’ Lono asked. ‘There was no reason for you to do any of this. What about your past? What about your future?’
Yonder somehow managed a shrug despite the physical limitations of his canine form.
‘They’re both as uncertain as the present,’ he said. ‘We’re in the midst of creating a new history, one that has the power to change everything that came before.’
‘I’m not sure I understand.’
‘“I’m not sure I understand” pretty much sums up our entire friendship,’ Pira said, joining them with a smile. ‘Yonder can make his own kind of sense sometimes, but for the most part he speaks in riddles, confusing others for his own amusement.’
Yonder rolled his eyes.
‘You know it’s true!’ she accused good-naturedly. ‘Anyway, I found some things for us to eat.’
She opened her hand between Lono and Yonder, revealing a selection of leaves and insects.
‘What kind is that one?’ Lono asked, pointing to an insect with three antennas.
‘Ah, that’s a tritae. It tastes sort of like a praying mantis.’
* * *
They decided to settle for the night amongst a dense copse of trees near the river, where the grass was long enough to use as blankets. The moon was bright and the world was blue, and the breath of the river, the steady music of the insects and the crisp twinkling of stars soothed the girls’ uneasy hearts. The princesses lay facing Yonder, cooking fat, full bugs over his body, and made a point of keeping their conversations away from the day’s events.
‘What are we going to do in Spera?’ Lono wondered aloud.
‘I have enough gold bits to last us several months in a populated region,’ Pira said. ‘After that we’ll have to resort to treasure hunting.’
‘“Resort to treasure hunting”?’
Pira’s eyes lit up at the sound of her own words being repeated back to her. She swallowed down the meat of a beetle and continued:
‘I don’t want to be a princess locked up in some tower. I don’t want to be a knight, either. I want to be my own person, exploring secret dungeons and caves. I want to find things made out of gold and silver and trade them for cool weapons.’
‘I didn’t think people actually did that. Whenever Heph— I mean, whenever Yonder came to the castle and told us those things, I always thought they were stories – you know, like stories without titles.’
‘A story without a title is a story without a tale to tell,’ Yonder muttered. ‘All of it was true.’
‘I thought you were sleeping,’ Pira said, poking his rib with the blackened end of her cooking stick.
‘I am.’
‘Is that why you saved me?’ Lono asked Pira. ‘So I could go on adventures with you? Did you save me because you thought I was an adventure?’
‘I wanted to rescue you because no one deserves to die.’
A firefly danced across Pira’s eyes and the girls both realised they were talking about something they did not want to talk about.
‘I’m taking everything seriously,’ Pira said quietly.
Lono rested her head on her hands and turned her attention to the silver mountain range that made up the distant horizon. She wondered if they would have to scale it to reach Spera.
‘Can Yonder fly?’ she asked.
‘No,’ Yonder answered.
‘Can you climb?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’m supposed to be sleeping.’
‘We’ll be cutting through the mountains using a cave,’ Pira said. ‘I found a map showing its location. Yonder will take us to it.’
‘Where did you get the map?’
‘It fell out of the branches of a tree I was about to kill.’
‘“Kill”?’
‘Yes. With a sword. I’m pretty sure the map was intended as a peace offering or a form of surrender – either way, I took it and let the tree live. Trees don’t need maps anyway.’
‘I wonder what we would do if we were captured,’ Lono said. ‘I guess we could give them your gold bits, but then we wouldn’t have any money. That would be where your “treasure hunting” comes in, I suppose.’
Pira grinned.
‘We won’t ever be captured. I can kick ass as much as Yonder can.’
‘Yeah?’
A light of hope entered Lono’s eyes, restoring them to their former brilliance. She could almost see this strange new life working out for them.
‘I don’t actually know anything about Spera,’ Lono admitted. ‘I don’t really know anything about anything, to tell the truth. I just read books, and most of the books I read are stories, like romances and stuff. A lot of the time I just sit and wonder what would happen …’
Lono’s bright eyes focused on something invisible.
‘What do you mean?’ Pira asked.
‘What would happen if I wasn’t a princess – if I was somebody else, like a farmer or something. Then I’m grateful I’m a princess after all. I have more time for art and books.’
‘You like art and books because you find something beautiful in them; farmers find other things beautiful. You shouldn’t rob someone of something they like just because you think something else is better.’
‘But all farmers like is dirt.’
Lono rotated under her grass blanket until she was lying on her back. She could feel stones and roots and flattened plants against her spine, but at the same time she did not mind; nothing compared to the pain she was still housing inside her.
Between the thick branches of a tree she spotted the gentle glow of the sky.
‘When I wake up, everything will look different,’ she said. ‘Dark things will be bright and bright things will be dim. What are the things that won’t change?’
‘Ideas,’ Pira said.
Yonder snored as if on cue. His flame went out and the girls went to sleep.

I’ve often explained that Spera began in the summer of 2009 as a 40-page novella, which was then adapted by various artists for the original online collaboration that autumn & winter, before being adapted into Volume I for Archaia in 2011. However, I’ve never actually posted that novella anywhere; the only people to have read it are the artists from the original collaboration.

I’m not sure if this novella will ever make it to print, so instead of just sitting on it, I’m going to post it here on my Tumblr, one part a day (and there are only four parts, so don’t worry about huge walls of text invading your dashboard forever).

I hope those interested in Spera’s complex adaptation history will enjoy and appreciate the many differences between the final comic version and this original novella. If you enjoy the Spera project and the work of those involved, please help support Spera by purchasing Volume I or pre-ordering Vol. II, which is out February 27th from Archaia.

Spera

1. After Words

Lono sat bored but patiently on the ornate blue cushion of her stone bench, her feet dangling over the floor. Her feet only touched the floor when she pointed her toes towards it, and she only pointed her toes towards the floor when she was paying attention to what someone was saying. For the most part, her feet dangled: the men around her were talking together in groups of two or three, and when they spoke it was of current events, of political matters Lono felt were of little-to-no consequence.

When her father was away, the castle conference room was moved to the smoking lounge, the place where advisors, officials and captains tended to resort to gambling and ribaldry in other circumstances. Lono’s presence there as princess was a mere formality – she simply needed to be in the same room as the advisors to ensure that any political planning would be rendered official. However, the room tended to make the men a bit too comfortable, and it did not take long for the smoking room to become the smoking room once again.

A man with a thick red beard spoke loudly of a recent adventure in the Fields of Nowhere. He flicked his sharp blue eyes at Lono and, when he saw she was listening in, increased the volume:

‘Gold, gold as far as the eye could see!’ the man roared jollily. Lono recognised him as one of her father’s old friends, an adventurer who sometimes came to the castle with tales of unbelievable feats and unfathomable treasure. ‘Sure, not gold as you and I know it, but gold all the same – the wheat was so bright it nearly blinded, making it all the more difficult to defeat the wind spirit which lurked within.’

Lono had to admit that what was most likely a lie about fighting wind spirits in an infinite field of wheat was far more interesting than discussing the financial responsibilities of the kingdom. She clutched the edge of her seat and leant forward, wishing to further enter into the bearded man’s make-believe world.

‘I saw it – swoosh! – out of the corner of my eye, a creature green and flapping, with a hundred tails trailing after like a badly-torn flag. I swung my sword – not where it had been, or where it was, but where it was going. The wind spirit collided with my sword and split in two.’

Lono found this climax somewhat disappointing. She began dangling her feet again, and the bearded man, noticing this, addressed her directly:

‘Princess Lono, it’s been years since I saw you last. How old have you become?’

Lono casually surveyed the room to see if it was all right for her to be speaking to a barbarous-looking man with a fire-red beard. No one in the room put up any objections, but then again no one in the room seemed to notice her.

‘Fourteen,’ she replied, somewhat grateful for the attention.

‘Your hair is still as blonde as when you were a babe.’

Lono wondered if this was a standard compliment from a family friend or if the old bear was actually coming onto her. She touched her hair uncertainly.

‘My father says it’s because I spend so much time in the garden. The sun prevents it from darkening.’

‘It also says something about the purity of the royal line,’ the bearded man muttered.

‘I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve forgotten your name.’

‘Call me Heph, Your Highness.’

An even larger man with a grey cloud of a beard landed a hand on Heph’s shoulder, drawing his attention away from the princess. The two men roared with laughter at an advisor who had accidentally set his robe on fire through a mixture of cigar embers and spilled alcohol; a flurry of hands slapped desperately at the flames before the captain of the guards poured flour onto the pour soul, dousing his robe and colouring him a ghost.

Lono sighed, the scene failing to capture her interest; a man setting himself aflame was an all-too-common event in the smoking room. She let her eyes wander from the scene to an open doorway, her gaze falling upon it as two stewards passed by, a dry smirk on the closer one’s pale face.

Her heart skipped a beat – the closer steward was Nole, the love of her life. Lono automatically stood, holding her hands to her heart. Forgetting her place, she swept the floor with her dress and poked her head through the doorway, pointing it in the direction of the stewards. They were speaking animatedly as they strolled down the hall, and Nole kept touching the other steward’s arm. The other steward was Kyle, who Lono knew to be Nole’s greatest friend.

Lono left the haze of the room altogether and trotted up to the young men. She fell into pace directly behind them, eager to be greeted. Nole and Kyle, however, failed to notice. Kyle laughed at an inaudible joke made by Nole.

The statues lining the gilded hall watched the trio indifferently. They watched as Lono, hypnotised by the berets bouncing atop the stewards’ bobbed hair, raised her hand shyly, desiring contact with Nole’s back. Before Lono could spill the milk of her gentle thoughts, however, Nole touched Kyle’s arm and kissed his cheek.

Lono stopped, her hand frozen in the air, and watched on with hurt confusion as Nole and Kyle continued to the end of the hall and turned the corner. She then returned to the smoking room and her stone seat, the bench having grown cold in her absence.

* * *

In the sole clearing of a nearby forest lay a teenage girl with short white hair, a black cotton sweater and denim pants. She gazed up at the rippling purple veil of the sky, at the stars and planets shining through, and blinked at the streaks of shooting stars – blinked in marvel at those thin white cuts in the fabric of the night.

She had tripped and fallen and used it as an excuse to rest. Now she was lost.

The girl pursed her small, reddish-orange lips and turned her head to the right, the grass scratching the delicate daylilies of her cheeks; her eyes focused on the thick of the forest but found nothing other than the elaborate tangles of charcoal trees and the serrated leaves of too-green plants. She sat up, pressing the palms of her hands into the earth around her, and heaved a heavy sigh.

‘You can’t seriously think this is a good idea,’ barked an all-too familiar voice.

The down of the girl’s skin immediately stood on end. She scrambled to her feet, still bare from the hurry to leave home.

Yonder?’ she called into the darkness of the forest.

‘Who else?’

‘My own mind,’ the girl suggested. ‘Something that means to hurt me.’

A sudden splash of red leapt into her peripheral vision, and she reeled towards it as her dearest friend stepped out from between two trees, first with two legs and then two others: walking proudly on all fours was, indeed, Yonder, a fire spirit in the form of a large beige dog with an aura of eternal flame. Yonder sat on his haunches and looked upon the girl with tired eyes.

‘What do you think you’re going to accomplish, Pira? A peace treaty?’

Pira faced Yonder with arms akimbo. She held the honour of being the only human brave enough to do so.

‘I have to warn them. After my mother … killed him, I knew I didn’t want to be like her. I don’t want to be like her. I have to warn them, because otherwise it’s not right. I didn’t want to see him die – I don’t want to see anyone die.’

‘Listen, Pira – I know how horrible it is to see somebody die. I’ve seen enough death to last several human lifetimes. And I know that what the queen did wasn’t right, as you think it. But it’s a part of history. It’s something that needed to happen. Right and wrong don’t really … factor into it.’

Pira felt tears of anger welling up and wiped her eyes pre-emptively.

‘The queen takes the king,’ Yonder added.

‘And the pawns—’

‘The pawns are used to it by now.’

Pira swallowed.

‘Will everything be all right if I go back?’

‘Given how chaotic everything is right now, I doubt your absence has even been felt.’

‘Which way is it back home?’

Yonder pointed his nose to the trees behind her. Pira nodded and headed in the opposite direction, towards the castle of a murdered king.

* * *

Lono looked out over the expanse of the castle garden from an ivory terrace. The terrace was lined with tall bushes that shaded a set of tables and chairs, her favourite places to read. The book she was currently reading was lying facedown on the chair she had just got up from: a book of poetry without a title, written by a long-dead elf. The best poem in it, she felt, was one about the sea.

An attempt to write a poem of her own had become a ball of crumpled paper, rolled by a breeze into a mess of ink she had made.

She wondered when her father would be coming home. A series of pillars lined the point where the length of a hallway became the terrace, and whenever she heard the sound of footsteps coming up she hid behind one, peeking out to see whether or not the footsteps belonged to the king. More often than not it ended up being someone she did not wish to deal with – someone who was overweight or someone without an appreciation for art.

Her ears perked up at the sound of yet more footsteps drawing near. She took up position behind one of the pillars and tilted her head into the hall, careful not to be seen by whoever was coming.

The owner of the footsteps turned out to be Nole, and Lono immediately retreated back to the terrace, struck by the violence of her pounding heart. The pounding was so painful that she clutched her chest in the desperate hope of keeping her heart from bursting.

She did not know whether she should hide or act naturally as he passed. In any case, she did not have time to decide – Nole was already coming into view, passing the first few pillars.

As Lono was struggling to contain the chaos of her thoughts and feelings, Pira leapt out from behind one of the bushes and grabbed her arm.

Pira had intended to tell Lono that she was going to lead her to safety, that her father was dead and her kingdom doomed, but found her own arms being grabbed and her lips being sealed by Lono’s.

Pira immediately pushed Lono away and covered her mouth with her hand, staring with mortification at the princess she had sworn to save.

Lono returned her attention to the hallway. Nole was standing between two pillars directly in front of them, one hand resting on a satchel of books, his eyebrow cocked in mild amusement. Lono knew that whatever it was she had tried to accomplish had failed miserably, that she had only given Nole something to gossip about with Kyle. She smiled meekly. Nole continued down the hall without a word.

‘I don’t want to know what that was about, and I don’t want to care,’ Pira said. ‘I spent a week coming here to tell you your father is dead, that my mother has mobilised her army, and that there is probably no hope for you unless you run away.’

‘Pira?’

The last time the girls had seen each other was five years ago, when Lono was nine and Pira was twelve. Neither of them had turned into the princesses their parents had wished them to be – Lono became increasingly passive and introverted with each passing year, while Pira had become a tomboy, a girl who spent her spare time fighting slimes in abandoned sewers.

‘Yes, it’s me,’ Pira said, composing herself. She looked at Lono with sympathetic eyes.

‘My father is dead?’

‘I didn’t come all this way to lie.’

Lono searched Pira’s eyes and saw that it was so. She then noticed the pink scratches on Pira’s face.

‘My father is really dead … My dad is gone …’

Pira pulled up a chair for Lono and Lono sat on her book.

‘I know how sudden this is, but we have to get out of here. My mother is planning on slaughtering everyone. And it will happen. If you tell anyone about this, they’ll try to protect you, keep you safe somewhere – and then you’ll die. All we can really do is warn your people with a note and head to Spera.’

‘Father …’

‘I watched him die, Lono. I’m sorry.’

Lono covered her mouth, her eyes widening as she imagined the scene. Pira smoothed out one of the papers on the table and handed Lono her pen.

Write. Tell them about the impending massacre. Tell them all anyone can do is run.’

With slow, dreamlike movement, Lono found herself writing as Pira requested. When the note was finished, Pira took a rock from under one of the bushes and set it on the paper. She then grabbed a chair and set it on its side near the hallway.

‘This should improve the chances of someone noticing it,’ she explained.

She pulled Lono from her chair and led her by the hand into the hall.

‘What if somebody sees us?’ Lono asked. ‘Won’t anyone wonder why you’re here?’

‘We have camouflage,’ Pira told her.

Pira knocked on a door once, twice and then three times. The door opened to reveal Heph, who gave Lono a confidential wink. Before Lono’s very eyes he morphed into a large beige dog, its body wrapped in flames.

Lono gasped.

‘This is Yonder,’ Pira said as she climbed onto the dog’s back. ‘He’s our ticket out of here.’

‘You’ll catch on fire!’ Lono called out.

Pira pushed her hands away.

‘The fire won’t hurt unless Yonder wants it to.’

Lono considered this and hesitantly sent her hand towards the fire. The flames licked her fingers but she was unable to feel any heat – there was no blistering, no pain, only a subtle disturbance in the air.

Pira helped Lono up onto Yonder.

‘This might be even more conspicuous,’ Lono pointed out.

‘Don’t worry,’ Pira said, ‘we won’t look like anything but fire in the wind. In fact, we won’t look like anything at all.’

* * *

Yonder tired of running by the time night fell. What he had accomplished until that point was nothing short of a miracle – in the span of mere hours he had covered the same distance that would have taken entire days for a full-grown human. It was enough for the trio to feel safe, and the calm it offered allowed Lono the chance to sob uncontrollably. Her tears fell from her eyes and landed on Yonder’s back with the sounds of light sizzling.

‘We should stretch our legs,’ Pira suggested.

Lono nodded. Yonder sat down and the girls slid off his back.

They surveyed their surroundings, neither of them recognising any of it – they had been transported to a field of grass by a tree-lined river, the grass as high as their ankles, the trees tall evergreens that filled the air with a pleasant scent. Fireflies flashed all around them, yellow lights dashing in random directions, while the river sparkled through the spaces between the trees.

‘I’m stiff all over,’ Pira complained, stretching loudly. ‘I haven’t done riding this intense since … ever.’

Her back popped and she let out a satisfied sigh. She then wandered the area, looking for any plants, berries or animals to snack on. A certain leaf caught her eye – star-shaped and just the right shade of purple – and she stepped down a short hill towards it.

Lono remained with Yonder. She touched his face with one hand and wiped away the remainder of her tears with the other.

‘Thank you for all your help, Heph.’

Yonder barked a laugh.

‘I doubt I’ll ever be called that again,’ he said. ‘Heph was a nickname, given to me by … well … Anyway, you should stick to calling me Yonder from now on. It’ll be healthier if you forget about your past for a little while.’

‘What about you?’ Lono asked. ‘There was no reason for you to do any of this. What about your past? What about your future?’

Yonder somehow managed a shrug despite the physical limitations of his canine form.

‘They’re both as uncertain as the present,’ he said. ‘We’re in the midst of creating a new history, one that has the power to change everything that came before.’

‘I’m not sure I understand.’

‘“I’m not sure I understand” pretty much sums up our entire friendship,’ Pira said, joining them with a smile. ‘Yonder can make his own kind of sense sometimes, but for the most part he speaks in riddles, confusing others for his own amusement.’

Yonder rolled his eyes.

‘You know it’s true!’ she accused good-naturedly. ‘Anyway, I found some things for us to eat.’

She opened her hand between Lono and Yonder, revealing a selection of leaves and insects.

‘What kind is that one?’ Lono asked, pointing to an insect with three antennas.

‘Ah, that’s a tritae. It tastes sort of like a praying mantis.’

* * *

They decided to settle for the night amongst a dense copse of trees near the river, where the grass was long enough to use as blankets. The moon was bright and the world was blue, and the breath of the river, the steady music of the insects and the crisp twinkling of stars soothed the girls’ uneasy hearts. The princesses lay facing Yonder, cooking fat, full bugs over his body, and made a point of keeping their conversations away from the day’s events.

‘What are we going to do in Spera?’ Lono wondered aloud.

‘I have enough gold bits to last us several months in a populated region,’ Pira said. ‘After that we’ll have to resort to treasure hunting.’

‘“Resort to treasure hunting”?’

Pira’s eyes lit up at the sound of her own words being repeated back to her. She swallowed down the meat of a beetle and continued:

‘I don’t want to be a princess locked up in some tower. I don’t want to be a knight, either. I want to be my own person, exploring secret dungeons and caves. I want to find things made out of gold and silver and trade them for cool weapons.’

‘I didn’t think people actually did that. Whenever Heph— I mean, whenever Yonder came to the castle and told us those things, I always thought they were stories – you know, like stories without titles.’

‘A story without a title is a story without a tale to tell,’ Yonder muttered. ‘All of it was true.’

‘I thought you were sleeping,’ Pira said, poking his rib with the blackened end of her cooking stick.

‘I am.’

‘Is that why you saved me?’ Lono asked Pira. ‘So I could go on adventures with you? Did you save me because you thought I was an adventure?’

‘I wanted to rescue you because no one deserves to die.’

A firefly danced across Pira’s eyes and the girls both realised they were talking about something they did not want to talk about.

‘I’m taking everything seriously,’ Pira said quietly.

Lono rested her head on her hands and turned her attention to the silver mountain range that made up the distant horizon. She wondered if they would have to scale it to reach Spera.

‘Can Yonder fly?’ she asked.

‘No,’ Yonder answered.

‘Can you climb?’

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I’m supposed to be sleeping.’

‘We’ll be cutting through the mountains using a cave,’ Pira said. ‘I found a map showing its location. Yonder will take us to it.’

‘Where did you get the map?’

‘It fell out of the branches of a tree I was about to kill.’

‘“Kill?

‘Yes. With a sword. I’m pretty sure the map was intended as a peace offering or a form of surrender – either way, I took it and let the tree live. Trees don’t need maps anyway.’

‘I wonder what we would do if we were captured,’ Lono said. ‘I guess we could give them your gold bits, but then we wouldn’t have any money. That would be where your “treasure hunting” comes in, I suppose.’

Pira grinned.

‘We won’t ever be captured. I can kick ass as much as Yonder can.’

‘Yeah?’

A light of hope entered Lono’s eyes, restoring them to their former brilliance. She could almost see this strange new life working out for them.

‘I don’t actually know anything about Spera,’ Lono admitted. ‘I don’t really know anything about anything, to tell the truth. I just read books, and most of the books I read are stories, like romances and stuff. A lot of the time I just sit and wonder what would happen …’

Lono’s bright eyes focused on something invisible.

‘What do you mean?’ Pira asked.

‘What would happen if I wasn’t a princess – if I was somebody else, like a farmer or something. Then I’m grateful I’m a princess after all. I have more time for art and books.’

‘You like art and books because you find something beautiful in them; farmers find other things beautiful. You shouldn’t rob someone of something they like just because you think something else is better.’

‘But all farmers like is dirt.’

Lono rotated under her grass blanket until she was lying on her back. She could feel stones and roots and flattened plants against her spine, but at the same time she did not mind; nothing compared to the pain she was still housing inside her.

Between the thick branches of a tree she spotted the gentle glow of the sky.

‘When I wake up, everything will look different,’ she said. ‘Dark things will be bright and bright things will be dim. What are the things that won’t change?’

‘Ideas,’ Pira said.

Yonder snored as if on cue. His flame went out and the girls went to sleep.

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Josh Tierney is the creator, writer and editor of Spera-Comic.com and the Spera series of graphic novels from Archaia.

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