“Keep going in!” Elise said, sliding off her mount’s back. The horse threw his head and shied, the whites of his eyes showing when he got a look at the incoming cloud.

“Curse you, Falk, and your competitive streak,” Elise said, wincing when the reins burned her fingers as the horse reared. Elise ground her teeth and clung to the reins, pulling the horse forward. He snorted and jumped ahead, making the swans hurry down the dirt road that plowed through the forest.

They were within the borders of the woods when Elise took another moment to look back. “It’s not stopping,” she said, able to see the incoming cloud through the opening in the forest.

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Fear made Elise’s heart pump. She dragged the nervous horse around the flock, pressuring her swan brothers off the road. “Off the trail,” she called, whistling at them to get their attention.

The swans were quiet as they waddled off the path and into green underbrush.

There was a thundering noise, like the roar of the ocean. Elise whirled around. The black fog was in the forest, creeping forward like searching fingers.

It drew parallel with Elise and the swans when the ocean noises grew louder.

Someone shouted, and a whirling black-blue shape topped with white gold flew past like a comet, plunging at the fog.

The fog fled the comet, escaping faster than it had pursued Elise. The comet caught up with the fog though, and the black cloud huddled to a frightening tar-like core before the comet hit it, shattering it entirely.

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There was a deafening peal of thunder, but no lightning.

Falk’s horse reared again, swinging wildly around and crashing into a bush as the swans beat their wings.

By the time Elise was able to hold her borrowed horse steady, the “comet” stood in the middle of the trail, in line with Elise and her flock.

The comet was actual a breathtakingly beautiful lady mounted on a black horse. Elise hesitated to call it a horse, for while the animal had the structure and face of a horse, its fur wasn’t quite fur. Instead the horse appeared to be wrapped by the night sky. Its body was mostly blue black with the faint twinkling of stars, and its mane and tail were black as well, although they didn’t fall and sit straight the way normal hair would. Instead they floated, looking more like tongues of black and blue fire than strands of hair.

“You certainly aren’t Gabi, so Princess Elise I may presume?” the rider asked.

Elise swallowed as she stared at the great beauty. As she watched the rider’s dress, an iridescent shade of gold, turned a faint shade of iridescent green. “W-who are you?”

“I am Angelique.”

“You’re an enchantress.”

“Correct. Your brother, Prince Erick, invited me to Arcainia. He asked me to observe your stepmother. It seems that I am too late,” Angelique said, looking past Elise to the white swans huddled behind her. “It is alright, princes. Please, come out of hiding,” Angelique said, her voice soothing and tranquil.

Elise’s seven swan brothers glided out of the forest, joining Angelique on the road as the enchantress dismounted.

Angelique slid her hands under the head of one of the swans, making it look up at her. She studied its face as she gently stroked it, murmuring to it under her breath.

Elise waded out of the trees, dragging Falk’s horse with, and watched. Falk’s horse snorted at the enchantress’s odd mount, but he did nothing more besides watch it with bugged eyes.

Angelique slowly turned the head of the swan that attended to her, studying the sides of its face. “This is a serious curse,” Angelique said. Even the frown that twitched across her lips could not mar her beauty. “I assume Gabi escaped it because of Puss?”

“Puss?”

“Her cat.”

“I don’t know. She wasn’t cursed, I don’t know why though,” Elise said scrubbing her face with a dirty hand.

“And how did you remain unhindered?” Angelique asked.

“I’m not sure. Clotilde tried to curse me, but it bounced off me and went back to her.”

“How very odd.”

Elise hesitated. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a real member of the royal family. I am a foster child.”

“Unlikely. This curse was not crafted specifically for the royal family, and it was made with black magic. Anyone who took the time to create such a vile curse would not make a beginner’s mistake,” Angelique said, releasing the swan.

Elise crouched on the ground, covering her head with an arm as she thought. “Can it be broken?”

“Pardon?”

“Is there any way to end this curse? Could we make Clotilde take it off them? Or… if she dies?”

Angelique stared at the swans for several long moments before she replied. “The safest place for you and your brothers is to be far away from Clotilde. As for breaking the curse…I will see what can be done.”

“How?”

“I will approach Clotilde.”

“What if she attacks you?”

Angelique was silent for several moments. “There will be no if, for I plan to attack her first.”

Elise looked up at the breathtaking woman. “Will you be punished for it?”

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