art by Seth Alan Bareiss
Three Kisses: Defenders of the Crystal Casket
by Henry Szabranski
The Prince tethered his white stallion near the base of the hill and climbed up the wooded slope. As he approached the summit, the clouds parted and the rays of the setting sun highlighted the gold and crystal casket nestled in the glade. It gleamed with a pure, blinding light: surely the mysterious glint he had spied from afar. Engraved runes glimmered on the casket but he could not make out their meaning.
Inside lay a young woman. Her face was deathly pale, her skin almost translucent, but there was no sign of decay. The Prince knelt down, struck by her beauty. Who was she? Who had built such a casket for her? He ran his fingers across one gilded edge, astonished by the craftsmanship. She must have been someone very important: royalty, no doubt, although he had heard no news of recent deaths in any of the courts he was familiar with. And why here, in the middle of this Godforsaken wilderness?
He lurched back in shock. Had she just moved, ever so slightly? She must still be alive: drugged or placed under some evil spell by whoever had trapped her here like some exotic insect in amber.
The Prince strained to lift the lid of the casket, but his probing fingers could find no chink beneath the crystal to gain leverage. He grunted in disgust, drew his sword and banged the pommel against the lid--away from that gorgeous face, of course--but although it rang out loudly, no mark or crack was left.
He leaned down to try to lift the entire casket, to tip it over, when he heard a rustle in the undergrowth behind him. He whirled around, sword in hand.
A creature stood only yards away. It spoke in a guttural, heavily accented voice. The Prince was surprised to hear it speak at all, for at first he thought it some woodland beast, perhaps a monstrous mole, or a rat or beaver from the stream nearby. Dressed in dirty furs, hair and beard matted and unkempt, its brown skin caked in dirt, it seemed to have emerged from out of the earth itself. As wide as it was tall, the brute still only came up to the Prince's waist; Its arms bulged with thick knots of muscle and it brandished what looked like a sharpened spade. Although the Prince could not make out the words the creature jabbered, their rough tone together with the stabbing motion of the spade made the creature's intent clear enough.
"No. I shan't move." The Prince stood straight. "Whoever is trapped inside is still alive and needs my help."