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The Overly Dramatic Princess
Your New Favorite Fairy Tale
Not terribly long ago, in a land relatively close by, lived a well-adjusted mother and father who made the epic mistake of deciding they wanted to have children. This upset the delicate balance of the universe, unearthing an ancient curse buried deep in their respective bloodlines. (Had they spent five minutes researching heredity or genetics, they might have come to a different plan. But this is the kind of thing that happens when you’re young, idealistic, and a member of the Baby Boomer Generation) So while they gave birth to a happy, healthy baby girl, they saddled her with a terrible future—without so much as a Fairy Godmother to warn them of the impending doom.
She was their first child and the apple of her father’s eye. That alone qualified her for the title of princess. She also embodied all the expected princess traits—fairy tale, traditional, and modern. The girl was a complete delight and the epitome of the Disney era (one of the characters you wanted to admire, like Raya or Moana).
Back to the curse: Upon the child’s twenty-first birthday, she would begin to manifest a horrible malady. She would develop a perverse ability to perceive the touch of EVERYTHING. Soft, hard, gentle, or harsh—anything would generate immediate pain. It would become an invisible onslaught of torment, worsening every year and penetrating past the level of her skin. Even a typical stomach ache or menstrual cramp would produce agony. And no incantation or magical object was left around the crib to suggest how the affliction might be lifted. (Not that anyone much cared with the age of twenty-one still down the road)
Oblivious to the tragedy awaiting her, the princess grew up as content and satisfied as one might expect. (She could have done without becoming the eldest child of three siblings, but this was never intended to be a perfect fairy tale) She displayed a rare combination of intelligence and wit that both enchanted and mortified her parents. Her maturity levels quickly eclipsed her physical age, though that wasn’t enough to set off the parameters of the curse. (It launched irritations common to such outspokenness and defiance. But they manifested in other children in her peer group and were deemed hallmarks of Generation X, so no one paid any particular attention)
When her twenty-first birthday arrived, the full force of the hereditary jinx descended. Unlike the theatrics experienced by other fairy tale heroines, the princess didn’t succumb to the curse all at once. This plague was subtle, beginning with an irritation at the level of the skin. She simply could not tolerate certain fabrics, despite an appreciation for their texture against her limbs the week before.
Cotton grew heavy, carrying extra weight without the addition of moisture or fancy embellishments. Fleece burned, causing irritable rashes and boils to tear across her flesh though nothing showed when she discarded the sweaters and sweatshirts. Even the coolest silk tore the delicate creases of her elbows and knees, mocking every attempt to find a comfortable article of clothing.
Her family dismissed the sudden misfortune, oblivious to the curse and its clever design. “Twenty-one is the beginning of your life as an adult, complete with a new world of experiences,” her parents said. “You’re feeling nothing more than nerves. In time, the sensations will quiet, and everything will return to normal. Give yourself time and a chance to breathe.” (Breathing being the most popular remedy for ills at the time)
The princess attempted to abide by this so-called wisdom. But the crawling touch of fabric on her skin made her want to scream. Nothing was comfortable. She risked utmost humiliation by finding the thinnest, sheerest, smallest nightclothes possible in a desperate attempt to find peace with her sleep. She even braved the dangerous wilds of a Victoria’s Secret. But the so-called sun-softened lace sliced into her thighs with the ease of a knife. And satin clung to her stomach in folds of sweaty slime.
Her skin boiling alive in mortification, she took to climbing into bed stark naked—convinced the world somehow spied through the narrow gap in her curtains.
The curse’s torment worsened as the months stretched on. Suddenly, even the press of air against the princess’s body caused discomfort. Currents from vents sent her scrambling away from heat and chill alike. She constantly added or peeled away the very clothes that marked her skin with invisible welts and bruises. She longed for the brief moments throughout the day when her trembling frame declared homeostasis and gave her a breath of peace.
“The stress of adulthood,” her parents wisely opined. They stood upon the pillars of their advanced years and plied her with care packages.
“Too many hours spent at work,” her friends assured her. They sent invitations to evenings out and stuffed her house with alcoholic beverages designed to create oblivion. (Free booze was free booze, but she questioned the logic of people who consistently failed to return to their own beds on weekends)
After an endless night spent moving from chair to bed to standing position (clothes on and off for flavor), the princess declared an end to her torment. She would seek the advice of a stranger if she had to, but she was done enduring the scourage of such temperamental skin.
“I can help you.”
Looking around, she noticed a beautiful calico sitting at her feet. (Don’t act surprised; all wise animals speak in fairy tales)
“My name is Talisman, and I know of a Wise Man who can help you unravel the mystery of this ailment,” the cat said.
The princess crouched down and scratched the calico’s head. “Why would you offer to help me?”
“Because your constant moving and shifting around disturb my rest.” She paused. “And I’ve grown fond of you. You take good care of me and deserve some peace.”
Talisman took the princess to the Wise Man. He listened as she described her sudden difficulties with the touch of fabrics, the way the movement of air made her want to scream. With careful fingers, he pressed her hands and feet, tapped along her chest, and touched the back of her head. He closed his eyes and listened carefully to the sounds of her breathing, the movement of her heart. And then he stared deep into her eyes.
“You have a curse upon you,” the Wise Man said.
“A curse?” she asked.
“Yes, and a powerful one at that. There’s only one way to break it.” He handed her a short blade of silver and a small crystal vial. “Take this and find the Labyrinth of Heme. At the center is rumored to exist a beast. Fill the vial to the brim with its blood and return it to me. I can then distill a potion to help lift the spell.”
The princess frowned. “Where do I find the Labyrinth?”
“I know,” Talisman said with complete confidence.
“What don’t you know?”
“I didn’t know you were under a plague,” the calico admitted, setting off into the wilds. “Had I sensed the workings of a terrible affliction, I could have brought you to the Wise Man sooner.” She gave a flirt of her kinked tail. “Cats are as perfect as possible, but we have the occasional fault.”
As soon as the princess stepped inside the Labyrinth, the pressure on her skin grew a hundred times worse. The stone walls exuded a horrible chilling torment that exacerbated her condition, making her wish she could both put on and peel away an outer layer of flesh. “How do I solve this maze to find the creature at the center?”
“Always turn to the left,” Talisman said wisely.
Though she was loathe to touch anything within, the princess allowed the very tips of her fingers to extend to the walls. At each branch or opening, the pair swung to the left. The light grew weaker, and the temperature grew progressively colder. “You might have mentioned the need for a jacket,” the princess said.
“I have a fur coat.”
“I do not. And you already knew I had difficulties with cold.” While she appreciated the cat’s guidance, the princess wasn’t as impressed with the calico’s lack of understanding.
“Reasonably, you should have anticipated the potential for unpleasant circumstances.” Talisman snapped her tail with impatience. “How many dangerous treks have you undertaken?”
The princess stared in utter shock at the cat’s tone. “None! This is the first dreadful curse I’ve had laid upon me!” A new chill slathered across her arm—the sort of icy premonition comprised of equal parts dread and clammy sensation—and she jerked away from the wall. When she looked down, she noticed a dark shadow attached to the crook of her elbow.
“The beast!” Talisman struck with a paw, her claws sinking into the trailing whisp. With a grating alarm, the tentacle withdrew, and the pair shook their heads. “I forgot the creature’s most foul ability: It creates dissent among parties through the power of disbelief. Keep watch for other feelers and keep your wits about you.”
“Disbelief?” the princess asked.
“The strongest ally of curses,” the calico said. “If you ignore the presence of a spell, it gains strength. Unfortunately, the monster can wield the same influence to turn people away from its lair.” The cat jumped onto the girl’s shoulder, ignoring the resulting wince of pain. Her slit pupils widened to gather as much available light as possible. “We must be getting close.”
The princess chose to overlook the calico’s lack of apology and the heavy pressure of cat paws on her flesh. She slowed her steps and monitored the growing darkness for other tendrils seeking a hold on her arm. (Naturally, everything looks like a threat when you can barely see) They reached a final turn in the maze, peering around the corner into a vast chamber lost in undulating waves of shadow. “How am I supposed to collect my vial of blood if I can barely see my hand in front of my face?”
Talisman paused to groom a paw, considering. “We’ll need to distract the monster. If it’s busy in one part of the room, it won’t notice you entering another.”
“How do you distract the creature?”
Talisman’s ears flattened in dislike. “It feeds on the blood of its victims.”
“You want me to offer a blood sacrifice?” The princess quickly checked over her exposed flesh to ensure there wasn’t a clinging tendril responsible for the cat’s insane suggestion. All of the writhing shadows were contained within the chamber, though.
“You’re being very dramatic for such a rational suggestion.” Talisman tapped a mottled paw against the girl’s arm. The princess felt sparks of electricity from the gentle touch. “Even a few drops will do the trick, and it won’t hurt you in the slightest. Or you can enter the room and hope it doesn’t catch your scent. The choice is yours.”
Mumbling under her breath about the wisdom of feline guidance, the princess drew the blade of her silver dagger across her arm, just deep enough to raise several beads of ruby blood to the surface. Immediately, the activity of the tentacles within the room began to increase. She swiped her hand across her arm and smeared the resulting stain along the doorway. As the monster moved towards the offering, she dove in the opposite direction.
Talisman’s head wove back and forth on her neck. “There! A bit of the creature’s tail is resting near the corner. If you crouch and stay low, you may creep past it.”
Dropping onto her hands and knees—and trying not to think of the various sharp implements poking into her skin and potentially leaving a fresh blood trail—the princess scrambled along the wall to reach the lumpy mass of the beast’s tail. Antisceptic scents perfumed the air, threatening to suffocate her as she pulled the blade from her waist and stabbed it down. Another piercing alarm rang out, and she had to throw herself to the side as the tail thrashed. But blood poured into the vial.
“Now, quick! Before the monster finds you.” Talisman bolted for the exit.
The journey from the Labyrinth was calm. But the princess couldn’t help running light fingertips over the new bruises—real and imagined—earned in the experience.
“Well done,” the Wise Man said, examining the ruby liquid of the vial when she returned. “I must admit, I thought the task beyond your skills.”
“You got some of the creature’s blood on the outside of the vial,” Talisman whispered into the princess’s ear. The pair watched the blood seep into the Wise Man’s skin, his expression colored with instant doubt.
“Can you prepare the potion?” the princess asked. Her fingers were sticky from the gruesome job, and the fluids on her skin caused horrific itching. It was as torturous as the usual pain.
The Wise Man gestured impatiently. “Of course, of course. I’ll need some of your blood to ensure the reaction’s keyed to your particular jinx.”
The princess glared at the cat. “More blood?”
The calico evinced a startling fascination with the patterns on the ceiling. “This falls squarely in the realm of things cats have no knowledge of.”
Sighing, she extended her hand. (She’d come this far; it only made sense to continue)
Taking the silver dagger from her hand, the Wise Man sliced the blade across her fingers—none too gently. Several drops of ruby liquid pooled to the surface, joining the sludgy mixture of the monster’s fluid in a none-too-clean cauldron. And then, with the exaggerated gestures, murmurings, and theatrics one expects of a Wise Man, he combined the vial’s contents with various roots, herbs, flowers, a drop of sunshine, and the text of a yoga manual. It smelled of sweat and resembled the congealed clot in the bottom of a laboratory tube (entirely coincidentally). “Drink this, and your curse will be lifted immediately,” the Wise Man told her.
Closing her eyes and holding her nose, the princess choked down the vile concoction. It turned her stomach, and it was a near thing to keep every swallow down. However, she was determined to defeat the curse. So while her eyes streamed tears and her guts spasmed in protest, she kept the resulting nausea in check.
Talisman purred beside her in encouragement. “Well done. I’m confident this will work. In no time, you’ll feel better.”
Jinxes are tricky things. Sometimes—when they’re particularly bothersome—a person can believe they’re free of a blight only to have it rebound or redouble. This was the case for the princess. No sooner had she congratulated herself on ridding her skin of the dreadful plague than it sank deeper, manifesting itself in her bones and musculature.
As she moved about her day, aches began to announce themselves throughout her body. Despite a lack of regular exercise (don’t look that way—she wasn’t a lazy cow, but she didn’t subscribe to the cults of CrossFit or Peleton, either), her legs would cramp and complain as if she’d run for miles. In the middle of the night, she woke to the sensation of her bones slowly grinding into powder. Yet she continued to rest peacefully in the cushioning comfort of her ergonomic mattresses and toppers. Spectacular bruising blossomed over her body without rhyme or reason, attended by accompanying pains. And the marks lasted for weeks on end. Nothing eased them: Not unguents or creams, and not the extended time under the sun suggested by random strangers. (Time spent outdoors being the latest fad to cure ails)
Her parents made whimsical jokes about a clumsy childhood. “Do you need to take dance class to learn how to walk?”
Friends batted their eyes coyly and inquired after unknown romantic partners. The bruising of her arms and legs must indicate a secret paramour and nightly adventures among the sheets. They'd stop teasing if she’d come clean about the activities.
The princess began to exaggerate her movements, moving with slow, practiced motions to avoid obstacles and prevent collisions she suspected lay at the root of her pains. Gritting her teeth, she pledged her eternal allegiance to a local gym and showed up on a regular schedule to tackle quests of ellipticals, stationary bikes, and weight machines. She set aside time every evening to stretch quivering muscles in the vain hope that the behavior would quiet the twisting, cramping sinews through the night.
Yet the random moments of unquestionable pain continued to plague her. Whether she arrived for her scheduled torture sessions with an appointed trainer or begged off an excuse to rest her exhausted frame, her bones behaved as if they’d been beaten with maces.
She escaped into the supportive waters of the local pool, allowing the weightlessness to cradle her body. The princess even dared to venture into a boiling spring once a week, hoping the surging heat might calm the tightened fascia of her body. (The local coven cackled at her presence in their midst) Her arms and legs coiled like springs within moments of departure. Neither heat nor cold proved a satisfactory cure.
The princess woke throughout the night to the sensation of pummeling fists down the length of her legs. Blocks weighed down her arms. For hours she would massage the limbs, tears starting in her eyes. It was worse than the initial stage of the curse. And no one understood the toll it wreaked on her—body and soul.
Her attempts to describe the ensuing cause fell on deaf ears. How could she be experiencing pain if she was doing everything properly? Didn’t that suggest she was wrong? Performing something incorrectly?
She began to question all of her actions. And she longed for the welcoming presence of Talisman. But the sweet-tempered calico had passed away, leaving her to contemplate the fate of her curse alone.
“I think I can help you with your problem.”
The warm voice interrupted her as she paced the length of her bedroom one night. The princess looked down to find a handsome tabby cat perched atop her easy chair. She tilted her head to the side, pleasantly surprised to see another helpful feline regarding her with deep green eyes. “You mean you think there is a problem?”
“I do. You’re struggling to get through your day despite changing everything about yourself. That suggests something outside of the ordinary.” He flicked a whisker. “And we cats understand the extraordinary.”
She collapsed onto the chair beside him. “What do I do?”
“There is a Wise Woman who may know how to resolve your situation.” He butted his head against her cheek. “My name is Firefly, and I want to help you. You’ve been kind to me, and I don’t think you deserve to suffer this way.”
The princess was leery of going the “Wise Individual” route again (the Wise Man’s disgusting potion had proved less than helpful), but she was also desperate enough to give it a try. So she followed the tabby.
The Wise Woman hemmed and hawed. She poked and prodded. She listened and talked (a lot). Finally, she sat back. “You’re under a curse. A powerful one.”
The princess shook her head. “No. The Wise Man removed the curse.”
“Well, either he did a lousy job, or you ticked off someone else and got another one placed on you. This is a nasty spell.” The Wise Woman smiled. “Lucky for you, I know how to lift it.”
“Of course you do.”
The Wise Woman handed her a silver disc. “Take this to the Cave of Mag. Within it, you’ll find a slumbering spirit. You need to capture its essence onto this disc. I can then create a charm that will banish the curse.”
Glancing at the cat, the princess lifted an eyebrow. “Let me guess: You know where the Cave is.”
“Follow me,” he said, the white tip of his tail beckoning her onward.
“Did you know I’d need to find the spirit within the Cave?” the princess asked as she climbed over obstacles to reach the mouth of the cave.
“Had I known the curse wasn’t banished by the Wise Man’s potion.” Firefly’s head drooped slightly. “But while cats are as perfect as possible, we have the occasional fault. Mine was the inability to sense that your affliction had grown in strength.”
As the pair entered the Cave, the princess felt an immediate pull drawing her deeper inside. Sheer walls of ice confronted her, throwing back imperfect reflections. Within several steps, she’d lost the light of the entrance, relying on the dim glow of blue and green fungus sprouting from the floor and roof. “How will we locate the spirit in these twists and turns?”
Firefly twitched his tail back and forth, the white tip surprisingly bright in the gloom. “It resides in the deepest recesses of the Cave.”
“But we’re sure to get lost with all these branchings.”
“Stay to the rightward path, and you’ll come to the center chamber.”
Though the ice walls sent shivers down her spine (reigniting the chill of her skin), the princess trailed the very tips of her fingertips to orient herself. The low light levels made it easy to miss narrow openings, and she nearly stumbled past three branches from the corridor. “This is hopeless! I’ve probably missed a crucial turning at this point!”
“All you have to do is keep your eyes open,” the tabby said, a distinct snap in his voice. “It’s not like I’m asking anything difficult of you.”
“My eyes don’t see in the dark the way yours do.” She stopped in the path, crossing her arms. “I’m only a fallible human being, not a ‘perfect as possible’ feline.”
Firefly stopped and looked up at her. Without warning, he made an impressive leap, claws flashing at her face. She stumbled back as a shadow rattled away from her eyes. “The spirit,” he said grimly. “The closer you get, the more its reach extends.”
The light brightened around her. She blinked. “I felt so hopeless for a moment.”
He nodded, jumping onto her shoulder. The sudden weight produced an instant ache in her bones. “The spirit carries the power of failure. We must be near the final chamber. I will keep watch for further shadows.”
She resumed her trek, fingers grazing the walls. Twice more, the cat’s claws shredded encroaching shadows as despair attempted to wrap around her heart. His quick actions convinced her to tolerate the uncomfortable presence of his body on her shoulder. And then they stumbled through the final portal into a pitch-black chamber. “How will I ever find the spirit in this mirk?”
“The problem isn’t you seeing the spirit,” the tabby said, “it’s that the spirit will have no problem detecting you. If you hope to complete this task, you’ll need to disrobe before you enter that chamber.”
The princess’s voice came out in a decidedly undignified squeak. “I need to WHAT?”
“It’s laid hold of you twice, marking you with the essence of failure. It’ll recognize you the moment you set foot beyond this portal. You’re only chance is to shed anything that carries that touch.” Firefly jumped down from her shoulder. “If it can’t see you, then it won’t be able to grab hold of you. It’s the only way you’ll stand a chance of capturing the essence on the disc.”
“You might have mentioned this before we entered the Cave,” the princess said.
Firefly coiled and uncoiled his tail—the cat equivalent of a shrug. “Would it have prevented you from attempting this quest?”
The twinges and aches of the curse throughout her muscles grew decidedly worse the longer she stood among the chilling damp. She wondered if knowing the solution ahead of time would have mattered. With a sigh, she began to slide her clothes off, folding them into a tidy pile at the entrance of the chamber. Her skin flamed the painful red of embarrassment, even as the cat averted his eyes politely.
Wrapping her arms around herself, the disc clutched tight in her fingers, she turned accusing eyes on Firefly. “Now what am I supposed to do? That chamber isn’t any brighter than it was a moment ago.”
“You only need to capture an essence,” Firefly said. “Sweep the disc through the air. You'll know you're successful if you hear a rumble, rattle, or cascade of angry thuds.” He paused. “Of course, you’ll need to run as soon as you do, or the spirit will latch onto you, and you’ll never leave this Cave.”
The princess wasn’t interested in getting stuck with a spirit of despair in addition to her curse—to say nothing of prolonging her nakedness. So she braced her feet and kept one hand firmly pressed against the wall (the ice wasn’t pleasant, but it reminded her of what she was supposed to do). Then she extended the disc and swiped it through the air. At first, nothing happened. Then a resounding series of gong-like sounds rang out, vibrating her entire arm and nearly causing her to drop the precious silver. Tightening her fingers, she jumped back, grabbed her discarded clothes, and ran back through the Cave. The echoing shouts of the spirit chased her.
It took her longer than she liked to pull herself to rights at the Cave entrance before she was ready to venture back to the Wise Woman’s home. And the cold seemed determined to inhabit the core of her bones as the pair climbed through the hills.
“I never expected to see you again,” the Wise Woman said, bouncing from the seat of her chair in surprise.
“You sent me on an errand,” the princess said with a frown.
“A fool’s errand. No one ever completes that challenge.” The Wise Woman peered with a critical eye at the silver disc, studying the thin lines of shadow captured upon the surface. “But it seems you somehow managed to succeed. A first.”
The princess contemplated asking how many others had failed but decided she’d rather not know. Perched on her shoulder, Firefly rumbled a purr and pressed his face against hers in a gesture of strength. The soothing sound counterbalanced the discomfort of his feet digging into her skin. “Can you create the charm you promised?”
“Of course. What do you take me for—a half-wit Wise Man?’
The princess decided no answer was the better option.
“Before I can prepare the charm, you’ll need to remove anything that went into the Cave.” The Wise Woman’s eyes lit with a glint of mischief. “The taint of that spirit adheres to everything and permeates the magic with failure.”
The princess groaned, looking down at the folds of her clothing. “Let me guess.”
“All of it.”
“Do you have anything I can change into?” The princess glanced around the open room. While there was a fire, it offered meager warmth. And there wasn’t much in the way of window coverings. She didn’t imagine the Wise Woman received many visitors, but she wasn’t willing to take a chance that someone wouldn’t drop by unannounced.
“Modest, are you?” The Wise Woman cackled as she rummaged around a dusty trunk. “Here you go.”
The garment produced was shapeless and worn to an indistinct color. It also lacked the usual fastenings the girl expected from her clothing. Two tiny ties were all she could find to hold the gown together, leaving a distinct breeze up the back. Clutching the loose ends in tight fingers, her cheeks a permanent shade of beet red, the princess grit her teeth. “I’ve removed all of my clothing—and every drop of my dignity. If you could please craft the charm.”
“Impatient, aren’t you?” The Wise Woman dropped the disc into the fire along with several pinches of weeds, leaves, a bottle of imported water, and a shoe she claimed had made five walking trips around the block. Under her watchful gaze, everything blazed away, leaving nothing but fine ash. She poked a gnarled finger into the gray and silver pile, testing it for temperature, before sweeping it into a woven bag embroidered with a strange rune. “There you are! Simply wear this around your neck for six hours a day and three hours every night, and your curse will be banished.”
Firefly gave the tiny bag a sniff before settling back on his haunches. “I’ve no doubt this will work.”
The princess breathed a sigh of relief and dropped the charm around her neck. “You have my thanks.”
Magic doesn’t always work the way a person expects. Like the potion before, the charm did chase the curse from the princess’s muscles and bones. And it prevented the trouble from returning to torment her skin. She enjoyed life as her friends did for a brief period: no strange twinges or burning sensations. But then the torment moved deeper into her body. One might say it found its proper place to exact its affliction.
As time passed, she began to notice problems with EVERY part of her body—with no reasonable explanation.
It began small: A sharp stab of pain in the middle of her abdomen after eating a meal. She easily dismissed the problem as ubiquitous indigestion. (Who doesn’t get an upset stomach now and then, particularly when daring to brave a new culinary experience in the name of dating?)
But the irritation didn’t go away, even when she returned to her normal staples of saltine crackers and water. Her digestive system, it seemed, had grown poisoned against both delicious and mundane foodstuffs.
The curse wasn’t content to stop there. It spread further, reaching into other parts of her body, creating more problematic issues—all with equally troubling symptoms. Once it was a twisting and tumbling sensation in the region of her back that sent her scrambling for a bathroom every few minutes. She was positive something had happened to one or both of her kidneys and spent endless hours searching frantically for advice on adjusting her diet to purge an unwanted stone.
But healers examined her and shrugged their shoulders. There was nothing there. No evidence of a problem in either of the bean-shaped organs tucked beneath the sheltering protection of her rib cage. They suggested she increase her water intake and eliminate sugary drinks and alcohol. When she protested that she didn’t consume either, they smiled indulgently and scribbled cryptic notes in their records.
The pain vanished between one night and the next. (The longer they persist, the craftier curses tend to get)
Another time, she felt stabbing, electric shocks radiating from a spot in her upper abdomen. Acting in tandem with her digestion, she feared a return of the stomach problems she’d been unable to unravel. This presentation was different, though. In addition to the intolerance she’d experienced before, she now suffered bouts of nausea. Nothing brought a moment’s peace.
Healers scratched their heads, puzzled and stymied by her conflicting reports. They offered suggestions (comical and serious), none of which stemmed the worsening ache taking up permanent residence in the right side of her abdomen. Had she tried eating smaller meals? Was she sleeping long enough at night? Could she swallow these 47 herbs and berries? Did she sit hunched over her desk for extended periods? Were all of her ingredients from organic farms—free of harmful GMOs?
Though the constant barrage of suggestions felt endless (and useless), the princess followed the instructions without fail. Nothing made a difference. And the jinx began to spread further. Now the pain was centralized in her chest. The next day, it moved lower through her right side. The following week, it extended branches to the left.
Each morning she woke, wondering where the agony would surface.
Friends and family weighed in with their opinions. “You’re stressed, and stress kills far more women than any random pains,” her parents cautioned. Some friends opined that her anxiety from years before was resurfacing, indicating a need for a lengthy vacation.
To others, she wasn’t working hard enough; her lackadaisical approach toward the world was manifesting in the aches throughout her body. If she wanted to feel better, she needed to take on additional hours—drown out the pain signals rushing to her brain. (Ignoring issues being the currently favored treatment)
And, finally, the irritation of hearing her complaints day in and day out started to wear on everyone around her. Wasn’t she tired of demanding attention? They’d heard her protest about the annoyance of touch against her skin all those years before. A so-called curse that magically disappeared with a potion. Then there was the ache buried deep within her muscles and bones. All supposedly banished by a bag of ash? An enchanted charm?
Taken together, it sounded absurd—even to her ears.
Skepticism took hold of everyone around her. Worse, it found its way into her mind. Was she actually experiencing crippling attacks throughout her organ systems? Or was it a figment of her imagination? Had the curse diagnosed by the Wise Man and Wise Woman been real, or had they swindled her?
The torment continued, winding its way through every tiny fiber of her body. There was no moment’s peace. Tears continually started in her eyes as heads shook and lips pursed in disapproval. She longed for the reassuring presence of Firefly by her side. But the faithful tabby had passed on, leaving her alone with the rampant torture of her body.
“That’s the nastiest curse I’ve ever seen.”
The princess looked up from her desk, eyes red with weeping. Sitting near her elbow, a tiny tuxedo kitten gazed at her with wide green eyes. “You can see my curse?”
The cat gave a single nod. “It’s horrible, and it’s entered the final stage, disseminating disbelief in everyone around you. I dare say the doubt is entering your mind, too.” She tilted her head to the side. “Or did you not realize that human beings aren’t meant to feel this way.”
The princess rubbed the tears from her cheeks. “The Wise Man gave me a potion to cure the curse. And I wear this charm from the Wise Woman to banish it.”
The kitten sighed. “I’m sure those two meant well, but a spell of this power can’t be defeated with such trinkets. Your only hope is to seek the Wizard on the other side of the Physical Feats.”
“Do you know where these Feats are?” The princess heard the question and laughed. “Of course you do; you’re a cat.”
“My name is Tonks, and I’m probably the cleverest cat ever to exist.” She jumped down and danced her paws impatiently. “I’ll lead you to him.”
The princess expected the tuxedo cat to take her to a mysterious location, as her previous feline companions had done. But Tonks accompanied her to a wide canyon strewn with obstacles. Unlike the cold and shadowed Maze and Cave, the Feats were open and flooded with sunshine. But the forbidding atmosphere plagued her with doubt. “These are the Feats?”
Tonks bobbed her head. “The Wizard isn’t keen on interruptions. He crafted these tests to ensure that only the truly desperate get in to see him.”
The Feats consisted of a wide ravine spanned by a single log. The ubiquitous plank bridge (with several missing, less a person think the obstacle easy). A series of stones precariously balanced in a rushing river. A carefully weighted plank perched on a stone fulcrum. And not a single safety harness or hand-hold in sight.
“Staring won’t get you through the passes any faster,” Tonks said, scampering over the first log with the perfect nimbleness of a feline.
Electricity raced up the princess’s leg from her ankle to her hip as she attempted to balance one foot on the edge of the monstrous tree. “Easy for you to say. You’re low to the ground.” Her body swayed back and forth, her gaze swinging down to the impossible depth of the ravine and the glint of a river miles below. “Living with this nightmare is still preferable to dying.”
“Is it? You seem pretty miserable.”
The princess stared at the kitten. The words circled in her head, the logic of the statement forcing her forward, though she wobbled dangerously on her feet. “I don’t want to die, but I’d rather not feel this pain shooting through my legs!”
“So use that brain of yours to think through the problem,” Tonks said.
Gritting her teeth, the princess looked at the tree spanning the ravine. It was wide enough to stand and walk across, but the winds coming from the canyon left her uncertain. Muttering under her breath about dignity, she crouched onto her hands and knees and crawled the length of the log.
“There, not so bad.” With a flirt of her tail, Tonks raced to the next obstacle.
“You can’t possibly imagine I can do that?” the princess said in indignation, watching the tuxedo balance across the bridge on the rope handrail.
“Your doubts are only going to get worse and worse the longer we wait out here,” Tonks said, a note of concern entering her voice. “I suggest you stop protesting and start engaging your feet and brain.”
“Easy for you to say.” Her fingers cramping in protest, the princess gripped the ropes and edged her feet onto the first planks. The bridge immediately swung in a dramatic arch that made her nauseous. And the wood beneath her toes creaked ominously. Rational thought screamed for her to turn around and call it quits, and her shoulders and elbows ached with unceasing waves of pain. But she found a flicker of determination blazing to life in her chest. “This isn’t the life I want!”
She stubbed her toes. And the rope left burns on her palms. But she scrambled across the bridge, collapsing on the other side as she struggled to regain her breath. “How much of a hermit is this Wizard?”
“He has some issues, that’s for sure.” Tonks licked the princess’s cheek in support before heading for the next obstacle. The sandpaper tongue was abrasive and comforting at the same time. “Now, watch the order of stones carefully. If you step on the wrong one, it will sink, and you’ll have to swim against the current.”
The water rushed past in frantic rapids—not a safe swimming environment. And the sides of the river were lined with jagged rocks that promised intense pain and agony. “Talk about motivation,” the girl muttered, watching and making a mental note of the kitten’s path through the surging spray.
Cats generally weigh less than the average human; kittens even less. So when the princess jumped to the first stone in the torrent, she shrieked as it wobbled under her feet. Her arms spun in a frantic bid to retain her balance, and her spine twisted in a strange shape. The curse responded by sending sharp stabs through her skeleton. She gritted her teeth against a scream.
The cold water sank deep into her skin as it splashed around her, making it difficult to concentrate. And each successive rock was smaller than the last. “This is hopeless!” She wrapped her arms around herself, tears starting in her eyes. “I can’t do this.”
“You’re almost across,” Tonks said encouragingly. “You must believe this is possible, or you’ll remain trapped in the Feats.”
“It’s easy for you,” the girl said, rubbing her face. “Your body doesn’t hate you.”
“That is the curse talking, Princess. Think past it. Picture yourself in front of the Wizard. You can do this, if you’re willing to keep trying.”
Taking a deep breath that scraped through raw lungs, the princess stared at the other side of the river. She pressed her lips together and nodded slowly. “I can do this,” she whispered. “I can meet the Wizard and defeat this curse.” Her feet touched the other side of the river, and she stumbled, wrenching an ankle to the side. Her brain screamed with the pain, but she managed a smile.
“Just one more test to pass.” Tonks rubbed her face against the girl’s swollen ankle. The soft fur was comforting in contrast to the throbbing ache.
The plank rested in front of the pair—deceivingly simple. Tonks jumped onto her shoulder; even her minimal weight produced a song of torment through the girl’s right side. “As soon as you reach the midway point, it will drop. It takes courage to keep moving. But I know you can do this.”
“Courage. Right.” The princess took a deep breath and hobbled onto the plank. It felt sturdy under her feet. But her strength recoiled under the knowledge that it would shift the further she moved. She didn’t believe in her ability to retain her footing. And now the tuxedo kitten was perched on her shoulder—another life she was responsible for.
“The Wizard and the end of your agony wait on the other side, Princess.”
Clenching her hands into fists, the princess lurched forward. The plank slammed down, jarring her teeth in her jaws. She half-fell, half-stepped from the other side to see a small cottage waiting on the other side. (A bit of a letdown after her ordeal, but she’d take it)
“Wait right there!” The Wizard pointed in her direction before she could approach, his face twisted in displeasure. “I can sense the strength of that spell from here.”
The princess wilted in relief. Neither the Wise Man nor the Wise Woman could sense her curse without a thorough examination. “Please, I’ve come all this way, endured your absurd Physical Feats in the hopes that you can lift this jinx from me once and for all. I’ve tried potions and charms, but things keep getting worse. And now no one believes the pain I feel. This isn’t a way for a person to live. You’re my last hope.”
The Wizard considered her, pacing closer. He sighed and looked deep into her eyes. “I’m sorry you’ve endured this nightmare. And I apologize that you underwent the nonsense of my foolish brethren. Such notions as potions and charms can effect nothing but temporary relief against a malediction of this power.”
The princess felt the first glimmers of hope. “So you can help me?”
“You’re hoping I’ll ask something of you. Perhaps an absurd dance that sacrifices your self-respect? Or for you to sacrifice every hair on your head?” The Wizard smiled, noting the flicker of shadow across her expression. “Everyone who comes to me has endured similar experiences and comes with those expectations. If they offer the proper ‘gift,’ they believe I can craft a counter spell to rid them of their curse.”
“You’d best tell her the truth,” Tonks piped up.
The princess glanced at the kitten still perched on her shoulder. “What do you mean? You said this Wizard would be able to help me.”
The tuxedo rustled her whiskers. “He can help you, Princess.”
The Wizard took her hand in gentle fingers, leading her to a warm fire. The flames helped bake the chill of the Feats from her bones. (It didn’t do much for the aches and bruises that continued to plague her, though, so she concluded there was nothing magical about it) “The curse you suffer is an ancient, hereditary thing, Princess. It surfaces at random, with no rhyme or reason. And no counter will rid its presence from your body. You’re not the first to succumb to its poison, and I don’t imagine you’ll be the last.
“I created the Feats to test those who suffer under such torment. If a person can reach me, it lets me know the heart within them is strong. They’ve endured unimaginable pain—the kind of agony and torture an average person is incapable of experiencing and remaining sane.”
“You promise people an answer that doesn’t exist?” the princess said, accusation plain in her tone.
“The answer does exist,” he argued. He gestured back through the canyon, where the obstacles faded into the twilight. “When you stood on the cusp of the first ravine, crippled by the agony of your body, did you imagine you could reach me? Did you think it was possible to fight through the pain and press on?”
“No, of course not.”
“But you did. The Feats are a test of resilience in the face of the impossible.” The Wizard smiled. “I cannot remove your curse. But I’ve taught you to rise above it.”
“You hurt, but you kept fighting,” Tonks added helpfully. “You fought down your doubts and fears.”
The princess stayed quiet for a long time, watching the flames in their dance. Her protesting cries rang in her mind, contrasted against her movements. Every part of her body had screamed in protest, but an inner determination had carried her forward. And while those aches continued, they were quieter. “I can survive a life with this torment,” she said quietly, realization blooming in the back of her mind.
“Princess, the potion was little more than spring water. And the charm was ash. They’ve done nothing for you.” The Wizard reached to break the bag from around her neck.
The princess stared at the worn charm in his hand. Then she lifted her head and met his gaze. “I’m the one who triumphed over the curse each time.” He nodded, a warm smile crossing his lips. She frowned. “But what if I get lost in my doubts again?”
“That’s what I’m here for.” Tonks twitched her tail. “Cats are as perfect as possible, you know.”
Her smile was hard-won, but it felt satisfactory. The princess stood up straight, even though the motion caused pain in her bones and muscles. “All right, Tonks. Then let’s see if we can tackle those Feats one more time.”
And the princess lived painfully—grudgingly, uncomfortably, wincingly—but FULLY ever after.