A Lost Princess in the Swashbuckling Game of a Lifetime
Cari Dix didn’t know her whole life was a lie, she only knew she didn’t belong here. Growing up with the most ordinary parents ever, all Cari wanted was a life of adventure and a little bit of fun.
When she discovers an old, restored computer from her father’s past, Cari stumbles into a fantasy game world she’d always thought a part of her childhood imagination. Taking her combat fencing skills with her, she sets out to explore a world her parents said didn’t exist.
Come along and play the game. Join Cari in this swashbuckling LitRPG adventure, returning to the world of Fantasma once again. This is the first book in a brand new fantasy trilogy picking up where the Accidental Traveler series left off.
Play along with Cari as she fights to save the last of the Empire’s heirs and carries on the legend her father left behind.
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After reading the dispatch one last time, Her Imperial Majesty Empress Kareena, Defender of the Realm, Warden of the Northern Reaches, Uniter of the Races, and Lady of the Crystal City, folded the heavy paper so the broken wax seal of the Imperial Courier Service showed once more on the outside. Six times she’d received one of these messages, and six times she’d sat on the throne, maintaining a visage of stone, impassive to those viewing from the outside despite her inner emotions.
“My Lord Colonel, you are quite sure? All of them perished?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so, Your Majesty,” Colonel Sharp of the Imperial Dragoons said. “The ship’s wreckage was found off the coast. It may have been the result of a recent storm, as the message suggests, or —”
“Or what, Colonel?”
“There has been raider activity in the area, Your Majesty. Were I a betting man —”
“You’re not paid to bet on anything, Lord Colonel,” Kenton, the Duke of Charon, snapped, inserting himself into the conversation.
When she was younger, Kareena might have dressed down the Duke for interrupting her family’s chief bodyguard. Under the circumstances, with no one else to protect after the loss of her eldest son’s family at sea, she remained silent, distracted by her thoughts and sorrow.
The Duke continued. “Please keep your reporting to the facts and let those of us who are your betters take up the matter of deeper meaning. Were you and your vaunted dragoons better at your jobs of protecting the Imperial Family, we would not have had the Crown Prince and all his descendants on an ill-fated journey away from the protection of the capital in search of sanctuary to the west. I counseled against it at the time the plan was put in motion and I’m still against it, even as we find ourselves having to relay such sorrowful news to Her Majesty.”
Kareena forced herself to push her sadness away and focus on her two top advisors. They looked as if they might come to blows. She couldn’t afford to lose either of them to anything as stupid as a duel of honor.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, arguing amongst yourselves does not serve the Empire or my wishes. As much as this saddens me on a personal level, the needs of the Empire are paramount. With the death of my eldest son, his children…” Kareena took a deep breath before continuing, “…and grandchildren, the question of succession is foremost on my mind. Lord Colonel, I believe that leaves my only remaining grandson, Timron, as the sole surviving heir to the Crystal Throne. I don’t suppose you know where he is at the moment?”
The Lord Colonel of the Imperial Dragoons spared a brief glance away to his aide standing along the wall. Kareena caught the nearly imperceptible shake of the woman’s head and knew the answer before he said it.
“I’m afraid young Timron has evaded his keepers once more, Your Majesty. We are working to find him and will spare no effort until he is recovered safe and sound.”
“I’m sure you will do your best, Colonel,” the Duke of Charon sneered. “My only fear is your best may not be good enough. You and your dragoons are supposed to be the family’s personal guard, and yet over these last five years, you’ve managed to lose every one of them to one fell disaster or another. Now, you tell us you cannot find the Empress’s only surviving heir. That is most unsatisfactory, Lord Colonel, most unsatisfactory.”
The Duke turned his back on the old soldier who struggled to find words to counter the accusations leveled against him and his household troops. Duke Kenton pulled a rolled paper from inside his jacket and handed it up to the Empress where she sat on the throne.
Kareena reached out and took the document from him. She noted the seal of the Privy Council and suspected what it was right away. Kenton confirmed it a moment later.
“Your Majesty, the members of the Privy Council have all voted on the matter and must recommend that you disband the Empress’s Own Imperial Dragoons at once. Not only are they a needless drain on the royal coffers when more affordable and effective alternatives exist for your protection, their substantial forces can be better used to reinforce our army on the eastern reaches. They are mostly ceremonial anyway and, based on the most recent news, clearly serve no useful purpose as bodyguards to you and your family anymore.”
“Who would you propose be responsible for taking over those duties, Duke Kenton?” Colonel Sharp sneered.
Kareena already knew the Duke’s answer.
“My own personal guardsmen are highly trained and are already in the Crystal City, helping the local city guardsmen maintain order in these divisive times. It would be a small matter to detail some of their number to your personal security and to secure the whereabouts of your recalcitrant grandson, Timron, at the same time. It would require only a small fee on the Empress’s part.”
Kareena saw Colonel Sharp’s chest puff up in indignation at the slight against his troops. She raised a hand, palm outward as she spoke.
“Duke Kenton, you and the Privy Council have already siphoned off most of the troops from my loyal dragoons for the war effort to the east. You and the council have also forestalled them from taking any new recruits. What was once a proud regiment with two battalions of mounted dragoons is now little more than a platoon of foot guards, most of them well past their prime. Now you would have me disband them entirely? Members of the Imperial Dragoons have protected me and my family since before I took the throne.”
“And yet, as you said yourself, they are past their prime and have served their purpose,” Kenton said. “You need guardsmen who will fulfill the charge to protect you and not let every little natural disaster or mysterious coastal raider wipe out what little remains of your imperial line. It is high time you stopped holding on to old, outdated conventions and traditions rooted in past glories long forgotten.”
“I’ll not let you disband the remaining dragoons. Under the charter you and the Privy Council forced me to sign, I’m still entitled to a minimum force of household retainers. I shall keep the ones I have. The dragoons in the Crystal City will remain here with me. That is all, my lords, you may go.”
Kareena held her gaze on the Duke of Charon; he glanced her way once before turning and leaving the audience chamber with only the briefest of bows in her direction. Colonel Sharp’s bow was deep and reverent in contrast as he backed toward the door. She waited until the room cleared and no one was left but her two ladies-in-waiting, then the facade came down.
Tears welled up in her eyes as she once more opened the letter detailing the children and grandchildren lost in the shipwreck. The names were listed as if they were only so much cargo on a ship’s manifest. They hadn’t even been able to recover most of the bodies. Most were washed out to sea, drowned, or taken under by sharks and other sea creatures. It was more than the ninety-seven-year-old Empress could bear, and Kareena finally let the tears flow freely.
Deep, soul-wracking sobs filled the audience chamber while the few remaining servants stared straight ahead, pretending they didn’t hear, giving their Empress the semblance of privacy in a place she had none.
* * *
Later in the evening, after her supper, Kareena retired to her chambers. Her bones ached, and the weariness she’d encountered more and more frequently weighed upon her. There was so much she must do to ensure the Empire remained in the hands of one who would serve it and not treat it as their own personal playground and treasury.
She knew what Charon was up to. She’d lived through one coup on the throne already, when, as a child, she’d watched her father be deposed and then, with her siblings, she’d been sold into slavery. Only through escaping her master and enlisting the aid of the great champion Hal Dix, sent to her world by magical means, had she been able to restore her family to the throne and assume her place as Empress.
Now, Kenton, Duke of Charon, pushed to do it all over again. He sought to take it all for himself as Kang had done all those years ago. In reality, Kenton’s plans were almost more insidious. His efforts to politically reduce her power over the Empire’s government had come along so slowly she hadn’t initially seen the changes. They had reduced her to little more than a figurehead. Two tragic accidents had taken her daughters from her first. Then her youngest son had been killed in a duel before she realized what was happening to her family.
Kareena had taken steps to protect the remaining members of the Imperial Family, but nothing she did appeared to work. By the time she realized it was someone on the inside, perhaps within her own Privy Council, leaking information, most of her family had been killed in one sort of assassination or freak accident after another. She’d suspected Kenton was behind it but could prove nothing, despite Colonel Sharp’s investigations into the source of the leaks.
She didn’t think she needed an official answer. She’d put it all together and saw Kenton, Duke of Charon, as the most likely traitor. Unfortunately, he had strengthened his position on the Privy Council. He’d brought his own retainers and guards into the Crystal City under the pretense of helping to retain order and was now all but untouchable.
She reflected on the plan to send away her beloved Crown Prince Hamilton and his entire family, including her great-granddaughter, Jaycee, who reminded the Empress of her younger self. They’d left by ship, traveling to distant Tandon, where she still had a loyal Duke and Duchess. The move had only served to give Kenton a single grouped target, and he’d managed to wipe out all of the remaining family members, even though she’d taken steps to keep their itinerary and destination from the traitorous Duke.
Now, they were all gone. All gone, that is, except Timron.
He had to be next on Kenton’s list, but despite knowing he was a target, she wasn’t sure she could do anything to protect him. The man-child was a fool, a fop, a gambler, and a womanizer in the worst ways. It had kept him in constant trouble. He was also the only family she had left. She had to save him at all costs. But how?
Kareena sat on the edge of her dressing room’s divan, her hands resting on her cane. Her thumb idly caressed the carved jade handle atop the ebony shaft. She’d been given the cane by Hamilton on the occasion of her ninetieth birthday. The carved knob resembled a hooded figure from the shoulders up. He’d offered it to her as a reminder of the stories she’d often told him growing up of her exploits during the war with her mythical companion known as Prince Hal.
A wry smile crossed her face. If he were here, her onetime friend and companion, Hal Dix, also known as “the Hood,” would just announce he’d come up with a clever plan, and it would all somehow work out. It was why she’d named him a prince-protector of the realm. He and his family were granted to be of royal blood though they could not inherit the throne. As prince-protector, he was her official champion. It was a title he and his descendants would carry forever, no matter what happened to her.
Prince Hal; his wife, Princess Mona; and their young daughter, Princess Cari, had left the realm of Fantasma long ago, returning to their own world. After they departed, stories had popped up in taverns across the Empire of Hal and his family being seen in this land or that. Eventually, even little Cari had become the basis of the legend of the Lost Princess of old. Kareena had smiled as she learned of the tales and often had bards come to the palace to share the latest stories being told of her old friend and his family.
That had been a happier time though, long ago in another time and place in her life. She had not seen or heard from her friend since he left Fantasma for his home nearly eighty years ago. Kareena still remembered when he left. Hal and his wife had determined they must return to their own world permanently.
Time moved differently between their Earth and Fantasma. Family back home had questioned how fast Cari was growing up after spending so much time in Kareena’s realm. Princess Cari had been nearly four years old in true years, though she would have been only two and a half in official terms back home. Mona had said her parents in particular were starting to ask awkward questions.
A memory crossed her mind, and with a grunt of effort, Kareena levered herself to her feet and steadied her body with the cane. The Empress ambled across the carpeted floor and opened a drawer in the tall dresser against the wall. After lifting the silk undergarments free and setting them on top of the dresser, she reached into the bottom of the drawer and pressed against one of the rear corners.
A false bottom levered upward. She removed it, revealing a hidden space about three inches deep. It was empty save for a small wooden box sitting in the middle of the secret opening.
Kareena picked up the box, which was covered in ornate carvings of mystical runes, inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl. After releasing the latch, she opened the lid to reveal an ovoid object resting on black velvet inside. It was gray with a transparent layer stretched over the top of the base material. The top layer was made of a strange substance Kareena had never seen before. At one end of the object were two rectangular buttons.
She turned the object in her hand. She remembered the arch mage Tildi the Elder had called it a mouse, though she’d been unable to explain the name to Kareena at the time. The Empress ran a finger across the smooth surface and over the two buttons at the end. It fit well in her hand, with one end in her palm so her forefinger and middle finger each rested on a button.
Long ago, when Hal Dix returned to his own land with his wife and daughter, Tildi had given her this box with its strange contents and told her she could use it in her time of greatest need. It would call her hero back to Fantasma once more. She had forgotten all about it until now. The memory of it returned when she’d looked at the hooded figure carved into the head of her cane.
“This is crazy,” the Empress muttered. “Hal is older than I am. Even with the strange difference in time, he’s probably dead and gone, like all my companions from the war.”
Kareena stared at the magical device in her hand. What would happen if she pressed the buttons? Magic didn’t work as well as it used to.
Before the mage Tildi died years ago, she had explained how the advent of gunpowder and other technologies stole energy from magic, making it far less reliable. There were no more arch mages in the land. Only the healing power of earth magic had any reliability anymore, and even that didn’t work as well as it once did.
If she pressed the buttons on the mouse, there was no guarantee the magic still existed to bring Hal here. Even if it did, he could not be young and vibrant enough to take up the call and return to Fantasma.
Still, Kareena had no choice.
She had to try before it was too late and even young Timron was taken from her.
After returning to her divan, Kareena sat once more and stared at the bizarre device in her hand. With a final nod, she pressed her fingers down on both buttons at the same time and waited.
When nothing happened after nearly a minute, Kareena pressed them one at a time, in different orders and combinations. She continued trying to activate the “mouse” for almost an hour before she gave up. Whatever magic had once been housed in the device must have faded with time, like much of the magic in Fantasma.
Kareena shook her head. Tildi must have been right when she said magic and advanced technology, like gunpowder, could not coexist in the world.
She stared at the useless device in her hand. Perhaps it never worked at all, no matter what Tildi had said it could do. She would never know. There was no magical help coming, no mythical hero to swoop in and save what was left of her family and the Empire from those who would steal it away.
Her failing health would bring about the end of her dynasty, and all hope for a Fantasma where all races and peoples were respected would be ended. Soon, opportunistic nobles like the Duke of Charon, who believed in the ascendancy of man over the other races, would take over and divide the land up between them until their petty squabbles tore apart everything she’d worked so hard to bring about.
Kareena, the last Empress of her line, placed the mouse talisman back in its box and closed the lid, letting the latch snap shut, sealing the device away forever. She would not take it out again. The time to believe in such things as a mythical hero had passed.
She couldn’t see inside the box, where the red light on the underside of the mouse blinked once, twice, and then repeated again and again in a rapid succession of flashing patterns too quick for the eye to track. Kareena couldn’t know the device had sent its magical signal across time and space to a world very far away.