Many long years ago, deep in the heart of yesterday, lived a twisted prince called Astor. Where his father was just, he was cruel. As his mother was warm, he was cold. All throughout the kingdom, he was despised. His name like a curse upon the tongues of nobles and peasants alike. Only the enemies of the kingdom had affection for the cruel prince, for they knew if he were ever crowned, he would drag his kingdom into destruction.
However, the Prince Astor knew none of this. For his parents still showed him love, the castle advisors still showed respect, despite their criticism. Because of this, he grew up to believe he was as wise as his father, as good as his mother. When the peasants whispered amongst themselves as he rode through town, he believed they were speaking of his greatness. Not his lack of.
Prince Astor grew worse as he grew up. Once of age, he appeared before his father and his council with a bold statement. “I am ready to take the throne” he proclaimed arrogantly, “For everyone in the kingdom loves me. I will be the best leader this kingdom has seen in centuries!”
The King, his father, bristled at this. For an heir to obtain the throne, the present king must already be dead. “What do you mean by this?” he asked, wisely keeping his voice low and steady, “Do you wish to kill me?”
“I wish to challenge you” Prince Astor pulled his sword from his sheath, the steel blade glinting as coldly as his heart, “For the throne, for the kingdom.”
“Let me discuss with my council” the King sighed, waving his hand towards his son, “Be gone, and I shall call you back with my answer.”
The prince huffed, then turned and left the chamber without so much as a bow to his king.
Now, the wise king knew he could win a challenge against his son. While the boy knew sword play, he didn’t have the discipline required for a clean victory. Not to mention he would probably kill his father in a fit of blood lust if he lost. Instead, the king turned to his council, filled with some of the wisest individuals in his kingdom.
Knowing Prince Astor would be a cancer to the kingdom, plus their love for the good king, the council immediately started brainstorming. All sorts of ideas were thrown around, from coups to assassinations. These were quickly shut down, for even though the prince was dark, the king still loved him only as a father could.
The ideas grew worse, from impractical to downright treacherous. “Enough” sighed the poor king, “If we are going to defeat my son, we cannot stoop to his level. Besides, I’d rather not see my own son destroyed. Especially at my hand.”
“What if he destroyed himself?” asked the youngest council member, eyes wide as an idea overtook her mind. She had been handpicked for his council because of her bookish habits. Well read usually means well thought, and she was both. “Not in a way that kills him, but one that offers the opportunity for him to destroy parts of himself that are toxic.”
“That would be perfect, in fact” the king sat up, hopeful, “And I suppose you have a way to make this happen?”
“Legend tells of a well on the edge of the world” she said, “Its water a window to one’s true self.”
“The Well of Souls” the king mused, scratching his chin, “So it exists?”
The young woman only shrugged, “If it does, it will show him the monster within. If not…”
“Then he will spend the rest of his life searching for it” the king nodded, “That’s brilliant!”
So, Prince Astor was called back into the chamber. Striding up to the throne where his father sat, his eyes locked with the king’s. “Have you accepted my challenge?” asked the boy, “Or have you proven yourself a coward to your followers?”
“Neither” the king said, folding his hands under his chin as he sat forward on his knees. “As heir, you have the right to make such a dreadful request. And as your king, I have the right to set the terms. If you truly believe yourself to be as great as you claim, you will find no reason not to accept.”
“Fine” the prince snorted, pride wounded as he lost the upper hand, “What are your terms?”
“At the edge of the world lies a well” the king began, “Those who gaze into its waters will know the truth of their soul. Find this well, gaze into your soul, and come back with the results. If you can prove your soul is as pure as you claim, I will not accept your challenge, but rather hand you the throne without a second thought.”
“I accept” scoffed the prince, amazed his father could be so stupid as to assign such an easy task. “I will be back soon, and then you shall bow to me.” With a swoosh of his cape, he stormed out of the chamber without once looking back.
So, off the Prince Astor rode, his powerful war horse as pure as snow flying him over countryside and glen. Hill and marsh. Fern and heather. Many days they rode, stopping only a few hours in the evening to catch some sleep. Soon the days bled into long weeks, and on they pushed. His horse carried him faithfully despite exhaustion. A few hours in the evening became full nights of desperate rest. Bold running became weary trekking, which turned into doubtful stumbling. Further west they went, the less likely it seemed the Well of Souls existed at all.
Finally, one bright morning gave way to a lush cliff, the pinnacle of the tallest mountain. Blue sky surrounded the Prince Astor and his horse on all sides. Clouds, white and impenetrable, hid the earth or whatever it was that lay below. The only thing that broke their veil were the cascades that poured from caves in the earth. Fed from the underground rivers, the water was pure as crystal.
And there, on the edge of the cliff that plummeted into nothing, was a stone well.
From a distance, it did not look like much. Moss coated its grey stone, saplings and ivy sprouting from its twisted cracks. So tall did the grass grow around it, all that could be viewed was the lip of the well, its contents hidden by a rotting plank built from oak.
Wading through the tall grass, wind pushing at him from all sides, Prince Astor moved to the side of the well. Hands that had seen little work rested against cold stone. Yet something inside told the young prince to keep the cover over the waters within. “Tell me your secrets” he demanded, yet his voice did not hold the same authority it did with his soldiers.
“Are you sure, arrogant one?” a voice whispered in his ear.
The prince whipped around, searching for the source. Seeing no one, he turned back to the well, skin crawling with uncertainty. “Who are you?” he asked, voice wavering.
“The one you rest your weak hands on” the voice returned.
Prince Astor pulled his hands back as though he were bitten. “Who are you?” he demanded, fear adding false confidence to his voice.
“All seeing” whispered the well, “All knowing. All helping. All curing. I know you better than you do. So, I ask again…” the voice went softer, “Are you sure you wish to know my secret?”
“I cannot be king until I do” he responded hastily, knowing how easily he may falter or betray himself if he hesitated, “So, show me your secrets.”
“As you wish” the voice replied. No sooner were the words said than the rotting oak board faded into nothing, revealing the pure water in the darkness of the well. “Look cautiously, young prince, for within lies your fate.”
The prince scoffed but kept it to himself. Leaning on the cold stone, he peered into the darkness. On the surface of the water, his reflection danced as the water rippled. But then the rippling distorted his face, fair skin turning red. Human eyes turning into something laced with gold and malice. Betraying smile into a fang filled maw. Princely crown into bone-white horns.
“What cruel trick is this?” howled the prince, “I am loved! I am honored! I am a good person!”
“I lie to you not” replied the well in its disembodied voice, “The only lies here are the ones you told yourself. However, as is the deal of my magic, I can give you want you see. All you have to do is drink…”
“You lie!” screamed the prince, clinging to his dying reality, “Nothing will happen to me if I drink. Like none of this is real! This is nothing but a cruel joke by my father to put me in my place! I’ll prove it to you!”
Thus, the prince dipped his cupped hands in the water, and drank of the stone-cold water.
“Whatever you say…” murmured the voice of the well, as the changes began.
A sharp pain burned from the middle of his back, up his spine and down his legs. Like lightning, this pain fried his nerves, tore his muscles, burned his bones. Exploding in his skull, the Prince Astor collapsed to his knees, screaming in a way that ripped his throat. Though he could not see, his skin turned to red scales. Legs turned into one gruesome tail. Fingers became talons. Finally, once flawless teeth became crooked fang, his once golden crown became a crown of twisted horn, white as bone.
The Prince Astor had become the creature of his soul. A twisted serpent, lower than all creatures of the earth. No wings, it would be forced to drag itself with two muscular arms, no back legs to support it. Even the snakes were above the dreaded Lindwurm, for they could at least slither through the heather with no one to notice their hideousness.
When the Lindwurm called Astor realized his fate, he threw his ugly head back and roared. From his throat came a sound so terrible that his war horse, used to the horrors of battle, took off in terror. “What have you done to me?” he bellowed to the well.
“Nothing” whispered the well, “This was all your own doing.”
Turing his claws on himself, Astor tried to free himself of his new form. But once he found only blood under his red scales instead of his once pale flesh, he collapsed in the grass. Pain flooded him inside and out.
“Stay with me” the Well of Souls offered softly, “You can be my guardian.”
With no where else to go, the Lindwurm called Astor curled around the cool stone, and let the tears run down his dark snout.
It was almost two decades before another human found the Well of Souls.
Astor awoke one morning to the sound of hooves pounding against the earth. Slowly opening his golden eyes, he watched as a worn nag carried a young woman towards him. Young, yet old enough to support herself, faint bruises echoed against her fair skin. All that remained of a fight from weeks ago.
Upon seeing Astor as he curled around the well, the nag reared in panic. “Steady” the young woman breathed, holding on for dear life. Once calmed, the nag allowed the two to get closer, “Is this the Well of Souls?” ask the woman.
“Yes” hissed Astor, using his arms to crawl to the top of the stones, “Who wants to know?”
“My name is Mercy” she said, dismounting, “What are you? There is no mention of a guardian in the stories.”
“The stories are wrong” the Lindwurm snapped, “Why have you come?”
“I need to know if I’m a good person” she said softly, rubbing the fading bruises on her arms subconsciously, “I need to know if I deserve….” Her voice trailed, off.
“Let her in” sighed the well, “Let her prove herself.”
Reluctantly, Astor slithered back so she may approach the water. As when he had gazed, the water rippled when her reflection kissed its surface. But instead of showing a beast, it reflected her back in a way that was purer, perfect.
“What does this mean?” she raised her eyes to his monstrous ones.
“Your heart is good” he grumbled, “Pure.” Then relenting upon her confusion, he added “You deserve goodness and light. You deserve to be happy.”
“Really?” she breathed, dapping away a silver tear.
“I have an offer for her” breathed the well to Astor, “Touch your claw to the water so she may see.”
Doing as the well said, he reached into the coolness and touched one boney claw to her reflection. As he disturbed the water, the ripples revealed something so special Astor had no idea it had even existed.
A unicorn, the purest of creatures.
“This is our offer” Astor clarified as the young woman stared in awe at the gorgeous creature in the water, “This is how we can save you. If you wish to accept, all you must do is drink.”
Without hesitation, the young woman cupped her hands and drank. In a flash of light without pain, her human form vanished and was replaced with a silver horse, a glowing horn twisting from her sleek face. After the transformation, she reared back in joy and galloped to where her nag was wearily grazing. The two touched noses and trotted off and away. Never to be seen again.
“A good heart is often taken advantage of” the well breathed as Astor watched them disappear, “Yet the owner will always be rewarded. In every step they take. For a good heart can find reward in every day.”
The Lindwurm Astor thought this over, curling again around the cool stone.
Fifty years passed before another human found the Well of Souls.
Astor had been resting, with the sun caressing his scales, when he heard the thunder. Confused, he opened his eyes to find a cloudless sky, and a small band of travelers riding his way. A dozen sets of hooves rumbled, silver armor flashing like lightning in the sun. Stopping a short distance away, their leader dismounted with a clang, his cloak billowing behind him.
“Foul beast!” he bellowed, pulling his sword from his scabbard, “Surrender the Well of Souls to me!”
“He cannot hurt you” the well spoke into Astor’s mind, “Don’t be fooled by his words.”
“Who are you?” the Lindwurm called Astor hissed back, crawling to the top of the well, “And why should I submit anything to you?”
“How dare a creature of your status ask me my title” the man sneered, “I won’t tell you a thing. Slither away, before I take you back as a trophy for my love!”
“You will do no such thing” Astor growled, spines bristling along his back, “If you wish to use the well, put down your sword.”
Without another word, the man swung the blade, narrowly missing Astor’s skull. With a roar that split the wind, Astor swiped at the man’s face with his claws. Three red lines appeared down the side of his face. He stumbled back from the force, landing in the grass. Shame widened his eyes.
“Lower your sword” Astor growled, fangs clicking as he spoke, “Or leave.”
Silently, the man got to his feet and moved to the well. In the water, his face contorted with the shifting ripples, until the large solider became a thin shadow. Shallow. Weak. Afraid. One who controls with fear instead of respect.
“This is who you are” Astor hissed into his ear as the soldier blanched upon seeing his reflection. “The Well and I have one offer for you. Leave now, never return, and we won’t expose you to your men.”
He stood up straight, jaw clenched. “I accept” he whispered, before turning back to his men.
As they rode away, the Well spoke again, “One can only get better if they make an effort to change.”
“Indeed” Astor breathed, curling up on the sun warmed stone.
Two centuries passed without a soul appearing. So long it was, that both the Well and the Lindwurm began to wonder if they had been forgotten. To pass the days, the two talked as old friends do. The sun had burned away the hate and anger in Astor’s heart. The cool stone had cooled his ego, sprouting humility. Lies that had rooted in his blood had been blown away with the constant wind. In fact, he had become rather pleasant to be around.
One day, the well ask a question.
“Would you ever wish to be human again?”
Astor startled, golden eyes wide, for it was something he had wanted for the first century after the transformation. “Is that possible?”
“Look into my waters” whispered the well.
When Astor did, he first saw the reflection of the red serpent. But as the waters rippled, a young man appeared. Tears tickled his eyes as he realized this reflection was of the child he was in his youth. A perfect young boy, handsome and golden.
“This is my gift to you” breathed the well, “Only if you want it.”
Though grateful, Astor knew there was nothing left in this world for him. All those he knew were dead. A kingdom changed and gone. But his heart swelled him. Majestically, he curled around the cold stone, his scales reflecting ruby in the sun. Then, smiling as only a Lindwurm could smile, he folded his claws and rested his snot upon it.
“Maybe someday” he breathed.