Biting her lower lip, little Naeve kept her gaze upon her feet as her tutor barked and raged before her. By rights, she should be seething. And indeed, on any other day, she would surely be barking almost as harshly as the woman was. Instead, she kept her gaze upon her feet, the little girl biting her lip harder as the corners of her lips quivered.
“Look at me when I speak to you, child!” Mistress Fellspire snapped.
She couldn’t. She daren’t. For she knew the moment she gazed upon her tutor’s face, her composure would be lost to her once more, and this time she wasn’t sure she’d be able to regain it.
“I said look at me!”
Swallowing against the chortle bubbling within her throat, Naeve shook her head.
“Look! At! Me!” the woman shrieked, shoving her face right before Naeve’s.
Clenching her teeth, Naeve did as the woman commanded, then burst out laughing.
“Stop that!” Mistress Fellspire cried. “Stop that, you horrid little monster!”
But Naeve couldn’t. Even as tears filled her eyes. Even as her sides ached, the little girl couldn’t quell her laughter.
“I said stop it! Stop it now!”
“What in the hells is all this screaming!” Amala thundered as she barged into the quiet room. “Mistress Fellspire, you’re supposed to…oh, dear gods, what did she do to you?”
Bringing her laughter to heel at last, Naeve turned to a grimacing Amala and grinned.
“Now, I know how it looks,” she said, wiping the tears from her eyes, “but it really was an accident.”
“An accident?” Mistress Fellspire shrieked, one eye upon Amala and the other upon Naeve. “You turned me into a chameleon!”
“Just your head,” Naeve corrected.
“Oh,” Mistress Fellspire replied, nodding as both her eyes trained upon the little girl and the skin of her face turned violet, “of course. That is sure to make it all better!”
“Well, I didn’t ask you to add the potion to your tea, though, did I?” Naeve threw back.
“Wait, you brought an enchanted potion to class?” Amala frowned as she turned to the little girl.
“She likely stole it from Mistress Splintboard,” Naeve’s tutor growled.
“Did not!” Naeve yelled. “Dill said I could have it!”
“Dill has no business giving away his mother’s potions!” Mistress Fellspire spat. “As you well know!”
“Let’s all just calm down a spell,” Amala said, then grimaced once more as one of Mistress Fellspire’s eyes swivelled to her, the other staying firmly upon Naeve.
“So, you brought the potion to your session,” Amala continued when the room fell silent, tearing her gaze from the tutor to focus at Naeve. “Why in the world would you then use it on your tutor?”
“But I didn’t!”
“Then explain her…” Amala began as she turned back to Mistress Fellspire, but soon turned back to Naeve. “Explain, Naeve.”
Sighing, Naeve shrugged. “She saw me playing with it and she took it from me.”
“And…?” Amala added when silence returned.
“She said it was whisperwood nectar,” Mistress Fellspire muttered, her face now a pale emerald.
“What?” Naeve frowned.
Grimacing, Naeve shrugged. “Sorry?”
“Why in the world would you lie about that?”
Lowering her gaze, Naeve shrugged once more.
“Didn’t want to get into trouble,” she mumbled at last.
Amala stared at the little girl for a spell, then scanned the room. Before long, her gaze fell upon an emerald vial by a filled teacup.
“Is that the potion?” Amala said, pointing to the vial.
“Yes,” Naeve mumbled.
Shaking her head, Amala wandered towards it and picked it up, then returned to the little girl to stand between her and her tutor, her gaze upon little Naeve throughout.
“This was wrong of you, Naeve,” she said. “This was very wrong of you.”
“But–” little Naeve began.
“No buts,” Amala interjected, raising a hand. “This was most uncalled for.”
The little girl remained silent.
Shaking her head, Amala sighed.
“Can I have the potion back, though?” Naeve mumbled.
“Certainly not!” Mistress Fellspire barked. “In fact, I shall be reporting you to your mother!”
“But–” the little girl began once more, her head raised and her gaze fiery.
Amala raised a hand once more, silencing the little girl. Then, she spun about, a hand tucked behind her back. The same hand that held the vial.
“You’re quite right, Mistress Fellspire,” Amala said, “this matter must be raised with the Matriarch. But first, I think it’s best you go to Mistress Splintboard and have her attend you.”
“No,” Mistress Fellspire shook her head. “This cannot go unpunished, she–”
“It won’t go unpunished,” Amala soothed. “Leave it to me, Mistress Fellspire. I shall see to it personally.”
The elven woman stared at Amala a spell, clearly unsure of what to say. Then, a polite cough at the door drew all gazes within.
“Mother!” Naeve gasped.
“Matriarch!” Mistress Fellspire cried as she stepped forth.
“Look!” she said, pointing to her face. “Look at what your daughter did to me!”
Smiling, the Matriarch nodded and smile. “Yes, I heard enough to know precisely what my daughter did.”
“It’s barbaric!” the elven woman added, her voice quivering.
Smiling still, the Matriarch nodded and walked toward the woman.
“Amala is right,” the Matriarch said as she reached the woman. “You really should go see Archmage Splintboard. My daughter will answer for what she did.”
“I…” Mistress Fellspire began as the Matriarch led her towards the door. “Yes, I suppose I should.”
“Good,” the Matriarch nodded once at the door. “See that you do.”
“Yes…” the elven woman muttered, then left.
Taking a deep breath, the Matriarch turned to her daughter, and a chill descended upon the room.
“Well,” she growled, her gaze hardening.
“Sorry,” Naeve muttered, her head bowed.
The Matriarch glared at her daughter for a spell longer, then shook her head and sighed.
“Go to your room,” the Matriarch said.
Naeve turned to Amala, and when the silver-haired woman nodded, the little girl turned and headed to the door, the barest traces of a smile upon her lips. As she reached the door, however, her mother held out a hand.
“What?” the little girl said as she stared from the outstretched hand to her mother, her face blank.
The Matriarch’s gaze hardened once more.
Sighing, little Naeve pulled free the emerald vial and placed it in her mother’s hand, then left the room. Then, as the Matriarch turned her gaze to Amala, the chill returned, its icy tendrils growing with each passing moment.
“Frankly, Amala, I’m disappointed in you,” the Matriarch said at last.
Amala smiled. “Are you now?”
“Yes,” the Matriarch nodded, her gaze piercing. “You promised me you’d help me tame her.”
“And I am.”
“By giving her this?” the Matriarch replied, dangling the emerald vial before her. “How is this helping?”
Amala’s smile grew. “It is, trust me.”
The Matriarch stared at Amala with mouth agape for a spell.
“Trust you,” she said at last. “You ask me to trust you.”
“Amala, I’m really going to need a lot more than that, and I need it now.”
Taking a deep breath, Amala let it out slowly.
“Do you remember the other day when you came to me to ask why she missed her noon classes?”
“How can I bloody forget,” the Matriarch replied. “You were moping around so much I thought Naeve had smacked you or something.”
Amala chuckled. “Hardly.”
“She insulted me.”
The Matriarch frowned. “Since when did her insults bother you?”
“She called me a dead thing. Wished you’d hurry up and drive a stake through my shrivelled up old heart.”
“Oh…” the Matriarch replied as her voice low as her gaze softened.
“Yes,” Amala replied. “Do you know why?”
The Matriarch did not.
“Because I tried to tame her the way you think I should.”
“Naeve is stubborn. She is far more stubborn, and proud, than you ever were…”
“…and since there is no way in this world anyone can possibly force you to become something you do not wish to be, we were doomed to fail from the beginning.”
“So, what, you’re giving up?”
Amala smiled. “No. Just changing tactics.”
The Matriarch held up the vial. “How is this a good tactic?”
Amala’s smile grew.
“You need to make me understand, Amala,” the Matriarch pressed, “you really do. Because right now I…I’m lost, honestly.”
“In all the time we’ve known each other, have I ever once failed you?” Amala replied.
The Matriarch moved to speak, but no words came.
“Trust me,” Amala added. “Please.”
Once more, the Matriarch moved to speak, and once more, words failed her. Then, she sighed.
“Fine,” she said, turning to the door. “Bloody hells, Fellspire’s not going to want to be her tutor after this.” Then, she turned to Amala once more. “Four tutors, now. Four, that she’s chased off!”
“Have you had any bloody idea how much cajoling I had to do with Fellspire?”
“Oh, you’ll find someone.” Amala smiled. “You are Matriarch after all.”
Pulling a face, the Matriarch spun about and made to head out once more.
“I suppose I should get this back to Splintboard.”
“Oh, one more thing,” Amala said as the Matriarch stepped through the doorway.
“When she asks, tell her you’re disappointed in me.”
A smug smile parted the Matriarch’s lips.
“Oh, I’ll tell her alright,” the Matriarch replied, then left.
Smiling herself, Amala wandered over to the bench nearest the window and sat, humming to herself as she went.
Sneaking back into the room, Naeve paused as her gaze fell upon her friend.
“Amala?” she said, straightening.
“Hrm?” Amala smiled as she tore her gaze from the window to face the little girl.
“Mother’s not mad is she?”
“At you?” Amala frowned.
“No.” Naeve shook her head. “At you.”
Taking a deep breath, Amala let it out slowly.
“The word she used,” Amala said at last, “was ‘disappointed’.”
“Bloody hells,” Naeve replied as her face fell, “she’s really mad at you, then.”
“Yeah.” Amala nodded.
“Is she sending you away?”
Frowning, Amala cocked her head to the side. “Why in the world would you think that?”
Naeve shrugged. “That’s what she said to Father before he up and left.”
“Oh, Naeve…” Amala sighed before swinging her legs off the bench.
“Come,” she added, patting the bench.
Pouting, little Naeve stared at the bench a spell, then made her way to her friend’s side.
“I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times,” Amala added as Naeve sat, putting an arm about the little girl as she spoke, “your father left on Tower business. He’ll be back–”
“You keep saying that,” Naeve mumbled.
“That doesn’t make it any less true.”
Naeve stared at her friend, her face long still.
“I’m not going anywhere, alright?” Amala added as she gently shoved her little friend.
Smiling at last, Naeve nodded.
“I’m sorry Mother’s mad at you,” Naeve added, turning to Amala as she spoke.
Staring at Naeve, Amala smiled and sighed.
“I suppose it wasn’t the smartest thing in the world,” Naeve continued, “telling a woman who absolutely loves tea that I’m carrying a vial of whisperwood nectar.”
“No,” Amala replied, her smile widening, “I suppose it wasn’t.”
“Lesson learned, though. I’ll know to behave better next time.”
Cocking her head to the side, Amala stared at the little girl seated beside her for a spell.
“You really mean that, don’t you?” she said at last
“You’re one of Mother’s only real friends in this place,” Naeve replied. “I’d hate for you and her to fight over something I did.”
Amala stared in silence at her young friend, then gently caressed Naeve’s cheek.
“Thank you,” she said at last.
Smiling, Naeve nodded. Then, she sighed. “Though I wish she hadn’t drunk that bloody tea so soo–”
“Language…” Amala sighed as she shook her head.
“Sorry.” Naeve grinned. “But seriously though, the lesson was just getting good!”
“Mhm.” Naeve nodded.
Amala frowned at this. “What was your lesson?”
Naeve grinned. “Tower relations.”
Amala’s frown deepened. “You found diplomacy interesting?”
Naeve chuckled. “No, silly!”
“Well,” Naeve replied as she turned to Amala square. “I was dozing off again, so Mistress Fellspire started giving me the doom and gloom lecture–”
“Oh, it’s alright, I didn’t laugh in her face this time. But anyway, when she got to the part where I’d lead the Tower to ruin, I was ready for her, so when she started that part, I told her…”
Then, the little girl stopped and smiled. “Guess what I told her.”
A soft smile danced upon Amala’s lips. “I should guess?”
“Very well. Uhm… You said how dare she claim you’d ruin the Tower…?”
Shaking her head, Naeve sighed. “Are you even trying?”
“Of course I am!”
“Then you’re not a very good guesser, are you?”
Shaking her head once more, Naeve sighed.
“Well,” she continued, “I said, is she accusing me of turning into Alanis Earthchild?”
Amala grinned. “Nicely done.”
“I bet she was stunned you actually remembered something from her classes.”
Naeve laughed. “She was, yeah! Never seen her so proud of herself! Then, she said Alanis wasn’t the worst Matriarch we’d had, that we’d had worse. So I asked her who, and she started telling me about someone called Mad Miriam and–”
“Ah.” Amala nodded, grinning. “I see. She was telling you about Mad Miriam’s antics and she drank her tea while doing so.”
“Exactly!” Naeve replied. “And she was just getting to the best bits as well.”
“Yeah.” Naeve nodded. “She was telling me how she bound ink purses to her bed post and–”
“Incubus,” Amala corrected.
“Incubus, Naeve. Demons.”
“You bloody what?”
“Yeah, yeah, language, sorry,” Naeve added, waving her friend’s words away as she shuffled closer to her friend. “What in the world was she doing binding demons to her bed posts? And what in the hells are incubuses?”
Shaking her head once more. “One incubus, two incubi.”
“Oh… But what are they, though?”
“Well…you know what a succubus is right?”
“An incubus is the male version.”
“You mean she…”
“Yes.” Amala nodded. “Every single night, according to the stories.”
“Oh, it’s worse than gross. She bound one to each best post, and each night she’d have all four in her bed chamber at once. Then they’d take turns pleasur–”
“Gross! Ew! Stop!” Naeve cried, waving her hands frantically before her as she shut her eyes tight. “Stop! Ew! Ew! Ew!”
Amala stared at her friend as she laughed.
At last, Naeve opened her eyes. “Gods! Why?”
“Hubris, my dear. And loneliness. She wanted a man, a slave in her bed chamber, and was convinced she could tame an incubus and counter its corruption. Unfortunately, she over-estimated her abilities, and under-estimated a demon’s cunning.” Then, Amala sighed. “In the end, the demons became her masters, and her poor daughter had to kill her own mother to banish the demons.”
“Oh,” Naeve said as her face fell.
“Yes,” Amala nodded and sighed. “It was quite a sad tale.”
“Was she the only one who did that?”
Amala frowned. “Only one who tried to tame demons, or only one who tried to tame incubi?”
Naeve shrugged. “Both.”
“Well,” Amala began as she pondered the question, “she’s the only one I recall to try to tame incubi…but not the only one to bind a demon to her service.”
“Mhm.” Amala nodded.
“Did the others go mad too?”
Amala paused, then stared at her little charge with a gaze that carried with it an unsettling energy.
“What is it?” Naeve said at last.
“I just remembered, I have one of them in the tome.”
“Is it a good story?”
Once more, Amala nodded. Then she shook her head. “But you won’t enjoy it.”
It was the tone of Amala’s voice that unnerved Naeve the most, the little girl slowly sitting up as a deep frown twisted her features.
“You want to read it?” Amala said at last.
Naeve stared at her friend as Amala’s gaze bore into her. As she stared, Naeve’s heart beat faster, her instincts demanded she refuse. But in the end, there could only be one answer.
“Alright.” The little girl nodded.
“Alright.” Amala nodded and reached into her pocket.
Then, as Amala conjured the tome, Naeve swung her legs onto the bench, placed an elbow upon Amala’s lap, and placing her head upon her hand, she stared at the tome as Amala flipped its pages.
“Arinelle…” she muttered, staring at the page Amala had stopped at. Then, taking a deep breath, she flipped the page and began to read as Amala ran a soft hand over her hair.
Springing from her pallet, Arinelle stared wide-eyed into the night as her breath came in snatches. Sitting tall, her heart pounding loudly in her chest, she scanned her surroundings, her gaze frantically searching for her children, their screams ringing loud in her ears as her nostrils filled with the stench of blood and burnt flesh. But as her nightmare faded and her mind became her own, the former Matriarch’s gaze calmed as she raised a hand to her chest.
“Oh, gods,” she whispered as she fought for breath, lowering her gaze as she spoke. “Oh, gods.”
“The dreams again?” came a voice from across the camp fire.
Raising her gaze once more, she turned to the pallet across from her, the flames of the camp doing little hide the pallor of her sister’s face.
Taking a deep breath, Arinelle let it out and nodded. “Yeah.”
The woman across from Arinelle smiled, but as she moved to speak, a violent cough gripped her, pulling her to sitting as she coughed and wheezed into her hands. Springing to her feet, Arinelle darted to the camp’s fire, and grabbing the pot upon the flames, she poured the tea within into a mug and hurried to her sister’s side.
“Nerza, here,” she said as she sat, offering the mug to her sister as she did so. “Drink.”
Grabbing the cup with eager hands, Nerza gulped down its contents, each gulp seeming to quell her coughs till at last, with a sigh, she smiled.
“Thank you,” she said, offering the mug to her sister.
Nodding in response, Arinelle moved to return to her pallet, but a soft hand upon her wrist stopped her. Looking down, her gaze fell upon her sister and the empty space upon her pallet she’d made, and with a smile, Arinelle sat beside her sister. As she sat, Nerza placed her head upon her sister’s shoulder and sighed, and in the silence that followed, Arinelle placed her head upon her sister’s and sighed also.
“I can’t stop seeing them, Nerza,” she whispered at last.
“I know,” Nerza whispered in response.
“I can’t even close my eyes now.”
“I know,” Nerza replied. “I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like, watching your children die before your eyes, utterly powerless to save them…”
At those words, Arinelle turned her gaze to the other pallet within their camp, and the quietly snoring elf upon it.
“…but you are strong, Sister. You’ve always been the strong one. You’ve carried this burden this long. Just a little longer and you’ll be free.”
With tears stinging her eyes, Arinelle smiled as she placed her head upon her sister’s head once more.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Soon, I’ll see my babies again.”
In that moment, Arinelle felt her sister stiffen. It was slight, but it was unmistakable, and with a smile, she turned to her sister.
“What?” Nerza frowned as she she rose her gaze to Arinelle.
“You’re having doubts.”
Nerza smiled and shrugged. “You’re my sister, of course I have doubts. I’ll always have doubts.”
“Your role in this is just as final, Nerza.”
“Ah, but I am dying.”
Shaking her head, Arinelle turned from her sister, but as she did so, her gaze fell upon the sleeping elf.
“She has yet to say a word to me, you know,” Arinelle whispered.
Nerza sighed. “She’s stopped speaking to me too.”
“You think perhaps we told her too much?”
Nerza shook her head. “Better we told her what little we did than leave her utterly in the dark and have her watch it all unfold.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Arinelle replied, then, she turned to her sister. “Do you think she’ll forgive us when it’s all over?”
Nerza stared at her sleeping daughter in silence for a spell then turned to her sister, her gaze haunted.
“No,” she said at last. “She’ll never forgive us. But I’d rather she outlives me, hating me every waking moment, than die in this nightmare thinking the world of me.”
Arinelle smiled at her sister. “As do I.” Then, sighing, she turned to the sleeping elf.
“She’ll make a fine Matriarch, though,” she whispered.
Smiling, Nerza nodded. “That she will.”
Sighing once more, Arinelle rose.
“We’d best get some sleep,” she whispered as she headed for her pallet. “It’ll be dawn soon.”
“Can you sleep?” Nerza replied, her worry plain.
Stopping, Arinelle turned to her sister, standing in silence for a spell.
“I must try,” she said, and with nothing more to say, the former Matriarch climbed into her pallet and rolled over to await the nightmares.
As silence fell upon the camp, Nerza sighed, laid down and was still.
Clearing her throat, young Elsa sat beside her mother, stiffening her back as she sat and taking great pains to ensure her gaze was upon the table before her and nowhere near her Aunt Arinelle, who was seated across the table from her. From the corner of her eye, she could see the two women exchange glances and smile, but she kept her eyes upon the table.
Then, the pair turned to her, their gazes boring into her. Gritting her teeth, she fought the urge to meet their gazes, but as the silence between them grew, Elsa felt her will begin to fade, till at last, unable to keep her gaze upon the table any longer, the young elf cleared her throat once more and carried her gaze about the tavern they were seated in.
“How in the world can you possibly be this stubborn?” her Aunt Arinelle said, laughter not far from her voice.
“With an aunt like you, are you truly surprised?” her mother replied.
“I am not stubborn!”
“Yes you are!”
“You take that back!”
“Take that back! Now!”
“Ow! Did you just kicked me under the table? Elsa, your aunt just kicked me under the–ow! She did it again!”
“Take it back!”
“No! Ow! Elsa!”
“Stop it!” Elsa snapped, turning to the pair. “You’re embarrassing yourselves, and you’re embarrassing me!”
“Oh, so you are talking to us,” her Aunt Arinelle quipped.
Rolling her eyes at her aunt, Elsa sighed and shook her head, then returned her gaze to the tavern.
“Don’t be like that, petal,” Elsa’s mother said, placing a soft hand upon Elsa’s. “Or would you rather we’d left you in the dark?”
“You have no idea what I’d rather you do,” Elsa scoffed.
“Don’t we?” Elsa’s Aunt Arinelle replied.
Elsa turned to her aunt, eager to pour scorn upon the woman.
“How dare I,” the woman continued before Elsa could draw breath, “a woman who once claimed the title of Matriarch, debase myself to thievery?”
“You speak like that’s the worst of it all,” Elsa snarled. “Gods, I wish that was the worst of it all.”
“Elsa–” her mother soothed.
“Let her speak, Nerza,” Elsa’s aunt interjected. “Let her speak her mind.”
Elsa stared from one to the other. Then, as her gaze returned to her aunt, she sat tall, her rage building.
“I looked up to you, we all did. The way you looked after the Tower, how nothing ruffled you, no matter how dire. And my mother, no matter what she did, no matter how badly she wronged you, you always welcomed her back with open arms.”
“Elsa…” her mother said, her voice heavy.
As for Elsa’s aunt, her gaze was fixed upon her niece.
“But this?” Elsa continued. “Binding yourself to a demon? Aunt, what has gotten into you? What would Lillian think were she here? Or Frelin, you think he’d be happy with you?”
Taking a deep breath, the woman before her sat tall, but the smile upon her lips remained unchanged and her gaze undimmed.
“Aunt, if you do this,” Elsa continued, “you defile everything you ever accomplished as Matriarch. If you do this, I… I don’t think I can even look at you again. Either of you.”
Crossing her arms, Elsa averted her gaze, sitting back in her chair as tears stung her eyes.
The silence that fell upon the three hung heavy about them, lasting for an eternity before Elsa’s aunt leant forward and sighed.
“Elsa,” she said, “it warms my heart to know you thought so highly of me. And yes, I know what my children would think of me were they here. But they’re not. They’re dead. And if I don’t do this, you will join them.”
“Oh, please, spare me!” Elsa shot back. “Nobody is hunting us!”
“Elsa!” her mother snapped.
“What, mother?” Elsa demanded as she rounded on her mother. “What? Look around you. Do see any assassins anywhere? Do you see anyone, anyone at all, paying even the barest trace of interest in us?”
Then, she rounded on her aunt once more. “You have no inkling how sick and tired I am of this tale. I’ve followed you both out of duty to my mother, and will continue to do so till the end. But, please, spare me that nonsense.”
“So, you’ve forgotten all the times you’d hide out in the dark while your mother and I fought for our lives?” her aunt replied. “For your life?”
Elsa waved the woman’s words away. “The last time that happened was five months ago. They were hunting us then, yes, but that was then. We are hunted no longer.”
Elsa watched her two companions share a glance before turning to her once more.
“Whether or not you believe me is of little consequence,” her aunt replied at last. “We are being hunted, and will continue to be so.”
“Our very existence leaves Snowpetal’s reign at risk, petal,” her mother added. “Thinking we’re safe will only lead to your death.”
Elsa scoffed at her mother’s words, then muttered some choice words of her own under her breath.
“Neither of us wishes this life for you, Elsa,” Elsa’s aunt continued. “Truly, we don’t. But the only way to end this madness is to return to the Tower and end Snowpetal’s reign. And without an army, the best we can hope for is to tame the Brood Mother and bring her brood to bear upon the Tower.”
“And we’re not just doing this for us,” Elsa’s mother added. “Snowpetal is a warmonger, and has been for as long as I’ve known her. The Tower readies for war, petal, and if we do nothing, everything the Tower has ever stood for will be reduced to ruin.”
“You keep saying that,” Elsa spat, rounding on her mother. “But how is that any of our affair?”
“But how is it, though? So what if Matriarch Snowpetal goes to war? There are those who will stand against her, aren’t there? It is their duty to stop her, not ours!”
“None within the Tower will,” Elsa’s aunt replied.
“I know that!” Elsa snapped. “I meant other kingdoms! The Tower’s allies! It’s their duty to keep the Tower in check, not ours!”
“Elsa, most will happily march alongside the Tower, the rewards are too tempting for them not to. And those that stand against Snowpetal will find themselves alone, facing the Tower on the battlefield. If that happens, they will fall.”
Elsa scoffed at this.
“There is a reason we are feared, Elsa,” her mother added. “There is a reason why many kingdoms court us.”
“Not. Our. Affair.”
“Truly?” Elsa’s aunt replied. “Were you not the one who just chided me for turning my back on what it means to be Matriarch?”
Elsa turned to her aunt and held the woman with a heartfelt glare. But at that moment, a thought wormed its way to the fore of Elsa’s mind, a thought that boiled her blood all the more, and with her eyes ablaze, she sat up once more.
“That’s it, isn’t it?”
“What is?” Her aunt frowned.
“You’re doing this because you want to be Matriarch again.”
“All this talk of being hunted, it’s just talk to make my mother aid you. You don’t care that she’s dying. You don’t care about anything! You just want to be Matriarch again. Gods, that’s it! What have you become?”
“Don’t speak to me again!” Elsa snapped. “You disgust me!”
“Elsa…” Her aunt sighed.
“You know, I’m glad Lillian’s dead. At least this way she’ll be spared the sight of the monster her mother has become.”
“Elsa!” Elsa’s mother thundered, her voice loud enough to silence the tavern.
Elsa, however, remained unmoving, her arms crossed and her gaze upon the table, and though every eye within the tavern was focused on her, the young elf remained unrepentant.
Before long, the sounds of the tavern returned as the other patrons returned to as they were, but even then, Elsa remained unmoving, her cheeks reddened slightly.
“How dare you sit there and–” her mother began.
“Leave her be,” her aunt said. “In time, she’ll realise the cruelty of her words. I just hope, for her sake, it’s not too late by then.”
Raising her gaze at last, Elsa watched as her aunt sought to catch the eye of one of the servers. As she turned to her mother, however, her cheeks reddened once more the moment she stared into her mother’s eyes, and, gritting her teeth, she returned her gaze to the table and kept it there.
Lowering her tankard from her lips, Arinelle turned to the door for the thousandth time.
“Are you sure he’s coming?”
Sighing, Arinelle turned to her sister and shrugged.
“Perhaps we came to the wrong tavern?” Nerza offered.
Arinelle shook her head. “This is the right tavern, for sure of it.”
“Then, where is he?”
Sighing once more, Arinelle turned to the door, but as she did so, something caught her eye. It was a glance, a hurried stare, and as she turned to the person that had stared at her so, her blood ran cold. Slowly sitting tall, the former Matriarch carried her gaze slowly about the room, the the more she saw, she more her heart sank. How could she have missed this?
“Arinelle?” Nerza asked, drawing her sister’s gaze to hers. “What is it?”
In response, Arinelle placed a hand upon the table, stared pointedly at her sister, then tapped her middle finger repeatedly upon the table. After a few taps, she stopped, and the blood drained from Nerza’s face. Sitting tall herself, Nerza placed a hand upon the table and began tapping too. And thus did the pair tap in turn, each woman scanning their surrounds while the other tapped, till at last, laying her palm flat upon the table, Nerza stared deep into her sister’s eyes, and in response, Arinelle slowly nodded.
Through it all, Elsa watched the women in silence, her brow furrowed deep, but it wasn’t till her mother closed her eyes and lowered her gaze that she finally spoke.
“Mother?” she said, leaning towards her mother.
Nerza said nary a word, her lips moving wordlessly as she shook her head.
“Very well, ignore me, then,” Elsa snarled. “I’m going to relieve myself.”
As she moved to stand, however, the young elf felt a steely hand grasp her wrist and pull her back down into her seat.
“Hey!” she cried as she glared at her aunt.
“Shut up and sit still,” Arinelle snarled, an act that silenced her niece in an instant.
Then, as if on cue, the entire tavern fell silent. It was a silence akin to a graveyard, with every single person within staring at the three. None moved, none spoke. They simply stared.
“Nerza…?” Arinelle whispered.
Nerza slowly shook her head, her eyes shut still, and her lips still moving.
“So,” came a voice from the far corner. “What betrayed us?”
Turning to the utterer, Arinelle rose.
“Your riding boots,” she said.
“Boots?” said the utterer as he too rose, stepping out into the light of the tavern. “Oh, please, Matriarch, you must elaborate.”
Arinelle smiled as she stared at the man before her. “You’re all wearing riding boots. This is a tavern for city folk, not an army watering hole.”
“Ah.” The man nodded, smiling himself, “Well spotted. Shame such eagle eyes as yours did little to stop you from falling into our trap in the first place.”
“Where’s Tethrin?” Arinelle asked as her smile faded.
“Ah,” the man replied. “Archmage Waterdown will not be joining us. His disloyalty has been met with swift and sure justice.”
“What?” Elsa gasped.
“You lie,” Arinelle growled, “whoever you are. Tethrin is beyond the likes of you.”
The man grinned. “You make such a sweeping statement when you only just met me?”
“The meagre shield you’ve woven about you tells me all I need to know of your skill.”
“Ah,” the man replied before lowering his gaze to his armour, only to stare at Arinelle once more. “You’re right, we didn’t kill him. His wife did. She at least remembered what it meant to be loyal.”
“Hm.” The man nodded. “Poison. Oh, don’t worry, Archmage Waterdown struck her down before he succumbed, so there is that.”
Arinelle could only stare
Grinning still, the man pulled free an ancient runic dagger.
“He seemed quite keen on giving you this, though,” the man said.
At the sight of the dagger, Arinelle’s heart leapt up her throat, but even as every fibre of her being screamed at her to lunge forth and wrench the dagger from the man’s hands, she kept her composure and smiled.
“Did he now?” she said.
“Hm.” The man nodded. “He even said there were five others, with messengers ordered to converge here with them.”
“Did he now?”
“Hm.” The man repeated. “But there’s nobody coming, is there?”
“And what makes you so sure?”
The man smiled and pocketed the dagger.
“Kill them,” he said as he headed for his seat. “We’ll take the dagger back to Snowpetal along with their heads. I’m sure that old bitch will pay handsomely for it.”
Just then, Nerza placed a hand upon the table and tapped upon it four times with her middle finger.
Shaking her head, Arinelle laughed as the others within the tavern rose, magic of various kinds swirling, cackling and flowing between their fingers.
“You’re not overly good at reading the room, are you?” she said, her eyes upon the one who’d spoken previous.
“Hrm?” The man frowned.
“You think my questions were borne of curiosity, don’t you? Not once did it occur to you that I was playing for time.”
“Time for what?”
“This,” Arinelle replied, turning her gaze to her sister.
In that moment, Nerza lifted her gaze and opened her eyes, and as wreathes of flames swirled before her eyes, all within the room gasped.
Then, Nerza rose.
“Kill them!” the man roared. “Now!”
As one, the others within the tavern let loose their spells, but their fireballs, ice lances and lightning bolts failed to reach their mark, each one slamming against Arinelle’s dome of protection, the one she’d cast between questions. Then, as their assailants readied themselves for another volley, Nerza completed her spell, and as she whispered, swirls of flames drifting from her lips before forking on either side of their table, swirling to the ground and slowly taking the form of four men born of flame, two on either side, their hands wrapped about fiery greatswords.
“Kill them,” Nerza said, her eyes her own once more. “Kill them all.”
With a roar, the flaming servants charged forth as pandemonium erupted within the tavern.
Weaving through the gathering crowd, their heads bowed and their hoods raised, Arinelle led her sister and her niece away from the smouldering ruin that was once the tavern, till at last, coming to a quiet side street, she darted in and waited for the others to follow. Ushering them deeper, she scanned where they’d come to ensure they were not followed, and when satisfied, hurried to her companions.
“How is she?” she said, her worry plain as she stared at her niece.
“I’m alright, gods!” Nerza panted, a wide grin upon her lips.
Shaking her head, Arinelle turned to her sister. “Four phoenix warriors? Don’t you think that was a little too much?”
Grinning, Nerza turned to her sister. “You’re speaking to a summoner, Sister. There’s no such thing as too much.”
“You shouldn’t be summoning so many in your condition, Mother,” Elsa added.
“Oh, hush, Elsa,” Nerza said, straightening as she drew in breath. “I summoned them and lived through it. What does that tell you?”
“That you’re unforgivably pig-headed,” Elsa growled.
Chuckling, Arinelle shook her head.
“You’re laughing? You’re encouraging her!”
Shaking her head once more, Arinelle pulled herself tall and pulled free the runic dagger in her pocket. As she did so, a chill fell upon the three as they stared at the dagger.
“So, Tethrin is dead,” Nerza said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“Damn that Elise,” Arinelle replied. “Never would’ve imagined she’d do something like that.”
“So, what now?” Nerza said, turning to her sister.
Tearing her gaze from the dagger, Arinelle turned to Nerza. “You and Elsa must be gone from this city. Now. We’ll meet at the spot we spent the night four nights ago.”
“Where will you be?” Nerza asked.
“I’m heading to the monastery.”
With her eyes going wide, Nerza took a step forward. “Arinelle, the plan needs three to succeed, and even then, the chance of success is slim. You can’t possibly see this through on your own.”
“I must try, Sister.”
“Then, I’m coming with you.”
Arinelle shook her head. “You’re almost spent. It is rest you need, not more spellcasting. No, better I do this alone.”
“Arinelle, this is madness. I don’t care how good you are, you can’t possibly hope to prevail against a monastery full of battle monks.”
“I must try.”
“No.” Nerza shook her head. “Let us withdraw. We have the key. We can come up with another plan, we just–”
“Can you say for certain all of those assassins are lying dead underneath all that rubble?”
“What difference does it make?”
“It’ll take only one to report back on this dagger’s existence. If Snowpetal hears about it, what do you think her conclusion will be?”
“Oh,” Nerza replied as her face fell.
“Precisely. We are already racing against time as we are. If we withdraw, we will lose the only chance we have at seeing this whole thing through.”
“Then, we find another,” Nerza countered. “There are other artifacts out there, Sister, other items of power we can–”
“How long do you have left?”
Falling silent, Neza stared at her sister.
“You don’t need me to see this through,” she said at last.
“Yes, I do,” Arinelle replied. Then, she turned to Elsa. “Look after your mother. Do as she says, no matter what.”
Elsa held her aunt with a haunted gaze.
Forcing a smile, Arinelle gently caressed her niece’s cheek. “I will see you again.”
“You’d better not die there, Arinelle,” Nerza growled, her voice heavy.
“Oh, you can count on that,” Arinelle replied as she stepped back. “You can count on that.”
As silence returned, Arinelle watched as her sister and her niece locked fingers, and with a whisper, she sent the pair far from the city.
Then, taking a deep breath, Arinelle let it out slowly, turned and left.
Stepping into the monastery’s welcoming room, Arinelle kept her features calm, even as her heart beat loudly in her ears.
“Wait here, please,” said her guide, then closed the door behind her.
Turning to the door, Arinelle stared blankly at it as she recalled the map Archmage Waterdown had shown her the previous evening, a map she’d spent much of the night memorising, then proceeded to overlay her path through the monastery upon the map, and once she was sure she knew precisely where she was and where her quarry was, she turned and took in the welcoming room. As her gaze moved across what little furnishings were within the room, however, the door swung open once more.
“Ah, welcome, sister,” said the elderly monk that entered, behind whom entered two others. “I’m glad you were able to come.”
Smiling, Arinelle bowed. “I thank you for allowing this visit.”
“Of course.” The monk smiled, but his smile was fleeting. “I was under the impression Master Waterdown would be accompanying you.”
“Ah, yes.” Arinelle grimaced. “I’m afraid Tethrin’s taken ill, confined to his bed.”
“Not to worry, his wife is taking good care of him.”
“That’s a relief.” The monk sighed. “But he made mention there would be two of you; you and your sister.”
“Yes.” Arinelle nodded. “I believe he also told you my sister is most unwell…?”
The monk nodded.
“Well, she’s…taken a turn for the worse. I fear Tethrin’s sickness has afflicted her as well.”
“Yes.” Arinelle nodded, her face one of great grief.
“It pains me to hear this,” the monk replied, “and it pains me even more for what I must say, but with Master Waterdown absent, I’m afraid I cannot allow you wander our halls.”
“But I must,” Arinelle pleaded. “Tethrin said this place would be the perfect place for my sister to come and heal. I simply must see this for myself to allay my fears and–“
“But she’s not here. Surely, you cannot come to any binding conclusions without her.”
Arinelle smiled. “My sister trusts my judgement. She knows I’ll always do what’s best for her.”
The elderly monk stared at Arinelle as if torn. Then, at last, he smiled.
“Very well,” he said. “We shall honour our promise to Master Waterdown.”
Arinelle bowed. “I am glad.”
“Bahl and Karim shall accompany you.”
At the monk’s words the pair behind him bowed, and though the former Matriarch’s heart sank, she kept her face calm as she turned to the elderly monk, a slight frown upon her lips.
“Will that be necessary?” she asked. “Tethrin gave me clear instructions on–”
“Forgive me, Mistress Dewfall,” the elderly monk interjected, “but my promise was to Master Waterdown, not you. You have not been vouched for, and as such, I simply cannot allow you wander our halls alone. Forgive me.”
Smiling, Arinelle nodded. “I understand.”
“Good!” The elderly monk grinned, then stepped aside.
Nodding once more, Arinelle fell in step between the two monks, and the three left the room.
“We shall begin our tours by the healing spring…” the monk at the fore said as they left, but Arinelle paid him little mind, staring blankly as her mind whirled. She’d known this would be the monks’s response to Tethrin’s absence, and though she’d planned for it, her heart sank nonetheless, for her plan was fraught with risk.
Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself for what was to come, and followed the monks in silence till the healing spring came into view. Reaching into the pouch in her pocket, Arinelle waited till the sound of voices and flowing water reached her ears, then she stopped and raised her free hand to her head.
“Mistress Dewfall, is all well?” the monk behind her said.
“I…” Arinelle began. “I…I don’t…” Then, she began to sway.
“Karim!” the monk behind her cried as she swooned.
As the monk behind her caught her, however, Arinelle planted her feet beneath her and flung the sleeping powder in her pouch into the monk’s face, righting her self just in time to cast a spell to render the other monk immobile just as the monk began weaving a glyph of protection. Rising, she frowned as she stared into the fiery gaze of the held monk.
“Forgive me,” she said, then, reaching into her pouch once more, the pulled free some more sleeping powder and flung it into the monk’s face, catching him as he fell to the floor.
Hurrying to a door the trio had passed along the way, Arinelle opened it carefully and peeked within.
It was a storeroom.
“Good,” she whispered, and with another whisper, called forth a gentle breeze to carry the two men into the room.
Then, closing the door as gently as she could, she scanned her surroundings once more. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Nodding once more, Arinelle crossed the corridor and hurried back the way they’d come. It was only a matter of time before the monks awoke, she needed to be as close to her prize as she possibly could by then.
As she took her tenth step, however, the sound of a door opening brought her to a halt, and as she moved to turn, Arinelle felt something slam into her side. It was unlike anything she’d ever felt, a force she couldn’t comprehend, and it paralysed her arm.
Casting a spell of cleansing upon herself, the Matriarch spun about, and on instinct, called forth an ice lance before flinging it in the direction the force had come from. But, as the lance left her grip, her eyes went wide as she realised what she’d done, and she could only watch in stunned silence as the lance impaled the monk named Karim, pinning him to the door frame behind him, his blood pooling rapidly beneath him. In the horrifying silence that fell upon the corridor, the pair stared at each other, one with a look of utter surprise, the other a gaze filled with deep revulsion, till at last, taking a deep breath, the monk raised his gaze skywards and screamed with all his might, then was still.
With her heart in her throat, Arinelle stared at the lifeless monk for a spell till hurried footsteps from the other end of the corridor pulled her from her stupor, and as she stared down the corridor, she watched as monks poured in from the healing spring, their gazes drawn to their dead companion. But, one-by-one, they turned to her, and Arinelle could feel the hatred coursing through them. Then, as they advanced, the former Matriarch spun about and raced down the corridor, the monks sounding the alarm as they gave chase.
Coughing heavily, Nerza took the mug from her daughter and gulped down its contents, her daughter wandering over to the other side of the abandoned hut they’d taken shelter in before sitting upon the dusty floor, her knees raised as she watched her mother in silence.
“You’ve still not said it,” Elsa said when Nerza placed the emptied mug upon the floor.
Frowning, Nerza turned to her daughter. “Said what?”
Elsa stared in silence at her mother, her face long.
Shaking her head, Nerza sat tall. “Would it make you feel better if I did?”
Nerza smiled at her daughter and sighed. “I told you so.”
“That you did.” Elsa nodded. “That you did.”
Rising, Nerza went to her daughter, and sitting beside her, held her daughter close.
I can’t believe the last thing I said to Aunt Arinelle was how I was glad Lillian was dead,” the young elf said as tears ran down her face.
“Hey,” Nerza said, raising her daughter’s gaze to hers. “No need for tears, you hear me? She knows you didn’t mean it.”
But Elsa’s tears continued to fall.
“Hey,” Nerza repeated as she wiped her daughter’s tears. “Your aunt will return, you’ll see. And when she does, you can tell her how bad you feel.”
“But she won’t, will she?”
“Of course she will!” Nerza replied. “She’s a gifted spellcaster. Why, before she became Matriarch, she was one of our finest battle mages, a true terror on the battlefield.”
“Then why did you look so terrified when she said she was leaving?”
Nerza moved to speak, but no words came.
“She’ll return,” Nerza said at last. “She will.”
And with nothing left to say, the two women hugged each other as their hearts ached for their companion.
Holding her breath, Arinelle watched the monks as they waved their torches about, the glyphs upon their bare skin shimmering with power. Sliding deeper into the shadows, her cloaking spell keeping the rays of the monk’s torches from exposing her, she waited with bated breath for the monks to complete their sweep, her heart beating loudly in her chest throughout.
Soon, there came a time when the monks were satisfied the room was clear of intruders, and turning, marched through the massive stone doors, and as one, the monks pulled the doors closed, a thunderous slam echoing about the room as the doors shut, followed swiftly by a loud shriek as the monks slid the doors’ massive iron bar into place, sealing the door shut. It was only then that Arinelle drew breath.
Stepping from the shadows, the former Matriarch held forth her palm and called forth a small ball of flame above it, illuminating the room with enough light to allow her see clearly what lay about her, and as she scanned her surroundings, Arinelle felt her heckles rise. What it was, she couldn’t say, but there was something…wrong with the room she was in, an unsettling presence she couldn’t quite place.
Turning to the door once more, Arinelle called forth in her mind’s eye the map of the monastery, and the more she checked it, the more she felt sure she was in the right place
“Why else would they have such a bloody great door there,” she muttered.
But, as she stared about her, all she was was…nothing. No treasures, no statues, nothing. Not even torches hanging on the walls. The room was as barren as it was cold.
Turning, the Matriarch walked deeper into the room, but she’d only gone a few paces before the far wall came into view, and, stopping, Arinelle frowned as she stared about her some more. There were supposed to be runes etched into the walls, along with carvings of the Brood Mother. But there was nothing. She turned to the doors once more, her brows furrowed deep.
“Where the hells is it?”
Shaking her head, she cast another scrying spell, and once more, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
“But…” she began as she spun about, but fell silent as a single slab within the far wall glowed.
“Of course!” She grinned and hurried over to the stone. Then, calling forth an ice lance, she pushed it gently against the slab.
All at once, the room was filled with a tremulous rumbling as the wall before her slowly parted, and as the rumbling echoed about her, she heard the heavy iron bolt of the massive doors begin to be hurriedly pulled back.
“Blast!” she spat, running to the parting wall and squeezing through its opening.
Then, once inside, she cast her scrying spell again before frantically searching for a means to seal the wall. Just as her gaze fell upon the glowing slab within the wall, the heavy iron doors were thrown open.
“Stop her!” she heard the monks cry as she lunged at the slab, and as she pushed, the walls ground to a halt before slowly sliding shut.
“Hurry!” she heard the monks yell.
Gritting her teeth, the former Matriarch called forth a lattice of flames before the wall, binding it in place before turning from the wall just as it slammed shut.
Arinelle knew she only had moments before the monks dispelled her lattice, so she had to work fast. And so, calling forth her little ball of flame, she scanned the room, and smiled as her eyes fell upon the runes and carvings upon the walls. Pulling free the runic dagger, Arinelle hurried down the room, the runes upon the walls flickering and fading as she hurried past them, till at last, she stood before a huge statue. It was of a woman, her hair snow-white and her skin that of smoke. There was terror in the woman’s eyes as she cowered from sights unseen, her lips frozen in an eternal wail. It was a truly heart-rending sight, or would have been, had the lower half of the statue not been that of a spider’s torso, its front two legs raised and pointing at her.
Taking a deep breath, Arinelle scanned the floor. The runes encircling the statue were still alive, glimmering at her, with a dagger-shaped indentation within the stone between two of the largest runes.
The former Matriarch sighed as she stared at the indentation. Then stared at the statue.
“This is what you came for,” she muttered as she stepped back. “Get on with it.”
Taking a deep breath, she called forth a wind vine, and wrapping the dagger within it, placed the dagger within the indentation. In that moment, a loud shriek filled the air, the runes pulsing with maddening intensity, and as Arinelle stood against the shrieks, she watched as the stones of the statue flaked and fell, freeing the Brood Mother from her prison, till she stood whole again.
“Free!” the Brood Mother cried. “I’m free at last!”
“You’re not free yet, demon,” Arinelle said.
“Hrm?” the demon said, turning to Arinelle. “Who are you?”
The demon laughed. “I have no mistress, woman. Now, step aside before I rip out your eyeballs and feed on your entrails. I thirst for vengeance and you will not stand in my–”
“And just how do you intend to cross the boundaries of your prison?”
“Hunh?” the demon said, dropping her gaze to her feet, before cursing feverishly as her gaze fell upon the dagger and the pulsing runes.
Then, she returned her gaze to Arinelle and sighed.
“So, what is it you want?”
“You,” Arinelle replied.
“Evidently.” The demon sneered. “Why?”
“You and your children will aid me in ridding a usurper from the Tower.”
A slow smile parted the demons lips. “The Tower…? The Shimmering Tower?”
Arinelle nodded. “The very same.”
“How delicious,” the demon replied. Then, her eyes moved slowly down Arinelle. “And I take it you’re the one who was usurped?”
“Ha!” The demon grinned, the little light in the room reflecting off rows of razor-sharp teeth. “To think, I will rule over such a place!”
“You will rule over nothing, demon,” Arinelle snarled. “I will rule. You will bow to me.”
The demon’s sneer returned as it stood tall. “I bow to no-one, woman.”
“Then, I shall turn you to stone once more, and leave you here in a thousand pieces.”
The demon’s eyes grew wide at this. “You wouldn’t dare!”
Just then, a deep rumbling filled the room.
“Blast!” Arinelle spat before spinning and calling forth a gale by the slowly opening door, its gusts as razors, slicing against the wall’s stone and showering the monks beyond it with the fragments.
“Oh, imagine that,” the demon smirked. “The monks are right outside.”
Arinelle turned to the demon. “I will have your answer, and quickly.”
The demon stared from Arinelle to the wall and back again.
“I accept,” it said at last. “But though know this, woman. I will see your reign end, and I will feast on your entrails and those of your children.”
“I decide when my reign ends, demon, not you.”
The Brood Mother sneered. “We shall see.”
“Yes,” Arinelle replied as she grasped the dagger with a wind vine. “We shall.”
Then, as Arinelle pulled the dagger free, the demon shrieked once more, its limbs hardening with each passing moment. Grasping hold of the dagger, Arinelle let go of her shields and, holding forth her arm, cut deep into her forearm, her blood covering the dagger. But it was as if the dagger thirsted, for each drop of her blood that touched the dagger seeped into its blade, and the deeper she cut, the more it drank.
Then, Arinelle raised her gaze, her eyes falling upon the Brood Mother, and as she cut into her flesh, she watched as the demon began to fade.
“No!” came a cry from behind her. “What are you doing?”
Turning, she stared into the eyes of the elderly monk that had welcomed her.
“Forgive me,” she said, then thrust the dagger deeper into her arm, and with one ear-splitting shriek the Brood Mother disappeared and Arinelle crumpled to her knees.
As she fell, the gale she’d conjured petered to nothing, the monks pouring into the room in droves, eyes wide and weapons at the ready.
“Wake up, woman,” the Brood Mother’s voice echoed in Arinelle’s mind
“Hunh,” Arinelle mumbled, but as a monk moved to grab the dagger from her hand, the former Matriarch awoke in full, calling forth a gust of air to slam against the monk, sending him careening into his companions.
“Stand your ground!” the elderly monk barked.
“The binding seems to have taken its toll on you,” the demon’s voice echoed as Arinelle staggered to her feet. “Are you sure you can face so many?”
Arinelle stared at the monks arrayed before her. She knew without a doubt there could only be one outcome should they attack.
“I sense more in the other room. And more still in the corridor beyond. Wouldn’t it be a shame if –”
“If you have a suggestion, out with it,” Arinelle snapped in her mind.
“Well, you’re spent, and I’m brimming with power. What say we trade places?”
“And have you retain control? Do I look stupid to you?”
The demon laughed. “Would that it was so simple. No, my dear, you can take control back whenever you wish. Unless, of course, you allow me corrupt your soul now and save us both the heartache…”
Then, the monks began to advance.
“What do you intend to do?” she thought.
“Why, slaughter them, of course! In the most brutal way imaginable.”
“You will do no such thing!”
“In that case, prepare to spend an eternity with me as your only companion.”
Arinelle shook her head. “Lend me your strength. I shall teleport us out of here.”
Arinelle did, and as her eyes fell upon the tapestry of runes above them, her heart sank.
“Precisely. You teleport from here, you shall re-appear a smouldering corpse.”
Arinelle returned her gaze to the monks. Some stared at her with a look of utter terror, others with a gaze filled with hate. She knew none would spare her, and as she backed away from them, her mind raced as she searched for a way out, anything to avoid bloodshed.
But there was none.
Swallowing hard, Arinelle lowered her gaze and fought back her tears.
“Do as you will,” she thought at last. “Get us out of here.”
“With pleasure,” the Brood Mother replied, and as the demon’s power filled Arinelle’s limbs, the former Matriarch heart broke as she closed her eyes and steeled herself for the carnage to come.
Elsa stared wistfully at the embers within the fireplace as she hugged her coat tightly. Her eyelids were heavy, and her mind was clouded, but she knew she couldn’t sleep, not till she saw her aunt again.
Sitting up, the young elf stretched and yawned, but as she did so, the door of the abandoned hut swung open, and as her gaze fell upon her aunt, Elsa sprang to her feet, her eyes wide.
“Mother!” she cried, “Aunt Arinelle’s back!”
“Hunh, what?” Nerza snorted as she sprang awake.
“Look!” Elsa grinned as she nodded at her aunt, but as she stared at the woman at the door, as her eyes fell upon the many rends in her aunt’s blood-splattered tunic, Elsa’s heart climbed up her throat as she hurried to her aunt’s side, but she stopped short as she saw both her aunt’s sleeves were soaked through with blood, blood that covered both her hands and dripped from her fingers.
“You’re wounded,” Elsa said, staring wide-eyed at her aunt’s arms
Arinelle stood silent and open-mouthed as she stared at her niece, her face haggard and her gaze empty.
“Come,” Elsa continued, throwing an arm about her aunt and leading her to the wash basin at the other end of the hut.
“Elsa,” Nerza said as she rose. “Go make some tea.”
“In a moment, Mother,” Elsa replied, “Aunt Arinelle is wounded. I must clean her wounds first, and–”
“Go make some tea. Now.”
Stopping, the young elf turned to her mother, her anger building. “Your sister is wounded, and all you can think of is yourself?”
Nerza’s gaze was upon her sister, a gaze Elsa had not seen from her before. “The tea is for her, not me.”
“She doesn’t need tea, Mother,” Elsa countered. “She’s bleeding, and badly. Her wounds need binding, and–”
“That’s not her blood.”
“What?” Elsa gasped as her gaze darted to Arinelle’s hands.
Pulling her daughter aside, Nerza led her sister to a nearby seat, and as Arinelle sat, she stared up at her sister.
“It’s over, Sister.” Nerza smiled. “It’s done. You’re safe now.”
Elsa watched as her aunt’s lips quivered and tears brim her eyes. Then, without warning, she watched as her Aunt Arinelle flung her arms about her mother and wept, her whole body trembling from the effort. Tearing her gaze from her aunt, the young elf stared at her mother.
“Make some tea,”her mother pleaded.
Elsa stared at her aunt once more.
“Of course,” Elsa said at last, nodding as she spoke. Then, she turned and hurried to do as her mother had asked.
Standing in the dark, Archmage Dawnmeadow stared into the gloom, his heart in his throat as he wiped his hands upon his robes.
“Are you sure she’s coming?”
Turning, the elderly mage stared at his companion and smiled.
“She’s coming, Arianne,” he replied. “She’s coming.”
Staring up at her brother, Archmage Arianne Dawnmeadow swallowed hard and nodded, then returned her gaze to the gloom.
Turning to her brother once more, Arianne frowned. “You’re not?”
“It’s still the same Arinelle, Arianne.”
“She’s not the same, Troy. She’s possessed by the Brood Mother. Of all the demons to choose, she chose that one.”
“She’s not possessed by it, it’s bound to her.”
“What’s the difference?”
Troy’s smile grew. “She’s still the same Arinelle.”
Arianne shook her head. “You can’t possibly say that.”
“He can,” came a familiar voice from within the gloom.
Startled, the pair turned and watched as their Matriarch marched into view, flanked on either side by her companions.
“Matriarch!” Arianne gasped as she forced a smile. “I’m…I was…I didn’t mean–”
“It’s alright. Arianne,” Arinelle smiled as she neared the pair. “You are wise to show caution. But rest assured, the demon has not gotten the better of me.”
“Yet,” Elsa growled, drawing all eyes to her.
“Well, at least now I know you haven’t changed,” Archmage Arianne Dawnmeadow said as she chuckled.
“It will be an honour to serve you once this is all over, Elsa,” Troy said as he bowed to Elsa.
As one, Arinelle and Nerza spun to the man and glared hard at him as Elsa stared on with a look of utter confusion.
“Serve me?” she asked. “Why?”
“Uhm,” the elderly mage said, his cheeks reddening as he stared from the women to Elsa and back again.
“Let’s be off,” Arinelle said before Elsa could draw breath once more, pausing to hold the mage in one last caustic glare before heading forth.
“Come, Elsa,” Nerza added as she ushered Elsa after her aunt.
“But what did they mean though, Mother?”
“Nevermind, just move.”
The two Archmages watched them in silence, then turned to each other.
“They didn’t tell her?” Troy whispered.
“Evidently,” his sister replied as she winced.
Then, together, the pair hurried after them.
“Is everything in place?” Arinelle asked as the two Archmages came abreast of her.
“Yes, Matriarch,” Arianne replied.
“How do we get in?” Nerza asked from behind them.
“Through the front.” Troy smiled.
“Naturally,” Nerza replied. “But how? What’s our ruse?”
“We don’t need one,” Arianne replied, her smile mirroring her brother’s.
“Matriarch Snowpetal’s been assigning those who aren’t enamoured by her grand plans for the Tower to menial tasks,” Arianne interjected, turning to Nerza as she spoke. “The gates, the stables, the gardens, even the Pens. They’re all now run by mages who have no desire for war.”
“Mages who would do anything to see your return,” Troy replied.
“Ah…” Nerza said, nodding at the pair.
“They want me back with what I now am?” Arinelle asked, her voice soft.
“None but us know the full extent of your plan, Matriarch.”
Forcing a smile, Arinelle nodded at the ever loyal pair, and as the five fell silent, they marched on towards the Tower gates.
Standing by her office window, Matriarch Elena Snowpetal stared into the ether as a deep frown twisted her lips. It had been many days since news reached her of Waterdown’s treachery, not a word since. Worse, there was nothing in the Tower records of a runic dagger of the description her spies had shared. And while that second point had convinced her advisers there was nothing of note to the tale, it instead had convinced her there was more, far more.
“What were you up to, Tethrin,” she muttered. “Why that town? ”
Shaking her head, she sighed. It was a conundrum she’d puzzled over for days, but was no closer to solving.
“Why would you remove all entries in the Tower library of this dagger? What’s so special about it?”
Then, there came a knock at her door.
“Come!” she barked.
In response, the door swung open.
“You sent for me, Mother?” said the mage who entered.
“Marcus,” the Matriarch sighed, “yes. In the morning, I want you to dispatch riders to Waterdown’s estate in the north. That old goat would’ve kept those records somewhere.”
“Oh, gods, Mother, not this again,” Marcus whined. “There are no records anywhere! Archmage Waterdown didn’t–”
“Oh, shut up, boy!” Elena snapped. “That old bastard hid something from me, and I will know what it is!”
“Mother, this is an utter waste of time.”
“Very well.” Marcus sighed. “You wish me to send people on a fool’s errand, I shall send people on a fool’s errand. But just so you know, we have barely anyone left as it is.”
“Then, you go.”
“But…” Marcus began, but bit back his words and smiled instead. “As you wish, Mother.”
“Good.” Elena nodded. “Go.”
Bowing, the seething youth did as his mother had ordered, and as the door closed, Elena stared into the ether once more.
“Whatever you’re scheming, Arinelle,” she muttered, “I’ll see you dead before you see it through. See that I won’t.”
As the Summoner Pens came into view, Arinelle smiled.
“Oh, I sense bounteous potential in there. This will be such fun!”
Ignoring the demon’s words, Arinelle turned to the Dawnmeadows.
“This is as far as I can allow you follow me,” she said.
“No,” Troy replied, shaking his head. “We swore we’d–”
“I cannot guarantee your safety, Troy,” Arinelle interjected. “Or your sister’s. Get to safety. Stay away from the Tower till it’s over.”
Sighing, Troy nodded. “As you wish, Matriarch.”
Smiling, Arinelle nodded. Then, she turned to her sister. “Do you have it?”
Nerza nodded. “Yes.”
“What secrets are you keeping from me, bitch? Such nonsense will avail you naught, you hear me? I shall feast on your entrails, regardless!”
Smiling, Arinelle turned to Elsa. “Stay with your mother.”
Elsa stared in silence, her gaze heavy.
Taking a deep breath, Arinelle turned and headed for the Pens.
“Matriarch,” Arianne called out.
“Ugh, more mindless prattling…”
“Yes?” Arinelle frowned as she spun about.
Grinning, Arianne stepped forth. “There’s something you must know. Troy and I have been spreading rumours about you.”
“Oh, yeah!” Troy grinned. “We’ve been seeding sightings of you from Ieran to Valenfort and beyond! Snowpetal has been sending her people out to investigate. Her followers in the Tower are now a mere fraction of what they used to be!”
Grinning, Arinelle shook her head. “What would I ever have done without you two?”
Blushing, the pair bowed to their Matriarch.
Then, Arinelle took a step forward, her smile dimming. “Stay away from the Tower. Stay with Nerza. She will bring you to me when it is safe.”
“We will,” the pair said in unison.
“And you’re sure none of our allies are in the Tower today?”
“Yes,” Troy said as Arianne nodded.
“Good.” Arinelle nodded. Then, taking a deep breath, she spun about once more and headed for the Pens.
“I don’t know what you’re so pleased about. Having fewer in the Tower means fewer to slaughter.”
“Shut up, demon,” Arinelle growled.
Reaching the doors of the Pens, she swung them wide and stepped in.
“Will these do?” Arinelle said as she carried her gaze about the many doors and nests within.
“Oh, my dear, these will more than do.”
“Then, get on with it,” Arinelle muttered as she opened herself to the demon once more.
As the demon’s power filled her limbs, Arinelle felt the ground beneath her feet rumble as the sky grew even darker outside.
“Rise, my children!” she heard her own voice proclaim. “Rise and claim your new vessels!”
At those words, chaos engulfed the Pens as each and every familiar within shrieked, roared, barked and neighed furiously.
As the tremors beneath Arinelle’s feet grew more severe, so too did the cries within grow ever louder.
Then, without warning, it all fell silent. The cries, the rumblings, all gone within an instant.
The creature that was Arinelle grinned, what little light within the Pens reflecting off rows of razor-sharp teeth, and as it grinned, the familiars stepped forth, each with eyes black as night, and as they stepped forth, they made their way towards Arinelle and bowed.
Quivering with excitement, the creature turned, and with one long shriek, it pointed at the Shimmering Tower in the distance, unleashing its horde upon it. As one, the possessed familiars poured out of the Summoner Pens, their teeth bared and their cries filling the night.
Biting back her tears, Matriarch Snowpetal cowered behind the overturned stately desk within the Tower’s grand meeting room as she moped her son’s brow, her eyes darting every so often to the bandaged and bloodied stump that was all that was left of his right arm.
“It’s alright, Marcus,” she soothed. “It’ll all be over soon.”
And she was right, in a manner. Her son would die soon, and so would she. Arinelle had won. The Brood Mother… Of the weapons to use.
“It’s alright. It’ll be over soon.”
As victories went, Arinelle’s was decisive, and it hurt Elena no end. To be caught so badly off-guard by someone she’d once crushed so completely…it was a thought that burned her each time it surfaced. But even so, a part of her couldn’t help but marvel at its simplicity. Attacking with a demon that could in essence raise an army from nothing, attacking in the dead of night when the Tower was so badly depleted of mages…it was a master-stroke, and utterly humiliating.
Just then, she felt a soft hand upon her shoulder. Turning, she stared into the terrified eyes of one of the few who’d fled with her.
“They come, Matriarch,” the poor girl said, her voice quivering.
“How many remain?”
“Tzubar, Narn and Hector are dead, Matriarch. Only five of us remain.”
Nodding, the Matriarch rose, but as she did so, a thought struck her. Perhaps she may yet save her son.
“Throw the doors open, you and your friends get on you knees and keep your gazes to the floor.”
“We’re surrendering, child.”
“You wish to die here?”
The young elf stared at her Matriarch, then at Marcus and her friends before returning her gaze to Elena and shaking her head.
“Then, do as I ask.”
“Yes, Matriarch,” the young mage said, then hurried to her friends.
Standing tall, Elena wiped the tears from her eyes and took a breath, then rounded the upturned table as the doors were swung open.
“Give me control, demon! Now!”
“But there’s still more to kill!”
“They are mine to kill. Do not force my hand.”
“Ugh, very well!” the creature that was Arinelle growled as she stared into the ether just as the grand doors before them were swung open.
Standing tall, her gaze darkening with each passing moment, Arinelle stared at the one being who’d brought so much misery to her and hers.
“Snowpetal,” she snarled.
Matriarch Snowpetal smiled. “I must commend you, Arinelle. I’d quite forgotten how great a strategist you are. You will find no resistance–”
“Where’s your son?” Arinelle interjected.
“Why?” Matriarch Snowpetal replied as she frowned.
“Because I intend to do to yours what you did to mine.”
At those words, all colour drained from the Matriarch’s face as she stared wide-eyed at Arinelle.
“Now, hold a moment,” the Matriarch stammered, “let’s not be overly hasty here. Yes, I admit, I crossed a boundary I shouldn’t have. But you were always the better person, Arinelle. You needn’t stoop to my level, surely!”
Ignoring the woman, Arinelle turned to the nearest of the kneeling mages.
“Where is he?” she demanded.
“He’s dead!” the Matriarch called out.
“Is he?” Arinelle demanded, her gaze upon the kneeling mage still.
The young mage stared from Arinelle to her Matriarch and back again.
“He’s behind the table,” she said at last, pointing to the upturned stately table.
“You bitch!” Matriarch Snowpetal yelled as she flung a lightning bolt at the young mage, striking the kneeling elf square in the throat and killing her before her body hit the floor.
As she readied herself to face Arinelle, however, an unseen hand grabbed the elderly mage, slamming her against the far wall and pinning her arms to her sides.
“Damn it, no!” the Matriarch shrieked as she fought against her binds. “Arinelle, no!”
Ignoring the woman, Arinelle marched towards the table.
“Matriarch, she’s trying to dispel her bonds!” Arianne Dawnmeadow cried as Arinelle went.
“Good luck to her,” Arinelle replied without a break in stride.
Then, as she rounded the table, she stopped, her gaze darkening once more.
“Hello, Marcus,” she muttered.
“Arinelle, please,” Elena Snowpetal pleaded, “I beg of you. Don’t do this. He is wounded, he needs a healer! Please! Spare him!”
“How does it feel, Elena,” Arinelle replied, “watching your child die knowing there’s nothing you can do to stop it?”
Arinelle stared at the hung woman. “You didn’t answer my question.”
Swallowing hard, Elena stared from the woman to the table and back.
“Please,” she whimpered.
Swallowing once more, Elena shook her head. “It’s heart-rending.”
Arinelle smiled. “It is, isn’t it? But it could be worse.”
“Don’t do this. Please.”
“You could instead be watching someone burn your children to death before your very eyes with you powerless to stop it.”
At those words, all within the room watched as Marcus slowly floated above the table, a gentle breeze billowing about him.
“No! Please!” Elena cried. “Arinelle, please! It was an accident!”
“How heart-rending would that be?” Arinelle continued as a wreath of flames burst forth above the unmoving mage.
“No! Arinelle, no! I was the one who wronged you, not him. Punish me! Burn me!”
“How heart-rending would it be, Elena?”
“Please! No! It was an accident, I swear!”
“You laughed! You laughed as they screamed!”
“Tell me, Elena! How heart-rending would it be?”
With her eyes wide, Elena Snowpetal stared from her nemesis to her son. And in that moment, Arinelle let loose her wreath, and as they rolled down Marcus’s body, the gentle wind within which the young mage was nestled erupted in flames, entrapping the youth in a flaming vortex. The young mage’s screams filled the room as his fiery prison burnt his flesh.
Shrieking, the Matriarch Elena Snowpetal fought frantically against her bonds, her cries drowning out her son’s as tears streamed down her face.
“How does it feel, Elena?” Arinelle yelled. “How does it feel?”
Fighting like a woman possessed, Matriarch Snowpetal kicked, clawed, pulled and convulsed, but it was all for naught, and in the end, the defeated woman became still and watched her only child burn before her eyes.
Before long, the room fell silent, even the cackling of the flames came to an end as the charred lump that was once Marcus Snowpetal clattered to the floor.
“Brutal. I’m impressed.”
“Damn you, Arinelle,” Elena said at last, her voice heavy and quivering. “Damn you to all the hells.”
“You first.” Arinelle sneered.
“Then I curse you, Arinelle Earthchild. I curse the day you were born! I curse you and your–”
The Matriarch’s words were cut short but a thunderous roar as a flash of lightning hit her square in her gut, tearing through her and scorching the wall behind her. Stunned, she turned to her assassin.
“You’ve already curse me, woman,” Nerza snarled. “You will curse no-one else.”
“Oh…you bitch,” Elena gasped, then slumped where she was.
“May Tethos feast on your soul,” Nerza added as she lowered her hand, “you rancid whore.”
“Was that truly necessary?” Elsa said, her tears running free as she glared from her mother to her aunt. “You’re both better than this!”
Smiling, Arinelle turned to her niece, then headed for her.
“Was it worth it, then?” Elsa demanded, her gaze upon her aunt. “Answer me!”
“You burnt a man alive!”
“Don’t tell me to be calm, damn it! Answer me!”
“Was it all worth it? All that killing, all that…dear gods! Is being Matriarch that important to you?”
Stopping before her niece, Arinelle took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“No,” she replied.
“What?” Elsa echoed.
“I don’t want to be Matriarch, my dear. When Lillian and Frelin died, my love for the seat died with them. I just want to be with my children, now. I don’t care for anything else.”
“Then why the bloody hells did you do all this?” Elsa shrieked.
“So you can rule in our stead,” Nerza replied.
“What?” the demon cried.
“What?” Elsa echoed.
Turning to her sister, Arinelle smiled and held out her hand.
“Woman, what are you doing?”
Turning to her sister, Nerza smiled as well, and pulled free the runic dagger before placing it in her sister’s hand.
“Woman! What. Are. You. Doing?”
“I shall see you soon, Sister,” Nerza said as she wrapped Arinelle’s fingers about the dagger. “Go to them, now. Go to them and wait for me.”
“Mother, what are you saying?” Elsa asked.
Taking a deep breath, Arinelle nodded, took the dagger and stepped back.
“No! No! Are you mad? Stop this! Stop this this instant!”
“Troy, Arianne,” Arinelle said, staring at the pair.
Stepping forth, the pair bowed.
“You two shall bear witness.”
“Stop this! Now!”
“My reign is at an end, and as custom dictates, I appoint my sister, Nerza Earthchild, to carry on after me. Serve her as you have served me.”
“Woman! Stop! Arinelle!”
The Dawnmeadows bowed. “We shall honour your words, Matriarch, we shall serve your sister. Go to your ancestors, and rest easy.”
“Stop, damn you! We can rule this place!”
Smiling, Arinelle nodded. “Thank you.”
“We can rule this place! Stop! You hear me? Stop!”
“I told you demon,” Arinelle said, her voice quivering as she raised the dagger to her bosom. “I decide the length of my reign, and I have decided; it ends now.”
“Damn you, woman! Damn you to all the hells! Mark me and mark me well! I will find you in the Underworld, you hear me? I will find you and I will feast on your soul for this!”
“You’re welcome to try, bitch,” Arinelle snarled, then plunged the dagger through her heart.
For a moment, a brief moment, none moved. None so much as breathed. It was as if time stood still. Then, Arinelle screamed. It was a scream not of a mortal throat, its cries carrying far and wide, till, as suddenly as it started, it stopped as the former Matriarch crumpled to the floor and was still.
Taking a deep breath, Nerza let it out slowly and turned to the Dawnmeadows.
“Troy, Arianne,” Nerza said.
“Mother, no,” Elsa said, her voice quivering.
The pair turned to Nerza as she gently caressed her daughter’s cheek
“You two shall bear witness,” she continued as tears brimmed her eyes.
“No. Please,” Elsa pleaded.
“My reign is at an end, and I appoint my daughter, Elsa Earthchild, to carry on after me. Serve her as you have served me.”
“No, please,” Elsa said, her tears running free once more.
The Dawnmeadows bowed. “We shall honour your words, Matriarch, we shall serve your daughter. Go to your ancestors, and rest easy.”
Grasping her daughter’s face in her hands, Nerza touched her forehead to her daughter’s, and as they parted, her tears ran free.
“Don’t leave me,” Elsa pleaded. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I cannot stay, my darling. I’m dying. I have done all I can for you. Now, I must go be with my sister.”
“Please don’t leave me.”
“Oh, my darling,” Nerza said as she lowered her hands, a ragged sigh escaping her lips as she did so. “My dear, dear Elsa. Remember us. Please. We did this for you. All of it.”
Then, taking a deep breath. Matriarch Nerza Earthchild turned and headed for the door.
Slowly, Naeve sat up and stared into the ether as the tome faded from view.
“Naeve?” Amala said after a spell.
The little girl turned to her friend. There were tears in her eyes.
“Hey,” Amala said smiling as she placed a gentle hand upon the little girl’s shoulder.
“Why did they do that?” Naeve said, her voice soft.
Amala sighed. “They felt that had no choice.”
“But they left Elsa alone.”
Amala nodded. “They did, yes.”
“But…” Naeve began, then turned and stared into the ether once more.
“Are you alright?” Amala asked at last.
Little Naeve shook her head, but then as she turned to her friend, her tears ran free and the little girl began to weep.
“Oh, my darling, come here,” Amala said as she moved to hug the little girl.
But little Naeve shook her head, and rising, she headed for the door, sobbing as she went.
“Naeve,” Amala called after her she moved to rise.
Just then, the Matriarch entered.
“Didn’t I tell you to go to…” the Matriarch began, but her words faded the moment she saw the tears in her daughter’s eyes.
“Hey, hey, rainy face,” she said, smiling at Naeve. “What is it?”
Shaking her head, Naeve held her hands out to her mother.
“Oh my darling, what’s wrong?” the Matriarch said as she picked up her daughter and hugged her close.
But still, Naeve said nary a word, burying her face in her mother’s bosom as she sobbed still.
Frowning, the Matriarch raised her gaze to Amala.
“Arinelle,” Amala mouthed.
“Ah,” the Matriarch said, then, patting her daughter in the back, she turned and headed for the door.
“Come, Naeve,” she said as she left. “Let’s go get you some iced cream.”
Amala watched the pair leave with a smile upon her lips, and as silence fell upon the room, she sat back in the bench as a sigh escaped her lips.