LXXIII.

He came about with a pang in his chest: a cry, he knew before he saw from his blurred vision. “Ma…,” She was armed with nothing but her profound remorse as she beheld the shadow that towered over her. Eri was still in there, trapped in the infinite abyss of eternal suffering, and as the Nokshan Lord raised her bloodied hand, Aldebaran knew.

“I am sorry,” He stood witness to every calamity the Creator pulverize their family with. “Eri, ma is here now.”

“No…” After all those years, he thought that time made him stronger, but he was pinned to his place, his shoulder and gut pierced by twisted shadows into the wall.

He grabbed one blade like a fool and barely registered his palms burning as he saw the demon froze in its place by the voices of a wronged sprite. Alvenia walked to it, drawing runes on her way, “I will see you again,” it sounded so casual, like one of those utterances before she bend down to kiss him on the head before leaving for a long mission when he was a boy. One last smile, he wrenched one spike free but he was too late. The floating runes glowed, the beast suppressed its threads of consciousness, roared and it was over.

He knew what he had to do, dust settled though his vision swam and threatened to drown in tears as he ripped the other spike free. The ancient rite where a soul was the price, and the empty shell bowed forward to be swallowed by the darkness. He never envisioned his coming-to-power to be so violent and sudden, but what did he expect? Waiting out his mother’s death before he receives the title? He closed his eyes, embracing the warmth that calmed the burning, numbing sensations of his broken frame, finally able to breathe in his lifetime. They were there, the rulers past, and he could only thank them for their blessings as he knelt before them.

At last, he could do more than witness.

*******

Claud was flanked by his guards and certainty that he would die the pathetic death that perhaps, he deserved. The steady ooze of blood made him reflective, and each time he had to stop to pant, the nauseating sight of his stub of hand in blood-soaked bandages and his subordinates regarding him with increasing intent of abandonment threatened to make him retch. A carriage was waiting for him in the west wing’s exit, and with each screech of the palace’s marble bones under his demon’s abuse, he wandered what good galloping horses could do.

The beast was his shadow, and just a sprinkle of light would bring it out of him.

Right as he thought that came a ray of light outshining the setting sun. He was blinded, pained, and at last the two guards sought after their own life upon seeing the shadow against angry fiery red.

“You are not worthy to be a vessel of the Creator,” The voice was devoid of personal vendettas, a crystal sound delivering a divine message.

He could only see a world of pure white, and the Creator’s Messenger was before him. He was humbled, bowed his head to pray for the first and last time.

*******

She knew, that it was a foolish idea, attacking a demon without a plan like that, and she reaped the reward of her foolishness as she pried at the obsidian spike protruding through her chest. She fell to her knees, her adversary was towering over her, mocking her. Something within her called, Let us help you. And as darkness took over it dwindled to a voice, a warmth buried within a rare glimmer from her childhood, Lyra, let me help you.

It was him, Lyra closed her eyes to meet him.

You don’t frighten me anymore, she muttered as she walked to him.

He looked so foreign without a sinister sneer, almost just like his brothers, almost kin, almost kind. Forgive me.

I am no priest, I cannot pardon, she took his hand anyway, her eyes never leaving his though she almost thought she was looking into a mirror. Your time here is finished.

He blinked, bit his lips, very well. When she released his hand it was as though the world’s will to keep him on its surface disappeared, his will to haunt and remain disappeared, faded, off to the eternal abyss he knew he needed to face one day. Then power, the warmth in the dream under the rebels’ tents returned: freed, it finally manifested as the last of his shadows lifted.

She woke to herself in a pool of her own blood, though her wound was gone; the beast was writhing, the commandments that held it in place suddenly went silent and its hold on itself threatened to shatter. It looked up from the ravages it wrecked, screamed infinite blades of darkness at her. She brushed it aside with a wave of her hand, the loosened sprites recognized her, was confused.

Then the confusion led to wrath and another rumble of pure energy: she raised a hand, and the wave parted, thinned into air. The beast didn’t understand the sudden change, didn’t understand the overwhelming aura. The full power of the Fallen was contained in that woman who merely approached with uncanny calm as she gathered the wisps of tortured sprites stripped from its form, its body, its very core.

It screeched, writhed under the pull of this woman’s power.

“Give up,” A simple command. “This world is under my jurisdiction.”

The power burnt her, but she couldn’t care. As she fought each agonizing step towards the monster, the world about her eclipsed into anguish; but she could see through it, her sights was illuminated by her will and memories guiding her to the core of the storm.

A reach, a leap, she gripped the form, a dagger of bone, and dashed it into the hell until it shattered and light remembered its name.

Advertisements

LXXII.

“You have come, I am honored,” Claud hid his sputtering under courtesy as he snapped himself out of the daze imposed by the heavenly aura that humbled even the grandeur of the imperial palace deigned to regard him; Eridani was nothing in comparison.

She was flanked by two equally dignified lords, and their procession paused ten paces away from the stolen throne.

“I am here to honor my words only,” Her voice was crystalline, tainted by a slight accent and disgust. “And as out of your habit as it is, I expect you to honor yours.”

At that Alvenia’s clansman presented a bundle of silk to the Grand Priest, and as he peel the silks away to reveal the clear sphere. He grasped it like a greedy child after candy, and marveled at the antiquated power he was promised now pulsing between his fingers.

“Now, my daughter,” The feathers upon the Nokshan Lord’s back bristled subtly while her lips pursed. “Where is she?”

“Oh, she is right here,” Claud smiled.

The earth shook, the ancient walls of the palace shivered for its inhabitants, the air was enslaved by an oppressive aura that was strong enough to manifest into a physical force extinguishing all the torches and hopes within the throne room.

“Your daughter is dead, Lady Alvenia,” The beast appeared by his side, a blank facade of pure shadows screeching as a horde of tortured souls were forced to take physical form.

“What…have you done to this world?” Alevenia placed herself between the Priest and her clansmen, betraying no emotion beyond a deep frown.

“It is hardly in its full form even with a whole mountain worth of spirits,” Claud saw that his demon retreated slightly at the artifact in his hand, smiled. “Now with this, and you and your clansmen’s spirits, I can restore it to its proper glory.”

The figure of pure shadow regarded the Nokshans in animalistic hunger, morphing nightmares launched themselves to prey.

Alvenia found an unmistakable aura within the tumult and gasped, “My child.”

“Relieve the Lord of her duty,” Claud savored every syllable, though as he raised the sphere to draw its powers pain overcame him instead.

Previously concealed by Horatio’s illusion, Alde dove off of a vantage point into the throne room, a flap of his wings, and he was behind the priest. Claud saw, yelled incomprehensibly, but the momentum of his fall carried him to his target through a clean slice following the curve of his flight, singing through blood and flesh and bone.

Lyra leap off, too, breaking her fall with a spell before deflecting a thrusted spear, fell guards with a wave of her hand. She spared the priest a glance, his pathetic face twisted in the pain he deserved as he clutched at where his arm had been, those deceptive eyes fixed upon the blade about to crash into his skull.

Then the shadow came upon them.

“Alde!” He felt it, too, evaded with a twist of his heel and slashed across the beast.

He returned to her side, observed the scattered spirits reassembling into its cursed form now enraged, extending its grasp at them. Before it could touch them, Alvenia had retrieved the artifact from the dead clutches of the priest’s severed hand and bound the demon with ropes of light. It cried out, wriggled once, twice, seemed to have shrunk under the bindings of pure spirits but they were naive: it burst through twice as powerfully, a sheer explosion of shadows solidifying into obsidian shards.

Alde tugged her behind him as though he knew the shield they raised would still crack and crumble. A poor wing caught a few stray shards, Lyra winced at the wet crunch though he remained expressionless, eyes fixated upon the scattering dust where his mother stood as he pulled the blades free.

The Nokshan Lord was unscathed, but her face betrayed a deep fear and they understood as they followed her eyes to the glass powder in her hand where the artifact had been.

The monster, invigorated by blood and absorbed spirits, leapt at her, and her sword clashed against claws before tendrils sprouted to tangle with the blade, reached with its spiked edges her sword arm. She was wise enough to let go, ducked low to evade a swing that snapped the two central pillars behind her like dried sticks.

The form split, shot across the hall in a blur; an incomprehensible weight crashed down, her legs and the wall behind her gave away. She scrambled upon her feet as Aldebaran forced back the monster with sheer will.

The previous strike left him a gaping gash he tried to ignore; but, she was fine, and that was all that mattered. The world swirled, and when the demon pounced back he barely sidestepped. Then it spouted more tendrils from the earth, infinite daggers piercing his leg. He fell on one knee, and it was as though it knew exactly where its last blow landed. He pretended he was deaf to the wet crunch of his poor ribs and numb to the taste of iron.

She was yelling something, and he pushed against the earth to leapt backward for a belated retreat but the figure followed. An iron grasp locked about his neck and slammed him into what was left of the marble walls. He stabbed, kicked, dug at the claws before he was out of breath and blinded by flashes of white agony.

Lyra summoned powers she knew she didn’t possess, temporarily stunning the tendrils that bounded her. She tore herself free, not caring about the scarlet trickling down her arms, dying her armor. Instead, she hurled insults and another spell at the creature. As though it relished the art of the dramatics it was content to drop the Nokshan after bashing him against the wall one more time. She winced as he crumbled to the floor, lifeless.

But she had very little time to frown: the beast was upon her.

LV.

Unforgivable, he slammed a fist against an innocent tree trunk, the spirits around him reminded him. Your negligence…had you taken your power, she wouldn’t have…

Yet he knew, the Creator’s voice was a dull drum guiding his steps. It urged him against all odds to leave his home, to seek out the Emperor for what he thought was purely revenge but instead…he looked down, surprised by the bright eyes peering back up at him a few respectful steps away.

“Stop it,” He didn’t feel her closing their distance, didn’t feel her hand on his, a gentle breeze seared the skin of his knuckles broken by jagged bark. “You had no control over her. You can’t blame yourself.”

His thoughts meandered on: instead, the Creator led him to her, and she was no subject of his revenge, no, quite opposite, she was… The warmth of her soft hands temporarily blocked out the sting of his desperate stupidity, and he only muttered idiotically, “I didn’t know you are right behind me.”

“You silly, blind raven.”

Is that an improvement? Before he could retort, heat overcame his knuckles, and she chuckled in that musical way of hers.

“It worked,” She smiled at the result of her successful experiment, his healed hand. “This is just an attempt at a ‘thank you’ for earlier.”

“If you temper with the spirits like that you will exhaust yourself,” God, he nagged like his mother: all he was trying to do was to name his inexplicable reluctance in pulling his hand away before opting to mutter. “You are a fast learner, I will give you that.”

“I am so flattered, oh great Nokshan king,” She rolled her eyes. “You’ve healed gashes on my back without a problem, so I should be fine.”

“Perhaps you forget that I am not human?”

She didn’t forget that fact that stands like an abyss between them, but only forgot that she was still holding his hands until now, “You are welcome,” before she hiked ahead, only glanced back to stick her tongue out in childish victory.

He couldn’t help but smile, and before he could scold the idiotic grin away Jiube gave his head a hard peck, hoppping away with a triumphant hoot.

“Hey!”

How he hated that fragment of his own damned spirit.

No matter, the rot of the sea was lost in the damp forests, and he could already see the greyish green of the cursed temple. At the conclusion of Ophie’s tale, they arrived upon the same conclusion to help. If his sister and that priest resorted to such low means, who was he to stand aside?

Despite his apparent iron resolve to end the blue jay altogether, he was far from ready to execute such resolution. And each step towards the confrontation fragmented the nonexistent determination until all was left was dust and remorse when they were at the gates. Yet, the gentle drums of the Creator beat on: put an end to her cursed existence, it should have been so too long ago.

I know, he knew, he simply couldn’t…that was another reason he ran away from his power…from —

“ — Alde,” She pulled him back from the whirlwinds of thoughts yet again. “Stand watch here.”

“What? That’s ridiculous.”

“We may not have to resort to violence,” She was unconvinced herself, but determined to try. “Unlike you are ready to raise a hand against her, anyway.”

“I…”

“Just stay here.”

“No, I can…”

“It’s a command,” He jolted as the runes about his neck seared and warned him at his first disobedient step.

“I don’t need a collar,” He winced in disgust, but before he could see her pained look he took to the cover of trees and a disguising spell.

Lyra immediately regretted her decision when she followed the grandfather, her uncle and Athlem into the chilly shadows of the stone temple clearly losing its battle to time and lichens. But she had to, the Creator already subjected him to too many cruelties and she deemed it her duty to change that. Still, how she would have preferred to have the Nokshan by her side is a sentiment she dared not pronounced even when each eroded carving looked more than ready to collapse onto her with their uncanny shadows since she needed not her aunt’s teasing.

“Here,” the old man barked, setting his lantern upon an altar that she tried not to imagine covered with blood offerings as it was when it still used. “Now, we just have to wait for sunset.” He set himself upon the mat of tangled ivy weaving together the cracked stone floors, meditating.

Lyra thought better than to disturb the old man and went to join her aunt and uncle.

“I told you not to come here,” Horatio’s whisper to his beloved was largely ignored as the addressed merely wandered off to study a relatively preserved fresco.

“This entire affair stems from me, so I should at least have a hand in solving it,” She offered her reasoning, resting a hand on her still flat abdomen. “Don’t worry, love.”

Lyra instinctively tugged herself close to her aunt to silence any more nagging from Horatio, attempting to understand what fresco would be interesting enough to deserve attention at such a crucial time, “What do you make of that?”

Athlem dared to touch the fragile walls, “I was trying to see if I am insane, but could you hear that?”

Lyra attempted to quiet her racing heart but to no prevail, “What?”

“Is the earth rumbling, just the slightest?”

“Hrm…” Then she felt it, too, the solemn thuds of the earth beneath their feet in miniscule, dulled drums.

No, not exactly beneath their feet, but before them, burrowed deep behind the frescos a mountain’s length away. If she squint, she could almost see it, a strange apparition, no, apparitions drifting in immense chaos and disturbance, running away from —

The distinct clacks of steps against stone drew them away from their reverie.

LIV.

“My name is Ophie of the Polonus. Our family had always been one of the most skilled fishers of the Southshores, our nets always so full that our village dubbed us the whisperers of the sea. Altogether, our village was prosperous, tradesmen from all over the world make their way here from the main city ports.”

“A few months ago…my father went out to sea, but he never returned. We thought we lost him…turned out it would have been better had he been buried at sea.”

“A few days later, we heard a knock at our door in the middle of the night. We were all sleepless from our anxiety and grief so my brother answered it like a bolt of lightning. There were no one except for a note and a ring — my father’s ring — the note said, ‘obey us and turn over your family’s secret or another part of your fisher will be returned to you.’ Then there were instructions for us to leave our family heirloom at a temple by a nearby jetty.”

“None of us knew what they were asking for: the only thing remotely like an heirloom is my great grandfather’s watch. We almost suspected our own townspeople, but we know they are far too wise to be jealous to this extent. We brushed it off, thought it a cruel trick. Then the next day, we found a bundle at our doorstep: it was a….severed hand, my father’s. A new note written by what we immediately recognized as my father’s writing told us in earnest to give the heirloom away. Meet them at the temple, they insisted. We had to.”

“So the next day, at the appointed time, we went and had some of our trusted neighbors hideout with whatever weapon we could find…When the sun sunk to about half a disk, two hooded figures came to my grandfather, who was representing us to meet with the strangers.”

“Grandfather presented them the pocket watch, and — I saw the two strange figures and thought that they must be a hunchback and a man — they took it, and the hunchback dashed it against the rocks and shattered it to pieces: the figure raised its voice, and it was a female’s, sharp and shrill.”

“ ‘Deception,’ I caught her saying with a strange accent. ‘You are trying to trick us for settling such a foolish trap.’”

“We didn’t know how they saw us, not one of us even batted our eyes during their meeting and we know the area like the ridges of our hands. Mother took the moment to attack the man, and others followed suit. We thought they didn’t stand a chance: we felled beasts of the sea at a smaller number often.”

“In a blur I just smelled blood…blood everywhere. Many of our kinsmen were hurt, sprawled on the ground. I couldn’t believe my eyes but the hunchback had lost her cloak during the struggle, and there revealed that the bump was no twisted back, but a pair of wings. They were not unlike yours, Lord Aldebaran but the hue is of a bright sky blue. I would never forget those wings with their ungodly blue.”

“She saw that most of my family were not unscathed and smiled. At any other time I would have found her ethereal, beautiful, but she was a murderer. Then the man threatened us to bring in our actual heirloom, or else all who we cared about would be killed. Grandfather pleaded that there were no such heirloom that they sought, but they left without another word. We patched and helped our wounded.”

“Since then many of our fellow villagers heard of the confrontation, of the menacing banshee. Their fear became so strong that they were willing to forsake their ancestors’ ways and moved from the shores. Despite our simplicity, our town provide a great amount of food sources for the rest of the kingdom, so the local magistrates soon noticed the change. They prohibited the sudden flight in fear of disturbing trade. That only made matters worse: people thought that the king had some plan of sabotage and snuck out of the area as though to escape a plague.”

“But we knew the truth, and the few that saw or believed or were brave enough stayed. We wanted to reclaim our proud town from this irrational fear. We had to. However, before we could plan to retake our town by hunting that strange banshee, something worse happened.”

“They must have realized that we are determined to ignore their demands as each note became more menacing. One day, we just got a nameless bundle. We all saw this day coming, but…You see, in our belief, the head symbolizes the seat of the soul. Once gone, the soul would then be trapped in a state of uncertain meandering for eternity.”

“So imagine…how we felt when our father…or son…or husband…”

“Even worse, within that same week, all these apparitions began to appear, killing whichever villager remained. By the charms of our ancestors, we have the curse to continue living. We were safe as long as we staid behind these doors barred and fortified. Grandfather only risked yielding the door for you when he saw that your companion is not unlike our tormentor, and that he was capable of dispersing the vile spirits.”

“Now, your Highness and honored guests, please help us. For we are desperate and lost, on the verge of death. The Polonus would forever be in your debt if you should be able to lift such a curse.”

The address was to the Etzion prince, thought the eyes were upon the Nokshan King, who buried his mind in blank inexpression only interpreted by the one that read his mind.

No, Lyra began.

I have to kill her, His resolve remained, while the rest of the world could only guess at the dull glint of rage in his otherwise immoveable facade of perfect impartiality.

LII.

Athlem recalled why she never acted upon impulses only seconds after she did: one such rash challenges rendered her here amidst the dark, wild forests where she provoked a dying campfire with a stick.

Days ago, she spoke without being prompted to, treating her life with the clinical objectivity no one expected from a new mother, “So be it.” Even Horatio could not stir her.

She had her reasons. She had just forced Lyra to stop employing the disguise after she caught her sneaking out of her room in the dead of the night for a breath from nightmares and “the voices.” Lyra already did so much, putting the Etzion King and the infinite whispers to their cowardly places; but as soon as “Emperor Luctus” quit Etzion, the general came back to with more of his devilish devices.

Twice, Jiube choked from poisons in her food — ever since her child was known to the world, the little thing became quite protective — and while toxins of the flesh were dodged, those of the mind and name were not. In some sick contortion of truths the general fabricated a tale of the night that Horatio still refused to speak to her about, but the fragment of words from nosy servants that assaulted her ears point to a version entirely opposite to the truth.

“Defiled her,” “innocent Rosamund,” They said. “Against her will,” “abusing power,” “her poor brother,” “devil in a prince’s disguise.”

Athlem broke the stick in her hand, casted into the pit of fire and proceeded to pick out the splinters she planted into her palm in the process. The fluffy owl sharing her log chair noticed her outburst, took that as a cue to scuttle away to find more sticks for her.

Horatio did not suffer in blind silence, of course, he appealed to his king brother for the removal of such a nuisance, but she judged from the way he slammed their chamber’s door that night the negotiations weren’t well, he was never prone to mistreat anything, doors included.

So, when the general came to them and issued the challenge, she took it.

“Solve the plague of the Southshores, oh great doctor,” the hellspawn taunted. “Should you succeed, I shall yield my title and let you deal with me as you please. Should you fail, the charges for witchcraft stands.”

“So be it,” She tested her unyielding defiance; Jiube was confused as to the comment pertaining to the dwarfish mountain of sticks it had accumulated by her feet or a symbolic character breakthrough.

She could only ruffle the tiny owl’s head affectionately, forgetting briefly about the demon of a general as she took another stick and probed the dancing flames and her thoughts until her beloved stuck his disheveled head out from their tent begging her for the fifth time that night to retreat from the biting cold of seasons and her meandering mind. This time she finally complied.

Unshackled by the concept of a nervous, concerned lover, Lyra had long left the circle of light casted by the humble campfire as it reminded her too much of a ruined village she and Alde strove to patch back together with care and lullabies and ladled soup. She eased herself into the harmonies of the darkness, having learned from the Nokshan how to tread lightly enough amongst nature’s congregation without interrupting the sweet hymns. These voices were better than the ones within her head, the gentle roars that increase the aches by each prolonged second she bore her father’s skin.

I am relying on him, she knew. A breath of night air did little to disperse that thought. The general was right, she had no business having knowledge or power. She stole them, just like Athlem, donned the appearance of a man so their voices would actually be heard. Now, they and those they love reaped the price of their theft, their pride, their desperation.

“But is that so wrong?” To be equal, to understand the desire to march out with civilizations, to help it march on.

The voices hinted at a different speech, she forced them to shush to a steady hum.

“So be it,” That voice from above was neither from nature nor her demons; its owner recycled a nugget of wise defiance his familiar had the privilege to witness.

“You startled me, dumb crow.”

“You are the one who randomly came by my perch and started mumbling aloud,” It was just the murmurs of the forests now, the tumults splitting her head died down.

She laughed, “Apologies, I didn’t see your nest there, dumb crow.”

“Ravens and crows are different.”

“And you are not disputing the ‘dumb’ part, then?” She dodged a chunk of bark. “Hey!”

He chuckled, stretched, “Go to sleep, Lyra, you have a campaign ahead of you.”

She sighed, perhaps one doesn’t need a lover to be fussed over, “You are right.” She muttered, her glance degenerated to a stare as she found his eyes peering down at her from his poise of perfect ease and elegance.

“Or would you rather share more of those ridiculous stories humans imprint upon the night skies?” She was tempted, but scoffed, “Then what of the whole ‘go to sleep’ ordeal? Also, it’s unlike Nokshan stories make any more sense than human ones.”

“Perhaps the essence is lost in translation,” A swoop of shadows, then he was beside her. “The stars are a lot more numerous than last time.” He was most persuasive, but her mouth contradicted herself.

“You just felt bad that you randomly quit me last time,” She shoved him aside jestingly, started picking her way back to camp. “Good night, dumb raven. Don’t fall out of your nest in your sleep.”

“As soon as you stop sleepwalking, sure,” He refuted, a little more bitter than usual. “Good night.”

She laughed to herself, found the fire but glowing embers and its keeper, the little owl, dozing. A scoff, some stirs, she fed the flames to sleep.

LI.

Lyra never understood the different merits of parting one’s hair in one way or the other, so when her third aunt preached on about the grand significance of such details the princess nodded more to sleep than in agreement. She was going to survey the throneroom with Aldebaran to prepare for her disguise when they had the misfortune of meeting her aunt at the main hallway; after a good hour of reprimanding Lyra for “wasting youthful potential,” the older woman turned to survey the Nokshan on the matter.

She took that chance to march into the throneroom, paid her respects to the King, then went on her way to number of entrances within the baroque space.

She was acknowledging the salute of a captain when one of the many doors gave way to a silhouette of composed madness, the latter quality betrayed only by the fact that the man single-handedly hauled in another by a fistful of blood-matted hair.

Horatio bowed with perfect posture, “Your Majesty, a report on a case of treason.”

Lyra knew better than to interfere when he wore such a forced smile; the captain beside her stiffened upon recognizing the mess of a man Horatio dragged in, “General Astaroth!”

The General had been tossed to the King’s feet, a groveling shadow clutching at his bloody stub of a hand.

“Oh brother, what have you done?” The King descended from his throne to help who he naively presumed to still be his brother-in-law. “What would Rosamund think?”

Lyra cringed, Horatio stiffened, a hand shot to his aching temple, “You are almost as good a jester as you are a King, brother. Now, where’s Athlem.”

“Horatio, you are under her control!”

Lyra marked the sorcerers and soldiers that poured into the throneroom. Amongst the mess, Aldebaran had escaped from the aunt and caught onto news dropped by passing maids.

Lyra, they’ve captured Athlem on charges of witchcraft.

As I thought, she slipped away, found an obscured passageway. Keep watch for me.

Already are.

She took a deep breath, muttered the deceptive spell and it engulfed her.

*******

Horatio knew the words at the tip of her tongue when the guards barged in, he read her affectionate hand at her abdomen, but he didn’t…Not now…he was going to…she is…, “Release her.”

“Horatio, come to your senses.”

“She is no witch, now release her.”

“You are under her influence — ”

“ — An attack upon an imperial officer is treason, indeed,” The cold voice echoed across the hushing hall. “My dear brother Horatio, how are you?”

The King lost his color at the new intruder, all fell to a grovel in uncanny unison, “Long Live the Emperor.”

Luctus’s eyes flitted over the bowing masses, “Horatio, what is this?”

Horatio shamed himself for having to rely on his niece, “Your Majesty, they pressed charges against your servant Athlem and planned to execute the doctor.”

“Your Majesty, I can explain — ”

“ — And were you asked to?” The King cowered, Luctus scoffed. “Bring out the doctor, please.”

Guards were dispatched, the King’s pleas now given ear, “Your Majesty, we cannot let a witch live, it’s –”

“– What made you think Athlem could be a witch?” Luctus found a convenient chair, still not bothering to let his subjects rise.

Having bounded his hand and arrogance, Astaroth dared, “My sister’s servants chanced upon the discovery of the doctor’s true sex; there were also herbs and instruments unknown to the best physicians of Etzion along with a vial of blood in the Doctor’s study, probably to curse –”

“Is your common sense where your fingers are?” Luctus cut off the presumptuous narrative. “So, just because my court doctor is a woman and is in possession of greater knowledge than your physicians, she is a witch? Intriguing.”

“She cannot be a witch,” A new voice joined the fray, the only standing figure protected from scrutiny by his midnight wings.

Lyra was briefly distracted by the flutter of movement at the door when the bounded doctor was escorted in, her neat braids undone and her cascade of grace and hair hiding her grievances.

“Aldebaran,” Lyra turned her attention back to the Nokshan. “Great of you to join us.”

He nodded, continued his point, “By your human laws and descriptions, a witch is infertile.”

Horatio bowed to the floor, Athlem glared at the General, Lyra buried her excitement under a smirk while Aldebaran finished his thought, “And that description, Doctor Denthea fails.”

The court died to quieter silence, the implications pried apart.

“Please,” The choked plea could hardly be registered as the same madman who threw the General of Etzion into the throneroom moments ago. “Just let her be.” The court was still.

Lyra snapped awake, “You fools, release the doctor this instant.”

A guard miraculously cut the ropes in a panicked fumble, and Athlem instinctively threw herself into her beloved’s awaiting arm.

“Conception outside of the union of marriage is a grave crime,” Blind rage made Rosamund foolishly brave, emerging from the wave of scandalized murmurs.

“Your Prince Horatio’s frugalness and humility thought an insignificant ceremony sufficed, and for the sake of preserving his beloved’s reputation and career kept the union secret. Is that wrong?” Lyra turned to the cursed woman, smiled to contradict the hellish fiery.

“There is no proof of it,” Rosamund screeched, Athlem’s hold upon her beloved tightened.

“I was present, woman,” Luctus rose in a clap of fury. “Do you question the authority of your Emperor?”

“No…your Majesty…I…”

Lyra chuckled, “Questioning your sovereign equivalates treason. Now, that is a grave sin, is it not, General Astaroth?”

Seeing that his sister had lost her chance, the General only nodded his agreement before bowing lower.

“Brother, how could you…” Guards shifted to seize her instead, and she puffed, bit her painted lips and was led forever out of glory.

Luctus turned to face his subjects, an innocent smile upon his flawless facade, “Now that’s all dealt with, shall we dine? I am famished.”

Aldebaran choked back a laugh.

XLV.

Athlem won. She always wins, Horatio muttered in mild annoyance: it was just…the logical part of him is ripped off from its roots whenever his beloved is concerned, especially when she is humiliated by his own kin.

He turned a corner, traced with dismay the distant figures congregating by the illumination of torches and a clear moon upon the west side balcony: the King, his queen, General Astaroth and his sister, Rosamund. Horatio reminded himself to not snap; Please, the voice of his peony gently requested. I don’t want you to spite your family on my accord.

He sighed, begrudgingly he made his way to unpleasant company.

The Queen greeted him in her usual composure, “Glad for you to join us, Horatio. I am sure you are familiar with Rosamund,” Unfortunately yes, the fact that his betrothed is Rosamund this time only complicate the affair.

From the way Rosamund blushed at this introduction, he judged that his words from the dinner did not fall upon her ears.

After some pointless chatter Astaroth offered an opportunity, “Perhaps we should leave the two of you. It has been years since you’ve returned.”

Horatio was adamantly against it, but found himself alone with the woman by the King’s acquiescence regardless. Suddenly, the balcony felt too small as he paced to the other side, a hand gripped the marble rail.

“You never struck me as one for arranged marriages, Rosa,” The critters of the dark continued their haphazard harmony.

“Perhaps I’ve changed,” The clacks of her heels signaled her approach, and he tensed at the vinegar of her voice. “Perhaps…having my only friend abandon me changed me.”

“I merely chose to aid a sister who would be alone in an alien land,” It was still difficult to bring himself to be too harsh with Rosamund, whose eyes brightened with tears; his tone softened. “You will never find happiness with me, Rosa. I am sure you are aware — ”

“ — Of Athlem?” The disgust that overcame her tear-stained face surprised Horatio. “Is he the only obstacle? I am sure we can rid –”

“ — No,” Horatio surprised himself with the volume of his voice, and only then did he realize that he was utterly alone with this parody of his childhood friend as he scanned the environment for potential snitches at his less-than-proper behavior: where are the servants? He found this an opportunity for hearsay and subtly made for the doors. “No Rosa, you don’t understand. I simply cannot bring myself to love anyone else.” There is no Horatio without Athlem, and he knew the reverse is as sure as each sunrise.

The woman’s eyes widened at the rejection: she bowed her head as though the shame was too heavy before she looked up with renewed rage. The turn of her expressions could only be described as the tumultuous churn of the clouds when the sun sets, a violent violet and ringlets of scarlet and a gloomy bloom of orange, “You deemed me a creature beyond understanding,” She spat. “Do you still think I am still the little girl following you everywhere like a lost puppy?”

“ — Rosa, I never said –”

“ — I’ve waited, years after years, and not even a letter came,” She seized his tunic, wrenched him down to her height with the strength of wrath. “Then you came back with this ‘doctor’ of yours, and you didn’t even spare a glance for me!”

“Rosamund…but I never saw you in that light…”

“Do you know what I had to do for them to let me be your bride-to-be? I went against my family, my values, my everything,” Her hiss of a voice died to a begging gasp. “I love you, Horatio. I always did and always will. So don’t, don’t tell me that I don’t understand…”

It was difficult to pry her fingers from him with a single hand, and when he finally struggled free he fought the urge to walk away and turn his back to this mess forever, “I am sorry, but I simply cannot see you as anything but a sister.”

She was incredulous: should a man be able to refuse her anything when she so passionately begged? The light of her disposition drew closer beneath the horizon and the dark shadow casted by the taller trees of the palace gardens clouded her, “Do you despise me so much?”

Hearing no reply, she raised her chin, “Very well,” she turned and mounted the railing of the balcony.

“Rosa, stop!” He cursed his instincts as he grabbed her by her arm and dragged her off the ledge.

She knew he would save her, and the accuracy of her predication fed her twisted sense of importance and love; she knew, as the brief moment of intimacy allowed her to grab him by his hair and smash her lips to his.

The forceful contact shocked him, and he gagged, didn’t know that he struck her until he felt the sting in his hand, which then flew for his lips, “You,” He breathed, the woman sprawled on the floor gasped at her bleeding lip before looking up at Horatio. “How dare you,” defile a kiss so solely reserved for his beloved.

She spat, returning Horatio’s deathly glare, “You just don’t see it, the peasant doesn’t deserve you.”

His blood boiled, his hand itched to repeat its deed but his mind pulled at him to leave this psychotic thing, “No, the only one undeserving here is you.” He snapped around for his own chambers, for he had no intention of meeting Athlem in such a foul mood.

But, he only made a few steps before a loud hiss and a sudden grip seized him by the neck, and a pang erupted there.

Then it was a numbness, a faint tingling of agony that felled him to his knees, “You…what did you…” His body refused to move, he couldn’t even feel it.

“You left me with no options, Horatio.”

The sun was gone and all was in darkness.