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Chapter 95

Page history last edited by Anonymoose 4 years, 8 months ago

Deathly silence sized the crypt. Currents of magic wind which had carried pulverized debris died and so its passengers drifted toward to the ground to slumber once more. The tremors which had seized the room ceased and once extinguished candles reignited. That miasma of crackling magic power dispersed back into the aether and all that remained was a quiet ubiquitous hum of magical energy. It shared some properties of background radiation. The people of this world would call it magic. Since I wasn't throwing up or losing my hair, the assumption is it remained harmless in a raw state. Very much unlike a reactor melting down, thankfully.

 

Etchings reminiscent of circuit boards that shone along the stone edifices lost their lustre and returned to a lifeless gray. But even I could feel the power behind them had not left. A few flickering candles could not account for the fact that the room remained comfortably illuminated. Darkness had yet to return, so the earth had to be charged with residual magic power. That's the only way I could explain how lifeless gray stones could radiate faint light.

 

Candlelight alone could never pierce far enough. Whatever power that lich drew upon, it remained dormant, not banished.

 

And the absence of that power meant those howling winds were gone too. With it, the ruination passed as well. But a feeling of unease overshadowed any sense of relief, or the grief of priceless history being tragically obliterated. That unease came in the form of a chill wind. It spoke no louder than a whisper and paled in comparison to the banshee scream of the lich's power. Yet those quiet words blew those howling winds to the four corners.

 

The Lich, who responded to the name Medae, bent a knee and lowered her head toward the noble lady. All the crackling energy had vanished in tandem with her fading aggression. She was deferring to someone of a greater rank. I could hardly process the full string of names she addressed the noble as, but stuck: Princess and Yaleria.

 

Her skin was so pale it looked nearly translucent, It is as if she possessed no beating heart and rivers of ice flowed in her veins. It put a whole new spin on blue-blooded. The center of the woman's eyes were likewise odd with their white pearl sheen. Her eyes were bordered by a ring of red, the distinctive hue of festering magic power. They locked onto me with a soft and gentle gaze. Her lips curled into a smile, but what would normally be ruby red lips were a deathly light-purple.

 

She ignored the kneeling lich who kept her head bowed and eyes locked onto the ground. The girls, now recovered and after pulling themselves from the rubble, closed in around me. Rose and Susan flanked me and locked an arm with mine. Minte glued herself to my back and peered over my shoulder while Chris stood further behind and spread her wings. Ba'el stood defiantly in front of me. But the improvised testudo formation did not slow the princess' approach.

 

One foot directly in front of another, like a model on the catwalk, the corpse princess approached. Her already pronounced hips rhythmically undulated side to side. A meager layer of fabric that was her revealing dress clung for dear life, the only thing clinging to life about her by the looks of it.

 

She didn't seem to be put off by the array of battle ready girls in front of her. They were all pretty banged and scuffed up, but still had enough fight in them to make another stand. I could feel the tension build all around me and nearly to the breaking point when she stood only three or four arm lengths in front of me. But then she curtsied and bowed her head. All that tension slowly released, but not without a tinge of confusion.

 

     “Mr. Laven, it is good to see you are well,” She said with a voice soft as silk. “I apologize for the... Zealotry of Medae. I see that she has caused you and your friends a great deal of trouble.”

 

It bothered me a lot that she knew who I was and talked in such a familiar manner.

 

     “Your highness, this is a sacred place—“ Medae's steely voice rung out.

 

The princess' smile turned from a professional greeting to a hidden yet polite exasperation.

 

     “And it didn't occur to you that they reached this place by my express permission?”

 

Her voice rung with kindness, but each word was pointed and stung the senses. A cold snap seized the chilled air. It caused the very water vapor around the princess to transform into a billowing mist. Despite those words being pointed directly at her, the lich did not budge or avert her eyes from the ground. Not as the princess turned her back toward us and approached.

 

But with all that coiled malice palpable in the air, the princess did not strike the lich down. She knelt down as well and cradled the blue mop headed corpse to her own bountiful chest.

 

     “But let's forget that now. It's been an age too long since we last met, Medae.”

 

One of the princess' delicate hands, sheathed in a claw made of what looked like some kind of ectoplasm, enveloped the lich's head. That dainty hand at the center of it all ruffled Medae's hair; the claw like projection passed through her without a sign of discomfort. She merely closed her emotionless and baggy eyes shut and let the woman embrace her without speaking another word. If her expression wasn't a permanent fixture on her face, I might assume she wasn't enjoying it.

 

...I'm not so sure about forgetting how viciously she attacked us though.

 

     “Oh, dear.  Medae, don't doubt me so,” the woman cooed. “I'm not that little child anymore. I've grown up quite a bit since we last met.”

 

     “You'll have to forgive me for not being aware of how many years have passed since entering dormancy.”

 

     “...About two thousand and five-hundred years,” she said with a tinge of sadness.

 

Twenty-five centuries! I visibly recoiled. Everyone did. Susan and Ba'el seemed to take that number right to the chest and stared off into the distance with sympathy... But I might have jumped the gun too soon, because Medae seemed unfazed by the enormous number.

 

     “... I see,” was all she said.

 

     “But what a difference a few ages make. We missed the Second Sundering, the Great Strife and all this Empire business, but things are looking quite promising now.”

 

     “Is that so?”

 

It would have been a touching scene, but some people cannot leave well enough alone. The Princess''s a pair of ethereal claws came to rest on the lich's shoulders, but they began sliding down Medae's curves. Yet the sensual touch from those white fingers and monstrous ghost claws did not shake the undead's stalwart resolve for a moment.

 

     “You have not changed as much as you think, your highness,” the lich said, ignoring the molestation. “If one ignores certain... embellishments.”

 

     “And you've only changed on the outside. I recall a homely old maid, but I see this curse did not leave your old bag of bones untouched. But what a waste. An ugly scrap of cloth like this.” she said while tugging at the dusty mortcloth serving as the lich's only clothing.

 

     “It serves its purpose. I told you many times many years ago that such things are frivolous.”

 

     “Boo~ Well, we'll have to change that.”

 

     “That will not be necessary, your highness.”

 

Her's hands suddenly seized the lich's breasts over the cloth and began tumbling them up and down, squeezing them the whole time. And I had only just begun to acclimatize myself to how she was dressed too. I tried looking back up above shoulder level, but to no avail.

 

     “Hmmm?” she pondered aloud while tilting her head.

 

Medea still wasn't reacting. Not even a blush on her face or any sense of shame.

 

     “I feel a little warmth here.”

 

Now there was of blush on the lich's face.

 

I felt an impact on my left ribcage and nearly crumpled. Susan jabbed her elbow right between a couple ribs. The expression on her face was like the very avatar of chastisement. But at the same time I also received a kick to the right shin and knocked me back the other way. I couldn't crunch and wither away being squashed in like this. Ba'el's hoof dug right into the bone and she too was wearing a hostile expression.

 

     “Ow! What?” I cried.

 

     “Restrain yourself!” Susan commanded.

     

     “Stop gawking!” Ba'el demanded.

 

There wasn't much I could do while being overwhelmed by both Ba'el and Susan at the same time. If you excluded me squirming in pain and cursing while the two girls lectured me. Everyone else looked with soft expressions and stifled laughs. It was hard to keep the tension high. It was hard to elicit just a bit of sympathy. The girl's relaxed a little, but not enough to drop their guard completely. Any sense that these two desired or planned to attack us had passed.

 

Chris was the one to muster her courage, or perhaps it might be better to say curiosity got the better of her. She stepped out from behind and met the princess halfway.

 

     “You were alive during The Sunder?” she asked in her rarer higher pitched voice.

 

And there's another historical event I'm gonna have to ask about later... Or maybe it is more of a mythical event? Anyways, the corpse woman let go of the lich's breasts and pulled herself away. Medae fixed her cloth while the princess walked out to met the wyvern.

 

     “To say alive may not be the correct word. But yes, so far as I can reason, the last time I was among the living would be then. But I loath such a depressing title... No one appears to recall much of life before then... Sadly, neither can I.”

 

     “Ahem,” Chris coughed loudly and regained her heroic baritone. “Please forgive my rudeness. I am Christophaclies. Champion of justice and right hand to her highness Violetta Wyrm of Domdracveria.”

 

Her's serene smile had returned while the wyvern bowed while giving her formal introduction. But she didn't offer another graceful bow in return. She did, however, offer a hand.... In a manner of speaking.

 

Without a word she scooped up Chris' massive left breast. She held it up and looked upon it like the skull of Yorick; she pinched her chin with her other hand. Chris' knightly expression froze in place, as did the rest of her. Next came the flush of red across her face when the princess began to test the breast's heft by tumbling it.

 

     “An interesting style. Flawless shape with minimal sag. A form fitting top with great support. A very daring exposure of the underside's skin. Quite exciting. Barely tamed; a hint of wildness.”

 

Chris quickly came to her senses and jumped away. Meanwhile, the woman stood unfazed by the rush of wind from Chris' wings. The only hint that she was still real and took up space being her platinum colored hair which fluttered wildly. Chris raised her talons to cover her chest and bared her fangs with an expression twisted in both fury and embarrassment.

 

Ba'el wore a look of amusement before it dawned on her that there was no one standing in the way between her and the princess. But that revelation came too quickly when she appeared next to Ba'el as though she had skipped all the space between them in the blink of an eye. The princess held the demon's cape in her hand and ran her fingers along the gold embroidery in its hem.

 

     “No sewing marks. An enchanting blend of fine green wool with seamless gold embroidery along the hem. Certainly not from any craftsman's table. A fabrication of pure imagination. Fascinating.”

 

     “Hey! Clammy hands off the merchandise you—”

 

Pulling her cloak away was an overwhelmingly easy task for Ba'el, but that only served to drop her guard.

 

     “And what adorable pinchable cheeks!”

 

Ba'el's vulgar protests were stopped short when those ethereal claws grabbed hold of Ba'el's face and playfully tugged and pulled like a dreaded dire aunt. Every sound coming out of Ba'el's mouth became garbled, the skin of her cheeks becoming pale from the cold rather than bright pink from the rush of blood. Eventually she recomposed herself enough to swat the claws of Hryia away and leaped back as Chris had done.

 

     “ Hekati Fioina Hyria Yaleria,” Susan said, repeating what Medae had muttered so quietly before.

 

Her voice was stern. She tried exuding a sense of authority to stop the madness... But after I heard the name said more clearly the second time around—

 

     “Wait... Hyria? That Hyria?”

 

Her smile curved another few degrees while looking back toward me. It pleased her greatly when she saw the shocked look of realization on my face. In response she snapped her fingers, the ethereal claw surrounding her hand made the exact same motion. Another figure materialized from nothing a second later. The two looked like twins, but the newcomer had flush white-pinkish skins and one-hundred percent more... alive. It moved on its own accord, took a bow and gave an identical smile in sync with the original.

 

     “AH!” Rose shouted and rudely pointed a claw. “It's the floozy from the ball!”

 

My body moved on instinct. I slid over and behind Rose to cover her mouth before she could say anything more. The speed I achieved surprised Rose who protested, weakly. Hyria and her human looking clone tilted their heads inquisitively. I don't think that word was in her vocabulary.

 

     The clone spoke in lieu of the original, “It would be rather imprudent of me to reveal myself before such a crowd, would it not? Likewise, would I not be forced to waste precious time explaining my true form in such a place. Is not my appearance more natural in an environment such as this?”

 

     “Maybe I understand the deceit, but still don't appreciate it,” I snapped back.

 

     “But you still volunteered your services in the end... For the right price.”

 

     “That's not what volunteer means,” Susan pouted, hung up over the semantics with her cheeks still puffed out in a huff. “And cease this farce at once!”

 

And during the few seconds I was busing exchanging words with the double, the original had vanished. She had been there in my peripheral vision, but I never noticed her vanish.

 

     “My my, is this not also absolutely precious!” came Hyria's voice from behind.

 

I turned to see her standing behind a rigid Minte. She towered a head's height over the girl while her hands slithered down the assassin's hips. With her pale and dainty fingers, the princess held the scraps of cloth making up her skirt. Hyria lifted them carelessly into the air, the green and white stripes of her underwear now exposed.

 

Minte had yet to process what was happening. The expression on her face went blank, blanker than usual. Top that all off with completely blank pair of eyes that were fixed in the upright and forward position in case of a crash. Only when the chill of Hyria's touch registered and the signal shot up her sputtering nervous system did she react. Her antenna twisted and curled in on themselves while a blush spread across her yet unbroken stoicism.

 

     “Did you cut this yourself? Very risque. But I notice you moving your hips all wrong. A little flick at the apex of the step— and the right angle from the fine gentleman here— and you can show off that adorable little number underneath. Did you buy that, or sew it yourself? I can see by the callus on your fingers that you—”

 

Hyria's fingers crawled toward the strings tying Minte's underwear tied at the flanks of her hips. That's the moment the spell broke. A buzz from Minte's wings propelled her into a leap which could have taken her straight into the ceiling. Her nimble body rocketed out of the princess' grip; her trajectory swung around so she could take refuge behind me. I could feel her fingers grip tightly to my side as she peeked around cautiously. The blades resting against her forearms twitched and looked ready to swing to their battle-ready position in the time it'd take for a muscle to twitch once.

 

Hyria didn't seem to be bothered by the reaction and decided not to dwell on it. With a snap of her fingers, the clone flickered a couple times before vanishing into thin air.

 

     “An illusion like that would explain why she wasn't asleep back then,” Ba'el grumbled.

 

     “And the lack of a pulse,” Chris nodded in agreement while rubbing her chest because of the red frost mark shaped like a palm.

 

     “The dead need not sleep,” Hyria nodded with blithe. “At least not in the sense those with a pulse would understand.”

 

     “A state of undead stasis,” Susan said while stepping out to confront the princess.

 

I could hear her neck snap as she quickly turned her gaze toward Susan. Hyria's eyes were like magnets and Susan's garb acted like a ferromagnetic lump of iron.

 

     “What a peculiar manner of dress,” Hyria said, folding her hands (and claws by extension) in a prayer-like fashion. “Is that dyed linen or silk? What a rich shade of blue~ And is that pure gold? It's, how should I say? Absolutely divine~”

 

Shoshanah, who had prepared a stoic and professional face, had it broken in an instant. Hyria had once again abandoned any sense of manners. She began tugging at the hem of Susan's sheer harem pants. Yet only the claw pinched the fabric between its large digits, the actual hand hung idle at its core. Susan's tail puffed out in full bristle and a shiver travelled up along her spine till I could almost see static shoot out the tips of her ears. Hyria's ethereal hands continued unabashed till they almost reached Susan's top. The anubis recovered her senses in time to leap away and take refuge behind my back— next to Minte— like a frightened puppy.

 

Hyria flexed her claws in the air, groping something invisible before lowering them in dejection. She didn't give chase, thankfully. Susan sunk her paws into each of my shoulders and peered over my shoulder to bark back at the princess.

 

     “What do you think you are doing!” Susan barked back from behind my shoulder.

 

     “My my~ I offer my humble apologies. I let my hobby run wild for a second there.”

 

Only one second?... And how would she define her streak until that point? If she carried herself in a manner to purposefully give off an aura of royalty, then it's a shame it gets put to waste when she acts like this soon after. It blew away the demure high-class lady act to pieces, but that wasn't a recent discovery. My first impression died a couple minutes back on first contact.

 

     I turned my head back to Susan and had to ask, “Did you really not expect that to happen?”

 

     “I reinforced a barrier to prevent that!” She barked back with furious eyes still locked onto Hyria.

 

     “Claws,” Minte whispered. “They have no presence. Null. Nothing. She has no scent. She makes no noise.”

 

I titled my head back over to my other shoulder where Minte spoke from.

 

     “Then what about our wizard over there? She's dead too,” I said.

 

     “Raw power. No desire to conceal... Can smell it,” Minte replied.

 

So not only does she lack a pulse, she has no life signs at all. If she weren't moving and had that eerie magical glimmer to her eyes, you wouldn't be able to tell her apart from a corpse. On top of that, there were those claws of hers. Ethereal like a ghost, but able to interact with physical objects. Yet they could not be stopped by a magical barrier.

 

But there is one girl left who was standing unflustered by it all. With arms crossed to my right, Rose watched with an uncanny and uncharacteristic sage-like appearance. She didn't flinch as Hyria began her seductive walk toward her.

 

     “Black on that skin looks absolutely gorgeous. Such a thin cut string too. How daring~ Trimmed with that red— are those your natural scales you used to reinforce your top and waist?”

 

Snatch

 

I must have blinked and missed it, but I heard some sort of impact. Hyria's delicate hand had been enveloped by something else. Rose's claw pierced right through the ethereal claw and grabbed hold of it an arm's length away. A sharp and toothy grin slowly replaced her somberness.

 

     “...Impressive,” Hyria said softly with narrowing eyes.

 

I kept my eyes wide and ready for the next one which came soon after. Next came the sound of flexing muscle and groaning bones. Hyria tried to pull her arm away in such a way that it would leave Rose's center exposed, but it turned into an arm wrestle instead. The Salamander's grin remained, but her eyebrows lowered along with her tail letting off a shower of fresh embers. It shouldn't be a contest, the princess' arms were so pale and thin in relation to Rose's, but they were locked in a genuine struggle.

 

Hyria quickly lashed out with her other hand, which she shaped like a spear. The pale claw tried to cut upward through Rose's blind spot, but she managed to reach down and catch it by the wrist. Now there were two struggles. One with Rose pulling inward and the other pushing down. Neither front budged. Hot and cold mixed and gave off a sizzle which grew louder..

 

     “Very impressive.”

 

     “Anyone would catch on after seeing it that many times,” Rose replied, widening her grin.

 

Susan just so happened to look down at herself and noticed a leftover patch of frost in the shape of a hand on her top. She growled and wiped off the remnant while her blush turned a deeper shade of red. Minte casually followed suit, but did so with her rear end which rained a few flakes of frost onto the stone to melt.

 

And as quickly as they clashed, the two exchanged a silent agreement with their eyes and parted ways. Neither followed up with a low blow, nor dirty trick and Hyria turned and walked away. She swayed her hips like before and stuck out her chest with as much pride... But she lost? I wasn't confident enough to decipher anything from those ten seconds subtle body language exchange, but Rose wasn't a good loser and her mood had not diminished a bit.

 

     “And remember that,” Rose shouted out. “Next time you make a move for his pants like that.”

 

What? I think I missed something there. Rose looked over casually after having sense my palpable confusion.

 

     “She had her eyes on your pants,” she said as if it were not that big of a deal. “If ya think I'm gonna let some stranger waltz up like that, you got another thing coming!”

 

     “Maybe help your friends too,” Chris pouted.

 

Hyria sighed and shook her head while catwalking her way back toward where Medae waited patiently.

 

     “Such a pretty shade of blue. And with a type of fabric that even I do not know... Oh well, if there lies a secret the good knight wishes to protect... So be it,”

 

Now no one felt like stepping forward now, so Medae took it upon herself to stand back up and reign the princess back in. Her voice as emotionless steely as before.

 

     “Your highness, if you are finished, how is it you came to find this place?”

 

Hyria smiled and pointed my way.

 

     “I saw him here,”

 

My eyebrows knitted in confusion on their own. I couldn't let something that cryptic slide.

 

     “My memory might not be in the best of shape, but I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've been here. What with the hidden location of the ancient sealed door and all that.”

 

     “That is an oddly specific vision. Even from you,” Medae said, cocking an eyebrow.

 

At long last, the lich and I were finally on the same page about something. We're making some quick progress after she tried to kill me a few minutes ago. She gave one quick glance over in my direction and continued her thought out loud.

 

     “Her highness is an oracle. She possesses prophetic powers.”

 

     “Several weeks ago, your image came to me,” Hyria said. “ I saw you standing here in this very room. I saw myself there as well. I knew you would be at Count Aaron's ball before that point as well. Once I saw where you went, I knew I had finally found Medae's resting place.”

 

     “As I said, that is an oddly specific vision, your highness.”

 

     “I have my ways,” Hyria said, chuckling lightly.

 

And that's when she reached underneath her scarf. From behind that ectoplasmic minx coat accessory, she produced an amulet. It was shaped like a dream catcher. One ring of gold that could fit in the palm of my hand. A cobweb of tiny golden filaments reached toward the center where a blue gemstone resided... Calling it a gemstone may be too far of a stretch, because it looked more like a chip from a gemstone. Nothing as elegant or profound as the emerald crystal she handed to me.

 

But witnessing it caused my heart to stop.

 

A burning sensation from my pocket felt like it would soon burn through my leg. Yet when my hand slapped down to smother it out, the feeling got replaced with dry ice. It instantly drove my hand back. And as soon as it came, it went. I looked around and no one seemed to notice my spasm, their eyes were all drawn to the princess' heirloom.

 

     “I find it one day while wandering the Shadelands. It had to be almost three-hundred years ago now. Upon my next meditation, I felt as though a great veil had been lifted off the future. What changes this new age would bring, the strife and the joy.”

 

Hyria's eyes fuzzed over and we were in danger of losing her. There was much we still had to know, so I suppressed the pain and the vague heart wrenching feeling that I was missing something which escaped my grasp. But before I got that chance—

 

     “And revealed to me the most amazing and handsome hunk EVER!”

 

Hyria's eyes went from looking forlorn to ecstatic at break-neck speed. I'm sure she violated quite a few highway speed laws if not outright physical ones. I felt as though we had stepped on a landmine. The octave of her voice went in through one ear and out the other like a bullet. It left a ringing in my ear that wouldn't go away no matter how far and rigorously I jammed a finger down there. By the time I managed to open my eyes again, the image of the regal princess had been replaced by a schoolgirl who could not contained her excitement.

 

     “I knew him from my dreams for so so so so long~”

 

     “I have a feeling I don't want to know how long,” Ba'el groaned.

 

     “I knew from those chubby little baby cheeks he'd grow up to be such a stallion~”

 

     “I said I didn't want to know!” Ba'el shouted back.

 

And there went the last shred of a good first impression. But a switch had been flipped and Hyria kept talking to herself faster and faster as the rest of us watched her with draining spirits.

 

     “Please, excuse her highness' eccentricities. I assure you she would not rob from the craddle.”

 

     “That doesn't quite settle the issue,” I said with a grimace.

 

She was a monster, so being attracted to a man is natural... But couple that with prophetic powers and a life expectancy that is null and void on account of being undead meant that there could be room for an... age discrepancy. But a crush one someone before they are born and all the years until maturity.... Not that I saw a lot of maturity at the moment. She hopped around in circles with her hands up to her cheeks. Her pale skin flushed red—somehow—and she acted like a twelve year old girl at a boy-band concert.

 

     “Her highness sees time differently than normal. At times it is hard to keep her grounded in both reality and the present.”

 

     “Duke Brenden Gregor Malco,” Hyria said wistfully and stared with doughy eyes into the distance.

 

     “I am relived she has remembered her position,” the lich said with an ever so minor display of emotion, of relief. “I am sure his royal highness would be turning in his grave if she fell for the stable-boy.”

 

     “The Duke fella who skipped out on the party, right?” Rose noted.

 

     “Hmm, such a shame too. But all for the better. His presence would have led to disaster. Which is why I distracted him.”

 

     “Hold up. Can you slow down and inform the rest of us what page we're on now,” I said.

 

     “Count Aaron would have apprehended him,” Hyria said, as a matter-of-fact. “So I challenged him to a game which would keep him holed up in his keep.”

 

     “Your highness...” Medae grumbled. “You are not abusing your gift, are you?”

 

     “So what if I know any and all of his next moves? He fancies himself a fine warrior and general, so a game of chess was perfect for this plan. He's got this adorable little stubborn streak to him. If you can defeat me, best of three, I shall never haunt nevermore. That was the deal, and he's so confident, he jumped at the chance.”

 

     “So you were bothering him...” Medae groaned.

 

     “How could I not~”

 

Oh god, she started to drool. And she said she knew what he looked like with baby cheeks too. This Brenden guy might be sitting one some real nasty repressed memories.

 

     “I'm pretty sure a young boy would be scared shitless with someone sneaking in through the window at night looking like that... Barely able to restrain herself,” I mumbled quietly.

 

     “If she restrained herself,” Ba'el whispered back.

 

     “And thou are one to talk,” Susan chided.

 

     “You want to say that again, ya bitch?” Ba'el shot back, fangs bared and tail bristling.

 

Sparks flew between Susan and Ba'el while they stared each other down. Everyone else ignored them, so I thought it safe to do so as well.  Let it pass without giving it attention and they'll stop soon.

 

     “That kinda invalidates the whole Brightwall business, doesn't it?” Chris interjected.

 

     “Yeah yeah” Rose nodded. “That thing is supposed to keep the undead out, right? How are you getting around it?”

 

     “If only I knew,” Hyria shrugged. “It does keep the Yalerian curse at bay. Perhaps it is not strong enough to bar high-class undead such as myself. Wights were said to be the ghastly spirits of heroes and royalty, after-all. In a time long past, my very existence would have been an omen of great calamity. But as for myself, that I remain in this world is a blessing.”

 

     “Royalty... Your last name is Yaleria. So are you some sort of remnant from this place's long lost dynasty or something?” I asked.

 

     “Yes. I was the last crown princess of Yaleria. My fatherits last king. Both titles existed before the erection of that gaudy structure; the Brightwall.”

 

     “But this place is a duchy, not a kingdom or anything, right?” Rose asked.

 

     “Rose is correct,” said Susan. “There is no law in this land, no divine right, that could crown a king or queen.”

 

     “Are you so certain?” Hyria said, turning her eyes to Susan.

 

The anubis glared at the princess and tried to decipher it, but the exponentially increasing confusion on her face told me whatever thought she dwelt on wasn't producing results.

 

     “Do you possess some ability to know of these things? I invite you to look again.”

 

Susan took a deep breath and closed her eyes. I watched as they twitched underneath, the way they would if she were reading from a book. It did not take long until they violently shot open again.

 

     “There's... Nothing there...” the priestess said, agape.

 

     “I am sure that you, if my assumption is correct, know of a similar phenomenon.”

 

     “Hold on now,” I said while putting my hand on Susan's shoulder and shook her back down to earth. “She's not saying—“

 

     “An erased kingdom...” she muttered, her voice hollow and empty.

 

That desert in the middle of the north. An odd place; surrounded by taiga, boreal forests, tundra further north, great salt wastes further east while all while hemmed in by tall glacial capped mountains. What was once a very ancient kingdom remained as a scar on the world, unchanged as history rolled onward like a mighty wheel. If you had carved out ancient Egypt from the Nile and dumped it in the middle of Siberia... that's the impression I got. A civilization thousands of miles from where it belonged. Pyramids in the Gobi desert, but about a hundred times more inhospitable.

 

     “You do not mean to say—?”

 

     “Exactly what you are about to say,” Hyria said with a teasing smile. “Did I not say I last lived before the Second Sundering? This is Yaleria.”

 

     “But—!” Susan tried to cry out.

 

     “You have travelled beyond the Brightwall. This is the what the children of the Empire call the Shadelands... True Yaleria.”

 

     “That puts everything into place,” Ba'el mused. “That Brightwall is the cork on the ley-line, ain't it?”

 

     “Perceptive... Demon,” Medae said, but put a malicious twist onto title.

 

The situation is reeling out of control.

 

     “Ba'el, you better explain this.”

 

     The demon sighed, but continued, “I'm missing a bunch of details, so stop me if I'm wrong here... Yaleria was a very active community in the arcane arts, right? Not much work for someone in my line of work in a place like that. Can't say I ever visited during the few centuries this kingdom of yours was active. I probably didn't care much about either, to be honest... I was in the business of offering power and prolonged life using other methods. Can't sell sand in a desert. But I'm starting to get a hunch what kind of mumbo-jumbo you guys got up to around here.”

 

     “The necrotic arts,” Medae nodded.

 

If they're talking about what I think they are talking about—

 

     “Necrotic? Necromancy? You mean raising the dead?”

 

     “There is more too it, but yes. The magical art of necromancy formed the backbone of Yalerian society,” Hyria spoke with unreserved pride.

 

     “Wait. We're talking zombies and living skeletons here.”

 

     “A cheap labor force,” Medae said.

 

     “Oh, Medea, no need to be so cynical,” Hyria chastised the lich, lightly. “But if that will save us time, then yes. Think of it as such if you will. Such a label is one outsiders may find most agreeable.”

 

     “Tireless are the knights of Yalerian shield/ those who tirelessly scour the field / nor before their enemies yield,” Chris recanted. “That gives an old poem new meaning...”

 

     “Poems telling tales of times long turned to myth. Stories change over time and when conveyed place to place,” Hyria regaled. “Whatever stories you know, they are bastardizations.”

 

     “They are all about righteous knights keeping the tide of the undead away. Keeping that evil at bay so it does not overrun the world,” Chris said.

 

     “You are no doubt familiar with the tribes that clung to the Wyrmback mountains. Those ancient peoples who worshipped dragon gods and kings... Had those dragons turned on them, but the humans still prevailed, would not your stories of yore tell of dragons slaughtered? In ancient Yaleriam, the legends state the kingdom was founded upon the world of the living and dead meet. Its earliest settlement lay next to a cave which is said to have connected directly to the land of the dead. Its patron goddess, from which my name is derived, is Hekate. The barrier between life and death was unusually fragile. The living communed with the spirits of the deceased. Sons spoke of deeds and duty with great-grand fathers. Mothers knew their great-grandmothers watched over their children Twas a common thing. Spirits were said to have roamed free. To both protect the family and punish for wrongs done. The bones of the dead were exhumed and given a breath of life from the goddess. A great deal of trust offered to her priests. They created tireless serfs who worked the fields with no complaint. Likewise, they filled ranks and files of tireless warriors that knew no fear nor pain.”

 

Susan had a horrified expression on her face.

 

     “You did what with the bodies of the deceased? They walked the earth? This was allowed!”

 

     “And with idle hands, the living of Yaleria spent their days in leisure and composed great works of art. Sadly, I cannot show them to you. Those too all vanished as time marched on. A bitter Irony,” Hyria lamented.

 

     “And you let corpses rot,” Medea cut in. “You pulled the brains from their skulls and kept the organs in jars. I recall tales of living dead among—”

 

     “Mummification. A breath of life to their bodies to bind the soul in servitude so they may serve and protect a master's journey to the afterlife. They are not mindless automatons nor soulless husks!”

 

Shit. Susan looked about ready to lash out and attack again.

 

I stepped out in front of Susan and threw my arm out to bar her path.

 

     “So that explains both of you?”

 

     “Medae was a member of my Father's court. One of five Arch-Mages residing in Yaleria. Long ago she performed the necessary ritual to achieve lichdom. So that she may serve many lifetimes for our kingdom. She constructed a phylactery and bound her soul to it. That granted her an artificial body to walk this material world. She served not only my father, but my father's father and his father before him.”

 

     “Alright,” Rose interrupted. “Then what about you? You're going through kings faster than servants.”

 

     “The passing of kings and queens never exceeded sixty years of rule,” Medae responded. “He, or she, would not die before, nor live after. A ruler's life in Yaleria was tied to a cycle of renewal. Just as the seasons come and go, so too must a kingdom's heart, the soil grows tired and dead if seeded too many times.”

 

Hyria's bright and chipper expression died and stayed as dead as her. It almost brought Rose and I to retract that statement, but Medae continued with the story before either of us got the chance.

 

     “Yet Yaleria's history came to a sudden halt. Not from its external enemies and not from some betrayal... It came from a disaster. To say it was a natural disaster would be facetious. Something went awry with Yaleria's ley-line. An unnatural event. What brought an unparalleled boon became unstable. The once docile dead rebelled and turned on the people. A hoard of cannibals. The earth protested and shook. Entire towns were swallowed up by the earth. This plague of disasters hounded the Kingdom during the former King's dying days. The people rebelled after turning to their goddess to save yieled not even a god's tear... Hekate did not answer... The others did. The other gods must have seen the spread of death as a threat to the rest of their garden of creation. Like a blight jumping from one furrow to the next. The Daggerspire mountains rose from nothing and sealed off most of Yaleria. Rogue elements out of the King's control built the Brightwall keep above the old nexus of the ley-line and spread the wall to join the bottleneck of the Daggerspires together.”

 

     “But... Not before they waged their rebellion against my father,” Hryia struggled to speak. “They blamed my family for the kingdom's fall and the curse that befell it... They despaired over being abandoned by the gods...”

 

     “I did my best to protect him, but one by one we Arch-Mages fell. Their phylacteries were smashed when overcome in battle, or destroyed by trusted aids. I was more fortunate. My followers and I were sealed away... Deep within these catacombs, the besieging forces seeking my demise could not penetrate far enough into this sacred chamber. It appears the magic reserve of my assistants were insufficient to preserve them through the centuries. They have been reduced... to dust...”

 

Now that I think of it, her skeletal remains were mostly ash.

 

     “But in the end my survival meant I failed to protect my liege when the rebels finally reached him... For such a reason I believe is why there is no longer a king for Yaleria.”

 

And there was something else about that story which stood out.

 

     “And that's why all the bodies were burned?”

 

Hyria and Medae nodded.

 

     “To stop them from coming back to life?”

 

     “They are ignorant as to why they do so to this day,” Hyria sighed. “Neither do they comprehend the true reason why they have guarded the Brightwall for over two millennia. That those corpses which occasionally batter against the stones were once their ancestors and former countrymen is lost to them... And so Greater Yaleria became the Shadelands. A cursed land coated in eternal darkness. The sun may pass over your Yaleria, but never over the Shadelands. And in that environment, the undead thrived. It saw hordes of shambling undead, all seeking life force to feast upon. Its denizens assailed the Brightwalls many times over the years.”

 

Alright. I think that's enough of this. I'm having my own vision and bad feeling about where this is going. I looked around and met eyes with Rose. We exchanged a look and I think we set ourselves onto the same page.

 

     Rose spoke up first, “About that pay...”

 

     Ba'el pounded one paw into the other, “Damn, I forgot all about that! Can't believe myself right now. You two trying to pull a fast one on us and scrimp out on us? This here wont cover costs for long with the living torch here.” Ba'el jangled the coin purse full of silver for effect. “One week, tops.”

 

Rose's stomach grumbled.

 

     “Six days,” Rose said.

 

I jumped in next.

 

     “What they said. That was a nice story and all. But we delivered your heirloom and we'd like to get paid now.”

 

     “My friend said to make sure you always get paid right away. Last time we didn't, she hired me for debt collection. And that is pretty boring. I mean, those guys couldn't really fight and breaking their legs were a chose... But she did say that was to teach 'em a lesson...”

 

     “Shh, Rose. Keep a lid on it,” I seethed.

 

     “That old thing?” Hyria said dismissively, and ignoring Rose. “My my~ that thing never had value beyond a tool.”

 

I didn't like the inflection she put on the word: tool.

 

     “A void crystal,” Medae added. “Deprived of magic...That is how you did it... I must admit that I missed it during the melee.”

 

No. Don't tell Hyria is going to say—

 

     “Yes. That is why I had to hire you. It shattered the seal on contact, did it not? But a void crystal as pure and large as I needed For the century I spent methodically constructing it should the opportunity present itself It required someone who would not short it out on contact. Lo and behold, who should grace my sights? A man who fits that criteria, falling like manna from heaven. Those rebels who slew my father and the world I knew also sealed it away behind a barrier that rejects my kind. It rendered me helpless, but in you I found the missing piece of a puzzle. A solution to a problem over a thousand years old.”

 

     “Good. Glad to hear it. Now all that done and out of the way and we'll exit stage—“

 

     “Medae,” Hyria beckoned, interrupting me. “I shall require your power and expertise to create another.”

 

     "...Is our time so short?" the lich asked. "If you seek to break the Brightwall's power... It shall take everything I have... and the magic this place sacred holds. I shall be depleted for at least two lunar cycles."

 

Hyria nodded, the lich offered an emotionless one in affirmation and strode off. She walked past us without a care and climbed back up to her resting place. No doubt to collect the void crystal and prepare it once more. Then the princess turned her attention back to us.

 

     “If you desire your reward, then this renewed crystal will serve as your key. Unlock the second seal, and whatever treasures behind it that you can carry, let that be the debt I owe to you.”

 

     “A second seal? You're talking about the Ley-line!” Ba'el shouted.

 

     “Correct. The time has come to wash away the Brightwall and make Yaleria whole again.”

 

     “And unleash the dead!” Chris bellowed.

 

     “Like Medae, they have all slumbered and not a one has risen in three-hundred years. Just like you all, they have changed. I know it. And for the new age, they shall be needed.”

 

This is going to be a step too far. What right do I have to do such a thing? All  I wanted is to pass through and work part-time to pay the way.

 

     “Waking up one of your friends is more than enough.”

 

     “Disaster will befall Yaleria should you refuse. Did I not say Count Aaron is on the move. He seeks to overthrow Malco. MY Malco! Do not think you will be treated fairly in the chaos of his coronation. Do not think the future of our kind will not suffer with the title of Duke in his possession.”

 

     “Laven... Wait,” Ba'el said while tugging on my sleave. “She said it's uncork the ley-line.”

 

     “Ba'el?”

 

     “You do realize that'd cause all that old magic that made Yaleria what it was long ago a reality today, right?”

 

     “... You just want some of that for yourself.”

 

     “And what of it!” Ba'el screamed back.

 

     “And Christophaclies. Does not the dragon blood stir once more in Domdracveria? Will it weather the coming storm? Will it stand friendless and without allies?”

 

     “...You want to bring back the kingdom of the undead,” Chris said with cold eyes.

 

     “That's correct. I will take Malco, reunite Yaleria and bring honor back to my father. And to his father's father as well. The slumbering Dread Knights will rise again as well.”

 

Chris looked away with what were now heavy eyes.

 

     “And such a battle will be harrowing,” Hyria stated.

 

Rose's ear fins twitched and her head locked onto the princess' words.

 

     “Battle you say?”

 

     “At the Brightkeep itself.”

 

Rose's eyes shimmered and an eager smile crossed her face while those eyed daydreamed.

 

     “And a wind that follows Aaron, the coming of a Red Mist. A servant to the Light god,” came Hyria's next cryptic words of choice.

 

The silent Minte let a breath of air escape her lungs. That was as good as a scream for her. I watched as her eyes steeled themselves and a worrisome frown cross her lips.

 

     “I've seen it. It will come to pass if Aaron is not stopped. Surely, you do not wish to meet her again.”

 

Minte looked away. I spied a grimace. A complex expression on her normally emotionless face.

 

     “Hold your serpent's tongue,” Susan growled. “Cease at once. We've tolerated your petty deceptions long enough. We are not tools at your disposal." 

 

     “I am merely bestowing upon you prospects and warnings from a possible future time. Besides, there be nothing more fierce than a lover scorned. Do not take this too personally, but I must secure my Malco's safety. The north will need freed Yaleria as well. Harboring your hatred for now is but a small price to pay. Yet I am sure once you know what I know, you will all readily agree in assisting me. It is in all your best interests... Especially when a clue to the mystery seeks resides at the seal."

 

     “What?” Susan and I called out at the same time.

 

     “You seek the stars, do you not? Face the trials, stand before the seal, and I promise upon my father's honor, you will have much revealed to you,” Hyria said with an expression that lacked a trace of her usual jest.

 

Everywhere I looked the girls all had a dire expression, or stars in their eyes. That left me alone.

 

     Medae spoke from far above and behind us with candor, “Besides. You will never escape this place's labyrinth without her highness' aid.”

 

That snapped everyone's attention back.

 

     “What— Did— You— Say?” I said between grit teeth.

 

     “The entrance closed behind you a long time ago. You will starve wandering this lifeless place in mere days.”

 

     “You—!” I screamed with clenched fists.

 

     “I apologize for a second time... But I have seen the future. And I will prevent it. Thankfully, its avoidance benefits us both... Now... Have we come to terms?” Hyria said.

 

Once again, she offered a smile and her hand, encased in its ghastly ethereal claw, toward me.

 

***

 

Within the highest keep on a castle watching over Yalerian field and swamp, seated before a table with pieces arrayed on a chessboard, pondered Duke Malco. He was dressed in his sleepwear, but kept a cloak of wolf pelts draped over his broad shoulders. He also continued to wear a pair of thick leather boots that he tapped relentlessly against the ground. Its lonely echo reverberated off the spartan decorated walls. Frogs croaked and the hooting of owls were ushered in through the window. Moonlight bathed the room, its sole competition being the candle lighting the chess board and casting long shadows for its few remaining pieces.

 

The man's long black hair hung over his shoulders like a mane, but its luster was not present. Worry made it disheveled and it had not been properly washed for days. His hazel eyes bore holes into the board, but the pieces refused to move. The one time he smashed them in anger... that woman appeared from nowhere and set them back to how they were before. She did it with a smile and implored him to take his move. All with a smile. Remembering that smile made the handsome battle scared face of his contort with anger.

 

That anger could not be constrained to his chair, so he pushed it back with great force. It fell over and clattered to the ground with a loud bang. He cared not and strode his way to the window. There he watched over the Brightwall that rose out of the ground two full leagues away. Even at this distance it displayed its mighty height and massive girth. No other like it could be built. Dwarven craft, magics of all kind, a shattered nation coming together with the help of the gods to construct it.

 

And Yaleria's eternal duty to see it never falls. Duke Malco looked upon it to give him strength. He inherited it from his father, as did his father before him. The spectre which haunted him for years would be banished forever, but only if he could win this game of skill. He won once, easily. But the second game the woman ran circles around him. No matter how long he though, his every move was seen through. It is as if she were always ten steps ahead of him.

 

She had been playing him for a fool. That witch built up his confidence and then crushed it for her amusement. Now he remembered the smile when she tipped over his king for the first time. He was a Duke, a warrior and a general like his father before him, but unlike other generals, the man could never afford to lose a single battle. Not ever... But this third game, the one which would decide it... Seemed doomed to fail from the start.

 

But his thoughts could not stay on such matter forever. His keen eyes picked up on a sight that existed only in his nightmares. One of the great banners, the Yalerian standard fluttering above the Brightkeep itself, vanished. Malco's heart jumped out of his chest. His hands gripped the stone window sill hard that the masonry nearly shattered.

 

One of his knight-lieutenants smashed the door off the hinges behind him. There was no time to knock.

 

     “Your highness!” He rasped with parched breath. “Courier pigeon from the Birghtkeep! They're being attacked!”

 

     “What?” Malco bellowed. “By whom?”

 

     “I-it's not that, sir! It's been seized by men, not corpses!”

 

Malco turned back around, and saw colors being raised above the Brightkeep. He did not recognize them at first. The standards of all his subjects, and those neighboring his Duchy were known to him... But there was one. One without history.

 

     “Aaron...” Malco seethed with bloodshot eyes.

 

     “S-sir!” Another knight came barrelling into the room to join the other. “There's an army in the field! It's maneuvering to besiege us!”

 

     “If they control the Brightkeep, hold the ground between here and there—“

 

     “And have us besieged... Then that means our supply line is cut-off,” Malco said, finishing his lieutenant's thought.

 

The Brightwall is the bulwark, and the castle, the Capital of Yaleria, was meant to be the center of mass. Everything relied on the supply line from the Brightwall and where they stood idly by.

 

     “Barricade everything! We'll have to hold out long enough to be relieved!” Malco ordered.

 

The two knight-lieutenant's saluted and rushed off.

 

Malco turned back to the window and stared daggers at the wall where his standards fell one by one and were replaced with the gaudy and ugly colors of Count Aaron.

 

     “You spineless peasant scum,” Malco cursed.

 

But Malco knew he wasn't dealing with someone who posed no threat... He even began to wonder if relief would come at all. Or if Aaron had bought them off. Malco knew someone plotted against him. In his heart of hearts he wished it were an outsider... But he knew at the depths of his soul that it could only be Aaron... But without proof, the snake would have struck much sooner.

 

He turned back to the chessboard once more. He stared at the king.

 

     “Three moves till check. Was that right?” He said with a hollow voice.

 

His finger reached out toward it. He let it rest on the ebony carved crown... But he pulled his hand away. Footsteps echoed once more in the room as he pulled himself toward his armory.

 

Malco would not choose one form of surrender to avoid defeat.

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