A draft buffeted the torches, a wind as urgent as the mage’s mission.
“How long will you indulge her in this, my lord?”
“What’s the matter?”
“She has no control, and the things she conjures with her mistakes are losing their patience. So far, they have been, let’s say, understanding, but if they decide to stay because she disturbs their rest, there will be nothing we can do to send them back.”
“Why not? Isn’t that what you do?”
“It is, my lord, but it is not who we are. Were it not for the containment that separates our worlds, it would be far worse than it is now. As it is, those who report such things as haunting and possession mean the containment has its weak spots, and is being assailed at all times.”
The king’s expression darkened. The queen reached and took his hand, and he jumped a bit, startled at the unexpected contact.
“Perhaps it’s time to reconsider,” she said. “You know she’s willful, and if she’s not listening…”
The king’s face softened at her, but not when he looked back at his mage. “Is there no other way?”
“I wish there were, my lord, but sadly, no.”
“And if she tries to conjure in her anger, or when she’s alone?”
“We’ve put safeguards in place for those very circumstances.”
A ponderous silence fell as they all waited for the king’s answer, and the mage found himself growing anxious.
Your life is at stake, just as much as ours. Make no mistake about that, and don’t be a fool. We will let them kill her if you tell us to continue.
“Stop her lessons,” the king said.
The mage couldn’t hide his relief. “Thank you, sire.”
As he turned to go, Princess Lillian came in, pointing her finger at him. “It’s his fault I almost lost control!”
“Lillian,” the queen said, “that isn’t true.”
The mage looked down at the girl, his face a veneer of quiet menace. “Have a care, child.”
“Don’t threaten my daughter,” the king said.
The mage briefly forgot himself. “Don’t threaten her? She threatens all of us with her incompetence.”
“Get out.”the king’s voice was quiet, but the threat behind it was palpable. “I’ll have your entire Order slain.”
The mage bristled. “I think not, O king. When next you need magic,” he looked at Lillian, “she has neither the skill, the control, or the attitude to properly wield a spell.
“To the point, if she continues making errors in her casting, something will eventually get through, and there will be consequences none of us will be able to handle, and we will all die.
“It would have happened already, had we not been able to contain the thing she conjured.”
“For that, at the very least, we are most grateful,” the queen said.
The mage nodded his gratitude, but added to his list: “She is impetuous, and can’t be trusted to not attempt a cast if our presence is required elsewhere.”
“What of your own acolytes/” the king asked.
The mage gave him a patient look: “She’s your daughter, sire. They’ll not gainsay her, much less try to stop her.”
He looked once more at his queen, who again shook her head at the persistent question behind his eyes.
He looked at his daughter, and his face and voice were heavy with regret. “Very well, stop the lessons. She’ll pursue other things, and perhaps my wife will prove more of an ally then.”
The royal couple looked at their child, thinking she’d fly into a rage.
Instead, she gave them an eerily detached look, as if they were peasant strangers she never met who’d dared approach her, and left the room in utter silence, almost as if she hadn’t been there at all.
“Set a watch on her, then.” the king ordered.
The mage spoke again: “Such magic as she has, she would know if she was followed and spied upon, but there might be a way to undo it.”
The spells were arcane, complex, painful, involving bloodletting, but if he didn’t stop her, there’d be no telling what she’d unleash.
He’d tried to tell them not to start, but her father was wet clay in her hands.
The queen, sensing what the mage sensed was beneath the surface, also tried to convince him, but the final word was his.
And now they were here.
Royalty were a silly lot: give them one heir, and they indulge them to the point where they became insufferable; give them too many, and they became paranoid, killing whoever they believed the strongest threats, be they sons or daughters.
The lot of them are mad.
He made his way down to the cellar-crypts.
Someone stepped from the shadows, a cowl over their heads, and sheathed a dagger into the mage’s heart.
He managed to pull the hood off the man, and didn’t recognize the stone face and cruel eyes staring down at him as the knife twisted, and as his eyes closed, he saw Lillian emerge behind the assassin, watching him collapse on himself like a marionette being cut loose from its strings.
Lillian was supposed to be in bed, but here she was in the cellars, looking at the corpse of the only man who stood in her way.
“The power is mine now!” She gave his lifeless form a few hard kicks, until the assassin politely pretended to clear his throat to bring her back to reality.
She looked up at him. “You did well. Thank you.”
“Spit on your thanks. Where’s the other half of my pay?”
“There’s a leather purse on a pedestal by the door. Pick it up on your way out.”
His laughter was low and hollow before he replied. “And something will be down there that can break me in half, allowing you to keep the money. Do you think I’m stupid, child?”
She smiled. “Yes, because it’s right behind you.”
The assassin was picked up on barbed claws that pierced his torso, slammed him into the high ceiling, and slammed his body hard on the stone floor, then knelt beside it and looked at the girl, a question in its eyes.
She nodded. “Do it.”
The creature tore it open, and the coppery, meaty smell of blood mingled with the scent of waste permeated the air, making Lillian retch and back away as the thing feasted.
It found her.
She almost screamed at the sight; it was gorged, bulbous, bloody, almost leering at her in its sated state, its muzzle steaming with cooling gore, its red eyes glowing in the semi-dark.
As it approached, the torches behind it flared before snuffing out, as if they’d been smothered by an unseen hand.
Lillian, are you sure you have the power to do this?
She’d watched the whole thing, dazed and frightened, her feelings of triumph turning to a wary certainty descending slowly into a rising panic.
Lillian? The creature came further, and more torches died.
She swallowed, breathing shallow, and as she backed away her legs seemed to get heavier.
Lillian, will you answer me?
Another step, another torch.
She heard the words in her mind. ….impetuous…willful…
Lillian! I want to return. Send me back.”
She was backing toward the pedestal by the door; there was nothing on it. He’d been no fool after all.
She began to cry. …impetuous…willful… she found herself against the door.
A gory claw, cold and rancid, brushed her cheek.
Ah, I see. You can’t. The man you killed, he could.
You shouldn’t summon what you can’t control, princess. He told you that, didn’t he. You’ve trapped me here. Tell me, do you remember what happens if we can’t return?”
“You kill the living.”
Yesss, you remember. And this is a good place to start, here among the the dead. Now would be a good time to begin and… how fortunate, little conjurer, that we begin here…
Lillian heard more claws skittering in the darkness, and stopped.
The last of the torches went out, and Lillian’s screams shattered the night-crypt silence.