“Elizabeth Sobel!” Walken’s trembling voice echoed across the now empty chamber. His usually narrow eyes bulged at their sockets. How was it even possible for her to be here? Walken felt the surety of his of plan falling apart with each new revelation. No Mage can teleport into to the Tower without using an attunement key, much less into the confines of another Mage’s pocket dimension. How was it possible that this Void Mage was able to overcome so many restrictions?
The Magister felt his mind reeling with chaotic deliberations. The cataclysmic shift of circumstantial evidence unquestionably proved that unlike his hypothesis, Gwen Song and Elizabeth Sobel were not Master and Apprentice.
Urgent questions begged for knowledge he did not possess.
Why was the Grot dispelled?
Is Henry Kilroy deceased?
How was the Void Mage not shunted away by the collapse of the pocket dimension?
A cascade of riddles plagued his mind, each a wind-tossed seed of self-doubt.
His gaze fell upon Debora, beside which Gwen Song, the junior Void Mage, was held captive by a prison of sand. Jones was one who had come to him, citing that she’d bore witness to Kilroy’s confession of harbouring and abetting a Void Mage conspiracy. He’d then worked with her in secret, going as far as to promise her an apprenticeship in exchange for whatever memory he'd extract from her. With so much evidence at hand, he'd been confident that Gwen Song and Henry Kilroy was conspiring against the Tower's interests.
He observed Debora's change in demeanour the moment Elizabeth materialised. He'd seen that nervous look before; it was the look of a dog expecting admonishment from its master.
He wanted nothing more than to have an hour alone with Debora in an isolation chamber, strapped to a chair while a Compel Truth enchantment stripped her mind. Perhaps, Walken thought regretfully. Perhaps that should have been their first stop when she'd approached him.
“Eric,” a Message spell privately bloomed next to his ear. It was Irene Ferris, his fellow Magister whom he'd thought had made her bed with Kilroy. “Whatever is happening, we have to survive this. Even if Kilroy and de Botton are both gone, we cannot allow the Tower to fall into this woman’s hands. At worst, I’d rather see the Tower burn than see it usurped.”
Walken’s response was interrupted by the sight of Debora, who had been entirely passive the whole while, proceeding to present herself in front of Elizabeth Sobel.
Debora moved, followed dangerously by the bloodshot eyes of the gathered. She knelt upon one knee and supplicated before the Void Mage, bowing her head close to the ground as though she was exalting a deity.
“Eric!” Sensing his hesitation; Ferris’ voice took on a tone of desperate urgency. “Henry is gone, we’re on the same side now! There’s been a conspiracy, and you’ve been played. Eric, please. Don’t go down this path any further, do what is best for you and the Tower, for the Faction!”
Ferris’ words struck Walken to the core of his being, momentarily draining the strength from his body. By now, he knew that the Master Diviner was right, his feud with de Botton and Kilroy had blinded his better judgement. The moment the Grot had disappeared, 'Deathless’ Henry had died, sending his familiar back to whatever Black Zone he'd found her in. With the death of his old nemesis, Walken's hypothesis had perished like the animus of an abandoned familiar. He had been so sure that Kilroy's ilk was the culprits behind the crisis, but now as it turned out, he had been the monkey in the middle the whole damn while. As it turns out, they weren’t the villains; he was the villain.
He chuckled bitterly. What a world of shit he'd found himself.
With a silent thrum, one of his Ioun Stones activated.
“Magus Fiore, shut down the Disruptor Engine and cancel the quarantine.” Walken paused for a split-second, a moment of self-preservation fighting the necessity of action. “Inform Paladin Shultz that the Master of the Tower is dead, that we need his aid... and that once the crisis is absolved, I am at his mercy.”
“Yes, my Lord,” The answer came swift and unquestioning.
“Did you actually contact the Brisbane and Melbourne Towers?” Ferris pursued Walken carefully.
“I did. They’re on their way.”
“Soon, I hope. While you were all stalling. I was stalling too.”
Ferris looked over at the figure of Elizabeth, so casually and confidently standing there as though they were transparent. Either the woman was insane, or she had nothing to fear. Ferris’ premonition informed her that under the circumstances, it was the latter that applied.
All they could do now was wait and hope. Hoping that with Gunther’s imminent arrival, the three of them would be enough to hold out until the other Towers teleported in.
* * *
The great Magi Plato once said that with enough will, it was possible to overcome pain. The hypothesis held true. Indeed, an esoteric caster could overcome the transient agony of the body.
But for Gwen at least, that hypothesis proved to be utterly baseless.
With each renewed struggle, the sand prison seemed to constrain her in novel ways. Either magically compelled or by Debora’s will, every attempt Gwen made at summoning the energies of Lightning or Void resulted in a wracking agony that disrupted her mana channels.
Then Debora began to move towards Elizabeth. With each crawling inch, Gwen felt a sliver of fear knotting her gut like a razor was scraping the insides of her abdomen.
Was she now about to experience being consumed herself? Gwen had devoured others before now, or at least Caliban had. Even as second-hand emphatic projections, the expressions of those whose existences were taken from them haunted her dreams.
Abruptly, they ceased their movement.
From the corner of her eye, Gwen could see that Debora had bent the knee. The proud girl's head lowered itself to perform a shameful petition; it gave the impression of a child begging for forgiveness.
Henry’s wife seemed to possess no interest in Debora. Instead, she turned her terrifying attention towards Gwen. The creeping unease of Elizabeth's gaze triggered a wave of nausea in Gwen that drained the blood from her face.
“What a lovely thing you are.” Elizabeth’s breathe was soft with a hint of lilac. Gwen felt goosebumps prickle her skin, following the path of Elizabeth's eyes as they swept over Gwen’s lithe body, tracing the curve of her waist down to her white thighs. Satisfied with her inspection, Elizabeth placed a pale, dainty hand upon Gwen’s forehead. To Gwen, it felt as though five icicles were stabbing into her skull.
“So much potential. Such a waste," Elizabeth purred. "What did Henry see in you? A chance to redeem himself?”
Gwen wanted to retort, to accuse Elizabeth and riposte her barbed insult. When she sought the right words, however, she found herself tongue-tied. For what could she possibly say that Elizabeth had not already done?
“Master,” a voice emanated from below them. It was Debora; her head touched the floor. “You promised.”
Elizabeth laughed, a thrilling trill that echoed through the chamber like bells.
“Of course, my child. So I have." Her tone was kind and generous. "You have truly outdone yourself this time. What kind of master would I be, if I could not even grant such a simple boon?”
Gwen felt that her ragged, burning breath was an extravagance when compared to the torturous feeling of being held by Elizabeth's icy fingers.
“Some privacy at a safe distance, perhaps?” Elizabeth intoned beside Gwen.
Debora said nothing, merely silently pressing her head against the floor.
“Very well then, I expect great things from you, when you return.”
Seemingly satisfied with Debora’s supplication, Elizabeth expertly uttered an incantation.
Gwen felt yet another jolt of shrieking premonition sending slivers of shivery frost up her spine. She watched helplessly as an orb appeared beside her head, rapidly expanding to encompass her body. As the inky darkness touched her skin, she felt enveloped in something viscous and expansive, like dipping one’s feet into a vat of oil.
She opened her mouth to scream when the darkness finally reached her face, but in the blackness of the void, not even her own whimpering was audible.
Gwen had been furious when Debora turned traitor, she had felt despair when Henry perished to treason, but it was only now that she felt small, diminished, helpless and afraid - for within the interminable expanse of the Void, she was but a speck upon a speck.
She may as well be nothing.
* * *
Walken and Ferris flinched as Gwen and Debora became enveloped in a lightless orb darker than black. When it rapidly shrunk with an audible ‘pop’, they were gone, leaving behind a smooth concavity in the stonework that looked as though it had been carved out by master stonemasons.
They felt their skin crawl as Elizabeth turned her attention towards them, her baby-blue eyes reserved and serene.
“Well, have you seen enough?” Elizabeth’s alluring, youthful face betrayed her aura, a nauseating wave of violence and slaughter that ripped from her like rising tidal water. “Are you ready to meet your maker?”
“Looks like our time’s up,” Walken ignored Elizabeth's goading. Instead, he forced his breathing to reach the optimum meditative cadence for mana retention.
The Void bitch had one thing right. Walken was ready.
“Mages, fire at will!”
Though the volume of spells that filled the air was impressive, the vast majority of the cover fire was generated by junior Mages with low-tier incantations. A scarce few of the volleys were from the Maguses, who each manifested their most offensive and destructive spells.
Elizabeth didn't even wince.
A dark egg enveloped her; the surface of her Void Shield was absorbing each spell, their effect causing nought but ripples as the magic gluttonously devoured the devastating assault.
Shielded by the pyrotechnical display, Walken produced a miniature mithril maze with a snap of his wrist. He began to draw the Sigils for an incredibly elaborate containment spell. It took several seconds for the complicated magic to manifest, the effort causing a sheen of sweat to permeate Walken's face.
With a triumphant roar, Walken executed his trump card.
Both of Walken's hands pressed together upon the mithril-forged miniature of the maze, feeling the component crumple to silvery dust as the spell manifested. It was a fail-safe he’d prepared for Kilroy, fully expecting the Magister to resist his accusations until the bitter end. As the magic manifested, an invisible portal enclosed the dark egg, containing it within the space of a Demi-plane modelled upon the meticulously crafted component.
Once Elizabeth was imprisoned, Walken could keep her trapped for days, until either she found a way to escape the spell, or until he was out of mana. By then, with any luck, their allies would have arrived. No matter how powerful Elizabeth may appear to be, there was no way she could stand up to the might of Gunther, the Tower’s Paladin, Lin, the Grey Faction’s only Combat Magister, as well as Uther, the Battlemaster of the Warring Faction.
“It’s working!” Ferris uttered with relief. She had readied an action to cast her most potent spell - it appeared her involvement was no longer necessary.
“No, she’s resisting me!” Walken grunted in alarm. “She’s draining the spell force somehow! How is this even possible?! Mages! Cease your attacks now!”
Ferris cursed and redoubled her concentration, compelling her spell to once again manifest.
A fracture fissured the invisible air, distorting time and space. As the Maze spell collapsed, a flood of void mana poured from the dark egg. A viscous ooze began to drip from its surface, pitter-pattering onto the floor to form into hundreds of writhing lampreys lined with obsidian carapace.
"Shit! That's what it was doing!" Walken realised too late.
Within a second of their aberrant birth, the creatures seemed to sense the group of Mages firing upon them and began to leap, crawl, slither and jump towards them like a dark, ominous tide.
“Shit, what the hell are those things?”
Panic overruled the Tower Mages' better judgement. The majority of them were acolytes untested by the horror of mortal combat. The Maguses and the Veterans instinctively instructed the junior to retreat as the dark tide approached.
Ferris’ eyes swelled with disgust and horror. She’d been holding a Power Word Pain, but with Elizabeth sheltered within her Egg, there was nought she could do in the circumstance.
“Wall of Magma!”
It was Julia, her protege from Rosebay, who had acted first, shielding her companions and Magister Ferris with a wave of her hand. The glowering walls of fire and molten stone sliced the torrent of darkly crawling worms in half, broiling them as they blindly sought passage.
“Good work Julia!”
“Magister! We need to retreat!”
“Walken! What’s the plan?”
Walken measured their dire circumstance with a withered look.
“Retreat and regroup! Detach the platform! Don’t let those things touch you!”
The Mages erected barriers and shields as they retreated. Even so, some of them had been too slow for the tidal swarm that now covered the floor and ceilings, a milling mass of wiggling darkness that contrasted sickeningly against the sterile white walls.
A zealous Abjurer who’d been shielding his Evoker companion became smothered by a ball of the dark worms that fell from the ceiling. His surprised face of disgust quickly transformed into one of unmitigated horror. He screamed and screamed as the worms dug into his flesh with their pointed teeth, slithering wetly under his skin and making for his brain, his heart and his liver.
The emanated cry was inhuman. Within a few horrid seconds, the Abjurer collapsed upon the floor, the dark worms bursting from the sockets of his eyes and birthing anew from his desiccated, wilting flesh.
Another Mage, a transmuter who’d found himself too close to the swarm when erecting a wall, was taken by a stream of the creatures that had swept around his barrier and were now entering him through fleshy tunnels bored into his thighs.
“No! Master! Save me!”
Walken fired off a volatile blast of air, the acolyte’s head exploded like a crushed melon.
“To the Platform!” He commanded the survivors, “Jump! Feather Fall if you have to!”
He cursed the excessive security of the Mage Tower. For the protection of its inhabitants, the Tower had been made so that intra-teleportation within it was impossible. Instead, translocation was accomplished through Teleportation Circles that formed an intra-net within the Tower’s infrastructure. Likewise, though Levitation and Feather Fall was unrestricted, Flight and other means of aerial locomotion were severely limited within the Tower’s airspace, both internally and externally.
Henry’s Grot rested atop a tubular that extended until it reached the zenith of the Tower’s highest battlement. It was accessed by a slow-moving levitation platform that ensured there would be ‘no surprises’ awaiting the Magister in the event of an invasion. Usually, the Magister teleported into and from the Tower by using a Circle located at the platform’s base station. When the moment had presented itself, Walken had taken the opportunity of the looming siege, as well as Henry’s incapacitation, to revoke all Teleportation privileges into and within the Tower. It was an opportunity that he hadn’t expected at all - after all, for what possible reason could Henry Kilroy, Master of the Tower, be incapacitated just as a siege had begun?
Even as the disk descended and the lamprey worms fell from the platform in the hundreds, they did not fade or dissipate. From the greasy motes of Conjuration mana that emitted from these creatures, Walken woefully acknowledged these must be Elizabeth's familiars.
Though exceedingly rare, it's not unheard of for Mages to acquire hive-mind familiars. It was a matter of affinity, as the concentration and mana required for such a summon were impossible for all but the most talented of Conjurers.
What frightened Walken was that the Void woman could form a near-invulnerable Abjuration shield while co-currently manifesting hundred and thousands of the lamprey worms. How were they supposed to defeat an enemy like that?
Abjuration, Evocation, and Conjuration, Walken prayed that these schools were all Elizabeth had mastered, for they were already outclassed and outmatched. Had the manuscripts not expressly stated that Void Casters were glass cannons, heavily limited by the drain upon their vitality? Why was this Elizabeth unperturbed by the effects of Negative Energy drain?
"Sir! The platform is overloaded!"
The levitating disk was not designed to hold three dozen Mages at once. Its magic groaned and spluttered as the terrified casters piled onto the metal platform, forcing it to list dangerously.
“Sir! Look out!” an acolyte cried out.
Walken’s Ring of Evasion activated, aiding his movement as he dived from the edge of the platform onto the disk, narrowly avoiding a clump of the worms that had sought to satisfy their insatiable hunger.
A flash of brilliant silvery mana manifested a Winged Serpent fully three meters tall, almost filling the chamber from the ceiling to the descending levitating platform. Its wings were a splay of changing hues, multi-coloured and resplendent. Its draconic head opened its maw to reveal a row of razor-sharp teeth laid end to end like a line of glinting daggers.
The celestial pseudo-dragon distended its jaw and let loose a line of electricity that expanded as it travelled through the mass of darkness, clearing a blighted path that penetrated the swarm until it struck Elizabeth’s dark egg.
To his surprise, rather than the expectant, all-consuming ripple, the line of lightning struck the void shield as though it were a solid object, fracturing its fragile shell as the volatile energy ravaged its surface.
“Lightning! It's vulnerable to Lightning!” Walken shouted jubilantly to the others. They needed a Lightning Mage! His thoughts exalted until it rested upon Gwen Song, following which Walken cursed vehemently under his breath. Was that why the Void woman had stolen Gwen Song away? Another stray thought struck Walken's fancy. Had Henry Kilroy been cultivating Gwen Song not for her Void abilities, but for her Lightning? Had the old man foreseen this day and knew the importance of having Elemental Lightning at their disposal?
Walken's epiphanic thoughts were interrupted by a wave of malice emanating from within the now shattered egg, a sliver of darkness, too quick for his eyes to follow, shot from the shadows.
Before Walken could even react, his chest exploded. Empathic pain from his familiar engulfed him. Walken forced himself to concentrate; his eyes caught the horrific sight of his Couatl; pinned to the white walls by a dark blade a full two meters in length. The vorpal sword had penetrated the armour of the pseudo-dragon easily, cutting a dark gash from its navel to the chest. Dark, draconic blood splattered the surrounding stones, showering the Mages below in a crimson rain.
“Couatl!” Walken urged his familiar to dematerialise. Unexpectedly, he felt a strange fatigue emanating from the Winged Serpent, preventing his command from reaching his summoned companion. A sudden sense of vertigo and exhaustion indicated that he had been negatively drained. Desperately, Walken redoubled his efforts to retract his contracted beast into the safety of its pocket dimension.
The Couatl finally relented after another excruciating moment, dissipating into loose motes of quicksilver conjuration mana.
“We don’t have any acolytes with Lightning,” Ferris announced miserably after a quick headcount. “Gwen Song was the only one. Prince’s and Riverview has a few, but I doubt they'd loan us their kids for a suicide mission. Chances are they've already evacuated inland.”
Walken felt at his wit's end.
“Master!” A chorus of voices called out in alarm.
Walken and Ferris looked up from their platform to see a tide of darkness descending upon them. The worm-swarm and reached critical mass and was now a roving, unstoppable expanse that cascaded toward them like an oil spill. Behind the swarm, whipping the barb-tongued lampreys forward into a feeding frenzy, was Elizabeth, her white skin smothered with bloated, leech-like creatures that pulsed with unholy vitality. She had an expression that implied she was curious as to what they would do; like a cat watching mice at play.
Walken’s face turned pale. His voice, however, took on a sterner tenor.
“I am going to stall them with Reverse Gravity,” he announced fatalistically. “Disable the platform and free fall to the bottom, find Gunther and inform the others. Tell them. Tell them I was wrong.”
“Hey, I don’t plan on dying here.” Walken flashed a contingency ring on his finger. “You don’t think she can kill me within a split second, do you?”
Before Ferris could respond, a blast of light so bright as to burn a white shadow within their disbelieving retinas penetrated the walls of the levitation passage. With a deafening screech, the lamprey creatures burned and sizzled until they withered to motes of void dust, harmless specks that quickly faded into nothingness.
From a still smouldering passage came a radiant figure whose aura filled all present space.
Gunther Shultz’s robe was ripped and torn, his face caked with mud and blood, but none of that seemed to detract from his Demi-god presence.
“Eric Walken, this is not the place for you to die,” He announced grimly, his resonate voice like the voice of Metatron. “You must survive, for when Master’s murderer lays dead and buried, you will face me.”
Ferris’ was so glad to see the Paladin that she seemed ready to burst into a cry of jubilation. A cry of ragged cheers broke from the surviving Mages, hollering Gunther’s name as the tide of darkness receded to the top of the platform and dared not venture closer. From below, they could see the shadowy, silhouetted form of Elizabeth regarding them coldly from her vantage point, the whiteness of her pale skin juxtaposed against the sea of writhing shadow that smothered every surface.
Walken himself was beset by mixed emotions.
“As you wish, Paladin,” he declared with a bitter smile upon his lips. “So long as the Tower is safe, I am yours to do as you see fit.”
* * *
Gwen welcomed the cold, hard, rocky gravel.
She had landed awkwardly, uncertain of her footings until she was already falling.
Her journey through the muted vacuum of the Void had taught her to treasure even the painful strike of hard basalt against her knees. It was truly as Joni Mitchell had sung, that one didn’t know what one had until it was gone. She was beginning to understand why Caliban desperately desired to be manifested in the material realm. The Void was a place of nothing, no sound, no light, no presence; it was like existing within a vacuum, where one’s existence became antithetical. For having spent even a micron of a split second within that dreadful place, Gwen felt diminished, lessened, curtailed in proportion.
When she tried to stand, however, the sand prison that had bound her contracted, once again sending her into a convulsive fit. The pain brought back the urgency of her most recent memories.
There was a flash of conjuration mana where the Grot had been, and then all of her friends, her new family in this world, was gone.
Her Master! Her mentor! Her saviour! The wizened old Magister simply wanted to repent, to find the goodness that his wife had taken from him so long ago, he had told Gwen that she was his redemption! She was going to be his apprentice, inherit his legacy!
Gwen couldn’t believe that they were just… gone.
With a vicious sense of self-abandonment, she pulled at her constraints, feeling the sand digging into her skin, cutting into her sinews, abrasively biting into her pale flesh as she thrashed. The agony that had so paralysed her before was no obstacle to her desire to lash out, to escape her bondage so that she could visit terrible vengeance against Debora.
“Gwen, you’ll hurt yourself.” A worried voice intoned huskily beside her.
Gwen’s disheveled face, half covered by her chaotic, blood-matted hair, looked up to see the very object of her fury standing no more than a few meters away!
“I’ll fucking kill you!” Gwen cried out, her voice hoarse with rage. Her comely face was a mask of distorted fury, her eyes two glowing orbs of swirling darkness. Motes of Void matter coursed through her body, feeding off her emotions.
The netherworld serpent slinked into existence beside Gwen, its serpentine body growing thick and muscular as it gluttonously fed off Gwen’s life-force.
“Fuck her up!” Gwen commanded, forcing herself through the pain of the sand prison’s constraint. “Tear her apart!”
“Shaa! Shaaa!” Caliban rapidly expanded in size. It coiled its body and launched itself towards Debora, its lamprey’s mouth overflowing with grey, globular saliva.
With a singular incantation from Debora, Caliban dematerialised, becoming dormant in his pocket dimension.
“Don’t summon Caliban again,” Debora advised Gwen with a face full of concern, a look that enraged her further. “You’re already hurt.”
With a violent tug, Gwen was launched backwards, falling onto her buttocks as the sand reshaped itself to restrain her. With Caliban having taken its pound of flesh from her already weakened vitality, Gwen felt no longer capable of wrestling the pull of the shifting sand. As she fought for breath against the agony of twisted sinew, she felt hard pressed against the broken rubble. Her face was now facing directly upwards, staring into the liquid, amber eyes of Debora, gazing down upon her with the same expression she had that night in the desert; when Gwen had gifted her with the very spirit that she now used to keep her prisoner.
“Debora,” Gwen forced the words from her throat, half choked with fury, half-blinded with rampant emotion. “Why?”
It wasn’t a question asked out of despair or spite. It was a genuine enquiry as to why someone she’d thought was a friend and an ally, a confidant with whom she’d spent almost year of her life, would turn upon her so viciously and without reason.
Was it because she had refused Debora’s advances? That was absurd. Gwen couldn’t even consider that possibility. If so, then why had Debora betrayed them? Was it as Walken had said, that Debora wanted to win his favour, to become his apprentice? That made no sense either because she saw Debora kneeling before Elizabeth as a willing sycophant. Was Debora perhaps glamoured? Was she still dominated from that time in the forest, during the Field Trip? That was another baseless conjecture, no spell lasted that long, and even if it had, how could it have escaped Henry, Alesia, Gunther, and the myriads of detection spells active within the Tower’s confines?
Debora no longer had that expression of blank servitude which she’d retained when standing before Elizabeth. Her face was now alive with emotion, so mixed as to be unreadable, changing with each passing second, alternating between tribulation and triumph.
“Why?” Debora said in that husky voice of hers. “It’s because I need you, Gwen Song.”
The absurd answer compelled Gwen to pull at her restraints haplessly. The collar around her neck, however, had been loosened enough so that she could speak. Gwen seized the opportunity to take in her surroundings.
A distant building loomed with intimate familiarity. A Cathedral that was now battered and dilapidated, its precious stained glass shattered by the stress of combat. Had the rest of the Rosebay girls escaped to safety? Were they still holed up in the catacombs? Given better circumstances, Gwen’s Samaritan mind would have lingered upon those poor girls whose uncertain futures haunted her, but her immediate crisis loomed in the shape of a psychotic Debora Jones.
“Don’t be absurd, Debora,” Gwen spoke with an edge of frost. Now that she was taken far away from the Tower, from the pressure of those all-powerful presences vying for dominance, she could once again hear herself think. All she needed was an opportunity and she could turn the situation around. “If you love me so much, then why did you betray me?”
“It was the only way to save you.” Debora replied.
Gwen felt lost for words. The two girls exchanged a measured look, Debora’s eyes were patient, while Gwen’s alternated between disbelief, vexation, and exasperation.
“No. I want the truth, Debora. If you’re going to kill me, at least tell me the truth.”
“I don’t want to kill you, Gwen. I want you alive and well.”
“What does that even mean!?” Gwen uttered in frustration. “Who are you, Debora Jones? What are you even after?”
“I just wanted you, Gwen. Nothing else.”
“Shut up!” Gwen was howling now, Debora’s tomfoolery was boiling her already risen blood. Her head felt swollen and nauseated, her cheeks flushed salmon-pink. “Don’t try to play coy with me! Do you seriously expect me to believe that you did all of this because of jealousy? Because of some green eyed monster?!”
Debora would not understand the reference but Gwen was beside herself now.
“Tell me the truth! If you’re going to do your worst, at least give me the mercy of knowledge. I want to know why. I want to know.”
“The truth,” Gwen huffed breathlessly.
“Alright,’ Debora replied. “The truth.”
Debora’s flesh began to change and shift, her mien becoming indistinct, as like the shift of uncertain colour caught between hues. A distinct swirl of void mana flowed over her skin like dark ink.
Gwen watched with abject horror, her once livid face now blank and agog. Debora ceased to be, replaced instead by a 'face' that was androgynous, white and hideous, whose pale, sunken cheeks were the likeness of weatherworn quattrocento statues.
He, she, or it - had a long, asymmetrical face that was small and sharply structured, with high cheekbones and large oval eyes that gave her an impression of an ethereal, otherworldly presence. The nose especially, was short, squat and half-formed. Where Debora had a figure that was athletic and full figured, but this creature was anorexic and hollow-cheeked. Debora’s enchanted earthen robes resized slowly, tightening until it encompassed her new form.
“What are you?” Gwen asked quietly.
“My mother calls me the Faceless one,” Faceless replied without a particular inflexion to her tone. There was no gender that Gwen could discern, not that the circumstances could have compelled her to ask such a trivial question. For the moment, that Faceless had been Debora, and thus was a girl, should suffice.
“Your mother?” Gwen inquired, though she had an inkling as to whom the creature’s progenitor may be.
“Yes, the woman you call Elizabeth.”
“Indeed.” Faceless smiled weakly, revealing broken, twisted teeth that were filthy and yellowing. “My mother had just taken my father’s life.”
“That’s… impossible,” Gwen mouthed, her mind in such shock that she had even ceased struggling. “Henry said Elizabeth had a miscarriage.”
“So she did,” Faceless affirmed. Her grey pupils were two disks of milky cataracts. “When you traffic in the element of death, your body no longer becomes capable of bearing life.”
Gwen felt her breath catch in her throat. The implications of what Faceless had just told her struck her like a bolt from the blue. It wasn’t something she’d considered before, even in her previous life, but the opportunity had always been something she’d taken for granted.
“Then how are you…”
“I’d be happy to tell it.” Faceless replied, “but first, I want to make you an offer.”
Gwen’s amber eyes moved to gaze upon Faceless’ malformed face, though her mind was a chaotic mess, a sliver of clarity escaped the crisis. Now that the moment of fevered rage had passed, she felt the coolness collection of rationality again suffuse her thoughts. She may be trapped and helpless, but it was clear that Faceless wanted something from her that required her cooperation.
Her mind raced. When the present gave no opportunities, then the only option was to stall; for opportunities only die when one ceases to hope.