Chapter 68/0 - Prologue: The Curse of the Withered Rose
Grand Magus Allegra Cedr stifled a yawn as she closed the door to her chambers behind her. The mage had long converted her sleeping quarters to a laboratory; a chamber for the mystic arts, filled with books and magical devices numbering in the thousands. Given the sheer value of the goods it contained, locking the room would have seemed like standard protocol, but the mage didn’t bother. Its kitchen aside, Augustus Manor was effectively free from the concept of theft.
All of the knights and soldiers that inhabited it were vetted, their backgrounds and characters thoroughly verified by the duke’s most trusted men. No other visitors were allowed to freely wander the premises. Outsiders, even other members of Cadrian nobility, were accompanied at all times by at least two separate groups of guards. Such precaution seemed excessive, even for such a high ranking noble house, but it was easily justified if one was to consider that its owner served as the sole individual standing atop the military. Only the crown outranked him in theory. But in practice, they were equal. Many officers trusted more in the Duke of Death than they did the Eleven Horned King.
Adding to the home’s need for security was its secondary function. It was one of the three keys, the three floating fortresses that would protect the king’s castle in the case that Valencia was ever to come under siege. Not even Allegra could dismiss the magitech involved in its making as anything but the work of an unparalleled genius. Coming from her, it was the highest of praise. As her title implied, the rabbit-eared professor was a true master of the mystic arts. There were hardly any more magi than there were countries, and for good reason. After all, achieving level 1000 in three distinct schools of sorcery was a nigh impossible task.
Despite possessing military grade technology that far outranked that of the surrounding nations, the Cadrians refused to go on the offensive. In recent years, the king had focused his efforts on the prevention of conflict. The conquest of Sthenia was the last true war the Cadrian military had fought, with every other campaign thereafter amounting to no more than a minor skirmish or dispute.
An advocate of peace herself, Allegra found his policies in line with her beliefs and subsequently the beliefs of the cottontail people as a whole. Seeking a position in his court was an obvious choice. And as there was no reason for any sane ruler to reject a magus’ oath of allegiance, the rabbit-eared witch had found herself working as an advocate of harmony for many long years. But like all good things, her time in the king’s court eventually came to an end.
Even with a political incident under her belt, the rabbit lady remained in King Ferdinand’s service, acting as both his proxy and his confidant. Through her magic, he was able to speak his mind to another without having to worry of any consequences. Still, despite the importance of her role, she was not allowed to be seen in court. Relations with Fornestead were sure to sour should the sponge-fearing monarch ever catch word of her continued presence. That was why she had sought asylum with House Augustus.
As the king’s nephew—and one of his personal favourites—the duke was well within the monarch’s good graces. But while their relationship was far from strained, it was also not necessarily free of grievances. They had opposing views, particularly when it came to policies that took the military into account. The duke would often descend from his floating castle to request that he be allowed to wage war. And the king would always deny him without fail. Still, even with their conflicting opinions, Cadria maintained a state of harmony. The duke had far too much on his plate to stage anything beyond the occasional casual complaint, even if he was disallowed from conquering the neighbouring lands.
“Excuse me, Ms. Cedr!”
One of the servants, a lovely young centaur by the name of Mariabelle Phlence, called for the magus as she approached from the opposite side of the hall.
“Yes, Marie? What is it? Has Claire done something again?”
The first thought that passed through the cottontail’s mind was that the lady-in-waiting was about to announce her retirement. She was already 19, not to mention the daughter of a count. Like the lady of the house, Marie was overdue for marriage, not that Allegra herself was any better off. Even if she still looked like she was in her early twenties, the unfashionable witch that was the magus had long become a spinster.
“Not this time,” said the maid with a smile. “The duke would like to see you.”
“I’ll be right with him,” said Allegra.
“He should be in his study.”
With a light curtsy, the maid excused herself, only to poke her head back around the corner almost immediately after she vanished.
“Oh, and Amereth has baked a very nice cake with some of the fruit she imported the other day. You may want to grab a slice before Alice convinces her to let her eat the whole thing.”
“In that case, I’ll need to hurry,” said Allegra, who immediately turned around and headed for the kitchen.
After greeting the chef and securing a slice of dessert, the cottontail magically cleaned off her lips and made for the stairs. The lady of the house passed her along the way. Claire was normally at least courteous enough to stop and greet her tutor, but she seemed to be in more of a rush than usual. Her eyes were absent and her expression was grim. It was a devastated look, one that reminded the magus of the face that the halfbreed made when she performed her mother’s funeral rites. Consuming the flesh of one’s deceased ancestors was a bizarre tradition in the rabbit lady’s eyes, but the lamias and gorgons seemed to believe it a sacred practice and an important duty.
Allegra was almost tempted to call out to the bluescale and help her through the potential emotional crisis, but she stopped herself short of acting on the impulse. She had already put off the duke for long enough, and any further delay was unlikely to be forgiven. In the first place, the magus doubted that the halfbreed was truly lamenting anything dire. She may as well have been practising the mask she needed to wear for the upcoming ball. In public, Claire was known as an innocent, fair maiden that wore her ever-fluctuating emotions on her sleeves, but Allegra was well aware that her true nature was far closer to that of her father’s twisted ideal.
Even if she was truly in distress, Allegra doubted that Claire needed her concern. The half-lamia had little difficulty bouncing back from her regrets, in part because of the education that had been ingrained into her person, and in part because of a particularly abnormal tendency. The lady often started talking to herself when she thought no one was looking, speaking to a set of what Allegra presumed to be imaginary friends. The magus had discovered it on a number of occasions, but refrained from ever bringing it up. It wasn’t uncommon for noble ladies to have their minds in unhealthy places—all of the isolation that came with the importance of their chastities was far from good for them.
Though fashionably late, Allegra found herself stuck outside the duke’s door upon her arrival. Cleveland, the butler standing by the entrance, delayed her for a full fifteen minutes before finally allowing her inside. Apparently, the warlord had needed a moment to himself.
The mage had assumed that the duke was simply busy, as he so often was, but upon entering, she found him sprawled out on top of his desk with his face as red as a tomato. Virillius didn’t seem to show the slightest bit of concern for the documents that he normally kept in perfect order. The pages were scattered across his room, with many thrown into total disarray, if not shredded to bits.
Adding to the sense of disorder was the overwhelming stench of vekratt—aged hay liquor. The room contained seven whole barrels, with at least three of them fully drained and subsequently destroyed. Vekratt was not the sort of drink that was meant to be consumed in high quantities. A single cup was more than enough to down even a seasoned drunkard. Even those that could hold their liquor would heavily dilute it, often mixing in three parts water or four parts wine to one part vekratt.
Duke Augustus was known for his tolerance, but not even the country’s greatest general was capable of remaining unaffected after consuming three entire barrels. His eyes were hazy, his body was limp and lifeless, and the platinum hair he usually kept well-combed had run wild. Even his breathing was off. His chest was heaving at irregular, uncontrolled intervals, as would that of a half-sedated beast’s. If anyone unaware of his identity were to see him in such a state, they would likely assume him more monster than man, given the sheer bulk of his cervitaurian frame.
Seeing the proud warrior in such an appalling state left Allegra at a loss for words. He was not the sort of man to fall victim to the pleasures of wine, nor the sort to lose control of his inhibitions. There had to be a reason, but she couldn’t bring herself to inquire. The miserable look on his face was what cut her short. She felt as if she wasn’t supposed to speak. At least not until he initiated the conversation.
Wordlessly, Virillius pushed himself off the table, the hardwood creaking beneath him. It was a sturdy structure, but not by any means capable of supporting his weight. He didn’t gesture for the cottontail to approach until he more or less straightened his back and fixed his expression.
A goblet containing half a mouthful of the well-aged spirit came sliding across the table as soon as she was seated. Seeing no reason to refuse, the sorceress retrieved a jug from under her cloak, filled the rest of the cup with water, and brought the resulting concoction to her lips. Even if ridiculously strong and highly toxic, the alcoholic beverage was still a delicious drink. And if the Merdle Company labels featured on the barrels were to be trusted, each was likely worth ten times its weight in gold.
“The Merdle brew may be expensive, but it’s worth it,” he said, as if reading her thoughts. “It’s the best Cadria has to offer.”
“I know you didn’t summon me just so that we could chat over a drink, Virillius,” said the Grand Magus. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing.” It took another three cups for the duke to finally continue. “I want the ritual ground prepared for the curse of the withered rose.”
The witch nodded after a brief pause. “I can do that.”
She was somewhat reluctant to carry out the ritual. The curse the duke named was a minor ailment in life, serving only to induce lethargy and mental weakness in those affected. But in death, it would bloom into an unparalleled nightmare. Any man afflicted by the horrifyingly inhumane rite would have his immortal soul pulled from Flux’s cycle and imprisoned within his undying body. He would remain conscious, but incapable of influencing his actions as his body sought the blood of his loved ones. Once left with no clear targets, he would roam the lands and attack others at random. Those that perished with the curse applied had little to do but pray to be slain, for the sweet release of death to return them to the cycle. Else they would forever be stuck on the mortal plains, forced to wander and continue to unlive with the atrocities they were unable to prevent, the bone-chilling sins that they were forced to watch and feel first hand.
“Who do you want me to curse?” asked Allegra, as she adjusted her glasses.
“The Kryddarian army.”
“The entire army? That won’t be possible without a sacri—” Allegra’s eyes widened. “No! Virilius!”
“There is no other choice,” said the darkhorn.
The behemoth of a man composed himself as he suddenly went from drunk to sober. He righted his posture, straightened his back, and rid himself of his slur in what almost seemed like a single heartbeat. The transition was so perfect that the bunny-eared magus found it almost impossible to discern which of the two was the lie.
“Kryddar has been gearing up for a war for the past year, but Ferdinand forbade me from taking action. And now, they’ve started to show signs of aggression. There aren't many ways we ca—”
“That’s not what I’m talking about, Virilius! She’s your daughter! Your own flesh and blood! Are you insane!?”
Virilius swivelled the 180 proof drink around in his cup as he avoided her gaze. “I’m going to be honest with you, Allegra, I’m not so sure myself. Not anymore, at least.” He raised the cup to his lips and gulped it down before continuing. “It’s become almost impossible to tell if my instincts are driving my decisions.” He slowly looked up at the rabbit girl, his brows creased and his eyes glazed. “I know you’re on the verge of becoming an aspect like Ferdinand and I. And I know how tempting it is with celestialhood right around the corner. But you mustn't. Ascension is a mistake.”
“Does that mean the rumours House Carina spread are true? Are you really losing your mind?”
“I don’t think I am,” said the duke, as he set down his glass and frowned. “But it’s getting hard to say.”
“What should I tell His Majesty?”
“Nothing.” Virilius shook his head. “We’ve already worked out a contingency.”
“But I still thin—”
“That’s enough, Allegra. Just prepare the ritual. The Langgbjerns are coming to life, the barbarians are gathering in droves, and now even the Kryddarians are gathering their forces. There will be many, many losses if they happen to act in tandem. You should know that better than anyone. Your people live near the border.”
“Surely there have to be alternatives. She’s your only daughter.”
“That’s why it has to be her.”
“Can’t you make some villages disappear instead? I’m sure you of all people would be able to pull it off. Perhaps even some traditional Cadrian diplomacy if you can’t figure out anything else.”
“Think of something, Virilius. Anything.”
“Allegra.” He repeated her name in a harsher tone.
“I know. I know, but…”
“We’ve been over this. This is her duty.”
Allegra stayed silent, biting her lip as she pulled her hat over her eyes.
“I’ve already discussed it with her. I’ve framed it as her own fault, for rejecting all of the suitors that have come her way.”
“Can you imagine how she’s feeling right now?” asked the bunny girl, her voice trembling.
“I don’t need to. I know.”
The two stared at each other, one with a teary, disgusted glare, and the other with cold, frozen eyes.
“I’ll prepare the ritual grounds.”
In the end, the magus was the first to break. She got up from her seat and exited the room without another word.
“Thank you, Allegra.”
The centaur, on the other hand, remained at his desk, a fresh barrel of verkratt already at his lips.
The two reconvened at dawn. They met at the ritual ground, the isolated room located within the core that kept the manor afloat. Wordlessly, they took their places around the circle. Allegra still wished to protest the duke’s choice, but refrained from making a sound. A rite before a god was a sacred event. With the ceremony on the verge of commencement, speaking out of turn would be akin to an act of blasphemy.
Had the ritual been any other, there would have been lines of servants and soldiers present to bear witness. But this time, the duke and the magus were the only two gathered. Word of the curse could not be allowed to spread. The last thing Virilius needed was for his plan to go up in smoke. Not when he was sacrificing so much.
Claire entered the room once the two observers were settled. She was wearing a simple gown, a formal dress made from fine linens. The elegant design was one crafted for those that were to offer themselves to the gods. The slit in the middle of the chest piece served as a guide, an indicator of where she was to strike.
Slowly, the lady walked to the center of the room and kneeled before the three objects placed within, a ceremonial dagger, a waxen candle, and a freshly picked rose.
Allegra almost couldn’t bring herself to watch as her pupil went through the Blueblooded Martyr’s Ritual. But she kept her eyes focused. Knowing the rite to be Claire’s last, Allegra silently stared as the halfbreed crafted the magic circle and withered the rose by holding it to the mystic flame. She kept watch over the entire process. But none of the words that the young ritual mage spoke so much as entered the cottontail’s ears.
The further along the ritual got, the more her heart sank. She couldn’t help but remember when she had first met the child, nor the way her eyes had sparkled when she told her that she would be made a mage. Nothing she did could suppress the various memories she had of scolding her, of acting almost as would a surrogate mother, following Lady Violet’s demise.
Allegra had watched the child grow, from a hatchling to a beautiful young lady.
She was practically her own daughter.
And now she had to watch her die.
She couldn’t bring herself to do it.
She desperately wanted to step in and interrupt the rite.
To beg Virilius to reconsider.
To do something, anything.
But she couldn’t.
There were more lives at stake. More children to be lost, should the ritual be stopped.
Her emotions getting the better of her, Allegra was so distracted that she almost didn’t realise the ritual wasn’t going as planned. It took blinking back her tears for the Grand Magus to realise that something had gone awry. The magical energies were out of line, and not for the usual reason.
The ritual was being overwritten. Another that she didn’t immediately recognize was beginning to take its place. For a moment, Allegra was at a loss. It wasn’t any of the rites she had taught, and Claire had never been the type to study on her own.
Though she was tempted to simply do nothing, Allegra was left with no choice but to intervene. If she didn’t steer the Blueblooded Martyr’s Ritual back on course, the whole manor would be caught in the backlash. All of the servants and soldiers would be afflicted by the curse.
With trembling hands, she reached under her robe and produced her wand. She tried raising it and pointing it at the halfbreed before she could reach for the dagger she needed to mark the rite’s completion.
But Allegra found the limb incapable of rising beyond her waist. Looking down, she found it held in place by a feathered wing made of fresh blood.
Eyes wide, she looked towards the duke, who simply shook his head as he kept his eyes forward. Stoic and empty as always. Completely devoid of the emotions that his actions betrayed.
Closing her eyes, nodding, and smiling softly, the rabbit lady dropped her wand and waited for Builledracht’s darkness to come.