Szyelekkan banged the door open with her forearm and stormed into the room. Tears obscured her vision, to the point that she couldn’t see either its contents or its occupant.
Without so much as a glance around, she fumbled open her bag, seized the spell-wrought chest containing her grandfather’s remains and the Butterfly Crown, and dumped it unceremoniously to the floor. For a mercy, it struck a carpet instead of the flagstones.
“See that that gets returned to mother’s vault, Malthon,” she snapped. Her throat felt thick, and she found herself swallowing repeatedly. She was holding back her tears only by sheer force of will. “And I need another leap-tile. One keyed for Starmeadow. Quickly, now! I have to get back…have to…to stop…”
The voice that responded was unfamiliar, and as cold as winter snows. “Who are you?”
It was a woman’s voice. Malthon was a man.
The elf-girl whirled in place, her cloak flying from her shoulders. Her thinblade and main-gauche were in her hands in flash of steel. “Who…?!”
There was a desk of dark, heavy wood against the far wall, standing before similarly-wrought bookshelves strewn with tomes and scrolls of all shapes and sizes. These were familiar. The individual behind the desk was not. Instead of Malthon – a Gasparri mage, a wizened greybeard and conjurer of great skill who had served Szyel’s mother for more than four decades – the room’s only other occupant was a woman.
Szyel scrutinized her carefully, holding sword and dagger extended and level, the points unwavering. Even seated, the stranger was taller than she, by a head at least, and proportionally larger and heavier. Her hair was as long and as black as Amorda’s, save for a straight, snow-white streak above her left brow; and her skin – of which, due to the loose and flowing nature of her robes, Szyel could see a good deal – was as pale as any the elf-girl had ever seen.
Two other features resonated at once. The woman’s fingernails were long, claw-like, and black; and her eyes were featureless and bone-white. They stared at her, blankly menacing; she felt certain that the woman would stare at a chair or a chicken in precisely the same way.
That stare…Szyel shook her head to clear it. “Who are you?” she snapped. “Where’s Malthon?”
“Malthon is gone,” the woman replied. She cocked her head. “I have replaced him.”
Her voice was a deep, resonant contralto, at once thrilling and repellent. It made Szyel shiver. “How?” the girl exclaimed. “He was one of…of mother’s…” She swallowed heavily, struggling to quell her sudden fear. “What do you mean? How did you ‘replace’ him?”
“In the old way,” the woman interrupted. “We fought. I triumphed. He fell.” She grinned broadly, and a shiver ran down Szyel’s spine. The woman’s canine teeth were half again as long as her incisors, and they terminated in razor points.
“His station is mine. Malthon serves me, now,” the woman chuckled.
It was a deep, throaty, penetrating sound. Szyel felt her bowels turn to water, and struggled to maintain her composure. Her sorrow and her rage gave her an anchor, and she clutched at it desperately. “You will address me,” she said thinly, “as ‘Excellency’. I am – ”
“You are Szyelekkan, the Mistress’s only child.” The white-eyed woman rose to her feet, and Szyel backed up unconsciously; this stranger was easily a foot taller than she.
The woman stepped fluidly around the desk, tucked her hands into her sleeves, and nodded gravely. “I apologize, Excellency. I am new-come to your mother’s service.”
Szyel swallowed again and nodded in return. “Your name?”
“I am Viloriannis,” the woman replied. “Once of Vejborg. Now…” her lips, full and blood-red, twitched into a ghost of a smile. “Now, I am a daughter of Kaaris.”
“You are human,” Szyel said, nodding at the woman’s ears. “Or, you…you were. A mage?”
“A priestess,” the white-eyed woman corrected. “Of the Master of Dust. Although,” she added with a fiendish grin, “I once served a different Power.” She drew a fold of her robe aside, and Szyelekkan could see that she had the Anvil and the Raven tattooed above her left breast. The flesh around the sigils was blistered, an inflamed, angry red. It was the only part of her body that wasn’t as white as bleached parchment.
The elf-girl shuddered. “That looks…very painful,” she whispered.
The woman fixed Szyel with her gaze, and ran her tongue over her teeth. “The pain…” she murmured, in tones that made the hair on Szyel’s neck stand up, “…is a delight. It is music, and moons-light, and the darkness behind the stars. It is wine to me.”
The woman’s smile was menacing and potent, and her unwavering stare was making the girl exceptionally uncomfortable. “Well,” Szyel murmured, fighting to keep her hands from shaking, “you are well come to Eldarcanum, dread sister. Do your duty, as we all do, and you have much to hope for, and naught to fear.”
“I shall.” Viloriannis’s eyes narrowed, and Szyel thought that, just for a moment, she saw a hint of red in them. “And what ‘duty’,” the woman whispered, “takes the Mistress’s daughter back to Astrapratum at so late an hour? What is it, pray, that you ‘have to stop’?”
Szyelekkan blanched, then flushed. Summoning the few remaining scraps of her courage, she snapped, “I am not accustomed to explaining myself to my mother’s minions!
“And,” she added with a snarl, “you will address me, lamia, as ‘Excellency’! I shall not forgive again!”
This time, the black-haired woman bowed. “Once more, I apologize,” she whispered. “Excellency.” The last word dripped from her tongue like honey and blood.
“Good,” Szyel snapped. Moving swiftly to mask her terror of the newcomer, she bustled bustled to Malthon’s desk and began going through his drawers. After a brief search, she found what she sought: a low, heavy box of carved wood. She flipped the lid open and began fingering her way through its contents: several dozen circles of glazed, fired clay, inlaid with silver and gold, and inscribed with multicoloured images and runic figures.
“What are you doing?” Viloriannis asked, looking both shocked and offended.
Damn him! Szyel thought. There were no labels on the tiles. Malthon had always been a lazy sod. One after another, she gripped the porcelain shards between her hands, feeling for the flux, prodding the fired clay with her senses, looking for the one she sought…
“Excellency?” Radiating a palpable aura of menace, the white-eyed woman flowed towards the desk, seemingly floating above the carpets and the flagstones.
She found one. Sighing in relief, the elf-girl clenched the tile in her fist and raised her hand to shoulder height.
“What have you taken?!” Viloriannis growled. With clawed, white hands, she reached for the girl’s wrist.
Szyel snarled and made a swift gesture with her free hand. A shadowy swirl of force, misty and insubstantial, almost invisible, fluttered through the air and enveloped the vampire, enfolding her in its sinewy, insubstantial embrace.
Viloriannis reeled, staggering backwards and dropping her hands. She looked as though she were choking – an odd spectacle, Szyel thought with grim satisfaction, as the lamia did not normally need to breathe. “Remember that,” the elf-girl hissed. “Attempt to stay me again, coffin-rat, and I’ll drag you out under the Lantern just to watch the flesh boil off your bones!”
The vampire struggled to throw off the girl’s suffocating web of might. “Your mother…” she gasped, struggling against the grip of the girl’s arcane might, “…will hear…of this!”
“Good,” Szyel laughed. Transferring the tile to her left hand, she drew her sword with her right, and readied herself. She knew that the tile was keyed to Starmeadow, but she didn’t know where, and she couldn’t afford to be taken unawares at the moment of transfer.
Glancing back at Viloriannis, she hawked and spat. “When you see her, tell her I’ve gone to right one of her wrongs. To reweave the few threads of happiness I’ve ever known, that she tried so hard to cut.”
Viloriannis bared her fangs, hissing a curse.
Szyelekkan spat once and slapped her hand down on the desk. The tile shattered to splinters in her fist.
A black storm of power gathered, crackling and swirling around her…and she was gone.