Into the Shadows
Rebecca Dreamhunter shivered as she walked, clutching desperately at the sleeves of her jade-colored robes, her only shelter against the bitter wind. She bit her lip to keep her teeth from chattering, cursing the mission that brought her to this evil-infested place. She wondered whether success in that mission would one day return warmth to the land.
Though the icy gusts of wind did their best to drive her back, and though her limbs felt heavier with each step she took, she pressed onward, determined to reach Morganthe's palace before the sky went black and shadows covered everything in sight. She didn't want to spend another night hiding in some cave, too wary of every little noise to sleep.
True to her plan, she had left all of her belongings in Ravenwood, save for a canteen of water and the clothes she wore. Her mouth and throat were as dry as Krokotopian sand, and her stomach ached constantly. Thinking back, she noted that it had been about three days since she'd emptied and discarded her canteen, and several more since she had enjoyed a decent meal. The grass and berries she'd harvested back in the Last Wood weren't exactly the ingredients of anything resembling fine dining… and yet, they had been better than nothing.
With that said, she had yet to regret leaving Wizard City. As desperate and tired as she was, and as much as she missed the comforts of her Ravenwood home, she had to admit that devising her own plan, for once, was enough of a thrill to keep her focused. For the first time since her enrollment at the Ravenwood School for the Magical Arts, she knew exactly what she needed to do, and why. No one else was planning her next move; no one else even knew what she was up to. She was in charge, and that felt pretty awesome.
Her present discomfort was nothing, so she told herself, compared to the endless suffering Morganthe would cause throughout the Spiral, should she succeed in learning the Song of Creation. It was imperative that Rebecca be the one to stop her; no one else had any real ideas for how to do so, and failure was not an option. Indeed, it never had been.
Her plan seemed simple enough on the surface: she would gain Morganthe's trust and become her apprentice, learning every spell she could from the Shadow Queen, and use it against her at the first opportunity. The arrogant witch would not live to know what hit her! How Ravenwood would rejoice to know that they and their neighbors across the Spiral would be safe from another vicious, universal threat - first Malistaire, then the Coven, and finally, Morganthe the Arachnophiliac!
The beginnings of a grin formed on Rebecca's pale face as she thought of the comical title, and she snickered to herself, forgetting for an instant to be careful. Remembering herself at once, she looked up just long enough to see what was ahead of her. Immediately, she stopped short. Looming in the distance, she could just make out the silhouettes of several tall, shadowy towers, their windows sparkling like ominous, glowing eyes watching her.
She'd made it to the Shadow Palace!
Somehow, it made Rebecca feel even colder to know that she was so near to her most hated enemy, who hated her even more. She shuddered, but knew there was no turning back now. She had come too far to leave the fate of every world to chance. Calling on every ounce of courage she possessed, she started toward the palace once again.
As could be expected, a couple of mantis guards stopped her the moment she stumbled into view. "What do you want here, spellbinder?" one of them demanded while the other knocked her to the ground with one simple blow to the abdomen.
Groaning weakly, Rebecca collapsed to her knees and clutched her stomach, though the actual pain the guard's staff had caused was next to nothing. "P-please…" she winced, raising her shaking free hand in a peaceful gesture, "I don't want a fight."
The mantis who had attacked her reached out suddenly and grabbed her hair, pulling her back up to a standing position. "No?" he sneered mockingly. Then, turning slightly to address his fellow guard, he asked in much the same tone, "What do you think, Vez? What should we do with it? Tssk… I don't think this one's worth a dungeon cell."
Vez seemed to think over his options for a few seconds, after which, he narrowed his eyes, staring down at Rebecca. "You're the strange one, aren't you?" he pointed out thoughtfully. "Whenever we see one of your kind here, a fight's usually the first thing they ask for."
When Rebecca didn't answer – for she had been unaware that an answer had been required of her – the other guard tightened his grip on her thick, brown hair, pulling it harder. "Ungh!" she cried. "I-I've left my kind… Please let go of me… Ahh! I swear I won't try to run off."
Vez suddenly interrupted her pleading. "Krazz, listen up. Now that I think about it, didn't Her Majesty tell us to bring any spellbinder we catch straight to her?" Rebecca's heart jumped at the suggestion. This part of the plan might turn out easier than she had thought. Still, she had to keep pretending…
"Of course! I knew that…" Krazz answered. For some reason, Rebecca sensed a hint of disappointment in his voice.
"Cheer up, Krazz," said Vez. "Tssk… I'm sure she'll let us watch."
Krazz followed without another word, practically carrying Rebecca along by her hair and ignoring her subsequent pleas.
A while later, they reached a large, stone door beyond a wide set of marble stairs, leading into the tallest of the towers. The door opened outward with a faint creak, and warm air brushed softly against Rebecca's face and arms. She would have found the sensation soothing if her head hadn't been hurting so badly from the hair-pulling.
As the three of them entered, Rebecca looked around as best she could with her head essentially immobilized. They had walked into a sort of hallway, in which the walls were decorated with various, gold-framed portraits of Morganthe, hung over brown-on-black, spider-themed wallpaper. It was, at best, a nauseating sight for a Theurgist, but she carefully contained her disgust, forcing her face into an awed expression instead.
Finally, they reached what appeared to be a sort of throne room. It bore an aura even darker and more foreboding than the other rooms she had seen into.
"Ahh, the young wizard!"
Rebecca knew that lofty voice all too well. No sooner had she heard it, however, than Krazz finally released his grip on her hair, pushing her forward a little so that she fell face-down upon the floor. "Mff!" she grunted as her chin made contact with the black stone.
Morganthe laughed heartily at Rebecca's pain. Rebecca stayed put on the floor, but she could hear the Umbra Queen rise from her throne to approach her. She made no attempt to protect herself as the crisp footsteps came closer, and without a word of warning, a stabbing pain surged through her arm like lightning through an old tree, and it took her a moment to realize what had hurt her this time: Morganthe had slammed the sharp heel of her boot into the back of her captive's right hand.
The young wizard screamed herself dizzy, the plan forgotten for the moment, until at last, Morganthe stopped crushing her wand-hand. Even then, tears continued to slide from her nose to the stone floor below.
"That… was music." Morganthe howled again with laughter, and her guards quickly followed suit. "Krazzik, Zorovez, you've done well. This is the spellbinder I've been looking for."
"Thank you, my Queen," replied the guards in unison. Both of them sounded ecstatic to receive such praise, and they left the room.
A few shattered breaths later, Rebecca remembered again why she was there. "Mil—" Rebecca tried feebly, but the pain still radiating up and down through her hand and forearm cut her off.
"You will hold your tongue!" Morganthe shrieked. Rebecca shuddered. To think, she had expected this initial visit to be fairly easy! How very wrong she had been…
Even with her hand searing as if it were on fire, however, she found that she still had a small measure of courage within her. "You d-don't under… understand…" she whispered. "I'm h-here to… serve y-you." The room was silent for so long thereafter that Rebecca began to wonder if Morganthe had followed her guards out of the throne room.
"What?" Morganthe's voice was completely serious now; it was as though she had not been laughing at all.
Rebecca tried to calm her breathing, but every movement stung so deeply that she quickly stopped trying to catch her breath. Morganthe grew impatient and raised her foot again, as though threatening to crush the Theurgist's other hand; Rebecca shut her eyes tightly in preparation for a new wave of agony, but did not move her uninjured hand away. "Please!" she begged. "I… came t-to… serve…" A powerful feeling of dizziness was starting to smother the pain, but clouded her mind as well.
Morganthe narrowed her eyes warily. "Yes?" she prodded the teenager.
"Plea—" The lack of oxygen was taking its toll on the youth's consciousness, and after one more failed attempt at breathing properly, she closed her eyes and shuddered.
Pip, pip, pip…
Rebecca awoke in a cold room made of stone blocks, brought out of her unconscious state by some slow dripping noise from within the room. At first, she thought she was hallucinating – perhaps the combination of prolonged hunger and thirst, paired with the ever-present stinging in her broken hand, had driven her crazy in her sleep.
She tried to speak, but her voice was gone. Remembering how much she had screamed during that meeting with Morganthe, she figured it was to be expected, though she was sure a glass of water would cure her throat straightaway.
She sensed she was the only living soul nearby, yet no tour guide was needed; a glance to the left of where she lay told her exactly where she was: in a dungeon cell. To her right, she saw a small window just below the ceiling. Lifting her head, she saw the source of the noise that had woken her.
"Water!" she whispered, her eyes wide and pleading, as though the falling drops could see, hear or understand how badly she needed them. She reached out as far as she could, too weak to push herself upright.
Thinking back to her deck of spell cards, she lifted her left arm to draw the Life magic symbol in the air above her, but it was no use without her staff. Worse yet, even if she had brought her staff with her, she had no healing spells to cast. Is this the end? she wondered miserably.
As if on cue, the sound of rapid footsteps caught her attention, and soon enough, a female voice issued from beyond the cell door. "Are you awake?" called the unfamiliar voice.
Knowing she could not answer with her throat so dry, Rebecca knocked quickly upon the wooden slab on which she lay. She hoped her visitor would hear this and know that she was, indeed, awake.
The door soon opened to reveal another mantis, albeit one whose manner seemed somewhat gentler than those of the two guards who had most likely brought her here. "My orders are to escort you upstairs as soon as you come to. Follow me." With that, she turned away.
Rebecca knocked again, calling the messenger back. She knew she couldn't stand now any more than she could speak. "I can't…" she mouthed, shaking her head helplessly. When the mantis only stared at her in confusion, the wizard touched the tip of her tongue to her lips and pointed to the shimmering puddle of water near her "bed."
"You want water?" asked the mantis dubiously. Rebecca nodded hopefully. "I'll… see what I can do…"
Rebecca waited… and waited… and then, she waited some more…
Finally, another colder voice was heard from down the corridor. "This had better be important, Zarozinia! The Shadow Queen waits for no one!" A door banged shut, followed by the musical sound of running water.
"I'm aware of that," replied Zarozinia. Soon, she appeared at Rebecca's door, holding a mug of water. Rebecca reached for it, but Zarozinia hesitated, as though she were afraid of inciting an unexpected duel.
"Please…" begged the young wizard.
Zarozinia sighed warily, but came closer and held the mug out for Rebecca to take, which she did. There was barely enough water to fill the mug halfway, but as she gulped it down, she was immensely grateful.
"Thank you," she croaked, her throat still painful, but better than before.
"Now come, spellbinder, and quickly!" Zarozinia hissed, taking back the cup as soon as she could tell that it was empty.
Though Rebecca was still unsure that she could even stand, it was out of gratitude that she tried. It wasn't easy, especially without the use of her previously stronger hand, and she was, at best, wobbly upon success, but she did succeed. She followed Zarozinia as quickly as she could back to the throne room three floors up.
She arrived exhausted, but unsteady as she was, she immediately knelt before Morganthe when she saw her.
When Morganthe saw Rebecca entering the room, she gestured for Zarozinia to leave. The mantis hesitated, as though frozen in place. "Go, now!" the Queen commanded. With a stiff bow, Zarozinia did as she was told.
Rebecca gulped back her indignation and slowly stood herself up. It was hard as anything to turn her thoughts away from her head, still throbbing from being grabbed so roughly; or her hand, which hurt worse the more she moved it; or her back, which ached for the lack of a proper bed throughout the past two weeks; or her stomach, which still rumbled painfully; or her throat, which burned even mere minutes after her drink of water back in the dungeon; . Still, her plan echoed faintly in the back of her weary mind, and she secretly vowed not to abandon it.
"What is your purpose here?" asked the Shadow Queen.
"To serve you, milady," was Rebecca's response.
Morganthe let out a shout of amusement. "Ha! You expect me to give you any chance at all, after the countless times you have attempted to destroy my vision for the Spiral? To stop me from improving it, rebuilding it?"
"Over the past couple of months, I've come to regret all those times I fought against you. I know you won't believe it at first, but just let me prove myself to you. You've seen me fight many times; imagine if I were on the front lines, fighting for you, and your great cause…"
"Oh, don't make me laugh! Take a look at yourself, a filthy, tattered, defenseless beggar asking me for a military job! I can't imagine what must be going through that presumptuous head of yours. The question remains, however: how did you find your way here, and why did you bother to make the trip? Admit it, little girl, you came to challenge me in my own home, and with no wand! You call that proof of your usefulness?"
Rebecca's knees were starting to quiver under a weight they could not carry for much longer. In an attempt to hide what might be taken as fear or anger, she dropped to her knees at once and bowed low until the tip of her nose was inches from the cold marble. Sitting up quickly, she shook her head. "I never want to fight you again," she told Morganthe. "I left Ravenwood two weeks ago, and I'm never going back. I hated it there."
Morganthe tilted her head to one side curiously, but her dark eyes remained the narrow slits they had been since Rebecca had entered the room. "Why? Ambrose treated you like his crown jewel, like his most precious pet."
Rebecca's face darkened as she pretended to relive memories of injustice that she didn't possess. "He treated me like a bargaining chip, a pawn. He always sent me off on one errand or another, most – if not all – of which he could easily have done himself. I would say nine out of ten of these 'quests' were highly dangerous, and should never have been placed in the hands of a ten-year-old." Noticing Morganthe's bewildered expression, she explained, "I was enrolled at Ravenwood on my tenth birthday. Ambrose's present to me consisted of a wand and a quest involving the defeat of several undead spirits and skeletons. Of course, I was all too happy to accept the job back then. Not anymore." She shook her head in imaginary disgust, too distracted by her own lie to realize Morganthe's eyes had widened with obvious interest.
Morganthe herself broke Rebecca out of her momentary daydream. "Well… I think you just might get what you came for, Rebecca… Dreamcaller, is it?"
"Dreamhunter, milady. Honestly, though, I've grown somewhat tired of that name," she added, rolling her eyes.
"What do you think, milady? If you were to change it, I'd certainly raise no objection."
"You're asking me to choose a new last name for you?"
"If it pleases you." Morganthe raised an eyebrow at the request, and Rebecca took the gesture as a warning sign that she was asking too much, too soon. Immediately, she sought to fix her mistake. She bowed again, this time, brushing her nose lightly against the floor. As she did so, her broken hand bent back just enough to send a shock of pain from her knuckles to the side and back of her neck. "Nguhh…" she gasped, still quite tense, even as the pain began to dissipate.
"Your hand's still bothering you?" the Shadow Queen surmised. Rebecca sat up and nodded. "Don't make me regret this, child." Suddenly, the bones of Rebecca's right hand seemed to mend themselves together, and the painful, red-and-purple bruise that had formed there simply vanished!
Rebecca tried moving her fingers and, to her relief, found them utterly pain-free. "Th-thank you!" she sighed.
"Now, I want to be sure I understand you. You left Ravenwood without completing your education, did you?"
"That's true, milady. I didn't graduate."
"In that case, you'll be in need of a new professor. We shall see how quickly you learn under my tutelage, for a change."
Rebecca gasped, slapping her newly-healed hand over her mouth. "You mean…?" Morganthe gave her a smug smile, which she took as a yes. "I… I'm speechless, I… Oh, thank you! I've never had a teacher so clever!"
"Of course, as you know, I have my own studying to do," Morganthe interjected. "I should expect you to not get in the way of that."
Indeed, Rebecca knew what she meant by 'studies of her own,' but it would do no good to argue with her now. "Of course not, milady," she assured her.