A Friend, an Ally
"Don't allow yourself to grow comfortable just yet."
That had been Morganthe's warning to Rebecca just before she had dismissed her from her royal presence. It was as much a reminder as a warning in Rebecca's eyes, however – a reminder that she still had a ways to go before she could hope to successfully challenge and duel the monstrous royal lady.
As soon as she was out of Morganthe's sight, she roamed the halls of the palace, wondering if she would be summoned to lunch anytime soon. Shaking her head fiercely to rid her mind of the distraction, she turned her attention forcefully to the décor of her new home. Wherever she had ended up, this part of the castle looked quite different from the wing she had been taken to the night before. Each room she passed was no less gloomy and depressing than the ones before, but at least in this general area, there were no spiders painted onto the walls. Instead, the Death symbol was embroidered onto large, blood red banners which were nailed to the walls and hung over every door.
"Spellbinder, wait!" A voice broke Rebecca out of her thoughts, and she quickly spun around to find the source. The mantis she recognized from the dungeons, Zarozinia, was hurrying toward her. "I've been looking all over for you! You should know better than to wander around aimlessly in this place," she said.
"I'm sorry," Rebecca told her. "I guess I just…" Zarozinia glared at her, and she promptly changed the subject. "Um, did you need me for anything?"
"Come with me!" Zarozinia hissed, clearly angry.
Rebecca followed her down a flight of stairs and through another wing of the castle, where Zarozinia flung open a refreshingly nondescript door to reveal a small bathroom-like area. Zarozinia waited by the door until Rebecca realized she was expected to enter, and did so.
Choosing to remain on the other side of the doorway, the mantis pointed a thin finger at a small pile of black-and-red clothes that were waiting on a plain, gray chair. "Change into those when you're done," Zarozinia instructed. "Don't take too long."
She closed the door, leaving Rebecca alone. The wizard stepped up to the sink and ran the cold water, using her cupped hands as a ladle to bring the sweet liquid to her cracked lips. Again and again, she drank, and again, her hands went back for more until she was full.
She had no idea how much time she would be allowed in there, so she wasted little of it. Noticing that the water was already waiting for her in the tub, she undressed as quickly as she could, hoping it was still somewhat warm.
Stepping in, she sighed deeply. She had grown numb, it appeared, so the subtle chill in the palace, but as she sat down, she could feel herself remembering what warmth itself was. It was invigorating, yet soothing. It was safety; it was happiness. It was exactly what she needed, right then and there. All her aches and pains seemed to melt off of her and sink down into the plugged drain.
She found a bar of soap resting on a little shelf that poked out of the wall, and before long, she was clean and smiling. It was hard to think of the danger she was in yet again when she was so relaxed.
The sound of rapping at the door woke up her sense of urgency. "Are you finished yet?" It was Zarozinia.
"Uh, I'll be right out!" she called back, hurrying into her new robe and shoes. She opened the door, her smile disappearing abruptly when she saw that the mantis' anger hadn't gone anywhere.
"You should know that Her Majesty isn't used to waiting for anyone."
"She's asked to see me again?"
"Everyone's already in the dining hall, waiting for us. Do I have to tell you again to come?"
"I'm sorry," Rebecca mumbled. She followed Zarozinia to the dining hall, where only two seats were left unoccupied. Zarozinia took hers, and Rebecca braved the curious stares of the older Morgantine servants to take the other, a few chairs down from the end of the unusually long table, where Morganthe sat.
"Now that we're all here," snarled the Shadow Queen, "shall we begin?"
With a stylish wave of her staff, the once-bare table filled with hundreds of plates and bowls of delicious-smelling food from worlds across the Spiral! Eyes wide and mouth watering, Rebecca reached out to take a roll of Zafarian spice bread when the goliath sitting to her right flicked her hand away, laughing as he did so. After glancing up at him through narrowed eyes, she tried again, but once more, he pushed her arm away.
"Little wizard," he sang, "where's your wand when you need it?" Many others at that section of the table started laughing as well. Rebecca chanced a glance in Morganthe's direction, but it was clear the Queen was enjoying this confrontation too much to intervene.
Pursing her lips, Rebecca turned away from the great beast and reached out with her other arm for a serving spoon, hoping to claim some vegetables from the next plate to the left. She had scooped up a bunch of greens and brought it halfway to her own plate when the goliath shoved her in the back of her shoulder, causing her to drop the spoon on the table and make a mess.
"What is your problem?" Rebecca shouted, shoving him in return, although for all the good it did, she might as well have tried to move a boulder with a toothpick.
Naturally, her outburst backfired. With one powerful sweep of his gigantic arm, he sent Rebecca flying backward, her chair cracked slightly upon impact with the marble floor. Before she could react, some invisible barrier broke her fall a few feet away from the table and softened her landing.
"Let her be, Kur'zirak!"
Everyone at the table turned to look at the speaker in surprise. Rebecca looked, too, to find Zarozinia looking around at the others, apparently humiliated at all the attention she was getting for her act of honor.
Clearly, Morganthe did not find the mantis' act quite so honorable, for she chose that opportunity to interject. "Behave yourselves," she said, but she seemed to take no interest in Kur'zirak's dishonorable acts thus far.
Rebecca knew Zarozinia had taken a great risk in standing up for her that way, and it was not in her nature to forget something like that. For the remainder of the lunchtime gathering, during which there were, thankfully, no additional problems, she tried hard to think of some secret way to thank her.
When lunch was over, she tried her best to avoid eye contact with Morganthe. She didn't want to show her how much she hated her. She knew perfectly well why the Umbra Queen had remained silent until one of her elite soldiers was threatened. It was a test.
Morganthe was testing her loyalty. She just knew it! She also knew that at Ravenwood, any member of the faculty, even the haughty Professor Drake, would have put him or herself in harm's way in order to protect any one of their many students. And yet, Morganthe, who had only one student, couldn't be bothered to say two words in that student's defense until her own interests were put on the line? It was despicable.
I need a new wand, she thought bitterly, and soon.
"The self-righteous fall to the wrath of the mighty."
"He who teaches foolishness will never learn."
"Where there is obedience, there is peace."
"Where there is hope, there is treason."
"Massacre the rebel; end the war."
The handwritten lines went on and on. They were literally painful to read, but Rebecca knew there was real knowledge hidden deep within them. To decode the meanings behind each of these warped "wisdoms" was to see straight into Morganthe's cruel mind!
Even so, she couldn't keep her mind completely on the lesson. Her thoughts still wandered to the minute signs of rebellion already visible within Zarozinia. Even such a brief outcry as Zarozinia's had been was impossible to overlook. The sun had set over three hours ago, yet Rebecca still hadn't found a decent opportunity to thank the young mantis, but the longer she was forced to wait, the more determined she became.
As it happened, Morganthe was watching her like a tarantula hawk, and seeing her pupil daydreaming, she brought her staff down against the floor, sending a powerful wave of Shadow magic across the floor like a single ripple spreading over a silver lake.
When it stung her shins, Rebecca yelped and snapped to attention at her desk. "I-I'm sorry, milady," she stammered after a stunned pause. "I was… just thinking."
The blood-red color of Morganthe's eye shadow seemed to seep into her eyes. "Did your assignment require you to do very much thinking, apprentice?" she asked.
"Uh—no, milady." Rebecca hoped her answer was the correct one according to Morganthe.
Morganthe turned her gaze away from Rebecca to examine the head of her staff. "Close your book and turn your parchment over." she began quietly, and waited for Rebecca to comply, which she did. "Now, recite your lesson."
Rebecca gulped. Closing her eyes, she remembered what she could of the so-called "wisdoms" Morganthe was trying to drill into her with a pen. "Th-the righteous fall to the—" she tried, but a second, more powerful ripple of mana erupted from the Queen's staff and hit her twice as hard as the first. "Aaugh! Please… milady…"
"I had considered getting used to that quaint little nickname… but now, I see no reason why you should receive any… special treatment. From this moment on, you will speak to me no differently than my soldiers or my servants. I am your Queen, and you will address me as such. Do you understand?" She roared the question, making the room itself appear to tremble with trepidation.
Rebecca, however, remained steady. "Yes, my Queen," she answered at once, almost surprised by the lack of fear she had felt while Morganthe was screaming at her for her mistake. The Queen, coincidentally, was seemingly blind to her half-concealed resentment. Perhaps she thought it was actually a sense of duty taking hold. She would have been wrong… very, very wrong.
After a third but weaker Shadow hit, Morganthe ordered Rebecca to return to work copying lines from the thickly-bound Book of Morgantine Wisdom. This time, however, Rebecca memorized every word she read.
That night, Rebecca lay on the simple mattress in the shared bedroom she'd been assigned, drained of energy yet unable to find sleep. Too many things were bothering her, the most sickening being the lines she'd had to copy during her first lesson with Morganthe. Horrific, violent-minded and vindictive "proverbs" of Morganthe's own creation were hardly thoughts she wanted to fall asleep to.
More worrying still, she remembered back to the one-sided duel that had nearly broken out at lunchtime, and she reflected on how embarrassed Zarozinia had looked when she'd successfully prevented it. Taking in a slow breath, she realized that there must have been more than humiliation at work there: namely, terror. Zarozinia knew the rules well; Rebecca had had no idea. What am I doing here? she asked herself in thought amidst the silence.
The next morning, Rebecca was stuck in her second lesson with Morganthe, copying lines again, and again, her new professor was watching her with an impatient glare that made her feel especially uneasy. It felt as if Morganthe was trying to read her – to find telling significance in every movement Rebecca made.
As Rebecca copied from that horrid book, struggling to keep her expression neutral, she came upon a paragraph that disturbed her more strongly than any of the others she had read so far.
"The minds of the weak are the pages of a blank book. The first pen to mark these pages conquers them. These first words written can never be erased. To make one's mark early is to eradicate the idea of – and desire for – escape."
Rebecca grimaced in disgust. What Morganthe really meant could be interpreted in one word: brainwashing. That was surely a powerful tool… when all she had to teach was lie after lie.
Morganthe's hard voice broke the silence. "You bear the appearance of a child who would rather be doing something… else."
Rebecca looked up from the book, startled. "Do I?" she asked, trying to look bewildered through her dread.
Morganthe stood from her throne and slowly approached the young wizard. "Do these lessons not please you, apprentice?"
"I'm sorry, mil—my Queen. Forgive me; it's just a lot to get used to at once. I grew up in Ravenwood, Your Majesty. Lessons were very different there."
"First of all, child, let us do away with this delusion that you have 'grown up.' Must I enlighten you to the mountains of evidence that it is a wishful lie?"
Rebecca cast down her gaze at once, hiding all traces of indignation. "No, my Queen. I understand."
"Are you sure that you do? I'll tell you this now: your overconfidence has caught my attention more than once before, though there were more pressing matters to address at the time. I should let you know, little one, that I plan on keeping a very close eye on you now that you are here. Look at me," she ordered. Rebecca immediately obeyed, careful to avoid attracting further suspicion. "It's not in my nature to abandon my plans for any reason."
Same here, Rebecca thought, struggling to keep herself from smirking. In reply, she said humbly, "No, my Queen, of course not. I'm very sorry to have offended you. It was a mistake, one I'll be careful not to repeat," she promised.
"Do not forget, child," warned Morganthe, her voice cold as ever. "Secondly, I hope you've already grasped the fact that I DO NOT aspire to mimic Ravenwood!" As her outrage grew and was released like pure mana in her words, a nearly invisible jolt of energy shot out like colorless dragon fire in all directions, and before Rebecca had the chance to gasp, the explosion of raw magic slammed into her with shattering force.
She shrieked in agony, having been knocked halfway to the far side of the room by the surprise attack. The metal chair she had been sitting in to write lay bent near the door, and her writing desk was in pieces, leaving splinters and bits of wood and twisted iron scattered across the floor. Rebecca knew as soon as she opened her eyes that the Shadow armor Morganthe had given her had just saved her life. If she had been wearing her old, custom-stitched Theurgy clothing, which promised no Shadow resistance at all, her mission and destiny would have been forfeit.
Still, the intensity of the spell had done its share of damage to her as well, new outfit aside. She felt sickeningly as though Morganthe had kicked her in the chest, fracturing her ribcage in at least two places, and both her legs ached terribly as well. "My… Queen…" she tried, but the words made her hurt even more.
"Silence, little coward," Morganthe commanded. She seemed cheered up at the sight of the damage she had caused with a single spell. Admiring the debris strewn along the floor, she stepped slowly closer to her trembling charge. "Your lack of self-control will cost you your life if you do not abandon it now. I'm willing to consider this your final warning…" After another moment of staring down at the teenager, she returned to her throne and sat back down comfortably. "You are dismissed for the time being… brat. Return this afternoon for your next lesson."
Rebecca groaned weakly and tried to get up, but her legs refused to support her. After a few failed attempts, she heard a moan of disgust from Morganthe's direction, then felt as though she were being stretched into human string. It was a somewhat familiar sensation, for it was how she felt whenever she teleported somewhere, but it was strange, because she had no idea where or why she was porting in the first place. It hadn't been her idea!
A strong, magical pull of her threadlike body and a few short seconds later, she found herself in the bedroom in which she had spent the previous night. She felt like her non-threadlike, human self again, though her injuries still pained her.
All of a sudden, someone cried out in surprise from a few feet away. Rebecca's eyes darted around to find out who had startled her.
"You!" It was Zarozinia, and she did not look pleased to see the young wizard at that particular moment… Narrowing her eyes in contempt, the mantis tossed the six plain, gray pillowcases she was carrying onto the nearest bed, one by one. "I see you got yourself in trouble again. I hope you don't blame anyone but yourself."
Rebecca winced. "Does your being angry at me have anything to do with yesterday, when you saved my life from that goliath?"
Zarozinia scoffed at the observation. "This is called frustration, spellbinder," she spat. "And it might bear some connection to that. To think, I could be questioning Burrower spies with professionals like Roze the Mousehunter right now, but no. I'm stuck in here, making beds and mopping the floors… Being punished makes my day…"
"You'd rather torture spies than make beds?" Rebecca asked, cringing a little.
"I'd rather do any kind of field work than be humiliated for helping a new recruit."
Rebecca gulped. She hadn't expected that for an answer. "Well, field work would be a lot more dangerous, don't you think?"
Zarozinia glared fiercely at her as if she had just been accused of weakness or cowardice, which had not been Rebecca's intention at all. "Danger exists everywhere in Khrysalis. Surely, Her Majesty would have supplied you with that information…?" Rebecca shook her head slowly. "Anyway, you seem to enjoy a life of adventure," the mantis added bitterly.
That assumption hurt more than anything else Zarozinia had said. Taking a deep breath, Rebecca answered simply, "It's no adventure. It's my destiny."
At these words, Zarozinia's eyes shone with some kind of realization, and she rushed to the door. After scanning the visible corridors for signs of movement, she closed the door without making a sound and turned back warily towards Rebecca. "Your destiny, spellbinder? Meaning what?"
Rebecca hesitated, wondering if this mantis was all that trustworthy in the end. She had just mentioned an interest in "questioning spies," after all. Was it really worth the risk to answer such a question? Or, for that matter, was she already being questioned as a suspected spy?
Then, though, a new realization struck her. If Zarozinia would turn her in if she knew the truth, why had she made the effort to ensure that there was no one else within earshot? Wouldn't she have been proud to show her fellow Morgantine subjects that she had just caught a traitor and singlehandedly saved her precious Queen?
"Titans…" Rebecca gasped. "You want her dead, too, don't you?"
Zarozinia could only stare at her, shaking visibly as though struck by a peculiar combination of terror and reassurance. "I…" she mumbled, "I thought for certain…" She sighed sharply. In barely three seconds, she had sprinted across the large room to kneel beside Rebecca. "Tell me, spellbinder; speak the words clearly, so that there can be no mistake. You are here as a spy for Ambrose?"
"No," Rebecca replied without hesitation. "Headmaster Ambrose doesn't even know I'm here, and even if he does know somehow, he doesn't know why." Zarozinia made an impatient sort of noise, prompting Rebecca to explain why. When Rebecca did so, her voice was far less steady, for she had never spoken about herself in such a way in her life. "I'm here… as an assassin."
Zarozinia nearly fell backward in shock, but she had tipped back just enough so that she was sitting, rather than kneeling. Before she could say anything in response, however, there was a loud click from the direction of the door. Zarozinia sprang to her feet before that door could open widely enough for anyone to see much within the room.
Guiding the door open with one spindly leg, a Painted Spider studied the bedroom and its two occupants. "Why was thissss door closed, mantissss?" she hissed quietly.
Zarozinia swallowed hard, but thought quickly. "I was unaware the door had closed. I was too busy working to notice." She hastened to the bed on which the empty pillowcases lay and picked them up.
The spider's pincers snapped in warning, and her excess of eyes bore a hint of anger. "If you are sssso busy, why does your tassssk remain unfinished?"
Zarozinia appeared not to have heard the spider's question, and so the arachnid shot a stream of long, silvery thread at her with enough force to knock her back – one end sticking to the side of her head, and the other wrapping itself around a nearby bedpost.
Zarozinia gasped in horror as, having tried to pull herself free of the glue-coated string with one hand, she unwittingly attached that hand to the string.
"She's already being punished!" Rebecca protested at once, catching the spider's attention. "Who gave you the authority to humiliate her like this?"
"What a tempting little dessert…" sneered the spider as she tiptoed closer to the young wizard and looked her over as if she were a tasty-looking morsel. "Perhapssss, Zarozinia has been working too hard to inform you of my kind's authority in thissss casssstle. I shall leave that to her. What I will ssssay is that you, lowly apprentissss, have no rightssss of challenge here. How dare you sssspeak to my kind at all?"
Rebecca looked the spider in the eye, still unable to force her legs to accept her weight. "Your kind should understand that any punishment Her Majesty deems sufficient should be enough to satisfy her subjects as well. If you disagree with me, perhaps you ought to take your concerns to the Shadow Queen herself."
"You and thissss mantissss are her sssservants. We sssspiders are her nobles and royal court. I will suggesssst to the Queen that you receive a lesssson in the nature of a monarchy. Until then, sssspellbinder, you will remember thissss and resssspect your ssssuperiors." Without waiting for an answer, the spider exited the room, her steps like the rapid tapping noises of hail landing on a rooftop.
Once the sound had become faint enough, which didn't take very long, Rebecca struggled once again to stand up. She had to free Zarozinia… When tears began to stream from her eyes from the pain, she let herself fall, leaning her head against the bed with a strangled sob. "I'm so sorry…"
Zarozinia turned her head. "Why?" she asked, sounding miserable. "This isn't your doing."
Rebecca sighed helplessly. "If I hadn't said anything to you, you wouldn't have closed the door. Then that self-obsessed, eight-legged monster wouldn't have given either of us a second glance."
Zarozinia's voice was quite a bit kinder than usual as she replied, "Don't blame yourself, spellbinder. When you said what you said, you gave me much more than you took away."
"What did I give you?"
"The greatest gift I could have dreamed of finding. You revived the hope I'd thought was dead in me."
"You remind me of a friend of mine back at Ravenwood. He always used to say things like that."
Something in Rebecca's words seemed to have confused Zarozinia. "A friend, you say?" Rebecca nodded, a thoughtful smile forming on her lips. "What is that?" Zarozinia asked hesitantly.
Rebecca startled at the question. "You don't know?" she asked sadly. "Hmm… A friend is… Well, I guess a friend is like an ally… It's hard to explain…"
"Does that mean… Are we friends? We're allies, aren't we?"
Rebecca smiled. "Yeah… we are."
Zarozinia pulled once more at the string, trying not to involve her free hand in the struggle. Feeling her sense of urgency returning, Rebecca scooted along the smooth floor to help her friend. "Wait, Zarozinia…" she whispered, "I can help…" As soon as she got close enough, she shut her eyes tightly and racked her brain for ideas. She knew that she couldn't break the thread herself, not if Zarozinia couldn't, but she had to do something.
It had more than crossed her mind to use a spell, but which spell? Moreover, she was still wandless. However, she refused to be useless. Thinking quickly, she chose the only spell she knew that might help: Centaur. She put all the mana she could collect inside her to work, forcing the image of the card to materialize in her mind as clearly as if she were looking at the real thing.
Suddenly, she heard the familiar sound of hooves clopping gently on the floor in front of her, and her eyes snapped open to find the centaur she had summoned! She gasped; her spell, though surely less powerful without the help of her wand, had succeeded!
The centaur seemed mildly amused at her surprise. "You believed I would not appear so far from the battlefield?" he asked, watching her with a genial twinkle in his eyes. "I will never ignore your call, wizard."
Rebecca smiled gratefully. "Thank you," she said. "Zarozinia's been trapped with spider silk; could you free her?"
The centaur turned to look at the mantis, who flinched apprehensively at the sight of him, and smiled kindly. "Worry not, friend of my friend," he told her. "My magic arrow will not harm you." Taking an arrow from the quiver slung over his shoulder, he took a few seconds to aim before sending it straight through the strand of silk. The full length of the spider silk dissolved on impact like a pinch of sugar in a kettle full of hot tea. With one last nod of encouragement in Rebecca's direction, the centaur himself dissolved into a pile of autumn-colored leaves, which faded into the ground.
Zarozinia's entire being glowed with gratitude. She jumped up and raced across the room, searching every cabinet and drawer within it. Finally, she found what she had sought: a small bottle of bright purple potion, which she offered to Rebecca. "Thank you for helping me, spellbinder," she said.
As soon as Rebecca accepted and drank the measure of potion, the whole room suddenly began to tremble, while the air around them stirred with a thick darkness that drowned out every hint of light.
"Come quickly, apprentice!" Morganthe's uncharacteristically jubilant voice echoed off the walls of the bedroom, making them vibrate and shudder eerily. "We have a most unexpected visitor…" She sounded absolutely delighted to deliver this news, and when the soft light of the lamps once again conquered the room, Rebecca was left with a burning curiosity at the thought of who this visitor might be. Noticing the worry all over Zarozinia's face, she wondered silently whether she should be worried.
"Thanks for the potion," Rebecca said with a shaky smile. "I'll see you at lunchtime, I guess…" She got up quickly and made her way to the front doors of the castle, but no amount of courage she could have found within her could have prepared her to see just who was on the other side.