The Boiling Lake
The instant her banishing spell had disposed of that treacherous boy, a piercing shriek drew Morganthe's attention away from her victory. Slowly, she turned her gaze to her apprentice, who had also crumpled to the floor, and eyed her curiously. Just as the scream ended, the girl drew in a noisy breath only to scream again.
What nonsense is this? wondered the Shadow Queen. The duel is over; we won. This child didn't take a single blow. What reason could she have to make all this fuss?
About a minute later, the screaming finally stopped, and Rebecca simply lay shivering at Morganthe's feet, whimpering feebly. Her tear-soaked eyes were weary-looking and unfocused, and her lips trembled as if she wanted to scream again, but alas, her voice had already abandoned her from overuse.
Wrinkling her nose in revulsion, Morganthe struggled to comprehend Rebecca's reaction to this first real accomplishment under Her Majesty's instruction. Then, though, when she looked at the bigger picture, all the puzzle pieces started to fit together…
She recalled Rebecca's frightened sobs as she'd pleaded with her Queen to spare that wretched boy's life, over and over again, before and during the battle. She had waited far longer than necessary to attack him, or to cast anything at all. And when she had attacked him, visible signs of fear had overtaken her appearance, followed in the end by uncontrollable shrieks of agony.
Somehow, she decided, there must have been a magical connection between the two of them, where if one was harmed, the other would feel the same pain. What a cruel enchantment that had turned out to be! Morganthe scoffed in disgust at the idea.
Her eyes widening out of shock, she inhaled sharply and turned away, her gaze falling upon the throne she had claimed so many years ago. Already, it appeared, small fragments of her own impenetrable defenses seemed ready to crumble. She was clever enough to know that the Leviathan spell she had been "attacked" with had had nothing to do with it. Her armor was intact and as strong as ever. The damage done had instead affected the wall she had built around her otherwise vulnerable soul throughout her childhood, which she had maintained and reinforced for well over a century: the brick-and-iron barricade designed to keep her heart out of the way, the heart whose very existence even she had forgotten about. That had been so very long ago…
Approaching footsteps announced the presence of another nearby, and the Queen lifted her head higher, forcing her face into the most domineering expression she could manage before turning to face the millipede who waited there, standing at attention.
Gesturing dismissively at her still-trembling student, she told the guard plainly, "Take her away." Turning her back to both of them, she stepped up to her throne and sat down.
"Where to, my Queen? The dungeons?" guessed the smirking guard eagerly.
"To her bedroom, you imbecile!" she snapped.
Her tone startled the guard, as did the sting of her words, but he seemed to recover from the shock more easily than she, for something deep inside her seemed to stiffen in disbelief. Where had that come from?
"Yes, Your Majesty," the guard said solemnly, bowing in apology.
As he guided Rebecca roughly out of the room, Morganthe studied the spider-carved head of her staff. What's happening here? she wondered. What is this storm descending on my world? Or… is it descending on me alone?
Whatever it was, and wherever it might lead, she knew from whence it had come. This growing uncertainty was hers because that infantile boy had reminded her of a detail nobody should have been trusted with. She assumed that Ambrose had told him that she had once been a mere apprentice herself, his apprentice. She was doubtful, however, that anyone had known to mention that she hadn't always hated him. She had been very careful not to give even her own pupil that information.
"I am so very disappointed in you."
Morganthe sighed hard through clenched teeth as Merle Ambrose's voice reverberated through her mind. What had it been that had disappointed him then, and poisoned his view of her ever since? The same quality in her that, until that day, had always made his eyes gleam with pride: curiosity.
And yet, as hard as he'd taken it, that insatiable thirst for knowledge had granted her every spell, ability and privilege she had today. Once a wide-eyed, youthful student, she had emerged from her troubled adolescence a conqueror… a Queen! She was royalty, Merle and his flawed Spiral be damned!
Her tense lips parted to reveal gritted teeth. She remembered now; she had made a vow during the battle against Merle's new rising star that she had not thought to keep afterwards. Now was no time to let such a promise go unfulfilled. She rose steadily from her throne, gathering the necessary mana from within, and stepped forward a pace. Raising her staff so that its head was level with her gaze, she focused her magic at a set point on the floor several feet away.
As expected, a swirl of spinning energy appeared before her upon the spot her eyes had chosen, bringing an eager sneer to the Queen's face. As gradually as it had come, however, it dissipated, leaving no trace of its brief existence. Morganthe's smile was gone in the blink of an eye. "What?" she hissed.
Shaking her head, she considered what had gone wrong. What would have prevented—? Wait a minute…
She turned her head to look at the part of the floor that had been her most recent battlefield, searching fervently for some clue that her guess had been wrong. Breathing heavily, she walked back over to where the now-dormant duel circle lay and inspected it thoroughly. All she could find there was the faint outline of the circle itself. No sign of bloodshed, no lingering aura of death…
No… It can't be… How is that possible? We won the duel!
Morganthe's mouth fell open; she understood now, and her rage was mounting too swiftly to control. A powerful shriek rose up from her lungs, and even as she set it free, her murderous fury only continued to intensify. "NO!"
Gradually, clarity took the place of emotion, allowing her to catch her breath. However it had happened, however unlikely the odds, her spell to raise him from death had failed for a very specific reason…
Tristan woke up on the grass beside the shimmering lake in the Commons, and right away, he knew he'd lost the battle. Ignoring the curious stares from his fellow students who had gathered around him, he tried to push himself up into a sitting position. It was then that he noticed that the lower half of his body appeared to be missing in action! Lifting his head to see if he was actually halved, he was only minimally relieved to see that his legs and feet were still attached to the rest of him. Grunting in effort, he tried again to convince his legs to bend, to twitch, to do anything—but it was useless. How could he control a limb he couldn't feel?
While his legs were as good as gone, his heart was anything but numb. He could remember how Rebecca had tried to convince him to leave Khrysalis before it was too late, how she had pled and wept in protest when Morganthe had suggested a duel, and the seemingly distant sound of her uncontrolled screaming as he felt himself slip out of consciousness. However, it had been the fist of her gnome, and her spell, and her staff that had inflicted this certainly irreparable injury. It was difficult to put the blame on Morganthe, where deep down, he knew it belonged, when the final decision to attack him had been Rebecca's.
I might as well stay right here, thought Tristan. Then, a bitter chuckle crept up from his shattered heart. It's not like I have a choice.
Just then, something beside him caught his attention, burning his side. With a great effort, he pushed himself up on his elbows so that he could figure out what was scalding him, and he narrowed his eyes. The enchanted stone had burnt a hole right through his pocket, and it now lay on the damp soil between him and the lake. He took it in his hand and, thinking of his promise to her, squeezed it gently, bringing it slowly to his chest. His whole upper body shook with silent tears that soaked his eyelashes but fell no further.
When he opened his eyes again, their gaze no longer betrayed a grieving heart, but a hardened one. All of this hurt him so deeply that to lay blame seemed the only way to cope. It was her fault. To defend her against that idea was unthinkable. She had made her choice.
Realizing he was still holding the hot pebble, for that was all it was to him now, he tossed it into the lake.
"Will you keep it safe for me?"
"Till the day I die."
As far as she could be concerned, he was dead.
"You were right, headmaster."
Tristan sat before Ambrose, his lips quivering, but he fought the temptation that threatened his composure as valiantly as he could. He could feel Headmaster Ambrose watching him sadly, but he couldn't bring himself to make eye contact with the man, not yet. Not until he had regained control of his emotions.
"I know it hurts, Tristan." Tristan shook his head, but before he could argue, the headmaster defended his statement in the same gentle tone. "No, I do." He sighed deeply. "The relationship between Rebecca Dreamhunter and myself was very different from yours; I understand that. But I, too, had much invested in it, and in her." After a pause, he let out a small chuckle. "I admit, I often thought of her as my own daughter."
"You're talking about her as if she's dead, headmaster," muttered Tristan darkly. "This is worse."
Headmaster Ambrose seemed ready to reply when they both heard a startled cry from out front. "Headmaster, headmaster!" squealed a much younger wizard, probably ten or eleven years old, who had just burst into the room. "The lake is boiling! Out in the Commons—It's really boiling!"
Headmaster Ambrose stood in alarm. "Pardon?" he gasped before hurrying to the door. "Do excuse me a moment, Tristan…" he called over his shoulder as he rushed out.
While the strange news had surprised Tristan well enough, he was certain he knew what was causing it. It was that stone Rebecca had given him. Helplessly unable to follow the other two out of the house, or even to watch the commotion from where he sat, he was left only to listen as best he could.
That wretched stone! But why was it so hot now? How could one enchanted rock cause an entire lake to boil? Would it remain under that lake forever, or was there some safe way to retrieve it?
"Everyone, back away from the water!" shouted the headmaster, his magically amplified voice audible over the gasps and shouts of the students in the area.
A minute or so later, the cries of wizards in the Commons were replaced by a wave of cheers and applause. "What in Bartleby's name is this?" Ambrose muttered, his voice still amplified, perhaps by accident.
"That looks like the stone Tristan Skytamer threw in," said one boy.
"Do you suppose he knew what he was doing?" asked another.
"Why else would he have such a thing to begin with?" suggested the girl who had burst into the headmaster's house just a few minutes earlier.
"Young wizards, please!" Professor Wu's calm voice seemed to soothe the crowd a bit. "Let's all just be glad that the lake is starting to heal. Did any of you get burned? Professor Wethersfield and I will be happy to heal anyone who's hurt…"
Tristan winced as the headmaster's front door closed suddenly. "Oh, my goodness!" Ambrose whispered, returning to his desk with the stone suspended at the center of a bubble-like protection spell. "I recognize this magic! It is fine spellwork, indeed, but it is a shame that it caused such panic in the end. Tristan, is this yours?"
Tristan nodded guiltily. "Becca gave it to me years ago," he explained. "But no, I didn't know it would do that."
"Quite understandable. I gather you assumed that the water would cool it down?" For some strange reason, the headmaster was smiling just a little.
"Um… I don't think I even cared about it at the time, I was so upset. But I didn't expect it to heat up the lake so much. I'm sorry."
Merle Ambrose didn't answer. He was slowly lowering the stone into the scrying pool in a far corner of the room. Tristan wished he could get up and walk over to see what would happen, but as it turned out, there was no need. Once the protection spell was lifted, the stone fell into the scrying pool and a moving image rose from the surface. Both wizards watched as the image cleared up a bit, showing Rebecca lying face-down on her bed, her entire face wet with tears. A red mantis sat beside her, watching her anxiously.
"He's dead…" the Theurgist sobbed.
"It was either him or you. You did what you had to do! Hush…"
"I wanted him to kill me, Zinia! I can't do this; I can't just forgive myself and move on. Titans, I'll never forgive myself! TRISTAN!"
"Shh, stop screaming! She'll hear you if you keep this up…"
"I don't care. I don't care about the plan anymore. I don't care about anything. I wish I was—"
The mantis frantically grabbed Rebecca's arm. "DON'T… SAY… THAT!" she shouted. After a wary glance at the door, she lowered her voice again. "When I first heard you sucking up to the Shadow Queen, after everything you'd done to try to stop her, I thought I hated you. I honestly thought you a coward for trying to join her. Tssk… But you're not a coward, spellbinder. I was wrong. You have a strength and a destiny that no mantis has ever dreamed of! You will defeat her, Shadowhunter. But if you give up now… then we who would give anything to end her rule will have nothing left to hope for." Rebecca let out a mournful sob, but couldn't speak.
Zinia appeared to rethink her approach. "If you truly loved him, spellbinder… you mustn't let his death be in vain. Keep to your plan in memory of him, and honor his sacrifice."
The image slowly grew fainter and fainter, until it disappeared completely from view, and the room was silent. Tristan, who had been disbelieving at first, now stared wide-eyed at the scrying pool. "But I'm alive… Becca, I'm alive!" he shouted out to her, but the image did not return.
"She can't hear you," Ambrose informed him grimly.
Tristan panicked, his tears threatening to sting his eyes once again. "Bring her back!" he implored the headmaster frantically. "I have to tell her!"
"Even if I could bring back the vision of her, she still would not be able to hear you."
"But… sh-she said she wanted… Do you think she really meant…?"
"What she said was, at least to me, a clear signal that she needs our aid," the headmaster told him firmly. "She spoke of a plan, Tristan, a plan to defeat the evil that Morganthe has become."
"We… I… Headmaster, I can't walk… How can I help her now?"
"You can start by telling me how you were injured. I need to know if you were infected with a poison, because if you were, the healing process will be much more lengthy, and quite possibly painful. We need to handle this carefully."
"You mean… I might heal from this?" Tristan asked hopefully.
Ambrose gave him a look that said quite plainly: This is no time to dawdle. "Please, Tristan," he said wearily.
"I… Well, we were dueling, sir. I got hit by a Gnomes spell. A really powerful one."
The headmaster's bewilderment was written clearly on his face as he exclaimed, "Gnomes? Why, that's odd. With whom were you dueling?"
"Becca and Morganthe. I guess Becca had waited for as long as she could, with Morganthe watching her deck the whole time, but… she cast the spell that knocked me out. Wait… how did I survive?"
"When the spell hit you, did you feel… dizzy at all?"
"No, not really. I almost felt like I was teleporting. I… That's weird…"
"What is?" Ambrose asked, sounding urgently interested.
"It was exactly like I was porting! Except… I didn't do it…"
"By Bartleby!" exclaimed the headmaster. "Rebecca cast a banishing spell? But how? And directly after casting Gnomes… She would have needed all of her available mana ready in order to cast such a spell inside a dueling circle… Impossible!"
"Sir, whatever happened that sent me back here, Becca couldn't have done it. She was too hysterical; she was screaming her lungs out just before I lost consciousness, and that's when I felt myself port."
"It could only have been Morganthe, then… But why would she do something so… merciful?"
Tristan cleared his throat as though trying not to laugh at the idea. "Merciful? Sir, I can't walk, remember?"
The headmaster held up an index finger in a just-a-moment-there gesture. "For whatever reasons she might have had, Mr. Skytamer, from what you've told me, she spared your life. That's very unlike her. The Morganthe I've known for well over one hundred years would never—"
"You've known her for a hundred years? How old is she?"
"Tristan, please try to focus."
Tristan watched uncomfortably as the headmaster stood up and began to pace. "I can think of no other way," he said quietly, stopping short in the middle of the room. After a thoughtful pause, he rushed to Gamma's room and retrieved a black-bound book the size of a small tabletop, which he placed on his desk, scattering dust and papers all around.
Tristan coughed. "Sir," he gasped, pointing at the book's front cover, "that's the Shadow Palace, right?"
"Yes, Tristan. Over a century ago, in the Khrysaline 'Old Times,' it was known as the Palace of Dynasties. After the Hundred Year War began in Khrysalis, with her forces causing as much trouble and distraction as they could, Morganthe was able to overpower the seven towers' defenses easily. If any in the palace survived, they did so because they joined her forces, and for no other reason. Now, it serves as the central base of her domain. Her Shadow Web." The look on Merle Ambrose's face was of utmost disdain, his gaze aimed downward at the book. Slowly, as though expecting to find something dangerous, he opened it to a spot several pages in.
Tristan watched as the headmaster studied the page spread before him, which looked strangely like faded blueprints, or some kind of simplistic map. Upon closer examination, the map revealed tiny inscriptions along the borders in some unfamiliar language:
NOITAN IT SEDRU UWOH S'LIWI ~ YENRU OJRU EM'LET
"We seek Rebecca Dreamhunter, Promethean Theurgist," commanded the headmaster in a firm, clear voice.
Tristan's eyes grew round with awe as tiny droplets of the ink on the page began to vanish without leaving a trace. For a moment, Tristan waited eagerly, hoping the ink might reappear to form a different image, but the pages remained blank. "Sir, what—?" Tristan began, but Ambrose held up a hand, and the teenager fell silent once again.
"Rebecca… Shadowblade," Headmaster Ambrose tried, grimacing as though the name itself pained him. As though the book possessed the consciousness to doubt its owner, which Tristan decided it must, it did nothing for a second or two, but eventually decided to obey. As slowly as the ink had disappeared, it reappeared to form a new image. This time, the image depicted the Great Tree, Bartleby. Soon enough, the tree's leaves and branches began moving and swaying as though brushed by a breeze. As the inaudible wind blew harder, a single leaf broke free of its place on the topmost branch, fluttering around playfully until a raven with bright red eyes came into view and snatched the leaf out of the air with its beak. "Morganthe…" whispered the headmaster, and all of a sudden, the moving image started making sense. What they were seeing was a sort of silent prophecy, Tristan realized. The leaf represented Rebecca; the raven, her captor.
As they continued to watch, the page turned as if blown into place by a nonexistent breath of wind. On the new page, the leaf seemed to drag heavily along the dirt, tumbling bleakly as it went, until it came upon a smaller bird, a cardinal with a strangely-bent wing. Very different from the raven, the cardinal gently nudged at the leaf with its tiny beak until the wind picked it up again. The red-feathered bird flew alongside the windblown leaf until a large, black raven feather pierced the leaf, rendering it permanently unable to fly.
Again, the page turned, but no image appeared. Instead, the entire page was covered in pitch-black ink. After a few more seconds of that, all of the pages suddenly began to rustle, as though the room were being attacked by strong but aimless gusts of wind that neither Tristan nor Headmaster Ambrose could feel. It was as if the book itself were shuddering.
Ambrose closed the book carefully, his expression telling too much: the situation was more dire now than ever before.
Tristan felt a chill run down his neck and most of his spine as the prophecy came to a close. "Sir, what was that last one?" he asked cautiously.
Ambrose's eyes were fixed on a nondescript spot on the wall by his desk, as though he, too, were still trying to process what he had just witnessed. "Only darkness," was his reply. His eerily pensive voice made the urgency of the matter all the more clear.
Tristan's heart sank. "Oh," he replied quietly.
The headmaster continued, the usual signs of hope now gone from his tone. "Only darkness lies ahead if we allow this prophecy to fulfill itself. We must do all we can do to prevent it."
"How will we prevent it, sir?" Tristan asked.
"We shall begin," he answered, "by returning to Khrysalis. Of course, we shall need to plan carefully before our departure, but… first things first." He rummaged through a cupboard full of potion bottles and jars of unfamiliar reagents, then pulled out three of them, placing the first two on the desk before retrieving the third, and then one tall, empty glass. About two cups of a clear, olive-green potion was poured carefully into the glass, followed by two large drops of a foul-smelling black liquid, which turned bright pink on contact with the first potion. Then, a tiny pinch's worth of something that looked like moist, earth-colored sawdust went into the brew. Finally, with a sudden flash of bright, white light, the potion stirred itself, and its appearance shifted once again to a bubbly, oceanic blue.
Tristan reached forward eagerly to take the potion, suddenly feeling very thirsty. It tasted like fresh blueberries and iced tea, a very refreshing and enjoyable combination. Even as he downed it, he could feel the numbness in his lower half gradually leave him. By the time the potion had been fully drunk, he could even move his toes in his boots!
His happiness was short-lived, of course, for the sorrow behind the headmaster's smile brought him back to reality. They had work to do, and no time to waste.