To sad humanity alone,
(Creation's triumph ultimate)
The grimness of the grave is known,
The dusty destiny await . . . .
Oh bird and beast, with joy, elance
Effulgently your ignorance!
Oh man, previsioning the hearse,
With fortitude accept your curse!
The light grew unbearably bright, causing her to throw up one hand and shrink back. Suddenly, she lurched forward, her feet landing on a soft rug. She stumbled and fell.
The Hero of Bowerstone rose in a deft motion that had saved her life on countless occasions. She stood under a glowing, dim light that did not eat into the deep shadows surrounding her. For a moment, all was quiet.
"It is many years from now," Theresa murmured, her voice echoing hollowly around Elizabeth. "A Queen feels age weighing her down, along with the responsibility of an entire kingdom."
Astonished, Elizabeth looked down to see her light armor had been replaced with a billowing gown of fine red velvet. It cinched tightly at her waist, flowing back out behind her like a fan, the edges of her train embroidered with thread of a bright gold. A sudden weight placed pressure on her head and her hand shot up to protect it, only to close around the filigree and jewels of a royal crown. As she lowered her hand, her eyes widened to see it wrinkled and spotted with advanced years.
"Walk forward," the Seer ordered. Nervously looking into the seemingly impenetrable darkness, Elizabeth obeyed.
The glowing light followed her and expanded, its warmth widening to include a line of men who stood in stiff ranks on either side of the purple runner in the middle of the floor. Cautiously, Elizabeth approached them, feeling naked without her katana or rifle at her back. At least she could summon her Will if needed.
"These are her men – loyal soldiers who would die for her. Many already have on battlefields at home and in faraway lands."
Elizabeth turned to look upon the soldier's faces. They were indistinct, like faces in an oil painting not quite completed or possibly rubbed out. They responded to her movement with a snappy salute; she drew back slightly, discomfited by their strangeness and attention to her. She may have become a Hero, but the years spent in the gypsy camp and as an unknown rebel fighting on the road had not prepared her for notoriety.
Being careful not to turn her back on the featureless soldiers, Elizabeth proceeded further down the velvet path, the light's gentle presence following her like a friendly ghost.
A sudden swell of applause made Elizabeth spin around in astonishment. Surrounding her as far as the light could touch people stood in celebration, their faces also indistinct, but parted across with white slashes – like smiles. Disturbed, Elizabeth tried to carry herself in a dignified manner, but could not bring herself to look upon those shining rows of teeth in otherwise empty faces.
"These are her people," Theresa breathed, her soothing voice a balm in the unsettling darkness. "Subjects who worship her, who trust her to guide them, protect them, and govern them."
Elizabeth made her way to the end of the line, where steps rose out into the shadows. Lifting her skirt with care, she took them upwards, trusting the light to guide her.
"And this," Theresa went on, "Is her throne."
A grandiose chair made of gold stood proudly in the center of the dais. It, like the runner, was plush with purple velvet. Elizabeth approached it with a shaking hand, full of disbelief, as she touched the cool metal of its armrest.
"This is Albion's seat of power, where she has made countless decisions, delivered justice, and led a nation."
"How?" Elizabeth finally asked, rediscovering her voice. "How does this come to be?"
"It is unimportant," Theresa replied. "None of this is important."
Without waiting for her, the light began to move away. Elizabeth hurried to keep pace with it; out of the darkness, a sudden cry made her gasp.
"This is the real future."
Elizabeth went to the crib slowly, her heart in her throat. The baby cried out again, then settled, looking into its mother's face.
"The child of the Queen - not yet born, but destined for greatness. A child on whom the fate of Albion will one day rest."
The baby had a face; it giggled and squirmed, reaching out chubby hands to greet Elizabeth. Automatically, she reached into the bassinet, silent with awe and a little fear. The baby's fingers closed around her finger; its skin was soft like fresh water against her skin. Blue eyes – her eyes - twinkled enigmatically up at her.
"The fate of many people will depend on this child. As will the fate of Aurora."
The trance was broken; "Aurora? What is Aurora?"
Theresa did not answer; as if sensing Elizabeth would soon be gone, the infant began to cry, its face reddening to an alarming color. Elizabeth tried to soothe the baby with gentle noises, but it seemed nothing could be done. She turned back to look up into the darkness, seeking the woman who had raised her, made her a Hero, and now brought her to the edge of all knowledge.
"Theresa? Of what do you speak? What must my child face?"
For a moment, only silence was the grim reply. The light began to dim considerably, swallowing her baby in darkness. Panicked, Elizabeth felt the warmth of her child's touch fall away.
Theresa's voice grew louder, echoing in the endless space of the unknown. "These things you will understand in time. For now, you must live your life. Love deeply, learn quickly, and do not try to predict the future."
"What?" Elizabeth shot back, angry. "Then why show me this? Why share any of it at all?"
"There are many threads that weave the cloth of Fate – too many to count. Yet there are moments when they all converge – events that cannot be avoided. There are futures that must be fulfilled. But this Fate is not yours to follow, Little Sparrow. Follow your heart, and you will prepare for what is to come."
Elizabeth spun around, feeling the darkness close in on her. Her hands were once again those of a young woman, her armor shifting noisily in the empty space.
"Theresa!" She called, afraid and confused. "Wait! What is Aurora? What am I to do?"
"Live, Little Sparrow," Theresa's voice breathed as softly as the wind. "And know that I will always be nearby – waiting and watching."
There was the clatter of furniture being shoved aside, followed by the crash of breaking glass. People cried out and ran for cover, all too familiar with the rough crowd drawn to the sticky-countered Rookridge Inn.
Aurora glared down her opponent – at least she thought it was one. Three angry men swam in her vision, blurred by lack of sleep compounded with watered down Honeybrew Ale. She'd lost count of how many tankards she'd drank; it had been another hard day at the Crucible Arena in Westcliff, another day of hearing about Logan's evil exploits and the deaths of more helpless Albion citizens. She could sometimes go days without drinking, but when the news of children being lost to the monstrous hunger of Bowerstone Industrial's factories, of entire families disappearing in the night or of people who protested her brother's laws and practices being shot to death in the street reached her dank inn room, the Crucible's challenges called to the fire and electricity in her hands and the burning thirst in her throat. Tonight had been a particularly rough one; word of Walter searching for her had reached the Inn. He had been looking for months, tailing her first across the breadbasket of Albion (Oakfield, Brightwood) and then to the coast, where she had managed to shake him off in Bloodstone by sailing a small boat around to Rookridge. For the last six months, she'd spent her days sleeping, fighting in the arena, and then spending the coin she won on ale and whisky. Merik, the paternal barkeep, often sent her to bed when he felt she was past her limit. Unfortunately for him, a Hero did not take well to a prescribed bed time, and could express their displeasure with a variety of overpowering talents.
"Alright you smart-mouthed little bitch, I'll show you who's the real man around here!" The mercenary threw aside another chair, shattering the low-quality wood against the side of the enormous fireplace. A woman screamed and scrabbled out of the way, having only a moment before been in the chair's direct trajectory. Aurora tried to concentrate; she felt the familiar tingle building in her hands, the energy swelling as it prepared to channel through her mother's gauntlets.
"Will you now?" she slurred, unsteady on her feet. "I'd like to see you try." Loudly, she hiccuped.
With a leering sneer, the mercenary laughed, joined by a few of his cronies. Aurora noted them out of the corner of her eye; they had made a circle around her, all bent slightly as they readied themselves to join their master. Bloody fools; hadn't they seen her at the arena?
"You think you're so special with your damn twinkly fingers." He withdrew his sword, the metal slicing loudly against its scabbard. "I'll remind you of that when I'm holding your guts against your face."
Aurora almost sighed; these fights were as much of her routine now as the arena and the drinking. It was always the same – only the idiots challenging her changed. Someone would hear of her exploits, come to see her in the Crucible, and then come sniffing around the bar, looking for a fight. All tough swords-for-hire who had something to prove. Ah, well.
Suddenly, he was moving, and for a moment Aurora was startled. But her Hero's strength and speed kicked in and she moved out of the way; his blade connected with a table behind her, clanging loudly in the silence left behind by the watching crowd's bated breath. Aurora swung around and released a small burst of fire out of her left hand, hitting him right in the buttocks. The "tough" man let out a little squeal, then swung back to face her, growling in fury as he yanked his sword from the stiff wood.
"Interesting sound you just made; does your voice go any higher?" Aurora loved baiting them; she loved to feel the hate oozing out of her into the other men. It relieved the poisonous burn in her stomach. Indistinctly, he roared.
Aurora ducked his charge, punching him hard in the back with one hand and pulling out her Hero's blade with the other. She could use her rifle, but that would hardly be sporting, would it? Something in his back cracked loudly and he howled. Swiftly, she brought him to his knees, placing the edge of her blade at his throat.
"If you surrender," she offered quietly, "I won't kill you."
Breathing hard through his teeth against the pain, the man spat on the ground, his expression contorted. Around her, the circle of his men contracted.
"Ah, ah, ah," she tsked loudly, making sure to hold the blade steadfast while she lifted the other hand. In her palm appeared a ball of electrified fire, emitting the sounds of a tiny thunderstorm as lightening cracked and danced within the flames, eager to be released.
"None of that, gentleman. This is between your… Captain and me," amused at her own joke, she smirked. Again, the man growled.
"Let me go," he snarled after a time. "Fool woman. You're just hiding behind your magic – you're not worth killing."
Aurora extinguished the flame immediately, sheathed her blade, and proffered a hand to help him to his feet. With a murderous glare, he refused it, rising slowly as he fought the pain of his broken rib.
"Bitch," he spat once more. A discontented rumble circulated around the room, the crowd shifting restlessly. Those who had no quarry with the Hero shrank away, either escaping to their rooms or leaving the inn entirely. Aurora became aware that Merik was holding a large hammer behind the bar, watching events unfold with one wary eye. The other was long gone, the gaping cave of his eye socket hidden by a black patch that clung on in a diagonal line across his face.
"Alright, chaps, that's enough for one night. Off you go." Merik raised the hammer up high, his face set. The eery chattering of building violence once again swept the room; Aurora knew this wasn't over.
Fighting a large crowd in a wooden building presented a bit of a problem. She couldn't exactly use her Will to end the fight, because she'd take the entire building down with her. At the same time, even with her strength and speed, there was no way she could single-handedly fight off fifteen men without it. A bit of sobriety began to fight through the wool in her head; they were in real danger. Strangely, instead of feeling fear, a thrill swept through her as electric as the lightening in her hands. A dim part of her felt shame for pulling Merik into this, but the rest of her was occupied with the whispered thought: You wanted this.
The men had realized their advantage and began to close in, their pace slow and deliberate, each face stretching into a gruesome leer. One of them shut the front doors, barring them with a wooden slat. Merik, who had gone white in the face, slowly backed out of the room, hammer raised in a lingering threat. The leader circled around to grin maliciously at Aurora, who pulled the rifle from her back – which was, unfortunately, almost against one wall – watching them all and silently apologizing to Merik. As she braced herself to die fighting, a distant voice caught her attention and a furious growling began from the balcony above.
Several things happened at once – the door to inn suddenly smashed open with an almighty crash, causing the men closest to it to cry out in pain and surprise. From above, Aurora's faithful Border Collie, Roosevelt, descended into the crowd from the balcony, his lips pulled back to show his teeth. Aurora took the opportunity to electrify the leader, who had turned away in surprise, and then shot another man over her shoulder as he tried to rush her from behind. Two men she couldn't quite see joined the fray, shouting, but appeared to be on her side. Leaving them for the time being, Aurora shot another mercenary, his gunpowder-riddled body crashing back into the bar before folding in on itself like a rag doll.
For several minutes, all was chaos. Metal clashed and clouds of gunpowder hung in the air. Several more men ran from the building, clutching a burning head or flaming buttock. Aurora was about to shout in victory when an overwhelming blow struck her from behind. She heard Roosevelt bark aggressively and rolled over, trying to get a look at her attacker.
The leader of the mercenaries had survived her electric assault and stood, arms raised, with his sword poised to plunge into her chest. Knowing she would die, one hand shot up between them to emit a burst of fire, but he kicked it aside, his teeth bared in a savage grimace. This is it, Aurora thought, closing her eyes; all around her, the noise seemed to disappear, replaced by a muffled silence. I'm going to die.
Out of nowhere, a woman's voice seemed to echo in Aurora's mind. Death is not your destiny today, Little Sparrow.
Aurora gasped, her eyes snapping open. Above her, the mercenary roared, lifting the sword for a deadly movement, when another blade abruptly protruded from his chest.
The man coughed; his eyes looked down, shocked, at the death sentence he'd just been handed. They lifted back up to Aurora's gaze, his face twitching; she winced, bracing herself, when she heard a sword clatter to the ground and watched in amazement as her attacker fell to his knees, gurgled, and fell over – dead.
Her head, between the blow and the copious amounts of ale, swam dangerously. She got the vague impression of a warm smile and then heard a man's voice say something in what she hoped was a friendly manner.
"Well, hello there, Princess. Fancy meeting you here."
Without further ado, Princess Aurora of Albion, daughter of the Hero Queen, fainted.