Sneaking, unseen, into a town crawling with bored Elite soldiers who would have been glad for a bit of action was a feat not even Aurora at her most brazen relished taking on. As it was, she had very little choice, and so did her best to blend in with the chattering crowd of the market as carts trundling in with new supplies rolled disconsolately over the magnificent stone bridge connecting Brightwall to the rest of the world. The gates, which nearly eclipsed the view of the mountains beyond in their grandness, closed with an ominous creak as soldiers pressed in them, their guns shining brightly in a streak of sunlight that died in the crack between the shutting gates. As the thud of wood meeting wood echoed through the square, Aurora looked cautiously out from underneath the brim of her hat. Walter and Ben had entered the town separately, also blending in with the crowd, with the intention of scoping out the public mood. Walter was going to settle himself at the town pub and keep an ear out, while Ben was going to listen to gossip in the streets before meeting Aurora at the abandoned university. Before they risked exposing themselves to this Samuel, they wanted to make sure the views of the locals were as Page had described them. The last thing they needed was an entire village of Logan sympathizers descending on them from all sides.
Aurora had also gone back to the Sanctuary to hide her mother's Dragonbone hammer. It rather stuck out in a crowd. Since commoners were not allowed weapons (one of her brother's many suppressive decrees), Aurora and Walter had been forced to hide most of their weapons, with the exception of their revolver guns and a couple of small daggers, in the Sanctuary. Aurora could nip back there in a moment once at the university to retrieve what she needed, but it felt discomfiting all the same to navigate the crowd of dirty, sorrowful faces without the comfort of a blade or bludgeon at her back.
Chickens chattered indignantly in crates, their feathers flying, while a pig squeed with alarm in a nearby pen. The hot, striking iron of the blacksmith could be heard over the bedlam of voices desperate for a sale, mingling with the scents of sweat, herbs, cooking meat, and fresh earth. Across the half-moon of the market was a cobbled street that arced gracefully into yet another bridge leading into the depths of Brightwall village. The land here was no more flat than the mountains surrounding it, and the once jewel-colored houses peppered the rolling hills as neatly as red-capped mushrooms, their roofs gleaming in the warm afternoon light, their chimneys emitting homey little puffs of smoke. The buildings all belonged to Reaver now and his avid interest in his own profit was reflected in the village's decay; the people of Brightwall obviously did their best to maintain what was once a magnificent example of Albion prosperity, but what they managed to keep was hard-won.
Aurora was careful not to look anyone directly in the face as she worked her way up to the top of the tallest hill, where the university sat overlooking the rest of the village, its face shuttered and gray. A few children were playing in a wide curve of the street, their laughter breaking the air like chimes, and Aurora's answering smile was wiped quickly away by a snarling guard who raised his hand to them, causing them to squeal and scatter to their homes. As Aurora passed him, she resisted the urge to issue a carefully-aimed burst of electricity as she heard the Elite mutter, "Sodding little buggers…."
Were it not for the grim times they were in, Aurora could have truly appreciated the beauty of this small borough. The sunlight was as thick as butter, streaming through tall, leafy trees that swayed gently overhead. The cobblestone paths wound and twisted around neat paddocks and gardens, edged with tufty grass as soft as patches of velvet. As she gained the top of the path, the smell of baking pastry reached her on a burst of warm air. Even the gentle strains of a lute could be heard through the twitter of birdsong, day labors, and traveling patrons. Aurora supposed they had secluded themselves to the other end of the upper square, away from the Elite soldiers. She couldn't blame them for being nervous and regretted more than ever the suffering of her subjects. If a lovely place like Brightwall had lost hope of release from their oppression, she could not imagine the heaviness in the hearts of others less fortunate. Aurora resolved that there would be music and laughter for her people again, if it was the last thing she ever did.
The university was a grand old building; it sat sentinel to the doings of all of Brightwall, tall and glittering slightly in the dappled light. Upon closer inspection, the stone was streaked in places with brown muck, and ivy had begun to climb chokingly over its sides and face. Even with those signs of neglect, however, it remained an impressive testament to her mother's reign and Aurora approached it with a sense of reverence.
Clearly, there was a desire to abide by her brother's ruling, as no one dared come within spitting distance of the academy. The area was quiet and deserted, with even the birdsong muted and, surprisingly, no guards patrolling the perimeter. This could possibly be explained by a series of chains that had been tightly wrapped around wrought-iron gates, which were also locked. Aurora peered around, hoping to spot a weakness in the imposing black spikes that made the first barrier to her quarry, when a mischievous voice behind her made her jump.
"Wotcher," Ben grinned from the bowels of an overgrown bush, his hair still assertively rakish. Aurora glared.
"Don't hide in bushes, it looks suspicious!" She chided, gesturing for him to come out. Ben obliged her, unconcerned.
"Those guards couldn't find an actual criminal if one crawled up their – "
"Sshh!" Aurora hissed, looking about hastily. Ben shook his head.
"There's no one guarding the place because the people have given up hope of ever reopening the university. However," he went on cheerfully, "My eavesdropping suggests that they aren't too pleased with your brother, which is good news for us."
That was somewhat relieving, Aurora had to admit. "Anything else?" she asked him, a little waspishly. Ben was always so satisfied with himself.
"Well, if you're offering…" he began. Before Aurora could retort, she heard a noise behind her and spun around, catching sight of movement beyond the gates. She tensed, ready to grab Ben and disappear to the Sanctuary if it was an Elite guard. But then she looked more closely.
A little girl was climbing over some rocks next to the academy, which tumbled in the face of an imposing cliff that walled off the right side of the university from public access. She was dressed in barely more than rags, but her face was clean and pink-cheeked as she concentrated on navigating the boulders and trees in her way. Aurora crouched and watched her progress until she vanished, with a quick, furtive look over one shoulder, into the academy through a pair of side doors that had appeared – from this distance – locked.
"Hmmm," Aurora muttered, thinking. She did not notice Ben's heavy patience at having been grabbed by the collar and left, hanging, at an angle as she contemplated their next move.
"Do you think we should go after her?" Ben suggested, leaning slightly to relieve the pressure against his neck. Aurora nodded slowly, deciding it was now or never. As she turned to look about once more for any potential legal apprehension, her face nearly brushed Ben's and she jumped, releasing him.
"Sorry," Ben told her, a knowing smile quirking the corners of his lips. Aurora huffed noncommittally, unable to think of suitable retort as she resolutely turned away from him. Behind her, Ben grinned more widely, putting one hand on his hip. He had to admit, she did make a rather fetching profile, even with that hat on her chestnut-colored head.
The fence neatly cordoned off any access to the university, so Aurora was forced to improvise. Ben, in a mood to show off, had already begun to climb a tall oak tree in pursuit of one of its long branches, which reached over the fence. Aurora watched him go with a deliberately bored expression, waited for him to puff his way to the end of the branch, then carefully bent the bars in the fence open towards the very end where a guard would be less likely to spot it and slid through. As she turned to bend the bars back into their straight position, Ben hit the ground behind her.
"See now I can – Oh." Ben stared at her careful reshaping of the bars, his excited expression slipping. Aurora nodded once and walked right past him, suppressing a grin.
"You think you're very clever, do you?" Ben called quietly after her, catching up. Aurora shrugged. It was strange, taking someone with her who wasn't Walter or Roosevelt (the latter of whom had been instructed to remain with old army general, even though he wasn't allowed in the pub). Aurora considered the side doors through which the little girl had disappeared, wondering if they might be booby-trapped. To her consternation, Ben pushed them open with one hand and nothing happened.
"You never can be too careful, I suppose," Ben agreed sarcastically, in response to Aurora's dark look. She pushed ahead of him.
The entrance hall was dimly lit and dusty, with motes floating lazily in the few shafts of light coming in through the hastily boarded windows. Shelves lined the walls leading into the atrium, with a few books still stacked haphazardly along their lines, though most of them were empty. The floor was white marble shot with grey and black; Aurora cursed under her breath. A floor like this would make it very difficult not to be heard as they entered the building.
"Well, after you," Ben whispered, trying to cock his revolver without making noise. Aurora thought about it for a moment, then decided not to go back for her mother's saber, which she had left with the hammer. If the little girl was anything to go by, this was indeed a refuge for some of Albion's citizens as Page's intelligence had indicated, and Aurora did not want to alarm them.
The lobby was also empty, with a beautiful wooden receiving desk that arced widely in the center of the room. More shelves lined the back walls and, to the right and left were both rather cozy-looking sitting rooms. Enormous fireplaces pocked the walls at short intervals and the remnants of comfortable-looking furniture littered the floor with a few remaining books. To the right, beyond the sitting room, Aurora could see the further rooms and hallways – probably classrooms. Behind the main desk, a staircase descended down a floor, disappearing towards darkness. Aurora nodded to Ben and he followed her cautiously down the steps.
The double doors at the bottom were locked. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Aurora's throat caught; they were inscribed with her mother's Hero symbol. If there were refugees in the university, she was sure they were hidden here. They would probably take comfort from the symbol's protection.
The darkness and silence were getting somewhat spooky, but they also presented a problem: how to invite themselves into the bowels of the university without causing a panic? Surely, any loud, forceful noises would immediately bring to mind the invasion of Elite guards. Aurora and Ben touched the doors, sliding hands up and down to search for something that could provide peaceful entry, before Ben sighed, resigned.
"There's no way we can get in without them unlocking it from the other side – "
Aurora had suddenly thought of something; with a rattle, she pulled out her mother's symbol on its golden chain, holding it up to a notch just below its larger twin in the wood. The pendant gleamed slightly in the shadows, and fit with a clean slice of metal on wood into the space. There was a loud click, and one of the doors popped slightly open.
"Aha!" She whispered triumphantly, pocketing the Seal again. Ben bowed slightly, indicating his admiration and that she should go first. Aurora pushed the door open, wincing as it creaked.
Another long hallway greeted them, though this one was lit by candles. From where she stood, Aurora could hear the soft sound of whispering voices, and could smell the scents of food and soap. Carefully, she moved down the hall towards another set of Hero doors and a smaller chamber, which sat off to the doors' right.
When Aurora peered in, she gasped. There must have been over fifty people hiding in the large room – it looked like it had once been a library, lined with more bookshelves than she had ever seen – and all camped out on the floor together, with several fires going in their hearths. There were children, the elderly, and their parents – she could even see a dog snuffling underneath some blankets – and all of them in various states of malaise, with some obviously ill on their bedrolls, and others hearty but worn as they tended to the others. Aurora drew back hastily, not wanting to frighten them. Ben came stealthily along the wall beside her, giving the room a quick look.
"Poor blighters," he muttered sympathetically. "What do you reckon we should do?"
Aurora bit her lip; part of her wanted to go in and reassure them of their safety, but she knew better than to expect them to accept her word. Clearly, these people had fought hard to escape her brother's tyrannical reign and some personal cost it had brought them. They would hardly be comforted by the unexpected arrival of his one living sibling.
"Let's find Samuel," she murmured, moving away. "Perhaps he can convince them we're safe."
Barely breathing, Aurora led Ben back to the upper floor, carefully locking the door behind her. She wondered where Samuel could be.
Thankfully, she did not have to wonder long. When they returned to the lobby upstairs, a white-haired fellow apparently in the grips of what he believed to be a very sneaky tip-toe was almost too absorbed to notice them. When he did, he yelped comically, dropping a pile of wrapped packages higgly-piggly on the floor.
"Good gracious!" he gasped, as pale as death. "Please, no, I beg you –"
Aurora rushed to reassure him, "Samuel, we're not here to hurt you! It's me, Princess Aurora!" As if to prove her point, Aurora picked up Samuel's packages, which she guessed from the texture of the contents within and thick brown paper was food. Samuel placed one hand over his heart, still gasping.
"You, oh my, I thought… Thank heavens Walter caught me this morning, or I might not have believed you. Princess? And this must be the Captain?" Almost as an afterthought, Samuel held out his hand, which Ben shook graciously.
"No to worry, old chap, not to worry. I'll take these down, shall I?" Ben relieved Aurora of her burden so she could speak to Samuel, who was getting some of his color back.
"My apologies, Princess," he mumbled, "I'm sure you can understand, with what's at risk these days, why I was not at first pleased to see you."
"Of course," she agreed, shaking the old professor's hand. He had a kind face with deep lines and the bearing of someone who possessed dignity that went far beyond the reaches of clothes and skin.
"Well," he said finally, seeming to have collected himself. "I'm glad you're here, saves me the trouble of finding you. Come down and I'll show you what your brother has done."
Without further ado, Samuel led them downstairs. He used a key to open the doors rather than her mother's seal, and Aurora wondered why they had the capacity for both kinds of locks. Samuel muttered something about, "safety measures," but was soon concerned only with the refugees he was hiding and their comfort.
"Yes, Delilah, I've got that ointment for you here… just a few dollops should do the trick! Here you go, Hamill, I've got that bread you asked for. Georgiana!" His voice was delighted as the little girl Aurora had seen earlier came bounding up to him, her face alight with hope. "Here you are, my lady." With tender care, Samuel handed the girl a pretty doll, handmade from some cloth, yarn and buttons. The girl hugged it to her with rapture and thanked Samuel before scurrying away to show her mother. The refugees kept giving Aurora and Ben frightened, furtive looks, but they ate their food hungrily and continued to speak quietly to each other, making sure the young and the sick ate first.
"You've taken good care of them," Aurora told him admiringly, feeling a pang. How could she have been so useless for all this time while someone with much less power sacrificed for others? Without looking at Ben, she sensed he was thinking the same thing, and flushed uncomfortably.
"Thank you," Samuel replied briskly, watching over everyone with the keen eye of a mother hen. "They haven't anywhere else to go now, with the charges leveled against them. That boy, there," Samuel pointed at a little boy helping his grandmother drink some water. "He was accused of stealing when he managed to earn enough money to buy some meat for his sick grandmother. They were going to chop off both his hands."
Aurora shuddered, feeling sick. Samuel nodded at another person, still business-like.
"And Edna Babcock, there – she refused to do illegal potion trading for the Elite soldiers. They were going to shoot her in the market square. And Hamill Markham was one of our very best weapon smiths and tanners; he used to assist George, the blacksmith, before he was accused of hogging profits – meaning he wouldn't hand over all his gold wholesale. And Marianna Reynolds," he pointed grimly at a pretty young girl who was curled in on herself in the corner, not eating. "She refused the advances of an Elite soldier. We, well," Samuel seemed to struggle with words as he contemplated her profile, which seemed meek and frightened even in the dim light. Ben looked around Aurora, his jaw set as he observed the girl. "We did our best for her," Samuel finished gruffly. As he did, Aurora suppressed a gasp; Marianna had turned to reveal one side of her beautiful face ruined, broken by a deep scar that spanned hairline to chin, one of her eyes permanently closed with a painful crease running through it.
Aurora watched them all for a few moments, stomach burning, before she remembered why she was here. "So, did Walter tell you what we're trying to do?" she asked, mimicking his matter-of-fact manner. Samuel nodded and indicated they should step outside.
Once in the hallway, Samuel led them to a smaller chamber Aurora hadn't noticed before, where there were several benches set into the wall. Samuel lowered onto one of them, face set.
"We want to help, Princess, but we have worries of our own." Clearing his throat awkwardly, a bit of the old professor came out in his manner – not quite meeting their eyes, shifting in his seat nervously, he appeared very much the pompous academic, rather than the leader of a small rebellion. "I cannot risk the safety of those people, they've been through enough. But if we could hide them better, if there was a way…."
He trailed off hopefully, finally looking into her face. Ben's brow furrowed.
"What do you mean, Samuel?"
Wringing his hands only briefly, the professor seemed to stop himself and steel his resolve. "The tombs, or rather, Reliquary," he said simply, "We could use i for so much if it were safer. Right now, the Reliquary's overrun with Hollow Men and Hobbs and only goodness knows what else, and I can't provide adequate storage or sanctuary to anyone, least of all the rebellion."
"And," he went on, "The beasts within are triggered by unauthorized access, so we haven't even a chance to investigate its possibilities without being beset upon almost immediately."
"How can I help?" Aurora asked, thinking that it was at least very lucky she needed to go into the tombs anyway, to retrieve the artifact for Sabine.
"Your mother's seal," he said, pointing distractedly at her coat. "If you open the doors with that, it calms the traps. However," Samuel cleared his throat, "I rather think your mother had intended the tombs for storage of ancient artifacts, and made the traps only feasible for someone of her unique skill set. If you can clear them out, we can transform the underground chambers into a working city for the rebellion."
This was quite a bit more than Page had even been expecting; nodding, Aurora consented immediately, while Ben looked worried.
"And what of these artifacts?" he demanded of Samuel, "Are they dangerous?"
"I would think not," Samuel replied thoughtfully, "But then again, what is danger to a Hero?"
"It will be alright, Ben," Aurora said. Ben jumped, surprised to hear her speak his name. "If my mother could handle it, then so can I."
Looking mulish, Ben muttered, "I should still come with you."
Smiling politely at Samuel, Aurora pulled Ben to the side and said in an undertone: "I'd rather someone be here, making sure the doors don't shut behind me, if you understand my meaning?"
Ben sighed; he didn't think she had much to be concerned about with these people, but it wouldn't hurt to keep an eye on the nervous professor. Ben shot the older man a calculating look over Aurora's shoulder and wondered whether they could trust him, really.
"Alright," he said with some reluctance. "I'll stay back."
"Marvelous!" Samuel clapped his hands, making them both start. "So you'll do it?"
"On the condition," Aurora replied sweetly, "That you meet our terms as well."
"If I'm not much mistaken, you are referring to the pressing issue of Dweller sustenance and the forming of a revolutionary cooperative?"
"Er, yes." Aurora said, untangling his old-fashioned speech.
"Consider it done, Princess!" Samuel shook her hand rather enthusiastically, then took Ben's for good measure. He seemed relieved to finally have some help, and eagerly led Ben back to the refugees so he could introduce a few more of them to the Captain.
Aurora went to the second set of doors, which now seemed darkly ominous, and took a good breath. While Ben and Samuel were distracted, she shut her eyes and endured the brief squeezing sensation that meant she was returning to the Sanctuary, where she collected her mother's favorite rifle and the as-yet unused Dragonbone hammer. With another deep breath, she was once again before the doors, where Ben was anxiously waiting for her.
"It's weird when you do that," he complained, "Just popping up out of nowhere. Armed."
Aurora gave him a crooked smile as she withdrew the seal from her pocket and pressed it into the door. The resounding clunk of the lock coming undone seemed to echo endlessly into space beyond the doors. With trepidation she tried to suppress, Aurora pulled one of them open.
"Imagine how the Hollow men are going to feel," she replied, peering into the darkness. Ben hesitated, then asked, "Are you sure you want to go right now? Should we go speak to Walter?"
Aurora scoffed, "I'm not a child, Ben! And besides," she waggled her eyebrows at him mischievously:
"Danger is merely adventure spelled with a 'G'." And, before Ben could work that one out, Aurora slid out of sight and was gone.
The Reliquary was composed of a series of awe-inspiring and incredibly annoying obstacle courses, which invariably released a seemingly endless flow of Hollow men, with the occasional bout of Hobbs who scurried and twirled in their panic to escape Aurora when her prowess became apparent. There were bridges that only appeared if the right series of stones were stepped on, and sets of stairs that vanished unless Hollow men guarding them were fought within a specified period of time. The Reliquary was a beautifully carved stone edifice set into the heart of the mountains, and Aurora wondered what its original purpose had been, as there were fewer mausoleums than there were simply grand chambers, like an underground castle. Had this once been the ruling place of a great Hero? She simply could not tell.
She found some gold and trinkets amongst the broken stone of buildings and ancient sarcophagi that had been ominously cracked to the point of separation. Some doors were locked and could only be opened, as far as Aurora could determine, with special keys to which she had no access. Perhaps Samuel knew about them. Aurora followed every path she could find, killing anything that got in her way, pushing open every door and searching the vast halls and rooms beyond until she was satisfied they were safe.
At one point, she had found her way up to a high platform surrounded on all sides by craggy rock and enclosed under a stone plafond that was ornately carved. Here, the Hollow men became most aggressive, swinging weapons in their bony claws as they gnashed their teeth in fearsome growls. Aurora, with some minor difficulty, cleared through them, expelling a high number of electric tornados to throw her enemies off and even cause a few of them to explode. When the dust of old graves and bone settled, she found what looked like a treasure chest carved from stone on the other side of the platform. Gingerly, she shoved off its lid.
Enclosed within was a large, golden key that gleamed in the muted light of the underground. Excited, Aurora searched around her for where the key might open, and saw a set of very tall doors ahead which she had not yet tried to access. With as much patience as she could muster, the Princess climbed her way down, occasionally scuffing an extremity or sending her hat flying backward in her haste to reach her destination.
To her delight, the door opened. Pocketing key in the hope it would open other locks, Aurora eagerly shoved the doors open, peering around the nearest edge to see what lay beyond.
A magnificent staircase seemed to reach for the upper floors as a hand might reach for the sky. Without further thought, Aurora mounted the first step, eyes focused upward.
Almost immediately, Hollow men descended upon her from all sides. The Princess drew upon her magic and shoved several of them back with the force of wind, before drawing her hammer and smashing as many of the undead as she could reach. When this brought them into an uncomfortably close range – she felt the threatening breeze of an axe as it passed over her – she rolled deftly back and drew her two pistols as the hammer landed behind her with a thunk and shot at her enemies until they littered the stairs in haggard piles of bone. Cautious, but sensing no further danger, Aurora picked up her hammer and holstered her guns, easing her way upward as she listened for another attack.
The chamber at the top of the stairs was obviously once intended to be a library. The books were moth-eaten, even tired-looking, on rickety shelves made of wood that didn't fit with the room. Several of the tomes splintered to dust when touched, while others seem to soldier on in thick leather covers. Aurora read some of the titles with interest; there was The Extraordinary Homunculus of Baron von Orfen, which seemed to chronicle the adventures of a man who dabbled in the Dark Arts many years ago. There was an instructional tome on shooting, entitled How to be a Crack Shot, squeezed in next to How to be a Master Swordsman. Further down, there was a numbered series in black leather, called Dangerous Things, which warned readers against everything from gunpowder to Stargazing in Remote Areas. There was The Book of Doom rubbing shoulders with The Book of Mysteries, and one that seemed all too appropriate to the times called, The Grasping Avarice of Kings and Their Lackeys. Aurora pocketed this last one, thinking it might be useful.
As she circulated the room and stared at the books in turn, she was stunned to find some of her mother's Hero books here, ones she previously thought kept private in her mother's Sanctuary. There was Will or Won't: How to Master Your Magic; The Supremacy of Skill, which showed diagrams for training a Hero of this specialization; Don't be a Dolt with a Big Hammer, the textbook for Heroes of strength; The Menace of Blades, which discussed the importance of sword training for all Heroes; A History of Heroism, Unabridged, which was so large and imposing it took up a third of a shelf on its own; and even A Deadly Clutch of Chickens! The Devious Magicks of Farm Foul, which insisted emphatically that chickens were evil harbingers of doom (Aurora shook her head, mystified, at this one).
Aurora was stunned; was this massive place, in fact, a place to educate and house Heroes? It seemed ancient enough, but then why had her mother stored additional copies of her books here? Hurrying into the next chamber, Aurora found yet more tomes and some very old desks that had been left in a state of disarray but, nevertheless, communicated that this was a place of learning. Shaking her head slightly in disbelief, Aurora filed this bit of information away and continued forward, hoping to come across the artifact Sabine had requested.
According to Sabine, only a true Hero could find the item. He wouldn't specifically come out with a description, but alluded vaguely that it was "unmistakably" her mother's. Contemplating this, Aurora snorted. She could not think what would be so obviously connected to the old Hero Queen, except perhaps weapons. When she had made the mistake of telling Sabine this, his woolly eyebrows had become most severe.
"Aye, you might scoff now, Princess," he had replied in a grave tone, "But there are many weapons more staggering in their power than mere blades."
Aurora, who still did not know what this meant, decided she had nothing to worry about as she was – obviously – a Hero and if that was all that was required for her to seize the object, it was merely a matter of time.
There were some more Hollow men and mysterious doors which, when not opened by the golden key or her mother's Seal, were opened with other keys she found hidden in the vicinity. She had to reach one by completing a timed obstacle course that required her to release Will, shoot her guns, or slash with her dagger at a moving, magical target that changed color according to which method was required to complete the next level. If ever she missed or did not hit it in time, the orb would simply reappear at its starting place, leaving Aurora to rush after it, swearing. When, with a ring like a gong, Aurora completed the test with a final burst of flame from her gauntlet, the orb moved serenely into place over a smaller, shabbier set of doors that clicked loudly as they pulled slightly apart.
Hesitant for the first time, Aurora approached the doors with caution. None of the other entrances in the Reliquary looked like this one – it seemed most ancient of them all, with very simple carvings that had been mostly worn out, as if rubbed by a vigorous hand. Aurora moved into the next hallway slowly, especially when she saw it was almost entirely blanketed by darkness.
Drawing one of her pistols, the Princess sloped down the hall, feeling her way along as she could barely see. A dim light seemed to be following in her wake, but it was not enough to illuminate her surroundings. The wall she had been tracing with one hand abruptly ended and, just as she was about to panic, a bright, startling light filled the center of the chamber. As her eyes adjusted, Aurora saw that, bathed in the new light was a… floating object, which hovered about a stone pillar a few feet ahead. The object floated almost within perfect reaching distance from her raised hand, with the exception of a few inches. It would have perfectly matched her taller mother's wingspan, and Aurora gulped, uncertain once more whether her mother's legacy would reject her.
As Aurora drew closer – weapon still at the ready – she was astonished to see that the slight glimmer in front of her was not the purest gold of something obviously valuable, but the duller reflection of something small and made of brass. The metal was cut in an almost lacelike pattern, constructed into a box with six, flat sides that gleamed a little every time they turned underneath the light.
The box, she saw, was lidded and a strange loop adorned the top – it almost looked like….
Holstering her gun, Aurora reached out with trepidation, letting her fingers wander under the beaming glow before quickly withdrawing them to see if any traps had been set. Nothing happened; taking another deep breath, Aurora reached out once more and, hand slightly shaking, closed pale fingers around the box's edges. Abruptly, it dropped as if ten times more heavy, and the light went out, leaving her in darkness.
Aurora could hear own fast, shallow breathing as she waited for something else to happen – to be attacked, or for some kind of magical alarm to go off. Instead, the glowing light seemed to follow her, once again illuminating the box in her hand. Terrified, but transfixed, Aurora watched as the loop on top of the box turned slowly of its own accord, releasing the lid like the opening mouth of a clam. Almost as if fading out of some deep obscurity, a tinkling tune began to play, the music both at once childish and eerie.
Before Aurora could even react, another sound like reality itself tearing filled her ears. The pressure of entering the Sanctuary was nothing compared to this and Aurora succumbed to it, helpless. All around her swirled unfamiliar lights and flashes, seemingly thrown into further confusion by a terrible wind. Just as Aurora was beginning to panic, everything stopped. Gasping, she looked again at the music box in her hand and saw, to her alarm, that all color had been leeched from it. The box was frozen, as if time had stopped, and it played no more music.
"H-Hello?" Aurora stammered, sensing something was there. The light had once again focused but it, like the music box, had lost any semblance of color. Dimly, and right in front of her, the air seemed to distort, like disturbed water. Aurora knew enough about magic to realize that touching the air there would be inadvisable, but some curses could not be broken unless triggered into their next step. Trembling slightly, Aurora reached out her empty hand and delicately trailed her fingers through the warped distortion, before girding herself and stepping resolutely through it.
Aurora emerged, unharmed, onto a gravel path that crunched noisily underfoot. Still clutching the music box, Aurora tried to get her bearings, and gasped.
In the distance, many miles ahead of her, stood Fairfax Castle, her childhood home. Instead of the short path she was accustomed to, however, that was usually concluded in a round courtyard with a receptive arch for carriages, there was a road miles long, occasionally interrupted by elaborate wrought-iron gates the color of fine silver. A mist hung over the perimeter of the castle, obscuring everything around it, so that it looked like it was floating in the sky. The gates immediately ahead of her were closed and Aurora approached them reluctantly, looking over her shoulder to see if anyone else approached, only to see a Cullis Gate that was dark and silent.
The mist seemed as if it possessed no heat or texture; it merely hovered, hiding Aurora's surroundings from her sight. Snorting irritably, she tried to brush some of it away with wind from her gauntlet, but this seemed to make little difference. Just as she was within touching distance of the gates, a voice cut through the silence in a ringing echo that made her jump about three feet.
"So, you have made it, then."
Aurora spun on her heel, looking for the source of the voice, and saw no one.
"Who's there?" she demanded, clutching the music box closer. For a moment, there was no response.
"I am behind you," the voice murmured sedately; Aurora turned.
A woman stood before her in front of the gates, still somewhat unclear through the mist. She wore a dress the color of red wine, with a hood pulled over her head that shadowed the details of her face. Aurora rather thought she had heard that voice before, but couldn't place it.
"Who are you?" Aurora asked baldly, prepared for a fight. The woman seemed unperturbed by her aggressive manner, and merely studied her for a time in response. Finally, when Aurora was on the verge of bursting out with another question, the woman answered her.
"I am Theresa. I knew your mother."
Aurora stared at her; this Theresa had an ethereal feel about her and, though the sound of her voice no longer magnified itself as if coming from a great distance, its creamy and rough timbre was still unnaturally alluring. Aurora wondered whether she possessed magic.
"Yes, I am descended from Heroes, as you are." Theresa said, as if reading her mind. "But I am not a Hero as you might know me. I am a Seer."
Aurora went blank with incomprehension; "A what?"
"A Seer," Theresa repeated easily, moving now as if to circle Aurora, who stepped instinctively back.
"I possess Will, as you do, but use it differently. I am a guide, not a warrior, and I assisted your mother in her rise to greatness."
With a casual flick of one wrist, Theresa called forth a moving image for Aurora's observation, in which she saw flashes of her mother. Elizabeth was startlingly young, at first grasping the same Hero seal that had given Aurora her powers, then fighting beasts, men, and something Aurora knew must be a Shard – a piece of the Spire which her mother's greatest enemy had constructed to create a reality he could bend to his will. Destroying the Spire before it could destroy Albion had been her mother's first renowned triumph; it was what had gotten her elected Queen.
Theresa seemed to freeze one image in particular, where Elizabeth was standing beside the Seer in what looked like a dark tower. Her mother's expression was nervous, and she contemplated the glowing top of a pedestal before her.
"I foresaw much of your mother's fate," Theresa murmured, "And led her through trials required for her to become the great Queen she was meant to be."
Although Aurora had never heard of magic that could create false memories, she wondered if what she saw was true. As if, once again, reading the thoughts upon her face, Theresa caused the image to evaporate and circled the Princess once more.
"You are doubtful; that it is to be expected. You have doubted much since you came into your powers – most of all, whether you are equal to the task set before you. I am here to tell you that you are, but you have many difficult choices to make. What you choose to do, and how you choose to do it, will determine the nature of your victory."
Aurora scoffed mildly at this, still somewhat diminished in the face of the Seer's as yet unknown powers. Theresa, instead of chiding her, smiled.
"You think I am basing my assessment on very little evidence?" She guessed.
Aurora nodded slowly, reluctant to give out any information that could empower a possible enemy.
"I have watched your progress since before you were born, young Princess." At this, Theresa summoned another image for Aurora's inspection, this one of her still very young mother, standing over a crib with a wondering look upon her face. Following this, she showed Aurora in series of flashes depicting her growing up, until it fixed on a still of her in the Rookridge Inn, her gun cocked at the last mercenary she had fought there.
"It was you!" Aurora realized, the memory of the disembodied voice coming back to her with a snap. "You spoke to me that day!"
Theresa neither confirmed nor denied this, bringing back the picture of her mother over the crib.
"Your mother knew little of what your birth would mean, as it was not my place to reveal your destiny, but I knew the full breadth of what was to come. Or as much as the Fates allowed me," Theresa's voice grew sad and soft at her addition, as if she were mourning a gap in her own knowledge. At Aurora's inquisitive glance, Theresa visibly pulled herself together.
"Your destiny, Aurora, is greater than even that of your mother. You face obstacles for which only your heritage could have prepared you and were you not able to meet them, the Seal would not have awoken at your touch. It came alive for you as it would have for no one else. If you cannot trust my word, trust the judgment of that ancient artifact which has allowed itself to be submitted to your service."
Theresa nodded to Aurora's coat, where her hand had slid into one of the pockets and closed instinctively around the cold metal face of the Seal. Irritably, she drew her hand away, not enjoying the experience of being constantly preempted.
"So, if what you say is true, that I am destined to be victorious - why are you here?" Aurora was direct about her skepticism. Not that having a magical guide in all this mess wouldn't be welcome, but it seemed a little too neat. Again, Theresa appeared unperturbed by her distrust.
"Because it is my duty to guide you as I did your mother; I made her a promise, long ago, and I do not intend to break it. Come," Theresa indicated Aurora should follow her and, after a moment's hesitation, the Princess obeyed.
The gate before them opened with a creak; beyond it, the castle still thrusted proudly from out of the mist, its windows twinkling against the shock of white sky behind its turrets and ramparts. Theresa brought Aurora to the next joint of the path, where another gate awaited them, and pointed to shadowy figures behind the bars.
"Therein lies the crux of your salvation and your struggle; the people you need to help you and those you must later rule."
Alarmed at the word "rule," Aurora's head spun so fast towards Theresa she felt her neck crick.
"Rule? I'm meant to – "
"You will take the throne of Albion," Theresa interrupted her calmly. "Of course, if you made enough grievous errors, you could prevent this Fate from coming to fruition, but I would not recommend that course of action."
Aurora merely gaped, at a loss for words. Theresa went on:
"This path is the one you were born to take, and the Kingdom you were born to rule lies at its end. As all Heroes before you, you cannot walk this path alone. Those who are capable of seeing you through this battle wait beyond each gate and as you gain their support, they will lead you closer and closer to your goal. Each time you gain a new ally, I will help you in any way I can."
"How?" Aurora asked.
Finally, Theresa turned to face the Princess, raising her head so that all of her features became apparent. Her mouth, which had previously been the only part of her face Aurora could see, sat underneath a fine nose and high cheekbones. But it was her eyes that caught Aurora; they were entirely white, and the Seer stared at her with them as if they could still see, her long lashes and arched brows unnaturally perfect against the ruined eyes beneath them.
"You will determine much of your rule even now, and as a Hero, you are destined to face many trials which will challenge your honor. I will be here to provide insight which can inform your choices, as allowed by the Fates which guide me."
"Why bring this to me now?" Aurora asked, still unsettled by the Seer's blank gaze.
"Because you have come to a place where your choices will begin to affect others: Sabine and the Dwellers; Samuel and the people of Brightwall. They are all relying upon you to protect them, to deliver them from years of suffering and fear. As much as you may be determined in this moment to help them, keeping your promises will not be easy, and I must warn you it is thus."
"Warn me what? Have I done something? Or…. Not done something?"
"No, you have not yet taken any missteps I can see," Theresa's eyes left Aurora to look upon the murky, unmoving figures behind the gate. "But you must tread carefully, Aurora, for the fate of these people – indeed all of Albion – rests upon your shoulders."
Distinctly uneasy now, Aurora swallowed hard, trying to muster her courage. Theresa seemed unaware of her struggle and, as if at an invisible signal, stepped away from the Princess with a brisk nod.
"You are to go back now," she told her simply, folding her hands in front of her waist. "I will be here when you are ready."
"Wait," Aurora stammered, full of questions. "How am I to know – "
Before the Princess could finish, the white mist engulfed her, her surroundings entirely lost in it like smoke. The music box was tinkling once again and Aurora submitted, helpless, to its eidolic tune.
With a rattle and a thump, Aurora found herself poised at the threshold of the Reliquary once more. The doors shut behind her rather abruptly and she looked about herself, dizzy with a combination of physical disorientation and being overwrought by the news of not only her impending rule, but the precarious path which she walked, now confirmed beyond a doubt. She could not longer take comfort in skeptical rumblings; as Theresa had stated quite clearly, the very fate of Albion rested upon Aurora. She could almost feel the heaviness of its weight – or perhaps that was exhaustion.
Ben poked his head out of the refugee's chamber, his expression surprised. When he took in the swaying Aurora, something like worry flickered there and he met her in swift steps, grasping her shoulders.
"Are you alright? Did you get injured?"
Aurora shook her head slowly, still too distressed to speak. She held up the music box, which had shut with a clap! and ceased its tinkling.
"I've got it," she muttered finally. "I've got the Hero relic."
Ben studied it with poorly disguised disbelief; "A music box?"
Aurora nodded; she knew it would behoove her to verify its authenticity, but she did not think herself capable of describing all that Theresa had revealed at the moment. She was still coping with doubt and flashes of memories of their meeting: the seemingly endless stretch of path before her destination; Theresa's milky eyes, staring into places and times Aurora could not see; her mother, young and brave against the world; herself, accelerated as if on a reel, growing up and leaving everything behind….
Whatever Theresa had said about the Seal, Aurora still felt overwhelmed by the prospect of ruling Albion, despite her royal heritage. She had never been expected to rule – perhaps, marry a lord in the court and watch him take over a small region, as the Privy Council did, but not to interfere in matters of government. Aurora did not know whether this was her mother's desire or her brother's, as she had been too young when her mother died to be considered for little more than lessons with a tutor (which she had often evaded to play in the garden or sneak off to Bowerstone to indulge in the thrills of its market). To be faced unequivocally not only with heading the rebellion, but mastering the kingdom once Logan was dethroned, was daunting. She needed air; she needed Walter.
"Hold this," she muttered, shoving the music box into Ben's chest. Reflexively, he clutched it so it wouldn't fall and watched, bewildered, as Aurora tore from the premises. As she reached the double doors, she met Samuel, who was eager for news.
"Did you complete the task?" He asked, on tenterhooks. Aurora nodded, then grunted something about, "Need a moment," and detoured around him as he stared after her much the same way Ben had. She didn't care; this couldn't wait.
It had grown dark outside – or nearly. The sun was setting over the mountains, its crown peeking shyly over their craggy edges as a blue gloom stole over the rolling hills of Brightwall. Lamps had begun to glow weakly down in the square, but at this deserted hilltop, no light but that which lingered from the sun illuminated her surroundings. For a moment, Aurora could appreciate the equal beauty of how the borough transformed from patches of green velvet and bright stone to stretches of deep indigo punctuated by the silver smoke of moonlight and stone that shone in the darkness.
Without hesitation, she worked her way through the bars a second time and set off for the Quill and Quandry, Brightwall's only pub. She cut through a back path that averted the dangers of the cobblestone road which wound its way through every major square of the town, and alighted a staircase leading into the back of the bar where no sign hung to herald its name. She was sure Walter would have kept to shadowy corners while he was there, to avoid suspicion. She was not disappointed.
Walter was sitting in a gallery, unoccupied by anyone except him and a disgruntled Roosevelt, into which Aurora was deposited directly by the staircase she had taken. The general's brow was furrowed as he considered the people below, his hand curled around a half-empty pint, and he did not notice her at first. When Roosevelt raised his head to greet her, however, his wagging tail thumping the floor, Walter looked up.
"Aurora?" he whispered, concerned. Before he could question her further, Aurora had grasped Roosevelt's ears in both hands, rubbing them vigorously with gratitude that he was there. Roosevelt always made her feel better; it seemed, as he panted with delight, the collie felt the same.
"What's happened?" Walter asked urgently, turning away from the crowd. Aurora shook her head and waved a hand to quell him from further questioning; "Everything is fine," she murmured, getting into a more comfortable position on the floor to pet Roosevelt. "Keep your mustache on."
Walter made a noise that sounded irritable, but made no return comment. After a moment's pause in which Aurora soothed her disquiet by absorbing herself in Roosevelt's warm brown eyes, she told Walter the fullness of what had happened, right up until her unceremonious dismissal from the Road to Rule.
"Blimey," Walter said after a time, impressed. "Your mother told me all about Theresa; she's a powerful Hero and, from all accounts, has been alive for over 400 years. If she's on your side, Aurora, I'd say we can breathe quite a bit easier."
"How did mother know her?" Aurora asked; at this, Walter seemed uncomfortable but, seeing Aurora's shaken state, decided to divulge what he knew.
"She raised your mother after, er – after your aunt Rose died. Did she never tell you the story?"
Aurora knew a bit of what had been her mother's life before her Heroism and ascension to the throne, but Elizabeth had seemed to struggle at times with discussing her dead sister, Rose. All Aurora knew what that Rose had perished when Elizabeth was quite young and that, thereafter, Elizabeth had lived with the Dwellers until she came of age and fought off Lord Lucien, the nobleman who had gone mad and constructed the Spire. Beyond that, Aurora knew little of her mother's youthful exploits, and certainly not much of her pre-Royal Throne company, except that Reaver had been included among her acquaintances back then.
"Your mother," Walter went on, as if hearing her unspoken thoughts, "was little more than a babe when Rose was killed."
"Killed?" Aurora repeated, alarmed. Walter nodded.
"Yes, by Lord Lucien, your mother's greatest enemy."
Walter told her the story: Lucien had been obsessed with Heroes and, in particular, collecting three of the traditionally defined types, Strength, Skill and Will, to power the Spire for his needs. However, there was a prophecy that a fourth type of Hero rarely seen, who would possess a combination of all three Heroic talents, would come and stop Lucien from completing his work. Rose and Elizabeth, when Lucien researched Heroic family lines, were discovered to have descended from an ancient Hero bloodline and were invited into his home – Castle Fairfax – so that he could determine whether they harbored underlying talent he could use.
"I don't know if Rose had any in her, but when Lucien tested her and your mother on a Seal he had gotten a hold of, it turned the color of the fourth Hero. Lucien shot Rose, then shot your mother, who fell out a window into the street. She should have died, but Theresa found her and, with her help and your mother's Heroic strength, she survived."
"What do you mean, it turned colors?" Aurora asked, feeling as though she were struggling to grasp the horror of it and seeking something she could understand.
"It glowed," Walter explained, "As it did when you touched it, but I suppose a different color. Red, I think your mother said." Pausing hesitantly, he added, "She always remembered that part because of Rose's blood spraying everywhere when Lucien shot her. She said it was like her death was foretold by the Seal."
Aurora tried to picture it: her mother, a small child, clutching something she did not understand in the home of an imposing figure who had invited two hungry orphans under a warm roof for the night. She could imagine the desperation to please on her mother's and aunt's part, how they must have longed for a home, and how eager they might have been at Lord Lucien's invitation. Then, to see the glow of a red light followed by the untimely death of her sister, and to plummet to earth, fleshing burning with gunpowder….
"So, Theresa raised her?" Aurora prompted, pulling herself away from her troubling thoughts. Walter nodded again, evidently moved as Aurora was on her mother's behalf.
"Yes, and she gave your mother all kinds of instructions. Told her who to recruit for help, how to find them. She taught your mother everything she knew about Heroes. It was because of the Seer that your mother found the other Heroes Lucien was looking for: Hammer, the Hero of strength, Garth, a Hero of Will, and Reaver – "
"- A Hero of Skill," Aurora finished bitterly, smarting at this wild injustice. Walter scoffed.
"Skilled though he may be, he's still a bastard and, though he would never have admitted it, he was scared of your mother. I reckon she knew things about him he'd prefer were kept quiet, but she never acted on them. Said she was worried what he might do if he was attacked."
Walter shook his head disbelievingly, as if he could not comprehend this reasoning, and went on.
"After your mother won against Lucien, Theresa took over the Spire and, far as I know, they never spoke again. I think your mother said something about 'destiny' and 'It's up to me,' but I got the impression she knew something else Theresa had told her and didn't want to share it."
Aurora sat up as she considered this; had her mother, in fact, anticipated some of what Aurora faced now? But no, she wilted as she realized Elizabeth couldn't have. Theresa said herself that she had not been at liberty to discuss Aurora's fate.
"So now she's back," Aurora sighed, feeling rather like a seamstress' pin cushion, pricked by impossibilities and demands from all sides. "Perfect."
"I wouldn't complain," Walter told her sternly, "Theresa's likely to be a great help."
"Yes, but – with what? How am I supposed to rule, Walter? It just seems…"
"Difficult? Daunting? Enormous in its responsibilities? Guess what," Walter glared over imaginary spectacles. "It is. But that doesn't mean you can't do it."
Aurora refrained from glaring back at him, but this only served to bring forth the full force of her unease. Could she really do it? Could she rule over Albion?
Outdoors, the market had faded into vague chatters, and now every lantern glowed brightly against the twinkle of a blanket of stars. Few revelers could be found even in the Quill and Quandry, due to the sobering presence of many guards outside. Those who did turn up for a drink were quiet over their glasses, exchanging few words with the muffled level of noise of rustling feathers.
Like chickens in a coop while the wolf awaits, thought Aurora, looking at them all. And I truly have the power to stop it – to help them.
This truth settled in Aurora as it never had before; without thinking, she pulled the Seal from her pocket and ran her thumb over its face, tracing the pattern which marked her a Hero as it had done many before her.
What struck Aurora out of the evening's gloom was not Walter's confidence, nor the unsettling assertion of Theresa's all-knowing presence. No, it was one of the words Theresa had used, with increasing emphasis: choice. Up to this point, Aurora had felt like little more than a marionette danced unwillingly onto a stage, forced through her paces. Theresa, however, knew differently and could confirm the truth of Aurora's agency without a doubt.
Aurora finally understood what Walter had been trying to tell her, but failed to communicate in his desperation – what everyone who had stored faith in her seemed to grasp at an unconscious level, but were unable to articulate as they begged her to help them. A Hero Aurora may be, but it was her choice to be Queen, it was her choice how she used her powers and, although Theresa's words still reverberated with foreboding and warnings against making a mistake, the fact that Aurora could choose differently if she wanted to was enormously comforting. It meant, however predetermined her fate may be, that she was not a stooge of the universe, led unwillingly by the nose, but a full participant in her destiny. It was also terrifying, of course, and part of her swelled with the now familiar regret at the mistakes she had already made, but her mind focused on one thing: it could be corrected, she could affect change. That fact, as shared by Theresa, gave Aurora a sense of control that not even her Heroic talents had afforded her.
And for the first time she could remember, she didn't want to run away.