The Aterland Chronicles

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Chapter 33: Truth and Judgement

The door to Lord Dux’s chamber was ajar, the scent of sugared pastries drifting into the corridor. As Rose approached the room, she heard the sound of muffled voices. Inside, Ash, Auriel, Lee and El-on-ah stood in the centre of the chamber, surrounded by six Centurion guards. Lord Dux sat behind his desk, scribbling with his quill. After rolling a blotter over the crumpled sheet of parchment paper, he snatched it up and handed it to one of the guards.

“Give this to the Captain of the Guard,” he said, glancing from the officer to El-on-ah, “It is an order for you to be taken to the stockade. I have also instructed that you be provided with a bed and refreshments. After Lady Rose and I have spoken, I will no doubt wish to talk to you again. Is there anything you would like to add before I have the guards escort you down?”

“No.” El-on-ah hesitated, “except… I would like to inquire as to the fate of my servants Che-vah-ra and Tu-nek-ta.”

Dux arched one feathery brow. “As far as I am aware, they are both in excellent health.”

“They are alive?” El-on-ah appeared sceptical.

“Indeed,” Dux gave a quizzical smile, “very much so. Rose insisted they were not harmed in any way. In fact, they have settled in well and, from what I hear, are fast becoming highly regarded members of our community. The children, in particular, seem to have grown rather partial to Che’s undeniable charms.”

“Can I… Will I be permitted to see them?” El-on-ah’s expression of confused disbelief morphed into one of hopeful expectation.

El-on-ah turned towards Rose, staring as if seeing her for the first time.

“I imagine that would be relatively straightforward to arrange,” Dux’s eyes flicked to Rose, “providing, of course, that they also wish to see you, and also depending on the outcome of my discussion with Lady Rose. The more you cooperate with us then as you may expect, the more kindly we will look on your requests.”

Dux motioned to the guards, who immediately took hold of El-on-ah’s arms. She pulled away, fighting against their grip.

“I will walk unaided,” her eyes flashed.

Dux gave a brief nod to the guards. Relinquishing their hold, the soldiers unsheathed their swords before escorting El-on-ah from the room.

As El-on-ah passed by, the stunned look in her eyes was plain for all to see. Rose saw it, and she understood its significance. El-on-ah had believed Che and Tu-nek-ta to be dead. She did not expect us to show them mercy. It would appear that this is a source of great consternation to her. Maybe Lady El-on-ah cares about something other than her great Lord Ka after all?

“Rose, I was immensely saddened to hear about Elder’s death,” Dux put down his quill, shuffling items on his desk before eventually lifting his gaze to meet her eyes. “I understand that you were very close and I want to reassure you that I did not betray your trust…”

“I am well aware of what happened,” said Rose.

Elder’s memories swam into Rose’s consciousness as effortlessly as if they were her own. Experiencing each recollection for the first time, as if she were viewing the dreams of another. Yet each memory felt bizarrely familiar.

In her mind’s eye, Rose saw the screen where Elder had hidden as she talked with Lord Dux the previous evening. Watching the scene play out through the old woman’s eyes, listening to her own words as she told Dux of her discovery - the fateful connection between herself and Elder. Recalling the words, which filled Rose with such guilt and remorse. They echoed inside her head so loudly that Rose felt the urge to cover her ears.

The Elder Witch is not merely a child of two anonymous and insignificant Whyte ascendants Lord Dux; she is Ruzha and Sevti’s child. The spirits contained within her are factions of those buried within me. According to Gydion, if I ever hope to defeat Lord Ka, then I will need to take those fragments back.”

“I am aware that Elder was hiding here when we spoke last night, she heard every word. I did not come here to blame you for Elder’s death. I came here to ask you why you lied to us, Lord Dux?”

Ariel gasped, her hand flying to her mouth.

“Lied?” Dux’s eyes narrowed, his brows drawing together, “Lied about what?”

“Your relationship with Elder and the Twocasts.” Unblinkingly, Rose met his gaze.

Again, Elder’s memories invaded her mind.

“You visited us… I mean them. You met secretly with Elder and the Twocasts for many years - generations. That’s how you know Vega and his family so well. You provided Elder and her community with food every winter when their children were starving. It was you who showed Elder how to harness the power of the vermarine crystal. You instructed her in magic Lord Dux, despite the fact that she was not an Ascendant, and in doing so, you broke the law.”

The room had grown so silent that Rose was sure everyone was holding their breath. It had begun snowing again. Through the window, she watched as flurries of large flakes swirled in the air before sticking to the glass. Strange how snow always blankets everything with a dampening shroud, each word muffled, and yet its meaning somehow intensified.

Dux leant back into his chair with a long sigh, saying nothing for what seemed an eternity. The fire crackled, its glow lighting Dux’s face with its array of conflicting emotions. Finally, when he spoke, his voice was wistful.

“The difference between a flower and weed is merely a judgement.” Dux rubbed at his temple, “I have always had trouble in making that distinction.”

“And yet you permitted laws based on those very same judgements to be taught to novices at…”

“I am not a dictator Rose,” Dux’s tone was curt, “I worked diligently, for many years, to chip away at the prejudice of the High Councillors, Magisters and indeed, many Natives. I was never able to facilitate any real change.”

Dux sighed. “Our prejudices are so deeply entrenched in our culture. Everyone had grown so complacent, so resistant to change, the people had become blind. Sometimes you don’t notice the dirt in the water until you get out of the lake. We needed someone to shine a light on the water Rose, someone extraordinary like you. I put my faith in Lord Eldwyn’s prophecy a long time ago, and I hold on to that hope. I believed that one day you would arrive to put things right. Up until now, everything has come to pass just as Lord Eldwyn predicted. So I have no qualms about placing my trust in you Rose, Eldwyn brought you here to make The Afterlands a better place, for all of its people.”

“Well I am sorry to disappoint you, Lord Dux,” Rose felt her shoulders slump, “but unfortunately, I find I am in no position to do that.”

“But I was under the impression…” Dux seemed confused, “did you not just unveil the final piece of the incantatio? If so, then surely…”

“Yes, Lord Dux, I did indeed reveal the incantatio, but there are a couple of minor issues with it.”

Rose found her eyes drifting towards Ash, “to complete the spell we require the hair of a Rougarou, which means that someone has to go to Aurum and pull a fistful of hair from one of the most dangerous beasts in the Afterlands. However, even if by some act of astounding bravery or sheer foolhardiness we manage that, we also somehow, need to acquire the page from The Grimoire that outlines the Confractio charm. As far as I am aware, the only copy of The Grimoire still in existence is in the Oratory Library in Aurum.”

“A Metamorph could acquire both those items,” said Ash, “So I’ll go. I’m the obvious choice. Ro-eh-na has her hands full with Linden at the moment.”

“You forget Lord Irwin,” said Auriel, “he’s much more experienced than you, and he knows the layout of the Oratory Library better. Come to think of it, everyone knows the design of the library better than you do.”

“That’s hysterical Auriel.” Ash said, lifting an eyebrow, “but Lord Irwin is a Gold. Rougarous don’t trust any Golds, let alone an Ascendant Magister like Lord Irwin. Neither would you, if your species had been persecuted by Gold Ascendants for centuries. Until Lord Ka’s resurrection, the Golds culled hundred’s of them every year. So I suspect they’ll not be keen to offer their help to Lord Irwin, even if it is for you Rose.”

“Wait… one moment, I think…” Dux appeared suddenly animated as he rifled through a pile of parchments and other items on his desk. “I am certain I saw… Yes!”

Dux pulled a rolled sheet of parchment from under a weathered leather ocultus.

“This was hidden in the lining of El-on-ah’s ocultus,” Dux said, unrolling the scalloped edged document. “It’s a page from The Grimoire.”

His eyes widened as he read the script. “It is the very page we need - the Confractio charm, though it’s been heavily annotated.”

“Woah… ” Ash shook his head incredulously, “Even I don’t need Lee to point out the odds of that turning up just when we need it. Lord Eldwyn was some bloody prophet.”

“Maybe…” Dux handed the parchment to Rose, “though sometimes I find myself wondering if Lord Eldwyn’s prowess has more to do with magical manipulation than to prophecy, and however much this might help, it does not solve the problem of obtaining Rougarou hair.”

“True,” said Ash, “but at least I don’t have to run the risk of being discovered sneaking into the Oratory library. I can’t see Lord Ka leaving the city unguarded. Now, all I have to do is wade through the swamps and convince a vicious man-eating beast to part with some of its hair.”

“That may not be quite as difficult as you might think,” Said Auriel, “remember what Raemis said Rose - if we ever needed anything all we had to do was ask.”

“Raemis?” Ash shot a questioning glance towards Rose.

“Oh it’s a long story,” said Auriel, “let’s just say that Baroque wasn’t the only obstacle we ran into in Ferndell Swamps.”

“You went and made best friends with a Rougarou?” Ash seemed impressed.

“Better than that,” said Auriel, “she made best friends with the pack LEADER and from what I saw of their admittedly rather brief encounter, if you do live long enough to mention you are Rose’s envoy, you will have little trouble separating that particular wolf-man from his hair.”

“This all sounds rather intriguing…” Ash moved to her side, “perhaps you can give me some advice on Ascendant to Rougarou detente?”

“You can be assured,” said Rose, “I will tell you exactly what to say to him. Though you’ll still have to take great care… Rougarou are rather partial to tasty birds and I wouldn’t want you to become this particular dog’s dinner.”

Ash bent forward brushing her ear with his lips and Rose felt her heart quicken at his touch.

”You needn’t worry Rose, that’s never going to happen. You promised me, remember - our time will come…”

Yes… but what if I’m wrong? Thought Rose, as she was consumed by a terrible sense of foreboding.

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