The Lady of Azaleth
Luke shuddered and stood perfectly still. Sweat poured down his face as he tried to keep himself calm. He breathed in deep. But his heart continued to throb inside him. All the blood rushed around his body as he could feel the effects of the Deathcap Mushroom wearing off. His knees nearly buckled under him before he grabbed another mushroom and popped it inside his mouth.
“Oh no, we’re not your sister or your brother,” the dryad quickly explained. “We’re... archaeologists!”
He could feel the daggers from Brandon’s and Samantha’s eyes on his back. Guys, work with me here!
The Lady of Azaleth cocked her head curiously. “Archaeologists? What are those?”
“We’re people who investigate ruins and stuff.”
“Stuff? What stuff?”
“Um, bones, rocks, sand... that kind of stuff. It can tell you a lot about a city.”
“Oh... you’ll have plenty of those here. There’s nothing here but sand, rock, and bones.”
The dryad sighed. His lying made him recall a fairy tale that his captain told him once. It was a story of how a puppet became a real boy. But every time he would tell a lie, his nose would grow longer. Luke chuckled humourlessly in his throat. For every lie he told, he was certain that his nose would have become as long as a young bamboo shoot. He looked up at the spider woman once more, looking for any signs of hostility.
“Oh but never mind that,” she beamed and clapped her hands. “I’ve never met humans before!”
“Actually two humans and a dryad,” Samantha corrected.
Luke groaned and gave the princess a withering look. “Really, princess? Did you have to tell her?”
Before Samantha could answer, the Lady of Azaleth beamed in delight. “A real dryad?! Here?!”
“Yeah,” Luke sighed with a sheepish grin. “Last time I checked anyway.”
“Oh, do tell me! I’ve always been so curious about dryads!”
“Well – ”
“—Is it true that you live in a forest? Is it true that your forests are always lit up with the most golden of sunbeams? I also heard that whenever the moonlight shines on your waters, the water is so crystal clear that you can see all the way deep below! Also the flowers, my brother said that the flowers were constantly flowing with sweet nectar? Oh and the crystal blue spring waters must be so beautiful when the stars fill the night sky!”
“Um, milady – ”
“Oh this is so amazing! A real dryad, here, standing in front of me!” She exclaimed in delight. Her expression then became puzzled. “But, how are you able to survive down here? Don’t dryads need constant sunlight?”
“Well, there are certain fungi we can eat to prevent us from withering in the dark.”
“Oh, that is so amazing! Do tell me more!”
Luke sighed. When did the conversation become about him? He shook his head; there were just some advantages in being a dryad. As much as he didn’t like being bombarded with questions, he preferred that over being ripped apart limb for limb and being devoured by spiders. He slightly shuddered when he saw one of the spider legs attached to the Lady of Azaleth’s body twitch as some of her bodily fluids dripped on the ground. He shuddered at the sight of the fluid before shaking his head. Ignore it for now, Luke mentally chanted to himself.
“Unfortunately, milady. I... I was taken away from my people when I was young,” Luke admitted mildly. He shook his head. “I only know how my people were like and how they lived by reading the books left with me.”
The Lady of Azaleth’s expression fell. “Oh... you poor thing.”
“It’s okay. I’m happy with what I have. My friends have taken care of me.”
“That’s nice. They have become your family...?”
Luke looked back where he saw Brandon and Samantha standing near one another. He may have not stayed with Samantha for a long time but she was growing on him. She was a sisterly figure to him; watching out for him and even helping explain certain things to him.
But the one who had really looked after him was Brandon. Despite him being a sea pup or a beansprout, he was still Brandon’s beansprout. Luke closed his eyes with a sigh of nostalgia, recalling the time when Brandon was teaching him how to read. He even remembered the book that his captain first read to him. It then became his favourite book and it was then Brandon had become more of an older brother to him.
“Yes,” Luke nodded. “They are.”
The Lady of Azaleth nodded with an amazed expression on her face. “You are all quite odd.”
“So I have been told many times.”
“Oh, I did not mean to offend you!”
“No, no, I’m not offended. I’m used to being called odd.”
The Lady of Azaleth giggled. Her laughter floated melodiously into the air. “Oh, you’re such a sweet thing.” She then sighed. “I wish I could see you though.”
Luke shrugged. “Sight can sometimes be misleading. You can hear me though.”
“Oh but sometimes it’s a blessing to be blind. You hear things better.”
“See? It’s not so bad.”
“But it’s kind of bad in a sense that I can hear both of your friends trembling in fear.” She sighed deeply. “I’m sorry for my rather grotesque appearance.”
Luke shook his head. “No need to apologize. It wasn’t your fault you turned out,” he paused for a moment and shrugged. “That… way?”
The Lady of Azaleth giggled. “Oh it’s okay. I… I know how I turned out. But, it’s your friend I’m worried about.”
Luke glanced back at Samantha who was still trembling on where she stood.”Oh, her? Don’t worry, she’s always been so antsy.”
Samantha gawked and pouted. “I’m not always antsy!”
“Not when you’re with spiders, nope.”
“Okay, maybe spiders but I’m not always antsy!”
Luke chuckled before turning to the Lady of Azaleth. “Lady of Azaleth, we’d like to ask you a few questions. If, it’s okay?”
The Lady of Azaleth beamed. “Sure! I’d love to tell you about Azaleth! Where would you like me to start?”
Luke glanced back and raised an eyebrow at Samantha. “Princess? Would you like to start?”
“Oh my,” the Lady of Azaleth gasped. She hung her head. “I would curtsy but,” she gestured to her spider-like bottom. “Unfortunately, my body doesn’t allow me to do so.”
Samantha shook her head. “It’s okay! Um, I’ll do my best not to take too much of your time.”
“Oh no, no please! I always love good, stimulating conversations.”
“Are you sure?”
“I barely get any visitors while I’m here. So, please. Ask away.”
Samantha nodded. “Okay, um, can you tell us how Azaleth was like before all the destruction happened?”
The Lady of Azaleth pondered for a moment before smiling. “Let me show you too so you have a better view of what had happened that day.”
With a wave of her hand, the Lady of Azaleth summoned a golden portal in front of them. Their eyes widened when they saw the middle of the portal shine with the images of how Azaleth was once like.
“Many years ago, Azaleth was a great city.” The Lady of Azaleth began her story. “With mana brimming at the top of the trees and in the rivers that flowed through the city, Azaleth was able to survive on magic alone without the needs of technology. Nonetheless, we still had some technology that helped the city keep up with the economies of other empires.”
Samantha gasped in amazement.”It’s… beautiful.”
“Yes, it was. It was so beautiful that people had nicknamed Azaleth once as the City of Paradise. Any fruit and vegetable garden ran purely on the mana infused water running through the rivers.”
Brandon shook his head and murmured. “What the Coven would do to see this city…”
The Lady of Azaleth nodded. “People from all over the world would come to see the city. And all sorts of races, they would trade their goods with the people of Azaleth and sometimes even stay here to learn all sorts of magic. Magic-wielders from all over the world considered Azaleth as the city that ended their pilgrimage.”
Samantha nodded.”The Magician’s Pilgrimage – so this is where they all went to fully master their magic.”
“Yes, they would always come to Azaleth where they would meet with my mother and ask for her blessing.”
“Her blessing for…?”
“For being allowed to train with the High Sorcerers and High Sorceresses of course!”
“They accepted non-Azalethians?”
“They did. But more Azalethians got in than outsiders.” The Lady of Azaleth shrugged. “I do not know if it’s because my mother was biased or the ones outside barely could produce a proper form of magic.”
Samantha shrugged. Maybe it was more the first.
“Everything was alright in Azaleth. The people loved their lives in Azaleth and they loved their ruler.” The Lady of Azaleth smiled before her expression became dark. “Then everything changed when the Odissea Kingdom attacked.”
Samantha’s, Brandon’s, and Luke’s eyes widened when the once golden city of Azaleth was consumed by fire. They heard the terrified screams and the people being slaughtered one after the other. Samantha slapped her hands over her mouth while Brandon flinched at every person who died. Luke’s blood ran cold. He didn’t know that there were people capable of that kind of brutality. He saw livestock, slaughtered with crossbows. The women in the brothels were corned against the wall before being riddled with more arrows. Men were flayed alive and their skins were worn as pelts on the shoulders of the Odissea infantry.
“And for the Odissea, the thicker your pelt – the more revered you were,” the Lady of Azaleth shook her head. “That day, I saw all that, I cried and cried until my eyes were dry.”
More atrocities flashed before their eyes as one of the women began threatening one of the commanders of the Odissea army with one of his own children. Much to the horror of Luke and the others, the commander just shrugged it off and let the woman slit throat of his own child before decapitating her. They also saw many of Azaleth's generals being dragged by chariots through the dirt before they were decapitated and had something else sewn onto their shoulders as a replacement for their head.
“Oh Deus,” Samantha swallowed hard before turning away. “I can’t…”
Brandon forced down his urge to throw up. “And I thought I’ve seen everything.”
The Lady of Azaleth nodded.”In an act of desperation to save the city, the queen unleashed a spell that then annihilated the army. It was an ancient spell; a spell that dated far back of 400 years ago. It was then that they had discovered that the spell’s name was The Last Destiny.”
Samantha gasped. “That’s a complete destruction spell!”
“Yes, and that of ominous powers as well. The Last Destiny was a spell that created a destruction so great by using the humanity of its inhabitants and casters. Any human within the spell’s radius will be robbed of their humanity and be used to fuel the spell.”
“So, it’s both Transmutation and Destruction…” Samantha shook her head. “I thought Transmutation was forbidden!”
“If you were to toy with human lives then, yes. Yes, it is forbidden.”
“Unbelievable… To think such a spell existed in the quarters of Azaleth.”
“Yes, I did not believe it myself. It was when I awoke that I realized that I could no longer see the sun and that people would scream in terror at my appearance.” The Lady of Azaleth sighed and shook her head. She then remarked. “You seem very knowledgeable in magic.”
Samantha nodded. “I… I’ve been learning magic ever since I was young.”
“Oh, that explains a lot. But what is a princess doing with archaeologists?”
“Well… I just wanted to learn of Azaleth’s history. To prevent another thing like Azaleth’s disaster from happening again.”
“Oh, such a noble spirit.” She smiled. “I wished I could travel the world. But alas,” the lady glanced down to her lower half with a crestfallen expression. “This body and the curse have condemned me to be embedded in the walls of the ancient city for eternity.”
Samantha pondered for a moment before beaming. “What if we reverse the curse?”
Luke and Brandon stared at her as if she had gone stark raving mad. “Are you crazy!?”
“Ah, how I wish that were possible. But dark magic cannot be reversed!”
“Not unless you have someone of the same magic reversing it!”
Luke gawked for a moment until he saw what Samantha was getting at. “Wait, you mean Bea!?”
The princess nodded. “Yeah, curses cannot be undone unless the caster is either of the same magic or the proper counter curse is cast!”
Brandon pinched the bridge of his nose. “So, what you’re basically going to do is to use brute force on the spell?”
“Well, if you put it that way – ”
“Lass, no offense but, that plan sounds goddamn stupid.”
“Of course not! All we have to do is draw the dark magic out from her!”
“Lass, if I had a week – I would list down all the reasons why that bloody plan of yours will not work.”
Luke racked his brains. From all the books he read, Samantha’s plan was plausible. But it would take too long, his logic argued. The dryad glanced back at the Lady of Azaleth before looking at both his friends bickering with one another. As much as he knew his own magic, it was more self-taught than actually having any formal instruction. He sighed deeply and shook his head. His captain was right; the plan wouldn’t work.
“Actually, Sam, you’re plan could’ve worked,” Luke finally said.
Samantha beamed before grinning at Brandon triumphantly.”See? I told you so.”
“But cap is also right that it wouldn’t work.”
Luke shook his head. “From the books I read, dark magic takes eons to suck out especially when it has already shown a more physical effect on the body. Do you really think we can suck up 400 years worth of dark magic out of the Lady of Azaleth’s body?”
The princess paused for a moment before hanging her head. “Yeah… we can’t.”
The Lady of Azaleth smiled. “Tis was a good try though.”
“I’m sorry, milady. I don’t think we can help you.”
“Oh don’t worry about it. Even if I did turn human again, I would not live for very long.”
Samantha’s eyes widened. “Whatever do you mean?”
“While I was still human,” the Lady of Azaleth’s smile became bittersweet. “I was already afflicted with some sort of disease. I would bleed very easily and my own body would seem to attack itself.”
Samantha, Brandon, and Luke exchanged glances. She was already dying even before the spell!
“The spell actually lengthened my life,” the Lady of Azaleth smiled but soon she began whimper. “But, now that my family is gone, I have nothing left to live for.”
Luke’s eyes widened as he shook his head. “Yes you still do!”
“And what would that be, little dryad? I’m forever condemned to the darkness never to see the sunlight! I cannot even feed myself and require my servant to be the one to find me food! I am living in a cage!”
“But your family, your sister and your brother are still alive!”
Luke knew it was a tall tale but it was better than saying how her brother died.
“Oh, little dryad.” The Lady of Azaleth laughed softly. “You don’t need to reassure me with such tall tales. I felt it in my fibres. With all the webs I’ve spun in this cavern, I’ve already known that my sister and brother have died.”
Luke’s breath got stuck in his throat. Did that mean she knew how her brother died too?
“And I know you are not archaeologists. But you were all so scared that I dismissed it as a small trip up.”
The dryad’s blood ran cold.
“And I know you’ve killed Sandor,” the Lady of Azaleth admitted bitterly. She then shook her head. “But I knew that he was no longer Sandor and what you did for him was an act of mercy rather than an act of violence. He would never want to hurt humans.”
Samantha mumbled under her breath. “That’s not what I saw.”
“If only I could weep then, I would. But my eyes have been burned and there’s nothing left for me but the darkness.” The Lady of Azaleth shook her head. She sighed and hung her head. “The only thing left for me is release. I don’t want to live like this anymore…”
“Then, allow me to be your liberator, milady.”
Brandon, Samantha, and Luke suddenly snapped their heads up when they saw a pressurized blast air shoot right towards them. Brandon and Luke quickly grabbed Samantha before throwing her to the ground, narrowly avoiding the shot. They heard a short gasp when they turned around only to see a small red circle forming right under the Lady of Azaleth’s left breast.
“Milady!” The servant cried out.
A voice scoffed in the darkness. “Oh no need to cry anymore, you buffoon. The lady has gotten her freedom. Who are you to stop her?”
Samantha, Luke, and Brandon turned towards the darkness only to see a grotesque demonic creature standing before them. The humanoid creature had horns and icy blue eyes staring down at them with his armour made from the bones of dead creatures. His lower body however still retained a spider-like form save for now he had a scorpion tail snapping behind him. Luke shuddered and stepped back while Brandon shielded both he and Samantha.
“Arkamedon...!” The Lady of Azaleth coughed and gasped. “You – !”
“—Your poor sister was too dumb to notice anything,” Arkamedon coldly hummed. His voice growled from his throat. “When she asked me if I wanted to be king, she should have known that I wanted to be the king. She made a fatal mistake trusting me.”
“What did you do to her?”
“Do not fret, dear. Your sister died a quick death.”
“What did you do?!”
Arkamedon chuckled. “Nothing too drastic. But, you should be thanking me.”
The Lady of Azaleth coughed with blood pouring from her lips. “What are you talking about?”
“I come bearing you a gift!” Arkamedon sneered. He then grabbed a fistful of dark blonde hair and flung it onto the ground. “I have delivered your vengeance!”
Samantha gasped when she saw the body lying on the ground. “Bea!”
Luke’s eyes widened. Beatriz’s body was completely battered beyond comparison. Her pauldrons had been ripped off with her shoulder ripped wide open. The rest of her armour lay in a tattered mess. She had been left with nothing but her right arm and a left stump at her elbow. Both her legs were ripped off, leaving her thighs and blood spewing out from her wounds.
“I have avenged your family!” Arkamedon proclaimed. “And now, to avenge Her Highness.”
The Lady of Azaleth’s eyes widened. “My mother?”
“You look so much like her too,” Arkamedon let out a hollow chuckle. “If I had the kingdom of Azaleth, I would want you as my queen.”
“You won’t get away with this!”
“Oh but I already have.”
The Lady of Azaleth gasped when Arkamedon suddenly conjured a ball of white light in his hand. “I-Impossible! How – !”
“—Your sister was more than willing to give it to me.” Arkamedon chuckled with a sinister gleam in his eye. “Or rather, your sister’s corpse that is...!”
The Lady of Azaleth, upon hearing that, let out an unearthly wail. As her wails tore through the cavern walls, the cave trembled with mana bursting through every crack and crevice. Luke yelped as he staggered back only to be caught by Brandon. Debris crashed and shattered at their feet as small beams of light shone through the cracks.
“Shit,” Brandon growled. He turned to Luke. “You remember the way out?”
Luke swallowed hard. “Yeah but it’s blocked off!” He pointed at Arkamedon. “By that guy!”
“Well then, we’re just gonna have to tear through him!”
Luke nodded until he heard someone scream. “Bea!”
The two pirates glanced back to see Samantha trying to revive Beatriz. Mana sparked and sputtered in her hands as she tried to knit up Beatriz’s wounds only for it to explode with more blood splattering against her face.
“Bea! Get up!” Samantha sobbed. “Bea!”
Luke glanced at his captain. “I’ll get Bea and Sam?”
Brandon nodded. “Make sure nothing gets past you. Anything that’s closer than two feet – you either turn it back or you turn it into crap!”
The dryad nodded before rushed towards Samantha and Beatriz. “Princess, we gotta go. We can’t stay – !”
It was then for the first time he had ever found himself terrified of the princess. He couldn’t tell what it was but there was something inside her that he knew just snapped. He looked at her pendant which began to glow and hum louder with her eyes becoming darker with an intense glare. She slowly stood up with gnarled fingers as the earth around them began to tremble. Luke yelped as he fell flat on his butt as glyphs started appearing on the ground. Instead of just one or two, he saw five circles in five different colours surrounding her. A rainbow coloured aura surrounded her hands as she stepped forward.
“Not my friends, you bitch,” Samantha hissed.
As Luke watched her step forward, he sat there frozen. His blood chilled and his throat dried. His arms hung limp as he sat next to Beatriz’s battered body.
“She could have easily just blown Sandor into pieces,” Luke murmured. He then turned to Beatriz and rolled up his sleeves. “Alright, time to get cracking.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He kept his mind calm and focused on her body. His mana snapped inside him as it began searching for mana inside Beatriz’s body.