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At Tunnels End

Nothing comforted me more than knowing I had an ally within all the chaos. Helene did not initially seem as welcoming as Lady Titania, but I found that she understood my situation better, and she would not offer me up to a man who hurt me so.

She did not let go until we came to a stop. It was still dark, nothing in particular indicated an exit.
Three stone walls surrounded us. The laden path behind seemed the only direction to go. But, Helene was not at all concerned with heading back.

As she had done with the seemingly solid, brick wall, Helene loosened a strip of cracked stone and the barrier lifted. I got the feeling that she made this trip quite often. I would too, if I knew secrets were hiding within the walls.

Revealed behind the faded obstacle was another one, a descending staircase, only lit by one flickering bulb.

Helene placed the stone strip into place. I watched in complete awe as the illusory wall reappeared before my eyes.

“We need to hurry,” urged the woman, her voice still hushed.

She was careful, guiding me down each step, protecting the extra weight I carried with an outstretched arm. I thought she would make a better mother than I.

At Twenty, I was far past my prime, and had not planned to have children. Such responsibility turned my mother to drinking ale until she forgot the free will she once had. I did not want to end up like her, nor did I want to subject any children to becoming what I had, a lying, thieving, starving orphan.

Without so much as a thought I balled my hands into fists. I wound them so tightly that my nails broke the skin. Somehow, the dripping of blood upon the thin nightgown I wore gave me sick, unfathomable pleasure. I wanted to dig deeper, deeper still.

At the stair’s first landing, Helene whirled me around to face her directly. Her eyes were filled with layers of intense anger and sadness. She took my still-bleeding hands and peeled them open. Tears of hurt filled her dark eyes. Instead of judging me for doing such a selfish thing, she took me into her arms and simply held me, not saying a word.

When she pulled away I saw her face wet with fallen tears. I felt horrible for putting her in such a state. It made those nagging feelings of self loathing further engulf me. But, before my body reacted in response once again, Helene began snapping her fingers. The distraction was enough to remove me from my thoughts.

Smiling, she whispered, “Soothing yourself does not need to hurt, Miss Cadia.”

I shook my head. “You may call me Cadia,” I said.

Still smiling softly, Helene took me down to the foot of the stairwell. There lay a set of double doors. They had handles, a knocker, everything a normal door would have!

I heard the clanging of metal as Helene fiddled with a bracelet shoved underneath the sleeves of her petticoat. She retrieved it, and hanging on the silver chain was a small door key. Without hesitation Helene unlocked the door.

Behind it was a vast, open space.

Taller and wider than a cellar, it made sense we had to scale so many steps. Such a large place under the ground would surely implode on itself without proper support. Any building above would slowly collapse.

Marble floors painted the space with speckled, off-white glossy mirrors. While we walked across the cold surface, I watched Helene in the blurred reflection it created, soon her path diverged and it faded away as if she were never there. Yet, I knew she was only steps away.

Tearing my eyes from the floors, I admired the space.

Hanging on the polished limestone were teardrop shaped hanging lights. They bathed the room in a soft, orange hue.

The room itself was uncomfortably large.
I instinctively slapped my wrist for nitpicking. My standards for trivial things such as this were strange.

Friar Ruthson called it, "Troublesome," that I had issues with anything that was not just-so.

As I saw it, a space should not be too empty, nor too cluttered, if it were too big or small, I'd surely have a fit about it.

It was not my fault. Everything must be done a certain way. I was the only soul to practice such customs in the Abbey, it seemed, as I frequently got scolded for being too fixated on small issues.

A door shutting vaguely registered in my mind. I could barely hear it over my own voice trying to convince me that it doesn't bother me, it doesn't bother anyone, it's just a really, really large room.

Helene found me in thought. She shook me by the shoulders to wake my mind.

"I don't know how much time we have," she confessed, then led me away by the hand.

We sat upon a small incline of steps.

Helene cleared her throat. "What do you want to know?"

Shock. That was what I felt at the suggestion of answered questions. "Everything," I finally said.

The dark-eyed woman nodded curtly. As she spoke, I listened carefully, quietly.

"I used to be a member of the King's court, noble. Mother was a Lady, and she married a man who became violent after my older brother was born—"

She told a story with her hands, the physicality of it making me picture the scene vividly.

"So she found comfort in another man. A man the court would deny her, as he was of the same race, thus 'pooling power' into any children."

Helene whispered a few quiet words, and the image of an infant crying materialized in golden light before dissipating.

"Mother kept him a secret. He was the only light in her dark life, then, she found herself with child. It was not her husband’s, as she swore she would not touch him as a lover so long as he struck her, yet, she laid with him to protect her baby, to protect me—"

I watched as Helene broke down before me. Her body was riddled with tremors as she recounted her experience.

"My father was her true love, and she did not want a product of that love taken from her, reduced to a changeling. The court says those of the same race cannot mix, because the power becomes unstable, or in their words, ‘evil incarnate’—"

"Once the King found out what I was, he stripped my title, dignity, and he forced me to perform the changeling ritual on a castle worker. She was unwilling and would rather be banished and keep the child."

"Pura, they call us, and most are not as lucky as I. Those who are hidden now know of me, confide in me,” Helene explained, eyes downcast.

“We are not evil. Different, I think, but only in power. The true evil is in the ritual of changelings, every woman who it is forced upon goes completely mad, one Queen famously carved a child from the womb of a sleeping woman and left her to die."

Chills rippled throughout my body.

The nightmare. I could not ignore the similarities. That woman was not imaginary. Her sunken face was that of a Queen, a Queen that lost her mind, a Queen scorned. Hell, it hath no fury like a woman scorned, and for some reason, she was furious at me.
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