27 Rova, 4705 AR
It is with great excitement that I write this entry,
for even now my coach travels through the
wondrous city of Absalom. It is rare for me to be
able to leave the confines of my father's manor
in Egorian, but when my elder brother Rhevan
requested that I visit him in the fabled City at the
Center of the World, I pleaded with Father to let me
go. I have not seen Rhevan for nearly... five years,
as near as I can remember, and I look forward to
seeing his face once more. I will write more later,
once I've arrived at his home and settled in.
Setting her quill aside, Ailyn winced as the coach hit a bump in the road, rocking it slightly. She drew aside the window curtain nearest her seat, eyes of violet gazing in awe upon the rising spires and elegant structures that surrounded them, passing by at an even pace. Her father had been furious when she'd asked to travel to Absalom to visit her brother in his self-imposed exile. There had been no love lost between the pair, and even when they were young it had been clear that the old nobleman had preferred his halfbreed daughter over his own, fully human son. Still, such obvious favoritism had not prevented the pair from being close as they grew up. Rhevan was several years Ailyn's elder, and had always been there to protect her, to help her whenever she needed it. She fondly remembered his bright smile, his own violet eyes sparkling with humor and intelligence. Over the last five years she'd longed to see her dear brother again, and now, finally, she had the chance.
The coach gave another lurch as it hit a pothole, even a city as magnificent as Absalom unable to keep all of its roads in perfect repair. Ailyn barely restrained herself from crying out as her journal tumbled to the coach's floor, quill and ink pot nearly following behind it before she managed to snatch them up. Carefully, the half-elven woman placed the quill and vial of ink onto a square of cloth laid out beside her, wrapping them up cautiously and arranging them with the rest of her belongings before picking up her journal and trailing delicate fingers across the seal embossed on the front. A raven, wings spread, with the emblem of Asmodeus etched above it: the seal of House Dartherian. She smiled wistfully before placing the journal aside as well, returning her attention to the city as it flowed past outside the coach.
Coming to a stop before a set of broad, wrought iron gates, the coach slowed into a cobbled courtyard. Beyond, a manor house rose a full three stories, built in the local style. Ailyn sat back, hands folded in her lap as she heard the driver climb down from the front of the coach, a shadow passing in front of her window before the door swung open to allow her to exit.
"We have arrived, Lady Dartherian..." the older man said, the young woman nodding her thanks as she slipped from the coach and smoothed out the fabric of her skirt. She knew she stood out in a place like Absalom; a pale, half-elven girl of clear Chelaxian descent, her long ebon hair left loose to cascade down her back in silken waves. Her dress, made of the purest crimson silk, was cut modestly, but even so she felt exposed as she walked smoothly through the gates and left her belongings to the driver and the men that were even now passing her in the courtyard. She saw the seal of Dartherian worked onto the front of their polished breastplates, and the men appeared to be Keleshite by the darker hue of their skin. Beyond them, another pair waited by the broad door into the manor, each inclining their head to her as she reached them.
"Welcome, my Lady," one of them men said in heavily-accented common, "Lord Rhevan awaits you within, but has suggested that you take the time to refresh yourself from your journey, if you wish." The words were harsh in tone, and the man's gaze hard as it swept over her, sending a chill down the young woman's spine. She smiled, though, giving a light curtsey and meeting his gaze evenly.
"Thank you, Sir. Would you be so kind as to show me to my rooms, then?" she asked evenly, doing her best to keep her tone friendly. Her brother's men unsettled her, but she did her best not to show it. The man who had spoken simply grunted, beckoned for her to follow, and entered the manor. Ailyn stepped in behind him, the second man falling in as well after a few steps, shutting the door once the three of
them were in the entry hall beyond.
They moved in silence, Ailyn truly not knowing what to say to either man, and the pair certainly not seeming the talkative sort. The manor's interior seemed reminiscent of their home in Egorian, the furnishings clearly Chelish, which helped to soothe the woman's nerves somewhat. Upon reaching her rooms, she said a simple 'thank you' before closing the door behind her, exhaling a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She felt as if their eyes were still on her, her skin prickling at the thought. Why her brother would employ men of that sort escaped her, but they must be good if he trusted them in his own home.
"I'm sure it's only in my head," she murmured, sighing softly. Her father's men had always been stern, stoic, but she had at least known she was safe with them. These men, however, made her feel decidedly unsafe. Ailyn shook her head, pushing those thoughts to the back of her mind as she took a few moments to explore her suite. The bedroom was large, at least as big as her own back home, the bed easily large enough to fit three or four people with ample room to spare. Adjoining the bedchamber was a smaller room, dominated by a large bathing tub crafted of brass, the outside etched with delicate, swirling designs. It was already filled, the water steaming, and Ailyn couldn't help but smile as she pressed the door shut behind her.
"Dear brother...you think of everything," she murmured, gently slipping from her dress and moving to take advantage of the fresh bath.
* * *
The knock on her door came as she was drawing on a robe of pale, cream silk she'd found hanging in a wardrobe by the bed. Ailyn frowned, letting her towel drop to the floor, her dark hair clinging wetly to her neck and shoulders as she tied her robe closed and padded across the chamber to answer.
One of her brother's men stood beyond, his large frame dominating the doorway as an unsettling gaze swept over her impassively.
"If you have refreshed yourself, Lord Rhevan will see you now," the guard said, turning without another word and beginning to stride back down the hallway. Surprised, Ailyn moved quickly to follow behind him, brow furrowing in consternation as she clutched her robe tightly closed. If she had felt unsafe before, she now felt completely vulnerable, as though staring down a cadre of archers with naught to protect her, save her own skin.
The guard stopped outside of a set of double doors worked with the Dartherian emblem, pushing one open and motioning Ailyn through. Hesitating only a moment, the half-elven woman stepped into the chamber beyond, shivering at the chill that hung in the large room. At the far end, a figure stood before an open hearth, the roaring fire within looking inviting. Slowly, she stepped closer, her heart hammering in her chest as she drew up to the slender man before the fire.
"Brother? What is so important that you could not even let me dress properly before seeing me?" Ailyn finally managed, that strange chill only growing stronger despite how close she now was to the flames.
"Forgive me, Ailyn, my dear sister... I thought my men had better manners than that, as I certainly did not instruct them to bring you here unprepared," Rhevan replied, voice calm, measured. He sounded much as Ailyn remembered, save his voice lacked the warmth it once had when they were young. There was a coolness to it now, lacking any real emotion. "I simply wished to see you. It has been so long, and we have so much to talk about..."
Rhevan turned, and Ailyn gasped as she met his gaze. His eyes, once violet like her own, were now as black as pitch. Not even the whites could be seen, nothing but black, yawning emptiness dominated his eyes, like icy pits. Her lips parted, jaw working as if trying to speak, but no words seemed to come. Rhevan merely smiled at her reaction, the expression never reaching those empty orbs.
"I feel it's time we had a talk about our father..."
* * *
"I feel it's time we had a talk about our father..."
Those words echoed in Ailyn's head, ominous and cold. Her brother was not the man she had known, and even if it were not for the blackness that consumed his eyes she would have been able to tell. Their meeting had proven to be less a discussion and more of a rant, an angry diatribe against the very man that had raised them.
"But...you know he cares about us, Rhevan. He always has..." She protested, but to no avail. The statement had merely angered the man more, and he raised a hand as if to lash out at her, barely managing to restrain himself.
"You! He cares about you and the elven harlot that birthed you!" He growled in reply, seething as he turned back toward the fire. "No, I was an afterthought. Worse...a disappointment. No matter what I did, it was never enough for that withered husk of a man. That is why I left."
Unable to make him see reason, Ailyn quickly fled from the room, returning to her chambers. In the days after, she barely saw her brother, and even in passing, he was silent and grim. She then chose to take her meals in her room; away from her hateful sibling and the rough men he'd hired to guard his home. Outside of her room, she could feel their eyes on her, and she did not dare to consider what those men might have been thinking about her.
Still, she felt restless. She had spent far too much time by herself, and without knowing when Rhevan would allow her to return home, if ever, she knew she would have to make the best of it. Hesitantly, Ailyn rose from the edge of her bed and stepped toward the door, opening it a crack to glance out at the two men that guarded her chambers.
"I would like to take a walk in the garden," she said, trying to keep the nervousness from her voice. One of them nodded, stepping aside and allowing her to step into the hall. The other merely leered at her, grinning as she turned her back to him, though she caught the expression out of the corner of her eye. For once, she was glad her father had insisted that she not wear the low-cut gowns favored by some daring young noblewomen. Most of her dresses, while made from rich silks in the blacks and reds favored by the Egorian noble houses, were more reserved in design. Her current dress was of crimson silk with a high collar that encircled her throat, the fabric worked with black and gold embroidery along the sleeves, hem, and bodice in patterns reminiscent of flames. Still, the man eyed her, and it made her shudder in disgust.
Thankfully, her walk to the garden was silent, and the men remained by the entryway into the house as
she walked among the beautifully flowering plants that her brother, or more likely his groundskeeper, had chosen. It was while she paused to sniff a particularly vibrant rose that a shadow fell over her, blotting out the afternoon sun.
"Good day to you, sister," Rhevan said coldly, not even bothering to smile as she turned to face him as calmly as she could. "Forgive me for my...brusqueness, when last we spoke. My feelings about our father are strong, as you can plainly see, and I lost my head." He offered her his arm, and she took it, trying not to look up at him as they began to walk casually along the path between the plants.
"I should have been more...sensitive, Rhevan." Ailyn replied, pointedly examining their surroundings. She did not want to see those cold, empty eyes again. Not if she could help it.
"Still, it was in poor taste to lash out at you so. I asked you here because I do care, sweet Ailyn, and I wished to offer you a chance to see something spectacular."
Ailyn paused, finally facing him, a dark brow arched curiously.
"Something spectacular? Like what?" she asked.
"Ah, but you must see it. If I tell you it will ruin the surprise." Rhevan actually managed a smile, though it still did not reach his eyes. He turned back to the guardsmen and clapped his hands. "Rolph, Marrek...tell Master Toloth that I am ready to proceed."
The pair nodded once, turning and retreating into the building as Rhevan took Ailyn's arm once more. "Now, my dear...you won't be disappointed."
* * *
Rhevan seemed to return to the cold demeanor that had become his norm as they made their way back inside, the older man leading Ailyn down a spiraling stair into the home's basement. It was in a large chamber that they finally stopped, an older man with graying hair on hands and knees, hastily inscribing the last of a massive and ornate diagram onto the stone floor.
"Almost done, m'lord, almost done," he said, his words coming out in a rush. He sounded half-mad, and looked even worse, his thinning hair in disarray and his robes stained and torn.
"Excellent, Master Toloth. We will proceed as soon as you can finish."
It did not take long, and as the maddened old man rose, he beckoned Rhevan over. Ailyn tried to stay back, but her brother grabbed her hand tightly, his grip almost crushing, and dragged her along behind him.
"Now, sister. This is just the beginning," he said, pulling her into the circle as more of his men who had been waiting nearby stepped inside of it with him. Ailyn struggled, her fear rapidly rising as the old man began to chant in a harsh tongue she didn't understand, and she felt the air around them become energized, with light crackling around them.
"No! Brother, stop this! Let me go!" She protested, but he just held her tighter. A high-pitched whine filled Ailyn's ears, and she screamed, pressing her free hand to her head to muffle the sound. Toloth raised his hands, shouted a final word, and suddenly the world turned upside down and Ailyn felt herself fall into darkness.
* * *
The world spun as it resolved itself once more, and Ailyn collapsed to her knees, retching on the stone floor.
"And so my dignified sister is reduced to being sick upon the floor. I never thought I'd see the day," Rhevan said coldly, as he grasped her roughly by the arm and pulled her to her feet. She staggered, still gripped by a sense of vertigo, but before she could pull herself together, she was forced forward. They had appeared in a familiar room, almost as large as the chamber they had been in, but for a few moments, Ailyn had no idea where they were. Then the familiarity sank in, and she gasped.
"B-brother, what...what are we doing here? I thought you hated father! Why have we come back?"
She twisted, trying to look at the man behind her, but the way he gripped her arm made it difficult to turn without causing pain to shoot up through her shoulder. As they marched into the hall, Rhevan stopped, pushing her to the floor with surprising force.
"You truly want to know? And spoil the big surprise?" Any shred of warmth that had remained in his voice since she had first arrived at his estate was gone, and he looked at her with disgust as she tried to pick herself up. "Fine, sister." He spat the words out, sneering. "Daddy's little pet. I'm here because I deserved more. I deserved better than to be cast aside for some bastard half-breed daughter who is little
better than her whore of a mother!"
Ailyn gazed at him, speechless, as he stepped toward her and leaned close, his smile malicious and wicked.
"And now, I will make you watch as I gut our dear father, and take what is mine."
* * *
Ailyn winced, the man behind her forcibly twisting her arm behind her back and marching her along the familiar corridors of her home. Her mind raced, trying to process everything that had just occurred. She knew her brother held little love for their father, but to openly act against him, to bring a small, armed band into his home with the intent of killing him, seemed unfathomable. Yet there was no mistaking the murderous gleam she had seen in Rhevan's eyes; or rather, the black, empty pits they had become.
The sound of tramping feet mingled in her ears with her own labored breathing and the hammering of her heart. There had to be something she could do to dissuade her brother, but nothing came to mind. Whoever this man now was, she was quite certain there was little of the Rhevan she knew within him. The best she could hope for was that her father's own men would stop his traitorous son. Yet she had seen no sign of them since their arrival, and surely by now they would have stumbled across a patrol of some sort. Rhevan's force was too large to go entirely unnoticed.
Ailyn felt a surge of hope when a pair of men in House Dartherian livery rounded a corner directly ahead of them, stopping short at the sight of Rhevan and his soldiers. Rather than turn back to rouse therest of the guard, however, one of them grinned, and they strode forward, neither reaching for their weapons.
"Excellent work, Arden, Thorn," Rhevan said as the pair reached them and turned to walk alongside the younger man. "Did you have much trouble putting my father's men down?"
"Not at all, M'lord," said the first man, a grey-bearded soldier with a jagged scar around his neck only partially hidden by the high collar of his uniform. "It was as you said. The rabble your father employed were complacent . . . easily taken care of once we helped them fall asleep." He laughed, patting the hilt of a dagger protruding from his belt.
"And where is my father?" she heard her brother ask the men, and this time the younger, Thorn, spoke up.
"In the midst of a ritual, M'lord. Completely unaware of what's going on."
"Excellent. That means the majority of his spells will be chosen to aid in the casting."
Rhevan paused as they reached an intersection, turning and motioning down either side. "Secure the rest of the household. Thorn, you can have the honor of chaperoning my dear sister."
Thorn leered at Ailyn as the man behind her released her arm, but she met his gaze evenly as he stepped forward and his calloused fingers tightened around her wrist.
"My pleasure, M'lord." He crooned, his gaze never leaving her.
"Do treat her carefully, Thorn. She's not one of your doxies," her brother sneered, and she immediately felt Thorn's grip relax.
"Of course, M'lord."
The trio continued to march Ailyn along, Thorn grasping her arm and Arden at her other side, with Rhevan ahead of them. They turned down a less familiar hallway, down a stairwell that led to the deeper levels of the manor. Soon the small group passed into a region of the building that Ailyn and Rhevan had always been forbidden from entering. This was where their father, a renowned diabolist, practiced his art, and she could almost feel a growing heaviness in the air the deeper they descended. Here and there, a flickering torch cast dim light across the increasingly narrow
corridors, the natural light from above fading completely.
The patriarch of House Dartherian had taken great care to distance his darker activities from his children while they were growing up. "To truly seize power, one must be old enough to understand it, and willful enough to master it," he had always told them. Rhevan often asked their father to teach him, but his requests were always met with the same response. "When you're old enough," at first, then "I'm afraid you lack the proper talent" as Rhevan had matured. Ailyn lifted her gaze, looking ahead to try and gain some glimpse of her brother's face, but it was cast in shadow. Still, from the set of his jaw, she knew he was revisiting the same memories. They had been, after all, the catalyst for his departure, if not the entire reason.
Now her brother's impetuousness had come to this, marching through the forbidden levels of House Dartherian with bared blades and murderous intentions. Ailyn wasn't sure how much longer she could take the silence, the thick air, and the familiar static sensation of magic at work. She opened her mouth to try once again to reason with her brother, however futilely, but was stopped short. Rhevan signaled a halt before a pair of heavy doors carved of black marble, their surface etched with arcane symbols and images of devils of all kinds.
"We're here." Rhevan simply said, reaching out to brush his fingertips against an image of Asmodeus that dominated the center of the doors. That bare touch caused them to click softly, opening inward in eerie silence, revealing a chamber that neither of them had ever set eyes on before.
The room, covered floor to ceiling in ebon marble spidered with lines of bloody crimson, was dominated by a massive circle inscribed in the floor. Picked out in silver and gemstones, the giant device crackled with energy, its perimeter ringed by four robed apprentices, positioned to form an invisible pentagram within the circle with the figure in blood red robes at the pattern's far end. Power arced along these invisible lines as the red-robed man raised an ebony staff into the air, his voice charged with the same energy as he chanted.
Though she was no mage, Ailyn had witnessed enough magic growing up to know that the spell was nearly complete. She felt it in her bones, and in her flesh. It was an almost palpable sensation that resonated within her. Her father was summoning something...something big. Something dangerous. Rhevan stood within the doorway just ahead, still and unreadable, though Thorn and Arden stood with mouths agape, clearly awed by the raw power in the room.
Suddenly, Rhevan lunged forward, so quickly that he seemed to be in the doorway one instant and behind the closest of the robed apprentices the next.
Her cry went unheeded as her brother lifted his sword high, a wolfish, almost unnatural grin spreading across his features. He brought his sword down with a savage cry, the steel glimmering with a sickly green light as it bit deep into flesh. Hot blood sprayed from the wound, the enchanted blade nearly cleaving the apprentice in two. As if on cue, Thorn released Ailyn's arm, and he and Arden dashed at opposite angles across the room, each of them driving his own sword through another apprentice as the surviving men spun toward the sudden disruption.
The one remaining apprentice snarled something in a guttural language that Ailyn vaguely recognized, but couldn't quite place. The ground beneath Rhevan's feet seemed to darken and swell, tentacles as black as pitch erupting upward to entwine around his limbs and torso. He let out a pained cry as they began to crush him, but then he snapped out words of his own. The air around him warped, and in an instant the binding tentacles were shredded into wisps of darkness. His visage twisting, Rhevan lashed a hand out toward the mage, fingers curling into a fist. The apprentice tried to step back, hands f lashing through the signs of a counterspell, but whatever he would have cast only came out as a wet gurgle as a fist of arcane force shimmered into existence around him, and crushed him with the audible snap of bones.
"Pathetic," Rhevan growled, f licking his hand as if it was coated with the gory mess that the mage had been reduced to. The air in the room still crackled and undulated, as if something was trying to force its way through the weakened veil between worlds. It was all Ailyn could do to remain upright, and finally she sank to her knees as Rhevan and his men turned their attention to the red-robed figure.
"And now, father...you die," her brother snarled, taking a step toward the man. The robed figure whirled his staff, bringing the butt down against the marble floor with such a loud crack that even Rhevan faltered, the black, empty voids of his eyes widening as the man lifted his head, his face cast in unnatural shadow save for two burning pinpoints of crimson light.
* * *
"You should have slain me first," their father said as he gazed upon the three armed men before him, "rather than wasting your time with my apprentices."
"You'll die anyway, old man. The order matters little," Rhevan growled, leveling his sword at their father's robed figure. His cowl cast his face in a deep, unnatural shadow, while his eyes glowed like tiny coals. Ailyn had never seen her father like this, but there was no mistake. This was Verik Dartherian at his most powerful.
The might of the Hells filled his normally thin, almost frail form. Nearby, the air itself seemed to suddenly bulge outward. A horrible wailing filled the room, but ceased as the distortion faded. Even
without the mages' direction, the spell was completing itself.
"And you're a fool if you think you can fight me, Rhevan. I taught you better than this. Disrupting a summoning at the height of the spell? You may get your wish, boy, but the price will be your life if the veil tears."
Rhevan snorted, flashing a wicked grin and taking another step toward their father.
"I'll deal with whatever monstrosities manage to worm their way through. But you...you, I'll relish killing."
The younger man tensed, and from Ailyn's spot pressed against the far wall she could barely see his lips move as he held his hand over the glowing blade of his sword. In a flash of light, he closed the distance between himself and Verik, slashing violently at the wizard.
Her brother was an accomplished fencer, but Ailyn saw none of that finesse as he lashed out at their father. His attacks were almost bestial, his face contorted in rage, as Verik's ebony staff and shimmering arcane shields turned aside each blow.
Lightning-fast, Verik knocked Rhevan's sword wide, his staff whirling as he brought it around to slam its length against her brother's ribs. There was a soft crunch. Rhevan cried out, staggered and nearly dropped his sword. Ailyn winced, looking away, to find Arden and Thorn circling around the room's edges, trying to surround the mage.
"Father, look out!" Her voice was almost lost in the din of another sudden chorus of wails. The air next to her shuddered and rippled. Startled, Ailyn scrambled back as cracks began to spider their way across the distortion. She could see the tips of claws working through the cracks, trying to widen them, only to vanish again as they closed.
Thankfully, Verik heard her warning. He jammed the butt of his staff into Rhevan's gut, uttering a word. It flashed with energy, and the blow sent his son flying halfway across the room to land with a pained grunt at the circle's center, his sword clattering across the floor. Then Verik spun in a circle, his crimson robes flaring around him.
Thorn was the next to attack, rushing the mage and cutting across with a blade of mundane steel. Ailyn let out another scream as she saw it shear through Verik's robe, then blinked, watching as the fabric fluttered to the ground without a body inside of them. A ray of searing heat sprang from above and
behind Thorn. He let out a blood-curdling scream of pain as it punched through his chest.
Verik smirked, now hovering in the air and clad in his familiar, close-fitting attire of black and crimson
silk. His face was lined with age and his hair, stark white, but there was nothing else about the man that spoke of age or frailty. He exuded power. His eyes blazed bright crimson as he twirled his staff toward Arden.
This time, however, no ray sprang forth. Verik merely smiled, and the end of his gnarled staff began to glow.
Arden lurched as the glow sprang up around him, staggering and clutching his chest before falling to the ground beside Thorn's smoldering form. Verik lingered over them, gloating. Another distortion appearing near him, and as he slowly rotated toward it, Rhevan stooped to pick up his fallen sword.
"You're still alive?" Verik asked calmly. His words held a hint of surprise that brought a rough laugh from Rhevan, who spat a gobbet of blood onto the marble floor and lifted his empty gaze to meet the burning coals of his father's eyes.
"I'll live for as long as it takes to kill you," he spat, lifting his sword. With a bellow that sounded almost victorious, he swung it in an arc before him. As he did, the air contorted just in front of him. The enchanted steel bit into the distortion, and it shattered like glass. A jagged hole gaped in the air before him, but Ailyn could see it didn't lead to any of the Hells she knew. What began to swarm forth were not devils.
Clearly surprised, Verik flew backward, his gaze falling on Ailyn for an instant as he sought something else in the chamber.
"Run, dearest," she heard him whisper, as if next to her, before his gaze shifted away and found what he had sought. Something in her father's command broke her paralysis and spurred her strength. She scrambled to her feet, bolting from the chamber as she heard the sound of another distortion shattering. Her father bellowed in Infernal above the din of wails as both demons and devils streamed into the chamber.
As she ran, Ailyn felt tears streaming down her face. Both her father and brother would die. She would be next, be it at the hands of demons, devils or her brother's men. She nearly fell as she reached the stairs leading back up into the manor itself.
She took the stone steps two at a time, away from the horrors behind her. And yet, the charge in the air didn't abate. Instead, it seemed to grow, reverberating in her soul as she tried to remember in her frantic state which corridor led to the manor's main hall.
Rounding a corner, Ailyn paused, sagging against a wall to catch her breath. Something was wrong. The out-of-control energy from the summoning chamber below had spread throughout the house, and it was still growing. Already she could see more distortions wavering in the air, creatures from warring planes trying to claw their way through.
"No...no, I...have to keep running," she panted softly, steeling herself and spurring her burning legs into
a run again. Behind her, she heard a sound like breaking glass, and an unbearable heat as hellfire spewed forth from the tear in reality. Stone itself began to burn in the infernal onslaught. Another gout of flame burst forth before her.
Ailyn screamed, tripping as she tried to keep from running straight into it and landing flat on her back. Her way was blocked. Still, she pushed herself to her feet again, breathing hard as she tore open the door of the nearest room. It was a servant's bedchamber. Whoever had dwelled in it was dead, or soon would be. Pressing the door shut behind her, Ailyn sagged to the floor and began to sob uncontrollably, the tears flowing down her pale cheeks.
* * *
Fire. Heat. Pain. That was her world. Her head swam as she tried to comprehend what was happening. She knew she was burning. She could smell it, but her body was strangely numb. There were no walls, only sheets of flame that surrounded her, dominated her. Already, darkness crept into the corners of her vision.
Then, something moved in the flames. It was impossible. A delusion, moments before death. Yet there she was. A woman, dark and beautiful, her skin pale and her hair like night. Wings of raven feathers flared behind her, scattering the flames as she stooped. A cool touch, fingertips painful against seared flesh, but it felt good. She ached for more as that dark creature smiled down at her."You are strong child...to linger, when others fall," she said, her voice a wicked chorus tugging at her soul. "Your blood...is familiar. A strong line. But...I can make you stronger. You'd like that, wouldn't you, little one?"
She tried to speak, to say yes, but all that came were pain and a dry rasp. The creature understood. Her smile never faltered as she leaned close, those perfectly crimson lips meeting the girl's. In that instant, Ailyn was bathed in a different sort of hellfire, a fire that tore into her soul, even as she felt something dark and malignant worm its way inside of her being. She knew she should be repulsed, but it took away the pain. Ailyn let herself fall into that hellish embrace. As the world faded to darkness, she saw her brother's face flash before her eyes one last time.
* * *
Ailyn awoke beneath the night sky, the scent of char filling her nose. The pain was gone, a lingering memory. She felt...wonderful. As she pushed herself to her hands and knees, she realized she was no longer in the manor. She could see a thick column of smoke rising into the air nearby. Somehow she had been saved and left unscathed in an alleyway. Her last moments within the manor were unclear...she remembered fire, and agony, and a woman...and then something approaching ecstasy before it all went black.
Shakily, she stood, the burnt tatters of her dress sloughing from her pale flesh. She felt...different. That woman, that creature, had changed her. And there was something else...an itch, a tug at her consciousness. She realized the sensation was familiar.
Rhevan was alive. She knew it, somehow. The knowledge that he and some of his men had escaped was certain, as certain as the cool cobblestones under her feet. As certain as the fact that she would find
him and every last one of his brutish sellswords...and, one by one, they would die.