(This chapter takes place between the events of Descendants #8 and #9)
North of Wales, 1130 A.D.
Elise stood on top of a hill within view of the great stone house of her new teachers, Agnes of Berwick and Mary Hillingsworth.
Her father thought that she was off playing with the other children in the village. Those children were already being apprenticed for their future professions, and in a way, so was his daughter.
She stood with her eyes closed as she’d been told to, feeling the breeze and letting her imagination roam as she recalled the words Mary had imparted to her.
“This will be the first lesson.” Mary said, not looking up from her knitting as Elise knelt before her, begging to be taught the mystic arts. “Got to the hilltop not far from here and stand on top of the rock you find there. Close your eyes, feel the breeze, and think about what I am about to say.”
The knitting needles clicked through a long pause, and then Mary corrected herself. “Nay, do not just think, bring it to your mind’s eye, see yourself and know the potential within you. Do you understand?”
Elise nodded timidly and Mary continued. “Good, child. Then the first lesson is to understand what we are, what we do—the way in which magic can be commanded.”
On the hilltop, the thought of commanding magic made her imagine a swirling cloud of color drifting in the air like a chattering sea of chaos waiting to be molded.
“Wizards; they use magic for magic’s sake. ” Mary’s voice whispered in her ear. “And cast spells to study them, to learn how to cast more spells to study. They know many spells, but are master of no magic. They are unfocused.”
Elise’s mind’s eye grabbed the cloud of color and turned it upon itself, using it to prod and examine its own existence. It became whatever she needed to explore deeper, but never felt quite within her grasp.
“Then there are sorcerers. They’re driven by their emotions; rage, fear, lust, protectiveness. This makes them powerful; it makes their magic overt and impressive. But it limits them. They must maintain those feelings to use the power and those emotions are unpredictable and easily manipulated.”
Elise imagined throwing her nervousness and uncertainty into the sea of color. It responded, taking the shape of the thoughts she had offered up to it. But it only became the single shape. It didn’t vary and it didn’t conform to her wishes like the wizardly magic did.
“The cunning folk,” Mary’s voice continued, “have little capability to work magic, but they use it in its raw form to see. They see the maladies that afflict man. They see the locations of things lost. They see the future.”
This time, Elise didn’t touch the swirl of magic, but peered into it. Dim shapes rose within it, beyond her control and beyond her comprehension.
“We, dearest Elise, are witches. Our magic is that of the body; the living body and the unliving hulk. Magic seeks living or once living matter; it clings to it and changes it subtly. We can make those changes greater.”
In her mind’s eye, Elise dove into the magic, allowing it to permeate her body.
“With it, you can become stronger, fairer, faster. You will be able to change your shape and the shapes of others. You will be able to ensnare feeble minds and make objects move at your whim.”
She felt all these things and so much more. The power, the sensation, even if imagined, was dizzying. She knew that was the moment in which she was first alive, that she would reach for this touch for the rest of her days. She could be anything she wanted. She could be the offspring her father desired.
“Accept this power and you will go beyond mortality. You will do what they cannot. You will move in shadows, you will hear the songs from deep beneath the Earth. You will fly.”
Elise’s eyes flew open with a jolt. While she had meditated on the hill, the sun had reached its zenith above the pale shelf of rock she stood atop. She looked upon it with new eyes. Those eyes weren’t just more capable; they were new, the feeble brown faded to a striking yellow.
Mary had said. “Your mind is open and you imagination and the reagents required by it are your only limit. More so than any of us before you; you will be transformed.”
Morganna glared at the forest before her before turning that glare on Renst. The yellow point of light floated back in alarm. “Renst…” She began slowly. “You said… this was the border this realm shares with the Mountain Realm.” She stared at the mote, which remained silent in fear. “Where… are the mountains?!” She demanded loudly enough to send her cloud of attendant motes scattering for cover.
Renst shivered at the shout. “But… is way to Xolinar.” It promised shakily. “Mankind must be walking through border.”
She looked at it oddly for a silent minute before returning to the path. Renst had stopped her just before she passed through a natural arch formed by two young saplings growing into one another at the crown.
She wished she still had her enhanced senses. Of course she would need sugar to activate them, but the motes seemed adept enough at seeking anything she required and the spriggans; Laupso and his mate Suayco, were equally good at procuring such things or crafting them when asked.
At the moment, she was dressed in a simple, homespun shift of some soft, off-white material stolen from the home of a humanoid fey race the motes called daoine. It was belted with the remarkable tough skin of some manner of serpent and over her shoulder, she slung a satchel the spriggans had fashioned for her from the pelt of an animal that fled into the wilderness after being skinned. Both items, they assured her possessed special qualities. The belt would supposedly allow her to leap greater distances and the satchel was larger inside than it appeared from the outside.
The fact that she could send them to fetch reagents didn’t make up for the fact that those reagents were useless to her at the moment. She was without magic and forced to trust the word of Faerie creatures. The prospect put a lump in her throat.
Still, trusting them was the only way to gain the relics that would give her power again. The moment that thought entered her head, no force in Faerie could have kept her from plunging across the border.
The world fell away, taking all sight and sound and smell with it. Cold closed in around her, pushing her as if she was being swallowed by some great beast with a body of liquid ice. It lasted only a moment, long enough for her to start to regret passing through.
She stumbled out of a cave to find herself beneath the green sky once more. The forest was gone; in its place were jagged rocks and shelves of stone as flat as tabletops. The land was barren and craggy in all directions.
Far away and far below where she stood, she could see the green of a forest. In the other direction, she saw an entire camp full of trolls. And an entire camp full of trolls saw her back.
“See?” Renst said, emerging from the cave. “Mountain Realm Xolin…” it trailed off as it met with another of Morganna’s murderous glares.
“Renst… Renst dearest…” Morganna began as more motes emerged as well as Laupso and Suayco. “What is it… that I’m looking at?”
“Is troll village at mouth of seventh border. Mankind is happy, yes? Wanted to find troll for relic.”
The nearest troll grinned a crooked toothed grin as it stood from the rock it had been sitting on and hefted a wicked looking maul and laid it across its shoulder. The head of the weapon was capped with a dull, grayish metal and looked crude and deadly, perfectly matching its owner.
The troll was only around six and a half feet tall, easily dwarfed by the ogre Morganna had defeated, but where the ogre was huge and stout, the troll was all tightly wound sinew. Its skin was like a weathered sheet covered in gravel, all gray leather and rough edges. Most of its height was in its torso, which was inhumanly long with angular ribs showing.
Its head was mostly human, though gray and bald. It had a pronounced under-bite from which a lolling tongue flicked to lick pronounced canines and a nose the was long and crooked as if it had been broken dozens if not hundreds of times. Tiny ears, like leather flaps, lay flat against its head and nearly invisible.
“Yes… yes I was looking… for a troll. Singular. One.” Morganna said as more trolls stood, wielding similar weapons, all variations on the hammer. “This… this is many trolls.”
“Renst is sorry, Mankind.” Naife spoke up, floating up beside its compatriot. “Is what motes thought Mankind was looking for.” It seemed to finally register the score of trolls that were forming a wide semicircle around the cave mouth. “Maybe is time to be running now. Other borders with less trolls…”
“No.” Morganna turned her glare on the trolls.
The nearest one grinned, exposing flat, grey teeth. Its voice was low and growling, yet disturbingly casual. “What’s this, then? Little daoine take a wrong turn? You know the price. You wanna to pass through Xolinar, you gotta pay the toll.” Its tongue flicked out and licked the bridge of its nose.
“Toll…” Morganna blinked. She had been expecting demands to eat her, or at the very least, some mention of making her bones into bread. Was it possible that she only needed to give them a gift to get their help? “I don’t… want to pass. I want to speak.”
“Daoine don’t speak to trolls.” A female troll said. She was differentiated by her darker skin, and tusks. “Daoine is too ugly. Pay the toll or leave.”
This was getting her nowhere. It irked her that they were mistaking her for the daoine. She wasn’t entirely sure why, considering that she hadn’t personally seen one. “What… is the toll?” She finally asked after chewing on the words a bit.
“Wood!” one of the creatures hooted excitedly. The others took it up and soon there was a cacophony of hooting over the word. “Dry wood.” One added. “Wood that burns slow!” another roared. “For the forge!” A number exclaimed at the top of their lungs.
Morganna’s brow went up. “Wood? All you want is… is wood?”
“The forges run on coal.” The first female said with an odd bit of wistfulness in her basso voice, “But wood is better. Makes fey metal stronger; sharper.”
A grin twisted Morganna’s lips. It really was that easy. “I will bring you wood… my friends. But I want something else… something different in exchange for my gift.”
The word ‘gift’ bought the cacophony to a screeching halt and replaced it with confused murmurs. “Gift?” a one female asked. “What gift? This is a toll.”
“I don’t want a… toll.” Morganna spat, agitated. “I… want the location of one of the old Vaults.”
This time, there were no murmurs, only stunned silence. It was quiet enough to hear each individual hammer creaking as hands gripped them tightly.
“You overstep your place, daoine.” The first troll snarled, stomping forward.
Morganna’s eyes blazed. She raised a hand in the air, pulling tension into it in her mind’s eye until part of Tatiana Farnsworth’s psyche screamed at her that it was too much. Then she flicked three fingers in the direction of the ground at the troll’s feet.
The stone exploded, sending fist sized chunks of rocks spraying out into the ranks of trolls. Roars of both pain and rage filled the air. The troll that had come at her was thrown on his back, his belly torn open. The wound was closing rapidly, but he was a while in recovering from the shock of the attack.
“Is that… something the daoine do?” Morganna gave her own roar. “I am… of the Man kind. And you will obey!”
The trolls paused long enough to share confused glances before rushing her enmasse.
Morganna watched them come; giving over a tiny bit of her thoughts to hoping that the spriggans (who were currently sprinting back for the border) had told the truth about her belt. The first of the trolls made it to her and raised his maul.
She leapt backward, unleashing Lady Nightshade’s power into the ground with both hands. The ground erupted into another storm of flying stone. Scarcely had her feet found purchase on the top of the cave mouth than she threw two more invisible knives into the knot of trolls, drawing painful roars.
“Their eyes…” She called to the motes. “As I told you.”
The motes hesitated. They were used to what normally happened when mote met troll: pain for the mote. But they were more afraid of what would happen if Morganna became upset with them: death. Thus, they boiled forward in a colorful cloud, rolling up around the trolls and coming to light directly before their eyes.
Alone, a mote is a single point of light. In a large group, they are brilliant. Trolls screamed now less out of pain from wounds and more for their poor, useless retinas. They clawed at their faces but the motes evaded, dancing out of the way so that all the trolls did was cause themselves more pain.
One troll staggered out of the color cloud. Crimson blood ran down his face in rivulets as his eyes grew back and locked onto Morganna. In the confusion, he had lost his hammer, but that wouldn’t stop him. Howling with rage, he leapt at her.
Moments later, his arms took leave of his shoulders under a renewed assault from the invisible knives. In the instant it took him to recover from the pain, he found Morganna clutchined his detached limbs.
All he could see was her smiling face.
“You… need these, don’t you?” She asked, not letting him see how difficult a time she was having holding the heavy limbs aloft. Behind him, the trolls, heedless of their blindness were lashing out at one another, knocking one another cold with wanton brutality as they hoped they were striking enemies.
The troll, breathing hard, was stunned out of his rage as he realized the tiny creature was right. Trolls healed faster than anything in Faerie, but they couldn’t regrow bone. He needed to reattach his arms soon to grow them back. He glared at her, not wanting to vocalize his defeat.
“Yes… yes you do.” She said purely to convince herself. “Do you know where I can find… a relic?”
There it was. Trolls were the keepers of the Lesser Vaults, the secret places where pieces of the Old World were hidden. They even had a rule about them: Trolls will keep their secrets. It was as impossible for him to tell her where the Vault whose secret he kept was as it was for her to breath in stone.
At least that was what he thought. In his moment of doubt and pain, his felt the heady rush of the basic need for self preservation take him. He couldn’t tell her, however…
His lips moved. “I will take you to it.” He said, “In exchange for the gift of my arms.”
To Be Continued…