(This chapter takes place during the events of Descendants #11 and #12)
North of Wales, Winter, 1130 A.D.
There was a knock at the door. Mary glanced toward it and briefly let her senses dance over the person behind it. It was an entirely unnecessary exercise as only two people would be at her door, but it was an old habit and she had no reason to break it.
“Enter, dear Agnes.” She said a scant second after the knock. She didn’t look up from the saddlebag she was packing when her long time friend and confidant entered, bringing a warm breeze from the fireplace in the main room with her.
“We need to speak.” said Agnes with an air of dire importance.
“Good morn, Agnes.” said Mary as if Agnes had not spoken with such urgency. “Are you already done with your preparations for the trip to sabbat for Solstice?”
“It’s Elise, Mary.” Agnes frowned, “There is something very wrong with her.”
“You take every minor bit of mischief the girl gets into as a sign that something is wrong with her.” Mary chided, “Filching reagents and being engrossed in the art are not signs of madness. Tell me with an honest continence that you never did such at her age and I may consider it.”
“This isn’t skulking through the herb garden in the middle of the night, Mary. She takes things in the brightest day—often out of the owners’ very hands. I’ve kept their outrage at bay thus far only by the grace of our purse strings.”
“And our coffers remain respectably full.” Mary said. “We will just have to mind her better until she learns.”
“You speak as if that is a simple task, dear Mary.” Agnes said. “She refuses to move from her father’s home even with his urging. In fact, his urging has only made her more steadfast. She seems desperate to stay near him.”
“A young girl with great love for her father is not an aberration, Agnes.” Mary left the ‘dear’ off to signal her frustration. “And truly, we owe the man a debt. He has nurtured her imagination since she was young and it has made her powerful. Do you know what she did this past day? She turned a single feather into a pair of wings.”
“A fair trick, but nothing a conjurer of middling power couldn’t achieve.”
“They worked.” Mary said over the cloak she was folding. “She flew. She holds mastery over the air.”
“That cannot be…” Agnes shook her head. “I’ve heard tales brought by Turks of that type of thing happening in the east and in ancient times, in the lands of the Pharaohs…”
“Believe it, dear Agnes.” Mary said. “For I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Then that makes things more dire, not less.” Agnes fretted. “I didn’t come here to tell you of her roguish actions, or her strange, incoherent musings—you ignore those—and if they were singular occurrences, perhaps I could as well.”
“Then what defamation have you come to heap upon her then?” Mary asked.
“It is the truth and a worrisome one at that.” Agnes took a long breath. “She has been—in her odd way—asking questions. Many questions, many that don’t make any sense. But I fear she knows something about the Forbidden Arts.”
Mary chuckled. “Of course she does, dear Agnes. I’m the one that told her.”
“What?” Agnes gasped. “How could you? Do you know—“
Mary held up a hand. “I didn’t teach them to her. I told her what they were and the dangers inherent to them. It was a cautionary tale; that she won’t stray into them unknowingly.”
“Hell’s own demons, Mary Hillingsworth!” Agnes bawled. “The girl is addicted to magic—to the power itself on top of what it gives her. I haven’t seen her without her senses given sharpness since the day you taught her that charm and not a day has passed where she ha not attempted a new spell. Can you imagine what she could do with a quintessence drain, or the Animus Scindo Ritus?”
“You worry too much, Agnes. Elise is not monster and even so, she has no access to any that could teach it to her.”
“What if she can imagine it?” Agnes shot back. “That is why you are so impressed with her, is it not? The reason why you overlook all the signs that say that this girl is not fit to know spellcraft? Because her imagination means that her power is nearly limitless?”
Mary smiled and shook her head. “I fear this may be jealousy, dear Agnes. To think that Elise is anything more than simply an extraordinary young woman… you would have to be blind. But I will go speak with her. Where is she?”
“On the hill where we placed the focal rock.” Agnes said. “Wearing nothing but her cloak. On the coldest day this year.”
“You exaggerate.” Mary said. “But I will go. You complete your preparation for sabbat.”
Agnes nodded silently and watched her go. She wondered why her friend was so blind to the fact that the girl’s extraordinary nature was precisely the reason to be concerned.
Mary stopped halfway up the hill, bundling herself against the cold. Agnes was wrong on two counts at least. First, it had been colder the previous day. Second, Elise was not standing on the hill clad in nothing but her cloak. She was also wearing boots.
The old witch was no fool. She saw the signs as clearly as Agnes had. More clearly, in fact. Something had been off about Elise from the start. Her father was the only person that existed to her. His approval was what drove her and she paid no heed to the effect her actions had on others as long as their end result was something she felt would please him.
Touching magic had only made it worse. Where before she was meek in her ways, the magic made her bold. Where she was too shy to act on her compulsions, spells made her not only willing but capable to see them through.
Foolishly, Mary had hoped to place the girl on the right path; to make her into the greatest cunning woman the world had known. But it wasn’t working. Whatever ill humors boiled within Elise of Hafren, they could not be corrected by a teacher.
And now it was too late. Elise had the keys to vast power and that door could never be closed. All that could be done was to mitigate the damage she did to others until she delved too deeply and, as other overly ambitious magelings before her had done, burned herself out.
Until then, she would continue to be the caring teacher.
“Child.” She said, trudging up the snow covered hill to stand beside her protégé.
“Yes.” Elise said in a monotonous drone that indicated she was mediating once more on the power—holding it and shaping it without using it.
“Release the magic, child, that we may speak.”
“Because to converse properly, one’s mind should not be in another world.” Mary answered.
“No. Why do you call it magic?” Elise asked in her normal voice. She had released her focus.
“That is what the power is called, dear Elise.”
“I-it d-doesn’t make sense.” Elise stuttered; something she now did fairly often. Her mind was too much on magic to pick out the right words some times. “Magic isn’t… this power. Magic… it uses the power, yes. But magic is something else entirely apart from the power.”
She started pacing on the hill. “Just as… Elise is what I am called. But there are other… Elises, correct? I am not an example of all that is ‘Elise’. You see… Elise… Elise isn’t my name, it is something I am. That doesn’t have power. Everyone knows to call me by Elise, but they don’t… don’t control me with it. It isn’t a true name.”
“Child, we have been over this, true names only apply to the fey and they are rare in this world.” Mary tried to calm the pacing girl down.”
“No. No, you’re right. Then Elise… at least how I see and hear and think about Elise is my true name then. But p-perhaps, I am a fairy and don’t know it. How could I tell?”
“You are not a fairy.” Mary said sternly. She had gotten trapped in this conversation before.
“The fey are duplicitous. I c-could be… could be lying to you. I could be lying to myself, which is why I don’t know that I am a fey.” She glared up at the sun as if it was at fault. “It would be very tricky of me and in keeping with me fey nature.”
“No!” Elise clapped her hands over her ears. “No. I must… safeguard my true name. If I am a fairy, and cannot tell, then that may well be my true name or a false one. No, I will need a new name.”
Mary heaved a long sigh. “Very well, but bring one to mind quickly. Your father will be here to see you off to sabbat within the setting of the sun.”
“Father… yes…” Elise lapsed into thought. “I shall honor him but using the name of someone in his epic…”
“You will be Guinevere?” Mary asked, not able to help herself.
“No…” She creased her eyebrow. “Elise can’t be Guinevere. That… that… that wouldn’t work. She is weak. No one would respect her. No one would be proud of her. I am… I want to be strong. Morgan was strong, even if her victory was… pyrrhic. I will be Morgan.”
Faerie, November of 2074
Morganna shook her head clear of the disjointed thoughts swirling through it. She adjusted her cloak, pulling it up to cover her mouth and nose against the lightly blowing sand as she listened to the troll speaking.
They had set out from Xolinar a month before, following the troll, Jaken’s, ancestral memory toward the Lesser Vault his thrice great grand-mater had been tasked to build. The trolls had evidently built many Vaults in the age the faeries called the Old World and they kept them secret to all but their eldest children, who would pass the knowledge on to their eldest and so on.
Jaken reluctantly led Morganna and her contingent of motes and spriggans back through Forest Realm Cabanna and into the ungoverned Plain of Ghoujef and the Undland Hill Realm. They had crossed the River Acheron into Forest Realm Fannxis on the border of the Demon Kingdom of Sai’n’shree, at last crossing into the Desert Realm Lousha three days prior.
“Not long now.” Jaken said in the thick, slow voice he had adopted since his defeat at Morganna’s hands. “Five thousand, seven hundred and forty-two paces into the Lousha and we will see an iron door in the ground.”
He didn’t understand how he was able to tell the sorceress such things. By the Laws the trolls lived by, they could never tell anything spoken in secret to any that secret was not meant for. And he was certain that his sire hadn’t meant for the witch to know.
But she had injured him, forced him to confront his own mortality and suddenly, it was as if the Law didn’t apply to her. It worried him. He knew it worried the spriggans too. They whispered warnings to him whenever he got out of line. They told him that for their mistress—his mistress—there were no Rules.
That made her dangerous. Everyone knew that the Laws were the things that made Faerie work. The Demons said so. He took heart, however, in knowing that she would never pass the lock on the door. His grand-mater had been put to her task by a wizard of Old World tradition. The lock was not to be opened by a key, but by proving one’s worth through a puzzle. The fey-metal it was made of would blunt any weapon directed at it and absorb any magic. There was nothing she could do bypass the measures set against the unworthy entering therein.
“How… how many steps have we taken?” Morganna asked, a distressing, far off look in her eyes.
“Five thousand, six hundred and…” They topped the next dune. “ninety.” He finished. Below them, the sand formed a bowl around a circle of dark, gray metal. Not a single grain marred its surface and it seemed likely that none had in the centuries since it had been sealed. The circle looked to be a single slab about ten feet across and engraved with twisting vines and scrolls.
“We… we’re here.” Morganna began to pick her way down the slope. Jaken felt, as did the other faeries, the strange calm that descended over her.
For her part, Morganna was now only marginally aware of her erstwhile traveling companions. She recognized the apparatus for what it was: a seal. It was the mark of a powerful wizard to even begin to have the comprehension required to put one in place. It took even more skill to make one last no matter what it was made from.
It was the first sign she had encountered in her long journey since falling through, as the motes called it, Vault and Thorn, that she had any indication of magical presence. Yes, she was surrounded by living points of light and animated vegetation daily, but without her enhanced senses, she couldn’t feel the magic behind them. The seal was a visual representation of the power that even she, reduced to a mere mortal as she was, could see.
Jaken stopped a respectable distance from the masterpiece his family line had wrought and guarded as the motes crowded around the Mankind they considered their champion.
Morganna reached the edge of the seal and dropped to her knees before it. The strength of the magic infused in the fey-metal made the air thrum and was to Morganna, water burning the dry throat of one dying of thirst. She shuddered in pleasure at the feel of magic so near her once more.
With a trembling hand, she reached out and touched the edge of the seal. The sun (she assumed that the light source that illuminated and heated Faerie from beyond the Vault and Thorn was a sun, but she wasn’t sure), should have heated it. Or the magic should have made it unnaturally cold. Instead, the fey-metal didn’t register any temperature at all to her caress.
What it lacked in sensory output, it made up for when the scrolls and vines adorning it writhed to life, moving aside to reveal a delicate script etched into the face of the seal:
Here is found the Vault of Hyrilius of the Seven Points
His trappings of power, left as legacy to those who are worthy.
Brute force will avail not those who squander it,
For only wit and wisdom should prevail.
Prove thy wit and then thy wisdom,
And the Vault of Hyrilius will be open to you.
Haltingly, Morganna repeated the words aloud. The motes have spoken true and the troll had borne her to a place of power where she could reclaim her destiny.
She didn’t have time the revel in this knowledge before the words faded and were replaced by new ones in the same delicate script:
Here is found the Question of Wit:
The beginning of eternity The end of time and space The beginning of every end, And the end of every place.
“Does it know answer?” Naife asked after Morganna had spent several seconds in silence before the seal.
“Is demons?” Habsi asked. “Demons strongest of Faerie. Maybe very strong demon?”
“No, but says ‘beginning of eternity’” Naife argued. “Demons were no there then, no?”
“Quiet!” Morganna snapped at them. “It… it isn’t a real question.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t mean anything… anything real. That isn’t how they work. No. No… wizards think they’re clever. They don’t… ask anything that isn’t a trick… that doesn’t have two meanings. They’ll ask you what is stronger than God, or… something about a creature that walks on three legs at night… Things that only have answers when you look at them sideways…”
She chewed her lip. “I-it’s… it’s all about playing with words… other meanings, and…” she stopped and broke into a manic grin. “The words.” She suddenly exclaimed. “Not eternity… the word we use to… name it. Not time, not space, but the words.” Leaning over, she held her face directly over the question that mocked her. “’E’.” she declared. “The letter ‘E’.”
Immediately, the script changed again:
Wit, you have proven, but wit and wisdom are not married.
Here is found the Test of the Wise Mind.
Speak o’er the seal four words and no more than four.
Words of supreme wisdom, that are true through all times.
Words that will chasten an hour of pride,
And will hearten in the depths of affliction.
Morganna snarled and stood sharply, causing motes to scatter in all directions.
“Mankind is unhappy?” Tau asked plaintively. “Tau can find other place! Demons know other Vaults!”
If she heard it, she didn’t take heed. The wizard Hyrilius was mocking her from beyond the grave. She knew the answer. It had been the favorite saying of… someone… she couldn’t remember clearly who. But the longer she lived, the truer it had become—and the more she hated it.
Once, she had been feared and respected across Europe and even on the Dark Continent. Then she had been sealed into a portrait of herself, her powers diminished. She had clawed her way back and had located two of The 4; the fundamental books of magic. But the psionics had stolen one and thrown her, broken, into Faerie.
Falling through the Thorn had taken everything from her—everything that was of worth. It had left her as nothing. But again, she had survived and was at the cusp of triumph once more… and the cursed wizard Hyrilius had reminded her that it might be fleeting.