NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Beryl's Storyline.
Sleep eluded Beryl.
The scarred woman lay on her back, with her good, green eye open wide, staring up at the distant ceiling. Above her, sixty-eight rafters performed their silent, thankless duty, holding up the roof of Alessa’s hideout. Beryl knew that there were sixty-eight rafters because she had counted them a dozen times. Her eye lingered on one heavy timber after another as she tried to silence her mind, or at least to focus her thoughts on anything other than the approaching sunrise and the coming day.
It was no use. No matter how still she tried to make herself, no matter how deeply and slowly she tried to breathe, her mind raced, her fingers drummed away atop her stomach, and her eye remained stubbornly, resolutely open.
Just a few yards away, Alessa was splayed atop the bed. She lay on her stomach with her face mashed into a pillow, snoring lazily as she slept.
Beryl rolled onto her side and stared at the younger woman for a moment. She listened to the sound of Alessa’s snores as they echoed among the sixty-eight rafters, and she wondered how the teal-eyed woman did it. After they had returned to the hideout from their incursion into the House Trevanei vault, Beryl found herself feeling jumpy with adrenaline. Alessa, by contrast, had been cool and relaxed – stifling yawns, even – and had suggested that they both get some rest before the big day ahead. She had offered to share her bed – and, by implication, more – but Beryl had declined. So the two of them had arranged a makeshift bedroll on the floor, which Beryl had settled into.
The moment Alessa’s head hit her pillow, her teal eyes had closed, and she had fallen into a deep, sound sleep. Beryl, meanwhile, had lain hopelessly awake, feeling alert and restless. She wasn’t sure how long she had been lying on the floor, not sleeping, but it felt like hours. She just kept thinking about Astria, and The Duchess, and what she knew she had to do.
Finally, Beryl blinked her eye, and she sighed a long sigh. She stood up and stretched her stiff, aching muscles, and she searched around for her hobnail boots. Finding them, she slipped them on, and she crept across the dark room. Then she slipped out the door, sliding it gently closed behind her as she stepped out into the silent, shadow-shrouded night.
Beryl didn’t have anywhere to go, so she just walked. She kept her head down and took corners seemingly at random, trusting her feet to guide her to wherever it was they were taking her. The nighttime air was cool and crisp – autumn had arrived in force, and the first frost beckoned. The cold made Beryl shiver, which did little to help her relax.
After what felt like a good hour of aimless wandering, Beryl found herself at the foot of the temple which she had visited with Nasperge. That visit had been during the day; at night, the temple looked different – more austere, somehow, yet steeped in mysticism. The seven-sided cloister was surrounded by burbling fountains, where statues of the Gods spouted water high into the night, filling the air with a fine, heady mist. The temple itself sat atop a dozen or so low, broad steps, and orange torchlight flickered from its arched entryway.
After a moment of indecision, Beryl climbed the stairs to the temple and took a few hesitant steps inside. She found herself standing in front of the sacred hearth: a raised marble circle in the middle of the beautiful mosaic floor, with a tall, blue, smokeless flame burning at its center.
“Do you wish to speak to the Gods?” asked a bright, cheerful voice from behind her.
Beryl turned around to see a young woman looking expectantly at her. The woman wore the simple white dress of the Sisterhood, tied round her waist with the plain, white sash which marked her as an initiate. In her arms she held a bundle of rolled parchments and an inkwell filled with quill pens.
“I don’t know,” Beryl said, feeling suddenly strange and out-of-place. “I don’t know why I’m here. I guess I didn’t even think there would be anyone else awake at this time of night.”
The initiate suppressed a giggle. “The Gods do not sleep,” she said. “They are always listening.”
Beryl was silent for a moment. She looked away from the young initiate to stare into the blue flame atop the sacred hearth.
“It’s not really the Gods I want to talk to,” Beryl said.
The initiate shrugged. “If you give your message to the Gods,” she said, “they will see that it reaches the proper eyes.”
The young initiate held out one of the rolled parchments, motioning for Beryl to take it. After a moment’s hesitation, Beryl took the proffered scroll. The initiate held out the inkwell next, and Beryl took a pen as well.
“I don’t have any money to make a donation,” Beryl said, avoiding the initiate’s eyes.
Again, the initiate shrugged. “Remember us in your prayers, and our generosity will be repaid,” she said. “Now, I will leave you alone while you reflect on your message.” Then, before Beryl could utter a word in reply, the initiate gave a practiced bow and disappeared back into the labyrinthine halls of the temple.
And, just like that, Beryl found herself alone again, holding a blank scroll in one hand and a dripping pen in the other, unsure of why she had taken them or what she meant to do with them. Mostly, Beryl realized, she had accepted the parchment and pen because there had been something in the young initiate’s manner which had reminded her of her mother – or, at least, of the reflection Beryl had met in the mirrored world beyond the fire bridge which lay below the temple. And, having realized that, Beryl felt a sudden, intense desire to speak with her mother one final time.
So Beryl lowered herself down to sit on the tiled floor, covering a yawn as she did. She unrolled the paper atop the low, marble hearth – which was cool to the touch, for the magical flame at its center gave off no heat. Holding her pen at the ready, Beryl closed her eye, and she tried to think about what she wanted to say.
She thought for a long, long time.
When Beryl finally opened her eye and put pen to paper, the message she wrote was short:
I wasted so much of my life wishing that I had died instead of you. For that, I am sorry. I am so, so sorry.
I’m ashamed of how long it took me to realize that you wouldn’t have wanted me to die for you. I know that now. I know you would have wanted me to live for you.
I think I’m finally ready to do that. I’m not scared of living anymore. I’m not scared of myself anymore. I’m ready to try to be the person you always believed I was, the person I know that I’m meant to be.
I’m ready to be your daughter.
I don’t know if I can ever be the woman that you were. But I’m going to try. I’m going to try with all my heart.
I miss you every day.
I love you.
With a shaking hand, Beryl signed her name at the bottom of the note: Beryl Trevanei.
Then, holding the re-rolled parchment out at arm’s length, Beryl dipped the edge of the scroll into the tall flame at the center of the hearth. As the paper touched the fire it did not burn – it just seemed to evaporate into a cloud of pure, white smoke, which swirled and danced in the air as the enchanted fire carried it up through the center of the temple and out through the open roof, where a faint nighttime breeze stole it away into the darkness.
As Beryl watched the smoke drift away, she wondered whether or not the Gods would deliver her message. Beryl had never believed overmuch in the Gods. They had always been a distant, unknowable presence, so disconnected from the reality of her own life.
But Beryl believed in the words she had written. And that, she decided, was what mattered.
Beryl had to struggle to keep her eye open as she made her way back to Alessa’s. By the time she collapsed back down onto her makeshift bed, her eyelid felt like it weighed more than lead, and her whole body was heavy with exhaustion.
Beryl pulled the blanket up around herself, and she closed her eye. And, for a few blissful hours, she slept.
* * *
After having wasted what must have been a good, solid hour with her seemingly aimless reflections upon the merits and defects of the three candidates who were vying to become the sixty-first High Sorceress of the great and noble Guild, the head of the delegation from House Tyrolo paused to clear her throat, and finally – finally! – appeared to be about to deliver her endorsement.
Despite her best attempts to appear calm and collected, Astria Trevanei – sole daughter of Moira Trevanei, the fifty-ninth High Sorceress of the great and noble Guild – found herself leaning slightly forward in her seat at the heart of the Hall of the Seven Houses, and chewing surreptitiously on a strand of her long, auburn hair, as she waited for the matriarch to speak. And, even though Astria already knew how the matriarch planned to vote, she would have given every last coin in her possession to hasten the matriarch to that conclusion.
After all, Astria was only two votes away from ascending. She was on the cusp of achieving the goal which she had pursued with a cold, all-consuming tenacity for the better part of twenty years. She was so close to taking up a mantle of honor which had been ripped away from her family, to assuming her rightful place as her mother’s true heir.
She was so close to realizing her destiny.
And Astria’s was a destiny which, for all her belief in its righteous inevitability, had not come easy. She had seldom dared to speak of it aloud, for fear that some force, some enemy, would rise to spite her, to snatch away that which rightfully belonged to her. And many had tried. Astria had powerful enemies. Subtle enemies. Clever enemies. All of whom had attempted to thwart her at every turn.
But Astria had an ally, too. An ally next to whom her enemies paled. And so she had beaten them. She had beaten them all. She had played the game, and she had won, and she was just minutes – minutes! – away from claiming her rightful prize. Which was why each one of those minutes suddenly felt like an unbearable eternity.
So, when the Tyrolian matriarch started to wax rhapsodic again about the responsibilities of office and her own House’s proud tradition of service, Astria had to bite her lip to resist the urge to rise up from her seat and immolate the doddering matriarch in mid-sentence.
Instead, Astria shifted slightly, so that she was sitting atop her hands, and thus was less likely to give in to an ill-advised impulse.
Astria understood control. She had been patient. She had waited for so, so long. She could afford to wait just a little bit longer.
As the matriarch droned on and on, Astria found herself paying little attention to what the silver-haired woman said. The speech was just an act, after all – a little show for the benefit of the other Houses, a chance to hold court, to demonstrate thoughtfulness and even-handedness in a moment of great public importance. Astria already knew that House Tyrolo would throw its support behind her. She had been cultivating the right Tyrolian matriarchs for years – making connections, nurturing alliances, sowing seeds.
And, just so as to leave no doubt in the matter, Astria had paid an unannounced visit to the Tyrolo Estate the night prior, where she had met in secret with the leader of the Tyrolian delegation. In that meeting, Astria had laid out, in no uncertain terms, what the rewards would be for supporting her, and what the penalties would be for opposition. The greater matriarch who was now giving her interminable address had several grandchildren who had already demonstrated great potential for sorcery – as well as many other grandchildren who had not. Astria had assured the anxious matriarch that, following her ascension, positions of power and influence would be reserved for the more talented among the Tyrolian progeny, and that suitably-respectable sinecures would also be found for those Tyrolians unlikely to succeed on their own merits. There were always places at Court, after all, where the less-apt scions of the Great Houses could hold titles commensurate with their names without having to exercise any real responsibility. Astria and the matriarch had drawn up lists, and suitable positions had been identified for all concerned.
Having thus agreed upon the carrot, Astria had then presented the stunned matriarch with the stick: a series of thoroughly-indecent letters which the matriarch’s eldest daughter had exchanged with a man who was decidedly not her husband, and which made plain that the parentage of several of those precocious young Tyrolians was not what had been recorded in their Lineage. Astria’s web of spies and informants – always busy, always digging, never more so than during the past fortnight – had previously followed the matriarch’s lovelorn daughter to her place of assignation. The fact that her lover turned out to be Nameless was pure icing, and, after the terrified young man had been brought before Astria and subjected to the usual array of persuasions and inducements, it had been trivial to obtain the damning letters from him, along with his sworn accounting of the illegitimate children he had sired.
The Tyrolian matriarch had gone white as a sheet as she had reviewed the account, her eyes growing wider with each lurid detail. Once Astria had taken the documents back from the matriarch’s shaking hands, no actual threat had been necessary. The greater matriarch of House Tyrolo had pledged her support on the spot, which Astria had – gracefully – accepted.
Then Astria had taken her leave, for she had several other matriarchs to call upon before the night was out.
Under the subtle guidance of her patron from beyond the veil, Astria had spent the whole of her adult life amassing the leverage she would need to rise to the top of the visible order – a position from which she could continue to weave her part of the invisible order she’d been bid to maintain. Now the moment had come for her to put that leverage to use, and Astria had done so, with gusto.
All of which explained why, thus far, the election had gone more or less according to plan. The delegate from House Lyrestus had spoken first, and, after a mercifully-short preamble, had declared for Astria. After some more of the requisite posturing, the matriarch from House Ferani had done likewise, putting Astria halfway to the four endorsements she needed. House Etruchi had gone next and had put forward their own candidate – a horse-faced matriarch, easily ten years Astria’s senior, who held some position or other within the School of Enchanters. The Etruchi candidacy was a doomed one, born more out of a desire to save face than any serious expectation of success, and so Astria had paid it no heed.
The right to speak next fell to the Dentevis, who, predictably, had also nominated one of their own. The Dentevi aspirant was an accomplished and well-liked sorceress – a much more credible candidate than the Etruchi no-hoper, and a rival whom Astria might have had cause to fear, had she not acted so decisively to undermine the Dentevi threat in the weeks and months prior. Secure in the knowledge that she had already won, Astria had accepted House Dentevi’s opposition for the inevitability that it was, and had soothed her wounded pride by reflecting silently upon all the indignities and humiliations which she had in store for her rivals once the reins of power were safely in her hands.
Astria was not one to forget a slight. Every last score would be settled, every last betrayal punished, every last loose end tied-up. Just thinking about it made her smile.
The Nichaenei matriarch had spoken next and had declared her House for the Dentevis. As far as Astria was concerned, this turn of events was unfortunate, but not unexpected. House Nichaenei’s commercial enterprises had soured of late, and so the price for Nichaenei support in the election had been a massive sum of gold and an equally massive line of credit, which the Dentevis – with their vast financial empire – had been better positioned to supply than Astria. But, since Astria did not need the support of the Nichaeneis to put herself over the top, she had elected to let their vote go, and to console herself with the knowledge that House Dentevi had emptied its coffers in vain. That thought cheered her, but she also added House Nichaenei’s disloyalty to the list of scores which would need to be settled in the coming months and years.
So that was how the day’s proceedings had arrived at their present state, with the Tyrolo delegation holding the floor, and the Tyrolo matriarch apparently bound and determined to talk the ears off the two dozen representatives of the Great Houses seated around the marble council table, along with their retinues of fledglings and retainers, all of whom stood patiently behind their respective matriarchs at a respectful distance.
Finally, just when Astria felt as though she would literally burst from the indignity of it all if she had to endure any more grandstanding, the Tyrolian matriarch seemed to stumble upon her conclusion more than she came to it. Astria watched the matriarch’s lips move, and she heard them speak the words she had been waiting breathlessly to hear: “For all those reasons, it is both my honor and privilege to pledge the support of Great House Tyrolo to Astria Trevanei, our next High Sorceress.”
A quick, meaningful glance passed between Astria and the matriarch, and Astria nodded almost imperceptibly before the matriarch looked away.
Finally, at long last, Astria allowed herself to exhale. House Tyrolo’s vote was her third, putting her just one shy of the majority.
Only one vote remained, and that vote was her own.
Astria cleared her throat and rose gracefully from her seat. She paused only for a moment to straighten her auburn hair, to compose her finely-tailored robe, and to allow a wide, satisfied smile to spread across her face.
House Trevanei’s vote was, strictly speaking, a formality. For all intents and purposes, Astria had already won.
But this was a moment which Astria Trevanei had been picturing in her mind for a long, long time, and she planned to savor it.
She had penned a short speech for the occasion. She had practiced delivering it all morning long, in front of her dressing mirror, as her fledglings had laced her into her corset and curled her hair. It was a good speech – the best Astria had ever written. Magnanimous, gracious, tactful.
Astria cleared her throat, steepled her hands in front of her chest, and watched the Dentevi delegation squirm.
“Fellow representatives of the seven Great Houses,” Astria began, “I am humbled to stand before you today as the delegate for House Trevanei, and a candidate in my own right for the highest office of our great and noble Guild. And it is with humility in my heart that I—”
Astria’s words were cut short by the sounds of commotion coming from just outside the Hall’s soaring golden doors. All around the great circular table, heads swiveled in that direction, from which anxious shouting could clearly be heard, followed by a deafening roar. The two golden doors, which had been sealed shut at the start of the election, shook at that boisterous proclamation, and silence fell abruptly within and without.
Astria’s lips had frozen in mid-sentence, her mouth hanging open, one hand still extended out towards the now-preoccupied delegates. She could feel her cheeks burning as the blood behind them boiled, and she could feel her fists clench tight as rage swelled inside her chest. And she was just about to say something when the golden doors were blown open with terrible force, swinging into the room and banging loudly against the walls. An audible gasp went up from the assembled matriarchs as a single figure walked into the room.
Astria gasped, too. She felt her heart leap up into her throat and her skin grow cold.
Astria’s gaze was drawn first to the intruder’s dress: an exquisitely-tailored robe, made from silk so fine that it seemed to flow like water, and so white that it seemed to catch the sunlight streaming in through the Hall’s windowed dome like a prism, splitting it into a kaleidoscope of pale blues and oranges.
Astria had seen that robe before – she knew whom it had belonged to, in a distant, long-dead past. Seeing it again, Astria thought for a moment that she was seeing a ghost.
But then Astria saw the face of the woman wearing the robe, and her expression changed from one of shock into one of pure fury.
Astria saw her sister’s stringy hair, her grotesque scar, and her horrible, milky eye. And, in that moment, Astria Trevanei forgot all about her speech, about the election, about everything except the woman who stood there in the doorway, wearing her dead mother’s robe, and staring right at her with one green eye.
Astria leveled a single, shaking finger at her sister, and she said a single, shaking word – a word that was too small to hold all the anger she forced into it:
* * *
Even across the great marble expanse of the Hall of the Seven Houses, Beryl could see twin embers beginning to smolder in the black centers of Astria’s eyes. And, for a tense moment, the two sisters simply stared at each other. Finally, Beryl opened her mouth to speak. But her voice failed her, and no words came out. Her heart seemed to be lodged in her throat, where it was obstructing her speech.
As much as Beryl had tried to imagine herself in this exact spot, as much as she had tried to rehearse the words she needed to say, nothing could have prepared her for the experience of standing alone before the assembled aristocracy of her home plane, and feeling their collective, judgmental stare upon her. The city’s most powerful matriarchs were regarding her with expressions which ran the gamut from uncomprehending confusion to murderous rage. But there was at least one common sentiment which Beryl could see on all of the faces arrayed against her: contempt.
Contempt for someone who didn’t belong. An interloper. A nobody. A Nameless.
Almost without meaning to do it, Beryl found herself reaching inside the scrip of her mother’s robe, where the tips of her fingers brushed against a small, cool object. Beryl closed her hand around the talisman, felt its reassuring presence. Then, closing her eye, she took a single, deep breath, and tried to center herself – she tried to remember what she was there to do, and who she was there to do it for.
Beryl reopened her eye, then she reopened her mouth. And this time, although her voice faltered and cracked a little as she spoke, the words came.
“My name is Beryl,” she said, “and I am Nameless. I was once the sister of Astria Trevanei, and I was once the daughter of Moira Trevanei, a woman known to all of you as a matriarch of a Great House, as a Peeress of the Sacred Hearth, and as a High Sorceress of this realm. More importantly, though, she was a woman of great wisdom, and even greater integrity.”
As she spoke, Beryl stepped forward into the center of the room, advancing towards the sea of hostile faces arrayed in puzzled silence around the circular council table. As she walked, she found more of her footing – both literal and rhetorical – with each step, and her voice grew firmer and louder until the conviction beneath her words was palpable.
“It is on my mother’s behalf that I stand before you today,” Beryl said. “I have come to bear her witness.”
“How dare you!” Astria roared.
Beryl’s mention of their mother seemed to have jolted Astria out of her momentary stupor, because suddenly Astria was on the move, stalking towards Beryl with her hand in the air and a single, shaking finger leveled at the Nameless pariah who had once been her sister.
“How dare you claim to speak for my mother, when you’re the one who killed her?” Astria’s whole body hummed with an incandescent rage as she bore down upon Beryl. Raising her voice to address the whole room, she cried out: “This woman is a liar, and a thief, and a murderer, and I will have her answer for her crimes! Guards!”
“Oh, they can’t hear you,” came a reply through the open doorway. “No hiding behind your guards today.”
At the sound of Alessa’s voice, Beryl turned to see her fellow planeswalker enter the Hall with a smirk on her face and two massive, tawny-furred and feather-winged sphinxes in her wake. The sphinxes towered above all present, and even the gaping doors – which bore unmistakable claw marks upon their golden panels – had trouble accommodating the powerful, looming forms of both sphinxes as they entered.
“See, this is a family affair,” Alessa said, motioning back and forth between the two sisters with the short knife she held in her hand. She sneered at Astria as she moved to stand next to Beryl. “I couldn’t just have a bunch of puffed-up pikemen barge in and ruin the moment, so my friends and I persuaded them all to take the afternoon off.”
With that, the teal-eyed woman – who was dressed in a shimmering, silver-and-black checkered tunic with a sequined collar, along with fitted, striped pants in the fashion of a harlequin – gestured in the direction of her two prowling sphinxes. Having finally folded their massive wings in order to squeeze through the open doors, the sphinxes now stretched out their long, lithe, feline bodies and unfurled their broad, feathery wings. They stared out from beneath great brass helmets with swept-back points, and their eyes narrowed noticeably. One of the sphinxes leapt into the air and flew in a slow, swooping circle above the hushed onlookers. With a hurricane gust from its mammoth wings, the sphinx alighted, perching itself atop a tall marble plinth, where it crossed its paws and regarded the human assembly below with a steely-eyed, predatory gaze. The other sphinx jumped up onto the center of the council table, where its long, black talons clacked against the marble as it began to make a slow circuit around the room, sniffing at the air above the heads of the startled matriarchs, who drew back in fright as the sphinx’s gray beard brushed against their noses.
“And who are you?” Astria demanded from Alessa, her voice still angry and loud, even as she took a few stumbling steps back away from the teal-eyed planeswalker and her fearsome creatures.
Alessa shrugged and smiled. “I’m just someone who thinks that everyone here ought to listen carefully to what my dear friend has to say,” she said, nodding in Beryl’s direction.
“You belong to no Great House,” Astria replied, wagging an angry finger in Alessa’s direction. “You have no standing here.”
“Now listen here, you stupid cow – you’re mistaking me for someone who gives a damn about that sort of thing,” Alessa said, her tone growing cold and angry. “But I don’t give a damn about that sort of thing. Most of the world doesn’t give a damn! The only idiots who care about your elitist club are the ones in this room, with your fancy titles and your blood money. You think you’re powerful because of who your family is? Then why do you need guards to fight your battles? Because I’ve already kicked their asses and sent them whining back to their families! Where are your saviors now, huh? Not in this room. So don’t talk to me about Great Houses, or ‘standing,’ or any of that bull****, unless you’re prepared to make me try to care yourselves.” Alessa spun her knife, challenging the assembled matriarchs with her eyes. “Funny, that – suddenly I’m not seeing anyone stepping forward to put me in my place.”
Alessa sneered as she swept her gaze across all the assembled matriarchs. This time, no one stood to challenge her.
“That’s what I thought,” Alessa said. Then she pointed towards Beryl. “You all think you’re better than her? Just because you’ve got the right name? Just because you’ve got fancy titles?” A harsh smile formed on Alessa’s lips. “Well, I can only think of one way in which you’re better, thanks to your stupid little titles. See, I bet you taste better.” Alessa nodded in the direction of her winged companions, who continued to stalk the room like great, leonine predators. “My sphinxes like eating stupid, small-minded people from stupid, small-minded places. All that soft, spoiled living keeps you nice and tender. Practically a delicacy.”
As if on cue, the sphinx atop the table let out a low, rumbling growl, and lowered its head to peer dangerously at Astria. Its lips peeled back to reveal glistening fangs, and Astria visibly flinched.
“So you can either talk to your sister, or you can deal with me,” Alessa said, crossing her arms, and giving her knife a final, threatening twirl. “The choice is yours, but I can promise you that I’m going to be a lot less patient than Beryl – and a lot less gentle, too.”
Astria threw her hands up in the air and snorted angrily. “Very well,” she said, her exasperation plain as she whirled to face Beryl. “And just what is it that you want? Have you come here merely to humiliate me, to insult my family’s honor with your very presence? Or have you come to kill me the same way you killed my mother, too?”
Beryl closed her eye. She could tell what Astria was trying to do. Her sister wanted to hurt her, to provoke her to violence before she could say what needed to be said. That would give Astria the chance to claim the mantle of victimhood, and the other matriarchs would reflexively close ranks behind her.
Beryl shook her head, and she forced herself to take a slow, steadying breath before she replied.
“No, Astria,” she said. “I’m not here to humiliate you, or to attack you. I’m here to do what our mother wanted me to do – what she wanted us both to do. I’m here to tell everyone the truth, about this world, about The Duchess, and about you.”
At the mere mention of The Duchess’s name, Beryl could see Astria’s eyes go wide. A moment later she could sense tendrils of magic seeking a way into her mind, as Astria tried desperately to probe her intentions, to see what she meant to do next. Beryl could feel her sister’s spell burrowing its way into her thoughts, and, for a moment, she considered resisting it.
But, ultimately, she decided not to. There were no secrets between them anymore. The time for secrets was over. The time for truth had arrived, and it was long overdue.
As Astria finished working her spell, Beryl saw her sister’s mouth fall slightly open, and her face turned white as a sheet. Astria took a few more stuttering steps backward, away from Beryl, and Alessa, and the sphinxes, but also away from the circle of silver-haired and silk-robed matriarchs seated around the council table. Except for the Dentevi delegation, who continued to glare at Beryl with murderous intent, the rest of the matriarchs all turned their stares on Astria, and, as the silence between the two sisters stretched to an uncomfortable length, a low murmur began to rise up from the assembled representatives of the seven Great Houses.
“What is she talking about?” one of the Nichaenei matriarchs finally asked. “Who is The Duchess?”
“It’s all lies!” Astria shouted in response. Her harsh, panicked voice drew a collective flinch from the assembled matriarchs. “Don’t listen to her – you can’t trust a thing she says!”
“But we haven’t even heard these lies yet, Sorceress Trevanei,” a Tyrolian matriarch observed, to nods of agreement from around the table. “So how are we to judge their merits, whatever those might be?”
Astria Trevanei started to shake. She tried to straighten her posture, to draw herself up into the most regal bearing she could manage, but her body betrayed her. “That woman – that murderer – hates me!” she said, pointing an accusing finger at Beryl. “She’s hated me all her life, and now she’s trying to poison you against me! She—”
“—What Astria doesn’t want you to know,” Beryl interrupted, her voice echoing around the domed Hall as she addressed the matriarchs, “is that she does not stand before you today as a free woman. She sold herself to The Duchess long ago. If she ascends today, it will be because The Duchess willed it to happen.”
“But who is The Duchess?” the Nichaenei matriarch asked again, sounding annoyed.
“There is no such person,” Astria started to say. “She’s a figment of—”
“—The Duchess is a planeswalker,” Beryl said, cutting her sister off. “She’s a planeswalker, and a powerful one at that. She’s the real power behind everything in this world.” Beryl gestured up at the seven embroidered banners, bearing the seals of the seven Great Houses, which hung from the rotunda’s great dome. “For as long as there have been Great Houses, The Duchess has controlled them from beyond the veil. Her invisible hand molded everything you see around you – she conceived of this sclerotic world that we’ve all come to accept as normal, and she manipulated the Houses into creating and maintaining it. Our whole history – everything we know to be true – is just one great tapestry of lies. It’s been right in front of our eyes the whole time, but we’ve been too close – and too blind – to see it. You think you’re the masters of this realm,” Beryl told the stunned matriarchs. “But you’re not. You’re not masters at all – you’re slaves. Your chains may be invisible, but The Duchess holds them, and Astria is Her servant.”
Beryl held her own arms out in front of her, with her wrists pressed together, as though she could display a pair of ethereal manacles for the matriarchs to see.
“How am I to believe in these chains that I cannot see?” a skeptical-sounding matriarch asked. “You tell us this fantastical tale – you tell us that we are all deceived. But what evidence do you have to offer, beyond that of your own word?”
That question was met by nods of agreement from around the council table. Astria, too, nodded emphatically, then added: “Surely you would not believe the word of a Nameless murderer over one of your own. This woman is spiteful and deranged, and not to be trusted.”
Beryl bowed her head. “I don’t expect any of you to believe me,” she said. “But, as I said before, a great many of you knew my mother. Those of you who didn’t know her will at least know of her. And, as I said, she was a wise woman, a great sorceress, and honest to a fault. So, if you won’t believe me, then perhaps you will believe her. She was the one who first uncovered The Duchess’s twisted game. She’s the reason I know all of this to be true.”
Slowly, Beryl reached into the embroidered scrip which hung around her waist, and she extracted a folded sheet of heavy paper. It was a letter, it had once been sealed with wax, and Astria’s name was written on it.
“Are you mad?” Astria cried out as Beryl unfolded the letter. “She’ll kill us both! You’ll kill us both!”
Beryl gritted her teeth and tried to ignore Astria’s outburst. “This is a letter,” she said, holding the paper up for inspection, “written by my mother, and addressed to my sister. In it, my mother says—”
But Beryl never got the chance to elaborate on the letter’s contents, because, from across the room, a bolt of fire leapt out from Astria’s raised hands and shot towards Beryl and the damning letter. Before Astria’s firebolt could reach its target, though, Beryl raised her own hand, and a lattice-like shell of white light appeared in the air before her. The firebolt broke against Beryl’s circle of protection with an audible crash, before vanishing back into the aether with a crackle of energy and a flash of bright light.
“Astria, please,” Beryl started to say, even as she felt her own mana surge up into her, suffusing her body with heat and energy. She tucked the letter back into her scrip, lest the paper catch fire, then she tried to catch Astria’s smoldering amber eyes with her good, green eye. “Astria, please,” she said again. “You don’t have to—”
Astria’s reply came in the form of an angry, wordless scream, which seemed to carry two decades’ worth of fear and resentment within it, and an even larger firebolt, which ripped through the air towards Beryl before being stopped by her protective circle.
Beryl felt her spirit sink, and her heart grow heavy. With a wave of her hand, she shifted her protective barrier, moving it behind her and extending it across the length of the room, where it would protect Alessa and the matriarchs from any of Astria’s attacks which might fly wide of the mark. It would also prevent the matriarchs and their followers – many of whom had scrambled to their feet and seemed to be readying their own spells – from involving themselves in the fight.
Sparing a quick glance over her shoulder, Beryl saw an angry look on Alessa’s face, and she could sense that the teal-eyed planeswalker wanted to intervene. But, true to her word, Alessa seemed – grudgingly – to have resigned herself to the role of spectator. So Alessa turned her attention to the agitated nobles instead, with her sphinxes swooping down to flank her, and a pair of long, thin knives poised in her hands. Seeing that gave Beryl a sense of relief – so long as Alessa was keeping watch over the aristocrats and the only door, there was little chance of things escalating out of control.
Beryl turned back around just in time to see another burst of flame arcing towards her. She made no attempt to raise another circle of protection, or to call upon any of her wards. Instead, Beryl stepped directly into the flame javelin’s path. The spell struck Beryl squarely in the chest, exploding upon impact into a firestorm of heat and wind – and, for a moment, Beryl felt the warm kiss of fire against her skin. But the fire did not consume her. Instead, Beryl consumed the fire. She welcomed it, accepting it into herself, where it joined with the fire that was already inside her, that was a part of who she was. Beryl could feel herself absorb the mana from Astria’s spell, could feel it diffuse through her whole body, and she knew without looking that the air all around her was shimmering with heat, and that she had begun to glow white-hot.
“You can’t burn me, Astria,” Beryl said, walking towards her sister. “I’m not afraid of the fire anymore. I am the fire.”
A kind of small, strangled gasp escaped from between Astria’s lips, and her eyes went wide as saucers. She pulled her hands in towards her chest and joined them together, before throwing her arms out wide, with her open palms pointed at Beryl. As she did, a crackling wave of bright red flames fanned out from her hands, and it seemed to burn the very air itself as it surged towards Beryl.
Again, Beryl stepped straight into the approaching pyroclasm. Again, she simply welcomed the fire into her. All the while she kept advancing towards her sister.
Beryl was glowing so intensely that Astria had to avert her eyes, had to hold her arms in front of her face as a makeshift shield. Astria looked stricken with terror as she summoned another, seemingly half-hearted firebolt, which Beryl absorbed with ease. Then, slowly, Astria began to back away from her sister, until she bumped-up against the marble wall and could go no further.
Visibly cowering, Astria sank down to her knees, her face frozen in an expression of open-mouthed terror.
As she came within reach of her petrified sister, Beryl could feel the fire raging inside her. She could feel how desperately it wanted to right innumerable wrongs with a final flash of light and heat. But, instead, Beryl gathered-up all the mana that pulsed through her body, and she focused her mind on a single, distinct spell. It was a spell she had sought out years ago – one which she had practiced regularly, in preparation for the day when she might be compelled to use it.
Beryl had always assumed that the person she would cast the spell on would be herself. Instead, it was Astria at whom Beryl pointed her hand.
“I’m sorry,” Beryl said, her words heavy with sadness.
Then Beryl humbled her sister.
The spell’s physical effect on Astria was sudden and stark. Her mouth fell open, and a kind of shocked, wordless rattle seemed to escape from somewhere deep inside her body. The color drained away from her face, and she stared down at her perfectly-manicured fingers with a sort of blank, stunned expression, as she tried – and failed – to summon even the smallest flame into being between her cupped, shaking hands.
Then Astria looked up to face Beryl, and her eyes were empty. The bright embers which Beryl had seen glowing in their depths had vanished, snuffed-out like a pair of smothered candles.
“What did you do to me?” Astria asked, her voice barely a whisper.
“The only thing I could,” Beryl said, her voice shaking. “Whatever else you may be, you’re my sister. Our mother loved you – I loved you, Astria.” For a moment, Beryl had to look away. “I already lost her. I can’t lose you, too. I can’t lose you to The Duchess.” Beryl exhaled slowly, then returned her sister’s gaze. “So I did what I had to do. You’re no good to The Duchess anymore.”
Astria’s head drooped downward, and she stared blankly at the white marble floor.
“Kill me,” Astria said.
“Astria, I don’t—”
“Just kill me!” Astria shouted, her voice rising suddenly and angrily. “You already killed my mother, and now’s your chance to kill me, too – just like you’ve always wanted! So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and do it already! Kill me!” Tears appeared at the corners of Astria’s amber eyes. She sniffled, and wiped her nose on the sleeve of her robe. Then she closed her eyes and clenched her teeth. “Send me to the Gods,” she said, “and let’s be done with this.”
For a moment, Beryl just stood there, watching her sister cry. Beryl couldn’t remember the last time she had seen Astria cry. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen Astria do anything so… human.
“I’m not going to kill you, Astria,” she said.
“Don’t you see?” Astria shouted. “You already have! The moment you sided against Her, you killed me just as surely as if you’d put a sword through my heart.” Astria laughed a strange, hollow laugh, but no smile appeared on her face. “The rules of the game are simple: the winners win, and the losers die.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Beryl said.
Astria gave a contemptuous snort. “Maybe not for you,” she said. “After all, you can leave whenever you want to. You can just ‘walk away. Who knows? Maybe you can even hide from Her for a while.” Astria laughed again, harsh and hollow. “Me? I have nowhere to run to. I have nowhere to hide.” She shook her head, then fixed Beryl with a look which implored even as it damned. “You say that you love me? Then give me the decency of a swift death, instead of leaving me here for Her.”
“I’m not going to kill you, Astria,” Beryl said again.
“I’m already dead,” Astria said again.
“If you keep fighting me, then, yes,” Beryl said. “But you don’t have to fight me, Astria. You can help me. We can stand against Her, together – just the way our mother wanted us to. We can unite the Houses against Her. I can’t do it alone. They won’t listen to me. I’m not one of them. But you are, and they’ll listen to you. Even after all this, they’ll listen to you. They’ll have to. You know Her better than anyone else. They need you, Astria. We all do. This is your chance to make things right.”
Astria snorted again. She shook her head. “You’re even stupider than I thought,” she said.
“No, I’m not,” Beryl said, reaching inside her scrip as she spoke. “I know we can do this.” Then she removed her hand from her scrip and extended it towards Astria.
Astria closed her eyes, and seemed to be holding her breath, as if waiting for the killing blow.
But Beryl didn’t cast a spell. Instead, she took hold of Astria’s hand, and she pressed a small object into her sister’s open palm.
A confused look appeared on Astria’s face. The Court Sorceress opened her eyes and looked down mutely to stare at the item which her sister had placed into her hand: a small blown-glass pendant in the shape of a heart, hanging from a simple gold chain.
It was the necklace Beryl had taken from among her mother’s possessions when she and Alessa had searched the Trevanei vault.
It was the necklace which, many, many years ago, when Beryl was just a little girl, and Astria was not yet in her teens, Moira Trevanei’s two daughters had pooled their money together to buy for their mother.
Beryl had never been close to her sister. They had never been friends, in any real sense. But they had once had one powerful thing in common: they had both loved their mother. The necklace was an artifact from that time, from before everything had gone wrong.
Astria held the little pendant up by its chain. She held it out a few inches in front of her face, and she watched it twist back and forth, staring at it like she was looking at a ghost, like she was retracing the shadowy outlines of memories long buried and forgotten.
“Please,” Beryl said one last time.
“You really think you can change things, don’t you?” Astria asked, her voice quiet, her eyes never leaving the little glass pendant.
“I think we have to try,” Beryl said. She knelt down, so that she was in Astria’s line of sight. “But the choice is yours. You can either wait for Her to come and kill you, or you can stand with me, as my sister, and we can fight Her. Together, like our mother wanted us to.” Beryl put a hand on Astria’s shoulder. “Are you ready to fight?”
Silence hung between the two sisters for what seemed like an age. Then Astria closed her hand around the little glass necklace and, slowly, she nodded.
“Thank you,” Beryl said.
Beryl stood up. She offered a hand to her sister, which, after a moment’s hesitation, Astria took. Beryl helped her sister back up to her feet, then turned around to face the room, where Alessa and her prowling sphinxes stood watch over a cluster of dumbfounded matriarchs.
“Did you all hear what you needed to hear?” Beryl asked the assembled group.
Heads nodded in her direction.
“Good,” Beryl said. “Then you all understand what we have to do. So go home. Go back to your Houses, and tell them what you learned here, and start thinking about how we’re going to work together to break The Duchess’s hold over this world.” Beryl put an arm around Astria’s shoulder. “Then we’ll all reconvene tomorrow, so that our new High Sorceress can direct our next move.”
Beryl saw several mouths start to open. She didn’t wait to hear what they intended to say.
“If my memory serves,” she said, her voice rising, “my sister had three votes when I entered the room.” Beryl held three fingers up in the air. “The only House yet to vote was House Trevanei, and House Trevanei hereby casts its ballot for Astria Trevanei.” Beryl extended a fourth finger, then closed her hand into a fist. “That makes a majority. The Great Houses of Aliavelli have spoken: Astria Trevanei, first daughter of Moira Trevanei, hereby ascends to become the sixty-first High Sorceress of this realm.” Beryl’s green eye flashed, and her voice turned steely. “Does anyone care to object?”
No one spoke.
“Good,” Beryl said. “That’s settled then. Now please go home, all of you. There’s nothing more for you to see here today.”
No one moved.
Beryl gave Alessa a plaintive look.
Alessa shot Beryl a dark scowl in return – this is a mistake, the younger woman’s teal eyes all but shouted. But, after a moment, she sighed and shook her head. Then she whistled to her sphinxes, which roared and began to advance towards the frozen crowd.
“Come on, you heard the lady!” Alessa called out over the sound of talons scraping across stone, as she motioned the stunned onlookers towards the exit. “Time to go home – nothing to see here.”
Between Alessa’s shooing and the sphinxes’ growling, the delegates from the seven Great Houses finally seemed to take the message. A dozen different conversations erupted at once as the matriarchs and their various hangers-on filed nervously out through the open doors.
After the last of the chattering aristocrats had departed, Alessa turned back around to face Beryl. Beryl offered Alessa a grateful nod of thanks, which the younger woman acknowledged with a little bow.
Glancing back over her shoulder, Beryl could see Astria straightening the hems of her robe and taking deep, measured breaths. The look on her face was still slightly blank, but she appeared to have more or less regained her faculties. It would be some days yet before Astria would be able to cast spells, but Beryl could already sense her sister’s political instincts whirring back to life.
Turning back to Alessa again, Beryl said, “I feel terrible for asking, after everything you’ve done for me, but—”
“—But you need some time alone with your sister,” Alessa said, shrugging. “Don’t worry, I get it. I assume you two have a lot you need to talk about.”
“Do you mind?” Beryl asked, sheepishly.
Alessa shook her head. “I’ll be outside,” she said. Then, after shooting a sharp glance at Astria, she added: “I won’t go far, though.”
“Thanks,” Beryl said.
“Don’t mention it,” Alessa said. She was visibly unhappy about leaving Beryl alone with her sister, but she stepped out of the room just the same, pulling the massive double doors closed behind her.
The Hall of the Seven Houses fell silent as the sound of Alessa’s footsteps faded away. Only Beryl and her sister remained.
Beryl took a deep breath, and she tried to come to terms with everything which had happened. She couldn’t quite believe it. It all felt like a dream.
Beryl turned to face her sister. Astria was still ashen-faced and shaken, but the color was slowly returning to her cheeks, and her breathing had settled. For what felt like an eternity, the two sisters simply stared at each other. Both were awkwardly silent beneath the weight of each other’s gaze.
Both knew what needed to be said, but neither was quite sure of how to say it.
It was Astria who cleared her throat first.
“Beryl…” she said.
But, before Astria could say anything else, the sound of loud, enthusiastic clapping filled the room. Beryl spun around, trying to locate the source of the applause, but the Hall’s tall dome filled the whole room with echoes, so that the clapping seemed to come from everywhere at once.
“Oh, bravo!” called out an unseen woman’s voice. “Bravo – really, I mean it!”
Beryl felt the small hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. She continued to turn in a slow circle, holding her hands slightly away from her sides with her fingers flexed. “Show yourself.”
The clapping grew louder, and a figure stepped out from behind a marble column: a woman dressed in the black and gold embroidered robe of a Dentevi matriarch. The clapping woman looked youngish for a matriarch – perhaps just over thirty, certainly no older than forty – and she carried herself with the calm, assured bearing of someone who is used to being bowed to. Her chestnut hair was done up in a bun and held in place by a set of golden combs, and her silver eyes danced with a kind of amused mirth as she applauded. Beryl vaguely remembered seeing her among the Dentevi delegation, and she realized with a start that the woman had not been among the departing crowd when Alessa had emptied the room.
“Who are you?” Beryl said, feeling a terrible sense of wrongness in the pit of her stomach as she studied the matriarch’s grinning face. Although she would have sworn to all the Gods that she had never seen the Dentevi woman before, Beryl could not shake the impression that the matriarch was familiar somehow.
“Who am I?” the matriarch asked, continuing to clap as she advanced towards Beryl and Astria. “Why, I’m only your biggest fan.” Tilting her head slightly in Beryl’s direction, the matriarch proffered an exaggerated curtsey. “I’ve been following your exploits with great anticipation these past several days. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this little performance, and you did not disappoint.”
The matriarch walked casually past Beryl, stirring one hand theatrically in the air as she went. “I’ll admit, I was a little worried at first,” she said. “You got off to a shaky start. But that’s only to be expected, I suppose – first night jitters, and such a tough crowd, too!” The matriarch stopped pacing, and turned to face Beryl. A broad smile formed on her painted lips. “But you shook it off. You really rallied! And, once you were committed to your part? Oh! Chills!” The matriarch wrapped her arms around herself and pantomimed shivering. “Bringing your friend with the sphinxes? That was a nice touch, if a bit off-script. And your line about ‘I am the fire’ – that little bit?” The matriarch’s voice had shifted suddenly into a frighteningly-good imitation of Beryl’s, before shifting back again into its normal tone. “That was special. High drama, really.”
The Dentevi matriarch turned to face Astria, and, although she didn’t stop smiling, her face grew dark.
“Can’t say I much approve of that little ad-lib at the end,” she said, speaking to Beryl even as she glared at Astria. “After all, I seem to recall telling you that your job was to prevent your sister from becoming High Sorceress, not to deliver the title to her on a platter.” Then the matriarch shrugged her shoulders, and a wolfish grin returned to her face. Having apparently lost interest in Astria, she turned to face Beryl again. “But, given the general theatricality of the whole affair, I’m inclined to overlook that little lapse,” she said. “Let’s chalk it up to artistic license, and leave it at that – no more need be spoken of it.”
With an emphatic flourish, the matriarch applauded one last time.
“Really, I am impressed – and I’m not just saying that,” she said, pointing a heavily-jeweled finger at Beryl. “I mean, I had high hopes when I met you – I had a feeling that you were special. But you did so well! Better than I was expecting, really, if I’m being completely honest. So, if you feel like taking a bow, well, now would be the time.”
The matriarch crossed her arms and looked expectantly at Beryl. Beryl just blinked and shook her head. None of this made any sense.
“Who are you?” she asked again, this time with an edge in her voice.
“You mean you really haven’t guessed?” The matriarch shook her head and clucked her tongue. “And here I thought I was making it too easy, giving you all those clues.” The matriarch sighed. “Still, I suppose you might be more of a visual thinker, ironic as that might seem for someone in your condition. So perhaps a familiar face would jog your memory?”
The matriarch winked at Beryl. Then, suddenly, the strange woman’s face began to change. Her features seemed to fade, to ripple and twist and remold themselves, growing broader and larger before Beryl’s very eye. Beryl’s mouth fell open in a kind of shock as the matriarch’s chestnut hair grew out into a mix of black and gray curls, and her eyes changed from liquid silver to a brilliant verdigris green. The matriarch’s whole body seemed to change shape, too, becoming portly, and broad-shouldered, and distinctly masculine. Articles of clothing changed along with the body which wore them. The black silk robe stretched and morphed to become a red silk suit with a ruffled cravat and silver piping around the seams. Then, with a final flourish, the man who now stood before Beryl reached into the folds of his expensive-looking jacket and produced a collapsed top hat made from red silk. With a flip of his wrist, the man popped the hat open and gave it an emphatic twirl before placing it neatly on top of his head, with the brim slanted forward so that it rested at a rakish angle.
“Remember me now?” the new man asked in a new voice – a sort of sugary tremolo.
It was a voice Beryl recognized, coming from a face she recognized. She felt a deep, icy chill corkscrew down her spine, and she tried to swallow, only to discover that her mouth had gone dry and her throat felt tight.
“You’re the man from my shop,” she said.
“The very same!” the man said, throwing his arms out wide and bowing low. “Guilty as charged!”
“But who are you?” Beryl asked for a third time, starting to gather up her mana as she did. Beryl could tell without looking that her fingertips had started to glow. But, if the man cared one way or the other, he didn’t show it.
“Who am I?” he said, tilting his head back and placing a hand beneath his chin, as though he were giving the question careful consideration. “There are so many ways to answer that. We could have a very philosophical discussion on the subject – I mean, who are any of us, really? We like to think of ourselves as having single, discrete identities, yet we change so much from day to day. Well, some of us more than others, I suppose.” He winked at Beryl, and the false bonhomie of the gesture made the scarred woman shiver. “But, in a much more prosaic sense, I get the impression that you’re asking for a name.” The man adjusted the brim of his hat, so that it cast a shadow over his intensely green eyes. “And I could give you one, if you wanted. Hells, I could give you dozens! I’ve had so many over the years, but none of them ever seem to last. After all, names are just labels that we stick on things, to save us the trouble of having to really get to know them. You, of all people, ought to understand that well.”
The man gave an exaggerated sigh, followed by a knowing little shake of the head, as though he and Beryl were sharing a joke.
“Still,” he said, “I suppose that, if you insist on having a label to address me by, then we’re just going to have to find one, or else we won’t be able to have any kind of a conversation at all. So, for our purposes, why don’t you just think of me as The Shifter?”
“The Shifter?” Beryl asked warily.
“Just so,” the man declared, bowing deeply.
Next to Beryl, Astria opened her mouth to speak, but The Shifter wagged a finger at her.
“Not a word from you, my dear,” he said, his voice suddenly cold and lethal, without any pretense of friendship. “The adults are speaking.”
Almost instinctively, Beryl took a step to one side, positioning her body between Astria and The Shifter.
“You told me your name,” Beryl said. “That still doesn’t tell me who you are.”
“Can’t you play any other tune?” the man asked, irritation creeping into his convivial tone. He gave his head a weary shake, but his eyes – which did not seem to blink – never left Beryl. “It’s such a pointless question, and yet you’re so drearily persistent in asking it. You’re in danger of boring me.”
“Fine,” Beryl said through gritted teeth. “Let’s try: What are you doing here?”
“Now we’re making progress.” Turning away from Beryl, the man began to pace back and forth. “You might recall that, the last we spoke, I told you that I was playing a little game. Well, that may have been just the tiniest bit misleading.” The man held up his thumb and forefinger, holding them just a hair’s width apart. Then he waved a dismissive hand through the air, as though swatting away his tiny lie. “It would have been more accurate to say that I’m playing a very large game. It’s just that you, and your sister – and this whole world of yours, for that matter,” the man said, “happen to occupy one small square on a much, much larger board.” He threw his arms out wide, as if to demonstrate the scale of his endeavor.
“So you’re a planeswalker,” Beryl said, suddenly even more wary.
“Right again!” the man said, giving Beryl another condescending round of applause. “I like you so much better when you’re not just repeating yourself – it’s much more fun this way. To clarify, yes, I am a planeswalker, albeit not in the sense that you’re familiar with. You see, being a planeswalker used to mean so much more than it does these days. The ‘planeswalking’ you know is just a hollow imitation of the way things used to be – it’s an insult, really, to those of us who remember what it was like to be Gods, eternal beyond years and larger than the worlds we tread.” The man sighed. “Still, the times change, and we have to change with them – change being something I’m particularly adept at, fortunately.” He winked at Beryl again, and again it made her shiver. “And one has to find something to do to pass the eons, or else things would become frightfully boring. So, to occupy myself, I’ve devoted the past two or three thousand years to trying to undermine the machinations of a particularly loathsome bitch whom it once became my distinct displeasure to know.” The man stopped pacing, and his eyes cast a leading stare in Beryl’s direction. “I don’t think you’ve had the misfortune of meeting Her just yet, but I know that you’ve heard Her name.”
Beryl felt her pulse quicken, and she tasted bile in the back of her throat.
“The Duchess,” she said.
“Top marks!” the man called out, offering Beryl yet another round of applause. “You see, we play this little game, She and I. She has these stuffy, old-fashioned notions about the way things ought to be, so She goes from world to world, leaving all these dreary, stultifying little societies behind. She meddles from behind the scenes until She has a plane just so – just the way She likes it, just the way She thinks it ought to be.” The Shifter twiddled his fingers in the air, as though he were making delicate adjustments to some fragile objects atop an unseen table. “That’s Her part in our game.”
“And what’s your part?” Beryl asked.
The man grinned, his face predatory and terrible. “I come along behind Her,” he said, “and I make things much, much more interesting.”
And, with a quick swipe of his arm, he mimicked knocking all the invisible objects off the imaginary table. Then he sighed a contented sigh, and satisfaction glinted in his unblinking eyes.
Beryl felt her skin go cold, and, for a moment, she felt as though her heart would stop beating. “What do you mean?” she said.
The man’s grin widened. “If you listen very carefully,” he said, cupping a hand around his ear, “you ought to find out.”
For a moment, the room fell silent, as all three people inside craned their heads and listened.
Then, drifting in through the windows at the base of the rotunda’s tall, marble dome, Beryl heard what they had all been waiting for.
She heard screams.
“Right on schedule,” The Shifter said, nodding his head in approval.
“What’s happening?” Beryl said, her voice starting to shake as she spoke, her hands curling-up into fists. “What did you do?”
“Oh, don’t be so modest,” The Shifter said, grinning at Beryl. “The right question is: What did we do? After all, you’ve been so integral in moving my plans along.”
Beryl could hear her pulse pounding like a drum inside her ears. She could see a red haze starting to form around the corners of her vision, could feel the fire flickering inside her heart, like a pilot light, ready and waiting if she wanted it.
“What did I do?” Beryl asked, as more screams drifted in from outside, followed by the sound of a distant explosion.
“You did what you always do, my dear,” The Shifter said, his voice dripping with paternalistic condescension. “You did what you’ve done your whole life, what you do best: You started a fire.”
“No,” Beryl said quietly, as the distant screaming grew louder.
“Yes,” The Shifter said. His eyes bored into Beryl, and there was something sadistic in them. “I’d almost written-off this world, you know? The Duchess was so far ahead here. She’d done such a good job balancing the Great Houses against each other, and smothering the rest of the population beneath centuries of tradition. I’ve been doing my level-best to catch up – setting the Houses at each other’s throats, sowing seeds of discord among the rabble, and recruiting people who don’t shy away from spilling a little blood to lead the revolution when it came.” The Shifter drew a finger slowly across the front of his own throat. “It wasn’t that difficult. This world was dry tinder.” He lowered his voice, so that his next words came as a kind of murmur. “This world was ready to burn.”
“No,” Beryl said again, louder this time, as the sounds of fighting and mayhem coming from outside grew louder still. But The Shifter just ignored her protestations.
“You see, the tricky thing about revolutions is that they always need a spark to get started.” The Shifter smirked at Beryl, and his voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “And that’s where you came in: A Nameless, a planeswalker, an exile from a Great House, and the sister of my opponent’s puppet.” His voice took on a cruel edge, with all the false pleasantry which had cushioned his earlier words gone. “Someone with mommy issues. Someone so desperate to please, so desperate to do good, so desperate to prove herself that – once I had her pointed in the right direction – she wouldn’t ever stop to ask why.” The Shifter chuckled to himself, and Beryl felt like his terrible, unblinking eyes were staring straight into her soul. “You were like a blazing torch, my dear, and the best part is I didn’t even have to toss you on the bonfire. I just showed you it was there, and you threw yourself right onto it.”
“No!” Beryl screamed at him, her whole body shaking. “I was trying to stop a war! I was trying to free everyone here! This wasn’t what I wanted!” She leveled a finger at The Shifter, who only seemed to smile wider and wider as she lashed out at him. “You never said anything about starting a revolution!”
“You never asked, my dear,” The Shifter said, his words punctuated with a burst of delighted laughter. “You were so preoccupied with your own demons, it must have just slipped your mind.”
“You used me,” Beryl said. She could feel stabs of pain where her fingernails were cutting into her own palms.
“Of course!” The Shifter said. “You were just a small piece in a very large game. You had a part to play, and you played it marvelously, for which you have my sincere and thankful gratitude.” He tipped his top hat to Beryl, giving it a little twirl as he did. His voice sounded anything but sincere. “You’ve really only disappointed me in one regard, but it is a rather notable one, I’m afraid. Namely, your sister.”
Beryl and The Shifter both turned to face Astria, who took a reflexive step backward, and held her arms out in front of her, as if for protection.
“After all your sister has done to you,” The Shifter said, “after all the pain she’s put you through, I can’t help but feel like you’ve let her off easy. It just doesn’t seem like justice, does it?”
Beryl started to speak, but The Shifter cut her off with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Let me take care of this for you.” He winked at Beryl. “After everything you’ve done for me, it is the very least I can do.”
Then, without ever taking his eyes off Beryl, The Shifter flipped his wrist in Astria’s direction, and he gave his fingers a single, sharp snap.
Astria’s mouth fell open, and her eyes shot wide. She made a little gasping sound.
Then her knees buckled, and she just crumpled to the floor, like a marionette whose strings have been cut.
She didn’t even have the chance to scream.
“Astria!” Beryl cried. As her sister fell, Beryl dove towards her, trying to catch her, but she was too late. Astria hit the ground with a muffled thud. Her body crumpled like a rag doll, her arms and legs splayed at cockeyed angles, her head lolling lifelessly, like a dead weight at the end of her limp neck. A violent red bloodstain was spreading out from the spot where Astria’s heart should have been, soaking through the deep blue silk of her ceremonial robe and dripping down to the floor.
Beryl scrambled on her hands and knees to where her sister lay. She gathered up Astria’s body in her arms, brushing long strands of auburn hair away from her sister’s pale face, and searching that face desperately for any signs of life. But the amber eyes that stared back up at Beryl were empty and dead. Astria’s mouth hung open, and her face was frozen in a look of uncomprehending surprise. Her body lay limp and lifeless in Beryl’s arms.
“No,” Beryl said. She shook her sister, then shook her again, as though waiting for some angry admonishment which she knew would not come.
“No,” she said again, as she held her dead sister’s hands, feeling the first signs of rigor in Astria’s clenched fists.
“No,” she said one last time, as she cradled Astria’s body in her arms, rocking her back and forth like a sleeping child. Beryl shut her eye tight. She could feel the scars around her eye and above her heart burning like they were made of fire, and she could feel the terrible, wet warmth of Astria’s blood as it seeped into her own beautiful robe – the one that had once belonged to their mother.
Beryl wanted to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. Nothing felt real. It was like she was trapped inside a horrible dream.
Slowly, she opened her eye, and she looked up to see The Shifter standing a few paces away with a look of bored amusement on his face.
“Why?” Beryl said, her voice a hoarse whisper.
The Shifter just shrugged. “When I capture a piece,” he explained, “I take it off the board.”
Beryl felt her head nod, although she had no sense of having asked it to do so. Then, for a long moment, she was silent. She looked down at Astria, staring straight into her sister’s vacant, dead eyes.
Then she looked back up at The Shifter.
Then she screamed.
Then, suddenly, Beryl was on her feet, although she had no inkling of how she had gotten there. She was on her feet, and she was screaming. She closed her eye, and she screamed as loud as she could, taking all her feelings of grief, and guilt, and anger, and channeling them into a single, piercing wail which she hoped might bring the Hall of the Seven Houses down all around her.
Then Beryl opened her eye, and the silk banners of the seven Great Houses, which hung at even intervals around the great, domed ceiling, burst into ravenous flame, as though they had been doused in oil and put to the torch.
Beryl felt the fire inside her burning white hot, and she gave herself over to it. She didn’t try to fight it, she didn’t try to control it. She welcomed it.
She welcomed it, and she turned it on The Shifter.
Another loud, piercing scream escaped Beryl’s lips as her hand shot out towards the still-smiling man in the red top hat. A geyser of banefire erupted from her fingers and seemed to scorch the air itself as it streaked across the room at the man who had killed her sister, who meant to burn down her whole world, and who had used her to do both. She watched as her flames struck the unmoving man, and she waited silently for the banefire to reduce him to nothing more than ashes and charred bones.
Except that wasn’t what happened.
Even as the fire seemed to engulf The Shifter’s whole body, he took a step towards Beryl, leaving the burning portion of his body behind. Beryl watched in stunned silence as The Shifter seemed to slough-off a whole layer of burning skin, like a snake shedding its scales. Then his skinless body seemed to ripple and reform, changing size and shape until it had assumed the appearance of a tall, handsome youth.
“There’s gratitude for you,” he said, with a roll of his eyes. Fixing his stare upon Beryl, he began walking again, taking another step closer.
Beryl didn’t say anything in response. It was almost as though there weren’t any words left inside her brain – just emotion, and the fire, and the simple, imperative need to kill the man who stood before her. Four great pyromantic bursts formed in the air around her body, then arced towards The Shifter, spinning and sparking through the air as they went, flaring out in four different directions before converging back on their target, so that the tall, handsome youth disappeared beneath a torrent of flames.
But, again, The Shifter just seemed to step out of his burning, blackening skin, leaving it behind like an abandoned shell as he transformed once more, this time taking the form of a temple initiate in a simple white dress.
“Oh, you’re strong,” the initiate said, spinning a little on the balls of her dainty feet before stepping in Beryl’s direction. She smiled an insincere smile. “You’re the best challenge I’ve had in a while, as a matter of fact. But you’re not strong enough.”
Beryl closed her eye and threw her hands up to the heavens. A swirling mass of black, smoky brimstone and smoldering cinders appeared in the air above The Shifter’s head, drawn from the hungry embers and smoke pooling in the vault of the ceiling. An eye seemed to open at the center of the spinning cloud of smoke and fire, and a pillar of flame came pouring down through it, raining fire on the white-clad initiate with an audible roar.
Yet out from the pillar of flame stepped The Shifter, looking strange and formless at first – all blackened meat and scorched bone, a gruesome horror garbed in cinders and veiled in smoke – until his body reformed again, and it coalesced into an exact mirror image of Astria.
“Maybe you’ll have the guts to kill me this time,” The Shifter said, in a voice that was a pitch-perfect echo of Astria’s. “It just doesn’t seem fair that you missed out on all the fun the first time around. Why don’t you take your turn now?”
Beryl’s hands were already moving through the air, poised to strike again, when the sight of Astria’s face and the sound of Astria’s voice caused her to freeze in place. Even though she knew that the person she saw before her wasn’t really her sister – that it was all a deception, a trick – she still hesitated, unable to turn her fire on her sister’s double.
She only hesitated for a second, but it was a second too long.
“You should see the look on your face right now,” the false Astria said, followed by a cruel laugh. “Here, let me show you.”
Suddenly, The Shifter changed again. Astria vanished, and Beryl found herself face-to-face with… herself.
“Don’t pretend that you wouldn’t have enjoyed killing her,” Beryl’s doppelganger said to her, every word cutting her like a knife. “Because I can see right through you. I know you better than you know yourself. I know what you really are. You’re a killer. Like me. Maybe you don’t want to admit it, but, deep inside, you know that it’s true.”
The doppelganger’s face twisted into a dark, sadistic smile. She pointed a finger at the scar around her blind eye, and Beryl felt her own scar burn with pain.
Beryl stared into her own face, and it was like looking into a mirror and seeing a monster – the monster she had always been afraid lurked inside her.
“Too bad you passed up your one chance at getting some closure,” the other Beryl said, wagging a finger. “You really missed out. But no matter! If you won’t play the game, then that just means it’s my turn.”
Suddenly – faster than ever before – The Shifter changed again. His one good eye slid across his face and settled at its center, growing big and bloodshot. And The Shifter’s whole body swelled, shooting up so big and so tall that Beryl found herself craning her neck upward to get a good look at him. His hulking form soon condensed into the solid shape of a hunched, muscle-bound cyclops, with massive, tree-like arms and a great, bald head with a single green eye.
Before Beryl could react, the cyclops roared and lashed out at her with his long arm, catching her full across the side of her face. The impact was unlike anything Beryl had ever felt – white sparks swam before her eye, and the force of the blow lifted her up off of her feet and sent her flying across the room, where she hit a marble column with a sickening crack of bones.
Dazed and disoriented, Beryl tried to scramble to her feet. She could feel a terrible, searing pain all down her side – she could tell that her ribs were broken – and the whole right side of her head throbbed. Her vision was fuzzy, and she could feel bruises swelling around her only good eye. The terrible aching in her jaw meant that it was probably broken, too. She could hear massive footsteps thundering towards her, and she knew that she had to move, that there was no time. But she had barely made it to her knees when she felt a large, powerful hand grab her around the neck and lift her up into the air. Beryl kicked out frantically with her legs, and she tried – to no avail – to pry the cyclops’s giant hand away from her throat. She could see the cyclops’s single green eye leering at her through the choking smoke that filled the room. A kind of horrible, wheezing rattle was forced out from Beryl’s throat as the cyclops tightened his grip around her neck and began to squeeze. She could hear the skin on his hand sizzling and popping where it touched her, could smell the awful, acrid smell of his flesh and hair as it burned. But, if The Shifter even noticed, he didn’t seem to care.
“Normally, I’d kill you for that,” The Shifter said, shaking Beryl’s whole body like a ragdoll. “And, who knows? I still might.” He laughed a deep, guttural laugh. “But I actually think that would be letting you off too easy. After all, you still haven’t gotten your reward for being such a good little agitator.”
Beryl could feel The Shifter’s grip tightening around her windpipe, could feel her throat being crushed. She tried to scream, but no sound came out. Instead, she grew dizzy, and started to feel as though the world was slipping away.
“Don’t you want to know what your reward is?” The Shifter asked. “It’s that you get to live, so that you can watch as I take your whole world apart, piece-by-piece. You get to watch the streets fill with bodies. You get to watch the Nameless tear down the Great Houses, cut the aristocracy’s throats, and put their heads on pikes. You get to watch as this whole nation burns down to the ground.” He gave Beryl another vicious shake. “You get to watch it all happen, and you get to remember that you helped to make it all possible.”
Beryl could feel her consciousness starting to slip away, could feel her lungs burning as they starved for air, could see a black fog start to drift across her vision. She felt herself sinking down into a deep, shadowy darkness. As she choked, the sizzling and popping of the cyclops’s burning flesh started to fade, and she heard him laugh again.
“That’s the problem with fires. They can be bright and ferocious and wild, but…,” The Shifter paused, savoring the moment as Beryl’s struggling grew weaker and weaker, “they still... need… air.”
With that, he gave Beryl’s neck another hard squeeze. Then he threw Beryl down to the ground, where she hit the stone floor with a crash, sending stabs of pain shooting through her broken body. Beryl lay in a heap on the floor, just fighting for air, her mouth opening and closing like a fish gasping its last on the monger’s slab.
“Besides,” The Shifter said, moving to stand over Beryl, like a looming monster, “it’d be such a waste to kill you. I like the multiverse much better with you in it. There are worlds upon worlds full of dry kindling out there, and you’re like a lit match. But you do need to learn a lesson about respect before I toss you back out there to cause more chaos and destruction. Can’t have you getting any stupid ideas – or stupider ideas, anyway.”
The cyclops lifted up a foot the size of Beryl’s body, and placed it on top of her legs. And he began to press down.
* * *
Alessa sighed and watched the sunlight glitter off her knife as it spun between her fingers. She glanced away as it danced, turning her attention to the rooftops of the city while she sat on the steps of the Court and tried to find something to keep her occupied.
Escorting the pampered and shaken nobles out of the building hadn’t taken long, even if the task had felt more like herding cats than dealing with people. She sent them scampering back to their mansions with a few choice words and gestures – and a resounding roar from each of her sphinxes just to make sure the message would stick – but now she found herself alone and awkwardly trying to think of something she could do while she gave the sisters some time to talk. She was at something of a loss and beginning to wish she’d kept at least one of the sphinxes around just so she’d have someone to talk to.
It was honestly getting a bit boring.
The sun dimmed far above, and her knife’s twirling patterns dulled momentarily. She glanced up, searching for the cause, and a pillar of smoke far out on the city’s outskirts caught her attention. She frowned. Somebody’s day clearly wasn’t going as planned…
Alessa shrugged and turned her attention away from the rising smoke, staring out across the ramshackle shingles and finely-tiled roofs of the city. It was like staring at a bizarre mosaic and, for a moment, she was genuinely curious what it might look like in a year’s time. For Beryl’s sake, Alessa hoped the city would look different – different enough, anyway, that it would have been worth Beryl’s suffering. Something nipped at the edges of her thoughts, then, telling her that she had contributed, too, but she smothered those notions with a heavy mental hand. She’d only been helping somebody else… she shouldn’t pretend she’d done anything more than that.
But still, that nagging feeling returned: Had she? Had she done something more?
Alessa grimaced and squashed the feeling back down again. Obviously, she shouldn’t be left alone with her own thoughts. She wondered how long she ought to wait out on the steps. How long did it take sisters to come to some sort of understanding after decades of mutual hurt and distrust? She didn’t know, didn’t have the slightest idea. She wasn’t even sure it was possible – or wise.
And, honestly, Alessa just didn’t trust Astria. Not for one second. If Astria was in league with the queen bitch herself, then there could never be any trusting her. Somehow, Beryl couldn’t see that – or wouldn’t see it, more like. And that worried Alessa. There was so much that Beryl couldn’t see, or that she intentionally shut out so she wouldn’t have to see it.
Alessa had tried to open Beryl’s eye – Gods below, how she had tried!
But that hadn’t been much use. Which was why, Alessa reflected sourly, she was where she was: sitting on the steps of an awful, pretentious building on an awful, pretentious plane, and just hoping to see out the day without having to do something which she might find herself regretting later.
Alessa’s past already groaned under the weight of her accumulated mistakes. She didn’t need to add any more.
So Alessa sighed a great sigh. She tried to remind herself that she was there because Beryl was someone who needed looking out for. Which meant that Alessa had to be the one to do it, because, in a lot of ways, Beryl was incapable of looking out for herself. Granted, Beryl had proven more than capable of defending herself from her sister’s magic, as she had promised the day before. That had actually been fun to watch, once Alessa had seen far enough forward to know that the outcome wasn’t in any real doubt. Watching Beryl bring Astria to her knees, and in front of such an august audience, had been really satisfying. For all that Beryl carried herself like a mouse, the scarred woman knew how to roar when she saw danger approaching.
But it wasn’t the danger Beryl could see that she needed protection from. It was the danger hidden from her: The Duchess.
Just thinking Her name made Alessa shiver, and her fingers slipped, sending the knife clattering to the steps. She was lucky she hadn’t cut herself as her breathing jumped. She focused, forcing those thoughts away, putting them in the same place as the nagging voice from earlier. She focused her thoughts on Beryl instead, easing her heart rate back down.
The problem was that Beryl was naïve. Naïve to think that she could redeem her Gods-awful sister, naïve to think that she could free her Gods-awful world, naïve to think – even if she accomplished either or both of those miracles – that she could somehow fight The Duchess.
For a moment, Alessa closed her teal eyes and shook her head. Maybe naïve was the wrong word for it. Maybe the problem was that Beryl was too innocent, or too optimistic. But Alessa didn’t believe in either of those things. When you knew what was going to happen in advance, optimism was just a way of blinding yourself because you couldn’t deal with the truth. And innocence? Well, innocence was just a kinder gloss on naiveté.
Alessa had been to a lot of places, and had seen a lot of things, and one thing which she hadn’t seen much of was innocence. There were nights when she felt that thought weighing her down, and she sighed, leaning down to pick her knife up from where it had fallen.
Maybe the real problem was hope. Hope was something which Beryl hadn’t given up on. For all that the world had beaten her down, for all the pain that life had put her through, the quiet, scarred woman still hoped that people could be saved, and that she could save them. Alessa hadn’t felt like she could save anyone for a long, long time, least of all herself. Alessa survived more from habit than anything else, as though keeping herself alive was the ultimate way to spite the uncaring fates.
Maybe that was why she felt like Beryl was worth protecting, even if the person Beryl most needed protection from was herself. Maybe that was something worth caring about beyond simple survival.
Alessa looked down and saw that there was a deck of cards in her hands, and that she was shuffling it with quick, practiced riffles. She frowned. She had no conscious recollection of taking out the cards, let alone deciding to shuffle them.
If she was shuffling, then that meant she was feeling nervous.
And if she was feeling nervous, then that meant she had a good reason to feel nervous.
Another tower of smoke appeared on the horizon, breaking her suspicious reverie. That much smoke meant something out there was burning in a serious way – and the first fire hadn’t gone out, either. Except... there was another pillar rising into the sky, closer this time.
And another. And another.
Alessa’s back slowly straightened as she sat up and looked out over the city. That nagging sensation redoubled, and she realized it wasn’t what she’d thought it had been...
Her vision blurred as she turned her attention to her sight and the lines of the future spread before her. Dark, tangled lines of violence dominated her sight, and she gasped, nearly sending her sliding down the steps from the sheer impact of it all.
She should have known. She’d completely ignored her instincts even though they’d practically been screaming at her.
Alessa shook her head, her eyes focusing again on the city. She saw the smoke now for what it was, and she finally heard the shouts and screams of the populace as they echoed down the burning streets.
“No, no, no, no...”
Alessa sprang to her feet, taking the steps two at a time as she raced back inside the Court. In her direst predictions, she wouldn’t have seen this. It didn’t make sense – it just didn’t! But now Alessa was second-guessing everything. How well did she even know The Duchess in the first place? How could she predict what that... thing might do?
It still didn’t make sense, any of it. But she had to find Beryl, because everything was going wrong.
She sprinted back through the Court’s ostentatious hallways towards the room where she had left Beryl alone with Astria. She made one brief stop along the way, retrieving the traveling pack which she had earlier stashed behind some particularly gaudy statuary.
As she slung the pack across her back, Alessa felt a sudden prickle of warning at the base of her skull. Visions swam before her eyes, growing larger, fuller, more distinct – visions of fire, and chaos, and death.
“Oh, Hells,” Alessa swore to the empty hallway, and hurriedly tore the cap off the leather cylinder inside her pack as an explosion shattered a nearby window.
Following the sounds coming from outside, she darted down the wide marble corridor in the direction of the commotion. She saw people running through the streets, as a collective panic seemed to grip the city. Knots of confused-looking guardsmen dashed past each other, all with their swords drawn, all running in different directions, but with no one appearing to have any real clue about where they were going, or what they would do when they got there. They were acting for the sake of acting, trying to maintain a façade of order which obviously fooled no one. Meanwhile, on the horizon, Alessa saw more columns of dark, billowing smoke rising up from the other districts of the city. She could hear the sounds of shouting, and screaming, and killing, all growing louder and closer.
More visions flashed in front of her eyes, and she almost reeled from their impact. She saw more smoke, and more fire, and, in the middle of it all, she saw Beryl.
Somehow, with the threat looming in her mind, she’d almost forgotten about Beryl.
Alessa turned on her heels and ran back in the direction she had come from earlier. Her feet barely seemed to touch the ground as she flew down the hallway like a woman possessed. Arriving at the giant, gold-paneled doors which led into the Hall of the Seven Houses, Alessa yanked on their massive handles, only to discover that the doors would not budge. They had been sealed from the other side.
She didn’t bother to determine whether the seal was mechanical or magical. Instead, Alessa braced herself, cupped her hands in front of the lock, and triggered the chaos charm she kept hidden on her person. The force of her spell nearly blew the thousand-pound doors off their hinges, sending a web of cracks through the white marble doorframe and jarring bits of mortar and stone from the ceiling overhead. The walls nearly split wide open as they relented. Raising up her booted foot, Alessa reared back and gave the rightmost door a vicious kick. It swung open with a metallic scream of protest, and Alessa charged inside, reaching into the leather cylinder in her pack as she did.
The scene inside the cavernous room was one of absolute chaos. Everything that could burn was burning, along with several other objects which Alessa would never have imagined could burn. The air was heavy with acrid, black smoke, and Alessa had to summon a small pocket of temporal energy around herself to keep her eyes from watering and her lungs from burning.
In one corner of the room, she saw a limp, lifeless body collapsed upon the floor in a pool of blood, and, for a moment, she felt her heart skip a beat, until she realized that the color of the dead woman’s robe was a deep, dark blue.
Blue, she realized, feeling a surge of relief. Not white.
Astria. Not Beryl.
Through the haze of smoke, she spotted Beryl on the other side of the room. The scarred pyromancer was also crumpled on the floor, but – mercifully – she was moving.
Alessa also saw a giant towering over Beryl. The giant had one massive foot atop Beryl’s prone form, and he looked for all the world like he was about to make Beryl just as dead as her sister.
“Hey, jackass!” Alessa screamed out at him, leaving no chance that she wouldn’t be heard over both the fire inside the room and the chaos outside it. “Get away from her, or I’ll cut you down to size!”
For a moment, Alessa thought the immense figure was going to ignore her, and was going to finish what he had started with Beryl. But, slowly, the monster turned around to face her. Leaning forward through the haze of smoke and fire, it fixed its one giant eye on her. And then it started to chuckle. It threw back its massive head, and the chuckle grew into a full, cacophonous laugh.
“Now that was unexpected!” the cyclops said to the teal-eyed woman. “No, no, here, let me. I’ll come down to your level.”
As Alessa watched in shock, the cyclops’s silhouette seemed to ripple, its whole body morphing and reforming as it shrank down to a normal, human size. Alessa suddenly found herself at eye level with a dandy-looking man in a red silk suit with a ludicrous top hat, which he doffed in her direction with a theatrical flourish.
“The wild card returns!” the man said, reciting his line as though he were an actor performing before a packed house. “I am so glad that you decided to join us, my dear. Really, you have no idea! I’ve been hoping to meet you for some time now, so the fact that our paths have crossed is a genuine stroke of luck.”
“The feeling isn’t mutual,” Alessa said, “and I’m in no mood for games. So get the Hell away from her right now.” Alessa pointed towards Beryl, who was on her hands and knees, and seemed to be trying to crawl away from the grinning man. “Or else.”
The man chuckled to himself, and he stared at Alessa with unconcealed amusement from beneath the brim of his hat. “I hate to adhere so slavishly to convention,” he said, “but I do find myself compelled to ask: ‘Or else’ what?”
Alessa opened her white-knuckled fingers, and the oblivion stone floated free as it drifted out from her grip. It hovered in the air just in front of her, pulsing with a dark, purple glow which seemed to cast darkness rather than light.
“Or else this little game you’re playing ends right here, right now,” Alessa said. “It ends, and nobody wins.”
The feigned amusement vanished from The Shifter’s face so quickly it looked as if he had changed again. His exuberant smile was replaced by an intense, calculating wariness. He stared at the floating, pulsing stone, and Alessa stared past it straight at him.
“Now why would a nice girl like you have a nasty toy like that?” The Shifter asked flatly.
“I made a specific point to go out and get it,” Alessa said, “as a present for a certain friend of yours, just in case I ever see Her again.”
The Shifter seemed to consider that for a moment, and a faint smile reappeared around the corners of his full lips.
“It would be a shame to waste it on me, then,” he said, making eye contact with Alessa. “I’d much rather see you deliver it to its intended recipient.”
“Yeah, well, we can’t always get what we want,” Alessa said, taking a step in The Shifter’s direction, brandishing the oblivion stone as she did. “Now, like I said before, you get the Hell away from her, before I decide that killing you is a good-enough consolation prize.”
The Shifter was silent for a moment, his verdigris eyes glinting warily through the hazy smoke.
“But you wouldn’t just be killing me, would you?” The Shifter smirked at Alessa through the smoky gloom, and the ringing confidence had returned to his voice. “Somehow, I don’t have you figured for the mass-murdering type. I hardly think you’d kill an entire city just to stop me, or to save her,” he said, indicating Beryl with a nod of his head.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Alessa said. “See, there’s still good left in her, even after all she’s been through.”
Alessa had more to say, but, for a moment, hesitation stole her voice. Sorrow mounted on her face, and she had to swallow her self-loathing before she could speak again.
“But I’m not like her,” she finally said. “There’s nothing left inside of me. I’ve gone too far down paths she probably doesn’t even know exist. So, yes, I would kill an entire city if it meant I could save her and end you. With what you’ve started, the people out there are probably all dead anyways.” Alessa stared into her oblivion stone, and there was hatred in her eyes. “At least this way it would be quick.”
The Shifter tilted his head a bit to one side, and he seemed to be studying Alessa’s face.
“You know something?” he said, smiling. “I almost believe you mean that.”
“Oh, that’s smart, try pushing me a little harder.” Alessa sneered. “Well, believe it or not – that’s your call. But I’m done talking.” Alessa brandished the oblivion stone, and a wave of electric energy crackled across its purple surface. “It’s time for you to leave, one way or the other.”
For a long time, The Shifter stared at Alessa. Alessa stared back. Neither moved a muscle. Neither blinked.
Then, finally, The Shifter let out a low, syrupy chuckle.
“I suppose you’re right,” he said, offering Alessa a smile that was anything but gracious. “It is time for me to leave. After all, I can’t spend all day here, as much as I’ve enjoyed our little tête-à-tête. So much to do, and so little time – you’ll understand, I’m sure.” The Shifter removed his top hat and gave it a little flip. “There’s a rabble out there that isn’t going to just rouse itself, after all. They need leadership, and guidance. Can’t have them stringing just anyone up from the nearest lamppost!” He cackled again, and the sound gave Alessa chills. “Well, actually, we can! But there’s a proper order for doing these sorts of things – like starting with the House of your friend over there.” He nodded at Beryl, and made a face that was a thin parody of concern. “She can stop worrying so much about reclaiming the Trevanei name, given that there won’t be many Trevanei left by the end of today. That ought to be a relief for her, I should think.”
“Just shut up, and get out,” Alessa said.
The Shifter tipped his hat to her, and he offered a deep bow. He walked past Alessa towards the open door, never taking his eyes off the oblivion stone as he went.
“This is just a farewell,” he said over his shoulder, “not a goodbye. You’ll be seeing me again, I can promise you that much.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Alessa said, as the top-hatted man disappeared through the door and into the smoke-filled corridor beyond.
Once she was satisfied that The Shifter wasn’t coming back, Alessa began to shake. Her knees nearly buckled and her breathing caught in her throat, not helped at all by the smoke filling the room. With quivering hands, she stuffed the oblivion stone back into its container, before sprinting across the room and sliding to a stop next to Beryl. Somehow, while Alessa had been preoccupied with The Shifter, Beryl had managed to crawl her way across the floor to where Astria’s body lay. Beryl had lifted her sister’s cold, lifeless corpse from the ground, and was cradling Astria’s bloodsoaked body in her arms, rocking back and forth in a slow, rhythmic fashion.
Alessa looked down at Beryl, and what she saw frightened her. Not just Beryl’s physical state – although that was worrisome enough. The front of Beryl’s robe was soaked in blood, and the ends of the robe’s long sleeves were charred and burned. One whole side of Beryl’s face was blackened and swollen, and her jaw, which was clearly broken, seemed to sit at an odd angle. Her neck was covered with horrible, swollen bruises, and, with every whistling breath, pain flashed across the scarred woman’s face.
But the thing that scared Alessa most was Beryl’s eye. Alessa looked into Beryl’s one good eye, and she saw nothing. No innocence, no optimism, no hope. Instead, she saw an empty husk, a body with no spirit inside it.
Beryl didn’t cry, she didn’t speak, she didn’t even whimper. She simply rocked back and forth, holding her dead sister in her arms, and staring off into the distance. It was like Beryl wasn’t even there, and Alessa wasn’t sure whether the woman she had come to know over the past few days would ever return.
Or, if she did return, whether she would be the same.
“Beryl,” Alessa said, as gently and as calmly as she could, given the situation. The Court was in flames all around them, and a full-scale riot was brewing on the streets outside.
Beryl didn’t respond. She didn’t even look up, or give any acknowledgement that she’d heard Alessa at all.
“Beryl,” Alessa said again, slightly louder, slightly more urgent this time. Reaching down, she tugged on one of Beryl’s charred sleeves.
Nothing. No response. It was like she wasn’t even there.
“Beryl, there’s nothing you can do for her,” Alessa said, trying to slide her arms between Beryl and Astria’s body. “There’s nothing you can do for anybody here. We have to go.”
Beryl still didn’t acknowledge her, but at least she didn’t try to resist as Alessa lifted Astria’s body out of Beryl’s arms and placed it gently on the floor, taking a moment as she did to close the lids over Astria’s dull, glassy eyes. It was all the kindness she could do for her, more than she’d thought she’d do when Astria had been alive.
Then Alessa took Beryl by the hand. The pyromancer’s fingers felt cold and limp in her grasp.
“Beryl, we have to leave, now,” Alessa said again, the volume of her voice rising, her words acquiring a forceful edge. “We can’t stay here. It’s not safe. I bought us a little time, but He could come back at any moment, or… She could show up. As bad as things are now, they’re only going to get worse – we can’t be here when that happens. We need to ‘walk away, now. You have to ‘walk with me.”
Beryl just stared down at the floor, as though nothing else existed.
“Beryl!” Alessa shouted. She grabbed the older woman by the shoulders and gave her a good, hard shake. She hated to do it, but there would be time to feel bad about that later. Just then, Alessa needed to do something – anything – to break through Beryl’s near catatonic state. So she shook Beryl again, even harder this time, and she practically screamed into her ear: “Beryl, your sister’s dead and there’s nothing you can do about it!” Alessa shouted, her words coming as fast and as loud as her lungs would permit. “And unless you plan to join her, we have to leave, now!”
When Beryl didn’t respond, Alessa stomped her foot and shook Beryl as hard as she dared.
“Gods damn it!” she shouted, “I’m not going to let you stay here and die! You don’t get to just throw your life away!”
One of Beryl’s hands was clenched tight into a fist, while the other hung loosely at her side. Alessa wrapped both her hands around Beryl’s limp hand, and she squeezed as hard as she could.
“You promised!” Alessa shouted at the scarred woman, tears gathering in the corners of her eyes now. “You swore to me, on your mother’s name! You swore to me that, if I said we had to leave, we would leave! You swore to me that you weren’t going to die here! You swore it!” She squeezed Beryl’s hand again. “Don’t you dare break your promise to me! Don’t you dare!”
Slowly, painfully, Beryl raised her head to look at Alessa, and Alessa could see just the tiniest flicker of life in Beryl’s green eye. It was so faint as to be almost invisible – like the pale orange ghost of a dying ember, hiding somewhere deep within the black center of Beryl’s eye. But it was there, and seeing it made Alessa sigh with relief.
“Can you hear me?” she asked Beryl.
Beryl gave a tiny, hesitant nod, although it made her wince to do it.
“Can you ‘walk?” Alessa asked.
Beryl seemed to consider that question for a moment, before nodding again.
“Good,” Alessa said. She glanced over her shoulder to stare at the open doorway. She could see the red glow of fire spreading through the hallway beyond, and she heard the sounds of clashing steel and crashing shields growing closer and more distinct. “Because we have to ‘walk out of here, and now.”
Beryl nodded again. It was a gesture without conviction, but it at least showed awareness, and that would have to do.
Alessa hoped it would be enough.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Alessa said, trying to speak slowly and distinctly, even as the visions swimming through her head screamed out their warnings, telling her that there was no time. “You’re going to hold on to my hand, and we’re going to ‘walk together. You’re going to follow me through the Eternities. It’s not that difficult, and I know you can do it. I’ll lead the way, and you just follow along behind me. And, before you know it, we’re going to step out on the other side. We’ll get you patched up, and feeling better, and we can put this all behind us, just like an ugly memory, okay?”
Beryl nodded her head.
“Good,” Alessa said, trying to block out the shouting she could hear coming from just outside the room. “Are you ready? Because we have to go.”
Beryl nodded one final time.
“Alright,” Alessa said. The teal-eyed woman closed her eyes, and tightened her grip around Beryl’s hand. “Now, go!”
And, with that, Alessa drew a deep, smoke-filled breath, and she felt herself come apart as she stepped into the aether.
The Eternities were just as she always experienced them: a frenetic, writhing swirl of indescribable colors and sensations, woven together into a patchwork geometry of infinite complexity and mutability. It was an experience of indescribable chaos and rampant possibility, and it simultaneously thrilled and terrified her. Alessa saw the boundless expanse of the aether like a million gossamer threads of possibility – each one as real as herself. She was all of them, as much as they were her, a woman formed of infinite possibility, touching every corner of the Eternities.
Off to her side, she could sense a vague presence – a foreign shadow being cast over the myriad tapestry of possible futures – which she recognized as Beryl. And, although she knew that the physical sensation of planeswalking was just how the Eternities manifested themselves inside her subconscious mind, and that nothing she felt while ‘walking had a direct relationship to what her physical body was doing, Alessa still somehow had the eerie sense that she could feel Beryl’s hand in hers.
She quickly ran her mind across the scattered, thrumming threads of herself, searching for the one she wanted: a plane with sunbaked beaches, and soft, grassy hillsides, and a nighttime sky where the stars danced in the heavens, and the air was warm and fragrant.
Alessa had just located the thread she was after when she felt Beryl’s presence fade away, as though Beryl’s astral hand had slipped from her grip.
Panic seized Alessa. Even though she knew that nothing she did in the aether had any real temporal or spatial meaning, she tried to move in a circle, to retrace her steps, to search for Beryl across the incorporeal vastness of the Eternities. But it was pointless. Beryl was gone. Her thread had unwound itself from Alessa’s, and it could have taken her anywhere in the multiverse.
Alessa threw her head back and swore into the unfeeling, uncaring chaos of the Eternities. She swore until she felt the bite of unfettered chaos cutting the threads of her possibilities.
She had to find Beryl... but she had no more time.
With a heavy heart, Alessa followed the thread to her destination and felt herself tumbling back into reality, as the colors swirling all around her faded away into darkness.
* * *
Beryl opened her eye, and she saw nothing but darkness.
For a moment, she wasn’t sure whether she was still falling through the Eternities, or whether she had landed on a plane, or whether she was dead. And, in that moment, she wasn’t sure whether she cared which of those three it was.
Eventually, though, she felt sensation begin to return to her tired, battered body, and she realized that she was cold.
She was lying on her back atop a hard, wet surface. The darkness she saw was neither the aether, nor oblivion. It was a dark, moonless, nighttime sky.
Beryl tried to sit, only to feel pain shoot through every inch of her body. Even the smallest movement was pure torture. With every single breath, the points of her broken ribs stabbed at her. She tried to use her arms to push herself up off the ground. Every inch came at a terrible price. The pain was worse than anything she had ever imagined. She felt like she had to scream, just to keep herself from passing out, from fading back into darkness, so she did. But even screaming hurt. Her throat felt like it might crack from the effort.
Although she reeled with agony from the effort, Beryl slowly, painfully, hauled herself up into a sitting position. And, as the world began to take shape beyond her black eye, Beryl took stock of her surroundings.
She was sitting atop a flat, moss-covered stone in the center of a small forest clearing. A few paces in front of her, a fallen tree lay on its side atop the soft, peaty soil. All around her, the night was still, and silent, and cold. Beryl could see each of her ragged, labored breaths as they turned to ice in the chill air.
Beryl closed her eye. She knew where she was.
She was in the same forest clearing she had stumbled into on that cold, rainy night when she had taken her first ‘walk. She was sitting on the spot where she had first met Aloise.
Beryl opened her eye and looked around again, searching for any sign of life, for any other human presence. She found none. Alessa was gone. Aloise was long gone. The only sound was the painful whistle of her own breathing, and the irregular beating of her own heart.
Beryl was alone.
Her mind flashed back to the moment she’d watched her sister die. She remembered the look on Astria’s face: not fear, or even pain – just surprise.
Astria was dead. The destruction of Beryl’s family was complete.
Beryl’s whole world was on fire, and she had struck the match.
Beryl thought about all the lives she had failed to save. She thought about the people she loved who she had watched die.
She felt like crying, and, finally, she did. Tears came streaming down her face, salty and warm. The tears stung as they tracked the cuts around her swollen eye, but Beryl felt thankful for the pain. She thanked all the Gods in all the Heavens for how much she hurt – not just in her body, but in her heart, and in her soul.
The pain meant she still had a soul to lose. The pain meant she still had a heart to be broken.
Beryl looked down. Her gaze lingered on her mother’s robe, which had once been so beautiful. It was ruined by blood and burns. Beryl had destroyed too many beautiful things in her life, and she felt a surge of shame for having destroyed one more.
Then Beryl looked at her hands, themselves bruised and bloodied. One lay open at her side. The other was clenched tight into a fist. Beryl had been holding that fist for so long that her fingers burned from the strain of it.
Slowly, carefully, she opened her fist, and she looked at what it been holding onto for all that time.
Beryl looked at a little gold necklace, with a red glass pendant in the shape of a heart. The heart was a small, delicate thing – no bigger than the tip of Beryl’s finger. She had taken it from Astria’s dead hand, and she had been clutching it in her fist ever since. She’d been holding it as she fought The Shifter, as The Shifter beat her within an inch of her life, as Alessa brought her back to her senses, and as she tumbled blindly through the aether.
Beryl looked down at the little glass heart, which could have broken a hundred times over during everything she had put it through.
By all rights, it should have broken.
But it hadn’t.
With fingers that shook from pain, and exertion, and cold, Beryl managed to undo the necklace’s little golden clasp. She hung the necklace around her painful, bruised neck, and she refastened it.
Beryl Trevanei looked down at the little glass heart, which she had once given to her dead mother, which she had once given to her dead sister. She looked down at where it rested against her soot-stained skin, just atop the raised scar which marked where her own heart lay.
Beryl closed her one green eye, and she made a promise.
When her eye reopened, there was a small, red flame burning at its center.
Alessa Rehn, The Duchess, and The Shifter are original characters created by Barinellos for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.