Chapter 8

The Ruins

The bog was not as bad as Lorea had expected. She actually found the walk to be quite pleasant. The three of them traveled all of the next day straight, taking a few breaks to eat and rest their feet, and by the time night was falling they had passed through most of the marsh grounds. The path they followed was thin and winding, and many times it vanished in the weeds completely and they had to search blindly until it picked up again. Arkin told them all that if they continued the trek, they should reach the main road to Albowa a little past midnight. Lorea preferred walking through the marsh at night to sleeping in it.

The moon was shining by the time they broke through the last of the bog; or at least, Lorea at first thought it had cleared. She spilled out of the overgrown shrubs in relief, her boots matted with muck and weeds. The past hour of walking had been a misery, wading through tangles of vegetation while avoiding large pits of mud. The path had become especially hard to follow.

She panted for breath, leaning down with her hands on her knees. She heard her companions appear at her back, their movements slow with weariness. At least I'm not the only one making loud noises now. The night was strangely soft around them, the usual sounds dimmed by either lack of wildlife or the fact that they had exited the trees.

Finally, with a weary sigh, Lorea stood up again and looked around. Dante stood to her right, Arkin to her left, and it was only then that she noticed her friends were staring at something.

"You didn't mention this," Dante said quietly.

Arkin was silent for a moment, then responded, "I'm a bit ashamed to tell ya'll that I haven't been out this far along this particular path. . . I haven't seen this before."

"What is it? Are we lost?" Lorea asked.

"Tah, chic, look around carefully."

Lorea looked around again, this time observing the full clearing. Her eyes widened.

By the light of the moon she made out strange, large blocks of stone set up in what might have once been some kind of maze or ruined building. Now half of the stones were missing or fallen down, many chipped and weather-worn - yet still magnificent and strangely eerie to behold. Lorea swallowed.

"Wh-where. . . ?"

The silence that followed was thick, then Dante's soft voice murmured, "They seem to be some kind of ruins."

Obviously, Lorea wanted to say, but restrained herself. Dante was still wrapped in a black shroud from earlier and had withdrawn into himself. Sometimes she wondered if she will ever be on easy speaking terms with the man.

"How do you think this got out here?" she wondered aloud. Arkin's shrug was her only answer. For another long moment they just stood there, looking around, then finally Lorea lost her patience. "Well, we might as well check this place out. The city can't be that far past here. . . I'm sure the path continues somewhere around here."

She thought she heard Dante snort, but didn't pursue the noise.

Without waiting for her companions, she stepped towards the large stones and soon found herself enveloped by their shadows. The moon seemed farther away from here, the light dimmer, the sounds somehow even more muffled than before. There was something about these stones, something old; it sent a shiver of foreboding through her and made the hair on her arms stand on end.

Lorea maneuvered around one of the big stones and then around another, unsure and not caring whether or not Arkin and Dante followed. She suddenly felt as though she had been led to this place for a reason, a purpose, that something was here. Naw, it's just my imagination. . . .

Then she saw it.

Lorea turned a corner stone and found herself in a small, squared off portion of the maze. Where before the moonlight had been shadowed, here it was dense and bright, as though concentrated on this one spot. She looked up to see the moon above her, three-fourths full and glowing blindingly. Then her eyes fell back to the stone wall before her.

Cracks ran up and down the rock with patches of moss protruding from them. It took Lorea a moment of staring at the cracks before she realized that there were other things carved there - shapes, symbols. . . words. For a long moment she stood still, her breath coming oddly short, her head feeling as though in a dream. This can't possibly be real. . . I probably just fell asleep or something and Arkin is about to shake me awake.

But the dream did not end as she stepped forward to place her hand against the markings. Her fingers against the solid stone seemed to wake her from the trance, and suddenly she blinked. Turned. Why did this feel so familiar to her?

"What does it say?" she asked, seeing that her friends were behind her. Arkin cocked an eyebrow at her, also suppressed by the mystic mood of the ruins.

"Hm," he murmured and stepped forward to her side. He set his hand flat against the stone for a moment as he stared at the inscriptions, then he frowned. "They look like moon symbols. . . runes that are used by witches and sorcerers."

Lorea just stared at him for a moment. "Huh?"

"Tah, Selkie. . . lookie here, this seems to be an 'A' and here is an 'E'. . . ." He stared at the writing for another long moment. "That's all I can make out with all these cracks across the stone."

"It almost - uh. . . ." Lorea stopped herself from speaking the thought aloud out of embarrassment.

"Almost what, Selkie?"

She paused for a long moment, then sighed, exasperated at herself. "It almost looks - looks like something tried to break it."

Arkin turned back to the boulder and stared at it for a long moment. Then he nodded. A silence fell on them, heavy with moonlight and shadows and the strange, eerie markings before them. Lorea found herself thinking back to her youth in the orphanage, when things had been so much more simple and plain. No mysteries or strange, dangerous powers. . . or convicts trying to die on one's doorstep.

"It's a riddle."

Dante's voice was mist floating in the moonlight, a whisper of breath on the still air. Lorea jumped, surprised to find the man so close to her. She stepped to one side, allowing him to see the writing in full. He stood silent and still behind her for a long moment - long enough for Lorea to realize that he wasn't going to offer any information on his own.

"So. . ." she murmured. At the moment speaking any louder than a whisper seemed to be sinful. "What does it say?"

Dante once again didn't answer for a long stretch of silence. Lorea almost lost herself in the moonlight again, her eyes glazed with dreams brought on by exhaustion and the casual spell of the shadows. Then Dante's voice once again haunted the night.

"It's just some vague ramblings," somehow his voice was more hoarse, and Lorea's eyes narrowed slightly. His voice was casual, and yet the intensity of his stance spoke differently.

"So read it," she pressed. It only makes sense that he would know how - there are so many other things I must not know about him.

Dante was silent again, then took a deep breath and began to recite.

"Past thine history - through friend and foe,

There art two moons, mirrored worlds glow

At dusk of winter's final day,

Their zenith collides-

The worlds fray

And merge with a great power released.

A new order rising from dawn in the East,

The friction of worlds sliding on air,

To claim this power-

Oh priestess, where?

Where art thou child, oh child of moons?

Thine only hope is passing soon,

Four stars thus shine through love divine,

The guardians-

Oh guardians thine.

Deliver her safely and stand by her side,

To balance the force of moons that rise.

A band of silver for priestess become,

The mark of the moon-

Will draw thee to one.

Priestess and child - of the same head,

Heed closely these words, hear what is said,

Restore the two worlds, the balance reclaimed,

Destruction to come-

Shall not be ordained."

It had been a long poem, a riddle indeed, and perhaps a prophecy if Lorea believed in such. She was silent for a long moment after Dante was finished, no one moved, and then a smile cracked her face.

"Is that it?" she asked.

Dante nodded slowly, then his hands ran down the stone and to the other crumbling surfaces on either side of them. "There was more," he murmured, "but it's been eroded off."

Before Lorea could ask any questions he turned away from her, obviously once again lost in his thoughts. Lorea looked back at the markings and shook her head, then traced a few of the runes with her finger. Tingling sensations shot through the tips, and she pulled back quickly with a shake of her head.

"So. . . what do you think?" Arkin asked softly.

Lorea met his hazel gaze with one of amusement, which soon turned to surprise when she saw the solemnity in his eyes. "It's just a bunch of vague ramblings, like what Dante said," she said confidently, her loud voice breaking the spell of the ruins. "Obviously whoever wrote it was absolutely obsessed with this whole moon business. Priestess and child? Guardians? Mark of the moon? It makes no sense."

Arkin frowned at her for a moment, then a small smile broke on his lips too. "Tah, such good sense in such a wee chic," he murmured. "I guess this whole atmosphere is just gettin' to me."

A cloud moved across the moon at that moment, diminishing some of the light, and Lorea shivered. "Damn true," she muttered. "This place gives me the creeps - let's find the road out of this marsh and camp somewhere less creepy."

The Rishnian nodded in complete agreement and started towards the exit of the stones. Lorea followed a moment later, rubbing her arms of goosebumps, then she stopped and looked back over her shoulder. Dante was still standing there in the shadows, his strange armor making him appear to be some strange beast or black demon from another world. Ha, gods, I'm letting my imagination get the best of me again - that's just Dante, nothing more, nothing less.

"Dante?" she called softly. "Are you coming?"

He didn't glance at her, but she saw his hand motion for her to head on. She stared at him a moment longer - the brooding figure, the bowed head - then turned with a shrug. He'll catch up. . . but I better catch up to Arkin before I get lost, gods forbid. With that thought in mind, she hurried after the Rishnian.

Dante stood in the shadows of the stone for a long time, considering the words engraved before him. A shudder went down his spine, and he traced the half crumbled letters with a finger. The sentences had long since been eroded to nothing, and although he had been trained to read moon script, even a master of the language wouldn't have been able to read past the first few lines. But that didn't matter, the first phrases were enough to tell him what the entire things said.

It was the prophecy.

The very prophecy he had learned from spying on the witch queen, the same that he had chanted as a mantra whenever the torture had become too much. The one he had risked his life to memorize and warn his king about.

And here it was, written on stone by hands long dead.

What did it mean?

It was no coincidence that the words in the prophecy and the actions of the ice queen coincided - but then again, the queen had powers that those born in this realm couldn't even conceive. He knew that prophecy spoke of two worlds - one of magic and one of non-magic. Could it be possible that the witch wasn't from this realm? That she knew something the rest of them did not? History had long been lost, but he had heard her muttering to herself as he lay half-conscious in her icy chambers. The Order, she had mentioned. The Master Realm. This world is but a prison for scum lower than me. He was not sure what it meant, but the prophecy was clear enough. There were two worlds. They were colliding. And someone would need to be there to absorb the power that was released.

Time was running out - this was why he had to return to his king. "At dusk of winter's final day. . . ."

And the child of the moon?

He looked up to watch Lorea's shadow scamper away into the tree line, his eyes shadowed. Maybe he was just connecting things where there was no connection, and yet. . . the girl's powers weren't natural. The Ice Queen had been the only one he'd ever seen use magic - it was close to fable in this world, and if Lorea had the same or similar power, what did it mean? The strange pull he felt to be with the girl wasn't natural - the same pull he had felt since he woke up in her bed. And it seemed that Arkin felt it too now that she had touched him with her power. Thoughtfully Dante touched the birth mark along the side of his neck, and then the scar on his abdomen - the scar that was forming into the shape of a crescent moon. This doesn't bode well.

Dimly a memory surfaced, one that came from the depths of his mind. It had been while he lay almost dead in the queen's chambers, freezing and exhausted from her abuse. It was a time he tried not to remember. And yet he had heard her feet pacing back and forth, her muttered words as she whispered. . . something about a girl. . . something about a power. . . ?

He shook his head. No, it didn't matter, he couldn't be troubled by this now. He could spend all night standing here grasping at shadows, but he would get nowhere. He had a duty - to reach his king. Once that was finished, then he could concentrate on Lorea and the answer to this riddle. His eyes returned to where the girl had disappeared into the trees with Arkin - the thought of Moora awaiting the Rishnian patiently back at the Burrow. They had said goodbye with so much silent emotion. . . .

When was the last time he had been enveloped so warmly? He couldn't even remember. Couldn't remember the last time he had received a gentle touch - even when Lorea had clung to him in the water, that had been more of an act of desperation than of choice. It seemed that she responded to the Rishnian with much more welcome. His own time with the witch had erased all memory of tenderness - what faces of women he'd known were blurred, replaced by another's face, this one pale and almost painfully beautiful, with thick black hair and clear, perfectly blue eyes. . . .

A shudder wracked him, and for a second piercing cold raced through the scars across his jaw line. His muscles clenched in reaction. I won't let her control me. I'm free of that life now, don't think of it!

It didn't matter that Lorea felt more open and trusting of Arkin than she did of him. Nothing mattered. Before his two years with the witch he would have been able to sweep her off her feet - would have been able to catch the eye of any woman - but no, now he was changed. He could feel it in the way he moved, the way his face was curiously reluctant to show expression. His stiffened muscles. He was no longer a man who needed the trust of those around him, he was no longer someone who thrived on acceptance. Let the two befriend each other, he had been destined to stand alone since birth, nothing had changed.

His jaw set, he turned and headed quickly for the forest, suddenly wanting to be rid of the haunting presence of the ruins. He must focus on his duty - all else could be taken of later.

Lorea still wasn't sure what the riddle was about, and was frankly fed up with thinking about it. She couldn't even remember all the lines - but one verse kept repeating itself in her head over and over again. "Where art thou child, oh child of moons?"

Now a frown marred her smooth features as they climbed out of the last stretch of woods. It was late afternoon - they had walked through the entire night and had finally set up a small camp during the early morning, eating and resting for a few hours. They had set off through the last few miles of wilderness at a fast pace - despite all the exercise, Lorea had had only too much time to think.

What is the prophecy about? What does it mean? And why. . . why was it us who stumbled across it? Technically the whole thing could be seen as nonsense, and though magic was rumored to exist in the world, she had seen no evidence of it yet, except for perhaps her strange power. She tried to brush the memory of the ruins aside, but it was stuck in her mind, like a nasty bit of muck stuck to her boot.

Finally they reached the edge of the trees, and she found herself at the top of a large slope - the sky was suddenly open before her and blue with late afternoon light. She looked down in amazement. Spread out below her like something out of a story book was a vast city - or what seemed to her to be a vast city - of red-roofed houses and cobblestone streets. In the distance past the city she could see a broad river reflecting the sky like a mirror. On the river was a ferry boat, emitting clouds of smoke and steam. Having lived her entire life in an orphanage and then being ejected into the middle of nowhere, Lorea had never seen any city that looked so grand, though it was said the King's City of Falcray was a wonder in itself.

"Token," she murmured. "Is that. . . ?"

"Albowa," Dante said softly.

"Aye, chic, Albowa the riverside city. An' that stretch of water you see past it would be the Queen's Route – wraps around the countryside like a snake it does." The large half-Rishnian shook his head in admiration. "Tah, a beautiful creation it is."

"So we've crossed the border from Caldria's lands?" Lorea asked.

Arkin nodded. "Tah, Albowa is a trading port betwixt Caldria and Falcray. I do think it's seen better days, though."

They stood in silence for a moment longer, each contemplating the beautiful sight of civilization, then Lorea clearing her throat. "Do you think. . ." she started slowly. "That we might be able to. . . I don't know. . . get a hot meal?"

Arkin laughed. "Tah! Why d'you think we're here?"

Lorea shrugged and glanced at Dante, but he wasn't looking at her. She couldn't help but notice the strange expression on his face as he stared down at the city - it looked like he was lost somewhere inside of himself, his eyes slightly unfocused. Actually, it looks like he's about to be sick.

"Dante?" she said softly, and he seemed to snap out of his funk, sending her a sharp look and then nodding to the rooftops below them.

"There's no time to lose," he said, and stepped down the slope. "I need to meet with my contact. . . then book passage to Blue Haven."

"Fair," Arkin commented. "And as you take care of that, the wee Selkie and I are going to find some grub."

"No need," Dante answered. "My contact will be staying at an inn called The Queen's House; we'll stay there too."

Lorea looked at him. "How in the world are we supposed to stay there if we have no money?" A moment passed and Dante was silent. Her eyes narrowed - she had learned that silence from Dante often meant something. "Dante?" she pressed again.

He didn't meet her eyes, but continued to stare at the town. "Don't worry about it," he said quietly, and somehow she knew not to ask more questions. Then he started down the hillside, leaving her gaping after him.

Arkin stood next to her and they watched Dante make his way down the steep slope, then she turned to look at the Rishnian. "Are you as confused as I am?" she asked, unable to keep the exasperation from her voice.

"Tah, Selkie, ya need to learn to slow down. . . I'm sure it'll all be explained in good time." The Rishnian started down the hill too.

Now Lorea stood gaping after both men, and wished not for the first time that she had a woman's good sense around here. Then she slowly trailed after them, picking her way down the slope - all things will be explained in good time. We'll see about that.

The room was as cold as her soul.

She stared out the window, surveying her small kingdom, and sighed. Things were moving slowly yet surely to their climax, but there had been one thing she'd over looked. . . one thing that might topple this empire I'm trying to build.

The girl.

Frankly, Diana hadn't truly believed the girl would discover her abilities. So far the Child had lain dormant, exactly where she had wanted her, out of sight and out of mind. That was what the witch queen had always planned - keep the girl close as she grew up, under surveillance, and when the moment came use her to open the doorway between the two worlds. Then she would launch her attack on the Master Realm, and reign in control over both worlds. Ignorant people such as that Striker and the Wolf thought her only army was in this world - she cracked a cold smile as she thought of the legions of creatures she had been gathering in the depths of the Master Realm. Of course, it's never made easy in these kind of things.

She would have killed the Child long ago, while she'd had the chance, if the girl hadn't been necessary to bring on the power of the merging worlds. Long ago the Mirrored Realm had been created by the wizards of the Master Realm as a prison, a world to send away exiles and keep them separate from magic. It took a few decades for the magic to fully leave the body that wielded it, and Diana could feel her own powers waning with each month that passed. But the time of the merging worlds was soon, and the prophecy would reach its climax within half a year. Plenty of time for her to gather her armies in both worlds, and plant her seeds deep so when the upheaval came, she would be able to join the two worlds and rule over both. Extract her vengeance on the Order of Wizards, as she had waited to do for so long.

But first. . . first I need to steal the Child of the Moon under my control. The Child had the power to control the merging worlds, deciding whether they should join or stay separate. Diana would need the worlds to join if she was going to rule over both, and find an entrance back into the Master Realm.

The Ice Queen was fairly certain that the poor girl didn't have a clue as to what she was a part of. The way she acted proved it, taking unnecessary risks and putting her few guardians in danger. I'm surprised she's even been able to find her guardians. She would need the guardians to balance the power of the worlds and absorb the power of the dimensions – Fire, Wind, Water, and Earth would need to be present.

Another sigh escaped her pale lips, and she turned from the frosted window back to her icy room. Her eyes roved over the silver decor, the walls nothing but slates of glassy ice and the floor the same. Frosted steps led up to a door in the far wall, which would lead out into the hall. She took in her pale blue hangings, the wintry paintings on her wall. . . the furniture shaped from ice - by her own hands. Then finally she returned to the man kneeling in the center of her room, his head bowed and his body trembling uncontrollably.

With a serene smile, Diana took a small step forward. At the silky shush of her dress, the man's head shot up and his features shivered even more. A handsome man. . . . She remembered when another startlingly handsome beast had quivered before her, frozen by her touch and by the ice of her breath. But now. . . . Rage shook her figure. How dare he escape me, how dare he run away. . . force me to take my wrath out on more innocent victims. She watched as the man's breath frosted in the air. Diana brought the freeze everywhere with her now, it was the curse - and blessing - of her power.

"Do you know why you're here, Dale?" she murmured.

Another, stronger shudder wracked the man, and his eyes closed as she tightened her grip on his spirit. This was another soul she had a contract with, a contract he had failed to fulfill. As she closed in her power, he actually began to sweat. A bead slipped down his forehead only to freeze on his cheek.

It might have just been the shudders that wracked him, but he seemed to nod his head.

"You let him escape," she whispered icily. "I believe we had an agreement that you would not let him get away!" Now anger bubbled up inside of her, an uncontrollable wave that brought a bitter-sweet taste to her mouth.

The man moaned as her grip tightened once more. "Witch. . . ." he murmured in a moment of defiance.

Diana paused. "What did you call me?" She asked quietly. When she got no response, she reached forward and lifted the man's head so he was forced to stare into her icy blue eyes. "A witch, you say?"

The man continued to shudder, and a slow, twisted smile grew across her lips. "Yes, I am a witch. . . and for that, I will freeze you. I'll freeze you until your bones crack and your heart is numb!" As I tried to freeze the other, but he wouldn't break. . . no, he was already ice.

With that she strengthened her grip on his jaw and poured the coldness from her soul into his skin. In seconds he was turning blue, the shaking increased, and his eyes were wide with pain. The defiance that had so briefly flashed in his eyes was now gone, and slowly those handsome features distorted from the freezing pressure on his jaw. Ice burns shaped like finger marks began to appear on the skin where she gripped him. The brilliant eyes began to cloud over, go unfocused. . . As his body absorbed her power, the man's brown eyes began to adopt a blue tint. Diana knew from experience that as soon as those eyes turned completely blue - like hers - the man would die. Just as the Striker's eyes had changed before I brought him back. . . but no, something had been wrong with that one. For some reason, one of the Striker's eyes had remained that icy, cold blue. The memory always troubled her; sometimes in her sleep she would dream of those two eyes, shining at her from the darkness. . . .

Diana released the man at the last moment before death, throwing him aside on the floor. Suddenly the appeal of torture wasn't as strong, and with a disgusted smirk she moved over to one of the tall windows. She looked out again over her cusp of land.

Her eyes gazed far off across her realm, and idly she traced patterns on the glass with one frosty finger tip, considering the girl once again. Then her thoughts turned to the Striker, and the hunter she had sent to retrieve him.

"Where are you, Severin?" she murmured. "My pet. . . . It would be a shame if you misjudged your kill." A small smile pulled on her face at the thought of her assassin. She knew he hated her, and took pleasure in prodding that hatred, secure with the knowledge that he would not - could not - retaliate. One of these days he'll want me as I want him; I'll make it so!

"A shame indeed. . . . Then you'll be mine for the keeping."