A/N: Warning in this chapter for mild horror elements and mild sexual content
“I’m bored,” Drys announced. They were sprawled across the twins’ sofa, one of their wings draped lazily over the back. Nearby, IDE sat at a writing table, bent low over a stack of papers. Across the room, Maebhe and Kieran played a game, trying to swipe at each other’s hands without moving their feet.
“Would you rather be chased through Lyryma by a red dragon?” Maebhe asked.
“Or maybe hanging out in a Unity prison, waiting for the guards to come and taunt us again?” Kieran immediately joined in.
“I was more thinking of just going down to the market,” Drys countered.
Kieran and Maebhe dropped their game and turned identical pairs of gray eyes on Drys.
“I’d like that,” Maebhe said.
“We should probably give IDE some peace, anyway. I don’t want to be distracting,” Kieran said. “Unless you’d like to join us, IDE?”
IDE shook her head. “I teach children, Kieran. You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘distracting.’ I do need to stay and work on this lesson plan, though. Have fun without me – and bring me back some garlic snaps.”
“Oh! That reminds me,” Maebhe said, disappearing into the kitchen without explanation. She returned a moment later with a steamed bun that quickly disappeared into her jacket pocket. “If I go to the market without food, I’ll try to buy everything.”
The Cairn home was a modest, moderately sized building situated at one of the higher points in Orean’s outer city. Having been in the family for many generations now, it was one of the older buildings in the city – as such, it sat very near the inner wall.
Kieran paused to button his coat against the chill evening wind of their mountain valley. Finally ready, he started down the hill toward the market, Maebhe at his heels. But Drys didn’t join them. The faerie stared back toward the inner city, the wall visible over the tops of buildings.
“I have a more exciting pastime for us, I think. What is that building?” they asked.
It Maebhe and Kieran a moment to realize what Drys meant – orinians were, in general, superstitious about several things. Their birthmarks, said to bare the soul of an orinian. Lyryma, looming over their city to the north, dangerous and unfathomable. Finally, the building at the center of Home. It was charred black, crumbling and ancient, its towers visible from every point in Orean.
“Oh, that,” Maebhe said.
“Do you want legend or fact?” Kieran asked.
Drys tapped a finger to their lips, thoughtful. “Legend.”
“It belonged to Tellaos, back in the time of the Great War. His ghost still haunts it. No one will go near.”
“And the fact?”
Kieran cleared his throat and proceeded, as if reading from an encyclopedia: “It is as old as the great war – based on the brick lay and architecture, scholars suggest it may be even older. It’s hard to date it accurately by any other means, since it hasn’t undergone the weathering and decay it should have after nearly two thousand years. This phenomenon is still unexplained by scholars, not for a lack of trying.”
“So it’s just an old building,” Drys summarized.
“A damned old building,” Kieran agreed.
“Have you ever been inside?”
Kieran spluttered at that. “No! Of course not!”
“Afraid it’s haunted?” Drys asked.
“As if,” Kieran sniffed, sounding his age. “There are laws against it. It’s a safety concern. The building’s obviously not structurally sound.”
“Or they’re trying to keep you out for another reason,” Drys suggested, the twinkly in their eye making it clear they were simply goading Kieran, at this point. Maebhe just watched, amused.
Kieran didn’t even seem to notice. “What? You’re insinuating that there’s that there’s some kind of conspiracy going on? What in Calaidia could the government possibly be hiding in a two-thousand year old castle?”
“There’s only one way to find out!” Drys chirped. “What do you think, Maebhe?”
“I don’t know if it’s a good idea,” Maebhe said. She couldn’t articulate why she thought it was a bad idea except that the building creeped her out, and that excuse might get her laughed at.
That, and she always had been a little afraid of ghosts.
“Thank you, Maebhe, for being sensible for once,” Kieran said.
“You faced Lyryma Forest! You came face to face with a red dragon and came out of it yelling at me,” Drys reasoned, taking Maebhe’s hand, now. “Wouldn’t this be exciting? Aren’t you even a little bit curious? I’m sure you want to know what’s in there as much as I do.”
“I…” Maebhe said, her resistance weakening. “I am curious.”
“You know, I saved your life. I’ll consider us even if you take me up there to explore.”
Maebhe raised an eyebrow. “That wouldn’t even remotely make us even. Are you really so curious that you’d throw away a debt owed to you?”
“I think I might die if I can’t see what’s in that castle,” was Drys’ whined reply.
“Fine. I guess we can go take a look.”
“Can I just point out that the inner wall is closely guarded?” Kieran asked. The old city had been used as a political center for decades, now – for that reason, and because kids had been sneaking in to vandalize the historic buildings – the walls had been guarded for just as long. “We don’t have any reason to be going to the city, let alone this late at night. The guards won’t let us through.”
“They’d let you through,” Maebhe said.
“I am not using my professional capacity to break the law,” Kieran replied.
“Good thing Drys can fly.”
“The guards would spot them. They’re all trained to watch for flying persons, as well as anyone coming to the gates.” Kieran crossed his arms, smug, as if that was that. “Can we go to the market, now?”
“Good think I know a way in that’s not through the gates,” Maebhe said, ignoring Kieran’s question.
Her twin’s smugness vanished in an instant, changing to a scowl. “What do you mean, you know a way in? Why haven’t you ever mentioned it before?”
“Because you’re a captain of the Orean guard, Kieran. Why in Calaidia would I mention it to you? Anyway, you don’t have to come with, you know.”
“Bullshit,” Kieran said. “Of course I’m coming.”
Maebhe grinned at him. “This way, then.”
Maebhe had discovered this entry point a few weeks before they left for Gallontea – she’d used it a few times, now, usually to sneak into the old city and visit Kieran on his shifts. It was a spot far along from the main gates where an adjacent building had collapsed into the wall, creating an easy – if delicate – path to climb up.
She started up it with the familiarity of a natural climber, not even bothered by the voluminous skirts she wore today, and looked back to see Drys and Kieran taking it far more carefully. Drys’ wings even flared out twice to help them keep their balance.
From there, they dropped to the other side and continued on to the castle, Kieran occasionally signaling for them to hide from guard patrols. The old city felt hollow at night, its streets wider than the rest of Orean’s, less cluttered – completely empty, in fact.
When they reached the castle, they found another wall surrounding it – this one modest, like you might find around an estate in the outer city. It existed as only an inconvenience, not a barrier – something to create privacy, not keep people out.
Without asking permission first, Drys simply scooped Kieran up and flew him over the wall. Before they could come back to get her as well, Maebhe wandered over to the wrought iron gate situated at a break in the wall and pushed. The cold metal gave with only a creak as protest, swinging in on hinges that hadn’t been used in—well, Maebhe had no clue how long. Centuries. Millenia. She crept through the overgrown foliage that might’ve once been a garden and got her first real look at Tellaos’ castle.
Up close, it made her sad. Seeing the weathered stones, the darkened holes where windows sat, the ivey climbing up the walls, attempting to devour the ancient bricks, Maebhe mourned whoever once lived here. Maybe it was really Tellaos, but more likely it was some lord or royal who died in the Great Wars or the revolutions thereafter.
She loved history, as an abstract thing, and knew that it was silly to mourn people who lived so long ago. She couldn’t help it. The place was bittersweet – loved, once, now destroyed.
When Kieran and Drys joined her in the battered courtyard, she didn’t look at them. She couldn’t look away from the castle. “You really want to go in there?”
“Yes,” Drys said, sounding less sure than they did when they proposed the idea. They shook themselves. “Well, we’ve come this far. Might as well, no?”
With a nod, Maebhe started toward the open doorway. The entire eastern wing was crumbled and exposed, like the hole in the inner wall on a much grander scale. From here, Maebhe had to crane her neck to see the tops of the castle towers.
Kieran swore and grabbed Maebhe’s wrist, pulling her back.
“What’s wrong?” Drys asked.
“I saw a face in the window.”
Goosebumps shot across Maebhe’s skin at that. She scanned the windows but saw nothing. “Which one?” she asked.
“Are you just trying to scare us?” Drys asked, eyes narrowing.
“I wouldn’t fucking lie about this!”
“Maybe your eyes are just playing tricks on you,” Maebhe said, taking another step toward the building. She wanted to see the inside, morbid curiosity burning within her.
“I don’t think…” Kieran began, trailing off. “It’s possible, I suppose. It was only a glimpse, after all.”
With that answer, Maebhe plunged into the darkness of the castle. She heard Kieran swear and Drys laugh behind her, both hurrying to follow.
“I could get in so much trouble for this,” Kieran said as the three of them spread out in the shadowy foyer, their eyes adjusting to the darkness at different rates. As a faerie, Drys had an edge on Kieran and Maebhe, there.
“Then leave,” Drys said.
“Yeah, right. This is the most exciting thing to happen since we got back to Orean,” Kieran said. He ran his hand along the smooth marble handrail at the base of a grand staircase. “I’m just going to be anxious about it.”
Maebhe brushed her fingers along the canvas of an old portrait – it was massive, took up nearly a whole wall. The colors had faded with time, which didn’t make any sense. This room was completely exposed to the elements, through the open doorway and the massive window openings. The painting should have disintegrated completely, by now. But Maebhe could still make out the subjects: an orinian woman with luscious red curls and an elegant dress, smiling warmly, kindly out at Maebhe.
She stood beside a crouching dragon, leaning slightly into them. The dragon was bigger than any Maebhe saw in Gallontea – bigger, even, than the red dragon in Lyryma. She could make out what color this one was supposed to be – it just looked gray, faded by time.
The dragon’s expression was harder to read, but they both looked happy.
“Perhaps this place really did belong to Tellaos,” Drys asked, coming up beside Maebhe to study the portrait. It was then Maebhe remembered that, in legends, Tellaos was a black dragon.
“The original orinian settlers believed so,” Kieran said, joining them. “The whole world did. It’s why we settled here – we wanted to be left alone after the Great War, and no one wanted to go near this place after Runderath’s famed defeat of Tellaos. The city just grew around it, after that.”
“But the Guardians aren’t real,” Maebhe said. She’d never been religious. Their parent weren’t religious, so neither she nor Kieran were ever exposed to it. The Guardians were always just stories, no more.
“The oanai believe Ellaes really exists. They speak about her like they know her personally, sometimes. Like she comes for casual visits,” Drys said.
“The oanai also believe everything in Lyryma is powered by magic,” Maebhe countered. It would’ve sounded silly, weeks ago, but after seeing Lyryma and standing in this castle, Maebhe’s statement sounded close-minded even to her own ears. She wandered in a different direction, exploring further.
“Be careful,” Kieran called after her. “This place is well preserved, but the structural integrity is still compromised. Don’t touch anything.”
“I won’t,” Maebhe called. She wandered to a darkened hallway—more art hung here, less personal, more artistic. They gave glimpses into the time before the Great War—a painting of a small, idyllic town, free of carriages or lights. A tapestry of a hunting party preparing for the chase. A faceless sculpture of something that might have been a dragon.
She followed the hallway to its end, entranced by the art. When the hallway opened into a wide armory, she told herself she wouldn’t go further. She almost succeeded in turning back around, but then she noticed a flickering light cast along the hallway at the opposite end of the room.
She opened her mouth to call for Kieran and Drys. Remembering Kieran’s face in the window, she stopped, thought better of it. Instead, she crept through the room, curious. Suits of armor stood on display as dark shadows around her, each looking too much like a person in the corner of her eye. She considered grabbing a sword, in case she really did run into someone, but she wouldn’t know what to do with it even if she did encounter trouble.
Following the faint light down another hallway, she reached an old stone stairway leading down in a spiral. The source of the light hung in a sconce at the top step: an old oil lamp, its flame steady. Maebhe unhooked the lamp, marveling at it. She quickly adjusted it to lower the flame and the amount of light it gave off, then started slowly down the steps, careful not to make noise.
She heard a faint drip, drip coming from somewhere nearby – the lower she went, the damper and colder the air around her grew. The stone walls pressed close on either side, suffocating.
Then suddenly, she reached the last step. Holding the lamp high, she saw that another hallway stretched on before her – this one with iron cells on either side.
Briefly, she was transported back to Unity’s Island. She expected to find Íde and Kieran crouched in some dark cell. But even Unity’s prison had some sunlight streaming in – it wasn’t this cold, damp, underground misery.
She knew she should turn back, at least grab Drys or Kieran before continuing further. Kieran hadn’t brought his gun, but he at least knew how to fight.
She didn’t turn back. She continued forward, darkness falling away under the glow of her lantern. It was silent, her boots not even making a sound against the old stone, so careful was she – but then she noticed a sound, so quiet even her sensitive ears almost missed it.
Moving in the direction of the sound, she came across a cell that wasn’t empty. A man sat in it, his face buried in his knees, brought up to his chest. His hair was yellow, matted, his clothes fine, dirtied. Maebhe could see the tips of pointed ears sticking out from his hair.
They weren’t the ears of an orinian.
She dropped to her knees in front of the cell, holding her lamp higher. “Hello? Are you alright?”
At the sound of her voice, the man jumped and looked up. He was pale, a fine sheen of sweat covering his skin despite the damp chill down here. He squinted at the lamp like he hadn’t seen light in weeks – then he squinted at Maebhe, disbelieving.
“Who are you?” he asked, voice hoarse. It wasn’t the accent of Illyon, but the man was unmistakably alfar.
“My name is Maebhe. I—I don’t know what to do. I didn’t actually think there would be anyone here. Are you hurt?”
“No,” the man said, then didn’t add any more.
“Are you…you’re not Amos Nochdvor, are you?” Maebhe asked, holding her breath in wait for the answer.
“You know me?”
Maebhe clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, Atiuh. I – yes. Unity is looking for you. Everyone is looking for you. They’re coming to Orean to find you, but I don’t think King Whelan knows – at least, I hope he doesn’t know that you’re really here. How did you get here?”
“That woman brought me.”
“Woman? What woman?”
But Amos only shook his head, not minding Maebhe’s urgency. She saw fear in his eyes. He was frail, shook in his skin. How long had he been here? It had been weeks since the incident in Illyon.
Maebhe pulled the steamed bun out of her pocked and passed it to him between the bars.
“It’s not much,” she said as he took it, relentlessly hesitant, “And I don’t have keys to let you out, but I promise I’ll get help. I’ll get you out of here.”
The alfar gave Maebhe a long, hard look, and Maebhe shivered. Diminished as he was, in this horrible little cell, it was the look of a King assessing a pledge. “Thank you, Maebhe.”
Before Maebhe could say more, she heard another sound – the clack of heels hitting stone. Maebhe and Amos shared a wide-eyed look, and Maebhe immediately blew out the lamp in her hand, plunging them into darkness. Without visual distractions, Maebhe can hear the footsteps more clearly – there’s a strange limp to them, an uneven cadence.
She also noticed the growing smell of decay.
“I’ll be back,” Maebhe whispered, barely adding breath to the sound. “I promise, I’ll be back.”
Amos didn’t answer, so she began inching her way down the hall, closer to the sound. She kept her back pressed to the iron bars of the wall, imagining herself flattened against them, and hoped that she wouldn’t run into whoever was coming down those stairs, hoped that they hadn’t noticed the light of her lantern, hoped that the steady drips of water on brick covered the sound of her breathing.
She heard when the newcomer reached the final step and knew the exact moment they passed her, a chill running through Maebhe’s whole body at the almost contact. Maebhe almost covered her nose at the dead smell that followed the person like perfume.
She’d almost reached the stairs when a light flared to life at the other end of the hallway, near the alfar King’s cell. Maebhe stopped, frozen, blinking in the light at the creature now holding a glowing candle.
She reminded Maebhe inescapably of the dragon she’d seen in Lyryma. There was the same crimson glow under her skin, tearing apart her skin in a mere mockery of orinian birthmarks. Her eyes were the same as well – bright, hungry, ancient.
Maebhe gasped, and the orinian woman met her gaze.
Without waiting a moment longer, Maebhe turned and sprinted up the stairs, taking them two at a time. She couldn’t tell if the woman was following – if she was, Maebhe couldn’t hear the click of her heels against the beating of her own heart. She raced back through the armory and nearly ran into Kieran and Drys in the hallway she’d first started down.
“Run!” she yelled, pushing past them both and not pausing to explain. They followed without question, running at her heels as they passed back into the foyer. Maebhe spared only a glance for the painting on the wall, for the red haired orinian who smiled so sweetly at the painter.
Then, they were in the courtyard again, passing through the overgrown garden, and Maebhe spared a glance over her shoulder. The woman reached the castle doorway just as they reached the gate beyond – instead of following, she stopped there, watching them with uncontained fury in her crimson eyes.
Maebhe, Kieran, and Drys didn’t stop running. They flew through old city streets, quickly reaching the spot where the wall had crumbled. It was steeper on this side – even Maebhe had to be careful when she climbed this way.
She couldn’t afford to be careful, this time. She started scrambling up the rocky wall only to slip, scraping her hands and sliding back down the few feet she’d managed to gain.
“Enough of this,” Drys said, scooping both Maebhe and Kieran up and flying them over.
On the other side, they all stopped to catch their breath. The wall provided a degree of safety – or an illusion of it, at least, and they felt they could take the time.
“Maebhe, who – what was that?” Kieran asked.
“I don’t know,” Maebhe gasped. “I don’t know. Kieran, the king is here. King Nochdvor. He’s in the city. That woman is keeping him captive.”
Kieran gaped at her. He shut his mouth after a moment and nodded, thoughtful. “I’ll go arrange a meeting with Whelan. He has to be told about this. Maebhe, you—you’re bleeding. Go back home, clean yourself up, calm down. It’ll be fine. We’ll get this figured out. Drys, will you take her back?”
Drys nodded, winding an arm around Maebhe’s waist and guiding her back to the Cairn house. Maebhe let herself be guided, too shaky and shaken to do anything else.
At the house, Drys drew a bath – Maebhe hid her face in their shoulder while the old copper tub filled with water. Like this, surrounded by familiar sounds and a now-familiar warmth, her breathing slowed, her mind eventually began to function again.
“Maebhe,” Drys said gently, after they leaned temporarily out of Maebhe’s reach to turn off the water. Their voice was uncharacteristically soft, their hands on Maebhe gentle. It felt nice. “The water’s ready.”
“Why does this shit always happen to me?” she asked.
Drys stayed silent – Maebhe figured they didn’t have an answer.
“My parents died in a carriage accident. I had to rescue my own brother from a Unity prison. I ran into a red dragon, was nearly killed by it, and then I found a missing alfar King – a missing alfar King that could spark a war—being guided by- by something not human! Something human who saw my face and almost certainly wants me dead, now! If Atiuh and the Guardians really exist, I wish they didn’t, if these are the cards they’ve dealt me.”
“Even if she wants you dead, I won’t let her near you,” Drys murmured into Maebhe’s hair. “And if Atiuh really did deal you these cards, as you say, perhaps it’s because you’re the only one strong enough to use them.”
Maebhe sighed and wound her arms around Drys’ waist. “What if I’m not, though?”
Maebhe laughed and took a step back, passing her hands over her face. “Tomorrow we’ll tell Whelan, and that’ll be the end of it. I swear, I’ll never go sticking my nose into trouble ever again.”
“Boring,” Drys said.
Maebhe laughed again. “Shut up.”
Feeling better, she studied the filled tub, dipped her hand in to test the water. She stripped out of her jacket, skirt, and blouse, leaving her in just an undershirt and her petticoat. Drys seemed rooted to the spot as she undressed, but at this, they shook themself, backing toward the door.
“I’ll leave you be, then,” they said, sounding like they wanted nothing more than to stay.
It made Maebhe smile. “Wait,” she said, and Drys waited as she stripped off the rest of her clothes, watching with a hungry gaze. Maebhe climbed into the tub, settling into the warm water and holding a hand out to Drys. “Join me? I could use some company, after all that.”
A/N: Quick heads up: there will NOT be a Fractured Magic chapter next week! Fractured Magic will return with a new chapter on May 27 – the next few chapters are going to be big ones, so I wanted to give myself some time to make sure they’re perfect for you all!