A/N: Warning in this chapter for mild horror elements and mild sexual content
“I’m bored,” Drys announced. They sprawled lazily across the twins’ sofa, one of their wings draped over the back. Nearby, Íde sat at a writing table, bent low over a stack of papers, a smudge of ink sitting high on her cheekbone. And across the room, Maebhe and Kieran played a game, trying to swipe at each other’s hands without moving their feet.
Maebhe rolled her eyes. “Would you rather be chased through Lyryma be a red dragon again?” she asked. “That was exciting.”
“Or maybe hang out in a Unity prison, waiting for the guards to come and question us again?” Kieran joined in. “No? Then quit whining.”
“I was more thinking of going down to the market,” Drys said with a lazy shrug. Kieran and Maebhe turned identical pairs of gray eyes on Drys.
“I’d like that,” Maebhe said.
“I suppose it might be good to give Íde some peace, anyway. I wouldn’t want to be a distraction,” Kieran said. “Unless you want to come with us, Íde?”
“I teach children, Kieran. I’m perfectly capable of handling distractions,” Íde said, without looking up. “It’s sweet of you to extend the invitation, but I really must finish this lesson plan. Just go on, have fun without me. Bring me back some garlic snaps.”
“Oh! That reminds me,” Maebhe began, disappearing into the kitchen without explanation. She returned a moment later with a steamed bun that she stuffed 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 near Orean’s inner wall. Having been in the family for several generations now now, the house’s antiquated facade showed its age. It creaked and groaned when the wind blew over the hills of Orean, and winter brought with it a terrible draft that could only be helped by covering the windows.
Maebhe buttoned her coat against the chill evening breeze skirting around the mountain. Up ahead, Kieran started down the hill toward the market, but Drys didn’t join him. Instead, the faerie stared back toward the inner city, its wall visible between buildings.
“I have a more exciting pastime for us, I think,” Drys said. “What is that building?”
Maebhe glanced back. It took her a moment to realize which building Drys referred to.
As a whole, orinians weren’t a particularly superstitious people, but they did have some beliefs they clung to stoutly. First, an orinian’s birthmarks reveal the secrets of their character. Second, Lyryma Forest is cursed. Third, acknowledging the building at the center of Orean is bad luck.
Maebhe stared up at its charred towers, visible from every point in Orean, and shivered.
Drys raised an eyebrow. “Did I touch on a raw nerve?”
“Somewhat,” Kieran sighed. “It’s just an old legend. Do you want rumor or fact?”
Drys tapped a finger to their lips, thoughtful, then said, “Rumor.”
Kieran smiled, wry. “Back in the time of the Great War, that castle belonged to Tellaos. His vengeful ghost still haunts it. No one dares go near.”
“And the fact?” Drys asked.
This time, Kieran cleared his throat and proceeded as if he read 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 gone the weathering decay it should have after nearly two thousand years. This phenomenon is still unexplained by scholars, not for a lack of trying.”
Maebhe rolled her eyes. “Thanks, professor.”
“So it’s just an old building,” Drys summarized.
“A damned old building,” Kieran agreed. “We don’t actually know who the original owner was.”
“Have you ever been inside?”
Kieran spluttered at that. “No! Of course not!”
“Afraid it’s haunted by the vengeful ghost of a dead god?” 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 said, their smirk making it clear they were just goading Kieran, though Kieran hardly seemed to notice. “Maybe there’s something interesting inside.”
“What? You’re insinuating that there’s that there’s some kind of conspiracy going on? What in Calaidia could possibly be so interesting inside of 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 that’s a good idea,” Maebhe said. She didn’t believe the building was haunted, but it unsettled her all the same. That, and she truthfully always had been frightened by the idea of ghosts. She didn’t want to risk being wrong.
“Thank you, Maebhe, for being sensible for once,” Kieran said.
Drys took Maebhe’s hand between their own and forced her to look at them. “Maebhe, you faced Lyryma Forest! You came face to face with a red dragon and came out of it scolding me! You can handle an old castle, I’m sure. Wouldn’t this be an exciting adventure? 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. You owe me. I’ll consider us even if you take me there.”
Maebhe raised an eyebrow. How very fae, to settle a life debt by satisfying a curiosity. “Are you sure that’s a fair trade?”
“Absolutely. 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? You won’t even make it to the caste. The guards won’t let us through.” Kieran said.
The inner city had been Orean’s political center for decades now — for security reasons, and because kids had been sneaking in to vandalize the historic buildings — the walls had been guarded for just as long.
“They’d let you through,” Maebhe said.
“I am not using my professional influence to break the law,” Kieran replied.
“Good thing Drys can fly.”
“The guards would spot them. The watch is trained to look 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?”
“Kieran, won’t you just let us in this once? It’s not like we’ll be causing any harm. We just want to see the castle. You can just tell the guards we’re stopping by your office, or something,” Maebhe said, sticking her lick out in an exaggerated pout.
Kieran broke under the look in a matter of seconds. “Fine,” he sighed. “Just this once. And we’re not going to take long — when I say we go, we go.”
“Thank you, Kieran!” Maebhe said.
Kieran rolled his eyes and started off toward the inner city, leaving Maebhe and Drys to follow. It was only a few blocks to the gate. When they reached it, they braced themselves for questioning, but one of the guards just gave Kieran a friendly wave and ushered the three of them through.
From there, it was an easy journey to the castle. They took a roundabout path, avoiding common roads and the occasional patrol. Very few were in the inner city this late into the evening, but Kieran took no risks.
They came upon the castle sooner than either of them expected, turning a corner to find it dead ahead. Its crumbling stone wall was dissimilar to the great structure they’d passed through, meant to be an inconvenience more than an actual barrier. It created privacy, kept them from glimpsing the grounds, but it would have a difficult time keeping anyone out.
Maebhe wandered toward the wrought iron gate situated at a break in the wall. It was shut, but rusted through; when she pushed, the cold metal gave with only a creak as protest, swinging inward on hinges that hadn’t been used in— well, Maebhe didn’t know how long. Centuries. Millennia. She crept through wild foliage that might’ve once been a garden and got her first real look at the castle.
Up close, the sight made her sad. The entire eastern wing was crumbled and exposed, revealing the hollow dark within. Seeing the weathered stones, the holes where windows once sat, and the tongues of ivy climbing the wall, attempting to devour the ancient bricks, Maebhe mourned whoever once lived here. Maybe that really was Tellaos, but more likely, it was some lord or royal who died in the Great War or the revolutions that consumed the valley thereafter.
Maebhe adored history, in the abstract. She knew it was silly to mourn strangers who lived so long ago, but she couldn’t help it. The place was bittersweet — once loved and now forgotten.
When Kieran and Drys joined her in the battered courtyard, she asked, “You really want to go in there?” Even the idea felt like a trespass, an intrusion upon something sacred.
“Yes,” Drys said, sounding less sure than they did when they first proposed the idea. They shook themself. “We’ve come this far. Might as well, no?”
With a nod, Maebhe started toward the open doorway. Then, Kieran swore and grabbed her wrist, pulling her back.
“What’s wrong?” Drys asked.
“I saw a face in the window.”
Goosebumps shot across Maebhe’s skin. 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. The darkness beyond that open doorway beckoned her; morbid curiosity burned within, warring with her guilt at disturbing this place.
“I don’t think…” Kieran began, trailing off. He bit his lip. “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 murmured as the three of them took in the shadowy foyer, their eyes adjusting to the darkness at different rates.
“Then leave,” Drys said.
“Yeah, right. This is the most exciting thing to happen since we got back to Orean,” Kieran said. The three of them spread out, Kieran approaching the grand staircase at the back of the hall. “But that doesn’t mean I won’t be anxious about it.”
Maebhe brushed her fingers along the canvas of an old portrait, then glanced around at the gilded furniture that lined the room. Nothing about this made any sense. The space was completely exposed to the elements, through the open doorway and the massive windows. The winter wind — vicious at best, this high in the mountains — should have worn it all to dust by now.
And yet, it hadn’t.
The portrait was easily the focal point of the room, sitting high on the wall, set in an elegant frame. The colors had faded, but Maebhe found she could still make out the subjects: a demure orinian woman with coiled red curls that framed her face stood at the center, smiling warmly out at Maebhe.
A dragon crouched behind her, his massive jaw almost resting on her shoulder. He was bigger than any Maebhe had seen in Gallontea, bigger, even, than the creature she saw in Lyryma. She couldn’t make out his color — he looked gray, the original hue faded by time. Maebhe felt another surge of melancholy. The dragon’s expression was harder to read, but they both looked happy. Peaceful.
“Perhaps this place really did belong to Tellaos,” Drys said, coming up beside Maebhe to study the portrait.
“The original orinian settlers believed so,” Kieran said, joining them. “It’s why they settled here. Tellaos was dead, but no one else would go near this mountain. We wanted to be left alone, so this seemed the best place for it. Orean just grew around it, after that.”
“But the Guardians aren’t real,” Maebhe said. She’d never been religious. Their parents 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 exists. They talk 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 was meant as a rebuttal — it would’ve sounded silly, weeks ago, but after seeing Lyryma and standing in this castle, the statement sounded close-minded even to her own ears.
Was this really once the home of a god?
With one final look at the haunting portrait, Maebhe turned away and wandered deeper into the decrepit entrance hall. Kieran and Drys had also spread out, Kieran busy admiring an old fireplace when he noticed his sister’s movements.
“Be careful,” he called. “This place may look well preserved, but the structural integrity is still compromised. Don’t touch anything.”
“I won’t,” Maebhe assured him.
She forgot the promise almost immediately, too distracted by what she found hidden deeper within the house. She had reached a darkened hallway that housed more works of art — these less personal than the portrait, more decorative. They allowed her glimpses into the time before the Great War — there was a painting of a small, idyllic town, free of modern carriages or electricity. A tapestry of a hunting party preparing for the chase. A faceless sculpture of something that might have been a dragon.
Maebhe 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 once she’d reached the other end. And after meandering past dull, intricate suits of armor, she did almost succeed in turning back around.
And then she noticed the dancing light of a flame flickering along the wall of the opposite hallway.
She opened her mouth to call for Kieran and Drys, but remembering the face Kieran saw in the window, thought instantly better of it. She crept forward, curious. The suits of armor cast long shadows around her, each shape looking too much like a person out of the corner of her eye. She briefly 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.
She reached the end of the hallway and followed the light down yet another before finally reaching an old stone stairway that led downward in a spiral. The source of the flickering light hung in a sconce at the top step: an old oil lamp, its flame steady. Maebhe unhooked the lamp, marveling at it. She adjusted it to lower the flame and the amount of light it gave off, then started slowly down the steps.
As she descended, 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, all too soon, she reached the last step. Holding the lamp high, she saw that yet another hallway stretched on before her. This was markedly different from the others, though, in that it had the iron bars of cells lining it on either side.
She had found herself in some sort of dungeon.
The sight of the empty cells transported her back to Unity Island. She almost 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.
Maebhe knew she should turn back, or at least grab Drys and Kieran before continuing further. Kieran hadn’t brought his gun, but he knew how to fight.
She didn’t turn back. She continued forward, darkness falling away under the glow of her lantern. It was silent in the dungeon, her boots not making a sound against the old stone, so careful she was. But then she noticed a sound, so quiet even her sensitive ears almost missed it.
Moving in the direction of the sound, Maebhe finally came across a cell that wasn’t empty. A lone man sat in it, his face buried in his knees, brought up to his chest. His hair was yellow, matted, and 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.
Maebhe dropped to her knees in front of the cell, holding her lamp higher. “Hello? Excuse me, 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 at Maebhe, disbelieving.
“Who are you?” he asked, voice hoarse. It wasn’t the accent of Illyon, but the man was unmistakably alfar.
Maebhe’s heart pounded in her ears.
“My name is Maebhe. Oh, I—I don’t know what to do. I didn’t think there would be anyone here. Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
“No,” the man said, then didn’t add any more.
Maebhe bit her lip. “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. Yes, I do! Why in Calaidia are you here? 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 actually here. How did you get here?”
Amos closed his eyes. “That woman brought me.”
“Woman? What woman?”
But Amos only shook his head, not minding Maebhe’s urgency. She recognized his pallor and suspicion for what it was: fear. He was frail; he shook in his skin. How long had he been here? It had been weeks since the incident in Illyon.
“Oh!” Maebhe said. She 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 looked between Maebhe and the steamed bun, his gaze shrewd. Even diminished as he was in this horrible little cell, it was the look of a King assessing a pledge. “Thank you, Maebhe.”
Maebhe nodded. Before she 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 was 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 come back for you.”
Slowly, 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. She hoped the hallway was wide enough. She hoped that she wouldn’t run into whoever was coming down those stairs, that they hadn’t noticed the light of her lantern, that the steady drips of water on brick obscured the sound of her breathing.
She heard the newcomer reach the final step and knew the exact moment they passed by her. A chill ran through Maebhe’s whole body in that moment; she almost brashly covered her nose at the dead smell that followed the person like perfume.
Maebhe had almost reached the stairs when a light flared to life near the alfar King’s cell. Maebhe stopped, frozen, blinking at the now-illuminated creature that stood at the end of the hallway.
Maebhe had never felt such terror, not even facing that red dragon in Lyryma. This woman reminded Maebhe inescapably of that creature, all the same — 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.
“Run, Maebhe!” Amos yelled.
Without waiting a moment longer, Maebhe turned and sprinted up the stairs, taking them two at a time. She didn’t know if the woman followed, had no way of finding out. If she did, Maebhe couldn’t hear the click of her hells against the beating of her own heart.
She reached the armory and darted past the looming suits of armor. She dashed through the hallway full of art, then nearly crashed into Kieran and Drys at the end of it.
“Run!” she yelled, pushing past them both and not pausing to explain. They obeyed without question, following at her heels as they passed back into the foyer. Maebhe spared only a glance for the portrait on the wall, for the red haired orinian who smiled so sweetly at the painter.
She recognized that face now, twisted as it had become.
Then, they were in the courtyard again, passing through the overgrown garden, and Maebhe finally spared a glance over her shoulder. The strange 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.
While she was looking back, Maebhe tripped over a loose stone. She hit the ground hard, crying out in pain, but Drys was there to haul her up and pull her onward.
Though free of the castle, Maebhe, Kieran, and Drys didn’t stop running. They flew through old city streets, but must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, as they walked into a dead end with the old city wall looming above them.
“Hang it,” Drys muttered, pulling Maebhe and Kieran to them. “Hold on to me.”
The twins obeyed, holding on tight as Drys swept them up and over the wall. On the other side, they finally 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 — no, what was that?” Kieran asked.
“I don’t know,” Maebhe gasped. “I really don’t know. Kieran, the king is here. King Nochdvor. He’s in the castle. That woman is keeping him captive.”
Kieran gaped at her. “You can’t be serious.”
“Of course I’m serious!” Maebhe snapped.
Kieran 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 as Kieran headed off in the opposite direction. Maebhe let herself be guided, too shaky and shaken to do anything else.
At the house, Drys led Maebhe upstairs and drew a bath for her. Maebhe hid her face in their shoulder while the old copper tub slowly filled. Like this, surrounded by familiar sounds and Drys’ comforting warmth, her breathing slowed and her mind slowly began to function again.
“Maebhe,” Drys said gently. They leaned temporarily out of Maebhe’s reach, ignoring Maebhe’s plaintive whine, to shut off the running water. Their voice was uncharacteristically soft, their hands on Maebhe gentle. It felt nice. “The water’s ready.”
“Why does this shit keep happening me?” she whined.
Drys stayed silent – Maebhe figured they didn’t have an answer.
“I had to rescue my own brother from a Unity prison. I met a red dragon, was nearly killed by it, and then I found a missing alfar King — a missing alfar King that could start a war — and he was being guarded by- by something not human! Something inhuman that saw my face and almost certainly wants me dead, now! If Atiuh and the Guardians really exist, I would wish they didn’t, if these are the cards they’ve dealt me.”
“Even if that woman 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 eyed 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 had 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 large tub, settling into the warm water and holding a hand out to Drys. “Join me? I could use some company.”