Hazel and Holly — Before the Fall
Previous: Stained Glass Memories, Part Two
In the darkness, the shadows constricting Hazel tightened their grip. The sound of soft, careful footfalls came to her ears. She held her breath, and her gut twisted in fear as the steps grew louder, closer.
She tried to move away but her binds still anchored her. Heart pounding, she hunched over and managed to summon a feeble ball of blue flame in her cupped hands. It flickered into illumination just as a pale hand from one of the familiars grabbed her arm.
Startled, Hazel jerked back, but the familiar held on. His cold fingers dug into her skin, and it was like the blood cooled in her veins. Fatigue settled over her. Her mind clouded and her eyelids grew heavy. For a moment, she would have given anything to lie down and sleep. But she couldn’t sleep. Not yet.
The fatigue deadened her fear, and for the first time in a long while, Hazel could think clearly. She grabbed hold of the familiar with both hands and worked a Dispelling incantation, though she modified it with a spell she never thought it within her to cast. It was like she took whatever essence the familiar had that gave him a semblance of life and she used it to power another spell—one to undo her shadowy binds.
The pressure around her slackened and she could finally move. She remained low to the ground as she crept through the darkness. Her light had extinguished in her encounter with the familiar, and she thought it best to go without. There were still two other familiars somewhere in the room—three if Verrin had summoned his pale woman again. If she kept still and focused, she could almost sense them—a faint chill in the air like winter seeping though a window crack. But she couldn’t remain still, she needed to find Holly and Hemlock. Hawthorn, too. She needed to undo her father’s spell, and then they all needed to escape. How she was going to do all these things, Hazel had no idea. But she pushed all of that aside and just focused on finding her sister. Yes, she could do that.
A scuffling sound came from nearby, then Holly’s high-pitched voice as she cried out. Hazel started towards her, but a chill intensified near her hand and brushed against her skin. She reached out, trying to grab the familiar, but her hand only met cold, empty air.
“Come with me,” Willow said as she took Hazel’s arm.
Hazel resisted the urge to pull away and let her mother lead her through the darkness. “Where’s Holly?
Willow tightened her grip, and the cold became so sharp that it felt like it would cut Hazel’s skin. She stumbled over strewn books and papers as they moved across the room. When Willow let go, the mark left upon Hazel’s arm felt hot by comparison.
“Holly?” Hazel whispered, but there was no reply.
“Do you think I can’t see you, Hazel?” came Ash’s voice from the darkness. “Do you think I can’t see you scurrying around in the shadows like a rat in a cellar? Such feeble subterfuge does not become you.”
He created an orb of light above Hazel’s head that revealed Holly standing about an arm’s length away. She was shrouded in a filmy haze the color of cataracts. A great serpentine beast twined around her, with gnarled claws studded with onyx talons, and wide, webbed wings that spanned between memory and sorrow. It… fed on Holly. Its claws and tail dug into her and, with a pulsating rhythm like a disembodied heart, its wings grew wider and darker, and the shroud around Holly turned more grey and opaque.
Before Hazel could move to help her, Ash created another light on the other end of the room. This one illuminated Hemlock and Hawthorn being circled by a pair of the serpentine creatures. They paced around a crystalline wall that the brothers had summoned around them. One creature swipe at the wall with a taloned claw causing it to shiver. But it remained intact. For now.
“I admire your young man’s tenacity,” Ash said. “But it will do him little good in this case. Their wall will come down—and soon—and you, dear daughter, will need to make a decision.”
Another swipe at the wall by one of the serpents, and this time it collapsed. Before Hemlock and Hawthorn could replace it—before they could move—the creatures were upon them and engulfed them in the same grey shroud as Holly.
“You would harm your youngest daughter, just to force me to choose between them?” Hazel shouted. “What kind of monster are you?”
Ash said nothing. He turned around, whether out of disinterest or discomfort, Hazel couldn’t tell. Not that it mattered. She wouldn’t play his game.
She ran towards her father. One of the necromancers sent his familiar after her, but she cast a spell that returned one of the bookshelves into a sword-weilding warrior that blocked the familiar’s path.
She grabbed Ash’s arm and spoke a corrupted Weaving spell that broke his skin and drew blood. From his blood she conjured a trio of bats and sent them towards Holly, Hemlock, and Hawthorn. The serpents snapped at the bats and caught them in their blackened maws. As they swallowed their prey, their scaled, sinuous bodies melted like sealing wax. The grey shrouds fell away from Holly and the others and they stood there, blinking and befuddled, but unharmed.
Ash’s mouth tightened. The other necromancers overcame Hazel’s warrior and started towards her. But Ash held up a hand and they halted. He studied her a long moment, then smiled. “Exactly so, Hazel. Shall we continue?” He nodded to the necromancers and they spoke in monotonous voices as they wove a spell in unison. All the mirrors in the room darkened to show a star-studded night sky. Verrin stepped foward, and the night within the mirrors leached into the room and twined around him, while the stars wept luminous, mercurial tears.
He reached into a mirror and gathered the weeping star light into his cupped hands, cradling the liquid with a careful tenderness that a mother might show her newborn child. He carried the light out of the mirrored otherworld and into the present, mundane one.
He brought his cupped hands to his face, and his features lit up as if with galvanized flame. For a moment, he looked as if he meant to drink the light. Instead, he walked to the two familiars remaining to the necromancers. The third necromancer summoned a new one while casting a dark glance at Hazel. Verrin’s own pale woman was gone.
He held out his hands, and each familiar drank the light ladled within them. And as they drank, it was like the light combusted within their chests. Their skin blackened and emitted ribbons of smoke that coiled and gathered near the ceiling like incense haze. The smoke tendrils hooked onto the familiars’ skin and pulled at their charred flesh. They became like great marionettes, shuffling only because their unseen master didn’t know how to make them dance.
Walking to each of their familiars, the necromancers pulled out short, curved knives from the wide sleeves of their robes and unceremoniously cut the familiars’ throats. The shadows severed from the creatures as they crumpled to the ground, and the billowing darkness up in the rafters solidified. Scaled legs sprouted like eels from black mud. Sharp blue eyes winked open near the ankles, just behind long taloned claws that curved like onyx scythes. Black, gossamer wings webbed out from the amorphous body like wind-tattered sails rent from a storm. Then the body itself took shape—muscular underneath black scales studded with blinking blue crystals. The head of a dragon turned on a long serpentine neck and fixed Hazel in a star-studded black eye.
She stumbled back a few steps, unable to stop herself. She needed to hide her fear—showing it would only make everything worse. So she cringed when Holly cried out in horror, then horror gripped Hazel’s own heart when the black dragon moved its serpentine head and fixed Holly in its blackened gaze.
“Hey!” Hazel shouted but the dragon ignored her. Its talons scraped along the stone floor as it took one lumbering step, then another.
Holly ran behind a table, though judging by her stricken expression, she knew it was poor protection.
Hazel spoke a spell of Dispelling, but nothing happened. She tried a corrupted version of it, twisting a conglomeration of a Weaving spell of Diminishing along with a Wyr spell of Prismatic Light into something else entirely, but it didn’t have any effect.
Panicking, she hurried over to Ash. He watched the entire affair with bemused detachment.
“What’s wrong with you?” she hissed at him. “You’re just going to stand there and let that thing attack Holly?”
Ash fixed her in a level gaze. “‘For beyond the veil of myth and memory, a deeper truth has always lain: we are all of us alone, and yet not; the darkness consumes us even as it subsists us. And without this cold, dark, solitary oneness, we would all of us consume ourselves, cannibalizing our souls in a fruitless search for a glimpse of nonexistent light.’”
But her father returned his attention to the black dragon with countless crystalline eyes as it advanced on Holly.
Enough. Hazel yanked Ash’s collar, exposing a gleaming sliver chain so delicate that it couldn’t have possibly been made by human hands. She grabbed hold of it and pulled hard, expecting it to snap free, but instead her father stumbled forward and grabbed hold of her wrist in a near-crushing grip. His eyes turned cold, and the dragon lost interest in Holly as it returned its gaze to her.
Ash pulled Hazel to a chair near a table laden with books and stray papers. He ran an arm over the table and sent everything crashing to the ground and pushed Hazel onto the seat.
“That got your attention,” she said. “It’s the geas, isn’t it? It’s how you’ve bound Mother to you.”
“Enough of this, Hazel.”
“Funny, I was thinking the same thing about you.”
The dragon huffed out a stale breath that smelled of spoiled eggs and an unkempt cellar. It extended a tattered wing around her, like a mother swan protecting her cygnet. The air turned both stifling and cold, and sweat broke across Hazel’s body even as she shivered.
A blinding white light seared across her vision, and the dragon reared up as the blue eyes studding its scales turned empty and white. In the corner of the room, Hemlock leaned against Hawthorn, his gaze fixed on Hazel while Hawthorn kept an eye on the dragon. Almost as soon as Hemlock began to work a spell, Hawthorn spoke one of his own. Pure white light flashed again through the dimly-lit room, only this time it didn’t sear Hazel’s vision as before. This time, it was like she stood within a shadow, and as the light flashed, the room around her changed.
The dragon diminished—reduced to nothing more than a shadow upon a whitewashed wall, cast by the three necromancers making shapes with their hands. Ash aged by twenty years, his back hunched beneath a weight that threatened to grind him into the earth. Willow stood beside him, offering him her arm; but she also stood next to Holly, a hand on her shoulder, though Holly didn’t seem to notice she was there.
And from across the room, Hemlock stood proud and tall, no longer needing the assistance from his brother. He wore a jacket of finely tailored blackberry leaves, adorned with a cravat of woven nightshade and white carnations. He pricked his finger on a thorn of his coat, and as he studied the bead of impossibly red blood on his fingertip, a thin, silvery crown adorned his head, pale and translucent like moonlit wind.
One breath later, the light faded and everything returned as it was. Nobody else seemed to have noticed the brief change in the room. Except Hemlock. He still hung on his brother’s arm, but his expression now held a degree of earnestness as he leaned forward as far as his strength, and his brother, would allow.
The dragon extended its wings again, but before they could wrap around Hazel, she spoke a corrupted Weaving spell and a sharp wind gusted through the room, blasting back the dragon’s wings and allowing her to escape.
She ran over to Hemlock and Hawthorn.
“It’s about time!” Hawthorn said. “What about Holly?”
“I don’t know!” Everything had been happening so quickly; she hadn’t had any time to think.
Hawthorn made a disgusted sound and transferred Hemlock’s arm over to her care. “Stay here while I go get her.”
Hazel didn’t like his insinuation that she had abandoned her sister, but she bit back the sharp remark that had settled on her tongue. If he could get to Holly, then that’s all that mattered. She focused on Hemlock. He gripped her arm just as he had gripped his brother’s, and continued to look at her in that unsettling, insistent stare.
Hawthorn made to cross the room. The dragon turned and settled itself in his path. He spoke a spell that started to make the light in the room grow blindingly bright, but then the necromancers all spoke a spell in unison, and the dragon snapped its jaws and the room darkened again.
“He’s going to get himself killed,” Hazel muttered. She needed to help him, but she couldn’t leave Hemlock.
“Hazel…” He held out a clenched hand. When he opened it, a shard of broken mirror lay on his palm. It had cut into his skin, and blood seeped from the wound and pattered to the stones below.
She gasped and gathered a handful of her skirts and tried to staunch the bleeding, but Hemlock jerked his hand away. He dropped the shard and, before she could stop him, he grabbed her hand in forceful, bloody grip.
“What are you doing?” This was unlike him. He must have lost his mind.
Hemlock brought his face close to hers. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, as if savoring the moment, as if savoring her.
Then his expression turned sober and tired. He gave a feeble nod toward Ash. “Your blood is his blood,” he rasped barely above a whisper. “It’s the only way, and you know it.” He let go of her hand and slumped onto the ground.
Hazel stared at her bloodied hand. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. The old thought floated into her mind, as stubborn and persistent as flowing water. But then a new thought occurred to her: maybe it was supposed to happen like this. Maybe everything was happening exactly as it should. Maybe she had always known what she was supposed to do.
She clenched her hand into a blood-soaked fist. She turned towards her father and, with a spell, unwound shadows from the dragon to take them as her own. And she let the darkness consume her.
Next: A Return to Light