The Spider and the Curse

Life with the Dead and Death Among the Living

Having not met Ashlin, and only catching a glimpse of her from a distance, you may discard her from your mind and mistake her for normal. If, however, by chance, you were to stare intently at her, you would start to see the little abnormalities which simply did not add up. Maybe you would see how the age of her face did not match her white hair, perhaps you'd think of how her skin was too pale for a living person, or even that the blue tinge to it was far from normal. Perchance, if you really looked closely, it would become apparent how she looked far too innocent for a sixteen year old girl.

Ashlin, however, was not a ghost. She was, in all the irony of her existence, very much alive.

When Ashlin felt unbearably alone, she could be found curled up by the river, her tiny arms wrapped around her fragile figure. Watching the silvery water lick the shore, knowing better than to touch it, but wishing she could, Ashlin found some sort of solace from her solitude. Sometimes, Ashlin could swear she saw a hand trying to break the surface of the water, but the image would fade almost as suddenly as it had appeared.

Occasionally, Ashlin's eyes would be relinquished from the water's hypnotic charm, and focus themselves on the insignificant details of this world. She could watch a drifting flower petal fall, and wonder where it came from, knowing that there were no flowers in the world. Or she could gaze upwards, at the empty sky, sensing an absence of something when she saw no light. Or she would see a spider's web spinning itself.

Everything, though, remained as a stubborn reminder of her loneliness: there were no other living beings in the Land of the Dead.

"I thought I could find you here, Ashlin."

The voice startled Ashlin out of her daydream and she whipped her head around to see its source. A hooded figure stood behind her, reaching out to her tiny frame with a gloved hand. With a small, barely noticeable smile, Ashlin grabbed his hand and the figure pulled her up.

"We have to move inside now, Ashlin. The Night Attack is about to start."

It was silence that greeted this statement, Ashlin barely acknowledging that she had heard except for the look of understanding that passed over her visage.

Their pace slow and methodical, the figure and Ashlin walked along the shore, dodging the foamless waves of the river.

The quiet they walked in was a companionable silence, neither wishing to speak to break it, both of them finding it to their liking. It was a comfortable, but heavy lack of sound, save for the crunching of the gravel beneath their feet.

"Marcos," Ashlin said eventually, her voice, though barely a whisper, sounding loud and imposing. "They got worse."

The figure, now revealed to be Marcos, didn't pause in their walk, but spared Ashlin a concerned look.

"How so?" he asked.

"The spinning seems sharper, even though my vision is blurred," she replied, not raising her voice. "And my chest tightens … it's like I'm gasping for air."

Beneath his hood, Marcos frowned. If what she had said was true, then…

"We'll talk about this later," Marcos commanded, stopping abruptly.

They had reached their destination.

Beached high up on the shingle shores was a small boat, just big enough to fit two people. Like everything else in the world, it seemed void of energy and lifeless, but Ashlin knew better than to trust appearances.

In all her time in the Land of the Dead, Ashlin had never questioned anything Marcos did. How he knew when it was night in a land with no sun... How the boat moved… Whether he was like her, living in the Land of the Dead…

What Ashlin knew, Marcos told her because she was ready. If she was ever ready.

Ashlin's reflection stared back at her as she peered over the edge of the small boat, the wake rippling pleasantly behind.

She might have been pretty once, Ashlin realised, but now, she was too drained and empty to be called anything other than plain.

Ashlin saw it: a struggling hand break the surface of the water. Panic ingrained into her by Marcos' repeated stories rose up within her heart.

She shot a desperate look to Marcos and suddenly the boat lurched forwards.

Beaching the boat was an affair best left to Marcos and Ashlin wasted no time trying to help him lift it with her fragile figure, instead bounding up the rocky paths, her bare feet feeling no pain as she sprinted.

She reached her destination after slowing to a stop.

The house, or rather, the fortress, was ruined and decrepit. Hidden in amongst the dead outlines of trees, the grey, crumbling brickwork seemed to blend perfectly into the background. In amongst the cracked mortar, dead ivy had taken root, scaling the walls and climbing into the building through small holes wherever possible. Capping the building was a roof, though the stability of such a structure was doubtful, with the tiles slowly degrading and the support beams fading into nothingness. What had been windows were cracked and broken, with the shards of glass lying scattered across the sills.

Ashlin allowed her eyes to smile. It hadn't changed at all since she'd arrived.

At first, Ashlin supposed, she must have doubted the security of the location at least partly, but it had never once failed either Ashlin or Marcos.

Barely seconds behind Ashlin came Marcos, who took Ashlin by the hand and led her inside, before a wave of his arm caused the doors to slam shut.

The screams began.

Ashlin supposed she should have grown used to them by now, but they never seemed to stop. They were anguished, desperate screams for help that pounded against your conscience and begged for you to do something.

Marcos remained apathetic as Ashlin reached up to clutch her head.

It was so loud, so frightening, so … haunting.

Ashlin's chest began to tighten.

Tears stung at the edges of her eyes.

Her vision started to spin.

Why wouldn't they stop? Why couldn't they just stay in the river? Why did they have to hurt themselves?

Ashlin could feel her consciousness slipping, but clung to it with flailing fingers.

Ashlin yearned for another life. Another chance to live, to experience, not just exist. She should go, she knew. She should leave. Sometimes, she found it hard to comprehend why she would even consider staying.

Bold arms wrapped around her thin frame and a voice whispered comforting phrases into her delicate ears.

The tears cleared from her eyes. Yes, she remembered. That was why she stayed.

She stayed because she didn't know if she could bring herself to leave the one she called brother in her heart.

Aria looked at the tiny piece of parchment, her eyes darting immediately to the signature. Carefully, she inspected it, taking into account the odd curl on the edge of the 'r'. Aria sighed deeply. What could Leyrin want at such an hour?

"Ready my horse, Maria," Aria barked sharply at her maid, not taking her eyes off the parchment before setting it alight with the candle by her bedside.

Throwing a glare sideways at her maid, Aria ensured that her horse would be ready before rolling out of bed and searching for some clothes to wear.

Perhaps I need to make an effort to seem friendlier, Aria wondered, noting the way that her household staff had scurried to wake her up. It was clear as day that her entire pyroll was terrified to living hell of her.

That said, it was justified terror. Lady Aria Reynolds' fearsome reputation as a ruthless soldier was surpassed only by that of her boss.

Dressing was relatively simple, even without her maids to do up the troublesome lace, as Aria's entire wardrobe was composed of clothes picked for practicality rather than fashion, not that it mattered. Even if Aria were to turn up to Court looking like a beggar off the streets, no one would comment, and her reputation wouldn't fall lower than it had already.

Noting that it probably wasn't best to wear one of her everyday robes, Aria settled for a dress of deep green, which she slipped on over a pair of trousers and tunic, if only to keep up appearances.

Lazily slipping clips into her hair to keep her short locks from falling into her eyes, Aria couldn't help but feel that unless Liyrest was literally under siege, calling her out at such an hour was unreasonable.

Aria sighed yet again, already missing her warm bed, as she started to do up the straps on her boots and hide weapons on her person.

As she felt the familiar weight of steel on her person, Aria smiled and grabbed the one last garment she had yet to put on: her favourite coat.

It was charcoal in colour, one of the few pieces of truly dark clothing she owned, and loose around the shoulders, with many pockets to hide things in. It's dark colour meant that blood didn't stain it and it was fun to pull up the hood to add an air of mystery to her appearance.

Aria left her room at a brisk walk, snuffing out the candle as she went.

The ride to the castle was relatively short and the night air cold enough to freeze blood, but Aria needed the wake-up call. As she approached the large doors, she handed her horse to a stable boy – in fact, the only stable boy still awake – and left to find the man who had summoned her at this ungodly hour.

Security at the castle at night was especially tight, even more so these days than before. Guards patrolled the halls at seemingly random intervals and the rotas were changed so often that it was a miracle anyone knew where they were supposed to be.

Still, most of the guards new Aria by name, even if they didn't know her by face, and knew to let her through without question. When she came to the Alchemists' Chambers, however, she was rejected before she could even say a word.

"Do you have permission to be wandering around the castle at this time of night?" a guard enquired, gazing at the hooded figure before him.

He had a thick skull and a large, round face, the bottom half of which was covered in the beginnings of a beard. His head was shaved beneath his helmet and muscles were peeking ostentatiously out of his tunic.

Aria resisted the sudden urge to draw her a weapon on the guard and instead withdrew her signed pass papers which she was supposed to use in circumstances like this. A rough, caloused hand snatched the paper from Aria's grasp and brought it up to the guard's face as he inspected it.

The guard blinked upon seeing the signature before looking back down at Aria.

"You expect me to believe that the Knight of One, her majesty's most trusted knight, presented you with a pass paper of such high authority?" he asked incredulously.

"What can I say?" Aria shrugged her shoulders, pulling down her hood and giving the guard a coy smile. "Maybe I'm his love-slave."

The guard merely stared at her, a slow blush creeping onto his round cheeks.

"What's this about my love-slave?"

Aria cursed her unfortunate timing as she recognised the voice of her superior. Clicking her tongue in annoyance, the girl spun around just in time to see Leyrin's approaching form.

"Oh, Aria," Leyrin said, sounding genuinely disappointed. "It's you."

As soon as he was in range, Aria clouted Leyrin round the head.

"Would you like to repeat that?" she hissed at him, only to find a sword at her throat.

"Do you even know how to hold that thing?" Aria asked, raising her eyebrows at the guard, tapping the sword lightly with her index finger.

"Y-y-you just a-assaulted a Knight of the Realm," the guard stammered out, seeming genuinely nervous.

Aria wanted to burst out laughing. It was just too comical, seeing a man with all the brawn in the world stammering like some newbie.

Aria cocked her head to the side, looking at Leyrin, who was finding the situation equally amusing, if for different reasons.

"Oh," Aria said. "So I did. Oops. Sorry Leyrin."

The guard seemed rather taken aback by her reaction he tensed the arm holding the sword.

"Address Lord Asther more respectfully!" he commanded, his anger dissolving his stutter.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," Leyrin said, finally stepping in. "Aria, just because the new recruits are always given the night shift on their first week, does not give you justification to take advantage of their unfamiliarity with your face to play mind games with them."

Leyrin was shaking his head in mock disappointment.

Aria ducked out of the path of the sword and scowled at Leyrin.

"Think before you summon me from my bed at ungodly hours, then, Leyrin," she said irritably. "I'm not in the best humour at the moment."

Out of the corner of her eye, Aria saw a light flicker in the guard's eyes.

"Excuse me for asking, Lord Asther," the guard asked, not sheathing his sword. "But did you say 'Aria'?" The guard paused. "As in Lady Aria Reynolds, adopted daughter of the late Lord Reynolds, current Knight of Three and Lady of Southsun?"

Leyrin smiled.

"You catch on fast," he said.

The guard blinked, opening his mouth, then closing it again, before he dropped to the ground immediately.

"I hereby extend my deepest apologies to Lady Aria Reynolds, Knight of Three and Lord Leyrin Asther, Knight of One, for my rudeness and inability to grasp the situation."

Leyrin just laughed.

"Don't worry yourself, Aria here takes pleasure in messing with people's minds. Now if you don't mind, could you let me into my chambers, Aria and I have a matter we need to discuss."

With that, he took hold of Aria's arm, perhaps a little more firmly than necessary, and pulled her into the Alchemists' Chambers.

The Alchemists' Chambers were the Headquarters for the Knights of the Realm, the queen's elite group of most trusted soldiers.

The entire network of rooms was a veritable labyrinth, but few of the rooms were used for anything but business, resting and light spars. Heavier training, weapons storage, and more sensitive information were all stored elsewhere, deeper within the maze of rooms, but the front rooms of the Chambers sufficed for what they were used for.

The name was made almost ironic by the fact it had been the Knights who had carried out the persecution of Alchemists just a year before when the queen had declared alchemy a forbidden art and ordered the purging of alchemists from the realm.

What became later known as the Alchemists' Purge had ended brutally in favour of the Knights. Now, everyone who had ever claimed to be an alchemist was either rotting in an underground gaol cell or rotting six feet under.

Deep within the labyrinth, where Leyrin's office was, the rooms were spacious, or at least seemed so until the Knights had taken over. Leyrin's office in particular was an example of this.

Despite being called 'his office', the room served more as a general hodgepodge of different uses. In one corner, the Knights had stored their information and details of upcoming missions and jobs, with certain pieces of parchment pinned to the wall with throwing knives. In another stood endless amounts of equipment, stacked haphazardly in any old manner. Then, the third corner was allocated for training. There were dummies, targets, shields and a lot of medical supplies. Most Knights got wounded when fighting each other in training, not their enemies. The fourth corner had four beds pushed against the wall, all pushed as far away from the training ground as possible. A Knight could always just come in, crash on whatever mattress was free, or, if the mattress wasn't free, on top of whatever corpse-like person was lying there, and fall asleep (or get kicked onto the floor by whoever you just fell on).

"So, Leyrin, what do you want?" Aria asked, her voice tired, sitting down on the edge of one the beds.

"Don't be like that, Aria," Leyrin retorted, a leering smile in his voice. "You know what I want, don't you?" He leaned closer to Aria. "I want you."

Aria, who had been instinctively leaning away from him as he drew closer, shot him a repulsed look.

"No sense of humour," Leyrin said, 'tsk'ing as he did. He picked up a roll of parchments off his cluttered desk. "Here's your file, Little Miss Workaholic." Leyrin chuckled to himself.

The Knight of One was a strange man, the type who took pleasure in every eccentricity he was thought to display. He was barely older than Aria, claiming seniority over her by barely two years, and certainly not much more mature. His relaxed attitude had a tendency to irritate people and he was often berated by his subordinates for his lack of a work ethic and tendency to do very little unless the situation was desperate.

In terms of appearance, Leyrin was average looking. He had sand-coloured hair which hung around his shoulders when it wasn't tied back with a loose piece of string. He needed glasses to read and these spectacles served the purpose of hiding his eyes as they glinted with humour amongst the soulless grey of his irises.

These days, he was rarely seen in action, but the rumours still travelled about the times when he was part of the queen's army, fighting for his kingdom under the banner of a woman. The tales told weren't legends. They were horror stories.

To say that Aria hated her superior would be an exaggeration. She didn't despise him, even more so due to their long-lasting acquaintance, just found his nature mildly irritating. Then again, not many people had the guts to find fault with this man.

"What do you think?"

Aria looked up at Leyrin from the report. Her eyes were glinting in the candle-light. Not with happiness, not with humour, but with anger.

"I'm taking the job." Aria spoke with something stronger than rage, disgust. "I'm taking this bastard down."

"Language, Lady Reynolds, language," Leyrin said, shaking his head. "What would the Court say if they heard you speaking like that?"

"Nothing," Aria responded heatedly. "I'd sever their heads from their necks before they could utter a word of disapproval."

It was at this point that Leyrin decided that it was probably best that he didn't bring up any more people Aria disliked when she was feeling murderous.

"I thought you'd want this job as you feel strongly about these people," Leyrin whispered, "but don't overdo it, Aria. Nora needs you."

Something about that last statement made Aria's heart twist with something. Guilt?

"No need to be polite, Leyrin," Aria replied stiffly, "it's simple. I want every last member of the Almagest dead. And then I want to throw their dead bodies into a burning chasm."

"Well, Aria," Leyrin shrugged, sitting down next to her on the bed and picking up his trademark pair of glasses, "I leave the methods up to you. And bonus pay for any extra information you can pull from this guy's hideout."

Aria didn't say a word as she excused herself. Her eyes were blazing with a strong emotion, but the anger had long since left her. Was it hate? Was it vengeance? No, it was pure and simple regret.

Ashlin stared blankly at the wall, her eyes tracing the cracks in the brickwork. The Night Attack had long since passed, but Ashlin still refused to move, bound by unspoken thoughts.

Marcos' arms were still wrapped around her, and she was leaning her head against his chest, their breathing synchronised.

Suddenly, Marcos spoke up, his voice uncharacteristically soft.

"How bad are the headaches, Ashlin?" he asked.

Ashlin froze, throwing their breathing off synchronisation.

"Painful," she eventually whispered in reply. "It feels like … like my entire body is fighting something … like a fever."

If Ashlin had been able to see Marcos' face, she would have seen the struggle that was waging war across his features.

"It's time you left this world, Ashlin," he said gravely.

Ashlin sat up sharply, pushing away from Marcos' chest, only to find herself forced back onto the floor by a stab of pain in her head.

"What?" she asked in shock, rubbing her temples.

"Your body has started to reject this world, Ashlin," Marcos said quietly. "Because it doesn't … it doesn't belong here."

"What do you mean, Marcos?" Ashlin sat up, gradually this time, and looked into Marcos's eyes, beneath his hood.

"Ashlin," Marcos spoke with sincerity and sorrow. "You're alive." He stroked her silvery hair with a now un-gloved hand. "You don't belong in this world, Ashlin, hiding every time that there's a Night Attack, fearing this place's real inhabitants. You belong in the sunlight, and you deserve to age. You deserve to live and love and forge your path among the living. You'll always be welcome here, Ashlin, but you deserve better. So you need to leave."

Ashlin saw the pain in Marcos's eyes. She saw how he didn't want her to leave, but she also saw something else. She saw a deep wish for her to be happy.

"Okay," she said quietly. "I'll leave."

Marcos pulled Ashlin tighter into his chest. The quiet, pale girl had become invaluable to him and he wasn't sure how he'd survive without her silent company to brighten his days, but he'd manage.

Marcos looked at Ashlin. She was like a sister to him… She was his sister in everything but blood and race.

Marcos held her in his arms, hoping that he would get to see her again, but wishing he would never have to.

Three minutes later, Ashlin was dressed to leave. She had pulled a dark velvet cloak on over her dress and was standing opposite Marcos.

"Sell these for money," Marcos instructed, handing Ashlin six silver rings. Ashlin slid three of them onto her fingers and pocketed the other three.

"Use this for protection," Marcos said as he handed her a silver dagger, which Ashlin hung from her waist, then hid within the folds of her cloak.

"And keep this to remember me by."

Marcos placed a silver circlet on Ashlin's head, kissing her forehead as he did so. It was beautiful and intricate in design, with the thin strands of silver intertwining in a delicate fashion.

Ashlin blinked away tears as she looked at Marcos, and wondering, perhaps for the last time, what he hid beneath the hood.

"How do I leave?" Ashlin asked Marcos meekly.

Marcos handed her a piece of paper.

"I can't tell you more than that, Ashlin," he said.

Ashlin gazed down at the piece of paper, reading the curly script.

Through the entry is the exit,

But the guard of the toll gate is fierce,

Pay the price:

What separates the living from the dead?

Ashlin was good at solving puzzles. It was part of her nature. She might have been naïve, innocent and easily misled, but she was smart enough to see through many schemes and this had kept her safe before. She didn't even need to think to solve this puzzle.

"Thank you, Marcos," she murmured, folding the parchment and placing it within the folds of her cloak.

She couldn't bring herself to hug him in farewell, instead turning away to hide her tears.

"Goodbye, Marcos," she said, not meeting his eye. "Thank you and … goodbye."

Ashlin walked down the gravel track and to the edge of the river.

Ashlin waded until she was waist deep in water before stopping. She looked down to see hands beneath the surface clawing at her dress, trying to pull he down to no avail.

"What separates the living from the dead?" Ashlin spoke aloud. "A flow of energy through the body. A flow of … " Ashlin unsheathed her silver dagger and cut her hand. "Blood." She muttered.

The red droplets fell off her hand and into the water. Ashlin would remember nothing but black as she passed out.

Marcos watched Ashlin's tiny form fade with a rueful smile on his face. It was for the best that she left, but having her constant presence for three hundred years made Marcos feel somewhat empty now she was gone. Her quiet kindness had been a pleasant change from the cold harshness of the Land of the Dead. Of course, she was naïve, but she also had no memories so it could be forgiven.

Marcos still remembered seeing Ashlin fall into the river. The Ashlin of then had mousy brown hair and blue eyes, and her skin tone was healthy in colour. Her simple healer's uniform had been stained with blood. The moment Marcos saw her he knew that she didn't belong here, but he felt powerless to do much.

Ashlin had hit the water with a splash, temporarily breaking the surface, which quickly reformed. Marcos imagined that the thought of what would have happened had he not pulled her from the water when he did would have haunted his nightmares, if he slept. He could recall, clear as day, watching, mesmerizied, as they had pulled her down, down to the bottom of the river, draining her life force faster and faster the deeper they went.

Marcos wasn't going to do anything, he insisted, until he saw Ashlin begin to struggle. Ashlin had struggled and struggled and fought and fought, even though it would be useless against the masses of spirits she was facing. That was when Marcos had interrupted. He'd directed his boat the event, thrown his arms into the river and pulled the limp girl from the water.

To Marcos's dismay, he had been too late. The spirits had not only taken Ashlin's energy, but had begun to drain everything that made her human. Marcos had acted just in time in some aspects; a second later and Ashlin would have been dead, but in others he had failed. Ashlin had white hair, pale skin and no memories.

Ashlin had surprised Marcos. She was caring, and trusted him even though she knew little about him. Marcos knew that her trust, though endearing, was also dangerous. Panic hit him. Would Ashlin survive in the world of the living? Or would he meet her again sooner than he thought?

The Lord of the Dead pulled down his hood and cracked a rare smile. Ashlin would be just fine. After all, he had given her a nickname that would cause many to fear her.

Ashlin, you will always be my sister. You will always be the Sister of Death.

Aria entered the house silently through an open window, being careful to avoid making a single sound.

If anyone from the Court saw her now … Aria smirked, imagining their reactions to her wearing men's clothing. Still, wearing trousers was important for jobs such as this; the one time Aria had ever scaled a building in a hoop-skirt had not ended well.

Aria sighed in relief as her feet touched the floor of the room – she had been clinging by her fingertips to the side of the house for a while now – and she let her eyes wander. She was standing in a study, surrounded by ancient scrolls, bottles of ink and pieces of chalk, most of which were piled neatly on a mahogany desk in the corner.

As Aria ran her feet over the floor, she saw the signs that she was indeed in the right place: the scratches, the half-drawn runes … the blood.

It made her sick thinking about it.

Aria tore her eyes away from the floor, reminding herself that flashbacks were really not what she needed now, and pressed forward silently. As Aria reached for the doorhandle, her eye caught on a piece of parchment pinned to the wall.

At first glance, it appeared to be a nonsensical sheet of scribbles, made from hurried scratches with a quill, but Aria had seen something like it before. It was a design sheet.

With a quick swipe of her hand, Aria pulled the sheet down from the wall and tucked it within her coat.

That out to get me a nice big bonus, Aria thought dryly.

Aria left the study, creeping in stealth along the corridor. Her foot paused suddenly. She could feel vibrations in the floor boards. Someone was coming.

With surprising agility, Aria darted into the darkness, weaving a web of shadows around herself as her instincts wound themselves into a taut mess.

Aria's sharp eyes picked up a man as he appeared, his form advancing up the stairs at a brisk pace.

His thinning hair was plastered to his almost bald head with sweat and his gaunt face screamed of lack of sleep. He was unusually thin, but did not let his obvious bad health slow his pace. He pushed open a bedroom door and forced his way into the room.

Aria was about to feel sorry for him, then stopped herself. He was a target: a serialised piece of data. He was evil and twisted and deserved to die. He was not a person. He was an Almage.

Unsheathing her dagger in deadly silence, Aria trailed after him, not even leaving a shadow as evidence.

He would never leave the room.

An obligatory part of being an assassin for the Queen's Court was that any target you killed had to be positively identified, even after the death, as a threat. More specifically, for Aria, she had to prove that the man whose life she had just ended really was, as intelligence had suggested, a member of the Almagest.

Soundlessly, Aria searched for the runes that would confirm her beliefs. She found the runes, blue and burnt onto the skin, on the back of the man's left hand, the colour of the runes alrady fading to black, as was usual after death.

Out of nothing more than curiosity, Aria delved into her limited knowledge of runes to discern their meaning.

"Power, huh," Aria murmured. "Selfish, were we?" she asked the man's limp face sarcastically.

The man made no move to reply, even as Aria cleaned the blood off her dagger on the man's robes.

Looking back on it, Aria would realise that she should have listened to her instincts as they screamed for her to leave. She should have, she would say, but she was glad she didn't.

When Leyrin and her were still training together, he had once told Aria that hanging around with dead bodies was always a bad idea. They're terrible company and every second longer you stay in their presence, the higher the chance of getting caught. Discovery for an assassin meant one of two things: either the body count went up or you spent hours in a gaol cell dodging questions.

Nevertheless, when your only company is dead, the conversation may be one-sided, but there's also no one around to object to a little off-the-books intelligence gathering. And so, Aria began to inspect the room.

It was lavishly decorated, surprising really, because the outside of the house had been old and dilapidated, with silk drapes and chair-covers. The floor was wooden, like in the study, but impeccably kept. On a bedside table beside the four poster bed, there was a wine glass full of red liquid, sat on top of a book.

Aria stared at the wine glass, her mind racing through possibilities. Almages didn't drink alcohol because it destroyed their magical pathways, which meant either Mr Corpse over on the floor had company, or this wasn't red wine.

Aria moved to inspect the cup, one hand resting on the book beneath it as she picked the glass up and swirled the liquid around.

Footsteps were what caused Aria to drop the wine glass in shock, spilling it over herself and the book.

Aria cursed, accidentally pocketing the book in her alarm.

The footsteps' speed increased.

Aria dashed in blind panic to the closest hiding place she could find: the closet.

She cursed herself as the door to the room opened, realising somewhat late that she had just picked the most obvious place to hide in the existence of hiding places.

Still, Aria remained tense, prepared to add another to her body count if she had to, her knuckles becoming white as she gripped her dagger.

The figure entered the room and looked around with inquisitive eyes, eventually catching sight of the dead Almage.

Her eyes narrowed. She turned around to inspect the rest of the room. Aria finally saw her face.

Pretty, chestnut brown hair, pulled into two identical plaits; delicate chiselled features; hazel brown eyes: this was the face of Kim.

The figure sniffed the air and her eyes zeroed in on the closet. Aria panicked. This was Kim. She couldn't kill her, could she? She couldn't kill her … again.

The girl drew closer.

Aria's grip on the dagger was iron, her mind whirring in desperation.

One hand of the girl's unsheathed a blade.

The other reached for the door of the closet.

The girl threw open the closet door and found … nothing. Her brow crinkled in confusion as she stared around the room before shutting the closet door and proceeding to another part of the house.

Aria breathed a sigh of relief, which was soon overcome with regret.

I used that art again… Aria couldn't help but be filled with guilt as she looked down at her left hand.

Drawn in blood, which had been taken from her finger, was a rune. Aria's untrained eyes read the clumsy and amateur drawing as "shadows". Taking her right hand, Aria brutally smudged the rune away.

Quietly, Aria sheathed her dagger and left the house before she could be found again.

As she fled the building, her mind tried to frantically restore some semblance of order in her thoughts.

That girl wasn't Kim, she reassured herself. Kim's dead.

Aria glanced from the mess of blood on her hand down to the book she had accidentally picked up in the panic and the parchment filled with scribbles.

Besides, Aria, she told herself, you have more important things to worry about.

This thought was what occupied her mind as she fled, steeling her thoughts away from what they should have been focusing on. Her clothes smelt of wine, but that wasn't all.

That red liquid, Aria would only later come to realise, had been a mixture of wine and blood.

And if the Almage hadn't been drinking it, the Kim lookalike must have instead.

© 2012 Mari Thomas. All Rights Reserved.

A/N: This is a rewrite of Spiders and Curses, one which I realised two days ago was sorely needed. Hopefully this version will have more better characterisation and pacing than the last one.

Let me know if you liked it,

-Rebel Maru

PS: Review!