Chapter One

She had to move. She could not afford to waste any more time, especially if this was going to be her one and only chance. She was the last of the captives still alive, presumably. There had been nineteen others, and the game that the monsters had been playing for the last year grew old for them and one by one, over the last three nights, the others were taken. She heard some of them scream. Sometimes she only heard silence. But they finally made a mistake when they took the last- Vincent, the little boy from Airden. They left the door unlocked. When she could no longer hear the footsteps, or the sound of them dragging his paralyzed body, she ran as fast as her broken body could manage.

She had to keep running. She could not cling to the statue for much longer lest she jeopardize her escape. "Erelel, protect me," she whispered as she launched herself from behind the statue. It had been quiet long enough for her to decide no one else was in the room with her. She'd never been in this part of the palace. She knew because she could see bright moonlight shining into the windows of the next room. They never took captives into lit rooms. There were never windows. Or if there were, they were always well covered.

Velry pushed herself as hard as she could, ignoring the blistering pain that came with each and every step. Only last week they had taken to peeling the skin off of her legs in patches and she was nowhere near healed. They'd stopped healing the wounds they inflicted, and instead left them to fester. As a result, the air stung her open wounds, but Velry could not stop to let the agonizing cries out. No, she kept running. Through statue lined corridor into the moonlit library, as it appeared to be. The wall opposite to the windows was made of bookshelves, though the shelves were actually starting to rot out, and the books themselves were lying in shredded and nearly disintegrated piles on the floor.

She could not linger on the sight of the shelves for too long because she had to quickly halt her progress when she nearly fell into the giant hole in the floor that was rotten and falling into the basement and catacombs below. "Damn it," she said, trying to gauge where the safest place to walk around was. What wasn't a hole in the floor was a pile of old wood and destroyed texts, and Velry sincerely doubted the dilapidated flooring could hold her weight on top of all the debris. With that in mind, it left only one option. The windowed wall. There was a space just barely a foot wide, but it was unobstructed.

The girl wasted no time sidling up to the wall, pressing her back as far against it as possible. Tears sprang up like weeds as the rough stone wall rubbed against one of the skinned portions of her calves, but tears or no tears, she was going to keep going anyway. Biting back a jagged breath, she began to inch sideways, preferring to hold her lungs in limbo until she crossed.

Yes, that was it. One step, another step, three more now…. As slowly as she was going, Velry knew that she was nearing the end of this torture. She glanced down below, and could tell that the hole revealed some kind of servants quarters, and that a hole was beginning to form on that level as well. Perhaps it was moisture leaking through the roof into the building below? She looked up to the ceiling, and sure enough she could see light tricking in from a hole in the roof two floors up.

Velry turned her attention behind her to check for anyone following, anxious to be free of this death trap. She nearly lost her footing when she saw a woman standing in the doorway she'd just come from. She'd been found. Though, Velry wasn't sure if she'd been found by a human or by one of the creatures. She'd never actually seen them in the light since the levels down below were always pitch black, except for the holding cell. This woman wore black leather pants, a man's style by the looks of it. She had a crisp white shirt, seemingly meant for a someone twice her size. It hung so loosely that, in its untied manner, nearly exposed her breasts. Was this her tormentor? Was this strange, petite woman with hair the color of wine really the perpetrator? The girl stood frozen, unsure if this was her savior or captor.

"Where are you going, Poppet?" The woman's voice was glorious, as bright and cheerful as newborn babe's laugh. Velry paused, feeling ashamed. Why was she ashamed? Why did she stop? The female did not move, only cocked her head in a curious fashion. Velry looked at her, intrigued. Something about that voice was familiar.

When there was no answer, the woman took a step forward, her boots making an echoing sound. How did she not hear the woman's approach? "Why don't you come back? You might fall to your death." She held out her hand with a warm smile, just outside the reach of the moonlight.

Something was wrong, but Velry couldn't figure out what. Maybe if she went to the woman, they could figure it out and escape together. Velry inched toward the friendly face, careful not to fall into the pit before her. Yes, she needed to go towards her. She did not recognize the woman's beautiful voice, so she couldn't have been one of her captors. She would have recognized the terrible screeches, and growls of the monsters below. As Velry slowly made her way, the woman nodded encouragingly. She looked into the stranger's red eyes and smiled… Wait, something isn't right. She paused, just feet away from the woman.

"What is it, Poppet? Come this way." The woman's eyebrows furrowed. Was that anger? No, anger doesn't suit such a beautiful woman. Velry closed her eyes, slowly becoming aware of strange feeling within her head, as if a haze had creeped inside of her mind. A thick blanket, smothering and desensitizing rested heavily within her consciousness. It had been there since she saw the woman, but…

"No, stay away from me." Velry opened her eyes quickly and started backing away. She knew what was happening. It's the same trick they used to take her away that night. She remembered the calmness, the false sense of security that came over her when she made that godforsaken deal…

The woman's face turned into a vicious snarl, seemingly enraged that Velry had fallen out of her thrall. She moved as quickly as she was able across the small path, careful keep her eyes on the woman at all times. Now that she'd escaped from the mind game, the girl could more clearly see the creature before her. It was a woman, yes, but more monster than human. Her fingers were clawed dark gray talons, and stained red at the tips. The crisp white shirt was now a dingy gray with obvious blood spatter, and the wine color hair was only matted with gore. Looking at angular red eyes, Velry was shocked she couldn't see the truth before. The creature whose mouth was caked with dried blood, yet also dripping with fresh, was surely the one who dispatched with Vincent after they came to get him.

"Get away from me, you hag!" She quickly glanced behind and could see she was nearly to the other side of the room. She winced as the wall scrapped her leg, but made no sign of stopping.

The creature tilted her head back and let out an ear-splitting scream, one Velry remembered from a distant memory. No doubt that the other nightmare creatures could hear and would come running. She could not afford to let them catch her. Turning to face the opposite side, the doorway to freedom, she judged the distance and decided that it was worth the risk. She leapt into the air, hoping for freedom, but also prepared for the fall that would hopefully kill her before anything else could.

The scream continued as Velry hung in the air. Three eternities passed, or that's how she perceived it before, at long last, her body smacked hard against the smooth and sturdy hardwood. She was knocked breathless by the impact, yet she struggled for enough air to scream in agony as the fall reignited old and fresh wounds. As she rolled over onto her back, whimpering in short gasps, she glanced over at the woman. Her antagonist had fallen silent, and Velry wondered what kept her from following. She didn't care to linger to find out so long the creature made no move to pursue. Her cracked from past injuries when she put weight on it to lift herself off the floor, but she used the pain as a strong reminded of why she was running. It was enough to get the momentum she needed to leave the library behind.

The rooms became a blur as she ran, stumbled, and tripped her way through the palace. Jumping like that had taken a lot of out of her frail body, and she could feel blood oozing out of a gash on her stomach that she had hoped was finally starting to heal. Apparently not. Weaving in and out of rooms, searching for any sign of an exit was harder than she imagined, and no doubt she was leaving a trail of blood wherever she went. It wouldn't be long now. Her lungs burned with overuse and painful effort, and she doubted she could keep going.

As she kicked open a door in front of her, she nearly ran straight into something. She screamed, lashing out with all of her strength when she realized that it was a person. Whoever, or whatever, it was had more strength than what Velry had been able to muster and she was quickly wrestled to the ground. With her face pressed against the floor, she felt a weight sit on top of her, pinning her arms behind her. "If you want to get out of here alive, you will stop fighting me," came a whispered voice, just inches from her ear.

This was not the same woman from before. She could felt the woman's hands binding hers and there were certainly no talons there. Velry lay still, praying to the Goddesses once more that she would be saved. Sensing that the girl was done struggling, the woman released her captive and got to her feet. From her vantage point, the woman looked like a giant, though as Velry struggled sit up, the perspective adjusted. She nearly cried out in joy because the haze was nowhere to be found and this brown haired woman was most decidedly human.

The newcomer scanned the room quickly before extending a hand to help the injured girl up. "Come on, we need to get out of here. Are there any other captives?" Velry shook her head, certain that Vincent was dead. The other nodded and grabbed the younger girl's hand, leading her quickly through a series of hallways. Turn after turn came as a blur, but at all times, Velry was keenly focused on the tall woman in front of her. She wore black pants and a black shirt, nearly blending in with the darkness around them. If not for the simple silver embroidery at the edge, she would appear as nothing more than a shadow. No wonder Velry ran into her earlier. One thing that stood out, however, was the lack of a weapon. As they ran through dozens of turns and coridors, Velry searched, but to no avail. She carried a satchel and a belt with several pouches, but nothing else. No sword, no crossbow. Not even an axe.

Her creeping doubts disappeared as they burst into a room with huge double doors standing wipe open, revealing the moonlit grounds of the outside world. Velry pulled her hand away and with an unknown burst of speed, shot through the front doors, collapsing onto the stone steps of the palace, in full view of the starry sky and the full moon. She was out. The light disappeared, however, when the woman's head blocked the view. "We can't stop here. Come on, we need to keep moving."

Velry refused to move, shaking her head and genuinely smiling. "I haven't seen this beautiful world in over a year. I've been trapped in that plane of hell. Let me enjoy this moment."

When she was hefted to her feet by the deceptively strong woman, she squinted her eyes in a pouty disapproval, almost like her sister would have done. "I've traveled too far to leave you lying on the steps. Now get your ass up, and run for the treeline over there. I'll take care of these bastards."

Velry winced as she was pulled upright. Standing on her feet, she faced the woman, though her attention was quickly averted to the hooded figures standing in the doorway behind them. Velry pointed and her savior quickly turned to see the guests who'd come to see them off. Three of them, as Velry had originally seen them. Long dark robes with hoods that obscured their faces. Velry slowly backed down the stairs, but neither the woman nor the creatures moved.

"The great Niek Morenta," one of the creatures said sneeringly, his voice harsh and raspy. She remembered that voice from many long nights of pain, torture, and feeding frenzies, as well as from the first encounter. "To what do we owe this pleasure?" The monsters cackled gleefully, knowing that they had the upper hand against two unarmed women.

The woman they called Niek, just shrugged casually. "I heard the Blood Queen and her court had made an appearance. I had to come pay my respects. Where is Fai, anyway?" Niek placed her hands behind her back, an innocent enough gesture in the eyes of the creatures, but from behind, Velry could see she was maneuvering one of the pouches on her belt, slowly opening it and grabbing something inside.

"Our Queen cannot be bothered by the likes of you, Keeper," hissed the one farthest back, partially concealed by the darkness of the palace.

Niek pulled her hands out of the pouch, and Velry could see she had some sort of orange powder pinched in her fingertips. But she did not move to reveal her hands. Instead, she sighed and replied, "Well, that's really a shame. I was hoping to see her myself, just to prove she's as hideous as my father said she was."

The raspy voiced creature shrieked and made a move to rush the mysterious stranger, but he was not fast enough. Niek threw the powder to the ground and screamed in a foreign tongue that Velry could not recognize. The powder met stone and exploded with a loud thundering boom. As the smoke cleared, Velry saw that two warriors had appeared from the cloud, both seeming to be badly injured yet still hardy enough for battle, standing at the ready. They donned ancient armor, both of their faces obscured by bronze helmets. The smoke wafted back into Velry's face and she nearly gagged on the smell of putrification and decay. The creatures did not stop their charge and the two warriors ran to meet them with gurgled war cries, as if something obstructed their voices. The warriors pulled weapons from their sheathes, one holding an ornate pike while the other held strongly to two claymores. Niek wasted no time grabbing the spare sword with a wild grin, running to meet the third creature with force and fury. As Niek swung the heavy claymore as if it were a mere twig, she shouted incantations in the same foreign language. Her words seemed to sting them more than the bite of ghostly steel, though each gash seemed to leave an iridescent wound, as if the blades left behind a foreign, shining residue.

Velry was taken aback, uncertain of which side she really needed to be frightened of. She stumbled backwards, step by step, certain that she should abandon the woman altogether. She watched in horror as talons screeched against armor and at times, through rotten flesh. With each word Niek spoke, the creatures responded with howls of pain. Brief flashes of light began to appear, sparkling just above their heads, resembling small lightning cracks. Velry took several more steps backwards, frightened by the woman's magic. The beasts had called her a Keeper, which she was certain to be the forbidden death magic. With that realization, the young girl wasn't sure if Niek was really her savior at all…

She was at the bottom of the steps now, just barely able to see their heads weaving in and out of the battle. I swear I've pissed off Lord Ignon, she thought to herself, certain the Lord of Misfortune was punishing her. As she gazed upon the unholy battle, hearing the clash of steel and the ripping of flesh, Velry was certain that she was being punished severely for something. She needed to escape before things got any worse. If Niek dispatched the monsters, what was stopping the woman from enslaving Velry's soul? No, she needed to leave immediately. She was going to lose herself in the trees, leaving behind the madness behind. She spun on her heels and found herself nose to nose with the female creature from earlier. No doubt this was Fai. Sharp claws reached out and closed around her throat. From this close, Velry had a clear view of the sharp fangs within the beast's mouth, as well as the putrid odor that seemed to reek from the bloodthirsty beast. From behind, Velry heard a loud thunder clap, and what appeared to be a flash of lightning, as best she could tell from this angle. Velry could not tear her eyes away from the strangely hypnotic red ones in front of her, though her captor seemed focused on the stairs. The girl was vaguely aware of the sound of a sword dropping. Niek was saying something… What was she saying? Fai spun Velry around to face the woman, still keeping a tight grip on her neck. She placed a claw on Velry's exposed stomach, putting pressure as if she intended to tear her open.

"Do you want to save this girl, Keeper?" Velry was starting to feel hazy again. She could feel a warmth tricking down her chest, as well as her stomach. Warmth? No, that was her blood slowly tricking the new wounds forming on her neck and abdomen.

Niek took a step forward, alone for some reason. Weren't there others with her? Soldiers? Beasts? Or had she been alone the whole time? The hazy feeling was overwhelming and she let her head fall back as she stared lazily at the stars. Such an overwhelming calmness she felt. She'd never encountered such serenity, such powerful tranquility. She flopped her head over so she could see the beautiful Fai, struggling to keep her eyes focused on one thing. In the moonlit night, the woman was such a beauty, except her skin… Her skin was flaking off. A gentle breeze came and blew a speck of the woman's cheek away, revealing an open sore, much like the wounds on Velry's legs. She was in pain! Fai was in such pain! She tried to speak, but for some reason, found it hard to do so. Her tongue was too heavy in her mouth and there was the strangest pressure on her throat. Strangely, the breath she needed to speak escaped her.

Fai cast a disgusted glance at the broken human toy she held and snarled. With a forceful shove, she threw the girl to the ground and ran into the woods. Had she been talking with Niek the whole time? What did they say? She lay on the ground, suddenly yearning for Fai's touch once more. With the pressure gone, she extended a hand towards the tree line, now no sign of her captor. "Come back," she croaked, but her words went unheard and she laid her head upon the soft, soft grass. She felt like she could sleep for days. Maybe when she woke up, the nightmare would be over….