Dominic stared at the campfire, watching the orange flames perform their sinuous dance over the coals and chunks of wood. Deeper in the shelter behind him, the low whispers and stray bits of conversation had long since dropped off into silence as his companions fell asleep, while all around them the rain continued to pour. He stretched out with his senses, but the rain smothered all smoke and illumination from the fire, and the water drumming against the leafy canopy above them overpowered almost every other sound, reducing the reach of his sight and hearing. His only consolation was that the rain hampered movement as well, so their two other as-yet unaccounted-for watchers—the ones Nikki had called "dolls" that reeked of dark magic—had likely been forced to withdraw momentarily.
At least, he hoped so.
There was a sound behind him, just loud enough to be heard above the rain. His heart leaped inside his chest without his even having to turn his head to look, and he surreptitiously breathed in the faint, sweet-cinnamon scent that wafted through the air as Saya came and sat down beside him, drawing her knees up and resting her chin upon her folded arms as she gazed into the firelight.
He glanced sidelong at her. "Can't sleep?"
She shook her head. "Neither can you, it seems," she returned softly.
"Just thinking. It's a bit much to take in," he admitted, deciding against telling her his other reason for keeping watch over their little camp. She still looked pale as it was, and he did not want to add to her worries by telling her that they were being stalked by strange dolls woven from dark magic. After all, they could just be some traveling mage's familiars doing a bit of reconnaissance work for their master to gauge how safe it is. They might not pose a direct threat to them at all.
Right, he scoffed. A passing mage here in the Forbidden Forest, less than a day's journey away from Hollow End, which just so happened to be the lair of an insane, hundred-year-old sorceress with a fondness for preying on unwary travelers. The unlikelihood of that was precisely the reason he had decided not to tell Saya and the sisters just yet, at least not until he could think of a way to protect Saya and himself and now their new companions as well from that kind of dark magic. Unfortunately, his curse and his past adventures battling monsters aside, his knowledge of magic was negligible at best, and he had yet to come up with any ideas aside from storming the cursed castle, fighting the Black Widow, and hoping for the best.
Silence fell as each of them got lost in their thoughts. Then Saya spoke again. "You believe me?" she asked in a small voice.
He turned to meet her gaze, noting her tension in the wariness in her eyes and the way her fingers were digging into her arms as if to still her trembling. He understood the reason for her caution and doubt, since they were now both aware that, of the strange stories that had emerged that night, the person who had the oddest tale to tell had been Saya herself. Even just recalling it now filled Dominic with horror and fear, as well as admiration and almost painful relief that she survived to tell the tale.
"I had just arrived in Coronadal and was traveling toward the capital," she had said as Kath, Pamela and Dominic listened in stunned silence. "I joined up with a caravan heading westward, but certain things happened and I was forced to part from the caravan in a bit of a hurry. I escaped into the forest, and then…I got lost."
She recalled what it had been like to stumble into the Black Widow's domain. Like falling deeply asleep, or being encased in a thick, numbing darkness that dragged consciousness down and made one forget all sense of time and place and identity, all sense of even being alive. She had occasional flashes of awareness where she knew her body again, and what she remembered of those was how drained and fatigued she felt, how cold and heavy her limbs were. She also remembered a woman's voice, soothing and melodic, telling her that struggling was folly, that nothing awaited her but endless suffering, that it was useless to hope or strive or believe in a future. "Far better to sleep…sleep…sleep," the woman whispered, and Saya would sink into the darkness once again.
She had no idea how long she lay mindlessly adrift, but what had finally saved her from sinking completely into oblivion was the core of magic within her, arising from the sacred oath binding her soul to Dominic's. In the depths of the darkness, a pinprick of light appeared, streaming like a blindingly bright silver flame from what she understood as her heart. The flame grew outward and curved into itself, becoming a glowing band surrounding her until she was enclosed within a luminous ring of silvery light, which drove the darkness away as if it were mist and brought her back to full consciousness so that she was once again able to think and sense her surroundings.
She found herself standing in a long corridor of what looked to be an immense castle built of chiseled gray stone. On one side, smooth stone pillars rose up to a high ceiling with pointed arches, and thin fingers of colorless light streamed in from rows of arched windows. The dim light made it difficult to tell whether it was dusk or dawn, more so since the light never changed. There was a chill in the air, and when she reached out to touch it, she discovered that even the stone wall was cold and damp. There were ornate sconces set in intervals all along the wall, but the torches were unlit and crusted over from lack of use, as if the very memory of warmth and sunlight and fire had been erased from the castle.
And the women. It had given her the biggest shock to find that the damp, dreary castle was not uninhabited at all. Instead, there were people moving about her, and the corridor echoed with the sound of footsteps and the low murmur of voices who seemed to be repeating the same thing over and over again. All of the people were females of varying ages, from stoop-shouldered old crones who shuffled as they walked to children as young as five, all of them dressed in fashions from different time periods in the past hundred years.
The women drifted up and down in lines, with one line bringing sumptuous trays of food and drink or folded lengths of rich fabric and ornately jeweled chests, the items being the only splashes of color in the dingy grayness all around her, and the other bringing back empty plates and bundles of clothing that needed to be washed. Saya herself had woken up to find that she was carrying a dirty stack of china dishes and following the women who were heading down the corridor in the direction of what she assumed was the kitchen. In her shock, she had dropped the dishes, which shattered all around her, a jarring disturbance in the low susurration of female voices that filled the corridor. Immediately, several of the women gathered around the pile of broken china, and one of them came up with a broom and swept up the mess. None of them spoke to or looked at Saya or otherwise showed the slightest indication that they were even aware of her presence.
Intending to ask where she was and who owned this castle, she took hold of one of the women by the shoulder—a girl only a little older than she was, dressed in clothes that felt damp and somewhat sticky—only to release her and stumble away when the girl turned toward her. The girl's skin was cold and gray, with dark bruises around her eyes, nose and mouth, and lips that were nearly black, and her open eyes were flat and glassy, the eyes of a doll. Or a corpse.
Then the girl's lips moved, and a raspy whisper emerged: "Yes, Lady Tara. Yes, Lady Tara."
The other women turned toward Saya then, all of them in the same, cadaver-like state, their gazes empty as they all repeated the same phrase over and over: "Yes, Lady Tara, Lady Tara, Lady Tara." Losing the battle to terror, Saya fled through the castle in a blind panic, encountering more gray-skinned, dead-eyed women everywhere she went, until finally she threw open a random door and leaped inside.
The door led into a beautifully appointed bedchamber with elegant furniture, including a dresser with an oval mirror and a bureau with a row of pretty dolls. The canopied bed was covered with a lacy, white coverlet, and the curtains hanging at the windows and the rug on the floor were similarly white. The bedchamber obviously belonged to a young girl's, but like every other part of the castle, was now chilly and slightly damp, with the sad air of disuse yet strangely spotless. Even the small fireplace looked as if it had never been used.
For a long while, Saya stood with her back against the door, breathing in short, quick pants, her heart hammering against her ribcage and her entire body sweaty and shaking from her flight. She ran toward the window, and found herself gazing down at a sheer drop to rocky ground, with no convenient ledges or footholds anywhere. Beyond was the mist-covered forest bathed in that odd, diffused, unchanging light, with the distant sound of a rushing waterfall overlaying the tomb-like silence. Overcome with fear and exhaustion, she sank down to the floor beside the window and curled up into a trembling ball, wondering what nightmarish world she had managed to stumble into now.
She was startled awake from a light, uneasy sleep—thankfully not the black torpor that had nearly consumed her before—at the sound of the door opening. Another gray-skinned, dead-eyed young woman in a maid's frock entered with a cleaning bucket, brushes, a feather duster, rags, and a broom. She then proceeded to dust and wipe and sweep the room clean, including the pristine fireplace, all while completely ignoring Saya scurrying out of her way with a gasp and staring at her in fear, then in confusion and amazement, from a distant corner of the room. The sight of a girl who looked to be a living corpse engaging in the mundane act of cleaning had been unsettling enough to jolt Saya out of her panic and force her to think straight again.
Realizing that unless she did something to break their normal routine of tending to the castle, the gray-skinned women would not even be the least bit aware of her, Saya followed the young maid out of the bed chamber and down to the kitchen. The kitchen was another surprise, as it was the most normal-looking place in the entire castle, such as it was. Teams of women and girls were constantly in and out of the place baking bread and scones and pastries, roasting chickens and making stews and porridge, and the piles of dirty dishes that the others brought down to wash. They sat down and ate at the kitchen table when they needed to, but nobody spoke to or looked at anyone else. They performed every task as if sleepwalking, and the only voices to be heard was their near-constant murmuring of "yes, Lady Tara, yes, Lady Tara."
Saya drew as close to the roaring cooking fire as she dared, taking comfort from the warmth and light, and watched the women in wonder. Once or twice, she wended her away among the women and took a chunk of bread, an egg tart or an apple, and spooned some stew or porridge into a bowl before retreating to a corner to eat her pilfered meal in peace. None of the women noticed.
She attempted to leave the castle, walking past vegetable gardens tended by more women and girls, and a barn filled with chickens, goats, pigs, some sheep and a cow or two. The clucking, bleating, grunting and mooing of the animals comforted her—they were the only normal, ordinary things about this eerie castle full of living female corpses. She plunged into the thick forest, but soon discovered to her fear and dismay that no matter which direction she struck out in, she always ended up back at the castle, as if the forest itself were the walls of a bubble that curved inward to contain the castle and everything in it.
Thwarted in her attempt to escape, she began to explore the inside of the castle instead in search of its master. Or mistress. There had to be someone else inside that castle, someone for whom the women prepared meals and washed and cleaned and laundered clothes. Was this person or people under the same sleepwalking spell as the other women were? Could it be this Lady Tara they were whispering to? And why only women? Where were all the men? Where were the castle guards, the soldiers, the gatekeepers, the stewards, valets, grooms and pages? Whose castle was this to begin with? And was there any way for her to get out of this maddeningly unchanging bubble of space and continue on to the capital city?
She followed the stream of women carrying trays of food as they drifted through the halls and corridors of the castle, although she was careful to stay out of their way. She found the rest of the castle in much the same state as the bedchamber she had sought refuge in—immaculately clean and neat as a pin, but empty and forlorn from years of disuse.
She also began to get an idea of how the unusual castle was designed. It was divided into two main wings built upon opposite shores of a river, with the kitchen and servants' quarters located in the wing she had awakened in. Each wing was nearly a separate castle in its own right, with its own towers, ramparts, gatehouse and battlements. The river bracketed by each castle wing ended shortly in a waterfall. The sound of the crashing waters echoing through the hallways served as an undercurrent to the eerie murmuring of the women, but Saya could imagine that in happier times, the sound of the waterfall was a soothing music that could be heard from anywhere within the castle.
The two wings were connected by a massive hall that served as a bridge across the river. Saya remembered setting foot inside that great hall and staring open-mouthed at the rows of stained glass windows close to the domed ceiling, whose colors seemed to burn despite the muted light. On either side of the hall were rows of stone pillars carved with images of two-legged wyverns with outstretched wings, and in between each pillar, rich tapestries depicting scenes of warfare and sorcery hung from the rails of the mezzanine walkways built underneath the windows. The floor was made of polished black marble inlaid with mother-of-pearl lines drawn in a circular pattern with mystical symbols written upon it. The summoning circle was just a little bigger than the immense chandelier hanging directly above it. At either end of the hall were massive double doors that led to each wing; she herself had just slipped out of one of them, only to pause at one of the pillars and gaze about her in awe and wonder.
She also noticed the banners hanging above the double doors: an azure field bisected by a vertical black stripe with wavy edges, like the ripples on a water's surface. On that sable stripe was a wyvern with wings outspread, following the black river's current. Clutched in the wyvern's claws was a staff with a large jewel on one end, much like the staves used by the mages of old.
"The Madrigal coat-of-arms," Kath had interrupted. "Our grandmother showed it to us from an old tapestry she had smuggled out of the castle. It shows how the different magical abilities of the Madrigal family are mostly based upon the element of water, and how we are strengthened by our connection to the river."
"You've seen Hollow End. You've actually been inside the castle on the river where our family used to live," Pamela said, looking awestruck. "I've never even heard about our ancestral home until Grandmother told us about it."
"Why is it called Hollow End?" Dominic wondered.
"The name is actually a mistranslation of an even older language," Kath explained. "The original name simply meant 'the arch at the end of the river,' meaning that great hall, I suppose. But please, go on, Miss Saya."
The great hall wasn't empty. The sleepwalking women were here, too, with some of them polishing the already gleaming floor, while others drifted in and out of the two double doors at either end of the hall. Saya noticed that the women carrying trays of food and newly cleaned clothes entered the double doors leading to the other wing of the castle, while the ones carrying empty dishes and dirty linens exited through those same doors, heading toward the wing from which she'd come. Which meant that the mistress of the castle likely lived in the other wing. Lady Tara, who might be the only human being inside the castle, aside from Saya herself, who wasn't an animated corpse. Perhaps this Lady Tara would even be willing to help her leave that place.
She took one step toward the second wing, and felt a chill ripple through her body, as if she'd plunged into a pool of cold, murky water. As she went through the double doors on the other side of the hall, rejoining the group of sleepwalking women, the chill deepened, and she had to run her hands over her arms to make sure that she was, in fact, still dry.
The second wing almost mirrored the first—damp, dimly lit with an unchanging light, and bustling with living corpse-women constantly whispering "yes, Lady Tara." But her body grew colder and heavier the longer she stayed in the second wing, as if she was moving through water. Worse, soon after she'd passed through the second double doors, the chill in the air changed. Her skin tingled with awareness, and her nerves felt as if tiny fingernails were scoring them. The chill felt alive. It felt as if someone was watching her with a clinical curiosity, but for the life of her, Saya could not tell where the sensation was coming from.
Then there was the smell. It seeped into the corridors, filling the nooks and crannies—a sickeningly foul smell that threatened to upend her stomach. She walked with her hands pressed over her mouth and nose, but the smell still invaded her senses, although as expected, none of the women seemed to notice it at all. She knew this smell from her childhood, after she had helped her mother and sister and the other women in her village bring healing herbs and tend to the stricken inhabitants of a neighboring village after a wave of sickness had struck it. It was the smell of terminal illness. Of death and decay.
The moment she realized this, she stopped in her tracks and shrank against the wall as fear rose up within her again. Then several things happened almost at once. A door opened ahead of her, leading presumably to another room in the castle. A few women emerged, carrying between them something that appeared at first to be an old, rolled up rug. Then something flopped limply out from the rug and dragged on the floor—an arm. As the women drew closer to where Saya was pinned to the wall by fear, she realized that the "rug" they were carrying was the corpse of a man—emaciated, blotchy-skinned, dressed in tatters, with his neck and limbs and torso covered in long, thin lacerations and dried, crusted blood.
As the women moved past her, bearing their burden to who knew where, Saya opened her mouth to scream and promptly choked. The smell of death and rotting flesh had come roaring out of the opened chamber and followed the grisly procession in a noxious cloud. Saya's eyes watered, and she bent over and retched. Before she had even finished emptying the contents of her stomach, several other women had appeared with buckets and rags to clean up the mess she had made.
"Who are you, hmm?"
She started when a woman's voice spoke, sweet and melodic but with a sibilant undertone that seemed to make her teeth rattle. It seemed to come from all directions at once, as if the air itself had spoken. The chill enveloping her deepened even more and she shivered uncontrollably, but as her frantic gaze darted about, the hallway remained as empty as ever except for the sleepwalking women.
"One of my workers has awakened. How confounding."
She recognized the voice. It was the one she heard when she was floating in the darkness, telling her that life was nothing but fruitless struggle, that there was no hope, that it was far better to sleep forever. She glanced down at the cleaning women, and knew.
"Lady Tara," she spoke, her voice a harsh croak amidst the murmuring of the women.
As if to confirm it, the chill caressed her face and neck as the voice laughed softly. "You seem to be human. An inferior creature. Come to me. I want to get to know you."
Saya backed away, her shoulder blades still scraping the wall. She stumbled when she encountered a doorjamb, then wrenched the door open. Again, she was assaulted by the smell of unwashed, diseased flesh, and she froze in horror at the sight before her. The room was completely bereft of furniture, but filled instead with enormous, tangled knots of thin, pale threads. There were so many of them that they blocked out the murky light coming from the window. On opposite sides of the room, two men—one seemingly in his fifties, the other barely out of his teens—hung suspended from the ceiling by these threads, which twined around their limbs and torsos and pulled them spread-eagled in the air, their heads drooping to their chests. Their clothes were dirty rags that barely covered their bodies, and threads had cut deep wounds into their bodies that had been left to bleed and fester for so long that their flesh had begun to necrotize. The only mercy that had been shown them, if Saya could call it a mercy, was that neither of them was conscious and so were unable to feel the agonizing pain wracking their bodies.
She gave a cry and went over to the boy to free him, but the moment she reached out for him, the tangled piles came to rippling, writhing life. Clumps of threads shot out and twisted around her arm, biting deep until she felt as if her bones would crack. They began pulling her closer toward the other waiting piles, and she shrieked and yanked back, struggling with all her might against the living ropes, while the woman's voice laughed as if amused by her struggle. Finally, the threads released her, and Saya went tumbling backward head over heels across the floor. When she looked up, it was to find that all the threads had come alive, wrapping even more tightly around the men and waving menacingly in the air, as if to dare her to try again to deprive them of their prey.
She scrabbled backward out of the room, then pushed herself up, ran toward the next door, and threw this open too. Again, the room was bare of anything except the piles and piles of writhing threads and two men dangling from the threads with limbs akimbo, while two of the sleep-walking women were busy spooning what looked like gruel into the prisoners' mouths. She fled again just as the threads began to crawl eagerly toward her, and opened the next door, and then the next one, and then the next. Door after door she flung open, only to find the same thing: males of different ages, from old codgers to boys no older than three, all kept as prisoners within the chambers of the second wing—two or three of them in a room, all tangled up in writhing webs, all unconscious and covered with bleeding, festering wounds, tended to by the sleep-walking women who fed them just enough to keep them alive.
At least she knew now what had happened to all the males in the castle.
The woman laughed again as Saya ran frantically about the endless length of doors and corridor. "This is entirely your fault. You should have stayed asleep," she said, her tone gently chastising. "Now enough of this. I want to know what sort of human you are. Come to me."
"No," Saya whispered, flattening herself against a wall as terror surged through her. She had absolutely no intention of ever answering the summons of the mistress of the castle, but in her mad dash through the corridors, she had lost all sense of direction. It seemed as if she had been going around in circles for some time, and with the voice coming from everywhere and nowhere at once, she couldn't even pinpoint its origins so she could flee the other way.
"You dare resist? I said, come to me."
"Never," she gasped, then turned to run back in the direction of the doors she'd opened, intending to follow the trail she'd created, only to screech to a halt when she saw that all the doors were once again firmly shut. Far more ominous, though, was the way all the gray-skinned, sleep-walking women had stopped whatever it was they were doing, and were turning as one toward her, their dead, glassy eyes trained upon her. "Yes, Lady Tara, yes, Lady Tara," they chanted as they marched toward her, arms outstretched.
She whipped around, and found another army of sleep-walking women closing in on her, trapping her in a cage of bodies that was rapidly closing in. "No! Let me go!" she screamed, thrashing about wildly as the women grasped her hair, her limbs, her clothes, and pushed her down to the floor. Clammy fingers pinched and clawed at her and cold fists beat her about the head to stun her into immobility, then several of them picked her up by the arms and legs and dragged her off like a slaughtered pig, her back scraping the stone floor.
Dizzy and aching from the blows she'd received, Saya fought to stay focused but all she could see was the ceiling and the wall of female bodies around her. She heard the creak of doors opening, then sensed the women going up a flight of steps. The ascent seemed endless, and Saya lost count of how many times the corners of the steps bumped painfully against her spine.
Finally, there was another sound of a door opening, and the hard stone floor underneath her bruised back became soft, plush carpet. She closed her eyes, momentarily blinded by the flood of light inside this new chamber—not the warm gold of firelight, but a peculiarly steady, diffused yellow-green glow—while the ceiling above her became smoother, with small but ornate chandeliers coming to view, as unused as the rest that she'd seen. The chill had become intense, wrapping around her body like a shroud, and she shivered, both from the cold and from the terror she fought to contain.
The women dumped her on the carpeted floor, then retreated several steps away, their interminable chanting to their mistress finally silenced. Moaning, Saya pushed herself to her knees, wrapping her arms around her in a futile attempt to ward off the chill, and glanced about her. She was huddled in the middle of what could only be the mistress' private suite, because it and everything in it could only be described as opulent. The furnishings were all gleaming polished wood and scarlet and gold, including the carpet underneath her, dominated by a canopy bed set upon cushioned risers and draped with yards and yards of shimmering gold fabric, so immense it seemed more like a barge than a piece of furniture. There were a couple of open doorways leading to similarly lavish antechambers, and from what she could see, one of them was a small but elegant dining room, with a sideboard near spilling over with platters and dishes of food. She also found the source of the odd illumination in the room: an array of ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling, with glowing orbs affixed upon them providing the steady, yellow-green light.
All in all, it was a exquisite chamber, custom-made for lavish sensuality and luxurious comfort. Unfortunately, it was completely ruined by the lengths of pale threads spilling about the room, hanging from the curtains and chandelier, covering every flat surface and bursting out of the unused fireplace on one side of the chamber, trailing tangled lengths upon the carpeted floor—a spider-web gone mad. There was no inch that wasn't crisscrossed with threads, and Saya gathered her body into a tight, shivering ball, afraid to even touch them. The threads seemed to converge upon the central feature of the room, the canopy bed, and through the semi-transparent curtains she could see a figure lying prostrate upon the bed, his limbs bound to the bed's four posters by the threads: a young man, still alive and seemingly in marginally better shape than the ones imprisoned in the other rooms, judging from his twisting and squirming and his occasional moan, as if he was caught in the grip of a nightmare.
From a corner of the room, shadows gathered and shifted, drawing Saya's horrified attention away from the poor man on the bed. A woman emerged, moving with the lithe, fluid grace. The light gleamed upon the folds of her blood-red velvet gown, which was cut in a fashion that even Saya could tell was many years out of date, with its long, trailing sleeves and gold, jewel-encrusted girdle cinched at her waist. The woman, who seemed to be no older than she was, was stunningly beautiful, with raven waves of hair rippling down to her knees and framing her curvaceous figure, her pale skin showed off to perfection by her gown's extremely low-cut bodice, an oval face, full, scarlet lips, and eyes the exact same shade as her gown. She looked almost unreal, like a portrait or a porcelain doll come to life, exuding an alluring mix of innocent sweetness and raw sexuality.
Lady Tara, the mistress of the castle, came to stand before Saya, her blood-red gaze raking over her with contempt and puzzlement. "Why, you are nothing," she remarked with a small, astonished laugh, and Saya was relieved to hear that voice emerging from a proper source. "Just a plain child, a common peasant. You are worth less than the leavings at my feet, yet you managed to break out of my sleeping spell. Why is that?"
"B-better a common peasant than an unnatural m-monster," Saya retorted through lips gone numb from the chill. "Lady Tara, in the name of all the g-gods, set these people free. They're d-dying even as we speak. Please, show mercy. There are c-children among them."
The air inside the chamber began to move, stirring strands of threads, as Lady Tara's eyes glowed with twin pinpoints of yellow-green light, exactly matching the glowing orbs in the chandeliers. Above the steady drumbeat of fear, Saya noticed that her pupils were a strange, hour-glass shape. Then a pale, graceful hand lifted to cover Lady Tara's mouth as she laughed again. "Oh my, you have some nerve, coming into my lair and presuming to lecture me. You, a mere insect, seek to deprive me of my prey? How amusing. Do you not know who I am? Are you too foolish to understand that you are utterly helpless and completely at my mercy? Tell me. I wish to know. You are undeniably human, and as common and vulgar as dirt, but I sense a strange power within you. What are you?"
She advanced upon Saya, who scooted backward on her rump in an attempt to escape, only to be stopped by the wall of women who were blocking the only exit in the room. She leaped to her feet and ran toward the dining antechamber, intending to find a knife or anything else that could be turned into a weapon, but one of the multitudes of clumps of threads rose up in the air and knocked her feet out from underneath her, sending her spilling onto the floor. As fast as whips, ropes of threads snapped around her ankles and wrists and pulled them apart until she was stretched out spread-eagle in the air, holding her suspended in the air just as the male prisoners were, while individual threads wound themselves almost tenderly all over her body, from her throat to her feet. Screaming, Saya twisted and fought, terrified that she was about to be drawn and quartered for the amusement of a beautiful demoness and her army of living corpses. Instead, the threads delivered her to Lady Tara, dangling her like a living ornament before the mistress of the castle.
Casually, Lady Tara raised a hand and slapped her across the face. The blow made Saya's ears ring and a flower of pain bloom in the side of her face, but it helped stop her hysterics, which it was probably meant to do. She eyed the mistress of the castle warily as she circled her, her blood-red eyes narrowed as she studied this strange new specimen hanging before her.
"There it is. That aura of magic around you. So odd," Lady Tara murmured, frowning as if in deep thought. "You cannot possibly be a mage, as only those of noble blood can be mages. Witchcraft perhaps? It is the only magic baseborn creatures like you are capable of. Quite fitting, as witchcraft is nothing but earth magic mixed with superstition. Are you a witch then?"
When Saya glared at her and refused to answer, Lady Tara's lips tightened in annoyance. The yellow-green glow in her pupils were Saya's only warning before the threads tightened around her. The ropes holding her wrists and ankles stretched her limbs out until her bones felt as if they were being pulled apart, but Saya didn't even get a chance to scream before the strands cut deep into her skin, cutting off air and circulation. The threads slackened soon after, and Saya sagged against the ropes holding her up, coughing and sucking in air through her bruised throat, her body on fire and blood trickling from multiple places where the threads had sliced into her skin.
Lady Tara's face appeared within her field of vision, her raven hair swinging over her shoulder. "Will you answer me now?" she asked, blinking with innocent appeal.
"I—I'm not a witch," Saya rasped, still coughing from her near-strangulation.
"No? Ah, so your power comes from some other source. Perhaps you are like me then. Have you made a contract with a magical creature? A demon, perhaps?"
Saya shook her head. "I have no magic. No contract. Just…an ordinary human being."
Lady Tara frowned as if sensing the lie in her words. The next instance, the threads went tight again, and Saya choked and thrashed in agony as the ropes pulled at her and the strands bit into her flesh. "You attempt such a brazen lie? Or can it be that you truly are unaware of your own power?" she wondered absently when the threads loosened again and Saya hung shuddering from the pain. Then Lady Tara's gaze sharpened as she focused on the middle of her chest. "Oh? What's this now?"
Saya cried out, or tried to, when Lady Tara reached for the object hanging from a cord around her neck, which must have slipped out from underneath her blouse during her struggles. It was the silver ring, her most treasured possession, a precious gift from the boy she had given her heart to. The instant the ring touched her hand, Lady Tara's eyes went wide with shock, and she stepped back sharply, releasing the ring so that it swung from Saya's neck, right above her heart.
"A contract indeed," she muttered, this time regarding Saya with disbelief and suspicion. "As diverting as it is to watch you tear yourself to shreds, I will have my answers now."
"What more do you want to know?" Saya spat back. "I have nothing to say to you. Just let me go. Let all of us go!"
The castle's mistress smiled suddenly, just as her hand began to glow with an eerie, yellow-green light. "It's unfortunate that you appear to be immune to both the poison in my threads and my sleeping spell. I will have to take a more direct hand with you. How disgusting. Ah, but lucky for you, you won't have to say anything at all."
She laid her glowing hand on Saya's forehead, and Saya screamed as the light pierced her mind, a blinding wave of pain storming through her thoughts, laying bare her memories before the mad sorceress. She sensed the demoness inside her head, in her recollections of the past, encroaching into her childhood memories, watching, sorting, measuring, dismissing, an avid, alien presence violating her innermost places.
Soul-deep rage ignited within Saya, and with it, the silvery light that had awakened her from the darkness exploded outward, striking Lady Tara full force and throwing her back. Shimmering silver swept forth from Saya's heart to her limbs until even the tips of her hair were glowing. The light melted the threads away, and Saya dropped down to the floor, encircled in a protective ring of brilliant silver light that spun gently in the air, keeping both the threads and the sleep-walking women at bay. Even the chill had dissipated, and when Saya stretched out a hand to touch the ring of light, she was filled with a soothing warmth that felt both comforting and deeply, heartbreakingly familiar.
She turned toward the answering glow from the opposite side of the room—Lady Tara, her entire body also ablaze in sickly, yellow-green light, her raven hair streaming in an unfelt breeze, hands curved into claws, her beautiful face fixed in a snarl. Her eyes had turned yellow, like a snake's, and the hourglass-shaped pupils were doorways into a black void.
"A sacred oath. I see now. I sense the hand of a goddess upon you," the mistress of the castle hissed, the eerie sibilance underneath her voice more audible than ever. "The primal force of Love? You? How laughable, how utterly ridiculous, and yet…"
"You cannot hurt me anymore," Saya stated, certainty welling up from deep within her, and the silver ring of light brightened in response. "I will say it again, demoness. I and all the people here are not your playthings. Let us go."
She raised her own hand, expecting perhaps a blast of silvery flame to hit the demoness and destroy her or at least threaten her enough. Instead, nothing happened, and Lady Tara threw her head back and laughed merrily. Then she flicked her own hand, and a blast of ice-cold air slammed into Saya, flinging her backward into the wall of women. The ring of silver light kept her afloat so that she didn't get hurt, but the same could not be said for the women who had come into contact with the silvery light, who despite the sleeping spell cast over them flinched as if stung.
"You see?" Lady Tara cackled, clapping her hands in demented delight as she once again began to walk toward Saya. "I know the nature of your power now. Yours is a purely defensive form of magic. You cannot hurt me either! But oh, how delightful! How simply perfect! You have been destined to come here, little insect, because through you, I will finally have my revenge upon that twice-cursed bastard, that arrogant king who would drive me from my home. My chance at last to destroy the royal family! And you, insect, you will be the one who will deliver his grandson into my hands!"
Terror of a different kind turned Saya's blood into ice. She knew. Somehow, Lady Tara found out about Dominic, about the promise he and Saya had made to each other. She knew that Dominic was of royal blood. The thought of the prince strung up and tortured like all the other males inside this corrupted castle while this demoness drained him of his strength turned her stomach. "You're insane," she whispered. "I will never bring him to you. I would rather die."
Lady Tara shook her head, making her hair tumble about her in graceful waves. "No, no, you won't die. I will not kill you, little insect. Why, it simply would not do if I kill you now. You have my word as a Madrigal, goddess."
As if reassured by this, the protective ring of silver light surrounding Saya flickered then faded away, as did the silvery sheen on her body. "What? No! No, don't disappear!" Saya cried out in dismay, lunging forward and reaching out with both hands to try and catch the intangible ring, to no avail. Then she cried out again and collapsed onto the floor in a massive, fiery ball of pain, as if the silvery light had held back the hurt caused by her numerous wounds and injuries. Emboldened now that her protective shield was gone, the pale ropes came slithering toward her again. Although she saw them coming, she was too weak to crawl away, and very soon she was dangling from living ropes again, groaning at the strain in her bones and from the fresh cuts all over her body.
Coming to stand in front of her, Lady Tara grasped her face, her sharp nails digging into Saya's cheeks. "You will bring him to me," she crooned pleasantly. "I have foreseen it, little insect. Just as I have foreseen my own death and so have made myself invincible. You will bring Philip's spawn to me, and I will visit my vengeance on that arrogant, murderous king upon his own grandson and heir."
Saya tried to speak, but the strands wrapped around her throat had tightened again, making it a struggle for her just to breathe. "You see, nobody can resist me, especially not men. Why, they simply fall at my feet, the poor dears," Lady Tara went on, giggling like a debutante at her first ball. "Philip's spawn will be no different, just wait and see. And since his soul is bound by a sacred oath, he cannot be killed for as long as you remain alive and near him. He will live on as my prey forever and ever."
"Nngh," Saya moaned, and the last thing she saw before she blacked out was Lady Tara dancing gaily around in circles, her blood-red eyes alight with pure madness. When she came to again, she found herself back in the forest at what appeared to be midday, lying between the roots of a tree, soaking wet from the torrential rain pounding through the canopy. She whimpered as the rain stung her wounds and bruises, which were so many that merely trying to turn her head was a shattering agony. Her entire body felt like one, big, gaping wound, but she forced herself to stand and walk. Somehow, despite suffering a dislocated shoulder, several cracked ribs and who knew how many bleeding cuts, she managed to reach the edge of the forest, startling an old lady in a straw-woven rain-cape and hat who was hurrying down the road along the forest line, before she collapsed and lost consciousness again.
She woke up again in a humble peasant's cottage, lying on a cot with the old woman tending to her injuries. "Child, what happened to you? From the state I found you in, somebody out there is in dire need of a thrashing," the old lady tut-tutted as she spread a healing salve upon Saya's wounds and bound them again. "Where did you come from? And may I ask who the villain is that did this to you?"
Saya stared up at the thatch ceiling, at the sunlight streaming in from the windows, filtering through the flowering vines twining around the window sill. Moving with a sudden desperation, she lifted her hand to her throat, and would have gone into a panic when she encountered nothing if the old lady hadn't touched her arm and pressed the silver ring and its cord into her hand. She cradled the precious ring to her chest, and to the old woman's alarm, began to cry. A long, garbled explanation later, Saya fell asleep again, and the old woman covered her with a blanket, then slipped out of the house to confer with her next-door neighbor about her strange visitor who had apparently met the Black Widow face to face and survived, a story that one barmaid's mother's cousin's wife happened to overhear.
"I stayed for three months at Grandma Lydia's cottage. She was such a kind person, and she took such good care of me. She even gave me this herbal tea to help me sleep when I had nightmares for weeks. I didn't even know that she had already died. I—I will always be grateful to her."
Saya's voice had grown hoarse by this point, her unfocused gaze still trained at the campfire, while the sisters listened, horrified and appalled. She was so immersed in her story that she hadn't even noticed Dominic pulling her into his arms and holding her tightly as she trembled with remembered fear in the middle of recounting her time in the cursed castle. He hadn't even cared that she was oblivious to him or that Kath and Pamela were watching them, so overcome with emotion himself at what she had suffered at the hands of the Madrigal sorceress. There had been so much to take in—about the nature and power of the sacred oath binding them, about the ramifications of this on his curse, about the mad sorceress' desire for revenge against his grandfather festering for a hundred years—but for that moment, all he had cared about was keeping Saya from breaking apart from the weight of her own memories.
"Since his soul is bound by a sacred oath, he cannot be killed for as long as you remain alive and near him?" What in seven hells does that mean?
Finally, Saya had lifted her face and given a start when she realized that Pamela was crying. "Oh. Oh no, I'm so sorry," she stammered. "Miss Pamela, I shouldn't have told you—"
Pamela wiped her face and smiled tremulously. "No, Miss Saya, I'm glad you did. I—I hate knowing how Aldrin is suffering at the hands of this evil bitch whom I really, really wish we weren't related to, but at the same time, I have a better idea now what we're up against."
"But by the gods, what exactly are we up against?" Kath breathed, her face pale. "Grandmother suspected that Lady Tara must have made a contract with nothing less than a demon for her to live this long and maintain complete control over her territory. How are we ever going to defeat her and save Aldrin if anyone who enters her domain instantly becomes her slave?"
Saya made a mewing sound and burrowed closer to Dominic, her small, cold hands coming up to clutch his arms, which led him to believe that she wasn't nearly as unaware of their positions as he'd thought. "Listen, I think the best that we can do right now is to sleep on it," he said, fighting to conceal the irrational flash of joy he felt at her instinct to get closer to him. "Besides, it's gotten late. Maybe we can come up with good ideas on our way to the castle."
The sisters had agreed and were soon setting up their bedrolls deep inside the shelter—no doubt on the bed of moss Dominic had prepared for Saya, he thought with a sigh. But obviously sleep had evaded them both anyway. He regarded her now after she'd asked him if he believed her, his chest aching with guilt and regret, but as he drew in a breath to answer, she immediately cut him off. "I-it's an unbelievable tale, isn't it?" she said with a false little laugh, her gaze sliding away from his. "I mean, who would believe such a story without any proof, and with the only other witness conveniently dead and gone? Maybe we ought to just—Dominic? W-what are you doing?"
He'd grasped her wrist and was studying her arm intently, turning it this way and that to let the firelight fall upon it. Her skin was soft and creamy-smooth, its color a honey-tan shade common among the hill-folk who lived beyond Coronadal's eastern borders, but in the dancing firelight, he could see fine lines a slightly paler shade than her skin-tone crisscrossing her arm.
Scars, the kind caused by thin threads cutting into skin.
Realizing what he was looking at, she pulled her arm away and tucked it against her stomach. "Ah. They're unsightly, aren't they?" she babbled, clearly too flustered to think about keeping her lie intact. "Grandma Lydia applied mutton fat and herbal oils on me every night to make the scars disappear, but you can still see them when the light is—oh. Oh no, I-I mean…"
She bit her lip and looked at him, her beautiful dark eyes uncertain, and Dominic felt as if another piece of himself that he hadn't even known was lost had settled into place. He swallowed, his heart racing, his face hotter than the firelight warranted, as a powerful albeit still unnamed emotion crashed through him as he stared at this girl. No, this woman. This beautiful, intelligent, compassionate woman with the heart of a warrior and the giving spirit of the earth. As he continued to stare mutely at her, confusion replaced the uncertainty in her expression, and he had to tear his gaze away from hers just so he could collect his scattered thoughts.
"I believe you," was what he finally managed to say, his voice coming out rough. He looked at her again and smiled ruefully. "Even if Miss Kath and Miss Pamela hadn't corroborated every detail of your story, even if I hadn't seen the scars on your arms myself, I would still believe you, Saya, simply because you said it is true. And I—I know this apology comes too late to mean much, but I am deeply sorry for the cruel way I treated you when we first met. Having you dragged through the capital in chains, humiliating you, imprisoning you, accusing you of theft and then of cursing me, questioning your motives every step of the way…it is not surprising that you are wary and mistrustful of me now. I deserve it and more after my heartlessness toward you. What I don't deserve is the chance to make it up to you, but here I am begging for it anyway."
He stopped when Saya shook her head so vigorously her braid swung at her back. Pushing herself to her knees, she shuffled closer to him, cupped his face with both her hands and lifted it until he had no choice but to drown in her eyes. "Dominic, enough. I've already forgiven you for that a long time ago," she said, smiling luminously. "And if you truly want to make it up to me, then—then promise me you'll work to improve the lives of your citizens living in the capital's outer districts. Not just the rich merchants and the nobility, but everyone. When you are king…"
This time, she was the one who choked up, her eyes going wide. Utterly enthralled by her beauty, he took her hand and moved it to his mouth, pressing a kiss on her palm. "Done," he murmured huskily. "And done."
To his confusion and dismay, tears filled her eyes and poured down her face. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry I didn't tell you about Lady Tara," she wept, her body beginning to tremble from her struggle to keep her voice low. "I know we're supposed to retrace my path, but I didn't want to go back. I don't want to go back! And f-for a while I managed to convince myself that it w-wouldn't make a difference if we avoided Hollow End and the F-Forbidden Forest altogether. But then Miss Kath and Miss Pamela showed up and I knew—I knew. L-Lady Tara was right. My destiny does lead me back to Hollow End. And I'm so, so s-s-sorry for dragging you with me."
He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her down to him, shifting so that he held her cradled between his thighs, his body arching over hers protectively. One of his hands slid into her hair and held her tear-streaked face against his chest, helping muffle her sobs, as she wound her own arms around him and gripped him tight. "Shhh. Shhh, it's all right," he soothed her, his other hand rubbing circles on her back. "Even if we are heading toward Hollow End, it doesn't mean that your destiny is to end up as Lady Tara's slave. This time, you're not facing her alone, Saya. This time, you have Nikki, Miss Kath and Miss Pamela to help you. And this time—this time, you have me." His hand at her back clenched into a fist as he stared into the firelight and finally gave vent to the roaring fury he felt at what Saya had suffered through. "I know my destiny, and it is not to become some mad demoness' prey. We're going to Hollow End, and I'm going to do what my grandfather should have done years ago: destroy the Madrigal sorceress once and for all."
She went stiff in his arms. Then she drew back and looked him full in the face, and he felt a rush of pride and awed respect when he saw the fierce resolve glittering in her eyes. "I will never let her have you, Dominic. I will never let her do to you what she has done to so many others before," she announced, her voice hard as tempered steel. "I'll protect you and save Aldrin and the other people, the way I should have done before. She may be an invincible demoness, but I am the human who will take her down. I'll protect you with my life, I swear it, but in turn you have to swear to trust me absolutely and unquestioningly, no matter what happens. Will you?"
Another piece of himself falling into place. Another door opening within his heart. He stared into her eyes, sensing his future balanced delicately before him, and nodded solemnly. "I will. I do. And I will protect you with my life as well, Saya. I've sworn this to your friend Jen, and I swear this to you now. By the blood of my ancestors, I will never let any harm befall you ever again."
She smiled warmly at him, and giving in to temptation, he leaned forward and brushed his lips against her forehead in a lingering kiss. When he drew back, he found her staring at him with wide eyes and mouth agape, a rosy hue flooding her face. He smiled back and shifted her in his arms again so that she was leaning back against him, cocooned in the shelter of his body. "Go to sleep. I'll watch over you," he whispered, dropping a kiss on the top of her head, and at last she curled up against him and closed her eyes.
It was the last thing he remembered before the dream came upon him and took him away.
Hello, and thank you very much for reading this overly long fairy tale that was just supposed to have been a series of prologues. An even bigger thank you to you if you've left a review as well. I hope you continue reading.
And to answer a very important question: YES, I am currently writing the next update to the original story, My Strawberry Dream Wedding. Brief summary of the update-in-the-making: Christian and Joy on their first not-really-a-date, some cute moments, and the hunt for Danny Manalo. I'll be updating that hopefully within a week.
Some personal thanks:
Choc me - Hello, sis, and thank you for listening to my woes and sharing the stuff that's going on with your life. You inspire me. (Also, I just remembered that writing also helps keep me from drying out, so thank you for reminding me about that.)
xoxluurve - Thank you so much, I'm so glad you're liking this universe. And I'm sorry for the wait. A big, fat thank you for being patient with me, and I hope you continue to read the story, both this one and the original one.
Guest - Here's a bit of a spoiler alert: There'll be a lot of Saya and Nathan and Dominic being jealous scenes much later, so stay tuned. ^_^ Thank you so much for reading and reviewing, and for caring enough about Saya and Dominic to think of potential scenarios for them.
ramlaomar - Sorry, I didn't thank you before, and as usual, thank you! I hope the alternating POVs between Saya(Joy) and Dominic(Christian) are worth the wait. ^_^