She is old, older than the hills. She has lived fifty times the lifespan of a mortal man, and in those uncounted millennia has seen the rivers change position in their beds, great kingdoms rise and fall to dust, and the relentless ocean rising to swallow what once was a green and pleasant land. The ruined statues were replaced with coffins long ago; as the years grew so too did her power, and her resentment at the Gods and what they had wrought. When she was still merely a girl, newly brought back from the underworld and yet still aglow with the white light and purity that had made her such a favourite of the temple priests, she once tried to hurl herself over the tower's edge in despair, unable to take the loneliness and the dark power she could feel festering within her breast any longer.
The woman the girl has become would never dream of such weakness. For the resurrection to be completed she must live on, and so live on she does. And if there is guilt there, staring at her from out of the past with eyes the fierce blue of an autumn afternoon, she takes little notice of it, brushing such unimportant thoughts aside as she wields her borrowed magic at the top of the tower. Why should she feel guilty, thinking of those eyes? Is that not the very reason she does what she does, why she has done everything? Not for her own sake alone does the Queen of the Darkened Lands accomplish these deeds, gods above no. Hers is a loftier goal, if an almost equally selfish one.
Once upon a time she believed herself immortal, and the thought had nearly ripped the heart from her chest. Now it feels as though the years are seconds, the decades mere minutes flashing by sickeningly fast. There has never been enough time, she reflects, watching the dark shape take a definite form as she speaks ruinous, guttural words over the cage. But if this works ... then perhaps ... perhaps--
A formless hand, black as the pit, reaches out from the depths of the dripping dark, and for a brief moment vivid images assail the shadow queen's mind. As clear as day she sees a pool of light open at the bottom of the tower, a darkened hand clawing at the lip for a fraction of a moment before vanishing forever into the white. Then the vision is gone again, her eyes clear, and all she can see is the pale figure before her, huddled in a fetal position on the floor of the cage.
For the first time in five thousand years the woman smiles.
Many, many years ago, it is said, there was once a girl with an unnatural life, spirited back from the gods by a desperate lovesick suitor. She was sacrificed for having a cursed fate; her lover, furious in his sorrow, believed the maiden's sacrifice was the very curse they had foreseen, and undertook to resurrect her, never thinking of the consequences that might befall the both of them. In his haste the young warrior made a rash deal with a god of darkness, ancient and crafty, and it was only through the intervention of a great shaman that the land was not lost once again to its malicious whims. As it was both warrior and maiden were tainted by the corrupted power; the hunter was reborn with the symbols of his infection jutting forth from his temples, while the maiden, although restored to life, carried the mark of the shadow that had touched her and its essence within herself.
They were left to die in the blasted lands, but this was not to be. Given a second chance at a life together the two thrived and led a happy existence, harsh as it sometimes was. If the maiden had occasional worries – she never knew the truth behind her awakening, nor why time seemed to overlook her afterwards – they mattered not in the face of her love for her companion. Did it truly matter how they had both arrived at this place? The details, at least to her, were inconsequential.
The years passed and worked their ill on the man; eventually he grew old, as we all must one day do, and died, leaving the girl – still seemingly untouched by the hand of time – to fend for herself, alone once again in a land visited only by hawks and the North Wind. At this second sundering the girl went quite mad, foreseeing nothing but an eternity without his smile, an eon without his embrace. This was the moment the darkness inside of her had been waiting for. The thing she had been harbouring like a parasite saw her tears, sensed her weakness, and pounced upon her soul with blackened, seeking claws.
It spoke, whispering in the maiden's ear with a voice lessened in power but not persuasiveness. The way would be exceedingly long and difficult, it said, but if she did what it instructed, if she accomplished the task set out before her, it would mean an eventual reunion. Of course, there might be a price to pay, this much was true, but then there always was, wasn't there?
She did not hesitate nor falter. Without so much as flinching the girl accepted the demon's deal, and if she came to regret it in later years – the endless isolation, the dark power clouding her mind and body beyond repair, the parade of imprisoned children she had been tasked with destroying, unlike her love and yet still seemingly carrying some essential essence that was of him – she gave no sign of this. They had to die to make her master whole again; they had to die to bring the scattered shards of her beloved's soul back together so the devil-god could fulfill its end of the ancient pact. This was what it told her, and this was what she chose to believe. Whether or not it was true, none can say.
Her guilt peered out at her from under hair the colour of fall leaves, but as the years passed it became more and more easy to ignore, and more and more easy to simply not care.
Sometimes she watches the girl-golem she has come to call her 'daughter' from afar, for the entire expanse of the castle is but an extension of her great will and nothing occurs within its dusty halls that the Queen does not know about or foresee. The crumbling corridors are her arms, the shadows that choke them her ever-searching fingers. If any mortal man dared venture into the fortress without permission, all she would have to do is tighten her grip to make sure he never entertained such foolhardy curiosity again.
Strangely enough, this has never yet happened.
Years have blinked by in what seems like the infinitesimal moments between the beating of a moth's wing. The girl has never left her cage since the stormy night of her creation; the Queen comes sometimes to speak with her, to teach her the ancient language of the monarch's long-dead civilization, but this is the only human interaction she ever has. She was not made to speak to others, nor to have a mind of her own. Dangerous traits indeed, to put into what was little more than a glorified container.
Never the less, when one creates life, that life has a tendency to grow a will of its own, and so the Queen watches, even when there is precious little to observe. Most of the time the child sits in the centre of her prison without moving or looking about, huddled in a strangely familiar position. The only time she shows any significant interest in anything at all is when doves land at her aerie; the little white birds that sometimes settle on her head or outstretched hand seem to be the girl's greatest joy in life. When they finally fly away she always looks after them with a pained, confused wistfulness, and for reasons she cannot put her finger on this alarms the Queen more than anything else she has seen her successor do.
The girl's dreams are full of white flashing wings beating the air, bearing her away from this prison that is the only world she has ever known.
Her mother's dreams are of wings as well, gathered fluttering about an altar long since crumbled to fine dust, but always they change to black smoke, unfurling to save her from a death she longs for even as she leaps.
And so the decades pass.
With each generation she grows stronger in her power, and closer to her goal. With each generation her body becomes more and more corrupted, failing her even as the coffins fill and the prize comes within reach. When the final vessel is obtained she will transfer her consciousness to the girl's body, but for now she must wait and be patient, a virtue the Queen has learned to appreciate over the long years of her un-life. A change is coming; the shadowy creatures that serve the woman on the throne sense it and perform ghastly ritualistic dances in celebration, the white doves and other small creatures that haunt the rafters feel it and flee for parts unknown, and the girl-thing, crouched as always in her bare little cage, instinctively recognizes what it means and hunches closer inward, seemingly trying to convince the rest of the world that she is made of dead stone.
The day comes.
They arrive as they always do, dragging the shackled child along behind like a sacrificial bull-calf to the solstice slaughter. This particular vessel does not fight nor struggle; all the fight seems to have been cuffed out of him long before. Many of the others cursed their captors or cried tears of fear, but the boy the masked shamans carry does neither, and this pleases the Queen immensely. It means he is without hope. It means he will die quickly and without resistance, and the sooner that happens, the sooner the ritual will be completed. The Empress of the Gloaming may have little mortal left about her, but her excitement and want on this morning is all too human.
What happens next is unexpected, but not at all a cause for alarm – at least, not at first.
She lets them try and escape, the thing inside her gloatingly watching their scurrying like a cat toying with a pair of mice. If the Queen ever grew truly worried she could put an end to this rigged game of chess with a wave of her hand, but she is not in the least concerned, for there is nowhere for either of them to run to or hide. Horned children are pariahs in almost every land, known far and wide as harbingers of terrible misfortune; let the boy show his thorned head anywhere near a human habitation and the villagers would have him safely back within her grasp in the time it took a jackass to bray. And the girl-thing is even less of a concern – being nothing more than a wisp of borrowed energy, she can no sooner leave the boundaries of the Castle than she can grow wings and fly. The Queen's great will gives her a shape, just as it keeps the Castle from crumbling to dust. Without her they are - quite literally- nothing at all.
There is another reason she allows the children to continue their desperate game, and that is to teach Yorda of her insignificance and powerlessness. Her initial rebellion came as something of a surprise to the Queen, although she had long before suspected the girl of developing something akin to willpower; to ensure the vessel is ready for her possession when the ritual is finished, she must make sure there is no resistance whatsoever. In short, the golem must be in a state of apathy or outright despair, and so the Queen lets her run, slamming a paw down over the mousehole whenever the duo seem close to freedom. When the perfect moment comes the claws will unsheathe and she will crush the girl's dreams with a finality, but for now she bides her time and waits, ever patient and vigilant.
Her master watches through her eyes and laughs, its cruel sense of mischief stirred by their plight. It has not had so much fun in years.
---A thousand years before the girl who would one day become Queen was born, in that ancient age the villagers referred to as the Dreaming Days, there was a mighty shaman who mastered the enigma of steel, forging blades of such sharpness they could cut the very soul from a man's body. He inlaid them with spells and runes for banishing evil, and over the years they did their job admirably. Many were lost or destroyed throughout the years that followed, along with the name of their fabled maker, but always one or two survived, crackling with ascetic energy and enough strength to destroy an entire pantheon of gods.
It was a sword such as this that the Queen kept at the entrance to her castle. It is a sword such as this the final horned boy wields now, battling his way indefatigably towards her throne room.
Her master has always feared the weapon, for it is sibling and forge-mate to the very sword that locked them away in days long forgotten by mortal men, birthed by the same technology that produced their sixteen stone prisons. They had no choice in this matter, however, for the sword was essential if the unsealing was to be completed - fear cannot change what must be, after all. It was kept inside a cavern underneath the castle's foundations, awaiting the day when it would be called into use once more. There was no need to guard it; no mortal man with the barest sliver of sanity embedded within his skull would dare set foot on the four islands unless summoned first, let alone touch the Queen's sword without permission. It lay unmoved in the sea cave for ages uncounted, picked up once a generation to open the gates for the sacrifice and replaced immediately afterwards by the frightened priests with a carefulness that bordered on the ridiculous.
For once the Queen has been caught off her guard, and she fears – they fear; she can hear the many voices of the demon squabbling within her skull like a nest of agitated snakes – that she may pay gravely for this momentary lapse in judgment. The girl was recovered, and that is certainly a boon, but the boy surprised them all by picking up the sword, as unconcernedly as if it were a charred stick. Even now she can feel him drawing closer, rage radiating from his small body like heat miasma.
Inadvertently, without any real idea of what he is doing, the boy severs the souls of his brothers and sisters from the demon's essence, finishing the ritual. Each child bore a fragment of that power as their birthright, and like birds in a cage each was trapped in the castle, to await the day when the Queen had a use for them. Where their souls go to be kept after the sword slashes through and frees them of their shapes is a mystery not even the Queen knows the answer to, but it is obvious where the dark energy they harboured is drawn. With each struck down another sarcophagus lights up, the ancient holding runes bathing the room in an eerie blue glow.
Her apprehension soothed by this unexpected advancement of her plans, the Queen smiles, the voices momentarily quieting within her head. Only one piece left to free, and then her master will have the power to give her the thing she has sought for so long. She will not be a widow much longer.
The boy mounts the stairs and begins his final ascent.
---As the sacred blade is driven through her chest, she thinks she sees his face echoed in that of the boy's.
The last time she saw him, before her own sacrifice and well before his own rebirth, he was tall and slender and flame-haired, passing fair to look at. They had met in secret on the banks of the river that threaded through their forest village, under the light of a full moon, and despite the years the two spent together later in life, her favourite memory of him forever remained the moment he had stretched his hand out to her from across the stream, face lit from within with an ardent, fiery love.
She reaches now for that phantom hand, trembling slightly with the effort. The demon will never be released after this – the boy will survive; that much her precognition tells her – but then that was never really her goal. To see him one final time was all that ever mattered, and there he stands now, if she could just stretch her weakening fingers to touch his ...
"... Stay," she finally mouths, lips dyed black with inky blood. "Stay with me awhile, beloved."
And then the shell that has kept her tethered for five thousand years explodes, and she is gone.