A/N: Occasional Paradise Lost half-references. Scarab Dynasty invented Harpix. Warning for implications.
Lord Fear watched the city burn.
Not all of it, naturally. Preserving it for his own designs was far more fitting. Bloomgroth; a corruption for grave-of-flowers, a giant and overblown rose dying. It was not far from the border to his lands; it belonged to the Carnival and the Twilight by ancient right, and it was his intent that all inhabitants agree with him. Eventually.
Riots in southwest and eastern city centres; half the northern wall seared black by Knight counterattack; nevertheless his minions guarded all entrance and exit, and he had razed the mayor's hall to its foundations and returned the ancient edifices hidden beneath them. Flowers of the grave. A city of enough power to tempt him. Have his spider-minions rebuild it, and ensure it was stable enough that the Knights could not easily retake it; once that was done, focus upon other conquests. Or return to his capital in triumph, to administer affairs there.
His heavy carriage hurtled through streets not built for it. A large, elaborate conveyance drawn by three headless mutate-horses; a demonstration of power, and a large target. It was important to show the people their new Lord.
"That's the Gold's lot, m'Lord," Staffhead commented, looking out the thick and darkened glass.
Ah. That unfortunate casualty of Lord Fear's conquest. One of his most powerful servants. Those mostly-humanoid minions of his, the golden slash across black jackets. Standing guard in a city square.
"Let us see, Staff."
Three of the troops strode forth to give their Lord the allegiance he deserved; the bonds of his servants were strong even away from the Carnival, Lord Fear supposed.
"M'Lord! Execution of traitors and the assassin, m'lord!" Goldarm's second: Cutter, a grey-skinned hand raised in salute. Almost as inflexible and boorish as the man himself, though unfortunately for her with less power. Perhaps best to disburse this regiment amongst others, Fear considered.
"Ooo, an execution? You always put the fun in funerals, m'lord!" Staffhead said.
"We should certainly bear witness," Fear replied. He noticed the ragged crowd of Bloomgroth's citizens, pinned in by Cutter's patrols; these too would be forced to view the consequences of defiance. Let them come to respect him.
A noose. Cutter had no imagination. Humans as poor and weak as those in the crowd below. Their crimes: Cutter had found the mayor's Non-Human Administrator and a few of his servants. The Carnival-types within the crowd: what did they think of the mortals responsible for registering or imprisoning them? Those Lord Fear had freed from Containment had already been offered a place in his armies; these ones were either weak or hidden enough to escape human attentions. Death to the Knights and humans who stood to suppress his natural dominion.
A Knight meeting his end for attempting to call for reinforcements. Young and fair, like that other young fool of a Knight--wise to kill him here. A mortal, for self-destructing one of the granaries. It would cost Lord Fear some time and magic to gather the supply lines again.
"Death to traitors!" Cutter yelled sharply. She turned venomous eyes to the back of the dais festooned with grisly remains. "Soldiers! The assassin who cut down Captain Goldarm. None live to defy us, be they human or no!"
Goldarm's assassin: a woman, Lord Fear had heard it mentioned, who cut down the man with a throwing-knife. Quite an achievement, given that Goldarm had been all but invulnerable. Scaled, granitelike skin; that thick flexible arm of his; claws. Hit him in the eye, the only portion permeable; it wouldn't have been a bad shot.
Especially for a human. But it was clear she was no human. A young girl pale green as a mist fallen over trees, kicking and biting at her captors. Quite untrained, it seemed. Fool. More natural that she ought to have supported his conquest. Odd; he could sense her power more strongly than that of any other, here. Not surprising given the weak witnesses Cutter had forced to it. The girl did not look at him, fighting desperately at the last for her own survival. A twice-golded Wereharpix hit her, a brutal blow; Goldarm's men had liked their leader.
Yes. Too much force, there; the other guard holding her lost his grip. She hit the floor of the dais, sliding like an eel, one bleeding wrist finding its way out of her bonds--
He had not expected her to disappear and for that flare of magic to appear in the crowd's midst. Likely she had not either. The form of a human boy--yes, that one in the middle of the turmoil, darting under the bulk of an overweight mortal. Cutter's screamed orders filled the air:
"In the crowd! Seize her or you'll all die this day!"
Panic. Goldarm's soldiers moved to block the crowd. Mortals were cowards; they stumbled over each other, searching for the one who had appeared in their midst. Trampling those smaller, such as the boy trapped between them.
Lord Fear extended an arm between them; easily grasped the child's shoulder. He did not attempt to break the morph. The boy must have fought against himself not to flee, to cling to the hope that he was unknown.
A flare of magic from Staffhead, enough to pause them all.
"Enough." They listened; there was no choice in the matter. Rippling lines of his power froze the scene: soldiers, Bloomgroth's people; the young assassin. "Cutter." She barely cringed upon the outside. "You had your chance for revenge. You were defeated. These--citizens may go in peace." He began to withdraw the stretch of his arm; pulling the boy with him. "There is no need to crush this young man, is there?" Showing mercy to those he had conquered; they would remember what their Lord had done. The boy as the symbol of needless destruction, redeemed from that mess.
"In fact, Cutter--your healers?" She called a quick, sharp command and three stood forward. "Lend their services to those who require it. Young man..." He brought the boy closer to him; a few scrapes crossed the child's wrists from a fall.
"Are you here with family, lad?" She was trying, discreetly, to escape him; he could sense the fear and the struggle. Afraid, but defiant.
She looked for a second to the crowd, perhaps hoping for some salvation there; unlikely. "No," the truth was dragged out of the boy's mouth.
"This city is hardly safe." It was him who had caused this, but there was no need to mention the fact. "Accompany me." He would brook no refusals; he escorted the boy to the carriage, and carefully ushered him into its confines. Best not to risk another teleport.
"Scrawny, isn't it?" Staffhead leaned over the boy. "Think this one'd be for kindling, m'lord?"
"I don't think I need to talk to a frog," he quickly retorted; the carriage shook, beginning to move. Lord Fear saw the boy glance nervously at its darkened windows, but still the young form stood straight-backed.
"Can I blast 'im, m'lord?" Staffhead said. "Fools like you, it's target practice time."
"But you're a puppet, ain't you?" The simulation of a boy glared at Lord Fear's minion, who returned it in full force. Defiant.
"Now, now." Lord Fear waved a negligent hand to break it up. "I have you with me, boy; perhaps tell of yourself?" Set the trap for the shapeshifter.
The boy hardly hesitated. "Lord Fear. You're--him. Whatever you want, I'll do it--"
No. Lord Fear was hardly in a mood for an inept adolescent's attempt at seduction; a laughable assumption. He pushed the boy away. "I would very much prefer not. Show me your true form."
She revealed her form again, at his will. A trifle older than the boy had been, skinny and quite unprepossessing in appearance, all arms and legs and bone. The killer of Goldarm.
"S'pose you'll kill me," she flared out. "Don't care. He deserved it." She would probably try some stupid thing, attempt to ruin his carriage; he was slow to act.
He caught the thin arm a second time, rushing to hit his face; noticed the dark bruises across it.
"What did they do to you?" he mused. Her other hand flew at him, and he held her steadily. It was not what Goldarm's minions had done that surprised him, but that it was less than he would have expected of them. She thrashed, and found that she could not release herself; calmed, not long after realizing the futility. A fast learner. He traced a line of already drying, inhuman blood on her wrist; no open cuts remained, despite the livid bruising.
"I can--fix myself," she said in return to the implied question; he released her, allowing her to stand back. "Doesn't always last." Pale light flared briefly across her body. Shapeshifting, of course; interesting.
"Perhaps I can guess your cause," Lord Fear said. Carefully spin the words, binding the trap. "I imagine Goldarm destroyed one close to you--sibling? Parent?" The second was starting to hit her. "Mother?"
"Like I'd have done it for that--" she sneered. "He was a monster. It was my friend. She didn't do anything."
That Lord Fear could believe. Goldarm always was...excessive. To pry more, seek an opening between her spikes raised in defence? He could envision a banal story for her, a life in the city's underworld, despised by most. An upbringing where anyone to abduct a child alone was expected to have nefarious intent--a different sort of nefarious intent to his, in any case. "Would any human have come for the sake of avenging you?"
"What's it to you, old man?" she lashed out. That would be a no, he supposed. Good; family could cause complications.
"Let us be civil," he reminded her. Swirling magical currents, encompassing them within this vehicle; surely she had already sensed them, to give away so much. "I do not intend to harm you, if possible. You are aware that I have preserved your life." Some comprehension flickered behind her hazel eyes: the debt, beginning to activate by power.
"Do you know who I am?" she said; able to look him in the face without flinching, to ask the inevitable questions of power. "Someone with powers like mine. I have been told my father was of the Twilight."
Once he had known a shapeshifter; perhaps she had been close to this adolescent's form. But that was far too long gone a time. "Too far back to be of any use to you, my dear. Still: you must think of this as returning home."
The carriage had reached its destination; rumbled to a halt. The halls he had summoned from Bloomgroth's forgotten ruins, rising slim and darkened emerald before the evening sky. He saw the fear and anger, again rising to her face. "Follow me, girl. If not, I may call in that debt." He did not have to look behind, walking past his minions, noting the gold-marked soldiers turning glares upon the follower. She stayed behind his footsteps.
"My lord." Prothonos, her heavy boots clicking upon the polished floor, approached him with the inevitable tablet-and-quills in hand, her grey bun bristling atop her head. "Updates: a breach in the northern wall and minor skirmish there. Four Knight casualties. Two skyscraper collapses in the old Sector Four. Wild sorcery in three separate locations, coordinates Hymblice Way, the Ifig Crossing, Wyhaesl Circle." Prothonos, with a more logical mind than most of his minions; invaluable to listen to despite her many complaints about the fact.
"Send Scieppe and Anvil to the breach. Increase the northern patrols across the Lines. The dowsing squad to return the rubble, and any spare witches to report on the Wild." He would observe it himself, later; the ancient, growing power of this place, in the directions divined from the old names. "What else, Prothonos?"
"And supply consignments, my lord, and Cutter's executions scheduled today, and five new low-powered recruits..."
"Do either of those require my intervention?"
"Not at present, but..." He did not need to be drowned in detail.
"Take care of it, Prothonos."
He heard her audible sigh. "Yes, my Lord. Don't I always?" Her glance hit on the girl behind him. "Cutter's! That's the description of her prize. The assassin."
"Of course it is. What ought we to call you other than Cutter's assassin, I wonder?" Lord Fear asked the girl; the mutate. He drew her to converse with them.
"A shapeshifter's powers," Prothonos said, looking disdainfully down at her. "Deceptive."
"There must be some name better suited than that," he said. The girl did not nominate any human-bestowed name she might have had; so she knew at least that such things were forsworn amongst them. "No matter. Come."
He had a destination in mind, below the twisted corridors of this reborn edifice. Secrets yet untold. Doors opened for Lord Fear's power without even a gesture, the high rafters above creaking. Her footfalls behind him paused, on occasion, at the elaborate portions of the structure: a wall hollowed out to darkly echo a humanoid shape encased within a grave; a small high window glinting with a light that came from no obvious source.
He passed by a gold-marked minion he hardly troubled to notice, guarding the halls: brick red skin and a jester's hat of Circusfolk. The minion spat upon her; she struck out in response. The action had been too quick for much more than instinct. It would be interesting to know, Lord Fear thought, if this one had had duty in Cutter's prison of late. The minion's rubbery arms seized her, trying revenge.
"Let go--" Panic behind her eyes, a stray attempting to battle a soldier. Anger, as well; she was trying. A positive quality.
Losing, of course. The minion was more skilled, latching on and shaking her viciously. Was it fear or anger to triumph within her? She struggled; trying to free her arms, anything.
There was an old iron coat-of-arms affixed to the wall behind the two of them. Lord Fear saw her left arm lift, grasping it desperately; pulling on it for some trace of advantage. It detached, and landed heavily upon the minion's head. He fell. She disentangled herself, clothing torn and marks left from the brief battle, gasping for breath she did not need.
Staffhead cackled. "She's trouble, isn't she, m'lord? Poor Goldarm; poor fellow here."
"A distressing damsel indeed, Staff." Useful instincts; and the minion was not dead. The girl stared wide-eyed at what she had done.
"Some sort of test?" she blurted out, looking down at her hands. Likely she had proved stronger than she had expected of herself.
"Not intentionally," Lord Fear said. Goldarm, if considered as a test, would have been eminently sufficient. No need to give all his minions concussion. "If he did not still breathe I should have acted."
"Fine," she said, only half-stuttering. "What more do you want from me?" Such a suspicious mind.
"A touch of courtesy, perhaps." He smiled, and she did not seem to take greater fright from it. "We are near. You may continue to follow."
Only a few twists and turns remaining; the depths of this complex, within the most secret areas within. The lowest ground was reserved for Carnival-secrets. He faced her before the closed door; ebony, remagicked into existence after hundreds of years.
"You have power," he told her truthfully. He extended his right hand, palm opened; she hesitated for some time, and at last allowed him hers to rest above it. Her flesh was warm against his bones.
Powerful, certainly; wounded at present. "A trifle of my own." Shifting, changing power, like a collection of bright threads woven across each other at the centre of her body. Of the brightest among them, her shapeshifter's gift, a chance for healing; he began, slowly, to supplement her power, lending some of his own.
"That--" She did not remove her hand. "If you're expecting gratitude, then I..."
"There is more than this. Wait," he told her. He ought not to allow his own power to overlap, and it doubtless was not needed; he sought out the threads again, searching for the darkest one within them. Weapons. It was coiled within her, not far from the surface, thick with sullen fury. He did not know the shape it would become, only that it was there, and as vivid as her anger. Bring it out, slowly and almost gently. A steady unfolding of promise.
When he looked, Lord Fear saw the glowing, luminous sphere formed upon her palm. He heard her sharp intake of breath, lifting her hand and checking the crystal ball for herself. Entirely her own power. She changed it, turning the sphere thin and translucent, heavy with smoke within, back again.
"This was what you wanted?" At last she returned her attention to him; he thought that he recognized the hunger in her eyes. The crystal ball disappeared from her palm, and promptly reappeared with a brighter shine. "From me. I didn't know."
"One other thing I want. In the matter of what you attempted to take from me." It was the appropriate dramatic moment; Staffhead vocalized a sigh as he swung open the door.
The figure lay upon the bed, breathing faintly. An eyepatch covered the wound she had inflicted; the golden arm rested above the sheets. She saw, and stopped there.
"I prefer to avoid to give false hope to my minions," Lord Fear lectured. "When he fell, I ordered him brought here, and the most experimental techniques used. It appears now that he shall wake, at almost any moment now, my healers claim...But healers' timing is so rarely reliable." He did not tell her that the damage she had done meant Goldarm would be less than a zombie in mind when he did so, or that even a physically strong zombie had uses limited at best.
She was trembling, gazing at the body, her crystal ball disappeared and forgotten.
"You did not deprive me of Goldarm's services," he said, still speaking the truth. A portion of it. "As intriguing an effort as it was. Would you like to leave, then? I shall instruct them to cease pursuit of you, at least until your next petty insurrection. You shall be free as a bird to leave this place, to flee to the Knight territories or any in the Carnival. Leave and see an end to all of this; step from this door and I shall ensure your freedom of exit. Go and allow this egress closed behind you."
"Or..." she said softly, so much so that he was not sure he had heard it, staring only at the unconscious figure on the bed. "Or. You brought me down here for something else. Or--what is the offer?" Her voice was hoarse, as tense as the lines of her body.
Perfect. Lord Fear carried the simple athame within his coat; a slight enchantment that from his hands gave it power to harm his minions. He carefully wrapped her fingers about it.
"A simple choice, my dear," he said. "If you would kill: do so in trade. A life for a life. Grant your loyalty to me and he is yours. Or of course you may leave if you think it best. Do we have a deal?"
She turned back to him, at last, that wild look once more in her eyes: "It wouldn't work on me, you know," he cautioned. "Do not think me a fool to lend you this weapon.
"Very few live by pure choice. You have this chance to shape yourself; the power to accept the consequences. To venture higher and study of revenge, or to close the door and yield forever? I leave the outcome entirely within your hands."
He bowed as a courtesy, raising his hat. "Shall my steadfast Staff and I wait for your decision?"
Gently, the door closed behind him, not locked; he waited.
"A brilliant touch, m'lord! Why, even I didn't know you'd resuscitated the Gold," Staffhead said. "You think the brat'll bite at it?"
"If not, she would be useless to us anyway," Lord Fear said. "Otherwise: it is to our benefit to replace him."
"I'd rather be blasting her, but whatever your lordship wants," Staffhead said. "Bet she'll do it. Why, she might be almost as much a monster as you, m'lord."
A mortal's term for something they did not understand. "That's enough, Staff."
It was not so long, in terms of minutes. But she stepped forth, changed by her own rash hand, given knowledge.
"Of course I did it. I had to--"
All impulsive, writhing anger. He raised a hand to silence her; inevitably, she obeyed.
"You are a less accomplished liar than you may think. Speak the truth to yourself."
Something of ice, stone, appeared in her features. "I wanted to." Perhaps the admission tormented her; but she stood unbowed, with obdurate pride. "This means that I am bound to you...my Lord Fear?" For the first time she spoke to him with full respect.
"Even I have no power to change these laws." The dark stains on the blade he accepted back told of the contract's sealing. "Prothonos complains often of her lack of assistance. Can you scribe?"
"Can cipher a little."