Her eyes opened as she slowly came to her senses and awakened from her dreamful state. She felt the warm sunlight caress her face, and invited its warmth to her bare skin with pleasure. She didn't remember the last time she had enjoyed sunlight or anything so simple and mundane. It was energizing to lay there; safe under the covers and safe from the outside world, but she knew she couldn't stay there for long and slowly turned to her other side, opening her eyes fully this time.
Another morning and a new beginning were at hand, yet she didn't face either with a hopeful heart. Everything felt heavy and alien as she moved: the fabrics that covered her skin, her hair on her shoulders and her tight skin. Her senses were no longer heightened and fitting for a superior being. No, she was just ordinary now and everything else was plain and dull day after day. Nothing was like it was in her memories, just a crude imitation of the perfect world she had known.
She clothed herself, covering the curves and shapes of her graceful body that she had once paraded eagerly. She left her hair loose on her shoulders instead of tying it down to an extravagant hair-do. Her eyes weren't tough and bitter as they had once been – now she merely looked defeated, almost broken.
Azkadellia heard no voice in her mind, no noise behind the door, urging her to wake up. The gazes that followed her in the long corridors of the palace weren't fearful and admiring, but hateful and sharp. She walked those corridors anyway, standing proud and undefeated no matter how she felt inside. She wasn't theirs to be broken; she wasn't giving up yet.
DG was a pet of the society, a heroine worthy of adore and respect. Silent whispers spoke of her succeeding their mother to the throne. Those same whispers asked why Azkadellia hadn't yet faced the court for her crimes. Suspicion made sure her every step was followed and debated on. Everyone was certain she would never be queen again.
So the mood of the court was jubilant to the random observer, but underneath the façade things were boiling, as those responsible for the O.Z's darkest years were called to be judged and expected to suffer the hurt they had caused in full.
She was angry too, only she concealed it in the very depths of her conscious mind. Her family assumed she was an innocent victim, unaware of the Witch's plotting and schemes: just a child viewing a horrible plan. DG still thought she was responsible for the horrors that Azkadellia had gone through, and tried to make it up to her dear older sister in any way possible, but in Azkadellia's mind it only weighted down their relationship and prevented it from growing into the same devoted sisterhood it'd once been. It was a shame really – how guilt had made them both its prisoners.
No steps echoed behind hers, she didn't sense a worried presence trailing her. If she were to stop, there would be no one to ask her why she had done so. No one to examine her and make sure she wasn't feeling unwell – no one doting her with their undivided attention.
She had been Queen, a woman worthy of fear and respect. Now she was nothing – just a daughter and a sister and it wasn't enough to sustain her. She wanted more from life: wanted it in her grasp, so she might play with it and twist the expectations. She wasn't an innocent; she was guilty even if her sister never wished to admit it.
Azkadellia had been fifteen years old when the Witch had entered her body and led her onto the chaotic rampage for the throne that had messed the O.Z for good. She'd grown overnight and realized her purpose, worked endlessly to fulfill it. It wasn't her fault she had been betrayed by the one she'd trusted the most: her true mother and mentor, the Witch.
But she could not voice these thoughts; they were evil and would condemn her. Azkadellia couldn't say she didn't yearn for her parents' touch simply because she had spent the last decade despising them. She tried to hold her body still when her mother put her arms around her and closed her in a tight embrace, but she always shivered; that comfort always felt foreign and uncomfortable.
Azkadellia needed words of assurance, but it was not her mother's way. She needed to know what her purpose was now that she wouldn't be Queen, but her father could not give her that. DG couldn't tell her what her worth was now that she skulked these halls day after day doing nothing important, just living on like she was expected to.
It wasn't that she didn't love her parents or hadn't forgiven her family for leaving her; it was just that she no longer had control over her destiny and it was killing her. It was this façade she put on, this lie she needed them to believe; the lie of her innocence, laying the blame on her possession when she knew very well she had been awake the whole time.
Azkadellia didn't want to leave her room today, didn't want go through that routine once more. She'd always stood proudly by her believes, and even as the Sorceress she'd truly believed in their vision for O.Z. Perhaps that had made her a fool, but abandoning everything she was taught to believe in, everything she had become, was not an option.
So she struggled through every day, giving DG her faint smiles, going through with her attempts to remake their bond. It wasn't that she didn't enjoy her sister's company – it was just that DG really didn't know her at all, not the true Azkadellia. Some day there would be time, but not now when her fate hanged onto a thread. It was any day now that her mother would make up her mind about the proper procedure to undertake in order for Azkadellia's name to be cleansed.
She looked at herself in the mirror again and her pale face looked back. She'd picked a yellow dress, wavy and long, to wear today. Someone had once complimented that the color suit her, though she no longer remembered who it had been. Her messy hair landed on her shoulders as chaotic black sable falls.
The voice had told her to dress according to her position. Wear her high heels and expensive fabrics as if they were the core of her being, the thing that determined her. Slowly the costumes had become part of her identity, and the complicated hair-dos had merely highlighted her fine features as had the open necklines and slinky corsets. She had used her sexuality openly in her favor and haunted the thoughts of her servants – be they men or women – day and night.
The voice had told her to trust no one, show no special favor to any of her subordinates. She hadn't pitied any of them, yet she had prized those, who had dared look into her eyes and question her reason with a valid suggestion on how to correct her mistake. It'd been slippery slope, for the ones who had gotten too comfortable speaking their minds openly had usually had their lives extinguished not soon after, and the only one who had managed to skate on that edge had been the man she had trusted most, even if not perfectly.
Ah, Zero, the man with a thousand lives.
Azkadellia hadn't spoken his name aloud since she'd lost her position as his Queen, nor had she made inquiries as to what had been his fate. Shame overcame her now that she realized his efforts in her name would most likely be rewarded with an execution. All who had been loyal to her were either dead or facing charges. She couldn't even protect her own.
She actually let her head hang, wondering whether her subordinates had even known she'd appreciated their efforts at all. The voice had told her to keep them under strict command and to use fear instead of rewards in commanding them. There had been silent rapport between her and her closest generals – surely they had understood and served her faithfully without feeling unrewarded for their hard work?
It felt humiliating to admit that without the Witch's congress she was truly lost and didn't know what she ought to do. The threads of her life had been stolen from her hand, as well as the heartstrings of her subordinates. Despite her shortcomings, she had wished to protect these people from harm, and give them glory by her side. Now all of that seemed like a far away dream, just an echo of a life she'd led long ago.
Her frilly dress made her look completely different from before, but her mother had argued that change was good. Her mother had said she needed time to find herself again, and that she would have to come to grasp with the things she had done under the Witch's influence, even when she wouldn't be convicted for these deeds.
She quickly glanced at the bottle of wine by the dressing table and sucked her bottom lip that felt dry and corroded, as the thirst for the numbing nectarine clenched her insides. She had been taught to fuel her negotiations with luscious meals and heavenly wine, the social lubricant of the gods. People were more pliable to manipulation and reason when their stomachs were full and their minds dulled by the euphoria of intoxication.
A smirk crept across her face. She too had enjoyed her fine share of the wine; felt it warm her insides and relax her beautiful body. She missed those evenings of tough negotiations, secret agreements and hedonistic revelry. No, not all of her reign and power had been based on raw violence and magic – some had actually been the result of her brilliant mind and ability to manipulate and bargain. Yet she also remembered the sadness these events had allowed to creep into her mind and the almost silent sound of steps following her to her chambers. Why had it always ended in tears?
Azkadellia didn't reach for the bottle, or for any other drug to dull this experience. This was her punishment and she intended to suffer it in full. She deserved worse for being the destructive power that had destroyed the O.Z of old as those who opposed her put it. Perhaps seeing her complete failure was the most suitable punishment anyone could've come up with.
A quiet and gentle knock on the door attracted her attention and she quickly gathered her voice and wiped the stranded tears from her cheek. "Come in," she urged, inhaling her true character and exhaling the lie. And so the old Azkadelia was gone again and the new one had entered the picture. She was a beautiful sight with her gentle smile and fragile posture and she looked so much like her mother. Still when she looked in the mirror something was always missing.
It was her mother that entered the room, glowing with that enchanting aura of calmness and wisdom. She was still a remarkably gorgeous woman, despite the years that restoring DG's life had taken away from her. But the thing Azkadellia paid attention to most was the way her mother looked at her: so lovingly despite all her sins and mistakes. She didn't know what unconditional love meant – she'd been taught that no such existed: that it was merely an illusion. The voice had educated her, convinced her that everybody wanted something from other people, and that no matter how deep that selfish desire existed, it was always there guiding your every action.
"Azkadellia," her mother called to her with open arms, and she felt the sting of her conscience lift her from her chair and guide her into her mother's arms. Once again this display of love and care made her skin crawl and her lungs gasp for oxygen. She had gotten better at disguising these bodily reactions to the presence of her loved ones, and hid them by clutching her mother tighter in an attempt to feel what her mother felt. Sadly it just wasn't there yet.
"Have you been sleeping well?" Her mother asked, breaking off their embrace to examine her weary face and the rings around her eyes: They made her lovely complexion seem so ghastly. It had taken her hours to hide them underneath make-up each morning since she'd come back here, to the Finaqua of her youth.
Then her mother saw the wine on the table and how the room was encompassed in darkness despite a single window that let the sun wake her by shining on her bed. Worry took over her, and she tied her arms around her daughter again. "It won't be easy, my love," she sighed caressing Azkadellia's back.
For once Azkadellia let her façade fall and pulled away to look into her mother's lavender eyes. Her gaze was piercing as she admitted, "No, it won't."
A hesitant silence encompassed them for awhile as the mother studied the daughter and the daughter allowed this. The tension rose between them, but was quickly snuffed out as the mother smiled at her daughter and placed her delicate hand on Azkadellia's cheek.
"I do not wish to punish you, Az, but you know as well I do that the people are demanding blood and some assents must be made, " she explained all this while still looking at Azkadellia with undivided attention.
From what Azkadellia could gather from her memory, she had always been second to DG in her mother's mind and while her younger sister had been lavished with attention, she had merely been someone to watch over her. She couldn't remember a single moment from her youth when her mother had actually been this interested in her. Like a bad daughter she had wanted to gain her attention at any cost, even through damage.
Something was pressing her chest, making it hard to breathe. The anguish was almost unbearable. Her mother had come up with a solution, something that would serve as her punishment, hadn't she? Azkadellia had thought she would not care what judgment her mother would pass her, but to her surprise she was hanging onto every word and every look desperately. So she truly was this hungry for her mother's acceptance? How sad and pathetic…
"Az, tonight you'll give a speech to the people. You will explain your actions and tell them your story. But most importantly you will apologize to them all: To all the people the Witch hurt while she lived inside you. You will show them that you know compassion, that you are still a decent human being underneath."
Apologize? Azkadellia froze at the mention of the word and felt her anger creep from its hole and attempt to grasp her heart. Was her mother serious? Did she really think a formal apology would make everything go away? No, it wouldn't. The people had no reason to believe her, let alone forgive her!
"Will I not be put before the court?" She asked, feeling void of the relief that should've been running through her body and telling every tensed muscle to relax.
Her mother raked her hair, apparently remembering what it'd felt like back when she'd still been a child. She was too nostalgic and sentimental to act as her judge – Azkadellia knew this now and couldn't help but feel somewhat angry. Her crimes had been against her mother too, but she didn't want revenge or justice. It was sickening how easily her mother was able to forgive her everything.
"We must take small steps to your recovery. A sentence would not help you, nor would it help the Witch's victims. Revenge would hurt both you and them. There are other ways to restore peace and trust, my darling."
No, there weren't. Azkadellia despised this whole idea, but could not argue with her mother, so she conjured her faint smile and pretended that she saw wisdom in her mother's words. Perhaps it could be cleansing, this begging for forgiveness? Perhaps her mother was wiser than she ever would be and all her arguments would just be in vain?
"I must prepare then," she said sounding almost joyless. Luckily her mother knew how difficult this was to her and expected nothing else than void sorrow. Only her mother expected it for the wrong reasons. She assumed Azkadellia was afraid to tell them the truth, when in reality she didn't wish to be seen and heard by everyone as she confessed to lies.
She stood in the shadow, shielded from everyone's touch in the dark. DG had helped her pick her dress, a melancholy blue shade that reminded her of her youth. She wore gloves as always, unwilling to touch anyone or anything with her naked skin. The dress covered her finer features, just like all the other dresses in her closet nowadays. The collar felt tight, strangling around her neck. She had gathered her hair up carelessly and a few rebellious streaks framed her face.
On anyone else, the attire would've inspired trust and honesty – but not with her. You could dress her in anything today, but nothing could make her into the innocent girl her family saw when they looked at her. She was a murderer, a creature so hideous that no one would look at her, no matter how she was gift wrapped. And amid this horrible experience she realized she'd never felt this alone.
Near-by Ambrose was observing her the way he used to back when she was a child – like she was a wayward daughter, a bomb waiting to go off. He'd always favored DG and demanded more from Azkadellia, no matter how hard she had tried. Even then she had felt he had treated her unjust, focusing only on his own opinion of her instead of her good work. She had told mother, but she'd only told her she was imagining things.
No wonder she had enjoyed breaking him. She hadn't been above petty payback back then – no, the Witch had encouraged such action, knowing it would break her bonds with her past.
She could tell he was trying to be discreet in looking after her, but after not using that brain of his for over ten annuals, he was still a bit rusty. Not that anyone would even notice, just her. She'd begun to observe him in return when she'd realized the old man had feelings for her younger sister. At first the thought had disgusted her, driven her into sisterly rage. Now she just watched as her sister went on day after day without noticing a thing. Was it cruel to feel triumph because of it?
She'd have rather had DG find someone younger, someone she could understand – no scratch that, Azkadellia would approve any man over this one. Despite the peace that'd been forced upon them, she couldn't quite tolerate Ambrose yet. This hatred for him was almost primal, something she didn't have a choice in feeling.
DG stepped into view approaching Ambrose, laughing and smiling at him. She still called him Glitch, since she only really had recollection of him as Glitch, not as Ambrose. Removing his brain hadn't really even been Azkadellia's idea; The Witch had whispered this thought in her mind, and she'd taken it in with pleasure, watching every step of the process. She'd perverted Ambrose's ideas and made them into something unspeakable. Perhaps it'd been easier to blame him for everything instead of her mother.
Her sister noticed her and approached, jubilant as always, white flowers in her wild hair. "There you are!" she smiled and took Azkadellia's shrouded hand into hers. Azkadellia forced her anger towards Ambrose down her throat, swallowed the spiteful questions and remarks, and looked at her little sister calmly.
"Back from your adventures sister," she said, laying her hand on DG's shoulder almost affectionately. There was still a long way to go before her hand would be stable upon another person's shoulder, but DG didn't seem to mind her fumbling efforts. She welcomed them like they were important, and it was all that mattered.
"They're not adventures," DG explained, feigning hurt feelings, "I'm getting to know the O.Z. There's still so much I don't remember about my home."
There was nothing much to see in Azkadellia's opinion. Most of the old beauty of the O.Z had been destroyed by her own hand and would never be recovered. The countryside her sister longed to visit was full of peasants and robots, rolling in mud and living the simple life. These however weren't the words she spoke.
"Has Ahamo shown you everything yet? Or do you plan to return to your nomad ways in awhile?" Their teasing was still light, finding its ground. It was difficult for Azkadellia to find words that weren't spiteful or didn't end up unintentionally hurting her sister. It'd become easier though, seeing as DG was tough and always sought to help Azkadellia in learning how to socialize.
Of course it was a skill very different from the socializing Azkadellia knew. The Witch had taught her to talk people dizzy and then strike where it hurt most. She'd learned to extract information through being ice and fire or as gentle as the wind. However in this game, the words were empty and held several hidden meanings that only served to further her purpose. DG's purpose was to get to know her, learn to love her again with the same depth as when they were children, and Azkadellia simply didn't know how this game was played.
"I think I have my hands full with you," DG frowned, clearly wanting to talk about the thing that had drawn her back to the palace in the first place.
Azkadellia avoided the insinuation however, fearing what might become of the conversation if it took that course. "Really? I thought you rescued me once already?"
But DG wasn't buying the distraction. She laid her hand over Azkadelia's and looked at her in the eye. "Are you really up to this, Az?"
Her honesty made Azkadellia's heart ache in pain. Of course she wasn't, but explaining that to her mother and then saying why… that was what she truly wasn't up to. So she simply shook her head lightly and answered bravely, "I need to do this."
Ambrose walked up to them interrupting the sisterly moment efficiently. He coughed and bowed to DG, before turning his attention towards Azkadellia. There was no bow for her, just a doubtful glance that seemed to last forever.
"Princess," he started, clearly irritated that it was still the only rightful title for this young woman, "Your mother is ready to begin the broadcast."
Azkadellia looked back at him numbly, until she finally felt something – a disenchanted sense of hope. "Thank you, Ambrose," she thanked him, sounding overly polite and formal in her approach. Then she moved past him, unable to put on a brave front for her sister in order to say something that would put her mind at ease. Somehow she still didn't know how to do it.
DG looked after her, giving Ambrose's side the slightest stab with her elbow. He made a small noise of pain and looked at her surprised that she'd actually hit him. "Great work, you scared her away," DG said, attempting to justify her use of violence.
Ambrose merely shook his head at the small girl beside him. He might've loved her, but forgiving Azkadellia just for her sake was a damn hard thing to do.
Azkadellia moved behind the speaker's lectern, placing her hands on its sides. Light encompassed her fully, giving an aura of innocence and candor. All was planned well; every ray of light and dust particle in the air was in just the right place. All she needed to do was stand there and speak the words from the teleprompter – Easy, right?
Someone was motioning the countdown to the moment they would begin to air. She saw her mother stand a bit further away, her attention directed fully at her daughter. DG was watching also and so were her friends. Ambrose stood next to her and Cain behind her while Raw stood a bit further away, a puzzled look on his face. DG's friends formed a protective circle around her, making sure she felt safe and could rely on them should anything happen.
To Azkadellia's surprise the air was heavy with unadulterated fear. They all feared she would make a mistake, reveal her true nature and try and ruin the O.Z. once and for all. They all carried the tension within, ready to break under pressure. This was worse than she'd thought; they all expected her to fail. All except her mother, who watched her with iron conviction. Her mother wanted her to succeed and wipe this room clean from that fear.
"Princess, you're on the air," a whisper awakened her from her thoughts, and she turned her troubled face towards the camera. She could see how shaken she looked on the monitor, how the words hovered on another monitor, just waiting for her to grasp them. The long silence felt even longer now.
Azkadellia cleared her throat.
"Dear citizens of the O.Z. I am Princess Azkadellia of the Royal Family. It has been more than ten annuals since we last saw each other."
The tension died a little when she began reading, and her anguish seemed to vanish. She took on the role of the innocent girl, possessed by an evil witch.
"I was fifteen when I found the cave where the witch was trapped in with my sister. She came to us as a scared young girl, asking for our help. Foolishly I tried to help her, and she took my body from me."
DG glanced at her mother, realizing how the truth seemed different, clearer somehow. The writers of this speech had excluded the part where DG had left her sister there for the wolves.
Azkadellia's chest was on fire. These weren't her words, these lies. These weren't the story of Azkadellia the Sorceress, but Azkadellia the little princess, who'd dreamed of a world of innocence: The same Azkadellia who had never gotten into trouble, unless it'd been prompted by her younger sister.
"For years I watched her destroy everything I cherished: she tried to kill my little sister, she imprisoned my mother, drove my father into exile and hurt countless of others I would've never wanted to hurt."
This was insane! Her anguish knew no boundaries and her body had tensed more and more as the speech went along. She'd clenched her hands into fists, trying to keep her rage inside and just go through with it. These were excuses she'd never make. The humiliation licked her body like a wave of fire.
And then she was in a dark place again: Alone in the spotlight and the rage ready to overflow. The repentant look on her face turned bitter, and she stared at the camera with hollow eyes. There were no words for what she felt, no sentences existed that would wash away her blame. She was biting her lip without even realizing it and it bled, filling her mouth with the most familiar and comforting taste.
"She wanted to destroy this world, and I was too weak to expel her from my body."
The words blurred in front of her eyes. Something inside her was screaming while trying to tell her this was wrong: Her conscience, that feeling in the bottom of her stomach that the Witch had buried for all these years. As a child she had always told the truth, but the Witch had taught her to lie like it meant nothing. Now that she was gone, it longer felt like nothing – now it felt like everything.
She couldn't stand this charade.
It was then that she remembered the Coffin. Her mind embraced that thought and her tension vanished suddenly. It seemed like all the people around her were holding their breath while she regained hers.
"I don't want your pity," she said, looking straight into the camera and ignoring the apology glaring at her in the teleprompter. "I was never asleep, she merely whispered into my ear and being the foolish child I was, I listened to her."
She saw her mother draw her breath in shock; saw the camera crew freeze in their steps. Cain's hand had stopped fidgeting his gun and it now rested calmly on it, ready to act should the situation require it.
Azkadellia continued, caressing the lectern's wooden surface with her hand, "I have no excuses for you and I don't want your forgiveness when it's based on a lie."
It was in her mind, its smooth black surface and unique smell. She'd studied it eagerly upon getting it in her hands. It was a symbol of power, its name roused fear. Upon a time the most sinful souls in the O.Z's history had all experienced its embrace. It was more than wood and materials, more than ancient magic and runes. It was alive and she actually longed its embrace, whether it would choose to damn her or save her.
"I don't know what I deserve and neither do you. But there's something that does know: The Coffin of Old. I leave my fate in its hands and hope I still have something worth salvaging."
Azkadellia walked away, leaving chaos in her wake. DG seemed confused, her mother was more heartbroken than ever and worried eyes followed Azkadellia's march out of the room. She cared not for their reactions, but only the still peace in her heart. Finally the weight had been lifted.
"I don't understand. What's this coffin?" DG asked, looking at her friends for an explanation. Ambrose turned to look at her first, still overcome by restlessness. She frowned upon seeing him so disturbed and tilted her head the slightest bit to look at him with new eyes.
Cain was the one that spoke first. "The Coffin of Old is an ancient relic, a thing that has a mind of its own. The witches of old used it to determine if there was any chance of redemption for the most dangerous criminals the O.Z has ever seen." He sounded almost worried, but clearly revered this object he spoke of.
"It is a torture device your mother only used once before banning its use for good," Ambrose warned. His voice lacked its usual gentleness though. It was more alert, and it scared her more than any other reaction she had seen to this news.
"Maybe something good come out of this too?" Raw suggested, relighting hope in DG's heart.
"What do you mean?" she asked, moving closer to Raw in hope that her sister hadn't just given up: that this was a reasonable move in unreasonable situation after all.
"Sorceress never used Coffin," Raw replied.
"That's true. She feared its power," Cain confirmed, finally moving his hand from the handle of his gun. He did still seem troubled though, like he had an itch he couldn't quite scratch. DG turned her attention to Ambrose, who had turned his back on them and was looking at the speaker's lectern that Azkadellia had occupied just moments ago. He seemed deep in thought and didn't speak until DG was about to ask him about this Coffin.
"The Coffin sees into the soul of the person within it. Somehow it sees into the conflict of light and dark and then determines which is dominant, and whether a person will ever be salvaged. Those who are consumed by their own darkness end up killing themselves in their sleep."
DG's lips were trembling, she could almost picture this thing in her head. Her magic and her mind responded to it and were only amplified by the fact that this same image was in everyone's mind at once. She saw the coffin, its slender form and rune-covered surface, and she instantly knew why Azkadellia was so drawn to its power.
Her eyes were burning now, tears wanting to be cried and let loose on her cheeks. But she held them back, knowing there was hope. Her sister had taken her hand and chosen light instead of dark. It had to mean something – there had to be light in her heart too!