Author's Note: I'm so sorry for not updating! I'm in summer classes and I just started working full-time, so updates became very difficult. However, I shall persevere. This story shall be finished! *uplifting fanfare* Hopefully, updates will get more regular in future.
The Obligatory Subtle Hint: Reviews make me very, very happy, and provide me with hope, which is a lovely and necessary thing when this is the longest story I've written in my life.
Onwards! *more fanfare*
Aliane slipped silently out of the room at the Lodge, unable to remain in bed. She'd felt horribly stifled and hot, despite an intense attack of shivering, and every small sound had magnified until even her husband's quiet breathing had seemed like thunder. Outside, she was able to breathe again, though a terrible feeling of dread remained. Unfortunately, she knew that the feelings would only get stronger as they approached the full moon. Worse, she knew exactly why.
It had taken her almost a week of wrestling with herself to come to this decision. A week of having her desire to see her daughter again pitted against her intense fear of the course of action she was about to take and the thought of what her husband would say when he found out. Much of that time had been spent in an attempt to discover something, anything that she could do instead. Sadly, her research on the internet, her own scrolls, and a few choice telephone calls had only confirmed her worst fears.
She had taken almost twenty minutes and nearly all of the minor demon's power to break down the door. She'd been impressed in spite of herself—the door had been sitting on its own for two hundred years without renewal. Had the goblins still lived under the hill, she knew that she'd never have been able to break through.
Following the breaking of the door, Aliane had followed the tracks into the moldering goblin city. She'd been surprised by the beauty she found there. The stories she'd been told as a child had spoken of dank caverns full of bats and spiders, not the brilliant stones and graceful buildings she saw. Then she'd found the water mirror.
Aliane had never seen such magic before, and she wondered at it now; the spells that kept the ancient kingdom hidden even from modern technology, that kept the lake from collapsing, that she now suspected maintained the weather. Childhood bogeymen they might be, but the goblins were very powerful.
The signs of a struggle she saw in the room disturbed her. At first she'd assumed that this was where Alma had begun to resist, but closer inspection of the prints and a few brief spells had confirmed that the party had been attacked by another, larger force. All had vanished into the wall of water.
Nearly two hours, the last of the demon power, and every spell she could think of later, Aliane had to admit that the power she possessed was not sufficient to bring her through the mirror and into whatever dimension or parallel universe or hell the goblins had taken her daughter.
Well, nearly every spell she could think of.
Too many sorcerers made the decision to summon a greater demon lightly. Aliane was not one of them. She'd seen the consequences, and knew with terrifying precision exactly what the summoning would cost her. It went far beyond just her soul at death, which was horrible enough.
Aliane was well aware of what demonic power would do to her. Her great-grandfather had gradually worked up to a greater demon, building his tolerance to the power, and even he'd acted strangely towards the end of his life. She'd have no such chance to gradually accustom herself. The addictive rush, the sense of being above the world… all would multiply practically infinitely. There was a reason sorcerers had walked the world like gods—they thought they were. Demonic power didn't just require a soul. It would take her very humanity.
She knew she could never let that happen to her. The world had enough tyrants and the last thing it needed was one with demonic power. Beyond that, she could never let José or Alma see her become a monster. She knew, though, that she wouldn't have much time. The power worked quickly—three weeks, maybe a month, and she would be lost. So Aliane made a simple decision.
As soon as Alma was safe, her mother would die.
Marak was in a rather foul mood. Construction of the Device had been delayed severely due to problems with the weight of the metal. Any use of magic would be detected, and so the dwarves were struggling with the problem of the necessity of strength versus the necessity of being mobile and having the Device support its own weight.
Wood was not to be thought of, as any extra cutting of trees would be noted by troll spies, not to mention anger the elves. The peace was tenuous at best, hinging on a shared enemy, but the slightest trouble could do irreparable damage. Marak had no wish to upset that particular status quo, at least not while still in conflict with the trolls. Later was an entirely different matter, of course.
Necalli came towards him through the construction site, with a nervous looking member of the guard in tow. She stopped in front of him, giving a brief push to the other goblin woman.
"Good news, Necalli. Please tell me only good news." Marak rubbed his eyes briefly.
"Well… I'm not entirely sure." She nodded at the guard. "Tell the King, Nineveh."
Nineveh nervously looked up. She was a very young cat goblin, no more than seventeen, with mottled gray and brown fur and green eyes. She'd also clearly had something of a fright—her pointed ears were nearly flat against her skull.
"I was on patrol in cat shape on the outer border during the last daylight shift," she began. Marak frowned slightly, wishing he didn't have to send the youngest goblins on such dangerous missions. He noticed she'd stopped upon seeing his face, and gestured for her to continue.
"It was nearly sunset, and I was about to return to the changeover point where the night guard would relieve me. I was nearly there when I was attacked with magic."
"What kind of magic?"
"Troll magic. I had no chance to defend myself. It was a total paralysis spell—I couldn't move, I couldn't breathe, I actually felt my heart stop! I couldn't use magic at all—my natural magic was just enough to keep me alive, and I couldn't say any spells or make any gestures anyway. Then someone picked me up, and released the spell partially, just enough so I wouldn't die."
"Who picked you up? And didn't you have defensive spells?"
"I had defensive spells, but this went right through them like they didn't exist. It was a troll man who picked me up. I know because he talked to me, though I didn't get a look at his face."
"What did he say?"
"He said, 'Take a message to your king, little cat. Tell him his defenses need work, and that he may find the night of the next full moon a fitting time to take action.'"
"Yes. After that he put me back on the ground. The spell wore off maybe two minutes later, and I went straight to Necalli."
"What did his voice sound like?"
"Deep, and somewhat hoarse, like he was recovering from a cold."
"Could he have seen you patrolling?"
Nineveh bristled slightly, her hair rising.
"No! I was very careful, and I blend into the forest very well."
Necalli nodded confirmation.
"None of the border guards would make such an amateur mistake. Nineveh may not be as experienced as some, but I assigned her to the outer border because she is very, very good at not being seen. She wouldn't give herself away."
"Which means he knew she was going to be there and when… thank you, Nineveh. Make sure you see Enki and he confirms the spell did no lasting damage, and have someone tell Bedros and the elders I need them in the council chambers. I may need to test you myself or question you further later, but for now you're dismissed."
She bowed and left.
"It's a very good thing her father is off scouting for the next three days," commented Necalli. "If he was here, I'm fairly sure he would be trying to kill me or at the very least attempting to do something extremely nasty to my kneecaps for assigning his daughter such a dangerous job."
Marak couldn't help but wince slightly in sympathy.
"You are his commanding officer."
"You tell him that. I'll watch. From a safe distance."
José opened his eyes. He'd felt Aliane leave his side. She hadn't been sleeping well, neither of them had. This was the first time she'd felt the need to leave the room though. The feeling that something was terribly wrong, which had gnawed at him since he'd found the concealed artifacts in her bag, had only gotten worse in the last week, as Aliane seemed more and more distant and less and less interested in the world around her.
There had been meetings with representatives from the US embassy, with police, with various crackpots and sadists who'd claimed knowledge of the whereabouts of Alma or her body. The first time someone claimed responsibility for killing her, José had felt his heart stop. His first thought had been to throttle the man who made the claim. But Aliane had merely pulled him back down, calmly stated, "This man is lying," and walked out.
He'd seen the suspicion then, in the eyes of the police in the room. After she left, they had questioned him at length. Could he answer for his wife's whereabouts at the time of his daughter's disappearance? Had she been acting unusually? Had she been meeting people he didn't know or making suspicious phone calls? Had he seen anything suspicious on her clothing? Had she fought with Alma in the time leading up to the disappearance?
José had lied. He knew why they suspected his wife, and he himself was concerned about her behavior. He knew there were things in Aliane's past he had no knowledge of, and that at times she could be…odd. He couldn't even say why he had such blind faith that the police were entirely wrong. Even so, he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was innocent, that she loved him and Alma, and would never do anything to harm them.
Cursing his own suspicion, José rose from the bed and followed his wife out of the room.
Alma sat nervously next to Edwina, looking out at the circle of expectant faces. It had taken a week for Edwina to trust her enough to introduce her to the rebel group; a long, nerve-wracking, frightening week. It had been made clear in no uncertain terms that if Alma betrayed the group or failed to convince the troll king that she was still under his spell, then by the hand of the human rebels, their troll allies, or the king himself, she would die very slowly and very painfully.
Maintaining the charade hadn't been as difficult as Alma had imagined it would be, though this in and of itself had caused her some concern. She'd thought it would be impossible to slip back into the person of the last two weeks, the idiot who had been brainwashed by a troll.
However, it had been incredibly easy. She sat at table with the king, laughed at what he said, looked flattered when he complimented her appearance, listened to the music, clapped at the bloody entertainment, and frantically pinched herself under the table to keep her thoughts clear, which was increasingly difficult. The king made it very easy for her to backslide. He was always courteous, always handsome, always generous. Anybody remaining in his company for long would find themselves wanting to please him, to laugh with him; even at things that, had they been thinking rationally, they would have considered horrendous atrocities.
Alma was frightened by how easy it was to slip back into her role as his pet, how much she wanted to please him, and the fact that she couldn't help but feel guilty about her subterfuge when she was with him. Alma hadn't had very much experience with mind control, but she was fairly sure that once you broke out, that should be it. The mind is clean, the bad things are all gone, and there's no danger of a relapse. It really shouldn't take great effort not to betray your new allies.
Edwina had not been particularly sympathetic when Alma had told her about this.
"Oh dear, it's so difficult. You have to betray a monster who enjoys having innocent people ripped apart in front of him in order to help your own kind! You have to sit at banquets while we, lazy servants that we are, clean your room, wash your clothes and eat our delicious scraps of stale bread and barely-cooked meat! You are forced to sleep in a comfortable feather bed while we sleep on the floor! It's so difficult to think of your worried, loving, alive family in the other world while all we do is complain about our families who were brutally slaughtered before we could speak! Yes, you have such a very terrible, horrible, tragic life!"
After this, Alma had chosen to keep her fears to herself.
The group did not introduce themselves. Names were dangerous things. Edwina merely nodded at the assembly, and briefly noted the presence of Alma. The others in the room looked up with only the faintest hope. Winning over Alma had been a great victory for them, but it also came with a new set of dangers, not to mention the fact that previous victories had ended in death.
One of the men Edwina nodded at was a worker in the dungeons. He stood, hesitantly.
"The guards are restless. There are claims that the king is growing weak, that he fears the goblins and so won't fight them. He still ruthlessly crushes any attempts to expand out of the current borders, and he won't let them raid the elves anymore. And…"
"Go on." The man cast a nervous glance at Alma.
"They say his… close association with a human has clouded his judgment."
"Interesting," said Edwina, ignoring the now scarlet-faced Alma. She indicated a woman, who stood as the first speaker sat.
"Several members of court are saying it may be time to back a challenger."
"Lady Frida, Lady Helga, Lord Calder, Lord Fenris, and one other man whose name they never said, though they sounded nervous around him. I listened through the wall but I couldn't see them."
"Do they know of a challenger?"
"None of them wanted to say anything."
Edwina frowned. "I may need to talk to Keir. I thought he would have brought more trolls on board now that he's found a challenger."
"Could he have lied to us?" asked one of the men from the circle.
"Well, if he has, we're all dead anyway, so I suppose we should proceed as though he hasn't." This brought a few nervous chuckles, but the remark had hit too close to everyone's fears for any real mirth. Realizing this, Edwina quickly continued.
"Anyway, we should move on. We have a new friend, of course—" Alma half expected the group to obediently greet her, like six year-olds being forced to welcome a new student who know they can be nasty in private later— "and she has the potential to be a great asset to us."
I don't think I like it when she smiles, thought Alma.
"We know, of course, that the crown of the troll kings is a fundamental part of their power. Nothing powerful in and of itself, but it's of great significance to the trolls. Well, what if he… lost it? And the next day, multiple identical crowns show up in the possession of the three or four most powerful non-royal trolls?"
Eyes around the circle grew wide.
"Civil war." Alma didn't realize she had spoken aloud until everyone looked at her. "You're going to make them fight each other to the death."
Edwina nodded. "Trolls are ambitious. If each one believes he is the rightful king, he'll fight to the death to defend that right."
"And the challenger you've been talking about? Your troll ally?"
Alma could feel Edwina's glare practically burning her face, but she couldn't stop asking questions.
"We'll tell him beforehand, so he can make sure his challenger is the one who succeeds to the throne. Most importantly, we escape in the confusion."
"But how do you think you're make copies of the crown? Or even get to it in the first place?"
Now Edwina smiled again.
"Oh, stealing the crown will be the easy part. For us, anyway."
Alma thought for a moment, realized what that meant, and found that what came to mind was a singularly effective piece of British slang she'd picked up.