A/N: So much for the faster update, huh? A lot of big things happen in this chapter, so I wanted to make sure they were set up the way I wanted them!
A few people have asked this in recent chapters, so a general FYI: this story seems to be far from over. A lot of the conflict set up in the beginning meanders—something I would tighten up in a hypothetical rewrite—but since it's there, it bears resolution. Additionally, you need have no fear—my updates can get very, very far apart, but I promise I have no intention of leaving this story unfinished!
MORE BEAUTIFUL ART OH MY GOODNESS I CANNOT HANDLE THE AWESOME
belovedeyes82 . deviantart / art / The-Prisoner-416551278
harpyvixen . deviantart / art / Rose-and-Maleficent-425279839
nyssasaralee . deviantart / art / Kinsale-442596093
Wow, links are annoying. They're in my profile if you're as annoyed as I am by this format-haha!
Uhhhh...I don't want to give anything away, but this chapter really should kind of come with a warning. Let's say this: if you've found any of the violence in this story triggery thus far, this might be another chapter to be wary of. Thank you so much for sticking with me, for reading, favourite-ing, alerting, and especially for your incredibly kind words in reviews! I hope you will continue to share your thoughts!
Chapter 23 — The Monster
"Please." Leah could not stop herself from trembling. "If you're going to kill me, just... just make it quick."
Leah had only personally seen Maleficent twice before. Both of those times, Maleficent had kept her distance, been contented to exude that infamous quiet power from afar. While Leah had been vaguely aware that Maleficent was tall and thin, these descriptive terms captured nothing. Maleficent was not only tall, she was taller than anyone Leah had ever encountered, and she visibly craned her long neck to look down upon Leah. She was not only thin, but like a skeleton. Her prominent cheekbones were accentuated by a gaunt, hollow face. The hand that so painfully held onto Leah's wrist was made up of unnaturally long, bone-thin fingers. Without fully realizing it, Leah had previously believed that she would not recognize Maleficent without her signature horned headdress, but this proved to be utterly untrue. Not only were the sneer upon her lips, the curve of her nose, and the striking arch of her eyebrows unmistakable, but the hair atop Maleficent's head was short and black, and it created the same dramatic widow's peak suggested by her headdress.
Her expression even when neutral was dramatic and intimidating. Now, in response to Leah's plea for her life, Maleficent raised her eyebrows. "Now why would I do that?" she wondered quietly, and something about her calculated soft-spokenness only added to the terror she engendered. "There is a war afoot, you know. I expect so valuable a chess piece as a queen is worth a great deal to someone."
Before Leah could respond, the world began to twist and turn and shatter around her. Suddenly Leah was nowhere at all, without even the ground beneath her feet or the sky above her head to orient her. When she did experience solid ground again, she fell to her hands and knees upon it and clung to it for dear life. She was not allotted much time to feel relieved, however. She felt a white-hot surge of something coursing through her veins, and she screamed from the pain. Whatever had happened, it left her upright and unable to move anything below her neck.
She looked up and set eyes upon Maleficent once more. She struggled to think of what she'd meant to do before everything had stopped making sense to her, but she was overwhelmed by a dreadful remembrance: how could Aurora care so deeply for this creature over her own friends and family? "My daughter," she murmured tremulously. "Where is she? What have you done with her?"
Maleficent pulled Leah to her feet. Leah could feel that strange, frightening tingle of magic as it shifted and mutated, coursing through her veins. Her legs were permitted to walk, but only in one direction. This sensation wasn't unfamiliar to her, but she hadn't experienced it since...
"I had no hand in her escape," Maleficent informed her. "I was otherwise engaged."
"But..." that didn't answer any of Leah's questions, really. In fact, it only posed more. "But you know where she is?"
"Somewhere on the battlefield, I imagine," said Maleficent. Frank. Flat. Almost distracted.
Leah inhaled sharply, and her knees very nearly buckled beneath her. In spite of the magic working upon her and her obvious danger, she stopped walking. Maleficent stopped with her.
The worst. She must ask the worst question first. "Dead?" Leah breathed, eyes squeezed closed. "Is she...?" No. No, no, no, no, no...
Maleficent heaved a small, exasperated sigh. "I rather doubt it," she replied crisply, then gave Leah's shoulders a shove. "She is fighting."
Leah moved forward, but with each step, she felt she would collapse. Not dead. Not dead. Still time. But... "Aurora? Fighting? But...but why?" This was all so surreal. Leah never thought she would see Maleficent again—or rather, she hoped she wouldn't. But Aurora had been willingly in her company for months! How could that be? And how could it be that Aurora was...fighting?
They began to ascend a winding flight of stairs, and Maleficent was silent for several minutes before she spoke once more, "Perhaps it will come as a surprise to you that your daughter believes very strongly in personal freedom. She does not believe that an entire species ought to be eradicated, regardless of its many flaws."
Personal freedom. That was what Fauna had said. Aurora wanted to be free...she'd desired some freedom she believed her friends and family could not provide for her...and so she'd become a slave to this monster, instead.
"At any rate," Maleficent amended, "when the first battle began, she elected to fight."
Elected. There were so many things Leah had forgotten about Maleficent—so many thing she had been unwilling to remember, so many she'd blocked from her mind. This—this quiet, refined, eloquence. A sham, but a very convincing one. And Aurora was so young, so blissfully unaware of the evils of this world...how could she have seen through this? How long had it been before Maleficent's true colours had shone through? Had Aurora already been too taken in by then?
Had this been Maleficent's plan all along? From the moment poor little Aurora had come down to the dungeons to see the condemned woman, had Maleficent seen not only a chance at freedom, but a renewed opportunity for her twisted vengeance?
Maleficent opened one of a handful of spider-infested doors. It revealed what appeared to be a child's bedroom, but with a desk piled high with thick books, and a metal bar with shackles affixed to the far wall. Maleficent chained Leah to the wall and cast another spell upon her. Leah's stomach churned as she tried not to consider the possibilities. How had the shackles gotten here? Whose room had this been? Where was that poor little child now?
"This was your revenge, then?" Leah asked Maleficent as she turned away. She tried to ignore the tears welling in her eyes, and to be brave. "You took my daughter from me... You gave her magic..." she shook her head, hated the dreadful tingling she felt all over her skin, holding her in place. "You went to the trouble to train her...you...you..."
It was too much. Even when Leah closed her eyes, she saw Aurora's features light up when she spoke of the wicked fairies who would send her to her death. "You endeared yourself to her!" Leah sobbed. "Only to make her some sort of...slave soldier for your cause?"
Maleficent did not move, but her shoulders tensed almost imperceptibly. "That would have been clever of me, wouldn't it?" she murmured. Then she turned around and faced Leah once more. "What brings you so far from the Eastern Kingdom, Majesty?"
"You—but—" What? That was all she had to say? That it would have been clever of her? Certainly, if one could truly call such a horrifying scheme 'clever'! "I came to find her," Leah said, incredulous. Why else would she court such danger?
Maleficent raised one eyebrow. "And do what, precisely?"
She was unbelievable! And do what! Leah was almost angry—would have been furious if she were not so overwhelmed by aching sadness. "And apologize! And bring her home!"
Bizarrely, frighteningly, Maleficent seemed to genuinely consider this. As though the information were not obvious! And if it weren't, well then, wasn't Leah a fool for giving it to her? But how could something so simple evade someone so terrifyingly clever?
"Do you imagine that will go over well?" Maleficent wondered quietly. "I am given to understand that her most recent sojourn in the Eastern Kingdom was less than pleasant."
The dreadful churning sensation in Leah's stomach intensified. "Less pleasant than a battlefield?"
"Do you know much of battlefields?"
Leah frowned. "I know my daughter doesn't belong there," she replied, for lack of anything better to say.
Maleficent tilted her head thoughtfully, "But she does belong in magical Chains?"
"Why are you doing this?" Leah snapped. On top of the long-standing anguish that now acutely plagued her, she was beginning to feel uncommonly frustrated. If she had ever given the matter any thought, she would have probably been able to imagine that she and Maleficent would not see eye to eye; yet the actual process of having a conversation with someone who so clearly saw the world in such a foreign and incomprehensible light was jarring, to say the least.
Leah let out an indeterminate noise, equal parts vexation and pain. You don't understand! she wanted to cry. You don't understand, so why mock me? "Why do you care?" she wondered at last.
"Idle curiosity, Majesty," Maleficent replied evenly. A flicker of something crossed her eyes. Amusement? But as quickly as it had come, it had gone again, and Leah thought she must have imagined it. "She is my ally, after all."
"Ally!" Leah very nearly sobbed. "How can you speak such lies?"
Maleficent had no visible reaction. "Believe what you wish," she replied. "In any event, I expect she will make her way here sooner or later. Then you may have your highly anticipated chat."
Leah's heart leapt, and she felt almost dizzy, but as soon as her rush of hopefulness had come, it vanished, and it was replaced by a sickening heaviness in the pit of her stomach. Why would Maleficent say such a thing? Why would she allow Aurora to see Leah, chained up like this, held prisoner? Was Aurora so far beyond help, that she would not see her error in trusting Maleficent then? "And you don't think she will free me?" she asked aloud, timidly.
Maleficent's brow furrowed subtly. "Perhaps she would," she replied slowly, as though she were genuinely uncertain. "If she were able."
Leah shook her head sadly. "You are so confident in your control over her that you don't think she'll reproach you for chaining up her own mother?"
"I do not base my actions upon whether or not she will reproach me for them, Your Majesty," Maleficent replied coolly.
"Then you do have her enchanted," Leah said quietly. She hadn't really meant to say it aloud, or perhaps she had. What had she to lose now?
"Lest you have forgotten, Queen Leah, you are in the midst of a war. It is possible to ally oneself with someone despite various unfortunate differences in opinion."
"Differences in opinion!" Leah echoed. She was beginning to feel a bit frantic and short of breath. "I've read about your kind, you know, since last we spoke. Are you a wicked fairy who truly understands nothing of family? Can you truly believe that a child would respect a war over her bond to her mother?"
"Should I?" Maleficent wondered. "Did a mother forsake her orders to preserve the sanity of her daughter? Or did she stand and watch as her daughter's life force was drained from her by the Chains of Avasina?"
"Mistress Zalia told us it was..."
"That is precisely my point," said Maleficent, still unnervingly calm, coldly rational. "If you would believe the words of a stranger whose only credentials are that she was born into a race deemed Good over the words of your adult daughter on the matter of her own well-being, I see no reason why your daughter should believe you over me simply because you are related by blood."
"Because I love her!" Leah all but snarled, wrists straining against her chains. "I would do anything for her! Perhaps I've been wrong before, but I will never stop trying. I will never stop trying, and fighting to save her from this nightmare you've thrust upon her. I will always be her mother. You will always be the vengeful bitch who cursed her to die!"
Maleficent turned to face Leah, expression something akin to haughty amusement, black eyes burning with something else entirely. "How touching," she sneered. "How fortunate for Briar Rose that she has known such fierce devotion all of her days, and without even knowing it!"
The words felt as though Maleficent had stricken her. Stabbed her. Torn her to pieces. How could she not know? How could Aurora be unaware of Leah's love for her, when Leah overflowed with it, when it overwhelmed her, when every passing day was agony, not knowing what had become of her daughter?
Maleficent chuckled lightly. The sound sent an uncomfortable shiver through Leah's entire body. "Now, if you'll excuse me, this vengeful bitch has other matters to attend to."
"Has no one ever shown you such devotion, Maleficent?"
Perhaps it was not the wisest thing to say, but how much could her circumstances truly worsen? Leah was genuinely curious. Even though she believed she already had her answer, and even though she did not expect another, it wasn't at all the one she would have liked. Maleficent did know that kind of devotion...in the heart of a girl whose life she viewed, at the very best, as inconsequential.
To Leah's astonishment, Maleficent paused, long-fingered hand upon the doorknob.
Encouraged, and far too overcome by melancholy to feel particularly afraid, Leah pressed on. "Are you like Mistress Zenovia, who bested her mother in combat?" she wondered, perhaps even more quietly than before. "Did you take your own mother's life because you couldn't see how she loved you?"
Maleficent's grip on the doorknob tightened until her pine green knuckles turned white. When she spoke, her voice was entirely different than it had been before—no longer quiet and ethereal and terrifyingly neutral. It was low and harsh and filled with raw emotion. Leah could not decide which was more frightening.
"Do you think," she began through gritted teeth, "that if Zenovia's mother had shown her even the barest, most painful, twisted vestige of affection, even once in her life, that she would have been able to take her life?"
Leah's mind went momentarily blank, and she frowned, uncomprehending. Maleficent did not move even a single muscle. She waited like a statue of stone for a response Leah could not even begin to form. Slowly, in fractured pieces, the words Maleficent had spoken began to register in Leah's mind...painful, twisted vestige of affection...once in her life...do you think...
But Leah took too long at last, and Maleficent continued. "Do you think a child turns a staff upon her mother because she is having a temper tantrum? A bad day?" Her voice grew ever lower and colder. At last she moved, but only to turn cold, black eyes upon her prisoner.
"I have lived for one hundred and thirty years," said Maleficent. "I have read and studied and traveled extensively. I have never heard of a wicked fairy who waged war upon her mother. Wicked fairy children fight their mothers because they do not wish to die. Do you know what becomes of the children who do not win those battles you have so harshly condemned?"
Leah shook her head. Vaguely, it occurred to her that she was crying, but still her mind was strangely hazy, and her thoughts came in clumsy, meaningless fragments.
Maleficent's lip curled, and she turned away from Leah sharply. "Did you know that I had two older sisters?" she asked the opposing wall, and just as suddenly as she had been enraged, she was soft-spoken and neutral once more. "Since we have this time to chat, let me tell you a bit about them. Their names were Seraphina and Acacia. They didn't look very much like me. They were both very beautiful, and they had brown hair and eyes like my mother's." A long silence. Again Maleficent stood unnervingly still. "Seraphina was spirited. Argumentative. Acacia was quiet and sensitive. Seraphina liked to fight. Acacia liked to play with dolls."
Silence. Leah was acutely aware of the strangled sound her dry throat made as she attempted to swallow. She clenched her hands into fists, but it was no sign of aggression—only a vain attempt to stop herself from trembling. Still she could not form a single coherent thought. The only thing her mind offered up was a murky sense of dread.
At last, Maleficent spoke again. All of the fire, all of the passion, all of the power had completely fled from her voice. She was left sounding oddly hollow and far away. "Seraphina was sixteen, Acacia was fourteen, and I had just turned thirteen when our mother slit their throats."
Like water from a floodgate, Leah let out a loud, wracking sob which surprised her. She hadn't even realized her tears were imminent, nor that she had any left at all. "Oh, God..." she wailed.
Maleficent turned on her abruptly. "Zenovia also had two sisters, since this topic interests you," she continued, and Leah flinched. "But Zenovia was the eldest daughter. Her mother attacked her first, and she won. She was afforded the opportunity to protect her sisters."
"But then they died, too!" Leah sobbed. Were her wrists not chained to the wall, she would have thrown her arms out in a gesture of abject despair. How could this be so?
Maleficent did not reply. The only sound in the room—or so it seemed, in the entire world—was Leah's crying, but even that petered out before Maleficent spoke again.
"Yes," she said at last. "At the hands of Mistress Sara."
Leah's head fell back against the stone wall with a dull thud. Though it hurt, the physical pain was nothing to what she felt in her heart.
Maleficent straightened her posture and took a deep breath before continuing. "Perhaps you're right, Queen Leah, and my species knows nothing of that fierce devotion to which you lay claim. As we have always done, we are merely fighting for our lives in the ways we know. Perhaps my methods are by your standards unforgivably evil, but you'll understand if that is not my first priority."
Again Maleficent made to leave, and again Leah's words stopped her. This time, they were neither quiet nor meek, nor did they even make very much sense. "She loves you!" Leah shrieked.
"I beg your pardon?"
"She loves you!" Leah repeated, twice as wildly as before. "Out of all of the countless people who love her, who would protect her with their lives, she adores the one person who will throw her life away as soon as it's convenient!"
Maleficent did not move. She seemed stunned, more than anything else, and this fueled Leah's fury. "I hope you live for another thousand years or more," she continued savagely, "and I hope you never once forget the helpless little girl who loved you even though you hated her!"
"Helpless! Helpless, indeed!" Maleficent's neutral expression broke suddenly into mirthless, incredulous laughter. "What she loves is what I was able to offer her: freedom and the means to ensure it for herself. In case it has escaped your notice," she added with a sneer, "there is nothing in me to love."
"You're going to break her poor heart!" Leah cried as Maleficent finally opened the door to depart. "It would be more merciful of you to kill her!"
Maleficent paused and turned burning eyes on the Queen once more. Leah only thought she had been frightened before. There was nothing that could compare to this. Maleficent's eyes—normally shining with some unthinkable inner monologue at which Leah could only guess—suddenly glazed over. They became flat with rage. She was like a wild animal. Robbed of her senses. And if Maleficent did the things she did in full possession of her senses...
What would she do now?
"If you dare to speak to me of death as a mercy to her again," Maleficent said at last, her voice barely above a whisper, "I swear to you I shall teach you the full meaning of that phrase."
This time, she did not bother using the door to depart.
Leah sat in utter shock for several minutes after the last flickers of green flame which marked Maleficent's exit had died out. Her mind was blank, or perhaps too full of white noise to produce any one thought concrete enough to hold onto. Leah felt as though she might be sick. She wanted to weep, but her eyes were mercilessly dry.
At last, one thought hit her. And the thought was so absurd, yet so undeniably true that it hurt. It must be so. It was impossible, yet it wasn't. Nothing else could account for the way she'd reacted. Leah had never been stricken, yet she imagined that this might be what it would feel like to take a blow to the stomach.
Maleficent loved Aurora, too.
To say that Merryweather had never been an early riser was something of an understatement. She was a heavy sleeper, and she relished every last moment of slumber that came her way. She'd be damned if after five hundred and forty years she let that old fuddy-duddy Flora stand in the way of her beauty sleep.
What was more, on this particular morning, Merryweather felt a bit like she'd been crushed under the weight of something incredibly large and unwieldy. The dull ache that pervaded her body reminded her of the descriptions she'd been forced to read over and over and over of magical explosions developed for warfare against the wicked fairies, should drastic measures ever become...
"Merryweather! This is not a game!"
Something about the groggy association Merryweather had made between her uncommon soreness and magical explosions caused her to crack open one eye, which she turned accusatorily upon her eldest sister. "Good morning to you, too," she grumbled.
Flora's frown deepened and she crossed her arms. "Honestly. Get up this instant!"
Merryweather opened both eyes, but only to roll them more effectively. "Well, when you put it so sweetly."
She was, of course, not nearly quick enough for Flora's liking. Flora launched into a tirade of meaningless nagging, punctuated by the occasional tug at Merryweather's arm. More than half a millenium of practice had rendered Merryweather almost entire impervious to her sister's fiddle-faddle, but in this particular instance, something contained therein jumped out at her.
"...whiling the day away in bed while our search party has been scattered to the four winds, and I don't see how you can just—"
"Scattered?" Merryweather interrupted her, but this was immediately followed by a loud groan as her feet touched the floor and she fully accepted that the pain she was experiencing was more than run-of-the-mill muscle fatigue. "Wild guess: magical explosion?"
"—lie there dreaming about whatever it is that goes on in that silly head of y—what?" Flora's eyes went wide, and the silence that followed her rant was almost discomfiting by contrast. "How did you know that?"
Merryweather rubbed her temples and slowly, gingerly tried to put weight on her feet. "I feel like hell," she replied flatly. Exactly how badly she was feeling was evidenced by the fact that she gleaned almost no enjoyment from having stunned her know-it-all sister, and hadn't even the energy to gloat. On top of her physical distress, there was a dreadful thought nagging at the back of her mind, and it took more than the energy she currently possessed to decide whether she wanted to voice her fear.
"Where are we?" she wondered instead.
Flora recovered quickly, and her exasperated demeanour recovered with her. "The Kingdom of the Two Rivers, of all the God-forsaken places."
Merryweather squeezed her eyes closed. Something about the name was familiar to her, but she was far too tired to think of why. "Where's that?"
Of course, Flora, who had never in her life been too tired to pat herself on the back, relished this opportunity to flaunt her superiority. "You don't remember?" she asked exaggeratedly, in lieu of a helpful answer.
"When I looked up all those ridiculous places Maleficent might have gotten off to and then we—what are you doing just sitting there like a lump? Get dressed!"
Merryweather looked down at her dress and back up at her sister, uncomprehending. She was dressed.
Flora narrowed her eyes and wrinkled her nose. "Clean up! Change into something presentable, you disgusting thing! And we asked Mistress Kinsale about it, but all she told us was that it's next to the Dragon Country, and we meant to come by and see if—well, what are you waiting for?"
"Oh, excuse me, for a second there I thought you might have something useful to say." Merryweather poked around in her makeshift bed until she had located her wand, cast a quick cleaning charm on herself, and tucked her wand away with a pointed hmph in Flora's direction. "There. So we're near dragon country."
"The Dragon Country."
"Even better. Where do you suppose the others are?" Where do you suppose—but no. The mere idea of it made Merryweather sick to her stomach.
"How in Heaven's name would I know a thing like that, Merryweather?"
Merryweather folded her arms, but her response had no real bite in it. "Flora the Great and Powerful admits she doesn't know something. If I had any idea what day it was, I'd mark this down on a calendar to celebrate forever."
Flora's response began with a hmph of her own. "If you paid attention for more than two seconds at a time, you'd be aware that it's the first day of—" Flora stopped abruptly, as though she had choked or been knocked out of breath. She'd been so quick to argue that she must not have realized...
The first day of Spring. Rose's birthday.
The questions Merryweather didn't want to ask flooded her mind. Where was Rose? What if she were with the fairies for whom this magical explosion was intended? What if she'd been killed already? Did Fauna know? Or was she still safely tucked away in the Eastern Kingdom without a clue?
After several minutes spent staring at one another in near-horror, Flora's expression hardened. She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. "Well. Since you're taking your merry time getting ready, I'll go out into the field to send up a signal."
"Send up a signal?" Merryweather echoed incredulously. She tried tto ignore the enormous flood of relief she felt at having something else to occupy her mind. "A magical explosion and you want to send up a signal?"
"It was Good Fairy magic, you ninny! I'm going to signal for help! One of Sara's troops will find us and help us."
That still didn't make very much sense to Merryweather, but it had in the meantime occurred to her that if Flora intended to leave, she could lie down a bit longer, and, for a few blissful moments, forget the unanswerable questions that plagued her. Perhaps if she had been a bit less exhausted or in a bit less pain or a bit less eager to ignore the fear gripping her heart, the imminent danger the outside world posed to her irritating older sister might have occurred to her, but as it was, Merryweather responded with a groan and flopped back onto her makeshift bed as Flora exited the shelter she had fashioned for them.
"It's time to go, Rose."
Rose woke to find she had been sleeping face-down. Go where? she wondered as she rubbed her eyes. The room was warm and colourful like sunset, but the light burned her eyes. She could see only a shadow of her Aunt Flora.
"Rose. It's time to go."
Oh. Now she remembered. It looked like sunset because it was sunset. Rose must have cried herself to sleep earlier. Princess Aurora was supposed to die today at sunset. Briar Rose was Princess Aurora.
"Aunt Flora..." Her own voice was like an echo from far, far away. "Aunt Flora, I can't!" But the more vehemently she tried to speak, the further away her voice seemed to drift. "I can't!"
"You must, child." Flora's voice was not like an echo at all. "It's your destiny."
Rose began to feel distinctly panicked. "But I—Princess Aurora is—she's supposed to die today, Aunt Flora! You're not just going to let me—let me—are you?"
Flora was surprised. Shocked, even. "Of course not, dear!" she cried, and she explained that she and Fauna and Merryweather weren't her aunts at all like they'd said. They were good fairies who had protected the baby princess from the evil Maleficent and her nasty spell, and they would do it again tonight. "You're going to be all right now, Rose," she said, but of course that wasn't true at all.
Rose wasn't going to be all right now. She was going to be Princess Aurora now. And if Princess Aurora wasn't going to die tonight, then Briar Rose would die in her stead.
Briar Rose awoke with a sharp intake of breath. The air burned her lungs, but she gasped for it with abandon. Vaguely, it occurred to her that she might have stopped breathing for some indeterminate amount of time.
The brightness of the sky burned her eyes, but she could not bring herself to blink, lest she never see it again. Just as it had been when she'd thought she would die, it was covered in a thick layer of garish stormclouds, bright as high noon, but with no way of knowing the actual time of day or night.
Before she knew the impetus, Rose's body reacted. She sprang to her feet, so overcome by the rush of adrenaline that the white-hot agony coursing through every last inch of her body did not incapacitate her. She realized as she summoned her staff like a reflex that she had reacted to a noise—a quiet little footfall upon dry grass—and with this new idea in mind, she turned frantic circles in search of the noise's source, eyes wide and unblinking, mouth hanging open as she continued to gasp for air.
A voice—a single sound. Monosyllabic, surprised, accusatory. This was all it took.
Rose was overcome by a surge of panic that took hold in her chest and spread like flooding water through her limbs and drowned out all hope of rational thought in a swirling sea of pure terror. Not even a second after she'd heard the voice, she fired in the direction from whence it had come the most vicious spell she hardly knew—a half-remembered thing she had only seen and never dared to attempt.
The voice shrieked. It screamed. It wailed. Gradually, Rose's mind began to clear, but only in fragments. First, Rose faintly realized that she was trembling violently. Next, that she was in tremendous pain. She heard the anguished cries of a familiar voice, but she did not yet possess the wherewithal to be truly concerned. Too many times had her dreams been haunted by the suffering of her loved ones, and this moment felt far less real than most of her nightmares.
Slowly and with heavy footfalls, Rose turned around to see what she had wrought. Though she realized that she had fired a spell, she had not truly expected it to work, and she was far from making the connection between the spell she'd fired and the cries of pain she heard like echoes from a childhood that now seemed almost to belong to someone else.
Reality struck a swift and deadly blow. Where there had been a hazy fog of unease, now there was gut-wrenching horror.
"Aunt Flora?" Choked. Not even a whisper.
But by now the shrieking had died down into helpless whimpering. Aunt Flora lay upon the ground, still on fire, but already so horribly burnt that there was little more for the flames to feed off of. With shaking hands, Rose fired every countercurse and healing spell she could think of, but of course, none of them did any good. She suddenly remembered that, though she'd seen Maleficent use the spell, she had copied it primarily from Zenovia. It must be one of her own spells. Of course a fairy who knew so much about healing could invent a spell which wouldn't allow for it.
The flames died out abruptly and completely, and they left only bones in their wake, but Briar Rose knew what she had seen and she knew what she had heard. The fairy she had heard approaching—the fairy who had called out—monosyllabic, surprised, accusatory—had called out Rose.
Rose had just...
No! No, no, no, it wasn't possible! She wouldn't think it! Couldn't think it! It wasn't possible, it wasn't, and she wouldn't believe it. She refused.
Rose wasn't capable. She couldn't kill anybody. She'd never kill anybody. She'd been in a war for how long now? Who knew? Days or weeks or months; she couldn't say anymore. And not once had she killed anyone. Even when they'd challenged her in battle, she'd thrown them off somewhere for someone else to deal with. She was a healer. It was her job to heal, not to kill.
She was a good person! She never meant any harm to anybody. The only reason she'd learned any of this magic in the first place was to defend herself! She only wanted to be free, and to help the friends who had aided her in that quest. She never even really meant to hurt anybody at all, let alone to...and all those fairies who ran away! They were just running for their lives! How could Rose kill any of those poor fairies when all anybody in this war wanted was to live through it?
And she hadn't killed Phillip! She had thought about it—really, truly considered it! But she couldn't do it! Because she was incapable of killing even someone who had so wronged her—even someone she resented and loathed and wished never to see again! Because Rose had been horrified at the prospect of Maleficent's death even when they were strangers, because she could not think of any circumstances in which a person deserved to die! Rose could not kill anybody!
How could Rose kill anybody when she knew how desperately she didn't want to die? Even for all the countless moments she'd thought would be her last, Rose still held onto the infinitesimal chance of survival. She held onto the faint glimmer of hope that somewhere in this mess, there was a future for her that did not include an early grave or a life in chains.
It is possible that there are worse fates than death, but to die is never to know what could have been.
Maleficent's words, from what seemed like another lifetime. Rose had been reminded of them when she had tried to explain to Maleficent why she had nearly ended her own life.
So perhaps she was capable of ending a life. But only her own. And only when it was no longer worth living. How could she end the life of another? She couldn't! Impossible! Not when she could so clearly recall the way Maleficent had looked then—she'd looked like she ought to have died, but she hadn't. And where was Maleficent now? Dead? No. No, no, no, surely not. She wouldn't die. She had survived then. She had survived Mistress Sara's torture. Mistress Sara meant certain death, but Maleficent had survived. And if Rose had survived whatever-this-was, then Maleficent must be just fine. Perhaps she wasn't even in pain.
Gone. Dead. To die is never to know what—
Rose knelt down and, with the tips of her fingers, touched one of the bones that still lay in the shape of a perfectly formed skeleton. It was hot and dry. And clean. Perfectly clean and dry.
Rose wrapped her arms about herself and sank back into the grass. "Oh, god, oh, god, oh, god," she murmured to herself as the crushing realization sank into her heart and her skin and her soul.
She had killed someone.
She was capable of killing someone.
And she had done it.
And it wasn't someone she hated! It wasn't even someone she didn't know—some faceless soldier who had the misfortune of being on the opposite side of this hideous war in which Rose had entangled herself.
For all of her anger, all of her resentment, all of her sorrow, and for all she had been subjected to and subjected herself to as a consequence of these things, Rose had never stopped loving her aunts. For all of their lies and fumblings and misunderstandings, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather had raised Briar Rose as their own. They had been her only family, and for all of the ways they had failed her in the recent past, they had spent the first sixteen years of her life loving her fiercely.
And of course they had not simply done this for sixteen years and then stopped! Matters had merely become more complicated after that. The love between Rose and the fairies who were her family had become less obvious, less palpable, but never, never less real!
"Oh, god!" Rose shrieked into the sky and collapsed onto her hands and knees before the pile of hot, dry, perfectly clean bones she had created with her own hands.
Rose had killed someone she loved.
"No! No, no, no, no, no..."
Again, the sound of quiet footfalls sent Rose's body into a frenzy. Shocked out of her grief, Rose's only thought was to run, and to run as fast and as far away from those tiny little feet as she could. Rose was dangerous. Rose was a monster. She was not to be trusted. And where there had been one of her aunts, there must soon follow one or both of the others. And Rose—
Rose ran with everything she had. She ignored her screaming muscles and her pounding heart and her bleary eyes and she put as much distance between herself and whoever would come after Aunt Flora as possible before she collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Nausea settled into her stomach with a strange sense of familiarity. So often had it rested there of late that it seemed almost more usual that Rose should be sick to her stomach than not.
There was nothing more Rose could do. For an hour or more, she wept loudly and openly, and she heard only the sound of her own strangled cries echoing back to her amid eerie stillness. What good would it do to hold in her tears? Even if she lay here in suffocating silence, the mere sound of her haggard breathing would alert any passer-by to her presence, and she was physically unable to run anymore. She imagined she'd have a rather difficult time even of walking, or of sitting upright.
Once she'd grown weary even of crying, Rose opened her eyes and blinked until her vision cleared. She was startled to attention only by a twinge of recognition. She wasn't certain precisely what it was—something about the landscape. The way the dry grass slowly faded into rock, and the way the rock began to slope higher and higher as it turned into mountain...
Rose did not possess any innate sensibility about where she was in the world at any given moment, as the fairies she encountered seemed to, and she had never bothered to ask her traveling companions where they were at any given moment, as the information had mattered little to her. Aside from that, she had no way of knowing where she had been before whatever-it-was had thrown her who knew how far away.
But that she should have landed somewhere so painfully familiar came as a great surprise to her.
With considerable effort, Rose pushed herself up into a sitting position, so that she could better affirm whether her suspicion was correct. Sure enough, every rock, every tree, every subtle curve of the landscape was exactly as she remembered it from the brief time she had spent here what felt like ages ago. In a way, she had been another person entirely when she had come here, and another person still when she had fled.
Curious that she should think such a thing now, when her goal in the beginning had been to avoid becoming a person she hardly recognized.
The Dragon Country remained as bizarrely, unsettlingly silent as it had been before. Rose was acutely aware of her every haggard breath as she struggled to stand and, failing that, set about crawling towards Maleficent's family home. At the sight of it, a rush of adrenaline or fear or fury enabled her to stand on shaking legs, and she scrambled with wild abandon to get inside.
What did she expect to find? Maleficent? It wasn't impossible, she told herself as she closed the giant front door behind her and began frantically searching the ballroom for any sign of life. If Maleficent had used her home to hide from Mistress Sara before, it was likely still a safe place to be now. Images of all of the fallen fairies Rose had aided flooded her mind, punctuated by images of Maleficent, who never fell even once. How had she sustained such damage? Suppose the whatever-it-was, that had caused Rose to feel that she would die, had been more than Maleficent's body could take?
No. No. Rose couldn't think of it. Maleficent had to survive. She had to! Rose couldn't bear to lose another—
At the base of the stairs, Rose collapsed to her knees as a fresh wave of tears overcame her. She grasped onto the banister in a vain attempt to keep herself upright and wept with a voice so hoarse it scarcely even made a sound.
Rose had not lost someone she loved. She had no right to grieve, for she had not lost.
She had destroyed.
Maleficent. There were so many things that Rose and Maleficent did not understand about one another, and yet perhaps Maleficent could understand this. And perhaps if she could not find Maleficent, then perhaps Kinsale or Zenovia might understand, instead. Rose needed to find someone—anyone—who understood. But then...
Would they look upon her with derision? Hypocrite! Foolish human girl who stuck up her nose at the nasty business of murder—only wanted to use magic to help, not to harm, oh, never to harm.
Rose had been right all along. Magic. She never should have touched the stuff. Perhaps it was possible for magic to do good, but not in the hands of Briar Rose. No. Perhaps on the surface she wished no ill, but inside—oh, in the very deepest part of her soul, Rose was a slave to the anger she had never been permitted to express! Give her a little taste of freedom and she showed her true colours almost immediately!
'Perhaps I've changed. Perhaps I'm not the same girl who values life so highly.' Rose's words. Petulant. Inviting an argument.
'Perhaps.' Maleficent's concurrence. Concern furrowed her brow.
'Are you going to hate me for it, too? For changing?' Unendurable.
But Maleficent's black eyes shone with the truthfulness of her reply. 'Of course not.'
Rose had to find Maleficent. Perhaps these words still rang true. Perhaps Maleficent would not look upon Rose with the loathing she felt in her own heart.
Rose all but dragged herself up the stairs. She relied heavily upon the banister for support and her heart skipped a beat every time the old stone crumbled beneath her feet or hands. She nearly laughed at herself, but the only sound that emerged was a derisive huff of air. What had Rose to fear? An uninteresting death, tumbling down some old stairs? Stupid girl.
The door to Maleficent's childhood bedroom was closed. Rose's heart leapt and she staggered over to it, feeling quite suddenly and unnervingly close to euphoria. "Maleficent?" she called out, though her voice would emit nothing above a raspy whisper. Maleficent was here! Who else would it be? She was here, and everything was going to be all right!
"Maleficent!" Rose threw open the door. She was too overcome with joy to feel any of the usual trepidation, or even to think of knocking. So great was her happiness that the sight that greeted her on the other side of the door completely knocked the breath from her lungs. She gripped the doorframe with both hands and stared in abject horror.
A middle-aged woman with the same golden blonde hair that adorned Rose's head sat cross-legged in a dirty, ragged gown. Her gaze was fixed upon the floor in front of her and her wrists were fastened by the shackles Rose had tried not to notice there during the course of her last visit to this place.
The Queen raised her dark blue eyes to meet Rose's, and a sad smile crossed her lovely features. "I hoped you might find me."