Chapter 30: The Burdened
No one was leaving.
Elsa stamped her foot on the ground, and then dragged her hands upwards through the air with fingers curled into claws. Snow rose from the plains at their feet, higher and higher, until it cast a shadow over all the castle grounds and dwarfed even the palace itself in its enormity. With a burst of force she flung her arms apart, and the snow surged outwards into a diamond completely surrounding the castle. For good measure, she pulled moisture from the air and froze it into thick sheets of ice plated on both sides of the snow, and then another layer, and another, forming an impregnable fortress.
Let them see if the Sorcerer could break through this time.
Whatever burst of strength helped the Sorcerer escape last time wouldn't last long; Elsa had felt the creaking of his bones when she crushed his arm, every fracture, every rupture, as intimately as if the snow had been her hand. It shouldn't have been possible for him to break free in the first place, but there was little use mulling over what the seeming impossibility of his escape. Whatever helped him then could not help him elude her forever. With injuries as grievous as his, she doubted he would get far. It was proof enough that he chose to flee rather than make a stand.
Anna gingerly stepped forward to join her, but Elsa heard rather than saw her approach. She kept her eyes fixed on the castle. "We should go before he has time to recover," Elsa said. But when she tried to take a step, vertigo struck so powerfully that she nearly stumbled. For a brief second, the world seemed to turn on its side. Elsa shook her head until the sensation cleared and prepared to go on, but judging from her small gasp, Anna must have noticed.
"Whoa! Hey, just – listen to me – just stop for a moment," Anna said, pulling Elsa back when she steadfastly tried to march forward. "Are you all right?"
Elsa waved off her concern. It was true that the battle had been more taxing than she first imagined. It made even the small feat of sealing off the castle, only child's play at any other time, far more draining than it should have been. She admitted to underestimating the Sorcerer, but the gap between them was still too wide for him to be a threat. Let him run. She had prepared for even this turn of events.
Anna held on tighter in response. "You're not."
"We don't have any time to waste." Elsa gently pulled out of Anna's hold. "My powers will let me recover quickly enough. We need to keep moving."
Anna searched her face and Elsa kept her expression as neutral as she could until, finally, Anna nodded and asked, "So what do we do now?"
"Now we find him," Elsa said, partly to Anna but mostly to herself. When they reached the castle doors, she paused and turned to Anna. "Stay close. I wish I could move you somewhere away from all this, but while we don't know where he is, you should stay with me."
"I'd want to be there for this anyway," Anna replied.
"I thought you would prefer otherwise," Elsa said. Anna was too kind, too pure for this sort of matter. She would never be able to stomach blood, not like her, who dealt out judgment and death without a second thought. "Even for someone like him, I thought you would prefer I grant him mercy."
"Maybe," Anna admitted. "I don't like the idea of killing anyone, but I won't argue with you about that. I know that it's probably for the best, I just – I just want to hear him out before you do."
Elsa frowned. "Why would you listen to anything he says?"
"I-It's nothing." Anna looked down at the ground. "I guess I just do."
Elsa let the subject drop for now, but inwardly she contemplated the strange empathy Anna seemed to have for the Sorcerer. She was kind towards everyone, Elsa knew that firsthand. Anna had shown kindness to even herself in the most unlikely of circumstances. But surely this Sorcerer, whoever he was, deserved none of her compassion? It boggled her mind that Anna would give any credence to his words. Whatever Anna saw that was worth her time, Elsa could not.
She pushed the thought aside for now. Elsa opened the doors with a wave of her hand and a brief surge of wind, to be greeted by an unlikely face waiting for them already.
"What the – I thought you were locked up!" Anna exclaimed. "Wow, you do have a thick skull. Did you actually bash your way out?"
Alek cracked a smile. "No, and it turns out I didn't need you to pick the lock after all. Key was inside, along with orders. Elsa had this whole thing planned from the start."
With Alek was Saul, also accompanied by Oliver, Rafael, Stefan, and even Fabian and Cyrus, all of them standing at attention within the main hall. Elsa was surprised to see even Hans, seated in a wheelchair at the edge of the group; Anna drew in a sharp intake of breath as well, but Elsa stopped her from moving forward. With the exception of Hans the princes all rushed forward at the sight of Elsa, some opening their mouths to speak, but Elsa held up a hand and gestured for them to keep their distance. She had wanted them gathered here, but for all she knew, any one of them might be dangerous.
"Why have we been gathered here?" Saul asked. "Alek told us nothing, and then we saw, outside…"
Elsa ignored him for now, turning to Alek instead. "Were they really all here?"
"Gathered them like you told me," Alek said. "And then we saw the whole thing outside, and they were here from start to finish. Unless the Sorcerer can be in two places at once, everyone here is innocent."
"Who was that?" Rafael asked, arching an eyebrow and looking vaguely impressed. "From what I could see, he gave you a good fight."
"I would like to know as well," Elsa said, taking careful note of each prince and checking their right arms. None of them were injured. Oliver appeared shaken, but she surmised it was because he had finally seen the Sorcerer for himself after having heard his voice. "Conveniently for me, you are all here."
"So you suspected us?" Fabian sneered and took a step forward, but Elsa narrowed her eyes and he stopped as abruptly as he had begun to move. Daunted, he stepped back and settled on giving her a dirty look. "For your information, only Twelve wasn't here."
"And Gustaf," Rafael said. Putting on a small smile when Fabian whirled around to face him, he added, "I'm only pointing out the obvious. Impressive how you managed to forget the eldest."
"So that leaves Gustaf and…" Anna trailed off. She added, voice quieting to a murmur, "Edmund."
"But you're sure that the Sorcerer can't be in two places at once?" Alek asked.
"Maybe he can, but not this time," Elsa said. "I made sure that he showed up with his physical body." If he were so fixated on her reliquary, he would claim it himself. Not while using someone else as proxy, as he had sent Tobias as a probe, or possessed Reid as a shield. It was the ultimate bait, the prize he could not ignore. No, Elsa was sure that this time, the Sorcerer had appeared personally.
"What even makes you think it has to be one of us?" Fabian asked angrily. "Round up the servants, the slaves! Anyone who's here! You may as well, when you have us on their level at this point–"
"Please, Fabian, try to control yourself," Oliver chided. "We all saw what that man did. What he used was unmistakably the same magic as Father. It is much more likely one of us inherited the talent than someone unrelated to us possessing the exact same skill."
Rafael clapped softly, mouthing bravo.
"If you're done, I would like to know where Edmund and Gustaf are." Elsa turned her gaze on Alek, eyes narrowing. "I thought I told you to keep watch over the rest, not allow them to run free so that I would need to narrow down the choices myself."
She was impressed Alek kept his calm and met her stare with head held high. But then, the prince had always been too bullheaded to swallow his pride. "Like you did such a great job watching one person. You said that this was, what, not even needed because, how did you put it, he would never escape?"
"Fair enough. I assume I will not find them playing chess."
"I haven't seen either of them the entire day," Alek said, and one by one, the princes offered the same. Curious that both of them happened to be missing. It seemed the Sorcerer had made some contingency plans of his own, but still, the choice was narrowed down to two, and with his injury…
"I will investigate," Elsa said. "All of you are to stay here."
Fabian scoffed. "Stay here while a dangerous madman is on the loose?"
"I don't believe he will have any interest in us," Stefan said offhandedly, somehow managing to sound extremely bored. "Hostages generally are of some importance to whoever is being extorted. I assume Queen Elsa would not go to any great lengths to save us?"
"Then I will extend to you our thanks, for we are all the safer for your disregard," Stefan concluded, bowing for good measure. "Godspeed, Queen Elsa. Care nothing for us."
Hans had been silent during the entire exchange, watching with uncharacteristic passivity, but now he wheeled around the crowd of his brothers until he was face-to-face with Anna. Elsa watched, mildly irritated, when Anna knelt down to his level and graced him with a smile. She was even more irritated when Hans gave a tight-lipped smile back.
"Hey," Anna said gently. "It's great seeing you okay now. I told you that the wheelchair thing would work out! You still look gorgeous."
"Yes. It's not so bad using one of these," Hans said, laughing quietly as he tapped his wheelchair with the nail of his thumb. And then his smile fell. "I wanted to apologize. Not just for the way I treated you when you visited me, but – I have done so much wrong."
"It wasn't really your fault."
"Thank you, Anna. But I know better than anyone just how much I still need to atone for," Hans said. "I swear to you that I'll make up for everything."
Elsa appreciated the sentiment enough, even if it was much too little, far too late, but now was hardly the time or the place. Nor did Hans deserve any of Anna's attention. "Anna. We need to keep moving."
Hans gripped the wheelchair arms tight and stared up at Elsa. "You cannot be considering taking Anna with you. It's too dangerous–"
"I can protect her."
"Just like you did outside?" Hans demanded, and Elsa widened her eyes furiously. Hans had no right. It had been necessary. It had been, Elsa told herself that again and again, trying to stop her hands from shaking, but she felt cold surge to her fingers when Hans continued, "You let that monster attack Anna!"
"I trust Elsa," Anna said quietly. When Anna glanced at her, Elsa looked away and tried to find her calm. She needed to be calm. Now wasn't the time. She couldn't afford to be emotional. Not even towards Anna. Anna looked away again and said, sounding much too sad, "Hans, I – I chose already."
"...All right," Hans said. "It's not my place to question you."
"Are you done?" Elsa asked blankly. Block everything out. Think only of the objective. Focus only on the target. She needed to find the Sorcerer, and eliminate him. Nothing else mattered right now.
Anna nodded. "I'm ready to go."
"Should I accompany you too?" Saul asked. "Perhaps I could be of use–"
"No." Elsa fixed him with a stare, and Saul bowed his head. "Anna alone will stay with me. As for the rest of you, stay here and you'll be safe enough."
With a snap of her fingers, a similar prison to the one she built around the Sorcerer contained the princes, albeit with some space for them to breathe. At least it would shut Fabian up about being unprotected. Truthfully, while she would have little care for them if they were used against her, she would prefer to keep them alive if possible. After all, three princes had already been killed.
And by the end of the day, she expected that number to rise to four.
Anna followed behind Elsa, trying not to think too much about what was to come.
With the princes safely hidden, Elsa set off toward their wing of the castle without warning. She moved as though she had a tailwind propelling her forward, and what with the rapidly cooling air around them, Anna wouldn't be surprised if something was speeding her up. Elsa was gone so quickly that Anna practically had to jog to catch up, but once she started moving faster, a sharp pain lanced up her leg–
It felt like her leg wasn't even her own anymore. Anna bit her lip and continued on without saying anything, clenching one fist as though that could really distract her. Elsa slowed down once she noticed Anna lagging behind, but only after already going a long distance. She was well within the lounge area by the time Anna regained her footing, and though she hid it well, Anna could see she was impatient.
"Y-You don't really expect to find either of them in their rooms?" Anna asked, partly surprised by the choice of destination, mostly to find something to occupy herself from the growing pain in her leg. Her voice nearly cracked despite her best efforts to keep calm.
"Maybe not," Elsa said, too preoccupied to notice her slipup. "But either way, we learn something. Either they are in their room for me to interrogate, or they are elsewhere, at this hour."
It wasalready night out, much too late for anyone to do much other than sleep or even be out of their room at all. It should have been the least suspicious place to be, except Anna knew Elsa must have realized being in their room right now was just as suspicious as being out. That would require them to completely dodge Alek throughout the day, and then conveniently reenter their room after Alek gathered everyone from their bedrooms. Not impossible, but unlikely.
Passing into the two-ended bend that held all the princes' rooms, they arrived at the first door.
It obviously belonged to Gustaf, though Anna had never given it much consideration. She had passed the room before, but only now did she notice it stood out from the rest. Of course only the best materials had been used even for the others, but theirs were impersonal, with a number embossed into the wood and little else. Gustaf alone had name and title, greater attention obvious in the elaborate finish. Even the wood used was a darker shade, practically black, while the others were brown.
"At one point, Gustaf was the Crown Prince. Markus named him so from birth," Elsa said. She extended her hand towards the door, frowning so minusculely that Anna almost missed it. "Markus loved him the most, and Gustaf chose to betray him."
And Markus had sent his wife and son to their deaths, Anna wanted to say, but she kept silent. Elsa seemed to take the betrayal as personally as Markus had, judging by the bitterness in her voice. Remembering how well it had went last time she said anything doubting Markus, Anna thought it best to avoid the subject for now.
Elsa closed her fist, and with that, the black-wood door splintered and burst apart. Anna nearly jumped at the sudden explosion. Well, someone was being dramatic. Elsa stepped past the rubble, but no one was inside. Anna barely had time to peek inside – she saw a life-sized portrait on the wall and little else – before Elsa exited again, face betraying a hint of frustration.
"We're moving on," Elsa announced, and once again without waiting, she strode towards the opposite end of the bend.
Anna kept silent as they trekked to Edmund's room. She took in deep breaths as silently as she could, but her leg hurt even more now. She could make it through this though. It was fine. Everything was going to be fine. One foot in front of the other, keep walking, forward march. It was almost like one of the games Anna used to play as a child, young and alone in the too-big castle in Arendelle, accompanied only by suits of armor and paintings. Search out the evil sorcerer with Joan at her side. That was all.
Soon they arrived at Edmund's room.
Elsa stormed in without ceremony, but like Gustaf, Edmund was nowhere to be found. Anna wasn't sure if she felt relieved at his absence. Edmund was still just as suspect as before. Sooner or later, they would find him. Sooner or later, he would need to give them an answer, and at this point, Anna really had no idea what to think. She would have liked to believe without reservation that Edmund was completely innocent, but she was trusting, not naive. It was a fine line between truth and blind faith.
"What now?" Anna asked.
"It's fine. I brought us here for another reason."
Elsa led them out of the bend and back to the lounge, through the winding halls to the side, and Anna felt the keenest sense of déjà vu. When they encountered a dead end, Anna was suddenly struck by exactly why these particular halls felt so familiar. "Isn't this where…"
"Where you first encountered the Sorcerer," Elsa finished. "And according to Alek, also where Edmund apparently vanished. We should learn much if we find out where he went from here."
"Why are these halls even here?" Anna asked. She had a feeling they weren't built so the castle could harbor an evil sorcerer, but… "Aren't dead ends sort of pointless?"
"Originally, these halls were to provide a more direct route to the chapel and throne room. Markus later decided that the princes should continue taking the longer way around by first doubling back to the main hall, and construction was abandoned." Elsa strode forward and placed her hand against the stone wall. "I never understood either. I assumed it was more proper that way."
Anna limped towards the wall, but then hesitated. Last time she did this, she had been hypnotized, blacked out, and then woke up hours later in her room without any recollection of the time in between. Not exactly the healthiest outcome. Still, Elsa was here. Nothing bad should happen this time around. Probably. She hoped. And really, that couldn't be worse than her leg anyway. She wanted to black out.
Anna took some time to take a more detailed look at the seemingly useless wall. Just a square-shaped stone wall that blocked off the hallway leading to nowhere, nothing more. It was set apart from the two walls leading into it, strangely outlined on all sides by some sort of red-wood trim. No tapestry as decoration or even the same type of finishing on the other passages, leaving behind grey mortar that looked altogether unappealing. Anna was completely lost, but Elsa continued considering the wall with utmost concentration.
"It's a chessboard," Elsa said suddenly.
"How are you seeing that?" Anna breathed deeply when another jolt passed up her leg. Maybe this was a bad idea. She probably should have done something about this–
"Look at the dimensions. Eight by eight. And no one would use blood rosewood for a simple wall trim. It's too rare. But I know someone who specifically chooses this wood for his chess sets…"
"All right, but how does that–"
Anna touched the wall, and her leg flared with indescribable agony. Stars erupting in her dimming vision, she stumbled backwards, tripped over an uneven patch of carpet, and the pain bursting through her leg finally became too much. One last mind-numbing burn ran up the entire length of her body like liquid fire, like scalding oil oozing all the way into her skull, and Anna fell to the floor with a loud cry. She screwed her eyes shut, tears falling regardless, and curled inwards. Elsa immediately whirled around and dropped down at her side, asked what was wrong, but Anna could only answer her with a whimper. Words failing, she pointed at her leg.
She felt Elsa pull up the hem of her dress, and then heard her exhale a long hiss.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Elsa asked.
Anna forced herself up on one arm and looked back at her leg, only now seeing the angry red-and-black burn stretched across her lower leg and reaching up to her knee. Imprinted on her reddened skin was a black mark shaped like a hand, no doubt where the Sorcerer's shadows had seized her when pulling her out of the tower. With a shaking hand, Anna reached towards the inflamed skin.
"Don't touch it," Elsa said, catching her midway. She ran her thumb over the back of Anna's hand before gently laying it back down on her lap. "Just wait, I'll take care of this."
Anna bit back a groan when Elsa carefully placed her own hands over the wound, and she closed her eyes and looked away. It burned even more than before. Cold seemed to wake yet another round of scalding pain, like steam arising from a dying fire. But time passed. Anna cracked her eyes open, and the cold had become soothing, numbed the pain until she could barely feel it anymore.
"You should have told me sooner," Elsa said.
"I didn't want to slow you down." Anna forced a smile. It was little more than a slight upturning at the corners of her lips. "I already got in the way before, and I'm not going to be more of a burden than I already am. I know how important it is to you that we…that we find the Sorcerer."
"Nothing is more important than you. I would never choose the Sorcerer over…" Elsa trailed off, and Anna winced when the cold intensified before stabilizing again. It had only been for a split second, but Anna noticed. Had Elsa lost control for some reason? She looked closely at the queen, almost missing the flash of guilt passing through her eyes before Elsa bowed her head. Silently, Elsa continued to pass her hands over the burn.
"What's wrong?" Anna asked. Elsa still said nothing, and Anna added, "Come on, I know something is bothering you. Even when we were walking here, you seemed…weird. You always do this when you have something on your mind. You just shut down."
"I let you get hurt," Elsa murmured. "I'm sorry I didn't notice, didn't pay enough attention. I'm sorry about many things, Anna."
"What are you–"
"I can't answer you right now." Elsa shook her head. "I'm sorry, Anna, but I – I just can't. Not now."
After a long stretch of silence, Anna exhaled a long breath and said, "Later, after everything has been taken care of, we should talk. About us, I mean."
Elsa said nothing, but Anna never expected an answer. A white glow emanating from her hands, Elsa slowly drew away from her wound. To Anna's amazement the blackened mark peeled off like an ugly scab, dissolving into wisps of dark shadows that squirmed and writhed with unnatural vigor. It was as though they were trying to escape, but Elsa continued to draw them away until the entire thing had left her skin entirely. Several tendrils were left hovering in the air; Elsa froze them in her grasp.
"Do you feel better?" Elsa asked.
"Yeah." Now it was only a dull ache. Even the redness had calmed. Anna rose to her feet, still weak, but Elsa offered her arm and Anna steadied herself practically using her as a crutch. "Thanks. Now we still need to figure out this wall. Unless you want to, you know, just blast through it, or whatever."
"I think…" Elsa held out her other hand, palm first, and the frozen shadows she still held drifted towards the chessboard wall. "A board should require pieces."
Before their eyes, the shadows stretched and contorted, burning themselves onto the stone in an approximation of chess pieces. But they weren't placed as though the game were beginning. Instead, only a scant few were left and the dark pieces were clearly winning. Anna never played chess, but even she could tell when white was practically cornered.
"Of course, we are playing as white," Elsa said. "It is our turn, and the point of this board is to find the correct swindle to turn the situation around."
"…Please don't count on me for this."
Elsa considered the game for a full minute, staring with unblinking eyes that flickered to and fro across the board. At last, her lips turned into a satisfied smile and she stretched out a hand. Ice pierced the white bishop and dragged it upwards, but Anna thought the game looked as bad as ever.
"Zugzwang," Elsa explained. "Or compulsion to move. On the next turn, whatever move black chooses, they'll be put at a disadvantage."
As though on cue the chessboard rumbled, the stonework trembling as though something was moving behind them. When the stone began to shift positions, Anna realized that the mortar itself was moving. In the center, four blocks pushed inward and then folded back, somehow sticking to the other stones, and then again and again the process repeated, each block sliding into place with orchestrated grace. At last, the entire wall opened in front of them. Anna gaped at the revealed passage, a tunnel lit by candles held by ornate gold holders on both sides.
"So this is how Edmund disappeared," Elsa mused.
"Where do you think this leads?" Anna peered into the tunnel. So Edmund had once gone through here while evading Alek. And later, from behind that same wall Edmund had known how to cross, the Sorcerer had spoken to her. Considering just how the passage was opened…
Did that mean Edmund…?
"I know this might be hard for you, but you have to stay with me. I can't keep you safe otherwise," Elsa said, taking Anna's hand in her own. "Are you ready, Anna?"
Anna took a deep breath, and nodded.
She was born ready.
I am the monster who burns in hell but yearns for heaven.
I am the shadow who toils in darkness but dreams of beauty.
I am the burdened.
And my name is...
Eerily enough, the wall reformed behind them.
Elsa took the lead, guiding her through the tunnel at a slower pace than before, and Anna gratefully followed behind while clutching her proffered arm. It helped to lessen the weight she had to put on her leg, but half of her dependency was from déjà vu. Walking through the half-illuminated tunnel reminded her too much of the basement in the warehouse. Anna half-expected to walk into the same scenes of carnage she had witnessed there, but thankfully, the route was clear and the drab stone never deviated from its refreshing normality.
It was a short tunnel, all things considered, and though they took one or two turns, the way had been straightforward. At the end, they were greeted by a wall of stained glass, just the barest hints of light filtering through to send scattered rays onto the stone floor where they walked.
"Stand back," Elsa said, and Anna did just that, propping herself against the side of the tunnel. Maybe Elsa had tired of puzzles. This time she raised her hand so that a spear of ice blossomed into existence, and without further ado, launched it into the glass.
With an earsplitting crack the glass shattered into hundreds of pieces, all colors and all varieties of stained fragments littering the floor.
Edmund sat just across from them, watching with widened eyes.
"Wh-What are you two…" Edmund trailed off, breaths harshening.
Elsa stepped over the threshold and Anna joined her, glass shards crunching under her boots. It was the chapel they had stepped into, the stained glass window on the far end what they had shattered to enter. A small place, but still lavishly decorated. At the front of the chapel lay a candled altar, beyond that the glass Elsa had broken. Lush red carpet covered most of the marble floor, adorned with benches made of redwood, and two murals were placed on either side of the wall. Archangel Michael, and the Dragon.
Edmund sat in the second row of benches, and Anna thought he hardly looked like himself. His skin had always been fair but now he was too pale, too drained, practically bloodless, and the black circles ringing his eyes made the contrast ever starker. Even his normally wild hair had been allowed to hang over his forehead, reaching so far as to dip into his eyes. When he saw Anna, he offered a tentative smile.
Anna didn't smile back. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Edmund said, smile widening just enough to begin to look genuine, but not enough to ever convince. It still looked pained. "Yeah, I'm all right."
"You don't look all right."
"Hey, I take offense to that." Edmund cracked another smile, but when Anna gave no response, his face fell. "Maybe I'm having an off day, but at least try to be nice about breaking that to me."
Elsa stepped past the altar and closer to Edmund. "Stay where you are and show me your right arm. Do not make any sudden moves."
"…Whoa, wait just a minute." Edmund gave a nervous laugh. "Will someone tell me what's going on? You two just busted down the glass and walked in from wherever, and now this sounds so serious–"
"Keep talking and I'll just kill you right now," Elsa said.
Edmund only frowned and opened his mouth to argue. Before he could say anything, Anna cut in and said, "Please just do what she says."
At her warning, Edmund quieted. Slowly, keeping his eyes trained on Elsa, he raised his right arm, keeping his hand open and fingers outstretched. Anna released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding at the sight of his perfectly healthy arm, not broken or suffering from frostbite.
"Are you happy now?" Edmund asked, but he sounded more puzzled than cross. "Can someone tell me what this is all about already?"
Edmund rose to his feet and Anna was just about to answer when Elsa flung out her hand towards the prince. A powerful gale forced Edmund back down, the chandelier above freezing over and swinging from the violent outburst.
"You can move from where you are when I tell you to," Elsa said. "Stay put, or you die."
"But his arm was fine," Anna said quickly, gaze flickering back and forth from Edmund, seated with terror written on his ashen face, and Elsa, staring the prince down with hand outstretched, cold aura practically visible and fingertips crackling with electricity.
"At this point, I'm going to need some answers regardless," Elsa said, never looking away from Edmund for an instant. "Where have you been the whole day?"
"I was with Kristoff out in the stables! You can go ask him, I'm always there, Anna knows that too–"
"And I'm sure he would say that you were there whether or not you actually were."
"Are you serious? Why would he lie for me?"
Elsa ignored the question, but Anna understood her suspicion. Neither of them could be sure exactly what the Sorcerer was capable of, but after her brief time under his control, Anna knew firsthand just how natural it felt to follow his commands. Kristoff disliked the acts Elsa had committed during her rule, and conversely was fond of Edmund. It might be within reason, while under that hazy spellbound trance, when the world seemed simple and their actions unrestricted, to lie for no greater purpose than spite.
"Do you know where Gustaf is right now?" Elsa asked.
"N-No." Edmund shook his head and pressed his back against the bench, leaning as far away from Elsa as possible. "I haven't seen him, I swear–"
"You're going to have to answer me with something concrete," Elsa said, and another gale of frigid air whipped around her in concert with her agitation. "I'm running out of patience."
"Don't even try," Elsa said, features harshening. "Be evasive as you want answering those questions, but try to dodge this one. Alek saw you disappear into the abandoned path. Just now, I needed to use the Sorcerer's magic to get open the pathway, so how did you manage?"
For once, Edmund had nothing to say. Instead he sat mutely, breathing becoming ragged, lips slightly parted as his eyes moved from Elsa to Anna. Looking at her the entire time, he shook his head, slowly, and then swallowed. "I-I don't know what you're talking about," Edmund croaked. "I never went there."
"Will you please just be honest?" Anna pleaded.
"I'm telling the truth." Edmund clutched the bench in front of him with both hands. "I don't know anything more! What do you want from me?"
Anna knew that was a lie. She remembered their conversation when she found him mourning Reid, telling her to be careful. And when she asked if he wanted to tell her something…
"Back then, you said to me that you couldn't tell me anything, not that you had nothing to tell me." Anna took a step closer to Edmund. When Elsa threw out her other arm to block her advance, Anna gently nudged her aside and continued on, ignoring her warning. "Please just tell us what you know."
Edmund bowed his head and exhaled a choked breath. "Don't make me."
"You have to," Anna urged. "Edmund, I don't know why you won't say anything, but please, you have to tell us now or all of this craziness is going to be blamed on you."
"Well, that's what she does best. Blame everything on everyone. Act like the whole world owes her something." Edmund looked up at Elsa, lips pulled back into a snarl. "Goddamnit, Elsa. Why can't you just leave well enough alone?"
"You're speaking nonsense," Elsa said.
"Edmund," Anna said again, but the prince looked to be on the verge of a breakdown, looking everywhere and nowhere, eyes moving frantically but gaze unfocused. "Edmund! Listen to me!"
Edmund grabbed onto Anna, reaching across the bench to hold her arms. Anna immediately yelled for Elsa to stop, knowing she would attack him, but – Edmund wasn't a threat.
"My head hurts. It hurts, hurts, hurts, hurts, hurts," Edmund babbled, shaking his head furiously. "It hurts so much, God, make it stop, please, I feel like I'm going to die, I feel him in my head–!"
Anna knelt and placed her hands on his shoulders, but when he continued to be unresponsive she grabbed his face and tilted his head up. Edmund was crying. His eyes were bloodshot, the left eye having broken several blood vessels so that the red mixed into his tears and painted an entire side of his face. Another trail of blood spilled from his nose. Anna gasped and looked back to Elsa, but even she was lost. She dropped her stance and came closer, but there was nothing to be done; Edmund had broken down completely, now thrashing about and screaming at the top of his lungs.
"It has to be the Sorcerer," Elsa said, trying her best to keep the prince still, but Edmund possessed a desperate, feral strength. "We need to find him, or Edmund is going to die. Where is Gustaf–!"
Anna pulled away, choking back sobs at the sight of Edmund breaking right in front of her eyes, and she yelled, "Enough already!" No response from the Sorcerer, but reason had left her mind so she continued, moving to and fro within the chapel, spinning around as though she could find the Sorcerer, yelling, "Stop! You're killing him! Don't you care at all that he was trying to protect you! Just stop!"
Another high-pitched scream from Edmund ripped through the chapel, reverberating through the chamber, and then complete silence. Anna whirled around to see Edmund lying spread-eagle on the bench, unmoving, with his face covered in blood. Elsa backed away silently, blinking once, twice, and then looking away. So this was how it ended. Anna knelt on the floor. Edmund was…
Anna heard him cough.
She looked back.
And then a shadow burst forth from the rafters, swooping towards Anna, and only the shifting air made her look up to see her impending death approaching on swift wings. Anna could only react with widening eyes, seeing the outstretched hand reaching towards her, clawed fingers alight with black flame, and Elsa whirled to face them but she was too late, she could do nothing–
Edmund lunged forward and grabbed Anna, bracing her with his body as they rolled away, and the shadow grazed his back instead.
Elsa launched a lightning bolt towards the shadow and her aim was true, blasting the dark nebula into the altar, and then the shadows congealed.
Gustaf lay prone at the base of the altar, the light of the candles illuminating his face under the shattered pieces of a skull mask, and the search was over.
Elsa raced towards Anna, but she need not have feared. Anna was unharmed. She had sat up and was now cradling Edmund, the prince once again completely still, but his ragged breathing told them he was, thankfully, still alive. It was strange that only minutes ago, she had been so frustrated with his silence that she almost lashed out; Elsa felt only gratitude for him now, had never been as grateful for anyone. If not for him, she might have lost Anna.
"H-Hey," Anna said. "Oh, God. Are you all right?"
Edmund choked out, "Fine. But…him…?"
Elsa turned to the masked figure lying on the floor and ripped his mask off completely, revealing Gustaf. She didn't need to check his right arm as confirmation of the man she had battled before. It was missing entirely, likely self-amputated. Elsa seized him by the throat and pinned him against the altar, holding him trapped. Gustaf was still conscious. Black eyes flickered once towards Edmund before facing her.
"It was you," Elsa said. She was partly surprised that it was Gustaf, and feeling surprise at all was yet another surprise. Elsa had never fixed her suspicions on any one prince in particular, nor discounted any of them as a possibility, but Gustaf having been the Sorcerer just seemed wrong. Yet here he was.
"It was me," Gustaf agreed. Elsa searched his face, looking for any sign of confusion, but his black eyes held only startling clarity. Gustaf laughed a deep, bellowing laugh. "If you are still wary, I assure you that I am not under control. My thoughts are my own. My actions are by my own volition."
Edmund broke into hacking coughs, for some reason trying to crawl his way towards Gustaf, but Anna held him back. Elsa let go of her doubts and slammed Gustaf into the altar again, but he continued laughing. "So this is what your justice has become, hiding in the shadows and killing from afar."
"It is beyond your comprehension," Gustaf said. "Everything has been for the greater good. It would have been salvation even for you, Elsa."
"I don't need your salvation." Elsa turned towards Edmund. "Is that your idea of the greater good? I thought you cared for Edmund. Look what you've done to him."
"G-Gustaf does…" Edmund said weakly. "You do…"
"No," Anna said, pulling Edmund closer, speaking to Gustaf through angry tears. "After all that he's done for you. Do you know how broken up he was trying to protect you?"
"I'm so sorry, Gustaf…I didn't realize…I didn't mean for this to happen…"
Gustaf looked away. "Edmund is my greatest regret. But one day, hopefully he will understand."
"It's too late for regrets," Elsa said. "You are going to tell me everything. What you were planning. Why you did all this. Start talking."
"I would have thought that you should care nothing for the reasoning of a madman," Gustaf said. "Why this sudden change, Elsa?"
It was true. When Anna had suggested hearing the Sorcerer out, Elsa had dismissed the idea as foolish. But now, seeing Gustaf here, thinking back on the things he had told her, remembering the strange ideologies he had always possessed, Elsa suddenly realized she wanted to know more. If anything, Anna seemed more unreceptive of him now. She looked murderous, angrier than Elsa had ever seen her.
"My reasons are of no concern to you," Elsa said.
"Then I say the same to you."
Elsa snarled. But what could she do to threaten this man who knew his death was approaching, who had no living attachments and no reason, no purpose for living any longer? As if sensing her thoughts, Gustaf shook his head and looked at her with something like pity.
"All of us have some sort of reason, though we may not be able to see," Gustaf said.
"You told me differently not long ago," Elsa said. It was always the same. No matter when, Gustaf was always an enigma. "Before we fought, you told me that life has no meaning because it must end."
"And despite yourself, you found yourself agreeing with that philosophy, you thought that the words of the masked monster were sensible, that what lay beneath the mask may as well have been your own face for all that his thoughts reflected your own." Gustaf smiled. "I'm a consummate liar who speaks in riddles. Perhaps you ought to think for yourself. Or is it true that you have worn masks for so long that you cannot find your own face and your own self?"
Anna growled, "Speak for yourself–"
"Anna, take Edmund out of here," Elsa said, and with visible effort, the redhead looked away from Gustaf. She still trembled with anger. "Find Saul so he can give Edmund medical attention."
"All right. Edmund is more important," Anna said, and she rose to her feet, pulling the prince to his feet, practically carrying the boy all on her own. "You're gonna be okay. I got you."
"Wait…Gustaf…I'm so sorry…"
"As am I, Edmund," Gustaf said, smiling a small, sad smile, following Edmund with his eyes every step of the way until Anna had taken him away.
Now they were finally alone. Elsa watched Gustaf close his eyes and lean his head back, breathing shallow breaths. She had struck him directly with her lightning. She doubted he would live for much longer, and his powers were no doubt the only thing keeping him alive at this point. If she didn't ask her questions now, she would never be able to get answers.
"What will it take for you to talk?"
"Tell me why you wish to hear my answers," Gustaf said. "No more evasion here at this end between us. What makes you so curious, so suddenly?"
Elsa clenched her jaw. She had no alternative. As always, she was caught in the current and being led along, her pace out of her own control. Even lying battered and defeated, Gustaf held the advantage.
"Everything you said," Elsa muttered, "I agreed with you. I see the world the same way. I think that there is no meaning to be found in life, and I want to know why you think that way."
Gustaf sighed, sounding disappointed. "Of course you would. Ask your questions."
It was strange. She hadn't expected him to agree so easily, but Elsa nodded all the same. "How much of what you said was truth? I cannot believe that Markus would do any of what you said. When I chose to make a reliquary, he was staunchly against my decision."
"Truth is a fickle thing. Perspective skews events, so that we all live within our own realities. You think he was against you creating a reliquary. I think he forced your hand. So, let me pass one final warning to you about Father," Gustaf said. "Do not trust him. Father does not have your best interests in mind."
"Perhaps not yours," Elsa said, shaking her head. "Why did you betray Markus? Nobody has ever known the reason. When I asked Markus, even he said nothing."
"Because his ambition would bring ruin to everything, and I – I had found something worth protecting. But now they are lost to me. Because I failed, I doomed them."
"You're being vague."
"Some answers are not meant for you," Gustaf said. "None of this concerns you. You are not asking the right questions. But then, you never have."
Elsa frowned but dropped the subject. She could not pry answers from him if he refused to share, and that was an uncomfortable truth. "What is it that you think I should be asking?"
"For the rest of our time together, I would like to move the conversation to more pleasant topics," Gustaf said. Elsa noticed his breathing had slowed, that he kept his eyes closed. It was as though he could not bear to open them again. "Let us talk…about you."
"What is there to talk about? I need to know your thoughts–"
"So that you might better understand your own?" Gustaf hummed from the back of his throat. "No, that would be a mistake. It is a mistake you have already made, Elsa."
"Think back to another conversation we had. I told you once that a cage is only a cage when one is blind to their prison," Gustaf said. "Do you remember? Do you see your cage now?"
"There is no cage," Elsa said.
"There is always a cage. We fight our whole lives trying to free ourselves from our trappings, and that fight, I believe, becomes the noblest of battles. It is the battle to find ourselves. But you…" Gustaf sighed. "You have given up the fight. You have denied yourself."
"You spoke of denial and delusion before, but I have denied nothing."
Gustaf laughed wearily. "Reliquaries are a perversion of everything it means to be human. We are not meant to live with filtered emotions. You cannot eschew parts of yourself and find something else to fill the gap. Your identity can be none but your own, Elsa. You have fallen into the same trap as me."
"…When I spoke with the Sorcerer, he mentioned that he had – you mentioned that you had – created a reliquary. And that it was killing you. Will the same thing happen to me?"
"It depends on your definition of death," Gustaf said. "If you are speaking of physical death, then no, your reliquary will not kill you. But that would be a mercy compared to the death of the self. Slowly, it will rob you of everything that ever made you who you are, until you are nothing but an empty husk bereft of life, and you will cease to be Elsa. It is the worst kind of death. It is already happening."
"No," Elsa said, trying and failing to fight back the sudden dread in her veins, "I don't believe that. I can feel again. Ever since meeting Anna, I've been more and more alive. You said it yourself, that solitude breeds contempt, that we need assistance to learn humanity–"
"So you do heed my advice." Gustaf took one more rattling breath, and he smiled hopefully. "Good. But remember…none of that will be enough if you do not…yourself…want to be more."
"What are you–?" When Gustaf did not respond, Elsa shook him by the shoulders. "Answer me! What are you trying to say? I've had enough of your riddles–!"
"Then hear no more, as you will not listen regardless," Gustaf said, looking pained, wincing through a shudder that wracked his body. "I have had enough, Elsa. Spare me this pain at least. End this."
Elsa drew away. Gustaf had fallen silent and would not yield any more answers, and certainly none that she would understand. She rose to her feet and stepped back. She could give him this, at least.
With one final strike of ice, the shadows abated at last.