Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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The House of Master Essen


by AD Ross




The house rose black from the mountainside, as if it had grown from the dark stone, perched upon a precipice so precarious, it defied reason.

Elendra limped onward through the snow, begging the ancestors to grant her the strength to reach the lonely house. Blood was seeping from her inexpertly bandaged wound, through to her thick furs. Yet she knew the promise of salvation could be treacherous; twice already had she thought it within her grasp, only for her situation to become all the more dire.

She had felt elation, when she first regained the pilgrim road. She had slipped away from the trading caravan at dawn, close to the lesser crater, hoping to find a priceless handful of sky-stones, armed only with the rudimentary map her guide had provided and the nagging sense this folly would be the death of her.

Elendra found no precious stones, and when she finally abandoned her search, she realised she had lost her bearings. She stumbled blindly through the frigid forest, cursing her new mother-in-law's pompous insistence that this was the only way out of their financial predicament; for thinking it would be no great thing to skirt into the wild; and most of all for sending her alone, without Rynn.

Almost reconciled to the thought of wandering the great eastern wilderness, chewing upon her failure, until starvation or hyperthermia overcame her; Elendra finally spotted the tail end of the caravan through the trees. She would have run, hollering delightedly, had the ground been easier to traverse. The uneven terrain saved her life.

She scrambled up a verge to the treeline. From the vantage point it afforded her, she saw that something was wrong. Her guide was meandering, almost drunkenly, away from the road. He half-turned and Elendra saw his face through the furred rim of his hood. His eyes were dazed, his expression vacant. He stumbled and fell, clutching at his side. There was a bloody trail, staining the snow, marking his path.

Instinctively, Elendra dropped to the freezing ground, out of sight, hidden by the verge.

A barrage of brutal cracks echoed up from the front of the caravan. More bodies fell. Hidden sharpshooters had loosed concussion bolts on the traders.

Elendra watched, silent and horrified.

Dark figures emerged from the trees up ahead and descended upon the road, slaughtering the remaining caravaneers and their packhorses. Afterward, they pillaged and piled the corpses. The brigands gathered before the bodies and knelt, expectantly.

Elendra clamped a gloved hand over her mouth, as their leader showed itself. It was like nothing she'd ever seen, nearly seven feet tall, elongated and amphibian, granite skinned; a barely-clothed lithe thing, like an overgrown frog, stretched out and made terrible. She buried her face into the snow and uttered prayers to the ancestors. When she finally dared to look again, the brigands and their eldritch leader were gone. Only the dead lingered.

Elendra had returned to the forest, hoping the concealment it offered would keep her safe. She crept along quietly with her long knife drawn; yet her stealth worked against her. She blundered into a small clearing and startled an ice-tiger, as it devoured a fallen elk. Elendra had come from up-wind, had stumbled into the open right on top of it. Their eyes locked for a moment; the ice-tiger snarled and lunged, jealous of its kill.

Elendra thrust her knife forward unthinkingly. The big cat's momentum propelled them both into a deep snowdrift, but Elendra clung to its fur with her free hand and stabbed madly with the knife. The ice-tiger yelped and struggled to extricate itself, each movement weaker than the last. Finally, it slumped limply into the piled snow. Elendra crawled out from beneath its bulk, drenched in its blood, gasping for air. Yet her relief was short-lived; her adrenaline ebbed and pain asserted itself. The big cat had clawed her upper thigh.

Beneath the shadow of the black house, Elendra struggled on, light-headed from blood-loss, desperate beyond the point of caring who lived there, so far from Outpoint, the little slip of civilization on the far side of the continent.

A dark figure was lingering in the shadows, regarding her curiously. She saw and brandished her knife feebly, thinking of Rynn, warm and safe, half a world away.

"Do you need help?"

She blinked woozily, trying to focus. The figure came into the light; it was a plump boy of about twenty.

Her head swam and the soft, treacherous snow raced up to greet her. The boy dashed toward her and she marvelled dreamily at how quickly he moved.

#

Elendra found herself tucked into a warm bed with little notion of how she'd gotten there and less desire to find out. She wrapped herself in the warm, velvety sheets and wept until sleep took her.

In dream, she returned to Violet of the North, to where her husband, Rynn, was heir to a trading concern a century old. His mother, Svetabyth, was disappointed in her son's choice of wife—not in Elendra's person, she insisted—but in the size of her dowry. The war between the two great princes of the west, the Scarlet Emperor and the North King, had disrupted so many of Svetabyth's ancestral contracts, had left the family on the verge of bankruptcy; Elendra's family were insufficiently wealthy to rectify the situation. She must journey east, find new fortunes, those fallen from the heavens in the vicinity of the great crater, Svetabyth insisted; it was the only way to save them from debtor's gaol. Rynn should not go; he was a delicate boy, not a hardy commoner like the girl who'd stolen his heart …

Elendra woke angrily, hissing curses, remonstrating her own worth to the mother-in-law who was a thousand miles away. She was in an unfamiliar, sunlit room. A man was sitting beside the bed, regarding her mildly with ice-blue eyes that looked incongruous against his light-brown complexion.

"I am the Master here. You are quite safe, Elendra, daughter of Elytte, citizen of the Violet City, keeper of sealed scrolls."

She sat up and eyed him suspiciously, wondering how he could know her full name and titles.

"You're very lucky that Jalassin happened by. You might well have expired a hundred yards from my door and we wouldn't have known you were there until the spring."

There was something eerily familiar about the self-proclaimed Master. He was late in middle age, his thinning hair was almost white, and though his face was heavily lined, she could see that he had been handsome in his youth. She got the sense that he was somebody notable, somebody she should recognise.

"You were luckier still to stumble across a man of my skills out here in the wilderness."

"Who are you?" she asked.

"I am Master Essen, and this is my retreat," he replied, observing her reaction with a mix of amusement and predatory watchfulness.

"Oh." She could not hide her shock. He stood, bowed politely and departed, chuckling to himself.

She rose gingerly from the bed, finding that she had been dressed in someone else's nightgown. She faced the window. Far below, the great eastern wilderness stretched out as far as the horizon, all snow-dusted forest and pale rivers, picturesque, yet dangerous and unforgiving. It now seemed more inviting than the warm house.

Master Essen, the infamous Craft-Master, was supposed to be dead, publicly executed for his crimes, for the abominations he had created, the affronts to nature. Yet here he was alive, residing far from civilization in this seemingly impossible house; and she had become his guest.

#

A maid, whom Elendra took to be Jalassin's sister, brought her a selection of clothes. She chose a warm-looking fitted jacket, a set of long skirts and thick tights. Her own snow boots were returned to her, cleaned and re-polished, as were her furs, stitched elegantly and washed of blood. Elendra had half-expected the Master to leave her with only the nightgown and had certainly not imagined he would allow her clothing appropriate for facing the wilderness. Only her knife was withheld.

Elendra inspected her thigh as she dressed. There was no evidence of her wound, save for a fading bruise. She noticed that something else felt different, and her fingers spidered up the soft flesh of her belly, feeling for the roughness of the old surgeon's scar. Frowning, she went to the mirror by the dresser, examined the area once and then twice, feeling it over again to confirm what she was seeing. The scar was gone and the skin where it once resided was unblemished. Her reflection grinned involuntarily. She felt good, unnaturally good, free of aches and pains. Elendra shook her head, reminding herself of whose house this was.

Cautiously she tried the door, telling herself half-heartedly that she would escape into the wilderness at the first opportunity. The door was unlocked. She crept down the corridor, but this wing of the house seemed to be quite empty. She tried another door and found that it led into an impressively expansive library.

"Are you feeling better?" Jalassin asked; looking up from the map he was studying. "I'm investigating how best we can return you to civilization. You'll perhaps forgive the Master's caution against using his usual supply routes."

"He doesn't want me leading the authorities to his hide-out?" She lingered at the door, watching Jalassin closely, gauging his reaction. He simply shrugged nonchalantly.

"As you say." He moved to his next question in the same beat. "You were heading for Outpoint?"

She nodded cautiously. The boy seemed kindly enough, and had saved her life besides, but she could not forget his employer. The abomination she'd seen out on the road and the Craft-Master who had apparently been executed for creating abominations; to encounter them in such close proximity was an unlikely coincidence.

"Perhaps you were looking for fallen sky-stones off the path. Many Violets have tried the same thing. It's less easy than they imagine, to pick up a priceless handful, to clear their debts in Outpoint." Jalassin bowed his head sadly.

"What makes you think I have debts?" Elendra couldn't keep her voice from hardening.

"The Master likes to know his guests. He has to be a very careful man."

"Because the authorities might be interested in his activities?" She knew the words were dangerous, but she didn't like being taken for a fool. She had little patience for sly word games, though she still wasn't sure if Jalassin was actually playing one.

"The authorities and others. The Master is a great man, a genius, and that scares some people."

"I've heard plenty of stories about his genius," she shot back. The news journals had run many salacious stories about the hybrid creatures the Master bred with his Craft-skill, the monsters of myth that he made real, and the havoc those things had wrought.

"You should ask him what really happened, when he's done."

"Done?" Elendra's skin prickled beneath her warm clothes.

"He has questions. He wants to know how you came to be lost in the wilderness. It's not every day that a former royal customs official stumbles onto his doorstep. The Master needs to be sure your arrival was simply a happy accident." Jalassin smiled warmly, as if there were no further implications.

"What if he decides it wasn't a happy accident?"

"Oh, well, you would probably wish you'd died in the snow," Jalassin replied with a casual wave of his hand, as though the question were entirely academic. He went back to his map. "The Master's private study is at the far end of the corridor. He's expecting you."

#

The Master was leaning over a workbench, gazing into the lens of an intrascope. He didn't look up when Elendra entered, but rather waved her over to a chair that was positioned in the very centre of the room.

"Many times in my life," he began, still examining the magnified contents of the petri dish; "I've felt like I've gotten it, like I've had this revelation about the Craft, about its nature." He straightened and turned to her, gesturing for her to sit.

"Isn't it the puissance that binds the world?" Reluctantly she sat, recalling the elementary lessons from her childhood and the shame of discovering she had no aptitude for the Craft. Even simple things, like heating a mug of coffee, had eluded her, no matter how clearly she visualised the moving particles of the liquid, no matter how much she willed them to speed up. The rector had told her not to feel too disheartened; few people had any real skill in the Craft's practical application. His words had done little to lessen her feeling of inadequacy.

"Yes, but how does it interact with matter, how does it transform it, to the will of a sufficiently skilled Craft-Master? I sometimes feel like I've seen the answer, through the intrascope; like it's something so elemental and obvious. Then it feels like something, or someone, has snatched the knowledge right out of my head. Almost as if there's some intelligence behind it all, deliberately keeping me ignorant."

"You wanted to ask me some questions," Elendra said, holding her head high, determined to cut to the point. "You think I came here deliberately? You seem to know a lot about me already."

"I still have friends in the West. I asked them about you."

Elendra frowned. "How?"

The Master moved away from the desk and stood so that he loomed over her.

"I was rather hoping you would tell me how you came to be lost in the wilderness," he said, ignoring her question.

"I was travelling with traders, heading for Outpoint. Bandits attacked the caravan. I'd gone off the path." She bit her lip; saying it made her feel foolish. "I was looking for sky-stones. It was my mother-in-law's idea."

"I take it she was very persuasive? She must be quite a formidable woman."

"No!" Elendra felt her face flushing and the Master's eyebrow rose slightly. "I don't know why I agreed. I knew it was a stupid idea. I told her so."

"But it saved your life, that act of hubris." Ice-blue eyes watched her closely.

"It did," she admitted. She looked up and steeled herself, knowing that she needed to interrogate the Master as he interrogated her. "The bandits closed in from either side of the road at the head of the caravan—I was at the rear—they killed everyone."

The Master's face softened sympathetically and he gave no sign to suggest he already knew about the attack. For a moment, she considered telling him about it, the terrible amphibian thing, which had seemingly orchestrated the massacre, but decided to leave that detail unspoken. She still had suspicions that it was one of the Master's creations.

"I've never heard of anyone attacking a caravan before. Caravans aren't soft targets; and there's nowhere nearby where stolen goods could be fenced. If anyone was flying in, so close to my house, I would know it." He turned away, musing to himself more than addressing her. "Besides, what type of brigands would have great-hawks, or more fantastical still, a dragon?" He grumbled, low and disapprovingly at the back of his throat. "The Craft-skill it takes to breed such creatures, but also feeding them, housing them. No, they must have come by land or river."

"All I know is that they killed everyone they saw. They didn't see me," she insisted.

"Mm, yes, very lucky," the Master replied quickly, his mind seemingly on other matters. "I can't help but wonder who did it first," he said, changing the subject. "Made something as magnificent as a dragon, made it pliable; obedient, intelligent, almost. The Scarlet Emperor's masters breed them from old designs, just replicating the work of better practitioners."

"Are you going to let me go?" Elendra cut in, finding herself suddenly unable to endure any more of his obfuscation. "I don't care what you're doing here. I just want to go home, to Rynn." Her voice cracked and tears came in streams.

Master Essen seemed momentarily stunned and then he crouched before her, took her hands and squeezed them.

"Don't cry, my dear, I'll see you safely back to civilization. It will take some time to arrange, but you're safe here, I promise."

She stood and accepted his embrace. Peering over his shoulder, she spotted several sets of keys hung above the bench.

"Thank you," she said, still thinking about the dread amphibian creature.

#

Lying in the warm, comfortable bed the Master had provided, Elendra contemplated the keys. The prospect of facing the wilderness once again, this time without a knife, thoroughly unnerved her and so she remained in the Master's house. She had explored and it seemed largely mundane, a well-staffed mansion that, save for its remote location and astonishing exterior architecture, was little different from the households of many affluent Violet citizens. There was just one door barred to her, a heavy iron door that seemed to lead right into the mountainside. Elendra might have accepted the masquerade, had she not visited the servants' quarters. The Master had a small army of assistants, grooms, maids and cooks, all of them young; all of whom looked to be closely related to Jalassin. Like Jalassin they all spoke highly of their employer, were all friendly and welcoming. Yet they seemed bereft of individual personalities, too alike in tone and outlook even for close family.

In her former life, before she married Rynn and joined his family's business, it had been Elendra's job to sniff out the suspicious, to interrogate the records of barge captains, to determine whether their accounts were legitimate. She had a good nose for fraud, for uncovering deception. Had she been reporting on Master Essen's household, she would have advised her former employers to have the constables search his properties and question his people.

She tried to tell herself that the Master's peculiarly homogenous staff, and his work, whatever it might be, were none of her business, but the memory of it haunted her. Her curiosity was becoming like an itch, intensifying slowly as she tried to ignore it. Finally, she gave in and admitted to herself that she had to know if it was here, locked away behind the iron door.

Elendra rose and dressed herself quietly. The house was virtually silent. Navigating with a cool-burning hand-lamp, she crept to the Master's workshop, found it unlocked and appropriated a set of keys.

She went to the iron door, found the appropriate key, and slipped through quietly, bracing herself for what she might see. On the other side was a corridor leading downward, into what appeared to be a subterranean research complex.

The first laboratory that she came to contained things every bit as gruesome-looking as the news journals' accounts led her to expect. Self-sustaining lamps illuminated the low-ceilinged space starkly. They seemed not to require any gas to burn; rather it seemed that casting a bright glow was an inherent property of the filament within. Lining the walls were opaque bell jars. She examined one and found that it contained a preserved foetus, which had been afflicted with numerous deformities. Other jars contained small animals in various states of decay; some contained exhumed organs and some indeterminate growths of organic tissue.

Elendra explored on, encountering other laboratories and workshops containing similarly gruesome specimens, though nothing living. She found a storeroom filled with crystals of myriad sizes and colours and left it, frowning. Such trinkets were common; every market in the Scarlet Empire had stalls stuffed with them, selling for pennies. She couldn't imagine why the Master would want them.

Her explorations had been ongoing for some time and Elendra was close to giving in. The Master's hidden labs were forbidding, filled with disturbing-looking items; but she had found no monsters, nothing that was so macabre to make her think Master Essen had deserved a death sentence. She opened a final, simple wooden door incautiously and then inhaled sharply, frozen in the threshold.

"Hello." The casual greeting was spoken by an inhuman voice. The voice's owner stood and beckoned her inside. Elendra stifled a scream and backed away in horror. The room's occupant moved eerily toward the door, their gait not quite that of a person.

"I'm sorry," Elendra muttered and turned, scuttling back toward the main house, not daring to look back to see if she was pursued. She rounded the last corner; Master Essen was waiting for her, leaning against the iron door.

"You've met Vylessa, then," he said calmly.

Elendra skidded to a halt on the polished stone floor and cast a furtive glance back the way she came.

"It's okay," the Master went on, soothingly. "You say you're not a spy, and I believe you. I merely hoped your curiosity would bring you down here. I so very much wanted you to meet my little girl. You remind me of her in so many ways, I thought you could be like the sister she never had."

Elendra backed away and turned to retreat into the maze of corridors and labs. The room's occupant, Vylessa, stood in her path.

"I won't hurt you," Vylessa said, making an effort to soften her voice. "I'd hoped we might become friends."

#

"My daughter was born with an irreparable ailment," the Master explained, handing Elendra a mug of drinking chocolate.

She cast a quick glance at the Master's daughter. Elendra was indeed relieved to find the Master wasn't harbouring the amphibian monstrosity, but Vylessa was an unsettling presence nonetheless.

"You know that I'm a great Craft-Master," he went on, sitting beside his daughter. "You've seen the house, the laboratories; you've felt my healing touch yourself. So don't doubt the difficulty when I tell you it took all of my skill to keep Vylessa alive."

"The Craft has limits," Vylessa offered, straining to make the metallic whisper of her voice sound more organic. Her failure to do so visibly upset her and as she turned her head, Elendra wondered if she might sob, wondered if she were capable of sobbing.

"Yes, but I fear your father's limitations are far greater," Master Essen said, touching Vylessa's arm lightly.

Though the Master's daughter was slender and ethereal in her beauty, she looked only vaguely human. Her eyes were nondescript grey pools, like the eyes of a doll imbued with a half-life. Her once brown skin was ashen and almost porcelain in its appearance. When her thin lips peeled back, they revealed her sharpened teeth and her serpentine tongue flicked over them involuntarily. Vylessa realised that their guest had noticed and so covered her mouth self-consciously with a pale hand, the nails of which were pointed tips of obsidian. She stood and turned away. The Master went to her and Elendra noticed that she was several inches taller than her father.

"She hates me," Vylessa moaned quietly, edging toward the door.

"I don't," Elendra said, standing; "I really don't. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable. I just didn't know …" She searched for the right words.

"That I'm a monster."

Elendra shook her head vigorously.

"It's okay, I have a mirror; I know what I look like." Vylessa smiled sadly. Elendra came closer and craned her neck to look up at the Master's daughter.

"You're very beautiful; and a little bit scary too, which isn't necessarily a bad thing."

A terrible sound escaped from Vylessa and it took Elendra a moment to recognise it as an involuntary giggle. Vylessa reached out and squeezed Elendra's shoulders gently, before leaving the Master's study. Elendra remained rooted to the spot, shaken by the affectionate gesture.

"She's really just a little girl, burdened with the body, and I'm afraid also the appetites, of a demon." Master Essen slumped onto his sofa and exhaled slowly.

"You did this to her, I take it? To save her?"

"Yes, though I tried everything else before I resorted to this. None of my designs worked, nothing cured her. The wasting continued, first her legs, by seven, then everything from the chest down by the time she was ten. My people shipped her to this remote place in a sealed coffin, comatose and with one of my contraptions breathing for her. I had to extricate myself from the Violet City with my head still attached, thanks to the efforts of the meddling news journals." The Master glared down at the floor, seething.

"Did you make monsters?" she asked, perching herself on the arm of a chair opposite, clutching the hot mug in both hands. The first rays of the morning sun were just beginning to creep through the window.

"I crossed some lines. Did favours for criminal sorts; gave unprincipled people some unnatural abilities, which they used indiscriminately. I needed the coin, and that coin did help me build this place.

"Frustration, desperation, they drove me; they still drive me. My curiosity, about the nature of the Craft, is not idle, you know. I feel like the Craft is a piano with the keys removed. You can still play a tune, if you lift the top, stick your hand in and strum the strings; but it's hard and gets harder, the more complex the tune."

"So, what you did to Vylessa; that was somebody else's 'tune'." The Master didn't seem to hear her.

"Someone or something removed the keys deliberately …" His icy eyes burned furiously. "Always thwarting me …"

Elendra cast a glance at the door, contemplating her odds of getting to it without drawing the Master's ire. As it happened, she did not get a chance to try her luck; Jalassin entered to announce the arrival of another visitor.

"The Wolf is here." His voice was small and uncertain. The Master looked at Elendra and his face darkened.

"How coincidental," he murmured. "Take her to the hidden room. I'll see what our lupine friend has to say for himself."

#

Jalassin opened a hidden door and ushered her into a dark, narrow passageway.

"Keep going until the end; you'll see," he said, before sealing her in, giving her no opportunity to protest.

The narrow passage was barely wide enough to squeeze through and she thanked the ancestors that the long, hard journey from the west had slimmed her somewhat. After several awkward minutes of shuffling, she found herself within a cramped room, at one side of which was a window. She peered into the glass and found that Master Essen was looking right at her. He seemed to scold her with silent anger.

The window looked out into the Master's main reception room and she realised that she was on the far side of the mirror, staring through a pane of one-way glass. The Master no doubt knew she was there, but the other man—the 'Wolf', she guessed—could not see her.

"You expect me to believe this is a coincidence? That you should appear, just days after Jalassin finds that woman on my doorstep," the Master said, turning to address the 'Wolf'.

Elendra felt her breath catch in her throat.

"She is your spy, I don't doubt. Out with it then, tell me why the Emperor has decided to withdraw his protection. Tell me how I've wronged him."

"Have you ever known me to use spies?" the stranger asked. He had the accent of a Northman, though the overcoat draped over his arm bore the emblems of the Scarlet Emperor. Elendra studied him closely. He had been on the road for some time. His cheeks were reddened from the weather, his dark clothes sported a great many stains and his whole figure seemed to stoop with tiredness.

"I don't know you at all, Wolf." Master Essen spoke the final word like an insult and the stranger's mouth twitched. "I kept to our agreement, I've sent the Emperor everything he's ever asked for; surely enough to pay for a little peace."

"His Majesty has no interest in handing you over to his vassal in the Violet City, unless you've dug up something you shouldn't have. Because if you've found the designs, we all know the traitor will send his minions up here to get them."

"Do you believe in monsters, Athiran?" the Master asked abruptly.

"Depends what kind we're talking about, but I'm guessing you mean the mythical kind. Strigoi, werelings, grindylow, hungry revenants; that sort of thing?"

Master Essen nodded. "All imaginary, of course. Take for example, the supernatural undead, who consume the lives of the living to extend their own existence. Quite mythical, in the stories of our ancestors."

The man, Athiran, dropped his overcoat onto the back of a chair and widened his stance, moving his hands behind his back, reaching, Elendra realised, for concealed weapons.

"Except, with the right skill in the Craft, great masters have always been able to bring the creatures of myth into reality. Why, dragons were nothing but fantasy, until they were made."

"I knew you were lying." Athiran allowed himself a sad smile.

Master Essen took a step forward and in an instant, Athiran had pulled two eighteen-inch blades from sheaths hidden on his back. He levelled them threateningly and the Master retreated, his arms raised in surrender. Elendra looked closer at the blades and saw that they were not daggers; rather each had a hilt set at a ninety-degree angle from the blade. Athiran moved them fluidly, hypnotically, and 'Wolf' made sense to her. He was a Wolf of Winter, one of the North King's most feared soldiers, and yet must be a renegade, to be in service to the Scarlet Emperor.

"I have saved my daughter and I promise you, I am working to ensure that she does no harm. She hasn't taken a human life in over a season. And she is alive and stronger than ever."

"Stronger than ever," Athiran repeated, knowingly. "That's the part that worries me. How strong?"

Master Essen swayed a little, reluctant to answer. He looked the Wolf of Winter over and relented.

"Too strong," he admitted. "She can tear a tree apart by its trunk."

"And you wonder why I came back?"

"She's a sweet girl. The strength is nothing to her. I can take it away—I will find a way! Your spy can tell you all this, I don't doubt. Ask her, we'll ask her! No harm has come to her, you'll see."

"I don't have a—" Athiran's mouth closed abruptly and he lowered his blades. "What woman is this?"

"She isn't your spy?" Master Essen turned back to the mirror.

"I keep telling you that."

"Then why is she here?" The Master was now staring directly into the mirror, staring directly at Elendra.

#

"I'm sorry," Jalassin said quietly, as he led her into the main reception room.

"Don't be sorry," the Master chided; "the daughter of Elytte is not all she purports to be."

Elendra glared back at the Master and he turned away quickly, seemingly doubting himself already. Athiran stood by an armchair and directed her to sit. He was unmoved by the defiant look she gave him.

"Tell me the truth and no harm will come to you." He spoke the words gently, reminding her of the snow. Elendra's resolve faltered and she sat, stifling the urge to cry, guessing that uncontrollable sobbing would not sway Athiran.

"I promise you that everything I told you is true." She locked her eyes on Master Essen and willed him to believe her. He looked at her briefly and his head dropped.

"I cannot disbelieve her," he admitted quietly. "You ask her, Athiran. She can play me as she pleases. She looks too much like Vylessa."

"He told me what you said, about the road, the caravan. If you lie to me, I will find out and I will hurt you," Athiran warned, the register of his voice never rising. She sank back into the chair, trying to think of what she could say. She was unable to find any clever or strong words.

"I just want to go home, to Rynn."

"Your husband's family are in debt; I take it?"

She nodded.

"So you went off the road, looking for sky-stones; that's why you were away from the caravan?"

Again, she nodded and ground her teeth, desperate to retain her composure.

"It was a stupid idea. I knew it was a stupid idea from the moment my stupid mother-in-law came out with it. Yet I came anyway and her stupidity wound up saving me. If I hadn't stumbled off the road, I'd have been with the caravan and that thing would have stacked me dead with all the others." She was hyperventilating by the time she finished.

"Wait, thing? You didn't say anything about a thing before," the Master cut in.

"Was it a kind of creature?" Athiran asked. "Was it in charge, did the bandits take orders from it?"

"Like a giant stretched-out frog," she mouthed, breathlessly.

"I told you they'd come," Athiran hissed, at Master Essen. "I told you Polaris would want what was buried if you dug it up. He could produce an ungodly army within weeks if he gets those designs."

Elendra looked up to the Master for some explanation.

"You know most of it already. I used my skills to keep Vylessa alive, to try to mend her broken body, but even a great Craft-Master like me can only do so much. There are limits. But it wasn't always that way; so much knowledge has been lost."

"Buried. You should say buried," Athiran interjected.

"Yes, Athiran, buried, it's all buried, by someone's hand. It's that unseen will that's thwarted me for years, but others have defied it before me, and I can stand on their shoulders, just like your Scarlet Emperor's hacks do when they breed him a new fire-breathing lizard.

"There was a warlord in this part of the world, centuries ago. All the surviving accounts agree that this warlord could remake the broken into his strongest weapons, that he made the mythological undead a reality. He was brought down in a forgotten war and all of his creations were burned, so the stories go."

"What did you find?" Athiran demanded. Master Essen kept his eyes on Elendra as though he meant the story only for her.

"The warlord recorded his thoughts in a capture crystal. I found it, for sale in Outpoint. They didn't know what it was—they thought it was some pretty trinket—they sold it to me for ten shillings." He hooted in delight. "I've heard stories about grave robbers who got themselves killed out in the wilds looking for the warlord's journals."

"Well that's just great, isn't it," Athiran spat. "You know we have to destroy everything, leave nothing for Polaris."

Master Essen took Elendra's hands and gave her a deep, sad smile.

"I'm glad you found me," he whispered.

Athiran stepped in, meaning to grab hold of the Master. Essen let go of her hands, opened his fingers and pressed them against Athiran's chest. The Wolf's eyes filled with confusion. Like a stone, he dropped, limp and lifeless. Elendra jumped to her feet and gawped down at him. Suddenly he convulsed and pulled in a sharp, desperate breath.

"I just stopped his heart. It's not enough to kill a Wolf of Winter—he'll restart it again in a moment—but it gives us the time we need," the Master explained, before adding; "Don't shed any tears for the Wolf. You have no idea how blood-stained his hands are."

Master Essen rang the bell to summon Jalassin, who appeared almost at once.

"Take him outside and drop him somewhere obvious," he told his servant. "We may have some more guests on the way and I would like them to amuse themselves with friend Wolf before they reach the front door."

"He said Polaris." Elendra nodded toward Athiran, whom Jalassin was now bodily dragging away. "As in the Polaris, who tried to stage a coup; the Polaris who murdered the last Scarlet Emperor?"

"Yes, I don't think there's two of them," the Master replied, distractedly. "I never imagined his errand boys would actually find me, but I have some contingencies in place." Suddenly he turned his full attention to Elendra. "My dear, I'll do all I can to get you away from here safely, if that's what you wish. But, I could use your help."

"What can I do?" she asked and was immediately ashamed by the tininess of her voice.

"I can't let my discoveries fall into the hands of a power-hungry lunatic like Polaris. I'll do anything for my daughter, but I'm not completely blind to the consequences. I need help to get her away from here."

Elendra took a breath, thinking of the terror she'd felt out on the pilgrim road; but also she thought of the Master's daughter, shy and innocent, in spite of her frightful appearance.

"I do have ways to widen the scope of what you can do," he offered.

"I'll help you," she said.

The Master appeared overwhelmed as he gazed down at her.

"When Jalassin first brought you to me, I felt certain I'd just gained another daughter." He kissed her forehead. "I can't tell you how happy I am to be right. Come, we'll prepare a few surprises for the errand boys!"

#

The Master led her to an alcove, which housed what appeared to be a well-polished mirror with a slight emerald hue. Elendra had spotted it during her nocturnal explorations, had thought the alcove a strange place to position a mirror, but had gone on without giving it further thought. Master Essen traced his fingers along the surface of the glass and revealed its purpose. Their reflections dissolved into a window-view, looking out from the roof, down onto the snow-covered trees, illuminated by the weak rays of the sun. The Master moved his fingers back and forth and the view shifted from one side of the house and then into the forest.

"Ha!" the Master exclaimed, pointing to a shape standing amidst a cluster of trees some way down the slope. Elendra leaned in to look and gasped.

It stood motionless between two trees, surveying the house, calculating and intelligent.

"That's Baylis, chief errand boy to the would-be usurper, Polaris. A very impressive piece of work, I'll admit."

"Someone made that thing?" Elendra couldn't take her eyes off it.

"That thing used to be a man. Polaris changed him, to make him more useful," he replied.

"Why does he need what you found then, if he can already turn a person into something so horrific?"

"It takes tremendous skill, to transform someone so thoroughly without killing them. The warlord's designs could remake a rabble of malnourished cripples into an unstoppable army in half the time it took Polaris to transform his chief errand boy." The Master touched the image with his index finger and the window-view became a mirror once again. "I expect the other errand boys have the house surrounded. This is worse than I'd imagined. I need my crystals." Already he was away. "Come on, follow me!"

She shuffled after him, struggling to keep up with his long strides. The Master threw open the door to the storeroom filled with crystals. Elendra regarded the vast collection dubiously.

"Hold this one." The Master offered her a nondescript looking blue crystal. She hesitated. "Something to improve the odds," he said, his eyes twinkling.

"This'll make me stronger?" She remembered how good it had felt to wake up, to discover all her nagging aches and pains were gone.

He nodded and smiled knowingly.

Unnatural abilities. Elendra remembered his words and a strange impulse overcame her, a desire to have that feeling again. She snatched the crystal from his hands, suddenly breathless with excitement.

He wrapped his hands around hers and half-closed his eyes. A jolt of static passed through his fingers, startling her. For a fleeting moment it felt like someone else's thoughts were in her head—it wasn't the Master—it was someone cold, hard and cruel. Then a chill ran right through her and she felt strange, as if her skin were unfamiliar.

The Master prised the crystal from her grip and tossed it over Elendra's shoulder. Dopily, she turned to follow its trajectory. Vylessa was standing in the doorway and had caught the crystal.

"He's here?" she asked her father, fearfully.

"His errand boys," the Master replied; "keep that safe. Head for Outpoint; find Kepren, you can trust him."

"We should all go," she protested.

"I would only slow you down. Don't worry, they'll get nothing from me. Now run back to your room and fetch some of your clothes for Elendra, she'll be coming with you."

Sleepily, Elendra noted Vylessa's clothing, the finely tailored indigo undercoat, tightly fitting black satin britches and well-polished, knee-high leather boots. Elendra opened her mouth to protest. Vylessa's clothes would never fit her; for whatever facial similarity they might share, she and the Master's daughter were endowed with entirely contrasting proportions. Yet no words came forth. A spasm shot down her spine and she dropped to her knees, gasping for air. The chill was spreading throughout her body.

"Oh, I see," Vylessa said, giving her father a solemn look. "When will she be ready to leave?"

"Two hours, perhaps three. She was healthy, so the change was easier to effect, though it likely won't take as thoroughly. She'll be slower and weaker than you."

Elendra tried to demand an explanation, but found she couldn't speak. Master Essen knelt beside her.

"You perhaps thought I had something else in mind, to make you stronger? It's true there are plenty of other methods I could have used, but Vylessa needs a sister. You'll find your way together; I know you will."

Elendra could give no voice to the insults she intended, and as the room began to spin around her, she quickly forgot about the Master. She thought of Rynn, half the world away; how could she possibly return to him a monster? She clung to the stone floor in fear that she might be propelled from it, and through the blur of her thoughts, she pictured Svetabyth, smirking, already planning her son's remarriage. Anger built up within her. Anger and hunger. The feelings followed her into the blackness.

#

She stared down at the forest. Her sister pointed to the dark shapes moving so distantly through the trees. They became clear, in every detail, in spite of the dim twilight. Soldiers, not bandits, moving with purpose, hunting for someone. She examined their faces, seeing fear, arrogance, anger and cruelty in turn.

Hunting for me.

She looked to her sister, unthinking, who nodded to say she was right. She moved and nearly lost her grip on the narrow branch to which she was clinging. She looked down and saw that the ground directly below was forty feet away. Instinctively she dug sharp steely claws into the wood to steady herself. She raised her free hand to examine it. She stared for a moment, until deciding that, yes, her fingers were longer than they had been the last time she'd looked. Her nails were shiny, black and razor sharp. She was pleased to see they were all intact and only afterward did it occur to her that they had not looked like that before.

Her sister started off, moving eastward with the treeline, navigating the thin branches nimbly. She traced her sister's steps as though nothing could be more natural. As she moved, she began to think, confirming to herself that she'd never climbed a tree before; that Vylessa had not been her sister before today. She remembered that she had been different, frail and ungainly, had not felt the incessant hunger, and had loved someone. She tried to remember that someone's face, but she could only recall the face of the boy she had devoured. She had a recollection of lips opening for hers, of wrapping her body around his, but the memory flitted; was it a husband, named Rynn, or a boy named Jalassin? Was it her wedding night or her last meal? She stopped and so did her sister, who looked back to see what was amiss.

I killed Jalassin. Her sister nodded, knowing, sympathetic. He came to see if I was okay and I opened his mouth and drained his life. I wrapped myself around him and sucked the vitality right out of him. Her sister nodded again. She knew and was so, so very sorry.

He gave his life willingly, her sister told her. Father told him that you needed the strength. He told him that you would never escape otherwise. He said he would be glad to give it. Don't blame yourself.

I killed someone. She looked in horror to her sister. What are we?

Monsters. Vylessa turned and continued on, through the branches.

She hesitated. Her old self, Elendra, was waking, was asserting her influence over the new thing she had become. She could not bear the thought of that creature, Baylis, taking more lives; not now that she had the strength to defy him, not now she was a monster too.

Somewhere behind them, the sounds of violence were rising. She listened, mournfully looked off after her sister, felt a pang of guilt and spun off in the direction of the violence.

#

In panic, blind anger, and confusion, the bodies tumbled, stabbing and slashing wildly, training all but forgotten in the desperate attempt to fend off the Wolf. Dark and ferocious, he was moving between them, keeping his attackers off balance, cutting them down at will.

She watched from her tree in fascination. The Wolf moved as if it were all a dance, a vicious, bloody dance, to which only he knew the steps. A dozen men, errand boys, had beset the Wolf, but now only three were standing. Finally, one landed a blow with his sabre, drawing the blade back in a cut to open the Wolf's entire side. She waited for the Wolf to fall, but he went only to one knee, half-turned his head in annoyance and rolled away, out of the path of the follow-up stroke. She wondered just how the Wolf could have survived such a cut, only to see, when he rose again, that the slash had gone no deeper than his overcoat. The errand boy who had delivered the blow saw too. His sabre dropped to the snow and the smell of his bladder and bowls voiding themselves filled her nostrils, making her recoil for a moment. Stinking, disarmed and soiled, the errand boy fled into the trees. The Wolf turned to the remaining two. One ran blind into a killing thrust and his limp body flew over the Wolf's shoulder like a grain sack. His comrade threw up his arms in surrender. The Wolf walked to him, exhaustion finally showing in his movements.

"Why, Master Essen, I ask only that you see reason." A voice finer than ivory lilted through the trees. Her head snapped around automatically. Her father, her new father; he was in danger. She set off without waiting to see if Athiran would kill the last errand boy or take him alive.

She saw her father's servants, kneeling in the snow. They had all been marched from the house, were under the guard of more errand boys. She meant to drop into the middle of them, set upon them with her steely claws, but then she saw it and so lingered fearfully, the fear and weakness of her old self, overpowering the strength of the new.

The great amphibian thing, Baylis, was standing over the Master, who knelt in the snow, his face bloodied but serene. Baylis licked his polished fangs with a thick, long, blood red tongue.

"The great Polaris would never offer insult to a man of such …" Baylis paused, searching for the right words, "worthy ability."

Her father raised his head and caught sight of her in the branches. His lips curled a fraction, enough to tell her that he was proud, relieved, and disappointed all at once. Baylis noticed and began to sniff the air.

"She has come to us," he said, exultantly. The errand boys tensed and their fear became overwhelming and irresistible. The amphibian abomination's power over her faltered and she dropped from the tree, directly onto a deliciously terrified errand boy. She snapped his neck and the sensation of it was thrilling.

She raced across the snow, drawn to their fear, hardly aware of the concussion bolt going clean through her chest cavity. She sunk her claws into the face of another tantalisingly fragile man. His agonised shriek tasted like the sweetest honey. Suddenly desperate to feed, she forget all else, prised open his mouth, opened hers and salivated in anticipation of drinking his life.

Someone took hold of her arm and pulled her from her meal. She moved to swat away the annoyance, but found that her strength was ebbing. Her feet left the snowy ground. She rotated and her struggling ceased. The moment she saw what had her, she became Elendra, daughter of Elytte once again. Baylis looked up at her and grinned.

"So nice of you to join us," he said mockingly.

"Please …" She could say nothing else. "Please …"

"Take you to meet my master? Why of course I will!" Baylis hooted, wrapping his long, sinewy digits around her throat. He turned her from side to side, as if she weighed nothing, inspecting her like merchandise. "She's not as fierce as I'd expected," he remarked disappointedly.

"Unhand my daughter." Master Essen rose to his feet.

Baylis sneered, but there was apprehension on his grotesque face.

"Rise, all of you," the Master said, his eyes glistening dangerously. His servants began to get up, confused and frightened, their movements jerky and unnatural, unable to control their hijacked limbs. Baylis's men edged away, unnerved.

"Embrace your enemies!" Master Essen cried. Jerkily, under his influence, each member of the household grabbed the man nearest and pulled him forcefully into an unwilling embrace, ignoring vicious, desperate cuts and thrusts.

"Now warm their hearts!" the Master laughed.

Baylis's sneer faded and he dropped Elendra to the snow. As one, each member of the household ignited, becoming a screaming inferno, their very flesh alight. The flames engulfed the restrained men, until they were both burning and their screams became one.

Master Essen turned to face Baylis and two sets of unnatural eyes locked for a brief moment.

"Run," the Master commanded.

"This will not go unpunished; Polaris always gets what he wants," Baylis warned and with that, his great legs sprang into motion, propelling him into the treeline and out of sight.

"I didn't want you to see that, my daughter."

His words were like a slap and spurred her to pull herself up against the trunk of a nearby tree. She looked down to see that her ashen, perfect skin, visible beneath the rips in her clothing, was knitting back together. She struggled to her feet and found that she towered over Master Essen—it was an odd feeling—she'd never towered over anyone in her life.

"You did all of this?" She gestured to the embers that smouldered all around, the smoking remains of his household.

"To protect you and your sister." He held out his arms, offering an embrace. "Don't cry over the help. They were very convincing, I know, but they were simply my golems. Aside from Jalassin, who gave his life willingly, none of them were truly people."

"You did this to me," she spat, angrily, her voice sounding demonic to her own ears. The spike of anger reminded her of something; she had been denied her last meal. "I'm hungry."

He nodded knowingly. 'We'll work on that.'

"I'm hungry," she said again, moving toward him, meaning to feed.

There was no fear on the face of the Master. He held his arms outstretched to welcome her. She meant to drain the life from him, right up until the moment she felt his touch, and then she was crying into the shoulder of her father.

"It's okay, your sister is coming," he whispered and she nodded, allowing her new father to guide her. "We'll go to her before the Wolf gets here."

She thought of the Wolf slaughtering the errand boys and, hungry as she was, she had no desire to confront him.

They walked through the snow, until she became aware of the presence of a deer. Her father nodded and she left him, so that she could run it down, drain the poor creature of its vitality. She returned to him, feeling better. Soon enough she became aware of her sister.

I shouldn't have let you go alone, her sister told her. Vylessa felt ashamed, like a coward; she realised.

You kept the crystal safe, Elendra offered.

They camped a few miles south, and their father slumbered peacefully beside the fire, while she sat watch with Vylessa.

I wasn't always your sister, Elendra said silently. Her sister nodded, knowingly.

But you are now. It was true. You'll see Rynn again, Vylessa went on, communicating as much with images as words, feeling her sister's love for the husband she had left behind. Elendra became aware of Vylessa rummaging through her memories, bringing them to the surface; she realised too that her new sister was experiencing them, savouring them even. Elendra felt like she should be jealous of the invasion, but her sister had never had anyone like Rynn.

Vylessa withdraw from her mind, guiltily. Elendra took her new sister's hand and pulled her back into the memories, eager to share them. The act seemed to make them more vivid, made her feel all the luckier for possessing them.

We'll become human again, one day, they resolved, together.

Their father awoke as the sun rose, and stood with them for a while.

"Where are we going?" Elendra asked her father.

"I think we should visit Polaris, to complain about the damage his man-frog did to our house." He smiled dangerously.

She thought about it for a moment. She liked the idea; she liked the idea very much.

THE END


Copyright 2019, AD Ross

Bio: Adam Ross first started writing seriously whilst studying at university, having become involved in numerous student film productions. His 2009 short film "Plan C" was screened at "Screentest", the UK's National Student Film Festival. In 2011 he was long-listed for the BBC's Future Talent Award. However over the past few years, Adam has increasingly dedicated time to writing fiction and his first published story appears in the 2017 anthology "Realities Perceived". He completed a PhD in Modern British History in 2012.

E-mail: AD Ross

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