Chapter Twenty-Four

Zaria awoke in stages. Several times there was whispering in her brief glimpses of reality. She couldn’t focus on the words and couldn’t open her eyes. Each time she awoke it was for a short time and pain made her dizzy. When she finally came to, the room she was in was dark and empty of others. Her ears were buzzing and her whole body ached. She wondered how long she had been out. She remembered Awen’s final words to her, and panicked about Gareth. She rose too quickly from the bed she was in and gasped at the lightheadedness it caused her. Okay, she had to move slower, but her mind raced. The room she was in seemed sparse, like it was a room meant for recovery and not actually inhabiting. There was a single candle glowing on the table near the door. She limped to the door and opened it.

The hallway that greeted her was carved out of stone, just like the room she had just been in. It was softly lit and she didn’t see anyone. Where was everyone? She peered into rooms as she passed them. They all seemed just as barren. She got to some stairs and slowly climbed them, holding onto a railing for balance. Her breath was coming in short puffs and the pain was getting more intense. She heard footsteps coming down the stairs and she paused, not sure what to expect in this place. She sighed with relief when she saw Rishtah.

“Oh dear! What are you doing out of bed? You look like death warmed over!”

“I just needed to find someone and ask about Gareth,” Zaria said faintly, feeling woozy.

“Come on, let’s get you back to bed and I’ll fill you in. You need rest. You were hit by some pretty powerful energy. We were shocked you weren’t dead.” Rishtah took her arm as Zaria turned around and started going back down the steps. She was starting to feel so weak she hoped she didn’t pass out before she got to the bed. It seemed like such a long way. They finally made it, and by the time she sat on the edge of the bed her vision was swimming and she was seeing stars. Rishtah helped her lay down again and she rested a few moments while Rishtah sat on a chair next to the bed.

“How long have I been out?” Zaria asked quietly. She closed her eyes, focusing on her breathing.

“A week,” Rishtah answered sadly.

Zaria’s eyes flew open. “Where’s Gareth?!” She wanted to scramble up from the bed but knew she couldn’t. She was too weak.

“I’m sorry sweetie. She took him. There’s really nothing we can do right now.” Rishtah laid her hand on Zaria’s shoulder in comfort. Zaria started crying softly. She knew there was nothing to be done at the moment. Awen was powerful. Too powerful for her to fight her alone now, and not in this condition, no matter how much she wanted to march there this very moment and take back what was hers.

“We can have a slight comfort in knowing that she won’t kill him. She wants to keep them all alive to show you their suffering at her hands. She is ruthless in that way,” Rishtah said, trying to make Zaria feel better about him being killed.

All at once she remembered about her mother’s betrayal and the hurt gripped her. “Why did my mother betray us?” She asked, fresh tears trailing down her cheeks. Her voice broke as she asked the question. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

“Your mother told me,” Rishtah started saying in a hesitant tone, “but she made me swear not to tell you. I don’t know how much I should say.” She paused for a moment. “Since you already know about the betrayal, I guess I can tell you everything I know.” She got up and started pacing the room, her gray hair glinting in the soft candlelight.

“Before your parents were married, Gabriella had a lover.” Zaria looked at Rishtah quizzically. “Gabriella and Awen were lovers.”

“But how could my mother be with such an evil bitch?!” Zaria almost sat up in bed, but Rishtah held out her hand to stop her.

“Awen wasn’t always so evil. Her father was advisor of war to the king, your mother’s father.  Awen and your mother grew up together because of this. Awen was the only girl in the castle close to your mother’s age so they had their studies together. At some point, they discovered they loved each other. They started having an affair. Being gay was against the rules for royalty and they had to keep it a secret,” Rishtah sadly said. Zaria was really taken aback by this revelation. She had a hard time believing that Awen had ever been good, someone worthy of her mother’s love.

“Your mother really loved Awen, but when they were found out, her father forced her to submit to his wishes. He arranged a marriage, and gave Gabriella an ultimatum. He would kill Awen, or she would submit to him and marry this man. In return, he would spare Awen’s life, but she would be cast out of the society, never to return to the kingdom, and Gabriella could never see her again. So your mother submitted. She told Awen that she didn’t love her, even though it broke her heart. She did what she thought was best.” Rishtah paused.

Zaria was trying to take this all in. It was a lot, and a blow to her system. She didn’t know what to think. Her entire childhood seemed in question now. All the times her mother had looked at her family with love; had it been an act? Zaria was so confused she didn’t know if she could hear any more of it, but Rishtah pressed on with the story.

“Your mother and father were married a short time later. At first she hated him because of this relationship being thrust upon her. She was very resentful. About forty years into their marriage, your grandfather passed away, and your grandmother a short time later. Your mother grieved, and your father was there to put her pieces back together. She grew to love him. She inherited her father’s kingdom and they ruled for a long time. You were born, and a short time later, Awen showed back up, with her army. She decimated the city, and you know the rest.” Risahtah paused again for a moment, smoothing out her long white skirt.

“I know that you are very confused right now. I don’t blame you. Your mother did what she thought was right. Maybe she created Awen with her betrayal. We don’t know how this happened. But your mother loves you. She always has and she always will. Please don’t doubt that.”

Zaria choked back tears. She was sick of crying. “If she loved me, why did she betray us? She destroyed our family. More than once. I feel like I almost hate her right now.”

“I don’t know the answer to that. I know that she hated herself for it. She came to me, after she had been here for a while. Gareth brought them from the village that night. We all thought you would have a better chance on your own, because wherever large groups of us gathered, Awen found out and would destroy us. We had to keep moving further and further away. She lives on destruction now, and she could only destroy what wasn’t already. Loners were always better off. Anyway. She admitted what she had done, and she was terrified that we would cast her out if everyone knew the truth. Awen had contacted your mother before the attack that night, and got into your mother’s head. She ended up giving away the location of where she was. She wanted our protection from the queen, and in return she offered her allegiance. She hasn’t betrayed anyone since.”

Zaria sat in silence for a while. She understood everything that Rishtah said, but she still wanted to have a conversation with her mother. Who was probably Awen’s plaything by that time. Her breath caught in her chest. “Do we have a plan? Where are we?”

“We are in one of the villages that we had talked about a week ago. The village that Gareth had kept in contact with, led by the man that knew your father. Most of us survived because of the work that you and Gareth did.”

Zaria took a deep breath. She could barely think about her family right now, or Gareth. She felt like her mind would be torn apart. She was already in a fragile state because of the battle and the hit she had taken from Awen. It was almost as though she had figured out just how much power to hit her with, because it was enough to knock her out for several days but hadn’t killed her, when Awen could easily have done so. She wanted Zaria alive. She wanted her to suffer, and then she wanted her to come after her. And she would. She just needed to figure out how. “And a plan?” She asked, closing her eyes and laying her head softly on the pillow.

“We don’t have one yet. We are waiting for you, but you need to get well. We love you, and care about you. We need you to be at your best. You are an amazing woman, but we all have limitations,” Rishtah said, smoothing Zaria’s hair back from her face.

Zaria was feeling those limitations as she laid there, everything draining her energy, from the kidnapping of her family to her mother’s illicit affair. The little power that she kept within herself from the stars above ebbed and flowed, and she was entranced by its rhythm within her body. It was something that she would always feel there, and it was a kind of music to her by now. She took comfort in it, and it was lulling her to sleep. She barely noticed as Rishtah leaned down and kissed her forehead and exited the room, softly closing the door behind her. The sleep she was pulled into was a more peaceful one because of that music within her. The hum and buzz of energy was warm and she welcomed it.

 

Aria was frightened. She figured she must have been in the dungeon of the old castle. She had only seen halflings when they had fed her. She tried talking with them, begging, pleading in fact, but they never answered her. She huddled against the cold stone, shivering. It was just warm enough to keep her from dying. She didn’t know where anyone was. It was silent, save for the dripping of water somewhere. She wanted to know where her mother was, and her sister, and Manuel. At the thought of his name, she choked back a sob. She heard footsteps and scrambled up from the floor. Maybe this one would talk to her. She started talking, but fell silent when he unlocked the door. The halfling was accompanied by two more guards. They each took an arm and started dragging her from the cell.

Aria tried talking to them and asking what was going on, but they remained silent. Finally she followed suit. She let herself be taken through the halls of the castle. They finally got to the throne room and it was a cross between decadence and a horror show. Awen sat on the throne in a gold dress, with her breasts nearly popping out from the deep V cut in her dress, held up by thin straps, and the skinny skirt fell to almost cover her feet encased in matching gold strappy heels. She sat with one leg crossed over the other and her bare arms resting on the arms of the throne, palms flat. Her long hair fell straight, down her back and a little over her shoulders and a golden crown upon her head. Awen was all about the show.

Aria looked around the room and it was decorated in black, deep red, and gold. Heavy curtains in a deep red tone hung against the walls, covering the parts of the stone. Heads of animals with dried blood still on the fur were stuck on the stone walls. There were ornate gold wall sconces on either side of the heads, a golden glow flickering from the candles. The chandelier hanging in the center of the room was made from polished black crystal that reflected the glowing lights around the room. What looked like dried blood stained the stone floor. There were halflings standing in the room to either side of the red carpet in the center, and there were three fairies chained and on all fours at the base of the throne, and they had heavy collars around their necks with the chain attached to rings coming out of the floor. They were wearing masks and Aria didn’t know who they were.

She felt raggedy in her light blue dress that was now almost black with the dirt from being held in a dungy cage for several days. Her hair was greasy and hung in clumps and her skin was dirty. As she reached the end of the carpet, she stood before Awen and she wanted to scream, to fight back, to cry. She did nothing as the queen looked at her with contempt. Awen’s lip curled up. “You bow to the queen,” she intoned.

Aria had no idea what her punishment would be, but the words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them. “You are no queen to me.”

One of the guards hit her in the back of the knees with his staff and she fell to them with her palms flat on the carpet and her forehead to the floor, unintentionally abasing herself as she cried out in pain. When she slowly raised her head to look at Awen, Aria saw that the queen was just looking at her in amusement.

“You have a lot of gall, do you know what? I could obliterate you and everyone you know with just the thought of it. I could have killed your sister, but I didn’t. I wanted to make her suffer. I am going to make you all suffer.” Awen slowly uncrossed her legs and sauntered over to the first chained fairy/halfling hybrid. He was nude from the waist up and wearing a golden mask of a ram. She took a long whip from one of the guards and cracked it on the stone. The sharp sound jolted Aria, making her jump.

Awen walked around him, running the whip against his skin. “It’s fantastic, isn’t it? The anticipation of the whip? When will it land?” She teased him for another minute before abruptly withdrawing the whip from his back and cracking it hard against him. He screamed, and Aria started crying. The blood welled immediately and started running in rivulets down to the stone. Awen struck him again and again, and he screamed in pain each time. She had a manic grin on her face, and soon the blood started spattering her dress because there was so much of it as she whipped him. Aria felt powerless. She could barely see through her tears. His back was in shreds and Awen finally stopped, her chest heaving. Aria watched as her eyes closed with the pleasure of having hurt someone so much. He was curled in a ball at her feet. Awen handed the whip back to the guard as she stepped around the broken man, blood getting on her shoes.

“That is what happens when you betray someone. Never forget,” Awen hissed. All at once, Aria understood that man to be Gareth and she gasped, horrified. She wanted to run to him, but knew she couldn’t. She was trapped.

Awen stepped to the next victim. This fae was a female, her entire body bare. Aria had recognized the hair as her mother’s when she walked in and her breath caught in her throat. She cried out before she could help herself. “Don’t hurt her!” Awen whipped her head towards her and narrowed her eyes.

“She will get what’s coming to her!” Awen’s fury was palpable and Aria shuddered. Awen bent next to Gabriella and removed the mask. Gabriella’s eyes were red from crying as she stared into Awen’s eyes.

“Please don’t do this,” her mother’s voice was soft and broken when she spoke, but Aria still heard her, and her heart hurt.

Awen just stared at her for a moment before reaching under her chin and kissing her softly on the lips. Aria was shocked, and Awen whispered, “It’s too late for that, my love.” Awen kissed her again, but bit her lip hard enough to make Gabriella bleed. Awen stood up as blood ran down Gabriella’s chin, grabbing a handful of her hair and jerking her head backwards. “I’m not going to hurt you…much. For right now, at least. But you will suffer.” The promise in Awen’s gaze was filled with many things; love, anger, lust, and betrayal. Aria didn’t understand anything that was happening.

Awen stared at Gabriella for a moment longer before turning away to the last person chained. This man looked ill, even though Aria couldn’t see his face. He was thin and his skin was pale, hanging from his bones. There was barely any meat on him. His entire body was crisscrossed with various scars already. Some of the scars were old and barely visible, and some were newer, with the scar tissue an angry pink. Some looked like whip marks, some looked like cuts. Aria felt horrible about what this man must have gone through.

“Are you ready to see my last guest?” Awen seemed delighted about revealing the identity of this last victim of hers. Her face was flushed and her eyes glittered as she looked from Aria to her mother. Awen took the whip from the guard again, and hit the man with it a couple of times. He didn’t even make a sound, as though he was used to it and he barely flinched as though it felt like the mere annoyance of a fly. Awen slowly took the golden mask off of him and Aria gasped. She couldn’t believe who she was seeing. She looked to her mother, who looked as equally shocked and heartbroken.

For on his hands and knees before them, was Aria’s father.

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