Chapter 30: The Labyrinth of Anthraticus
The granular weight of soil scraped across Carina’s eyelids as she slowly peeled her heavy eyes open. The smell of earth filled her sense as she stared hazily at the sea of darkness that filled her vision. Beneath her numb fingers, the dry texture of stiff wooden boards slowly came into focus. She was lying upon some sort of wooden panels, ‘A floor?’ but in complete darkness, ‘Where though?’
Carina tried to sit up, but her forehead slammed against an immovable surface directly above her, the impact shaking off the invisible fog that clouded her mind.
The thud only made her more aware of the deep endless silence which surrounded her. Carina laid back down and rubbed cold fingers across her grime-covered forehead. The sound of sand or earth falling from her hair onto the floorboards sent a shiver down her spine. ‘What—is going on?’
Her hands reached out into the darkness and felt the rough wooden panels only a few inches from her face. The “thump, thump, thump” of her frozen heart as it shook off the sluggish grip of sleep and lunged into a gallop of terror echoed in Carina’s ears as she sucked back a sudden scream.
A strained breath quivered through her dry lips as Carina continued to trace and frame the invisible prison that now held her. A dark cocoon of damp, loose soil and immovable wooden barriers took shape in the darkness around her. Four walls surrounded her, another two at her head and feet. ‘I’m in some sort of narrow box—or—a coffin?’
“No—no-no-no!” Carina pushed down the suffocating fear that burned awake in her chest as she strained against the wooden panel above her. Frost spread from her fingers across the panels then through them, and she found only more earth on the other side. ‘I’m—I’m buried? Fuck! No—what? No!’
Tears blurred her vision as Carina’s shallow, rapid breathing seemed to expand the spread of frost that filled the coffin around her until it coated her hair and dress. Her lungs stiffened as the cold moved inward, forcibly slowing her heart even as a tear slid from the corner of her eye and froze before it could fall down her cheek. ‘It’s just a dream—it’s another nightmare. Wake up—please, please, wake up!’
“Why do you panic, child?”
Carina’s closed eyes snapped open, and she blinked into the darkness, searching for the voice.
“You are a witch. Don’t you know why witches are always burned and never buried?”
Carina shivered beneath her own ghost-like breath as the voice crept through the darkness towards her. Another person couldn’t possibly be there with her inside the coffin, and yet Carina heard them whisper beside her ear—or perhaps in her mind the way Maura did.
“Daughter of Frost, why do you slumber? If you play by the rules of mortals, then a mortal grave is all that awaits you.”
Something thudded in the distance behind the voice. ‘No—above me?’
“You are running out of time. Once our secret is revealed, you will not be able to hide from them anymore. You must be ready to harness the gift that has been bestowed to you.”
The thud grew steadily closer. To Carina’s ears, it sounded as if someone was digging through the earth above her.
“When they discover what you are, they will not suffer you to slumber peacefully. You must wake up!”
Metal struck the coffin’s lid and scraped against the wooden barrier. A snarl echoed through the cold darkness beneath her. Instead of hope or relief, Carina’s chest crumpled under the weight of dread that seeped into her coffin as grains of soil slid through the small cracks of light above her.
She pressed herself against the wooden floorboards, wanting to hide, unable to escape. Metal struck the wood, again and again, as chips of wood fell into the darkness, past Carina’s blinking eyes. Then the dull blade of a hatchet broke through and brought with it the harsh light of day.
“We found her! We found the witch!”
The angry accusation that rippled through the man’s voice confirmed Carina’s instinctual fear even as it echoed in another dozen voices beyond the hatch-wielding gravedigger. Malice flooded through the broken coffin’s lid, while beneath the floorboards at her back, the snarls grew louder as nails scraped against the soil below, desperately trying to reach her.
Human fingers reached through the widened cracks in the coffin’s lid, took hold, and then tore the wooden panels free. The dark silhouette of Averly’s townsfolk loomed above Carina as a dozen hands grabbed her frozen limbs, and her ears bled beneath the fury of their screams, chanting, “Burn her! Burn the Witch! Burn the Ice Witch!”
They dragged her up from the coffin as the horizon of a grey frozen sky came into view. Carina barely caught a glimpse of the tombstone planted in the earth behind her, covered in an inch of snow. Upon it was a name she barely recognized, Duchess Maura Frost.
‘Duchess?’ Carina looked down at her dress, a regal gown of black silk studded with jewels, a burial gown. ‘I’m dead?’
The looming mass of an angry mob awaited her confused gaze, their hostile gaze illuminated by a thousand sputtering torches as the snow continued to fall silently around them. They were not in the town but a field of snow. A picket line of fences separated the mob for a pyre that cracked and roared as the cold wind whipped against its flames.
Carina sucked in a sharp breath as her legs gave out beneath her. She fell, but not entirely as her captors yanked her back up and dragged her forward, unhindered and relentless. “No—no, let me go!” Carina cried only to be pelted with clumps of dirty snow that smelled of piss and shit but hurt far less than the stones that followed.
‘This is a nightmare—it has to be—this can’t be happening.’
Carina peered at the faces of the men, women, and children that closed in around her. Their skin marred with visible scars and boils of the plague.
‘Impossible. I did everything I could to prepare—to prevent its spread. How is it already here?’
At a sharp command, the rabble parted to clear a path between Carina and the pyre. Only Sophya Turnbell stood in her way, dressed in a scarlet gown, dazzling jewels, and a victorious ruby smile.
“Oh, there you are, half-blood,” Maura’s half-sister crooned as the firelight danced against her ravenous curls. “Filthy witch, did you think you had us all fooled?”
The crowd roared, and the hands upon Carina’s arms and shoulders flung her down at Sophya’s feet. A prison collar snapped around the ice witch’s neck and burned against her skin. She reached towards the metal choker, but the men restrained her arms and pinned them behind her back.
Sophya laughed. “Did you think I’d let you off so easily? What are a few mortal lords and kings to me? Anywhere you go, I will find you, drag you into the light, and watch those you wasted your hopes and affections upon tear you apart.” The vicious redhead grabbed a fist full of Carina’s hair and yanked the half-blood’s gaze upwards.
“It doesn’t matter how many times Veles resets the clock; you will never win,” Sophya growled in an unfamiliar voice. “Even if you manage to wake up this time, it won’t be soon enough. The next dragon already belongs to me, and I will use his power to rip out your heart and crush you for good.”
The moon flickered behind Maura’s half-sister, whose scarlet hair blackened and appeared to smolder. “Then, I shall be reborn, and the gods that stood against me will taste my vengeance.”
‘What-what was she talking about?’
The men lifted Carina to her feet as Sophya stepped closer, her vibrant scarlet curls restored. “Kiss Lincoln for me then, sweet Maura. He waits for you in the pits of damnation.”
“You would curse your own brother?” Carina choked out past the constricting grip of the collar.
“Brother?” Sophya laughed, and her teeth resembled the fangs of a hungry devil. “Oh, poor, sweet, naive Carina,” You may have many names—but I have many faces.”
The clouds above them scattered as the moon spilled its cold light across the harsh, snow-covered landscape. Beneath its ethereal glow, Sophya’s face shifted. Her curls smoothed out into flat, dry scraps of hair that barely covered her scalp. Her forest-green eyes darkened into soulless black orbs that glistened with the undying flames of hatred. Even her scarlet lips thinned as they formed a vicious, cracked smile that spread to reveal hellish teeth. “Do you see me now, Carina?”
Cold arms wrapped around Carina’s chest and hugged her tightly. Their translucent appearance snapped Carina’s gaze from the nightmare before her to the pale specter at her back. “Maura?”
The ghost’s grip tightened as her haunted eyes mirrored the soulless gaze of the demonic woman before them. Maura’s lips curled into a fiendish smile as black blood dripped from the corner of her mouth down upon Carina’s neck. “What right did you have to steal my life? It should have been me they praised and loved.” The ghost’s bitter whisper rose into a painful shriek as her crushing arms bruised Carina’s ribs and lungs. “Why did I have to suffer and die a slave—while you almost became a Queen?”
Maura’s accusations raked against Carina’s ears as she shut her eyes, unable to break free as the devil woman who possessed Sophya’s body laughed.
“I have to admit, it was interesting to see how much you changed after your last life,” the ghoulish woman taunted. “But whether Kirsi, Carina, or poor little Maura, your fate cannot be changed.” The woman leaned in closer. Her bottomless black eyes pulled at the frozen heart that thudded heavily against Carina’s chest as if desperate to break free. “This time, just as before, you will die—and Viktor will die with you,” The woman promised, then continued to laugh manically as she stepped aside.
Maura vanished as mortal hands gripped Carina’s arms tighter and dragged her towards the burning pyre and its hellish flames.
“Nothing you do will spare the mortals from what’s to come, little witch,” Sophya hissed. “But if it makes you feel better, I can make one or two of their deaths quick and painless. So go back to sleep and do not resist your fate.”
“What fate? Maura’s? I don’t understand! Wait!” Carina shouted as she strained against the men dragging her closer to the fire.
“Wake up, child.”
Carina grit her teeth as she struggled to connect with her cold magic. It pulsed chaotically beneath her skin, unable to break free as the collar around her throat shrank in size until Carina could barely breathe.
“Wake up, foolish ice witch!”
As the flames of the pyre flicked greedily against the hem of Carina’s burial gown, the familiar sensation of Maura’s death flooded through her, and the frozen heart inside Carina’s chest shattered. Its magic burned through her garments and snapped the metal choker around her neck as power clawed free from her rigid, falling body and launched towards the pyre in a wave of howling ice that engulfed flame, wood, and man and left Carina kneeling in a field of bloody snow.
“I am waiting for you, Daughter of Frost. It’s time to wake up.”
The distant sound of muffled, arguing voices pulled Carina from the quickly fading nightmare. The cold hard surface beneath her fingers and back snapped her eyes open as her aching lungs sucked in a shallow breath. A dark vaulted ceiling loomed far above her covered in carvings of images and shapes she did not understand, their etchings illuminated by the torches that circled a large oval room.
“I assure you, Cousin, Lady Maura is perfectly fine. This much was to be expected since it is her first time entering Anthraticus. You endured the same dream as a child, just as we all did. You know it won’t harm her physically.”
The familiar female voice pulled Carina’s attention to her left, where two women stood facing Percy, each of them focused on a small table that held an open book, several strange glowing stones, and a basin filled with a dark liquid.
“She should be waking up any minute now—” Serilda turned towards Carina and smiled. “Ah, what did I tell you, Cousin. Lady Maura has returned safe and sound.”
“Maura,” Percy circled the Marchioness and the other strangely familiar woman as he rushed to her side. “I must apologize—Seri should have asked your permission before pushing you in like this.”
‘Pushing me in? Into that nightmare?’
“What-what’s going on—where am I?” Carina mumbled, still disoriented as she rolled over and took in the stone altar beneath her, covered in a dense layer of frost. “What is this place?” Her voice sounded feeble and afraid, but Carina little cared, still haunted by the visions of the nightmare she had just escaped.
‘What-what was that? And just what the hell is going on?’
“You are in Anthraticus, Lady Maura,” answered the second woman as she moved closer to the altar and removed her hood. “A series of labyrinths and tunnels that stretches far and wide beneath Lafeara’s capital. It is an ancient, secret place of safety and sanctuary for witches. The entrances are locked with magic, and the paths themselves enchanted to lead astray any unfortunate mortals who happen to wander inside carelessly.”
The woman’s familiar dusk blue eyes focused in on Carina with a hint of trepidation. “However, nowadays, most doorways to Anthraticus are only accessible from the houses of Lafearian families with the oldest, purest witch bloodlines.” The woman turned and dipped her head respectfully to Percy, “Such as the Earl of Hawthorne.”
“Who—are you?” Carina asked as her gaze narrowed in the woman’s face that tugged at her memory strangely. “Have we met before?”
“Maura, this is Lady Mercy,” Percy explained. “Though I believe you know her as Abbess Mercy.”
‘No—what? The Abbess was much older than—’
“Yes, I have changed a bit since Lady Maura last saw me.” Mercy smiled at Carina’s confused expression. “You will find that magic is useful in a lot of ways once you master your connection to its power.”
“Which is why we brought you here, Lady Maura,” Serilda explained with an apologetic smile as she reached over and took Carina’s hand. “I am sorry for whatever disturbing dream you just went through. Anthraticus can have that effect on a witch who enters for the first time. The older you are, the more vivid the dream, but they do say these dreams contain visions of the past and future. They are considered gifts of warnings of wisdom from the immortal who rests at the labyrinth’s center.”
Carina shook her head slowly as she shifted her gaze from Serilda to Percy and then to Mercy and tried to soak in the information. “Okay. So you’re saying that you—are all witches?”
Mercy smirked while Serilda eagerly nodded her head. Percy gently took Carina’s shoulders and helped her to rise and sit comfortably.
“I told you that you were far from alone,” Percy whispered with the ghost of a smile as he brushed a lock of hair behind Carina’s ear. “There is a lot more for me to show you and infinitely more for you to learn, but time is not on our side.” He stepped back and held out his hand. “Come with me, Lady Maura. I will answer your questions as we walk.”
Carina sucked in her lip as she slid her frozen fingers across his hand and dropped down from the altar. Her loose ash-brown hair fell around her shoulders as the Winter Rose bounced against her chest. Carina reached towards it instinctively, even as the lingering whispers of the horrifying nightmare she had just escaped echoed in her ears.
‘You have many names—and I have many faces.’
Carina looked up at Percy’s familiar face as he tucked her hand around his arm and led her past Serilda and Mercy towards a dimly lit tunnel.
‘Who was the woman in my dream? How-why does she know my real name?’
She glanced up nervously as they passed beneath the stone archway. Earth walls painted with glowing runes flickered past as Percy continued forward confidently. A little further down the tunnel, the Earl paused and turned towards the wall as he pressed his signet ring against one of the runes. The stone wall evaporated, and another arched opening appeared. Carina blinked and glanced behind her as Mercy and Serilda followed, and the wall closed silently behind them.
‘A labyrinth with hidden walls?’ Carina shivered as the unnerving scent of earth pressed in around her and refocused her attention on Percy. “You said there are many of us? How many witches exactly?”
“Enough to make a difference in Lafeara’s future when the time is right,” Percy answered cryptically with a knowing smile.
Carina frowned at his vague answer and focused on the tunnel that widened around them. More side passages appeared along the walls that led off into meandering darkness. The path before them dipped and shifted into elegantly carved steps that led further down. Carina reached out to touch the runes that appeared at even intervals along the walls as they descended.
“What are these?” she asked, hoping for a more straightforward answer this time.
“What remains of the magic that formed this place a long time ago,” Percy explained as he pulled her hand away. “Old earth magic from one of the original covens that worshiped Minerva.”
“Minerva?” Carina whispered curiously.
Percy sighed as he dropped his hand to her waist and kept it there as they reached the bottom of the steps. “The history of Lafeara that my dear mother taught you is not, in fact, the true history of this kingdom’s origins.” He nodded to where the path ahead stopped before two giant green doors carved out of a dark purple stone Carina did not recognize. “The Countess would have happily kept me ignorant of this place, my family’s history, and our true birthright,” he added with unmasked bitterness.
The Earl released her waist and took Carina’s left hand in his as he pressed their palms against the crack between the two doors. “Repeat after me, Maura. Immortalitatis Potentia.”
“Im-Immortalitatis Potentia,” Carina echoed uncertainly. The light within her chest flared brightly, as did the crack between the doors, which groaned and moved inward.
Percy’s grip on her hand tightened as he lowered it to his side. Carina looked up towards his winter-grey eyes and wished she understood the eagerness behind his eager smile.
A yawning entrance loomed before them as a cold breeze swept over Carina and Percy. She blinked and reached out her hand in surprise as specs of snow appeared from the dark void and swirled around her outstretched fingers.
“Finally, you have come, my little ice witch.”
The frozen heart within Carina’s chest thudded loudly beneath the voice she recognized from her nightmare. She turned uncertainly towards Percy, whose expression shifted to one of determination as he extended his hand towards the frigid air. The Earl’s fingers froze, then his palm spread across an invisible surface as he sighed.
“Only those with winter in their veins can enter here.”
Carina pulled her hand from Percy’s. Her heartbeat quickened with strange delight as she glided effortlessly across the threshold and entered the room. The moment her feet touched the frost-covered stone floor on the other side, a soft blue light glowed from the etched snowflake beneath her shoes. The magic spread across the other engraved stone tiles—similar to the rose tiles in the secret passage beneath Rose Palace— that stretched throughout the giant space and illuminated the giant, monstrous form of the frozen dragon that slumbered before her.
“And so it begins.”