Chapter 32: The Price of Immortality
Percy paced on the other side of the cold, obstructing barrier, feeling more uneasy with each passing moment. Not only did the enchantments that surrounded the entrance to this room prevent him from seeing inside, but he also couldn’t hear anything from within either. And yet, Maura had walked through effortlessly.
‘I should have held onto her hand tighter. Then I might have been able to enter with her.’
“I still can’t believe it,” Serilda whispered behind him, rubbing her arms against the cold that seemed to emit from the dark gaping void between the two doors. “We finally opened the immortal’s tomb, and Maura actually walked inside!”
“Can you sense anything inside? Has anything changed?” Percy asked as he glared at the barrier and then pressed his fingers against its invisible surface. Bone biting cold repelled his efforts once more, and he let out a hiss of frustration. “Seri?”
“Just the same magical presence that led me here years ago,” Serilda replied with a shrug. “The same higher power I sense in Lady Maura as well. She was destined to come here. I knew it!” Her exclamation trailed off into a whisper as she gazed into the dark void before them, entranced.
“You two and those silly old witch tales?” Mercy scoffed from her seat on the steps behind them. “You really think an Immortal is buried here—a dead one at that?”
“Not just any immortal, Mercy. I believe it’s Viktor—” Serilda breathed with glittering eyes “—the God of Frost and Immortality.”
“In a labyrinth built by earth witches?” Mercy repudiated in a dry tone.
“This barrier wasn’t made from earth enchantments,” Percy growled as he rapped his knuckles against the concrete, cold air. “Perhaps the earth witches built the tunnels after finding this tomb.”
“With this much latent magic in one room, the earth mages could draw power from such a source to enchant the entire realm of Anthraticus—with the Viktor’s permission, of course,” Serilda eagerly agreed.
Mercy sighed as she stood and stretched her back. “Well, whoever made it, you just sent an untrained witch inside with no warning or preparations, King Percy.”
Percy flinched at the accusation in her voice and clenched his fists silently.
‘Even I didn’t expect Maura to get through a barrier the entire coven couldn’t break on the first try.’
“Lady Maura will be fine,” Serilda assured him with a gentle pat on his shoulder. “But—I don’t understand—how she obtained such power with her parentage. You said her mother was a mortal?”
Percy nodded stiffly. “Mercy herself can attest to that better than I. She was there when Maura was conceived and born.”
“Conceived?” Serilda echoed as she turned towards Mercy.
“I may have—nudged Lady Helena towards a certain undisclosed witch festival masked as a party for nobles—but only because Veles suggested it.” Mercy grimaced at the memory.
“Veles spoke to you?” Serilda whispered with apparent shock as her head swiveled back to Percy. “And you as well, didn’t he, Cousin.”
“Both times in regard to Percy’s little ice witch,” Mercy muttered with a hint of annoyance. “Anyway, I could not foresee what Veles had planned at the time. I assumed she might become a sacrifice or some form of entertainment. It wasn’t until Lady Helena came running to my chapel a few days later, after nearly being caught up in a witch hunt, that I realized what Veles plans had conceived.” She snorted. “To think such an honor would be wasted on a quivering, useless mortal.”
“Veles sees both past and future. I’m sure he thought it best,” Serilda murmured, still looking dazed by this new revelation.
“And yet Veles let Lord Emmett, the last pure-blood of the Isbrand line, perish by that cursed blood’s hand,” Mercy observed darkly.
“Lord Emmett refused the sanctuary our Coven offered him,” Serilda retorted with a snort. “I remember my father’s anger with him quite well. Emmett would only accept our protection if we promised to make him King of Lafeara and the Covens. At least with Percy as our King, the Covens can expect fair treatment.”
“If Percy can make Maura his Queen,” Mercy pointed out doubtfully.
“Are you questioning my loyalty to Veles and the Covens?” Percy challenged, his expression darkened as winter-grey eyes narrowed on Mercy, and the air around them hissed with his displeasure.
“I just wonder if it is your future crown or Maura’s heart you desire most,” Mercy replied with a nonchalant shrug.
“Does one come without the other?” Percy growled. “I think you are simply jealous, Mercy, that such a young, untested witch will soon hold more power than your cannibalistic sacrifices could ever yield in a thousand years.”
“Have a care, King Percy,” Mercy hissed back venomously. “Your young ice witch isn’t a Queen yet.”
“Is that a threat?” A crimson light pooled behind Percy’s narrowing pupils, and Mercy stiffened in shock. Then, just as suddenly as the red glow appeared, it vanished as the Earl turned towards the tomb’s entrance and caught Maura’s extended arm. The ice witch stepped through the portal of darkness with a ghostly breath that matched her pale complexion and dazed expression.
“Maura,” Percy murmured anxiously as he stepped forward to examine her and the pale white arm he held. “You-you’re ice cold.”
Maura blinked stiffly; her lashes layered in the same frost that coated her skin and clothes. Her purple lips let out another breath of cold air as those ice-blue eyes raised towards him with a distant, guarded expression. “Maura?” Percy touched her cheek carefully and stared at the pattern of ivy-frost that coated her skin. “Can you hear me? What happened? Are you alright?”
“What did you see? Was there anyone in there?” Serilda whispered eagerly as she pressed up close beside them. “Veles breath—she’s almost frozen to death.”
Maura turned her gaze from Percy to Serilda and replied in a tone tinged with unexpected pain, “There’s—a dead dragon.”
Percy glanced down at Maura’s shivering figure. The dark blue color of her fingernails sent a shiver down his spine, and he wondered, briefly, if any other witch would have survived entering the ancient tomb. The Earl shook the thought away as he ripped off his jacket and slid Maura’s frozen arms through the long sleeves. Serilda handed over her cloak, and Percy layered it over his coat, securely covering the trembling witch inside.
As Percy pulled the hood over Maura’s frost-covered hair, he saw a glimmer of frost on the Winter Rose that hung stiffly around her neck. He blinked, and the symbol he had seen glowing inside the diamond vanished.
“Percy?” Serilda whispered, rubbing and blowing onto one of Carina’s hands gently.
“Let’s get her back to Hawthrone Manor and warm,” Percy replied as he took Maura’s other hand—her ice-cold hand—and led her back down the tunnel.
Maura offered no resistance as Percy and Serilda guided her back through the passages of Anthraticus. Her brows remained pinched together, her gaze distant, and her feet unsteady as she trailed slowly behind them. After she almost tripped for the second time over her own two feet, Percy scooped her up and increased his pace towards the secret exit that led out to the bathhouse of Hawthorne Manor.
Only after they wrapped Maura in blankets and set her before the fire in Percy’s study did her face, nose, and lips finally lose their purple chill. A warm bowl of soup brought in by Russell soon brought the glow of the living back to Maura’s pale cheeks once more as Mercy took her leave to deal with Coven matters.
Percy took the seat across from Maura, nervously tracing his signet ring as he studied the Winter Rose, which glimmered in the firelight. The suspicious symbol he had seen earlier was no longer visible. ‘It might have just been the frost Maura was covered with and a trick of the light.’ Although the signet ring assured him the Winter Rose’s enchantments were still active, Percy felt uneasy. ‘She mentioned a dragon—is it possible she met Viktor himself?’
Maura sipped the steaming spiced potato soup in complete silence as she stared into the flames. Her face was so devoid of emotion that she hardly seemed aware of her surroundings at all. Only the occasional tremor in her grip as Maura raised the spoon to her mouth revealed her troubled state of mind.
‘What did you see, Maura?’ Percy wanted desperately to ask—and yet the words remained locked deep in his throat.
Serilda glanced between them with evident impatiences. The Marchioness opened her mouth more than once to voice the questions they were all thinking, but Percy shut her down with a warning scowl each time. Only after Maura set aside the finished bowl and Percy appeared distracted in his own thoughts did Serilda finally blurt out, “Well—tell us! We’re dying to know what you found in there?”
Maura sighed as she tucked her hands inside the blanket. “I told you already. There was a dead dragon. I—didn’t notice much else.”
“Really?” Serilda’s voice sounded crestfallen. “So it was just an old tomb? How big was the dragon? Were there any tomes, artifacts, relics, or books of any kind?”
Maura turned her gaze from Serilda to Percy and shook her head. “Just a massive, frozen dragon.”
“Viktor,” Percy murmured, and Maura’s attention snapped towards him.
“Viktor?” she repeated with cautious curiosity.
‘Right, she still lacks the basic knowledge of Witch History.’
Percy smiled as he lifted the finger with his signet ring and sealed the room from outside ears with a small gesture. “Viktor is one of the ancient dragons. Immortals or Gods, some call them. They are the source of magic itself, the origins of the original witches and the first covens.”
“If he’s a god and an immortal—how did he die?” Maura asked hesitantly.
“Who says he’s dead?” Serilda retorted with a snort. “If what you saw was indeed Viktor—that room is the source of the magic that keeps Anthraticus from crumbling into dust. Magic cannot come from a dead thing. You must learn to think outside the limits of what you perceive is normal, Maura. Life and death are not as simple as most mortals believe it is.”
“There are some who believe Viktor sleeps,” Percy interjected as he laced his fingers together thoughtfully. “Because Viktor is an immortal being, he cannot die, but he cannot reincarnate either without his missing heart.”
“Reincarnate?” Maura echoed breathlessly.
Percy narrowed his eyes at the strange eagerness that filled her icy-blue gaze but answered, “Yes. It is something unique to the immortals and dragons. What many consider dying is but a cycle of transformation that allows them to be reborn through magic.”
“It’s how they shed the physical vessel that ties them to our physical plane and transfer to a new one,” Serilda explained. “Or at least, that’s what the ancient records of Anthraticus’s archives tell us.”
“There are five dragon gods recorded in history,” Percy explained. “Veles, the God of Air. Also known as the God of Knowledge and Discord. He is the source of magic for all air witches, such as our great families.” He nodded to Serilda. “And the three Covens which most of the witches in Lafeara belong to.”
“Minerva, the Goddess of Earth. Goddess of War and Prosperity,” Serilda continued. “Is worshiped by the Tharyn kingdom whose witches guard her temple deep in the mountains. Tharyn is the native domain of earth witches, naturally.”
“Arachne, Goddess of Water.” Percy crossed his legs with a grimace. “Goddess of Dark Secrets and Wealth.”
“Strugna is where most of the water covens reside,” Serilda happily supplied. “They had their own civil war a few years back. Eradicated those detestable mortals, the Glennis royal family, that the last Saint placed over them and set their own Coven Witch Queen on the throne.”
“There are two Witch Queens, one in Tharyn and one in Strugna,” Percy explained. “And one Witch Emperor they both fear, Arius.”
“We have our own Witch King,” Serilda replied with a smile of pride. “And perhaps Lafeara will even have a Witch Queen too in the future.”
“Viktor was the God of Ice and Immortality,” Percy interrupted quickly. “Though now he is called the Forgotten God. He was cast from the gods’ domain by Kritanta when she stole his heart.”
Serilda scoffed, “There are many who say it was Kritanta’s greed for power that doomed the gods and the old ways. The slaughter she brought upon mortal and witch alike after stealing Viktor’s power—brought about the arrival of the first Saint.”
“Kritanta?” Maura echoed with a hint of pain.
“Goddess of Fire,” Serilda whispered. “And—after she consumed Viktor’s heart—Goddess of Ice.”
“The only immortal to slay another immortal,” Percy muttered darkly. “Goddess of Death and Destruction. Emperor Arius owes his power and allegiance to her, as does the entire witch nation of Ventrayna.”
“And yet—she has not been reborn since Viktor’s defeat.” Serilda sighed as she sat on the armrest beside her cousin. “Her downfall was the ultimate proof that power always comes at a cost.”
“How—was Viktor defeated?” Maura asked as she stared between them, caught up in the history she had long been ignorant of.
“Well, there are a few differing records on that account,” Serilda answered sheepishly. “So it depends on which coven you ask.”
“Each nation’s archive records a slightly different version of events,” Percy explained. “Strugna’s witches say Kritanta fell in love with Viktor, and when he refused to love her back, she took his heart by force. They also claim Viktor was enamored by their goddess Arachne, so not many outside the Water Covens believe this story.”
“Arachne is depicted as a nightmare that lives in the deep,” Serilda whispered ominously. “Kind of hard to imagine anyone falling in love with her—or Kritanta for that matter.”
“The Tharyn witches believe Kritanta fell in love with a pureblood that was stolen from her by Viktor. So she killed the pureblood for rejecting her and ripped out Viktor’s heart in revenge,” Percy continued with a faint shrug. “Meanwhile, the Ventraynian’s say Kritanta merely hungered for power to rise above the other gods, so she took Viktor’s heart and the Immortal power inside of it to make herself truly indestructible.”
“But,” Serilda smiled down at Percy as she sat on his armrest and slid an arm casually around his neck. “We believe the version of events recorded in the stolen scrolls from the Church’s archives.”
“From the Church?” Carina echoed in disbelief.
“It’s the only explanation that shares consistencies with all the others—and makes sense according to history as we know it,” Percy replied with a twisted smile. “Which might explain why it was locked in the most sacred room of the old Pope’s palace, a place no witch was ever meant to enter.”
“What did it say?” Maura asked, already leaning forward eagerly to listen.
‘It’s good that you’re eager to learn, Maura. There is a lot of knowledge left for you to uncover.’ Percy smiled and turned his attention to Serilda with a nod of approval.
“It is an old legend, one the church will deny until its dying breath, which only makes us believe it holds the truth,” Serilda whispered dramatically. “According to this forbidden record, there was a sixth immortal. A dragon-god who controlled lightning magic.”
“Nothing else is known about them,” Percy added cautiously. “They have no coven, no alters, or archives, nor is there any other record that supports they ever existed—save one.”
“The origin of the Saint,” Serilda finished with a wave of her hand towards the fire, which roared energetically then resumed its lazy crackle.
Maura glanced between them with large child-like eyes as her expression grew more focused. “So, you’re saying—there are Six gods?”
“Well, in simple terms, yes. Possibly.” Serilda shrugged. “This unknown lightning god may have been the spark that set Kritanta and Viktor against each other. They may also have been the first Saint—or they made the first saint.”
The Marchioness shrugged and flicked her dark chestnut hair over her shoulder as she continued. “The record wasn’t exactly in the best condition after the fall of old Zarus, so some translation is a bit difficult to pinpoint. An air witch who traveled to Ventrayna to record the destruction of the Emperor’s war managed to record a secret copy of it while the document was being transferred to Arius. He brought that copy back to our archives for safekeeping. We can assert from this document and all the other records that Kritanta stole Viktor’s heart and stole his powers. Only then, a few centuries later, Viktor’s heart was stolen from Kritanta, and she became cursed.”
“Cursed?” Maura echoed.
“She cannot be reborn,” Percy explained. “Until Kritanta holds both hearts again—she is locked inside the same rotting physical shell. That is the curse—according to the legend.”
“Kritanta was someone who enjoyed the affection and attention of many witch consorts—though she would only sleep with the purest—or most powerful—among them.” Serilda shivered as she rose from the chair and stretched before the fire. “In any case, her mortal shell was not immune to the passage of time and soon began to rot. That’s when Kritanta stopped taking consorts and started hunting ice witches to prolong her longevity.”
“And the Fire covens grew fractured under her chaotic leadership while the ice witches nearly became extinct,” Percy supplied as he stared into the fire.
“Extinct? Why?” Maura interjected quickly. “Why would Kritanta hunt them? For revenge?”
“This—is an old tradition—which is considered—barbaric and taboo now to most Covens,” Serilda explained solemnly. “But, it is widely known and accepted that consuming an ice witch’s heart can prolong a witch’s life by at least five hundred years.”
“Thankfully, it does not have that effect on mortals,” Percy added with a hint of sympathy. “With the exception of the Saint’s bloodline. The church has gone to war more than once to capture and slaughter ice witches in order to prolong the life of their Divine Heir. Even Pope Jericho—”
Percy stammered to a halt as he took in the horror written upon Maura’s face. He clenched the armrest of his chair tightly to restrain the sudden desire to wrap her in his arms and promise Maura anything to make her feel safe and assured.
But after Mercy’s earlier observations, Percy knew he needed to be careful how much of his true emotions he revealed to the other Coven leaders, his own cousin among them.
“Your father, for example,” Serilda continued, seeming to have missed her cousin’s hesitation. “Was nearly 347 years old when the Witch Hunter’s trapped and killed him. His heart was presented to Jericho, the last Pope of Zarus, to prolong the sickly Pope’s life.”
Maura’s rigid expression turned a shade paler as she blinked slowly, seemingly without breathing, swallowed, and then croaked out softly, “What?”
“Oh—” Serilda glanced guiltily towards Percy and offered a weak apologetic smile. “Sorry—too much?”