Interlude X: The Corruption of Power
After four days of strenuous training with Isleen, it was a man’s scream that jerked Tristan awake from the exhausting depths of sleep. He opened his eyes blearily, the shadowy dream of a moonlit path on Fogtooth mountain clinging to him like the nightly sweat of the desert.
Then another ear-splitting shriek of pain rippled through the palace, followed by a dim flare of light beneath the crack of Tristan’s door and a resounding crash.
Tristan ripped the sheets away and sat up. The moonlight faded as the door before him solidified, accompanied by the distant pounding of feet. The bastard prince grabbed his sword from the bedside chair as he lunged towards the door, barefoot and dressed only in his sleeping trousers. He almost collided with a servant in the hallway as he rushed out. The frightened man bobbed his shaved head quickly in apology and scampered off as Tristan dismissed him and continued towards the railings that overlooked the marble floor of the first floor below.
Servants flittered up and down, moving gradually away from the front of the palace. All of them tensed and whispered as another agonizing scream echoed through the hall. With muttered words that might have been prayers or curses, the slaves turned and vanished into the unlit corridors.
‘They’re running away,’ Tristan realized, baffled. Even through the distorted chords of pain, Tristan recognized Farrell’s voice in the distant sob that followed. ‘Why aren’t they rushing to help their Master?’
The bastard prince leapt over the balcony, cushioning his fall with a wave of fire magic that startled those who lingered by the walls. The palace men and women quivered as they bowed and retreated from him. ‘They reek of fear.’ Tristan snorted in disbelief as he sprinted down the hall, his mind still struggling to make sense of the chaos that had woken him from his sleep.
‘Why is Farrell screaming? Did something happen at Aurelia’s palace?’
He skidded to a halt as a wave of flames engulfed the palace walls in the entry foyer before him.
“Farrell!” Isleen’s desperate cry followed the potent magic as it rolled back like a tide pulled towards its source. “Farrell, stop—you have to let me—”
A second wave of flames billowed out like a storm and muffled Farrell’s strangled voice, grunting like an animal in pain. Tristan hesitated, but only long enough to allow the surge of magic to retreat before he sprinted around the corner.
Isleen lowered the arm she had used to shield her face before returning to Farrell’s side. The prince consort was on his hands and knees, panting with effort. Dried blood flowed from his ears, nostril, and the corner of his mouth that sagged open with an inhuman cry of pain.
“Farrell!” Tristan rushed towards his trembling guardian. Anger and panic rippled through the bastard prince’s gut as he set down his sword and reached for the prince consort’s shoulders.
“No!” Isleen shoved Tristan off balance onto the floor with the same force she used in the arena. “Don’t touch him! He—”
Her brother’s scream cut off Isleen’s warning as the crown prince’s body surged with magic that erupted in another inferno of flames. The torment of Farrell’s cry raked through Tristan’s body, mind, and soul, inflicting more damage than the prince consort’s chaotic flames ever could.
“What is going on?” Tristan shouted desperately the moment the room had cleared of the torrential fire. “Is it poison?”
“No,” Isleen replied, her voice breaking and distraught as she supported Farrell, who turned, clutching his stomach, then vomited blood onto the floor. “Brother, you have to let me help you. Please!”
‘Isleen is afraid,’ Tristan realized as his eyes danced between two powerful pure bloods that he had anticipated fighting only two days from now. ‘I still don’t know if I can beat either of them. And now Farrell is like this. What is going on? What is Isleen afraid of?’
Farrell’s ebony eyes were glazed and rimmed with pain as he raised a trembling hand towards the bastard prince. Tristan caught the clammy palm, ignoring the vomit and blood streaked across it as he focused on the prince consort’s painful struggle to speak.
“Pellis—Worms—” Farrell choked off as his face contorted, then he ripped his hands from Tristan and Isleen to grab his head with a shriek of pain.
Tristan watched in numb disbelief as his guardian injected a blast of heat directly into his skull.
“No!” Isleen yanked Farrell’s hands away from his head and pushed him back on the floor beside Tristan. “Tristan, hold him down!”
Tristan blinked uncomprehendingly but followed Isleen’s desperate instructions as the pure blood straddled her brother and placed her palms against his chest. The golden-red hue of her magic bathed Farrell’s body in a blanket of flames. The prince consort thrashed beneath Tristan’s grip as more blood flowed from the screaming man’s ears onto the floor.
“There are pellis sandworms inside his—inside him,” Isleen whispered hoarsely as she continued to channel her magic up Farrell’s neck and into his head. The magic pulsed behind her brother’s eyes and flowed through his ears, gasping mouth, and nose. “Pellis worms attack the brain,” Isleen continued, her words and gaze focused on her brother, but filled with uncertainty and fear. “They are impossibly small and resistant to anything but pure-blood fire. But even then—”
Farrell bucked with a savage scream that nearly knocked his sister onto the floor.
“What do we do?” Tristan asked, his stomach turning at the thought of some invading, invisible worm eating away at his friend’s mind. “How do we remove them?”
“They are weak to extreme heat and cold. I can burn them away,” Isleen answered as she lifted her hands from Farrell’s chest and pressed them against her brother’s cheeks just above his ears. “I just don’t know—if it will be enough.”
Tristan exhaled sharply as another storm of Farrell’s flames engulfed them both. He refocused on Isleen’s face as the tears on her cheeks dried away beneath the chaotic magic. “Does-does he have to be conscious for this?” As much as Tristan loathed the idea of attacking his guardian, he would happily knock out the crown prince if it would ease his misery—at least for a short while.
Isleen’s midnight black eyes flew towards Tristan a moment before her otherwise composed face crumpled into an expression of hopeless agony. “That is the curse of the pellis sandworm. By the time the victim falls unconscious—it is already too late.”
Tristan swallowed back an angry protest as Isleen sucked in a ragged breath and focused on Farrell’s face, which she held in her hands. Tristan watched her channel wave after wave of pure magic into her brother’s skull. He stared at the dry blood smeared across the floor, pooled around Farrell’s ears, and wondered what desert horror lurked within its crimson surface.
Minutes stretched into hours, and still, Farrell remained conscious, thrashing, screaming, begging Isleen to save him one minute—then kill him and end his torment the next. Isleen grew paler as her magic reserve’s drained at an increasing rate.
Eventually, Farrell stopped fighting against Tristan’s grip, but his eyes remained open, their gaze locked on something beyond his sister’s haggard figure. Tristan didn’t ask what Farrell’s sudden stillness meant—he didn’t want to hear the answer written upon Isleen’s face.
The bastard prince looked away from the siblings as rage and frustration welled up inside him. As he drew in a shaky breath, Tristan caught sight of a servant lingering in the corner of the palace and turned towards them. “You there—fetch some Caligo wine! And some Tears of the Sun while you’re at it.”
The servant boy squeaked in terror but managed what might have been a nod of acknowledgment before he scampered off. Tristan didn’t have time to worry about whether the servant would return because the palace doors flew open as Duke Tyrrell stormed inside, followed by a woman dressed as a High Priestess of Kritanta.
“Father!” Isleen cried out. Relief and exhaustion quivered through her words as her shoulders slumped. “I’ve removed most of the pellis—but I don’t—there could still be more.”
Tyrrell nodded as he reached past Tristan to cover Isleen’s hands with his own. “Show me,” he commanded, his voice steady and unshaken despite the danger both of his children faced.
“Isleen has used up too much of her magic,” Tristan protested. Isleen herself had warned him repeatedly on the dangers of a witch completely draining their magic. ‘She could die if she pushes herself any further!’
“Step aside, your Highness.” The High Priestess’s commanding voice and gentle touch on Tristan’s shoulder turned him towards her. The bastard prince nodded silently. He watched in tense confusion as the High Priestess moved behind Isleen and Farrell, placing her hands on Isleen’s back.
A surge of white-gold magic flowed from the High Priestess into Isleen, giving the pure-blood strength to continue her fight to save Farrell. Tristan’s jaw slackened as he stared at the color of the Priestess’s magic, the same color as the Phoenix flame the bastard prince had inherited from his mother.
As if sensing his gaze, the High Priestess opened her amber eyes, turned towards Tristan, and bowed her head—as if in acknowledgment.
Farrell’s head suddenly lurched up from the marble floor with a strangled cry. His body shook, even under Isleen’s weight, as Tyrrell grabbed his son’s shoulders.
“Farrell! Farrell, can you hear me?” The Duke shouted as Isleen scampered off her brother’s chest.
“Turn-turn him over, Father. He can’t breathe!”
Tristan edged closer as the Duke and Isleen rolled Farrell onto his side. The prince consort vomited up clumps of dried blood mixed with whatever dinner he had eaten before drawing in a ragged breath of air.
“Oh, thank, Kritanta!” Isleen whispered as she dropped her forehead against her brother’s shoulder.
“The Prince Consort needs rest,” the High Priestess murmured as she drew back from the huddled family.
“Not before I get answers!” the Duke retorted furiously. “Farrell, who did this to you?”
Farrell’s swollen eyes flickered about the room in confusion before he whispered a hoarse reply, “Where is—Marco?”
“What?” Tyrrell’s voice cracked with irritation as he edged around Farrell’s body to look directly at his son. “Farrell, I need you to focus. Who did this to you? Was it the princess? The Empress?”
“Father!” Isleen protested.
The servant Tristan had sent away for wine returned and hastily bowed to the Duke before he set the bottles upon the floor beside his Master. Farrell grabbed the Caligo wine and ripped the cork away with his teeth before he dumped most of the liquid across his neck and cheek as he struggled to sit and drink in the same motion.
“Farrell!” The Duke snatched the bottle of wine and hurled it across the room, where it crashed against a chair. Then he grabbed his son’s face and repeated firmly, “Who put those pellis sandworms in your head?”
Farrell snorted and laughed before his voice, more broken and tormented than the screams that had woken Tristan from his sleep, replied in a mocking tone, “You already know—Father.”
The Duke’s hands fell away from his son’s face as Farrell rolled over, pushing Isleen aside as he rose unsteadily to his feet.
Isleen stood up quickly beside him and took her brother’s arm. “Farrell—”
The prince consort shoved her away, nearly falling over in the process, as his reddened, swollen eyes glared into her with a burning accusation. “Am I still—exaggerating, Sister? Now that pellis worms have eaten my brain. Perhaps I am crazy for thinking my wife—your dear friend—wants to kill me?”
Guilt and painful comprehension flickered across Isleen’s crumpling expression as her eyes dropped from her swaying brother to the floor.
“I will inform the Emperor,” Duke Tyrrell announced grimly. “I will ensure this matter is investigated and—”
“You will do nothing!” Farrell roared and swayed. The High Priestess caught prince consort around the waist as his knees buckled. Still clinging to consciousness out of sheer will, Farrell raised his deadened gaze to the silent Duke. “You will all do nothing—as you have always done—I will get—my revenge.”
The High Priestess sagged under the prince consort’s weight as Farrell’s slumped against her, his bloody cheek trailing dried blood down her waist. Tristan stepped forward quickly and relieved the Priestess of her burden. He ignored the stench of blood, sweat, and vomit as he hefted Farrell’s tall body awkwardly in his arms and carried his guardian upstairs towards his room.
The servants scampered away before him as Tristan moved blindly towards the steps. Anger burned at his core, but for once, the dragon remained oddly calm.
When none of the servants dared approach to open their Master’s bedroom door, Tristan kicked his way in. The force of his blow ripped the door from its hinges as the desert palm wood splintered against the opposite wall, knocking over a statue of Kritanta that stood before a window.
The crash shook Tristan from his anger, and he drew in a deep breath to steady himself. The fury he felt was not Kritanta’s magic or the dragon’s greed for chaos; this was his own anger burning away at him.
‘Aurelia may be my half-sister, but if she truly did this to Farrell—she is a monster.’
‘So are you!’ his conscience hissed back.
‘So is this entire bloody family!’
Tristan carried Farrell over to the neatly made bed and eased the crown prince down upon the silk sheets. He looked up with mixed relief and uncertainty as the High Priestess appeared, followed by a few servants who carried in bowls of water and stacks of cloth.
“They are afraid of the pellis sandworm,” the High Priestess observed as the servants quickly set the items down and then fled. “If even one worm entered their body, they would perish. Do not blame them, Prince. They are mortal.”
“Aren’t we all?” Tristan growled as he watched the Priestess removed her outer robe, fold it, and lay it upon Farrell’s neat and tidy desk.
“Some more than others,” the Priestess replied with what might have been an amused smile. “Will you assist me in bathing the prince consort? He would rest more comfortably in a clean pair of clothes.”
Tristan blinked but nodded at her request.
“Then please,” the Priestess gestured towards Farrell’s unconscious figure.
With effort and meticulous care, Tristan stripped Farrell from his filthy, singed, and tattered garments. Once the prince consort was relieved of his clothes, the High Priestess and Tristan washed him down with scented oil and water.
As they continued this tedious task, Tristan felt the Priestess’s gaze settle upon him more than once. The memory of her flames, which so closely resembled his mother’s, burned through him, but Tristan held his tongue.
The High Priests and Priestess who served Kritanta also served the Emperor. Despite every blessing they had given him, Tristan held little trust in Arius—or Kritanta.
“You have come a long way in your training,” the Priestess observed quietly as she withdrew to allow Tristan to redress his unconscious friend. “The Emperor will be pleased.”
Tristan grunted in response. He little cared for Arius’s approval and held even less hope that he would one day control the dragon that lurked inside him. Tristan’s reason for living lay solely in finding out the reason behind his mother’s death and avenging her.
“Kritanta will also be pleased.”
The bastard prince tensed, then slid Farrell’s arm through the thin cotton sleeve of his shirt.
“While I am here, I have a message for you from the Goddess of Death.”
Tristan glanced back at the High Priestess with wary annoyance. “What makes you think I need a Priestess to deliver a message from Kritanta?”
“If you would prefer to speak to her directly, you know what is required, Consort.”
Tristan clenched his jaw as a wave of nausea washed over him. He had not reached out to Kritanta since his oath. The memory of their pact only filled him with a rush of disgust and fear. While he had recovered from his Ascension in Ventrayna, the High Priest of Kritanta’s temple had filled Tristan in on all that was required from Kritanta’s consort.
The idea that god and goddess slept with their consorts was not altogether unheard of, but it was not physical lust or desire Tristan had seen in Kritanta’s eyes. The look they had held when the goddess had stared at his new body was far more—carnivorous.
“Of course, the Goddess will likely hold off on demanding your—obedience in this matter until you have returned her frozen heart,” the Priest informed him comfortingly.
Tristan’s hand tightened around the prince consort’s wrists for a moment before he pulled the sheets over his friend’s unconscious figure. “Will he be alright?”
The Priestess’s expression softened as she regarded Farrell’s pale face. “It is hard to say. It would depend on how much time elapsed from the moment the worms entered his body to when Isleen began her care.”
Tristan clenched his eyes shut for a moment, then moved to drag a chair from beside Farrell’s closet over to the bed. He sat down and studied the High Priestess silently as he crossed his bare feet. “What does Kritanta want?”
A flicker of something Tristan recognized all too easily crossed the Priestess’s face. He had glimpsed that expression upon Dowager Octavia’s face one too many times. The look of someone who thought they could control him to gain more power.
“Kritanta is eager for you to return to Lafeara,” the Priestess informed him calmly. “Viktor has awoken from his slumber.”
“Viktor?” Tristan tilted his head, recalling the name from a book in Farrell’s library. “The dead god?”
“Not exactly dead and not exactly living,” the Priestess replied with a cryptic smile. “But his active presence can only mean one thing.”
“And what is that?” Tristan arched a brow, not at all interested in playing games.
“An Isbrand heir has returned to Lafeara,” the Priestess replied with a glimmer of longing.
“What does that have to do with me?” Tristan returned dismissively.
The Priestess’s brow twitched with evident irritation at his disrespectful tone. “You have sworn to find and return Kritanta’s heart. Who better to hide the heart of a god than the remnants of his immortal ice witch coven?”
Tristan nodded slowly, even as his thoughts turned to Nero and the Witch Star.
‘So it wasn’t Mother’s necklace. Then again, I suppose it doesn’t make sense for a jewel to be the heart of a god. Perhaps I only wanted to believe there was some deeper reason for her death.’
The bastard prince sighed and crossed his tired arms across his bare torso. “So, who and where is this Isbrand heir?”
The High Priestess smiled as she turned to retrieve her robe from Farrell’s desk. “The Isbrand witch has hidden herself quite cleverly amongst the nobles inside Lafeara’s palace.”
“Herself?” Tristan blinked as Maura’s pale, distraught face, illuminated by the strange blue light from her chest, surfaced in his memories.
“A half-blood by the name of Lady Maura,” the Priestess replied, confirming his fears. “Others have become aware of her presence, so you will need to act quickly to secure Viktor’s heart.”
‘Viktor’s heart?’ Tristan lowered his gaze as the Priestess turned to face him. He ran a hand through his disheveled curls as his mind rapidly connected the information she had given him.
‘A dead god. Viktor’s heart. Kritanta took her second heart from him. Viktor was the god of ice—Maura is an ice witch. Shit.’
“Be wary when you face her,” the Priestess advised. “The Isbrand witch is more formidable than she appears.”
“What do you mean?” Tristan asked as he raised his gaze.
“Only that you must tread carefully,” the Priestess replied with a note of obvious concern. “Our Goddess may have blessed you, but the Isbrand witch possesses the beating heart of a god. Should she learn to wield its powers fully—” a flicker of something that might have been fear trembled in the woman’s voice as her eyes narrowed, “—the danger and risk that stands between you and your goal will be greater, and we may face a more terrible power than that of the Isbrand witch.”
“Speak plainly,” Tristan growled as he leaned towards the Priestess. “What terrible power?”
With a flourish of her arms, the Priestess pulled on her robes and smoothed out the scarlet silk fabric of Kritanta’s sacred order. “An ungodly power that would instantly topple this kingdom your father paid so much to build,” she replied with a note of foreboding. “The awakening of a Saint.”