Chapter 33: Of Rage and Hunger
The back of Carina’s skull felt as if it had been stretched and scraped into the shape of a clanging tambourine. The single-horned viper who held the imprisoned ice witch in its mouth appeared to derive some sick enjoyment from flinging the frozen egg-shaped barrier against any solid surface that got in its way. Not long after escaping Percy and the Air Covens, they had entered an eerily similar system of tunnels that reminded the Duchess of the underground labyrinth of Anthraticus.
‘Just where the hell is it taking me?’ Carina wondered as another abrupt turn jarred her shoulder and tailbone.
“Taking us!” Kirsi corrected with stinging resentment. “Nowhere good, I promise you. Now—will you let me out so I can rip this spineless worm to pieces!”
‘Only if you promise to relinquish your hold once we’re safe.’
“I grow tired of your petulant demands! I see no reason why we can’t share this body equally, especially when you have me doing all the heavy labor with regard to training you and keeping you alive!”
‘What benefits me benefits you, Kirsi.’
“Ha! You may be a piece of my soul—but you’re still just a small insignificant fragment—little more than an unwanted burden that’s been hung around my neck.”
Carina gritted her teeth as the second remnant shoved the frozen egg barrier down a tight hole. Unyielding ice grated against stone as the viper headbutted the egg until the rock cracked and gave. The passage opened beneath them, and the trapped ice witch spiraled downwards, bouncing off the bumpy, uneven, slopping terrain until the ice egg crashed into the solid flat surface below.
The dazed Duchess groaned as the egg rolled to a stop. She stared blankly at the damaged carved stone pavements that formed a road leading into the darkness. The soft glow of the frozen egg illuminated little of the cavern beyond a few feet of pavement around them. ‘This looks man-made—but what’s it doing this deep underground? Is this another witch coven hideout?’
“I think—I know,” Kirsi replied, her voice strangely quiet and reserved.
The single-horned viper wriggled down the hole in the ceiling and hissed in Carina’s direction before dropping to the ground beside the trapped ice witch. Its severed lower half was visible for a moment before it slithered out of view, leaving a trail of acidic black venom in its wake.
‘Was that thing—the other half of the two-horned viper the Air Coven ripped apart?’
The Duchess crawled cautiously to her knees, clutching her ringing skull as she blinked and searched the oblivion of shadows around the egg.
A dull booming peel rang through the tunnel, followed by a soft rumble that drew Carina’s gaze fearfully to the open ceiling above her. A flicker of light appeared in the form of thousands of neon green beetles that crawled and flew down the tunnel to gather around the imprisoned ice witch.
The single-horned viper returned and pushed the Duchess’s egg along the beetle-lit path to where a gaping chasm appeared. Carina took one look at the bottomless ravine below and felt her stomach clench in terror. The egg might keep her safe from external attacks, but it would not stop gravity or fall damage from such a height.
“Look, Carina, over there!” Kirsi prodded as the beetles took flight, lighting up the remains of the tattered, broken bridge that once transverse the ravine. “I knew it felt familiar.”
‘What is it? Where are we?’ Carina focused her attention on the glittering black roots that dangled over the opposite side of the ravine.
“A place lost to memory and time. The burial ground of the first Queen of Lafeara.”
The Duchess raised her gaze to where the glowing green beetles had gathered around the carved image of Kirsi’s snowflake sigil at the top of a man-made doorway.
‘I don’t understand—why bring us here? Is this remnant friend or foe?’
“Far from friendly, Carina,” Kirsi growled with surprising bitterness. “They—are the Unforgiven.”
‘They?’ The Duchess shivered in comprehension as the oily black roots slithered and wove themselves into a bridge for the single-horned viper to cross. The remnant picked up the ice egg and then slithered across the ravine.
Carina jerked her hand away from the cold ice barrier that lay between her and the swarming river of faceless serpents that squirmed beneath them. She clenched her jaw and focused on the carved doorway they approached with growing dread. ‘If this is the crypt of the first Queen of Lafeara—then doesn’t that mean you are buried here, Kirsi?’
“You’ll understand soon enough.”
The corner of Carina’s mouth twitched with irritation while her eyes watched as more of the oily black snakes slithered from cracks and gaps in the earth on either side of the door.
‘What exactly is a remnant? Are they some sort of ghost or specter?’
“Ghosts and specters belong to mortal souls trapped by greed and rage. Most remnants are witches who reject reincarnation in pursuit of immortality. The unforgiven, however, were cursed to this fate. They cannot be vanquished nor released from their purgatory.”
‘Okay—if they can’t be beaten—how exactly do we get out of here?’
The single-horned viper set the trapped ice witch down and gave her frozen prison a firm push through the doorway. The ice egg rolled over dozens more beetles that lit up and fluttered about the chambers, illuminating walls of human bones preserved in full suits of armor encased into the earth.
Kirsi’s sigil was engraved into nearly every visible piece of armor, weapon, and even the faded, frayed cloth of the dead’s tabards and capes.
‘I don’t understand. These—they were your soldiers?’
“They were one of the first Covens of Lafeara. In the years following Viktor’s fall, I was named the first Queen of the Isbrand throne. As Viktor’s heir, it was my duty to recover his heart from Kritanta. I took the three Covens of Lafeara, Icebound, Frost Wolf, and the Immortals, with me to hunt down and kill the goddess of war and destruction, but I—failed.”
The Scarlet Witch fell silent as the single-horned viper slithered to a halt beside them. The colossus viper’s head trembled and crumbled away, shedding mud and stone, until only the oily black humanoid figure remained with a single bone horn upon its head.
“I do not remember why our mission failed—only that I returned to Lafeara, gravely injured—and with less than half my army,” Kirsi murmured hesitantly. “The Frost Wolf Coven nearly perished fighting to defend our retreat. In the months that followed, even the Immortals blessed by Viktor grew weaker as they aged rapidly. Our immortal Father’s enfeebled state began to strip the covens of their immortal powers. Witches who had lived for thousands of years crumbled to dust, one by one, until nearly all of the Immortal Coven had perished.”
A persistent dripping sound drew Carina’s attention to where black oil poured from the eye sockets and mouths of the witch skeletons encased in the walls around them. The foul substance rose like a stalagmite from the chamber floor, slowly taking shape until over a hundred remnants stood before her, their faces replaced by a single row of gaping black teeth that stretched into hungry smiles.
“My Queen, you have returned!” A remnant hissed as it slinked toward them. Its steps were awkward and discordant as its boneless body bowed and swayed precariously with each movement. “Are you injured? You appear—quite weakened.”
“Shall I fetch you a glass of wine, my liege?” Another remnant slithered forward, holding a tarnished golden chalice with glittering diamonds. The unforgiven mimicked filling the cup with the black sludge of its libs before offering the bubbling oil to the imprisoned ice witch.
“Have you returned from battle? Have the forces of Kritanta finally been pushed back into the desert?”
“Why do you not speak to us, my Queen? Are you still angry?”
“Have you still not forgiven us?”
Carina flinched beneath the echo chamber of screeching voices that assaulted her ears. She shrank back from the terrifying figures and hungry smiles that leered in around Viktor’s barrier.
“Long has it been since you abandoned us,” one of the remnants hissed accusingly.
“An eternity we have suffered, awaiting your return—praying for your ascension.”
Black saliva drips from their mouths, hissing against the dense egg of ice that slowly eroded beneath the toxic venom.
“You promised us much, Isbrand Witch. Long we have waited. An eternity we have hungered—yet you return to us now—empty-handed.”
The remnants’ voices rose into a frenzied hiss as their limbs formed sharp black nails that they scraped and dug into the egg’s barrier.
‘Kirsi. What’s going on? Who are these people?’
“When a witch betrays their Witch King or Queen, this is the fate that awaits them,” the Scarlet Witch replied bitterly. “An eternity of torment until they are released from their broken oaths by the one they betrayed.”
“I remember this place well because I buried many a friend and ally here,” Kirsi replied solemnly. “When the elders of the Icebound Coven chose to enter eternal sleep to preserve what little life remained to them, they asked their Queen to provide an honorary escort. Injured though I was, it was a request I could not refuse. I was naive then, barely thirteen years, full of faith and hope in the integrity of men and witches alike. It was—my first life and the first of many betrayals by which I learned the depths mortals will fall when forced to choose between loyalty and—self-preservation.”
Carina shivered as a ghostly vision fell over the dimly lit cavern. The Isbrand Queen, barely more than a child, stood in the midst of a dozen senior pureblood lords, all of them dressed in their finest armor. The crown of snowflakes upon her midnight-black hair glittered beneath the torches of her royal guard. Kirsi smiled confidently as she spoke to the eldest of the purebloods present. Her ice-blue eyes were shadowed by illness and the burden of war and responsibilities far beyond her years, yet she moved with grace and certainty.
The Duchess flinched as the vision suddenly altered. Kirsi’s small body buckled beneath the first blade that took her by surprise from behind. The royal guard reacted with painful slowness as the powerful coven of purebloods cut them apart.
Men and women, shriveled with age and the loss of their immortality, pushed their small, struggling queen upon an altar of bones, grappling her tiny limbs, ripping free what little armor she wore over her ceremonial robes. Kirsi bared her sharp teeth with a look of hatred that turned quickly to panic and fear as the witches cut and tore open her chest like beasts to unveil Viktor’s immortal heart.
A piercing blast of cold magic ended the vision, but not before the pain of Kirsi’s first death ripped its way through Carina’s chest. The Duchess clutched the pounding heart beneath her hunting jacket with trembling fingers as the Scarlet Witch’s rage washed through her.
“Mortals are reluctant to reveal the ugly truth they hide within their souls. So when they show you what they’re capable of, believe it. We never forgive or forget.”
‘Can we save the life lessons for when we’ve gotten out of this mess?’ The Duchess retorted. Her ice-blue eyes narrowed on the bubbling pool of acid that had nearly eaten through the ice eggshell above her head.
“Why doesn’t she speak?” A hunched-over remnant snarled suspiciously. “Are we sure this is Kirsi? It could be another pretender.”
The single-horned remnant flicked the ice witch’s frozen prison with a sharp fingernail. “See for yourself. Viktor’s magic is unmistakable.”
“So, does she not know how to use it?”
“She knew enough to defeat Renka.”
The unforgiven hissed in surprise and anger.
“Well then, let’s give her our demands and have done with it!”
“No!” the single-horned remnant snarled. “Rather than fade into obscurity—we should claim what rightly belongs to us.”
‘I don’t like the sound of this.’
“Ha!” the Scarlet Witch smirked. “It seems these traitors still seek in death what they could not attain in life.”
“Senka is right. What need we fear now that we are already cursed.”
“But Kirsi is the only one who can liberate us!”
“Not necessarily,” Senka, the single-horned remnant, retorted with a cunning grin. “With the power of an immortal at our fingertips, we shall at last claim freedom and satisfy our hunger on the world of men above.”
The Duchess flinched as the first drop of acid broke through the ice eggshell and burned its way through her skirt and chemise.
“You’re running out of time, little ice witch,” Kirsi observed smugly. “You should hand over the reins if you know what’s good for you. Besides, I have a score to settle with these blackhearts.”
‘I’m not giving up without a fight, Kirsi, not even to you,’ Carina retorted as she positioned her body awkwardly to avoid the dripping acid above. She could feel the Scarlet Witch’s impatience and irritation prickle against her spine but clenched her jaw resolutely.
“Very well. No need to hold back way down here,” Kirsi responded with surprising pragmatism. “There’s no better place to test the limits of Viktor’s power and your training.”
The Duchess pondered for a moment whether the Scarlet Witch was being sincere or, perhaps, laying a trap. Given the precariousness of their current situation, Carina opted to set her doubt aside and focus on the battle ahead. She closed her eyes and exhaled.
After nights of training inside the frozen cortex, the moment her eyes closed shut, it was easy enough to picture the serene winter lake and sky. But, rather than enter the sanctuary of Viktor’s frozen heart, Carina extended a thread of her soul to the immortal’s glowing cortex. A silver tendril of power reached out in response, connecting them as the remnants’ acid venom dripped closer to the Duchess’s thigh.
“What is she doing?”
“Accepting her fate,” Senka retorted with an impatient snarl. “Kritanta was right. No matter the depths of Viktor’s power, a mortal vessel stands no chance of controlling the energy of a—” The single-horned remnant broke off with a snarl as the crystal surface of Viktor’s barrier coated over in a sheen of frost that obscured the ice witch from view.
The remnants salivating over the trapped Duchess stiffened as their lips, tongues, and oily faces froze against the surface of the ice egg’s barrier. Their startled frantic protests were cut short as a whirlpool of frigid, blinding light ripped through their bound forms, freezing and shattering the first layer of remnants into chunks of black ice that scattered around the burial chamber.
The remaining unforgiven quickly scattered. Some slithered back into the open crevices of their eroded corpses while others cowered behind Senka. The single-horned remnant resumed the form of the colossus-viper with an angry hiss as the fragmented barrier crumbled and fell away to reveal the Duchess, now garbed in armor of ice and snow, who rose to her full height behind a dragon-winged kite shield.
The winter chill of Viktor’s magic illuminated the caverns, casting the shadows of the unforgiven against the cursed remains of their mortal life. Frost quickly reclaimed the sacred burial ground, sealing each hole and crevice, leaving only the broken bridge and bottomless gorge as a means of escape.
“So you have finally left your shell!” Senka hissed as it gathered slabs of stone and the broken armor of the dead to cover its viper form. “Your pride and arrogance have certainly not diminished in the slightest, Kirsi Isbrand.”
“As your Queen,” Carina responded from behind the ice veil of her dragon-winged helmet. “It is my responsibility to end your torment once and for all.”
“As your General, how could I bear the weight of your generosity? Instead, allow me to return the centuries of agony you have bestowed upon us.”
“If you want a taste of immortality, snake, come and get it.”
The single-horned viper needed little encouragement. Its colossus body uncoiled and slammed against the Duchess’s shield. Long curved fangs arched around the protective wings, inches from the ice witch’s helmet. Carina turned her shield sharply, twisting the viper’s triangular head and exposing its neck that she pierced with the ice lance in her right hand.
Senka recoiled, nearly ripping the shield off the Duchess’s arm, the ice lance still lodged in his throat. The viper’s tail whipped towards her. Carina slammed the sharpened shield edge into the ground and braced herself behind it as the column of the remnant’s body collided against her, cracking the paved floor around the winged kite shield.
The Duchess swiftly dislodged her shield and spun away. Her attention flittered from the massive viper’s body that coiled around her to the emboldened unforgiven that slithered closer behind Senka’s form through the icy mist that filled the burial chamber. She greeted the remnants climbing over the viper’s body with a blast of ice arrows that froze and knocked back whatever unforgiven they encountered.
“Don’t drag this out more than necessary. Find the corrupted souls and destroy them!” Kirsi criticized impatiently. “Starting with Senka’s.”
Carina gritted her teeth and nodded. With the memory of the first colossus viper’s hiding spot as a guide, she summoned a new ice lance and turned to greet the single-horned remnant’s next attack head-on. Senka’s inflated cheeks burst on impact. Acidic venom sprayed down across the burial chambers, melting frost, bone, and stone as the colossus viper recoiled, hissing in anger behind the lance melting into its left eye.
Crouched beneath her winged kite shield, the Duchess took a tentative breath and exhaled, relieved that her helmet offered a moderate barrier against the toxic fumes that filled the ancient tomb. Taking advantage of Senka’s distracted state, she backpedaled deeper into the crypt to find safe footing. Over her shield, the Duchess searched the viper’s half-melted face but saw nothing resembling a black organ.
‘Of course, it’s not in the same location.’
The sound of bone crunching beneath her boot turned Carina’s attention to a small altar of skulls that waited at the back of the sacred chamber. A child’s skeleton lay reposed upon the morbid dais draped beneath in a tattered banner that concealed all but the remnants of her pale white hair, sharpened fanged teeth, and a tarnished silver crown.
‘So it’s true then, Kirsi really did die here.’
A strange tinge of sympathy and guilt surfaced within Carina as she gazed down at the lonely bones abandoned and forgotten in the ancient crypt.
The rumble of pebbles and small bones at the foot of the altar quickly turned the Duchess’s attention back to the charging single-horned viper as Senka’s twisted jaws stretched wide to swallow her whole.
‘I’ll trust you—just this once, Kirsi.’
Carina’s jaw and spine stiffened as the Scarlet Witch’s soul blanketed her own. She braced herself for the discomforting feeling of isolation that came after being suppressed but found no resistance in Kirsi’s embrace. Instead, the two halves of the same soul overlaid the other to face the immediate threat before them. And this time, when the power of a god poured freely into the intact vessel of Viktor’s heir, the soul of the Isbrand Queen filled with the true power of an immortal.
The Isbrand Witch smiled as she dismissed her shield and raised her hand, palm up towards her lips. The piercing winds of winter howled through the cave, decimating the single-horned viper and shredding Senka’s corrupted black heart hidden midway down his tail. Long dual-fanged spears took shape and splintered the burial chamber walls, piercing the corrupt souls that lay hidden beneath rock and stone. The wails of the dying remnants barely surfaced above the storm of ice as bones, armor, and weapons scattered and fell over the broken bridge into the silent abyss below.
With her enemies defeated, the Isbrand Witch’s helmet dissolved into a flurry of snow before she turned to regard the child’s remains that lay on the altar behind her. She gathered up the tattered banner and placed the fallen queen’s bones within it, then turned to enter the blinding light of the Frozen Heart’s cortex.
Viktor waited for them both. His massive dragon bones, little more than silhouettes of light, intertwined with the magic cortex. His blazing eyes gazed down sorrowfully at the remains of Kirsi’s first life and smiled as the Isbrand Witch laid the fallen queen at his feet. “So, you have learned to work together.”
“Tentatively,” Carina replied, still unnerved by the strange experience of sharing a body equally with the Scarlet Witch.
“I had forgotten,” Kirsi whispered, her gaze through the Isbrand Witch’s silver eyes locked on the crowned skull of her past self. “The reason I failed to recover your heart from Kirsi was that you never lost it to begin with. You—gave it to me—willingly.”
“It was the only way to save you,” Viktor replied. The dragon lowered its head to the fallen queen’s bones, which dissolved into tendrils of power beneath his breath. “No child should ever have to pay the price for their parent’s sin.”
“But—why? Why risk losing everything—your immortality?”
“Because the day you were born, I finally understood what it was to love someone so deeply that the very thought of losing them was worse than death.”
Carina felt her emotions collide with Kirsi’s as the Scarlet Witch shrank within her, as if reluctant to accept the immortal’s words.
“If I could turn back time, I would stop Arachne from using Kritanta to come after you. To avenge her fallen offspring and wounded pride—they took my only child. Kritanta ate your heart to steal my power, while Arachne tried to destroy your soul. With Minerva’s blessing, I was able to recover all but Carina’s missing shard, which Arachne hid from me. Kirsi, I gave my heart and the blood of the First Saint to bring you back from the dead.”
“The First Saint?” Carina echoed in disbelief while Scarlet Witch’s emotions shook with fury. The distant sound of the thunder pulled the Isbrand Witch from her daze as the last remnants of Isbrand Queen’s first life dissolved into the cortex’s core.
“Carina, Kirsi, you are my heart and soul. You must continue to work together as you did just now. Only when your souls have merged seamlessly with one another will you be strong enough to face the gods who stand against you. Now—you must return,” Viktor urged as he lay his head down upon the icy lake with a heavy, almost weary sigh.
The wintry landscape faded around the Isbrand Witch, who blinked in surprise to find herself standing beneath the lush canopy of Gilwren Forest.
“Do you understand now, little ice witch,” Kirsi murmured as she slowly relinquished her grip on the Duchess’s body. “Viktor is no victim. He gave up his power willingly.”
‘But he is not our enemy, Kirsi.’
“Perhaps not, but he remains an obstacle as long as you refuse to accept the reality of our situation.” The Scarlet Witch sighed as she slipped willingly beneath the surface. “He named us his heir, Carina. But for us to succeed his power and position—Viktor must die.”
The Duchess clenched her fists and shook her head as the exhaustion and strain of using the immortal’s power caught up to her. Her armor quickly evaporated as Carina stumbled towards the nearest tree and leaned against it as she steadied herself.
The quiet ripple of wind through the trees carried with it the chatter of birds and other woodland creatures who appeared to dismiss the presence of the ice witch below. Wiping sweat from her forehead, the Duchess turned and searched her surroundings, hoping to gauge her bearings.
A warning prickle crawled up Carina’s spine as a swarm of crows descended, spiraling against the forest floor, until an old, hunched man stood before her, shrouded in a black robe. Nostalgia and deja-vu swarmed the back of the Duchess’s throat with bile as she recoiled from the immortal, whose name rose readily to her lips.
“Kirsi,” the immortal retorted, his pale lips twisting into a resentful smile beneath a pair of crimson-red eyes. “So good to see you again.”