Chapter 37: The Claws of Damnation
A festive air had taken over the interior of Gilwren Manor. The small banquet hall boomed with music and laughter that drowned out the tumultuous rain and wind, which rattled against the bolted stained-glass windows along the eastern wall of stone and mortar. Servants carried away the remnants of the starter course of venison pâté with cranberry compote and toasted brioche. The forest delicacy had gone over well, thanks to the skill of Viscount Gilwren’s cook and the quality of the Silver Stag’s liver. The nobles took turns between praising the meal and the Crown Prince’s good fortune as they raised their wine glasses to toast the end of the first day of the Royal Hunt.
Percy gritted his teeth as he watched the revelry unfold before him. His thoughts wavered between the terrifying moment Kirsi had been dragged underground by the remnant to the image of her pale, unconscious face resting in the rooms above. He resented the part he was obliged to play, forced to listen as Nicholas regaled them all with a tale of how he tracked down the mythical Forest Monarch, leaving out the Duchess’s involvement at every turn.
The Earl stirred what little wine remained in his glass as he listened to the whispers carried from the end of the banquet table where Borghese and various members of the Royal Party contemplated the Duchess’s health and recovery.
“To think—that bear almost did us a favor.”
“If we’re lucky, maybe the half-blood won’t wake up before the hunt is over—or at all.”
Percy clenched his jaw and inhaled, tempering his anger and the deadly air current that circled around the necks of the sniveling, treacherous mortals.
‘Not—yet. I will punish them later. Now is not the time.’
His attention sharpened on the witch nobles seated around him. Their discreet gazes and cautious whispers, shocked and bewildered by the idea that the legendary immortal witch of calamity—might be vulnerable to more than just the power of the Saint.
A faint clinking sound turned Percy’s gaze to where Earl Coldwell tapped a spoon against his wine glass as he rose from his seat.
“Your Majesty, please allow me to express what a blessing it is for us all to be able to share in your good fortune.”
“Your thanks are not necessary, Lord Chase,” Nicholas replied with a nod of gratitude as he motioned for the noble to take his seat. “Who else would I share such a rare prize if not the members of my council? Save your thanks for Viscount Gilwren and his kitchen staff, who prepared such a memorable banquet for all of us.”
“Naturally,” Coldwell replied, tilting his glass in their host’s direction before sitting down. “The forests of Gilwren have once more yielded a spectacular specimen.”
“It has been my privilege to nurture and safeguard the sacred lands of my ancestors for the pleasure of the royal family,” Rykard replied somewhat distractedly as he gestured to the steward. “And now I believe it is time for our next course. The chef has prepared a Venison Wellington served with mushroom and red wine reduction, paired with a full-bodied wine of crimson grapes of the south.”
“It’s clear the Viscount’s reputation as a connoisseur is not without merit,” Coldwell observed as a line of smartly dressed servants entered the room with covered plates. “What other delights do you have in store for us, I wonder?”
“If you must know, the chef has also prepared a spiced venison and apple pie with brandy cream for dessert. Each course is prepared with a suitable wine prepared from the finest vineyards of Lafeara.”
Percy and the nobles turned to where Eleanora had made her reappearance. The Crown Princess circled the banquet, ignoring the questioning gaze of her cousin, Lord Marco, as she swept towards her seat beside the Crown Prince, shadowed as always by Major Garret.
“Looks like Eleanora got lost on her way to the powder room,” Marchioness Serilda murmured playfully as she leaned toward Percy’s shoulder. “Perhaps her wandering feet took her upstairs?” The Earl shook his head in silent disapproval and finished off his glass of wine.
“It is tradition, your Highness,” Attwood explained as the Crown Princess settled into her chair. “Every morsel of the Silver Stag’s sacred body must be put to use from his antlers, fur, meat, bones, and organs.”
“And testicles!” shouted a young nobleman seated at the end of the table.
Percy took in the unfamiliar face seated beside another nobleman he recognized as Sophya Turnbell’s fiancé. Lord Asher looked both alarmed and annoyed as he grabbed the back of his comrade’s neck and hissed a warning in the apparently drunken young man’s ear. To the Earl’s surprise, the young woman seated beside the two embarrassed nobles stared back at Percy with a lurid expression in her lapis blue eyes that made his skin crawl.
‘Just why were such lowborn mortals even at Gilwren?’
The pureblood quickly averted his gaze as Attwood hurriedly smoothed over the embarrassed nobleman’s outburst. “It would appear you’re still in the lead, Earl Hawthorne. I’m curious as to how you intend to use the royal favor should you win it.”
A not-so-subtle hush fell over the banquet table as several eyes turned in Percy’s direction. The Earl arched a brow in the Prime Minister’s direction and replied, “You will find out soon enough.”
Marquess Winifred roared with laughter, quickly joined by many of the nobles around him.
“You seem confident that you’ll win?” Nicholas observed with a tight smile as he took in the complacent Earl.
“Given the state of the other hunting parties—ours included,” Attwood commented thoughtfully. “The Earl has every right to be optimistic.”
“Lord Borghese certainly doesn’t stand a chance with the luck he’s been having,” Serilda interjected with a note of mockery.
Percy ignored the angry clang of a wine glass banging against the table that came from Marquess Borghese’s direction.
“And with the Duchess unconscious—that leaves only the Crown Princess and Lord Acheron.”
“Now, now—” Rykard interrupted as the mood darkened among the two remaining hunting parties. “Luck, much like the weather, can change in the blink of an eye. And the Royal Hunt is more than a simple competition. It is an opportunity for the esteemed leaders of our kingdom to enjoy more leisurely pursuits while spending time with family members away from the pressures of the court.”
Percy drowned out the rest of the Viscount’s speech as his gaze drifted to the disgruntled Lord Acheron, who sat in silence next to his equally miserable fiancé, Lady Evelynn. The pair sat together between their respective fathers, the Prime Minister and Viscount Hendrix, but remained stubbornly silent and reserved despite the intermittent attempts to encourage conversation.
The Earl allowed himself a moment to relish in their palpable despair. As far as arranged marriages went, this one was clearly headed for disaster.
‘Thanks to Lady Rosamond, Acheron has become the perfect tool to dismantle his father’s position. But dealing with Nicholas’s best friend can wait until the Borghese family has been crushed into the dust.’
Percy smirked, then turned his attention towards the sound of his cousin’s delighted laughter. Serilda looked at ease, conversing with her partner for the evening. Lord Eustice Winifred appeared adequately enamored with the beautiful Marchioness, judging by the smile he was unable to mask for even a second.
‘They would make a beautiful pair. Lord Eustice is sharp, respectful, and ambitious enough to serve as Serilda’s spouse.’
Marquess Winifred intercepted the Earl’s gaze with a knowing smile and nod of approval.
‘Then again, why wouldn’t he approve? Serilda comes from a pure, ancient bloodline, possesses both title and wealth, and now controls the Twilight Coven. But would Eustice be enough for Seri?’
Percy leaned back as the plated Wellington was laid before him and tapped his fingers thoughtfully as his empty glass was replaced with a fresh glass of red wine. His agitated movements stilled as the Marchioness placed her hand against his wrist and smiled.
“Your thoughts are drifting again, sweet cousin.”
The Earl returned her smile and covered her hand with his. “I was just contemplating how to ensure your happy future, cousin.”
Her moss-agate green eyes widened momentarily before the corner of her smile turned down. “I am happiest when I am with you.”
Percy smiled reassuringly as her grip tightened around his wrist. “I know. But it is not too early to think of the future.”
The Marchioness pouted, then turned away with a sigh. “I would rather enjoy the moment before us, dear cousin.” She pulled her hand away and lifted her utensils as she focused on the aromatic steam rising from her plate. “One never knows what the future may hold.”
“I only want you to be happy, Seri.”
“I know, sweet Percy. I know.”
The Earl frowned at her flat tone but let the moment pass as he watched Eustice pull the Marchioness’s plate away to cut the plated wellington for her. Serilda scoffed and smiled in amusement at her partner’s diligence, unaware of the approving gaze that passed between the Marquess and Earl on either side of them.
Percy returned his focus to the appetizing meal, content to allow their relationship to progress naturally. While he retained the right to approve or deny Serilda’s suitors, he had no intention of forcing a match or pressing the issue. Serilda had earned the right to choose her partner. More than any other member of the air covens, she deserved love and happiness.
His fingers stiffened around the fork and knife in his hands as the prickle of malicious cold magic tickled against his senses, coming from a direction other than the Duchess’s temporary bedroom. Percy glanced up sharply towards Marquess Borghese’s table, but the man appeared blissfully unaware as he chewed his meal with an expression of unwarranted displeasure.
The Earl’s winter-grey eyes then shifted towards Marquess Winifred, whose expression suggested that he had also detected the unnatural disturbance.
“Percy?” Serilda murmured anxiously as she turned towards him. “What is it?”
“I need to step out for a moment, Seri. Please, enjoy your meal.”
“Is something wrong? Where are you—”
The onyx ring on Percy’s fingers blossomed with a crimson light that engulfed the banquet room briefly before fading beneath the glow of the hanging chandeliers. The Earl left his seat and turned promptly to leave. His rapid departure went unnoticed by the mesmerized royals and nobles, who appeared only too eager to relish the red wine in their sparkling crystal glasses.
It was snowing in the wine cellar. Pure white snowflakes fell with graceful silence before Percy’s winter-grey eyes. The Earl shivered as the cold malice beneath the deceptive beauty seized his throat in an invisible grip.
The Duchess turned slowly towards him. Two more streaks of white ran through her ash-brown hair that curled loosely against the sheer lace nightgown she wore. Her ice-blue eyes appraised him with cold calculation as if determining if he were a possible threat. Percy’s gaze drifted from the slender, dark streak of blood that ran down her left cheek to the gruesome crimson image pressed into the cellar wall.
Lady Priscilla’s mute attendant was nothing more than a hollowed-out shell of skin and bone. The expression of terror frozen against her pale, cracked face suggested she had died before feeling any pain. Her detached limbs sat frozen in place upon the wall beside her; black fingers shriveled up like grapes.
“The knights outside?” Kirsi continued with unnatural calm.
“Entranced,” Percy replied without hesitation. “I can alter their memories if necessary.” He clenched his fists as he tore his gaze away from the visible rib’s protruding through the attendant’s flattened stomach and focused on the Duchess’s chilling gaze. “What happened here?”
A trembling sob pulled his attention to the quivering young woman cowering behind the Duchess’s nightgown. The Earl looked at the reddened skin around Ivy’s neck and sighed.
“You will need to erase any memory they have of Ivy coming here,” Kirsi stated sternly as she placed a comforting hand on the shaken maid’s head.
“Of course, but—how will we explain—” Percy trailed off as he nodded towards the attendant’s iced corpse.
“Her remains will be sent—elsewhere. But first.” The Duchess turned and lifted the pale maid to her feet. “Ivy, I need you to return to our rooms upstairs.”
“L-Lady Maura—m-mother—I—” Ivy flinched beneath the ice witch’s touch but managed to stand.
“It’s all right, Ivy. We can talk about that later. Right now, you need to be somewhere safe.”
“I can escort her to your rooms on my way out,” Percy offered, sensing that Kirsi wished to resolve the issue of the dead woman’s body away from Ivy’s presence. “I’ll wait for you there. I have something urgent that we should discuss before tomorrow.”
The Duchess’s cold gaze ran over him once more before she nodded in approval. “I will meet you there momentarily. Please tell Colonel Isaac and Lady Hana not to worry.”
Only when the ice witch’s cold gaze left him to stare at the frozen corpse did the Earl find the strength and courage to move. He quickly stepped forward to grasp Ivy’s cold hands and placed a supportive arm around the maid’s waist. Behind Kirsi’s small form, a pale white light enshrouded the dead attendant’s body. The pressure of the Duchess’s gaze shifted towards them, and Percy quickly moved towards the cellar entrance, pulling Ivy along beside him. He glanced back one last time as they stepped through the open door and saw Kirsi standing in a swirling storm of crimson snow.
With little more than a blink, Carina returned to the frozen cortex, taking Miranda’s corpse with her. The mortal’s remains, little more than crimson snowflakes of flesh and bone, dissipated as they melded into the hardened ground of the icy domain, leaving only the woman’s wretched soul trembling before the Duchess.
“Y-you—what have you done? Am I—dead? Where is this—are we—in hell?”
“I suppose you can consider this a purgatory of sorts.” A cynical smile spread across the Scarlet Witch’s lips as she considered the helpless soul, bound by icy chains to the snow-covered surface below. “There is a possibility of your soul reincarnating after all—so I couldn’t allow you to cross over to the underworld just yet.”
Miranda sank to her knees with an audible gasp. “What—do you mean to do?”
“I do not know—just yet,” Carina murmured darkly, tilting her head as she conversed with Kirsi’s soul, which had only begun to merge with her own. “What should we do with her?”
“No living thing can enter this domain, so everything that does falls under our control.”
“I did not think that rule applied to souls.”
“Arachne and Veles have subverted that rule for centuries while tormenting us. With Viktor’s power, it should be possible.”
“Strange, the more I look at it, the more this soul resembles a ghost I know.”
“Is there any difference? A ghost is just a lost soul trapped in the mortal realm, after all.”
“Then—can a soul be destroyed? To prevent it from reincarnating.”
The attendant’s transparent figure cowered as the corner of the Scarlet Witch’s lips twitched into a cunning grin.
“The only way to know for certain would be to try.”
“P-please—spare me!” Miranda whispered pitifully as the Duchess extended her hand towards the chained specter. “Please! I beg you! I was wrong! I’m sorry! I said I’m sorry!”
“It’s too late for an apology,” Carina retorted sharply. “Even if it weren’t—the one you should be apologizing to is not here. If you want redemption, take solace in knowing that I shall ensure that your soul never comes near her again—in this life of the next.”
“You bitch!” The soul’s transparent eyes darkened with fear and rage as she strained against the chains that bound the flickering pale flame within her chest. “When the Saint returns, she will punish you both! You will burn with you in the fires of hell and damnation!”
Miranda shrank back in terror at the fangs that emerged beneath the Scarlet Witch’s smile.
“Hell has many forms,” Carina muttered as her fingers sank into the specter’s chest, seizing the soul flame that flickered within. “Allow me to introduce you to yours.”