Chapter 20 - The Crimson Demon
~ Eighteen cycles of the seasons - 5 Years earlier ~
Lia quickly slipped through the door, the thrumming pulse in the entry hall growing almost unbearable. She checked Laela was behind her; the girl was squinting and holding her hands to her tipped ears in an attempt to muffle the sound. Lia stepped out and stood between the pillars, a heavy vibration was shaking the floor and the free-standing vaulted ceiling that stood over the portal in the middle of the room. The design on the floor was pulsing like a heartbeat, but instead of its customary pure white light, a blood red had taken its place. In the middle distance, Eira walked into view with Erann trailing her a few steps behind.
The Chancellor of the Spyres had tied her long white hair back. Her silken sleeves rolled up and tied at the elbows. Her ice-blue eyes flaring with bright light that appeared to trail in wisps from her eyes. Both Lia and Eira met each-others gaze before she continued past and to the awakening portal. Lia watched as she walked without concern, feeling the boundless energy in the air coming from her adopted mother as she stopped just inside the pillars that held up the vaulted ceiling and started to inspect the red glow curiously.
Laela came in close, almost yelling to be heard, “What is she doing?”
Lia quickly looked at Laela and shook her head, mouthing, “Watch.”
Eria gestured at the rings and held her hand outstretched; her expression unreadable as she wrestled the power in the room back under control. The pounding beats of the portal receding to a dominating throb as cracks started forming in the pillars around her while she concentrated, red flames licked from the rings and runes on the floor. Over the distance Lia could see her shaking her head and stepping back, quickly conversing with Erann. Lia frowned as Erann seemed concerned but turned; re-sheathing his sword and walking purposefully for the main doors and the assembled force behind them.
Without warning, Eira’s eyes were on Lia’s and immediately she saw the shrug and mildly frustrated expression on her mother’s face before she turned back to the stabilising portal. The flames had calmed but it retained its fiery red glow. A hazy ring of fire formed over the glowing symbol, the edges meeting the sigils on the floor and what appeared to be a shimmer of heat distorting the surface of the portal. Eira’s influence spread throughout the large hall, the pulsing no longer deafening but thrumming through the air in waves, making Lia’s chest flutter and vibrate with the resonating thunder. Each throb beating to the time of her own heart as her blood pulsed in her ears.
Even from this distance, waves of heat spread throughout the hall and dried the moist spring air, taking both Lia and Laela’s breath. Shielding her eyes, Lia stared at the figure that stood beyond the heat haze of the portal. Clad in black, it seemed like a shade stood on the other side. Beyond the ominous figure was what appeared to be a fortress, a monstrous portcullis and smooth walls, drifts of snow piled where the walls met the ground and wind; wind that threw loose snow and the figure’s black and crimson cloak around at a whim.
Lia watched as the shadow approached. The wind whipping at its form relentlessly as it carried a bag slung over a shoulder and a long spear in its other hand. Standing just on the other side it waited. Eira shook her head and stood at the edge of the portal, her lips pursed in anger. She gestured stiffly for the shadow to enter. Steam rose from where the figure broached the surface and Lia’s eyes grew wide. The darkly armoured man walked clear of the portal and immediately placed his spear on the floor before him as he dropped to a knee before Eira, bending his head. Lia could see the rigidity in her mother’s pose, the unwavering brunt of her will as the portal snapped to a close abruptly with a resounding clap of thunder that shook the room. Behind Eira a section of the fresco from inside the vaulted dome came crashing down to the floor, partially obscuring the portal’s design in rubble and dust.
Lia’s eyes were on the intruder, his head turning slightly, watching the final pieces of rubble clattering to the floor in the vacuum of silence. Half deafened by the thunderclap, she could not make out Eira’s words despite seeing her lips in motion. She recognised the anger on Eira’s face, the light still raging in her eyes as she spoke sharply. The man kept his head bowed and eyes on the floor. As Lia’s hearing returned she could just make out that he was speaking, his voice low and smooth, not fazed by Eira’s anger as if he were prepared for the lashing.
“What language are they speaking? It is beautiful.” Laela’s whispered in her ear.
Lia shook her head as she focused on their distant words, they were familiar, she had heard it before but she could not quite place it. She watched in silence as Eira’s aggressive posture and anger calmed somewhat, her eyes losing their furious blaze and receding to a sharp glow. In surprise she saw Eira kneel before the man, her white in stark contrast to his black and blood red, he also adjusted himself to kneel on both knees before he raised his eyes to meet hers. He slowly loosened the straps of his gauntlets and let them drop to the floor before removing his armoured gloves. Finally, lifting the hood of his cloak and showing his face to the Chancellor. He slowly raised his hands, palms up and parallel to the floor before him.
Lia tried to shift to get a better view of his still obscured features as Eira brought her hands over his, keeping their eyes locked. For a few uncertain moments they held that position until Eira finally nodded, allowing her hands to drop into his and the light leave her eyes. They spoke in earnest, the man handing Eira an envelope which she quickly opened and read. Suddenly, Lia felt Laela’s hands pulling at her arm.
“We have to go Lia.” Laela said to her, pulling her behind a pillar.
“We can watch a bit longer, there will be no harm.”
“It has nothing to do with harm, Lia.” said Erann, his voice low and gesturing her aside, “Eira asked me to take the both of you to the servants dormitories so that Laela’s can gather her belongings. I also need to discuss the change in duty and preparing the guest quarters with the Matron.”
“But what about the guards, the Masters?”
“All is well, Lia. They have already stood down and are returning to their duties.”
Lia pointed to Eira and the stranger from behind a pillar, “Who is that?”
Erann glanced at the two, one white, the other black, now standing and conversing quietly before setting off, Eira leading the stranger to the main hall.
He frowned slightly, “That is Eira’s younger brother, the Crimson Demon of Aldaliss. His business with Eira must be urgent to force the portal.”
Lia’s eyes widened and she quickly stepped into view, staring at the shadow that had fallen into step beside Eira and for the briefest of moments her rich amber met his sharp, sky blue eyes.
“The Crimson Demon, he – he is your uncle?” said Doubt with a twisted grin, looking at Lia.
“Yes, in name only.”
“But that mark, the seal, it is his?” Doubt asked, coming closer and looking at the glow through Lia’s blouse.
Lia nodded, smiling slightly.
“Did you feel it straight away, like Selera did?”
“No, a few days, I did not see him for the first night and the day after. I was restless, I wanted to know who he was. I could feel him in the keep.”
Lia nodded and closed her eyes, “He masked it well, but his thread was like a smoldering fire, I could feel it, the heat from the embers and I could smell the smoke. But the flames, those flames were smothered, tightly kept under control.” she drew in a shuddering breath before breathing out as the heat rose to her cheeks.
She looked at Doubt, “At first, I could not tell that he was bearer of the thread, that he was like me.” she shook her head, “Mama had told me years earlier that her parents would adopt on occasion as she did. That while she was her father’s birth daughter, she had had a handful of siblings that she treated as blood.”
“The Crimson Demon, he was one of them.” Doubt said.
“He is one of them.” Lia corrected, pressing a hand to her chest.
Doubt watched her movements, calmly thinking, “Lia, did you meet them?”
Lia smiled, “I met Eira’s parents, a few times when I was younger. But this was the first time I met him.”
“You remember meeting them.” Doubt said as her eyes glimmered strangely, flickering to gold with hints of emerald and back again.
Lia watched her, the feel different, the space that they stood in shifting imperceptibly around them. She stared at her younger self.
Doubt smiled softly, “He is so close, you are on fire every day as he is.”
“Who are you really?” said Lia, her eyes on her young doppelganger warily.
Doubt’s smile grew, her eyes shifting to an emerald green, darkened in the strange light that surrounded them.
“I do not know what you are searching for, but your subconscious level of suspicion is guiding you on this course of reflection. Doubt, has always been a part of you, that feeling in the back of your mind is doubt driving you to an answer, the truth.”
Lia stared at her in alarm, “Who are you?! How did you…?”
The doppelganger turned and started to walk, her form growing more insubstantial with every step.
“Who are you?” Lia said quietly to the darkness, closing her eyes as she concentrated, knowing that she would not get an answer.
Lia smiled at Laela, the wilderelf girl who was now her attendant. Less than half an hour had passed since they had settled her meagre belongings in her apartment.
Laela stared at her, “I don’t know what to say.”
“Well, tomorrow we will not be attending classes. As you are now attendant to the Chancellor’s daughter, we will have to see about some suitable clothing, servant’s attire will not do.” Lia said as she looked at the other clothing Leala had brought from her home in Aisodai, the stitch-work and care that had been placed into their craft, she gently ran her hand over them.
“These clothes.” she said, looking to the fyrelf, “They are beautifully made.”
“My mother made them for me.” Laela said, blushing quietly.
“Then all the more reason to keep them safe, wear them when you want to feel close to home. In the morning we can go down into the city and meet with Mama’s seamstress and have a selection made for you.”
Laela stared at her, “But we have class tomorrow.”
“There are privileges that come with your station, Laela. Erann will walk you through them. Most of your current classes your education at the Academy will change to that of the Elite classes. Any class that or opportunity that coincides with my own, you will accompany me. Any class that you miss, you can directly meet with the Master that teaches it.”
Laela sat heavily on the bed, looking up at Lia as she tried to make sense of what she was being told, “Why me, Lia?”
“Do you know why I always use the service ways in the keep? Why I rarely am seen in classes that I would normally be attending?” Lia said, sitting on the edge of the bed, her eyes watching Laela’s.
“I am eighteen, I am expected to become a part of the upper caste in the city and to act like it. The men approach me in the hope of courting and the other women in the search for gossip and leverage. But like you, I do not belong here, I do not seek fame or fortune.” she tilted her head slightly, “Like you, I do not seek the approval or the favour of others. All I hear are words and praise to get into my good graces, Laela. But you never have, you showed respect and humility, but not once did you…” Lia smiled as Leala nodded.
“Leala, I am not looking for a servant, I am looking for someone I can rely upon, someone who understands and does not seek the shine that is cast from others.”
Leala smiled with genuine warmth, “I am grateful you see these qualities in me. I can not thank you enough for what you have done for me.”
“There is no need for thanks, Laela.” Lia smiled.
“Then you did it for entirely selfish reasons?”
Lia nodded earnestly, a smile growing on her lips until Laela broke into laughter, closely followed by Lia.
“Have any of your classmates caught your eye?”
“No, I don’t think any of them could handle a fyrelf.” Laela said quietly, sneaking a glance at Lia, “What of the Crimson Demon? You have been avoiding talking of his arrival from the moment we left the hall, I would have thought you to be more curious after that look in your eyes.”
Lia’s eyes flashed in the gentle light, the memory of the bright spark of their eyes meeting bringing a momentary stab of heat to her chest, she looked at Laela, “I am curious.”