Zan hated to leave Ayer in the clutches of those godsforsaken witches, but what choice did he have? None yet, although that would soon change if the rumors of returning magic were true. He would make certain of it.
With a muttered oath, he changed into the form he most often took while traipsing the halls of the Coven. It was an easy transformation, one he could do almost without thinking and twice as fast.
With their gauzy white hair and brittle skin, wraiths had at one time been summoned by the Witches Triumvirate, whether for information from the spirit world or for some other nefarious end. But instead of releasing them back into the afterlife when their services were no longer needed, the witches of Blackwater had a tendency to cast aside the wraiths. Aimless and forlorn, the spirits had eventually become so bored and despondent they'd begun to open doors and otherwise attend to the Coven's living residents, just like lower servants of old. Naturally the witches were thrilled, and even less inclined to release the lost spirits than before.
Zan could get around the Coven easily as a wraith. No one spoke to him, because wraiths rarely spoke. No one even looked him in the eye; wraiths had unsettling empty sockets that glowed an eerie translucent lavender. It was perfect, really. A sort of poetic justice that he could sneak around the Coven, undermining the witches' tenuous empire, all because they were too arrogant and careless to properly run a kingdom. If what was left of the Coven and Blackwater could even be called a kingdom.
There hadn't been a king or true queen in Blackwater in over three hundred years, not since it was called Stillwater for its namesake lake, back before the witches cursed the Darkbane elves, banishing most of their race to a remote pocket of the world where none could find them and from which they could not escape. At least, they hadn't escaped yet.
"Hurry!" someone shouted from an open doorway a short distance ahead of Zan, their sultry timbre all too familiar.
Zan slowed down in anticipation of passing the room, keeping his gait loose and ambling as a wraith's.
"Write this down quickly, imp. I need a fistful of hogwi intestines. And check them first, make sure it's a good moist fistful, not a mess of withered detritus like last time. You hear me? And a blackwing's eye... No, not an ear you imbecile, I said eye! A blackwing's eye. They don't even have ears." A grumbled hesitation followed this breathless outburst. "It's like talking to a series of bats, I swear. And another thing, the eye can't be over three days old or the spell will collapse. You have that? Let me see. Good enough. Now, go!"
Domira was certainly in a foul mood today.
Zan continued soundlessly along the corridor, praying the angry witch would overlook him. The goat hoof powder was burning a hole in his pocket. He needed to get home and cook the changing elixir for tonight's encounter with the satyrs down by the gate. Being a changeling had many benefits, but if he'd never touched a person or creature, then he needed to ingest part of their essence in order to assume their likeness. It sounded macabre, and it was, but there wasn't much Zan wouldn't do to help his sister.
Zan was three paces past the door, but there was no mistaking that the oldest and vilest of the Witches Triumvirate was calling to him. If he didn't respond she would know something was amiss. He turned and shuffled to the doorway, keeping his gaze hollow and listless.
Domira stood in the middle of what had once been a library–as evidenced by the disorganized bookshelves lining the walls–but now looked more like a messy boudoir. Pillows, empty phials, several mismatched lace-up boots and other various garments were strewn haphazardly around the room. The witch herself was wearing a clingy evening gown with dark green trim, the velvet fabric catching the candlelight the way she no-doubt intended. Her auburn hair was coiled in loose ringlets arranged on top of her head in an elaborate presentation of pins and threaded ribbons. Blood red lipstick accentuated her overly full lips.
The amethyst gaze she set on him was penetrating, but despite these illusions of beauty and youth, Zan found her quite hideous. She beckoned him forward with a long, pointed fingernail, while the imp she'd been dictating to stood off to her side, its large red eyes wary. Perhaps it wondered whether its master was now changing her mind about its slave errand.
"Wraith," she crooned, swaying her hips. "Were you spying on me?"
Zan shook his head. Wraiths could speak but tended not to. They were also less likely than other creatures to be intimidated by the witches. After all, they were already dead.
"Did you know there's a rumor of traitors in Blackwater?"
Zan hated to admit fear, especially around the witches, but he couldn't deny he was frightened. It wasn't fear for himself, or of what Domira would do to him if she caught him. Zan’s fear was reserved for his sister. What would become of Ayer if he was captured or killed? Without his help it was unlikely she would ever escape the Coven, much less Blackwater. Ayer wasn't a changeling like Zan, she was a pureblooded Yansu, one of only four living dragon elves with a fully realized dragon form. The witches had used dark magic to bind Ayer's dragon, so she was no longer capable of assuming its form or performing magic without the witches' command. Zan was her only chance at freedom.
He shook his head again.
"Oh? And here I wondered whether you wraiths weren't up in the wee hours of the morning, holding clandestine meetings. I suppose this puts that little theory to rest. I've spoken to at least a dozen of you, and allegedly none knew about this. Unless you're smart enough to hide it from me... Are you?"
Domira tossed her skirts to the side, lowering herself into an upholstered chaise. She leaned back, crossing one leg over the other. Her gown slid open at the knee, revealing the white underside of one thigh and a shapely calf. A dark band encircled her thigh, a tiny white bone dangling from a thin cord attached to it.
Her sharp cat eyes followed the wayward direction of Zan's gaze, twinkling with amusement. He knew he'd betrayed himself, but there was nothing he could do now but play his role to perfection.
"How interesting," the witch purred. "I didn't think wraiths could exhibit desire."
It was difficult to keep the nasty rebuttal off his lips. Zan wasn't desirous of Domira. It appalled him that she would attempt to entice such a pathetic creature, and he found her thigh an odd place to wear such a macabre accessory. But knowing Domira, it was probably the bone of a favorite victim.
"I suppose it makes sense, you were alive once. Do you even remember anymore?" When he didn't grace her with a response, she went on, her honeyed tone hardening, "Fine, play coy. I'm a master of that game. Can your shriveled pea brain even understand a word I'm saying? I hope so, because I have a favor to ask of you, wraith. I'm asking it of all my little helpers." She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the tops of her knees. Her gown gaped open in the front, but this time Zan was determined to maintain iron focus. "I need you to alert me to any unusual behavior you come across here in the Coven. Do you think you can do that for me?"
Zan nodded, letting himself feel the moment of relief wash through him, careful not to project the emotion. Domira didn't suspect him, and he was confident the wraiths couldn't tell he was a changeling. He seriously doubted they would be much help to Domira.
It was possible, likely even, that she'd enlisted other more intelligent beings to her cause. The imps and elves in her employ, certainly. But Zan wasn't overly worried. There were others more powerful than himself who wanted to overthrow the triumvirate. The free Darkbane, for example, who by all accounts still held secret conferences along the outskirts of Blackwater. These would be the traitors Domira and her sister and brother, Foswida and Edril were looking for, not him. In the grand scheme of things, Zan was a nobody.
"Good." Domira grinned, leaning back across the chaise. "If you succeed, I may think about releasing you. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
Zan nodded again, allowing a flicker of hope to reflect in his eldritch eye sockets. He imagined a wraith would understand at least this much about its predicament.
"I thought so." Domira ran her tongue suggestively along the tips of her perfect white teeth, then flicked her fingers at him as one would swat a fly. "Leave now. You too, imp. Honestly, why are you still here? I told you to get out of my sight!"
"Yesh, mistresh." The gangly creature scrambled to the open doorway, the torn parchment scrawled with spell ingredients gripped in its chubby fingers.
Its words had come out in a blubbering slur, like it held water and marbles in its mouth at the same time. It was no wonder imps drooled so much. Their tongues were entirely too large for their mouths.
Suppressing the urge to gag, Zan followed the imp out of the room. An icy breeze tossed itself at their backs, slamming the door shut behind them. He could hear Domira laughing from inside the room as he continued down the hall, the imp scampering along ahead of him.
Damn it all! That hadn't gone to plan. But perhaps it was a good thing. A spy needed as much information as they could get, and Zan certainly knew more now than he had before he'd been cornered by Domira.
Now, to decide how to best use this new information to his advantage.