As Was Before, From the Abyss Again
Ollie was in Vahlmore once again. It was a city covered in perpetual mist. The sky was always in gloom. Sight of the sun was a rare thing. The way into the city was also hidden. Not many people knew how to reach the streets. The constant darkness drew a certain kind of crowd, people that didn’t mind a bit of trouble, or a lot of it. It was a dangerous place for most people. And Ollie had to walk alone while dragging a large chest behind him.
He was adept at avoiding trouble with a quick smile and some words. For the people that didn’t work on, Ollie had other ways. He made it back to the darkest part of the city. It was a place people steeled themselves to enter. Looming at the end of the wide street was the Basilica of Aranea, a sprawling building that was old and regal.
And that was where Ollie was currently to deliver his package, an ample-sized coffin. It was strapped to his body by thick ropes and dragging along the ground. He made his way down the main hall of the building.
“Put her down here,” a voice called out.
“Of course,” Ollie said in a jovial voice. “And it is nice to see you, too.”
“Yes, well,” Elara spoke with a slight tinge of regality in her voice. “We’ll just have to see about that, won’t we?”
Strands of her blond hair fell in front of her face as she circled around to the back of Ollie where he’d put down his ridiculous carriage. Like her, Ollie was born of the Mist of Old, and this was something she tried to keep in mind as much as was humanly possible. Just because she was a direct descendant of Balthazar the Mad, that didn’t mean she could live a life without worry.
It was certainly no coincidence that he too had blond hair. It was the mark of the Mist, a testimony to untapped potentials, of powers thought lost and made taboo.
Only two people in the entire city had blond hair, the rest had either brown or black hair. No exceptions, save for one. A somewhat unassuming, frail looking half-breed by the name of Rosalina Tacita Aetius. Aranea always posed as her biological mother, but this was simply impossible. The Mist surrounding Valmoor wasn’t just for show, and though it wasn’t anything overly complicated, it did create a sort of status quo on the births and deaths of its inhabitants.
Those in power had blond hair, those with black hair more often than not had the world to hide, and those with brown hair were just your average citizens. Nothing more, nothing less. Elderly people, for instance, would not find their hair turning grey. They would forever stay the colour they were for the vast majority of their lives.
Rosalina was different, though.
Aranea would have you swear she was her child, but she certainly wasn’t. Her laicar-enlil was, for starters, a half breed born under Vahlmore’s watchful eye - something that just didn’t happen, ever. But, more so than that, she had a hair colour not seen since the Mad King’s reign. She had flaming red hair which, in old Valmoran texts, was explained as the colour of one of the Old Gods, the Mother of all Spiders, and Queen of the Aranean Empire.
“How is she holding up in there?” she finally asked.
“Ah, she’s fine. I made certain to get a cushion-lined coffin. The very best for our Lady’s daughter. I did have her sedated, but it might have worn off by now, so do mind what you say.” Ollie raised a finger to his lips.
As they were talking, Ollie shifted the coffin so that it was in front of him. That way, he could at least block on possible pathway of escape if anything went wrong. He rolled his shoulder and loosened up his body. His fingers ran through his short blond hair. It was messy before and it remained messy afterwards. He did his half-grin, which was because the other half was charred and scarred. It had been a tiring and long road.
“How is Lady Aranea. I hope I didn’t keep her waiting too long,” Ollie said in a jovial voice.
“Oh, you know,” Elara responded in a flat tone. “Same as always, if a little bit more impatient than normal. She’s been busy planning this dumb play of hers for so long that I’m starting to wonder if she’s even really sane anymore.
“But,” she continued, shrugging slightly in the process, “that’s not for me to say, I guess.”
It wasn’t really an exaggeration either as just this morning Lady Aranea had threatened to kill a bunch of her lackeys just because things weren’t progressing fast enough for her. If only there was something for her to do other than to just sit by the sidelines. She didn’t have the strength, nor the sway anymore to still this madwoman.
The only thing she could hope for now was that Rosa would be able to come out of this alive.
“Then we should definitely not keep our Lady waiting,” Ollie said. He motioned towards the main chambers where Lady Aranea should be waiting, unless she was off enjoying some personal time while waiting for his return. “It would be great to see her smile again after so long.”
Ollie stiffened his body and tensed his muscles. He put an extra bit of oomph into the first step to get the coffin moving again. Rosa was not as light as she probably would like to be.
The mention of a play made Ollie think. Once he was comfortable enough to speak again, he said, “I will admit to not being fully privy to what Lady Aranea’s plans are, but what has been happening around here? Anything out of the ordinary?”
Whereas there was nothing really out of the ‘ordinary’ that had happened in the past few weeks since Ollie had gone on his mission, there were still a few things that Elara felt were probably worth mentioning at least a little. If only out of solidarity. She didn’t really know the man as well as many another person might, but at least she knew his capabilities due to their heritage.
“Seems like Victoria has been getting summoned more often lately,” Elara admitted, shrugging softly. “While I’m not privy to your relationship with her, I do know a little and felt it only fair to let you know: she does not look well. With each passing meeting, she seems to become more distressed, more paranoid it seems.
“I never really knew the girl myself - or woman, I should say - but my father is a necromancer, and my best friend - the one you locked up in a coffin - is also a necromancer. I’ve seen my fair share of all things alive and dead, and she definitely has the smell of someone knocking on death’s door.”
She sighed softly, yet audible enough for Ollie to pick up on.
“Like I said, she’s been impatient. I think she expected you to be back sooner, and she probably used Victoria as some sort of leverage to help you accomplish your task sooner; seems like it wasn’t enough for Aranea to not completely deviate from this promise, though.
“Aerfanasta,” Ollie said in response to the ancient language of Vahlmore. He knew the language. It had been drilled into him since he was young, though he preferred not to use it. He always thought it sounded unfriendly in a manner. Of course speaking to most other people in a language they didn’t understand could be considered unfriendly, but that language especially so. Its tones were like a snake slithering through the listener’s ears.
“Victoria,” Ollie muttered. He still held a smile on his face, though it was a crescent void free of feelings. “I should go see her, speak with her. She’s not so deeply involved with the inner workings of Aranea’s machinations. I can’t fathom why Aranea would do anything to her, though.
“I should go even faster. You are free to accompany me, Elara. Your presence does not make me frown, and I believe that Lady Rosa is more at ease when you are around. Don’t worry. I haven’t harmed her at all. You’ll see once I deliver her to her mother.”
The coffin dragged along the ground with a grating noise, but Ollie could more than pull it with just him. The thought of completing the mission gave him more strength as did his chosen heritage. He looked up at the mist ever covering the sky. It was colder than normal and clung to the body.
Despite having mutual respect in one another, it was still always a bit odd walking beside the assassin. She appreciated his expertise, his skills, ideals and even his persona, but there was still this sense of dread surrounding the man everywhere he went. Not to mention the fact that he had some rather interesting means of transporting people.
Vahlmore was a city of many thing, but making sense was definitely not one of them. However, that didn’t mean certain things couldn’t freak you out anymore, and seeing her best friend locked up in a coffin certainly did freak her out. At least, internally. She didn’t show it on the outside, of course, but internally she couldn’t wait to break Rosa free.
“Did you need to use much force to knock her out?” she finally asked.
Ollie grinned. “I used no force to knock her out. Any sort of blow that would knock someone out for the amount of time I needed would have seriously injured Rosa. I just used poison,” he said as if it was not a big deal.
“I’m not surprised that you have taken a bit of interest in Rosa. She’s a bit of an oddity, isn’t she? She doesn’t feel like Lady Aranea’s daughter at all, and I’m not just talking about her appearance.” Ollie brushed the sweat from his face, running his fingers through his blond hair.
It had been a bit of a surprise to Ollie when he saw Rosa. Her hair had grown out leaving some her original hair color poking through. It was not any color that a person born in Vahlmore should have. No wonder she, or her mother, decided to dye her hair. If anyone knew, it would have caused a scandal.
“No, I’m talking about the presence she puts forth. Don’t you think it’s a bit terrifying? You and I both know that something is strange with her.”
Elara stayed quiet for a moment following Ollie’s words. Whilst not necessarily lies or oddities in and off themselves, they rang a little hollow in her mind. It reminded her of a conversation she'd had before with her friend. Something about how Rosa could only be herself when she was with her, and it didn’t really click with her until much later what she’d meant with it. She’d assumed it was just a manner of speaking, that she simply felt the most at ease when the two of them were together.
It wasn’t until people admired her beautiful black hair that she understood what Rosa’d meant.
Her half-breed friend did not have black her, she had red hair and the fact that almost everyone seemed to think she had the former meant they were being deceived. She, as best friend to Rosa, was the only one who knew of her real hair colour, of who she really was. And now, apparently, so did Ollie.
“I saw what her mother did to her,” Elara said in a hushed voice. “It came to me in a dream, a nightmare. Rosa is the bastard child of a drunken idiot of a laicar and an enlil who got impregnated against her will. The father’s whereabouts are unknown, but her mother perished at the hands of Aranea.
“The woman had come to seek asylum in Valmoor. Aranea, knowing the woman was pregnant when she found her, killed her in cold blood because she’d finally found what she was looking for: a host.”
Of course, none of this had come to her in a dream. That would just be silly. In all seriousness, though, it would have sounded even sillier if she’d said that Lady Aranea had told it to her in a drunken stupor one night. While a crapshoot, the dream explanation at least sounded more plausible.
“Huh, is that so?” Ollie said. He kept a broad smile. He had never pondered enough about Rosa’s parentage to believe anything other than that she was Aranea’s daughter. The fact that she was quite scary when she was just the child of two random people not from Vahlmore was all the more troubling. The grasp of the city could really sink deep.
“I try to stay out of this kind of business as much as possible despite all efforts to drag me into it. I learned that I much prefer to stay in the shadows, but again and again, events conspire to drag me forward. All this attention and power is not good for the happiness of the mind.
“It’s unfortunate, then, that Rosa’s happiness does not compare to Aranea’s. You say that she is to be a host. I think that, too, is something my life would be much better off not knowing, but I do wonder. So, can you tell me a host for what?”
Before Elara could respond, the coffin on Ollie’s back began to move a bit. It was subtle at first, but as they continued on their trek, it was soon made abundantly clear that Rosa was no longer under her sedation and that she’d come to again. There was a small problem, though. She wasn’t really supposed to awake until they’d moved well into Valmoor.
“...I thought you said you’d sedated her!” the woman said with a slight hint of shock in her voice. “We can’t have her wake up now, I can’t have her wake up now. Her mother will know, he will know. We either have to knock her out again before she fully wakes, or...”
“Or... what?” a stern voice called out from behind the shadows.
Uh-oh, Elara thought to herself and a soft curse could be heard faintly under her voice.
“Erm,” she began, “F-father! You know I was-”
“Trying to anger Lady Aranea,” her father responded as he shifted his attention to the brutish man and held out his hand as if he were offering a way out. “Yes, I know, but there are more subtle ways of doing this, less... clumsy ways.
“Hand over the coffin, Ollie. I’ll take it from here.”
“Huh,” Ollie mumbled at the newcomer. It was turning out to be quite a dragging day. He ignored the knocking from within the coffin, though his body became more alert. He really hoped that Rosa wasn’t about to burst out, but he was ready to move if needed. Ollie stretched out his shoulders. Two straps connected to an unrelated box were digging into his shoulders.
“Well, sedation isn’t an exact science. I was wanting to hurry along to Aranea, but I stopped to have a little chat instead. I’m not that worried, though, both about Rosa waking up and Aranea. I told Lady Aranea what I would bring Rosa to her. I see no reason to stop when the goal is within sight.
“And this kind of physical labor is not something you should be doing, right, king?” Ollie cracked a smile that also cracked his cheeks. He ran his fingers through his damp hair. “I’ll let Lady Aranea know you helped if that would make you happy.”
“I’d prefer it if you stopped calling me that,” the Crow responded with a deadpan.
While Ollie was a few inches taller than him, the raven-haired “King” didn’t lose out in terms of having an intimidating presence at all. If anything, of the two, he was more intimidating with his scarred right eye, missing left arm and scars showing through his partially-bared chest.
His eyes flickered slightly as the man, known to outsiders only as the Crow or their King, shifted his gaze from the brute carrying a coffin to the somewhat frail-looking visage of his daughter. He wanted to tell her to talk some sense into Ollie, but he figured the two were in cahoots so it wouldn’t really matter what he asked of her.
Closing his eyes for a few seconds, he sighed softly, faced his daughter’s companion and said, “Tonight is not a good night for you to be traversing the city with a coffin, Ollie. And for you-” he turned to his daughter again, “to be traversing the city with him. You both should’ve felt it by now, the alignment of the stars, the ascension of the moon. You’re both practically a lightbulb just waiting to be spotted at this point. Blonde we can cover for, but silver? That is beyond even my power to cover for during this Nieste fi Terestavf Maiest.
“I was only trying to help by lifting your burden, Ollie of the North. If you insist on carrying it out by yourself, which is your prerogative, pray do be careful.”
Ollie glanced up to the sky. His face grimaced, the unusual motion cracking the charred part of his mouth. “I’ll admit my trip was a bit longer than I had intended. I wanted to be back before the Terestavf Maiest, but things conspired against me.”
He laughed and tapped on the coffin. “That’s partially why I decided to hide Rosa away. She is a huge trouble to everyone, especially now. It’ll be safe enough for her inside there.” Ollie made sure to speak loud enough so that the girl inside would hear and know just what kind of night it was.
“As for the maiestris, I couldn’t ask someone like you to handle them, as much as it would make me happy to do so. Since it would also make me unhappy to be that kind of person that runs away so easily.” Ollie touched the scars of his face. “A person has to consider their own happiness once in awhile. They can’t give it all away, but thanks for your generous offer.
“They bear no allegiance, as you know,” the Crow responded with a soft sigh. “They are the remnants of the Old Guard, waiting for the day they can once more serve a singular purpose. You are strong, Ollie, of this there can be no discussion. You are blessed, just like my daughter, but you are not of the same caliber as the maiestris.
“Do as you must,” he finished with a defeated tone of voice. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Just as soon as he had appeared the King had dissipated back into the mist again, almost making it seem like he’d never even been there to begin with. It always made Elara feel a little bit uneasy. There was a lot she didn’t know about her father, and it was little things like this that really made her wonder just who - or indeed what - he really was.
Cursing under her breath, Elara locked eyes with her big, towering friend, shook her hair and said, “This will be one hell of a long night,” just before a shout came from inside the coffin.
“No!” Rosa yelled. “Let me go, don’t bring me back! She wants that, she’ll use you, she’ll hurt you all!”
Ollie turned to the coffin with a raised brow. “Welcome back, my lady Rosa. I’m sorry for the conditions of your travel, but I can’t risk getting away now. I can understand not wanting to see your family. They can be really unreasonable.” The scowl added bitterness to his voice. “But I don’t work for you. I work for your mother, and she dearly requests your presence.”
He restrained his curiosity about what Rosa was babbling. The family was strange, and he felt much happier being willfully ignorant about their whole situation.
Ollie glanced over to Elara as his hands tightened around the chains that strapped the coffin to his back. “You heard your father. It’s a bad time to be out right now. I suggest we hurry up to Lady Aranea unless we want to meet up with the maiestris. Both of us being together will be even more of a target to them.”