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“Talia Regina Hale V, Supreme Empress of the Northland Alliance, Alpha Queen of the Wolves, High Commander of the Northern Forces- I have been waiting for you.” Sarah Martin, the Silver Witch of Yosemite smiles through her sparkling pale eyes as she greets her old friend by Talia’s full title on the doorstep of her secluded home deep in the woods.

The empress stands alone on the doorstep, not even the Queen’s security is allowed within Sarah’s enchantments in this wood. Talia still manages to somehow look regal despite carrying a large cooler. She smiles back at the witch, stepping into the intricate witch house as Sarah beckons her through the door.

“Did you foresee my coming in your fire, Sarah?” She asks, smiling as Sarah’s many cats scatter at the scent of the wolf queen.

“Hardly,” Sarah laughs with a light tinkling gale. “My niece has been telling tales out of school again.” Although many hundred years older than the empress, the witch looks in her mid-forties, a beautiful small woman with kind eyes and pale blonde silver hair. She helps Talia set the large cooler on the floor of her homey rustic kitchen. “Would you like some coffee?” She asks the wolf queen, motioning to a copper kettle hanging over the kitchen’s fireplace.

“Please.” Talia nods, sitting down at the witch’s small kitchen table. The witch hands her an earthenware mug and sits across from the queen. “I brought offerings of waygu steaks, gummy bears, and kiwi fruit.” She nods to the cooler. “For the orphans.”

“Ah,” The witch nods knowingly. “You mate, your son, and his ryder’s favorite foods- traditional appeasement offerings.” She looks keenly across at the handsome empress. “What is it you seek, Talia?”

“I think that should be obvious.” Talia sniffs.

The witch sighs, looking down into her own coffee mug for a moment. “You’re here about your eldest son.” She says, looking back at Talia.

“The only son I have left.” Talia says sadly.

“Yes.” The witch nods. “And what is it about Derek you wish to ask me?”

“I want to know,” Talia speaks plainly, her gaze intense. “If you stand by the prophecy you made at Derek’s birth.”

“When in the history of the world has that which has been foretold been taken back by the fates?” Sarah asks calmly. “And even if you did not already know that about the prophetic, you know in your heart, Talia, that what I spoke that night thirty-one years ago not only remains true today, but in fact rings ever clearer and ever more true with every passing season.” She looks at the empress. “That is why you are here today, is it not? You feel the darkness closing in, drawing the noose tighter around your son and his people.”

“It is my understanding that the prophecy regarding Derek was a warning.” Talia says gravely. “It said nothing of the imminent destruction of my people- it merely said the fates had named Derek as my heir and said the life of the Northern Alliance relied on his survival and in his ability to secure an heir.”

“I recall what I have foretold perfectly, Empress.” Sarah says patiently. “And of course I believe what the fates have shown me: Should your son fall so shall the ryders, if the ryders fall, the wolves will surely follow, for what is a wolf without his ryder? Without the wolves the light will go out in humanity and the blackness shall reclaim the earth in eternal death and destruction.”

“I fail to understand why the fates chose Derek.” Talia says. “My daughter, my eldest, Laura is more than fit to rule. She has a way with the people Derek never had even before the tragedy.”

“Perhaps if it were simply up to the wolf, the fates would have chosen Laura to rule.” Sarah says with a shrug. “But Laura is not alone- no wolf is. Her ryder and mate, Lawson, is a good man with a good heart, but together he and Laura are not enough to quell the oncoming darkness.”

“My son is... not what he once was,” Talia starts quietly. “Before the tragedy. I’m sure your niece has spoken as much. And yet every day there is more news of the Hyaenidae growing stronger in the south, amassing more and more power and followers. They have taken several of our towns over the boarder. The humans are distraught, the ryders and the wolves are looking to me for answers.” She looks hard at the witch. “You have said if my son still lives the empire will not fall. Derek is alive and well, teaching within the walls of the academy. How do you explain this?”

“It has been five years since the betrayal of your son by his false ryder.” Sarah says. “For those five years your son has lived without a ryder, missing half of himself and he has gone into mental and emotional decay because of it. You are right, Talia, Derek is not what he once was. Without his true ryder he is dying a spiritual death. And as goes your son, so goes your empire.”

“Derek is thirty-one years old and his true ryder has never surfaced.” Talia says. “We’re not even sure he has one. How can I possibly save my son if his ryder never shows up?”

Sarah looks thoughtfully at the queen before standing up and leading her out the backdoor of woodland home. “Come with me.” Sarah says, stepping out into the afternoon light.

The two women enter Sarah’s back garden. In the center of the beautiful and wild ever-blooming plants is a deep pit with a low fire burning. Sarah takes an earthenware jug from a shelf and pours some exotic mix of herbs through her hands, sprinkling them into the flames, humming under her breath. The fire bursts forth with renewed energy and a deep black curling smoke begins to rise into the sky like floating ink on the woodland breeze.

“Since the tragedy that befell the royal family five years past I have divined the presence of Derek’s true ryder through great mental difficulty and spiritual sacrifice. I watched him from the afar through the smoke of my fire.” She looks across the flames at Talia. “He is not only your son’s ryder- he is your son’s mate.”

“That would not be surprising.” Talia says. “If you have been watching my son’s true mate, then he must exist. Who is he?”

“He and your son have not yet come together because the fates have yet to judge them worthy or able to form such a bond as is required of them.” Sarah says, throwing more herbs into the fire. Smoke white and pale as death now joins the black in an ominous warring curl. She closes her eyes. “Many a night I have watched him- the one who the fates have chosen for your son. The one you seek is an untamed child. A sickled soul whose blood has bent him away from the straight and narrow path of the ryders. He is as cunning as a fox with the courage of wildfire on drought land. His constancy is matched only by his anger; his heart is as large as it is broken.” The witch opens her eyes to look sympathetically at the empress. “Your son’s rightful ryder is as cursed by who and what he is as he is blessed by it. Perhaps the fates have judged it best they be kept apart.”

“I won’t believe the fates could be that cruel.” Talia says, setting her jaw. “Has not my family respected them for generations? Haven’t I brought my children up to live in the light?”

“As we grow older the torch is passed from mother to son.” Sarah says. “Your son has been poisoned against his better nature and thus has been turned cold to his own instincts, and his ryder has been trapped in a dark place all his own. Neither recognize love so neither will recognize each other. The rhythms of their lives beat against each other in drums of war rather than together in harmony.”

“That is an impossible situation the fates have doomed us to.” Talia shakes her head. “The fates say only my son can save us and yet they keep the only one who can save him from him. Is there nothing I can do? How can you be so sanguine about this, Sarah? Life as we know it depends on Derek and his ryder.” She looks to the witch desperately. “You must do something. Show me how to save my son. I will not believe there is nothing we can do.”

“The witches are much older than the wolves or the ryders or even mankind, Talia.” Sarah says, not unkindly. “I have seen empires and whole species rise and fall. Sometimes, the way forward is best left to itself without mortal intervention.”

“Sarah, you and your coven are our oldest allies.” Talia says solemnly. “You were there at my birth. You performed my wedding. You delivered each of my children. I am asking you now, not as an empress, not as a commander of armies, not as a queen- I am asking you as a mother.” Talia gazes at the witch with tears in her eyes. “Save my son. Deliver Derek from the poison in his heart so that he may deliver all of us from the oncoming night.” The queen reaches into her cloak and pulls out an object wrapped in oil cloth. “You said yourself at my son’s birth- he is beloved by the fates. Do you remember? You said my son would blessed with great physical strength, his voice would be that of a summer storm, his beauty would be matched only by the majestic rivers. You said that with every enemy my son stuck down in the name of the light his power and favor would grow.”

“Everything I said has come to pass, Talia.” Sarah says. “Is he not beloved by his men? By your people? Do his sisters not dote on him? Is he not admired throughout the Norther Alliance as a god prince?”

“Derek has personally shed an ocean of our enemies blood.” Talia says. She passes the package across to the witch. “This is the heart I cut from a Hyaenidae warrior he culled not two days ago. I want you to call on the blood sacrifice my son has made of our enemies and summon his mate to his side once and for all.”

“I was not aware Derek was still fighting without a ryder.” Sarah said. “You of all people know how dangerous that is for him, Talia.”

“He can no sooner be kept from the killing plains than he can be kept from breath.” Talia says. “Will you do it?”

“What you ask of me is the blackest kind of magic.” Sarah says, looking down at the wrapped organ in her hands. “This may not end well for you or for your son and his mate.”

“I would rather damn my soul forever than leave my people to die and our ways to fade into nothingness.” Talia says.

“There is a cost to what you ask for,” Sarah warns. “One you may not yet see.”

“It is a chance I am willing to take.” Talia says bravely. “All my life I have believed in the fates. I have believed in my son. I believe in his ryder. Whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice- we will weather the storm. I believe they can do it.” She looks at the witch. “Will you do it, Sarah? Will you take hands?”

“Should we succeed- and I am not promising we will, I will not pretend to know what you will have unleashed or what will be asked of Derek and this lost child I have seen in my visions.” Sarah says, staring into her fire. “But if this is course you have decided to take, Talia V, then I will honor my friendship with the wolves and I will take hands. May the fates help us all.”

The witch unwraps the organ carefully from the oil cloth and takes a gleaming jeweled dagger from the breast of her dress. She then walks around the garden carefully gleaning the correct herbs and flowers. She hauls out a large marble bowl and carefully quarters the enemy heart, throwing careful pieces of it into the mix while humming dark hymns and vespers in her low throat. As the mixture grows and solidifies, the witches eyes roll back, white in her head and her voice expands until it sounds like not one but an ungodly chorus of unearthly voices fill the garden. The noise is terrible and haunting, and all around them the sounds of the forest come to a deathly silence until all that can be heard is the ghostly chanting, like the choirs of hell. With hands moving of their own accord the witch blindly tosses the potent brew into the flames of the fire. All at once darkness covers the normal afternoon sunlight, and the sky grows blacker than the deepest night. The witch holds shaking hands above the fire, still unseeing and terrible as white smoke rises in waves and then torrents as it forms the faceless horrid shapes of the unidentifiable dead.

The witch calls out in the voices which are not her own. “With the powers of the sun and the sky, of the earth and the roiling deep, with the gifts granted to me and my bloodline at Delphi, I call upon the slain enemies of Derek, the beloved son of the fates, the hope of the light! Rise and serve the one who has claimed dominion over you in the act of extinguishing your mortal lives!” The ghostly, crying shapes thicken in the smoke, dancing in and out of the blackness in hellish movement. “I call upon you, the conquered souls of the blackness, bring the child chosen by the fates your enemy master’s side!”

A ghastly moaning comes from the smoke and the tendrils morph and form a great wailing mouth before the witch and the queen. It takes a great gasp like one dying and begins to speak in the voices and a thousand long dead men. “We hear your call, daughter of Delphi. Across the immortal plains, we have followed your unholy summons. Tonight, under the full moon which gives our enemy power, our still living brothers will bring to his side the one you seek. Through blood and bile we will bring the wolf’s fated to his side. But be warned, children of the moon, be warned by us, the fallen, your enemies even in death: even if the child you seek should live through the night, what is already broken will not be healed by the hand of his wolf alone.”

“Damned spirits- it is I, Talia the mother of the one who has imprisoned you in death. By the authority my son has gained over you through the taking your life’s blood I demand you to speak plainly!” Talia calls out in a powerful voice into the smoke. “Tell me how my son might be saved! The power of the moonlight compels you to speak!”

The great mouth lets out a horrible, bone-chilling laugh. “The one you seek from us is a son of Salome. A half-cursed sickling. In order to save your wretched kind wolf and ryder must form a willing bond of blood and sacrifice, the likes of which have not been invoked by your kind in an age. Should they fail in this, your son will not live and our brothers will at last take their revenge.” Another great and horrible laugh comes from the fire. “Good luck, Talia, Queen of the Beasts. For you cannot bind that which is broken.”

All at once the great fire is abruptly snuffed out, smoke and all, as if it never burned. The light of the afternoon comes back and the birds begin to sing again. Talia looks over at Sarah with great sorrow in her eyes.

Sarah looks back, quite recovered from her magic-induced fit. “Well, it seems to have taken.” She looks over at her fire. “In quite dramatic fashion, I might add.” She reaches down and wraps what is left of the Hyaenidae heart back in the cloth. She hands it to the queen. “Feed this to Derek tonight and it will be as your enemies have foretold.”

Talia takes the bundle numbly. “A sickling?” She asks, her voice hushed, her eyes troubled. “A Salome? Can it be true?”

Sarah takes the queen’s arm and guides her back to the house. “I tried to warn you.” She says. “I have foreseen this in the fires.”

“I suppose this is what you meant by the ryder being ‘cursed by who and what he is as much as he is gifted.’” Talia notes. She shudders. “I fail to see the gift in such a thing.”

“The wolves wouldn’t, no.” Sarah looks up at the queen sagely. “However, my kind sees the sicklings, rare as they are, as a great boon if treated correctly.” She pats the queen’s arm. “Have faith and take heart. Derek has great courage still and his ryder is his equal in this.”

Talia sighs and looks out the doorway into the vast trees beyond the witch’s house. “You said my child is dying inside.”

“Dying, yes.” Sarah says, following her gaze. “But not dead. Where there is life, there is hope.”

“Pray to the fates for me and mine.” Talia says to the witch. “I fear the road the fates have set my son upon is treacherous.”

“He will not be alone.” Sarah says. “Not if he and his ryder choose. It is beyond you or even I now, Talia. The choice to take this road lies in them now.”