In her dream, Claire got out of bed in the middle of the night. The darkness felt like a caress against her skin; she didn’t need a light. She took her Shadow Staff - no, the scath-hrûn - from her bag. It extended as she lifted it up, then commanded: “To the Pale Lady!”
On the other side of the portal was a cave by some sea the name of which Claire didn’t know; it didn’t smell like the ocean. “Pale Lady!” Claire called loudly. “Here I am!” Her voice didn’t sound like her own, but then - such were dreams.
Suddenly there was fire. It lit up on top of some ancient horned beast’s skull that was mounted on the rocks. And from the fire there formed a woman in a flaming armor, her helmet rising like the towers of a city and her left hand green.
That, Claire knew in her dream, was the Pale Lady, whom Claire served.
“My child!” the Pale Lady declared. “We are linked now; now and for all of time, your essence and mind - we are one.”
“Yes, my Lady,” Claire obediently replied.
“Go now, child, and bring me my champion; bring me Angor Rot.”
The Lady did not need to say a word more; in her dream, Claire already knew what she was to tell the Lady’s Champion.
Claire turned around, lifted the scath-hrûn, and called out: “To Angor Rot!”
It took him a while to track Strickler, but Angor Rot managed it. Or rather, it had taken him a while to track Strickler the first time: he’d since caught up to him and let him go multiple times. He told Strickler that it was to torture him; it was certainly having that effect. But when Angor was honest with himself, he acknowledged that it was because he didn’t know what else to do.
He was taking temporary refuge in a warehouse in some city the name of which he didn’t bother to remember when a tear in the universe opened up between two piles of crates. Angor Rot reached for a dagger: he knew a portal when he saw one and, unless the scath-hrûn had changed hands again, on the other side of that portal were the Hunter and his band.
Only one person stepped out of the portal, though: the girl-child who the scath-hrûn had chosen over him. Angor’s gaze was immediately drawn to her eyes, which did not appear human; rather they were pitch-black, with an amber fire burning in their middle. Angor knew the colour of that magic: it belonged to the Lady Pale.
Angor relaxed his hold on the dagger. “What do you want?” he asked.
“The Lady Pale requires your service,” the child replied.
Because of course she did. Somehow, that was entirely unsurprising. Some part of Angor, the part that enjoyed the thrill of the hunt and the thrum of power, lifted its head at the words. A different part of Angor, however, withdrew - the part of him that was slowly returning to life now that the ring made from his own living stone was, finally and truly, his. That part of him didn’t care that he was drawing out the hunt for Strickler, letting the impure go whenever he had him, because he didn’t know what else to do . That part--
That part won. “Tell the Lady that I no longer serve. ”
Undeterred, the child continued. “You have been Her loyal servant for centuries. Should you choose to remain so, She will restore your soul to you from the Inferna Copula.”
The offer stunned Angor speechless. The Pale Lady was offering him his soul back…? Did she finally trust him, or was this some sort of a trick?
The child continued. “Come to the Aysa-Thoon. You have one moon.”
The child then turned around and cast another portal.
“Wait,” Angor called after her.
She turned to face him. “Do you wish for me to take you to the Aysa-Thoon now?”
“I wish to know how you came to the Lady.”
For a long moment the child merely looked at him, expressionless as a mask. Then she said: “I opened a door. Would that be all?”
Angor knew the Lady’s words even when they came from another’s mouth. If the Lady was leaning so heavily on the child, then it was better to not push his luck until he knew what he wanted. “For now.”
The child turned back to the portal, and left.
Angor was left alone with his swirling thoughts. He’d been free for a little under two moons, but he was not yet whole. Though he now possessed the ring, his ring, his soul remained trapped in it. He’d attempted to free it, to free himself from the aching emptiness that tore him up from inside, and failed - miserably so. The magic that bound his soul was too intricate, too profound; it was well and truly beyond him. The Lady, though - oh, the Lady could do it in a snap, if that was what She desired. Yet the part of Angor that dared speak back to the Lady refused to trust Her.
There was the conundrum: it wasn’t just Her that he couldn’t trust. More than one hand had worn his ring over the centuries, and only recently had he finally won it. In the two moons that had passed, Angor found that he couldn’t trust his own mind either. What once was clear to him was now like shifting sands; he was at war with himself as often as not. The only thing he knew clearly was that he refused to be leashed ever again.
Repossessing his soul should help with that end. And yet…
Angor turned and hit a crate with his open palm, turning it to so much saw dust. He was too restless; he couldn’t think.
He had one moon to know his own mind. It would have to be enough.
In her dream, Claire knew that she’d dreamt about this before: about the Lady on her skull-throne and Claire, standing at the foot of the throne and telling the Lady about her day. In the dream - in all of her dreams - Claire knew that the Lady was terrible as She was sublime, and that Claire was to treat Her with the utmost respect. And yet, the same scene repeated in nearly all of Claire’s dreams: all that the Lady wanted was to hear about Claire. The part of Claire that believed in the Lady was awed by that. The part of Claire that knew she was dreaming wondered why this, why her mind made up this specific scenario.
That night, Claire thought that she had figured it out. It should’ve been obvious; after all, the Lady kept calling Claire Her child.
The last time Claire’s parents knew anything true about her had been in November; now it was May. The night that Jim had told her the truth about his war, the night that Nomura had attacked them in the forest - that was the last time Claire’s parents knew anything true about her. It was worse with Claire’s mother in particular; her father was at least home , at least made an effort to talk to Claire about something other than her grades and Enrique’s diapers when they needed to be changed.
“Mother,” said Claire, and stopped.
“What did you call me?” the Lady asked.
The part of Claire that believed in the Lady shrunk in fear and wanted to apologize; the part of Claire that had figured it out, though, that part wanted to say, You call me Your child.
“There are no secrets between us, child,” said the Lady. “But you are right. I shall be your mother, now.”
The Aysa-Thoon: the Temple of the Pale One, the Temple of the Dark One. There were many such temples dotted across the continent; Angor had been trapped in one for over a century. Yet only one of those was the Aysa-Thoon, the one where Her magic was strong enough to weaken the walls of Her prison.
Into that temple Angor Rot entered, and the fires across the main chamber’s circumference lit up upon his entry. Last of all lit up the fire in the centerpiece altar, and when that lit up the image of the Lady appeared above it, as it did above her throne by the Black Sea.
“My champion,” She said.
Angor went down on one knee. “My Lady.”
“You have served me well over the centuries. Step forward and receive your reward.”
His reward? Angor stamped down on his anger before that could get him in trouble; he had no doubt that the Lady could read that on him; or perhaps, he realized a moment later, as a tendril of magic extended from the Lady’s hand to the center of his chest, the Lady could read that on him if she cared to - which She evidently did not.
He did not have the time to dwell on that; he barely had the time to realize it before the first touch of his soul returning made him close his eyes in bliss. He’d forgotten what it felt like, to be whole.
When it was over, he went down on both knees and touched his forehead to the ground. “Thank you, my Lady.”
“Rise, my champion.”
He rose to his feet.
“Soon, Gunmar will arrive at this place. You are to lead him to Merlin’s Tomb, where the Staff of Avalon is. With it you shall free me from my prison, and I will bring forth the Night Eternal.”
The Staff of Avalon! The Eternal Night! This was the stuff of legends. Gunmar had been trying to bring forth the Eternal Night for almost a millennium. Merlin had gotten in the way of that, ultimately imprisoning the Lady, but he had not been seen since that climactic battle; it was believed that he died of the exertion. If that were true, then there was nothing to stop the Lady this time - if he and Gunmar did as the Lady commanded.
Angor didn’t need to ask where the Tomb of Merlin was; he found that the knowledge was just there , imparted to him when the Lady had returned to him his soul.
There was only one thing to say.
“Yes, my Lady.”
What had gotten into her? Claire filled her palms with water and splashed it over her face. Where had that come from, the angry voice that demanded her steak raw and specified, dripping with blood ? And what was that with the dizzy spell, when she’d only just recovered from one illness? “Come on, pull it together, Claire,” she told her reflection, and splashed her face with water again.
The lights in the restaurant bathroom went out. Claire just felt relieved; even with her eyes closed, the light still hurt. Then, though, she opened her eyes and found her reflection, frozen in the mirror and staring at her intensely. Wary, Claire reached forward to touch the glass surface.
The mouth of her reflection split in a wide grin. “Hello, darling,” it said. “Claire?”
Startled, Claire stepped back all the way to the other sink. “This is not real,” she said out loud, hoping against odds that maybe if she said it, it would become true.
“Sorry, dear,” said the reflection’s voice from the mirror behind her. Claire startled away from the sink, and her reflection continued, now speaking from the first mirror: “Did I scare you?”
“This isn’t real,” Claire told herself again. In the second mirror, her reflection multiplied. “I’m imagining this.” She had to find a way out of this bathroom; she had to grab Jim and get away from this restaurant. She ran for the door, but she may as well have run into a wall made of rubber: it catapulted her back into the bathroom, the door slamming shut in her face.
“Do you think I’m just a reflection you can run away from?” said the voice from the first mirror. The image changed, became that of a woman in a fiery armor, her eyes glowing green through her face plate. “I’m under your skin.”
Claire stared at at her hands. Her vision became distorted, the world shaky and unbalanced as it had earlier by the table. She cried out, “Get out of me!” and slapped her face, as one did to wake up from an unwanted dream.
“You’re only hurting yourself,” said the lady from the mirror. Her voice went sing-song, as if she was amused by Claire’s actions.
“Who are you?” Claire asked.
“I have many names,” said the lady from the mirror. “ You call me ‘Mother’.”
In a flash, the dreams returned to Claire. The memory of them always faded within minutes of her waking up but now it all returned to her: the fiery Lady on her skull-throne, who wanted to know every last intimate detail of Claire’s life, who never called Claire by her name but only ever ‘my child’, and who--
The memory of the first of those dreams slammed into Claire like a gut punch: the one where the Lady had sent her to Angor Rot , whom the Lady called Her champion --
“Stop it!” Claire cried out. “Get out of me!” She slammed herself against one of the stall doors: perhaps if she heightened her awareness of her physical body enough she could kick this alien presence out .
Fire poured out of the mirror and pooled on the floor, the Lady rising from it to meet Claire face-to-face. “My, you are strong,” She said. “Strong enough to wield my weapon. Strong enough to be my gracious host.” She smiled. “You open up a big enough door, something’s bound to escape.”
A big enough door. Suddenly, Claire understood. How could she have been so stupid? The first dream had occurred the night that Gunmar had taken Trollmarket; she really should’ve remembered Blinky’s warning. “The portal, the sickness, the signs under my bed--”
“You’ve already told Gunmar all he needs to know,” said the Lady, “but since I’m out and about, I thought we’d kill Merlin’s Trollhunter, as soon as we get him alone.”
Claire never even had the chance to scream: the Lady became a stream of fire, and poured herself down Claire’s throat.
The world turned black.
The Lady was gone, her attention pulled away from the Aysa-Thoon and focused firmly elsewhere. Angor had no idea what was occupying the Lady so, but he nevertheless felt the difference. It was a marked difference, too: She’d been very nearly obsessing over him, in the days that passed since he’d arrived at the Aysa-Thoon. The Lady’s absence was both a relief and a disappointment. A relief, because Her scrutiny was heavy to bear, and occasionally he found that he had to police his thoughts; and a disappointment, because he’d been alone for so long that any company was a blessed respite.
In the Lady’s absence, the thoughts that Angor pushed away bubbled up, as relentless as the Lady’s attention had been. The words did not let him be: the Eternal Night, the mythical time when trolls would be able to take over the surface world and the age of humankind would finally be over. Angor found that he did not know how he felt about that; it was a disconcerting discovery.
Did it matter, though, how it felt or what he wanted? He’d made a deal: the return of his soul, for this last service to the Lady. He had to guide Gunmar to the Tomb of Merlin, where the Staff of Avalon was, and he had no doubt that should he turn away from the task the Lady’s vengeance would be swift and brutal.
Angor remained where he was seated, and continued waiting.
Claire woke up and, as soon as she opened her eyes, cried out: Strickler, Blinky and NotEnrique were standing over her, fighting over a knife. She was seated and bound to a rolling chair, she discovered when she attempted to get away from the knife. Her rolling chair; they were in her room.
“Were you going to stab me with that thing?” she demanded.
“No,” said Blinky.
“Yes, obviously,” said Strickler. “We were--”
“Going to break your chains,” NotEnrique took over, and firmly pulled the knife away from the other two before he jumped on her lap, and proceeded to do as he said.
Jim and Toby pushed through to get to her.
“Claire!” Jim said. “That was…”
“We were around the world in zero seconds! You outwitched a witch!” Toby said, all excitement and waving arms.
“Is she still… there?” Jim asked.
Claire turned her awareness inwards. There was no fire, no other voice, no presence looking over her shoulder. “No,” she said after a moment. “She’s--” after a month, Claire was no longer used to being alone in her skin; she involuntarily sighed before she continued, “--gone.”
When Gunmar stepped into the Aysa-Thoon, his thrall dragging the fallen Gumm-Gumm behind, the temple was dark. Then, with a whisper of Angor’s magic, the circumference flames lit.
“Angor Rot,” Gunmar acknowledged.
“Gunmar the Black,” Angor returned. He didn’t bother to get up from where he was sitting, cross-legged on the floor, by the main altar.
“The Lady said you know the way to the Staff of Avalon.”
Gunmar didn’t sound too trustful; Angor didn’t care. Gunmar wasn’t his master. It didn’t matter whether or not he trusted Angor Rot, so long as he was willing to do as the Lady wished.
“That I do,” Angor agreed. Finally, he pushed himself to his feet. He towered over most trolls, but he didn’t even reach up to Gunmar’s shoulder; Gunmar the Black could’ve just as accurately been called Gunmar the Mighty. “And I will lead you there - as soon as we set up the bait.”
Gunmar glanced behind his back. “I did wonder what use the Lady had for him.”
“The Lady has use for all of us,” Angor assured him. “Now let us get to it.”
We are linked now; now and for all of time, your essence and mind - we are one.
Claire woke up with a gasp. This time, though - this time it really was just a dream, just fragments of memories that her mind mixed up to be re-lived. Still, Claire wasn’t sure of that until she raised her eyes and found NotEnrique, still perched up where he settled when she’d gone to sleep.
“Just a dream,” he confirmed. “No midnight joy rides with your staff.”
Claire slumped back in bed, relieved. Then, though, she pushed herself back up into a sitting position and got out of bed.
“Where are you going?” NotEnrique asked suspiciously.
“To find Blinky,” Claire replied. She opened the closet and started pulling clothes out. “You can come too if you want.”
“No need to go far,” NotEnrique said. “He’s downstairs.”
Claire stopped with a pair of leggings in her hand. “He is? Why?”
“Because the first part of tonight was exciting, and your parents aren’t home.”
“Point taken,” Claire said. She dumped the clothes on the chair and headed out the room in her pajamas.
They did indeed find Blinky in the empty living room, snacking on empty cans from the recycle bin. He hurriedly put away the half-eaten can when he saw them. “Claire! Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” she said; she headed for the kitchen. “Just a bad dream. This time, at least.”
Blinky and NotEnrique followed her into the kitchen. “What do you mean, this time?” Blinky asked.
“Morgana had me come to her every night,” Claire explained. She pulled the cocoa mix out of the cupboard. “I thought they were dreams. At least while it happened, I did; I never remembered those ‘dreams’ after.” She poured milk over the cocoa mix in the mug, and stuck it in the microwave. “There’s something she said the first time that I’d went to her that I can’t forget. She said we’re linked for all time; that we are one.”
“The Shadow Staff is a relic of Morgana. I know that now; had I realized it before, I would’ve never let you use it.”
“You told me it was dark magic, Blinky.” The microwave oven beeped. Claire pulled out her hot chocolate.
“Yes, but I did not realize just how dark. One of Morgana’s names is the Eldritch Queen, you see; she is mother of all that is dark and twisted in the world.”
Claire froze with the mug halfway down to her lips. She put it down with shaking hands. “She kept calling me her child,” she said weakly.
NotEnrique hopped along the counter, and reached up to Claire’s face.
She picked him up and hugged him close. “What’s wrong with me?” she said. “You told me using the staff might corrupt my soul, and I didn’t listen.”
“You did what you had to do to save lives, many lives,” Blinky said. “Half of Trollmarket’s refugees are alive now as a direct result of what you did. It was the right thing to have done, for all that it demanded great courage.”
“She called me her child , Blinky. And I called her ‘mother’. You said she’s the mother of--” Tears started spilling down Claire’s face.
“Hey, now, easy with the waterworks,” NotEnrique said, but he didn’t squirm out of Claire’s arms. Instead, he returned the hug with all four of his limbs.
“By using the staff, you became receptive to her magic. She tried to twist you even further; that’s why she told you those things,” Blinky said. “But if what she said were all true, then we wouldn’t be standing here now.”
Claire sniffed. “But if that’s true, how can I…” She shifted NotEnrique to her left arm and reached out with her right, but closed her fist on empty air instead of actually summoning the staff to her, like she’d done earlier that night.
“The deepest of magic cannot always be entirely undone,” Blinky said.
“So she and I are connected.”
“Don’t lie to me, Blinky. If you do that, I’ll - I’ll just ask Strickler.”
“You’d trust the changeling--”
“He was going to kill me to stop Morgana. You wouldn’t have.”
“And that’s a reason to trust him, now?” NotEnrique said.
“I still carry something of her within me. I need you to take that seriously, not--” she took a deep breath, “--try to spare my feelings.”
The kitchen was silent was a long moment. Then, Blinky asked: “Did she really have you call her ‘mother’?”
“No.” Claire wiped her eyes. “That was me. She wanted - she wanted me to tell her everything, every night. I know now that she probably wanted to know about Jim, about all of us, but I - I was trying to understand why I was having those dreams. And my mom and I - we haven’t been getting along lately.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” NotEnrique said.
Claire continued. “So I thought - I thought my mind had made up a different mother for me.”
“It is said that in the vernacular of wizards, one’s teacher is sometimes called one’s parent,” Blinky said. “It might help to try and think of it that way. Otherwise, I do not know what to tell you, other than I believe that you are free of Morgana’s influence. If you wish to ask Strickler, I cannot stop you; but I would advise against it.”
“Thanks, Blinky. It does help.”
“Here.” NotEnrique liberated one arm, and offered Claire the mug she’d put down earlier. “It won’t be hot chocolate much longer.”
“I think it would be; I kind of nuked it,” Claire replied, but she accepted the mug and she was smiling slightly.
“Eh, details.” Finally, NotEnrique gently squirmed out of Claire’s hold and back to the counter.
“I remember liking chocolate. It is one of the few things I miss about being human,” Blinky said. “That, and whipped cream.”
“Yeah, I miss human food, too,” said NotEnrique, “but socks are still kind of awesome.”
Claire wiped her eyes again. “Thanks, guys.”
“It’s okay to feel not okay, Sis. Life isn’t always sunshine and puppies.”
“Indeed; sometimes it is dark and gruesome,” Blinky said. He’d assumed his teaching stance, with two of his hands held behind his back as he gesticulated with the other two.
NotEnrique gave him a Look; Claire laughed weakly.
Blinky ignored them, and continued. “The first step towards feeling better is accepting that right now, you do not.”
“Nah, that’s the second,” NotEnrique said. “The first one was making hot chocolate.”
All three of them laughed. It felt good, to laugh; it made Claire believe that maybe the two trolls were right - maybe it was going to be all right.
After all, they’d made it so far.