Solène Malterre walked up to the Delatour castle with increasing trepidation. It was a dark, grey day. Rain poured down endlessly, turning the ground to mud. Fortunately, the wind wasn't too bad, so Solène didn't get entirely soaked underneath her umbrella, but it still felt like she was wading through a lake.
Even so, right now, part of her would be much happier outside than inside.
Solène reached the door after a lifetime, and hesitated. She hadn't been very certain of what she was going to do when she'd headed out and was even less certain now that she'd arrived. She could just turn around and walk away. That option was certainly open to her. And it was a lot better than just standing around with rainwater pooling her shoes.
But then she'd never know. Never really know.
She rang the doorbell. The door opened far too quickly.
Daphné Delatour stood in the gloom of the doorway. Her black dress and long, black hair made her seem even paler than she normally already was. Her black choker and necklace decorated with curious silver runes were oddly menacing. Though not as menacing as her icy blue eyes.
And then she smiled and, suddenly, there was a hint of warmth.
"Solène," Daphné said happily. "Haven't seen you in a while. Please, come in."
"Thank you," Solène replied, quickly making her way into the stone hallway. "You're looking well."
Daphné leaned heavily on her black walking stick. "That's nice of you to say. But you must be terribly cold. Coffee? Tea?"
Solène was led to the kitchen where a coffee machine was already working away. Two minutes later the two of them were seated around the kitchen table with steaming mugs in front of them.
"How's Pierre doing?" Daphné asked, with what seemed to be genuine interest.
"He's... managing," said Solène. "Doing well in school, and of course Stan is still around to help. But it's still tough."
"I can imagine. And you? How are you doing?"
"I survive," Solène replied. "Clothilde didn't take all the money and I still have my job at city hall. Things could've been worse."
"Do you blame me?" Daphné asked.
The question came out of nowhere. It was one Solène knew she should have been expecting, but it still took her by surprise.
"I... I don't..." she faltered. Started again. "My father brought it on himself. His obsession with the Delatour tower. If he'd just let it go, things would've worked out fine."
"Things would've also worked out fine if I'd just rolled over for him," said Daphné with a smile that wasn't entirely nice.
"No," said Solène. "I don't think they would have. Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to why I'm here."
"Oh?" said Daphné, feigning surprise and doing a rather poor job of it.
"My father. The things he believed. They're all... true... aren't they?"
"Yes," said Daphné.
Solène nodded gloomily. Somehow she'd expected more than just a flat admission. A denial, maybe. A nuanced explanation, perhaps. Possibly even a speech about how from a certain point of view some of his beliefs might be construed as accurate.
"And you... are you really a witch, then?" Solène asked.
"Yes, I am," said Daphné.
Solène stared down at her coffee. Gathered her courage. Took a deep breath.
"Can you teach me?"
Daphné's blue eyes burned into her own. "A Malterre asking a Delatour to teach them magic? That didn't end so well last time."
"I know," said Solène. "I think... I think that's why I'm asking. Maybe it would remove the stain from my family's soul. Maybe it would make up for what my family did to yours."
"Your family's already paid," said Daphné. "And you certainly didn't do anything wrong."
"Only benefited from the whole thing," said Solène wryly. "Until it fell apart. But alright. If it's not for atonement, perhaps you'll teach me to keep the tradition alive. Right now, you're the only witch in these parts. Do you really want to be the last?"
That had been three months ago.
Now Solène was making her way through the forest surrounding the Delatour castle. It was another grey day, but at least it wasn't raining. Daphné had sent her out here, but had refused to tell her why. That, Solène had learned, was more or less her way. She'd order her to do something and then leave her to figure out the why of it on her own.
It really was ludicrous to think Daphné had once been a teacher. Or studying Science, for that matter. Oh, there was an analytical mind in there somewhere, but it was so wrapped up in the occult it was impossible to imagine her ever attending university.
Then again, she had dropped out, hadn't she?
On the other hand, was she so much better? She'd studied law, had a decent job working for the local government and was now out in the woods on the word of a self-proclaimed witch as part of her studies of magic. She really shouldn't be the one throwing stones in this glass house, should she?
Solène stopped as her wanderings led her into a clearing. There was a small, oval pool here, but what it was filled with wasn't water. Or, yes, it was water. But it was... odd. Shimmering strangely in the grey light.
Solène stepped forward. There was something about the pool that wasn't quite right, yet she also couldn't draw herself away from it. Her reflection appeared in the water, and it was all wrong. Her blonde hair was unbound and long, falling below her shoulders. Her sensible white-and-black business attire had been replaced with a bare-shouldered, blue-and-green dress. She seemed... happy, this other Solène. Peaceful. And also-
Something howled behind her. Solène turned around and stepped away from the noise into the pool. As she did so, she trod on her strange reflection and it disappeared in the rippling waves.
A... creature emerged from the bushes. A skeleton made from the bones of all sorts of things. Strips of flesh hung from its barren frame and it looked at her with the empty sockets in its antlered skull.
Solène stumbled backwards, too terrified to even scream. There was nothing she could do against this. She could heal bruises, soothe pain, manage a not-too-terrible fever. She didn't stand a chance against some... some beast made of bones.
She turned around and made a run for it, splashing through the silvery water of the pool. She didn't get far. A stone statue stood at the opposite bank of the pool. A winged sphinx looked down on her with an expression of grim determination on its immovable face. Strangely, its face almost looked like Daphné.
The beast growled. It had reached the edge of the pool, but was unwilling or unable to go any further. It stood, swaying back and forth, staring at Solène with its empty eyes. Above her, the sphinx gazed at it with a look of blank hatred.
Solène moved away from the cold stone until she stood more or less in the centre of the pool. Between the skeletal beast and the grim statue, it seemed to be the only light in the entire forest.
Now that the first stab of terror was fading, Solène found herself looking at the beast. There was something familiar about it, too. She'd never seen it before. Or at least, she didn't think she had. She just, sort of, knew it. As if it was in her blood.
"You... you were the protector of my family, weren't you?" Solène asked.
The beast nodded.
"You helped make the Malterres great."
The beast nodded again. Above them, the sphinx looked at them with contempt.
"So are you here for me, or...?"
The beast held out one skeletal hand. It was full of gold coins. They shone brightly in the gloomy forest, brighter even than the pool. So full of coins was the beast's hand that coins spilled from between its fingers and landed in the water. It didn't matter. For every coin that fell two more took its place.
The sphinx regarded the scene with disgust.
They weren't really coins, Solène knew. Somehow. They were wealth. Prestige. Influence. Power. The complete restoration of the Malterres. And they were all for her. They only thing she needed to do was step aside. Let the beast destroy the sphinx and Solène would be back on top of the world.
And what was the sphinx, anyway? Just a statue. Cold stone, cold eyes, cold heart. It gave nothing, judged everything. It had nothing but disdain for her. Hardly a sacrifice. In fact, the world would be better without it. And all she needed to do was just take a step sideways. That's all.
Solène shook her head.
"Get out," she said.
The beast held up its glittering hand. It had everything. Everything she could possibly want. And it wanted, so much, to give it all to her. For just the tiniest little favour in return.
"Liar!" Solène screamed. "You corrupted us. You destroyed my family!"
The beast's hand shivered. The golden coins trembled and vanished, blown away by the breeze. The beast looked imploringly at Solène, desperation in the black holes that were its eyes. The darkness of the forest reached up to it and coiled itself around its bones.
The beast didn't even struggle as the forest pulled it into the earth. It just... vanished.
Solène breathed out. She was shaking with adrenaline, but she felt better. Good, even. And maybe now, finally, it was all-
Solène turned around when she heard the grinding of stone on stone. The sphinx stepped down from its pedestal, its blank face unreadable. It loped towards her, splashing easily into the pool.
"No, wait," Solène said as the grim statue raced towards her. "I just saved you, didn't I? This isn't how-"
The sphinx lunged. Solène staggered back, lost her footing and fell. The sphinx flew at her, its stone turning to light. As she hit the water, Solène wasn't hit by the stone she'd been dreaded, but instead found herself enveloped in its strange blue glow.
As the water closed around her, the light of the sphinx wrapped itself around her body, sank into her skin and filled her with its glow.
Solène opened her to see Daphné looking down at her. There was a rare smile on her face.
"So it's happened, then," Daphné said.
Solène jolted upwards. She'd been lying on the ground, dead autumn leaves tangled in her hair. The air was deathly cold and made all the worse by the fact she was soaked to the bone.
"What... Did I fall unconscious?" she asked.
"Looks like it," said Daphné.
Daphné pulled Solène to her feet and wrapped a heavy coat around her shivering body. She gratefully melted into the warmth.
"We should be heading back to the castle," Daphné said.
Solène leaned on Daphné shoulder and let her guide her feet back. Even though she still walked with a cane, Daphné didn't seem bothered by the extra weight and, right now, after what happened, Solène really needed some human contact.
"Did you drag me out of that pool?" Solène asked at length.
"No," Daphné replied.
"Then who did?" Solène asked.
"Nobody. There's no pool in the forest. None like that."
"But I'm soaking wet."
"So then, how? What happened?"
Daphné sighed. "If I could explain that, I could explain everything. And magic wouldn't be a mystery any more."
"You sound frustrated," said Solène.
"You have no idea."
"So what's next?" Solène asked.
"What's next is a change of clothes and a hot cup of tea in front of a roaring fireplace."
"That sounds good," said Solène.
It was a new day. Not just a continuation of time somewhat arbitrarily divided into units by humans, but an actually really new day.
Solène felt lighter than she ever had. The world seemed different too, somehow. Brighter. Less mundane. Full of promise.
After drying up in front of the fire, she'd spent the night in the Delatour castle. Daphné had insisted. Odd, because up until now, Daphné had always been adamant that she leave the moment her lessons were over.
Or, considering what had happened, maybe it wasn't odd at all.
Solène said at the breakfast table, happily eating toast. Daphné leaned against the kitchen counter, a mug of coffee in her hand and a dour look on her face.
"I expect you'll be leaving then."
"If you want me to," said Solène. "But I called Stan last night, told him I'd be spending the night here. He'll take care of Pierre, so I'm not in any particular rush."
"That's nice, but it's not what I meant," said Daphné.
"You faced your past, redeemed your family's sin. You're done. Time to walk away, right?" said Daphné.
"No, I don't think so," said Solène. "I think it's time to start the second chapter, instead. What I've seen, what I've... felt. I may not quite be a witch yet, but I do intend to be one. Now more than ever."
Daphné gave her a thoughtful look. "Alright then. So be it. But there's going to be some changes."
"Changes?" Solène asked.
"You're going to move into the castle," said Daphné. "You and your son."
Solène almost choked on her toast. "What?" she managed, spraying crumbs.
"The sphinx' light filled you, did it? I say that makes you a Delatour. And this is the castle of the Delatour witches."
"Just like that? If just move in here with you- into your home?"
"Of course," said Daphné. "As soon as possible."
"And what about Stan?"
Daphné rolled her eyes. "If your brother can stop hitting on me every time he sees me, I suppose I could find some room for him here as well."
"Thank you," said Solène. "Still. It's a big step."
"It's a step you've been preparing to take the moment you decided to study witchcraft. Besides," Daphné added with an enigmatic smile. "I'm sure you'll be glad of the extra space soon enough."