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The Queen of Demons
Anne sighed with pleasure as ghosts brushed her bare flesh. She kept her eyes closed as they murmured softly about her, savoring their faintly chilly caresses. She inhaled the ripe perfumes of decay and for the first time in a very long time felt a deep contentment.
Anne, one of the phantoms simpered. Anne, there is no time.
A bit irritated, she opened her eyes to see three women standing before her.
No, she realized. They weren’t standing at all. Feeling a weird tingle that she knew ought to be more, she turned her gaze around her to see what else there was.
She was elsewhere, of course, couched on deep, spongy moss grown on a hammock in a blackwater fen that went beyond sight in every direction. The branches of the trees above her were tatted together like the finest Safnian lace, allowing only the wispiest of diffuse light through to glisten on the dew-jeweled webs of spiders larger than her hand.
The women swayed faintly, the boughs above them creaking a bit from their weight.
One wore a black gown and a black mask, and her locks were flowing silver. The next wore forest green and a golden mask, and her red braids swayed almost to her feet. The third wore a mask of bone and a dress the color of dried blood. Her hair was brown.
Their undisguised lips and flesh were bluish-black above the coils of rope that had cinched about their necks and wrung out their lives.
The Faiths, those obtuse creatures, were dead. Should she be sad? Part of her thought so.
She started. Was one of them still alive? But then she felt the ghosts again, tickling against her. Now she knew who the ghosts were.
Should she be frightened? Part of her thought so.
“You’re dead,” she observed.
“Yes,” the faint voice replied. “We fought to linger here, but too much of us is gone. We had something to tell you.”
“Something useful? That would be the first time.”
“Pity us, Anne. We did what we could. Find our sister.”
“That’s right, there are four of you,” Anne remembered. Was she asleep? She seemed to be having trouble recalling things.
“Yes, four. Find—ah, no. He’s coming. Anne—”
But then a cold wind started in the depths of the quag, and the canopy was alive with strange dark birds, and Anne was suddenly alone with corpses.
But only for a moment. Then she felt him, as she had another time when in this place. All of her blood seemed to gather on one side of her body, and all of the branches of the forest yearned toward his invisible presence.
“Well, there you are, little queen,” the voice said. “It’s been too long.”
“Stay back,” she said. “You remember last time.”
“Last time, I was weaker and you had help,” the voice replied. “This is not last time.”
“What do you want?”
“Your company, sweet queen. Your hand in marriage.”
“Who are you?”
“I have no king,” Anne bristled. “I am queen, regent in my own right.”
“Look deeper in your heart,” the voice purred.
“Who are you?”
“You want my name? What do names matter when one is as we are?”
“There is no ‘we,’ ” Anne protested. But her belly tingled, as it had when Roderick had kissed her there.
The presence moved closer, and though she could not see him, she felt as if the shadow wore a wicked smile.
“Why did you kill the Faiths?”
A deep chuckle rustled through the branches, and the water stirred into circles all about.
Then a ruddy light fell on the broken surface of the fen, and Anne felt heat behind her. With a shriek, she turned to confront him.
But it was no male thing that stood behind her; there was no mistaking that. The body that shone like a white flame was willowy but certainly female, dressed only in locks that billowed and curled like strands of liquid, living fire. Her face was so terrible in its beauty that Anne felt as if icicles had been driven through her eyes and deep into her brain. She screamed so loudly, she felt her throat was tearing.
“Hush,” the woman said, and Anne felt her larynx instantly close. Then the horrible gaze went through and beyond her.
“Leave,” she commanded.
“You only delay the inevitable,” the male voice muttered.
“Leave,” the woman repeated.
Anne felt the weight of him lessen.
“I didn’t kill your friends,” he said, and was gone.
Anne felt the woman’s gaze on her but could not look up.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“The Kept gave you my true name,” the woman replied. “He gave you some of my old epithets—Queen of Demons, and so on.”
“Yes. But I don’t . . .” She trailed off in confusion.
“You wonder rather what I am. What I want. Why I’ve helped you.”
“I guess so,” Anne said weakly, feeling suddenly presumptuous.
“Am I demon or saint?” the woman sighed, so close that Anne could feel her breath.
“Yes,” Anne barely managed.
“If there were a difference, perhaps I could tell you,” she replied.
“And the man . . .”
“He’s quite right, you know,” the woman went on. “He didn’t kill the Faiths. I did. For you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You led me to them. You rejected them, withdrew your protection, and I ended their existence. All but the one, and I shall find her.”
“You don’t need them,” she said. “You never did. They were poor councillors. And now you have me.”
“I don’t want you,” Anne protested.
“Then say my name. Tell me to leave.”
“You won’t,” the woman said. “You need my help. You need all the help you can get, because he will come for you and will either make you his or destroy you. Which means you must destroy him. And that you cannot currently do. Your friends will fall first, then you.”
“And if I believe you, how can I stop that?”
“Strengthen yourself every way you can. Let me teach you the ways of your power. When he comes, you will be ready, if you trust me.”
“Trust you,” Anne murmured, finally lifting her gaze to the woman’s face.
This time it wasn’t so terrifying. There was something in the set of the woman’s eyes that seemed truthful.
“Give me a reason to trust you,” Anne said.
A smile slit the woman’s face. “You have another enemy, one you haven’t noticed yet, one that even I have difficulty seeing, for he—or perhaps she—sits deep in the shadows of the Reiksbaurg Palace. Like you, he is able to look across leagues and through time. Haven’t you wondered why you manage to surprise the forces of the Church but Hansa is always one step ahead of you?”
“Yes,” Anne replied. “I assumed spies and traitors were involved. How can you be certain it’s shinecraft?”
“Because there is a place I can never see, and that is the sign of a Hellrune,” the woman replied.
“A Hellrune sees through the eyes of the dead, who do not know past from present. Because the law of death has been broken, that is an even more powerful gift than it once was. But you get your visions directly through the sedos power. You can be stronger: See the consequences of his visions and act against them. In time, you will even be able to command the dead to give him false visions. But before you achieve that mastery, he can do much harm. If you act as I say, you may stop him sooner.”
“How is that?”
“Send an embassy to Hansa, to the court of Marcomir. Send your mother, Neil MeqVren, Alis Berrye—”
“I’ll do no such thing,” Anne snapped. “I just got my mother back; I won’t send her into danger.”
“Do you think she isn’t in danger in Eslen? Try to dream about that. I promise you that you will not like what visions come.”
A sick dismay was starting to grip Anne, but she tried to stay strong. “You’re less use than the Faiths,” she said.
“No, I’m not. Your mother is going to ask to go, anyway; she thinks there is a chance for peace. You’ll know by that that I’m telling you something useful. But further, I’ll tell you this: If you send your mother, the knight, and the assassin to Kaithbaurg, I foresee an excellent chance for them to end the threat of the Hellrune and thus weaken Hansa. If you do not send them, I see you weeping over your mother’s body in Eslen-of-the-Dead.”
“An ‘excellent chance’? Why can’t you see whether they kill him or not?”
“Two reasons. The first is that since you haven’t decided to send them, the future is cloudy. But the deeper reason is that as I told you, I am not able to see the Hellrune. But I know the opportunity can arise. Try seeing it yourself.”
“I can’t direct my visions,” Anne said. “They just come.”
“You can direct them,” the woman insisted. “Remember how once you had to be summoned here? Now you come and go as you please. It’s the same. Everything you need is here, especially now that the Faiths aren’t mucking around.”
“Where is here?” Anne asked. “I’ve never understood that.”
“Why, inside the sedos,” she replied. “This is where the world is moved from, where the power flows from. It is given form only by those who live here. It is your kingdom now, and you can shape it as you want. Hansa, the future, the past—all are here. Grasp the reins of power. You need not take my word for anything I’ve just said. Discover it for yourself.”
And like a fire blown out by a wind, she flickered and was gone.
Anne stood there for a moment, looking at the dead faces of the Faiths.
Was it possible? Could she really free herself from the whims of the forces around her? Could she actually steer them herself, be free of doubt, finally chart her own destiny without the meddling of untrustworthy wights?
“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” she asked the Faiths.
But their whispering was over.
“Well,” she murmured. “Let’s see if she’s telling the truth.”
And she saw, and woke with tears streaming on her face, and knew some things had to be done.
She rose to do them.