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 Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Three: The End

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Xandra



Posts : 169
Join date : 2010-09-17

PostSubject: Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Three: The End   Sat Nov 28, 2015 11:01 pm


"In which a dream is shattered, and an empire crumbles.”

****

After the departure of the Queen of the Cross, the night became quiet and still once more. The series of events had seemingly paused the work of all creatures in the land, bidding them to halt, and to wait for news of what had transpired. Not even the frigid wind outside dared to shatter the somber stillness. The only movements came from within the walls of the castle—though even the palace denizens were hesitant to rush, becoming like ghosts in the many rooms and corridors. It was in this dark ambiance that the only ones who seemed truly alive and fearless were the shadows on the walls.

What had started as a regular day had become a dreadful night. Now, after having shed such heartbroken tears, the little prince was finally asleep. Resting peacefully, his gentle breathing was the only sound in the room. Darkness was his quilt, silence his lullaby…and as if dancing for him, the shadows in his room circled and moved about, peering at him in his cradle.

Out in the corridor, just beyond the nursery doors, the household of the Star could find no such peace. They were reluctant to return to bed, or to take up some other activity in light of recent events, but with no way to contact the Cross or set out after them, they could only wait. Wrapped in a delicate dressing gown, the Empress stared at the floor, tucked safely against the Emperor’s chest. Nearby, the Grand Duke was busily flipping through one of his many books, an old, beaten tome with an engraved spine, searching for some answer to his own unasked questions.

"It will be all right,” Pavel assured her, though he himself was uncertain. It was his duty—not as a leader, but as her husband—to say it anyway. "Arianna will be fine. They all will.” When this failed to illicit a response, he sighed. "She’s only just left, Danii…she will send word as soon as she can.”

For as much as she was tempted to argue, she merely nodded her head in agreement. It was all she could manage. "I hope you’re right…”

Looking up from the pale countenance of his bride the Emperor peered across at his brother, leaning against the wall beside the baby’s doors. He frowned. "Must you have that thing out here?” he spat disapprovingly. "This is hardly the time for your heathenism.”

"Shamanism,” the Duke replied flatly, "And this is the perfect time—though hardly the time for your bias.” He turned the page in his book, skimming carefully for the answers he sought. "And the Imperium is not a ‘thing.’ It is a grimoire.”

"Call it what you will—it’s still witchcraft, and it has no place here.” The Emperor looked down at his distraught wife once more. "Especially not now.”

"Witchcraft…” The pale-haired noble looked up from his studying, quirking an eyebrow at his twin. "For someone who professes to trust me so thoroughly, you certainly don’t show it.”

"Just leave him be,” Daniella interjected softly from his chest. "Let him have his book…” For as quick as she was to break up their argument, she was less dedicated to the task at that moment than she usually would be. And rightly so; her mind was consumed with thoughts of her friend’s safety, and that of her son and husband. She was in no mood for their childish bickering.

Exasperated, but defeated, Pavel nodded and let the argument go. "What are you doing, anyway?”  Though he didn’t approve, he couldn’t help but be morbidly curious all the same. And it was better to have a conversation than to suffocate under the crushing mantle of silence.

He took the necessary moment to finish the page before responding, turning to the next. "Just trying to name this feeling I’ve been having recently…” He frowned. "There has to be a reason for it…”

"Did it ever occur to you that you were predicting this mess with the Cross?”

"Spoken as if you believe in prediction,” Peter replied coldly, thumbing forward another few pages. His interest in the ancient grimoire’s wisdom was uncharacteristically low suddenly. All he could think of was the sight of the carriage rolling away, and the sense that it would never return. He sighed, and carefully closed the book, burying his hand in the pocket of his coat. He paused then, as his fingers brushed over something soft and pliant. He drew the object out. It was Nikolai’s cat—the one he’d made for him. The adventurous boy had left it out in the gardens, and he’d forgotten he picked it up to return it to him. He smiled slightly, rubbing its soft material with his thumb, then tucked it back into his coat again. "…I hope that’s it.”

But if that was all it was, why did he still feel it?

Pavel sighed as well, the sight of the plush toy subduing his lingering temper. It reminded him that his son was near, and did not need to be woken by his father’s frustrations. Besides, he was an emperor; he couldn’t afford to pick fights with his brother anymore, no matter how much stress they were all under. An argument would only upset his wife and wake their baby. And that was unnecessary.

But the baby was sound asleep inside the nursery. There he lay in his cradle, oblivious to those outside, and to the many formless presences that surrounded him. They moved and shifted as if alive, sliding down, merging into one. The walls were left bare and shadowless as the darkness gathered on the floor, expanding into a black sea. Now the cradle was nothing more than a stranded boat, the sleeping infant its precious cargo.

Restless, the darkened floor shifted and contracted, centering beneath the baby’s bed. There, it slid up over the wood, resting atop the headboard of the cradle. The gathered darkness became a black mass, too thick and heavy to pass any longer as shadows. It leaned dangerously closer, slowly forming a featureless head. It peered down at the infant, sprouting two eyes. It reached for the prince.

And its touch was abruptly repelled, with a faintly green flash. The invisible barrier, lingering about the baby’s skin, denied the living darkness access to the tiny child. Moments later, his eyes flickered open—and he let out a heart-stilling shriek.

The frightened sound echoed sharply from the nursery hall, and outside, his parents and uncle started. The doors flew open, the light from the corridor spearing into the shadowy room to cast upon the scene.

Its attempt foiled, the shadow creature gulped back its eyes, turning to the intruders from its place above the cradle. It shifted and took the shape of a beast, hissing before expanding into the walls, darkening the entire room.

Daniella gasped as her husband and brother-in-law moved to shield her from the living blackness. "The baby!” she cried. From the doors, the cradle was buried at the center of the room, now surrounded in living shadows. There was no way to reach it.

The men exchanged a tense glance as Pavel drew his wife up behind him. "Peter—”

He needed no more prompting. The arcane tome held to his chest began to glow, veins of light creeping along the engraved spirals and symbols on its weathered cover. He lifted his hand, entering a pace. "Run.”

"Peter—!”

"But the baby—”

"Run, now!” he shouted, and shoved them at once from the room. He clutched the book tightly, orienting his palm on the floor. "I’ll get the baby!”

The Empress struggled, but the Emperor knew better—and in spite of it all, he did trust his brother. Taking his wife forcibly by her shoulders, he dragged her into the corridor, and ran.

Peter wasted no time. He shoved his hand forth. "Divello!” The glow of the book flared bright, and white-hot light ripped in a line through the room, tearing a path through the lingering wall of shadows. Following this, he made a rush for the cradle.

A horrible shriek filled the room, and the walls came to life. They writhed as if in pain, furiously stretching across the bordering walls and door, reaching after the fleeing royals, consuming both light and shadow as they expanded. In the midst of this chaos, the baby could only cry for help, but his attacker had no intention of giving up on him. Looming from under and behind the cradle, an extension of the beast formed, perching on the wooden frame. Swiftly, it reached for the Duke’s throat.

Peter ducked quickly back, and his palm came up to meet it. "Extundo!” An invisible wall formed between the creature and the man, shoving it viciously back, off of the cradle and out of reach.

The baby cried and cried, unable to understand the darkness and the noise, or the all-consuming terror that clutched at his chest, as he had never known such things before. Leaning quickly, the Duke gathered his nephew into his arms, grasping the spell book in his free hand and pressing the child close to his chest. "Hold on, little bell.” He whirled around, hurling another divello along the path to the door, and broke into a run.

Repelled, but far from stopped, the creature rejoined the rest of the shadow mass and gave chase.

The corridor was no longer a safe place. No light remained beyond the room, as if it had been devoured by the passing shadows. The only exception was the piercing path of Peter’s spell, and the small glimmer on the prince’s wrist. The darkness had spread outside the nursery, and even now surrounded and raced after the escaping infant and his guardian.

As they advanced, a number of guards’ corpses began to hinder the way, littering the floors of the hall. The soldiers lay still, no visible trace of blood marking them, expressions of horror frozen on their faces. They had been unable to protect their lord and lady—but it was a rare one, the mortal capable of facing off against a creature of a different realm. Farther along, the bodies several servants followed, shocked and bloodless, just like the guards. But the Emperor and the Empress were not among them; they had not fallen to the beast. It seemed its objective remained the Prince.

Repulsed though he was by the horrific sight, the Duke could not bring himself to feel pity, or even fear as he hurdled and dodged around the scattered remains, clutching the glowing tome and his frightened nephew close. He had failed to stop the creature from killing these people, but his family had not shared their fate. Terrible and selfish as it was, that was what mattered the most to him. With this thought in mind, he ran, as hard and as fast as he could, turning only to hold out the book and shout, "Extundo!” and blast the trailing mass of darkness away. He followed it quickly with a sharp, "Divello!” that tore through the air and smashed through the center of the shadows, splitting them open. With that much done, he dove off around a corner and kept running. If its goal was to harm or to take the baby, then it was going to have to catch him first.

The corridor trembled, conveying the shadow’s ire at being evaded. It expanded, turning the walls, ceiling and floor black. A hiss echoed menacingly through the hall, and from above, it reached sharply for the child.

Once again, a green glimmer flashed, and the shadow appendage was forced to retreat, unable to touch its prey. Yet, far from discouraged, it reached from the floor for Peter’s ankles and legs, looking to bring him down instead. If it couldn’t reach the child, it would reach for his guardian.

Feeling the shift around his feet, the Duke followed his first instinct and leapt, narrowly avoiding several black tendrils that would have otherwise tripped him mid-run. This was no simple monster—not if it was capable of such intelligent thought, even planning. He kept moving, throwing another extundo back over his shoulder to force the thing back and away, racing through a four-way cross in the hall. Peripherally, as he passed, he saw an oncoming guard. It was all he could do to desperately shout, "Go back! Don’t come this way!”

But his warning wasn’t enough. The armored soldier saw the Duke and the Prince and rushed to assist—just as the shadow caught up. All he could do was stare and aim at nothingness before the beast reared back to engulf him whole in a sphere of its substance. A guttural scream was muted by the darkness, and a deformed and distant chuckle echoed out from above. The dark surface rippled as if joining in before parting once more, making a show of the bloody mess the guard’s punctured corpse had become. Then, as if sinking into a black sea, the remains plunged back into the shadows. Again, it ebbed away, leaving only flesh and bones behind…no blood.

Peter regretted having looked back, and choked on the bile that rose in his throat at the horrifying sight. Panting heavily, he lifted the Imperium like a shield before him, clutching the baby protectively close while backing away. No doubt, its intention had been to frighten him. It was successful.

The disembodied chuckle became a sharp and grating cackle, and from the floor rose a towering humanoid figure. Its head twitched, emitting a morbid sound, and a set of teeth sprouted from inside the dark mass. It smiled at him.

So, the creature was an intelligent being…or at least, controlled by one. It had clearly enjoyed the meal it had made of the helpless man. Mocking him with it, silently promising him a similar fate. But that would not be his fate, he told himself—not his, and not Nikolai’s. Not so long as he was breathing. Holding up the darkened book, the Duke felt a cold smirk tug at his lips in reply. And he pointed his fingers right at that smile. "Divello.” The Imperium flashed.

The figure’s head exploded. With that, he tore into motion again.

A scream was his reply. Blasted open once more, the blackness swiftly resumed its pursuit, spreading from floor to walls, and once again to the ceiling. It trailed the Duke closely, two shadowy creatures peering up from the black river that followed. They accelerated, steadily closing in on him. Diving and resurfacing at each wall, the creatures repeating the motion to sprout out of the ceiling and floor, staring banefully at the troublesome mortal. They repeated the pattern as they approached, leaping down on him from each wall with a shared snarl.

Peter thought fast, and held up the book flat over his head. "Extundo!” With his casting hand gripping the book, the energy blasted from its surface, slamming upward through the descending masses of darkness and teeth and forcing them to retreat. He did not pass unscathed—a falling claw slashed through his cloak, narrowly missing the back of his neck. The evasive gesture threw off his center of balance, and he stumbled and spun, nearly losing his footing in the process. Through sheer force of will, he managed to catch himself and keep going, taking another blind corner to buy himself time. He thought quickly, and combined his spells as the creature rounded the corner at his heels. "Extundo divellis!”

The resulting wave of energy reacted like a timed mine, exploding on contact and sweeping the darkness back with a wall of force. The detonation blasted it apart, sending its screeching fragments flying farther down the hall. The furious blackness shrieked and howled, and struggled to reorganize itself as the resilient noble fled, taking full advantage of the head start.

That had been too close, and the thing was getting smarter. The compound incantation had taken a good deal more energy than both spells alone, leaving him reeling in the aftermath. He could only run so far before he got tired, and that thing caught up with him. And he had already seen what would happen then. But he had also seen the one thing they had on their side: the creature could not touch Nikolai. No doubt it was the work of the fairies, for one of them had gifted him with safety. It seemed that nothing that meant him harm could touch him.

Yet, it could touch Peter himself, and had certainly been trying to do so. That meant that, no matter how much he fought, the baby would be in danger for as long as he was with him.

As he passed at full speed through the doors to west wing of the castle, he hurled an extundo behind him, slamming them shut to buy some more ground, all the while searching for his next move. A ways down the corridor, he recognized the entrance to the servants’ halls, the narrow pathways through which the help traversed the palace. Farther still were the doors to one of the grand dining halls, once used to host extravagant parties. There was a lot of room in there.

He had an idea.

Blasting open those doors and the door to the servants’ corridor, he ducked quickly into the latter, hunkering down on the floor and pushing it most of the way closed behind him. "Hush,” he whispered to the whimpering baby, who—in spite of his fear and confusion—did as he was asked. He had been a shockingly good sport throughout all of this, which could only be attributed to his agreeable nature. Taking a deep breath, Peter focused, fingers tightening on the spell book as he pictured the dining room doors down the hall. And the moment he heard the creature force its way into the wing, he whispered, "Refero…”

The grand doors slammed loudly shut. And he held his breath, and prayed.

A tremor shook the entire corridor as the darkness spread across it, and it took the bait with a resounding crash as it entered the great dining hall. Such speed and force spoke of the danger they would face once encountering the shadows again, but it also exposed how impatient the beast was growing.

Inside the ornate chamber, the creature reformed, taking the shape of a monstrous beast. It growled, the sound rattling through the hanging chandeliers, and swiftly starting to search the room, tearing the furniture apart, no longer concerned with stealth. As it did, its remaining mass slipped through the gaps in the doors, reuniting with its body and flooding the entire hall with shadows.

The diversion had worked, leading the creature into the spacious and cluttered room to search in vain, but it wouldn’t be long before the ruse was discovered. Quietly, Peter sighed. He climbed to his feet and, gathering the infant close, started quickly down the hidden corridor, following it between the walls to where it came out at the other end of the wing. He wouldn’t have much time, and would feel much safer when there was a floor between them.

The sound of his boots on the marble floor and the soft tinkering of the baby’s bracelet were the only sounds beyond the distant crashing of the destruction. Danii and Pavel would just have to forgive him for sacrificing the room for their child. As he headed towards the back-most staircase, all he could do was pray that they were all right.

****

A pile of dead guards—that was all that stood between the rulers of the Star and the creature that had besieged the palace.

Pavel slammed the doors to the study, then quickly dragged his desk up against them, seeking to bar the monster’s access. They had already witnessed it themselves; doors and obstructions did little to slow it, but it would take time for it to force its mass through the crevices, and more still if the door was reinforced to keep from breaking down. But he was only stalling now—they were cornered, and it wouldn’t take long for it to get inside.

The beast seemed to be aware of this, for it made its way through wood and stone as it had with flesh…with relative calm. It knew that they could not fight back, and that it was best to keep them away from its more savage half. Thus, it slid through the smallest openings, flooding its way to the regents slowly, but imminently.

Lying back against the wall, Daniella sobbed, her arms folded protectively across her stomach. "What are we going to do…?” she whispered. "That won’t hold for long…”

The Emperor backed away from the makeshift barricade, moving to join his wife. "I’m thinking.” He had been a soldier before he was a monarch, and he wasn’t willing to admit defeat until every option was exhausted. Admittedly, there wasn’t much hope, as they had watched some of their best men fall at the hands of the beast. No bullet, no blade could slow it down, and it overtook every source of light it passed. How could it be fought?  

The dilemma was great, the time available scarce. Despite it being so many wings away, the chaos caused by the searching half of the monster was increasing with its rage. The deception would soon be discovered, if it hadn’t been already, and there would be a steep price to pay when it happened. The creature would make sure of that.

As the dark substance of the shadow’s form crept through the crevasses in the door, Pavel again eased Daniella behind him, wracking his brain for another answer. They were on the second floor, and while he might survive a jump from the window, his wife would not. It was simply too high; she would break both her legs. No physical barrier stopped the beast for long, and no weapon could harm it. Vainly, he wished that he had taken an interest when Peter took up his studies of spirits and magics. Perhaps then he wouldn’t be so helpless, when faced with such an unnatural enemy.

They withdrew into the corner of the chamber, close to the fireplace—the last remaining source of light in the wing. At the very least, the blackness could not overtake that…so they would not die in the dark.

Fortune smiled upon the Emperor’s thinking when enough of the darkness filtered through the barrier to form its tendrils. It slithered menacingly towards the royals, but balked just as soon, just shy of the fire’s illumination. The light was too great in comparison to the amount of darkness that faced them. The creature shrieked and withered, sharing its other half’s ire and urgency. Perhaps that creature too was on its way to them. Then, it would just be another light to extinguish. Three of them, to be exact.

"…It stopped…?” Danii peered carefully from her husband’s shoulder, clutching it with uncertain fingers. "What’s happening?”

Pavel stared hard at the crawling shadows, watching as they cringed from the glowing bar of light in their path. "The fire.” He turned his eyes to the blazing hearth, the glow from which filled their half of the room. The darkness had managed to blacken the many candles and lamps in the halls, because they were small and weak alone. But the fireplace was far too bright, so bright that it couldn’t get near to reach them. "The light holds it at bay.”

The Empress looked uncertainly up at her husband as a frightful glint entered his eyes. Her fingers tightened on his shoulder. "What are you thinking?”

"Something insane…” Again, his eyes flickered to the fireplace. It was their only chance. Slowly, cautious of the creature’s movements, he extended a hand towards the hearth, snatching the brass fire spike from its canister and burying it in a burning log. In moving his desk, his pending work had splayed across the floor, leaving a nice line of kindling along the antique carpet. "Stay behind me.”

Dragging the flaming log from the grate, he slung it onto the floor between them, and it ignited the scattered documents and the carpet as it rolled towards the shadows. The fire was quick to spread, catching between the sheets of parchment and crawling across the floor.

The reaction was immediate. The tendrils withdrew even further, writhing away from the fire with a shriek. It wasn’t fire they feared, but the increasing intensity of the light. Still, just as shadows existed even in the brightest of places, the tendrils remained—waiting until they could overpower the fire. The darkness back away and slid to the door, gathering there in wait as its remaining body joined it. From that spot the creature expanded threateningly across the walls, taunting the brightness it knew it still could not extinguish. Once again, it was merely a matter of time.

The flames spread across the rug and crept into the desk and cabinets, fanning quickly into a blaze that threatened to consume the entire room. With the darkness withheld for the moment, they were left with very few options of escape. Pavel looked at the window, and again, as the fire rose, he contemplated how damaging it would be to jump from so high up. Far less damaging, he was certain, than being impaled and drained by the shadows, or burned to death in the fire he himself had started.

But then, he heard a click, and Daniella cried, "Pavel, here!” drawing his attention to the wall beside the fireplace. Or, where the wall had been. The towering panel had swung open, revealing a dark pathway leading out of the room. At once, he remembered—he had seen this before. In drawing away, she had triggered the mechanism concealed against the side of the mantle. It seemed that luck was on their side. She entered the passage, beckoning him after. "Come on!”

With one last look at the struggling monster, the Emperor went quickly to the door, darting inside and jamming it shut. With a click, it locked behind them, and the seamless panel offered no access to the beast. Even if it were possible for it to force its way through, with the room just beyond ablaze, it had little chance of reaching them anytime soon. He let out a sigh. Safe, for the moment.

"What is this place?” Daniella asked, softly. He could just make her out in the dark, feeling slowly along the dank walls. "Has this always been here?”

Swiping his sleeve across his brow and slipping the fire spike under his belt, Pavel moved to join her, taking her hand in his and slipping by to take the lead. He urged her quickly along after him, finding his way easily in spite of the blackness. He preferred this darkness to the darkness outside. Still, he didn’t want to tempt the idea that these shadows could take on life as well, and so he hurried along the path. "Most all castles have them,” he murmured, "A means of escape, in the event of enemy attack.” How ironic. He guided her around a corner, feeling his way ahead. "Have you ever wondered why palace walls are so thick, but some of the rooms are small? It’s to hide passageways, like this one. I’d forgotten about them, until now.”

"I’m glad for them,” she whispered quietly. As afraid as she was of the dark, she felt much safer here than in the burning room, especially with the promise of distance between themselves and that horrible creature. Privately, she was glad that Arianna had been summoned away. She would not have wished this horrid situation upon her, or her family. "Where does it lead?”

He paused to remember. "…Out into the corridor, on the eastern side of the castle. Once it gets out of the study, it will be looking for us. We have to get there before that happens.” At the very least, they had learned something to use against the creature, and that was that it responded poorly to light. That much made sense, for light was the force that weakened the darkness. While it could not harm it, the presence of fire provided light. He would set fire to the entire castle if it would keep his family alive.

They made their way quickly along the lightless path, the Emperor guided by his memory instead of his eyes, and in due time found themselves against a wall. With a bit of searching, he managed to find the trigger for the panel, and it swung inward, releasing them into the moonlit corridor. Here, many of the candles had either been put out for the night or had never been lit in the first place. Though it was dark here, they were half a wing away from the monster. That gave them a good amount of distance to work with. If only he had remembered the passageway sooner. Much of this could have been avoided.

Though exhausted, the couple continued to run, following the corridor back to the head of the wing. Something was telling him to proceed towards the stairs, to get to the bottom floor and get out of the palace. He suspected that it was his brother’s doing. Peter had always been good at putting ideas in his head. All he could do was try to comply, and hope that he and the baby were still alive.

While the royals joined efforts and raced for safety, half a wing back, the shadow beast merged once more with its more violent half. The tremor that followed shook the walls and corridors alike. Its rage was evident to its fleeing quarry, now more encouraged than ever to get as far away as they could. Immersed in a nightmare, the castle itself fell prey to both silence and darkness at a steady pace. Slowly, every light began to extinguish, to be replaced by a cold chill that filled every room. The creature was conquering the castle as it hunted the nobles, lurking and searching in the dark, where it was best disguised.

But it had unintentionally revealed a weakness in itself, one that the cunning Emperor planned to exploit, even if it cost him all of his possessions. As they ran, the many decorative draperies and tapestries became banners of hope for their survival, and he quickly set about looking for some source of light that had not yet been claimed by the shadows.

They came upon an oil lamp, discarded in one of the windows, beside which sat a number of matches. No doubt, a maid had left them behind while performing her rounds to light the candles. Though the flame was low, it was still burning. As the darkness shook the very floor and walls all around them, looming ever closer in the distance beyond, the Emperor snatched the lamp from the sill, turned and smashed it against the floor at their heels. The oil inside the chamber ignited as it shattered, sending flames pouring across the floor and splashing up the walls to set the window curtains ablaze. At once, the corridor was as bright as day, barring the creature’s access to their position. Spread though it might through the rest of the floor, it would not follow them this way. As the fire jumped between the curtains and tapestries, transforming the hall into a towering inferno, the Emperor and Empress fled to the stairwell, intent on the first floor and—with luck—their salvation.

****

The entrance hall was strangely bright as the Duke stared up at the doors, his frightened nephew clutched to his chest. The moon was high in the sky that night, casting its silver radiance through the window high above them. The portal to freedom stood before him. All he had to do was push it open, and go out to wait for the others.

The logical part of his mind told him to go, to take the child to safety and run as far as he could from the palace…but the loyal part of him refused to obey. He looked uncertainly back into the depths of the darkened castle, hearing nothing but the rumble of the furious creature on its way, and seeing no sign of his brother. He knew better than to stay in a place that was dangerous, and he knew that Pavel was a force to be reckoned with—but he could not bring himself to abandon them. Not when he was the only one who could fight it.

The baby clutched quietly at his shirt, and Peter looked sadly down at him. The creature had first sought him, and would soon be upon them to claim him if it could. He wasn’t certain how much longer he would be able to defend him in the state he was in; his energy was running low, and one more slip might cost him his life. He couldn’t risk endangering him in another confrontation—not when the monster would aim for Peter himself, and harm the baby through him.

Not far from the entrance, the cloakroom door lay open, offering him a suitable answer. He would have to hide him. Quickly, he cast an extundo into the room, to be certain no fragment of the creature awaited, then entered and closed the door behind him. The room itself was dark, but a tiny stained glass window offered just enough moonlight that the baby would not be left in shadows.

Placing the Imperium down on the floor, he knelt, and pulled the coats and mantles from the walls, building a pallet of sorts for the child, then settled him carefully on it. "I’m so sorry,” he whispered, and kissed the boy’s forehead, smoothing his hair as he peered hugely up at him. "I can’t take you with me; you have to stay here.”

Though he didn’t understand what his uncle was saying, little Nikolai flailed his arms with a tiny jingle, wanting to be picked up again. When Peter refused, merely lowering his hands for him, he sniffled, and reached for him again. He did not want to be alone. Not when things were so scary.

"I know, I know…don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid…” Though tears threatened at the corners of his eyes, he knew that he would be safer alone. The fairies’ gift prevented the creature from touching him, and so it could not harm him, no matter what happened. He managed to force an uncertain smile, withholding a cringe as the walls gave a frightening shudder. He didn’t have much time. "It’s okay…we’re going to play game, little bell. We’re going to play the hiding game, all right?”

The baby blinked, and brought his tiny hands up to his eyes, covering them. It was something Peter and Danii had taught him, and played with him to teach him when it was time to be silent He was quite good at it.

"Yes, that’s right…it’s time to hide, and be quiet…” He managed to maintain a reassuring tone, because though the child could only understand some of what he said, he would know by his tone if he were afraid. He kissed him again, then laid him down, reaching into his pocket to draw out the toy he had made for him and setting it in his hands. "You stay right here…I’m coming back…” And silently, he hoped that it wasn’t a lie. He covered him with a light-weight cloak, and, placing a hand on his book, sadly whispered, "Quiesco…

As he watched, his infant nephew clutched his plush toy close, and closed his eyes. Just as quickly, he was sound asleep. Under the influence of the spell, no sound would wake him. He would be safest that way, so he could not reveal himself.

Reaching down to the sleeping child, he carefully removed the golden bracelet he so loved, and wound it about his own fingers. He would need it, to fool the beast again. With tears in his eyes, Peter took up his grimoire and left the small chamber, closing the door and murmuring, "Abolesco.” With a flash of the Imperium, the door disappeared, becoming merely a part of the wall. Now, it was up to him.

To anyone looking up to the castle that night, the image would have been a difficult one to take in. One side of the structure was shrouded in darkness, the other ablaze, igniting the evening sky in shades of bloody red. Within, it was no better—befitting the unsettling scene, the inside of the castle was truly a nightmare. Bodies littered the many corridors and rooms; servants and guards, or what remained of them after attempting to save their own lives or face the intruding force. But for how many lives had been lost, there was no sign of the hellish beast.

Soon, the chaos subsided, and both the first and second levels became as deserted tombs…but the monsters lurking in the dark were certain that their prey was still within reach. They only had to make the most of their intelligence, which led them to aim for the first floor, subtly flooding the grounds with their prowling influence.

Now alone, the Grand Duke braced himself, and began his final gambit, for the safety of his nephew and, hopefully, the lives of his family. Kneeling down, he pulled a knife from his boot, and undid the buttons of his coat. Drawing back the collar of his shirt, he took a breath, and dragged tip of the blade across his shoulder, hissing at the pain as blood welled from the wound. He replaced the knife in its sheath, and wiped his right hand over the fresh injury, gathering the dark liquid in his palm and letting it trickle over the shimmering bracelet. With a wince, he tugged his shirt and coat back up. That would have to suffice.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he held up the spell book with his free hand, and focused on his brother. He suffered an immediate vision of him, bringing his frightened bride down the back stairs, and heading towards the inner halls of the castle. That was what he needed to know. Peter tucked the book away beneath his arm and drove off into the palace, sensing the urgency in the air. Already, what little light remained was beginning to dim and flicker away—and through the stale chill that lingered in the air, the smell of smoke was beginning to creep through the rooms as he passed them. Somehow, he knew what his brother had done. Another hazard he’d have to avoid as he sought them…because it was spreading.

He couldn’t afford to be cautious anymore, not when the darkness and the blaze would soon be upon him either way. "Pavel!” he shouted as he ran towards the central wing, "Danii! Follow my voice, hurry!”

The response was almost immediate. "Peter!” and from the eastern wing appeared the Emperor and Empress, mercifully unscathed. Though the unearthly creature was nowhere in sight, the fire they had started was at their heels, trailing the walls and portraits even as the candles nearby flickered out.

Daniella reached him first, and leapt at once into his arms, hugging him gratefully. "You’re all right!” she cried as her husband arrived. She held him back by his shoulders, unintentionally smarting his self-inflicted wound. "Where is Nikolai?”

"He’s safe,” he said quickly, and looked beyond them as the fire crept steadily after them. "Pavel, what have you done?”

"The creature is weak to light,” said the Emperor, and revealed an unopened bottle of lamp oil tucked beneath his arm, "and not all of us can be witches.”

Mad though it was, it was a bold move. Hell, it was ingenious. "We have to get out,” Peter said, "before it collapses. Everyone is dead—”

"We know,” Pavel interrupted, and grabbed him and his wife by their shoulders. "Let’s go.”

The trio hurried through the halls, the Duke keeping his grimoire close and an incantation on his tongue, the Emperor armed with the bottle and ready to hurl it at the first source of fire they crossed, if need be. In this way, they made a run for the grand ballroom, intent on the access to the entryway on the other end, the shadows and the fire fast at their backs.

It was too easy.

As they entered the chamber, dozen of voices began to manifest, becoming clearer and clearer as they advanced. More survivors? It couldn’t be, for the sound belonged to the very air around them. Subtly, the lights started to dim, and a sudden applause filled the room. In an eerie way, it was reminiscent of the last gathering that had taken place there for the coronation of the new prince. Now, following the chain of recent events, it felt more like the celebration of a funeral rite.

The Emperor and Duke moved at once to shield the Empress between them, throwing glances uncertainly about the vaulted ceiling of the ballroom. "What in hell is that?” Pavel demanded, throwing a look to his brother for an answer.

But Peter just shook his head, clutching the Imperium bloodlessly close to his chest. "It’s here.”

The room was suddenly deprived of light as the many candles illuminating it died with a phantom burst of wind. The applause grew louder, more enthusiastic as the shadows in the room came to life. In the moonlight, they seemed sharp and corporeal before they melted down the walls, leaving them bare and pooling down across the floor. Many figures appeared on the surrounding walls, clapping and cheering—figures that weren’t meant to be there, for their bodies lay dead on the upper levels. They filled the room with their screams and laughter as a dark mass gathered between the royals and the door, spreading and bulging into a grotesque, bulbous form. It peered at them through temporary eyes that swiftly vanished, and let out a blood-chilling roar.

The shadow figures screamed in horror and in a second they were gone. The towering demon remained.

A sense of complete and utter terror bloomed within the Duke as he stared up at the creature, his heart beginning to pound in his ears. Peripherally, he felt Pavel draw up close to his back, and Daniella let out a frightened whimper. Now they were cornered, with the monster in front and the fire behind. There was no way out…not without blasting through the shadow itself.

The stress of constantly casting and fleeing before was weighing heavily on his body. The spells drew from the energy inside of him, and there was so little left from his last scuffle with the creature. Now, the monstrosity was even bigger, and carried with it the bane of a hundred stolen lives. Even the Imperium could not magnify power he did not have. But he would have to do something, and he would have to do it quickly if they planned to survive.

Barring the way, the monstrous shadow peered at its prey, ready to attack. It did not. Instead the beast snarled, looming dangerously over Peter.

Clearly, the advantage was that of the shadow, and yet, it hesitated. Peter frowned, uncomfortably. Why did it pause now? Why did it not strike, with all the rage it had shown before?

The ancient book flickered against his chest, and he suffered a flash of when all this began—where it began. Suddenly, he understood. "…You want the baby.”

There was no verbal response, but the beast kept its stance in agreement.

Clutching the ancient grimoire close, he silently prayed for strength, summoning up the last of his energy for as many more spells as he could manage. If the baby was its goal, then keeping the knowledge of his location from it would buy him time to come up with a plan. Or so he hoped. "Is that so…” He backed away a pace, and focuses his will, his unoccupied hand remaining concealed within his cloak. "You’ll notice he isn’t here…”

The Emperor slowly withdrew from his brother, shielding his terrified wife behind him. Something told him that, this time, there would be no death-defying escape. The bottle of oil was clenched tight in his fingers, even as he felt the flames of the fire he’d started crawling out from the hall they’d come from. With the size of the creature, it would do him no good now, and his attempts at containing it had failed. It left them few options, except merely to surrender, and to die.

And then, he had a vision of his own.

His instincts took over, in the only move he could think of. He tore the cuff from his shirtsleeve, knotting it around the bottle, then dug one of the remaining matches from his pocket. He struck it against the side of his hand, and lit the strap of linen. Resist though he did, he knew that it was over. There was nothing more they could do. Now, it was all up to his brother. "Peter!” he shouted, and hauled his arm back. "I trust you!” He hurled the bottle as hard and as high as he could, directly at the darkness.

The intention flashed briefly through his mind, and he gathered his energy, aiming for the glass bomb as it soared over his head. "I know!” He lifted the book, and shouted, "Extundo divellis!”

The unseen wall of energy flared up between the man and the monster, blasting forward and crashing against the airborne bottle. Propelled by the combined spell, it shattered outward, exploded, creating a downpour of flaming oil across the ballroom between them. At once, the room was as bright as it had been before, and pools of the burning substance rained across the floor.

A horrible shriek filled the room, echoed by the many voices from before. The beast was forced to retreat from by the blast, spreading, expanding on floors and walls. It barely hesitated. Sinking and resurfacing at the Duke’s feet, it lunged upward towards the book, devouring it along with the flesh that held it.

A pained scream ripped from Peter’s lungs as his forearm disintegrated, and the Imperium vanished into the blackness of the creature’s body. The book gave a parting flicker of light before its binding went dark, and it sank to the floor beyond his reach. Without it, he was left defenseless, and his body collapsed.

The horror of the attack was cut short—and, powerlessly, he watched.

Abruptly, the air was split, and the sound of pierced flesh echoed deafeningly through the chamber, along with an unspoken shock. A pair of black stakes protruded from the Emperor’s chest and his Empress’s back, their bodies suspended in incomplete motions. With their hearts’ last pulses, the spikes withdrew. And the rulers of the Star fell, betrayed by their own shadows.

Time slowed to a crawl as their bodies fell through the air, sinking to the darkened floor. All Peter could see was the light leaving his brother’s eyes as he stared back at him, silently asking how, why he had failed them. Why his power had not been enough. The roar of the blaze devoured the sound of his scream as it ate through the ceiling above, causing the corridor beyond to come down in a rush of flames.

A devilish chuckle echoed through the chamber, and then the frozen shadows of the regents were released, permitted to collapse, reenacting their deaths as blood started to flow from their wounds. The lurking tendrils of blackness slithered towards the scarlet trails like vultures to carrion—to a feast.

The creature had taken the lives of the staff, the soldiers, and his family. It had taken his arm, and with it, the book that gave him the power to fight it. It had forced him to watch as it killed his brother, his brother’s wife, and their unborn child. Something very small, very fleeting inside of him died as well.

Without moving at all, Peter’s body rose suddenly from the floor like a marionette, bringing him to rest on his knees. The mangled arm tucked against his side dribbled fresh streams of blood, and his eyes rolled eerily back into his head. His lips parted, and the voice that left his throat was so raw and scarred that it sounded nothing at all like him. "I thought you wanted the baby.”

The shadows halted, their attention shifting at once to the Duke. The man had no other means with which to defend himself; he was as protected as the child the beast sought, if not less. Did he wish to bargain for his life now?

Not so. The limp body of the injured man floated weightlessly to its feet, and his head tipped slowly back to reveal his face from beneath the curtain of his pale hair. From the mire of his shattered mind came voices, not those of the shadow, but of those it had taken. Intangible whispers echoed in his ears. "You’ve already gotten them,” he said, his voice hoarse and vicious. "Now come and get me.”

At the center of the room, the creature gathered once more, its form strangely feline, with a reptilian posture. The beast accepted his invitation, prowling across the floor; it passed the discarded bodies of his loved ones, picking up the various fragments of darkness and avoiding the light as it circled Peter, intend on his blood.

The Duke didn’t move, didn’t shift, didn’t blink as the creature rounded on him, drawing deathly close. Clutched beneath his cloak at his side, the simple chain bracelet jingled quietly in his trembling hand, like so many bells in his ears. The quiet sound was backed by a choir of whispers, guiding him, imploring him to act. Save the baby. Stay alive. Deceive the darkness. Save the baby. He inclined his head, bidding it closer. "Come and ask me where he is.”

Hissing, the beast pounced, closing its jaws on the man’s shoulder. It lifted him and slammed him against the nearest wall, missing anything vital by choice and not by chance. It snarled and held him firmly there.

His body struck the solid marble, his vision exploding in a sea of white, but he failed to cry out again. Pain was far beyond his reach now, even as the blur of death crept along the edges of his broken mind. At last, his eyes flipped back into sight, focusing on the mass of blackness even as its teeth sank into his body. He stared at the creature, and further, through it, willing that its master would see him in this, his final moment, and feel his resolve—his hatred. "You’ll never have him…never…” he whispered in a growling voice, a smile tugging at his lips. "He is safe from you forever…”

Loosening its grip, the dark beast kept still, focused on its prisoner. Confusion was evident, even through its featureless face. What had he done?

As his vision grew hazy, he let out a chuckle, and the sound was bitter and cold from his throat. "Tell your master…that you’ve failed,” he murmured. "The baby is already dead.” Dragging his remaining arm from beneath his cloak at last, he brought it to bear, revealing his hand and the blood-smeared chain clutched within it. The golden bracelet sparkled weakly between the rivulets of crimson, jingling as he clutched it in his shaking fist. "I took his precious life, so you could not have it…now, he is where you cannot reach him…”

A threatening snarl followed, and the creature released his flesh, stepping back to stand on the floor. It emitted another angered cry, and launched a new set of stakes at the defeated duke.

Blood spilled to the floor.


To Be Continued

****
Recap:

The Royals:
-Emperor Pavel and Empress Daniella: The once-rulers of the Empire of the Star. After a long fight, they were killed at the hands of the unknown shadow creature.
-Grand Duke Peter: A self-taught shaman, and the Emperor's (younger) twin brother. Peter fought valiantly to protect Nikolai from the monster, but in the end succumbed to his own humanity. He was unable to save Pavel and Danii from their fate, much though he tried. He claimed that he killed Nikolai, so that the creature would not search for him.
-Prince Nikolai: The last heir of the Star. Dema's gift makes it impossible for the creature to touch him. Now without his bracelet, Nikolai is unknowingly an orphan. He was spelled to sleep and hidden, so that the creature would not find him.

Story and Characters Copyright © Xandra and Countess-D 2010-201X
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Sleeping Beauty, Chapter Three: The End
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