Writer’s Note: The line art for this chapter was provided by the artist Karamazov (NSFW applies).
It was a matter of moments before my vision would return to me. Once it did, I found myself standing outside the entrance to a monster den, Astertis in front of me by about ten paces. She motioned for me to follow her inside, and considering I hadn’t much of a choice, I obeyed. A few men passed by us on the way down, though they appeared to have zero indication of my presence. Clearly, I was in another memory – one of hers this time.
Getting my bearings, I tried to figure out both where and when this reality had originally taken place. The geology was rather similar to that of my homeland, yet this wasn’t a place I could say that I had ever personally ventured to, as my magic training hadn’t started until after I had left the country. The deeper we went, the more I could hear the voices of other people. There must have been more than a dozen of them, male and female alike. Soon other sounds began to echo, from the clanging of metal swords to the high-pitched reverberations of powerful magic.
At a fork in the tunnel, Astertis made a left and compelled me ever deeper. Another hundred feet and this route opened up into a much larger subterranean chamber. There was a ledge to the right of our path, and she motioned for me to look down. The right-hand path was now more than twenty feet below us, terminating at the chamber floor. A tense battle had broken out, the group of people squaring off against a horde of chimera monsters.
“Audrey, watch carefully.” She pointed at one man in particular, and when my eyes made contact, I almost couldn’t hide my shock. The man had long, violet-black hair which he pinned up in a ponytail. Silvery-green scales flowed down his neck and arms, and his tail was a bit more reptilian than draconic. The ivory horns on his head, meanwhile, were a dead giveaway that this man was a demonkin just like me. His uniform, one of a high cleric, bore an unknown insignia which I had only ever seen once in my life. There was a uniform just like it on the wall of my grandfather’s home, though in all honesty, I needed no convincing.
“That’s Audrano in his younger years… isn’t it?” I asked.
“The events you are witnessing take place many years before you were born, Audrey. This was a time before Vayne’s Troupe had expanded their operations to the Far East. Back then, it was the role of the Royal Guard and the Clergy to regulate the monster populations.”
“Then that uniform…”
Astertis nodded. “It is the robe of a noble cleric, one who serves directly under the ruling cabinet.”
Grandfather never mentioned a thing like this! Before I could press further, my attention was diverted to a small explosion at the chamber’s far end. A woman had just subdued three chimeras all on her own, and as my eyes adjusted to the light, I could make her out as being the true younger version of Astertis. Her scales were whiter than my own, and her horns had a slight variation to their curve, but it was definitely apparent that she and I were in fact related.
Everything she said checks out…
“Audrey, I want you to pay close attention. Your grandfather is about to perform a casting language known as the Divine Arts.” She pointed and sure enough, a green light was already circulating Audrano’s body. I watched as he directed this wave of energy toward the chimera closest to him, knocking it backward with a powerful gust of wind. It was such a powerful spell that the chimera’s horn splintered and fell away, spooking the creature and forcing it to flee.
“What the hell!?”
“Looks familiar, doesn’t it?”
“That’s the… when I…!”
“On the night in which Cass Wintermare examined you, she awakened only a small fraction of its potential. Any more and she may have lost an eye.”
That’s… wow. I couldn’t help feeling a bit queasy at the thought. I would have to be more careful the next time Cass and I were alone together… Although, that could be fun in its own way…
“Ahem,” snapped Astertis.
“Oh, right! Let me see if I can piece this together. So, Granddad was able to perform an advanced casting language thanks to his time spent as a cleric, and it was your memory of the spell being cast which allowed me to subconsciously interpret the language?”
“That is the long and short of the matter, though you are missing a few details.”
“Keep watching.” She pointed to the chamber floor, where the horde had been largely suppressed and recovery operations were underway. “I should probably inform you that my presence on this mission to be a conscripted fighter and nothing more. I agreed to it so that I could study these monsters up close, the stipulation being that my husband supervise my activities at all times.”
As the memory of Astertis moved toward a fallen chimera, the memory of Audrano began to walk casually toward her. Everything seemed to be normal at first, but as Astertis began to cut into the chimera next to her, its tail suddenly came to life. The tail morphed into a kind of serpent and latched itself firmly onto the woman’s neck.
Audrano’s eyes widened in shock, and he sprinted over as fast as he could, hand extended as if to cast a spell. Then, something incredible happened. Astertis seemed to tense up, her eyes glowing blue and her skin glowing an intense ivory. It lasted less than a second – almost like a flash of lightning – and when the light faded, the entire chimera had been reduced to little more than a pile of ash.
Nobody moved for what seemed like an eternity until finally, Audrano took charge of the situation. He ordered the knights to immediately neutralize the tails of all chimera in the chamber. There was a flurry of panic as the deed was carried out, but it managed to divert any suspicion way from Astertis.
The Astertis with whom I had been speaking had again turned toward me. “We had been married for only two years. Up to that point, I had never once told him about my knowledge of Elder Theory.”
“That’s Elder Theory!?” I nearly shouted the words. Never had I witnessed such a bizarre, reality-warping magic at work. If this was what Cass had stumbled upon, then she could very easily become one of the world’s most powerful spellcasters!
“What we learned on that night was enough to satisfy the Royal Guard, but Audrano personally mulled over the issue for several days. Finally, he beckoned me to tell him the truth.”
“Regrettably,” she sighed. “I told him that I had uncovered a tome with knowledge of the ancient language. By using both White Arts and Black Arts as ciphers, I had managed to decode enough of the text to begin creating my own spells. Admittedly, most of my progress had been the blessing of random chance.”
“So… what did Granddad do?”
“At first, he did nothing. There were more important events going on, and it would only be a matter of time before your mother entered the picture. A part of me… wanted to believe that he had forgotten the whole thing. Yet he hadn’t.”
“Astertis, what… what happened with you two?”
The woman placed a hand on her chest as if to stifle her own emotions. “When your mother grew, she displayed an incredible proficiency for advanced magical languages. I would say that she was even more gifted than you or I, Audrey. This realization began to terrify Audrano, and he worried that I would attempt to pass down the techniques of Elder Theory against his wishes.
“I could see it in his eyes constantly – the way he felt he needed to protect Lenasa from me. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to fight against his ideal upbringing of her. I decided instead to remove myself from the equation, thus I did what I had to.”
Her terseness did nothing to mask the pain in her heart, and for a moment, all I wanted was to reach out and hug her. She noticed this, wiped away a tear, and cleared her throat.
“The memory is fading now. It’s almost morning in the real world, so try to make the most of what little rest you have left.”
“Astertis… Thank you.”
“Hmph; don’t count your blessings just yet. There’s a lot of work to be done.” Her voice gradually faded and I opened my eyes, the morning chill fluttering through my nightgown. I hunched over in my bed, morning wood poking out of the fabric but too mentally anguished to do a thing about it.
“So let me get this straight: some woman claiming to be your long lost grandmother entered your mind and gave you her magic?”
“That’s the gist of it, yes.”
“And she just happened to give you access to a spell that you had no knowledge of – merely by watching your grandfather perform it decades ago?”
“You don’t believe me, do you, Cass?”
“That’s not it at all! Something like this just needs a bit of time to digest, you know?” Cass poked at a small tomato with the point of her fork. We were seated outside a small pasta shop, raindrops making a pitter-patter on the parasol above. People scurried about in a rush, arms over their heads as they sought shelter in whatever shop was closest.
After a few minutes of silent eating, Cass brought her hands together. “There might be a way to corroborate your claim, though it requires a bit of creativity on our part. I’m going to make a detour into the archives, and I’ll let you know what turns out.”
“Don’t you want me to come with you?” I asked.
“This type of work is something I prefer to do solo. One might call it a guilty pleasure!” She finished eating and cleared her trash, bidding me farewell for the time being. Eventually I would do much the same, returning to my tenement and catching up on my beauty rest.
I thought Astertis would show up like she had before, but she didn’t. It turned out that something rather bizarre was beginning to manifest on the other side of town, and by some inexplicable anomaly, I was about to have a front row audience to the extraordinary from the veil of my dreams.
Cass Wintermare sighed in frustration as she reached the final pages of the Guild Index. It contained records of every government official on the continent, but even among those of the Far East region, no one by the name of Astertis had ever so much as enlisted voluntarily.
“Could she have imagined the whole thing? No, I need to trust her judgment. Let’s see…” The woman wondered if maybe she had been going about her search all wrong. Poring over the Index once more, she decided instead to search for Audrano’s record.
She found it surprisingly quickly. “Audrano Songbird, cleric of the Royal Guard for twenty-nine summers… part-time lecturer, delivered ceremonial prayer sessions for newborns… What’s this? It says he was forced to retire after sustaining permanent disability in the ‘Raid on Ishtarte.’ What exactly is that…?”
She grabbed an atlas from the nearby shelf and glossed over each map one by one. “It doesn’t seem to be a place… Dammit! Ishtarte… Ishtarte…” Cass searched endlessly through every reference book she could and exhausted all available resources until seemingly at random, an answer presented itself to her. In a book of unofficial religions, the term ‘Ishtarte’ referred to a now-defunct cult whose members were said to have followed under a woman of that name.
“The Ishtarte were a desert tribe of more than fifty, and the prodigal woman seen by her people as a goddess of harvest and fertility. She performed miracles and even forged bountiful hanging gardens in a wasteland where such a thing should have been impossible, even with magic. She was later persecuted for violating the laws of entropy, only to evade capture when those of her tribe faced off against the Royal Guard. She evaded capture, and every member of the tribe was… executed…”
What could it all mean? Violating the laws of entropy could likely have been a result of using Elder Theory, so did that mean a third person had the knowledge? Or perhaps, was it that Astertis and Ishtarte were actually one and the same?
Cass reached for a quill and paper, jotting down everything she had deduced thus far. A plan began to form inside her mind, and making sure that nobody was around, she tucked the book of religions into her bag. After that, she made a beeline for her workshop.
Everything she needed was already in place. She had runes which she could tailor to the aspects of Ishtarte’s shape, and she even had a spare chimera tail to serve as an amplifier. “If this Ishtarte woman really is a demonkin like Audrey, then using Elder magic to become an ethereal being would have been simple – no – inevitable. In that case, it should be just as easy to communicate…”
She sat cross-legged on the floor of her workshop and closed her eyes, beginning to recite in an ancient language. She repeated the words again and again and again, searching for that one sliver of a connection. And then, there it was… She reached for it… And her world immediately went white.
After drifting aimlessly in a state of lucid consciousness for an indeterminate amount of time, this is the state in which I found her spiritual body. It took me a moment to come to grips with what I was witnessing, to process the fact that my best friend had somehow invaded my dreams – or that I had invaded hers. Yet before I could so much as act, I saw Astertis making her way over, and my instincts prompted me to keep my distance for the moment. Astertis placed the palm of her hand on Cass’s sleeping face, and then she smiled.
“My, oh my; you’ve certainly proven yourself a worthy protégé of Elder Theory, dear Cass Wintermare. However, you did make one slight miscalculation.”
What does she mean?
“It’s a shame, really. In your haste, you left your physical body open to all sorts of potential threats. If not for me, someone else might be walking around with your face right about now; although…” Her hand moved lower, to the sleeping woman’s collar. “I wouldn’t mind giving it a trial run myself…”
How could I ever have trusted this woman? Was it because she looked like me? Was it because she had the same memories as me? No – these were nothing more than excuses. As I watched Cass’s spirt be whisked away by the woman formerly known as Ishtarte, I knew this was happening because in actuality, her ambitions as a demonkin were truly no different from my own.
In pursuing my own selfish desires, I had inadvertently led my best friend toward the slaughter.
TO BE CONTINUED…