The sun ate the sky as if it had starved for a millennium, cutting the afternoon into slithers of topaz semi-darkness.
“I will not kill a dragon,” said the Prince, to the elf-witch, as they approached the cavemouth by the sea. “If that is what lies here, then we will leave this quest to some other party.”
“Why?” asked Laelin. “One death is as good as another. What difference does it make what beast falls to your sword?”
“Because,” said Sy, as the vast horse named Devil shied and grunted at the strangeness of the sand beneath him, “of all the things that I am, I will not be a hypocrite, as well.”
The two steeds, white and black, slender and mountainous, wove across the slippery dune, approaching the lip of rock jutting out of the hillside.
“You see yourself as a dragon, then?” asked the elf, her pretty head tilted in curiosity. “Not a human, cursed?”
“There is no difference. Not to me.”
“And if the spell on you is lifted, what then?”
The Prince shuddered, and across her she felt a shadow- not from the clouds, nor any source of light, born only of a grim certainty, raising its blind head.
“There is only one way to break my curse,” Sy muttered, “and I will not bow to it, even in the moments before I slay its maker. My mother, my sisters: they all made the pilgrimage, and waived their suffering. I cannot. I will not.”
“And you have never told me why.”
Sy held her silence, her armour seeming to contain it. The glistening sea howled up the shore, and seabirds, wheeling the cerulean heavens, cried as if they were dying.
“Hoarde your truths from me, then,” said Laelin, lightly. “You forget that I could help you, my friend.”
“Help me another way,” said the Prince. “Guard the cave entrance while I am inside it. If I am gone for over an hour, light a fire inside it and burn everything within. I will not die, but the creature that lies there will perish.”
“Unless it, too, is a dragon.”
Sy clicked her tongue, amused.
“This close to water, I imagine not, but we shall see. What did you learn from the people in the sea towns?”
Yawning, the elf shrugged a dainty shoulder.
“No more than you. The creature has been tormenting the locals for years, taking their women. There is some rumour that it offers an immense gift to anyone who visits its keep, a wealth that will last a lifetime. There are many poor and desperate people who will consider such a promise, even if many before them have never returned.”
“This, again. I see.”
“It’s common, then, this stealing of women?”
Sy, pulling down her visor, replied, rather shortly, “Common enough.”
The Prince and the elf drew close to the cave and dismounted, Laelin rather more slowly, encumbered as she was by her many charms and amulets.
Sy ran her hand up the wet black rock at the mouth of the cave, sniffing the scents that rolled off her fingertips. Brine, the moulder of death, and the salt something else- the Prince brought the glove to her tongue to sample it, aware of Laelin’s eyes keenly upon her.
“Does that help?” asked the elf-witch.
“Yes. Although sometimes I wish it would not.”
After touching each of her weapons in her usual ritual the Prince murmured to each of the horses, nonsense words of comfort as much for her benefit as theirs. To Laelin she said, “Promise me that whatever you hear from the caves you will not follow me.”
“I cannot,” said Laelin, raising her chin. “I am your spellstress. I am bound to you. When you struggle, I raise your arm.”
“Then as your Prince I command you to obey.”
The good-natured spark in the elf’s walled eyes- sapphire and bark -did not falter, but her voice had a fragility to it that Sy knew better than to disregard.
“You do not rule me. The Serpent Court’s reign does not span to the Fae Lands. I am in my right to do as I will.”
Tension ran through Laelin’s slender body like a precursor to heavy rain. Sy suppressed a tired amusement, and shifted under the sweating leather of her armour.
“Did you not pledge your fealty to me, Laelin, when we first met? Thrust it upon me, rather, as I recall.”
The elf’s sharpness withdrew a little.
“I suppose I did.”
“Well, then. As long as you are at my side I am your Prince, and you serve me. If I ask something of you then I do not do it lightly.”
“No,” said Laelin, grudgingly, “but I have seen you take risks without any cause-“
“I have cause.”
“I tell you, your Grace, that there is no need for it, not when you have at least one supporter that will not fail you. My fealty is not blind worship. I will not watch you die because you foolishly refuse my aid.”
Sy, stunned by the intensity of these words, was glad of her helmet, retreating into it like a Seventh Sister into her veil. She turned to the cavemouth, observing the gloom.
“You will help me more by standing guard over the entrance,” said the Prince, at last. “What I sense within would not respond kindly to an ambush. If there is anyone alive it may kill them immediately. I have seen it happen before.”
Laelin, unimpressed, did not let her rancour go.
“That is not the reason. You are afraid that it will take me as it has others.”
“And what of it? You are my friend.”
“Ah. This is the first I have heard you speak such a word.”
The brevity had returned to Laelin’s voice, and she came to the Prince with something in her hands, a charm on a silver chain, which she poured about Sy’s neck and let fall against her chest.
“There, then, friend. A token. It will protect you from glamour even you cannot resist, White Serpent, Prince of Sighs.”
Laelin came away and put her arms about the pale mare instead, kissing her muzzle.
“I will keep Moth company. And Devil, of course, but he keeps to himself, much like someone we both know.”
She smiled, and as she led the horses away the great bushels of her hair rose in the wind like red leaves. Looking at her the Prince felt a yearning, and she shied from it, starting into the cave with a quickness that almost had her slipping on the oily rock underfoot.
Soon Laelin was gone from Sy’s mind as she broached the tunnels within the black cliff. They smelled distinctly of rotten flesh and algae, a mixture strong enough to dry the Prince’s throat even within her helmet. A ghostly luminescence ran across the roof and walls, and silt water rang along the floor, its depth reaching Sy’s ankles.
There were no bones in it, nor corpses of any kind. The cavern was pristine, like the passages through the Fairy Hills had been, and the Prince did not trust it, as she distrusted all beauty that came before the dens of beasts.
The tunnel went only forward, having no crossroads nor tributaries to speak of. This, too, was unusual; such caves often split off two, three times, even if such options only led to dead ends. Thus Sy concluded that the tunnel hadn’t been formed naturally, by narrowing of the sea, but by whatever creature lay at the heart of it.
The Prince muttered a protection spell under her breath, a simple thing that Laelin had taught her one drunken night; if it worked Sy did not feel its effects.
At last the passage turned to the right, and tilted downwards slightly, the altered perspective dizzying. Sy put her left hand to the wall and descended slowly, struck with the abrupt superstition that if she fell she would not rise again.
It was as she was twenty feet down that a voice rose up from the cavern below.
“Who approaches? I hear you, little thing.”
It was a slow, drawling, lechery, that voice, the syllables dragged into a stuttering hiss. The Prince knew, hearing it, that either she or this creature were fated to die this day, for no being that spoke in such a manner could possess a soul that she could salvage.
“Do you need my name, Old One?” asked Sy, as she crept further down the slippery incline.
“Old One,” the voice repeated, in tones of disgust. “How I have hated that title. No one has used it in centuries, mind. The sea people have forgotten it, along with many other I have taken. What are you, then, that you remember?”
“Young,” said Sy. “But I am not of the sea folk, nor do I seek your gifts. I only request an audience with you, if you will allow it.”
The voice released a pleased rumble.
“I am intrigued. Come then, creature of youth. I am waiting.”
The Prince skidded lightly down the last of the slope and ventured into the grotto beneath, sheathing her sword so as not to offend its occupant.
At once she found herself facing the beast, for it was so vast that it consumed the cavern it occupied with its very flesh.
In appearance the creature resembled an enormous octopus, its skin the green of cathedral glass. Its eyes- each as huge as the face of a clock tower -were a stinging yellow, with black pupils slit vertically in each. These vile orbs fixed upon Sy as she approached, narrowing with unmistakable greed.
“A boy,” the monster crooned. “So long has it been since I have had a boy. They are not my taste.”
The creature’s tentacles, which where many, were each as thick across as oaks and as long as the cavern itself, twisted and knotted in constant motion about the grotto. Some of these limbs appeared closed at their ends, hiding something within their coils. Sy watched them with caution, as she might a balled fist.
“I have not come to slake your thirst,” she said. “As I understand others have.”
“They came to sate their own,” the creature objected. “The gift of eternal pleasure from the Brackish Lord. Some did not know what such a thing entailed, of course, but once they sampled it they did not wish to return from whence they came. Am I to be blamed for that? You see-“
The closed tentacles uncoiled, and the naked bodies of women, writhing, gasping in ecstasy, were revealed in those great arms, their breasts and inner thighs gently tugged by the white suckers beneath. Others rocked, helpless, on the tip of some probing flesh, but the sight was not alluring, only a horror, for in each pair of sunken eyes Sy recognised the mist of the compelled.
She was glad, then, for the charm at her throat; the presence of ancient magic was strong here, strong and terrible.
“You see,” said the Brackish Lord, lazily, “how they desire me. What cruelty it would be to have them leave.”
“They may come of their own accord,” said the Prince. “But beyond that I doubt you have offered them much choice. They are trapped in this pleasure.”
“A delicious fate. Do you envy them, boy?”
A tentacle glided about Sy’s right calf and slithered up and around her in a loose rope. Shivering, she withstood it. Somehow, even beneath the armour, her skin pulsed with desire, the cleft between her thighs a joint of heat.
“These women have families in the sea towns they hoped to provide for,” said the Prince. “Few, if any, have ever returned, and still more hapless women come to you, praying for a boone from a God. You take advantage of their poverty.”
“A matter of perspective. We Gods are demanding. It is our nature.”
The tentacle about Sy’s body touched her visor, lifting it with the tenderness of a lover.
“Why seize so many women?” asked the Prince. “Are you not satisfied with those you have?”
She smelled death, tasted it on the very flesh that now pushed its insistence against her lips.
“My appetites are as endless as the sea,” crooned the Brackish Lord. “Besides, mortals wither and die, no matter how they are cared for, in the end. And so the trade goes on.”
“It must not.”
The Prince touched Bryllg’s edge to the limb still binding her her, and the thing recoiled, although it bore not even a scratch. Slowly the beast’s stare darkened, and the cries of the women became more like wails as the ministrations upon them increased to violence.
“You dare make your demands of me?” roared the Brackish Lord. “What is this disrespect? I see now that you are no boy, for all your trinkets of war. I should have made you walk naked into my palace and kneel before me, as I have bidden others do. Then I might have dispensed with this folly, and had you like the peasants of the towns.”
“I am no peasant, either,” said the Prince, and stepped towards the Old One, keeping her fear penned beneath indignant fury. “You, of the ancient Gods, should sense it. Do you not know the taint of your Brother, the Forest King? Or are your senses so dull in your gluttony that you no longer recognise the work of your own kin?”
Hissing, the Brackish Lord’s catlike eyes widened, their thin pupils almost devouring the yellow around them.
“That old mischief! What has He been about? Did He lay waste to your people, to fill you with such ire against your betters?”
“He cursed my bloodline,” said the Prince. “In a fit of revenge, that one of my ancestors would not lend His wife to bed. Any daughter born after that was cursed to become a beast, unless they crawled to the Forest King and begged to be relieved of this burden. So forgive me, Brackish Lord, that I do not bow and scrape like a serf. Gods have done me naught but ill in this life, and others, before mine.”
The creature pondered over this a moment, the thrash of its vile limbs slowing to an idle flexing.
“You say the females of your brood are beasts, but you are unmarked. Have you lain with the King, whore-princess of the dry lands?”
“The curse moves slow in me,” said the Prince. “But it has taken hold. If you assault me, I will unleash it, and you will die. Your Brother has made me strong.”
A low rumble of amusement shook the cavern.
“Such threats, sweetling, when you could take your pleasure with me.”
Sy raised Bryllg high, and aimed its tip at the monster’s glistening eye.
“Enough. Release these women, those that survive, and I will grant you mercy.”
“Poor stupid creature. I could not, even if I desired to. They are too far gone.”
More tentacles unrolled, and the Prince saw, upon them, the molten remains of humanity, beautiful flesh bubbling and dissolving into foam.
“Once I have gripped any creature for more than a day they are as dead, although they live enough to think and feel, distantly, to respond to me, to feed me. I drink their nutrients to the bone, and then I break their bones, as well. They are aware of it all, until they are nothing, my women, and after that, who knows?”
Looking at the many bodies squirming in the monster’s arms Sy felt such a surge of pity and anger that, under her armour, she scalded like kettle steam.
“I have no reason to spare you, then,” she said. “Brackish Lord, you will die upon my blade.”
On all sides the tentacles scissored and plucked at the air in a hungered frenzy. The vicious eyes were bloated with desire.
“You will not kill me, slut,” gloated the sea God. “You will scream my name as I make soup from your marrow.”
The Prince lowered her head and charged, driving the tip of her sword into the first tentacle that came for her. The flesh was thick and boyeaunt, resisting each slash and stroke as if shaking off the fingers of a babe.
Sy began to twist the blade instead, uttering incantations that set Bryllg alight with azure flame. The fleshy limb shrank and burned, but four more charged out into its place, wrenching the Prince closer and closer to the feline eye.
Each contact with the Lord’s pale rings sent ripples of unbearable delight through Sy’s every nerve, so close to pain that she bit through her cheek supressing a scream.
The tip of one roiling limb caught the charm around the Prince’s throat, tugging at it with theatrical curiosity.
“What is this filth? Elven magic. Fie.”
The chain around the Prince’s throat snapped, and the little bag with its blessed herbs dropped to the chamber floor.
“Now you will feel me completely,” said the Old One. “Let us do away with this tin you wear upon your back-“
Sy threw back her head and shrieked as throes of pleasure and agony cramped her from skull to toe. She fought like a cyclone, wrenching Bryllg left to right, lopping tendrils into segments until she was soaked with the fish-stench of blood and bitter ink.
The Brackish Lord seemed to enjoy the battle, either the fight or the sensation of pain, which, perhaps, was new to it.
“I can taste you already. Delicious.”
“You will taste my sword in your throat.”
Sy felt the tentacles closing in around her, peeling away layers of armour like mere foil, and quashed the flickering of panic within her. As she cut her way through the forest of flesh the Prince beheaded each of the writhing women as she came upon them, releasing them to the kindness of death.
She did not pray for them; there would be time for that, later, if she won this fight.
“Where did you learn to fight like a man, little warrior?” asked the Brackish Lord, tipping the plumed helmet from Sy’s head like a plant pot from a high garden. “I will teach you to spread your legs like a woman.”
Slowly, taunting, the Sea God plied each plate of armour from the Prince’s back until she wrestled, naked, in its loathsome grasp. The enchanted sword flicked from Sy’s arms like a toothpick, the blade refusing to shatter even under this creature’s grasp.
Sy heaved like a well-run thoroughbred, pulsing sweat and glaring, hard-jawed, into the smug amber glow of the Brackish Lord’s eye.
Tendrils nudged open the Prince’s leathery wings, folding them out from her shoulderblades. The beast caressed them with a foul tenderness, spreading their length across the cavern until their tips chafed either wall.
“This is the curse the Forest King bred into your kind?” asked the Sea God. “But it is nothing.”
The Prince, silent despite the wracking sensations within her, gathered a mouthful of saliva and spat towards the beast. It only laughed, and furrowed its limbs into every crevice in Sy’s body that lay open to it.
“You are helpless, tiny princess,” said the Sea Lord. “I will consume you. I will devour many more after you. And I will find means to thank my Brother for the precious thing He put upon my doorstep.”
Sy, without weapon, without use of her wings, lay a moment, speechless in the face of her defeat. The Brackish Lord’s tentacles closed over her, until all that remained was slippery, rolling limbs and ragged breaths.
Then, within the knotted coil, a roaring scream bellowed, a sound more reptilian than human. The cavern, at first black, was suddenly blue and orange and crimson light, lit up with a heat so searing that it was cold in its extremity, then warm all over again.
The Brackish Lord, which moments before had been all arrogance and appetite, became a thrashing terror, trying desperately to release the burning coal it held at its heart.
The Prince stuck to molten flesh like a bur, and the Lord was trapped with it, as a sinner foolish enough to touch their palm to a holy relic.
If any onlooker had been present they would have seen a thing that might have been an angel, or a flower of pure fire, its head thrown back, belching heat in torrents as if it breathed heat rather than air. Its talons gripped the fighting limbs around it with unyielding ferocity, burning wet flesh into vapour.
Only when this vapour spirited away into dust did the Prince recover herself, crouching amongst human bones, smeared in char.
Clothes singed away, Sy emerged from the cavern in her armour alone, the metal wearing grooves into her skin. She rose up onto the pale sand, a grave icon, victorious, and broken.
Her step tottered; one hip sat rather higher than the other.
Laelin came at once across the beach, her boots sinking into tussocks as she rushed to meet Sy before the Prince should keel under her own weight.
“I thought I was to set a fire, not you,” said the elf, fussily. “What have you done, Sy? Are you well?”
It was the first time the elf-witch had addressed the Prince without her titles, but amidst her shock Sy barely registered it.
“You will need a new aketon,” said Laelin, shaking her head. “I am sure you can afford the expense, after this outing. A thousand of them, if you so will it.”
“Weapons,” said Sy, in a hoarse croak. “I must buy more weapons. My sword is not enough.”
The Prince threw Bryllg into the sand, hating, suddenly, the pureness of it, that it bore no scar from the fight. She, herself, was much the same under the soot, her hair rippling, pure as milk, her taut body unmarked.
For the first time Sy wished for another scar but for the old one that divided her body in two, something to wear for her suffering. It felt strange to feel such pain, and have nothing to show for it.
It felt like lying.
Sy flinched as Laelin placed a hand on her arm, ashamed to be touched, smelling as she did of salt and fire.
“Take me away from here,” said the Prince. “The Brackish Lord is no more.”
The elf-witch stood back, allowing Sy to stand, and there was an understanding in her eyes like an ache, the sadness of the unspoken.
“Yes, my Prince,” said Laelin. “As you command.”
They walked, without touching, across the dune, the red figure and the white, to meet the horses where they nipped dry weed at the lip of the sea.