“Father, I have failed you.”
Seila Mingdale stood with her back straight and an unwavering gaze, facing the monolith of stability that was her father.
He stood with his back to her, looking up at a painting of her mother. She knew how much he missed his lady wife, and how heavy he had taken her loss back when she was just a child.
“No, Seila… You are alive. As long as you’re alive, you cannot fail me.” His voice was calm and composed, with an undertone of relief.
“I– But I lost the construct! All of the resources you’ve spent finding and repairing it… all that time Master Baek spent taking care of it… All of those months. All of it, lost because I was too stupid to stay away from the dungeon!”
“Please, My Lady,” interjected Cassius, his pale face full of concern, “Do not blame yourself too much. It was just a construct, after all, it can be replaced.”
“Enough,” Lord Mingdale cut her off as he turned, eyes lit up by an inner fire, “Whatever we spent on this endeavor, none of it can compare to your life, Seila. It was I who should have stopped you from going into the dungeon with such a clear and present danger. It is my failing, not yours.”
“Father, please do not say that. The fault is mine; I should be punished for it!”
In that moment, the door to the room burst open, master Baek jumped into the room, red-faced and shouting from the top of his lungs. “Where, by beard and ash, is me apprentice! Mingdale?! Tell me, right now!”
“Master Baek, please mind your tone,” said Cassius, stepping out in front of his master to confront the hunchbacked dwarf.
“I will bloody not mind me bloody tongue, ya feeble-minded vampir. This bleedin’ Lord has to account for the loss of me only apprentice, or I will not be responsible for me actions!”
“I will not stand here and allow you to insult–”
“It’s fine, Cassius,” said Lord Mingdale, turning to the dwarf and giving him a simple nod of the head. This, already, was a great show of favor. “I am sorry, Master Baek, but it appears your apprentice was lost in the Hyemend dungeon, along with Seila’s construct. I, of course, intend to take on the full responsibility of this sorry affair, and ensure you are well compensated.”
“Compensated?” The dwarf scoffed, crossing his arms before him, an awkward motion in his bent-over state, “What, by the Old Ones be ye on about? I want to see the corpse of my assistant, right this moment.”
“I-I’m sorry, master Baek,” Seila said, choking down tears, “But Izzy fell into one of the chasms of the labyrinth, along with Ares.”
“Did ya see her die? Or see Ares destroyed?”
The dwarf made no show of respect, and stared directly into Seila’s eyes. She hesitated only briefly, then shook her head.
“Then she’s not dead. Neither is Ares, for that matter,” Baek concluded, nodding to himself and bringing out his pipe.
“Master Baek, with all due respect, no one has ever been to the bottom of the labyrinth, nor has anyone come back after falling into or investigating the deep chasms,” Cassius said while studying his nails closely, “I fear you will have to look reality in the eyes.”
“Ya can look bleedin’ reality in the eyes, yourself, vampir. Ye haven’t seen what I’ve seen. That construct, Ares, is an absolute masterpiece. Ya say no one returned after falling into the chasms? Well, that thing was built to survive a meteor impact. Even if ya’d told me that half of it was blown to bits when it fell, I’d still put me money on it being perfectly fine – albeit a bit roughed up.”
“And your apprentice?” Cassius snorted, “How do you figure she’s alive, then? She’s as mortal as they come, is she not?”
“Izzy will surprise ya nine out of ten times, ya weasley bastard. She’s lived through more life-or-death situations than the number of times ya’ve sunk yer teeth into fresh meat. If ya did’nae see her corpse, then she’s alive and well.”
The dwarf turned his face, so that one of his big eyes could scrutinize Seila closely. “I’d guess I better stick around ya, young lady.”
He spoke so casually she almost felt insulted, but remembered the master had just lost his apprentice, and was possibly going a little mad. Carefully, she asked, “Why would you want to stay with me, Master Baek? I won’t be going down to the deepest parts of the dungeon anytime soon.”
“No, sod that. They’ll get out fine without ya. No, but yer fate is now linked with Ares’. If he gets out, he will come to find you.”
She furrowed her brow. She was pretty sure Ares –it still felt weird to think of it as a ‘him’ with a personality and all– would probably want anything but be ‘linked’ with her. Especially since he somehow cut off their link at the last moment.
“I’m not sure I follow…” She said, careful not to step on the dwarf’s toes. Instead, the hunchback just laughed and said, “No, I’m sure ya don’t. In any case, I guess I better get started on a replacement for ya.”
“Aye.. That is, if ye’re still intending on becoming a battlemage. Can’t have a battlemage with no construct. It won’t be nothing like the treasure ya just lost, but it’ll do the job until he gets back to ya.”
“You are still willing to work for the House of Mingdale?” The Lord Mingdale asked, scrutinizing the dwarf closely.
“Aye, I be willing. Ya been good to me, Mingdale, even if ya daughter managed to lose my apprentice. I shouldn’t hold too much of a grudge, since I was the one who told ya to take her along.”
“That is good. Especially seeing as Seila will be leaving soon. I was worrying about how to deal with the situation, but you’ve given me a way out, Master Baek. I will not forget this.”
“I am leaving?” Seila said, surprised.
“Yes. Word came from the Gap. The Empire has begun their offensive in truth. The Stalemate is no more. Archeon Palander has requested you join him… Actually, he ordered it. Apparently they are in need of battlemages, even novice ones.”
“What of the Valley?” She blurted, “What if the Empire goes through the forest?!”
“Then we will deal with it. Don’t worry, Daughter, Mingdale Valley is not weak. We will hold on with or without you. Can I entrust the task of my daughter’s arms to you, Master Baek.”
“Oh Aye,” said the dwarf, grinning while pushing tobacco into his pibe, “I’ve think we can sort her out nicely…”
In another place, in another world, Lizea Welbourne tip-toed into the most fancy restaurant in town, having no idea what she was doing here. All she had been told was the place, the time, and to wear the dress that came with the package.
The Lotus Lake was the most prominent establishment in all of Flotsam, where even getting a table might take you months. As the door closed behind her, she marveled at the wide granite slabs on the floor, and the walls which partially consisted of aquariums filled with a myriad of colorful fish.
The people standing in the foyer were some of the most fancily dressed people Liz had ever seen. Feeling terribly out of place, she gawked between the tasteful dresses of the ladies, or the stiff jackets of the gentlemen.
She herself wore a cream-colored dress with an almost wicked amount of artistic folds. It was the prettiest dress she had ever seen, and the kind she had never thought he would wear herself. Although it was certainly elegant, the fact it had come with the message telling her to come here –and the fact that it fit her down to the inch– unsettled her greatly.
However, she had made her choice. She walked up to the hostess, who was currently greeting an elderly couple. Once she had returned from seating them, she looked at the solitary Liz and asked, “Welcome to the Lotus Lake! What name is your reservation under?”
Liz reddened in the face, as she began to suspect all of this to be an elaborate prank. “I’m not really sure,” she finally muttered, “I was just told to come here…”
“Oh, well… Might you be Ms. Welbourne, then?” The smile of the hostess intensified as Liz widened her eyes in surprise. “Of course, please come with me, Ms. Welbourne. The private dining room is this way.”
In a daze, Liz followed the woman down a side corridor where several doors, before she opened the one at the very end.
“I hope you have a good evening,” The hostess said and laughed, as Liz entered, and the door closed behind her.
Inside stood a round table with five seats already arranged. There was no one seated there, but leaning on the wall to the side of the room stood a man, holding up a book in front of him. Once she was a few steps into the room, the man lowered the book to reveal a pair of round glasses upon a narrow face with a very serious expression.
“Good evening,” said Liz hesitantly. The man said nothing, but just looked at her. “I was supposed to meet someone here, I think. Might that be you, sir?”
“You’re here,” he stated, succinctly, “Good. Sit down.”
She blinked at the bluntness, but in the end she deferred to him and took a seat. Once she was seated, the man raised the book back up, ignoring her completely.
“Excuse me,” she said, after a while, “I’d really like to know–”
He put up a single finger, gesturing for her to wait. Liz felt it would be rude to press him any further. Then again, he was surely the one being rude by ignoring her, was he not?
“I–” She tried again, but this time was interrupted by a knock on the door. The man audibly closed his book and walked over, opened the door and peered out. After a moment of hushed talk, he stepped out and closed the door behind him.
Liz thought she might just stop caring about all of this, and get out while she could. However, then she remembered what she had been told on the phone call she had made. With hands beginning to shake, she waited.
A few minutes later, the door opened, and someone new walked in. Liz recognized her instantly, only this time she was not wearing her fur hat or coat. The girl who called herself ‘Carea’ entered the room with ethereal grace, dressed in a pure-white gown that stuck elegantly to her adolescent features.
Liz distinctly noticed the flicker of snowflakes appearing around the girls, despite them being indoors. This she remembered as well, and wondered at what kind of trick the girl was using to produce the effect.
She stood up, almost tripping in the hem of her dress, and said, “Ahh Carea, was it? I didn’t expect to meet you.”
The blonde girl was as picture-perfect as Liz remembered, with fine, fragile features and two eyes like clear pools of icy, blue water. “Please, Ms. Welbourne, stay seated. I am sure this is all very confusing, but we will see everything explained to your satisfaction.”
Behind her, the man with the book and the dark man, who had picked up Sam in the morning, entered the room as well. Unlike Carea, though, they did not join the table, but stood to each side of the door and waited.
Like the breeze of a wind, Carea took her seat by the table, next to Liz, and poured herself wine from the opened bottle on the table. “Wine?” She asked, offering to pour the bottle for Liz.
“Mm-no,” Liz stuttered, “I don’t drink.”
“Ahh. How very laudable of you Ms. Welbourne. Considering your age, you should be out gallivanting with the best of our uncouth youth. Are you certain you will not partake with me?”
Liz shook her head, and finally Carea relented.
“Ms. Carea, why am I here?” She finally asked, once Carea had enjoyed her first sip of the wine.
“Please, I would like it if you simply called me Carea. In return, might I call you Lizea?”
“Liz is fine,” Liz said, trying to smile. She felt nervous down to her stomach.
“Very well, Liz. You are here because you promised you would do anything to get your brother out of trouble. Is that not true?”
“It is, yes, of course it is! It was just never explained to me how exactly my brother got into trouble, and he won’t say anything.”
The pale girl’s icy lips gently parted into the semblance of a smile. “No, I suppose he would not. He does indeed not seem the type to want to involve others in his troubles.. Has he always been like this?”
Trying to return the smile, Liz replied, “Yes, of course. He was sick for most of his life, and never wanted to drag anyone down with him. However, if I may be so bold, you’re misdirecting from the question. Why is my brother in trouble?”
“Ahh… Such clever youth,” Carea sighed, taking another sip of the wine, “One wonders if the old generation can ever fully keep up with you.”
Liz had no response to that. Carea looked younger than her, and yet she had the distinct sensation that she was talking with someone older than herself… much older.
“Your brother is in trouble because he made a fool out of himself in a way he was warned not to. That kind of foolishness reflects onto me, and thus I appear foolish. That cannot stand… And no, I am not going to tell you how he did so, as it is very… complicated.”
“Then… what can you tell me?”
“I can tell you that we may sweep all your brother’s misadventures under the rug, if you in turn are prepared to help me.” With those words, Carea placed a white armband on the table, seemingly summoned from nowhere.
Liz looked at that armband with a strange mix of emotions. When she had first gotten onto campus she had been hellbent on getting one of these, but no one would tell her what she was supposed to do to get one. In the end she had run up against a wall trying to figure it out, and could only watch as a significant part of the student council’s business was kept out of her reach. Anytime it had something to do with those armbands, the president got very coy about sending anyone without an armband out of any discussion.
And here it was simply being handed across the table, for no apparent reason.
“I don’t understand. I was told I was not eligible for the armband, no matter what. But you can just hand it out as you wish? Who are you, Carea?”
The girl’s smile became wider, closing in on the form of a true smile. “I have many titles, Liz. One of my titles is ‘Chairman of Mirmir Wells Academy’, but another, and more important one, is my title as ‘The White Rabbit’. With that authority, I can grant this armband onto anyone I wish, even those who are not eligible.”
Liz opened her mouth to say something, but Carea stopped her with a finger, “I do, however, think you are eligible. More than eligible, in fact. What I propose is not an unfair exchange. I am not going to ask you to work for me, simply in order for me to leave your brother alone. No, that would be ridiculous. If you choose to accept this offer, I am going to show you an entirely different world from the one you know.”
“A different world?” What did that mean?
“Indeed… Very different. Yes, I believe you have what it takes. In fact, I am ashamed that I did not see it before. That it took your brother’s breakthrough for me to see it can only be labeled as my biggest failing. Has my offer piqued your interest, Liz?”
“I… yes, it has.”
“Very good. I will need you to provide me with certain information, however, if you are to join me.”
“What kind of information? I don’t think I know anything of any importance…”
The ghostly smile grew a little wider, reaching a cruel semblance of a facial expression. “Tell me, how much do you know about your brother?”
“Sam?” Liz furrowed her brow. Why would Carea be interested in Sam, outside of whatever trouble he had gotten himself into, “I mean.. I think I know pretty much everything there is to know. We’ve been together since we were born, and have never hidden anything from one another.”
“Mmm yes, I’m sure you are right,” Carea drawled, then leaned forward such that their shoulders almost touched, “However, he is not the one I’m referring to. I am asking you, how much do you know about your other brother…?”