Milva grit her teeth at the portcullis's awful, rusty screams as one of the Olga's frost wights, manning the gatehouse, raised it for their entry. She and the other maidens were herded forward by the accompanying frost wights. Coming through the cold, dark gatehouse into the bailey, the maidens huddled together for mutual warmth. Milva felt the shivers waving through their collective mass. Those weren't simply shivers of fear this time around. It was impossibly cold in Olga's foreboding castle.
Their heels clicked across the courtyard, sending upsetting rumblings up to the squadron of crows lining the battlements. They squawked their displeasure. Milva was put in mind of vultures, circling a carcass from above.
One of the maidens gasped, knocking into Milva even, when the gust of a wing beat carried Craufanzer across the curtain wall. It flocked high above their heads for a moment, adding another ominous element to their predicament, before landing atop the gatehouse's icy spires.
Milva's neck cranked back in observation when the frost wights shunted them toward the leering keep. Ice sheets hung randomly from its curved walls. Every few seconds, much like the ice of the curtain walls, one or two of those sheets would topple and shatter into a bristling white cloud of glint and sparkles. Yet no matter how they fell there was always more ice to replace it. Milva did not see them manifest or shape, but somehow they always reappeared, only to drip and fall again. This whole castle teemed with the power of the Arcane.
The maidens moved from the keep's shadow and arched doors to its dark innards. The inner chamber was too dark to see anything. Many of the girls gasped, there being no tinder to strike, but the icy "skin" of the frost wights had a sparkle to it, irrespective of light sources, and by that they found their way up a towering spiral staircase to the upper sanctums. They moved in rows of two with a frost wight between each, until the final doors. A frost wight pushed them open.
The congressional chambers were gigantic, defying the external scope of the keep. The perfectly circular walls sloped up to forge an icicle-ridden dome above their heads. Frost covered the entire wall without a single blank spot. Beneath their feet lay a peculiar floor; one as translucent as crystal yet as tough as stone. They were surrounded on all side by arch-shaped mirrors fixed into the walls like windows. There was a consistent chill in the air.
Milva glared from her end of the chamber to the other. In a throne made entirely of hoarfrost sat a stooping elderly woman with a braided oaken staff in her gnarled little hand. Her tremulous body was engulfed in thick pelts of animal fur, including her wrinkled face, obscured by a furry hood from which extended two curving, mighty ram's horns. Milva narrowed her eyes.
The mirror witch opened up her piercing blue orbs to observe her new guests. She had no pupils or irises, her eyes were cold pits of cerulean, rolling with fleshy blinks from one maiden to the next. Her thin lips curved up into a crude smile.
"I see there has been a good harvest this year," Olga said. Her creaking voice echoed throughout her chambers. "Such tender young flesh..."
Olga's bones were so aged and frail they audibly popped as she climbed off her throne and onto her naked, withered feet. They slowly pulled themselves off the ground, from her heels to the tips of her toes, until the old woman floated off the glassy floor. The maidens shuddered at this act of enchantment.
With that odd staff in hand Olga drifted across the floor to inspect the girls of Eiszweigstadt. She took to one girl and lifted her veil. Ignoring the child's sobs, Olga thumbed around her tear-soaked cheek, inspected her teeth and gums, until moving on to the next girl. Milva peeked out the corner of her veil to see this. While Olga leisurely worked her way down the line, the Dark Elf resolved to confront her. She would demand that the mirror witch free the maidens then explain her need for the Rheinshard.
Then, unexpectedly, Olga paused at the fifth girl down the line. Milva wasn't even aware of it until some of the other girls began to whisper. They saw Olga release her staff so that it floated in the air, as she did, and bring her gnarled fingers to that quivering maiden's face.
Her emaciated lips uttered a chant as quiet as a whisper. A surging font of blue suddenly burst up between them, as Olga plunged her fingertips into the maiden's flesh. The girl screamed furiously. Olga's fingers effortlessly delved knuckle-deep into her facial skin as though it were a languid pool of water. Tremendous spiritual energies poured out from their point of contact and swallowed them both whole. The azure shimmer was so blindingly strong that Milva couldn't act in time to help, she could only blink her way through the sight; two silhouetted figures standing in a crackling sphere of blue. That was when the dark exchange occurred.
As the girl's flesh started to shrivel and weaken, Olga's flesh tightened and smoothed. While the girl's screams became haggard, Olga's chanting became lush and seductive. A luscious cascade of blonde hair poured from Olga's hood as the maiden's hair receded into tiny grey threads doting a dry scalp.
The light sphere burst.
Milva's eyes were blurred. She had to rub them to get her sight back, and when she did, what she saw astounded her.
A transmogrified Olga now stood before the maidens. With her nubile bare feet pressed firmly to the ground now, the thick black and grey pelts that once engulfed a little old woman in their mass now clung perfectly to the curves, bounces, and swells of a buxom blonde beauty. Her skin was now as smooth and white as a pearl, nary a wrinkle to be found, and her rejuvenated blonde tresses trickled as far south as her trimmed waist.
The maiden, to whom this beautifully re-rendered Olga once clung, now lay in a crumpled pile of bones and sagging ashen flesh at her naked feet, dead.
Now Milva knew the meaning of the name "Youth Drinker".
Monster! Thought the Dark Elf. How could she?
The now beautiful Olga heaved a luxurious sigh, branching out her thin arms and admiring her freshly reacquired youth. The remaining maidens gaped dumbfounded at her work... and what it meant for them.
"Oh!" She cried, joyfully. "The villagers brought me a healthy stock this time...! Oh, it's incredible to know such flesh again! This girl's youth will sustain me for months to come!"
Olga gleefully took up her staff again. A sliver of frost danced up her body from foot to crown, and she vanished, before reappearing across the chamber at her throne. She reclined restfully into her seat and tossed a bare leg over the other, purring with delight at her restored figure.
"I'm sure you're all wondering," Olga said to the maidens. "...what I plan to do with you now. When this girl's youth begins to fade, I'll summon the next of you. Until then..."
Olga snapped her fingers. Egg-shaped cocoons of ice rose up from the floor behind each maiden, even Milva. Olga grinned. "...your adolescent flesh will be preserved in my dungeons. But you needn't fear. It shall be akin to... a long and peaceful slumber."
Each ice cocoon cracked open and puffs of gas pillowed out. Those clouds of gas shaped themselves into grasping hands that reached up and seized each screaming maiden. As a vaporous hand reached out to her, Milva desperately screamed;
"STOP THIS MADNESS!"
Each vapour hand, some of which had even dragged a girl or two into the ice cocoons, froze in place. The maidens turned to her, startled that one among them had finally spoken out, though finding her unfamiliar. Olga, jaw perched on her knuckles, sneered.
"What did you say, child?" She seethed.
Milva shrugged off the bulbous fingertips of her vapour cloud. "I said stop. You will stop this now. These girls are not bottles to be drunk, or food to be eaten. You will release them!"
"Who do you think you are to command me in my castle?" With a simple wave of the hand, Olga summoned up a frosty mist that swathed Milva's wrists and solidified into shackles. Milva paled. A second mist pulled her across the crystalline floor all the way to Olga's throne, and suspended her in the air for the mirror witch's perusal.
Milva tugging her wintry restraints and kicking her feet to get loose, but her bonds were too powerful to be broken by brute force, a force which she was already sorely lacking.
"So tell me, insolent one, who are you? Who's father must I kill for his disciplinary shortcomings?" Asked the Youth Drinker.
"Eiszweigstadt is not my home."
Olga sniffed. "Hm. Indeed. I smell the Arcane's scent on you. Your very corpuscles teem with it. Well then. Let me have a glimpse of your pretty young face."
A cold breath blew from Olga's lips. Slight as it was it was strong enough to push Milva's veil over her headdress, revealing the Dark Elf beneath it. They locked eyes for one quiet, blank, almost indefinable moment, then Olga's lovely new face twisted with a carnal anger. Through gritted teeth she seethed -- "Madeen!" -- and threw out her hand. A vicious stream of freezing wind lashed from it, striking Milva out of the air and sending her screaming across the chambers. She rammed into the wall with a bloody thud, and all the ice and mirrors around her merged into an incomprehensible blur as she toppled unconscious to the crystal floor.
From the moment she woke up and found the Rheinshard waiting upon the table beside her bed, Flannery knew that something was wrong. She slept late thanks to the night of planning, but as soon as she saw the relic she scrubbed the sleep from her eyes and climbed out of bed. She didn't even bother to garb herself in a gown or such, she simply peeled out of her room and went two doors down to Milva's. She knocked it.
"Milva?" Flannery called to her. "Are you in there?"
Without a reply she knocked again. Then a second time. Then a third. Finally Flannery got tired of waiting and walked in anyway. She found a made bed and some sparse furniture, as well as Milva's pack and clothes, but the girl herself? Nowhere to be found. Flannery's eyes sharpened.
Something was wrong.
It was impossible to tell how much time had passed when Milva finally stirred. Through hazy, indistinct sight she glared up and around her. The maidens, and the ice cocoons summoned to hold them, were gone; Olga's throne was empty; and Milva found herself dangling from the mirrored wall by her ice shackles. Her boots kicked nothing but cold air. Then, while she was becoming vaguely aware of the blood down her back, Olga appeared at her side. Her movements were instantaneous, yet somehow slow and purposeful, like a chilly mist.
The mirror witch prowled around Milva, suspended from the wall, eying the Dark Elf with a distinct mixture of amusement, anger, hatred and curiosity behind her expression.
"So..." Olga's staff clicked the floor as she semi-circled around Milva with scrutinizing glances. "...awake now, daughter of Madeen?"
"Oh! You are unfamiliar with that name. But I'm very certain, girl. You bear her looks. Your eyes, your ears, even your skin; all Madeen's own. You are the progeny my dearly departed rival sired. So tell me. What is your name, elfling?"
They locked eyes. "...Milva."
"Truly? Well I must say I'm startled that you made it this far into my territory without my knowing. I've a knack for detecting bearers of the Arcane, you see. Such an impressive feat for one so delicate and infantile. Now then, Milva. Answer another of my questions. Why are you here?"
"Come now. Somehow I doubt that you came all this way to the Realm Across the Scar simply to wrench a handful of clueless little girls from my clutches. Even Madeen herself wasn't so altruistic. So why? Why are you here? Revenge?"
Milva barely heard Olga's words. Her dazed mind, regardless of her will, fit together pieces of the mirror witch's unintentional revelations.
She had a mother.
It seemed like such a rudimentary thing to note, as everyone had a mother, but for so long Milva hadn't known hers. One never really existed in her heart. All of a sudden now, Milva's mother had a name and a history. Suddenly one of Milva's parents had substance.
A chill hand snaked up and grappled Milva's face. Olga's vice-like grip squeezed her lips and cheeks into a distorted, misshapen pucker. "I asked you a question, intruder. Are you here for revenge?"
"Then why are you here?" She asked again, releasing Milva's face.
The Dark Elf exhaled. "To reason with you."
"Reason with me?"
"Yes. The valkyries... they are destroying everything. They attack our world as well as the Realm Across the Scar. So many lives have been ruined... I want to stop this. If I don't, the Dukedoms will send fleet after fleet here and further ruin the Realm. More people will die... so please..."
"Please what?" Olga's expression sharpened. "What does your sentimentality cost me?"
"The Rheinshard..." She gasped.
A startled silence fell between them. Clearly the mirror witch had not expected that. Olga's head tipped toward her shoulder as she analysed the girl. She pulled a crooked smile. "Ah! So the pretty little elfling plays her hand. Very well. I shall indulge you. What of the Rheinshard?"
"Give it to me and I'll forgive you."
There was quiet for a moment, before Olga burst out laughing. She laughed! Olga chuckled so hysterically at Milva's demands that her hood's ram horns shuddered. Yet with every last icy chortle Milva's anger swelled. With newborn fury her hands balled into juddering fists that loudly rattled the ice manacles binding her to the wall.
"Stop laughing!" Milva yelled. "Stop laughing at me!"
Olga sobered. "Oh, ho, ho, ho! Oh dear! Well, daughter of Madeen, I'll say this for you; you have spine. There aren't many who would sneak into my castle and make such foolish demands, although I do believe you've jammed your cogs at some juncture. You see, I don't have the Rheinshard."
"That's a lie. You stole a relic of the Gods from Gaustenfolt eighteen years ago." Milva said.
"So you have the Rheinshard...!"
"No. Hasn't the farthing dropped? I did indeed pilfer a relic of the Gods from Gaustenfolt's mansion. But what I stole was not the Rheinshard, it was this..."
Olga held up her staff with a smirk.
"Ygg's Rood! Cut from Yggdrasil's oldest roots and bathed for centuries in the magical essence of the Gods. One of a spiritually interlinked trinity of relics left to the world after the Doom of the Gods. These past two days I have felt tremors from it. It sensed one of its brethren encroaching upon us, and now I see why. You have the other Rheinshard, don't you?"
Milva's heart jerked. "...You..."
"Let me guess. You seek to re-forge the wish mineral and use that against the valkyries? Oh, ho, ho, ho, ho! Such lofty hopes! There is no doubt in my mind that you are Madeen's daughter. Unfortunately, "Milva", you've repeated her mistakes..."
Olga waved Ygg's Rood to her flank. A sliver of ice, as thin as a needle, appeared between the fingertips of her free hand. With that infinitesimal icicle between her thumb and index finger, Olga reared up to Milva's forearm. The needle's bitter aura made Milva's skin crawl.
"You have the Rheinshard, I know it. Not on your person, but somewhere near here. Perhaps even in Eiszweigstadt. Tell me where it is."
"...Why do you want it?" Asked Milva.
"A question isn't an answer. Tell me where it is."
"...I don't know."
Olga sneered. "This is your last chance, girl. Beyond that, your pain will speak for me. Now open up those spear-like ears of yours and hear me -- where is the Rheinshard?"
Milva sneered back; "I won't tell you anything."
It seemed like such a slight thing, that icicle. It was so thin Milva hardly saw it. She never would have imagined kind of pain it could deliver until that first moment, when Olga pierced her skin with in.
In a single, almost unimaginable instant, that tiny needle sunk into her vein and sent a compressed wave of freezing cold force throughout every droplet of blood in her body. It was so cold it BURNED. Milva scratched out a horrific, guttural scream from the pit of throat as, in a single instance, her blood was frozen solid from the inside out. Billions of tiny needles seemed to impale her body from within in one single moment...
...until Olga withdrew the needle.
Milva's head slumped. She'd screamed so hard she tasted blood in her throat. All from that one tiny needle...
"Tell me where the Rheinshard is, Milva," Olga said. "Unless you think yourself able to endure such pain again."
"But Milva always keep Rheinshard, even when in forest. Why she give Flannery Rheinshard?"
She didn't know.
Flannery had the Rheinshard in her hand. It was heavy for such a small piece of gold, but more than anything else it was hot. When she glanced at the window, freckled with frost and condensation, she wondered how that could possibly be. It was like the Rheinshard was... "reacting" to something. Flannery could explain it no other way. When she felt the Rheinshard burn like this, and coupled that fact with Milva's disappearance, mental sparks told her something considerable was happening.
Flannery leaned back on the banister and tried to figure this all out. That was when Spirogui noticed Hilde, pale-faced and distraught, jogging up the stairwell. She paused suddenly for seeing the two of them.
"You one name Hilde, yes?" Asked Spirogui. "You see Milva today?"
"...I... uh, I..."
She was nervous about something, Flannery saw. Why would she be nervous, unless...? "Wait a minute. You know, don't you? You know where she is. Where's Milva, Hilde?"
The girl turned. "I-I-I aught to be going back to-" But before she left Flannery grabbed her by the arm, spinning her back around to face them.
"Where is she?" Said the archer, sharply.
Milva's body, wracked with agony, soaked with sweat, slumped loosely in her shackles. The pain was so intense she was almost delirious, hardly able to see anything, or even perceive it when Olga made more threats. Milva's mind was a world of smog until her captor drove that needle into her arm again. It snatched her from the haze with spirit-shattering lucidity and sent her into a screaming fit. Seconds later she choked out tiny gobbets, spit and bile, peppered with droplets of blood. The sickly mixture rolled down her chin and dripped onto her collar.
She blacked out yet again.
It took long minutes for Milva to get her senses back. They returned piece by piece. First came her hearing; the twinkle of ice, the slaps of Olga's feet, the "tonk!" of Ygg's Rood against the crystalline floor. Then her skin's touch sensed the atmosphere's chill, and her nose wiggled at the scent of frozen waters. Finally her eyes peeled open. Olga stood before her, the needle gone, with a curious, perhaps even frustrated, expression.
"You fascinate me, Dark Elf. To resist such torturous agony with a so slight a body. How is that possible?"
Milva could barely string together the words.
"Once again, you challenge me, Madeen," sneered Olga, more to herself than to Milva. "After all I have become, do you still think me meek? Fool! I shall extinguish your bloodline forever! Just as soon as I have what is mine."
Olga gripped both her hands around the twisting shaft of Ygg's Rood. Through her buxom lips the mirror witch rattled off a wisp of a chant, slight and swift. Within the second two frost wights emerged from one of the wall-mounted windows. They kneeled before Olga, awaiting her orders.
"Bring one of them to me." She said.
Both faceless frost wights nodded and left through the chamber's arched doors. In their absence Olga vanished with "mist movement" back to her throne. She summoned another frost wight to bring her a glass of red wine then returned it to a mirror. Milva was left to dangle. She used that time to stabilize her senses, lick the salty sweat off her lips, and arch her back a bit to relieve the pressure on her wrists. She was at last able to speak when the two frost wights returned with an ice cocoon.
A maiden was trapped inside it.
Milva blanched, gasping. Olga had frozen the girls! She had to have done it while she was unconscious but the Youth Drinker had placed those girls that horrid arctic confinement. The others were probably lingering in stasis somewhere in the deepest pits of Olga's castle. Milva could not imagine how scared they must have all been. But what were Olga's designs for this girl here and now? Why bring her up when she had already fed on another girl's youth?
"W-what are you doing?!" Milva asked.
Olga grinned as the frost wights set the ice cocoon down. Their crystal cold hands morphed into pick-axes and they began chipping away at it, breaking the cocoon down into icy fragments. Milva demanded to know what was going on, but those demands fell on deaf ears. Olga sipped her wine and enjoyed the spectacle of her frost wights digging a girl out of her ice.
Eventually the cocoon succumbed to the incessant strikes and crumbled into cracked chunks. The maiden fell out of it. Though she had only been frozen alive in Olga's ice cocoon for an hour or so, her skin had turned a macabre blue and the veins in her flesh a nauseating purple. She was unconscious. The two frost wights took her up and threw her limp arms around their shoulders.
"What is this?" Asked Milva.
Olga smirked. "You truly are the spitting image of your mother, in body and in spirit. Your type are all the same. If you care enough you will never acquiesce under torture... not your own, anyway..."
Now Milva knew what she was getting at. "...Leave that girl alone...!"
Olga snapped her fingers in reply. One of the frost wights holding the girl up fastened his reformed fingers around her neck. Olga's triumphant grin beamed as she said, "Reveal to me the location of the Rheinshard... or I shall have my servants crush this girl's neck to pulp."
Milva's heart thundered in her chest.
Her mind was suddenly twisted into two incomprehensible directions. If she handed over the Rheinshard she would be surrendering the world's one chance of ending the valkyrie crisis without war, and everything she and her friends had laboured for up until now; The Octavia's destruction and Tetra's death would all be in vain. Yet if she didn't, this innocent girl would die right before her eyes.
"I am losing my patience." Quipped Olga. "I do not bluff."
If only to confirm that, Olga snapped her fingers again. The frost wight tightened his grip around the girl's throat. Milva shuddered. Though the girl was unconscious, her mouth reflexively flopped open and hacked out a distorted cluster of breaths.
"Stop it, you're killing her!" Milva protested.
Olga's smirk never budged an inch. "Tell me where the Rheinshard is or she will die!"
Desperate, heavy wheezes took over the chambers as the frost wight's slow constriction tightened into a choke. Blood and thought surged through Milva's person in torrents, faster than she could keep up with, faster than she could observe. A vacuum of focus sucked all of her attentions toward Olga, seated so calmly in her throne, as she ordered one of her servants to kill this innocuous girl. Something in that sight infuriated Milva to an extent she rarely ever felt; powerful people toying with the lives of those without...
...and her mind fogged into a space of cold rage.
She saw nothing beyond Olga's loathsome indifference and callousness. Milva was so steeped in that hatred she failed to notice her hands, high above her head, tightening into fists and shimmering with force. Her lilac hair floated in the air as if plucked up by a fierce wind. Thick crackles of Arcane force danced up and down her body like snakes.
Olga's smile faded as Milva's eyes dilated into pupil-less golden pools and she heaved out a primordial scream of raw bestial fury that sent shockwaves throughout the chamber. Furious waves shattered window after window until they smashed through the two frost wights. The girl fell from their crumbled grip and the wave surged on until it reached Olga, who projected Ygg's Rood and threw out a counter wave that crashed into Milva's. The two immense bolts of force exploded before their eyes.
Gales tore through the chamber, drawing ice fragments and glass shards into a windy maelstrom. Those torrential gales swirled themselves into a sparkling unity, a compressed tornado that spiralled up into the dome roof and tore through its tiling. Olga was forced to summon ice shields to protect herself from the falling debris. Then, while her furs were being whipped around her body, Olga glanced up and saw Milva floating astride the tornado with menacing, unrestrained fury in her eyes.
The Dark Elf's hands were swallowed up in manifest balls of the Arcane. With swift esoteric gestures she cast that swirling tornado of ice, glass and storm at Olga and her throne.
Only the swiftness of her mist-movement spared Olga the wrath of the twister when it tore through her throne like paper and ground into the wall behind it. Its incisor-like winds carved brutally into the stone until it dissipated with a burst, thrusting kinetic discharge up the foundation from floor to ceiling, cracking the wall to its shatter-point. Violent rumbles quaked the floor while broken rubble rained from above and collapsed into a dusty heap of rock, ice and glass.
Olga glided to a stop by one of the smashed windows of her chamber. She took her fingers to a hot pain she felt at her cheek, not noticing it before. When she pulled them away she found them dapped in blood.
"...You cut me." Olga gasped, astonished.
Across the room Milva's feet landed softly to the ground, with the girl from the ice cocoon lying safely behind her. The elf's eyes regained their focus but the sheer rage behind them... that had yet to disperse. So, with her body still crackling with the mythic power of the Arcane, Milva set a step forward and locked eyes with the Youth Drinker herself.
"You're going to pay for your crimes..." She fumed.
Flannery and Spirogui were halfway across the lake when they saw a sparkling zephyr burst through the upper wall of Olga's keep and swirl into mist. Clumps of stone tumbled down and plugged the fissure. It was impossible to tell what was going on in there but Flannery was certain that Milva was involved. While she drew her shoulders back and flapped the oars, Spirogui mounted the boat's rim with a foot.
He cupped his twiggy fingers over his eyes. "It look like Arcane being used inside witch's castle."
"I know. We have to get to Milva before-"
Flannery's words were cut off by an ear-splitting roar that broke out over the lake. It was so ferociously loud it sent ripples throughout the still, murky waters. Both she and an equally startled Spirogui glanced to their left. A winged black beast threw itself into the cold morning air from the castle's gatehouse.
Flannery watched with alarm as the lion-headed creature galloped around the lake like a bird of prey awaiting that opportune time for the first swoop.
"What in the Realm is that?" She wondered.
Spirogui frowned, waking his sword from its slumber. "That Craufanzer, guardian beast of mirror witch. It know we here."
"I don't suppose it might leave us alone until we find Milva, will it?"
Typical. Flannery sighed, released the oars, and pulled an arrow out of her quiver. "Somehow I didn't think so."
She nocked the arrow and took aim. The bow and quiver weren't her own, they were the work of the forest sprites, but ever since acquiring them Flannery was realizing the superiority of their craftsmanship. As Craufanzer prowled the skies like a vulture, Flannery observing its flight patterns a few, focusing on where it was going to be, not where it was. A second later she sunk an arrow into tip of its right wing. Craufanzer bellowed furiously, pulling its unshorn head to the arrow's origin, the boat.
Flannery reached for another arrow. "I think that only angered it...!"
"It will come." Said Spirogui.
And so it did.
Craufanzer roared tremendously again, leaning back slightly, then hurled itself down toward the lake like a expertly thrown spear. The speed of its descend alone snapped the arrow out of its wing. Flannery scrambled to line up another shot, this time drawing two at the same time. She loosened both bolts at once, one sinking into Craufanzer's left shoulder with a thud, the other snapped between its vicious jaws. Completely ineffective.
"Cogsblast it!" Flannery cursed. "Get off the boat!"
She and Spirogui leapt off the rim of the longboat and dove into the bone-chilling waters underneath it. Flannery's senses were submerged into an aquatic blur, bubbles everywhere, between the reed-ridden lakebed and the surface waters. She only saw a glimpse of Spirogui at her side, kicking his twig-legs like a motor, when Craufanzer nose-dived through their boat, smashing it to splinters, and explosively plunged into the lake.
A gigantic geyser thrust up into the air as Craufanzer's dive churned the lake's waters. Amidst a haze of bubbles and coursing waves Flannery was tossed to and fro like a rag doll. She didn't need to hold her breath, but there was too much water rushing up her nose (and clouding her eyes) to perceive what was happening, or what direction she'd been thrown in. All she managed to do was realize how much more vulnerable she was in the water and so she swam in any direction she could to get clear of this underwater cyclone.
With all her strength her legs kicked her to calmer waters. She glanced down and saw the sun when she realized she was swimming toward the lakebed, so Flannery swam back around and waded for the surface. She penetrated it with a gasp, her wet hair cycling around her skull, and saw fragments of their longboat wafting in broken shards a good few yards from her.
"S-Spirogui?" Flannery yelled out. "Spirogui, are you all right?!"
There was no reply.
She couldn't see him.
The waters began to settle without any sign of Spirogui or Craufanzer. For a long moment where next to nothing could be heard except for the lake's natural sway, Flannery began to worry. Then, when she seriously considered diving underwater to find her diminutive companion again, she heard something not unlike a low growl. A distinct ripple curdled the waters around her and tickled her ribs. Twenty yards to her left bubbles gurgled toward the surface.
Like a crack of thunder, Craufanzer blasted out of the lake and into the air. The shockwave pitched across the water and threw Flannery for six, forcing her to swim against the current to hold herself afloat. Her sight then took to the skies as a now soggy Craufanzer flapped into another ravenous circular flight around the lake. This time however, he was not alone. Flannery squinted hard and saw Spirogui clinging tentatively to the creature's back. His sword was impaled in its hide.
Flannery clenched a fist of joy.
She watched the leafy swordsman hold on for dear life with his sword sunk deep into Craufanzer's back. It hurled out disjointed roars as it tried to reach up at its back and snatch Spirogui off, but he was too artful, and he swayed his form around Craufanzer's beefy, anthropomorphic hands, whilst retaining his grip on the hilt. When Craufanzer saw it could not simply pull Spirogui off its back, it flew into a series of loops and spirals, weaving around the skies like a dart, roaring its displeasure at the small sword lodged between its shoulder blades.
Spirogui's grip loosened.
It was the third spin that finally broke his courageous grip. Spirogui's twig fingers slipped from his blade and the wrenching air currents lobbed him off. Flannery's eyes were saucers as Spirogui plummeted back to the lake. He plunged in with a heavy splash that tossed spray and droplets above the mist. He did not rise.
Fearing the worst, Flannery dove back underwater and kicked her legs toward the direction Spirogui had fallen. She paddled a trail of bubbles through the lake's bowels until she spotted him drifting unconscious to the lakebed. Flannery swiftly swam down and grabbed him by his tiny arm. With Spirogui safely with her she kicked for the surface once more.
Craufanzer's large shadow circled the lakefront in a vain struggle to pull Spirogui's sword out of its back.
Regardless, Flannery swam the rest of the way to the castle islet, where the fractured wreckage of their little longboat was washing up. Flannery clawed her way up the snow-covered shore. When one of the ice slats slipped from the castle walls Flannery shoved Spirogui aside and rolled the other way to avoid it. It smashed itself to pieces by the lakeshore.
The archer coughed the water out of her throat and crawled to Spirogui's side. Her hair and clothes were heavy with damp. Flannery unbuckled her quiver (the arrows of which had long since been swept away into the lake) and cast aside her now useless bow to check Spirogui's breathing by waving her palm over his two tiny nostrils. He was unconscious but very much alive.
"Good." Flannery told herself. She cast a warring eye over her shoulder at Craufanzer. "And now to deal with you..."
She pulled the wet ginger strands of hair from her face, cracked her knuckles, then climbed back onto her feet and scaled down the islet's snowy slope to the washed out wreckage of the longboat. Flannery took one of the broken oars and snapped off the wooden fin with her foot. She immediately yelled out at the creature above, waving her arms.
"Hey!" Flannery shouted. "Hey! Over here! Over here! Do you see me, you beastly bastard, huh?! Come down here and fight me!"
Though nursing a wounded back, it perceived her out the corner of its eye. Craufanzer roared another epic battle cry then glided down toward the islet's banks. Flannery took the broken oar between her two hands and held her nerve. It would take some decent timing to get this right, but, whenever in the heat of battle, Flannery couldn't help but feel some elemental mechanics dictating her instincts. That was how she fought, on her instincts.
The instant that Craufanzer swept toward her with open jaws, Flannery tumbled out of the way and bloodily thrust the oar into its ebony-furred flank. The monster screamed agony and bounded back into the sky, taking Flannery with it.
Suddenly the snow of the islet was replaced by the lashing winds of high speed flight. It flapped Flannery's red tresses about her face and sent gusts down her nose and throat, it forced her to squint to see, but Flannery would not by thrown off, not now. With strong hands soggy from the blood that oozed down the shaft of the oar painfully wedged between Craufanzer's ribs, Flannery grabbed bunches of the monster's fur in her fists and scaled her way up its ribcage and around to its back. Even as Craufanzer broke once more into speedy spins and sharp turns, Flannery held onto it as tenaciously as a tick. She took herself all the way up its back to Spirogui's imbedded sword. With one bloody hand gripping a bundle of its black fur, Flannery rancorously tore the sword out of Craufanzer's back and plunged it back in again... repeatedly.
Though the sword was as small as a butcher's knife in her hand, Flannery put it expert use, stabbing Craufanzer's back again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again...
...until the horrific creature's eyes drifted shut.
Its back flooded red with blood, Craufanzer ditched into the lake with another colossal plunge. In the furious torrent of water, Flannery pulled Spirogui's sword out of the honeycomb of bloody stab wounds freckling Craufanzer's back before the vacuum sucked her down with him. She pushed herself away and kicked desperately for the surface until once again her lungs were drawing in gobs of cold air.
A now tired Flannery slowly swam the rest of the way to the islet where Spirogui was slowly stirring, coughing up sallow lake water. Flannery scratched her way through the snow to him, with a smeared trail of Craufanzer's blood in her wake.
"Flannery..." Spirogui coughed. "...okay?"
She nodded, scrubbing the blood out of her eyes. "I have to find Milva..."
"How dare you challenge me?!"
With a swing of Ygg's Rood, Olga manifested a sparkling pane of ice before her body and commandingly thrust her hand into its curving back. Its surface rippled like a pool and an expansive volley of niveous pinions shot forth. As the pinions encroached on her position, Milva turned heel and ran, scrambling around the bend of the chambers. Behind her each pinion staked the glassy floor like knives. When the barrage ended Milva branched her hand south and focused her mind upon the ice pinions. Her thoughts swamped with images of reflection, of counter-point, of action and re-action; then as fast as they sprung at her, the dozens of pinions disjoined themselves from their floor wounds and hurtled back to Olga.
The blonde sorceress sneered. Lunging her staff forth, Olga worked the Arcane into freezing the pinions in the air, yards from her, suspending them, as if time had stopped for an instant. She then swayed her arms and muttered ancient chants in a low and grinding snarl. The cloud of pinions all sucked into one point, returning to icy matter and clumping together in a frosty bolder that expanded and expanded until it was three-times Olga's height.
"You will regret this, Dark Elf!" Proclaimed Olga, as she swung her arm and the Arcane hurled this massive boulder at her.
Swallowed up in its escalating shadow, Milva's instincts continued to account for the expertise her inexperience confounded, by mist-moving out of the way, dodging around the icicled sphere as it smashed into the floor.
Mist-movement was incredible. Even as Milva summoned shards of broken ice to follow her to Olga, she experienced an incredible rush. Gales of bypassed time caressed her skin in waving flutters as all the elements of kinesis and transportation were superimposed by a continuity that Milva was the sole author of. That adrenalin rush of mist-movement only added to her drive, when her powers transformed the ice shards trotting behind her wrist into gobbets of water, all of which she hurled at Olga -- except for one.
The mirror witch was pelted with splash after splash of cold water. It soaked through her fur. "W-what in the Realm was that supposed to be? You think a little water is going to-"
But when she looked up again, Milva was gone.
Olga glanced around, astounded. "Where...?"
Then a block of ice hammered her back. It was so powerful and so sudden that Olga barely registered the sensation as it threw her off her feet and tossed her face-first into the floor. When she looked back, she saw Milva, standing silently where Olga once did, with misted ice encasing her fist like a glove.
Olga thumbed the blood out of her lips with a chuckle. She rose to her feet. "Heh, heh, heh. As much as it pains me to admit it, your powers are impressive. You're still nowhere near Madeen's level, but... impressive. Yet it will take more than raw, unrefined power to defeat someone like me, child. I'll give you one last chance to submit to-"
A razor-thin sliver of frost shot across the space between them and nipped Olga's cheek.
"You are a murderer," Milva said. Her ice glove de-crystallized and transmogrified into an encircling globe of water. "I was a fool to think I could reason with someone such as you. I will not rest until I have made you pay."
"Is that you talking, or the Arcane?"
"The Arcane speaks with me!" But when Milva leaned forward to cast another spell, she couldn't. Packs of ice gathered around her boots and ankles, holding her down, keeping her in place. It all emanated from a trail of frost that wound its way back to Olga's suddenly elongated shadow.
The Youth Drinker smirked. "Heh, heh, heh. `The Arcane speaks with me?' Tch. You're only a kitten with cream. Let me show you a true sorceress' power..."
Olga opened her arms. Snowy sparkles surrounded her skin, shimmered around the shaft of Ygg's Rood, and twirled up from her body, all the time growing thicker and thicker. A dense cyclone of snow was soon grinding at the crystal floor around her feet. The cyclone expanded, and Milva rushed to free herself.
She bombarded her mind with images of extensive reach and heat, and her powers acted accordingly to her raw adrenalin, when boiling hot tendrils burst out from her water sphere and spiked the ice blocks restraining her. The tendrils clung to the blocks until they snapped. Milva broke free.
The pillar of snow swirling around Olga's body towered as far up the ceiling as the dome, and stripped it of its broken tiles and cracked icy stalactites. From there it enlarged itself across the increasingly unstable ground. It was like a bulbous infection, gradually swelling bigger and bigger. Very soon the snowstorm was devouring Milva as well. She tried to fight it. She tried to imagine a spell that might protect her, even used mist-movement to avoid the initial winds, but it was of little use. The snowstorm enveloped the entire chamber. There was nowhere to move to. Milva was spun helplessly into the snowstorm. Her senses were blurred and barraged by cold and white; the heavy wind's thrashing beat pelted her ears, until she perceived nothing at all.
...for an instance.
Milva only came to when a hand cruelly struck her face. It tore her out of her unconsciousness. The Dark Elf sighed and her eyes fluttered open. A primal coldness stung her skin. When finally pulled her face out of the snowdrift she glanced at her surroundings and shuddered, for she was no longer in Olga's chambers, but an endless and barren field of snow.
It travelled for as long as the eye could see. A silent field of snow rested beneath a dim grey sky. There was little else here beyond some scattered trees, long since stripped of their leaves, their branches reaching out like bony fingers. Milva took herself to her feet.
The snow was so thick and white that her bridal gown disappeared into it. Everything was miserable here. It was bleakly gelid and disturbingly white; so little vitality, so devoid of spirit, so rancorously non-existent.
"Where am I?" Milva wondered aloud.
"You're in my thrall, kitten." Said Olga.
She appeared yards from Milva by a skeletal, leaf-stripped tree. Her lips curled into a cunning smirk. "Merely an appliance of the Arcane. I would not normally go to such effort for a mere novice, but you intrigue me. I confess, it's been a good long while since someone last had the gall to provoke me like this. I enjoy your foolishness, but your insolence... Oh! That ends here, kitten."
It was snowing. At the ambit of this snow-ridden meadow the snow was at its most intense, a downpour of white swirled around at the lash of the wind. It was like a wall. Olga snapped her fingers and frost wights marched out of it. They lumbered over to an apprehensive Milva in a slow circle, while their mistress grinned with glee.
The daughter of Madeen now found herself surrounded on all sides by frost wights in this mysterious snow field.
Milva was alone and facing an enemy that was by leagues her greater, yet she felt no fear. She glanced out the corners of her eyes and over her slim shoulder at the frost wights, twenty in all, and flooded her mind with images, interpretations, and musings of size. When one stands against many, one must have the strength of many. Milva carried those thoughts as she fell back, open-armed, into the snow, and the snow swallowed her whole.
In mere seconds the ground rumbled beneath their feet. Olga and her frost wights trembled with its vibrations. A huge mound arose where Milva fell. It launched up dozens of yards into the sky until the snow pillowed away from the figure was underneath it; a colossal ice-carved giant bearing the Dark Elf's shape and face.
"What the Cogs...?" Olga gasped.
The ice giant heaved her massive foot, as big as stagecoach, and smashed one of the frost wights underfoot. It burst into icy sparkles. The giant's head lulled back in a disjointed fashion. The ground shook with her slow, gleeful snarl.
"What are you waiting for?!" Yelled Olga to her frost wights. "Destroy that thing this instant!"
When one of them lunged for her ankle the ice giant smacked it away with the freezing back of her hand. The frost wight was sent spinning into the air and crashed to pieces against the snowstorm's outermost ambit. Two frost wights grappled her shin. They were like squirrels clinging to a tree trunk. The ice giant snatched them off her leg and hurled them around the field before turning to the others and destroying them all, one by one.
Kicks, punches, smacks, and pokes made swift work of what once was an army. In time all that remained of the frost wights were crumbled heaps of rime.
But now Olga was gone.
When the ice giant turned to the tree she once stood by, she found her missing. Then a volley of ice pinions thudded into her back. The ice giant's preset mouth opened and loosened a monotonic cry as she was forced into a heavy stumble. The ice giant's head slowly turned along the grooves in her neck. Olga was behind her, shooting pinions from the mirrors she created with Ygg's Rood in hand. While Olga relentlessly rifled ice pinions into her back and flank, the ice giant slowly kneeled down and scooped an entire snow drift into her hand. She fastidiously balled it between her fists then hurled it like a cannonball at Olga, who quickly forced herself into mist-movement to avoid the attack.
Olga flew up, avoiding the ice giant's slow punches and slaps, and sailed around her broad ribs to the speckled network of ice pinions she buried there. Olga projected Ygg's Rood forward and muttered an ancient chant of the Arcane.
The snow underneath her massive feet churned when the ice giant began turning around, but by then it was too late. Olga manifested another window and hundreds of thin, watery tendrils lunged out of it. Each of the tendrils grasped a pinion. With the additional strength of Ygg's Rood buttressing her power of the Arcane, Olga shrieked loudly and tugged at the tendrils, pulling the mighty ice giant off her axis. The Youth Drinker mist-moved out of the way before the ice giant crashed violently into the field. The shockwaves pushed out a terrible gust of wind that shunted knolls of snow into the belting ambit.
When the snow clouds receded, Milva weakly crawled out of a maze of the ice giant's gargantuan broken limbs and bones, somewhere near her 'womb'. Despite the difficulty, Milva found a way to stand up. That last act of Arcane manipulation drained her terribly. Her skin was freezing cold and her bones were trembling.
She wasn't sure how much longer she could keep fighting this fight, but now she learned one important thing -- the brunt of Olga's power was coming from Ygg's Rood.
Milva had to separate Olga from that relic.
The Dark Elf stumbled forward on shambling feet.
"Heh." Olga sneered. "You still think you can 'punish' me?"
"I don't... think it," Milva wobbled. "I... know it."
"You know nothing, kitten. You can barely stand, let alone fight. And yet I cannot find it in myself to dislike you. You are, if anything, a beguiling shadow of your wretched mother; but with a guiding hand you could be much more than Madeen's coarse legacy. So what say you, Milva? Why not submit yourself to me and become my apprentice?"
She paused. "W-what?"
"As I said before," Olga began. "Your power is impressive. However, your mastery of it is utterly lacking. At the moment you are not unlike an ore that has yet to see its metals extracted; a diamond in the rough. Only your instincts, spurred on by the Arcane's intoxicant affects, power you to this level. But with my tutelage you might be more than some ephemeral marvel. I would remake you into a powerful sorceress of sophistication and renown, unrivalled amongst any of your contemporaries. Think of it. All my knowledge of the Arcane, of the Realm, and the abilities you've seen here today; all might be yours. My apprenticeship has merely one price. The Rheinshard. Tell me where it is, and I'll make a sorceress of you yet."
Milva was silent. Unmoving. Olga approached her, took the elf by the jaw, and smiled deviously. "...And there are also earthly pleasures, beyond mysticism, I am deeply proficient in. I make lovers of men and women..."
Milva looked away.
"What say you, kitten?"
Her answer was to slap Olga's hand away. "I'll reject your offer. I spent four years of my life padlocked to a woman like you... selfish, indulgent, uncaring. I'd rather die that return to that."
Olga sneered, raising Ygg's Rood. "Then die you shall..."
A split wooden oar gruesomely sunk through Olga's shoulder.
The Youth Drinker screamed out in agony. Blood splattered Milva's face as she thrashed around, the broken oar protruding hideously from her now bloodied shoulder blade. Olga immediately froze the oar with her powers and it fragmented into tiny shards of bloody ice. Across the snow field she and Milva saw Flannery. Her ginger mane of red flocked in the wind.
"Get away from her!" Yelled the young warrior.
There was a second battle cry.
Up above, Milva saw Spirogui lunge at Olga. His sword crashed into one of the ice windows she shielded herself and rebounded. Nevertheless, the tiny knight furiously somersaulted to the snow floor and swept his blade at her naked feet. Olga flew up into the air and glided across the field to regroup.
Flannery ran up to Milva's side. "Are you hurt?"
"No." Milva said. "I'm sorry, I never should have come here alone."
"That doesn't matter now."
Milva took herself out of Flannery's embrace. "It does. I cannot defeat Olga alone, but I know what her weakness is. That staff of hers, do you see it? We must separate her from it. That's the only way."
Spirogui chuckled. "Humph! That all? Then Spirogui shall."
He bounced off into a series of swift somersaults that took him across the snow field and into combat with the mirror witch. While they clashed swords and mirrors, Flannery cracked her knuckles.
"You have no weapon?" Milva asked.
"I don't need one."
Yes she did. So Milva pictured weapons in her mind. Her mental catalogue shrank into a single type she thought suited Flannery. The sword. Milva's redheaded friend looked on inquisitively as snow wafted toward her hand. Clumps of risen snow fused, solidified and smoothed into a glistening sword of icicles that she presented to Flannery.
"It will not sustain long, but... it should do." Milva said.
Flannery took it by its cold hilt. "Who will protect you?"
"I don't need to be protected. Not anymore."
Milva ran off toward Olga and Spirogui's furious fight with a curious and startled Flannery behind her. She summoned more snow to her side on the way and the Arcane transformed the clusters into an array of orbs as smooth as billiard balls.
"Move aside, Spirogui!" She yelled, mid-step.
After his acrobatic swordsmanship clashed with Olga's ice mirrors one more time he rapidly somersaulted out of range. Milva threw her arm out and the ice balls rained forward. Olga swiftly swept another ice mirror up with a swing of Ygg's Rood. The balls collided with the mirror and were absorbed, before Olga swung again, spinning the ice mirror upside down, and a hail of ice pinions equal in number hurtled back.
Milva dove out of the way and the wave of pinions met the quick swings of Flannery's icicle sword. She simply smashed her way through them, crushing each pinion with the astonishingly graceful arcs and loops of her makeshift swordplay. But when she thrust that sword at Olga, the Youth Drinker threw her free fist forward and loosened a blasting gust of arctic wind. Flannery was thrown back into the snow.
Spirogui came for her next, swinging his own steel for a killing. This time Olga did not bother to defend with her mirrors, rather, she crossed her arms together then wrathfully spread them out, projecting an arc of arctic gale. It flung both Spirogui and Milva away.
Olga screamed "When will you maggots learn!?" just as Flannery leered up behind her to strike. A knee-jerk ice mirror promptly rebounded the blade before it split Olga's skull open, and a third blast of cold storm-wind whirled from it. Flannery stomped her boots into the snow to hold her ground, but the wind was too strong, and it tossed her icicle sword from her grip.
Spirogui came again at Olga's side. The point of his blade came like a razor-tipped discus as it spun with him in his somersault. Slice marks and friction sparks waltzed around the surface of another self-defensive ice mirror, projected just time to parry his attack. Olga moved to counter, but then another ice ball, just the one, smacked her face brutally, cracking the teeth underneath her bruised cheek.
For a short moment Olga was stunned, only able to see Milva running toward her, which was more than enough time for Flannery to grapple her neck and restrain her. Olga heaved and wheezed, jerking her head so hard her ram's horn hood fell off, but she could not loosen herself, for Flannery's grip was too mortally strong.
There was a scream, just a second later, when Spirogui launched up from the crater his back sculpted into the snow, and lunged forth, swiping his sword up and chopping off Olga's hand with one masterful stroke. Blood stained the snow pink as Olga's severed hand, the one clutching Ygg's Rood, fell to the ground.
Milva moved with near synchronal speed and tumbled to the snow before the mirror witch had time enough to react. She snatched Ygg's Rood from Olga's dead fingertips, and then...
...nothing was the same again for Milva.
As she grasped the shaft of that ancient relic of the Gods, her mind and body were inundated with a procession of images, some mysterious and some not; of the Rood's first carving, of its magical essence tempered by the Mother Goddess, of its many wielders throughout history and the lives they lived as its bearers, stretching all the way to Olga and now to her.
It was a flash.
When Milva rose with Ygg's Rood in her hand, she rose with gen and wisdoms amassed over hundreds of years from the collective experiences of dozens of sorcerers, warlocks and witches. Ygg's Rood was a living font of legendary knowledge and magical quintessence that defied any mere description as 'staff'.
When Milva held it, in her hand, unable to make complete sense of all the information flowing into her mind from the Rood, she likened it to plunging one's hand in fire -- one knew nothing beyond the sensation of burning. It was as intense as that, as a burning, an immolation in raw and fastidious knowledge.
But Milva held her nerve. She rode the fury of the torrent, endured the harsh deluge, and in her eyes emerged a wiser person; what erudition had not given her, Ygg's Rood would.
"No!" Olga screamed. "No! Give that back!"
She threw her elbow into Flannery's nose and broke her grip. But as Olga branched her hand to cast a spell, the Arcane did not bend to her will. More alarming to her still, were the streaking cracks forming across her skin like veins. Dash by dash they interlocked and enmeshed until her flesh hardened and broke off like fragments of pottery.
"W-what's happening to me?!" Yelled Olga.
Milva looked on sternly. "Your power to drink youth comes from Ygg's Rood, not the Arcane. Without it, you have no youth."
Flannery and Spirogui gaped on as Olga literally crumbled to dust. It was such a simple fate. It hardly seemed worthy of her. The snow field around them somehow drifted, like a passing fog, and they were returned to the broken upper chamber of Olga's castle. Olga's puddle of dust sat before them.
Two girls lay sleeping by the wall. One of them was she who Olga threatened to choke, the other, she from whom Olga last drank youth. They were both alive.
"Come on," Milva said to her companions. "We must free the others."