Each time he visited the Queen of the Damned, Jirmen suspected he was to be ambushed. The only area he could teleport to would be the courtyard, right in the middle of the castle she ruled over. The throne room was directly ahead and if she so desired, Azulia could’ve thrown her spear right at him upon entry.
Still, Jirmen couldn’t help but admire the architecture. Made of black stone that refracted all light, the castle loomed menacingly. Despite the last flickers of sunlight behind Jirmen, the pointed and sharp center still cast a lengthy shadow. Marble floors, polished and waxed. Runes etched into the ceilings flickered on in darker areas.
The courtyard itself was far from empty. Although no ‘sentient’ beings stood near Jirmen, the tall bushes rustled with the sounds of other creatures. A pair of peeping eyes watched him curiously. Toward the back, what looked like a tree grew. Upon closer examination, what looked like arms grew, and the trunk was locked legs; a Barkling.
Around, others carried on their life, some looking his way. All species were welcome here, but Jirmen knew they were more than met the eye. A gryphon walked by, feathers flowing with fiery hues. On first glance, many would either be confused or pay no mind. None would suspect the him to be a phoenix, a gryphon whose elemental core was stronger than most.
Through the walls, a banshee floated. Impossible to tell the original species, appearing as white specters with a feminine shape. Spurned lovers who were killed tragically or took their own life sometimes manifested as them. Quick to anger, but pleasant to those who show affection, they were known for their deafening shriek.
Azulia’s title had both meanings of the word damned. Those who were dead, and those who were outsiders to society. Some might call it a kindness that she took them in, but Jirmen nevertheless remained alert in her domain.
“Your arrival is unexpected, Archmage.” A raspy, yet amused, voice called spoke from before Jirmen.
Stood under an arch was what looked like a zombified dragon. With withered wings and a thin frame, he looked ready to fall over. Yet, his glittering sapphire eyes and the pristine shape of his curved white scales suggested otherwise. His stance was one of lax, but Jirmen knew much better than to underestimate the being before him.
But, despite his sharp grey-black horns and overall shape, Jirmen knew what was really behind that face. The fins instead of protofeathers was almost a dead giveaway to anyone who recognized their large, pointed spines.
“My coming here was unexpected for me too,” Jirmen approached the dragon. “Were you waiting there, Witherwing?”
“I am everywhere I am needed.” Witherwing smiled thinly. “I assume this is not a simple meet and greet, correct?”
“Unfortunately not.” Jirmen shook his head. “I require an audience with the queen.”
“Ah yes, she was aware of your presence the moment you arrived and has made preparations.” Witherwing unfurled a wing to indicate Jirmen to follow. “She is quite eager to speak.”
“Well, at least one of us is.”
Witherwing chuckled quietly, leading Jirmen inside.
The red carpeted halls extended to Jirmen’s left and right longer than the last time he was here. He should have expected this, especially with the creaking above. Like something massive was moving around. To those who first arrived, they may think Azulia having some renovations done. To the initiated, no one would ever think the queen would do something so simple.
No, it was either over the top or not at all for her.
“Are we not going to the throne room?” Jirmen asked when they passed the long entrance to it.
“My queen has decided to speak in private. The place has been moved to the next hall.”
“Question, because I keep forgetting each time.” Jirmen heard the movements come from around the corner. “How do you find anything if it keeps moving around?”
“Everyone who resides here is attuned to the ‘soul’ of the castle. Wherever something moves, they know where it is.” Witherwing explained with a grin. “Myself, the queen, and the other two champions can move the castle as we see fit.”
“God forbid the restrooms move the moment you get near it…”
“Those very rarely move.”
Before a wall they stood. Two seconds later, an exquisite door made of ivory and gold materialized. The power radiating from behind rivaled his own, and she was in a relaxed state. Unlike his, which didn’t materialize unless he was casting, the arcane rippling off the queen sent waves to anyone in her proximity; a flaunt.
As it materialized, the soft tune of a violin came from inside. Soft and slow, its melody carried a sinister edge that went unnoticed to someone without his hearing. Part of her flaunting; if she was using the violin, she intended to use it as a distraction.
Witherwing opened the door and stepped inside, Jirmen right behind.
Inside was spacious, with room for him to pace along its black stone floors. The scent of olive from candles struck him almost immediately, the white light illuminating the room just enough to cast long shadows. Books from the arcane to fantasy resided upon shelves; a private study. In the back, a piano made of elegant red material refracted light like the walls.
“Jirmen,” An accented, dangerous voice all but purred. “I had not expected you for some time.”
The words came from by far the largest dragon Jirmen ever laid eyes upon. As tall as she was long, on hind legs she was double his height. How she didn’t grind her black, wicked horns along the ceiling was a mystery. The pale white of her scales, unlike Witherwing, carried no signs of life despite looking healthier. Black underbelly absorbed all light, as did the horns and sharp talons.
Beautiful as she was terrifying, the queen wore extravagant jewelry. A crown made of black, jagged material. A large ruby necklace and horn rings, chains attached to nubs along her tail. No protofeathers grew along her neck, instead replaced by metallic spikes.
The Queen of the Damned continued to play her axe-head shaped silver violin, the bow resembling that of a blade. Her dexterity was masterful, able to play with no mistakes whatsoever. Yet when he looked at her glowing crimson eyes and how they illuminated under the scales near it, he was reminded that she was no dragon. Her body may mimic life, but it died a long, long time ago.
“I would not be here if it wasn’t dire, Azulia.” Jirmen answered bluntly. Witherwing twitched at him using her name, and the queen eyed the archmage curiously. “There has been a murder in Falmari.”
“A murder?” Azulia stopped playing the violin. “Oh my. I hope you don’t think I had something to do with this.”
“That is what I am here to find out.” Jirmen briefly recounted the events. How the wards were powered down, the bone.
“Interesting that someone could do such a thing in Falmari,” Azulia reclined in a large chair, previously unseen due to lighting. The shadows covered her like a veil, the glow of her eyes being her only source of expression. “Yet, you would not come here if this was the full story.”
“Someone created a flesh golem that is a perfect replica of someone.”
“A perfect replica? Are you certain it was not a doppelganger?”
“It has no soul fragments.”
“They may have been removed, you know.” Azulia laughed quietly. “But, I imagine you thought of that. Which makes me wonder why you are here.”
“You are powerful enough to create such a being.” Jirmen said without hostility. “If you are somehow not, you have necromancers in your castle who doubtlessly can.”
“Jirmen dear, if I wanted your attention, all I would need to do is ask for it.” Azulia’s bladed tail flicked dangerously.
“Which is why I am here alone as opposed to with an army.”
“Hmm…” Azulia folded her fingers together, eyes narrowing. Pearly fangs, sharper than they ever needed to be, glimmered. “Are you, per chance, asking me for help?”
“I am asking for information and resources.”
“That means yes.” Azulia’s grin grew wider. “I would lend you Lei, but I can tell you wouldn’t want him around. Alas, Tarvi is on a hunt…” A pause. “I suppose that means I will accompany you back.”
“What?” Both Jirmen and Witherwing cried.
“You want this murder solved, yes?” Azulia leaned forward to look Jirmen in the eye. “Are you really going to refuse my aid? You know how powerful I am, and you telling me the situation won’t solve it any faster.”
“You just want to get to the Nexus Point.” Jirmen growled.
“Jirmen dear, if I wanted to get there, I would.” Azulia rolled her eyes. “My army of the damned could invade your city right at its heart. And besides, you and I are the only two left of our little alliance…”
She was trying to manipulate him. She didn’t say their names, but by making him think of Aurgal and Aura, he might show weakness. There was no genuine want to assist; she was after something. If not the Nexus Point, then something. If he allowed her into Falmari, she might discover a weakness.
Yet, what she said was also true. She could break down the barriers with some effort and get in. Granted, she’d be repelled, but Jirmen was in the same position as her. He could invade the castle, but without an advantage, he’d be pushed back.
They weren’t in an alliance; they were in a cold war, waiting for the other to make the first move.
“What do you want?” Jirmen folded his arms.
“Pardon?” Azulia asked innocently.
“What. Do you. Want?” Jirmen repeated with irritation. “For countless years, you have been perfectly content watching Falmari deal with its own problems. Why now?”
“Perhaps I am seeking excitement.” Azulia shrugged to his annoyance. “With the Seraphim all but gone, I find myself…unentertained. And besides, if you truly want to catch this murderer, there is no one more frightening than I chasing after them. They’ll turn themselves in the instant they see me.”
Somehow, Jirmen believed her on both accounts. This castle was a living testimony of how chaotic she is, and no doubt if he didn’t allow this she’d find another village with a small plague to burn. She wasn’t nearly as bad as her underling, Lei, when she got bored. Keeping her appeased would certainly make things easier on Jirmen.
Still, she was after something. She was playing far too nice.
“If I take you with me, it will be alone.” Jirmen said after consideration. “You will be watched. If you do anything suspicious, I am sending you back here.”
“You certainly know how to disinterest a suiter, don’t you?” Azulia rested her cheek on her palm.
“And you are not to speak to Kyrik alone.”
Azulia’s finger twitched. Jirmen knew it; she was after Kyrik. Ever since he bumbled into her castle a few months ago, he’d been worried she’d come after him in some way.
“Why do you assume I would ever attempt to harm or molest him?” Azulia asked with annoyance. “For all your mistrust of him, you certainly are overprotective.”
Jirmen resisted the urge to show physical reaction.
“Yes, I am aware of your conversations. Do you really think I would not have eyes there?” Azulia laughed.
“Have you been watching this from the start?” Jirmen snarled.
“Mmm, no. But I have been paying attention since the first murder. I was wondering when you’d come to me.” Azulia stood up, towering over Jirmen once more. “If you truly wish to save your city, you will accept my help.”
“I truly think I am better solving this on my own, thank you.”
“Ah, but before you go…” Azulia snaked her way toward the door before he could. “Have you considered that this may a message? And you are not who it is intended for?”
“What do you mean?”
“When you are around such dark magics, you begin to notice trends. The bone used in the stabbing is that of an Orithras, a creature associated with being messengers of the damned in some cultures. It almost seems like a calling card. The golem is quite perplexing, but the message is more in appearance than malice. Tell me, who did the golem resemble again?”
“But why waste the effort on such perfection on a lowly shopkeeper?” Azulia paced around Jirmen. “You could puppet it to take advantage of political positions. To fake your own death. To stab it in the back and leave it in the middle of nowhere…no, someone is leaving a message. That shopkeeper meant something to someone.”
Jirmen’s eyes flew wide. “I know who it’s for.”
“From your reaction, this individual is quite important.” Azulia lowered her head to the back of Jirmen’s head, whispering the next words. “If you wish to protect Kyrik – and yes, I know it is he who is targeted – you will need my assistance. We both do not need the reapers to come down in a fury.”
“You are…correct.” Jirmen begrudgingly admitted. “If this individual is as skilled as they let on and targeting Kyrik, it would spell disaster. His other consciousness is already flaring.”
“Certainly nothing good will come of that.” Azulia retracted her head. “And there is my true motivation, if you were wondering; self-perseveration. I will not allow any harm to come to me or this castle, because if Kyrik is as big of a threat as we know he is, he may come here and try to give me my eternal rest. The last reaper who came to me said the same.”
“You have a throne made of weaponry. I didn’t think someone like Kyrik would bother you.”
“I am not concerned about my inability to defeat him; I am concerned about my subjects.” Azulia’s eyes flashed. “They are mine to care for. I will not tolerate anyone laying a finger upon them.”
Jirmen – again reluctantly – believed her. Whether it was vanity about her possessions or genuine care, he couldn’t tell. If he were to bet, it was the former. Still, she wasn’t lying; his eye hadn’t reacted. It was entirely possible she was tricking it, but he couldn’t delay any longer.
If he had to appease her to keep distance between them, it would produce more good in the long run.