Sophia had turned quite red, her fists balled at her sides. “We are most certainly not servants of the Morrigan,” she snapped again as the two skeletons continued to guide her and Izzy along the winding mountain trail.
“Truth!” Izzy said. “I don’t even know what the Morrigan are to be a servant of one. Them? It? Whatever. Did I mention I was at a stop while traveling through space before ending up here?”
The skeletons stopped abruptly, turning to face their captives.
“She said she was in space,” the one skeleton said.
“We’re all in space, idiot,” the other skeleton replied, waving its arms in a sweeping gesture.
Izzy nodded. “That’s not an inaccurate statement, but I meant more along the lines of zipping around the stars and visiting other worlds,” she replied. “But a bit more sciencey and a little less magical.”
The two skeletons exchanged glances.
“Air’s a bit thin this high up,” the one skeleton said.
The other skeleton nodded. “Makes sense. Anyway, off we go. Stop dawdling. Her Majesty will sort you out.” The skeletons began their forward march along the mountain path once again, and powerful magics in their gauntlets tugged at the simple shackles around Izzy and Sophia’s wrists. They followed, the spellwork potent enough to force compliance.
Sophia glanced over at Izzy as they walked. “This must be a little frightening for you, I’m sure,” she said. “Though they may appear a bit unsettling, I assure you the denizens of Rhimeghast are very lawfully aligned. We just have a little confusion to sort out.”
Izzy laughed. “You’re very kind, but I’m not frightened,” she said. “This is like living out a movie! You, uh…Probably don’t have those. Like living out a story!”
Sophia smiled. “I suppose you’re right,” she replied. “Let’s just hope they don’t throw us in the Rhimeghast dungeons,” she added quietly to herself.
The transition was subtle and gradual. Shapes in the snow gradually gave way to sections of hillside with stone doors and barred windows. Izzy looked around, trying to take every detail in and commit them to memory. The path ahead forked around the outside of a vast opening at the height of the mountain.
“Behold,” one skeleton said. “The Heart of Rhimeghast, our grand palace.” They gestured ahead at a vast crater that occupied much of the mountain’s peak.
Izzy leaned as far forward as the spellwork allowed. “Is it invisible?” she asked. “Or can I only see it if I’m dead. Not dead? Unalive? Whatever the word is.”
“Departed is the preferred nomenclature around these parts,” one of the skeletons offered. “And no. Mind your steps or you’ll get to Her Majesty a lot faster than you’d like.”
They approached the edge of the crater and its details came into view.
“Oh damn,” Izzy muttered.
A series of long, interwoven paths snaked along the wall of the crater downwards. Iron bridges spanned the void with lanterns that dangled from them to lend light to the furthest depths. Numerous skeletons and zombies milled about. Specters and spirits drifted through the air, focused on the tasks with which they were busy. Torchlight burned brightly along the walls, casting curious and concerning forms along the paths.
“The tomes do not do it justice,” Sophia said, mouth agape. “Oh damn indeed.”
“Down we go, prisoners,” one of the skeletons said without looking back. “Careful steps, please, because we’d like for Her Majesty to be able to question you.”
High above, Badb circled, her shadow massive on the ground. She had followed since the cave, but maintained a significant distance.
“Curious,” Sophia said.
“That bird, you mean? Terrifying,” Izzy replied. “Looks like it could swoop down and eat us.”
“Yet she hasn’t,” Sylvia said. “I wonder why.”
The path down was far more perilous than it looked, littered with loose stones and scattered bones. Both Izzy and Sophia carefully watched each step, their attention focused on their feet and less on the path ahead. The sudden stop proved jarring, but not as jarring as the sight they beheld upon looking up.
At the center of the crater’s void, held aloft by a series of concentric bridges that branched outwards, was a brilliant crystal chamber. Its exterior reflected the world around it. A massive pair of gilded doors towered ahead, and as they approached the doors swung inwards with a deliberate slowness.
“Enter,” boomed a voice from within the chamber.
The skeletons guided Izzy and Sophia into the room, and the doors slammed shut behind them. Glittering crystals lined the walls of the simple room, giving light to the otherwise dark space.
At the center of the chamber stood a colossal throne, and above that throne hovered a frost Lich. Chains of ice circled her skeletal form, a crown of jagged icicles atop her head. Glittering points of blue starlight emanated from within her seemingly bottomless eye sockets.
“Presenting Her Majesty, Lady Valeria Rhimeghast,” the skeletons said together in a way that had clearly been rehearsed and repeated numerous times.
Izzy bowed with a flourish, a gesture made all the more difficult but impressive thanks to the shackles that bound her to the skeletons. Sophia quickly followed suit.
“We found these agents of the Morrigan below, creeping up towards our territory,” one of the skeletons said.
Sophia stood. “Your Majesty, Lady Rhimeghast, I must respectfully disagree,” she said.
“Fools!” Lady Rhimeghast spat.
“Oh, they’re in for it,” the one skeleton said.
“One does love to see it when Her Majesty doles out judgement on those who bow to the Morrigan,” the other skeleton said.
Lady Rhimeghast shook her head. “You two are the fools, you boneheaded buffoons!” she roared. “Have you not seen Badb high above? How she has maintained a cautious distance? Do you think she would have done so if these were her minions?”
Izzy chuckled. “Minions.”
“You have brought me a keeper of knowledge from our world and a traveler unmoored from her reality,” Lady Rhimeghast said. “Her simply being here has thrown things out of alignment, and I intend to find out why she is here. Leave us!” She snapped her fingers, and the shackles fell from Sophia and Izzy’s wrists.
The two skeletons turned and fled without further comment.
“Now, child from another time,” Lady Rhimeghast said. “What do we do about you?”