She crunched slowly across the endless plain of snow. Her feet barely cracked the frozen crust. The wind picked up ice crystals from the ground and hurled them at her, cutting unnoticed into her already numbed cheeks. She scanned the horizon again. There it was. A lone dark shape against the gray and white of the winter coated sky and earth. The raven. It circled as it always did, tracing long looping trails across the sky. She started forward again, shivering as another gust of wind cut into her. She hadn’t taken more than a few steps when a cry from above snapped her head up and stopped her in her tracks. The raven’s path faltered as she watched. It screamed again and plummetted to the ground.
‘Frack – that can’t be good’, she thought to herself, then smiled. ‘I sound like him…’ She picked up her pace, carving a path through the pristine snow towards the bank of trees where the raven had fallen.
In time, she reached the wooded area. ’I’ve been here before’, she thought as she entered the woods. She shivered as the memory took hold. ‘Not again…’ Things went black for a while.
She awoke some time later, half buried in snow and lengthening shadows. She sat up, shaking her head to clear it. The snow around her was trampled. She stood, gathered the remnants of her wedding dress around her and looked around. Something was different this time. She stepped into the deep gloom and pushed through some underbrush into a small clearing. Discarded and broken equipment was strewn across the ground. Much of it was coated with blood. A man lay in the middle of the clearing, a spear protruding from his chest. Its long haft shook as he took a shallow ragged breath.
‘Poe’, she whispered. In all of the torments she had endured, all of the repeated pain, she hadn’t seen this before. Steeling herself against this new torture, she raced forward and fell to her knees, cradling him in her arms.
“Alia.” The cold voice rang in her head. She froze. A woman appeared in the shadows, her long black hair still despite the breeze. “We need to talk.”
‘Bitch.’ She cursed silently, still unable to move. The woman’s gaze drilled into her, but she refused to look away, summoning all of her hatred to withstand the power behind the woman’s black eyes.
Black feathered wings unfurled suddenly from the woman’s back, flaring as if she were about to launch into flight. “Enough!” The word blasted into her.
“Now is not the time”, the winged woman continued, her wings folding carefully behind her. “Poe is lost.”
The man in let out a quiet rasping breath. He didn’t take another.
‘Poe! No! I would have known…’ She hugged the body in her arms closer.
“Yes, Alia”, the woman interrupted her thoughts. “You would have. If he were simply dead. It’s not that simple.”
The woman smiled grimly and stepped closer.
“But that complication is your opportunity. Are you willing to make a deal, Alia?” The woman reached out, grasping the haft of the spear extending from Poe’s corpse. “I have to admit that you’ve impressed me. Few have defied me so brazenly and lived.” She paused. “Of course, you were already dead.” She chuckled.
‘Frack’, Alia thought. ‘She knows…’
“Of course I know”, the woman cut off Alia’s thoughts again. “Your gift to Poe is why there is a chance you could be reunited with him. A chance that only I can give you an opportunity to seize.” With a vicious twist, the woman ripped the spear from Poe’s body. Alia fell backwards in the blood red snow.
“I’ve lost my champion and the heroes are without their guide.” She leaned closer to Alia as she spoke, hefting the bloody spear in her hand. With a quick twist she snapped its head off and tossed the haft to the side. Holding the spear tip like a dagger she caught Alia’s arm in her right hand. “Finish Poe’s task. See it through and I’ll see to it that you get that opportunity.”
Alias stared at the woman in disbelief. The Queen of fate was offering her a choice? She didn’t hesitate.
“Done.” Alia whispered. Then, louder, she said, “Yes.”
“Good”, hissed the Queen. She pulled Alia’s arm straight. “Let’s make it formal shall we? Using the old ways…” before Alia could react, the Queen sliced across her arm with the spear’s sharp tip. Blood welled up from the cut. The Queen did the same on her own arm, her pale white skin also parting under the razor sharp blade, and then extended it to her. Alia stared at it, hesitating for a second, then grasped it. The Queen squeezed Alia’s arm tightly, smearing their blood together. Alia suddenly felt lightheaded.
“Now it is done”, sighed the Queen, pulling her arm away. She handed Alia the spear tip. “Keep this,” she said. “It should prove useful, if only to remind you of this.” The queen shook her arm, small droplets of blood spattered onto the snow, hissing. Her arm was again, smooth and pale. Unmarred. Alia took the spear tip, tucking it into the waist of her dress like a dagger. Maybe it would come in handy, she thought. Her head was still reeling a bit and her arm was starting to burn.
“Of course,” continued the Queen, “you’ll need much more than that to be successful. Follow me.” She walked across the clearing and into a large hall with tall vaulted ceilings. Alia blinked. The frozen glen was gone, replaced suddenly with what appeared to be an armory. Armor hung from the walls, flanked by more weapons then she’d ever seen. “Select whatever you think will suit you,” said the Queen, gesturing at the equipment. “When you’re ready, step through that door.” She pointed at the heavy, ironshod door on the far side of the room. “It will take you to the heroes. After that it is up to you. I’ll be watching. When the time is right and you’ve fulfilled your end of the deal, you’ll find Poe.” The Queen turned to leave.
“Wait.” Alia stopped her. The Queen cocked her head and turned back.
Alia shivered. ‘Too late to turn back now’, she thought and pressed on. “I just want you to know,” she said with all of the venom she could muster. “That I hate you. I’ll do this thing, for Poe, and for the world, but not for you. When it’s done, you will have a reckoning with he and I…”
The Queen laughed. “Excellent”, she said coldly. “I look forward to it. It’ll actually be nice to see Poe again. I’d grown rather fond of him…” With that she turned, her wings flared up and she disappeared.
Alia swung back to the wall of armor and equipment. She had no idea where to start. The tingling in her arm was spreading and strangely, she felt drawn to several items. She lifted a long handled, wickedly bladed weapon from its hooks on the wall. It fit her hand perfectly. Good enough. She turned towards the armor…
The Queen settled into an ornate throne in a long, barren hall lined with black pillars. A cup of mulled wine appeared in her hand and she took a sip. As she did, she noticed a fleck of blood on her sleeve. With a thought, she cleaned it and took another drink.
“So…it appears to have worked.” The hag spoke from the shadows behind the throne where she stood leaning heavily on a wooden staff.
“Yes”, replied the Queen tiredly. “I think it has. She will willingly fulfill her fate now. Who knows, maybe she’ll even keep her promise and confront us one day with her beloved.”
“I hope they do.” said a young black haired girl as she twirled out of the darkness surrounding one of the pillars. “‘Cuz that’ll mean the world has been granted the new beginning it really needs. Besides, we all like Poe…admit it.” She grinned and twirled again, dodging the glares of the two older women.
The hag grunted and spat, but didn’t deny it.
“We shall see…”, the Queen said softly. “We shall see…”