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The Soul of a Queen

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The smell of freshly-fried doughnuts wafted dreamily through the empty halls; the platter was full and the kitchen clean once again. As time passed, Cabanela slouched moodily from one side of the small sitting room to the other, circumnavigating the settee where Kamila sat pretending to read a, presumably dull, book, judging from the way she sighed and fidgeted every few minutes.

At last Kamila threw down the offending novel and looked up. “Don’t you think we should check on them?” She wrung her hands, then stood up with a decisive snap, looking toward the door. “It’s getting so late and they both must be hungry…”

Cabanela started, thrown off his mental track by her words. He grinned, though his eyes were still too-shadowed and inscrutable, and said, “Of cooourse, baby, you’re so right. Those things are gonna be cold ’n’ greasy if they don’t get in here.” He danced to the door and gestured her through with a flourish. “After you.”

She grinned back at him and went to the door, but looked back a little uncertainly. “Should we take them with us?”

Cabanela waved this off. “They need to get up and ooout of that dreary old bedroom and back to the airship with us. We’ll take ‘em to go when we’re leavin’.” A beat, as he appeared to rethink a bit, and went back to grab one. “Just one, so they know what they’re missin’. Waaarm, soft doughnuts, nothing like ‘em.”

“Good idea.” Kamila turned to the door again and peered out. The evening had darkened the castle’s halls to stygian gloom and it was probably even colder inside than outside. The air was still and dead, as it had been within the Vanguard’s resting place. It made them both jumpy, thinking of what they had experienced there.

The hallway to her mother’s rooms was not a long one; it should only have been a mere few steps, but it felt as though it stretched into infinite darkness. Kamila drew closer to Cabanela. He looked down in surprise as she slipped her hand into his.

“You okay, there, baby?”

“Uncle Cabanela…” Kamila sighed. It was too adult a sound to come out of such a young woman, and yet she breathed the weight of the shattered world into that simple exhale. “I know you said—well, back in Figaro. You promised, so tell me the truth: Will it get better?”

“Of cooourse it will.” Cabanela kept his back straight, his face heroically turned into the dark hall. “I promised both you and your father so it’s gonna happen.”

“No matter the cost?” Kamila’s voice sounded a little strange, and Cabanela didn’t hesitate in his answer.

“No maaatter the cost.”

She gripped his hand hard, hard enough for him to make a face that she didn’t see in the darkness. “Some costs are too high. You know that, right?” She tugged at him, made him stop and turn to her. She pointed at him, making her meaning plain as she poked him in his skinny chest. “Right?”

He looked down at her, a warm, real smile beginning on his face, but her words hit him and he was silent for a long pause before he answered, “Quiiite the haggler, little lady.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re just like Papa sometimes.”

“Oof, a hit.” Cabanela began walking again, snapping his fingers to create a ball of sparks to light the dark hallway. “And after I maaade you doughnuts and everything.”

She’s not wrong,” Phantom said, and Kamila smiled, surprised to hear the normally-taciturn Esper take her side.

“See? Doughnuts dough not mean it’s not true.” She scampered to catch up just as Cabanela reached her mother’s door. It was entirely silent and as cold as the grave; Kamila stopped smiling and tapped Cabanela’s shoulder, pointing down to a dark, poisonous looking mist curling under the door and out around the hinges.

He kicked the door open without another thought, surprising three small childlike figures clustered around Jowd where he sat slumped over Alma’s body on the bed. They jumped backwards with comedic surprise, overreacting in a way that felt utterly staged.

“Ohoho, you startled us,” one said, echoed eerily by the other two in almost but not quite perfect unison. The effect was jarring, slightly nauseating, and wasn’t helped by the manic, echoing giggles that suddenly sounded from every direction.

“The show is just beginning… you almost missed the curtain,” the second one said, winking at Kamila, who recoiled.

“But brothers, of course we need to set the scene,” the third one said, chuckling. “Shall we have them meet us… further in?” The giggling rose in an insane crescendo as one darted forward, taking the doughnut from Cabanela’s hand in a flash and stuffing it into its mouth. It grinned around doughnut crumbs as it vaulted backward from Cabanela’s reflexive snatch, and all three children somehow jumped into Jowd’s back as it slept unprotected.

This is a trap,” warned Phantom, floating free beside Cabanela’s shoulder and pulsing green light in a vain attempt to warn them. “But I think you’re already caught…”

Kamila and Cabanela stared wildly at each other, then at Jowd and Alma. The curtains on the large four-poster bed began to writhe and wriggle around them; Cabanela noted from the corner of his eye that what he’d initially taken for a pattern of rather tacky polka-dots on the heavy brocade fabric was actually many tiny masks. They glimmered a vivid, toxic green in Phantom’s light, leering and contorting their miniscule faces in obscene grimaces as the draperies drew around them, closing them into the bed as a spider pulls a fly into the web. They began to cough, the vapor filling the room taking its toll on their struggling lungs.

Cabanela shoved an Esuna at Kamila, and the poison mist recoiled. Her breathing eased, although she still looked pale and ill, illuminated by the sickly light; now the cloth hemmed them both in, the curtains on the bed grandly sweeping open, just as at the opera house. These, however, unlike those great swathes of fabric, seemed to want only to pull them in and swallow them down.

The only way to escape the tightening cloth and once-again-encroaching mist was to follow the children and so, without knowing why or how it worked, Cabanela and Kamila did, stumbling after them in the sure knowledge that they couldn’t leave Alma and Jowd to whatever the strange entities had planned. The darkness closed around them; the masks’ eyes glaring wide and empty as they disappeared. The mist, too, spun in deep whorls and was gone, swallowed by the gaping maw of darkness. Phantom’s magicite clattered to the floor, light extinguished, but the humans were gone beyond where their corporeal form could follow.

The tiny faces floated away from the draperies, falling like snowflakes. They drifted, gathered, coalesced in midair, then dropped. The mask, now whole and unbroken, fell with a pleasant ringing chime on top of the darkened Esper, leaving only the pale porcelain gleam of white ceramic in an echoing abyss.