The Sugar Quill
Author: Ashley  Story: The Serpent and the Sorceress - Book 1: Shadows Rising  Chapter: Chapter 2
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- Chapter 2 -

- Chapter 2 -

Arienne Jacobs found herself standing in a large room, dimly lit so that only the wall closest to her could be seen; everything else was covered with shadows.

The chamber itself was made of stone, cold and gray, and was empty except for a small pillar near the center. A thin shaft of light illuminated the pillar, but the source was indistinguishable, lost somewhere in the shadows of the cavernous ceiling. She felt a cold gust of wind ruffle the hem of her cloak, but saw no openings from which it could come. It was then that she realized that she'd been there before. Several times.

Her skin prickled slightly at the thought, but she quickly dismissed it when movement on the pillar drew her attention. Walking cautiously closer over the smooth marble floor, Arienne's eyes began to adjust to the darkness, and she saw a slender form curled atop the column. Drawing closer still, she saw that the pillar was made of white marble, and seemed to emit its own soft glow. That was not what caused her breath to catch in her throat, however.

Coiled on top of the pillar was a snake, a small one at that, but with ruby eyes that peered at her, unblinking, from its resting place. She hesitated, not wanting to go closer, but found herself drawn towards it against her will. Once she was within arms reach of the snake, it began to move, and slowly lifted its head so that its eyes were level with her own. Then it spoke to her with a low voice in a language slurred with sporadic hisses.

"Brave girl. Coming all the way here by yoursssself, again."

"Where am I?" Her voice was level and she didn't blink as the snake drew itself taller.

"Maybe ssstupid girl, for not being afraid."

Arienne stared at it defiantly. "Why should I be afraid?" She was aware that it hadnít answered her first question, but was somehow not surprised.

"Everyone'sss afraid today. Death Eaterssss are everywhere. The sssstench of fear is all over, wizardssss and Mugglessss alike. Except for you. You do not ssssmell afraid." Its expression contorted with suspicion. "Why?"

In the silence that followed she searched her mind for any reason there might be for fear. Something dimly called to her, but it was too out of reach to recall it. "I have no reason to be afraid," she said, trying to sound braver than she felt at that moment. The snake flicked its tongue in and out, but its eyes remained focused on her, as if examining her, watching carefully for any change in reaction.

"Everyone ssshould be afraid. He'sss coming. Thisss isss only the beginning. What you ssssee around you will only worsssen assss time passesss. There are differencesss between bravery and foolishnessss. Do not confuse them, or you will sssuffer."

"Why are you telling me this? Who are you?" Arienne was closer to the pillar now, involuntarily gripping its ledge with white knuckles.

"You are different from the otherssss," the snake said, as if she hadn't spoken. "Yessss, I see it now. Yet you try to hide it. Why? Why do humansss alwaysss try to deny what they are? Why do they deny the giftsss they have been given?"

Despite the fact that it appeared so calm, its voice seemed tainted with anger. Arienne tried to back away, but the snake's hypnotic gaze held her stationary. She colored slightly, then said, "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not hiding anything."

"You sssee thingsss, don't you? Thingsss other people can't. But -" it paused. If it had been a human at that point, she would have sworn it would be smiling. "Yesss, there it iss. Fear. You are afraid of it. You will not admit it, but it'sss there, and you are afraid."

"You're wrong."

A raspy sound from the snake's throat caught her off guard. It sounded vaguely of sandpaper scratching against stone, but it was presumably the snake's equivalent of laughter - and it was laughing at her.

"Am I, girl? Or are you just desssperate to keep your secretsss hidden? I have not seen one like you for a long time. I doubted you even exisssted anymore. Those who lived and weren't killed by the Dark Lord ssserved Him, but they were disposed of once the Aurorsss came - not without a fight of courssse...and lotsss of blood. I thought then that you were all were dead, but perhapsss I was wrong. That missstake hasss been made before."

The snake drew itself up more rigidly as another thought came to it. "Have you come from Him? With messagesss? I can kill you faster than your pitiful human reflexesss can pull you back. I don't smell hisss taint, but you may have hidden it. I will have no part in hisss war, not that of the passst or that which comesss. Ssspeak girl, or I'll have no choice."

"If you're referring to - to He-who-must-not-be-named - I don't serve him." Arienne said, trying to sound meek, though her insides were burning with anger. She'd spent the past six years of her life dedicated to quelling any dark activity - to be accused of actually being affiliated with that group was beyond insulting! But the snake was poised to strike, and angering it wouldn't help her to leave alive.

"You're telling the truth."

There was no emotion in the snake's words, just a simple statement of fact; however it visibly relaxed after that. "I alssso believe that you do not know the extent of the giftsss you've been given, otherwissse you would not be standing here, wasting time idly." Arienne was about to interrupt hotly that she was not wasting time, but the snake continued. "Legend runsss through your veinsss. New and old have mixed themselvesss beneath your flesh and influence your actionsss. The powersss I ssspeak of could rival the Dark One'sss, and put and end to thisss suffering...if that isss what you choose."

"You're lying!"

The snake grew rigid again, and the hissing distorted its words even more. "What have I to gain in lying? I have not sssought you out. You have come to me, and thisss isss not the firssst time - though it isss the first time that you've ssspoken to me. We are not ssso different, you and I, but you will not admit to that. Ssstubborn girl. If you do not open your mind'sss eyesss, your ignorant blindnessss will be your death."

Arienne felt another chill as its words settled in. Mind's Eyes? She doubted it was referring to anything physical. The chamber began to grow colder around her, and Arienne could see her breath as she exhaled. She tried to warm her arms by rubbing her hands on her sleeves, but it was to no avail. The snake, however, seemed unaffected as it peered at her through its glittering ruby eyes.

It spoke again through the cold and the thick silence that had set in, yet this time its voice was softer, and it almost appeared to be speaking to itself. "We are not ssso different, you and I. Both held at disadvantagesss because of what we are. I appear to be no more than a snake, so naturally I serve the Dark One." Bitterness tinged its words and gave them weight. "And you girl. I will tell you why you are afraid. It's for the very reason that I am forced to ssstay locked in this forsaken chamber. If humansss knew I existed, and I fell into the wrong handsss...the Dark One would be the leassst of your worriesss...though I fear that he, too, searchesss for me. Not all are ignorant of what once was."

Arienne's face paled in the light as the snake moved closer, its voice dropping so low that she strained to hear it. "Whether you choossse to sssee the truth or not is up to you. But like myself, I'm sssure you will not be able to tolerate ssstaying ignorantly on the ssside while innocent people die at Hisss handsss. Your..." it paused almost uncertainly for a moment, then continued, "...mother would not have ssstood for it."

"You know nothing about my mother!" Arienne shrieked, surprising herself as well as the snake with her vehemence.

"Yesss," the snake mused after it recovered from her outburst, "I'm ssssure of it now. You're wrong; I did know your mother. She found her way to me assss well, and likely sssshe sssshowed you the way, but you do not remember. You've hidden it all away, everything, into a corner of your mind, and you're content never to touch it again - or am I wrong?" It paused, but when it got no reaction, it continued, "Ssshe wasss a talented woman...ssstubborn, but talented. It'sss sssuch a pity that....she never denied it, you know, not until the end. She made missstakesss though. Ssshe married, ssshe had children. Foolishnesss. Those emotionsss made her weak."

"Shut up!" Her tone was menacing but the snake didn't even pause to acknowledge her words.

"Ssstubborness was indeed a fault of hersss. Ssshe was a proud woman. Clever in many waysss, but pride made her act stupidly. For a time, ssshe tried to deny it too, and that denial sssealed her fate. Ssshe would have been ready, otherwise. Ssshe'd ssstill be-"

"NO!" Arienne lunged at the snake, and took it up into her hands before it had time to recoil. "You're a liar. You work for Him. You're just a filthy, rotten-"

"Learn from her mistakesss. Don't let two livesss be in vain."

The snake's voice remained calm as it thrashed in her grip.

"It'sss time for you to leave, but heed what I've sssaid. It'sss your choice in the end, but do not choossse before you fully understand what hasss been ssssaid. You will learn more sssoon enough. You will be sssafe for the time being where you are going, but your decision will have to be made soon. You and I will meet again."

Before her eyes the chamber began to dissolve, the stone melting as if it were molten lava flowing down a volcano's side. Just before the blackness overtook her, the snake disappeared in a puff of smoke, and she felt herself being thrown forward as the solid ground disappeared from underneath her feet. She threw her arms out as she was pitched forward, hurtling toward blackness, but had pulled them up too slowly, and her head connected with something hard.

Groaning as the sound of screeching metal pierced her ears, Arienne Jacobs gingerly touched her forehead where it had made contact with the hardwood backing of the train booth. The train gave a sudden lurch, and it nearly rolled onto its side - but something prevented it from completely turning over. Pain emanated from her forehead, and her vision swam as she tried to remember where she was. All she could summon was an image of a snake with ruby eyes lying on a white pillar, talking about...she nearly choked when the memory surfaced...her mother.

Arienne closed her eyes and tried to take several calming breaths, but the continual throbbing of her head chased away any sense of peace she managed to muster. Slowly the haze around her began to clear, though not fully, and her ears, which had felt as if they'd been stuffed with cotton, began to pick up sounds outside of her own small groans.

Somewhere through the fogginess she became aware of screams, soft at first, but growing progressively louder to the point that they seemed to be coming from right next door to her. Gathering her strength, she tried to pull herself from what she realized to be a lying position, jammed into the corner of the compartment. As she stood, she noticed that the train she'd been sitting in was indeed slanted precariously to the left. She darted a quick look out the window and nearly gasped when she saw that it was dangling over what appeared to be a large ravine from which sharp rocks jutted out at all angles. If the train tottered, it would be smashed to pieces mercilessly on their edges.

Trying to regain her composure and ignore the aching of her head, Arienne pulled open the door to her cabin and stumbled into the next one. It was full of children who looked to be no more than 11, and who were dressed in long black robes. They stared at her fearfully and said nothing until she choked out, "Was anyone hurt?" It seemed like the right thing to ask. One girl, a blonde one, with two pigtails held by fluffy pink elastics, pointed to a crumpled form in the corner. Arienne could only see the shoes from where she stood.

"His arm...he...I think it might be broken." The girl's voice was a hoarse whisper, and her blue eyes were wide with fright. Arienne moved as if trying to swim through thick syrup, and eventually she reached the boy and knelt beside him, attempting to ignore the arm that was bent unnaturally and covered with bruising and blood. Something in the back of her mind told her to place her hands on the arm, and she argued with it silently, saying it would do nothing. The voice persisted, however, and finally she obliged, clasping his elbow, and instantly she began to feel warmth moving from her fingers into his cool skin.

He stared fearfully at her through glazed eyes, but as time passed, they began to clear. Looking down, Arienne gasped when she saw that his arm was no longer covered with bruises. She pulled back and watched in wonder and amazement as the boy lifted his arm carefully and wiggled his fingers. Murmurs broke out from the children who'd been watching her. She pulled away quickly, only then noticing that she'd been watched, and stood up unsteadily, self conscious under their scrutinizing eyes. The boy was still looking at her, too, with shock written in his features.

"Anyone else?" She asked shakily. She was met by vigorous head shaking, but the same blonde girl spoke up again as Arienne moved to leave.

"The outside doors - they're locked. We're stuck inside." Several of the children trembled and looked around at each other fearfully. Arienne pulled her wand out and walked over to the exit. Muttering an unlocking charm, she tried to open the door but it didn't budge. She tried an unobstruction charm and a magical unlock charm, both of which proved useless.

Cringing as the pounding in her head heightened, she rested her hand on the door for a moment, and then wrenched it back with a sharp gasp. The metal felt like it was burning, but beyond that there was a sickly taint that nearly overwhelmed her. She couldn't explain it, but she knew that there was a powerful curse that bound the metal of the door to that of the train. Stumbling back, clutching her hand, Arienne looked around at the children.

"Stay here, don't move." With that, she left.

She moved half in a trance through the cabins, feeling weariness sit more heavily on her each time she touched the children of varying ages, the throbbing of her own head getting progressively worse each time, but the voice urged her onwards. It seemed natural that she'd do this, and it also felt like duty. Duty to what? To who? Her thoughts were as incoherent as the sounds around her. Finally, she reached what appeared to be the last cabin, and she opened the door to a girl brandishing her wand and a boy cradling another boy in his arms.

The girl holding the wand had brown hair and wore a slightly panicked expression as she waved it over the boy's unconscious form. The rise and fall of chest indicated that he was breathing, but it was shallow. Dimly, in the back of Arienne's mind, the thought, where is help? formed and dissipated.

"What now, Hermione?" the red headed boy asked the girl, who was still twirling her wand and pulling a lock of hair fretfully.

"I'm thinking, Ron!" she snapped, but as she turned to look back at the unconscious boy, her eyes softened. She smoothed back the black fringe clinging to the boy's forehead, uncovering a large gash along his hairline. The girl trembled at the sight of the blood, but gripped her wand tighter. "There is one I could try," she said slowly, not taking her eyes off the injured boy. "I read about it in a book once, though I've never done it myself."

"Well?" The redhead - Ron - asked, fighting to hide the panic in his own voice. "Do something! I don't understand why no one has come help us yet - just, just do something!" The girl bit her lip and then rolled up her sleeves.

"All right, I'll try. But if it hurts him more -" she paused hesitantly, then lifted her wand over the dark haired boy's head. Before she could utter the spell, Arienne found her voice.

"Stop!" she cried, and even through the haze she felt the weight of the command. The girl's arm dropped instantly, and both the boy and girl looked up at her, startled.

"Foolish," Arienne spat, rushing forward as fatigue set in even heavier. She was unaware of the red that tinted the girl's cheeks as she watched Arienne indignantly. For Arienne, it seemed that every movement she made, every word she spoke, was even more draining than the next, but she was focused on one goal. Slowly lowering herself down by the dark haired boy, she placed a hand on each side of his face. She breathed deeply, waiting for the rush of heat, but nothing came. Arienne was vaguely aware of the two looking at her, but she pushed the thought out of her mind.

She tried to concentrate, she didn't know on what, but she knew she needed to help the boy, and somehow this same tactic had worked before. She closed her eyes in fierce determination, but his breathing became even more ragged than before. Biting her lip to the point of tasting blood, Arienne tried to focus on conjuring the heat, trying to save the boy, whose body temperature grew swiftly colder as seconds passed.

Then she felt it. It was a trickle at first, barely enough to warm the skin under her fingertips, but it spread. A searing rush flooded through her hands into the boy, and even though it felt as if pieces of her were taken with it, Arienne still held on. He needs to live, was the only thought that presented itself, but it was quickly lost in the ebb and flow of the burning heat. She held on, feeling it pulsate through her hands, leaving her own body empty and cold, but heating that of the boy she touched.

She tried to force it, but weariness set in so heavily that she nearly fell over. Come on, she urged the boy through the tiredness as she felt the flow of heat begin to weaken. Finally, just as the flow changed to a trickle once again, the boy's eyes flew open with a gasp. He stared at Arienne for a moment; his eyes startlingly green and troubled, then turned to the other two forms hovered over him. At that instant, however, the cabin door burst open with a shower of sparks, and a tall, dark figure entered the room, though Arienne's vision had become too blurry to make out any other details.

"What's...what's going on here?" A voice boomed through the haze. For a moment, no one spoke. Then, Arienne pulled her hands back and tried to get up, finding her limbs feeling like they'd been made of lead. Struggling to stand, she was only dimly aware of the figure moving towards her.

Voices rose and fell around her, but nothing penetrated the fog that had wrapped itself around her body tightly. Nothing said was coherent to her, but Arienne heard herself trying to explain as she pushed herself off the ground. She froze when she felt her body lock up involuntarily, refusing to move further, and gasped as she felt her throat muscles tighten as if invisible hands were choking her.

Sharp questions swirled around her, but a buzzing was all she could decipher through the haze. Spasms ricocheted through her body, and pain lanced through every bone. She wanted to scream but she couldn't move her lips to form the sound. She struggled to breathe, but weariness overpowered her and she succumbed to the pain as everything faded to black.

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