The Sugar Quill
Author: Ashley  Story: The Serpent and the Sorceress - Book 2: Puppets and Pawns  Chapter: Chapter 2: Ophyres' Betrayal
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Chapter 2:

Chapter 2: Ophyres’ Betrayal


As I stepped from the darkness onto the raised dais that held the snake’s pillar, I was unprepared for what I found.


Silvery light danced along the intricate stonework, as it once had months ago when I’d first arrived at Hogwarts, but now, instead of a snake, a woman sat upon the marble pillar, looking off into the darkness somewhere to my left.


She was older than me, perhaps in her late thirties, and darkly beautiful. Her skin was a smooth bronze colour, and her hair, black as the deepest night, fell to her waist. She wore a robe made of a white, gauzy material that was almost translucent. So intense was her beauty that I felt homely and ungainly next to her, like an awkward teenager made of arms and legs who still hadn’t grown into her nose.


She turned her head to look at me, then, and I saw the iron circlet about her head, the back of which had been obscured by shadows. It was crude and flaking, as if weathered by time, and it looked heavy. I could tell from the slight stoop of her neck and the tension of the muscles there, that it was no easy feat to hold her head high as she regarded me with eyes the colour of jades.


There was no warmth, no recognition in her gaze, and fear trickled back into me once again.


I averted my eyes from her face and saw the same black iron around her wrists and ankles. Chains, mottled with rust, led away from the shackles and wound themselves around the base of the pillar. This woman was a prisoner. And yet, I thought, daring to look into her face once again, she sits like a queen.


Her expression changed then, as she pulled her lips into a wry smile.


“You still do not recognize me, Arienne Jacobs.”


 Her voice was deep for a woman, strong, and clear. Mutely I shook my head, but in the process saw a glint of light off of the iron band, and I peered at it more closely, all the time very aware that she was watching me.


I’d dismissed the low dip of the circlet between her eyebrows as a defect, but it seemed too smoothly rounded to be a mistake. And then I saw the glint again, and realized that two stones were inset on either side of the dip, and peering out like eyes. The stones were red, like rubies.


Horror blossomed in my chest as I grasped the implication. The shape of the iron was deliberate – it was a snake’s head. I could see it now, the slit nostrils, the etchings of scales.


And I finally recognized her.


“Lady,” I gasped, my chest oddly constricted. How had I not known her? For the last two weeks I’d been her. I’d felt her die.


But why was she here instead of Phaenis in this macabre parody of the snake? What had happened in this chamber during the months I’d been unable to enter?


“Do not fret, Arienne,” she said coolly, but not unkindly. Her eyes remained hard, but her other features had softened. She continued, her deep melodic voice relaxing the fear writhing in me.


“It is unfair that your mother was taken from you before you could learn about your heritage, but I see that you have come a long way on your own. You clearly took our last conversation to heart.”


“Our…our last?”


I had never spoken to her in my dreams. I’d been her. Did she not know that?


“Yes, we have spoken before - though not in this form. You know me better as a snake.”


I stared at her incredulously. “I don’t…I don’t understand.”


The woman looked at me, again without belying emotion, but emitting an air of patience all the same.


“It is much to take in, for someone who has been in denial for so long.”


So this woman was linked to the Selenai? Could she be one? Had she spoken to Phaenis?


I felt as if I’d just stepped from a drop-off in the middle of a lake, where in one instant my toes had been touching ground, and in the next the next there was nothing beneath them. It was sink or swim, and I was not floating here.


“Would that we had the luxury of time,” the woman continued, “but you must try to work with me and the little we have.”


Not knowing how to respond, I nodded. Inside, though, I was screaming in protest. People’s lives were depending on what I could learn. I needed facts, not more puzzles.


“The story is long, and I cannot give it all. It comes at no little cost to appear in this form, but if we are to go back, this is the only way. I am about to give you truth, Arienne, the truth not even your mother knew. It is a dead story, lost in thousands of years. No matter how incomplete, though, it is your weapon. Can you relinquish your doubts and come open-minded?”


As she spoke I felt the stones under my feet begin to grow hotter, and a dry, dusty breeze picked up from the cavernous blackness above us.


“Yes,” I said, stepping full into the pillar’s light.


The woman smiled as if she’d expected no other answer and waved a hand.

The chamber around us disappeared, as did the woman, and I found myself standing in large room of white marble. Mosaic covered the walls around me, mostly natural renderings of landscapes and creatures. A large canopied bed was off to my right, and to my left sat a woman at a gilded writing table. It was the snake-woman…and this room…I looked beyond her to the balcony and was left in no doubt of it. I was back within my dreams, but as an observer, not a participant.


She wore a slight frown as she wrote furiously with her exotically feathered quill pen, but stopped quite suddenly and looked up directly at me.

Or through me, rather.


I spun around and saw that a male servant had appeared in the doorway, speaking and gesturing with a panicked urgency. The conversation was muted, however, and while it was disconcerting not to hear any words, I could guess from their body language that something critical had happened. I looked back over my shoulder at the woman who had already risen and was swiftly crossing the floor towards the man. She was talking now, and gesturing with force, and the servant went scurrying off ahead of her.


I moved to follow her, but after I’d taken a step the scene around me bent and righted itself, and I was standing in a courtyard. Exotic plants bloomed in rich hues of red and violet; fountains splashed silently and rock gardens glittered. Looking around, I realized I had guessed right. Despite being at Hogwarts when the dreams had found me, they took place on another continent all together.


The snake-woman was in front of me, and I peered over her shoulder, wondering what had caused the urgent summons. Just beyond her I saw that a rider was dismounting from his horse. The beast itself was half-dead, slaver dripping from its muzzle. Flies had already begun to swarm it, and every so often a tremor would race through its body. Its rider seemed to be in similar condition. The cowl of his riding cloak covered his face, but I could see the deep gash across the front of the cloak, and the sticky crimson staining the material. The flies were drawn to him as well, and flew about his wound in mute ecstasy.


He waved off the servants who milled around him, offering aid, but after taking a single step he stumbled, falling to his knees before a servant had reached his side and steadied him. The snake-woman stiffened, as if she too meant to help him, but she directed orders instead, her green eyes flashing, and with the help of the male servant from before, had the rider carried into the palace.

I blinked, and it seemed the world had grown darker. In truth, the scene had changed again, and I was back in the original room, but it was night, and all but one of the curtains were drawn on the canopied bed. Candles burned on a table beside the bed, casting enough light to illuminate the two people within it.


The man lay beneath the sheets; his eyes closed and skin a pallid colour even in the dimness. He was soaked with sweat, and his eyes rolled under closed-lids. Sodden black hair clung to his cheeks and neck, and the snake-woman sat at the edge of the bed looking over him, gently pushing back the hair with a damp cloth. I imagined it was to help soothe the fever, but the look on her face, the true depth of expression in her eyes startled me, and I realized she thought he wasn’t going to make it.


Beside them on the floor lay a pile of clothes, and strung over a chair was a riding cloak, bloodied and worn.


On the bed the rider cried out soundlessly and convulsed before growing very still. I stared hard at him, wondering if he was just breathing faintly or if he’d truly stopped breathing. His chest didn’t look to be rising anymore. On the bed the woman threw the cloth away and looked around, her eyes wild with fright. Then, she did something that stunned me. She reached forward and grasped his face, holding so tightly that her fingertips grew white, and she closed her eyes.


I watched as the man’s body grew rigid and his skin began to glow with new health. Time crawled by, and I could see the perspiration on the woman’s face, could see her back rise and fall as she panted from the exertion. Knew the tiredness this sort of Healing would induce. But could she save him? I did not know the Selenai powers, could only doubt them because they’d failed me. But if it was possible…if he could live…did that not mean that my aunt…?


I watched, unable to tear my eyes away, until finally she collapsed on top of him, eyes still closed, gasping for breath. She was drained, almost to breaking, and it might have been in vain. The man still hadn’t moved.


And then, his eyes opened. He stared around in wonder, and then down at the woman curled up and defeated on his chest. She could not see that he’d opened his eyes. I smiled then, knowing that she didn’t need to. She could hear his heart, feel him breathe. She would know.


His arms reached around her then, and he pulled her close to him, the embrace fierce. She smiled tiredly, and I saw tears of relief spill from her eyes. Something about the scene moved me, but it was short-lived, and a coldness came creeping in. This man…the man I’d loved…was Ophyres.


“So things are coming together for you then?”


The voice at my left ear badly startled me, and I reached for my wand, forgetting that it was a dream and I didn’t have it.

The snake-woman stood beside me, expressionless, watching the scene. The iron around her head and wrists remained, and the chains trailed off behind her, lost in a dimension I couldn’t see. I tried to look at the most distant point behind them, but found my eyes slipped away and couldn’t hold the image. I stopped trying and turned back to her, because she’d begun to speak again.


“I truly loved him. Maybe that’s what made me blind to everything that happened after.” She was still watching the scene in front of us.


“But he’d changed, after that trip. He was a spy, you see, and could be gone for months on end. Of course, he only needed one night to make me forgive him a year’s absence.”


No flicker of her features allowed amusement to accompany her words.


“I never wondered, though, never doubted his loyalty after that mission. I was his queen, and he was my tool and my lover. Often these two roles were interchangeable. But he was what I needed him to be. And I became his fool, thinking that I had conquered him.”


The dark fury in her voice made me look back at the intimate scene again. How greatly things had changed.


Why, Ophyres?


“He was one of only two who knew of my…other…powers,” the snake-woman continued. “When we were alive, magic and non-magic people lived harmoniously, their lives entwined. There was no secrecy, no jealousy. He was a Muggle, as you would have called him, and I was a witch. A priestess of the Temple of the Sun. Anyone with magical abilities were immediately associated with the gods, and so were seen as holy. People rejoiced that the gods had so obviously touched their queen, and it portended good things, even though I was a female ruler. That was unnatural in and of itself, but my older brother had died without his own heir and pronounced me queen in his stead. Perhaps my gender inspired the conspiracy. I imagine it played a part. Men hate it when women best them.”


She paused.


“I did not spend my life in this palace. While my brother ruled I was trained amongst the priests and priestesses of the Temple of the Sun, honing my magical abilities and paying proper tribute to the gods. To my brothers and sisters there, I was an equal, and during my training, I became acquainted with Simryan Selenaeus. Heed that name, Arienne, it will return. As do all our past mistakes.


“Simryan was considerably older than me, and clever, far more so than even the High Priests and Priestesses of the Temple. At least in the subject of magical philosophy, which he obsessed over. He never slept, that man. I am almost certain of it, and at any time of night, should you have passed by his room, a candle would have been burning, and you would have seen him hunched over scrolls, muttering to himself as he jotted down notes.


“Knowing what other people knew wasn’t adequate for him, and in that he was quite vain. He wanted to be the expert, to know most, to have others defer to him the way they did to the Highs. But his abilities in magic were only average, so he never got the recognition that was so clearly his due. He became a recluse, expending vast amounts of time and energy developing his own magical theories, and it was chance or fate that brought me to him. My first night at the Temple of the Sun I was awake and restless, and stumbled across his room while prowling to sate my curiosity. Rather than turn me in, however, he took me under his wing. He spun stories of potential and pulled me further and further into his realm of undiscovered possibilities.


“The most complex of these was his Raw Magical Potential Theory. He hypothesized about an amassed magic in the world, separate from the gifts of the gods. Energies emitted and absorbed by every creature, action and thought. He told me of heathen witches and wizards and the selfish nature of their magic, being able to perform rites and spells with a wand and cutting out the gods and sacred rituals completely. He said that all wizards and witches were born with some innate ability to touch these energy reserves, and create and conjure with them. But that the pure forms of this energy were impossible to control, so their wands and spells were sieves, enabling only the smallest fraction to be manipulated.  The same with our own use of herbs and potions to create effect; there was no direct link. Except once, at the very beginning of our holy journey.


“Often, when a child first learns he or she possesses magical ability, it is through some act of magic performed without a wand. A fall with no injury, for instance. That was proof enough for Simryan of our unconscious connection with these reserves. But it is only spontaneous and unpredictable, thus, a wand or staff is used to master control.


“But it is not the same, just as a teardrop is not an ocean. His theory suggested that there was a way to control the magic, but not without sacrifice. I was very young, and I agreed without hesitation to his experimentation, giving gifts I had not known the value of then, and it fills me with regret even now. For nearly twelve years I worked with Simryan to perfect our control. By the time I’d met Ophyres, I had.


“By then I was queen, and Simryan was forgotten. Human hearts are fickle, and while I admired him, I never loved him. I doubt he loved me, either, only my ability, my skill at making his philosophy real. But when two people go through an ordeal like that, they are changed, irrevocably. I should have known that I’d never be free of him, especially when he could never master his own theory. The night before my inauguration I’d visited him for what I’d thought to be the last time, and he’d given me a name, the name of a Raw Magical Potential Theory master. Selenai. I was the first.”


She looked at me then, knowing that I was struggling with the weight of this story. It was so much, so vast. A million questions spun through my head, only to be replaced by a million more the next time I blinked. But after that brief pause, allowing me to climb back up the cliff before I was pushed off again, she continued to talk, and the dream around us resumed its roving.


“I told no one of my true powers, not even Ophyres, until the day I’d Healed him. At that point I’d only been thinking that I could not lose him, and not about the repercussions. I trusted him with all my heart - and I wanted my unborn child to know his father.”


I watched pain flicker across the woman’s features, the first real emotion I’d seen her display.


“Over the next few days I told him everything. About my time in the Temple of the Sun with Simryan, and about the child we were expecting. He was overjoyed. He’d never figured himself out to be a father, and from what I’d come to understand about his own he’d never seen them in a positive light. But he was happy even with his reservations, and planned just as enthusiastically as I did for child’s birth. It seemed as if Simryan and the Selenai were forgotten in his mind, or at least displaced.


“Throughout all of this, however, we remained discreet about our relationship. It was not uncommon for rulers to take lovers, and if the queen was having a child, the nation rejoiced. For my own part, I did nothing to deter speculation that the father was in fact a priest from the Temple of the Sun. My subjects believed that if the gods blessed this union, it could be accepted. Only in noisy taverns did people dare inquire after the child’s parentage under their breaths.


“Ophyres left on a final mission then, declaring he would retire once he saw it complete. He wanted to be there for his family. The pride and conviction with which he said that always made my heart ache with a happiness I’d never known until then.


“But during the damp season, I caught a chill.”


Images flickered around us, and I saw the snake-woman in bed, fevered, her breathing labored as female attendants rushed around her.


“I nearly died,” she continued, softly. “And I’ve existed for thousands of years wishing I had. Because it would have all ended with two deaths. But it is always easier to say that in retrospect.”

She paused for a moment, and this time, it was for herself. I watched the scene, a dull ache in my chest. The snake-woman was in an underground tomb, holding a small box over which her fingers kept running, as if caressing a frightened child. She was surrounded by a group of somberly dressed people, one clearly a priest, the embroidered sun on his white robe suggesting him to be from her Temple. It was he who knelt and gently extracted the box from her fingers, sliding it into a space in the wall and closing it over with stone. More words were said, and then the group dispersed, save the snake-woman and a servant.


“When I recovered I learned that in the worst stages of my fever I’d given birth prematurely to my son,” she narrated, her voice hollow.


“He was four months too early, and too small.”


Another telling pause, and I kept my eyes fixed on the scene. Originally I’d surmised that I was talking to an imprint of this woman’s soul, but now could not be so certain. Her emotions, what little she showed, were almost too real. She seemed very much alive.


The scene shifted again and found the snake-woman in her bedroom, curled up in her bed, emaciated and pale. At once there was a flurry of movement, and Ophyres strode in, drenched in water, not even bothering to remove his traveling cloak. He gathered the woman into his arms, but the expression on his face unsettled me.


“This is the instant in which I became aware he had changed. He was stricken by our son’s death, and the gods knew he was allowed, but he did not mourn with me. He became cold and distant, disappearing for months at a time with no word, even though I had not sent him on any missions. When he returned he was sullen and I could not ignore how accusatory his looks had become. The ghost of our child hung between us…and when he could stand it no more, he confronted me.”

Again the scene changed, and I saw Ophyres, dark eyes flashing, neck straining as he screamed at the woman.


“He called me a demon’s whore,” she said coldly. “He said that he’d never thought the sacrifices I’d endured for my powers would extend beyond harming myself. He thought I’d sacrificed my son in order to heal myself and get stronger.” This last was spat out venomously.


“He’d left then, and I hadn’t known what to do. I certainly knew the fear and hurt that fuelled those words. He didn’t see what Simryan and I had done. He didn’t know magic, and would never comprehend the intimacy I shared with it. I chose, at that time, to allow him his space, his fear. I could have killed him, you see. Should have, though I know I never could have uttered the order. I was broken without him, but I let him go, harboring a secret wish that he’d return. Of course, he did. But with a different understanding.”


The scene shifted, and we were standing on a balcony, overlooking the sandstone city below us. Free to look about, I noticed that to the right there was a large, muddy river, and beyond that, there was desert. The perspective was different, but I knew at once where I was, and what was about to happen.


“It had been two years since I’d seen him,” the snake-woman said, watching her memory-self look out at the vendors below them.


And then he was there, brandishing his knife and opening her throat. I cried out to warn her – I couldn’t help myself – but it was too late. The woman in the memory was dead.


“I could have stopped him of course. With a thought. But at that point I was hollow – and death was a welcome respite from my mistakes. I’d believed him only to be an assassin, and had convinced myself I’d deserved it after what I’d done to him.”


We watched in silence as Ophyres lifted her over his shoulder as if handling a sack, and then disappear off the edge of the balcony. Another shift, this the last, and we were standing underground in a room lit by torches. The walls were earthen, and shadows danced around the two figures working around a long table.


The woman gestured for me to move closer, and I did, peering over the shoulder of the shorter, weathered man. My stomach heaved.


The body of the snake-woman lay stretched out on the table, naked. Her lips and fingers were blue-black, and the gash on her neck had been sewn up haphazardly. The man in front of me was placing the iron shackles around her wrists and ankles, and as he moved about the table to each limb, I could see that he was chanting. And old. His skin was cracked brown leather, and his eyes were sunken deep into hundreds of folds. When he moved he limped, and his face was hard with determination.


The other figure - a man - stood at the head of the table, his long fingers carefully fitting the heavy iron band around her forehead. When it was in place his hands lingered at the sides of her face, and I looked up to see Ophyres staring down at her corpse, an intense hunger in his dark eyes.


“Trust Simryan to work out a solution to his own ineptness,” came the woman’s voice from across the table. She looked at the old man with contempt. “It must have burned him to name me master of his own techniques, but we’d both known he’d never be able to touch the raw magic potential of the universe. Another one I should have killed, I fear. But he was dear to me, like a father, and I was too soft.”


The snake-woman looked down at her body. Her eyes flashed.


“He wanted my powers, and Ophyres had never known magic. My death and their plan was designed to serve them both. I hadn’t even realized that by telling Ophyres about Simryan I was handing him the key to the thing he most desired though he’d later pretended to hate me for it. He wanted magic. Power. He was a spy, and as such, he was forced to remain inconspicuous. The only recognition he’d ever received was from me, and that was not enough. As for Simryan…he only managed to rank as a priest at the Temple, and remained convinced that he, too, could learn to put his theories into action. But he had to figure out a way to bypass the walls that contained him. Ophyres sought my old teacher out, and together they conspired to fill the lack they both felt.


“They hypothesized about how my Selenai powers might be harvested from me, like looting a dagger from a fallen foe. They drank my blood and took turns defiling my body, but to no avail. And then they’d realized what had to be done.


“They’d bound my soul with their defilement and Simryan’s magic, which was transferred into the iron shackles, so that they might retain my essence as the key to the endless energy reserves of the universe. Their goal was achieved with one final step. Each knew they would never be able to touch the reserves directly, and with that concession they settled for a fraction of the power they could have drawn, which was still hundreds of times more potent than that of normal witches and wizards.


“You see, Arienne, they transfigured me into a wand.”


Phaenis was born of hatred and betrayal. She was the Serpent.


“But…is that…how can it…” I choked out, speaking for the first time. It was just too horrible. They’d enslaved this woman’s soul


The snake-woman met my eyes for the first time, and the intensity of her hatred hit me like a blow.


“Just as every wand has a magical core, they had my soul, and with it bound changed my body into a staff. Simryan nearly lost his life in the attempt, but he survived, as did Ophyres. What neither of them knew was that with Simryan’s deficient magical skill, I was not fully submitted to their power. Simryan grew wise to this throughout his use of me…he could link himself to me through magic…and would channel magic through that link, safely because I could not control the link he’d created. He became the second Selenai, one who could perform powerful wandless magic. He did not have to be near me to channel, our bond followed him everywhere. It was even passed on to his child.”

Her face contorted here. “Yes, even at that age he had managed to conceive, with a young cousin of mine, the one I’d named as my heir, should I not produce any of my own. He became king.


“But Ophyres was not satisfied. He could not channel magic because he did not have the natural abilities that Simryan possessed. His body simply rejected it. So he stole me, convinced Simryan had betrayed him, and found that wielding me, he could perform Selenai magic. That, and he could control the Selenai through their bonds to me.


“Acting as the puppeteer, he forced Simryan to destroy the Temples dedicated to the pursuit of magical knowledge. Witches and wizards were summarily executed. He hated them as much as he feared them, and soon their numbers dwindled and he called himself the king of what was left of the Eastern Corner.


“However, Ophyres shared his own unknown bond with me, the reason he was immune to the curses Simryan had lain into me, and I grew more sentient when he used me. I found that I could direct the flow of magic, weaken it and strengthen it…and I experimented with it, until one day, the day he’d planned to overthrow the Southern Corner, I lashed out, filling him with more power than he could handle, and killed him.


“I was too late to save my own kingdom, though, and the blood of thousands stained the sands around where my palace had once stood. It had burned to the ground in a riot, but the masses had burnt with it once Ophyres had learned of the conspiracy. With him dead, I grew dormant once again, merely an object. What happened afterwards is lost even to me, but I know that I was hidden, buried away and forgotten. And while Ophyres had slain Simryan after the Temple of the Sun had fallen, he had overlooked the child, who began to visit me in her dreams once she became of age. A part of me was reawakened, and I retained the snake’s form for thousands of years as the numbers of Selenai quietly grew. They were powerful, yes, but had learned of fear, for if another came who could wield the staff, they would all become slaves to that master’s will.”


Around us the scene dissolved, and we were back in the chamber once again.


“Eventually, the fact that I was an actual object was forgotten. Selenai thought that their ability to touch the natural reserves of the universes’ energy was purely inborn and direct. Simryan’s theories were lost, and Ophyres’ bloodbath in the Eastern Corner became a dark stain on history. No one spoke of it, until it too was gone from memory. So it is with history. We remember only what we wish, and what others deem worthy of recording. The Eastern Corner was re-settled and rebuilt, and an empire flourished. A new Temple of the Sun was built, but no magical learning commenced. The world spun, changed, and what came before was forgotten.


“Virgael Tarnan was the only one, who, millennia later, bothered to delve into the dark past of the Selenai. I imagine he came up with something satisfying, perhaps he even found Ophyres. He was Selenai, you see, one of the rare male forms. He told me that he believed Selenai powers are more poignant in females because their bodies are vessels in which life is created and carried. I taught him, but he only received fragments of what you’ve just witnessed, mostly because my memories were locked away in the still-sleeping part of soul.


“And yet…”


Her voice changed again. Troubled, dark. “It seems I am awake again. I feel forces moving towards me…malignant…hungry. Ophyres has returned.”

I stared dumbly as my mind raged: Of course he’s returned, it’s bloody Voldemort. Merlin’s beard. Oh gods. He’s got Tarnan’s book. He’s got the Selen Prophecies. He’s coming for her.


I’d been so overcome with the panic that had seized me I’d nearly missed the low hiss that had escaped from the woman’s throat. She turned quickly to look behind her.


Startled, sick, and desperately overwhelmed, I tried to peer around her, to see what had caught her attention and aggravated her so.


I caught a glimpse, then, of a shadowy figure lurking just at the edge of the shaft of light illuminating the pillar and the dais.


The chamber began to dissolve, and before I could ask one of my millions of questions, I was forced back into my sleeping body, though not before it’d registered that I’d known the face of the intruder.


And judging from his expression, Severus Snape had recognized me too.




























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