Mala of the Long Road Finale
Waking before sunrise, Mala had her camp broken down and her horse prepped by the first rays of light. She felt a sense of urgency that she hadn’t experienced in years and rode like the gates of hell had opened up behind her. Though she had now ridden into places she’d only heard whisperings about, she knew where she was headed.
The sun was directly overhead when she found the ruins. Once a mighty palace carved from marble and jade, much of its riches had been plundered over the centuries. Still, its ruins rose up majestically, a skeleton of ancient splendor. Mala felt small as she stepped up to the entrance, the air growing colder the closer she got. It felt as old as it looked, but somehow the air did not feel lifeless.
The gate had worn away, until only fragments jutted out like broken teeth in a gaping maw. She could just make out the sun engraved into the stone at the top of the gate’s ruined arch. And past the gate lay darkness. Her axe crackled as she drew it from her back. It gave her light, but it would also alert anything dwelling within. She wasn’t sure if that was a fair trade-off, just yet.
Mala moved cautiously, until the gate had disappeared into the dark and her sense of direction threatened to get her turned around. “Leilatha?” She kept her voice low, hoping for something to show her the way. There was no response, save the sound of something scraping in the distance. Perhaps not the sign she was looking for, but one she was willing to take. Mala followed the sound, finding a hallway decorated with spiraling arches long overgrown with vines. She traveled down the hallway, her weapon illuminating faded paintings of gilded lords and ladies, and proud queens.
The hallway opened up into a grand chamber. Light filtered down from somewhere high above, speckles of dust dancing in the beams. Looking up, she couldn’t even see the ceiling. Statues littered the chamber. Some stood on pedestals, others lay on the ground. Many were shattered and broken and even without counting Mala thought that there were more statues than there were pedestals for them.
Though this palace had been in ruin for centuries, the black marble floor still shone when she lowered her axe closer to it. She could see her reflection. Grim-faced, bronze skin dirty from travel, tousled brown hair sticking out of her helm in a mess from the ride. Straightening, Mala walked further in. At the far end stood a throne, and on the throne sat a statue of an elf maiden. She appeared to have been carved from obsidian, her features so lifelike that Mala half expected her to stand when she approached. Her heart pounded in her ears. “Leilatha!”
Mala pulled off her gauntlet and lifted her hand, cupping the statue’s cheek. She expected the stone to be cold, but it was warm to the touch and so smooth that she could almost fool herself into thinking her thumb stroked across flesh. “Is this what you meant? Are you frozen in stone? How can I free you?” She glanced around. More importantly, was it some demon that turned her to stone, or a curse? There were hundreds of stories to choose from and Mala wondered if the cause might still be around. Suddenly, all those broken statues seemed more ominous. There had to be a clue somewhere in this ruin. She wasn’t sure how much time she even had. No more than six hours, she thought, before Leilatha would be gone forever. It was a small consolation that the others who were frozen were likely less powerful, and had faded away long before being broken.
Turning back to Leilatha, she planted a kiss on her brow. “We still have time, your majesty. I suppose I should call you that now, shouldn’t I? You did seem rather Queenly.” She stepped down from the throne, and moved towards a group of statues. They were clustered around a fallen cistern. Though the water had long ago evaporated, there was something curious about the grass that had cracked though the marble. Kneeling, she poked a blade, and it snapped off. Stone.
“There was something in the water.” She inspected the piece of broken stone. It looked like it was solid all the way through. So how was Leilatha still alive? Magic wasn’t something she knew very well. That had been the domain of a close friend of her sister’s, one who was much too far away to be any help now.
But she knew weapons could hold power, and that curses existed. That the world was filled with strange creatures. She’d once fought a monster with the torso of a woman and a snake’s body. But she didn’t understand how any of it worked, or how to mold magic into something she could use. Her hand tightened around the haft of the axe, and she stared at it as if it held the secret to freeing Leilatha. Just maybe, it did.
Conscious that the shuffling sound she’d heard earlier had ceased, Mala set out from the throne room through the door opposite the one she’d come through. She followed an endless maze of hallways and tunnels for an indeterminable time. It was frustrating and fruitless, until she reached wine cellars deep beneath the palace. The wine had long ago spoiled, caskets and bottles shattered and broken. And she heard that sound again, something moving in the darkness.
Eyes glinted in the light of her axe and she brandished it in two hands as the creature shambled towards her. Electricity crackled, and she recognized it as a walking corpse. Taller and more gaunt than others she’d seen, she wondered if it was related to the one she’d slain before she’d met Leilatha. That thought quickly faded as she parried a strike. The corpse moved jerkily, but struck at her quick as a snake. Whoever he’d been in life had been a tremendous warrior, and probably Elvish.
She locked her axe with his weapon, catching the sword between haft and blade, then used the leverage to push back against her enemy. He stumbled back, and she lunged forward, her blade cutting the top of his head off. He crumbled to the ground at her feet. Straightening, Mala lifted her axe, illuminating where the corpse had come from. A crack in the wall, and through it she could hear water. It was just wide enough for her to squeeze through, though she had to stoop. There was a tunnel that weaved around in a half circle before opening into a cavern. Moss glowed on rocks, and at the center of the cavern was a pool, reflecting green and blue light.
The pool was mostly still, though she could hear the gentle flow of water somewhere nearby. She knelt. It was reflective like a mirror, and as with the marble she could see herself staring back. Her reflection frowned, then arms reached out. A hand clasped around her throat and another wrapped around her back, yanking her into the water. The pool was very deep, and Mala struggled against the figure that held onto her. Its grip was vice-like and if she didn’t drown, its hand would surely choke her.
Lungs burning, Mala kicked once, and then a second time, and beat her axe at its body. One blow connected, and she was released. Kicking off of the lakebed, she shot upward only to slam head first into surface of the pool. It had iced over, or turned to glass and her vision briefly blurred. Gasping, she swung her axe. A spiderweb of cracks spread out from the impact, and on her second swing she broke through. Coughing, Mala dragged herself out of the water. She barely had time to regain her senses when something grabbed her leg. Twisting out of the way and rolling to her feet, Mala hefted her axe as she stared her new opponent down.
A woman stood in front of her, water dripping from auburn hair. She wore armor that was heavier than Mala’s and wielded a sword and shield. Her eyes were light, like Mala’s, her face the same round shape and her nose with that same indent that had embarrassed her when she was younger. It was the scar over her doppelganger’s left eye that caused Mala’s stomach to drop. Adjusting her grip on the axe, Mala readied herself and growled. “Whatever you are, you are not my sister. You are not Anu!”
Grinning, Anu lifted her shield and smacked the flat of her sword against it in challenge. Mala didn’t rise to the bait. She’d laid her twin to rest years ago, and buried her grief and guilt in the same grave.
“Will you hesitate again?”
“What are you?”
“A reflection of you.” She darted forward, sliding below the arc of Mala’s axe. The sword cut across Mala’s hip as she spun away. It stung, but Mala only spared it a short glance.
Her reflection grinned. “Just a little faster, sister. All you needed to be was one second faster.”
“Is this a test? Do you think you can rattle me with something I’ve argued with myself over and over?”
Not saying anything else, Anu surged forward again. Mala dodged the attack, her axe redirected by the shield. She twisted back, knocking the next attack to the side and ramming her shoulder into Anu’s chest. Using the momentum to her advantage, she brought them both to the ground and pressed the blade of her axe against her enemy’s throat.
“All of this,” Anu rasped, her skin drawing taut against her skull and her eyes turning a sickly color. Her sister replaced by a ghoulish face. “For what?”
“I gave my word to help someone.” Mala pushed with the haft of the axe, until she’d removed the ghoul’s head. Her body ached as she got to her feet. The water in the pool had drained. In the center lay a stone circle, demonic writing carved into it. It looked heavy, too sturdy to be easily broken. Despite how daunting the prospect was, Mala carefully slid down to the bed of the pool, and approached the circle. She looked at her axe and the elegant engravings on the blade, then lifted it over her head and brought it down onto the circle with all her strength. Lightning crackled and thunder boomed.
Night was falling by the time she found the throne room again. Blood soaked her trousers and a burn ran from her chin, up her right cheek to her ear. Long-decayed corpses and bones had replaced many of the fallen statues, and her heart started to sink. Breaking the curse may have freed Leilatha, if only to the embrace of death. The throne was still occupied, and Mala bent to one knee, as much out of respect as a lack of energy. She couldn’t bear to look, and only when a finger touched her chin did she realize that Leilatha was still alive. She lifted her eyes. The Queen was so much more real than any time she had seen her. Her dark skin was warm and her eyes glowed with that same blue light she’d come to associate with her.
“No, no. Stand.” She gently helped Mala to her feet. “I am a Queen of a kingdom long gone.”
Mala regarded her curiously. “What happened?”
“In my own hubris I crossed the wrong person. The reflection you faced was an old echo of her.” Leilatha looked as exhausted as Mala felt. Her hands deftly removed Mala’s gauntlets. “It is a long story. I am the last of my kind.”
Mala rubbed her thumb alongside Leilatha’s as their fingers intertwined. “I’d like to hear it. But you are not the first elf I’ve ever met,” she said, boldly brushing her free hand through Leilatha’s hair. “And even then, you would not be alone. As long as you’d have me at your side.”
Leilatha tilted her head, her smile knowing. She leaned in, pressing her lips briefly to Mala’s. “I believe you promised me a ride, Mala of the Long Road.”
“Whenever you’re ready, Lady,” Mala breathed, lips buzzing and heart pounding as a new rush of energy filled her.
“Let’s leave now. And call me Leilatha.”
“Only if you just call me Mala.”
Laughing, Leilatha squeezed Mala’s fingers. “So be it.”