Aster stood with her foot half inside the doorway to the vault, frozen with fear. Noxious clouds of crimson smoke filled the room. Aster bit her lip and swallowed, begging the cough tickling the back of her throat not to erupt and betray her position. Her eyes watered. She wrapped her arms around her waist and held her breath.
When the smoke cleared, Zanox leaned against the concrete wall inches from where Madre knelt. A sadistic grin lit the god’s face as he towered over her. He pressed his talons together in front of his chest and purred, “My, my, what a bold woman you are. Few would trifle with the levels of dark magic required to summon me.”
Madre rose to her feet, her movements slow. “Why have you unleashed the Forsaken?”
“Me?” Zanox pressed a hand to his chest and scoffed. “What gives you the impression the Forsaken are my handiwork?”
“I have no time to play games with you, Zanox. The mortals are a breath away from grabbing up their pitchforks and starting the next Age of Atonement.”
Zanox let out a low whistle. “Pity. Humans are so overzealous sometimes.”
“They’re terrified!” Madre’s shrill voice rattled the shelves full of objects lining the walls. Zanox lifted a brow, and Madre’s shoulders slumped. She hung her head and spoke in the soft, resigned voice Aster had only heard her use towards Chay. “There are reports of disappearances and demon attacks in every village and town between here and Mulgrave. Two of my own mages vanished from their beds last week.”
Zanox tilted his head. “That is a shame, but I fail to see how it concerns me.”
“Your soldiers did this,” Madre insisted, her voice breaking. “Why?”
Aster held her breath and slid her foot out of the crack in the doorway. She shot a desperate glance down the hallway she’d followed to reach the vault, but her feet refused to budge. Alarm bells blared through her thoughts. The slightest movement carried the risk of detection. She had no doubt Zanox would recognize her, and she had no desire to discover what he’d do once he spotted her.
Zanox gave a sadistic chuckle from the other side of the door. “You’ve summoned me here to question the will of the gods?”
“Not the gods,” Madre said, her voice hard. “You. Why are you doing this to Astryae? What do you want from us?”
Footsteps echoed through the vault. Aster imagined Zanox pacing a slow circle around Madre, sizing her up the way a hunter might assess his target. “Have you any idea what you sacrificed to summon me here? That amulet is imbued with some of the darkest magic known to man. It consumes far more than a few drops of blood or a small shard of your soul.”
Aster’s hand flew up to clasp her throat. What risks had her mother taken to bring the god of chaos into her vault? After a lifetime of chastising Aster and Chay for their imprudent choices, how could Madre have done something so foolish?
But her voice betrayed no remorse or trepidation. “Do not take me for a fool. I have practiced dark magic long enough to understand the consequences. The price is worth it if it brings me closer to the truth.”
Zanox laughed again, and Aster had to dig her nails into her palms until they stung to resist the urge to throw open the door and punch the demonic bastard in his smug face. “I admire your sense of adventure, sorceress. It’s clear where your daughter inherited her fighting spirit. But what will you offer me in exchange for the answers you seek? Why should I care about the plights of your people?”
Aster shuffled backward. The world around her spun. Her throat burned to cry out for her mother, to plead with her not to give Zanox anything. No good would come of making clandestine deals with the darkness.
Madre let out a heavy sigh. “Take whatever you want. Just tell me how to protect my people and make this stop.”
Zanox said nothing, and for a moment Aster allowed herself to hope the god might refuse her mother’s request. She leaned closer, cautioning herself against getting her hopes up too high.
Zanox cleared his throat. “Tell you what, love. How about we figure out payment at a later date? Your magic is strong, but it won’t last forever. I suspect our time together is almost up.”
“You want me to owe you?” Madre whispered. “Why?”
“It pleases me. Do we have an accord?”
Please say no. Please say no. Aster pressed her clammy hands together in front of her pounding heart. Her throat tightened until she struggled to breathe.
“Consider me in your debt. Now, why have you sent the Forsaken?”
Zanox gave a whimsical laugh. “Straight to business, eh? Very well. I told you the truth when you asked me the first time, sorceress. I had no part in summoning the Forsaken to the surface. This is the first I’ve heard of it. I believe this is a plot of my dear wife’s design.”
“Why? What does the Dark Mother want from us?”
“The same thing the angels are after. Daeva is searching for her infamous camphelem daughter. I believe she’s friends with your own girl.”
Madre made a strangled noise. “Are droves of demons sent to drag her back to the Shadowrealm the best way to lure her into returning?”
“She tried kidnap, but the girl shares her defiant nature.”
“So what, she plans to wreak havoc on innocent citizens until she locates her daughter?”
“Lilianna cannot hide forever. No matter how many wards her witch bitch friend draws up for her, no matter how many people she draws to her side to protect her, Daeva will get what she wants. She always does.”
Smoke poured out into the hallway once more. A loud crack like thunder split the air. Aster dropped to her knees and covered her ears. The walls and floor shook. Smoke burned her nostrils and tickled its way down her throat. She squeezed her eyes shut and hoped none of the mages would emerge to investigate the noise.
When the smoke cleared, Aster uncovered her ears and listened for Madre’s stream of profanity or prayers. A crushing silence answered. She pushed to her feet and took a small step towards the open door. She peered through the crack, expecting to find Madre digging through the shelves.
Her mother’s body laid sprawled across the concrete floor. Her right hand clutched a silver chain. An onyx gemstone in the shape of a teardrop dangled from the necklace. Madre’s dark hair fell over her ashen face. Aster’s hand flew to her mouth to muffle her gasp.
Scrolls and treasures laid scattered around the vault. Aster kicked them all to the side of the room as she raced towards her mother. When she reached Madre she dropped to her knees and pressed her fingers against the side of her neck. A faint pulse fluttered beneath her fingertips.
Aster checked twice to be sure, then allowed her head to drop to her chest. Madre would survive whatever dark magic she had encountered. Aster’s hand fell down to her mother’s, fingering the thin silver chain.
“Please forgive me, Madre,” Aster whispered. She pushed her mother’s thick curls out of the way and pressed her lips to her forehead. Her hands trembled as she tugged the necklace free from Madre’s grasp. She sprang to her feet and raced out of the vault, back through the hallways and out of the Grove before Madre woke to discover her betrayal.