Crimson and King

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Crimson and KingHer name was Carlotta Alice Hood, but the wolf king did not know this.  And his name was known only to him.  It had been a nervous jest for them not to give each other their names when they first met.  The wolf had claimed that giving his name would give her power over him.  She was the granddaughter of an alchemist.  And was to be an alchemist herself.  She, for her part, refused to give her name because she had been afraid of him.  He could have and probably had learned it long ago, for even as he watched over her, his kin and kind watched over her family.  Out of that jest grew a superstition.  The girl and the wolf would not give each other their true names until they fulfilled their common quest.

The wolf called her Crimson, after the red hood that she wore, the last gift of her living grandmother.  And she called the wolf King for he was a leader among his kind.  The wolves had been cursed to take on a shape that was not their own.  The source and cause of this curse was unknown to them.  Crimson’s grandmother found a way to restore the wolves to their true forms, but only by means of stone pendants carved with sigils and soaked in alchemy.  Should those pendants be removed, should they fall off, the curse would once again overcome them and they would transform out of their natural forms…and into men and women.

Crimson was only reminded of her true name whenever she reached for her grandmother’s own book of alchemy.  She shared her grandmother’s name.  Her parents always called her Lotta, which she loathed.  Her grandmother called her Alice, which she loved, but which she could not bear to hear.  For the name bore with it a painful memory that still ached even ten winters later.

Her grandmother had been murdered for helping the wolves.

***

Crimson had searched her grandmother’s cottage for her book of alchemy, where she would have gathered all the knowledge she learned.  She found it nowhere and feared it lost, stolen, or destroyed.  But her grandmother had seen to her heirs.  All of her grandchildren received a portion of their grandmother’s fortune.  And each received some share of their grandmother’s possessions.  To Crimson came the book of alchemy, delivered to her hand by one whom her grandmother trusted to carry out her last will.  It had many pages missing and Crimson had rudely accused the one who possessed the book of removing them.  But when she started writing her own book of alchemy, she realized there were a few pages that she too would remove should she ever pass it down to her own heir.

For many years after her grandmother’s death, Crimson studied both on her own and under the tutelage of others.  She studied alchemy and she studied the stories that her grandmother always told her.  Stories of myth, adventure, danger, romance, and triumph.  Stories meant not only to entertain but to teach.  Stories that held hidden lessons about all the strange and curious things in the world.  She had realized long ago that the bedtime stories her grandmother used to tell her were filled with truths about alchemy and sorcery and beings beyond the knowing of mortal minds.  During that time, King and his people guarded Crimson and her family.  For there were enemies about who could look like friends.

The creatures who had been sent to kill Crimson’s grandmother could change their shapes.  Crimson had learned much about shape-shifters in her studies.  Such creatures had changeable minds as well when left to their own devices.  Her grandmother might have easily fended them off, if they had not been directed by another.  Crimson’s family thought that wolves had killed her grandmother.  She tried to convince them that it was not wolves.  But they would not believe her.  They thought her a poor and shattered child, for she had gone to her grandmother’s house alone, and found her grandmother’s bedchamber covered in blood and her grandmother lying dead.

Perhaps they were right, but so too had she been right.  She had seen the creatures who had attacked her grandmother.  Crimson and King had battled one of the shape-shifters that had been sent to her grandmother’s cottage.  They had captured it.  But before they could reach a friendly home and before Crimson could speak to authorities greater than herself, the shape-shifter had died.  And with it had died proof of the wolves’ innocence.

Her grandmother’s stories had guided Crimson in how to defeat the shape-shifter, but had not mentioned how quickly the creature would perish.  She knew now why it had happened.  If shape-shifters cannot shift, they die, for their native forms have no means for them to gain knowledge or sustenance.  Indeed, the creature she had captured had been a pitiful thing.  Even more so when Crimson opened the box in which she’d locked it and all that remained was a puddle of slop.  They had no proof to show the constable.  Thereafter, more people were attacked by wolves, or rather things shaped like wolves, and the wolves soon became the enemies of humankind.

Crimson and King realized that the shape-shifters were but soldiers.  So they pledged themselves to the quest of finding their common enemy.  The one who cursed the wolves, the one who took the shapeless minds of shape-shifters and cast them in the molds of murderers.

Crimson had to hide her association with King.  Rumors had reached her family and friends.  She was not so careful to keep her distance from the wolf king when she was far away from home.  But as an alchemist, she had so far been able to stave off the more serious suspicions by claiming that she could craft illusions (implying but never outright stating that the wolf seen with her was one such illusion meant to scare off thieves and attackers on her travels).

***

A good many adventures they had had in their wanderings.  They climbed high mountains searching for the wisdom of oracles.  They traveled across a vast sea to visit the greatest library known to humankind.  They searched for any clues to who their enemy might be.  It seemed likely their enemy had impressive power in some form or other: a warlock, an empress, a general.  They encountered trolls, giants, enchanted ladies, thieves, mages, kind strangers, and false friends.  The wolf used the strength and speed of his body to guard the girl.  And the girl used the growing strength and speed of her mind to guard the wolf.  Ever they were wary of shape-shifters following.  King could smell them.  And Crimson devised a concoction that she could spray upon them to reveal them.  The traditional way to force a shape-shifter to reveal itself was to chop off its foot, but Crimson couldn’t very well traverse the lands chopping off people’s feet.  She would become a greater terror than the one she sought to vanquish.  They gathered knowledge.

Always they returned to their cabin.  Crimson moved there after receiving her inheritance.  She had tried to live in the cottage where her grandmother had lived and died.  But her last memory of the place ruined all others.  The cottage had long since been torn down.  And a linden tree planted where it had stood in memory of her grandmother.  Crimson’s cabin was near a brook and sat in the crook of a hill.  The doors had handles, not knobs, so King could open and close them.  Her grandmother would have found it a fine place to live and study.  For there was water and earth and air and fire.  And spirit.

Crimson had become, like her grandmother, a good friend to the wolves, as they were to her.

Crimson had become, like her grandmother, a collector of tales.

Crimson had become, like her grandmother, an alchemist.

***

So it came to pass that fall was becoming winter.  The tenth winter since Crimson had come to the cabin, and it was time to settle down and think upon all the knowledge she and King had gathered over the year.  She knew that the means to break the curse on the wolves was a potion, a potion so mysterious that even her grandmother, after a lifetime of learning and practicing alchemy, had not developed the skill to make it.  It was called quintessence.  And it may have been what their enemy was after.

While King and his kind had been loyal to Crimson, they were also beholden to her.  She had learned to craft the pendants that would restore them to their trueborn forms.  It was the first of many alchemical skills she came to master.  But she could have filled a quarry with the number of stones she’d used in her failed efforts before she broke through the barrier of knowledge, intuition, and artistry beyond which the pendants would work.  Few alchemical skills were greater than the skill of transmuting one living creature into another.  But her task was made easier in that the transmutation was from an unnatural form to a natural one.

Though she and King were now friends, bound by more than necessity, Crimson still worried that her family would lose the protection of the wolves once the curse was broken.  So even as she struggled to craft the pendants, she learned to craft potions of protection.  She carved defensive sigils on her family’s doorways in hidden spots where none would find and remove them.  She gave her loved ones gifts of trinkets dipped in tinctures and clothing tinted with alchemical inks all of which would veil them from energies that meant them ill.

***

The nearest village was half a day’s walk away.  Crimson had no horse or carriage.  So she only traveled to the village once every moon or so.  Some stories claimed that quintessence was a healing potion.  The most powerful healing potion.  So she planned to spend the winter studying healing tinctures and the stories she had collected from the desert kingdom from whence they had returned.  On her return, she had sent a letter to her family to let them know she was home, expecting a response that would goad her to visit them at least during the winter festival.

When she received the reply, she was settled in for the evening with a modest fire burning and a hot cup of tea before she opened and read the letter.  The letter was from her mother and there was the expected urging to visit during the winter festival.  She wrote that there would be suitors to meet.  Her mother insisted on buying a new dress and shoes and asked if there was any change in Crimson’s dimensions.  Crimson wanted to marry someday, but it wouldn’t be fair to bring a stranger into the danger that hung about her unknowing family.  Perhaps when her quest was done…

But there was something else that gave Crimson pause.  Something that tickled a memory.  If she tried too hard to think, she knew she would lose touch with whatever thought her mind had brushed against.  She read her mother’s letter again.  The part about the dress and the shoes made her remember a story.  She had collected so many.  Her grandmother’s stories.  Stories from her travels.  Stories from books.  Stories from other travelers.  And the people she visited.  She flipped through the catalog she had started and found the story she sought.

When King returned from his wanderings in the woods, she told him the story of the enchanted shoes or slippers that when worn would lead one to one’s wish or one’s heart’s desire or one’s doom, depending on the tale.  But once they were donned, the shoes would not let the wearer rest until she reached her wish, or desire, or doom.  King listened, sitting far from the fire.  When she stopped, he seemed to huff from his nose.

“Enchanted hoods, enchanted shoes.  Will you not be satisfied until you are entirely clad in spells?”

“I will not be satisfied until we have completed our quest.”

“It seems a dangerous course.”

“No more so than many we’ve taken.”

“And what if our enemy lies somewhere that cannot be reached by walking?”

King often said such things.  It irked and troubled him that none among his kind had found any trace of their enemy.  Some wolves believed they had brought the curse upon themselves.  That there was no sinister being behind it.  Whatever the cause, the effect was the same.  There were fewer and fewer wolves.  They were beginning to die out.  Humankind, believing that wolves were wicked, would not help.  And there were few other beings who could have helped or would have.  There were still lands in the world untouched by the curse, for it seemed to be like a plague, spreading slowly from the center of its source.  And yet, where that center was, Crimson could not tell.  And even if she broke the spell, there were some wolves who had lived so long as humans, they had forgotten they were once wolves.  These worried King the most.

“Either I find a way to make quintessence,” Crimson said, “or we find our enemy, who is likely many times as skilled and powerful as we are, and we fight.  After so many years, both seem impossible.”

That very night there was a knock on the door and a young man and woman asked for shelter in the cabin.  King had announced their coming.  They were wolves.

***

“They have been capturing us and destroying the pendants you make,” the young man said, sipping his tea.  “A wolf can smell the difference between the false wolves and the true, but begging your pardon, a human nose is useless.  We can’t protect ourselves this way.”

Crimson pledged to make some of her concoction to reveal shape-shifters and distribute it among the wolves who were still in human form.

“I wonder why humans,” the young woman said.

Crimson had heard many a wolf wonder the same, but she had no answers for any of them.  The curse could have changed the wolves into anything, rocks, birds, insects.  But the curse-maker chose humans.  And only he or she knew why.  Crimson and King had followed the line of reasoning that their enemy was trying to pit humans and wolves against each other.

Crimson opened a box beside her chair in the kitchen and brought out two pendants.

“We bring knowledge as payment,” the young man said.

Though she was curious, Crimson held out her hand.  “I require no payment.”

“A gift then,” said the young woman.  She reached into her bag and pulled something out.  She offered the package wrapped in canvas and many bindings to Crimson.  It was likely a book.  Though she hoped she did not already have this particular book, Crimson was glad to receive it.  “We were given it by our elders, who said we were to deliver it during the last three months of the year.”

Crimson received the gift, adorned the young couple with pendants, and watched as they changed back into their native forms.  They had disrobed and wrapped themselves in blankets, which they now shook off.  Like most of the wolves she helped to transform back, they fell on their backs and writhed on the ground, as if reveling in their wolf bodies.  She let them be as King opened the front door and beckoned them to run.  The wolves bounded off and Crimson was left to unwrap her gift.

***

By the time the wolf king returned, Crimson had read the many pages of knowledge several times.  She had grown worried, then afraid, then hopeful, then worried again.  She had longed for King to return, and hoped that he would not.  The young man and woman, whom she had never before seen, who were likely just babes when her grandmother was killed, had brought to Crimson the missing pages from her grandmother’s book of alchemy.

Not all of the missing pages.  But most of them.  And what she read in them left her with dozens of new questions for every old one that was answered.  None of the pages contained any guidance or instruction on potions or applications.  It was all her grandmother’s thoughts.  When she first opened the packet and saw the familiar script, she had frozen.  When she first read through the pages, she had wept.  For each reading thereafter, she had paced and grown ever more anxious.   Her grandmother mentioned knowing who her enemy was, but she did not name this enemy or describe him.  She spoke only of a symbol that was associated with him, something he abhorred, and she drew it in the margins.

She admitted to finding quintessence.

“If she knows who our enemy is and how to find quintessence, why would she not reveal all of these things to me when she yet lived?” King wondered aloud.  “Why did she not pass on all her knowledge to you at once?”

“She’s revealing it to us little by little, so we act in measure, and don’t go tearing through the world, managing to do nothing other than get ourselves killed.”

“Or perhaps she is delivering this knowledge to you know because it is the right time to obtain quintessence.  Perhaps it was not a matter of her not being capable, but of her not having the right conditions.”

“I wondered that myself, but she does not note any special conditions for obtaining the quintessence.”

“The hood!”

Crimson frowned and glanced at the red hood that hung on the peg by the front door.

“No,” King said, his voice sounding uncharacteristically excited.  “The green hood.”

Crimson took a breath.  Before receiving her bequest, she had thought that the green hood was her grandmother’s posthumous last gift to her.  She had found the hood in the cottage after she found her grandmother.  She never found any note.  The green hood was not mentioned in the bequest.  But Crimson had assumed it was for her.  Green was her favorite color.

She had been a petulant and spoiled child ten winters past. When her grandmother gave her the red hood, red for her grandmother’s favorite color, Crimson had sulked.  She had earned her mother’s wrath.

She’d gone to grandmother’s cottage that day to make amends, to throw herself at her beloved grandmother’s feet and ask forgiveness, and enslave herself to her grandmother for the entire day if need be, to make up for the hurt she must have caused.  But in truth, she knew her grandmother would wave her hand, admit she was hurt for a moment, but it was no bother because Crimson—Alice—was only a silly child.

She had envisioned a far different day than the one she had.  Green was Crimson’s favorite color.  Her grandmother knew this.  The green hood must have been meant for her.  She had it still in her keeping.  She had worn it once or twice to see if it contained any special properties.  But if the hood was more than a hood, she had not yet discovered its secrets.  And the wolf king might very well be right.  As the everwalking shoes led the wearer to her greatest desire, perhaps the green hood could lead the wearer to something.  To quintessence.

Crimson did not know.  There were still pages missing.  And now she knew that she might receive them at a later time.  But she did not know why her grandmother had chosen this particular time.  She had entrusted the pages to the wolves, but not to King.  She must have known that if something happened to her, her friend would try to avenge her.  She could not entrust the pages to him, noble as he was.  Wolves could not read human speech, but he was wise and his mind was keen.  He may have realized what he was carrying and tried to give it to Crimson too soon.

“There is no mention of the hood.  Not when it comes to quintessence.”  In the pages, she had read that the green hood was indeed meant for her.  But it held no power.  It was heavy with potential.  The hood was an empty slate that Crimson had to fill with her own alchemy, when she grew more experienced and powerful.

“But you said there were pages missing still.  The young ones you helped tonight are still clumsy in their bodies after so long on two legs.  I can catch them.  They can tell us—”

“Nothing.  King, they know nothing of their gift’s worth.  They were entrusted with it because someone knew they were strong enough to make the journey here.  And faithful and honest enough to present the gift to me.  It didn’t seem they were paid or coerced.  Just trusted.”

King was silent for a moment.  “What else does it say?”

Crimson took a breath.  She had already told him everything she had read, save for the parts that were coded and that she had not yet deciphered.  She understood why the wolf king was so excited, but she also understood why he had to be disappointed.

“Quintessence cannot be made the way we make other potions.  It can only be gathered.  And the only place it can be gathered is something she calls the ‘place between worlds.’  This is a place that some beings occupy by nature.  I get the impression that it may be where our spirits go after our bodies die.  But it is unnatural for a mortal to be there.  She calls her enemy the ‘fallen one’ or ‘the fallen.’  I have yet to decipher the symbol.  This fallen one is not after quintessence.  He is after the place from whence it comes.  From the place between worlds, there is a pathway into the heavens.  And he wishes to return there.  He was from there once.  Grandmother is insistent that he must not be allowed to find the path.  Only when a mortal walks in the ‘place between worlds’ is the doorway into that world open large enough for the fallen one to pass into it.”

King seemed not to be listening, but to be thinking his own thoughts as Crimson spoke.  “If she knew how to find quintessence,” he said, “how to break our curse, even if it was one wolf at a time, why would she not help us?”

“She had a reason.  This enemy—”

“She wanted us to be beholden to her.  To you and your family.  Her family.  She wanted us to keep protecting you.  We would do so until our curse was broken.  I had spoken oaths that would assure it.”

Crimson shook her head.  “No, she wanted to save us all from a greater danger.”

“How can it be more important to preserve these human heavens that you imagine exist than to save my entire kind from ceasing to be?  Soon there will be no wolves in the world.”

“That would mean no wolves to protect my family.  So it wouldn’t make any sense not to help you, would it?”

“You are powerful enough now to trick another people to your cause.”

Crimson wanted more than anything to do what she knew she could do with the knowledge now before her.  Her grandmother had left out some words here and there and replaced them with sigils that Crimson had never seen before.  She needed some time to translate those sigils and she would have it.  She would have the way to quintessence.

“Your grandmother betrayed us,” King said, his voice quiet, devastated.

“No, she meant to break your curse.  It was the only way to stop your enemy from coming after your again and again.  What if you took quintessence and it worked?  Then what?  Your enemy might cast another curse on you, one that quintessence couldn’t cure.”

But the wolf didn’t seem to able to see reason.  “And now you betray us.”

“I’ve told you everything I know for now.  Give me time to decipher—”

He growled.  “You do not deserve our protection.”

The wolves could smell shape-shifters.  And they fought them fiercely.  Even with her sigils and potions of protection, if there were no wolves to guard them, her family would be in danger.  Sigils had not saved Crimson.  When she was attacked by a shape-shifter as a girl, it was not potions that saved her.  It was a wolf.  The wolf that stood before her.  He had put his faith in her grandmother.  And he had put his faith in her.  Both had failed him.

Crimson thought of her family.  If the wolves retreated, she would use money where alchemy would not do.  She would hire guards for them.  Guards that could remain unseen.  And she would break the curse on the wolves.  She had wanted vengeance for so long.  She had wanted to find her enemy.  But she silently swore that come what may, she would break the curse.

“You know what it means if we forsake you,” the wolf king said.

“Do what you must, my friend.  So will I.”

King opened the door and stalked out in the dark of night.

***

He was gone for days and during that time, Crimson wondered if she should trust to his honor and nobility, if not their friendship.  She had seen him remain honorable even when he was enraged.  If he now deemed her an enemy, he would not attack her family, but he would attack her.  She began to make her potions and sprinkle them about the cabin.  She left only one area unguarded.  The front door.  Even when she slept.  There was carved a sigil that would tell friend from foe.

She worked on deciphering the strange sigils and symbols on the returned pages from her grandmother’s book.  And she learned more of the truth of why her grandmother did not try to obtain quintessence.  There was more to the substance than just being a healing potion or a breaker of curses.  It was said to have different effects on different beings, and her grandmother wrote of her curiosity on what effect it would have on a being like a shape-shifter.  Or a being like the fallen one.

Or rather, the fallen god.

Their enemy was a fallen god.  A god who had been cast down from the heavens and into the mortal and earthly world.  And this god was making more than mischief on the mortal earth.  This god was trying to find a way back into the empyrean, the highest heaven.  This god would do anything to find that way, lay any curse, torment and kill.  Her grandmother found a way to move into the “place between worlds” long enough to collect quintessence.  She had fashioned the red hood not just to cloak her body but her presence.   It was meant to hide her from the fallen god, so when she went to fetch the quintessence, the god could not follow.  And go she did.  But the hood did not work.  The fallen god found her.  But she had managed to step back into her native world.  She could not get the quintessence, but she had thwarted the god.  And thereafter, he became her enemy.

Even as Crimson wondered why her grandmother would give her the red hood if it could do nothing to protect her but only mark her as an enemy to the fallen god, she deciphered more and read on.

The hood will protect.  It has now my sigil.  For in the place between worlds, one cannot guard oneself, but must be guarded by another.

***

She was dozing in the chair by a quiet fire when she heard the click of the door.  A great wolf passed through the doorway, past the sigil that would sort friend from foe.  Crimson stood up and spoke.

“Do you come as an enemy?”

“Not as an enemy.”

“As a friend?”

“Not yet as a friend.”

Crimson walked toward the door and shut it.  “You’re welcome to sit by the fire.”

This was a common exchange between them.  They had many times fought with each, been cross with each other.  This was their way of coming back together, first as allies, then friends.  But this time, Crimson felt worried, scared.  She had missed her friend, wept for the loss of him, grown angry with him, grown angry with her grandmother.  They had pulled her into their troubles.  Then she grew angry with herself.  She had forced her way into their troubles.  She could not inherit only good from her grandmother.  There must be some ill.  She had read the missing pages in their entirety.  She had decided what she must do.

“I am angry that your grandmother did not tell me she had found quintessence,” King said.  “Angry that she would not trust me with the reason for not gathering it.  She was searching for the other way, wasn’t she?  Trying to find the one who cast the curse, so she could face him, defeat him perhaps, and break our curse.”

“And save the heavens from his corruption.”

He stared into the fire.  “I understand why she did not tell me.  It is the way of your people to be deceptive out of kindness as well as cruelty.  I understand.  But I do not accept it.  The memory of my friendship with her is forever marred.”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“It is not just her deception that mars the memory, but her choice to walk her path alone.  I thought her to be wiser.”

Crimson stiffened.  “She didn’t have a choice.  Who would help her?  I’m stronger now.  But ten winters ago?  I was just a bratty little girl.  You were…”

“A rash young wolf?”

“No, in truth you were already wise and steady.  I don’t know why she didn’t ask for your help.”

He sighed, padded toward the fire, and settled before it.  “I am not so noble as you seem to think.  She had reason to mistrust me.  Not much, but enough.”    He said no more.

“I’ve decided on a path,” Crimson said, settling in the chair beside the fire.  She sat forward.  “It’s a dangerous path.  But then, no one is safe from anything on any path.”

King turned his head toward her.  “I’ve heard that before.”

“I used to believe that as long as I stayed on the path, no monsters could harm me.  But I was on the path.  I was where I should have been safe when a monster came after me.  And you came after it.”

He turned away to gaze again into the fire.  “You’ve returned the favor many times.  But I take it you have a particular point to make.  You have been studying your grandmother’s words?”

“I have much to tell my friend, if he is ready to listen.”

“Then speak, my friend, for I am listening.”

Crimson slid further forward in her chair.  As if they might be overhead, she said.  “You and I are going to hunt down and cast our enemy out of our world.”

The wolf king gave a single slight nod.

“But first, we’re going to save your people.  With quintessence.”

King turned his head toward Crimson and gave a single solid nod.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.

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