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Sunday was a normal day in the city of Shao. Above the city, a crescent moon hung in the sky, a faint whisper against the bright November morning. A frost had settled in the early hours, painting the distant hills a beautiful shade of white.
Morgana stared out of her window at the wintry scene beyond the palace walls. Her tower room gave an ample view of the city below and the lands beyond. She watched as the frost slowly gave way to the sun’s rays, allowing the grass and the leaves to come alive with colour again.
She wished the frost would stay, and hoped for an early winter, for the trees to hurry their undress from their leafy garments and the snow to lay its thick white blanket across the land. She always had a fondness for the winter months, the way it graced everything with its simple beauty. She felt a small angst as the frost dissipated, leaving behind no trace of its existence, and she wondered if her own existence was just as fragile and easily erased.
Walking across the warm stone floor of her quarters, which was heated by the queen’s magic, Morgana cursed under her breath at the warm stone underfoot. She preferred the gentle bite to the skin that the cold offered. She continued on to wake her ladies in waiting. Sunday was their day off, as per Morgana’s request, and she was going to cook them breakfast for once.
Their years of service and friendship deserved such a treat now and then.
As early as she could remember, the tower was her home. She had not left the tower in years, save for the occasional royal wedding or the annual feast of the realm. The only company she had was that of her ladies in waiting and the tutors that visited her daily.
Her education was brought to her by the best and brightest in the queendom. They would pour out all they could, every last bit of knowledge they had, and she absorbed it all, every ounce of it. After years of tutoring, her willingness to learn, and her sharp mind, she had surpassed her tutors’ knowledge in every subject; yet they still came each day as, for the most part, they enjoyed the stimulating exchange of information and debating matters of science, politics, and magic.
Morgana’s appetite for knowledge was never-ending and did not stop when her tutors had left for the day. Her quarters were filled with books of all types and on all subjects from history and science to herbs, architecture and magic. There was even the odd book of imagined tales of love and adventure.
Each day, when the tutors had left, her ladies in waiting would bring her a hot drink and fruit. The three of them,no would sit behind the princess, taking turns to brush her hair as she read out loud to them. Over the years they had become her friends. Her only friends. They revelled in the excitement of the stories and looked forward to their daily fix.
Stories of love were their firm favourite, yet read very little. This week, in the run-up to Morgana’s crowning as queen, The History of Shao was the book of choice, as she prepared herself mentally to take on the role.
The book told of the origins of the realm, the Shao Crown and the power it held, and tales of Morgana’s ancestors through war and peace.
She sat in her usual spot on the large fur rug in the middle of the room, flicked through a few pages and began where she had left off the day before.
“The crown was forged centuries ago by the first elders of Shao, by demand of King Groganti the Second. He sought an ultimate source of power to defeat the Arvainons- Shao’s oldest enemy.” Morgana’s ladies-in-waiting hung on every word – even though they must have heard the story a thousand times before.
They brushed at her hair intermittently as their concentration was stolen by the reading.
“The King sacrificed six of the elders, the seventh forced to harness and weave their magical spirits into the gold crown.” she said in a dramatic, somewhat evil, voice to entertain her ladies.
“When the deed was done, the last Elder forced her own spirit into the crown to escape the king and be with her fallen friends. Once she as with them, her empty vessel of skin and bones collapsed to the floor and burned to ashes.”
She continued to read, detailing the king’s victory over the Arvainons, and then his fall from grace. After many years of using the crown to power his own magic and strengthen his armies, the crown began to use the king. It began to consume him with evil beyond is own, slowly eating away at his soul. It made him a madman and a butcher of his own people, even his own family. His mind was lost, his thoughts no longer his own.
A coup, lead by his Queen, saw him executed, and she took his place as ruler. The newly elected elders and the very first Queen of Shao created a law that states no man shall ever wear the crown again and that no queen could wear it for longer than twenty-five years. The crown would pass on to the firstborn daughter on her twentieth birthday. Therefore, in order to keep the crown in the family, the queen must give birth to a daughter within five years of her crowning ceremony. Failing this, a new queen would be elected from the women of the city. Queen Eleeza had given birth to Morgana on the very last day of the five-year law.
After hours of reading, Morgana and her ladies retired for the evening. They were a tired yet still full of excitement and anticipation for the coming days and Morgana’s rise to power. She would make a lovely queen, they all thought.
The Queen was a huge part of Morgana’s life until the day of her fifth birthday. On this day an Elder of the realm had brought news of a prophecy.
“An evil will consume Shao, and that evil is your own daughter. When she is crowned queen she will seek to destroy all. The crown will corrupt her like it did Groganti,” she whispered into the queen’s ear. And with that, she turned away from the queen, quickly drank a small potion she had concealed in her cloak, and collapsed to the floor. The crowd watched as her body lay twitching for a few horrifying moments, then she lay still. Dead. She had known full well that the queen would have delivered her the same fate, or worse, for speaking ill of her daughter; yet she knew she had to warn her queen and try to protect the people of Shao, even at the cost of her own life.
The Queen spoke not a word of the prophecy. Instead, since that day, she became more and more distant from her Morgana, hoping that one day she would find a way to change her fate, and that of Shao.
Queen Eleeza was due to be relieved of her crown by Morgana in just a few days time. The ceremony would involve passing on not just the keys to the kingdom, and of the crown, but also the power which lay within it.
The queen began to struggle with the power that the crown possessed. The dark magic within seemed to be gaining strength and she battled relentlessly each day to stop it from taking her mind like it had the King of the past. She had begun taking the crown off at certain times so she could rest.
The power became so intense in her final days as queen that she refused to wear the crown at all.
Morgana’s ladies-in-waiting and her tutors began to notice a change in her. As each day passed, and her birthday another day closer, her usually bubbly personality seemed to be collapsing in on itself and she appeared in a low mood, dishevelled, spoke less and less, and barely read.
The queen also began to act and appear differently in these same days. Without the crown on her head, her normal stony face began to crack and reveal a person long forgotten, a happy, caring and loving face. She was beginning to feel human again and talked in a joyful tone that many thought they would never hear again.
On the eve of the passing of power, the queen had devised a way to rid her daughter and her land of the evil that was to come. She galloped out of the palace gates with a few trusted guards at the stroke of midnight. The crown was packed safely away in her saddlebag.
Early the following morning, as the frost settled once more, the princess awoke suddenly, trembling from the cold. She quickly figured the queen’s magic was no longer warming the palace. An uneasiness washed over her as she hobbled across the stone floor to fetch herself a warm robe. The sharp bite of the cold floor was painful, as she questioned why she had ever enjoyed such a feeling. Her body ached with a want, a need. It was more than a want to be wrapped up from the cold, it was something more, something alien to her. Her craving intensified with every passing moment and scratched at her from the inside, like a trapped animal. She felt that maybe she was as ill or dying.
Her thoughts suddenly shifted, and she wondered why her ladies in waiting were not waiting on her. As she reached into wardrobe she saw their bodies lying motionless on the floor in their bedroom – dead. She screamed in shock. Turning, she faced the mirror and caught sight of her reflection and screamed once more. The woman staring back at her did not look like her.
She moved her head from side to side to see if her reflection also moved. When it did she took a few moments to touch her face and hair as she inspected the woman in the mirror; her skin a few shades paler, her lips red as blood, her hair now the deepest black, darker than a cloudy, moonless night. Yet even these shocking discoveries paled in comparison to the darkness she felt inside her; a dark force that was invading every aspect of her being, taking control of her mind and body, eating away at her soul piece by piece and talking in a strange voice inside her head as it did so.
She continued to stare at her reflection as she felt the blood in her arteries run as cold as a mountain lake, yet it was not an unpleasant feeling. The darkness within her was growing, but she did not fear it. Instead, she invited it in, like it was inviting her. There was something comforting and familiar about it and she wanted to be at one with it, entwined with it. Within moments she was.
She… they..it walked with an air of confidence as it made its way down the stairs of the tower, its body still covered only by Morgana’s thin nightgown, yet her body was warmed from within and the cold no longer bothered her. She made her way across to the main hall of the palace where the royal ceremony was due to commence in a few short hours. Groundsmen, guards, and visitors passed by wearing strange, confused looks upon their faces. Most of them had known Morgana as a child, some of them had known her all her life, yet did not recognize the woman before them. A few vague memories flashed through Morgana’s mind. Memories from the old Morgana – faces and voices of some of the people who stood staring at her.
Chatter followed as some people began to recognize the princess through her new exterior. She walked past them in silence, staring back at them with her piercing icy-blue eyes, the hint of a smile on her lips. All those whose eyes met hers felt a chill right to their spine.
She entered the great hall looking for the queen, but she was nowhere to be found. This was no surprise. The spirit elder that now shared her body and mind had become aware of the old queen’s plans and knew where she would be, where she had been and what she had been doing throughout the night.
Over the years, the seven Elder spirits trapped inside the crown had become one. In the days running up to the royal ceremony, the spirit had finally broken free from the crown that it had trapped itself in all those centuries earlier. The spirit needed a new vessel and found it in the form of the soon-to-be queen.
It did not take long for the elder spirit to lure the princess with a desire for power. The desire was new to her. She had never wanted to be queen but knew it was her duty. These new feelings she dismissed at first, but they gained strength. The spirit began to take control slowly, without her knowing. Morgana’s mother had been relieved to rid herself the crown’s power and so did not notice its absence
Morgana sat impatiently on her mother’s throne, waiting for her to return. She talked to herself out loud, not caring for the looks and mutterings from the crowd, which was growing with every minute, waiting for the ceremony to begin.
“Nearly time now,” she said loudly with an odd chuckle of laughter. More heads in the crowd turned, first to her, then to each other in concern and confusion.
A storm swept in quickly from the coast as Morgana and the crowd continued to await the queen’s arrival. The dark clouds hung low in the sky, kissing the hills as they entered the valley where the city lay, spitting lightning in every direction. Not a drop of rain fell. The clouds encircled the city, and the palace walls vibrated with every crack of thunder.
Suddenly, the great doors of the hall opened wide, and in walked the queen, surrounded by her guards. No crown in sight. She looked twenty years younger than she had last week, yet appeared shaken and pale. The crowd cheered as she entered and walked toward her throne, yet she stopped dead in her tracks as she noticed the dark haired figure sat in her place.
“About time!” Morgana exclaimed whilst clapping her hands in mock applause. Her voice reached above the cheer and bluster of the guests. That and the queen’s shocked expression muted the crowd.
“Morgana?” the queen asked as the realization tore at her guts. A flood of anger and helplessness brought tears to her eyes as she took a shaky step backwards.
“Guards, take her to the tower. Now!” She ordered. The guards moved quickly toward the smiling, crazy woman on the throne. Morgana rolled her eyes and shook her head, and with the snap of her fingers, the five fearless warriors dropped dead in a heap in front of her.
The guests screamed and ran towards the doors, which slammed shut in front of them, severing the arm of one man as he valiantly tried to stop them closing. The screaming and shouting increased as they hammered against the thick wood, trying to free it open.
“Silence!” Morgana’s yell rattled the room more than the thunder had, and the crowd fell silent by means not of their own. The storm went quiet too.
The queen took a few steps towards her daughter.
“This cannot be true. The crown is gone. I threw it to the bottom of the mountain lake. It should have no power over you. None! Only the ceremony can transfer the power of the crown!”.
“You cannot change destiny, Eleeza,” said Morgana, her voice reverberated with the power of the seven elders. “Your thoughts of treason and deceit betrayed you. Your mind was ours to read, and read it we did.”
Morgana stood up from the throne and walked up to her mother. Eleeza stood as still as a rock, fear freezing her. Tears rolled down her soft porcelain skin as she realized her failure and thought of the terror that now awaited her people.
“Locking your daughter away for all those years, hoping the power of the crown would never poison her. Well, look at her now! Is she not the picture of beauty, a powerful and worthy queen?” Morgana twirled on the spot and an emerald green dress appeared on her figure, its quality and design worthy of any queen.
“It was your weakness that brought this prophecy to fruition, you planned to rid Shao of the crown when all you had to do was rid Shao of your daughter. Her mind and soul taste much like that of Groganti’s, you know. Had you not sought to protect her and destroy the crown, we would have happily stayed in there forevermore.
Eleeza sunk to her knees as she recalled her joyous relief when she had felt the crowns power over her subsiding. “I never… I didn’t know… I-”.
“Punishment for treason is death,” Morgana said. She raised her hands above her head. “You cannot escape destiny, and this is yours. You shall be reunited with your precious crown, I have no use for it”.
Morgana brought down her hands onto the shoulders of her mother, gently, almost affectionately, and the queen disappeared. The crowd appeared to scream and shout, yet not a sound emerged.
Eleeza gasped in shock and sucked in a lungful of water. The icy cold water attacked her body like a thousand lashes all at once. Deep at the bottom of Shao mountain lake, the pressure squeezed her body tight as she kicked and thrashed to make her way to a surface she could not see; the depth and the darkness eluded her senses and she could not fathom which way was up.
The last of the air in her lungs spewed out as she instinctively, yet hopelessly, tried to inhale the air her body needed, but which her mind knew was not there.
As she teetered closer to death, the darkness was broken by a stray ray of light. Eleeza’s eyes followed it to its source. The Crown of Shao stared back at her from the lake bed, its gold shining as bright as the sun. The shame of her failure to protect her daughter and her people engulfed her, and she welcomed the last beating of her heart
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