The cave was cool and damp. Unnatural winds billowed out of it, creating a loud roar.
“This is the place,” Aspen called out, picking up some discarded scales beside the entryway. “These are Sybil’s scales.”
The Huntress nodded and pulled an arrow from her quiver, expertly notching it. I braced myself and stepped into the wind tunnel, channeling my blizzard winds to redirect the flow to the right side, allowing us to pass down the narrow walkway.
Artemis pulled Aspen close and directed her to the wall, dragging her hand against it as they walked. She led the way, showing Aspen how to step, and fighting the winds.
The cave was deep, and I was winded by the time we could hear a shrill shriek.
“Just transfer some to her! Give her your legacy! Let her be a part of this family!” Aspen held her hands to her ears, the shrillness echoing over the damp walls, reverberating in our skulls.
We continued to move toward the sounds. The winds were growing stronger, louder, and with added rotation the further in we got, like a horizontal tornado.
“Mother, I want him to be willing to give them to me. Do you understand? I am his daughter. I am a daughter of the winds.”
Aspen’s eyes grew wide, and she mouthed, “Sybil.” Artemis nodded and gestured for Aspen to remain silent. We pushed forward.
“Why don’t you accept me, Father? How can I prove I am worthy of your love and power?”
The cave had a sharp right curve, and I could tell we were close. The frost on my skin was thickening with all the exertion to redirect the wind, but we would get there. We had to. Artemis was focused on the path forward but looked back at me, evaluating.
“Someone is here,” Alcholoë shrieked suddenly. Damn. I pointed toward the room to the right, and the three of us charged in. The winds abruptly stopped, and we stumbled into a large cavern lit with torches. Aspen’s eyes lit up.
“Sybil! I’ve found you!” She raced toward her friend.
“Aspen, wait!” Artemis and I both called out, but too late. Alcholoë swooped down from above and pinned her to the wall.
“How dare you bring them here?!” she shrieked as Aspen cried, blood colouring her shirt where the talons had pierced her shoulder.
“Mother! Drop her! That’s Aspen!” A teen girl with long, dark hair rushed toward her as Alcholoë released Aspen from ten feet up. I quickly created a soft, powdered snowbank underneath her to cushion the fall.
“Aspen, what are you doing here?” the scaley girl asked, embracing her friend.
“Khione?” I heard a hoarse voice from further within the cave, and I sought the owner.
Artemis aimed her arrow at the flying harpy and asked, “Where are the keys?” The harpy laughed and landed in front of us, a necklace of keys jingling around her feathered neck.
“These keys?” She laughed, touching them. “I found these keys fair and square. They are mine.” Her eyes narrowed on Artemis and her arrow. “Why? Do you want them?”
“Alcholoë, you can give them to me, or I will take them by force,” Artemis said dispassionately as the harpy circled her.
I inched toward the voice I heard as Alcholoë focused on Artemis. Uncle Skiron was chained to the wall, a chalked square inscribed on the floor surrounding him. His face was wrinkled, and his body decaying. He’d been robbed of his vitality.
“Khione, it is you,” he said, a smile stretching across his sunken face as tears formed in his grey eyes. “The fierce snow princess, here to save me.”
“Uncle, what has happened to you?” I asked, cautiously moving toward the chalk outline. Artemis was still dancing with Alcholoë, keeping her occupied.
“Don’t touch the square. It’s those keys she has. They’ve possessed her. She found one when she found Sybil. For years, she has been manipulated by those keys. I tried to get her to let them go, but she just kept leaving me in search of more. She claimed to be searching for Lost Ones when she was really searching for keys. Oh, princess, she’s found a key that can transfer power from gods and others. Soon after she found the first key, she’s been trying to get me to transfer my powers to Sybil, the mortal child she raised.”
“Wait, mortal? Sybil isn’t a naga?” I asked, surprised.
“No, she is a mortal child and has always been possessed by a key, which is probably why she was left out in the mountains. As a sacrifice from the mortals to get rid of the key’s powers. Alcholoë is possessed by multiple keys. If I transferred the power to the child, she would be ripped apart by the force of the winds. No matter what I say, she wants the power. I won’t transfer the power, so she has searched and found another key to trap me here and wear me down.” His eyes turned to the floor. “I’ve been struggling not to give in for a while now. I’m so tired.”
“Uncle, we need you. The climate is a mess without you! You can’t give up. We will figure out a way to get her unpossessed.”
“She has so many keys. I’m afraid that she may not be salvageable. Sybil, though, she’s a good girl. She just needs some direction, much like you did, princess.”
I heard some commotion over the other side of the cave as Artemis shot an arrow, and the harpy flew up into the cave.
“Don’t think you can hit me, Huntress. I’ve got more power than you.” Her wings sent a powerful gust of wind towards Artemis, blowing the next arrow off course.
“Sybil, draw me a square,” the harpy ordered the scaly girl.
“Don’t let her put Artemis in the square. She’ll seal it with a key, and it blocks all powers!” Skiron hissed.
Sybil had picked up a piece of chalk and was drawing a large square on the floor behind Artemis as she continued to let loose her arrows.
“Aspen, stop Sybil!”
“Don’t you tell my daughter what to do!” The harpy shrieked, sending a blast of wind my way. Aspen was pleading with Sybil, but I couldn’t hear the words. The square was nearly complete, and the Harpy picked a key off her necklace and sent down a tornado of storm wind, forcing Artemis, Sybil, and Aspen into the large square. She swooped in and made a locking motion.
The high, shrill laughter pierced through the roaring winds.
“You are all powerless against me! Skiron, love, don’t you see what a team we could be? Just transfer your power to our daughter so she can join us!”
“She can’t handle the power,” he said, drawing on what was left of his might to stand tall.
She landed in front of him, her talons scratching the walls as she neared him, the keys dancing in front of her feathered chest. She reached for one and made the unlocking motion. Skiron’s face twisted in agony, and his hair greyed as she drained him.
I reached for my dagger, forgetting it was gone, then conjured an icicle spear, aimed at the necklace, and threw it. The chain snapped, and the necklace fell to the ground, scattering the keys across the cavern. Skiron slumped against his chains.
I threw an icicle behind me towards Artemis, responding to her whispered plea. It landed on the chalk outline, and she got down and blew on it. To melt it and smudge the square so that they could break free!
The harpy turned her eyes on me, and I braced for the terrifying attack of the crazed madwoman in front of me. She picked up a red key off of the floor and sneered.
“This is going to hurt you more than it does me, Khione. It would seem that the Anemoi like to abandon their daughters. Your father banished you from Hyperborea, and he’s still ashamed of you, the princess of disappointment. The goddess who can’t control her emotions.” She then pointed the red key at me and twisted.
My scream echoed over the walls of the cavern as the heat ignited within me. Every last inch of me was set aflame, and the cold was banished from my core. My limbs were on fire, and I couldn’t focus on anything but the agonizing pain. The flames tore through me, incinerating me from the inside out. My vision faded to a deep red, teasing my consciousness. I think I fainted, but the pain never relented, never allowed me to feel relief. My blood was boiling under my skin, and the moisture evaporated, leaving giant red blisters in their wake. My cold receded inward, safely freezing my heart, even as my skin charred and turned to ash. Smoke filled my nose as I tasted the inferno trying to escape my scorched lungs, and the harpy’s shrill laugh echoed endlessly as she twisted the key again. And again.
“Stop! Stop! STOP! Damn it, just stop! I’ll transfer my powers! Just stop torturing her!” Skiron’s hoarse voice called out, and the pain suddenly subsided. The ground met me as I fell, my body slumping under the agonizing burns covering me inside and out. Steam and smoke were rising from my body. My cold core tried to snuff the flame and pain, and through labored breaths, I looked into Uncle Skiron’s eyes.
“You can’t,” I choked out, my throat raw from the fire that had engulfed me.
“But I can save you,” he said, looking up at his deranged wife. “I will transfer my powers.”