The room deep inside the opium den which held the meetings was less crowded than it had been the first time Ophelia had entered it. Perhaps that was because this was her second time being there and members now had their curiosity surrounding the appearance and physicality of the infamous siren satiated. The thought made her feel slightly disheartened; she liked the attention. Yet she had to admit she was also slightly grateful; the gathering had made her feel slightly claustrophobic last time.
She’d come into the room behind Ariadne—this seemed to be her position now, much to her chagrin—wearing a beautiful ensemble of red silk with a gold brocade detailing on the basque that would, due to the ever-changing absurdity of the mortal society, be out of fashion in six months time. In a room of blue and dark green hues she stood out greatly, perfectly, especially when she moved to the centre of the room.
Ophelia stayed in the middle and pivoted on her toes to survey the inhabitants. She noticed some familiar faces, such as those two goblins and Atticus who had caught the attention of Ariadne and was now in deep conversation with. Others she had not seen before but recognised who they were easily, in particular the two women of ethereal beauty who, with their elongated limbs and pointed ears, as well as their loose and flowing dresses intertwined with branches and leaves and flowers alike, she noted as the queens of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, respectively. And then there were ones she had never seen before and could not work out who and what they were.
Near the corner of the room stood a tall woman who seemed to be standing sentient, surveying as Ophelia did. Her red hair fell past her knees with two braids resting over her shoulders, adorned with feathers and small birds skulls threaded in, and atop her head was what could only be the top half of a dragon skull, gleaming brilliant white with shining rubies placed in each eye socket. Across her eyes, eyes that even from the distance Ophelia could tell were a mix of many colours, was a line of blood red paint that matched the line going down the centre of her chin. She wore a simple dress of plain green partnered with a thick brown leather belt around her waist, from which hung pouches. At her side, resting against the wall, was a staff in which vines were wrapped around.
The woman’s gaze cut across the room and focused in on Ophelia, meeting the sirens gaze. Her mouth curled in a smirk and her inclined her head forward in a slight bow. It took Ophelia a second to realise why; this woman was not reservedly staying by the wall, but was instead, like herself, a formidable force that made the others wary and so kept their distance. She was exactly like Ophelia, whatever she was: cold and steeled.
Ophelia looked away quickly, finding the woman’s gaze of a dozen hard colours unnerving, and returned to glancing subtly around the room. Despite the many people in the place, she had never felt so lonely. She was stood in the centre of the room, in view of everyone, and yet because they all feared her none of them spoke to her. Perhaps aloofness did not cause content after all. Not that she would ever admit to it.
“Ophelia,” a voice murmured and the siren spun around on her heeled feet to meet the gaze of Memnon, who stood close but still somehow distant.
“Memnon,” Ophelia replied with a nod of her head in greeting. She glanced at the woman beside the alpha with interest. Her skin was the same rich mahogany as Memnon’s and they shared the same eye colour. Her dark hair, afro-textured, was in its natural style. What was most fascinating about the woman was the tattoo of the moon phases in white ink just above her brow like a circlet.
“May I introduce to you my sister Evadne, High Alpha of London,” he said but it was not a question.
Evadne smiled at the siren and raised her hands, using her fingers and palms to communicate. Hello, Ophelia. It is nice to be able to put a face to the notorious name.
It is a pleasure to meet you, Ophelia signed back.
“I did not think you’d be one to know sign language,” muttered Memnon, half surprised.
“There are a great many things I know, you would be overwhelmed by it,” she said, glancing briefly at him before returning her gaze to Evadne. To be a High Alpha is impressive, especially in this society.
Evadne tipped her head back and laughed. My people are rather equal in the genders, but it is more a matter of position in the family; I am the eldest child and we have been High Alpha’s since the ancient times. Now, do you have any idea of the basis for this meeting?—all I received was a fire message calling for urgency.
I do believe it will be on Jack, I was in conversation about him with Ariadne and Atticus yesterday.
Oh? Evadne’s eyebrows rose for emphasis.
Before Ophelia could reply Ariadne’s voice called out demanding for silence and for the crowd to find a seat. Would you like me to interpret if there comes a point you cannot see her lips? Asked the siren.
Evadne smiled. Thank you. Come, sit here with us.
They took seats at one of the front tables, closest to Ariadne’s own near the fireplace. The demon took her usual spot and took a second to sort out the papers Atticus had handed her as he passed to take occupancy of his chair at the side of the head table.
“I thank you all for coming to the meeting of leaders today, despite the earliness to it,” Ariadne started and Ophelia immediately understood why the room had less members of the society in now—what she didn’t particular understand was why she was here, given she was a leader of nothing, though she was beyond grateful her Matron was not a part of this group. “New evidence was found yesterday to suggest that Elizabeth Stride was not a victim of Jack, but instead of another killer. This being the case, we are no longer looking at the possibility of two killers but instead three. Whilst we are not particularly bothered by Jack in regards to our safety, we are worried about the other two and the consequences their actions will cause if we leave them alone and allow for further deaths. We must all of us work together as a force to keep our kin and our brethren alike safe; these murderers have demonstrated that they will attack anyone they can.
“Atticus has drawn up plans for patrols and found secure housing for any of each of your kinds who is not under your protection—whether they be outcasts or you simply have no room—for they come under the protection of our society as a whole. We have no idea who these men are or what they are—or even if they are men—and that makes them ever more dangerous. They may be heretics or lunatic, they may be radicalised hunters or followers of some cult who believe that killing is the way to appease their leader—”
“Are you in discussion to hunt for these men? You will give the killer of my sister to me, no argument,” interrupted the formidable woman in the corner, her accent one of a thick Scottish drawl, but not one found in the cities—no, the sound of it reminded the siren of mountains and snow, valley rivers and rough terrain. She must have been from the very top of the Highlands. No one sat down turned their gaze upon her but Ophelia, who felt only curiosity towards this strange woman . . . no, not woman, not wholly: Northern Witch. The witch met Ophelia’s gaze again and flashed her a quick smile.
Ophelia definitely did not feel fear, but rather an affinity stronger than she had the first time she’d seen her. Still, the siren turned away her gaze quickly and moved her hands to demonstrate to Evadne what had been said. The High Alpha’s reply was merely a minute shake of the head and the mouthing of the word, ‘barbarity’. The siren was not sure whether she was referring to the killers or to the Northern Witch, but upon remembering a second later the words Memon had said about their uncle and his pack . . . she was leaning towards Evadne meaning the latter.
“Judgement will be given fairly; actions will be taken upon whether they show redemption,” said Ariadne calmly, but Ophelia could see the way her hands gripped the table with enough force to cause her knuckles to strain and become completely white.
The Northern Witch laughed. It was a harsh laugh, sardonic and full of anger. “You give the bastard to me and I’ll make them plead for redemption as I make them bleed. You know the ways of I and my sisters, demon girl, you will not demonstrate disrespect to our laws and ways. When one of us is killed, we take upon the course of revenge, not some banished bairn of quasi-royal lineage.”
Ariadne physically, in her muscles and bones, seemed to be keeping her calm, but her skin had turned an alarming grey in hue and her eyes near black. She was silent for what seemed like an eternity, the quiet dragging on and she glanced down intensely at the table she leaned against and took deep, soothing breaths to shake off the grey and the black. “I would not like to have our treaty broken by this,” she said when she looked back up, eyes cutting across the room to meet the witch’s, “so if we triumph in capturing the culprit of this heinous crime, after a hearing to hopefully understand the motives behind these killings—whether it be for money or some promised fame—the killer of Stride shall be handed over to you to inflict punishment as best you see fit.”
“Ariadne,” Atticus began to argue, rising out of his seat slightly, but the leader held up a hand and the satyr went silent, slumping back down in his chair.
“What I decree is the final word and I have given it.” She tipped her head back and gave a sigh. “We shall go on a break and reconvene in fifteen minutes. If any of you will need my attention for whatever matter, I shall be outside.” With that said she moved away from the table and towards a door concealed in the panelling, slamming it so hard as she left the room that the panel bounced on its hinges and did not shut.
Conversation immediately began, hushed whispers and the idleness of gossip. Under other circumstances Ophelia would have joined in, but in this she kept her silence. What had she just witnessed? How could a witch have the power to cause a demon to bring a meeting to a break? How could a witch seep under a demon’s skin in such a way that the demon thought the only option was to leave the room? And what was this treaty Ariadne had mentioned so briefly? To say she was confused by the concise proceedings would be an understatement.
She glanced towards to the panel Ariadne had disappeared through, then cut across out of the corner of her eye to the witch who had smugness written on her face, before a movement caught her attention and she glanced away in time to see Atticus disappear behind that very same panel and shut it silently behind him.
She tapped Evadne on the shoulder and when the alpha glanced at her with a curious smile she signed that she was just going for a walk. Ophelia knew she had no reason to head where she was intending to go, to sort out the demon and ask about just what had happened those few moments ago, but she was already gathered on to her feet and walking in the direction of that panel—
“The infamous Ophelia White, transformed from a name whispered in fear to, if I am not mistaken, the lapdog of Her Highness.”
Ophelia paused and inclined her head slightly to the left to acknowledge that the witch had spoken. “Fret not O’ witch of the North, I am still feared. And I much prefer the words ‘confidant’ and ‘companion’ to lapdog.”
The witch laughed. It was more of a cackle. “Oh, she is actually Cornish! I did not believe it when I heard you were.”
“I was not aware my accent could still be traced.”
“The ears of a Northern Witch pick up a great many deal of things.”
Ophelia turned her head a little more, meeting the woman’s eyes. “Pray tell, which Northern Witch are you? I’m afraid I am not too familiar with your clans.”
The woman smiled, but it was not a pleasant one. “Morag,” was all she said.
It was all she needed to say, it was all Ophelia needed to hear. The siren’s spine went rigid as if steel had been forced within the bones. There was only one witch in the world with that name, and she was one to be feared above all; Morag the Queen of Witches, the epitome of misanthropy in its most violent form and the personification of carnage. Where there were wars she was, causing death to both sides of the human forces. This woman washed her hands and body in the blood of mortals. She made the siren’s blood run cold, but she would not show fear—had she herself not being doing exactly the same with mortals?
“Well then, welcome to London, Your Majesty,” Ophelia said and gave a small bow of her head before beginning to turn away. A hand clamped over her upper arm, cold and callused, and she turned back to meet the grinning witch once more.
“When I return with my toy, perhaps I will send a message to your Matron informing of her of how well you are doing,” the witch queen said and there was no warmth to her words. “Though I am sure Arachne knows just how you are doing.”
Ophelia yanked her arm out of Morag’s grip and stood her ground, keeping her head high. “Do you think to make me sweat with worry? I care not for the bastard that is my Matron, she does not insight fear into my bones but instead enflames hatred—you would understand if you had experienced what she has done to me, the losses she has created.”
“Oh, I know exactly what she has done to you.”
Ophelia’s eyes narrowed. “I am now of the assumption that you are close friends with that sea spider.”
“I would not go as far as that, little fish, but we share a mutual opinion on many things.”
Ophelia sighed quietly through her nose. “As fascinating as those mutual opinions must be, I’m afraid I do have the time to listen to them. Excuse me.”
Morag smiled and extended her left arm as she stepped aside to let the siren pass. As Ophelia moved towards the panel the witch’s voice called out again, “My clans are always looking for bloodthirsty killers, you may not be of our kind but an exception can be made.”
Ophelia glanced over her shoulder, keeping her features neutral. “As tantalising as your offer sounds, Northern Queen, I much prefer the comfort of manor houses with pleasant gardens to huts in the harsh Highlands.”
“You would be surprised to see the wealth my sisters and I are accustomed too.”
“Have you carved gorgeous houses into caves? I’ve had enough of caves to last me the rest of my life.” What a long life it will probably be with her curse hanging around her neck.
“Let us speak no more of housing. You and I are alike, we should be friends.”
“I would scarcely like to be friends with once who holds my Matron in high esteem. Allow us to remain distant acquaintances.” Ophelia said not another word, not even a quick goodbye, and did not give the witch a chance to reply before she opened and disappeared through the panel.
She weaved through the curving, sconce-lit passages of dark stone, her heeled feet loud and echoing, until she heard faint voices speaking frantically and slowed down her pace until she moved around the last corner. The doors at the end of the corridor had been thrown open to reveal a bright courtyard where, in the centre, stood a great yew tree that was surrounded by benches along the walls. Upon one of these benches were sat Ariadne and Atticus, who stopped speaking and looked up when Ophelia’s heels clicked against the cobbles.
“I should strike up a treaty with you if it means I can be given a great many deal of things in fear of it being broken,” Ophelia started as she walked towards them. “I did not take you, a princess of Hell itself, to be one to back down so easily.”
“Ophelia . . .,” Atticus warned but stopped when Ariadne gathered herself up on to her feet and held out a hand to silence him.
“What do you intend to say?—will you dare to tell me that my act of giving in and agreeing was one of cowardice?” Ariadne said, her voice kept calm despite the defensive stance she assumed. Reined in anger ricocheted through her bones.
“Yes,” Ophelia said.
“You have no idea why there is a treaty between this society and the Northern Witches, do you? Of course you don’t, because when it was made you were still an infant in the sea and you’ve never known because you’re ignorant!”
“What am I ignorant to, pray tell? It is hardly my fault that I have never known about this treaty and so have never known.”
“In eleven-fifty the Northern Witches, led then by Morag just as they still are now, looked to rebel against the laws put in place and wished to rule over humans—to treat them like slaves. They thought it was their divine right—why else would they be gifted with such immense power? To them, mortals are beings made to serve not just them but all immortals—to them we are all the higher powers, the gods walking on the Earth,” spoke Atticus. His cloven hoofs clicked against the stone as he stood up. “You have probably already guessed that a war ensured.”
“Morag rallied together her clans and those of similar belief in order to begin to eradicate and enslave the human population, beginning with their native Scotland,” continued Ariadne, who had calmed down quickly. “The Society used to have hundreds of thousands of members before the war . . . but . . . but I got hundreds of thousands of them killed within a hundred years . . .” The demon looked down at the ground. Tears pricked at her eyes.
“No, Ariadne, no you didn’t.”
“I led the opposing army, I underestimated the power and number of Morag’s force, I sent all those men and women to their deaths and torture. How many families did I tear apart, Atticus?”
Ophelia watched, stunned silent, as Atticus gathered the demon heiress into his arms and proceeded to whisper quiet, comforting words. What made her change her perspective on the demon, however, was the sobbing sounds that she made. How badly had that war affected her? Did she experience nightmares despite it being so long ago? Ophelia knew what is what like to have to tear yourself out of nightmares that plagued the mind even when conscious. Her heart felt suddenly heavy, as if someone was weighing down that beating organ with an anvil.
“None of that was your fault,” Atticus whispered as he ran one hand down Ariadne’s back and the other through her hair. “None of it.”
Ophelia rocked back and forth slightly on her heels, feeling out of place. She had no idea what to do or what to say—what could she say? She did not merge well in these situations, they were . . . not quite foreign, but she did not know how to act when the person was not her friend. This was a completely different situation to the one she had been witness to almost thirty years ago, different to the many almost twenty years ago; she had known exactly what to say then, known exactly the words and actions that instilled comfort and reassurance. The receivers of those words, the ones privy to the other facets of her being, they were long gone, lost but never forgotten. Smiles and love could never be forgotten.
Ophelia quickly shut her mind off to the memories and her heart to the pain they brought. She hadn’t spent years steeling herself for the walls to be knocked down so easily.
Ariadne sniffled and pulled away from Atticus. She raised a hand to wipe at her face and then checked her hair. Ophelia had to admire the demons ability to regain composure fast. “The war between the sides lasted a hundred years—seemingly endless bloody battles full of carnage and death,” Ariadne said and raised her head to meet Ophelia’s eyes. “We lost every battle but the last. Morag was powerful and her darkness formidable, but minute in comparison to mine. I could have killed her, torn her apart from the inside, but what would that have achieved? Another death to fuel a war for avengement; no, I would not allow that to happen. So I granted the Northern Queen her life in exchange for her abandoning her fight and surrendering—”
“But she is the queen,” Ophelia started, shaking her head incredulously. “Why would she surrender? She sees you as lesser, so why would she submit?”
“Lesser to her she may think me be, but I am one of Hell’s princesses, and though I am banished I still hold influence. I offered her a choice: surrender or witness the deaths of all her clans—”
“You literally just said you did not want to cause any more deaths,” interrupted the siren. She rubbed her fingertips against her temple.
“It wasn’t a promise but a threat; luckily Morag holds loyalty—the only notion close enough to love she has—close to her chest and conceded, and so the treaty was drawn. In exchange for her life and the lives of her clans, she swore to cease in her genocide and send emissaries into the society so that she could be monitored . . . in return the Society would allow for the transportation and killing of the worst criminals by them, in accordance with their culture—the same deal we have struck with the wendigos—and she likes to test that promise.”
“She despises Ariadne for what she had her do,” said Atticus as he absently ran a hand through his hair and pulled off strands that had wound around his horns. “She’s been wanting revenge ever since.”
“You don’t seem worried by that,” Ophelia observed. She, for one, was worried by that. Not that she would ever admit.
Atticus shrugged. “She cannot do a thing without endangering her clans, and Ariadne is more than adept in independency and the handling of such problems.”
“If only your human counterparts felt the same way, they feel the need to make us dependent and their possessions.”
“Only because they fear the power of women.”
Ophelia smiled widely. “Oh, I like you. Ariadne, keep him around.”
Ariadne rolled her eyes, an action she had done in the past week of having the company of the siren than she probably had done in her two thousand years plus. “I think it is best that we return so that I might salvage the meeting.”
“Of course,” Atticus started, “I would like to speak with Ophelia before, however.”
Ariadne nodded. A slight incline of her head. “I shall go ahead then. Try not to fight with each other.”
The pairing stayed silent until the demon walked back into the cover of the opium den-cum-meeting rendezvous, before Ophelia turned to Atticus with raised brows. “What is the matter of which you wish to speak to me about? I do hope it is not an offer of courting, because, though I am earnestly flattered, what would your wood elf lover think?” She battered her eyelashes as she gave the sweetest expression she could.
Atticus let out a breathy laugh and shook his head, though he did so with a smile. “Unfortunately, that is not what I intended to say.”
Ophelia gasped and placed a hand over her heart, releasing a loud sob. “Will my heart ever mend from the tragedy you have brought upon me? I scarcely think it shall.”
“Oh, I do believe it will.”
Ophelia shrugged. “Yes, you are right. So, what did you actually hold me back for?—it better be worth my time, O satyr, for if Ariadne is currently yelling in the witch’s face and I am missing it then I shall be less than pleased with you!”
“I’m sorry,” he murmured, “about yesterday. What I said didn’t need to be said; I understood that as soon as the words left my mouth. There was no call for what I accused you of, and for that I apologise.”
“Did Ariadne chastise you? Only, she apologised on your behalf when I returned to her house last night.”
Atticus blinked. “I was not aware of this. No, I wished to merely apologise to you honestly and earnestly.”
Ophelia considered this for a moment. He could be lying, of course, but she didn’t care about that. No, she cared about the fact that he bothered to apologise to her; no one ever uttered the word ‘sorry’ to her, immortal and mortal alike, after they had branded her every female-orientated slur, accused her of crimes she was not the culprit of, screamed in her face ... to have someone apologise for their words, for the damage they had created ... she found herself smiling and blinking back the sting of tears.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her voice catching ever so slightly. She coughed to clear her throat. She would not cry. She did not cry—not in front of people, not for almost twenty years; her tears were reserved for spilling only when she was alone behind doors, barricading herself from the world that showed only cruelty to her that she laughed off and pretended it did not wound her. “I accept your apology. Never do such a thing again, Atticus Lyre, or I will skin you and turn your horns into drinking vessels,” she warned, though a deliberate smirk upturned her lips.
Atticus nodded. “Duly noted.” A smile of his own crossed his face.
“I do believe you and I shall get along rather fine.”
“I hope so.”
Ophelia’s smile grew. She stepped closer to the satyr and looped arms with him. “Be a gentleman and escort me back to the meeting room, will you?”
“Of course, milady.”
Ophelia let out a loud laugh. “Oh yes, I definitely believe we shall get on just fine.”
When they returned to the room, Morag was no longer among the company. Ariadne did not pause in her speaking as they re-entered and sat at their respective seats. Ophelia signed an apology to Evadne, who merely smiled and reached out to part the siren’s hand with her own.
Ophelia, though her visual focus was on Ariadne, did not pay any particular attention to the words exchanged and gestures thrown as the debate and planning around her continued. Instead she was pondering, sat pensively, wondering just how she could toy with the witch queen’s familiarity with her Matron; just how she could gain information pertaining to weaknesses Ophelia could exploit in her strive for the revenge she had wanted since that day everything had come crashing down.
Ophelia White did not want to find a friend in Morag, or even an ally, but perhaps she could find something—anything—worth her time.