In medias res: Francescu is casting Manfred from the world. Sophie, in the shape of a scorpion, stings Francescu upon the leg.
He blinks again.
The poison is fast. He is already dizzy. His mind is fading into white. But he is skilled, and so he moves his hand in a mystic gesture before his body and speaks three words.
An invisible weight falls from above onto the scorpion to crush it into the stone.
Manfred is passive, waiting, thinking, his spear before his body, as his shape thins and fades bit by bit from the world.
Sophie is a living thing of molten rock. She is amorphous. Part of her is crushed by the weight; but that portion is vestigial and unnecessary. She tears it off, leaving red and ragged edges, and leaps at Francescu again.
The heat of her singes his hair and robe.
Francescu’s spell has not ceased. It is not a spell of a single blow but that doleful incantation of incessant force that the elder people used to kill the behemoth, the leviathan, the phoenix, and the drogg. So even as her furthest extension pushes against Francescu’s chest and sears him Sophie is driven down again into the stone.
“It is futile,” Francescu says.
Sophie rises furiously and she is no one shape but a great cloud of them: seething, unformed, the eye unable to distinguish one from the other: there is the beating of wings and the flashing of light on horn and bone and the slick wet skin of toads and the dancing of the lightning and the soft mist of clouds and the fur of a cat and the great teeth of sharks and tigers and the claws of dragons and trails of smoke and fire and the splashing of the undines and pure cold blue and the cold black eyes of the elder races and the size of the behemoths and the rolling of thunder; and from that cloud comes the constant crackling noise of shattered bones and snapping horn as Francescu’s spell drives her down.
For a moment a single shape is visible: the armored wolf, its body surrounded by great interlocking plates of adamant, cracking as she advances towards Francescu under the weight of the spell.
There is a gap in the armor.
That is when the wrought iron head of Manfred’s spear pierces them both.
The world stutters. All magic fades. There is simply Sophie and Francescu, both speared through.
“Its name is Cursebreaker,” Manfred says.
But as startled and hurt as Sophie is, she arches her arm, and a dagger appears in her hand, and she sweeps it backwards along the line of Manfred’s throat.
We do not know how Montechristien Gargamel came into his power. His origins are a mystery. How such an ungainly, strange, and immoral man could rise so swiftly to prominence puzzles even the greatest scholars of our time. Of his life once established in Castle Gargamel, however, certain facts are known.
He took to wife the Lady Yseult Gargamel, one of the great beauties of his day; and though many a rival pressed for evidence that he’d bewitched or stolen her, none was ever found. They had and loved six children of their flesh, until the seventh, Elisabet, killed Yseult with the complications of her birth. Each of these children was a prodigy, possessed of astonishing talents. When at last Montechristien stumbled towards the grave, the talents of his children turned against their siblings, every hand against the other, until at last they could dispose of the matter of their legacy.
This is the nineteenth installment of the story of that time.
It is Sophie’s seventeenth year, not long after that night when Manfred wrestled against the shadow, and Manfred’s house has been empty now for several days.
Sophie is clenched around her loneliness like a fist around a struggling bird. So she goes to the house of Francescu. It galls her, but does not surprise her, to see Christine there, so she ignores the presence of her twin.
“I need help,” Sophie says.
She is ragged and wounded, though the wounds fade away when she gives them attention, returning only when her concentration on her own shape lapses.
Christine’s eyes narrow, but because this is Francescu’s house she does not speak.
“Sophie,” says Francescu. He gestures her in. His house is a strange palatial thing, three floors high, of a cheerful and eccentric design.
“There is raisin pudding,” Francescu says. A bowl of the stuff hovers politely near Sophie, as do a selection of silver spoons. Sophie collapses into a sitting position, with a chair forming under her even as she sits.
“Every night,” says Sophie, “old dead Baltasar chases me.”
Francescu tilts his head to the left. Perhaps he is checking on the details of this with a small household manifestation, or with his devil. His forehead creases.
“What did you do, Sophie?” Christine asks.
Sophie has a special mouth inside her stomach just for biting the lip of when Christine talks. Inside her stomach she bleeds.
“I can’t run any more,” says Sophie. “I have to face him down and make him go away.”
“Is that so?” Francescu asks.
“I need help,” Sophie says. “You’re more powerful than I am. You’re not going to just tell Dad like Violet would. You’re not one of those little wiggling worms that eats dung and turns it to soil like Christine. And Manfred’s gone.”
Christine looks wry.
Francescu asks, “Elisabet?”
Sophie looks at Francescu.
“I am not that cruel,” she says.
Sophie takes of the raisin pudding. She eats it voraciously. She is like a starving beast. She is ragged and she is thin.
An Unclean Legacy
“I don’t think anyone can confront that thing,” Francescu says.
Sophie’s voice rises towards a shriek.
“You’re—you can make castles in the air!” she protests. “You could summon up lost empires. You have mastered the seven forms and the eighteen pervulsions, the pnakotic nodes and the words of the unmemorable tongue! The beasts of the woods and the birds of the air and the elementals and the demons and the angels call you ‘master!'”
Francescu looks from shoulder to shoulder.
His expression settles in to wry amusement.
“Perhaps with great sarcasm,” Francescu says. “And much overelaborate bowing.”
“Help me,” Sophie says.
Her eyes flick to Christine. Then, with a wrench of will, Sophie turns them back to Francescu.
“I have chosen,” says Francescu, “to live an untroubled life, severed from fear and pain and sorrow. To fight the shadow—it would force me to abandon that way of life and bury myself again in a hopeless world. And I do not know that I would win. Of all the things that I do not know if I can face, that darkness is the one that most concerns me.”
“If you like,” he says, “I can shelter you from it here. You would not be able to leave, at least not past dark, but you would endure.”
“Don’t be an idiot, Francescu,” Christine says.
“It’s already tainted her. She’d bring it here. No matter how you tried to hide her, it’d come in after her and then where would we be?”
Francescu looks between them.
“It doesn’t matter,” says Sophie.
“I can’t stay here forever, Francescu. Not even without her, and definitely not with her.”
“Ah,” says Francescu. “—There is hot milk with cinnamon.”
“Please,” says Sophie.
And as she actually means the milk, there is no horror on her face when he interprets this as a signal to pour her a glass and float it near her hand.
“Francescu,” Sophie says. “I am going out to challenge the shadow, like Violet did, but I am not . . . well, I am not Violet.”
“It is not my affair,” says Francescu, with finality.
Then Sophie looks at Christine. Sophie’s expression is absolutely blank, like that of a machine that has never known human feeling, but the look is nevertheless an appeal.
“I . . .” Christine says.
She looks at Sophie, up and down, up and down.
“If you need me to,” Christine says, “I will kill you. And I will make it as quick and as painless as your properties allow.”
“I see,” Sophie says.
“It has touched you already,” Christine says. “I don’t know how to save you. I can’t trust you and go with you. I would end up shadow-eaten. But I can kill you and end your pain.”
“That is gentler than you have been,” says Sophie.
She rises. She turns to walk out.
“I am grateful for that,” Sophie adds. She looks back at Francescu. “As for you, Francescu, you will never inherit father’s legacy.”
“It seems unlikely,” Francescu agrees.
And Sophie goes out.
Wouldn’t hot milk with honey and nutmeg be better before facing the Devil?
Is Cursebreaker cool or is Manfred just overcompensating because he can’t break spells with his natural endowments?
And just how did the armored wolves go extinct, anyway?
Tune in tomorrow for the amazing Unclean Legacy expose: “Sophie and the Devil!”