Chapter 24
The Black Widow of Arielle

Chateau d'Arielle, near Ladrieu, Arielle, Bonaventure

About five miles outside the city limits of Ladrieu was the chateau of the Count of Arielle. Montreuil was the capital of the county and the reason the Count's ancestral home was not located there was because the House de Ladrieu was only elevated to comital rank seventy-five years ago, when the previous comital family was dispossessed for its role in the alleged assassination of old Prince Eduard. Lord Alphonse was formerly one of the three viscounts that acted as the Count's deputies, but thanks to the marriage of his sister to the newly crowned Prince Jean, he supplanted his former superior. Indeed, rumors persist that if there even was an assassination, the likely culprits included Prince Jean and his new Count of Arielle. Saying it out loud could get you thrown into prison, but the whispers persisted to this very day.
Perhaps it was fitting that mishap would befall Count Stephan, the scion of a house dogged with rumors of bloody intrigue. While an apothecary and a couple servants were tried and executed for the plot, many suspected someone closer to the Count as the actual assassin. This was the person Giger meant to see.
Being so focused on unlocking the Lost Technology in order to save Kamellia, it was a wonder Giger managed to put the pieces together. Only after his falling out with Kamellia did he turn more of his attention to the question of the Witch Crystals. As Yugo's visions became more persistent, he realized what a grave threat it represented. Yugo was ill-equipped to deal with the danger he saw in his dreams, but Giger had to strike quickly at the source or else the problem would be far bigger than anything one man could handle. It probably was already beyond his control, but he had to try.
As Giger drew closer to the front gate, a guard emerged from the gatehouse. By the look of his uniform, he was neither a regular soldier nor a gendarme but rather a member of the family's personal guard. That by no means made Giger's task any easier.
Armed with a halberd, a rather impractical choice, the guard pointed his weapon at Giger and said, "Halt. Identify yourself."
Giger held up his hands lazily and said, "Is this any way to treat a guest of her ladyship the Countess?"
Unfazed, the guard replied, "Show me your papers."
"So brusque," Giger chided as he pulled out a slip of paper from the folds of his robe.
The guard raised his halberd and came closer, taking the paper from Giger's hand. While he was looking at it, last week's grocery list, Giger's right hand shot out and grabbed the guard by the face. Instinctively, rather than try to push Giger away, the guard dropped his weapon and took hold of Giger's arm. By then, however, Giger had already finished the chant and the guard fell harmlessly asleep. Giger then approached the gatehouse and rapped his knuckles on the windowsill.
"Excuse me."
The guard's partner, who was busy with some racily illustrated playing cards, approached the window wholly unaware of what had just happened.
Giger repeated the trick from before, seizing the guard by the face and putting him to sleep. He took a moment to double-check the magic circle drawn on his hand to ensure none of the lines or runes had smudged, then approached the gate.
It would have taken too much time and trouble to search the guards and the gatehouse for the key, so he took a penknife and pricked his fingertip, then scrawled some runes on the lock. After a brief incantation, the lock clicked and Giger was free to open the gate.
The driveway was at least a hundred yards. While Giger could have used his arts to expedite the trip, he wanted to conserve his energy. He was pretty sure he was going to need it.
At the large doors to the mansion, Giger took hold of the ring of the door knocker and rapped it three times. Within the door to Giger's right was a smaller door for a servant to step out and check a guest's credentials before admitting them.
"And who might you be, sir?" the doorman asked.
"I'm expected," Giger replied.
He took hold of the doorman and put him to sleep just as the guards at the gate, then stepped in through the servant's door. The vestibule opened into an expansive foyer with three staircases leading to second floor.
It was no mere quip when Giger told the doorman he was expected. However, he did not expect it to be quite so literally true as Countess Ariana awaiting him from atop the stairs.
Giger had no idea how old the Countess was supposed to be. She was past her prime but still fairly attractive, as far as people judge such things. Honestly, Giger never had much of an eye for any woman other than Kamellia. Still, the Countess was clearly the type of woman who thought a lot of her appearance and counted on others thinking a lot of it too. She was wearing a dragon-patterned Changpu silk robe. The coils of the dragon wrapping around her accentuated the curves of her body. She was at a fine age to still fancy herself a seductress.
With a haughty look and an imperious tone, she called down to him, saying, "Barz Falkner, former apprentice of the Phoenix Mages' Guild, now known as Giger Taus. To think that a half-trained hedge wizard would get this far..."
Giger grinned and gave her a bow with a theatrical flourish.
"And you, milady, the Black Widow of Arielle, secretly a witch of the legendary Hydra Guild. Tell me, did you bewitch your late husband or were you able to seduce him with your more... mundane assets?"
The Countess scowled.
"Impudent worm," she growled. "You may think you are rather clever to come here, but you are a fool. You have no one to help you, not even your familiar." Her scowl twisted into a cruel grin as she said, "Which reminds me... I have someone I would like to introduce to you."
Her fingers curled slowly, beckoning some unseen third party. Said third party materialized in the form of a silvery Abomination, vaguely feline in shape with thin limbs, long ears and eyes red as rubies.
Giger gave the Abomination a pitying look and said, "Hello, Prissy."
The Countess looked somewhere between impressed and disappointed that she was robbed of the dramatic reveal.
"So you even figured out that much as well?"
"She wasn't hard for you to manipulate, I'm sure," Giger replied. "Another wizard's familiar makes for a fine pawn in your little scheme."
"Indulge me, Mr. Falkner," the Countess said. "I have had my eye on you for quite some time, but I had no idea anyone was my trail. Before you die, tell me how you learned of my hand in the plot. It will give you a few more precious moments to your miserable life."
"Usually in the stories, it's the villain who gives the monologue," Giger replied.
The Countess gave him a derisive look and asked him, "Do you not fancy yourself the great detective for your deduction? The detective always shows his hand when he charges the culprit at the end of the story."
"I didn't think a woman of your rank would know anything about cheap detective stories."
"Do you think I was born into this rank, Mr. Falkner?"
"No, I suppose not," Giger replied. "So we swap monologues and then you get to kill me, right?"
"I may not grace you with a monologue of my own, but do go ahead."
"As milady wishes," Giger said with a mock bow. He then adjusted his glasses before kicking off the much anticipated monologue. "It was a big operation, the Witch Crystals and the pocket grimoires. Too big for just one or even a handful of rogue mages. Who else is everywhere and nowhere but the Hydra Guild? Even most of the masters don't accept that it exists, but I started from the assumption that the guild was more than just a legend. From there, it was just a matter of figuring out who would be in a position to provide cover for such an operation. Where else but right at the top?"
The Countess looked at him blankly.
"Is that it?"
"What more do I need?"
The Countess' composure cracked. She tried to stifle it but then burst out laughing. High-class ladies were supposed to cover their mouths when laughing, but the Countess abandoned all pretension, laughing so hard that she had to hold her sides. Giger was less amused.
When her laughter died down, she wiped away a tear as she recomposed herself.
"You come all this way to face me based on nothing more than the hasty conclusions born of mere assumptions. Without a shred of evidence, you come here and accuse your Countess of being a secret mage of Hydra Guild--a guild no sane person believes to exist--, even dare to call me by that hated name my enemies use against me, and defying all reason, you are right about all of it. I may be a witch, but you, Mr. Falkner, you are some kind of miracle worker."
Giger had not been entirely honest with her. He actually did have some evidence that led him to the Countess and there were some of Yugo's visions as well, but in case this ended poorly for him, he would rather not have the Black Widow know about his sources or his prescient apprentice.
"I suppose I'm more of a gambler than anything," Giger said.
"Well, this is a gamble you are going to lose. I have not come this far for my plans--our plans--to be thwarted by the likes of you. The Witch-hunters will waste time and manpower chasing down schoolchildren fumbling with First Circle spells. Some of them will recklessly experiment with higher level spells and become Abominations. ARCANUM's licensed mages will not be enough to stop them and the League Parliament will have no choice but to revoke the Mage Ban, only now my guildmates will be positioned in all the guilds and when we save the people from the Abominations, they will turn to us, not their lazy and corrupt leaders. The Twelve Kingdoms will be ours."
"Really?" Giger balked deadpan. "World domination? You really are a dime novel villain."
"And you are an unlamented minor character killed off in the prologue, Mr. Falkner. Had the circumstances been different, I might have offered you a place in the new order, but you are far too troublesome."
"My master thought of me the same way."
"I will send you to meet him."
So she did not know about Mordekai's reincarnation. That was one less person he had to worry about. If only he had thought to pass along his suspicions about the Countess...
"So I guess that's it for our monologuing," Giger said.
"Sadly, yes, Mr. Falkner," the Countess replied. "You have offered me some amusement, so I will make this quick."
She snapped her fingers and pointed to the ground floor. The Prissy Abomination leapt over the balustrade and touched down silently only a few paces from where Giger stood. The Countess snapped her fingers again and Prissy transformed into her human shape. As an Abomination, her skin was now chalk-white, her eyes red-in-red and her nails long six-inch daggers.
The Countess pointed at Giger and told her, "This is the man who broke your heart. Tear out his!"
Entirely without emotion, Prissy sprang forward faster than any human could react, plunging her claws into Giger's heart. Rather than make some desperate final attack to try and take the Countess with him, Giger held Prissy's hand half-buried in his chest and told her, "I'm sorry, Priscilla. I'm sorry you had to go through this."
In that moment, the emotionless facade fell. Prissy's eyes returned to their normal state and, seeing what she had done, widened in horror.
"Giger... Giger, no..."
Giger gave her a weak smile, what little he could do to offer her some comfort. Besides the physical damage, as an Abomination her claws bore a curse and it worked quickly. Giger closed his eyes and fell backward. Prissy stared at her bloodstained claws before letting loose with an anguished scream that broke down into piteous weeping.
In her moment of victory, the Countess laughed over Giger's corpse, but that laughter had an unintended consequence. Prissy stopped crying and turned to the Countess with a look full of grief and fury. The Countess realized too late that her control over Prissy had been broken.
As Prissy darted up the stairs, the Countess cried, "No! What are you doing!?"
While Giger was struck down with a single blow, the enraged Prissy was not so kind to the Countess, stabbing and slashing so viciously that she broke off her nails in the Countess' body and still clawed away at her with the broken stumps until the fires of her anger died down and she was sobbing once more.
While she was crying there by the ruin of the Countess' mauled body, she did not notice a hand touch her on the head or a voice speaking over her. Her silver hair returned to its natural pink and the color was restored to her flesh. Feeling the change come over her, Prissy looked at her hands in disbelief.
"Good work, Prissy," a familiar voice said.
Prissy looked up to see the last person she expected to find standing over her.
"Giger?" she asked, not believing her eyes. Believing or not, she jumped up and hugged him tightly. "Giger!"
Somewhat awkwardly, Giger returned the embrace, stroking her hair to comfort her. Prissy clung to him for some time with her head buried in his chest before looking up at him in bewilderment with tears streaming down her cheeks.
"How?" she asked. "I, I killed you, didn't I?"
Giger nodded to the side to direct Prissy's attention to the spot where he had supposedly died. Not even the blood remained, just a little clay doll with some green hairs wrapped around it.
"I figured the Countess would try something like that," he explained, "so I made a double. Think, Prissy. A familiar can't survive without its master. If you'd really killed me, you would've vanished then and there."
Prissy balled up her fists and pounded on Giger's chest.
"How was I supposed to think of that!? I thought I'd killed you, you big jerk!"
In an unusual display of genuine sympathy and sincerity, Giger said, "I'm sorry, Prissy. I know I didn't handle things well."
Clutching his shirt, Prissy said, "It's alright, Giger. You're alive. That's all I need."
The two stood there holding each other for a while until Prissy broke the silence again.
"Um, Giger..."
"Yes, Prissy?"
Prissy looked up to him, blushing furiously.
"I'm kinda naked right now."
"You usually are," Giger said dryly.
"Not like this!"
Resting his hand on her head, Giger said the incantation to turn her back into her cat form.
"Better?" he asked.
"You could've just conjured me some clothes, Giger," Prissy replied, her ears pinned back in annoyance.
Before she could complain further, she realized she was standing in a pool of the Countess' blood. She looked at the blood sticking to her paws, then over to what was left of the Countess.
"Oh, God..." she moaned. "I'm gonna be sick..."
"Try to hold it in," Giger said, picking her up. "Come on. Let's go home."