Time lost all meaning to Alis while she studied. Day darkened into night, which brightened into day, until the shifting light was nothing more than background noise while she meditated on a single problem, or performed delicate experiments on the tiniest, most vulnerable essences of magic. Of course, since she needed neither rest nor sustenance, nor really aged in the common sense of the word, there was little else she could use to keep track of the passage of time, and so it became completely meaningless.
Sure, sometimes she would allow herself a mental break and rearrange her castle a little, exercise the raw, simple magic that she wielded, but even then she rarely looked outside its walls. And why should she? She had everything she wanted in there: An entire library of empty books waiting to be filled with her precise printings, almost as many books by other various researchers, gathered here and there during a lifetime or two of dedicated searching and now made even more valuable by the thousands of little notes and corrections she had scribbled throughout their margins. She also had as many incredible instruments as ice and her own superior mind could fashion. But most importantly, she had peace and quiet.
Her head snapped up from her deep contemplation of a single, glowing filament of magic, which immediately slipped from her grasp and returned to its natural state.
"Alis!" The unexpected voice was accentuated by the most impertinent sound possible: an armored fist banging against her door. "I must request an audience with you!"
"Oh, you have got to be joking," she muttered to herself, grabbing her staff as she stood and strode up to the balcony that overlooked her front gate. In retrospect, why had she even bothered keeping that thing, anyway?
She glanced over the balustrade, and could have heaved a sigh of frustration, if she had had any lungs. A Paladin of Light. Of course. "Not again," she moaned, then raised her voice and stepped forward to make sure that she was properly visible in all her terrible glory. "Do you people never learn?"
As the man looked up she pulled a fine mist of shimmering ice crystals around herself, both to make sure he knew she was ready for anything, and to actually protect herself from any funny tricks he might want to try on her. Underestimating a Paladin was not a mistake she cared to make again. Dying once was quite enough.
Gavod felt her gaze on him before she spoke. It was a singular and very, very disturbing experience to be beheld by an undead, and one he would have preferred never to have to have had again. It usually felt something like having cold, ghostly hands search across your skin, and the experience could vary from nothing more than a mild discomfort to real, physical chills, but a trained professional - like himself - always knew when an undead creature was watching him. And these chills were unmistakable.
Sure, one could argue that the sudden transition from desert heat to the freezing shadow of Alis' ice castle would be enough to send chills through anyone, but nothing natural could have sent such icy fingers through his heart. He took a few steps back from the door and looked up, meeting the gaze of the creature that loomed above him.
It was a profoundly disturbing sight, to say the least. She was tall, probably abnormally so even when she had had flesh, but as a skeletal Champion of Thanatos she was by far the tallest he had encountered (Champions, being stripped of all flesh before reanimation, tended to be somewhat shorter on average than the species they had been made out of. Alis was easily as tall as Gavod himself, and he was considered an impressively sized human). Like other Champions, what he could see of her charcoal-black bones was entirely covered with intricate patterns of tiny, blasphemous runes that glowed very slightly when she moved. Unlike any other Champion, the faint lights inside her empty eye sockets glowed not red, but an icy pale blue, which somehow made them even more disturbing. It felt like looking straight into winter's cold, unyielding heart.
An extravagant robe of deep blue silk with silver filigree patterns depicting snowflakes hung unnaturally from her bony frame, and on her head she wore - he had to make a quick double-take on that one - a crown with very tall, very sharp spikes, probably made of iron or darkened silver, encrusted with sapphires and diamonds. The staff that she clutched in one terribly disfigured hand could be none other than her own legendary "Winter's Wrath," with it's distinctive pure white stem and six-sided crystal head.
As he raised his head, he noticed a shimmer of ice crystals form in the air around her, forming an instant protective barrier without so much as a twitch of her hand.
So the information they had on her seemed to be mostly correct, then. That made him at once more confident, and more cautious.
He forced himself to suppress the innate disgust that welled up in him at the sight of the abomination unto all life that she was, and kept his voice as polite as possible as he called back to her:
"You misunderstand. I am not here to fight you. I must speak to you of a matter of utmost emergency."
Her reply was a surprisingly human snort of derision. "Really now? Well, I do suppose, since it's such an emergency, I should just open my gates right up and let you have at me." Her jaws didn't move when she spoke, but her voice, barring only a slight unnatural timbre, sounded perfectly human and he had no difficulty understanding the heavy sarcasm that laced her words, even if her body language hadn't amply accentuated it. "Please," she huffed, "Do underestimate my intelligence."
"Actually," he retorted, finding a lopsided little grin squirming its way onto his face. It must be the nervousness. "I think you are the one underestimating mine. I have a fairly good idea... No." It took some effort, but he pushed the truth through his lips. "I know that I can't best you. Stronger men than me has tried and failed. I don't know if you know it, but you have been taken off our quest-ledgers."
"Really?" Her voice was still wary, but not as openly sarcastic anymore. "I find that a little hard to believe, what with your brethren turning up here about two times a week, banging on my gates, disrupting my concentration, and making complete fools of themselves."
"Alis, no Paladin of Light has been here for ten years. I know that for a fact."
That seemed to take her aback a little, as there was a brief pause before she replied, with obvious suspicion:
"Is that so? And on what grounds do you claim to know that?"
"Because that's when you were stricken from the quest ledgers, and our observation post here was made permanent. I have access to all records of all Paladins and Knights who have come here since that time, and none of them has been allowed to disturb you."
"Observation post?" The agitation in her voice and movements made his heart skip a beat in sheer terror. "You have an observation post here?!"
Her skull snapped up, as if to scan the dunes for a tall white church tower and her grip on the staff tightened for a moment, but she almost instantly faltered and took half a step forward as if in a daze. "What... in all creation...?"
Gavod was glad that her demeanor had changed to something that wasn't immediately aggressive, though he didn't quite understand why, and he took the chance to placate her as best he could.
"Yes, we have had an observation post in the general area pretty much since we learned of your presence here, it's standard procedure. It's always been here. Only lately, it has become permanent, because we still do need to keep an eye on you, even though we no longer mean to try to destroy you. You're incredibly powerful and could pose a very real threat if you were to decide to do anything, and in that worst-case scenario, we do need to have a heads-up. Surely, you can understand that on a logical level?"
As if she hadn't heard him, Alis just kept staring out over his head. When she spoke, it was in a subdued tone that he had to strain to hear:
"When did all this happen?"
Intrigued against his better judgement, Gavod turned his head for a moment and tried to follow her gaze. "What?"
The chill of Alis unnatural eyes on him made his attention snap back to her. She gestured with her unoccupied hand, but apparently without wielding any magic.
"All these houses!" she sounded almost insulted, but Gavod could have sworn he heard a note of honest confusion that seemed remarkably human. "When did they... pop up all over the place like that?"
He blinked at her, for a moment just about as surprised as she seemed to be. "The... houses? It's... it's your town, Alis. It's been here around your oasis for at least twenty-five years."
"My what? But I..." Her skull tipped to the side and the fingers on her free hand tapped a sharp staccato against the icy balustrade. "That can't be right... Wasn't that just... Or could it...?"
She sounded so lost that for a moment, Gavod almost forgot to be disgusted by her presence. For a brief moment, in spite of all her horrible features and all her extravagant attire, she seemed like... a real person. The Paladin quickly gave himself a mental shakedown and admonished himself not to let his guard down, not even for a moment.
Still, he couldn't quite bring himself to sound as harsh anymore, when he asked her:
"You didn't know? Haven't you noticed it?"
This time, Alis gaze didn't seem to chill him as deeply when she tore it away from the sprawl of little mud houses.
"Well, I noticed the nomads come by now and again... and that they stole little flakes and pieces of my castle... but I... I don't remember any settlements."
"So you... you knew they scraped ice from your walls?" Gavod's curiosity got the best of him. "And, what? You don't mind?"
The black skeleton shrugged, a flippant gesture that pulled way too much attention to her horribly bony frame. "Oh, hardly. With the well I have in here, I can easily replace little nicks like that if I should need it. If I lived in a normal castle, it would be rodents nibbling at the walls, and it would be just as futile and just as much a waste of time and energy to try to punish them."
"You sound surprised." Her voice had returned to a much more confident, almost snide drawl.
"Yes, well... I admit I am. You're showing quite a lot of leniency, after all."
"Are you implying that I might not be quite as much of a soulless monster as I should be?" she rather gleefully taunted him, "Be careful, Paladin, I think you are on the verge of blasphemy!"
"There's nothing blasphemous about admitting that one may have made a mistake. And I may have been mistaken about you. Actually, I rather hope I am, and that those who have built theories around what we know of you that err on the side of benevolence are actually the ones who are right. Because I really need to ask... For your help."
Alis just stood there for a while, her chilling gaze locked on him, when she spoke up again, the wariness was back in her voice, but Gavod felt sure he detected a not insignificant amount of curiosity in it as well.
"My help? You... Need my help? With what?"
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