After taking us deep into the heart of the castle, the maid leading Guendalfa, Fran and I stopped in front of a door with a red carpet and turned to face us.
"We have arrived at Lady Kiara's private bedchambers," she said. "Please wait a moment as I seek permission to enter."
Fran and Guendalfa nodded as the maid turned around and knocked gently on the door.
"Lady Kiara? Guendalfa and the Black Lightning Princess are here to see you."
"Yeah, come in," said a voice from inside the room.
The maid opened the door for us. There was a desk with a chair next to the window, a full length mirror next to a vanity closet, an armchair in the corner, and a king sized bed in the middle. All the furniture and interior was done with gold or gold leaf, but the designs weren't gaudy. Rather, they were carefully crafted such that they appeared subdued and pleasing to the eye. The curtains, carpet, and bedsheets were all made of luxurious cloth or silk. The entire room was cleaned and tidy. It was obvious that its inhabitant was being treated as a guest of honor.
An old, black catkin sat upright on the bed. We knew that she was supposed to be a black catkin, but she didn't quite look the part. The hair on her ears and tail had long turned completely white. Her posture was good, which indicated that she was probably still active in spite of how haggard and thin her body appeared. She was tall too. It looked like she could probably reach 170 cm when standing. She definitely did not give the impression of a frail old lady whose body was wasting away.
She looked at Fran with a gaze of such intensity that I was intimidated for a brief moment. I felt like my heart stopped and that I was pierced with daggers. If I were still human, I probably would have instinctively prostrated myself on the ground out of fear. Fran, however, was completely unperturbed.
"And who exactly told you that you could speak to me so bluntly?"
"Hah!" She slapped her knee. "Good to know. I'll be sure to smack him hard next time I see him."
Whoa she definitely speaks pretty brusquely. But, surprisingly, it fits her quite well.
"To answer your question," she continued: "Yes. I am Kiara. I know the snot-nosed brat over there." She jerked her chin at Guendalfa.
"Snot nosed? I'm already 22!" retorted Guendalfa
"Quiet you!" yelled Kiara. "Everyone under 40 is a snot-nosed brat to me. So, who's the girl?"
"Master Kiara," said Guendalfa, surprised. "Have you not heard of the Black Lightning Princess?"
"Lady Kiara just woke up today," said the maid who guided us to this room. "For the past twenty days Lady Kiara has been in a coma."
Holy shit! A coma for twenty days!? If she was out for that long it's not too surprising that she hasn't heard of Fran yet.
I took a closer look and saw that her cheeks were a little sunken and her lips were really dry. Her arms looked rather thin and brittle, indicating that they had been out of use.
"She is-" began the maid, but Kiara interrupted her.
"Hold up." She gestured to Fran and said in a gentle voice, "Come here dear."
Fran trotted over to the bedside.
"What's your name?"
Kiara opened her arms and Fran embraced her. At first it was a light hug but after a few seconds, Kiara suddenly pulled Fran tightly into her.
"All these years I feared that the goal I sought was unachievable," she said. "Now I have proof of success standing right before me. Thank you Fran, for coming to me and showing me that my journey was not meaningless."
Kiara buried her face into Fran's shoulder. I felt my heart twist when I heard what she said. Her whisper, which carried the weight of 50 years of doubt, uncertainty, and resolve, seemed to reverberate throughout the room.
After a few moments of silence, Kiara eventually calmed down and released Fran.
"Can you give me the details?" asked Kiara. "How did you do it? Unless there is some reason you can't tell me. I won't force you."
"Of course," Fran nodded. "But heard Granny Kiara should already know method."
"Who told you that?"
"Wha…? So he still remembers me…?"
"Nn. Aurel and Rumina too."
Kiara's eyes began to waver, and she smiled.
"Those fools," she said. "They should have forgotten me and moved on long ago."
"They didn't. Always looking for you," said Fran.
Kiara sighed, "What I have is just a hypothesis. Let me get more comfortable first."
Kiara turned and got out of the bed. Guendalfa frantically held his hand out be she shooed him away and sat herself down in her armchair.
"So it all started back in the day in Ulmutt. I ventured into the depths of a dungeon, only to discover that its master was an evolved black catkin," she said. "That was how I met Rumina 50 years ago. She was really too sweet for her own good. She offered to help me evolve, but her method was too contrived. It required her to turn herself into an evil being."
"Turn into evil being, how?"
"In the past, one of the Black Cat Tribe's chiefs invoked a ritual to drown our species in the power of the Evil God," said Kiara. "It was for something stupid like for the sake of strengthening the tribe. Like many members of the tribe, Rumina had also been caught up in the ritual's processes. She too had the power of the Evil God embedded into her."
She grimaced at this point.
"So she told me to stand back, and I did, and suddenly my Evil Presence Detection skill went crazy. I felt a disgusting presence coming from Rumina, one that only grew stronger and stronger as I stared it down. She was probably using her powers as a dungeon master to unlock some tainted part of her soul or something. Anyway, I knew whatever she was doing was bad news, so I ran over and punched her. Told her that I didn't want to evolve if it meant losing a friend. And that was the end of that."
"But why turn into evil being?" asked Fran.
"I wanted to find that out myself," said Kiara. "After thinking about it, I recalled the research I did on our clan's inability to evolve. There was a lot of misinformation being spread about at the time. Some of it was by our own tribe members trying to save face or keep the morale of the younger kinsman up. Some of it was spread by blue catkin that just wanted to mess with us. And there wasn't much written evidence wherever I searched."
"One of the few items that came to mind was an old, torn-up scroll that was barely readable. The parts that I could read said that our tribe invoked the Gods' wrath and we were cursed. We needed to defeat something on the level of the Evil God to break that curse. I think Rumina was trying to become that evil thing herself. She wanted to let me defeat her so that I would evolve."
Rumina folded her arms and leaned back as she wrapped up her explanation.
"So, that's my theory," she said. "How does that match up to your experiences?"