"The darkness takes shape. Small at first, then larger."
I dream of fire and pain. I dream of Daison and Ari. And then, just as the flames threaten to consume me, he is there. Tavian Gray.
He holds me. And together we burn.
I wake gasping for breath, my head covered in sweat. I must have had a fever. Again. Too common now. Sickness. Ever since that bastard... ever since he... No. I cannot think about him. I cannot think about what happened. If I do, I will break. So I push away memories of Levi, memories of the dungeon, and I will myself to move. My limbs are weak, battered, cramped from days in a cell, but like a rusty door, eventually they give way. My bones pop and crack as I sit up. My breath weighs heavy. And then, looking down, I see it. I see him.
I suppose I knew this day would come. I dreaded it. But now, seeing him on my lap, I can't help but smile. "Hello... Riku."
The little phoenix chirps back at me. He is a deep purple with streaks of silver, his feathers metallic in appearance. Slowly, I bring up my hand, move it forward like I do to calm horses.
Riku doesn't back away. Instead, he leans forward, into my palm, and I caress his feathers. They are soft, smooth, despite their solid looks. He seems to like my touch. He keeps rubbing against my arm, so I keep petting him, and he chirps in what sounds like happiness.
I can't help but giggle. Giggle. Me. A Shade who's just been through the worst days of her life, giggling on her bed with a tiny phoenix on her lap.
And he is tiny. About the size of a potato, easily fitting into my hand. Much smaller than I imagined.
"The mighty Riku," I say in mock seriousness, lifting him up to my face. "You are so cute."
He nods, beaming with his eyes. A mix of deep purple in the center and silver around the edges.
I had always thought Riku would be red, maybe orange. You know, fire colors. But my flame is inexplicably silver. So I suppose he matches me.
I force myself to sit up even more. Somehow, it hurts less now. Perhaps because of the cute baby phoenix in my hand. He hops onto my shoulder, perching there, and I glance at both of us in a polished steel oval that acts as a makeshift mirror. We look quite the pair, my blue hair complementing his deep purples. My pale skin matching his silver.
My gown is a simple green, unlike my very non-simple room. Fen insisted I stay in one of the bed chambers reserved for the most renowned guests within Stonehill. It's huge. Complete with a burning fireplace and a thick fur rug, bookshelves with more books than I've ever read, and even a vanity! Who needs all this stuff? Maybe a princess, but I'm no princess. I miss my own home, my small house outside the castle. And how Daison used to—
I push thoughts of him away, turning to Riku. "So hey, buddy, you hungry? You need any food?" I can't remember if Spirits need to eat. I try recalling if Ari ever feeds Yami, but can't remember. Then I think of Baron. Baron definitely eats food.
Still crazy to think he's a Spirit. When Fen told me all the details, my brain almost exploded. He'd been half Fae for centuries, but never knew the truth. How do these things happen?
I try not to ponder too heavily as I scour my room for food. Someone left an assorted meal of bread, cheese and ham on my dresser. I offer the ham to Riku, but he waves his little beak at me in a very displeased fashion. So I offer him the bread.
Then he chirps and digs in.
He's quite immaculate, getting every little crumb. "Good baby phoenix," I say, petting him on the head. "Now how about some water and—"
Footsteps. Outside my door.
My heart stops, my breath hitching. Please be Tavian. I ache to be with him. He's visited my room since we were freed, but I've been half asleep most of the time, battling fever. Today, I feel better than I have in ages. I need to see him.
The door opens.
It's not Tavian.
"Ah, I see our new Druid has awoken." He closes the door, adjusting the black sleeves of his pristine suit. His dark hair is tidy, but messier than usual Asher. I wonder if something's happened.
"Can you see him?" I ask, raising my hand with Riku.
Asher nods. "Of course."
"And you're not surprised?"
"Why would I be?"
Because I haven't told anyone I'm a Druid. Not even Fen. Only Tavian. Only Tavian knows.
Asher seems to notice my pause. "I overheard your new friend talk about it. He seems quite nice."
So Tavian told him. Somehow, something feels wrong about the idea. I don't know Tavian well, but I know he's a private person. I don't imagine him spilling the secrets of others.
"I had my doubts," says Asher, waving his hands in the air. "But now that you have Riku, there's no denying it."
I drop my eyes, sighing. "No. I suppose there isn't."
"Come my dear," says Asher, putting a finger under my chin. "This is good news. We have three Druids on our side now. And the Midnight Star. Levi won't challenge us again."
I know he's trying to cheer me up, but at the mention of Levi I feel sick. I bend over, trying not to vomit, but preparing for it all the same.
Riku chirps soothingly in my ear, and it helps a bit.
"I know it can be... hard," continues Asher, "having responsibility thrust upon you. Even if you are raised to rule, the idea of ruling and the act of ruling are two very different things. As a Druid, you have a duty to your people. Maybe not as a supreme ruler, but as a guide. A mentor." He looks away, into the flames of the fireplace, his voice soft. "I feel much the same."
There is something about Asher today. A depth I have not seen before. Or perhaps, I am simply noticing a lack of wit. He seems more serious than usual.
"I don't believe the others know yet," says Asher. "That you're a Druid. If you wish, I could keep the secret a while longer."
"Yes," I say, suddenly feeling better and standing straighter. "That would be nice. Until I'm ready to tell them on my own."
"Very well. Now to important matters." He leans in, sniffing at my gown, then pulls back repulsed. "You must take a bath."
I only run into servants on my way to the bathhouse and none seem to notice Riku. He must be staying hidden, invisible. Dim light shines through the hallway windows. It must be very early. Explains the lack of people. When I enter the bath chamber, I am alone, in near darkness, the water a pale blue.
Well. I'm almost alone. There is Riku after all.
I slip off my gown and enter the water. It's warm, soothing to my aching joints. A slight steam hovers on its surface, the heat battling the cold air. I sigh and lean back against the bath walls, closing my eyes and letting my stress melt away.
I recognize his voice instantly. Deep and warm and gravelly.
Tavian Gray, tall, muscled and naked stands above me.
I think I... well... I think I forget how to think.
Then he smiles.
And my mind starts to wander. To things I could do to those muscles, those lips...
Then Tavian jumps in the pool, splashing me with water and breaking my wonderful dream.
I laugh and splash him back.
Before I can fully exact my revenge, he grabs my arms, pins them down, and presses his rock hard body against mine. His heart beats in time with my own. His breath tickles my skin. His scent is that of stone and wood and fire. I run a hand down his chest, studying every inch of his being, memorizing him as best I can. So I may never let go of this moment. So I can hold onto it forever.
"I missed you," I whisper, our lips close. Oh, so close...
"That is good." He places his mouth against my neck, kissing my skin gently over and over. "Otherwise, I would have stayed for nothing."
He recovered faster than me, somehow. I remember him by my bedside as I struggled to live. He seemed fine then. He seems fine now.
"What are you, Tavian Gray?" I ask, running my hand through his thick brown hair.
"You know who I am—"
I yank on his hair. Just hard enough.
He inhales deeply, grinning. "I am many things. Right now, foremost, I am your friend."
"Just a friend?" I ask, biting my lip.
"Well, maybe I am a special friend."
I touch his face with my hands, tracing his sharp cheek bones, his sturdy chin.
Then he takes my face into his palms and pulls me closer. Closer. Closer.
Until our lips touch.
Until I feel his taste on my tongue.
It seems forever, until we part.
"Mmm," I say, still remembering him on my lips.
He chuckles. "Mmm is right." Then he puts a hand on my chin, his fingers rough and strong. He tilts my face until our eyes meet. "I will remember this, my princess. I will remember this for all time."
There is something to his words. A sadness.
And I realize what they mean.
"You're leaving, aren't you?"
He doesn't look away then. I think a lesser man would. But he does not. "Yes. This is not my world. Not my place. I am a traveler. And soon, I must travel again."
I grab his hand, holding it tightly, so tightly I fear I hurt him, but I don't care. "I can go with you."
"You are a Druid," he says glancing over my shoulder. And I realize he can see Riku standing there. "Where you go, Fae will follow. They will seek your guidance, your leadership." He pauses, finally looking away, looking into the deep blue water. "I am no leader. I am no person to follow."
I shake my head, tears welling in my eyes. "Why? Why do you insist on being alone?"
"I..." He pauses. "Do you really wish to know?"
I nod, steeling myself for what is to come. "I do."
"Then stay with me tonight," he says, frowning. "The memories, they are worse than usual today. Stay with me, and you will see. Then you will understand."
I grip his hand even tighter. "I will stay with you. Show me."
We spend the day together, but it is not a happy affair. Not truly. Tavian seems lost, buried in his memories. While I eat ravenously, he barely touches his food. While I walk with a jump to my step, he lags behind. When I ask him what's wrong, "You will see," is all he says.
I try to find Fen, but Keeper Kal'Hallen informs me he and Dean are out searching for Ari. They should be back tomorrow.
I wish I could be out there, looking for my friend. But I am still too weak. Soon, though. I promise. Soon.
"She is very dear to you," Tavian remarks as we walk the gardens in fur cloaks.
"Yes," I say, thinking of Arianna. "She is like a sister. A sister I love."
He nods, not saying any more.
When night falls, he escorts me to a shack at the outskirts of the city—a place I thought abandoned. He seems to have made a home here. Thick rugs cover the floor and the fireplace is stocked with wood. He sets it burning, and we cuddle by the flames, warming each other.
I do not know how long we stay like this. Together. Holding each other.
But at some point, Tavian pulls away. "It is time I slept." He walks over to the corner, a cold, damp place. He grabs something there and tosses it at my feet. A sword.
"What is this?" I ask, not touching the blade.
"You may need it," he says.
He says nothing, laying down his fur robe and making a bed for himself.
"I've seen you sleep before," I say. "When we traveled."
"Not all nights are equal." He sounds tired, beaten. He lies down on the furs and closes his eyes. "Goodnight, Princess."
He says no more.
Hours pass. Nothing. Nothing but a man sleeping peacefully. I fetch more wood for the fire. Keep it burning to stay warm.
It is sometime deep in the night, sometime when the moons are high, that Tavian begins to tremble. It starts with a murmur, a whisper I do not understand. He mumbles, louder, then louder, in a language I do not know. His hands start to shake at his words. His head jerks back and forth. He seems to be calling. Calling to someone. Yelling. Yelling a warning.
It is then the wind begins to stir. It howls around me though all windows are shut. It chills me despite the burning fire. The lights begin to dim. A shadow falls over the room.
I have seen this before. When Tavian threatened Metsi. When Tavian fought the raiders.
But now it happens as he sleeps.
He shakes and spasms, crying out. Screaming.
But I see no lightning. No storm outside.
Thunder again. The tempest is here. In this room. The storm swirls around him.
A flash of light.
They blind me.
But in between the flashes, I catch glimpses.
His skin darker.
White stripes upon his body.
His mouth twists unnaturally, opening, and he roars, tearing the air with his voice.
His teeth are far too long, far too sharp.
He is more beast than man now.
What is happening?
Riku screeches in terror, quivering on my shoulder.
Tavian roars again, and it is a sound of agony, such terrible agony.
I rush forward, wanting to shake him, to wake him, to make it stop.
But something stops me. A feeling. A feeling that this must pass on its own.
I hold back. Though every part of me wishes to help. I hold back.
And the fire goes out. Darkness envelops the room. Darkness and silence. A silence so strong it chills.
And then I hear it. Feel it.
His breath against my skin. The heavy breath of a beast.
He is in front of me.
I cannot see him. But I know he is there.
A predator before his prey.
I look for the sword, but can see nothing in the darkness. I search with my hands, but find nothing.
The breath is still upon me. Hot. Loud.
Something growls in the darkness.
My fingers find purchase. The sword. I hold it up.
Don't make me do this. Don't make me do this.
Something lunges. Lunges for my throat.
I drive the sword forward.
And as quickly as the darkness came, it withdraws.
The flames return, flickering.
And before me, I see Tavian covered in sweat, shaking on the floor, bleeding from his shoulder.
"No," I fall to my knees, pulling him to me, holding me tight. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
He lets his head fall back, fall back so we are eye to eye. And I see it is him again, the real him. "I told you, Princess," he says, his voice a raspy whisper. "I told you I must go."
My hands shake. My eyes fill with tears. I tear away a piece of my gown and wrap it around his bleeding shoulder. The wound is not deep, thank the Spirits. "What happened?" I ask as I work, my voice trembling.
"You remember what I told you? How I summoned the Darkness? How I watched it kill my family? There is something else." He clenches his jaw, every word a clear effort. "The Darkness spared those who performed the ritual from death. But it did not spare us entirely. A curse it placed upon us. A curse..."
He reaches for something. The table. Water. He must want water. I rush, grabbing a cup and putting it to his lips. He drinks.
I caress his hair softly, waiting. When he is done, I take back the cup. "What is your curse?" I ask.
"I cannot forget," he says. "I cannot forget anything. The Darkness consuming my wife. The screams of my children as they died. I remember all of it. Every single detail. Every single detail I have ever felt."
"What do you mean?" I ask, frowning, feeling his pain.
He clears his throat, raising his voice. "Do you remember the last time you touched hot iron? The last time you burned your hand? Do you remember how it truly felt? The pain?"
"No," I say, realizing what he means. I can recall a part of the pain, but only a part.
"I remember everything," he says. "Every cut. Every burn."
"That is... That is..."
"Horrible?" He smiles for a moment. "Imagine if women could remember childbirth. If they could remember every detail. Had to live with it every day."
"It would drive one mad," I say, sipping some of the water myself.
"It would, wouldn't it?" He pauses. "Most times, I can distract myself with the present. But the past is always there, always by my side, haunting me. Mocking me with every mistake. Every tragedy. For a time, I can ignore its call. But some days it is harder not to listen. And then... then I live in agony."
"I'm so sorry," I say, tears running down my cheek. "I'm so sorry."
He raises an eyebrow, seemingly puzzled. "It is not your fault, Princess. It is my own burden. A burden well deserved."
"No one deserves such a fate."
He shakes his head. "If you could know how my family suffered, if you could know as I know, you would not agree." He tries to push me away.
I don't let him. I hold him tighter. "But you didn't intend to harm them."
"No. No, I didn't. But I must still pay for what I did. For the fool I was."
He pushes me away then, stronger than I expected. I fall back, wiping my tears, Riku chirping into my ear as Tavian grabs his belongings. He wraps his cloak around his shoulders and heads to open the door.
He pauses, holding the handle. "I will leave tomorrow. It is best. Best for me to travel alone. And... I will not tell anyone about Riku. About what you truly are. That is your burden to bear."
With that he opens the door and leaves.
A sharp cold wind hits me, and I wrap myself in the fur rug. Tavian's rug. It smells of him. And I hold it close. Weeping. Weeping for what could have been.
It is hours later, near day, when I remember what Tavian said. What he truly said. I will not tell anyone about Riku. About what you truly are. That is your burden to bear.
Your burden. Your burden. Your burden...
If Tavian kept my secret, then how did Asher know? How did he know?
I grab my fur cloak and run out into the cold winter air. I run back to the castle. There, in an empty hallway, I find Asher. Despite the hour, he is awake, and he walks with a purpose.
I stay in the shadow, trailing him through winding pathways and doors.
Once, I close a door too loudly, and Asher glances back. I freeze, slipping away into a corner. Asher looks around, then shrugs and continues on.
I follow more carefully. Riku, fortunately, doesn't make a sound.
He knows something is wrong here. Something we must uncover.
Asher stops in the middle of a hall, peeks around over his shoulder, then pushes something on the wall. A stone.
A groan echoes through floor, and a piece of the wall slides away. A secret door?
I thought I knew the passages. Fen showed me all of them.
But this. This is not one I know of.
Asher enters the new door, disappearing from sight.
What is he doing? Meeting someone?
Oh, Asher, please don't be a traitor. Please.
I clench my jaw and follow, hoping for the best, dreading the worst. I follow through the secret door, down steps leading deep into the earth. Leading to a chamber shrouded in darkness, lit only a by a few torches casting sinister shadows. Behind a corner, I watch as Asher grabs something from the floor. A tray of food.
He carries it forward. To something in the center of the room.
No. Not something. Someone. A man, bloody and bruised. On his knees. His hand outstretched, bound in chains.
I whisper an incantation, enhancing my night vision. And then I see the prisoner's face.
This... this doesn't make any sense.
The prisoner... the prisoner is Asher?
The man, the prisoner, looks up, and he grins. "No one figure you out yet? Bloody marvelous. Means I still get to be the one who kills you."
It sure sounds like Asher. The voice. The inflections. Even the cocky wit.
The other Asher, the one standing, laughs. It is not his voice. No. It's deeper now. Darker. Familiar.
My gut twists. My hands tremble. It can't be...
The other Asher waves his hand, and his form shimmers, changes. And there he stands.
Despite myself, memories flash through my mind. Memories of my mother escorting me to High Castle. My first trip there. Waiting for hours in the hall. Hours to see the king. Getting our chance. Walking up to the great king in front of hundreds of people. Oh, how mighty he looked. How grand. Dark hair with only streaks of gray. Black armor covering his body like dragon scales. A mighty sword by his throne, surely too big for any normal man. My mother pushed me forward to stand before him. "This is your daughter," she said.
The king looked at me then. Once. Only once he looked.
"My only daughter is dead," he said.
But, what did he mean? I could not understand. I was his daughter, and I was surely not dead. He was my father. Father's take care of their children. They embrace them. Tell them words of wisdom.
But the king did not move to touch me. He did not speak to share with me a story. Instead, he waved his hand in a gesture, and my mother pushed me to move out of the way. I did not wish to move. I wished to stay. To talk with father. But my mother pushed me more. "Please," she whispered. "Before the guards notice."
I let her move me then, move me back into the crowd. I had seen the guards. Big men in scary helmets that looked like beasts. I did not want those men to notice me. So I went back to the crowd, and then I went home. I did not see my father again. Not for a long time.
But I see him now.
He stands before me.
Laughing at the real Asher.
He's been impersonating him. Using illusion for... who knows how long.
I once thought Lucian dead. Gone. But he lives. He keeps my half-brother prisoner. I don't know what game he plays, but I know it is not good. Lucian was... is... never good.
"What's so funny?" asks Asher. The real Asher.
Lucian stops chuckling, adjusting his red cape. "Your audacity, my son. You always were so full of yourself, so proud."
"Ha, ha, ha," Asher says in mock laughter. "The Prince of Pride is prideful. Oh father, you truly are hilarious. Please tell me, what was your curse again? Bad jokes?"
Something changes then.
Lucian grows still. Cold. This is the man I know. The man I saw that day in court.
"I wish we could chat more, my son," says the king, his voice plain, bereft of emotion, "but we are being rude. You see, we have a guest."
He means me.
Lucian turns, facing me. And he smiles. "Oh, Kayla, Kayla, right on time."
What does he mean?
"Come now," says Lucian. "Come out of the shadows."
I do as he says, not because he says it. But because this way I can raise my sword. Raise my sword and point it straight at his heart. "Let him go."
"Not yet. The time is not right. But soon. I promise."
"No!" I yell, stepping forward. I don't know my plan. I don't have one. I can't fight Lucian. But maybe, with Riku at my side, maybe I stand a chance...
"You won't need that thing," says the king, gesturing at my blade. "Don't you see, you are here for a reason. No one. No one has uncovered the truth. No one knows I have been impersonating a prince. No one but you. A filthy half-breed wench. Why is that?"
"Because you let me," I say, realizing the truth. "You lied about Tavian on purpose. You led me here."
"Hmm," says Lucian, nodding. "Perhaps you are smarter than I thought. Smarter than your whore mother, anyway."
"Don't talk about her," I hiss. "Don't you dare!"
He shrugs. That's all? A shrug?
"How did you know I was a Druid?" I ask, studying the room. Looking for other exits. Looking for a way to free Asher.
"It is a skill I have learned," says Lucian, "to sense power in others. Your Spirit is strong. Ever since we rescued you from the dungeon, I knew what you were. Your potential."
"Do you? Really?" I raise my free hand, and it lights with silver flame. "Then you know what I can do to you. Let Asher go. Now. Or I burn you until there is nothing but ash."
Asher's eyes go wide. "Kayla. Kayla you can't—"
Lucian slaps him across the face. "Quiet. Let the half-breed play her games. It will be all the better when she loses."
Asher drops his head. He seems barely conscious.
I'm tired of this talk. Of Lucian's insults. I've carried a lifetime of hate for this man. And now I unleash it.
I charge forward, and Riku launches into the air. His wings burn bright with flame. Like an arrow, he flies for Lucian.
But the king is too quick. He steps to the side, avoiding the flames, and he dashes forward. At me.
Our blades clash.
And in an instant, it is over.
My sword falls to the floor.
He disarmed me. I do not even know how. He moves so fast. It's impossible.
Lucian kicks me in the gut, and I fall, clutching my stomach. I spit and blood flies from my mouth, staining the cold stones.
Riku screeches in fury and strikes, claws reaching for Lucian's face.
The king grabs the phoenix midair. Holds him by the neck.
"No," I try to yell, but it comes out a weak whimper.
Riku chirps in terror, thrashing, but Lucian does not let go. He seems unaffected by the burning feathers. Maybe his armor protects him. Maybe he truly feels no pain.
"Silver flame," he says, his eyes wide with awe. "There hasn't been a silver flame for ages. Not according to the ancient Fae texts. You truly are special." He looks at Riku with pleasure. With greed.
"Let him go!" With the last of my strength, I jump up, grab my sword and strike at his arm.
Lucian blocks with one hand. It's all he needs. He smacks the blunt of his blade against my fingers, crushing them, and I drop my blade again. Any energy I had leaves me, and I fall to my knees, crying, pleading. "Please let him go. Let him go."
I cannot stand the pain Riku is in. The terror. It is my pain. My terror.
Lucian pulls something from his red cloak. A grey stone. He holds it up and whispers something under his breath. Words I do not understand. Words like Tavian mumbled in his sleep.
Riku screeches again. Louder. A sound of true horror.
Something. Something is happening.
Riku becomes more flame than bird. His screams fade. They die out.
And then nothing is left. Nothing but silver smoke.
It flows into the grey stone, changes it. Turns it a deep purple with streaks of silver.
"What have you done to him?" I scream, my body shaking with terror and rage.
"Shhh," says Lucian, caressing the stone. "Do not worry, my dear. Riku is safe. Safe and well."
He's in the stone. The bastard put Riku in the stone. "What do you want with him?"
"I need his help. And then he will be free. I swear." He smiles at me.
I spit at his face.
The phlegm doesn't reach him. But I don't care.
Lucian just shakes his head. A strange disappointment in his eyes.
"What now?" I ask. "Chain me up just like you did your son?"
He raises an eyebrow, then sits down to my level. "Oh no, there's no reason for that. No, I have a far simpler solution." He pulls something from his cloak. A vial. A potion.
No. Not again. I'm not taking something again.
"Don't be afraid, my dear. This will simply make you sleep. A deep, beautiful sleep. Your friends will think the fever broke you, that Levi's tortures and poisons put you into a coma in the end. They will try to help you, but nothing will work."
I lean back. "No. Please."
He doesn't look into my eyes. He doesn't seem to hear. "But you will wake. One day. When the time is right. When I have need of you."
He grabs my jaw. I try to keep it closed, but he pries it open. Stuffs the vial down my throat. The liquid pours down, coating my tongue with bitterness. I try not to swallow, but it's gagging me. Gagging me until my muscles react against my will. My mind begins to fade. My vision blurs. His is the last face I see. The face of my father.
"Good," he whispers. "Good."