This isn't what it looks like. I swear. You see, though I may be shackled to a cave wall that makes the Black Lotus prison look like a five star resort, and yes, though my blood might be used to annihilate all of humanity by giving vampires free reign over all the worlds, I am in complete control. Utter domination. You get the picture. So, don't worry. All children and sensitive souls may read on.
But what's the plan, Iris, you might be asking.
That's an excellent question. The first part of my plan is to wrap my head around the total plot twist I was just thrown by my childhood hero. I’m the Unseen Lord?
Mind = blown.
I'm also trying to wrap my head around the fact that said childhood hero is sitting right in front of me, shackled just as I am, and in need of a serious bath.
I'll tell you this... when you go to sleep at night hoping and praying to all the gods that may or may not give a shit that you'll get to meet your hero someday, be more specific than I was.
Cuz this ain't how I imagined meeting the great Arianna Spero, Midnight Star of Avakiri, High Queen of Inferna. I saw this going down verrrry differently. So remember: details matter.
But here we are. There's no avoiding that. Unless someone's got a time machine they could lend me for a quick sec?
That's unfortunate. Because the next part of my plan is to bury the pain of seeing Elias die. I'm gonna bury that shit until it grows into a mother effing Rage Tree. And that tree is going to tear Arias to pieces and suck his marrow as a snack.
You know, as soon as I figure out how to get out of here.
The final part of my plan is basically to escape, free the queen and find Aya... yada yada yada. You get the idea. Easy peasy. No problemo.
"I have so many questions," I say to my cell mate.
She nods, her listless, knotty hair flopping in her face. Girl's gonna need some seriously deep conditioning when she's outta here.
"I wish I had more answers," Ari says.
I can see in her eyes that her heart is broken. Her son is dead. Killed by her other son, whom she thought was dead for most of his life. Her kingdom is in ruins. Her legacy collapsing. And I was her last hope.
Good job, Iris. You really nailed this one.
"I'm getting us out of here," I declare with a confidence I'm totally not faking. Not even a little.
"I believe you," the queen says, and she almost sounds like she means it. That's good. We can work with almost.
"How did you end up here? And where's the king?" In the stories, King Fenris never leaves the queen's side. They are inseparable.
"I received a message, inviting me to a meeting to learn more about my son. About Arias," she says, her voice cracking. Likely she hasn't done a lot of talking lately. Except in my head, but I don't think that exercised the vocal chords much.
"Let me guess, it was a trap."
She nods. "I was arrogant. I became too used to my power and couldn't imagine someone could strip me of it so easily. Even my Spirit dragon, Yami, was captured and imprisoned, though I don't know where."
"Shit. He captured you and your dragon? How?"
"I let my guard down. When I saw him, all I could think about was the fact that my son, my baby, was alive. He used a powerful binding spell on me and entrapped us both with trimantium. When I woke, I was here. I don't know what happened to Fen. I just hope he's okay."
I hope so too, for everyone's sake. “So, what do you figure the rider wants with me, the oh-so-evil Unseen Lord?”
Her voice falls away as he enters the chamber.
The earth shaking under his heavy boots. His white armor a dark gray in the dim torch light. The rider.
His eyes fall on the trimantium shackles that bind my bloody, chafed wrists, engraved with runes and adorned with scarlet gemstones that block my renewal. He smirks, and I see Elias in that face. That smile. That raised eyebrow. It makes me want to gouge out his eyes.
He turns his attention to Arianna, moving toward the queen with no preamble. Steady, measured strides. He lifts his right hand above his shoulders, slowly drawing the massive sword that hangs strapped across his back.
"You don't need to do this, Arias," the queen says, panicked. "We meant you no harm. You had died. You were checked over by several of the best healers. I don't know what magic brought you back, but we had no idea what we'd done until it was too late."
"I believe you," he says. "But it doesn't matter. Your sin wasn't in thinking me dead. Your sin wasn't in burying my body. Your sin was in burying my name. My existence. In catering to the whims of the superstitious, you ruined what could have been. You ruined my life."
Arianna drops her head forward, her shoulders slumping as tears fall down her cheeks. "Do not ruin the world for my mistake. Please. I beg you."
Arias just shakes his head, moving closer to the queen with a cruel smile on his face.
The queen shrinks away from him, into the shadows, but she can't get far.
"Leave her alone! Deal with me!" I shout, but he ignores me and continues focusing his attention on his mother.
When he's within arm's reach of her, he swings the heavy hilt of his weapon and knocks her over the head. With a sickening crack she slumps to the ground, her new wound seeping fresh blood into the earth.
"Matricide isn't a good look on you," I say, trying to control my breathing and my impotent rage.
"Oh, she's not dead, just unconscious. I needed a private moment with you."
"So why not just take me elsewhere? You don't think you've tortured her enough?"
The Rider shrugs. "These caves are special. Lined with trimantium. You two are filled with the world's most powerful magic. I need a safe place to keep you. Sorry if the accommodations aren't to your liking."
"You could definitely do with some better housekeeping," I say dryly, hoping he's telling the truth and the queen is indeed still alive.
I squint my eyes, trying to discern the outline of her body through the darkness. It might be my imagination, but did she just shudder slightly? Was that a breath? I can't really tell, but I hold onto the thought nonetheless. Because, like, what else can I do, right?
"What do you want? Why am I still here?"
He approaches me, but stays out of arm's reach. Smart man. I may be shackled and magically powerless, but that doesn't mean I'm without tricks up my sleeve. I trained in many forms of combat in some pretty brutal circumstances. Uncle Sly wanted to make sure I was ready for anything. Child Protective Services could have had a field day with my upbringing, were they ever made aware of its nature. But the magical community has always remained separate from the rules of humans. After all, we need to be ready to deal with things that most humans can't possibly comprehend. So, in that, I don't blame my uncle, and on some days I'm even grateful.
If the Rider would come just one step closer, this might be one of those days.
But he stays in his shadows, watching me closely.
"He's not dead," the villainous man finally says.
"What?" I've lost track of our conversation, clearly.
"Elias. He's not dead. I should have ended him. Had every right to. But I didn't. I called Aya and she got there in time to save him, as I knew she would. I'm not the monster you think I am, Iris. And I need your help."
I respond by spitting the biggest phlegm bomb I can muster into his face.
He sighs and wipes at it with his sleeve. "Really? How juvenile, even for you."
I shrug. "I use the tools I have at my disposal. I'm resourceful that way."
The Rider steps closer, then bends onto his knees. Small shafts of light illuminate the white armor he wears, even here, draped with long strips of cloth to give him the look of one who has risen from the dead to haunt the living. Not so far from the truth as it happens.
"There's more going on here than you understand, Iris. The stakes are higher than you can imagine. I've done what I must for the greater good, and I need your help."
"Why would I ever believe a word you say?" I ask. "You wanted to kill me. You've kidnapped me. Chained me. Done the same to your own mother. And I don't believe for a second that you're telling the truth about Elias." Though damn, I want to. I really, really want to. My heart constricts at the very thought the prince might still be alive, but it’s only wishful thinking. The fanciful thoughts of a desperate woman clinging to lies.
"What if I can prove it?’ he asks. “Will you help me then?"
I pause. If Elias is alive, that does change things. But not everything. "There's still a lot of bad blood between us, dude. Almost killing your brother isn't something to brag about. And the rest of the list is pretty damning."
He sighs and stands, pacing the cave. "Will you at least hear me out? Listen with an open mind?"
I grit my teeth, angry at my weakness, but finally I nod. "Prove he lives and I'll listen, but you're unlikely to change my mind about anything."
"You're the Unseen Lord," he says.
"Yeah, I got that." I roll my eyes, hoping he can see through the shadows.
"Then perhaps you have heard of the magical chords that connect all those who know the truth about the first vampire. About you."
I nod. "Right. Lix Tetrax. So?"
"So Elias is part of those chords. Part of an intricate pattern of energy spreading throughout all the nine worlds. And you are at the very center, my dear hunter. If you focus, you can ride those chords and connect to him. You above all will have more power to make those connections than even the most skilled of the Unfettered or Lix Tetrax, because the magic began with you. You are the chords"
My eyes widen and I sit back, leaning against hard stone as the full impact of what he's said hits me. "So I can connect to anyone who's part of this magical bond?"
"Yes," he says. "Though it has limits. It's not a location beacon. They won't know where you are, and you won't know where they are, not specifically."
Damn. He read my mind. I guess my easy rescue plan is out. Ah well. This is still useful. I will find a way to make it even more useful with time. But first, I need to see if he's telling the truth. I need to find Elias. Assuming this asshole isn't just feeding me a pack of lies.
The Rider turns from me. "I'll come back later, when you're ready to hear my side of the story."
Once he's gone, I let out a breath I didn't realize I was holding.
This is utter shit. He's trying to trick me, and I will not allow myself to be made a tool by this... well, tool.
I know what you're thinking. I should definitely not trust the bad guy right? I mean, he's the villain. He's a liar just based on archetypes alone.
Believe me. I've already considered every way in which this situation could go sideways. Every way it could lead to the ultimate doom for everyone. When you're rotting in a dungeon, those thoughts are easy to come by.
But as my new cellmate would say, if she were, you know, conscious. Dum spiro spero. That's old white dude speak for, 'while I breathe, I hope.' Last I checked, I'm still breathing. And so is the queen, I'm pretty sure. So you know what that means, little birds? I'm still hoping.
In fact, remind me to have that phrase tattooed to my backside when this is done. So when I tell Arias he can kiss my ass, it's not only a solid burn, but also inspirational.
And so, with that hope, I figure there's nothing to be lost by trying what he suggests.
I mean, sure, maybe it's some trap to capture my soul for all eternity, but that seems a little far-fetched and also, why? He's already caught me. It does make me wonder why he needs me to agree to help him. He didn't seem to have that problem before. What changed?
Well, other than me actually being the Unseen Lord and not just someone standing in the way of him getting to the big UL.
I'm probably not what he was expecting. I'm not what I was expecting, for that matter.
Okay, enough internal chit chat. If Elias is alive, I need to find him. Stat.
Without knowing what the hell I'm even doing, I close eyes and position my legs and arms into the best lotus position I can given the chains restricting my movement. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I am one with the universe and the universe is one with me. Ommmmm.....
Yeah, this shit isn't working.
I was not designed for meditation. I'm more a doer than a... than a non-doer. I guess? I don't know. I just need an ass to kick or something.
But I shake out my arms and try again.
I'm not thinking of the way my feet are going numb in this position.
Or the itch on my nose.
Or the creepy crawly that's found a good spot on the back of my neck.
Nope. Not thinking of any of that. I am totally focused on...
What? What am I supposed to be focused on? Clearing my mind? That's not going to work. If my brain were a computer it would have a hundred tabs open and something really big trying to download on a slow wi-fi.
So I need a focal point.
Elias, of course.
I think of Elias. Of the way he smiles, and the way his eyes dig into mine as if he can read my thoughts. The way he smells... like a forest of fresh leaves and pine. The way his body feels against mine when his arms are wrapped around me.
And bam! Just like that, I'm in.
I feel him, his body, his essence, everything about him flows in and around me. "Elias!" I scream his name, desperate for him to hear me, to know that I'm alive and okay. Relief floods me as I feel his pulse increase, as something in him jerks at the sound of my voice in his head.
And then I'm pulled out, just as fast, like something sucked me back into my body. My skin is slick with sweat and my muscles shake from the effort. A pounding headache makes me extra unhappy as I peel open my eyes.
I slump to the side, vomiting the nothing that was in my stomach. Bile and some acidy shit I probably needed. When my dry retching is done, I lay my head on the cold stone and try to calm my breathing.
That wasn't fun.
But it was fruitful.
Arias wasn't bullshitting me. Elias is alive.
And he's worried about me.
Desperate to know where I am.
I could feel that much.
He's also in danger. I could feel that too, but I don't think he realizes it. I'm not even sure how I know this. I just do.
I have to get out of here and help him. I have to warn him.
In the corner of the cave, the queen stirs, moaning as she tries to sit up.
I scoot over to her, ignoring my spinning head, and rip a piece of my shirt to hold against the wound on her head. "Arianna, are you okay?"
She moans again.
"Elias, he's alive! We have to get out of here and help him. You have powers," I say, tying the makeshift bandage so it will stay on its own. "What are you able to do?"
The queen rights herself against the stone wall and holds up her feeble, shackled wrists, bruised and crusting with blood. "My powers are spent, what little I had. I'm afraid I'm of no more use to either of us."
I sigh and lean back on my heels.
"What do you mean Elias is alive?" She asks. "How do you know?"
"It comes with being the Unseen Lord," I explain. "I can sense him. Feel him. And he's in danger. We have to get out of here."
She nods, and a look comes over her face that sends pin pricks of warning over my skin. But before I can react, a sound like a demon being tortured hurtles out of her mouth and she lunges for me, wrapping her chains around my neck. "You will die. You must die!"
Her voice doesn't sound like her, and wow but she's got more upper body strength than I gave her credit for. Woman must do Pilates or something. Being completely unprepared for the attack, my response time is slow as the chain tightens around my neck and her knee finds its way into my kidney. But it isn't until her teeth sink into my neck and she begins to drain me of my blood that I realize too late she could actually kill me.
And this time I won't come back.