Writing Prompt ~~ Fear

Until that day, fear had been an idea, a concept. Now it was real: a feeling I would carry inside me for the rest of my life. The day began innocently enough, with me taking my usual route to school. There was no indication, or foreshadowing, or fate reaching out to yank on my attention chain to indicate anything about today was different.

Then I saw the neighborhood bullies drag Ford into the woods behind the bus stop. Ford was a nerdy slip of a kid, and it was almost too cliché that they picked on him. Of course, in a small town everything was a cliché.

Ford might not appreciate being rescued by a girl, as I assumed most guys wouldn’t, but I couldn’t stand by and let them kick the shit out of him. Again. The bullies—Dane, Hunter, and Seth—were all large, bumbling oafs who spent more time ogling guns, boobs, and inappropriate magazines than they did on their schoolwork. Ford was the classic, 4.0, full ride scholarship, soft-spoken, glasses-wearing, game playing geek. The boys picking on Ford was as expected as the sun rising in the east, and the adults were next to useless. Ford and I were distant neighbors, and not friends, but it didn’t sit right with me that the boys were assholes to him.

I tended to keep to myself, as did Ford, and maybe it was in that mutual weirdness I felt an obligation to help, even though my instincts screamed against it.

They’re bigger than you!

You know they have no problems hitting girls; just ask Kelly Jean and her black eye.

I let out a soft growl of frustration and pushed all those thoughts to the side. As I followed them into the woods, the distant taunting was smothered by the towering trees and low-hanging mist. They were still moving away, but I was gaining on them. It wasn’t easy navigating in the pre-dawn darkness, but I’d been in and out of these woods since kindergarten—the bus stop was the same for all grades.

The forest was eerily quiet. Not just the kind when people disturb nature and things pause until we stumble by. It was as though even the trees were holding a breath they didn’t have. It was…anticipation, thick on the air like southern humidity. It unsettled me enough that I picked up a few rocks roughly the size of my palm. I might not be into guns or knives like most of the kids and adults in these parts, but I was the pitcher for the county’s fast-pitch girls’ softball team. My aim was accurate, and potentially deadly if I hit the right body part.

I put a few in the pocket of my Egyptian blue, zip up hoodie, and kept one gripped tight in my right hand. My knuckles were white against the smooth, grey rock, and my heart beat heavily against my ribs. My lips were dry, so I licked them, and tried to take a steadying breath.

As I slipped through the trees, I frowned at how far in we were. It wasn’t a good sign. We were well beyond earshot of anyone that could potentially help us in case something went wrong. These boys didn’t have the brains to know when they’ve gone too far, until they did.

There was a small clearing ahead. Not anything special, just a spot where the uneven, rocky terrain converged with the towering evergreens, and years of dead leaves to create a spot where there was little to no brush or saplings.

I stopped near a familiar tree. It was my usual go-to from my middle school days of spying on my older sister, trying to figure out what it was about the woods that lured her there. Of course, the answer was that it tended to contain one boy or another, and it didn’t take me long to stop said spying, unless I wanted uncomfortable fodder for dinner conversation.

My back rested against the rough bark, and I winced as it caught the material and made a scratching noise. Of course, the boys were being so rowdy I doubt they heard me. I peeked around the side of the tree and sucked in a breath as Dane, their intrepid leader, shoved Ford down to the ground.

“You think you’re better than us, don’t you? You and your little clan are nothing but a dying breed of high-nosed weaklings,” Dane snarled. The absolute loathing in his tone made me flinch back as though I’d been slapped.

“Anyone is better than you disease-ridden mongrels,” Ford said quietly. He got to his feet and brushed off the back of his pants.

Disease-ridden? Did they have STIs or something?  I wrinkled my nose and shuddered. I’d have to let Kelly Jean know. We weren’t friends, but it was the decent thing to do. She wasn’t the only who had dated Dane, but she was the most recent, and she might be able to help me let any of the others know. What an inconsiderate dick.

Dane let out an honest to goodness growl that made my mouth go dry and my heart pound. I rushed around the tree, rock ready to throw, thinking I’d see Dane and the others beating the crap out of Ford, but I was in time to see…three huge dogs leaping toward…a half-dog, half-human with blue fur.

“Wha—“ I started, my eyes wide. The rock slid from my nerveless grip and thunked when it hit the ground.

Four figures froze, and the three bullies crashed into the ground and skidded to a halt with not a few yelps of pain. It would have been comical if it wasn’t so confusing.

Ford turned toward me and glared. He’d managed to get up from the ground between the times I’d looked around the tree. Yep, not a fan of being, er, ‘rescued’ by a girl.

“You never did use your brain,” he said, his voice colder than Ryder Creek in winter.

I jerked back as though he’d struck me. “I was just trying to make sure they didn’t beat you up! Again!” I half-shouted at him, the words flying from my mouth before I could stop them.

He scoffed in disgust and shook his head. The blue fur along his body receded, like watching the reversal of plants growing. It was…unsettling, swift, and my skin crawled watching it.

“Humans are such a pain in the ass,” Dane growled in annoyance as he got to his feet. His reversal was jankier, was the best I could describe it. Clunky, in a way. His joints spasmed this way and that, while his neck cracked as his chin jerked from his right to his left. It looked decidedly painful, and the other two boys were going through something similar.

Good.

My wide-eyed gaze narrowed. “I’m a pain in the ass? You’re the ones acting like children, running off into the woods and getting into senseless fights!” I protested. Then I glared at them all in turn. None of them had the good sense God gave a goose to look the least bit ashamed. “Apparently, no matter what you are, you’re all still boys!”

I turned on my heel, not waiting for a response, and stormed my way out of the woods. I was still grumbling and glaring when the bus driver got to our stop. The boys were still nowhere to be seen, and I couldn’t care if they missed the bus and had to walk to school.

I was still mulling everything over when I climbed the steps to get on the bus. The bus driver looked over my shoulder.

“You boys sure are quick. I didn’t see you when I pulled up,” he joked.

The blood froze in my veins, but I didn’t stop moving. I hadn’t even heard them approach, and their breathing wasn’t labored in the least from what I could tell. I went to my usual seat in the front row, right side, and next to the window. I’d sat there since kindergarten. We didn’t have many kids on the bus, so there wasn’t much competition for preferred seating. I was hoping we were going to go with the; ‘I’ll keep my mouth shut, and I never saw anything,’ mob route as far as the morning’s event went.

If only I was so lucky.

Ford slid in the seat behind me, and I shrank down into my seat, trying to avoid the stares of everyone but Dane and his crew as Ford broke from his usual routine to sit behind me.

There was a pause from the bus driver, as though this startled him, too, but after a moment he closed the door and we were on our way. The noise of the bus kept everyone else from hearing anything, but a voice spoke from the crack between the seat and the window:

“We need to talk.”

Writing Prompt ~~ Gatherers of the Dark

 

 

 

This was a world where the vilest creatures came to roost. Even her mother, Rowna, always so brave, wouldn’t dare utter its name. This was a world where the snow fell black. Fayne turned her ash covered face up toward the sky. Even though there were no clouds, and it wasn’t the season for the cursed black snow, there was still a perpetual haze leaving the sunlight weak and unable to warm the chill in the air.

Fayne shivered, but not because of the temperature. Her heavy, black, fur-lined leggings and coat with its hood up kept the cold at bay. They were the same color as the landscape to help her blend in, and everyone who ventured here wore the same outfit for that reason. No, it was something else in the air that left her mouth dry and sent her heart racing, like a sickness trying to settle in. She shook her head to clear it; this was not the time or place for nervousness. She was here as a full-fledged gatherer for the first time, and she couldn’t afford to screw this up.

Here, in this ugly, bleak world, was the only place the most powerful healing herb, ayerel, grew. One of her teachers liked to go on and on about how something so good and useful had to grow from something so evil and miserable. That such things can only thrive in opposition. Indeed—any attempt to grow the herb outside the dark world failed. In fact, a king once nearly bankrupted his kingdom in such an endeavor, stating that the gatherer’s fees were too outrageous to justify.

When he made a foray into the world and his soldiers came back mangled, if at all, he brought his fury down on their clan. Imprisoning, or outright killing men, women, and children alike. His rage was insatiable, and it was nearly the end for the already small clan. Rowna saved some of them. Though, she lamented, not nearly enough, or even the best. Worst of all, they lost their clan leader, Tyce, when he went as part of an envoy to negotiate peace and save the clan. Mother had begged father not to go, and mother was not the begging sort, but he insisted the king was a man of reason. As their answer, they killed him.

Then they came for their clansland. Dun Kiskeem, the last ancestral fort and land of her people, was razed. Then the Saewyth witches, in employ to the king, cast a salting curse on the surrounding croplands. There would be no going back for at least five generations. The blackened, tumbled stones were grave markers for their dead clans-mates and land.

The leather of Fayne’s gloves groaned in protest as she clenched her fists, the rage still as fresh a year later as though it happened yesterday. Her electric blue eyes, the same color as the flower of the ayerel, burned with unshed tears. There were none left in her, but even if there were, crying would only mean she’d have to reapply the protective ash covering her face, and the ash was time-consuming and costly to make. She could picture her mother’s cold gaze in response to explaining why she had to use more than was necessary. Tears were not an acceptable reason, especially not over something that was over and could not be changed, as her mother would point out.

But Fayne remembered the devastation her father’s death wrought in the clan. How her mother kept everything running as smooth as possible while the clan was on the run, living more in the dark world than Strathaven, their home kingdom. It was a dangerous gamble, keeping them more in the dark world. Of course, the chance of death was high no matter which side of the Waerdstone they were on. On one side were beasts of varying sizes, ready to rip them apart, and the other was a bloodthirsty king ready to run them through on pikes and swords.

Eventually, though, the king’s heir fell ill. It was rumored he tried everything across the land, and even hired healers from other lands for a cure. Nothing worked. He was told, by them all, that only one thing would be able to cure his son: ayerel. No one had any left, though, because he’d killed most of the gatherers and sent the rest into exile.

While crawling might be too strong of a word, King Darmad sought the clan’s help. In an effort to prevent future bloodshed, bolster the clan’s influence, and keep the clan from going extinct, Rowna, in a moment of pure reptilian pragmatism struck a deal: marriage. One heir to another.

Fayne spat on the charcoal colored rocks that were so jagged they could nearly slice flesh just by gazing at them. Even the terrain was deadly in this world.

“Fayne!” a gruff whisper broke through the anger, and she startled at the reprimand.

She looked over to find one of her teachers, Bryden, scowling at her. Thankfully, the ash covered her blush, but Bryden likely knew she’d done it. She’d been learning at what was left of his knee since she could walk. He was the clan’s lorekeeper, an honor he’d been ‘bestowed’ with after his forced retirement, when a creature with scythes for arms had removed his left leg at the knee. He grumbled about having to teach the ‘whelps’, but some part of him must have enjoyed it, since he never passed the mantle on as candidates for the position became available.

Yet their numbers were so few now, Bryden had to come out of retirement. Not that he’d ever complain, but the man was nearing seventy, and as part of her training as a gatherer she was taught to identify weakness in her clan-mates. Bryden’s arthritis was tempered by a devil’s claw salve, and he kept a jar on his person at all times. It wasn’t the best solution, but it was the only one without a strong odor that might attract the creatures. As Bryden had said, “It will have to do.”

Though the clan was best known for gathering ayerel, it wasn’t all they gathered. It was one of the reasons losing their clansland was so devastating. Hundreds of years of sowing magic and blood into the land made it perfect for all variety of herbs for the herb witches of the clan: the Coven of the Silver Garden. Fayne had been tested, as they were all tested at the age of five, and she had no inclination for the fine and fickle healing magic. She was meant for gathering, but even after losing everything—father, family, friends, and land—that would be taken from her, too.

Despite Bryden’s admonishment to focus, she scowled and clenched her teeth as bitterness clutched at her heart like a winter’s chill on the cold stone of an unlit hearth. This was her first and last foray into the dark world as a full-fledged gatherer. Tomorrow would see her whisked off to Strathaven to be married off to some pansy prince. Maybe she’d get lucky and something would eat her today.

She smiled, though it wasn’t a happy one, and Bryden’s scowl deepened.

“Get yer head out of yer arse, girl,” he said, his brogue thick, with his speech a mixture of lowland and highland clans. It was uniquely Bryden. “Today isn’t only yer day, and I’ll be damned if yer gonna—“

“I know, Bryden,” Fayne interrupted, and scanned the area, identifying everyone else in their party at the mention of the others.

One of her friends, Sanne, a fledgling herb witch, was paired with a defender—someone trained to protect everyone as they went about gathering. Though everyone learned each aspect—gathering, defending, and herb witchery—to gain a well-rounded understanding of the inner-workings of the clans, everyone went on to specialize in one particular branch. If none were chosen, they ended up as general laborers and workers.

Seeing Sanne made her seek out Sitas, Sanne’s twin, who was training to become a defender. Where Fayne’s hair was wavy, and the black of the void between the stars, (an oddity, but not unheard of in her lineage), the twins had the wild, curly, fire red hair that was typical in the lowland clans. Sitas kept his hair cut in the traditional style of the defenders: shaved on the sides and back, and longer on top. Having just become a defender he didn’t have the warriors’ braid of the veterans, but his quiet determination and unwavering commitment to his calling would see him with one soon enough.

Sanne was the opposite of her brother in personality. He was a quiet field in winter on a moonless night, and she was the bustle of the town in the morning during the middle of summer. A perfect balance. Their identical, jewel-bright green eyes strayed across the barren, rocky field, met, shared some moment of understanding they could never explain to Fayne, and then went back to their respective tasks.

Fayne was paired with Bryden, likely because her mother caught some hint of her fool thoughts this morning. Or maybe he was the only one she trusted with Fayne’s life. Either way, she wasn’t exactly disappointed, but if she were honest she had wished for a pairing with Sitas. She wasn’t the only one, as most of the new witches and gatherers had hoped to be paired with him, and it was likely the new defenders would have liked that as well, but that wasn’t how the pairings worked. Not only was this a training exercise, but they were trying to find the right pairings for everyone. Who would work best together, and so on.

It was a passing fancy for everyone, as Sitas had never expressed much interest in anyone or anything beyond his training. She’d come to terms with that, but was it too much to hope her only gather would be pleasant and she be paired with him?

This wasn’t the first time any of them had been in the dark world, of course, but it was their first time away from the Waerdstone location. As they made their way toward the forest, as quietly as they could with such a large group, Fayne’s attention zeroed back in. In a normal situation, being in the barren between the stone and the forest would seem like the most dangerous area, but that wasn’t the case here. At least here the creatures had nowhere to hide. In the forest that wasn’t the case. There wasn’t much chatter beforehand, but the closer they got to the forest, the quieter it became.

Usually, gathers happened with four pairings, and they traveled in a wedge formation. Two defenders with bows and/or crossbows as their primary weapon in the back-outside positions to cover everyone. The back-middle had a spear, while the lead had a sword and shield. The ranged fighters would provide cover, the defender with the sword would battle in the front, moving in and out of combat so the spearman could skewer the creature. Sitas was a swordsman in one of the four gathers they had, and Bryden was an archer.

Each group had two gatherers and two witches. Gatherers were trained with short swords and daggers, oftentimes dual-wielding, to help protect the ranged fighters in close combat. As for the witches, some coated rocks in poison, aiming them at eyes or gaping maws and launching them with slingshots. Others wielded living whips of smilax, a sticky, hooked-thorn vine. The weapons of the witches were as varied as the witches themselves. However, each of the witches had a ball, roughly the size of their palm, which was saved for the worst of the creatures: the dreamwings.

The dreadpaws, vexvines, mourncats, sorrowlings, cinderserpents, and dreadtooths were all fearsome, to name a few. But it was the dreamwings that brought certain death with them. No one in recent memory had seen one, as they were, luckily, rare. However, the texts handed down through the clan lorekeepers were detailed in their descriptions. Mostly humanoid, they were sexless, and their faces were made of nothing but over-large, jagged teeth. Their tongues were that of serpents, their tails like that of the scorpions hailing from the faraway deserts, and their four wings were blacker than the pits of the underworld. They were called dreamwings, because they circle you with their wings, making you think you’d suddenly fallen asleep when the light is blocked out. Then they scoop you into their mouths.

Fayne shuddered. The pictures were…graphic.

They were now within an easy stone’s throw away from the forest, and something reached up through the soles of her feet and rooted her to the spot. Her heart was in her throat, and the blood rushed in her ears, but there was nothing to indicate why she stopped. Bryden, having taken a couple steps without her, stopped too, and let out a low whistle, almost an exact imitation of the way the wind whistled in the castle at Dun Kiskeem. The other gathers stopped.

“Fayne?” he questioned.

Fayne moved her mouth to answer, but nothing came out. She turned her face to look at Bryden, her eyes wide. He frowned, scanned the area carefully, lingering on the forest, before he turned his sky blue eyes back to her.

“Talk to me, girl,” he whispered.

“What’s wrong?” a voice asked, concerned. It was Sitas. Of course it was Sitas, Fayne groaned in her mind.

“The little princess has first gather jitters,” the other archer, Cian said, his tone as grating as his nasally voice.

Bryden bared his teeth, but ignored the man.

“We can’t stay here. We’re vulnerable,” Sitas said, not unsympathetic.

Something withered inside of Fayne as though all her insides dried up at once. Embarrassment, some distant corner of her mind noted. In addition to not being able to talk, her breathing was difficult. The edges of her vision were starting to grow dark and her legs were getting weak. Bryden saw Fayne’s eyes start to go glassy, and he pulled his arm back to give her a good slap.

When his hand reached the pinnacle to swing down, whatever had hold of Fayne snapped. Air slammed back into her lungs with an involuntary gasp and she staggered, collapsing into a heap on the ground. Even with the protective spells woven into the leather, the jagged rocks bit through the material from the force of hitting them. She’d have bruises there later. The glove on her right hand slipped a little, exposing the skin on the bottom of her palm, and the rocks sliced the flesh as easily as a hot knife through butter. Blood flowed, and the ground drank it in like a man dying of thirst drank water.

It doesn’t even hurt, Fayne idly noted.

Someone’s hand gripped her shoulders, while the other hand took a firm hold on her chin and, gently, tilted it back to look at them. She was looking into Sitas’ eyes, and though it was silly, the concern there caused a warmth to spread through her chest.

Then, like an arrow loosed from a bow, an alien thought shot through her mind, and her mouth formed the words:

“It comes.”

Then the sky was filled by dark wings.

Writing Prompt ~~ Turning the Tide

The darkness was thick and suffocating, like a heavy blanket had been thrown on the world. He had to get over the wall, had to get across the border before they caught up with him. Beyond the border there was shelter and safety, but more importantly she was there. Of course, he had to get through the blockade of dark magical energies slowly draining the life from the area. But what was life without a few life or death challenges now and again?

“Do you see him?” one of the creatures pursuing him hissed. They were an unholy combination of boars and snakes. Every time he thought he’d seen the ugliest of them, he was proven wrong, as each was never magically twisted exactly the same. Deven called them Gurks, since that was the noise most people made the first time they saw the abominations and tried to not throw up at the sight.

They’d all known Casior was a little on the odd side, but the creatures were a true testament to the dark pit of hell that was his imagination. And that the Queen’s brother had truly fallen in with the worst sort of crowd. Like, apocalypse bad.

Deven froze behind a gnarled, magically drained tree. Even his slight frame was almost too wide for the blackened husk that remained, but he stilled his body and held his breath. His nose was already dead to the smell of ash, death, and the acrid taste that black magic left in the back of one’s throat, but he still did his best not to sneeze. The landscape was dead and eerily quiet.

“No,” another one said, with a deeper voice. Then there was an odd snuffling, like something with a large, boar-like nose was sniffing the air.

Shit, Deven cursed inwardly. He prayed the scent-blocking charm was working, but he put little stock in magic. Oh, he knew it worked; the land around them was testament to that. However, it destroyed more than it helped, in his opinion.

Minion number two let out a frustrated growl.

It must be working. Then the clumping of hooved feet started his way. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from accidentally stumbling across my hiding spot.

Anger, more than fear, caused him to squeeze the hilt of his dagger. A whole hell of good it would do him against the creatures, despite it being spelled to pierce their thick hides. A sword would be better, but they tended to clank and get in the way of stealth missions.

Here he was, stuck on this gods-forsaken spit of land cursed by the second-in-line to the throne brat with daddy issues, carrying a multitude of magical items he didn’t trust, and in possession of the only thing that could break the dark wizard’s hold on the land.

Add in the fact that the fate of the kingdom rested on the shoulders of a convicted thief, and he’d piss himself laughing at the irony later on if he lived.

He was going to have to make a run for it and hope for the best. Which never worked in anyone’s favor, ever, but what else did he have?

Just as he tensed to sprint, a brilliant flash of light like a star exploding illuminated the sky to the east—his left. He nearly fell on his face in shock, and the only thing that saved his eyesight was the fact he’d been concentrating on the ground and mapping out where he was going to run. From the pain-filled squeals his pursuers let out, they had been facing that way. Fueled by pain and anger, the thudding of their hooves moved toward the distraction.

As Deven slipped away, he knew that was exactly what it was.

I’ll have to give Blaize a kiss for that one. Deven pictured the discomfort of the wizard as he dashed in the opposite direction, and a smile broke across his face. It was fun messing with the pure as the driven snow, straighter than the ruler the Sisters beat Deven with as a child, stick in the mud that was Blaize.

When he reached the border of the cursed land, he slowed. The border itself was easy enough to see: on one side the grass was green in the flatlands bordering the city, while on the side he was on was like a fire had burned out of control. Even as he watched, the grass on the edge of the other side withered as the border slowly made its way toward the city. They were living on borrowed moments as long as this was allowed to continue. Deven wasn’t the hero type, but he didn’t fancy dying, either.

The Queen had advised that this would be the gauntlet of the whole operation—the moment the object passed the border there was going to be hell to pay, literally. There was still a mile of land for Deven to get across between the cursed land and the magically warded wall of Lightbourne. A mile can seem about five times that distance if you have an army of evil creatures nipping at your heels.

Well, there was nothing for it. Deven took a breath and sprinted from the darkness and was nearly blinded by the sudden onslaught of sunlight. He didn’t stop, though he did stumble a few steps, trying to blink away the tears.

She wasn’t wrong—the effect was immediate. A great howling like an injured beast came from behind him, and rose the small hairs on the back of his neck. A sudden wind whipped around him, and he dared a look behind him. Grey clouds boiled in an angry storm, roiling across the sky like a seething mass of sea creatures heading right toward him. Something clattered in front of and to his right, and his eyes widened at the arrow.

“Piss!” Deven cursed out loud this time. They were shooting at him! They could at least have the decency to run him through with swords like proper evil minions. Of course, they wouldn’t be evil minions if they didn’t try to kill him in the easiest and quickest manner possible. Damn their efficient black hearts to the pit of hell they deserved.

He pumped his legs as hard as he could, but from the consistency of arrows sparking off the magical shield provided by the metal band at his wrist, and the thunder rumbling the ground beneath his feet they were gaining on him. Of course, the shield was only temporary, and wouldn’t last long against the onslaught of arrows, which was made evident by the one that buried itself in his right shoulder.

He stumbled forward and barely caught himself as his shoulder burned with the pain. It wasn’t the worst wound he’d ever gotten—the leather of his armor had taken the brunt of it. However, it was leather against the strength of the Gurks, which was formidable. The head of the arrow had gone in, and from the feel he could tell it was barbed.

I am beyond fucked, he growled in his thoughts. Worst. Plan. Ever.

Who had come up with this clusterfucked gem of a plan? Oh, yeah. Him. The Sisters did tell you your cockiness would get you killed some day, he mused as he tried to ignore the pain and continue to run, but he was slowing.

Then just as quickly as the Gurks were gaining on him, there was another flash that sizzled right over the top of his head and struck the grass, sending large chunks of earth flying everything.  The Gurks stopped, growling and hissing in frustration. Or at least the ones that weren’t raining down in pieces with the grass.

“You’re such a pain in the ass,” a voice said, and snatched Deven up by the back of his collar and threw him over the neck of a horse.

Deven laughed weakly. “Shut up, Blaize, you know you love me.”

A sound like someone was trying to strangle and throat punch Blaize at the same time came from the large man. Now he looked and acted like the typical hero in Deven’s opinion: tall, muscular, flowing blond locks that brushed his mid-back in a flawless braid, eyes the color of the bluest skies, and all the other things ladies swooned over. Not to mention that air of aloof jerk he exuded like some expensive cologne. Women, and not a small number of men, fell over themselves for Blaize. He didn’t care for such things, and Deven found that apart from his uncomfortable reaction to displays of affection, this was a sure way to get under his skin.

Deven was the exact opposite, the darkness to Blaize’s light, in morals and looks. Black hair instead of blond, lanky instead of muscular, eyes the color of steel, and so on.

“May the gods strike me dead if such a thing ever came to pass,” he prayed, and followed it up with an eye roll for good measure.

Deven could feel Blaize’s eyes scrutinizing him from head to toe. “You don’t appear too worse for wear.”

“Yes, minus the inconvenient arrow in my shoulder.”

Blaize scoffed. “You have had worse,” he said, echoing Deven’s own thoughts from earlier.

They were fast approaching the wall, and anyone with the magical sense given a grain of wheat could feel the wards built into it right down through the marrow of their bones.

“You are not incorrect there, friend, but,”—Deven paused to cough, and then his throat suddenly caught fire and ants started crawling over his body, stinging as they went. Not for real, of course, but the panic that sent him into a fit sure made it feel that way.

“What are—” Blaize started, and then his eyes widened. “Deven!” he shouted and stopped his horse short of the safety of the wall.

It was the last thing Deven heard before all turned to black. I just left the darkness…he complained before it swallowed him whole.

 

* * * * *

 

“–good thing you stopped before entering the wall, or it would have been worse for him,” a voice said.

“Worse than feeling like someone set my insides on fire and sent ants across my skin?” he queried, his voice no more than a croak.

Someone pushed, not ungently, the edge of a cup to his lips. Deven drank the liquid greedily, happy to find it was water and not some healer’s nasty idea of a ‘healing’ potion. How can something heal you if it tastes like rotted rat’s piss?

“Yes, actually,” a young woman’s voice quipped.

Deven cracked open an eye to find he was attended by the Queen herself. Someone with a more elegant bearing would likely be honored, but for Deven it just gave him the start of a headache.

She almost literally shone with such goodness, hope, and optimism it made his teeth hurt. How her and Casior were related, let alone twins, was anyone’s guess. But Queen Caezal was born first, and thus was the rightful ruler of the throne, which never ceased to reassure the citizens of the kingdom every time Casior had a tantrum.

Still, he had an eye for the woman, with her hair like spun moonlight, sun-kissed skin, amethyst eyes large in her delicate featured face, and small waist. His hands fairly itched to grab her curvy hips and pull her in to see if those full, pink lips were as soft as they looked. Of course, Deven had a knack for always wanting something he’d never be able to have. It was one of the things that made him such an excellent thief.

He groaned and closed his eyes again, to protect them from being blinded by her bright smile.

“The arrow was coated in a poison that was designed to react with Lighbourne’s wards. If Blaze had brought you through, you would have melted from the inside out,” the raspy voice of the old healer said. “But you’ll be fine,” she finished, leaving the unsaid, ‘Unfortunately,’ hanging in the air as she left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

Blaize, in agreement with the healer, must have muttered something under his breath to the effects of, ‘Should have just kept going,’ because the Queen gasped and said, “Blaize!”

Blaize cleared his throat and managed to choke out a half-hearted apology.

Deven opened his eyes again to see the Queen shaking her head. “He risked his life to save us—“

“You mean himself, since he would have eventually died like the rest of us.”

“—and I won’t have you badmouth him in front of me,” she finished sternly, ignoring the interruption.

Blaize sighed, and rolled his eyes at the Queen’s attitude toward Deven. Deven agreed with Blaize, but he wasn’t one to pass up a good ego-stroke.

“Yes, dearest Blaize, if you haven’t anything nice to say—“

“Say it out of the Queen’s presence. Yes, I quite agree,” Blaize finished for him.

The Queen sighed in disappointment. “Any way, were you able to recover the item?” she asked.

“Yes, I did. Though I don’t know how this will help,” Deven said, and struggled to sit up.

Blaize ended up helping him sit up, and Deven fumbled with the pouch at his waist. Blaize couldn’t take it anymore after a good minute of this, and batted his hand away.

“Honestly,” he grumbled, and managed to undo the string with a couple of tugs.

“Remind me to double-knot the laces on my breeches when you’re around, Blaize,” Deven said. He managed to make both Blaize and the Queen turn very interesting shades of scarlet. Deven broke into a wide grin.

“Disgraceful,” Blaize said.

Deven shrugged, unrepentant, and continued to smile.

Blaize opened the pouch, and a puzzled expression crossed his face.

“It is smaller than I expected,” he said, and pulled something maybe twice the size of a marble from the pouch.

It glowed with a soft, cold, white light. It seemed as though some kind of mist was trapped inside, and though the glass ball had felt sturdy to his experienced, thieving fingers, he’d still had some base instinct screaming to be careful.

“Yes,” the Queen murmured. “Maybe, after all that’s happened, there wasn’t enough to fill a traditional vessel?” she wondered aloud, to no one in particular. Her eyes filled with tears at whatever thoughts were moving through her mind, and Deven grimaced. He’d never been very good with crying females.

“You cannot hold yourself accountable,” Blaize said, firmly, and to Deven’s ears it wasn’t the first time he’d said such a thing to her.

“So you say, but—“

Blaize cut her off with the slash of his hand. “There are no buts here. No one is responsible for his actions but himself,” Blaize growled.

The tension was thick and melancholy, but Deven still had a question, and they had refused to answer until he recovered the item.

“So, now that it’s here you promised you’d tell me what it is,” Deven said.

The Queen took the item from Blaize, and cupped both hands around the glass ball. It brightened at her touch, and she turned a small, sad smile Deven’s way.

“This is all that is left of my brother’s soul,” she whispered, the words barely able to pass her lips.

Deven’s eyes widened. “I thought it was going to be some kind of weapon. But you’re telling me that sad excuse for a soul is what’s going to stop the war?” Deven asked, incredulous.

A tear slid down her face, and she turned away from him.

Piss, he cursed. He hadn’t meant to make her cry. Blaize sent an unfriendly glare his way.

“We’re going to force his soul back into him,” she said after a few moments passed, her voice thick with grief.

“From what we know, it’s been a very long time since it’s actually been inside him,” Blaize said grimly.

“How long is very long?” Deven asked.

“Since he was eight,” the Queen said, deadpan. Deven had never heard her so defeated, and it was unnerving. Even more unnerving was the fact that an eight year-old had lost possession of his soul.

“How?” Deven asked.

“We’re not sure,” she said haltingly. “But it was right around then that his famous tantrums began,” she said, and looked over to Blaize.

“Well,” said Deven, still somewhat flabbergasted. “I could see why you’d question him being responsible for his actions. Hard to care if you’re doing evil things if you have no soul.” The Queen turned around and gave him wide, disbelieving eyes. He shrugged in response, uncomfortable in the face of her gratitude for his understanding.

“Then what’s your excuse?” Blaize asked, surly.

Deven let a slow, devilish smile grace his lips. “I might walk the opposite side of the law as you, and yes, maybe my morals are looser than the teeth of the old men down at the docks, but I’ve never murdered entire villages to try and take a crown from my sister.”

Blaize opened his mouth, but closed it on whatever he was going to say. Instead, he simply went with, “Fair enough,” and let the matter drop.

The Queen shook her head and muttered something about men not making any sense.

“So, we’re going to do a return-to-owner on his soul, and then, what? He repents?” Deven asked.

The Queen shook her head. “His soul is, as best as we can tell, undeveloped. It will either overwhelm him, shattering his sanity, or kill him. Those are our most likely and worst-case scenario,” she said, still at war with the decision in her mind.

“And best case?” he asked, because he knew there was some sliver of hope inside her.

“Best case, he gets it back, can handle the sudden onslaught of twenty years of emotions and conscience that he’s been void of, and I get my brother back,” she finished.

If Deven had more emotional range than a dead fish, he’d have more empathy, sympathy, or whatever. But he didn’t, and he was a man of action.

“Well then, what are we waiting for?” Deven asked. “Let’s give your brother a proverbial kick in the ass, or rather the soul, and end this war. I can’t enjoy my freedom in a city under siege,” he said.

Blaize scoffed. “It’s not that easy.”

Deven scowled at this. “Of course not,” he said, and flopped back down.

Magic is such a pain in the ass.