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 not 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 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 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 made 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 in 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 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 same-gender 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, small waist, and curving hips that his hands fairly itched to grab 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.
The healer and Blaize ended up helping him sit, 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,” the healer said in a disgusted tone at the same time as Blaize saying, “Incorrigible.”
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 thought 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.