Writing Prompt ~~ The Truce

Music: Bad things – Jace Everett

 

Depending on a person’s proclivity for nocturnal activities, it was either far too early or far too late for what walked through my kitchen door at 5 am.

I’d been minding my own business, getting ready for the day by drinking tea and reading some news articles on my phone before heading out for some off the clock, weekend training, when I heard the front door open and close. I barely managed to stop myself from rolling my eyes. My roommate/partner was dragging themselves in at an ungodly hour, yet again, after being out all night. It was unnatural, even among superheroes, for someone to get so little sleep and still be so incredibly…perky. My lip curled at the word.

Perhaps it was a byproduct of her power: energy absorption. She could pull energy from anything, ranging from solar rays, to sticking her finger in a light socket, to pulling calories directly from a living being. As a result, she was always on this rather strange, but natural for her, high. In all honestly, I believe it has scrambled her brains a bit, but there was no denying she was a good person, and utterly pure in her intentions and actions. Though she didn’t always make the best decisions.

I sighed and shook my head, turning my attention back down to the article on my phone. I was a few lines in before I realized the steps I heard coming toward the kitchen were too numerous and oddly staggered to just be the footsteps of one person. I sighed yet again, and did my level best to not succumb to the rising annoyance at the fact my partner had brought yet another acquaintance home.

I was vacillating between my two choices of interaction: no eye contact and only making noncommittal noises in response to her questions and exclamations, or the third degree, complete with scowls and sneers. Deciding on the latter, and putting my tea down on the table, I turned my attention to the doorway just in time to catch Felicity Kist—a.k.a Voltra—walk into the kitchen with the biggest, brightest smile.

She was light and goodness wrapped in a short, curvy body, graced with thick, flax-golden hair cascading down her back like a shining waterfall, with jewel-bright blue eyes, and dimples that could make men and women swoon at a hundred paces.

I narrowed my eyes and opened my mouth to admonish her when the second person came in behind her. At this point, my mouth dropped all the way open and my eyes widened to their limit.

Trailing behind her, seemingly willingly and at a level of unconcerned edging on boredom, was Lucas Trex—Nightmare—our archnemesis. He was what you expected from a villain: dark hair, dark eyes, lean and long-limbed, and devilish good looks that could tempt a saint with the smallest curl of his lips.

The only similarity between us was our height, both above average tall, but that was where it ended. I was bulkier, my eyes a washed out grey, hair the color of a good butterscotch pudding, and a square jaw.

“Felicity!” I exclaimed, and jumped to my feet, knocking over my tea and dropping my phone to the floor with a loud clatter. “You will explain yourself this instant!”

If anything, Felicity’s smile grew even wider instead of being tempered by my shock and anger. “I won him in a poker game, Asher!” she exclaimed, and even clapped her hands with joy. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

“You. What?!” My eyes darted to Lucas, who merely shrugged and started looking around the kitchen. “That’s not a thing, Felicity. You don’t win people in poker games. Has he used his powers on you? Are you under his spell?” I asked, panic welling in my chest as I curled my trembling hands into fists.

My stance was wary, ready to grab Felicity to draw on her tremendous energy and manipulate it into a shield to protect us from his attacks. Or to blast him from the face of the earth. There was a lot we could accomplish partnered up that we couldn’t do apart. She could somewhat manipulate the energy she gathered, but she didn’t have my finesse or skill for it. On the other end, I was unable to draw vast amounts of energy from my environment the way she could. Without her, I could maybe gather enough to shoot a few energy darts, with just enough power to sting but not really injure. And without me to help balance and direct her energy she’d be bouncing off the walls, or in the worst-case: explode.

Lucas scoffed. “Not likely. The girl’s brain is such a mess and runs at a ridiculous rate of speed. I’d be lucky not to go insane spending any time in there.” He was probably right about her brain, and his voice was smooth like sin and wrapped in chocolate. “Plus, I don’t do magic or spells—I’m no wizard or mage. I manipulate psionic waves to produce the most terrifying nightmares or most exquisite dreams,” he said, sounding almost offended that I’d called what he did magic.

“Completely beside the point,” I ground out, shaking off the way his words and voice conjured images in my mind with the words ‘exquisite dreams’. “You are our enemy, and you must have tricked her in some way to get in here!” I declared, finally reclaiming my scowl and jabbing my finger in his direction.

He simply raised an eyebrow. “Pointing is rude, you know. Do they not teach you manners at that sorry excuse for an academy you attended? Or the agency you joined?” At my growl he shook his head and sighed. “Pity.”

“You-you—” I sputtered, but gave up on interacting with the infuriating man. “We are taking him in now, Felicity,” I said, hissing her name.

She pouted. She actually pouted at me. “But Lucas said we could have some fun if I won him,” she said, turning her lightbulb bright and innocent smile to the man.

There it was. The curl of his lip that turned my knees to jelly and made my mouth so dry I could swear I’d swallowed sand.

“Yes, I did,” he purred, gently trailing a finger along her jaw. I thought I was going to have heart palpitations, and then he turned a sly glance my way and I knew I was. “Would you care to join us…Asher?”

In a moment of weakness, between sucking in a shocked breath and exhaling, he crippled me not with his namesake—Nightmares and terrors—but with the other, softer side of his power.

Candlelight, silk sheets, and tangled limbs. Soft touches, smooth skin, and throaty moans. The scene played behind my eyes as though I was there, amidst them. Then, as my real vision was peppered with black spots, I realized I’d stopped breathing.

I let out a strangled sound and my knees couldn’t take it anymore. I collapsed into the seat, panting, and holding on to the edge of the seat as though it was the only thing keeping me from disappearing into the dream vision.

“I’ll take that as a tentative, ‘yes’,” he said, and chuckled, the sound deep and wicked.

“Isn’t he lovely?” Felicity sighed in delight, and then turned her attention to me. “Don’t look so worried, Asher. We’re bound by a magical truce woven into the rules of the game. For 24 hours we can’t harm each other, in body, mind, or soul. For the span of a single day we can just enjoy-” She put one hand on his chest, “-each other’s-” Her other hand snaked to the back of his neck, “-company.” She gently pulled him down for a long, deep kiss.

For what seemed like an eternity, the only sounds in the kitchen, (aside from the blood rushing through my body with such force it made me lightheaded), were gentle sighs, the rustling of clothing, and the slow drip of my tea leaking to the floor.

Heat pooled through me like fire roaring through my veins, and I let out a barely audible, “Okay.”

At first, I thought they might not have heard me, but then they broke apart and turned my way. I wasn’t prepared for the both of them to level all their respective and considerable charms my way. I exhaled weakly at the magnificence of them, their lips full from kissing, eyes dark with lust, and bodies pressed together as though they were two halves of a whole.

As though they were of the same mind, they both held out a hand for me at the same time. I gulped, but stood, and walked on shaky legs around the kitchen to take their hands. Lucas licked his lips hungrily and Felicity smiled a small, secretive smile.

“I told you he’d be perfect to balance us out—the grey between light and dark,” she said, not taking her eyes from mine.

“Well, you’re not wrong,” Lucas agreed, or at least his version of it. Then his eyes traveled over the two of us. “I hope no one planned to rest for the next 24 hours,” he said, his voice going low and purring again.

I nearly melted right there. The effect of being so close to the two of them and hearing his words was heady and intoxicating.

Felicity laughed, the sound of it delicate and pleased, while I just stood there, trying to catch my breath and calm my wildly beating heart.

Instead of answering, she let go of our hands and turned around, heading to the stairs that lead up to our bedrooms. Lucas gave me another turn-your-brain-to-mush smile before turning on his heal and following her up the stairs, looking like nothing less than a sleek, dark predator seeking out his prey.

I let out one last shaky exhale and followed them.

Today was going to be a very long day.

Writing Prompt ~~ Of Fire and Rage

The lake was still and shiny as glass, as if he could step on it and walk all the way across. It was one of those days when anything seems possible, and he stood there, breathing deep and imagining taking the first step. Then the cracking of the ice like a whip cutting the air. He shivered, the phantom sensations of frigid water washing over him, swallowing him down. Inhaling water. Sinking. Drowning.

It had been a day where anything seemed possible, just as every day with her had been, and just as quick as Hope had taken root in his soul, She’d ripped it to shreds.

Though the lake whispered sweet nothings to him like the lover he’d just lost, his feet remained firmly on the shore. The snow crunched beneath his black combat boots each time he shifted his weight, and the cold seeped into every last inch of him with icy, grasping fingers. He didn’t shiver. In fact, anyone looking on might believe he was at ease, admiring the lake. The only sign of tension was out of sight: his fists clenched in his jacket pockets.

That, and the blood.

It wasn’t the first time he’d been covered with it, though he wished such things had been left in his past where they belonged. But he’d let his guard down and this was the price. He sighed, and turned his face upward to lock onto to the Heavens above, containing thousands of stars, a full moon, and darkness between them all that didn’t hold a candle to the cold dark that consumed his soul. His crystalline blue eyes were flat and dull.

“For over a thousand years I have served you,” he said, the edge of his voice ragged. “Why?” he asked, the word ripped from the rawness of what remained of his soul.

No answer. There never was. He growled, and ran a hand over his blood-spattered, bone white hair.

“Forgive me,” she whispered. “I’d never want to add to your pain, but I wouldn’t trade this time for anything. I love you.” A weak smile lovingly graced her lips, and she brushed an errant lock of his hair from his forehead. Then her smile faltered, her usually warm, caramel eyes slid to a distant point over his left shoulder, and her arm fell to the floor of the cabin. She was gone.

He clutched her tighter to him, his face buried in her shoulder and hair. Even over the multitude of death scents hanging heavy on the air—blood, bowels, burned flesh, and more—he could still smell her. Vanilla, cinnamon, and apples. She’d joked that it probably had nothing to do with what she actually smelled like, and more his insatiable sweet tooth in regards to baked goods.

He’d run his hands through the thick, wavy, golden brown locks each chance he had, and this would be the last. He didn’t even care that said hair was covered in blood. The already drying, tacky fluid on the strands left trails of it on his face, as though someone had raked their claws across it.

He didn’t move for some time, and though his muscles screamed and cramped he refused to break the moment. To leave her. Eventually, though, he did. The only signs of his grief were the clear tracks of skin cutting through the red.

He hadn’t been able to leave her there, amidst the bodies and scattered bits of demon decorating what was left of the main room like gory confetti. But when he’d broken the shovel on his first thrust trying to penetrate the frozen ground, he fell back on the old ways.

Unlike creatures from other realms or dimensions, demons were bound to the earth and did not disappear on death. It was messy business, killing demons, even more so covering the evidence up. The human idea of what they thought their world was versus what is was, was tenuous and fragile. Humans tended to react rather violently at any disturbance in regards to their concept of their world. He could only be glad that his training in the early years happened when telling someone you were hunting demons got you praise, instead of a ‘go straight to the institution’ ticket.

The cottage burned brightly enough that someone might have wagered that white phosphorus had been thrown into the one-room structure, but that wasn’t the case. Lower-level and construct demons—demons created from the blood and/or flesh of more powerful demon—had highly flammable blood. It was not uncommon for larger demons to scoop up a handful, eviscerate them, set them on fire, and then lob them at opposing forces.

He grimaced as one particularly gruesome battle surfaced in his mind. A village, a hot summer, lots of straw, thatched-roof huts, and a horde of construct demons.

After setting the cottage ablaze, which would surely attract the local authorities no matter how remote their location, he moved back over to her cairn. Though he knew it was an abuse of powers, he could not bring himself to care. They could take his power, for all the good it’d done him, and shove it up their self-righteous asses. He’d used the hot, white light that burned deep within his core to carve out a footstone. The cairn itself overlooked the lake, and he would have done better for her if the fight had not taken so much out of him.

 

Emily Grace Farwell

25 December 2017

“Hope is seeing light in spite of being
surrounded by darkness”

 

“You were my light,” he rasped, his throat protesting the abuse it’d received between the yelling and smoke inhalation.

He looked to the sky once more and scowled. “I might not have been your most well-behaved soldier, but no one deserved this. Were you trying to teach me I didn’t belong here? Well, bang-up job.” He ground the words out from between clenched teeth.

When he turned his eyes back down to the cairn, his glower softened for a moment before snapping back in full force.

“Damn you, Emily! I told you how dangerous it was to be with me, but you never listen. You let optimism and hope guide you, and it set you on the path to your grave.” He shook his head. “I know I’m to blame for this, and you could have had so much—“

“God, you were always pathetic,” a female voice interrupted him, the tone half exasperated and half disgusted.

His frown deepened and his lip curled into sneer. He turned around and took in the figure near the tree line. She was tall, her body hard, lean, and scarred from countless battles. Their uniform had received upgrades over the centuries, evolving with military trends. They currently sported cargo pants, long-sleeved, lightweight tactical combat shirts, combat boots, and armor that consisted of a vest as well as pieces that covered just about anything but their joints. A deviation from the conventional might be their magical shielding that channeled their inner power through the plating, as well as gorgets and inner-thigh plating to discourage werewolves, vampires, and anything else that might want to gain access to a major artery for a snack or quick kill. While a solider in the desert had to worry about IEDs, their brand of combat was more concerned with not having your throat torn open by something with fangs. The material was magically enhanced to be just about anything one could hope for: lightweight, temperature-controlled, flexible, and nigh indestructible. Of course, they never did seem to get away from the red color scheme, which was as dark as a full-bodied red wine like Syrah.

Her platinum white hair was cropped nearly as short as his. Flint grey eyes matched the brittle laugh she let out at his regard, and it sounded as though it was sharp enough to make the air bleed.

The one thing she was not carrying was her sword, which sent a shock through him that trembled down to his very core. No one went anywhere without their weapon. Ever. Even within their stronghold, no one was ever to be unarmed. It was as good as him looking at her naked, which still didn’t even begin to cover how weird it was, since he knew she showered with the damn thing strapped to her back.

“Sabrael,” he greeted, tone cautious. His snarling anger had drained away in the face of her…bareness.

Her eyes narrowed, but a small, vicious smile quirked the corner of her mouth. “I told Them it would get even your temperamental attention, Desh.”

Tadeshiel—Desh—scoffed. “Considering it’s almost like you’re flitting around missing a limb, I’d say so,” he replied scathingly.

“Is that how you’ve felt the last three years?” she asked, tilting her head to the side as she considered him.

Her words jabbed at him like tiny knives in his weakest spots. “That’s not your business,” he hissed, and spat the words at her like venom.

“So that’s a yes,” she said brightly, and ignored his growling in favor of examining her nails. “No one believed you’d last this long, and especially not the human, what with her being as fragile as they are.” She tilted her head to the cairn.

“Also none of your business,” he said, tone low and warning.

It was her turn to scoff. “Not my business? You mean when my partner abandons the Order we’ve been a part of for over a thousand years, and then taking up with a human no less—”

“I—”

But she overrode him, “—after everyone told him, over and over that it was a bad idea, even by those who had been through the exact same situation? But no, it’s none of my business when the High and Mighty Tadeshiel, He Who is Perfect in Every Way, Slayer of Armies, Possessor of the Thickest Skull in the History of—”

“None of those are my proper titles—”

“—the Order, One Who Knows Better than All, up and abandons us—me!—in the middle of the biggest battle, during the biggest war we’ve had in centuries. That doesn’t concern me?” Her voice had reached a fever pitch with her final word. Her eyes bled from their usual grey to molten gold as her power rose with her anger.

In the face of Desh’s numb silence, she continued.

“Do you realize what you put everyone through when you laid your sword down? I can’t even begin to recount the ramifications, since we were in the middle of a battle and one of our Imperial Legates walked away!”

Still, he said nothing.

“I don’t even know why they sent me out here to speak with you,” she said, her disgust almost palpable on the air like slime. “You’re nothing but a co—”

“I watched him die!” Desh shouted, his chest heaving witht he sudden onslaught of emotions Sabrael’s presence had evoked.

Sabrael’s expression was one of bewilderment. “Who…?”

Desh ran a hand through his hair. He’d done that a lot today. “Douma.”

She raised a single brow. “Douma?”

Desh blew out a sigh and nodded.

“The…healer?” she questioned, not quite able to place the name. To be fair, she had her own legions to oversee, so the fact she could even come close to the mark was impressive. Though, she’d always had a knack for memorizing troop names, faces, and abilities so could put them in a weird ranking system in her mind as to their usefulness. Also, it made punishments easier when she could identify all her troops on sight. He couldn’t figure out how she did it.

“Yes,” Desh said, exasperated. “The healer. He was…newer to our ranks. Under 100. Bright kid.”

Sabrael pursed her lips into a thin line at the mention of the healer’s age. “That’s practically a toddler.” After a small pause, though, she sighed. “Desh, we die all the time. I mean, not as often as the demons, mind you,” she said, and a ghost of a smile played over his lips. “It’s all part and parcel of what we do.”

Desh growled again. “I know that. It wasn’t necessarily the fact that he died, it was more how everyone behaved after it.”

A mop of curly black hair, a lopsided, dimpled smile, and eyes that Desh realized now were so close in shade to Emily’s it made his chest ache. The demons had exercised their evil tendencies to the upmost of their ability when they came across the tent of injured warriors. Though immunes were trained in combat, they were caught unawares. None survived.

Desh walked into the small clearing where his immunes used to be, his eyes searching for one face in particular. When he found him, body cut nearly in two as it covered an injured warrior, there was no question in Desh’s mind that Douma had tried to protect the injured with his own life.

‘He was probably waiting for you to show up and save the day,’ a voice had whispered in his mind. A cruel thought from the darkest recess of his mind, and one that had repeated like a mantra since that moment, slowing wearing away at his sanity.

He’d tried to regroup and secure the area, but what he saw on the faces of his soldiers made his gut twist: knotted eyebrows, narrowed eyes, curled lips and wrinkled noses. Disgust. Whether it was at the situation, him, or both, Desh didn’t know. They didn’t want to expend forces to secure a clearing of dead bodies, despite the fact that each of them had been saved by the immunes at one point or another.

It didn’t matter that, logically, the commander in him knew they were correct. All he could think about was the young man who spoke with such passion about being an immune, he’d nearly put Desh’s eye out as he moved his hands with his words. Between the sight of Douma giving his last breath to save his patient, and failing, and what Desh saw on the faces of his soldiers, he was done. Desh looked into each and every face around him for some flicker of guilt or remorse, but when none was forthcoming he drew his sword. Leveling his coldest sneer at the lot of them, he thrust his sword into the blood-soaked earth, turned on his heel, and left everything he’d known for a thousand years.

Now here he was. Douma and Emily were dead, and all he had gained was a seething, thick pool of bitterness and grief weighing on his soul.

She was quiet in the face of his prolonged silence, but tilted her head to let him continue. Feelings and such weren’t really her area of expertise or comfort, but she did care about keeping her mission success rate as close to perfect as possible. She was ruthless and efficient; she applied pressure and words expertly to achieve the desired results and emotions, even if she didn’t completely understand said emotions herself. This contributed to her high success rate, and she’d be damned if Desh was going to try and screw that up—again.

They were opposites in just about every way, but their opposition complemented each other, which is why their legions always worked closely together. Where he was compassionate, she was merciless. Her pragmatism tempered his idealism, and while they were both intelligent, she was shrewder in tactical thinking while Desh was more perceptive with the emotional element. Sabrael was authoritative in her command, while Desh was participative.

And that was where the problem came in.

When he said nothing more, she scowled. “You got too emotionally attached to one of your subordinates, and when everyone else didn’t stop in the middle of a battle and sob along with you, you took it upon yourself to just abandon us?”

He could understand how she might perceive it that way, but… “Douma was young, exceptionally talented, and proud to serve, but none of that mattered to them. Some of Malgareth’s forces managed to break the line close to where the non-combatants were positioned. I had told Tearny, the Prime Immunes, to move camp earlier in the day, but he argued that many of the gravely wounded could not be moved.” His voice went soft at the last part, because that had been his first mistake, borne from his compassion.

Sabrael honed in on it like a bird of prey on a field mouse. “So instead of moving everyone else save the gravely wounded, whose chance of living was less than everyone else around them, you let your subordinate play on your kindness. Instead a handful being slaughtered they wiped out your Immunes, including this Douma,” she finished.

As she spoke, his demeanor shrank in on itself as her words beat him about his head and heart, making him small and frail. There was a howling in the back of his mind, like a storm ready to break upon the shore of his sanity.

“I revise my previous statement: you’re a coward and an idiot.”

He snapped. In his fight with the demons that took Emily’s life, he’d known his physical abilities had deteriorated over the three years he’d been away. Chopping wood was not an equal replacement for near-constant battle training. However, when he flashed across the clearing to attack Sabrael, he realized just how far he’d fallen.

Construct demons were pathetic, and the only advantage they usually had were numbers. That’s what happened with Emily. That and the fact she was human and fragile, and all he had were his personal magics and no sword. Sabrael, on the other hand, was not a construct demon. She’d always been top of just about every class they took, and she relished hand-to-hand combatives.

Sabrael turned, his fist missing her face. She grabbed his arm, continued his momentum with a slight adjustment, and her power flared. Her strength easily tripled with the surge of energy, and the trees surrounding the clearing never stood a chance.

Sabrael flashed to the impact crater past half a mile of splintered evergreens. He was dazed, and the disturbed snow of the trees created a slight haze and drifted slowly to resettle on the land. Though he’d recover quickly, it wasn’t quick enough if he needed to defend himself from her if she decided to go on the offensive. So when her face appeared in his field of vision, he stiffened. A thrill of terror sped through him like rabbits being flushed from their burrow, and his mind scrambled to clamp down on the dread threatening to overwhelm him. She was smiling. Sabrael only smiled when she was going to kill or heavily maim something.

“I—” he spluttered, trying to find the words, willing his body to cooperate.

“I feel better now, don’t you?” she crooned.

His eyes widened.

“Now,” she said, her tone deadly calm and smile sickly sweet, “I read the after battle reports, which were as painful to procure as it would be to drink incaendium piss—” Desh flinched at that glorious imagery, “—because fully half of both our forces were slaughtered. All because you decided to let personal guilt outweigh your duty and responsibility to your people. Not mine, not the Order’s, yours,” she said, the last word hissing and full of contempt.

“Sabr—”

She kicked him in the ribs. It might not have looked like much, but the cracking that reverberated through his body followed on its heels by searing pain and an inability to breathe begged to differ.

“I’m not finished. It’s rude to interrupt,” she said, voice calm again.

When he finally managed to drag in a breath, he coughed, and could not fully breathe in. His chest was tight, and his vision started to darken around the edges. Sabrael rolled her eyes and leaned over. He tried to move away, but she dug her finger painfully into the spot she’d kicked and he writhed in response. As her power moved through his body, it was as though someone had poured molten metal through his veins. His back arched and his fingers curled with the need to claw at something.

He’d forgotten how much healing hurt, especially coming from someone as unsuited to it as Sabrael. Yes, any of them could heal, but with a lack of a healer’s precision and temperament, it was like cutting off a limb to cure a broken bone. It worked…sort of. The only reason Desh could stand it was the fact they were of a similar potential strength. If she tried this with someone further down the respective ladder than them, they could die from the shock.

When she removed her finger, and along with it her power, he sagged back into his crater. His consciousness and body were floating in the wake of so much foreign power running rampant through his body.

“Drink this, or you’ll be useless for the next day,” a voice said, the words floating like dandelion fluff through his mind.

Something cool and hard pressed into his lips, but when he didn’t open his mouth the voice scoffed with disgust and forced it open. The liquid that hit the back of his throat was refreshing and cool like a mountain stream, followed closely on its heels with what felt like lightning dancing over his nerves. Desh gasped, and then coughed when some of the potion went down the wrong way.

When he’d relearned how to breath, he opened a bleary eye. Desh didn’t know how long he lay there, out of his mind, but when he came to Sabrael was sitting on a stump, her chin propped in the palm of her hand. Her eyes were back to their usual grey, her power having receded to just below the surface.

Given what Desh knew of Sabrael, he wasn’t sure if staying silent or speaking would contribute to his continued existence. As she watched him like a bug she was deciding whether or not to crush, Desh took a chance.

“Why are you here, Sabrael?” The words came out roughly, reflecting his weariness like a mirror.

She simply continued to look at him for a moment, not answering. Just as he started to say something else, she spoke.

“We want you back.”

The words froze his insides as though he’d actually plunged into the lake as he had imagined earlier.

“No.” It was a knee-jerk, instant response. The word hadn’t finished forming in his mind before it flew from his lips.

She raised a single eyebrow, the one on the right that was bisected by one of her many scars.

“Wallowing in self-pity for three years isn’t enough?” she asked, scathingly.

Desh scowled. “I just buried someone I loved, and you want me to jump back into the fray?”

Sabrael snorted and shook her head. “As if they’d put you in charge again after what you pulled? No.” She paused and cast a sly glance his way. “Despite the mess you left, I managed to beat back the demon horde, and as a result I earned a shiny new promotion. My record has never been better. We recently won a major battle and they offered me a reward. I chose you.” She shrugged.

Desh’s eyes bulged. “But you said They sent you to talk to me—”

“I lied to make you angry,” she said, cutting him off with a nonchalant wave of her hand as well as her words. She scanned the surrounding area. “And it worked. It broke the tension you were holding like a taut bowstring, and made you stop and listen because I could beat the wings off you right now. Now, do I have your attention?”

He quieted but held his glare. She’d manipulated him, and easily at that. He gave her a grudging nod, his teeth gritted against lashing out with words, and his fists clenched, because using those had proven equally as useless.

“Good,” she said, looking like the cat who ate the canary. “As I said, you were my reward.” She paused again and sniffed, looking down her nose at him. “Though maybe not a good one. This was my one chance to bring you back into the fold with minimal fuss, because they want to keep me happy and winning battles.”

“I still don’t see how this benefits me. I don’t want to go back,” he said, grumpy and dare he think it, even pouting a bit? He didn’t like to lose, and Sabrael had him at a distinct disadvantage.

She huffed out an annoyed breath. “If you’d shut up, I’m not finished,” she snapped.

Desh shut his mouth accordingly, though he still didn’t lose the scowl.

“I knew you’d need an incentive, but I haven’t gotten there yet. First, I want you to hear my terms, and if they are agreeable to you then I’ll tell you why I think you’ll jump at the chance of coming back. Okay?” she asked. She stood up then, hand going to her hips as she gazed down at him in his pathetic state. She knew he just needed a little push.

He didn’t like it, but she was going about this in a very fair way for him, but instead of being relieved, it made him all the more suspicious. Instead of luring him with the incentive, and then forcing him to give into her demands, she was giving him the chance to hear her demands, decide if he could handle them, and then walk away if he couldn’t.

It stank as bad as day-old fish left baking in a high summer heat…

“Fine,” he snapped back.

…but something niggled at the back of his brain, driving him forward.

“Good, now these are my demands…”

She droned on for the better part of fifteen minutes, outlining what would and would not be expected of him. It came down to the fact that Sabrael found herself rather displeased with the combat teachers, stating all the good ones had died, retired, or joined the fight on the battlefields. She was wroth about the whole situation, and the lack of proficient teachers was producing sub-par subordinates. This simply would not do.

She offered him an instructor position, but he’d hold no power—not even allowed the usual authority of a magister. She would assign him someone to dole out punishments and rewards and assist him in any way she deemed necessary. He’d be an old wolf with no fangs, teaching the young pups how to be a proper wolf. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world.

If she had concerns about his pride getting in the way of having no power while she held it all, then he could definitely say no one had been watching him the last three years. They’d written him off, just as he’d wanted. That being said, it was hard to get upset over hurt pride when you had none anymore.

“Okay,” he said quietly, “those aren’t the worst terms given what I did. They are agreeable, and fair.”

Her eyes went a little wide, and it made him smile. He’d surprised her, and it was an interesting, yet somewhat gratifying, feeling.

“Just like that?” she asked, incredulous.

Desh nodded. “Just like that. Now spill, and tell me why you think I’ll come back, even with such a kind offer,” he said, though he couldn’t keep the mocking tone out of his voice. Nothing in Heaven, Hell, or on Earth would get him to go back…

“Malgareth is back.”

…except maybe that.

Eyes blacker than the void, heartless as a force of nature, curved horns, and a cold smirk danced in his vision, which had gone an alarming shade of crimson. A casual and cruel taunt on the battlefield, suggesting that he should check on his immunes instead of wasting time losing a fight with him.

He closed his eyes, and his body shook with the force of the rage that howled through him like a tornado of fire and fury. Desh was glad he was still laying on the ground. He wasn’t sure he could have kept his feet in the face of that revelation in combination with his recent healing.

When he opened his eyes again, Sabrael’s face was split with a feral, pleased grin at the expression she saw on his face. He took in a deep breath, let it out, and narrowed his gaze on her.

“When can we leave?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Song Inspiration: Demons by Jacob Lee

Writing Prompt ~~ Late Bloomer

She believed in me in a way no one else ever had and no one else ever will, and I betrayed her. The worst part is she doesn’t know. She still thinks I’m her best friend, keeper of her secrets, and most of all human. The human part might be negligible, and betrayed might be a bit strong of a word. You never know how someone will react to you being Other, and I only told him every detail of her life to protect her. That had to count for something, right?

I internally cringed away from her bright smile as she approached the table, but outwardly I planted a warm, welcoming smile across my face.

“Erik! I thought you said you wouldn’t be able to make the study session today?” Dani—Danielle—asked, and sat down at the table.

I pushed her favorite drink, an iced cinnamon dolce latte, across the table to her. It was my job to remember the nuances about her, is what I told myself, but after she sat down and moaned in pleasure at the first sip my mouth went dry.

“Change of plans,” I said, and shuffled my books across the table to make room for her.

I was the youngest pack member, a mere pup at thirty, but thanks to the curse I didn’t look a day over eighteen. I fit right in on the college campus, but even that would not have gotten me this particular honor if I hadn’t proven myself beforehand. Countless scars and battles over the years meant I was decently high up in the pack structure, and a life-debt meant I’d sooner cut my own throat than betray the pack leader. That combination had earned me this assignment.

Dani leaned back in her seat, eyes closed, and sipping on the sickly sweet drink that left her smelling of espresso and cinnamon for hours after she finished it. My keen sense of smell was usually a disadvantage in places such as this, but I gripped the edges of my chair to keep me from leaning forward and inhaling her scent as deep as my lungs would allow. It was only when the wood groaned in protest did I release it.

“You okay? You seem a little tense,” Dani said, and quirked an eyebrow. Her luxurious, brown sugar curls framed her slender face and shoulders in the same carefree manner as her personality. She looked more like her mother, Shannon, with her rich caramel skin and plump lips, but her storm gray eyes were all her father’s, Arthur. Werewolf genetics were funny that way.

“Just nervous about the finals, I guess,” I said, prying my eyes away from her long legs, and shrugged.

She scoffed. “You have a 4.0,” she said, incredulous.

“Even the mighty fall,” I said.

She rolled her eyes at that, and I couldn’t help the half-smile that broke across my face.

“I told you not to take that drama class. It’s turned you positively angsty,” she said, and wrinkled her nose.

A full-blown grin broke across my face.

“Much better. Now, should we study for our dreaded finals?”

I cracked open a book to our Biological Physics class and sighed. “Well, if you insist.”

She just laughed and opened her laptop.

My eyes scanned the page, but my heart wasn’t in it. Dani had no idea she was the pack leader’s daughter, which was something her mom and dad had agreed on in the divorce. The 90s hadn’t been a good time for supernaturals, or Others. Some Senator’s kid was killed, mangled, and partially eaten by a ghoul, and there was a lot of angry shouting about putting us on lists, making us register. It even got bad enough that at one point there was serious consideration about putting us on a hunting list. Open season on all Others, anytime, anywhere.

It never passed, but when you’re a human married to the werewolf pack leader of a big chunk of your state and you’ve got a toddler, it puts things in perspective. Arthur only asked that Shannon keep Dani with the pack until she was three. If, during her third year, she hadn’t exhibited any supernatural abilities they could go on their way. The time passed, Dani was as normal a toddler as one could hope for, and Arthur signed the divorce papers and gave Shannon full custody.

It tore him apart. However, when I took the assignment, the one thing Arthur was adamant about was not asking Dani if she knew her father.

I snuck a quick glance at her. She had her head in her hand, tangling her fingers in her hair, and her eyebrows were furrowed in concentration. It was a bitch of a class we were taking, but the sight sent tendrils of warmth through me.

“You could help instead of stare, you know?” she teased.

“How are you supposed to learn if I gave you all the answers?” I asked. I turned a page, even though I hadn’t really read it.

She let out a disgusted scoff, dropped her notes, and crossed her arms over her chest. “You sound just like my mom.”

“Oh, no, not the parent comparison. I’m wounded,” I said, monotone, and then flipped another page.

She crumpled up an errant paper and threw it at me. It hit my head, and I looked up at her, mouth hanging slightly open. “Ouch.”

She smirked. “You’ll live.” Then she turned her gaze to my notes, eyebrows lifting slightly. “But I won’t if you don’t share your notes,” she said.

I sighed, and the smirk grew to a wide grin. “You only want me for my brains,” I lamented, and slid them across the table to her.

“That’s not true,” she protested, and took the notes from me like a hungry child taking a cookie. “You buy me coffee, too.”

“Pardon me.” I laughed, but the noise caught in my throat as though I would choke on it. I caught a scent that didn’t belong: wolf. My fists clenched beneath the table on reflex. I slipped my hand into my right pocket and grabbed my phone. I’d practiced the movements countless times to make sure I could do this without looking, but my hand shook as it moved over the touch screen, and I could only hope it worked.

Dani’s eyes flicked up to me and stayed, perhaps sensing some tension, and her brows drew down in a frown as she tilted her head.

“Wha—“

“Look, I know this is going to sound weird,” I said, my voice low. I scanned the crowd as I spoke, my eyes flicking over far too many faces in such a small space. “But I need you to walk over to the end of the counter, and when it starts, hide beneath it.” My eyes locked with a male’s not far inside the door.

His eyes were a glowing amber, and tension sang through him like an over-tightened guitar string ready to snap. He was a beast, and I wasn’t just noting his Were nature. His shoulders were wide, arms gorilla-like, and legs so thick they could kick a hole through my soul. Since introductions weren’t likely, I’d decided to call him Behemoth.

“You’re right, that does sound weird,” she said. She laughed, but when I didn’t respond it died on her lips. “You’re serious,” she said, and this time she clenched her jaw when she frowned.

“I need you to move. Slowly. Please,” I said, adding a hint of pleading to the request.

She looked at me for a moment before shaking her head. “I must be crazy,” she said under her breath, and likely to herself, but my hearing was beyond that of a human’s.

I stood when she did, and being a head taller than her allowed me to keep Behemoth in my sights. She started to gather her things.

“Leave it. It’s not worth your life,” I said, my voice already deepening with an edge of a growl.

Her spine went rigid. “What the fu—” She stopped midsentence when I turned my eyes to hers, breaking eye contact with Behemoth to bring my point home.

Her eyes widened as mine bled from their usual cornflower blue to the yellow of molten gold.

“Move,” I growled.

As she moved, her body trembling, Behemoth moved, too. We frequented the café enough that Dani and I knew everyone here, so when she made it to the counter she said something to the girl. Just as I went around the table to confront the male, the barista pulled the fire alarm. The jarring scream made me flinch, and that was when Behemoth attacked, leaping over the heads of everyone as they fled the café.

I used his momentum to carry him past me, dropping low and pushing him with my hands. Chairs and tables snapped beneath Behemoth’s weight, and people screamed as he crashed through them like a bowling ball through pins. I growled against the pop of pain in my jaw as it elongated to compensate for the larger, sharper teeth. My fingers broke and reformed in a smooth, agonizing transition, and my nail beds burned as claws pushed the human nails out of the way. Even having one of the most effortless and best partial transformations didn’t save me from the pain.

Behemoth was breathing hard as he stood up, but it didn’t keep him from growling at me. His hair was an indeterminate color, since it was shaved so close to his head, but it made it easy to spot a few cuts already knitting themselves back together. Behemoth had to outweigh my lean frame by at least thirty pounds of muscle, probably more, which meant I had to go with a brain over brawn strategy. Of course, that wasn’t anything new for me. Most of the pack outweighed me.

This time when he charged he kept his feet firmly on the ground. When he was close enough, he tried to throw a punch, but I slipped into his guard, and used my shoulder to redirect his movement, again.

“Leave. Now.” I said as he stumbled.

Behemoth let out a barking laugh and recovered easily. “Not a chance, boy. I’m here for the girl. Leader’s orders.”

My insides froze. The whole reason I’d been assigned to Dani was because Shannon said she’d received threats against her life and Dani’s. One of the female pack members who didn’t hate Shannon had been assigned to her. Even though people were skeptical about the situation at first, when the formal challenge for pack leadership came to Arthur it was far more plausible. Shockingly, werewolves weren’t always honorable in how they take over a pack. Arthur’s territory was substantial enough that he’d had a fair few challengers over the years, but this was the first time they’d targeted his family. Why have a physical fight, when you can bring someone to their knees by capturing their family?

It was about this time that the remaining people scrambled for the exits. The staff who hadn’t thought to run for the door, tripped over each-other in their rush to the employee area.

In a few moments, only Behemoth, Dani, and I remained in the building.

He planted his foot behind him and lunged to close the distance between us. Unlike before, he was expecting a redirection of energy, and as we connected, he slammed his fist into my ribs.

I pushed his head towards the floor, hoping to unbalance him at worst, or slam him at best. I achieved neither as he ducked, dug his newly forming claws into my waist, and slung me back towards the counter.

Thankfully, throwing a person’s body against the wall behind a bar, like in action movies, is hardly the deadly affair they make it out to be.  Messy? Sure. Deadly? Not so much. It has even less effect on a Were, considering most of the items were coffee-making paraphernalia. I could feel some broken mugs crunching underneath me, but I was otherwise okay. Except for an odd burning sensation on my hand.

He was stomping closer from the other side, obviously intending to finish what he started before making off with Dani. I started to rise, and that’s when I noticed it—I had put my hand on some schmuck’s hidden flask that hit the floor during the scuffle. Some snobby trust-fund college kid was about to lose his heirloom.

Behemoth peeked over the bar and smiled menacingly. “There you are.”

I did the only thing I could think of as he lunged at my neck for the kill. I slammed the flask as far down his newly-formed muzzle as I could, my own arm be damned. His eyes went wide as the burning silver of the flask took full effect, and I realized my hand was stuck in his mouth. In a panic, I dug my other hand under the bar and upended it from the mounts, shoving it towards his body in an effort to dislodge us. As he swung wildly and gagged, frothing and smoking at the mouth, one of his claws managed to snag the neck of my shirt, and he dragged us onto the main floor, stumbling over the broken bits of bar.

Behemoth must have decided this wasn’t his day and he needed to heal and regroup, because he made for the exit with me in tow like a wolf on a mission. I grabbed for anything with my other arm, desperate for something solid to use as a weapon against him. He gripped my shirt tighter and began shaking his head back and forth, slinging me like a ragdoll. When he finally made it to the exit, my hand closed on something solid and heavy near the door. I then proceeded to smash him over the head with a wild swing from a fire extinguisher.

He let out a muffled yelp and stumbled, as smoke billowed out of his mouth like a demented dragon. Then he started to bleed from his new head wound, and my inner nature took over. I generally function okay in front of blood and violence when I’m not in a life or death struggle with another Were and in my human form, but it’s quite different once the animal side takes over. A short time later I came back to myself, deformed extinguisher in hand. Behemoth lay in the doorway, smoldering skull now a flattened mess just inside the door. His jaw must have relaxed and released my hand at some point, because I had reacquired ownership of it—or what was left of it.

“I guess sometimes alcohol is the answer,” I wheezed, trying not to think about my hand. Of course, my eyes strayed down to it, and I quickly looked away and swallowed. Silver worked on us like acid but worse. If I didn’t take care of this soon, losing my hand would be the least of my worries. I could die from silver poisoning form too much contact with the flask. My options weren’t looking too fantastic.

“Erik!”

My head snapped up, and I met Dani’s wide eyes. I’d seen the look before. It was usually a combo platter of fear, loathing, and a primal urge to murder the Other before it ate you. I tried to walk away, but my traitorous body was having none of it, and I stumbled and fell to my knees.

There was a gentle touch at my shoulder, and instinct made me jerk in surprise and try to get away, but I was too weak. The hand gripped my shoulder tighter to help keep me from falling completely over, but it also trapped me. In this much pain, so close to my full form, the beast inside me howled and snarled in fear and anger. It came out as a low growl that should never come from a human throat.

Then nails were digging painfully into my shoulder. “Erik!” The voice was familiar, but there was a thread of command in it like a pack leader. All pack leaders had a mantle of power that came with the stations. It allowed them to exert almost complete and total control over the members of their pack. But all alphas had this magic quality to them that compelled subordinates and betas to obey. Not all alphas were pack leaders, but all pack leaders were alphas.

“We have to get you to my dad,” the voice said.

My brain wasn’t keeping up very well, but I did manage to look up at whoever was speaking and give one long, slow blink. It looked a lot like Dani, but it couldn’t be Dani.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Shit. The silver’s eating your brain, or something. It’s me: Dani,” the voice said.

“You can’t be Dani.”

“Why?” she asked, incredulous.

“Because Dani doesn’t know her dad, or know I know her dad.”

If she rolled her eyes any harder they would have fallen out the back of her head. “Oh, please. My mother told me about him eons ago. Hard not to, really,” she muttered.

Then, for the first moment in the last few moments, I noticed something different about her.

“Your eyes!” I said.

“Caught on, have you?” she asked. “It wasn’t easy, you know, keeping all this from you. Mom thought they’d just send some brooding, stalker-looking guy to watch me from the bushes, but no, they sent you. It was so hard to keep my real scent masked. It’s been a pain and a half. Looks like I don’t have to do that anymore, though,” she said, and smiled.

Dare I say it was almost wolfish? I could only gape.

She sighed. “That big brain of yours can grasp so many things, but a late bloomer werewolf is what confounds you? Weak, dude.” Then she hauled me up and threw me over her shoulder.

This was the closest I’d ever been to her, and despite my injuries I couldn’t resist. I inhaled deeply and for the first time I was able to truly smell her, and it. That unmistakable scent of werewolf.

“Satisfied?” she asked, and huffed in amusement.

I blushed, and was thankful that she couldn’t smell the blood rushing to my face any more than it already was.

I grunted, and then hissed as a fresh wave of hellish pain pulsed from my hand. We made it to her car and she set me down on my feet to lean on it while she opened the door. Sirens were wailing in the distance, and my heartrate picked up. I’d never be able to show my face here again, and then my heart squeezed as I realized the same went for Dani.

“Don’t worry about it,” she whispered, “I’ll figure something out.” Despite her brave words, I could smell regret washing off her in waves.

She got me in and buckled, and pulled out of the lot slowly just ahead of the emergency vehicles. A tightness in my chest eased, and I finally relaxed back into the seat. Well, as best I could given the state of my hand.

“Looks like it’s finally time to meet dear, old Dad. Won’t this be fun?” she joked.

I could only groan in response. Fun wasn’t what I’d call it, but with Dani, who knew? One thing was for certain, everything was going to change. But as I was being dragged under by the darkness eating at my consciousness, I couldn’t say that was a bad thing. I just hoped my text got to Arthur, otherwise this was all going to be one hell of a surprise.

Writing Prompt ~~ Optimism

 

Artist Unknown

 

The music drifted out of the club like a vibrating pulse. I could feel it in my bones. The night was alive with possibility. I could even imagine myself finding a date.

My, aren’t we feeling ambitious? A pompous, scathing voice raked like claws across my thoughts.

My insides shrank, like a flower withering under the first bite of frost. I slunk in through the door after flashing my ID to the bouncer, whose muscles had muscles. His bald head shone with sweat from the humid heat of the night, but I shivered beneath my jacket. I headed straight for the bar and ordered a drink: “Whatever tastes good.”

It was just a thought. I frowned, and fidgeted with my drink, taking a small sip. It probably had some ridiculous name I would never remember, even if I’d asked, and the sweetness of it sat heavy on my tongue.

Optimism doesn’t suit you.

No, I argued, it doesn’t suit you. It suits me just fine. I jutted my chin out and tilted my head back, throwing the rest of the drink down my throat. It might be sweet, but it still burned. Thankfully, no one could hear me cough over the music.

Yes, which is why you’re currently housing a Wraith, Katherine, because we just feed off positivity. Did you think I could last this long if I was housed with a soul bathed in Light? Or that this would have ever happened if you weren’t of the dark?

The question raised the fine hairs on my body, and I shuddered, curling in on myself. Believe me, I didn’t mean to capture you, Wros, it was an accident.

Wros harrumphed. Yes, and what a happy accident it’s been, he said, voice dripping with venom.

D-did you just quote Bob Ross? I sat up, and my eyes went wide. Before Wros answered, one of the bartenders had taken my sudden movement as a signal to come over.

His eyes were a jewel-bright green, and his hair was cut short on the sides, a little longer on top, and had that, ‘I just rolled out of bed,’ tousled touch. It was dyed aquamarine, and went with the mermaids and bubbles theme the club had gone with. His lips curled into a smirk at my shocked look.

“See something you like?” he asked.

I blushed, hard, while the heat from the alcohol coursed through me. “May I have some water, please?” I managed to stammer out.

His smirk transformed into a full-on smile as he poured me a glass. “One water,” he said, and slid the glass toward me.

I thanked him, and took a sip. The cool water was a near nauseating contrast to the fire in my blood, and I had to swallow a couple more times after drinking to keep the water down.

The bartender chuckled and shook his head. “Let me know if you need anything else,” he said, and winked.

It was roguish, unexpected, and it made me blush again.

I like that one, Wros said, his voice a low growl rumbling through my mind.

I winced, and tilted my head down. My long, curly, dark copper hair shifted and fell forward, hiding the right side of my face. It was a habit I’d had since childhood, and something I’d never managed to grow out of.

Of course you do. I sighed, and my shoulders slumped.

Then I sat up, tucked my hair behind an ear, waved the bartender back over, and ordered another drink.

 

 

****

 

The park wasn’t far from the club, and was better than a seedy alley any day of the week, but especially on a Saturday night. Most of them had been occupied.

A soft moan floated through the night, and my head snapped around to see if anyone heard. We were alone, save for the breeze rustling the leaves in trees, and the occasional distant siren. My heart raced at each small noise, and I licked my lips, nervous.

I’ll never get used to this.  My chest was tight. I straddled the bartender’s—Gabriel’s—waist, and looked down at his recumbent form. The only way this could have been worse was if we were naked.

You’d be shocked what you can get used to given enough incentive, Wros said, ever the pragmatist.

What, like not dying?  I asked, the bitterness of my words and the aftertaste of Gabriel’s soul resting on my tongue like dark chocolate. I wanted to roll my tongue over it, like hard candy, even though there was nothing physical the soul left in my mouth. I wanted to savor it, and spit it out at the same time.

Precisely, Wros crooned. He rolled in my mind, like a content, fat cat. Our current predicament meant that if we didn’t consume souls, we’d both die. I guess I wasn’t cut out to be a martyr.

Gabriel’s brows were pinched, as though in pain, and he likely was. I’d only taken part of his soul when I’d kissed him, causing him to lose consciousness. Wros really needed to pick smaller targets, because Gabriel had almost brained himself when I barely caught him as he fell to the ground.

I laughed at the thought, the sound brittle like shattered Christmas ornaments. Such concern for a man I was about to kill. I smoothed a finger across his brow, willing it to relax, and brushing his bright hair from his forehead. He moaned again, but his face relaxed, and I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding

If it makes you feel any better, he’s a bit of a womanizer, Wros said, trying to throw me a balm to soothe my conscience.

“It doesn’t,” I said out loud. Yet, I bent over him again, my hair creating a curtain around us. An illusion of privacy, seeing as how Wros was ever-present in my mind and seeing everything through my eyes.

At the thought I closed my eyes, and pressed my lips into his again. Wros stretched out through me, like fog rolling through a midnight graveyard in the middle of winter, and took over my movements as I surrendered control. I did this when I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish what I started. I was not only a killer, but a coward to boot.

Wros moved my hands to cup the sides of Gabriel’s face, and his power unfurled like a poisonous flower from my lips, sucking at what remained of the man’s soul. He coaxed it out gently, like a monster under the bed convincing a child to leave the safety of their covers.

The grass withered beneath us as Wros’ power spread, and then drew back as all of Gabriel’s soul was pulled into us. Wros withdrew into my mind as I sat up, and Gabriel’s head lolled to the side, his bangs just long enough to fall over his closed eyes. All that remained was the physical body, and it would expire in three days’ time without the return of his soul. Even if we did return it, it would be damaged, as Wros had already started the process of ‘digesting’ it.

I stood, my legs wobbly, and I stumbled away. Like a junkie leaving the spot they shot up at. As the breeze blew through the park and I shuffled off to my car, I frowned at the cold feeling on my face. I brushed my cheeks to find them wet, and my eyes widened as I realized they were tears.

“Tears are the silent language of grief,” I whispered, my voice hoarse.

Leonardo da Vinci, Wros commented idly from his spot in my mind.

I stopped in my tracks and clenched my fists.

Don’t! Wros growled, trying to lurch through me to take over as the thought in my mind sent my body into action.

I shrugged off his control. Too late.

 

 

****

 

Another Friday was here, but instead of lurking outside the clubs, I was outside the hospital. It was difficult to not look suspicious when you’re hanging around outside all day, but I couldn’t move.

I’d chewed my lips and nails into oblivion, and my stomach rumbled from hunger. Wros wasn’t speaking with me at the moment, but I considered that a side bonus to the situation. I had a sharp pain my shoulders, because every time the front entrance to the hospital opened, I tensed up.

This time, though, I saw what I was waiting for and I let out a shaky sigh.

You know you’ve doomed him to a life of feeling perpetually unfulfilled, Wros said, and narrowed his eyes at the sight of Gabriel through mine.

He was gaunt, and his shoulders were hunched a little, as though he were fragile and barely holding himself together. Then someone appeared from behind him—an older woman who had his elegant nose and soft smile. Gabriel smiled in return, and though it was a ghost of the one from last Friday, it eased something in my chest.

He might heal.

Wros rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. You are the worst necromancer I’ve ever had the displeasure of knowing.

I stood up from the bench, and slipped away.

We still have to eat, you know, Wros said, softly and not unkindly.

My hands were shaking as I opened my car door. I know.

Then why? What made him different from the others? Wros pressed.

That, I don’t know. Maybe you just suck at picking targets, I said, trying for humor.

Wros shook his head and scoffed, disgusted.

As I pulled away from the curb I mulled over the question. It wasn’t a line I hadn’t already crossed before Gabriel, many times at that, but whatever it was about him wouldn’t let me follow through that night.

Usually, Wros telling me of their misdeeds as he read their souls was enough to get me through, but who was I to judge? I killed people to keep an undead terror and myself alive.

Saving him doesn’t make up for the others. Though, admittedly, the others were a lot worse in character than that one. Wros pondered for a moment. I’ll try to find someone worse. Would that be better?

I sighed. No, but until we find a solution that’ll have to do.

Like I said, optimism doesn’t suit you.

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.