Where are you, Flair?
Where are you?
The monsters have finally come for us.
She was sprinting through the forest, moonlit branches spraying under her paws. Trees whipped past in a blur.
Other weir panthers ran alongside her, breathing fast and shallow as they fled across the moist autumn loam. The scent of rotting leaves and fresh green shoots filled her panting breaths.
Papa was there, too, somewhere in the darkness. And Iven. But not Flair—
Char didn’t know where Flair was.
Gray streaked past the corner of her vision.
No! She whipped around, fangs bared and jaws snapping empty air.
Taloned fingers grabbed her shanks and dug into her sleek black fur, sharp nails pricking her skin. Terror lanced through her—and fury, so much fury. She growled and twisted and snarled, but his claws wound around her flank in a merciless fist and yanked her into the air. She yelped, snapping her teeth at muscular gray arms. His hard hand whipped through moonlight and clamped over her jaws, forcing them shut.
A portal flared overhead like a mirror, crackling white light circling an opening to an endless tunnel.
No! A muted howl escaped her, fading to a helpless whine. Papa! Iven… Flair!
Her captor’s muscles coiled and tensed; she writhed and struggled.
If he took her, she’d never return—
He leapt with her straight into the eye of the portal.
Char, where are you?
I can’t feel you!
Her muscles went limp, a death-like stasis that briefly dumped her body against her foe’s chest. His muscles coiled under her cheek—and a heartbeat of wild blood—then sparks and magic sheared through her. The bright light of the between-world squeezed shut her eyes, so bright that its crimson bled through her eyelids, then she landed hard on her side on cracked, barren ground.
Shock rendered her panther form powerless and wheezing, pawing. Her claws caught in the fissures webbing the terrain. Violet-gray clouds stormed above her, stabbed by spears of lightning. A faint breeze of electricity crackled over her skin.
His knees hit the ground on either side of her haunches then and restrained her back legs; his talons pinned her shoulders.
Char thrashed and gnashed her jaws, her yellow panther gaze rolling toward the creature straddling her. His skin paled in the moonlight, its grayish tone so disparately unhuman from the olive tan or seashell pink of Char’s own race. Long ropes of black hair trailed over his broad, bare chest nearly to his waist. Vivid blue eyes glowing like licks of sapphire flame watched her.
But not the shadow-hungry she knew. Those had mindless eyes and seeking green veins that snaked from their skin and could delve into a man, squirm through him, and poke out parts of his brain, destroying him while leaving him horrifyingly, vacantly alive. Those shadow-hungry left people and weirs strewn in their wake like so many glass dolls staring upward at an unseen sky.
This one had intelligence in his eyes, though, and eagerness pulled his dark lips back from pointed teeth.
He flattened his claw over her heaving ribcage, his gray fingers sinking into her gleaming black fur, his talons pinpricks in her ribs. Liquid pain poured from him into her hide, icy and sharp and filling her veins like foreign blood, all the way into her heart. There it pooled, then burst outward through her body in a thousand droplets.
Her organs wrenched and reformed; bones seized up and stretched out unprepared, the forced transformation first smashing her organs, then bloating them out. Dizziness spun the violet sky and the gray enemy above her into unified vivid swirls. She shut her eyes and sagged under him… then melted back into her human form.
A young, naked woman with tangled brown curls cushioning her head, sweat plastered tendrils to her temples. The electric air sizzled over her bare skin now. No fur to rise under it.
The shadow-hungry bent over her, his shadow engulfing her naked limbs.
Papa came home, Char. He came home limping, without you, claw marks on his ribs and a frayed shirt hanging from his shoulders. He lurched into the firelight of our little cottage, and blood flowed between his fingers. It dripped on the floor, and you’ve never seen that most terrible, beautiful shade of scarlet until you have seen it drop from your own father.
But he didn’t even look at it. While Ma settled down to business cleaning the wounds and making a poultice, asking in her no-nonsense tone where you were, Pa looked at me.
Where was I?
Iven and Pa were with you, but where was I when they took you, my sister?
That’s what they ask—Pa, Ma, and come tomorrow, the entire village will ask, too, except for the one I was with, if he is still even here. As for what I ask myself, that is: was it worth it?
I was with the traveler.
I thought I could do it—part of me wishes I had done it and that he’d—
But what does it matter now, when you’re…
Char, where are you?
Char stirred in her sleep, woken by her sister’s restless thoughts. Milky green light sifted through her eyelashes, the soft breath of others around her a susurrus in her ear. She was aware of warmth, and walls, and recalled lightning-illuminated talons on her thighs, her back, touching her only to lift her. He had anchored her in place on broad shoulders and had carried her across a dark, fissured desert, a storm-wind around them. Her curls in her eyes.
Flair, can you hear me? I can hear you. Can you find me here?
Underground, locked up where power charged the air like the moment before lightning struck.
Papa, she begged, Iven.
But they could not touch her now.
Flair, can you hear me…
But Flair did not answer.
Ara lay sprawled on a pile of weapons.
Closed in a stuffy, airless, summer-roasted weapons room, she lolled the afternoon away. The sword pommels and sheaths piled beneath the scratchy tarp jabbed her back and thighs. Dust particles from the enclosed mustiness gathered on the fine hairs of her cheeks. On the other side of the wall, guards stomped through summer rain puddles and called to one another while she shirked duty.
But behind closed eyelids, darkness blanketed her.
Magic winged her spirit out of the weapons tower, whisking her above its crumbling shingle and away from the sweat-itchy skin under her uniform. Her spirit floated over the sooty chimneys of the poorer quarter hunched by the city walls, where birds veered near enough to clip her—had she been substantial, that was, though even so, their feathers brushed the edges of her awareness like near-touches.
She soared toward the cleaner, red-tiled roofs closer to the First Demesne castle. There dwelled the First Demesne magnate with his cruel wife and sword-wielding daughter, whom Ara could give or take, and where Iminique dwelled… with the wizard lover Ara both loathed and envied.
She was addicted to them and he knew it, ever since he’d halfway killed Ara and Iminique had touched her with healer’s hands and done something to her inhuman heart.
Threading her way through the castle’s maze of fairy-tale towers, Ara caught sight of a maid leaning out a window, flapping the staleness from linen sheets. Beyond that, a few bedchambers down, another maid was flat on her back enjoying the randy attention of a footman in a noble couple’s bed. Feathers flew and thighs jiggled, rustic laughter rousted between the sheets.
Ara flitted past and emerged between gray towers under snapping pennants. Here, finally, rambled the extensive castle gardens, dotted below with blossoms like cut jewels. Ara descended along ivy-covered walls, the faintest whisper of air caressing her temples.
The healer sat on a knotty plot of grass in a shaded arbor of ancient pear trees. She’d drawn her knees up to her chest, her black hair draped down to her waist in twined strands like spun ink, dark shadows against her gray gown. She was all milky skin and luminous eyes, shunned by those who had once been her peers before her public defection from her husband.
Now her small hands plucked at her skirts; her head cocked to the side, listening… seeking those on the other side of the wall: those poor bastards infested with a mysterious plague.
Iminique sought them every day, every morning, searching for the illness, searching for a cure, searching for even a clue.
But magic kept her from discovering anything.
Already he was coming. The reptilian puckus who kept her from helping them.
The wizard who did not trust even Ara’s ghost alone with his lover.
With a soft rustle, he stepped from behind a tree, garbed in an azure tunic and white pants tucked into laced-up beige boots. His long golden hair streamed over his shoulders like urine.
He didn’t even have to touch Iminique skin to skin, and already what was between them rose the instant she angled her rosy flush toward him.
Emotions. An intense radiance in her soul that reached all the way back to Ara’s real body where her skin melted in the heat. As heady as human veins if they flowed with sunshine and light.
Ara drank it in; she guzzled it…
Until the lanky dunghill flicked his gaze to where Ara’s invisible presence drugged itself on his emotions. Glutted herself.
He let her watch him with Iminique—let her crave and experience it, because she didn’t have it.
He tormented her as he knelt down and slipped his hand under Iminique’s hair, cupping the back of her neck. He tilted her face up to his. This is mine, he thought toward Ara.
His physical form touched Iminique’s skin to skin then, and Ara felt it—the building ecstasy, the budding madness. Aching, sweet, slow, thorough. A love that had a chance to last a lifetime despite the fact that Quentyn worked to destroy everything Iminique sought to save.
They fought on opposite fronts, and still they could not part. Because of their intensity, thrumming even through Ara—
I want this, the little girl in her cried and stamped her feet.
“Sorceress Guardian Ara!”
The world tilted and her awareness whooshed. She somersaulted back over the city, a wild, disorienting blur of greenery, gray towers, and birds.
She listed to the side, her eyes snapping open. And there she went, tumbling off the pile of old practice weapons. Her palm smacked the flagstone floor, her hip jolting there an instant later.
“Jag it!” She scrambled to her feet.
The rickety wooden door burst open, slamming against the wall and spilling the murk of the overcast day into the room.
A young boy in a brown tunic puffed himself up in the doorframe, his figure all filled up with smug pride and dire errand. “Evander!” he cried, thumping his fist against his chest and then his forehead. “He’s summoned ya!”
Oh, so dire, Ara thought.
Everything seemed dire and important to a child.
Then one grew up and—
Welcome back to the mind-bogglingly banal, she sneered to herself.
Abandoning the weapons tower, Ara slouched out into a wretched, mundane world spitting down rain. It obviously nursed as rancorous a mood as she did and needed to take a long, hard piss on mankind.
It only proved that the wizard could bathe the castle in sunshine while the city walls gurgled in rain piss.
Blinking it from her eyelashes, Ara grouched her way along the crenellations. Her boots splashed over wet stone, drizzle plastering her red hair to her cheeks. Her sword thudded against her pant-clad thigh—useless because nothing was happening.
Nothing was attacking.
Nothing ever attacked.
Nothing ever would.
Probably never would.
The expanse of field stretching from the city walls to the edge of the forest just lay there in soggy solitude. Though even if something did attack, Ara had a few choice spells ready that would splatter the invaders back to the tree line like weir-shit on tree bark.
Would you truly do such a thing to your own father, Little One?
The words rasped in her mind: words belonging to a creature she’d never seen but whose voice rarely left her.
Hello, Father. She turned herself into a walking sneer, annoyingly pelted by raindrops. So far I as I know, neither you nor I have become a tender, loving soul since the last time we spoke, so yes, I would splatter you like weir shit.
At the slight stiffening she sensed in him, she smiled and licked rain off her lips, sweet and lush. Weir got your tongue, you gray puckus?
How does your healer fare, Little One? Do you believe she will be safe behind walls forever?
Ara’s boots sloshed through another puddle with more spray than necessary. How fares my mother’s soul? Have you been teaching it to cook tarts?
A pause, then: Your time is short, Little One. Think long on which side you would stand on when the world splits.
Ara shot back a response chock-full of weir-shit and color, but his presence in her mind had already faded.
She stuck her tongue out at him, instead, though her tension didn’t drain away. The bastard who still held captive her mother’s soul had been plotting machinations in his stormy corner of the world for years, and now he was about to unleash them.
Meaning mankind had better be prepared…
Wiping water droplets from her eyes, she pushed her rain-laden copper curls back and caught sight of three specimens of the ‘side’ she’d chosen.
The trio of guards responsible for the next stretch of wall lounged against the crenels, nudging one another at her approach and exchanging leers, their damp hair plastered to their skulls, their weapons dripping rain.
Her lip curled in contempt. They certainly exemplified their race perfectly. All three of them raked her with their eyes, their tongues slipping out in ill-mannered flicks for licks on their lips.
You want me? Ara thought toward them.
She boosted her hips in a taunting sway. Her wet tunic and pants clung to her body with every sashay.
They stood a little straighter now; their smiles faltered a bit. All three exchanged nervous gazes. Tried not to be so obvious about swallowing.
Everyone knew what happened when Ara Mithran brought out her sultry sway.
Someone was about to get scorched.
But still, her eyes glimmered in jeweled pools of verdant green, inviting them—daring them—to touch.
Maybe this time I’ll let you touch, her smile said as their breathing quickened and the hot space in their breeches shrank right along with their reason. All their blood rushed in vain anticipation to the dangling things between their legs.
Oh, she was itching for a fight now. Whose nose wants to burst under my magic-protected fist today? Give me a nice spatter of blood and a piggish squeal.
She cracked her knuckles, nice and slow.
The three guards scrambled to mortified attention.
Ara whipped around, her cracked knuckles dropping to her side.
Evander halted directly in front of her.
Her adopted brother. The very embodiment of overdone moroseness in a black vest, black pants, black boots, and jet-black hair that fell over onyx-black eyes narrowed under glaring black eyebrows—or maybe the eyes were glaring, not the brows, or both—
Gads, everything about him was glowering. His clenched jaw looked as if it could replace a petulant monarch and command the world even though he only ruled this shithole section of the wall—and the piddly rebellion he led, which Ara was certain only consisted of a few other useless men bleating in threadbare rags against a jeweled magnate who could crush them with a mere sneeze of authority.
Evander had a real problem, one Ara called The Illusion of his own Superiority. He believed his special relationship with the princess of the Seven Demesnes extended him unholy powers over other mere mortals—ever since something had happened between him and the magnate’s daughter when she was sixteen and Evander twenty-one, the day she was to marry, but didn’t. Rumors floated about that Evander had hunted the princess through the palace gardens, pinned her to a tree, and kissed her. Since then, everyone knew he was going to steal her from the castle one day. What would happen after that, though, was up for bets. It was half to half that he was going to make her his lover until she finally made him the Demesne’s ruler, or else he was going torture then kill her because he wanted to make her pay for what her father the magnate had done to the woman who’d raised Evander till he was five.
It was confusing enough outside of his head, but when Ara glimpsed inside his mind, she didn’t believe he even knew himself what he wanted with the princess. The few times Ara had read his thoughts when Princess Seriah had been near, she’d gotten out of that blend of vitriol-hatred-lust-affection real quick.
Now his hard gaze settled over her shoulder at the men beyond. “All of you, get to guarding, and stop ogling my sister unless you want your tenders mashed flat.”
Two of the guards swallowed and hightailed it off. The third subjected Ara to a thorough once-over, his smirk promising a hard fight later.
“Dezin,” Evander snapped.
“Of course.” The guard executed a bow just shy of mocking.
“Know-nothing new recruit from the Second Demesne,” Evander muttered under his breath as the guard sauntered off into the drizzle.
“Ooh.” Ara rocked back on her heels with her hands clasped behind her back, emitting her special aura of evil, annoying little sister. “Does it hurt your pride to have an insolent questioning your power, O All Mighty ’Vander?”
“Stop baiting them.” Evander focused on her, his mouth set in a stern line. “Or I’ll have you taken off the wall.”
Ara rolled her eyes. “Get rid of them. I’m better than all three of those rigid pricks. I could guard this place single-handedly.”
Evander barked laughter and ran a hand through his wet hair, dislodging droplets of rain. “You think you’re a one-woman army? Amusing. One day life’s going to teach you a hard lesson.”
“Like it’s going to teach you, you arrogant fuffer. Who do you think I learned my self-deluding grandeur from?”
Evander grinned, but it resembled more a prelude to spitting. “You think making me laugh is going to distract me?”
Ara unclasped her hands from behind her back and flicked a sodden bit of tangled thread that reminded her of her mood off her tunic. Her face felt sullen. She felt sullen. And sodden. “You won’t get Captain Haldron to take me off the wall.”
“You don’t think so?” Evander’s oh-so-morose eyebrows rose in oh-such-mockery over his sharp features. “Let’s consider the facts then, dear sister. You arouse nothing but contention. You bellyache constantly. You lie, cheat, taunt, and even though no one’s caught you at it, I’m sure you steal, too. You spurn men, scorn women, and scare children. No one likes you. You’re a troublemaker.”
“I’m an excitement-maker.” She tossed her pointy chin and crossed her arms, exasperated. “Because nothing—ever—happens—here—and nothing—ever—will!”
“Oh, can you divine the future now? You think the weirs won’t get past someone as jagging bloody bored as you?” He spat out another scathing laugh. “You remember the one that got inside ten years ago, don’t you? You should, considering what he did to you.”
“Don’t you jagging bring that maggot up!” Ara cupped trembling fingers around the front of her neck where it tingled from invisible claw marks—invisible because the skin was long healed and that weir long dead, but he still haunted her nightmares. At night, she relived the attack over and over and over: his lunging body tearing away from the guards escorting him through the crowd, his yellow animal eyes on her. His open, bloody mouth turning into a panther’s maw. Razor-sharp paws had slammed her to the street; her skull had hit the grate on the gutter. Those teeth had grazed her neck—and only a last-second spell kept them from tearing through any farther than a fingernail’s depth into her neck, but she’d felt those teeth in her skin, nudging against the magic, trying to bite deeper, the cat saliva glistening over her throat and dripping into her veins, mixing with her blood. Everyone around her screaming.
Ara scoffed even as she swallowed a bit of vomit at the memory. “If weirs want to chomp on some human-flesh, they can gobble on the exiles living among them. Or munch on the ambassadors, merchants, and other people with special permissions to travel between cities. They don’t need to invade our walls for food when they have game outside.”
“I don’t have time to babysit you, Ara. You’ve been warned. Control yourself and your petty tauntings or you’re going into the weapons tower to do inventory.”
“You can hold the walls up magically just as well from inside the tower. Don’t think I’m stupid.”
Ara gritted her teeth.
Evander half turned away, then swung back. “I almost forgot. You need to go see Winnia.”
Grabbing her shoulders, Evander forcibly turned her around. “No arguing. Go. Now.”
“If she’s summoning you from the wall, it’s something important. Go.” He gave her a hard shove.
“So gentle, big brother! So…” Ara scowled at Evander’s retreating figure. He didn’t look back.
She stalked off herself, her pixyish features set in mutiny and her boots demolishing puddles.
Dezin and his cronies chortled where they hunched together again in the dubious shelter of the weapons tower, their lecherous grins following her disgraced march.
Obviously Evander ordering her about like a recalcitrant child amused them.
As she passed, Ara mock lunged at them.
They lurched backward, ricocheting off one another and bouncing against the wall behind them.
Laughing, Ara skipped up her pace and her mood lightened as their curses punctured the air behind her. Her lightning fists and well-placed kicks were still paying off.
She bounded down the wall-walk stairs two steps at a time, descending into the bowels of the city. Here, the streets teemed with people squelching through puddles and hunching under cloaks in defense against the glum conditions: the meat of society bearing the brunt of the weather’s gloom. Nondescript buildings on either side turned mottled gray from the dampness, their windows dotted with moisture. On every corner, water trickled off the vibrantly-striped tarps of dogged street vendors sticking out the inclement afternoon for their next sale.
As she veered through an alleyway still strung with clothes someone had neglected to fetch in from the rain, Ara passed some grubby children throwing stones at rats, their small rocks chinking against crumbling brick. When they paused in their game to peep at her, she gripped her sword hilt and snarled at them.
Their eyes popped wide open and they skittered backward, squealing, feet tripping and stones scattering.
So much fun. Guess I do scare children. She smiled as she turned the corner onto a less congested thoroughfare.
The guards manning the gate at the end of the street held up their gauntleted hands and twirled their pikes, bored. “Plague territory beyond this point!” they called out as she approached… then they recognized her.
That’s Evander’s sister—she could imagine their thoughts—She’ll cut off your balls and slurp them down like bonbons in front of you. She holds up the walls with her inhuman sorcery.
She drinks in the fear of little children.
Okay, that last might be wishful thinking. She wasn’t fond of children.
One of the guards turned and opened the gate without a word—everyone knew she and Evander had to infrequently get chummy with the sickies because their adoptive parents Winnia and Alain still lived in the plague-ridden part of the city.
Beyond these gates, mindless husks of once-people roved the streets: things that swarmed anything that moved and left it gnawed on for days, lugging it around with their group until they’d licked it to the bone. Occasionally, on visits to the slums, Ara found herself walking alleyways littered with bones.
Not that Evander hadn’t tried to get Winnia and Alain to move out of the area. He’d tried, but the magnate had raised the fines impossibly high for moving to uninfected areas.
Not that Iminique hadn’t tried, as well, to cure the plague victims completely, but both the magnate and Quentyn thwarted her at every turn, even those ‘turns’ she believed she took in secret.
Winnia and Alain defended themselves well against the plague victims, though. Winnia was a vicious, heartless bitch, and Alain learned fast. Plus, their son Savion showed up every now and then—and none of the plague victims ever went near him.
Because of that, Ara suspected him of dabbling in magic, but he vociferously denied it, and he was slippery in a way she could never quite catch.
Still, when plague victims just moved out of his way when he walked past, as if they knew him somehow, and feared him, it spoke volumes of something unexplained…
Not that Ara cared.
She swished past the guards into the crumbling mess of the quarantine, where her rumination slid away and survival instincts slid on her instead like a second skin.
Not ten steps in, their feral gazes already tracked her every step. Though she didn’t see them, they lurked there, unseen between the dilapidated buildings and behind rotting piles of refuse, lingering like long-forgotten stink-sewage still congesting the underground veins of the city.
The still-human residents of this area tracked her progress, too, gawking out from between slats in decaying shutters locked tight against the monsters that roamed their quarter. Those terrified souls would only emerge armed with bludgeons and biting hunger.
Some of the plague victims slunk out of slummy dwellings on either side; their bare feet padded on the wet pavement with moist plops as they gathered behind her, gaining ground. They snapped at one another like animals whenever one of the others got close. Clothes fluttered from tattered arms, forearm skin unraveling from emaciated muscle in dangling strips. Thump thump, they came closer…
Wait… Ara flexed her fingers.