Enter a realm of dark faerie. Where a seven-year-old boy takes the soul of a queen, and a king in mourning weeps rivers of tears.
Where a young princess grows unchecked as a weed while her father wallows in sorrow and her mother’s eyelashes lay eternally tangled in slumber…
Last night, a tempest had scoured the heavens in a churning witch’s brew of thunderheads roiling in the cauldron of the sky. Raindrops had spewed from the rainclouds like needles and struck the windowpanes in a pounding rhythm of tap tap STAB, tap tap STAB.
Cherub had been kneeling in the library among the myriad books she’d read, which lay strewn on the carpet. Lightning had lit up vibrant illustrations of princes and goblins, underground lakes and stalagmites and dragons. Her imagination had soared, intoxicated at the thought of sitting in a creaking saddle and brandishing a flashing sword, or witnessing the flourishing bow of a prince and having his butterfly kiss upon her hand.
Then the massive castle doors had banged open and yanked her from her floating flight of fantasy. The rumble of the colossal doors forced open shuddered through the floor beneath her knees, sending vibrations all the way up to her jaw.
A visitor had come.
Uninvited, a day before her nineteenth birthday.
She’d darted through the hallways, light as silk, and peeked into the gallery just as his billowing cape vanished into the door opposite.
Hushed and creeping, sneaking, she tracked his caped figure through lightning-lit passages to her father’s room.
She stood in the doorframe as he approached her weeping father. As he stepped over the trailing white beard. As he raised his arms and lightning lit up both his cloaked form and her father, illuminating the skeleton beneath her father’s skin and the birdlike structure of bones beneath her own.
Sparks crackled from her father’s eyes, spraying like embers accompanying his scream.
The sparks faded to reveal his tears turned to blood, his eyes gushing it. Garish scarlet runnels ran down his cheeks and stained his beard like congealing red wine.
A scream pulled from her lips. Another flare of lightning drained the blood from her face.
The visitor swung toward her.
She fled—nimble, swift, reckless, sleek. With the rapid footfalls of hunted game.
The hunter pursued her.
His name is Waif, and he when he captures her, he gives her wings and spirits her in her dreams to his kingdom, which is cursed by sorrow and frequented by the goblin king.
“Shall we weep for your dying kingdom, dear Waif?”
It was a new voice that drew Cherub’s attention this time, a voice as sour as beets in acid.
Alighting on the wormy ground and inhaling its cloying scent of moldy molasses, she looked upon a figure in a faceless cowl standing beside Waif.
The hood tilted as if the cowled figure were cocking his head, and Cherub got the distinct impression he was studying her and that he was smiling… a smile tarnished like ancient silver. He hobbled forward. “What have you brought home, Waif? A toy?”
“A girl.” Waif’s tone betrayed nothing, as frosty as the icy chains he’d locked her in, but in one swift step, he inserted himself between Cherub and the cowled figure. “Not a toy.”
“A game, then?” The cowled figure’s hands came up—clawed and talon-like and charcoal-gray, not human hands at all—and he rubbed them together like an eager witch. “We like games.”
“No.” Waif’s tone went even more rigid. “I’ve not played with you for years. I’ve done with you.”
“Have you now?” A chuckle moistened the air like watery gruel trickling from a slit throat. “Have you also done with my solution?”
Before her, Waif stiffened, if possible, even more. A bat flapped past his unyielding figure. “Master, don’t—”
“Why did you not take the king’s soul as you took the queen’s?” A series of wet, sucking clicks emerged from the shadowed mouth. “You would rather massacre your people than let them waste away in sorrow?”
“Death is better than endless suffering.”
“Is that not their choice to make?”
What were they saying? Cherub’s mind stumbled over itself trying to chase their words for meaning, significance, her thoughts putting together a puzzle.
Take the king’s soul as Waif had taken the queen’s?
This creature spoke of her father, her mother—she knew it.
What had Waif done to them?
The cowled figure’s stance shifted, and again she knew his attention affixed on her. “Take her father’s soul and you can still save your people.”
“No.” Were they her words or Waif’s?
Her heartbeat throbbed in her throat, her heart itself a bird trying to beat from her chest. She only knew that Waif’s master was looking at her and forming words as he smacked his lips as if around a delicious bonbon, his mouth puckered on the disgusting luridness of rot.
“Why do you not take her soul?” He licked the words like a slimy treat. “Her innocence would be the finest dessert. A liquored cherry when only crumbs remain of the cake. A bone to suck marrow-dry. Let me have a taste—a taste of her fingers…” He reached past Waif, who spun in a swoop of wings.
Feathers caught in her hair and his hands slid around her waist at the same time that claws gripped her hand. A rough tongue licked across her fingers.
She screamed an instant before her feet lifted from the wormy earth.
“Wake up, wicked cherub,” Waif murmured in her ear…