Oath Taker

Chapter 1

     Haven Ashwood had a horrible habit of flirting with death. Take tonight, for instance. One slip from the giant ash tree she was climbing, one rotten branch or slick patch of bark, and she would plummet a hundred feet to the mossy ground, her bones splintering to shards.

      It would take weeks—maybe months—for anyone to discover her broken body. 

      She grinned darkly at the thought as she shimmied further up the ancient tree, the assortment of blades strapped to her baldric and leather belt knocking against the soft trunk. 

      Death by falling. Not how she envisioned going out—but also not terribly surprising when one insisted on climbing dead trees. 

      Shivering, she wrapped her cloak tighter around her body as she inched toward the end of a wobbling limb. Freezing to death wasn’t any better, but ever since the Curse had reached the outer wall, the warm Penrythian nights had turned cold and harsh.

      Prince’s Bellamy Boteler’s Royal Companion Guard dies of a broken neck and frostbite on the morning of the prince’s Runeday. 

      Bell would never forgive her for dying so stupidly. Which is why he had absolutely no idea where she was tonight—or where she came most nights she couldn't sleep. 

      If he knew she snuck into woods infested with Shadowlings, well, he’d probably kill her himself.

      “I’m not scared of you,” she taunted the creatures, leaping to the next tree. Her cloak flapped out behind her, the floppy hat she wore threatening to break free as she scrambled for a foothold.

      “Apologies,” she murmured to the tree, patting a knobby portion of the trunk that resembled an eye.

      Legend claimed that the trees were soldiers from the fallen kingdom of Lorwynfell fleeing the Curse, turned at the very gates of Penryth.

      Haven wasn’t prone to superstitious talk, but the weeping moans and cries that came from the massive trees were so heartbreaking, so human, that she found herself talking to them sometimes. 

      Tonight, though, the cries were deeper, more insistent. As if the trees were actually trying to tell her something. 

      Don’t be silly. 

      The new branch bowed beneath her weight. She flung out her arms for balance, tightening her core as adrenaline prickled her half-frozen flesh. A quick glance down sent a fresh wave of fire racing along her nerves. The drop was at least seven stories high. 

      Yes, look down, Ashwood. Wonderful idea.

      More rotten branches followed. Each one dipping below her weight and sending a burst of bark raining to the ground.

      Her breath spilled out white and thick. She followed it up into the triangle of sky between the gnarled and bent limbs where the full moon sat fat and heavy—a sure sign the Shade Lord’s monsters were coming out to play soon. 

      Despite what Bell’s father, King Horace, promised his subjects, she knew the hills teemed with the creatures. Watching. Testing. Waiting for the day the runespell cast deep into the great wall would weaken. 

     She scanned the rolling hills of Penryth far below. A thick blanket of fog hung heavy over the land, swelling the valleys and clumping in the woods. The air was moist and moldy, shot through with the faint scent of bergamot, cinnamon, and blood.

      As long as she stayed high in the trees, she was safe. Unless Shadowlings had recently acquired the skill of climbing. 

      Sucking in her bottom lip, she leapt to a higher branch, brittle bark crumbling beneath her palms and sprinkling over her cheeks. Her fingers were numb, her lips and cheeks frozen. 

      Nearly there.

      A prickle of dread formed between her shoulder blades.

      Tonight was a Devouring, the magick-laden mist that descended over the countryside. It came randomly, with no rhyme or reason, no pattern that she could tell. Some said the Curse had to feed on mortal souls to grow stronger.                 

      Others said it was slowly stripping the land of its magick.

      All she knew was once the sun chased away the heavy mist, the land was strewn with people left either insane or dead. 

      “Great night for a forest excursion, Ashwood,” she muttered, picking up her pace.

      Her fingers slipped beneath her ruby-red cloak, stroking the runestone sewn into its silk lining. The magick inside that one gem supposedly protected her from the Curse’s dark magick, but it had never been tested. Hopefully tonight would be no different.

      A low snarl rang from the valley, muffled by the trees. 

      “Hello,” she murmured, rubbing a thumb over the smooth hilt of her runesword, heavy against her hip. “I know you’re here.”

      From the time she was a little girl, she’d heard songs and stories about the Shadowlings, the creatures that appeared in the magick hour during full moons, devouring children and light magick before disappearing back into the mist. 

      The songs also told of the Lord of the Netherworld nearby. As master of all dark creatures, myth said it was he who followed them into the woods at night. 

      Doubtful. She’d killed dozens of Shadowlings and never once had she run across a Shade Lord. Although she’d never been in the forest right before a Devouring either . . . 

      Shaking her head, she leapt onto the final tree that held her treasure, her excitement washing away her fears. 

      Let this Noctis Shade Lord come. She would be more than happy to introduce him to the sleek bow and iron-tipped arrows strapped to her back. Or the four blades dripping from her person, each one coated with a different runepoison. 

      Haunting groans whispered through the treetops. She needed to hurry. 

      Her hat nearly slipped off as she adjusted her position, allowing cold air to slither along the nape of her neck. A sharp limb tore at her cheek. 

      Shielding her face, she pressed herself deep into the nest of foliage. 

      There. Just below a crooked branch, the stars wavered inside their indigo patch of sky. 

      “Gotcha.” But it wasn’t until the invisible runebag she’d tied to the branch nearly a decade ago was nestled in her palm that she felt relief, the tightness in her shoulders easing. 

      She hardly remembered climbing the ancient ash back then, or carving the protection rune into the grey trunk afterwards, a way to both safeguard her treasure and find it later. Not that it needed much protection here. 

      At the time, she planned to escape King Horace and use the runestones to buy her way across the sea. All her hopes and dreams for finding answers about the family and home she’d been stolen from rested in the bag hanging from her hand.

      Another groan drifted through the stillness, its humanlike timbre scraping down her spine and reminding Haven why even the poachers refused to enter Muirwood Forest.

      Ignoring her growing unease, she focused on the prize in hand. As soon as she untied the invisible ribbon, the spell released its hold and the faded green purse formed. Other than three superficial scratches against the leather, it appeared untouched.

      Thank you creepy, haunted forest.

      She calmed her breathing and slipped a hand inside. The moment her fingertips brushed the velvet cloth surrounding each runestone, a sweet feeling rose in her chest until she could almost taste her need for them. To touch them. Hold them. 

      Possess them.

      Once it had been her habit to roll the polished runestones through her fingers, delighting in the feel of their smooth bodies. Their roiling power seeded deep inside, begging for release. 

      Once she would have never parted from them. 

      But these were different times, and she pushed the emotion away, ignoring the pull of the stones.

      Each one called to her in its own special way. Out of the twenty stones, eight came from the Nine Mortal Houses. 

      Only the Halvorshyrd Rune was missing—the rarest runestone of them all. In fact, as long as she’d hunted runestones in the crumbling cities of the Bane, no one had ever produced a true Halvorshyrd Rune. 

      She sighed through her teeth as she felt Bell’s stone against her fingertips. 

      His was the smallest. A flat, murky opal cracked and dull from age, it wasn’t the prettiest of the stones, nor the smoothest. Most would have passed it over for the stunning runestone made of pure amber or the large, egg-shaped stone with the elegant House Bolevick Rune carved deep into its jade surface. 

      But the shiniest stones were usually the least powerful. 

      Pocketing Bell’s runestone, she knotted the ribbon, the purse disappearing in her hands again. The runes could have bought her freedom long ago—and more. 

      So much more. 

      The branch above her swayed as she rehung her invisible treasure. 

      She ran a finger over the black dahlia pinned to the top of her baldric, circling the insignia that marked her as the prince’s companion guard. Loyalty to Bell is more important than freedom.                Remember that.

      She repeated the speech as she carefully began shimmying down the tree. By now, the words were practically a mantra. Countless nights she’d talked herself out of leaving, the oath she swore to Bell like a chain wrapped around her neck. 

      Her promise to serve him was stronger than the homesickness, agony, and loneliness that carved an ever-growing hole inside her chest. To know where she came from, who her people were. 

      To know where she belonged . . . if anywhere.

      Exhaling, she shut out her thoughts and prepared to navigate a tricky section of the tree. The trunk was too thick to scale down, but the branches too thin to safely hold.  

      A scream tore through the woods.

      She froze, straining to hear above the groaning sound of the forest as the wind tugged at her hood, whipping the branches back and forth in the air and churning the mist below into a frenzied mass of ivory. 

      The fine hairs on the back of her neck lifted one-by-one. 

      Steady now. Fear swirled through her, heady and potent. The trick was accepting the emotion and letting is pass through you. 

      She waited until the fear abated and nocked the red arrow tipped with runepoison made of jessamine. 

      No, not strong enough.

      Replacing it with the oleander-soaked green arrow, she released a breath and squinted down at the forest floor, searching for the slightest movement inside the mist. 

      “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” she breathed. 

      A twig snapped below. 

      Her chest tightened until it ached. Pressing into the tree’s trunk for steadiness, she whipped right and left, breaking a workable space for her bow in the tangled wall of branches. Then she pulled the bowstring taut and waited. 

       Snuffling noises filled the silence, the same sound the king’s hunting dogs made when they were on a scent. 

      Usually when she came to these woods to hunt, she ensured she was downwind. But tonight—tonight she’d been impatient to find Bell’s present. She’d been distracted. 

      An unforgivable sin in the night forest. 

      Wafts of mist rolled back as two hulking forms appeared. The lead beast had the girth of a bull and was tall enough to scrape its back down the lowest branch of her tree. Long, black fur cropped from its body in tufts. The scent of wet dog and raw meat, similar to the smells from the butcher shop near the market, invaded her nose and made her gag. 

      The monster gaped up at her with eyes like hot coals. An unearthly noise—part shriek, part whine—shot from its parted jaws, the moonlight refracting off jagged rows of white teeth. 

      The tree shook as the beast lifted on its hind legs and rested a huge paw on the trunk. Its black claws sunk deep into the bark, and the tree shivered and moaned. 

      The second creature was gliding quietly around the tree, stealthy and cat-like despite the bulky muscles straining beneath its pelt.

      Her mind scanned images from the bound parchment in Bell’s beloved library called Beasts of the Netherworld, trying to put a name to the creatures below. But if the terrifying bull-like beasts were sketched on the stiff, yellowed pages of the text, she didn’t remember them.

      An unnatural scream pierced the quiet. Her mouth went cotton-dry, the bow wobbling in her hands. 

      She didn’t need a book to tell her the arrow was worthless. Even if the iron tip managed to pierce the thick armor of fur, the runepoison couldn’t take down something this large. 

      Still, she pointed at the creature’s face—its right eye, to be exact—and prepared to fight. 

      Suddenly, the beast slammed the tree with its two huge, black paws, hitting it over and over.              The impact rattled her bones. 

      They were trying to knock her down. 

      She hugged the tree trunk for support, scraping her cheek against the rough bark, barely holding onto her bow—but the arrow slipped from her fingers and was swallowed up in the fog below. 

      All at once, the shaking stopped. The air went quiet. Even the trees quit weeping. 

      She plucked another arrow from her quiver, her labored breath cutting the silence. Both creatures were sitting, long black-spotted tongues hanging from their panting mouths. Their triangular ears were pinned back as they watched her, whining low in their chests.

      The air was frigid; each breath was like swallowing shards of glass. She cried out as shadows fluttered through the air—ravens, hundreds of them, screeching and cawing as they alighted in the trees. 

      Where had they come from? 

      Before Haven could answer that question, her world boiled down to one sensation: a presence.          At the same time, fear swirled in her veins, a deep, primal terror she’d never felt before. 

      Instead of passing through her, the fear grew stronger, stronger. 

      Until it threatened to paralyze her.

      The thick branch she stood on quivered with the weight of something—something heavy enough to depress the branch three whole feet. 

      She held her breath, sure the branch would snap, but thank the Shadeling it just bent low and then held there. 

      Gathering her courage, she pivoted to face it. Whatever it was. A shimmering outline wavered the air, but when she tried to focus on the distortion, it would shift just slightly— as if taunting her. 

      She squinted and was rewarded with what appeared to be the long limbed shape of a . . . man.          Then the distortion once again transformed, rolling in and out of her vision. 

      Just like she’d done a hundred times before, she exhaled, releasing her terror to the wind. 

      Every Shadowling could die if you knew where and how to strike. Whatever this was, she hadn’t had time to discover its vulnerabilities, so she defaulted to her failsafe. 

      An arrow pointed at where she guessed its wicked heart to be. 

      “I see you,” she hissed. The beasts below snarled as she pulled the bowstring taut. “Show yourself, Shadowling.”

      Her heart hammered against her sternum as the silence stretched into a minute. Maybe she was hallucinating. Perhaps—perhaps the Devouring had found a way past the runestone protecting her. Perhaps it had taken her mind. 

      Only one way to find out. Grinning like a madwoman, she uttered a prayer and released the arrow. 

 

 

Chapter 2

      The familiar twang of the bowstring struck a chord of pleasure inside her chest. The arrow shot straight at the distortion, iron tip glittering—and froze midair. 

      Fluttering emanated from the arrow, its shaft shrinking into a dark ball. Black feathers sprouted from the mass. But it wasn’t until the arrow tip morphed into a curved beak and claws appeared that Haven understood what she was seeing. 

      Her arrow had transformed into a . . . raven. 

      The arrow-raven cawed twice, soared into the air, and then landed on what she guessed was the thing’s shoulder. 

      Not thing. Shadowling. Which meant she could kill it.

      Yet she was starting to doubt. Never had a Shadowling performed magick before. 

      And the ravens? Ravens were harbingers of powerful magick and evil.

      Gritting her teeth, she reached for her last poisoned arrow. Just before her fingers pinched the weapon’s shaft, there was a hiss. The smooth cherry wood bow inside her fingers became warm and squirmy as a light green snake appeared, its white underbelly slick like carved ivory. A pink, forked tongue tasted the air.

      Impossible.

      She threw the serpent down, more from shock than fear, and watched it slither toward the distortion . . . now a very visible, very real man. 

      Even casually crouched on one knee, he was towering, his tousled hair the color of bleached bone, his skin pale and luminescent as the moon. Thickset black horns crowned his head, so dark they swallowed the light. They rose just above his temples and spiraled gently to follow the curve of his skull. 

      But her attention snagged on his pale silver eyes set wide and deep below two onyx slashes of eyebrows. A ring of yellow glowed bright around his crystalline irises, and she found herself drawn to the light the way a lost hunter would be drawn to the warm glare of a campfire.

      Somewhere deep down she understood two contrasting truths.

      First, he was the most beautiful and the most terrifying man Haven had ever seen.

      And second, he wasn’t a man at all. 

      He was something else. 

      In fact, she would have been less horrified if he bore fur and claws and rows of pointy teeth. Then his physical appearance would match the terror swarming through the hollow of her bones like fire ants, urging her to run. 

      To hide. 

      Still, beneath her fear, Haven felt curious, a trait that would someday be the death of her—just hopefully not today. “What are you?”

      “Not a Shadowling, Little Beastie.” His voice was a haunting lullaby, the sound of raven wings and snake tongues and the wind howling through dead winter leaves. “Now, what might you be?”

      She ran a hand over her head, expecting the hat that covered her hair. But it must have fallen off when the beasts below were rattling the tree, and her fingers snagged in the tangled nest of rose-gold hair wrangled into a bun at the base of her neck.

      Most times, she hardly gave her strange pink hair any thought. Everyone inside the castle walls was used to seeing her with her hat, and if they wondered about her hair or dress, they never asked, and she didn’t care. 

      But now, for the first time ever, she felt exposed, and she pulled the hood of her cloak over her head, even as she straightened taller. “I’m Haven Ashwood, Royal Companion Guard to Prince Bellamy Boteler.”

      “Indeed.” His head ticked languidly to the side as he studied her, an animalistic movement. His nose was straight, refined, his lips the only soft part of his face. “And are you not afraid of me, Haven Ashwood, Royal Companion Guard to Prince Bellamy Boteler?”

      Her chest tightened, his voice calling to some dark, ancient part of her. “Should I be?”

      His lips furled into an opulent grin. She imagined his teeth would be pointy, but instead he had a row-full of straight, ivory teeth. “I came here looking for the mortal who’s been killing my creatures. Do you know anything about that, Little Beastie?”

      My creatures. That meant . . . her mouth went dry at the implication. A Shade Lord. 

      “Yes,” he breathed, his voice unnaturally smooth, hypnotic. “And not just any royal Shade Lord. The Lord of the Netherworld. Of all the beasts in the land.” 

      His strange voice shivered with pride, and she almost said, good for you. 

      But then he was inches away—when had he moved?—his bright yellow-ringed eyes emanating light like the runestones above. Up this close she could make out the elongated pupils slashed through his irises, more oval than round. 

      “Now you know what I am,” he purred, “but I still don’t know what you are.”

      Bark scraped her shoulder blades as she pressed into the tree, trying to create space between them. She was feeling more and more like a hare caught in one of the king’s traps. “I’m just a mortal. Why do you care?”

      “A passing amusement. Besides, it’s only civil to learn about the thing you plan to feast on.”

      Her stomach clenched. Rumors that the Noctis race drank the blood of mortals had swirled through the castle for as long as Haven could remember, but she had never believed them . . . until now.

      A gasp escaped her lips as his face pressed close to hers, his cool breath sliding over her cheeks and conjuring deep, wracking shivers through her torso. 

      His mouth paused over her neck and she stopped breathing.

      “Are you afraid?” he asked.

      “No,” she lied, lifting her chin even as her knees threatened to give out.

      “Your scent says otherwise.” 

      Slowly, he inhaled, running his nose along her collarbone and up her neck— 

      “I killed your creatures,” she said, her voice wavering as she tried to pull his attention away from the artery throbbing just below her jaw. “I hunted them, snared them, and killed them for sport.”

      His head snapped up to level with hers and angled to the side, a quick, predatory movement that turned her veins to ice. 

      He blinked once, twice. Slow, lazy, curious blinks. She had the misfortune of noticing his eyelashes were thick and charcoal-colored, rimming his feline eyes like the liner the courtiers used.  

      Then he laughed. “What a strange Beastie you are. No fun at all. But as much as I admire your courage, I’m afraid you’re boring me. Now, please scream.”

      A tingle pulsed behind her eyes. For the briefest of seconds, she felt her adrenaline spike and her heart buck wildly and a scream form in her throat. 

      For the briefest of seconds, she was terrified. 

      But then she drove the emotion from her mind, the scream dying on her tongue. 

      The corners of the Shade Lord’s lips puckered as his curious smile returned. Dark talons slid from his fingers. 

      He traced one sharp claw across her jawline. “Hmm. That was . . . unexpected.” 

      In the instant it took for him to blink, she had her favorite elk horn dagger in her hand. The next second it was dragging across his chest. 

      Why wasn’t he reacting? He held perfectly still, his head bent as he watched the blade carve across his breastbone. His mouth was parted slightly, a curious look lifting one corner of his lips up.

      Before he could react, she lunged for a branch five feet to her left. The moment her feet hit the limb, she leapt again, dropping from branch to branch until her boots hit soft, leaf-carpeted ground. 

      The beasts snarled as she rolled over her shoulder to break her fall and popped to her feet in a dead sprint, moldy leaves and moss tangled in her hair. Mist rippled out from her cloak. She could feel the dark magick inside the mist.

      It prickled her flesh, looking for a way around her runestone’s protection.

      Crapcrapcrapcrap—

      An ungodly noise filled the forest as the ravens poured from the trees, screeching. Their feathered wings beat against her cheeks. Their claws scraped against her skin. The trees howled and groaned. 

      She focused on her footfalls, the mist swirling into an angry sea around her, her breath coming in and out strangled and hot. 

      The beasts roared again, their growls echoing through the woods. Faster!

      She pelted through curtains of low-hanging moss and hurdled fallen trees. But she felt caught in a nightmare where no matter how hard she ran, invisible quicksand sucked at her legs and tangled her feet. 

      Where are they?

      She swung her head left and right, searching for the Shade Lord and his monsters. Branches tore at her cloak and face, and she whacked at them with her blade, imagining they were the Shade Lord’s claws. 

      Her pulse thrummed in her ears. She knew these woods. Knew which trail led to the wall and which ones led to the deep ravines that would break her bones. Any other day she could navigate them with her eyes closed. 

      Now, though, her vision tunneled, her brain went cloudy with fear, and all she saw was a gray labyrinth of trees. Trees and darkness and fog. 

      Fog that hid monsters. 

      A fallen cedar appeared inside the mist and she leaped over it, batting away a raven clawing at her eyes. 

      What are you doing, idiot?

      Running was pointless, stupid even; she was wasting energy that she would need to fight. Yet the panic inside wouldn’t let her stop. Her thoughts whirled like the mist, her legs pounding the earth in cadence with her ragged breath and frenzied heart. 

      She’d stabbed a Shade Lord. He knew she was responsible for his Shadowling’s deaths. 

      Runes. She’d stabbed a Shade Lord! 

      Not a Shadowling. Not a common Noctis. But a Shade Lord, the most dangerous and powerful kind of Noctis.

      Unfortunately for her, this particular Shade Lord was also the dark ruler of the  Netherworld and husband of the Shade Queen’s daughter—if the myths and Bell’s tomes were to be believed.

      As the opalescent runewall rose through the trees, moonlight glimmering off its surface, relief crashed over her. 

      Somehow, Goddess willing, she clawed her way up the steep hill to the runewall untouched.              Clenching the blade between her teeth, she scaled the pale stones, her hands tangling in the morning glories and jasmine that blanketed the wall. 

      As her fingers scraped over the rough stone, bright orange runes briefly flickered to life, fading back into the stone just as quickly.

      An earthy flavor tingled over her tongue, rich and coppery, with the slightest hint of licorice.

      But it wasn’t until she scrambled over the top and paused to catch her breath that the whisper of cinnamon hit, and she realized what she tasted. 

      No.

      Unease twisted her gut, and she held up the dagger, bile burning her throat. Thick black liquid coated the edge of her blade.

      The blood of the Shade Lord.

      Blood that pulsed with magick and was now inside her mouth.

      Her lips throbbed and ached, and a cool, fluttery sensation spread from the tip of her tongue, working its way down her throat and into her belly like a swarm of frost-winged butterflies. 

      She leapt from the wall and landed on the dewy lawn, hard. As she hurried back to the castle, the ravens' caws following her through the garden, she tried to ignore the cold knot between her shoulder blades. 

      Haven always trusted her instincts above all else, and now they were telling her she had done something irrevocably stupid. She could almost feel the world shift slightly, as if her actions had changed the future somehow. 

      Goddess Above, what had she done?

 

 

Chapter 3

      Archeron Halfbane watched Prince Bellamy Boteler’s Companion Guard cross the yard and enter the garden trail, her boots quiet against the rock path that wound through the moonberry trees. 

      The girl moved with a quiet, sanguine grace few mortals possessed, her sharp gaze flicking over the landscape in practiced sweeps. The obscenely large floppy hat she normally wore was gone, exposing the uncommon hair she kept knotted and hidden beneath hats and scarves and hoods.

     Beneath the moonlight, her wavy locks appeared ashy-blonde, tinged with just the whisper of rose. But during the day, the few strands that escaped her hat were startling pink, the vivid color of the winter orchids that grew along the terraces of Effendier.

      Lifting his face to the stars, Archeron sniffed the air, a low growl rumbling in his chest. 

      Why would she cross the wall tonight when it was obvious a Noctis was around? 

      It was beyond him how she’d stayed alive this long, the little fool. For a mortal, she had the Goddess’s blessing and the Shadeling’s luck. 

      As she slipped by him, blind to his presence, he sunk into the shadows of a marble archway.               Mortals—even well trained ones—barely noticed the world around them. They were slow and weak, their magick useless. 

      The few royal mortals that could access the Nihl had to rely upon runes, and even then, their attempts to harness the Nihl were clumsy and uninspired at best.   

      Out of sheer boredom, Archeron trailed the girl for a spell, slipping easily in and out of the shadows.

      He’d watched her many nights darting through the gardens and crossing the wall. She almost always came back smelling of Shadowling blood and grinning like a mortal fool. 

      But now, her shoulders were tight. And instead of taking time to inspect the night blooming star flowers, which seemed to fascinate her to no end, or play in the several fountains that dotted the gardens—a childlike habit that amused him—she scampered across the courtyard and disappeared inside the city gates. 

      Archeron cracked his neck. Where was the longbow usually strapped to her back? Or the soft rattle of arrows inside her quiver only he could hear? 

      Pulling more air into his nose, he picked out the faint but pungent tinge of fear in her scent, intertwined with her usual smell of sweat and the jasmine soap she favored.

      He hadn’t thought to study the expression on her face; unlike his race, the Solis, mortals often tried to hide their emotions behind a stiff mask, and he never felt the inclination to try and decipher their plain faces.

      And yet . . . had her cheeks been paler than normal? And her lips had been frowning. At least, more so than usual. 

      Archeron snarled. A mortal problem, not yours, he reminded himself.

      He came to the gardens to forget about the people of this court, not worry about the missing weapons and tight shoulders of a fool who tempted death every night. 

      The Prince’s Companion Guard was an annoyance, a slip of a girl darting among the blood roses and disrupting his solitude. For the entirety of his enslavement to this realm, while the mortals chased their silly dreams in their beds, the garden after sundown had been his alone. 

      Still, as much as he resented the intrusion, he also found himself hoping she made it back from her nightly hunts. 

      Which, somehow, the little fool always managed to do. 

      Once, driven by boredom and curiosity, he crossed the wall to watch her. She slayed two Vultax that night, no small feat for a mortal girl.

      An Effendier Sun Queen would have made it look prettier, but they’d been trained from birth in the art of warfare, and every act of violence was transformed into a languid dance one could hardly look away from, even the victim. 

      In this blasted Netherworld of a kingdom, mortals insisted their women stayed weak as lambs, without proper weapons or skills to survive alone. 

      A rare grin found his face.

      King Horace would have a fit if he knew the companion guard to his eldest son was entering the Muirwood and slaughtering Shadowlings at night.  

      Perhaps that’s why he no longer bristled quite so much at the girl’s presence. Why he whispered a small thanks to the Goddess every time she came back alive.

      She was a passing distraction in his immortal existence, a reminder of the fierce warrior Sun Queens of his homeland. That was all.

      But if she truly survived a Noctis tonight, then a part of him was glad.

      Archeron plucked a moonberry from the short, bell-shaped tree by the fountain and popped the tart berry into his mouth. 

      If he were in Effendier, he would’ve had to climb to the highest branches to find any left, but they had no effect on mortals so the firm, amethyst berries went untouched by everyone but him.           They also made a potent tea, but he wasn’t interested in tea. 

      Not tonight. Not for the past countless years of servitude to this incompetent king.

      Warmth spread inside his chest as sour juice rolled over his tongue. He sighed, leaning against the tree. 

      For a breath, he could see the white shores and pounding turquoise waves of his homeland. Could smell the air perfumed with the wild orchids and tiny nightblood roses that tangled along the rocky paths leading to the sea, mixed with the salty essence of the water. 

      For a bittersweet moment, he was free. 

      But then the effect wore off and he was back in Penryth, stuck in a mortal realm that stank of sweat and death, chained to a mortal king whom he could kill with a thought but was instead forced to carry out his every cruel whim. 

      Archeron Halfbane, bastard son of the Effendier Sun Sovereign, was a slave.  

      Damn the law of the Shadeling and Goddess. If he could, he would’ve ripped his own heart out years ago rather than feel the agony and longing he felt for Effendier.   

      Archeron stripped another berry from the heart-shaped, golden leaves and crunched the fruit between his teeth until he was back on those rocky shores, a thousand miles from the cursed land of mortals. 

      Lost in his waking dream, he swore someday he would find a way back to his homeland, whatever the cost.