His eyes are closed, as he ascends the stairs to the gallows. That strikes me as odd. I’d always assumed that he would die as a criminal of his stature lived– like a king, eyes open, not pleading, but staring at us all and cursing us with his last regal breath. Still, I feel an odd terror in my stomach as he takes his place on the trapdoor and a noose is tightened around his neck.
Then the royal bookkeeper, who obviously would rather not be here, takes his place next to the axeman and begins reading out a list of his crimes. The whole thing seems surreal.
“Treason,” he says, then clears his throat. “Murder of the first degree, willful manslaughter, arson, embezzlement, fraud, wartime desecration, assault whilst armed….”
It’s then that I notice the criminal’s mouth. It’s open in a wide grin, every listed crime only seems to make it grow wider. Lips peel back from teeth stained red and razor sharp. I tap father on the shoulder. He’s deep in conversation with someone aiming to buy a wand from him. Hardly paying any attention to the execution.
“Not now, Iren,” he snaps. “I’m in the middle of an important conversation. Don’t make me regret taking you here in the first place.”
When I look back at the criminal, he’s turned into a monstrous wolf-like creature, roared defiance at the sky and torn through his bonds. The axeman brings up his namesake too slowly, eyes wide, and with one swipe the beast knocks it away, axe over handle. A second turns his chest to bloody ribbons of flesh. The big man stumbles back and falls over in a bloody heap, while the bookkeeper flees. I can only watch in horror as the monster closes the distance in two strides before its teeth close on the bookkeeper’s head and tear it free with an almighty wrench. The creature spits it out in another moment, and turns right towards me.
Wolfish eyes focus on me, set in a body taut with muscle. It leaps down and reaches me in two strides
—and I’m brought back, breath catching, caught and left alone as the vision fades. “Look out!” I shout up at the executioner and the bookkeeper, interrupting the latter mid-sentencing. “He’s a skinshifter! He’ll kill you both!”
The executioner stares at me, eye to eye for a moment, and then nods and pulls the lever without hesitation. The bookkeeper is outraged. I can see it in his face. My father is also outraged. I can feel it coming off of him in waves, though he keeps his face a mask. I want to shrink away, but I stay still. The crowd is strangely silent.
The noose goes taut.
The criminal’s neck snaps, and he turns limp. He hangs there like some ghastly puppet. There he’ll stay until the axeman cuts him down, and I can see that my friend is certainly not in a hurry to do that.
I breathe a sigh of relief, and immediately feel disgust boiling inside of me as well, staring at the body and somehow unable to pull my eyes away. I watch fur flicker over its arms for a moment, and about lose my control, about throw up right there in front of everyone. Instead I swallow the rising bile as it burns my throat and turn away.
“Iren, why don’t you head back to the castle?” father asks me quietly. “I can see you’re ill. We’ll talk about this tonight.”
My heart sinks in my chest, but I nod and turn away from the crowd. My feet ache from standing in one place for so long, but I manage to make my way down the stone steps leading away from the stone platform and Judgement Square. I stumble on the last step, and a rough calloused hand catches me by the shoulder and pulls me upright again. I nearly collapse the other way, but manage to steady myself. My body feels weak and sick.
I look up into the scarred face of the axeman, hoodless now that he’s down from the stand of the gallows. He gives me a smile and shakes his head.
He leads me away from the group of people, hand firm on my arm. It’s terribly improper, and I find myself blushing behind my veil, but I don’t think I could resist even if I were so inclined. No one else notices. I’ve always been puzzled about that. It’s like even being associated with the hangman at all makes me completely invisible.
The executioner takes me down a back alleyway and down into its dark embrace we go. There, we both sit. When I’m sure no one can see us, I take a deep breath and let my radiance show.
It’s a gift from my father, I think. For all his strict, bitter ideals, he does try his hardest.
Light flows outward from my body, bathing the two of us. The hangman brings out a scrap of yellowed material I instantly recognize. I smile weakly. “You found some paper!”
He nods happily, takes out an old piece of charcoal, and begins to write. I sit and watch and read, and after a time, I answer.
I think about the axeman’s name as I walk back towards the castle. It’s much later than I’d wanted to let it become. The axeman had wanted to walk me home, but my father would have him punished in a moment if he knew. There’s a touch of irony there I’m sure, in punishing a punisher. My father would likely relish that.
If he even so much as suspected where I spent my evenings then he would tear the place apart to find me. The path up the castle is guarded by tall, gnarled, leafless oak trees. I hate how they look in the later seasons. It isn’t quite cold enough for there to be frost forming on the ground, but it’s certainly chilly enough out here for me to shiver.
“What’s a pretty thing like you doing out here?” a voice calls from the left side of the path. My heart skips a beat. I look over to see Cain stepping onto the path, sword at his belt and a big grin on his face. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to walk alone at this time of night?”
He steps up next to me and matches my stride– with a little difficulty. He’s nearly a foot taller than me. Compared to the giant of a headman that’s nothing, really.
“Prince Cain,” I start quietly. “How nice to see you.”
“Princess Iren,” he says, careful exaggeration twining around impertinent sarcasm. “It’s a fine night for a walk, but your dad is gonna kill you if the thieves and brigands don’t get you first.”
“You’re one to talk,” I retort, with a glance at his sword. “Do you think you’ll escape unscathed every time?”
“Nope!” he says cheerfully. “I got cut this time, too!”
I stop and round on him, then, folding my arms across my nearly bare belly, veil twirling with my body. “Show me,” I demand.
He stops too, turns to me with a sheepish grin and holds his arm out proudly. He’s such a child.
His arm is cut– not deep. It’s just three scratches, long and thin. They bleed sluggishly.
All of a sudden the wounds seem to ooze pus and blood, then rot rapidly before my eyes. I hear the ghost of a scream before the vision fades, and I’m staring at his arm, bare but for a few shallow scratches.
Acting quickly, I reach down and tear a piece of my dress hem away, straightening again and wrapping it around the wound, tying it tight– but not too tight. “Come with me, Cain,” I say quietly. “Okay?”
He raises his eyebrows, but then sighs and shrugs. “Fine. Your father still thinks I’m an honorable man.”
I grin, at that. “Or a charming scoundrel. Hard to tell which.”
He’d appeared out of nowhere, actually, a few months back. Cain is nearly a complete unknown, foreign, from some far off kingdom where all the men have blonde hair and blue eyes, and tales are told of seraphs and angels like they’re something from legend instead of cold, hard fact. I’ve wondered about that place for a while. At least since Cain showed up.
We continue down the path until we reach the front gates, which stand there, iron and immobile. I wrap my hand in silk from my dress and touch it against the iron of the gate. It slowly slides open.
“Why do you always do that?” Cain asks.
It catches me off guard. “Do what?”
“Touch the gate with your dress.”
“I don’t like how the metal feels on my skin,” I answer. “It’s frigid at this time of the starcycle anyway.”
Cain rolls his eyes. “Pretty delicate, Iren.”
I shrug, and we move up, the gates closing behind us. The path here is cobblestone, and the courtyard is filled with willows that weep, their long strand-like leaves swaying. My dress is swaying in the wind, too, as we approach the doors. A pit of dread yawns open in my stomach. Damn Cain. If he hadn’t been hurt, I could have gotten to my room unnoticed.
Cain is the one who reaches for the doorknocker, and the boom it makes as it strikes the full metal door is probably heard for miles and miles around. Stars shine down on us, glittering in the sky as we wait there. At some point he’d slipped his hand into mine. Now I can feel its warmth and I’m glad for it.
The left door opens, and Prissy sees us in. She closes the door behind us and takes Cain’s coat. I can feel a flash of jealousy as her eyes flick down to my hand in Cain’s as she puts it away. “Your father is furious,” she says quietly. “But I thought Cain might come back with you, so you can use the guest room. It’s already spelled.”
“Actually, Prissy,” I answer quietly, “Take Cain to the infirmary. He has three scratches on his arm that will develop into a severe necrotic infection if they aren’t treated.”
Her eyes light up for a moment, then her pretty eyebrows come together and she frowns at me. Her otherwise attractive brown eyes darken with worried suspicion. “Your father…”
“I’ll deal with him,” I reply wearily. “Go.”
Cain squeezes my hand, with a sigh that sounds betrayed. I can feel his worry mix and twine with Prissy’s. “You could have told me, you know,” Cain says, without turning to look at me.
“You know you wouldn’t have believed me,” I answer quietly. “Go.”
They hesitate one second more, then proceed down the main hall and disappear to the left towards the infirmary. I take the stairs to my right, climbing one at a time, slowly. I may need to face my sire, but there’s no reason to hurry. Dread makes my legs weak. I finally reach the top step, and take a deep breath.
My father’s study is down the hall to my right. The hall is filled with tapestry, mostly, commissioned by my father for one occasion or another. The floor is loud as can be here, also commission work by my father. I’ve never heard him make a noise stepping on it, but my sandals clack on it with every step. What had the dwarf who forged them called them? Thieves’ tiles.
I reach the door to father’s study and open it, turning the golden handle and pushing my way in. It clicks closed behind me, and a spark of silver magic locks it tight. I hear Prissy’s muffled shout behind it, and then an outline of more silver magic cuts off all noise from outside the study as well. My heart is pounding in my chest.
Father is sitting behind his desk. The tip of a willow wand– held in his right hand– glistens with silver energy for a moment before it fades. It’s the wand he’s planning to sell, I bet. That’s the only reason I can think of for him to have one with him in the first place.
Father lowers the wand, setting it on the desk again. He stands and walks around in front of it, facing me. He folds his hands behind his back. Pure rage is flowing from him in waves. I have never seen him so angry. Three intensely strong visions strikes all at once.
— I see him picking up the wand and hurling a bolt of silver magic towards me. I see him stride to me, hand raised to deliver a blow. I see him break down and weep and wail, tearing at his hair.
The bolt obliterates me, the hand comes down on my face, delivering a ringing slap, and the wailing tears at my heart. —
I am hit with a hot wave of shame, standing before him in the once-beautiful white dress, reduced now to a dirty stained thing from my time in the alley, the hem torn from where I bound Cain’s wounded arm.
Father does none of the things from my visions, as is often the case. Instead, he nods once as I stand there, a dreadful fear clutching at my heart that aches. My whole body feels consumed by silver magic flame, the sting of that vision where he slapped me making me raise a hand to my cheek, to the red mark that surely must be forming. I wonder why my body is not blackening from the silver flame that feels like it covers every inch of me.
The pain is excruciating. I stand my ground, staring him down, shaking on my feet.
Finally he speaks. His voice is iron, and it burns and freezes my heart at the same time. The ache doubles as the emotion in his words lashes out at me like an obsidian blade.
“I am very disappointed in you, Iren.”
I feel a shudder run through me, and I can’t speak. I want to make an excuse or run, or scream and throw something, to move or to shout, but my voice won’t return to me.
His anger is searing. He doesn’t move any closer to me, but it feels like he presses me against the wall. It feels as though I am naked before his wrath. Like the silver flames have burned my dress away, leaving me bare and ashamed.
“Do you understand why?”
I hold myself, hugging my shoulders tight and shutting my eyes, unwilling, unable to talk to him at all.
“Answer me, Iren.”
The words are like blows, each one a harder than the last. I shut my eyes and finally manage to open my mouth. I can feel his fingers around my neck even though I know him to be across the room from me. I can feel those manicured nails digging into my skin. My skin will be red for days after this.
“I– I know why you are disappointed in me, Father,” I answer as clearly as I can. My voice still comes out as little more than a squeak.
I barely manage to speak at all again. My heart is beating wildly. “I d-disobeyed you. I put myself and the line of t-the kingdom in danger. I interrupted the execution and denied a criminal his last words. Again.”
“Correct. And?” That voice is blank as cold steel. Only I could detect the emotion behind it. Only I can feel the terrible anger and the bitter sorrow.
“I am the Princess of the realm. I have done wrong by the line.” Something in my words must reach him.
“You volunteered to be the Princess, Iren,” Father admonishes quietly, all hints of anger suddenly gone, leaving only sadness in its wake. “I can’t hold something you can’t control against you. I said I would make it official, and I still mean to no matter how disobedient you are. I’ve been studying up on the spells necessary. But you also must remember what that means. If I am to make this official, you still must obey me as you would your mother. You are a free spirit, but also vital to the survival of this kingdom. Do you understand that, Iren?”
“I do,” I reply quietly. “I’m sorry for disobeying you, father. It won’t happen again.”
I don’t look at him as I approach. I can feel the weight of the dress around me fall away at a touch. Stinging, then, as his hands press here or there on my body, taking note of every scratch or bruise, of the stinging red mark on my cheek. Father pauses when he reaches my belly. It’s then that I remember the rune I’d had drawn there earlier, with the hangman. We’d run out of paper, so we’d drawn it in charcoal. Just a game, really, but it’d been quite fun. Improper, of course, but I’ve never really bothered with that.
“This isn’t your handwriting,” Father notes with a frown. “Who drew this on you, Iren? Who have you let see you– as you are?”
“Well, there’s Cain,” I begin. He cuts me off.
“I already know about Cain. Who else?”
“Prissy,” I breathe, heart falling. “Azrael. Marka.”
“Prissy is your handmaid, Azrael your ex-mate and you try my patience by mentioning your old form Marka, Iren.”
I take an involuntary step back, away from his hands. He straightens and folds his arms. “I won’t tell you,” I say quietly. “You’ll hurt him.”
He blinks, at that. Then pauses. “You’ve been having visions again.”
I’m aghast. I thought he’d realized that already. “Of course. Why else would I force an execution forward?”
He sighs and shakes his head. “A man’s foolishness. I thought my daughter was being fickle and tormenting the poor hangman. I didn’t recognize it for what it was until now. Such is the nature of the curse. I hadn’t even thought of that.”
I let a creeper of hope grow in my belly.
“You are dismissed, Iren. I’m sorry.”
I breathe a sigh of relief and force myself to walk from the room. As soon as I’m outside of his study I run down the hall to my room on legs barely strong enough to hold me.
Cain is sitting on my bed. He stares at me as I walk in, completely naked, then sighs. “He sure doesn’t go easy, does he?”
“I don’t think my father knows the meaning of the word,” I sigh.
“Come sit by me, little seraph,” Cain says softly, beckoning me with a finger. I sit down next to him. I can feel him look me over.
“You lost your clothes,” he remarks. I collapse against him, and he tugs my head into his lap, stroking my white hair like silk. It’s not completely white. It’s streaked with brown too.
I feel Cain looking at the scars crisscrossing my back, at my pale skin, bare, blank chest, blank skin from my belly down to my feet, bare of blemishes. “How do you do that?” he asks. “Turn neutral like that. You’re not a man and not a woman, either. You don’t have any– you know, aspect.”
I stare up at him and his honest blue eyes. “Seraph,” I hazard. I’m actually not sure myself. “Maybe?”
He smiles. “So you don’t even know.”
“I’m not the one who does it. Father did it the first time,” I admit. “It was an accident that I learned how to shift back and forth. And I can’t keep it up for too long.”
“I remember that accident pretty clearly,” Cain says dryly. “I don’t know about ‘too long’. I’d say it lasts long enough.”
I almost hit him. I feel a blush creep onto my skin and take a deep breath. Though he doesn’t show it, Cain is feeling embarrassed too. I feel his thoughts drift to our night together, and give him a light nudge.
“What did Azrael have to say?” I ask quietly, after a while of somewhat awkward silence. I’m enjoying the heat of his body close to mine, but there are more important things on my mind right now.
“Hm?” Cain shakes himself out of his steamy reverie. “Nothing. He gave me a look, though. You know the one. The why-did-you-bring-wolf-scratches-to-my-attention look.”
Silence for a while. Warm, soft silence. Almost enough that I can fall asleep. I feel my eyes flutter a little, but Cain’s voice snaps me out of it again.
“That guy. He sort of gives me the creeps.”
“He’s a good guard,” I mumble.
“Yeah, sure. He’s also one of the most powerful magi in the kingdom and he’s under your father’s complete bloody control,” Cain says sharply. “If I were you I’d be worried.”
It’s my turn to smile. “You mean you’re worried for me.”
The bed creaks a little as he shifts his weight uncomfortably, but he keeps stroking my hair, as if deep in thought. Finally, he nods, when —
there’s a tremendous crash. The door to my room is crushed into splinters, shrapnel that is flung every which way, tearing through Cain in an instant and pinning him to the headboard of the bed, a spike driven into my arm, piercing me, crushing the bone on its way out the other side.
Red sprays, paints the walls, the scent of ozone and terror, the scent of viscera and rot, the feel of incredible pain that lingers forever and I lie there on the bed, bleeding out and uncaring because Cain is surely dead.
— the vision leaves me gasping, and I sit bolt upright. Cain blinks, but doesn’t say anything. He also doesn’t notice that my arm is bleeding. He can’t feel it stinging where my vision exacted its price. I tremble, then. No one in this room but me knows what I saw. The vision involves Cain, so he won’t believe me. My mind races furiously, trying to find a way around it. After what seems like an eternity I know what I need to do.
“Cain,” I breathe. “Corner. Please.”
His eyes meet mine. I know I don’t have much time. “Now?”
“Yes!” I gasp, and turn to face him fully. “Now. Right now. Okay?”
“It’s just- this bed is really comfortable,” Cain starts reluctantly, but he stands and lifts me up and gods above bless him, he carries me to the northwest corner of my room and sets me against the wall. “And how do you want to start this, Princess-” is as far as he gets before I stand up on tiptoe, using the wall for support, and kiss him on the mouth, pulling him tight against me with a desperation that is all too real.
He stiffens, though. I can feel it as I pull back from the kiss. “Iren…” he says quietly. “You’re bleeding.”
I take a chance. “Vision,” I whisper.
His eyes have a chance to widen before the door explodes outward. Wood gives way in an immense, thunderous boom, and the candlelight in the room is extinguished, plunging it into shadow. I pull Cain down on top of me, hitting the floor as quietly as I can, ducking, curling into the corner. I can see him open his mouth, but he snaps it shut again and, arms wrapped around me, gives me a quick squeeze. I watch, in the near pitch darkness, his hand stray to his sword.
It is completely silent. No sound but a soft drip-drip sort of noise —
A sword erupts from Cain’s chest and pricks my middle and I scream.
Blood soaks my skin, sticky and hot.
— and then vision releases me. I can’t help but sob, and I pull away from Cain and stand up. “What are you-” he starts to ask, but I don’t answer.
I erupt with radiance, bathing the room with it. I let the light shine from me with as much force as I can muster, skin slick with sweat from the effort, sucking in a breath. “Here I am!” I snap. “Come for me, if your sight is still with you!”
Five diminutive, humanoid creatures, each no more than three feet high, stand in the room with me. Their lizard-like faces show teeth as they snarl and hiss, eyes shut tight against the blaze of light that illuminates the whole room. Scaly tails flick behind them. Kobolds.
A cloaked man also stands there, eyes screwed up, hand covering his face. His other hand clutches a sword. He curses in a foreign tongue, then rattles something out in a different language like hissing and clicking. His sword is blue with blood.
Blue with Prissy’s blood. Her fey blood. Who else is fey in this house?
His eyes open, then, his hand falls away, he raises his blade. Those eyes glint at me, glint yellow.
Cain stands up and strides in front of me, sword out.
“Get Azrael!” he hisses to me over his shoulder. “Find Azrael! These can’t be all of them!”
“Like hells I will,” I whisper furiously. “There are too many for you to fight on your own.”
“Idiot-” he starts, and then snarls in frustration as the man recovers fully and lunges. Cain parries twice quickly, and–
always on the retreat, the third strike sinks into his chest to the hilt. Cain lets out a strangled gasp and collapses. The man withdraws his blade with a grunt, kicks Cain out of the way and starts towards me as I cry out.
–the vision lets me go. I knock Cain aside completely, out towards the door of the room. The tip of the man’s blade hisses in the air between us as I stumble back. Cain makes a decision– he starts for me, when a scream echoes into the room, momentarily disrupting everyone, stopping us all dead. Cain goes white. I feel his heart wrench. I feel him turn and run.
The assassin turns to me, and then I cut my radiant light off completely.
I hear him growl a curse and feel him lunge blindly, feel the shape of him moving toward me more than I see it. His emotions carve an outline of him in the air as he moves, their trails sometimes blurry and confusing, but plain as day right now. The patter of scaly feet mark the kobolds chasing after Cain.
I skip to the side of the assassin’s wild thrust, wary of that deadly blade even in the dark.
The sound of metal boots on the thieves’ tiles outside my father’s study drown out the world. When the echoes die away, all that’s left is the breathing from the assassin and me, as if we’re completely alone.
“There you are,” he whispers darkly, from what feels like right next to my ear. I know him to be in front of me, though, and his attack swings for the wall. It scatters sparks as it scrapes along the stone, and I slam into him from the side as he snarls another curse. The sword is knocked away onto the floor as I bear him to the ground, knees on his belly. I reach for his throat —
and he knocks my hands aside, rolls me over onto my back and slams my head into the floor once, twice, three times. Dazed and dizzy, his leg forces mine apart, as his own hands wrap around my neck and squeeze. I can’t catch a breath, pain blazing through my body like lines, like waves, like the essence of fire itself. Shame and disgust and terror welcome me into the murky abyss as the last of my breath is squeezed from my throat in a whimper.
— the vision leaves me. He knocks my dazed hands aside and rolls over on top of me, but as he tries to put a leg between mine, I beat him to it and slam my knee into his crotch as hard as I can. My throat is sore even though he hasn’t touched it truly, but he gurgles and collapses to the side with something like a whimper and a wheeze.
The kind of idiot assassin who attempts rape in the middle of a castle full of unknowns is the same type that would want to make the act as convenient as possible. A codpiece would be out of the question for such a man. I crawl, then stand and stagger away, shining again as bright as I can, sweat running down my bare belly, arms, cheeks, dripping from my nose as I push power out from me for the third time this day. I need to see.
My sight, blurred, clears quickly. The sword is only a few feet away.
I pick up the sword, and the man on the floor, curled in a fetal position, gets a split second of hesitation too much from me. He struggles to his feet, and as I start for him, stumbles to the nearest window and crashes through it in a shower of beautiful, glittering shards. I run to the arched window, heedless of glass that fell around it, and hear a shouted word like slick darkness. By the time I can search for him, all that’s left is a puff of brimstone.
I release my power, letting the light fade to a glow, and, hand still wrapped around the hilt of the sword, I manage to make it out the door and into the hall. I remember hearing the metal boots on the tiles before my father’s study. I remember hearing the scream. It came from the infirmary and I’ve no doubt in my mind it belonged to Prissy. The kobolds ran after Cain and I know he didn’t have time to see them.
I dart down the hall to the stairs, taking the steps four at a time and doing my best not to let the sword slide into my thigh. It’s a long thing with sharp edges and a plain, joyless hilt. To skewer someone with such a weapon would be dull and soulless. It’s perfect for an assassin, though why he would use a sword rather than an easily concealable dagger is beyond me. Perhaps he’d been an amateur.
I run down the main hall– the doors are wide open!– hearing a shout from behind me, two voices raised as one. I recognize neither of them, so I drop to my hands and knees at the last second as I turn to the hall Prissy took Cain to. There’s a thrum and a moment later an audible thunk as a bolt slams into the wood, head height, just above my eartip as I crawl, staggering to my feet and running again. The infirmary and the kitchen, left and right. I reach for the left door —
and, rushing in, skewer myself on Cain’s sword, collapsing with the barest of gasps and slipping into darkness eternal in mere moments, my blood pooling on the floor, Cain pleading with me to come back, to stay with him, shouting, helplessly trying to staunch the dreadful wound with one, both hands.
— and open it carefully as I can, easing it back and stepping through. My chest is slick with sweat and blood from a cut that stings bitterly. It’s a deeper price than usual, and the flow is constant.
Cain greets me with a hug rather than a sword, squeezing me tight and letting out a big, helpless sob into my shoulder.
For my part I hug him back. It smells of charred flesh in here, and I look around him to see Prissy smiling weakly, waving a hand. It’s smeared with blue blood, bleeding slowly. It looks like she stopped a sword with it. Around her are five charred kobolds, scales rent by lightning. Prissy’s left hand is clenched, and sparks crackle around it in a cloud. Most fey have some power over electricity.
An almighty crash makes all three of us jump. Someone new has discovered the thieves’ tiles, I think. We huddle together in the infirmary, Prissy and I sitting on the farthest bed, Cain at the door with his sword at the ready.
“What happened?” I ask, voice raw. My throat still aches.
“A man came in– at least, I think it was a man,” Prissy starts weakly. Her dress is torn in half a dozen places. She’d be exposed were it not for her arm over her chest. “He had a wolf’s head and claws– big, long, claws. He had another man with him who tried to cut me, but I– stopped his sword. The first one, oh gods– Iren, he slashed at me with those claws and tore up my dress. He scratched me once and said that was enough, and then he left. He just left! He said he had other business to take care of, and said he’d be back for me. I couldn’t even scream until he and his– his friend left! I couldn’t say anything!”
I nod, letting out a sigh. I stare at Prissy’s wound hard for a while, daring another vision to hit, but it doesn’t. Nothing bad will come of it then, I hope.
I look around and nearly jump as I catch sight of a man, dead on the bed across from the one Prissy and I sit on. At least, I assume he’s dead. His chest is rent open. I note that he seems to be bald, and that his glazed eyes are brown. She nods at it and takes in a shuddering breath before she speaks.
“Cain killed that one. Ran him through. He– was going to attack me after they left. These men are monsters, Iren,” she adds with a grimace. “Complete scum. I hope your father kills them all.”
I stand up straight and stare at the wall a moment. “Father,” I breathe. “Damn!”
I dart to the door. Cain stops me with one hand, eyes fixed on it. “Don’t, Irenna.”
He must feel my eyes boring into the back of his head. “What do you mean?”
“I mean don’t run off. Whoever went after your father was well aware of what he was capable of. If you run back out there- well, think about it.”
I do. I take a moment to think about it, to wonder about the pain it would cause him if I were killed. I stare at nothing for a few moments, then snap my eyes shut and lean against Cain’s shoulder, feeling helpless. “What can I do?”
“Stay here where it’s safe.” —
The door bursts open. A snarling creature with a wolf’s face, the monster the criminal would have become, charges in. Cain shouts, runs it through with his blade, and it pauses but a moment before smashing him aside with one huge fist, knocking him away, grabbing me around the waist, growling and then fleeing, black blood running down its chest. —
“Cain-” I start. There must be something I can do to change his mind. There must be some way I can help Father. And
— the door bursts open. A snarling creature with a wolf’s face, the monster the criminal would have become, charges in. Cain shouts, runs it through with his blade, but it disembowels him with one swipe. I am not in the room.
It starts on Prissy next and her shriek wrenches at me from my unseen vantage point.
— I clutch at my head and sink to my knees, trying to block out the visions, opening my eyes to see Cain staring down at me with sudden concern.
“Iren? Irenna? Are you okay?”—
Three more visions hit, to no avail. In two I am gone from the room. They end in the death of Cain and Prissy without exception. In the third, we all three leave the room only to be met by the beast in the hall. It kills Cain and Prissy both, who were in front of me to protect me, then snatches me and runs.
— There is no way out of this. No way out but one.
“Cain, back away from the door,” I say quietly. I straighten and stand. I know my legs are trembling and I don’t care. “Please.”
He stares down at me. I look up into his eyes, sapphire blue, framed by blonde hair he always lets grow too long. His face is sharp, but smooth, free of scars. Prissy likes her men with scars.
I lean up, standing on tiptoes again, and kiss him on the lips, lingering for as long as I feel is safe, the warmth of his mouth on mine making me wish I could stay longer. As I draw back I feel my heart sink. I can almost feel the burning rage of that man who should have died near the gallows. I can almost feel the burning, inhuman fury that will come for me. It seems to surround me, even as Cain wraps his arms around me and mashes me tight against him, relaxing only when I push at him.
“Don’t follow,” I whisper. “Or you’ll get yourself killed. Find Azrael. He’ll know what to do.”
“Like hells-” he starts, but doesn’t get to finish as I shove him aside, throwing him out of the way.
The door bursts open, and an apparition from living nightmare takes me.
The ride is rough. The wolf-beast drags me along with brutal force, this creature that once was a man. I’d just managed to pull myself up onto its swinging arm and cling, because it’s either that or risk it trying to catch me again and killing me. Weak as I am from losing blood to visions and the exhaustion of the day, I am certain that I won’t be killed yet.
We pass through the woods surrounding the castle, dragged away from the safety of the courtyard. I struggle for breath. Its hand is around my throat. Twice I watch the sky painted with purple suffocation, barely hanging on to consciousness. Twice I fight stars back and dig my hands into the furred one around my neck.
Finally the nightmarish journey is over, and it stands in front of a man I recognize. His axe is set with the handle in the dirt and his hand on the head. He gives me a cheerful nod. The wolf-creature throws me at his feet.
“So the tracking rune did work,” he says nonchalantly. As if he had always been able to speak. “Among other things.”
“How-” I start weakly. I cough suddenly, helplessly. My throat aches horribly and I find it hard to speak. “Who are you?”
“Isn’t that much obvious, little seraph?” the hangman asks quietly. “Don’t you recognize your old ex?”
His form shifts and swims before me. A young man, as tall as the sky, bathed in black radiance, stands before me. His axe turns into a staff. In one hand he holds a small, broken piece of charcoal, which he tosses at my feet. Azrael smiles a wicked smile. My heart stops, frozen solid in my chest.
“No,” I spit, snapping the word out into the starlight. “I don’t recognize you.”
“Pity,” he says. Stands of golden power gather around me and lift me up, locking my limbs out spreadeagled and bare in front of him. I stare at him steadily. “Do you know why I brought you here, Marka?”
“Address me as Irenna,” I say coldly.
“At risk of sounding terribly cliché, you’re hardly in a position to demand anything from anyone. I asked you a question, and–” he flicks his fingers. Arcing, hot, sickening pain spears through me once and then fades slowly. “I expect an answer.”
I endure the pain soundlessly, lips tight together. “I don’t know why you brought me here, servant, but Orion–”
“Don’t call me that, Mark– or Iren, if you’d prefer,” he snarls. I notice his fingers flex, but no pain follows and I breathe a short sigh of relief that I know he can hear even if he pretends not to notice. “I am no one’s servant any longer. Your father can’t stop my freedom.”
“If you’re going to monologue,” I say wearily. “Get it over with so I can die and I don’t need to listen to your idiocy anymore. Azrael.”
We glare at one another for a time, but he doesn’t answer. “You know people have died for you,” I snap. “At least one assassin and a hand of blameless kobolds.”
Azrael raises his eyebrows. “I paid for no such thing. The only agent I sent was Kharn. I knew of no attack planned for the night.”
I blink, at that. “You didn’t call any assassins?”
“No, I didn’t. I swear on my honor as a sorcerer of the ninth degree.”
I roll my eyes at that. “Fine, I believe you. Curious that they’d strike the same night as you. Prissy said that Kharn was associating with one of them.”
“It was mere lucky circumstance that I was able to imprint a tracking rune on you tonight,” Azrael says with a shrug. “Ideally it would be placed at a time when you were vulnerable, so I could imprint the spell and remain undetected. I thought about capturing you then and there, but in a crowded square with so many people? Many of them higher order sorcerers, come to see this famous criminal killed? Such a blatant display of raw talent would have gotten me killed, surely. As to why Kharn would work with one of them– that is most curious. Perhaps they were associated when Kharn was alive? I gave him no orders about dealing with your allies. I’d expected the castle to be relatively empty.”
As he talks, I grow more and more puzzled. He’s not lying. I’d feel it if he was.
“I admire your tenacity, by the way, for holding onto that sword all this time,” Azrael remarks dryly. “Quite strong willed. Doesn’t it burn?”
“I’m only half seraph,” I say plainly, a little confused. “My mother was human. If I was full it would burn. It just stings a bit, that’s all. I’m used to that.”
Azrael blinks, then his eyes widen. “Half-seraph? Your mother was human? You mean-“—
A beam of incandescent light bursts from the sky and smites Azrael to ash where he stands. He hasn’t even a chance to breathe or think or cast a spell.—
“Azrael!” I shout as the vision leaves me, spots still shining in my eyes, half-blinded. “Move! Father is here! I had a vision!”
I’m not sure what possesses me to say it. Whether it’s lingering attraction or idiocy or some foolish sense of justice. I can’t just let him die. I can’t do it.
Instead of moving, Azrael calmly stands there, facing me, an expression of disbelief clouding his face, a face darkened by hate at the mere mention of Father. “Hm?”
A bolt of bright light lances down from the sky, but I observe Azrael spinning before it even appears. He deflects it with the wave of his hand, sending it refracting harmlessly over the town with a brilliant flash.
Orion, my father, gazes at Azrael where the sorcerer stands. He stares down at the human in quiet solemnity, hovering there in midair. His wings are out, fully extended– though he doesn’t need to move them to fly– his eyes flaring with light, silver power sparkling over his hands. He is dressed only in robes as always, and the wind catches his golden hair.
“You dare to steal my daughter from me?” Orion asks, in a voice like a hundred starshine swords.
“I do dare,” Azrael says amicably. “Anything to pull you from that nasty study of yours. Filled with so many tricks and traps, that you nearly never leave.”
“How did you do it?” Orion thunders. “How could you? She is the last of my line. Would you truly jeopardize everything I’ve held dear in favor of some… childish prank?”
“Is that what you think this is?” Azrael asks now, his voice dangerously quiet. “I’m merely claiming my freedom, as is my right as a humanborn sorcerer. No longer will I bow to you.”
I sigh audibly. Both of them shoot me withering looks, and I roll my eyes again and just hang there. Far be it from me to interrupt. I turn my attention to the golden magic surrounding my limbs. Azrael has always been one for intricate magic. And powerful though he is, I’m half seraph. There’s something I can do without even needing to wrestle with it. I can understand it.
I burrow into it, past walls of it, through columns of intricate formulae that all boil down to one thing: Capture. There isn’t much I can do with that. It’s what is sealing the movement of my limbs, and it seems to be a closed loop. There’s nowhere to put a new equation into the mix even if I knew how. I turn my attention to the wellspring of power that it comes from. Failing to find that, I stare at Azrael’s undead servant.
It’s being funneled to by a series of complex necromantic magic equations, all relying on one thing– that the creature being controlled is a werewolf, and that it is dead. Both apply to Kharn, Azrael’s current pet. It’s a simple tag system. I’ve seen enough of Azrael’s charms to recognize it.
Kharn is tagged ‘dead’ and ‘werewolf’, ergo it is both dead and a werewolf. It has a few other extraneous tags that don’t do anything much. Since it’s both dead and a werewolf it can and is affected by the control spell. There should be a similar cluster of tags around me.
I am tagged many things at once. In my head, I can see the shape of the golden magic wrapped around my arms and legs.
They are tagged ‘seraph’, ‘radiant’ and ‘genderless’, because I guess Azrael doesn’t like a lack of thoroughness. ‘Genderless’ nags at me.
How do you do that?
I smile, remembering Cain’s words. Just long enough, huh?
I take a deep breath. Azrael and Orion are still talking. I don’t think they’ve flung any spells at each other yet, for which I’m thankful.
With barely a thought, I change. I shift from neutral to female. I focus all my power inward and let the change hit, concentrating on that and just that. I am a girl. A young seraph woman. Girl. Everything that makes me me is the same. I’m just a girl. A daughter. Father’s daughter. Orion’s daughter.
I am Irenna.
Not for long, of course. It’s too chilly to be full female for very long.
Chains of golden power evaporate as the new tag is read. The formula holding his spell together collapses, the waveform dissolving. I hear a snarl behind me and whirl.
Kharn is not being held by the spell anymore. It was a dependent spell loop. It was relying on the fact that I was being tracked. Without further instruction, Kharn is released. I take all that in in just one second, and it’s still almost not quick enough.
Kharn’s claws come down on the ground in front of me, right where I was a moment before. I roll back to my feet, breath catching in my throat. Its eyes are burning with fury. I can feel its anger. “Oh,” I say quietly. “Right.”
It leaps for me.
A helix of silver and gold magic, incomprehensible in its complexity, spirals past me and drives itself into Kharn’s open, snarling mouth. The undead abomination flashes into golden sparks and silver shards of stone, then fades into motes of dust.
I glance over at Azrael and Orion. Both of them have faces of cold, concentrated anger, but this time directed at the few sparkling motes that remain to show Kharn ever existed. Slowly, they turn to look at one another. I half-expect them to deny that they worked together, but they don’t. They simply stand there, shoulder to shoulder, Azrael’s left arm against Orion’s right. They lower their arms with an almost comical simultaneity. I burst out laughing, and then cry until I can’t stand anymore.
The castle is dark in its courtyard, as Azrael, Orion and I all appear from thin air. Two men, the only souls about and standing before the main door, are there to greet us. They shout, one drops a sword, the other raises a crossbow. Golden magic flashes out like lightning and melts the crossbow to ash. The man screams a curse and flings its remnants down before kissing the dirt in an almost sickening reversal, cowering before the wrath sure to follow. Azrael’s short black hair and his impressive stature spell doom for any who know of our castle. These men must be foreigners. Like Cain, they can’t be part of this kingdom.
The man who dropped his sword struggles to pick it up again, sees Azrael’s cold, furious face, and thinks better of it. He gets down on his knees and keeps his hands out, empty and for all to see.
“One escaped,” I say. “He spoke a word I didn’t recognize and disappeared. I think it was infernal magic, though.”
“Brimstone?” Azrael asks quietly.
“Yes. I’m sure you consider this irrelevant, but what did you do with the old executioner?” I ask. I have a feeling I know the answer, but I do want to know.
“He’s sleeping at home,” Azrael replies smoothly. “Before you ask, I’d never impersonated him once before today.”
I breathe a sigh of relief.
Orion strides inside impatiently, and Azrael and I follow after him.
Prissy stands just inside the door, sparks coalescing in her hands. When she sees Orion, though, she lets them fade. As he stalks past her, she grabs his shoulder to get his attention. I wince, but she seems determined. “Sir, please– it’s Cain!”
Orion stops dead. “Cain?”
“He’s turning– I thought it was just wolf scratches at first, but–”
Orion frowns, then sighs. “Ah. I’ll deal with this personally. Azrael, can you take Iren up to my study?”
“Yes. As a friend?”
“As a friend,” Orion says warily. “I release you from my service, Azrael, here and now, and later officially.”
“Then certainly,” Azrael replies dryly. “Let us go there at once.”
He wraps an arm around my waist. Orion arches an eyebrow, then sighs and nods. He turns and heads towards the infirmary, Prissy following after him.
Azrael teleports us directly outside the door to the study, and for once we bypass the horrid thieves’ tiles. I’m thankful. I have a splitting headache. —
Azrael opens the door, and a bolt hurtles right through him and keeps going. Blood sprays all over me. Lovely.
— I push Azrael aside and open the door, shifting away from the center and letting it swing in fully. I hear the thrum and watch the bolt zip past on its way down the hall, then I stride into the study. “Alright,” I snarl. “I’ve had enough of this.”
The assassin from earlier feverishly attempts to load a crossbow, covered in cuts from where he burst through my window. Or should I say thief?
I think I have it figured out now. “It was a setup.”
Azrael steps up beside me and then sighs, flinging a bolt of power at the thief who drops the crossbow, tries to scramble to his feet, and turns to stone as the golden magic wraps around him.
“Do tell,” Azrael murmurs. “How, exactly, were we set up?”
I shake my head. “There was a man at the execution. Talk to father about it. I bet you anything this is that same man. I didn’t get a good look at him, but I bet you he is. He’s quite incompetent, actually. But he knew Kharn. I think they worked together and he talked to Kharn when he got here. He also hired those two men at the front gates. They couldn’t talk to us, but I bet you anything they could talk to him. They speak the same language.”
My ex-mate arches an eyebrow and smiles. “Is that so?”
I nod and suddenly feel a yawn coming on. I cover it with my hand and let out a sigh instead. “Yes. You know, for a man who planned to kill my father and punishes impertinence with pain, you aren’t really that bad,” I half-tease. I’m quite tired.
Azrael blinks. “Pain?”
I stare at him. “You hit me with a wave of it earlier. When you captured me. It wasn’t that long ago.”
“I what? I… oh, I must have tagged it incorrectly,” he says lamely. “I can’t imagine why.”
Jealousy is flashing through him, but I’m too tired to argue the point. It’s just one more thing to worry about, and I honestly don’t want to worry about it anymore. In a moment, Father will be here, and there will be more questions. I resolve to let Azrael answer them.
When I wake up, I’m sitting in the chair before his desk, listening to Orion and Azrael talk. My nose is stuffy and I’m pretty sure I’ve caught something nasty.
Days pass, as they are wont to do when you spend a week recovering from a cold. I really should have thought to put on clothes before I was captured by a monster.
“Thieves,” Father says quietly. “Are truly the worst of humanity.”
It’s the tenth lecture of the week. We’d buried the man and the kobolds in the castle cemetery, more out of pity than any true obligation. The statue of the thief, complete with petrified wand, are on display in the courtyard. Cain put a sign around his neck reading, ‘Restore me and I’ll steal my way out of your debt!’
I think it’s a bit too long winded for a prank, but Cain cracks up every time he sees it, and it did make me giggle a little, I’ll admit.
It’s the morning, and I’m sitting together with Cain. Prissy is busying herself about the castle, tidying, while we sit in the main dining hall. Azrael had left in the morning, off to study his own spells for a month or two. Honestly I don’t mind. He’s a good enough guy, but it would be awkward having him around with Cain here too. I don’t know what to make my my feelings for either of them, but Cain has at least never sent giant undead werewolves after me. Can I say as much for Azrael? I think not. Plus, I’d gathered that he hadn’t helped Cain when he was first approached, even though he could easily recognize them as werewolf scratches. Someone as jealous as that I’m sure I left for a reason.
I’m not even really listening to Father, but I nod every once in a while to show I’m an obedient girl. In a few more days it’ll even be official. I smile at that.
“Cain?” I ask quietly, so only he can hear.
“Mm?” he answers, obviously trying to at least pretend to pay attention to Orion. I can see his eye flick towards me, though, and take it as an affirmation.
“Stay here a while longer, before you head back to the embassy,” I say softly. “Before you go home.”
“I wasn’t planning on leaving,” Cain replies, his voice barely above a whisper. His deep blue eyes meet mine. There, in front of Father and the rising, radiant sun, we kiss. We don’t even stop when he coughs. He can just deal with it.
The vision before me is so sweet I could cry.
©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)
It’s done. I didn’t know I wanted to write it until early this morning. It took hours and hours. It’s done. Enjoy.