I was going to die.
I saw the dagger coming too late to get out of the way, watched it spiraling through the air towards me with astonishing speed.
My eyes were open wide, my mouth was too –
like a fish plucked from the sea, suddenly discovering it couldn’t breathe in
the open air. It was apparent that shock was not a good look for me; the breath
in my chest caught as my muscles tensed, waiting for the impact. Light
reflected off the blade, shooting sunbursts through the room on each spin, like
a deadly disco ball.
She had actually thrown it. Damn that heartless monster!
The monster in question stood a few short feet from me, grinning wickedly through blood-red lips, another dagger at the ready. Her brown eyes were bright, full of morbid anticipation as they followed the path of the weapon. Long dark hair was tied back in an unyielding braid that ran to her hips, beaded with sweat and blood. Red leather armor protected the majority of her body, a striking contrast to her flawless dark skin.
My shields locked into place a millisecond before the dagger could embed itself in my throat.
The blade disintegrated on impact with the solid mass of jade magic, becoming nothing more than dust that rained down at my feet. I conjured knives of my own, willing the sharp glinting steel and silver into existence, small double-edged and deadly. I barely felt the weight of them in my hands before I tossed them towards her.
They didn’t move as fast as hers had, and she quickly maneuvered out of their way, taking cover behind a crumbling stone wall in the center of the room. No surprises there; I was nowhere near as skilled or experienced as she was. Still, I hoped for some luck – a miracle that gave me the upper hand I needed. I kept the barrage of crafted magic coming, even as I stepped toward her, hoping that the sheer number of deadly blades would beat the grinning assassin.
“Is that the best you’ve got?” She called out, mocking laughter in her voice. I could no longer see her, successfully hidden behind the wall, but I could sense her power – the magic like a beacon in the dark. It was mischievous and sinister, a wicked mix of death magic and sharp, experienced intelligence.
I called up more of my own power, jade smoke forming in the air around me, grinning as it coalesced and solidified into an almost exact replica of myself – a trick that I had only learned recently.
Shoulder-length golden blonde hair tied back in a messy bun, bright green eyes, and a curvy figure dressed in black leather armor, both hands gripping blades– the entire image glowing faintly with dancing green light, like an otherworldly aurora.
I sent my magic clone towards the wall and the assassin behind it, strengthening the mirage until the aura light vanished within it. Now it looked exactly like me – no one would be able to tell the difference, not even the woman I had unleashed it upon.
Her daggers flew towards the clone as it rounded the corner, the assassin huffing a victorious laugh as they embedded themselves into the armor protecting the chest. The clone fell backward, landing heavily on the floor, unmoving. The killer followed, standing over it, hands empty now.
She was out of weapons at last, just as I had hoped she would be.
I made my move, grounding my feet and lashing out with my power, sending wave after wave of despair into her body – the emotion appearing as a purple so dark it was almost black. It pushed its way in, her body sagging until she could no longer stand. As she fell to her knees beside the clone, I willed the despair to transform, becoming barbed vines that wrapped themselves around her, holding her tight.
I sauntered over, a sword forming in my hand, shields coming down. The woman tilted her head so that she could watch my approach, eyes wary. I held the sword out, the tip of the blade under her chin.
“You’re finished, Assassin Barbie,” I said breathlessly, a smile playing at the corner of my lips.
“This is done. Say it.”
Her eyes narrowed, lip pulled back in a silent snarl. I pushed the sword harder, a line of crimson running down her throat, the vines squeezing tighter. “Say it.”
“We’re done.” The woman hissed, a little breathless now too. “Get this thing off me.”
I beamed in triumph, watching her fall to
the floor as my magic came back to me, the vines and sword vanishing as quickly
as they had appeared. I should have expected it – should have seen her plan –
should have seen her reaching for the dagger left behind when the clone
vanished. But I was too caught up in my imagined victory, too busy gloating. So
fast I barely saw her move; the assassin had me on the floor, her body on top
of mine, knees pinning down my arms, and the blade she’d retrieved from the
floor at my throat.
“Never trust an enemy.” She hissed in my face, eyes flashing with bloodlust. “They lie.”
Shit. My eyes followed the movement of the blade as it was raised from my throat and into the air, the woman’s grip firm on the handle as she brought it back down again, aiming for my heart. My magic pulsed out, sending a shockwave through the room. The assassin was lifted off me, flung backward, and thrown into the wall. She lay there, stunned, eyes unfocused.
I got to my feet slowly, my body heavy. I
made sure to keep my eyes on my assailant, warily waiting for her next attack. She
crawled toward her daggers, shaking her head to clear it, her movements
sluggish. Blood dripped from a gash in her forehead, creating a red drip trail
on the floor as she moved.
I couldn’t let her reach them. Calling up my magic again, I was distressed to feel it beginning to tire – exertion still an issue – even after months of building my strength and stamina. I had to end this fight soon, or I would be helpless. I willed the power within me to hold out a little longer, to keep from vanishing and leaving me defenseless.
I conjured a bow – feeling smoke swirling through my fingers, using the image in my mind to create it, only for the weapon to solidify in my hand. Arrows were next, sharp and gleaming tips of metal that connected with dark wooden shafts. Black feathers on the ends shimmered green as they moved. They were as beautiful as they were deadly. I nocked one, drawing back the bowstring, and let loose, following the arrow’s progression as best I could as it sped towards the assassin.
She was on her feet now, daggers in hand, eyes narrowed as she, too, took in the flight of the arrow. I readied another one, hands shaking and eyes wide, as the woman simply knocked the bolt out of the air with the tip of her dagger. What the actual hell?
She smirked and started towards me, her steps confident and unhurried. Another arrow shot toward her. Again, an effortless evade. Another and another, over and over, until there were none left. Assassin Barbie was too close for me to conjure up anymore anyway, barely out of arms reach. I let go of the bow; it vanished before it hit the ground, the magic returning to me slower than it had earlier.
A dagger bounced off my hurriedly made shield, the magic too weak now to disintegrate it. The assassin hissed anyway, vibrations from the contact running up her arm as her hand shot back from the unsuccessful attack.
She eyed my defenses critically, a leer creeping over her lips as she circled me. I turned as she moved, keeping her from my back and making my own observations. She was limping slightly, her right leg injured. “You’re weakened,” she said, brown eyes gleaming. “You'll be defenseless in minutes, and then I can kill you. All I have to do is wait it out."
I fought the urge to roll my eyes, even as my heart pounded in my chest so hard that I was sure she could hear it. I wasn't out of the fight yet, I reminded myself, but I needed time. I needed a distraction to keep her busy while my energy was replenished.
"Tick." My shield faltered as she spoke, and the evil grin widened on my attacker's face. "Tock."
I took a grounding breath, digging deep within myself. I could do this.
Time seemed to slow as I pulled up the last of my magic, wrapping it around myself like a blanket. I pulled what I could from the room around us, too, the shadows dancing like a black flame. Then, what little light there was, was extinguished, throwing the world into suffocating darkness.
I dropped my faltering shield, spinning through the gloom in silence, spinning out of reach of the daggers that arched through the air towards my face.
The shadows enveloped my attacker, growing heavy – heavier with each passing second. Each breath she took thinner than the last, the shadows constricting against her on every breath out. I wasn't going to be caught out again – I couldn't be – there was nothing left for me to use. I couldn't declare victory until it was utterly irrefutable. This woman had to bleed all over the floor, and it had to be now. She was still trying to fight; I could hear her struggling against her bonds, daggers remaining in her hands.
As she fought for air, small gasps permeated the silence, the only way that I could pinpoint her location. The shadows tightened again, and those daggers dropped to the floor as her arms were pinned. I dove for them, sliding the short distance along the floor on my knees, scooping one of the blades up with my left hand, slashing out into the shadows. The knife stuck into something substantial, and my firm grip on the handle, mixed with the speed of my movements, spun me around.
I let go, using the momentum to thrust me to my feet on the opposite side of the woman from where I had started. I heard the other dagger clatter across the floor, having kicked it away from her in my travels. It was in the darkness to my right, close but not close enough. The woman wrapped in shadows screamed, the sound full of pain and fury, dampened only by her lack of full breath.
"Bitch!" She howled. "You fucking piece of shit!"
I searched for the final weapon, falling back to my knees and using my hands to feel around in the dark. My magic sputtered out entirely, the shadows and light returning to their original forms and places.
As the light returned to the room, I spotted the dagger, inches from my splayed hands. I grabbed it, spinning to face the screaming woman. She was unrestricted now and so full of fury.
The woman was free. I had her dagger. And then… I didn't.
It left my hand, flying end over end towards her, moving so quickly that she hardly even noticed it – too intent on pulling the other one from her thigh, hissing and throwing curses at me. It hit her in the chest, dead center. The loud thump as it entered the leather armor amplified in the silence that followed it.
We both froze, looking at it in disbelief. The quiet stretched out as I stared, my mind struggling to comprehend what I was seeing.
"You're dead, Valdis." A laugh bubbled up from my chest and escaped my lips as I spoke. The shock and exhaustion were making me giddy.
"Well, fuck me, Sapphira." She huffed incredulously, eyes alight. "What an epic throw. Who knew you had that in you?"
I giggled again, all of my muscles jumping while my head spun. "I hate to admit that it was a fluke. I doubt I could do it again."
"Yes, well. Don't try and cut my leg off again, either. That fucking hurt."
Slow clapping interrupted us from nearby, a whisper of mocking laughter. We both turned to see a monster standing in the doorway. Black hair matched her eyes, brown leathery, semi-translucent skin, and long claw-like nails on skinny fingers. Murky fog billowed around her skeletal feet—a creature of darkness – of nightmares and fear.
"And so now our savior can fight," the Night Hag stated impassively, black eyes burrowing into my soul. "At last."
"I told you she could learn,
Mora," Valdis said, grunting as she yanked the daggers from her body,
watching her own blood drip onto the floor. "Just like I did."
I swayed where I stood, the room spinning as they spoke. Now that the fight was over, the adrenaline left me, nothing but fatigue running through my body. My mind struggled to follow the sudden shift – from battle mode back to everything is okay, it was only training.
"Except you practiced on your creatures," Mora hissed, turning her deep gaze on her.
"Not on the King's Second."
"All is well, I didn't die, and Sapphira learned a few new tricks. Our King will be pleased."
The Night Hag scoffed, pointing a devilishly sharp nail at her. "Your arrogance will be the death of you, Necromancer."
"Yes, but not today." Valdis shrugged, smiling at Mora sweetly and moving to stand beside me. "It seems that you will be stuck with me for a while yet."
I wasn't sure how Valdis was still standing; her blood was running down her leg from the wound I had inflicted – the cuts on her head and throat too. Yet, she stood firm, as though we hadn't just tried to kill each other – as though it had been nothing at all.
"Training over for today. Clean up, and get out." Mora said, exasperated, as she turned to leave.
She paused in the doorway, though, glancing over her shoulder and frowning in my direction, dark eyes looking me up and down. "And Sapphira, you had better not pass out on my floor, or my next guests will make a meal out of you."
"She's right; those Pishacha guys would love to take a bite out of your juicy self," Valdis warned, groaning as her skin began to stitch itself back together. The Necromancer threw a wink my way, a tight grin on her lips. "And not in a fun way."
A wave of her hand and all evidence of our session vanished. No more blood. No more scorch marks or magic residue. Even the crumbling stone wall was gone. The room was as clean as when we had arrived – when Valdis had insisted that a few rounds in Mora's domain were 'just what the doctor ordered.'
"Are you hungry?" She asked, head tilted to the side, eyes running over my flagging body. "I always feel like stew after a good fight. How about you?"
The question was absurd, not at all what I expected. And yet, it was pure Valdis. The wickedly lovely Necromancer had made her famous stew for me once before. After she had made me enter my mindscape and put things right. I'd had to face my fears and remove magic put in place against my knowledge, and the experience had sucked big time.
But the stew was incredible, a large variety of vegetables, chili, garlic, peanuts, and chicken. It filled the stomach and soothed the soul.
My belly growled at the memory, and in anticipation of another taste, answering Valdis better than my words could have.
"Come on, let's get out of here." She wrapped her arm around my shoulders, keeping me upright and leading me out the door.
We passed Mora in the hall, leading a group of what I assumed were Pishacha towards the room we had just vacated. I was glad that Valdis still had hold of me, or I think I would have run screaming. Or fell to the floor, unconscious, and been eaten. The second option would have been the only one not too long ago, but you know, yay for growth! The Pishacha were vaguely humanoid; it was hard to pinpoint since they were in a continually transforming state. They shifted shape with each rise and fall of their breath – the only constant was the blood-red eyes – and the feeling of terror that they instilled as they passed.
"What the hell are they?" I hissed to Valdis when we were alone again, making our way out into the streets of the City of Darkness.
"The Pishacha?" Valdis shrugged, unfazed by the creatures, intent on leading me towards the palace that dominated the landscape – home. "They are flesh-eaters, shapeshifters, and possession experts. Useful against mortals as they can form themselves into convincing humans or simply possess them. They prefer to eat them though, and are short on patience and self-control, so more short-term soldiers really."
A shudder ran through me, picturing the damage they could do if they were unleashed in the mortal world. Valdis, who was still holding me up, felt it and held me tighter. "You're protected here, remember?" She said reassuringly. "There is nothing in Hadrian's realm that would dare defy their King."
Hadrian's realm. A world of literal eternal darkness – full of monsters and nightmares. An inconsistent patchwork of history, the buildings, attire, and speech patterns were a whirlwind of cultures and time. Structures ranging from stone temples, modern skyscrapers, mud-brick houses, and marketplaces open to the sky filled the space around the palace. Clusters of inhabited space stretching out as far as you could see – that is, if you could see through the distance.
Outside, the city's only consistent light came from the inhabitants themselves – their energy surrounding them like an aura and smaller light sources such as candles, fire pits, or the occasional lamp. Inside, you could find anything from ancient technology to modern, almost futuristic gizmos and gadgets – their light shining brightly but never reaching the streets. It was jarringly quiet, too, compared to the mortal realm—the entire city surrounded by swirling darkness and sound-eating silence.
We reached the palace, Valdis leading me towards the kitchens while she chatted companionably. I didn't hear a word, though, my thoughts replaying snapshots of the past month in glorious high definition: The discovery of the magic world – monsters, gods, and ancient conflicts that all seemed to revolve around the pursuit of power and dominance – the power they craved inside of me.
The lies my friends had told – the complex web of mistruths and events that kept me in the dark about my part to play. A role that even they didn't know the full extent of. The awakening of my magic, the struggles, and the high as I learned to control it, to use it to save myself and those I cared about. I'd had no handbook explaining the intricacies of the magical world, no guidelines or rules. So I'd had to learn as I went.
The mistakes I made caused more Moroi and Dhampir's deaths than I knew – even now, the exact numbers eluded me. The Fae deceiver that made me think I loved him and used me to wreak havoc on the vampires for his queen. The torture that same Fae, and his brother, had inflicted on me in their attempts to break my will. I was supposed to be a weapon their queen could wield against her enemies, but when that didn't work, she planned to kill me and take the magic for herself.
The revelation that gods and goddesses existed but also used mortals as pawns in a cosmic game. That I was made to play a part in the final battle between Ares and Enyo, a vessel containing the last Goddess Incarnate's magic.
The battle the Moroi, Dhampir, and Lycanthropes fought against the Strigoi – the battle that took a friend's life. Colte had died protecting me, and every day I missed his easy smile, sense of humor, and companionship. The fight between the pretender Fae Queen and me – a conflict I should have killed her in. But I'd let her go, too drunk on the power I had taken from her. The magic that enveloped me, swirling through my body, demanding more.
Now she was in hiding, trying to regain
control of a kingdom that didn't want her, the god she played for using his
influence to gather allies to their side. The next time Kamilla showed her
face, I would rip it from her body, even if there was a vision out there that
told me I wouldn't. Hence, the training sessions with Valdis. The Necromancer
was a skilled fighter, her King's second in command. She was fearless in battle
and knew the Fae's weaknesses. During her time in captivity with them as a
child, she had learned weaknesses and now planned to exploit them.
She had a habit of sensing when I was close to losing control and pulled me into Mora's training center before I could. Limit the damage and release frustration seemed to be our new motto.
"Sorry, what?" I snapped back to
the present, finding Valdis staring at me, eyebrows raised.
We were in the kitchen – a surprisingly modern one that Hadrian had made just for her. She was, after all, one of the only beings in his realm that ate mortal food. But, seriously, you didn't want to know what the others thought was food. Horrifying and disgusting, let me tell you.
Valdis had arranged a rainbow of vegetables on the island counter, and she stood across from me, a large chef's knife in her hand. "I asked ten times if you wanted meat in this one. Where was your head just now, girl?"
"Lost in the past." I smiled sadly, running my hand over the cold stone surface of the island.
"No use in dwelling there," she said, sliding a chopping board and knife towards me. "Unless one of your powers is time travel?"
I let out a little laugh, shaking my head. "No, but wouldn't that be something?"
"It would. But, since it isn't, how about you chop those carrots while I start the onions?" Valdis' deft fingers were already in motion, making quick work of the vegetables on her own board. "If you want chicken again, I think there is still some in the fridge. No beef left, though. We finished that off yesterday."
"Chicken is fine, Valdis," I
assured her, getting a start on the carrots. I should have them chopped by the
time Valdis had finished all of the other vegetables.
She'd already moved on to the potatoes, peeling them like a pro. I suppose she'd had experience peeling things – skin from enemies and the zombie-like creatures she made with her magic, for example.
Valdis made her own leather armor – from the flesh of Fae soldiers she had killed in battle.
My own armor had been a gift from her, but I'd asked her not to tell me where it had come from. I didn't need to know that the leather protecting my body had once been the skin of a living, breathing person. Possibly someone that I had met or fought against.
I'd watched Valdis working once, and it had been both fascinating and disturbing to see. She took pride in her work, as most people that were good at their job did, although most people weren't using the corpses of creatures to create beings capable of shredding mortals and monsters to bits. Her workshop, or lab – whatever you wanted to call it – was full of body parts, tools, and funky smells. I'd watched her take the body of a recently deceased Fae female, changing organs and skin with a wolf. The process was bloody, gruesome, and time-consuming.
Raw chunks of meat that had once been part of the wolf had melded together with the Fae to create something new, something vicious – a human-sized wolf that walked on two legs and hands filled with six-inch claws. I'd felt her magic pulsing a semblance of life into the very fiber of the creature, felt the moment her manipulation and will take control, and blood started pumping again. The creature's chest began its rise and fall, the eyes opened, a bloodcurdling snarl building low in its throat, razor-sharp teeth bared. Valdis had put it in a cell with another of her creatures and watched them with morbid fascination and curiosity. Then, the Fae-wolf had torn its cellmate to shreds, rendering it nothing more than chunks of flesh, bone, and blood.
I had stuck to a purely vegetarian diet for days after that. Thinking about it now, as Valdis prepared a chicken for the pot, had my stomach turning again. I didn't want to offend her by throwing up at the sight of her food for a second time. And this train of thought would do just that.
"Are you finding anything interesting in Theresa's journal?" I asked, trying to distract myself.
"I thought that we had been close, but it seems she kept a lot of herself private." Valdis shrugged, eyes still on her work, voice soft. "I didn't know that she struggled within herself… she always seemed so confident and happy."
Theresa was the Goddess Incarnate – the last reincarnation of her anyway. She'd lived in the City of Darkness with Hadrian and Valdis, had loved the King and Necromancer. But she had been caught up in Ares and Enyo's game and had paid the price with her life. It was her magic that ran through my veins, her suite that I now called my own.
"That must be hard for you," I replied, continuing to chop the carrots. "I'm sorry, Valdis."
"What are you sorry for?" She asked, throwing the chicken pieces into the pot with more force than was necessary. "It wasn't you that pretended everything was fine for decades. It wasn't you that left us."
"No, but I know how it feels to be the one left behind, the one that believed the lies," I said softly, sliding the chopping board across to her. "I'm sorry that you have to feel what that is like."
Valdis sighed, both hands on the counter, head bowed. "I don't understand it. I really don't. I know that I'm behaving like a child, but it fucking hurts, Sapphira. I thought that we had this amazing life together. Theresa helped me through my shitty past; she let me unload all of my baggage on her and never said a word about how much she struggled with her magic or her place here. Reading that journal shows me just how bad her mental health was." She turned watery eyes my way, regret and despair plain to see all over her face. "She could have said something, if not to me, then to Hadrian. We should have seen her suffering – why didn't we?"
"That's just it, though, isn't it?" I asked, moving around the kitchen to stand beside her, not touching – but close enough if she needed me to. "A lot of the time, the ones that are suffering the most are the ones that never show it. They put on a smile like they would armor; they're the ones that seem the strongest, the bravest – the most sturdy in this crazy world. But in reality, they're the most broken."
"You're not helping." Valdis frowned at me.
"Sorry." I offered a sad smile, a slight shrug. "Maybe Theresa wanted you to have happy memories of her. On the other hand, she probably wanted to keep you from worrying and getting distracted."
Valdis made a shrug of her own, returning her attention to the stew. "It's done. There isn't anything I can do about it now; we need to focus on the future. Hadrian should be back today." She added. "Hopefully, his meeting with the Fae heirs went well, and they have information on where the hell Kamilla went."
We fell into silence, Valdis continuing to showcase her cooking prowess as I sat on the counter with my legs tucked underneath me and watched. I couldn't stop the tinge of regret that swirled through me or the worry that danced with it. I should have tried harder to kill the pretender queen when I had the chance. I knew that. But the magic was like a drug – unbelievably addictive and gave off a high like nothing else. I'd been too drunk on the power I had taken from her to anything but crave more.
And now the Fae bitch was still out there somewhere, alive and well. We had heard rumors that she was regrouping and amassing her armies – what was left of them.
The reports were sketchy, details varying from messenger to messenger. No one knew where she planned to make her next stand – or where she was holed up, but a common thread was that Fae were vanishing, Seers were being hunted, and Kamilla's allies were closing the entrances to their realms.
Something big was coming, and the tension throughout the supernatural world was building. With Ares pulling her strings, I was sure Kamilla would be a thorn in my side for a long time to come. A deadly and vengeful thorn.
I only hoped that I could find and remove
her from the picture before the war could escalate and destroy the realms – and
the mortal world that I had once called home.