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Introduction:

Sorry for the long wait everyone. The last twenty chapters of this story are almost as long as chapters 1-46 combined, and I write all major parts of the story in one go so as not to write myself into a corner. The good new is (for those who care) that all of my chapters will be coming out very quickly now, as they are all finished! So... yay. Thanks for reading!
Part Fourteen: A Traitor of Two Nations

Interlude

Yavara sat upon a black throne. She closed her eyes and savored the discordant symphony of wails and moans, the drone punctuated by the clanking of chains and the cracking of whips. Exhaling contentedly, she opened her eyes. Below her laid a spectacle of depravity, churning masses of flesh oscillating to some unheard cadence, their glistening forms bathed in the crimson torchlight. The prisoners’ eyes were wide with horror, as what was being done to them was horrible, but comingled with that horror was a terrible ecstasy. Oh, but they tried to deny it, as high-elves held dignity over all things, but even they, the noblest of races, could not conceal their fall from grace. And what a fall it was, for they’d spent their lives so very high in the world, assured in their perch of superiority over all living things.

Yavara smiled from the corner of her mouth as she savored the sight. She had been a high-elf once, a royal daughter of the very people she now forced into perverse subservience. But that was before she was taken by the orc, before he had his way with her beneath the canopy of the Great Forest. Only the creatures of the woods heard her shrieks of terror and pain, and only they witnessed as the shrieks of pain turned to cries of pleasure. Only they witnessed her metamorphosis, her… fall. Yavara’s fingers began to explore herself as she remembered the moment fondly.

“Your Highness?” Drake Titus asked her.

Yavara opened one eye and smiled to the vampire lord, though in truth, she wished he was someone else. There were very few people left who remembered her before her transformation. Zander had grown distant, and Yavara didn’t understand why, but every passing day seemed to make them strangers to each other. Brock Terdini was dead, though Yavara did not yet know it, for Adrianna and Furia hadn’t yet summoned the courage to tell her. They didn’t want to distract her on this, the most momentous night in history. The Lowlands ambassador to Alkandra, Prince Matthew Dreus, had betrayed her (or at least, that was how it appeared) and Yavara had offered to delay his execution, or even free him if her conditions were met. It all depended on how is father, King Albert Dreus, reacted to the news coming out of Bentius.

Word had come that a coup was taking place in the Highlands. The enemies of Leveria Tiadoa had stormed the castle, and were only minutes away from capturing her. Yavara’s plans had finally been realized; the Highland noble court had turned on their queen. It meant that Yavara would not have to invade her homeland to win the war, but more importantly to her, it meant that her beloved Elena would finally return to her after months of being an unwilling ambassador. Yavara had tried to call her on the mirror earlier that night, but she wasn’t answering. Likely, she was in the thick of it all, fighting alongside Ternias to oust the warmongering Highland queen, and finally bring about the peace she and Yavara had both fought so hard for. Yavara remembered the cryptic message Ternias had sent her only days ago. ‘My time will come, and when it does, I will give you a gift, and you will respond in kind.’ The gift would be her sister. The idea made Yavara absolutely giddy, but she tempered herself. Nothing mattered until she got word from Elena. And so, in the waning hours of the night, she had come down to the throne room to clear her mind.

“Your Highness?” Titus asked her again.

She opened the other eye. “Are the prisoners to your satisfaction, Drake? These spies disguised themselves as dawn-elves. Of course, Arbor knew who they were the moment they stepped into the Great Forest, but she figured it would be easier to just let them walk right into my castle than to bother capturing them herself.”

Titus looked back at the twenty Highland men and women. They were all in some form of bondage, as vampires did so love their bondage, and they were all being beautifully ravaged.

“They are more than satisfactory, Your Highness.” Titus said.

“Good.” Yavara smiled, though it was rueful. “I was just remembering what it was like to be a victim.”

“I can’t say I remember what it’s like.”

“You were a human before Gloria bit you.”

He shrugged. “But I can’t remember.”

“Well, I remember.” Yavara sighed, letting her eyes linger on two high-elves. One was male, and the other was female, and they were holding hands as they were being violated. Siblings? Yes. How sweet. The duo of victims were fortunate enough to have the full attention of the most notorious couple in Alkandra: Soraya Poneria, and Eva Alecia. Furia and Adrianna had bitten the rest of the hybrid elves, giving them all the gift of vampirism without the ills. They were day-walkers like Yavara, transformative creatures who could dabble in the predatory delights of vampirism without the commitment. It was an honor only reserved for those of great importance, for Drake Titus was loath to allow what he deemed ‘half measures.’

The brother was seated atop Eva’s lap, and was staring down with horrified eyes as he was impaled anally by her thick hermaphroditic cock. Such a deep penetration it was, for vampires were all blessed between the legs (and Eva was blessed before her change), but the only pain the young man felt was that of his pride when his own cock rose shamefully between his legs. I doubted he was homosexual, but he could not hide the way he shuddered when his balls rested upon Eva’s dripping slit, nor could he conceal the moan that bubbled from his lips. Between his legs, the voluptuous vampiric Soraya was gently grooming the elf-boy’s sister. The girl was drunk with pleasure, undulating mindlessly within the vampire’s embrace as she was violated by the hands that worked expertly between her legs. She came with an arching back, and screamed joyously to the ceiling, all thought of her circumstances forgotten in the heat of such pure ecstasy. At the precipice of her ascension, Soraya bit the girl, and injected her venom.

“Two fangs!” Titus yelled, and Soraya nodded, closing her eyes to savor the moment. The girl went limp in her arms, then surged into life. Her small, slender elf body became statuesque and curvaceous; her blonde hair became jet black; her blue eyes became red with reptilian pupils; and her mouth became full and crimson, baring two long fangs. She leapt upon her brother, turned his head to the side, and stuck her fangs deep into his throat. He gasped, mouthing soundlessly as he became paler and thinner.

Soraya pulled her new blood-daughter off, and wrestled her gently into submission. When the girl calmed, she looked upon her new mother, and smiled. They kissed, long and passionately, their fingers traversing each other’s bodies without trepidation. When they parted, they shared a wicked grin between them, and turned to face the boy. He objected and pleaded with his sister as he rose and fell to the cadence of Eva’s raping thrusts, but his sister only giggled at her brother’s horror. He didn’t understand. He was not yet enlightened. He would be soon, but for the precious moments he still had in his body, they would enjoy corrupting his innocence.

The girl wrapped her fingers around her brother’s stiff cock, and took it deep into her throat. He stared wide-eyed at her, his face a portrait of disgust and confusion, but oh, there was the forbidden lust in his eyes! Eva could smell it on him, and she drove harder and harder into his ass, her pillowing breasts consuming the sides of his head, swallowing it in succulent flesh as he cried out in bisexual delight, unable to contain his pleasure. Soraya descended upon him with a grin, and he disappeared beneath a pile of beautiful women.

“Exquisite.” Yavara sighed, “Like watching a flower bloom. I remember when it was me, then Elena, then Adrianna.”

“And where is Adrianna?” Titus asked. He was hopelessly enamored with the governess, and blushed for the first time in centuries when Yavara raised her brows at him.

“She’s with Prince Matthew.” Yavara answered, “I imagine she has quite a few questions for him.”

“Ah, yes.” Titus sighed, avoiding Yavara’s smirk.

There was an interruption. It was small, something so innocuous that Yavara didn’t even notice it. It was Zander Fredeon. He’d come down the stairs of the northwest tower, and halted abruptly at the threshold when he saw Yavara. He let out a gasp. After a thousand years, it had finally happened. The Dark Queen was sitting on the Black Throne. His curse was lifted. In the shadows of the stairway, Zander stood rigid and alone, waiting for the relief of his burden to be washed from him. He closed his eyes, let out a long slow breath, and counted down the seconds. Nothing happened. There was no change. When Zander next opened his eyes, he was only confused. Had it happened earlier? Had he not noticed it? No. He would’ve felt the change, for the curse had been ever-present in his life for a millennium, and he still felt its sharpness keenly. He looked upon the chair Yavara sat upon, wondering if it had been mistakenly replaced, but it was unquestionably the petrified ebony of the Black Throne, for he could see the dark energy radiating from it. If the chair wasn’t the problem, then… he drew his eyes slowly to the woman who sat upon it, and felt a creeping, cold horror enter his mind.

Yavara laughed at the embarrassed vampire, and returned her attention to the debauchery of her court. She did not know it at the time, but these precious minutes were the last peaceful moments of her soon to be very short reign. For Yavara did not yet know that Adrianna had betrayed her. She did not yet know that the Lowlands had launched an armada to blockade her city. She did not yet know that Elena Straltaira was already dead. These realizations would cascade upon her over the next coming days, and the weight they placed upon her would destroy her soul. But then, Yavara did not yet know that her very soul had been broken upon its inception. In those precious minutes, Yavara only mused blissfully upon the night that led her to this moment. Then, her hand mirror lit up, showing the sigil of Lucas Ternias. She smiled excitedly, and touched the glass.

Chapter Forty-Seven

LEVERIA

I awoke in silk sheets. My body was clean and healed, my hair soft and fine, no pain between my legs. For a blissful moment, I thought it had all been a nightmare. Then I felt the shackles around my wrists, and saw Lucas Ternias at the foot of my bed.

“Feeling better?” He asked with a slimy smile.

I didn’t answer.

He nodded, and walked around the bed. He tentatively sat down beside me, seemingly unsure of how to proceed. Then he lifted his legs up, and eased himself into a lying position next to me. “You know,” he said, “I’ve never been in bed with a woman before. I’m not gay, mind you. There’s just something about sex that’s just too… intimate.” He turned to look at me, and smiled, “There, now you know my darkest secret. The infamous, devious, master-manipulator of the Noble Court is a fifty-year-old virgin.”

Again, I didn’t answer.

He laughed as though I had. “I often imagined what it would be like to lie with you. You and I were a perfect match, and that was why we became adversaries. Partners are boring, but enemies are worth living for. And yet, there was a part of me that so admired your cunning and beauty that I hoped this moment would come to fruition, and indeed, it has.”

He took the bedsheets in his hands, and slowly slid them off me. I was naked, and he observed every inch of my nudity with a covetous gaze. He reached out, his fingers extending to touch my breast. I closed my eyes, a tear running down my cheek. I felt the heat of his hand hovering over my nipple, and my flesh prickled in disgust. He withdrew, and laughed to himself. “No, I do believe I will die a virgin. There is a barrier between me and the rest of the world, and I cannot for the life of me overcome it. I won’t touch you.”

“How noble.” I hissed.

“Oh, so she does speak!” Ternias laughed, “I worried that I’d heard your last words.”

“You have now.” I said, and shut my lips.

Ternias gave me a rueful look. “I saw what you did to poor Eric, and I could tell by the wholeness of the corpse that you got bored of him. You would not have gotten bored with me, Leveria. You would’ve taken a long, long time. Just like what you did with that assassin Dreus sent.” He chuckled, “Your vice is much more terrible than mine. In truth, if it were up to me, I would’ve just imprisoned you after you’d kissed my ring. All I wanted to see was the acknowledgement of my victory.” He looked almost ashamed, “I took no pleasure in your suffering, but you were too great a foe to give any chance to. I know there are those in the court who are still loyal to you, and I know I must have traitors in my own ranks. I know you have assassins on the payroll, and foreign spies, and connections with underground entities. I needed to show all of them that you are done.”

“Why not just kill me then?”

“You know why.”

I took two deep breaths, and let them out slowly through my nose. “You’re going to give me to Yavara. That’s your peace deal.”

He nodded, a pitiable expression on his face. “I’m afraid that my cruelty was just an appetizer. She’ll need to placate that blood-thirsty horde to get them off our border. I’m sorry for what’s about to happen to you.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I am.” He said resolutely, “It’s undoubtedly what you deserve, but I don’t wish it on anyone.” He was silent for a moment, and the morning songbirds chirped out the window. Small flurries floated listlessly by, the first of the season. “How did you find out about Eric?” He asked.

I kept my lips sealed.

He rolled his eyes. “Come now, Leveria. If our places were switched, you’d croon on about how you’d uncovered my plot. I know you’ve fantasized about it.” He leaned in until I could smell his breath, “After all, I’m the only person in the world who can appreciate it.”

I glared at him, hating that he was right. “Huntiata asked me about the battle of Mid Fort. He told me that Eric had said no Highland spell could destroy the causeway. Eric and Huntiata were not on speaking terms, so when Huntiata told me Eric had divulged military secrets to him, I knew he was your man. Eric was stupid, but he was not clumsy. You told him to tell Huntiata. You wanted Huntiata to fear the Dark Queen’s power so that when you coopted Elena’s peace deal in the court, he would go along with it.” I sighed, “It was then that I realized Elena had parroted your lie about Lord Xantian’s contracts; you couldn’t get to Xantian, and so you made me think he’d betrayed me. Eric was supposed to secure Lord Xantian for me after Ambassador Wentz levied his sanctions, but the meeting never happened, because you told Eric not to schedule it.”

“You gleaned all that from two things said by unwitting mouths?” Ternias raised his brows, “Even I underestimated you. I thought Catherine had come babbling.”

“What good would she have done me? The stupid bitch would never have guessed that you intended on marrying Sofia Droughtius.”

Ternias threw back his head, and roared. “Oh, Leveria! Was there nothing you did not uncover?”

“No, but it was too late.” I muttered. “Did you find Elena?”

He reached into his pocket, and dropped a pearl necklace beside me. Her mother’s necklace, the one I’d given her at Castle Thorum. I swallowed the lump in my throat, and nodded.

“Did you love her?” Ternias asked.

“Yes.”

“She was a fascinating woman.”

“You told Yavara I killed her, didn’t you?”

“Yes. By torture.”

I took two more deep breaths through my nose, and let them go. “Now I have said my last words to you, Lucas Ternias.”

ADRIANNA

The crowd roared all around us and above us. It wasn’t the jubilant call we were used to in the arena, but a hateful sound, one that shook the sands beneath us with its intensity. The morning sun caught the specks of flurries, the display of refraction creating great beams of soft light that emerged from between the clouds, and descended to the arena floor. We stood on the scaffolding. Furia was beside me, Eva and Soraya were to my left, and Kiera and Brianna were to my right. Faltia stood alone before us. While we all wore our ceremonial white robes, she was naked, letting the cold sunlight bathe her bronze and tattooed flesh, highlighting the rises of muscle that contoured her form. She held an axe in her hands, and her fingers caressed it lovingly.

The doors on the other side of the arena opened, and the crowd erupted. Yavara marched from beneath the stands, her head adorned with a black crown, her torso covered in a corset, her thigh-high boots ending in garters, which ended in a thin thong. She had a chain in her hand, and at the end of the chain, Prince Matthew Dreus stumbled after her, trying desperately to keep up. He was naked and disheveled, afforded no sleep the night before. He walked in a daze. He tripped and fell, and the crowd jeered him. He struggled to get to his feet, but Yavara never even broke stride, and she dragged him down. He could only crawl after her, flinching as he was pelted with stones thrown from the crowd. So vicious were some of the strikes that I thought he might be killed by one of them, but Yavara made sure the lethal stones didn’t strike him at lethal speeds. He endured fifty yards of crawling through rough gravel on his hands and knees before Yavara yanked him up the steps of the scaffolding. He got to his feet on the top step, his hands and knees raw and bloody, his stare vacant until it met mine. Then it became hateful, filled with such accusation that I actually physically felt it.

“Do not look at her!” Furia snapped at him, “How can you bear to meet her eyes? Have you no shame?”

He looked steadily at Furia. “I would need guilt to have shame, Furia.”

Eva spit in his face. “You sniveling bastard!”

He turned to her. “Alexa and I will wait for you.”

She decked him so hard that he hit the floor, and the audience roared their appreciation. Yavara dragged him across the scaffolding boards, and forced him to his knees before the chopping block. The crowd’s pitch of excitement grew higher as Yavara pushed Prince Matthew’s head down onto the block, but then she raised her hand for silence, and all in attendance quieted.

“People of Alkandra, I have not come to speak to you of justice.” She said, “Justice is institutional. It is societal restitution. It’s cold and soulless. It will not give you peace. It will not give you comfort. What will transpire here is justice. Prince Matthew Dreus has committed a crime against Alkandra. He has betrayed those who trusted and loved him, and now he will die for it. That is justice.” She paused, wiping a tear from her eye. I hadn’t seen her all morning, but looking at her now, I could tell something had transpired in the night. Her breath came from her in slow tremoring whispers, and she would not look at any of us.

“Yavara, what happened?” I asked.

“She killed Elena, Adrianna.” Yavara muttered, “She knew she was going to lose, so she cut her to pieces while she was still alive.”

“What?!” I hissed.

Yavara looked up at the stands, and her voice projected from her, terrible and commanding, splitting the air. “People of Alkandra, I have not come to speak to you of justice; I have come to speak of vengeance.

The people of Alkandra answered with a hundred-thousand cries of glee, stomping their feet, thrusting their fists into the air.

Yavara held out her arms. “Two days from now, Queen Leveria Tiadoa will kneel before you, and she will know Alkandran vengeance! She will feel every bit of the pain she has inflicted upon us, and then she will feel more!”

The stands churned with excitement, a sea of frenzied bodies all moving to the frequency of vengeance. Yavara stepped back, and nodded to Faltia. Faltia hoisted her axe, and the sounds of excitement rose. She looked down upon Prince Matthew, and he looked back up at her.

“Will you tell me why you did it?” she asked him.

“There’s nothing to tell,” he said, and turned his head downward, closing his eyes.

Faltia raised the axe overhead, and swung. She imbedded the blade into the wood with a thud, and Prince Matthew’s head tumbled from his spurting neck, and bounced onto the sands below. I had never heard a sound so great as what came from the Alkandran people then, and I had never heard a sound so terrible as Furia’s cheer joining their chorus.

FIELD MARSHAL SHORDIAN

“…I am deeply sorry for the loss of your nephew.” King Ternias said solemnly, “I sent the entire city watch into the castle to rescue him, but we were too late.”

“You did all you could, Your Highness.” I mumbled.

I could tell he liked it when I gave him the honorific. The pleasure centers on his face lit up, and he failed to conceal his smile. “Rest assured,” he said, “the murderous traitor will pay for her crimes.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.” I said numbly. I’d seen my nephew a grand total of three times in my life, and if I was being really honest, I never really liked him. Eric’s greatest accomplishment in life was marrying Leveria Tiadoa, a woman whose stock and station was so much higher than his own that the match was laughable. She was a queen who knew what it truly meant to rule, who understood the weight of sacrifice and the need for ruthlessness. She had great vision, she had grand ambition, and she had the will and grit to achieve what she set her mind to, and Eric had decided to hitch his wagon to small-minded cowards like Lucas Ternias. As far as I was concerned, he got what he deserved.

“…and when will I get to meet her?” King Ternias asked.

I blinked. “I am sorry, Your Highness, my ears are failing me. What did you say?”

“Your granddaughter, Maya; when will I get to meet her?”

“I’ll uh… I’ll make the introductions when I return to court. I suppose I’ll be called to represent my family now.”

“No need, Field Marshal. The Noble Court has been suspended indefinitely for the sake of national security.”

Of course, I thought bitterly, but said, “A wise decision, Your Highness. Is there anything else?”

“No. The people eagerly await your arrival. Thank you, Field Marshal.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.” I mumbled, and palmed the glass. His visage faded, leaving only my haggard reflection. God, I’d gotten old. The lines in my brow and cheeks bespoke decades of marching in the blistering sun, a spear on my shoulder, a pack on my back. I would walk twenty miles a day with a light step, but now, I did not think I could even shoulder my old spear, much less carry it. It wasn’t that it was too heavy, but it weighed so, so much.

I turned around, and watched the great black horde of Alkandra file-in upon the land-bridges that spanned the marshlands. Rancid fumes burbled around the walkways, belching steam through the blankets of snow that crusted the treacherous terrain. It was like the horde was walking right into hell, but on the other side of it, there was a future. Behind me, there were rolling hills and magnificent valleys, but there was nothing there waiting for us. Oh, they’d celebrate us as victors, but the pomp and parades would be but a veil to cover the festering defeat.

“General Florence Krakis, I hereby appoint you commander of the Highland Defense Force.” I said, pinning the lapels on his uniform. The cavalry division was all that was needed to patrol the border now, and though Krakis had some foolish ideas about offensive tactics, he was a great equestrian commander. He saluted me smartly, and I saluted him back.

The audience applauded unenthusiastically, and the ceremony ended with the band playing a dispirited anthem. The officers who had survived the war no longer had any taste for the pageantry of militarism. They walked over to their respective regiments, most of which were at least half of what they were before we left the Highlands. Some of them simply weren’t there at all. Thirty-thousand men in gold armor stood in a state of abject surrender, simply waiting to finally go home. The orders were given, and the army marched westward.

“Field Marshal Shordian?” General Krakis asked.

“Yes?”

“The weapon you requested… it’s done.”

I raised my brows. “Who volunteered?”

“Joshua Jaren, sir.”

“Let me see.”

Krakis led me to the royal mages’ tent. The twenty solemn robed men and women stood around a bed. Within the bed, was a man so shrunken it looked like everything had been sucked out of him. His skin was like a sheet over his bones, no muscle nor fat to fill him. His dead eyes were glossy as they stared into the black infinity beyond the world, and his lips were still curled with his final words. His death curse.

“Field Marshal.” First Mage Lucian said with a bow of his head, and presented a sword to me. It was a standard-issue broadsword forged hastily by dwarven blacksmiths. There was nothing particularly unique about its appearance, and that was one of the reasons it was so deadly. It was a request I’d given out of desperation. The Dark Queen was killing a thousand of my men a day, and no tactics, nor magic, nor might of will could stop her. Not even the mages could stop her, for she’d struck with the randomness and suddenness of lightning. We needed something that could strike just the same; a weapon that could be swung by any soldier at any time, with a blade that could cleave through any arcane shield and render the wound it made unhealable. First Mage Lucian told me they would need seven death curses from seven of the Highland’s best mages to create such a weapon. Six brave men and women made the ultimate sacrifice, but none others would, until Joshua Jaren volunteered a day too late.

I shook my head, and sighed. “The war is over. Destroy it.”

“Field Marshal?!” Krakis gasped, “You can’t!”

“The very knowledge of this weapon could start another war.” I pointed around the room, “There are twenty-two witnesses here, and this information is priceless.”

“With all due respect, Field Marshal,” Lucian said, “go to hell.”

“That was an order, First Mage.”

“I don’t take orders from you.”

“Ternias will say the same.”

“I don’t recognize King Ternias.” Lucian said, and raised his hands to his sides, “None of us do. He is a despot.”

“And he’s still the king.”

“Queen Leveria Tiadoa is our queen.”

“Here, here!” Krakis growled.

“Are you priests?” I grunted, “Join the fucking church if you want to follow a dead woman.”

“But her orders still need to be carried out.” Krakis said, then stepped urgently toward me, “Field Marshal, last night she called me and—”

“No, General Krakis. Just… no. It’s over. We lost.”

“There’s still a chance!”

“There’s not.” I sighed, and patted his shoulder. “That fight is over, and a new fight begins. Once I wipe out those rebels in Feractianas and those damnable warg packs, I’m retiring. I’ll be just another drunk fool in a kingdom of drunk fools. But you, you’ll hold this line for the rest of your life.” I pointed to the mages, “Remember this: a thriving nation fights outward, and a dying nation fights inward. Whatever you do, you must fight for unity, or one day we’ll be nothing but a bunch of little pieces that Alkandra will eat up bit by bit.”

He nodded. “Understood, sir.”

“Destroy it, Krakis, or it will destroy us.” I muttered, then turned around, and began my long march back to the Highlands.

ZANDER

I’d always fancied Thomas Adarian’s masculine ruggedness, but the woman he’d become was an absolute vision of elven beauty. What was stranger, was that she knew how to use her beauty like she’d grown into it over decades, and not months after being transformed. The Thomas Adarian I had known was as rigid in his ways as an oak, but this Adrianna was shapeless and cunning beyond her years. Had it not been for the little bit of Thomas Adarian left in her, she might’ve been the cornerstone of a nation. Now, I wasn’t sure if I should let her leave the room alive.

“They’ll be here in five days.” She finished her confession, a cigarette smoldering between her fingers.

I puffed on my pipe, the thick smoke filling the air above us in the vaulted ceiling of the high tower. Outside, the afterglow of the morning’s execution hummed merrily through the populace, the jubilant sounds rising from the streets and boroughs. All of them, celebrating the death of an innocent man. If I ever saw Leveria Tiadoa again, I would shake her hand for a game well played. Where had I erred? What had tipped my hand?

“You were once a military man,” I said, a stream of blue smoke cascading from my lips, “what strength is the Lowland navy?”

“Five-hundred warships at least. Each one will have siege capability, and an Ardeni mage at the helm.”

“Trained by none other than Prestira Rasloraca herself.” I sighed, “She has a way of spiting me even in death.”

Adrianna said nothing, and instead stared at the cigarette in her fingers.

I scratched at my beard. “You have many tattoos now. Symbols of your loved ones, your deeds, and your guilt. Sherok Terdini is inked into you back, and now Alexa’s symbol weighs heavily upon your breast.”

“It does.” She said softly.

“But where is Prestira?”

She punched out her cigarette, and ***********ed another one from the box. I could tell she wasn’t an experienced smoker, but she longed for the distraction it bought her. She lit it, sucked it between her perfect lips, and let the smoke cascade from her nostrils. “I’m an Alkandran. Alkandrans tattoo their lives on their bodies. Those I put on me are also Alkandran, but Prestira would never have truly been one of us.”

I raised my brows. “And me?”

“You know the answer to that yourself, Zander.”

“I guess you’re right. I was always an outsider in Alkandi’s kingdom, and it was her doom after all.” I turned my eyes up to meet hers, “And now you have walked in my footsteps, Adrianna. What a fool you are. You call yourself an Alkandran.”

“I know what I am.” She said with equal parts shame and pride.

I ran my hands through my hair, and let out a long breath. “Do you want me to kill you right now?” I asked her.

“As oppose to?”

“Exile.”

Adrianna kept her composure admirably, but her fingers quivered around her cigarette. I could tell she was weighing all the options, and none of them were the two I’d presented her with. “There’s no getting out of this.” I said softly.

“I came to you in confidence.”

“And I am being merciful.” I said, and set my pipe down on the table, “Do you know where Queen Yavara is now?”

“No.”

“No one does. She left without a word. I don’t know where she is, but I know who she is with.”

“Leveria.”

“Yes.” I said solemnly, “You know what Yavara is capable of when she’s grieving. Leveria will sing about you just to make the music stop. When Yavara comes back, you better be far, far away, or already in the ground.”

She swallowed, tears twinkling in her eyes. She pursed her lips around the cigarette, and inhaled like a drowning woman. “Arthur Dreus will burn this city to ash once he hears of what was done to Matthew. I must stay here to—”

“The war is over, Governess. The horde will be here a day before the fleet, and besides that, we have the Dark Queen.” I said, “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen, Adrianna. Yavara is more god than mortal; it is why you must leave now if you want any chance of survival. I will inform the other hybrids—”

“No. I’ll tell them.”

I shook my head pitiably. “Don’t do that to yourself.”

“They know I always did what I thought was right for them.” She hissed, “They know I always loved them. We’re bound by more than blood.”

“Of course, Adrianna. That’s why they’ll hate you.” I said, and cast a spell. Adrianna pitched forward, and screamed. She clutched the sides of her head as the veins protruded from her temples and brow, each of them pulsing wildly. When the spell ran its course, she fell backwards into her chair, breathing heavily, her cigarette squished between her knuckles.

“I just severed the vampiric connection you have with the others.” I said, “You’ll no longer be able to communicate with them telepathically.” I reached into my cloak, and pulled out a medallion. I placed it on the table, and slid it to Adrianna. “This is a portal that can be used only once. It will take you to where ever you want to go, as long as you’ve been there before. You were a well-traveled man; I suggest you go far away.”

She stared at the medallion, her fingers trembling around the smoldering cigarette. “Right now?”

I nodded. “You will either leave this room through that portal, or as a corpse. I told you, Adrianna, that there’s no getting out of this. If you come within a hundred miles of this place ever again, I will know, and then you will die a traitor’s death.”

She looked from the medallion, to me. “And what will you say to Yavara when she asks why you let a traitor go?”

“I’ll lie to her, of course.” I smiled, and tapped my fingers impatiently on the tabletop. “I was wrong about you after all, Thomas. You weren’t worth saving. I should’ve let Yavara kill you back at Castle Thorum. Anyway… ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two…”

And Adrianna let out a cry of anguish, and snatched the medallion from the table. There was a flash of green light, and she was gone. I leaned back in my chair, and looked at the man who’d been standing silently in the corner. Verto had come back through my portal earlier, and had told me much. The morning had been one full of revelations.

“Needless to say, you will never speak of what you just saw.” I said to him.

“I didn’t see anything at all.”

I nodded, then looked gravely at him. “You were supposed to keep Elena alive.”

“She was alive the last time I saw her. We’d just escaped a house full of assassins. I don’t know why she went back.”

I pulled at my beard, puzzling over the situation. “You said Ternias wanted her dead?”

“That’s right.”

“Why? In the end, didn’t they have the same goal?”

“She was becoming too powerful in the court.”

“They would seem like natural allies—perfect partners, even. Elena never cared for power except as a means to an end, and Ternias’s endgame was power by whatever means.” I tapped my lips, “We’re missing something, Verto.”

Verto shrugged. “Does it matter?”

I inclined my head, then sighed. “No, I suppose it doesn’t. The intentions of King Lucas Ternias are of little interest to us now.” I looked at the map of Tenvalia Adrianna had hanging in her study, “The Highland Kingdom doesn’t matter anymore. They will soon be nothing but hillbillies with noble names.”

Verto nodded. “And why did you let a Highland traitor like Adrianna live?”

I smiled wryly up at him. “I believe I’ve answered enough of your questions, Verto.” I kicked the box of gold to him. He opened it, and his eyes lit up. “Remember,” I said purposefully, “not a word.”

“Not a word.” He echoed, and practically skipped out of the room.

When he was gone, the only sound left in the room was the drone of the metropolis coming through the windows. The skull that topped my staff stared back at me, the eyeless sockets judging my every motion. If it weren’t for the seedling of doubt that had been planted in my mind, I would’ve killed Adrianna outright, but the seedling was there, and I decided to see how it would branch. Adrianna was the most powerful woman in the city—more powerful even than Yavara in terms of the loyalties she commanded. I wanted to keep those loyalties available to me.

I pondered the seedling of doubt. For a thousand years, I’d imagined the release I’d feel when I finally saw the reincarnation of Alkandi sitting in that chair, but there was nothing. Yavara had sat upon the Black Throne, and nothing had changed. Alkandi’s death curse still petrified me with false youth, a mummy of a thirty-year-old man. I remembered the words her astral soul had uttered to me when she first visited my mind. “Until I once again sit on the Black Throne in the reborn kingdom of Alkandra, you will suffer life indefinitely.” There wasn’t room for interpretation, nor misinterpretation. It was as direct a curse as could be made, and only resolved by one condition. I had done it. I had fucking done it, so why was I still cursed?!

“You’re a cunt, you know that?” I said to Alkandi. Her skull just grinned back, and it made me laugh, relieving some of the tension that had wound within me. I would set myself to resolving this personal problem tomorrow, but today, there were matters of state to attend to. I set my staff and my doubts aside for a moment, and pulled out the mirror in my robes. With all the activity last night, there were sure to be some calls that would be quite revealing. But when I tapped the mirror, there was nothing. All of the sigils were gone, and the logs were too. I tapped the mirror in Adrianna’s office. Hundreds of sigils appeared, and I scrolled through them. Most were merchant vessels with mirrors atop their mastheads, and there were a few score from the Lowlands who were connected to the Alkandra-Ardeni relay, but of the Highland sigils, there were none. Under orders from Yavara, King Lucas Ternias had destroyed the Jonian Spire.

LEVERIA

I was staring up at a body-length mirror. It was the same enchanted mirror that I had installed in Elena’s cell before she arrived in Castle Thorum. I was in that cell now, strapped onto the same board as she had been, illuminated by the same square of light that shined through the barred window. Ternias’s mages had sent me here through the portal, and Ternias’s men had locked me in this cage, but the irony of it all could only have been orchestrated by one woman.

“God, what a hot piece of ass she is,” one of my door guards said.

“Royal ass, man. The cream of the crop,” the other said.

“Can’t we just—”

“Sergeant said not to touch her.”

“Yeah, but who gives a shit what sergeant says?”

“Look, if it was up to me, I’d be in that cell with you, but it ain’t the sergeant I’m worried about. It ain’t the lieutenant, or the captain, or the major, or the colonel, or even the general. Shit, it ain’t even the king. Do you know who’s coming here today?”

“You don’t mean…”

“Yeah, I fucking do.”

“That’s why the regiment’s moving out later!”

“Just in case you’re wondering who actually won the war.” The guard snorted, “The king gives up Castle Thorum for two days like it’s a fucking hotel.”

“You wanna stick around?” The first guard laughed nervously, “You remember what she did to this place the last time, and those were rangers defending it.”

“I’m surprised King Ternias doesn’t have us doing her laundry is all. Fucking disgraceful if you ask me.”

“It’s her fault.” The guard said, tapping the bars of my cell door, “She was the one who lost the war. Far as I’m concerned, her sister can fucking have her.”

“Aye. I’m just glad I won’t be here to see it. Come on, the regiment’s moving out in an hour. We don’t need to guard this door. She’s not going anywhere.”

I didn’t think I’d miss their conversation, but when I heard the fading bootsteps of the fleeing regiment, I found myself longing for it. I waited for hours. The square of light moved slowly from left to right with the angle of the sun, becoming dimmer and dimmer. There was a constant drip of water that interrupted the pervading silence. Drip, drip, drip. It was the space between drips that terrified me. That silence. Drip, drip, drip. That silence carried the drip through empty stone halls, through vacant barracks, through the abandoned main corridor that looked out upon the bridge. Drip, drip, drip. Its echo sounded throughout the castle, seeming to touch the ramparts above. It was like I could see the entire structure from the different tones that sang back to me, hollow and foreboding, whispering of the great monolith of stone that stood atop me, pinning me beneath it. Drip, drip, drip. Drip, drip, drip. Drip, drip, drip, screech.

A door with rusted hinges was opened five floors above me. Drip, drip, drip. Click, click, click. The sound of boot heels walking down stone steps. Drip, drip, drip. Click, click, click. Four floors above me. Drip, drip, drip. Click, click, click. Three floors. Drip, drip, drip. Click, click, click. Two. Drip. Squeak. A faucet was turned off, and the dripping ceased. Click, click, click. Bootsteps right above me. Screech. The rusted hinges of the catacomb door sounded. Click, click, click, click, click, click. The clicking stopped right outside my cell door. A pair of orange eyes stared at me from the blackness.

“Hello, Leveria.” She whispered.

“You sure took your time getting here.”

“I got lost on the third floor. That damn hallway just ends in a wall. Who designs a building like that?”

“It was a great spot for hide-and-seek.”

“So that’s where you always went.”

“No, I went through the portal back to Bentius before you were done counting.”

She laughed. “Always cheating.”

“I just never wanted to play with you.”

Yavara laughed harder, and opened the door. It was the first time I’d seen her in the flesh since she’d gone off on that fateful solo excursion. She was terrifyingly beautiful; her curvaceous body painted bronze, her chiseled face alight with glowing orange irises and maned with wavy black hair. It was strange how up until this point, I always thought of her as my little sister. Not anymore. This was the Dark Queen, a legend, a nightmare, and the expression upon her deific face chilled me to the marrow. She walked around me, and stopped behind my head, looming over me. She reached out with her little dainty fingers, and she brushed the hair from my damp forehead.

“I heard you put on quite a show for the people of Bentius.” She said.

“A performance for the ages.”

“But not your final act.” Yavara smiled, and gently framed my face with her hands, “You have one more performance, Leveria. It will be your greatest work, so I’ve given us two days to rehearse. The same two days you gave Elena in this very room.”

“It wasn’t me.” I said.

She giggled. “I wondered if you would deny it outright, or defiantly admit it and spit in my face. I’m disappointed in you, big sis; I thought it would take longer than that to break you.”

Her hands began to get warmer. Her orange eyes sparkled cruelly. Her hands became hot. Her eyes widened, a wild glint in them. Her hands were searing. I was screaming, thrashing in my binds, my vision blurring, pulsing with the pounding in my head. Smoke billowed from my cheeks, the flesh hissed and crackled, the rank spell of fried meat filled my nostrils. She ripped her hands away, and my melted cheeks tore off with them, leaving two raw handprints with black outlines on the sides of my face. I shrieked, staring wide-eyed at the ruin that had become my visage, the pain, oh, the pain burning like her hands were still there, like the fire was moving beneath the flesh. She gazed at me, my screaming portrait reflected in her merciless eyes, and she placed her hands back on my face. The pain was gone. She pulled her hands away, and my face was whole again.

“You thought you knew horror?” She asked me, “You thought you knew pain? The things you did were child’s play, Leveria. You can’t hurt a limb that’s already been severed, but I can. I’m going to tear you to pieces and put you back together. Over, and over, and over again.”

“No, you won’t.” I croaked.

“Do I hear one of your condescending soliloquies coming?”

“You’re not like me, Yavara. You have to hate to hurt. I don’t have to feel anything.”

“You’re going to feel quite a bit, Leveria.” She said, and put her thumbs over my eyes, “But you’re not going to see much for a while.”

“Wait!” I screamed. She tittered, and her thumbs became warm.

SHERMAN HUNTIATA

Most of the noble district had been burned down, bodies littered the streets, the hospital was overwhelmed, and half the Nobles were dead. Eric Shordian had been cut to pieces, Percian Feltian was missing, Sofia Droughtius’s crisped body had been recovered, and Elena Straltaira’s body had been fished out of the bay. Most people heard she’d been tortured to death alongside Eric Shordian. That was what Ternias had told everyone, and what the watchmen parroted, but I knew the truth. Watch Commander Darius had been on the top floor when the dark-blooded nun attacked like a vengeful angel. The story would’ve become legend, but Ternias made sure the legend stayed a myth, but I knew. She’d been calling for me all the time she fought, right up until the moment she died. I hadn’t been there to save her. I hadn’t been there to turn my men around, and arrest Lucas Ternias for his treason. Now my absence had made me party to that treason, and the deed was done.

“I should tell everyone.” I growled to King Ternias, surveying the wreckage of the district.

“What good would that do you, my lord?” He asked, “No one would believe you outside those who already know the truth, and those who already know the truth will never speak it. What’s done is done. For the good of the kingdom, you must accept what has happened. It is what Elena would have wanted.”

“I sincerely doubt she wanted this.”

He brushed off the mixture of ash and snow that salted his shoulders, “The Dark Queen has pulled her horde from the border, our army is marching to crush the rebellion and the Night Wolf, trade has opened through the Midlands, and our people will not starve. Is this not what Elena wanted?”

I didn’t respond for a while, only stared out at the smoldering ruins that used to be the Straltaira manor. “If you wanted all that she wanted, then why did you want her dead?”

“Because she did not want all that I wanted. I wanted to be king, and Elena Straltaira was in love with the queen.”

“Bullshit.”

“Why else would she fight so desperately to save her?”

I didn’t say anything, fearing that any words that came from my mouth would be choked with guilt.

Ternias clapped me on the shoulder. “Great deeds are never done greatly, Lord Huntiata. Like making sausage, the recipes of power are best left unknown.” He walked away, flanked by the newly-appointed royal guards he’d ***********ed from the remnants of the city watch. There was no city watch anymore. I’d unwittingly given the pride and power of my family to Lucas fucking Ternias, and I didn’t even have a penny to show for it.

I walked the bloodstained cobblestone roads, making the circuit of the noble district. The finance district had reopened now that the war was over, and the bankers and investors poured into it from the minor noble manors, giving life to the great marble and stone halls. My own bank was undoubtedly bustling with activity, and my merchants were most assuredly reestablishing contracts with the Lowlands, and trying to establish new contracts with Alkandra. Money took precedent over hatred, and really, it was the little people who harbored the hatred of nations. Those in positions of true power did not see the world as a tapestry of borders, but only as a cast of characters like themselves.

“Sherman?” A woman’s voice queried.

“Hello, Catherine.” I said to Lady Jonias. She looked utterly exhausted. “Why are you not with your betrothed?”

“Lucas called off the engagement.”

I raised my brows. “You don’t seem too sour about it.”

“I knew it was coming. I thought he had his eyes set on the Straltaira bitch, but it was—I’m sorry Sherman, I know you liked her. Anyway, it was the Droughtius slut he actually wanted, but she ended up being collateral damage, so he proposed to Maya Shordian.”

“The field marshal’s granddaughter?”

“He took a page out of Leveria’s playbook and married the army. Of course, he already had House Shordian on the line, but Eric was an easy fish to catch. The field marshal’s continued loyalty requires better bait.”

“Consolidation of the military, and destruction of the aristocracy. He’s suspended court indefinitely pending a corruption investigation.”

“A thinly-veiled threat.” She snorted.

“The court will be a puppet show when it reopens, and none of us will be in it.”

“And the Jonian Spire was demolished.” Catherine sighed, “The pride of my family, wiped out to placate that whore in Alkandra.”

“That’s not why he did it. He did it because he doesn’t want any of us talking to the Lowlands.”

“He’s made us into a hermit kingdom.”

I gazed up at the high castle tower, “It’s not a kingdom anymore; it’s a dictatorship.”

Catherine looked out at the ruins of the district. “It’s quite the turn of events, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Lucas never respected people, but I always thought he respected their positions.” She twisted her lips, “He forever tarnished the crown doing what he did to Leveria.”

“It was disgraceful.”

“I almost feel bad for her.”

I sighed, my breath coming out in a billow of fog. “He sold us all by selling Leveria to her sister. No one will ever respect us again.”

“He doesn’t care, Sherman. He never did. If the Highlands were but a hill of cow shit, Lucas would gladly plant his throne atop it.”

I snorted. “I’m not sure if the Highlands is much better. At least cow shit has utility.”

“And we’re built on bullshit.” She chuckled.

I chuckled with her, then glanced at her face. “What will you do now?”

She shrugged. “Find a husband, pop out a few kids, grow old, and die. My ambition is gone. I just want to drink wine and get fat.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad.” I laughed, “I think I’ll do some of that myself.”

She laughed musically for a moment, then it waned in her throat. The mirth left her face, and she frowned to herself.

“What?” I asked.

“I always knew I was bad at playing politics. Deception was never an art of mine. I always spoke my mind, and I could never decipher the unsaid words in conversation. I was ham-handed with my plots, and I likely lost us the Battle of the Tundra with my mismanagement of the army. My father should have never appointed me.” She looked at me purposefully, “I don’t know how to steer a conversation into a proposition. I don’t know if you’re being friendly, or if there’s something cryptic in your words. What I’m trying to say, Sherman, is that I am being very careful right now, and I want to know if you would like to be careful with me.”

I raised my brows. “Is it treason?”

“Not quite. Not yet.”

A smile curled across my lips. “I am intrigued.”

ADRIANNA

I didn’t have time to consider my destination before I grabbed Zander’s medallion. The first thought that ran through my head was ‘take me home’ but I didn’t know where that was. Alkandra was no longer my home, nor was Castle Thorum. So, the medallion had taken me… home. I stood in my childhood bedroom of my parent’s old estate, blinking like a fool in the afternoon sunlight. The snows had not reached the southern province of Feractianas, and so the chill that came through the open window was mild. I remembered when I was young, and my father had nailed the window shut to keep me from scurrying out of it for nighttime adventures. He went so far as to remove the hinges and place bolts within it instead. Needless to say, the window did not open. It was shattered, the glass strewn in shards upon the floor, catching the sunlight to paint fractal rainbows upon the bloodstained walls. There were bodies in the corners, the corpses bloated with rot. Not my parents, for they were long dead, nor my siblings, for they were long gone. The estate had gone to a rival baroness, a woman I’d never met, but her body most assuredly rested in this mausoleum.

Even if my parents and siblings were amongst the slain, I wondered if I would feel grief for them. They had not been my family for quite some time. The rangers had been my brothers and sisters, and then the hybrids after. As I walked through the halls of my childhood, my mind only went to those I’d left in Alkandra. I remembered the way they had looked upon Matthew, and it chilled me to my core to imagine those gazes on me. Eva with her eyes full of limitless wrath, Soraya with tears of immeasurable disappointment, Kiera looking right through me like I wasn’t even there, Brianna with her questioning gaze, and Faltia, her admiration of me crumbling in her eyes, replaced with an expression of the utmost betrayal. And Furia… Maybe Zander had been right; maybe it was better that I never saw them again. What a coward I was.

I stepped into the atrium, and looked down the expansive steps. A battle had raged here, bannermen fighting nonuniformed women and elderly. Their bodies painted a picture of what had occurred, the story told from the broken bars on the doors, to the smashed barricade at the base of the stairs, to the final deformed bannerman stabbed a dozen times at the top of the landing. News of the Feractianas rebellion had reached my ears a week prior, but it was a footnote to me at the time, a piece of information so inconsequential that it ranked somewhere between the itch on my left arm and the growing need to piss. Now, it was home.

I heard the elf long before she showed herself. I’d heard her the moment I’d stepped out of my bedroom. If I’d so desired, I could’ve ambushed her ten different times on my way to the atrium, but I had no such compunctions. I let her flank me, and when she stepped into my periphery with her bow drawn, I raised my arms steadily above my head.

“Where did you come from?” She asked, her voice shaking.

“Upstairs.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Only a minute. I traveled by portal.”

She snuck around the edge of my vision. She was a young woman, though it was always hard to tell with high-elves. They aged gracefully until the last of their youth was sapped, then they turned into prunes at around seventy. They. It had been so long since I’d last seen one of my former kind, and I did not know when I had mentally changed from ‘us’ to ‘them.’

“You’re an Alkandran hybrid.” She whispered, stepping into my vision.

“Yes.”

“How did you get here?”

“I just told you,” I said steadily, “I traveled by portal.”

“Why?” She hissed, her bow quivering with tension.

“Put the weapon down, please.” I said, “You can’t hold it for much longer.”

“Answer the fucking question!” She yelled.

“Look, you can’t—” and the bow snapped from her failing fingers. The arrow shot right for my neck, and in the split-second it took to travel the twenty feet between us, I contemplated whether it was worth catching. I resigned myself to life when the arrow was three feet from me, and snatched it, my arm jolting. The woman had not meant to loose, and she cried out in dismay. Her dismay turned to horror when I was standing right in front of her a moment later, placing the arrow into the scant quiver slung across her hip.

“You’re supposed to leave slack on the bowstring.” I said to her, tugging on the string, “The weaker your drawing arm becomes, the less accurate you are. It only takes a moment to pull back and shoot.”

She scampered back with a yelp, and fumbled with another arrow. I sighed, rushed her, and tore the bow from her hands. She attempted to leap off the top step, and I caught her before she shattered her legs on the landing below. “Stop!” I said firmly when she attempted to squirm out of my hold, “I’m not here to hurt you.”

She struggled vainly for a minute, then relaxed when she realized there was no getting out of the hold. Her breath decelerated, and with a shaking voice, she whispered, “Then why are you here?”

I sighed into her hair. “I don’t really know.”

ZANDER

The hybrids had all reacted differently when I told them the news. Eva had tried to strangle me, Soraya had fallen to her knees and wept, Faltia had screamed at me, Kiera threw whatever she could find at me, Brianna tried to bargain with me like the truth could be haggled, and Furia had just sat and stared at me. I sat silently behind my arcane shield, allowing chairs and pots to shatter against it, softening the blows dealt by Eva’s fist so that she didn’t break her hand when she tried to break my jaw. Faltia paced back and forth before me, directing every military insult she could think of between her panting breaths. Brianna kept trying to reason with me, even going so far as to pull up a chair and explain why I was wrong. When Eva noticed Soraya weeping on the floor, she began screaming at her, enraged that Soraya would so easily accept my ‘lie.’ Furia just stared at me through the chaos, not even blinking. When Eva’s wrath reached a fever-pitch, Furia stood up, walked over to her, and slapped her so hard that Eva was thrown to the floor. Then, everyone went silent.

“Furia?” Brianna asked, gaping at her.

Furia closed her eyes, and took in two deep breaths. She let them out through her nose, and when she next opened her eyes, tears poured down her cheeks. “We all know Adrianna,” she whispered, “we all know what she’s capable of. She did this.”

Faltia shook her head, her lips trembling. “Furia, you can’t mean that. If she did this, then…” Faltia swallowed, and barely hissed the name, “…Alexa.”

“She was deceived,” Furia said softly, “but she still harbored the assassin. She knew what kind of woman Leveria is. And when it happened, she didn’t say a thing. She let you kill Prince Matthew, she sent an armada to our doorstep, and she… she…” Furia’s fists balled at her sides, and she hissed, “…she’s the reason only Alexa’s dead.”

Faltia’s face lost all color. She stumbled forward, and dropped to her knees. Kiera barely caught her before her face hit the floor. Soraya cried out, and curled herself into Eva’s arms. Eva held her beloved tightly, tears streaming down her cheeks. Her piercing teal gaze fell on me, and she hissed, “Where is she, Zander?”

I cleared my throat. “She wanted to come and confess herself,” I said, “but I wouldn’t let her do it.”

“Why not?” Furia asked.

“I didn’t want her to bear that shame. She deserved that much, I thought.”

“Where is she?!” Eva screamed.

I cleared my throat again, louder this time. “I wanted to avoid a national incident, so I was discrete. Yavara already has so much wearing on her, and—”

“WHERE IS SHE, OLD MAN?!” Eva screeched.

Furia held up her hand, and Eva’s wrath was quelled. Furia looked at me, and asked the same question. “Where is she now, Zander?”

“After she was done with her confession, I gave her a choice. She could either live in exile, or I could execute her on the spot.” I reached into my cloak, and produced an urn. I set it before me, and stood up. “It was painless,” I muttered solemnly, “and done with dignity. She wanted you all to have her remains to do with as you saw fit.”

They all just stared at the urn I had set before them, their mouths hanging ajar. Then they looked up at me. There was no hate in their gazes, nor wrath, but disbelief. The disbelief became realization soon after. Furia stepped forward, her gait unsure and wobbly, like that of a toddler learning her first steps. She bent at the hips, and grasped the urn. Her hands were palsying when she held it. She brought it to her face, inspecting it with a scrutinizing gaze, looking as though she was trying to understand how this jar could contain the woman she loved. The urn slipped from her fingers, and crashed to the floor. She dropped to her knees, and let out a wail of such anguish that it seemed to spear me through the chest. The hybrids descended upon her, trying to console her as best they could, but her wails would not cease, and her grief was bottomless. I left that room feeling a decade older.

Why hadn’t I just told them the truth? It was simple, really. They would go looking for her. The hybrids were bound to each other by more than just comradery, experience, and love. Adrianna would attempt to come back because she had no other choice. But it would take her time, and in that time, I would gather the information I needed to determine if I should let her return, or kill her outright.

LEVERIA

…three, four, five…

My heart was pounding in my ears. My throat was knotted. My vision was gone. Blindly, I raced through the catacombs, feeling out with my hands and feet while Yavara’s girlish voice raged in my head.

…ten, eleven, twelve…

I struck a pylon with my forehead, and fell on my back. My forehead throbbed with pain, my skull rang like a concussive bell, but it was still nothing compared to the agony in my eyeless sockets, the burning that still seemed to sear into my brain.

…eighteen, nineteen, twenty…

I scrambled to my hands and feet. My knees and elbows were bloodied and raw, my skin scraped off on the jagged rocks that jutted from the catacomb walls. I felt a trickle of blood running from my forehead, but I paid it no mind. I raced blindly, my keen ears trying to find the hollows in the rock, but her maddening counting blared like a horn in my skull, casting all thoughts away. In a panic, I sprinted in one direction, not caring if I ran head-first into a wall, just exercising the manic urge to flee. I smashed my toes against stone, and lurched forward. My chin struck a jagged edge, and my teeth clicked together. My hands sought my surroundings, and felt the cold wet surface of smoothed rock. A step. These were the stairs! I ran up them, then stopped.

…twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty! Ready or not, here I come!

I made myself small in the corner, hoping that the darkness surrounding me was as pervasive as the darkness of my vision. I hugged my knees, tucked my chin low, and curled into a small ball. There was a shuffling three floors up. A pattering of feet. Too small to be elf feet, and there were four. A rat? I felt something crawling on my shoulder, the spiny legs of a spider. It moved along my neck, and settled over my ear. There was another shuffle, and another pattering of feet, then a squeak. Yes, it was a rat. The spider moved from my ear, and into my hair. A shuffle four floors up. That couldn’t be Yavara; she had on her boots. Had she taken them off, or was she simply floating down the corridor like some glowing-eyed phantom? I wished I hadn’t thought that. Shuffle, patter. Another rat squeaked. The spider crawled down my forehead, and rested on my face. Two of its spiny legs gained purchase in my empty eye sockets. My heart was beating so loudly. Could she hear it? But of course not. Shuffle, patter, squeak. The sounds were fainter, further up. The spider crawled into my eye socket, and searched it curiously, its sharp spiny legs stabbing into the seared flesh, its mandibles salivating. Shuffle, patter, squeak. The spider backed out of the hole, crawled down a few more inches, and rested over my mouth. I breathed through my nose, each intake tight and desperate, suppressed to keep it quiet. I wished I didn’t have to breathe. My lungs ached for it, but I could only sate them with the smallest of sniffs.

Shuffle, patter, squeak. It was much quieter now, maybe seven floors above me. The spider crawled off my chin, and moved onto the rock pressed to my shoulder. I took a tentative breath through my mouth, and filled my lungs. Carefully, I extended my hand, and felt for the next step. I listened. Shuffle, patter, squeak. It was so far away that it must’ve been ten floors up. I began to crawl. Step by step, I traveled from landing to landing, meticulously moving to make as little noise as possible. It was getting colder as I moved up. The winter’s chill took hold of my naked body, and I had to bite my tongue to keep my teeth from chattering. I made it to the fourth landing, and felt the breeze of air on my face through a window. I’d never felt something so sweet. The stifling confines of the catacombs seemed to wash away from me, and I continued up the last steps, and onto the main floor.

Shuffle. Patter. Squeak. It wasn’t ten floors up; it was just a floor above me! I made myself small in a corner, and stopped all breathing. Patter, patter, patter, patter, patter, patter, patter, PATTER! It came right for me, and I cringed against the wall, holding my arms out before me. Shuffle, shuffle, SHUFFLE! SQUEAK! There was a low growl, and a light whimper. There was the sound of little bones cracking, and little jaws working. A gnawing canine groan accompanied it, and then a satisfied swallow. With a tremulous hand, I reached out, and felt fur.

“April?” I whispered.

The fur went still, then slid beneath me. I felt little paws in my lap, and a curious snout sniffing my face. A tongue came out, and lapped at my cheek.

“April?” I whispered quietly again.

She nuzzled my face, and nodded. I nearly broke out into tears.

“April, you have to get me out of here!”

She nodded again, her soft fur caressing my cheek. I pet her delicately, careful not to scare her off. My fingers moved through her fine fox hair, her skinny ribs, her exposed muscle, her rotting flesh, her bare bones. Then, I was holding nothing at all. I was back in my corner in the bottom floor of the catacombs. The spider crawled off my face, only it had fingers for legs.

“Found you.” Yavara giggled. “It’s not fun when people cheat in hide-and-seek, is it? You always liked your mind games, Leveria. Don’t you like mine?”

I let out a shuddering breath. I was sitting in a warm puddle, and I vaguely realized that I’d pissed myself.

“Oh no, you had an accident.” Yavara cooed. Her hands slid into my armpits. Their span seemed impossible, the fingers touching together at my spine. They were so cold. She lifted me out of my puddle, and cradled me in her impossibly-long arms like I was a babe. She brought me to her face, and I felt her nose against my neck. She sniffed me, and drooled on my throat.

“You haven’t seen this side of me yet.” She whispered against my ear, her fangs grazing my lobe, “Would you like to?”

I just whimpered, shivering in her cold embrace. She placed her thumbs against my eye-sockets, and I suddenly felt a great warmth there. She pulled her thumbs away, and I opened my new eyes.

Yavara’s face hadn’t changed, but everything else had. Her flesh was white, her hair was obsidian, and her eyes were rubies, watching from reptilian slits. “Do you like it?” She asked, “Prestira was the one who bit me. We became so close after that. A woman I’d known for only three days, and I felt more kinship with her than a lifetime spent with you.”

She ran her fingers through my hair, her nails like razers that gently scraped my scalp. The feeling would’ve been pleasurable in another situation, but it only made my flesh crawl.

“Then there was Patricia,” Yavara whispered, “and she was my blood-daughter. You can’t know how much it meant to me.” She paused, “Even I didn’t know how much it meant to me until far too late. Do you know how she died?”

I whimpered, trying to make myself small in her arms.

“That was a question, Leveria.”

“She died in fire, killed by her own friend.” I hissed, my words shaking from me, “I’m so glad that she did.”

Yavara’s nails suddenly came to points on my head. She pushed them into my scalp with the ease of a knife through butter, and I shrieked as the hot tendrils of agony shot through my synapses. Her nails scraped bone, then curled, cutting away beneath the flesh like a taxidermist. I writhed in her cold embrace, blood running down my face, bile roiling from my mouth, my body trying to expel the pain any way it could. Her nails came together, and she ripped. I heard my flesh tear like rent fabric, and my head seared with blinding pain. When I could next see, I was staring at a cap of bloody skin swinging from a mess of platinum hair. I gawked disbelievingly at it. It was only when Yavara took my hand, and guided it to the top of my head, that I realized the horror of it in truth. My fingers brushed over a ridge of skin, then dipped onto damp, hard bone. I screamed. I screamed like I’d never screamed before, and I screamed even higher when Yavara held a hand mirror before me, and displayed the ruin atop my head. I was unrecognizable to myself, but I knew the horrific thing that looked back was me, for it bore my face, and that thought drove me to madness. When Yavara levitated me and consumed me in fire, the agony was actually a mercy.

SHERMAN HUNTIATA

It was a few hours before sunrise when the knock sounded at my door. My guardsmen had all been killed in the battle, and so I answered the knock myself with a sword in hand. Lady Catherine Jonias stood as a hooded slender figure in the doorway, her teal eyes shining in my candlelight.

“You’re supposed to send a courier, not come here yourself!” I growled, “What if one of the royal guards caught you sneaking around at this hour?”

“I would tell him to mind his own damn business.” She hissed back, “Lucas hasn’t issued a curfew.”

“Yet. If nobles get caught sneaking to each other’s houses in the dead of night, he’ll have reason to. Get in.”

She stepped into the foyer, and I went to the kitchen to make coffee. Five minutes later, we were sitting across from each other, sipping from our mugs. For another five minutes, the only communication between us was the looks we gave each other as we slurped the early morning’s brew. When all was gone from my cup, Catherine was still sipping loudly from hers. I rolled my eyes.

“The Noble Court’s been disbanded, and we still play these games?”

She gave me a look of faux surprise. “Whatever do you mean?”

“Why did you come here?”

“Why did you let me in?”

I ground my teeth. “You say it first.”

She smiled coyly, and sipped at her coffee.

“Goddamn it,” I growled, “I’ll just fucking say it then. Ternias needs to die.”

Her brows went up. “That’s a drastic measure.”

“Oh, fuck off. There’s only one reason you’re here. The line of succession is now Ternias, Straltaira, Jonias. Elena’s dead, and her mother officially retired from the court; that puts you next in line.”

She slurped her coffee until it was gone, then wiped her lips, and delicately set the cup on the coaster. “I always wanted to be queen, but I never wanted to rule. Being queen by marriage would afford me a multitude of opportunities without any of the responsibility. It was what made pairing with Lucas so enticing.”

I scratched at my scruff. “Well, the next in line would be… Landon Xantian. Catherine, if you want me to throw my support behind that soft piece of tit-fat, you’re going to have to really sweeten the deal for me.”

“Ternias had Xantian executed last night.”

“Why would he do that? He was Ternias’s man all along.”

“Was it Eric Shordian who told you that?”

“It was…” I trailed off, my brow furrowing, “…I can’t believe I let that half-wit play me again.”

“He wasn’t playing you, Sherman. He was simply Ternias’s useful idiot.” She chewed on her lip, “So was I, apparently.”

“Well, if not you, and not Xantian, then Droughtius is next in line. Sofia is dead, so that just leaves… me.”

“That leaves you.” She said. She looked at the top of my head, and smiled lecherously, “I find baldness quite handsome; you know. Especially on older men. Such a distinguished, confident look.”

“I’m married.”

“Did Elena know that?” She grinned, then laughed at my face.

“Does everyone know?!”

“Everyone who was looking. You two weren’t exactly subtle.” She leaned forward, her bodice draping to expose the tops of her pale breasts, “So, is there—”

“No.” I growled.

She leaned back in her chair, and shrugged. “You can’t blame a girl for trying.”

“I can, actually.” I glared at her, “So what’s your plan?”

She stood up, and pulled a torn sheet from her purse. She handed it to me, and said, “Meet me at that address in two hours. Come alone.”

I scoffed. “You think so little of me.”

“If I worked for Lucas, you would’ve been dead after yesterday’s conversation. You have no power anymore, and neither do I. Our fluid wealth was wasted on the war, and our familial wealth will soon be sequestered before we have a chance to begin trade talks. While we still have what little resources we have, we must use them.”

“Ternias would never take our businesses.”

“He would call it ‘nationalization,’ and divvy the assets amongst our barons. It was…” She wrung her hands guiltily, “…it was originally my idea.”

“And now that you’re on the bad end of it, suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a great plan.”

“That’s generally how things work with me, Sherman.” She said, then cleared her throat, “Meet me at that address, or don’t. Either way, I will do what must be done.” And she left. I heard her gently close the front door, and listened for her heels clicking away on the cobblestones outside. I sat in my ornamented parlor, hunting trophies of all variety staring at me, their eyes laughing.

“Goddamn it.” I grumbled, and went looking for my boots.

LEVERIA

When I awoke, I was whole. I stared at myself in the body-length mirror above me. I was naked still, but not strapped onto the board. I felt an initial wave of relief that was immediately followed by icy terror when I fully realized my situation. For a minute, I was paralyzed, waiting to hear the clicking of Yavara’s boots, waiting to see her orange eyes peering at me from the cell door window. The cell door was open. I sniffed the air, and smelled bacon. At first, my stomach grumbled at the smell, then a flash of memory brought about the scent that reached my exposed sinuses when I was being cooked alive, and I wrenched my head to the side and puked onto the floor. After wiping my lips with the back of my hand, my belly grumbled once more.

Come up to the kitchen, Yavara said in my mind.

Even if I wanted to, I could not. My joints were locked in fear, my muscles wasted with spent adrenaline. I stayed prone on the board until suddenly, one of my legs moved on its own. Then the other did as well, then my hands shifted beneath me, and before I knew it, I was hopping off the board, and skipping gayly out the door with a bright smile stretched across my face by some invisible force. I danced like a schoolgirl into the catacomb tunnels, and up five flights of stairs. By the time I reached the end, I was wet with sweat and wheezing.

Yavara was in the kitchen, cooking breakfast. “Care to help?” She asked, and beckoned my body to the frying pan where the bacon sizzled its own fat. My hands grasped the handle, lifted the pan over my face, and began to tilt it toward me.

“Leveria, what are you doing?” Yavara laughed endearingly, and grabbed the frying pan from my fingers. She drained the sizzling grease into a pot, and plated the bacon. “Could you be a dear and chop some onions and peppers for the omelet?” She asked.

I walked over to the cutting board, where an imposing chef’s knife lay beside a green bell pepper and onions. My left hand grabbed the knife, and my right grabbed one of the peppers. Never in my life had my non-dominant hand been so dexterous, and never in all my experiences with a blade had I moved it with such precision. The knife flashed between my fingers, missing my flesh by an imperceptible fraction to cut smartly into the belly of the pepper. Behind terrified eyes and a glued-on smile, I diced all the peppers and onions to perfection, moving the blade between my fingers, across my palm, a hair from my wrist veins, but never cutting myself.

“Into the frying pan.” Yavara said without looking. I walked the cutting board to the pan of eggs, and scraped the contents into it with my knife. I walked back to my area of the kitchen, and set both the cutting board and the knife down on the counter. My hands let go of them, and were allowed to rest at my sides. I was free. Then my right hand was suddenly splayed out onto the cutting board, and my left was gripping the chef’s knife, and before my grimacing smile and bulging eyes, I brought the knife down once, twice, thrice, four times. My pinky was hacked cleanly off, my ring finger followed, my pointer was chopped away in a grotesque diagonal, and my thumb was sent spinning off the board. My entire hand seized, the pain piercing through sinew, bone and marrow, causing contractions up my arm, causing bile to roil in my belly, tears to form in my eyes, piss to run down my legs, and yet, I smiled like a fool through it all, my taunting middle finger rigid in agony.

“Leveria, you clumsy ditz!” Yavara giggled in my ear, “I know you’ve never worked in a kitchen in all your life, but I was told you were quite adept with a knife.” She mentally guided my mutilated hand up to my face, and wiggled my middle finger teasingly before my rigid grin. She laughed again, her hands on my shoulders. “I’m glad to see you have a sense of humor about all of this. Seeing the funny side of things is always important.” She let go of my mind, and I felt to my knees, shrieking and clutching my hand.

“It’s rather hypocritical of you, don’t you think?” Yavara called jubilantly over my wails, “Shouldn’t you be more appreciative of your own handywork?”

I could only scream incomprehensible garble back, hardly aware of the words she was saying, only focused on the pain, the searing split nerves firing their twisted signals through my synapses, my mind turning over in horror as it tried to process the unrecognizable thing that had become my hand. She let me stay like that for a minute before she yanked my hand onto the cutting board, and reattached my fingers. I wept with relief, the warmth permeating through my entire arm, the renewed flesh and bone clenching in the most satisfying fist I’d ever made.

Yavara pet my head as I blubbered on the floor. “I think it’s time you and I had a chat, dearest sister.” She said softly, almost kindly, “There’s a hot bath in the next room. Don’t dally too long, or your food will get cold. Oh, and Leveria,” She said, stooping to my level, “if you try to kill yourself in there, I’m going to make your omelet non-vegetarian.” She gently grasped my fingers, “Do you understand?”

I nodded.

She grinned. “Good. There’s an outfit I set out for you by the tub. I want you to wear it for me.”
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