You go on a trip to the middle of nowhere, and you stay with a friend. You hear strange noises at night from the woods, and you feel like something's watching you, your friend says you just need to get used to being so far out from the city.
The property is isolated when compared to the hustle and bustle of the city, but soon you see you're not alone - your friend has neighbours, good and hardy folk who show up every now and then to check in on eachother - we need to lookout for our own here, your friend says, for there's no one else to.
You see strange things every day, birds and small animals that seem perfectly ordinary except they're not - the crows linger too long and rarely make a sound, the hurried footsteps of hares sound much louder than they should. The chickens that your friend raises refuse to leave their pen on some days, and on others they hurry back in at seemingly nothing. Their dogs are always alert, always wary, their ears raised at sounds none else can hear. One stray cat walks leisurely on a fence, and you get the feeling that it knows your fear.
Your friend laughs and says the animals are fine, they're all fine, you're just not used to the rhythm of the coutryside. You try to heed their advice, and stop paying so much attention to the animals.
After a while you begin to adapt, and the oddities of the rural area start feeling like normalcy. One day while driving down the beaten up little road by your friend's property, you spot a deer running along the fields. You excitedly point it out to your friend, who is driving, and they glance at it for just a moment - their gaze snaps back to the road and they grip the wheel tighter.
They tell you to ignore it - that it will go away. You are confused, and you risk another glance, only to feel a shiver crawl up your spine.
That's not a deer.
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TMA/Hannibal crossover notes
I found my missing notebook babes!!! (ok my mom found it) and now I get to harass you all with my Thots on who avatars for what in the TMA Hannibal fusion
But first, there are actually one and a half ideas in here, one being the one I remembered where it follows a similar set up to the show, but another where Will is just chilling and has the unfortunate luck to find a Leitner. Either it’s a full second idea, where the Leitner summons Hannibal, OR it’s part of the first, and it summons the Ravenstag. This story is called “Caveat Lector” (”reader beware”) which tbh I still think is hilarious.
Will: avatar!Will has a Lot of possibilities, imo. Eye is gut instinct, given his whole Deal, but there’s also some good meat there for Spiral!Will, Hunt!Will (although I think that would be pretty tonally different than the others) or End!Will.
Given that Will’s Big Achievement is writing the FBI’s standard monograph on determining time of death by insect activity, I do think there’s a very fun possibility for Corruption!Will.
The speech about looking back on his house in the fog and it being his little ship/safety also has some fertile ground for Lonely!Will, but honestly doing that feels a little like it’d lead to the Hannigram dynamic playing out like Lonelyeyes 2.0
Hannibal: So making use of TMA lore but not characters for the most part, I think that Hannibal is like. Aware of the secret societies and cults and theories and Smirke’s 14, but he catches onto the fear soup situation ahead of anyone else. He’s very into boundaries and which are real and which are socially defined, and I think he’d bring that to how he looks at the Entities, too. So all of these possibilities have a lot of overlap, I think that part of what would define Hannibal in this au would be that no one’s quite sure what Entity he’s aligned with. As soon as you think you’ve got it, he does something totally different.
The obvious, Hunt or Flesh, especially Flesh. I think any version has to have heavy Flesh elements, given the, you know, cannibalism, but the association with slaughterhouses, factory farming, etc ends up feeling a little low class for Hannibal. These two are supposed to be the more “animal” fears, and while Hannibal has his whole thing about people not being so different etc, he also has a big sense of superiority.
There’s a note beneath this that just says “Monster pig.” I have no idea what I meant by this, but apparently I thought it was self explanatory.
End or Web- I think he’d lean pretty heavily into these, but not quite enough that anyone would ever be comfortable saying “ah yes, Hannibal’s an End avatar” or anything. The Web tendencies become much more obvious one he becomes obsessed with Will
My Favorite!!! You can’t tell me the whole “people suit” bit with Bedelia isn’t perfect for Stranger!Hannibal. I think you could have a lot of fun stuff with Jack and them wondering if he was ever human to begin with. You could also take it in a fun direction when he goes on the run, disguise and so on, literally wearing someone else’s face, which is already something he canonically does in Silence of the Lambs.
Abigail is tricky, because imo Garret Jacob Hobbes is 100% Hunt, and by the time he dies Abby’s well on her way to becoming something, but it’s still nascent enough it could go multiple ways. I can see Will and Hannibal pulling her between Hunt, Flesh, Web, and Eye, to varying success.
Freddie’s Eye. I mean, you could make an argument for Hunt or Web, but she’s Eye
Margot- is in an interesting position, because I think Mason is totally, totally Flesh. Why is Monster pig written under Hannibal instead of him? Unclear. But Margot I think could break away from that- have the Vergers be similar to the Haans in canon, a family of Flesh avatars, and Margot picking a different entity is hand in hand with her sexuality in the getting disowned situation. In light of that, I’m very into Desolation!Margot
If Alana becomes anything, it’s very late stage, probably around the same time she meets Margot. That makes an argument for Desolation, but I think there’s also a good case for Eye. Or she stays out of it entirely, and never becomes an avatar. I think she could fit into a similar role as Gertrude or Adelard Dekker, only instead of just trying to protect people from the supernatural she is also very much dating it.
Bella Crawford has an absolutely delicious potential arc of discovering her cancer diagnosis, accepting the inevitability of her death, and becoming an End avatar. I can’t decide if she ends up staying with Jack, after- he’s Hunt-but-in-denial, like early Daisy, and based on Oliver the End changes you enough that its hard to have real relationships, after. I think they still care deeply for each other, but also consider the other lost to them.
Ok, I’m obsessed with the scene when Beverly dies where Hannibal hits the lightswitch and runs at her. Which is why I’m making the case for post-death Dark! or Buried!Beverly. I think that Hannibal is very surprised and weird about her coming back as an avatar after he killed her, that doesn’t usually happen.
Chiyoh is a space station reminiscent combo of Dark, Vast, and Lonely, but a single person.
Francis is a mix of Desolation, Slaughter, and Hunt
Chilton is Spiral. Like, he runs a mental hospital and convinces Gideon he’s the Chesapeake Ripper. He’s Spiral.
A lot of the single ep killers are shockingly easy to categorize, so in a run: Tobias Hodge is Slaughter (music and murder!), Eldon Stammets is Corruption, Georgia Madchen is End.
v interested in anyone else’s thoughts and ideas on this! I think these are two really fun canons to mash together, I think there’s a lot of potential a post like this can only really scratch the surface of!
kh2 just does........the worst job of conveying org. xiii as morally gray antagonists
Happy Mothers Day
It is a quiet day.
Yukiko blinks rapidly at the neatly wrapped box placed on the table of their kitchen. On it, was a tag that had a neat writing placed on it.
"Shuu-chan?" she muses out loud to herself upon reading the name of the sender.
A smile quirks up on her face as she reads the content of the notes silently, right before she delicately opens the lid.
"Oh my..." she gasps, her smile only spreading wider.
A baby blue bandana, one that is usually worn around the neck.
She loves it instantly.
Another box is found as she cleans up their library.
This time the name she found on it truly did surprise her.
"Rei-chan," she whispered, feeling several emotions rising in her.
Oh, she was going to cry wasn't she?
She took a deep breath, opened the box.
Seeing the gift inside made a few tears slip down her face.
A pair of modest, small metal earrings, in the shape of hearts with a rose placed in the middle of them.
A third gift appears in the form of not a box, but a vase that has carnations arranged within it.
Just like the rest, it had a tag placed on it.
She softly touches the petals of the pink carnations meant for her, and for the white carnations she sends a prayer, hoping the one they're meant for receives them.
Her final gift of the day comes to her in the form of a small party that apparently her son had prepared, with the collaborative effort of the others.
Naturally she bursts out into tears and hugs Shinichi with a loud "Shin-chan!"
He's 18 now, and nearly taller than her.
Before Shiho, Rei or Shuuichi could run, she drags them into the group hug as well, her husband chuckling fondly as he places a bouquet of roses on the table.
Yusaku feeds her the first piece of cake, holding the fork in his hand and smiling in such a way that it makes Yukiko feel sappy.
Not even the way the others in their group roll their eyes could break their sappy moment.
"How is Mary-chan?" she asks Shuuichi.
"Fine," he pauses "I gave her flowers this morning."
And that was nice to hear.
Summary: Sometimes, the most important part of something isn't the view itself, but the ones you're seeing it with -- and the night sky is even more special, when Danny knows he won't see it again for some time.
Written for DannyMay Day 8: gravity, forgot to share here yesterday!
The only thing that would explain your horrid writing would be you having dyslexia retard
Wow thanks Anon!
Here I’ll give you something as thanks for the compliments!
Let me write what I want. Don’t like, don’t read.
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if only I could write the things I really should be writing as easily as I write ask drabbles lmao
Last Line Tag Game
I got tagged by @ebonykain ! Thanks! 😊
Rules: Post the last line you wrote from any WIP and tag the same number of people as there are words.
The little jasmine buds bloom here in snow white blankets, but the flowers in the meadow had been wild in their array, elegant in their chaos.
Curse my need for dramatics. 🙄 (That's 26 people! That's all the letters in my alphabet!! 😰)
Okay, here goes!
Listen i actually really dont know a whole lot of people okay and i know even less on this hellsite who are writers but it's rude to ignore when you've been tagged for this sort of thing so i guess i'll just let my end of the chain die here. You may hold proper funerary rites if you wish.
you know what
I´m gonna post my first thing for Tokyo Revengers tomorrow, fuck it
I hope u like it tho lol (also got smth for pride too💅)
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Can we reed more from your youngest member au?
I was actually thinking of writing more for this AU, so thanks for the ask! This is the ‘start’ of this AU I guess, when Wilbur first discovers Dreams real age. Warning for implied torture, and manipulation, the usual.
Pogtopia was darker than Wilbur remembered. He felt a headache coming on as he stepped down into the ravine, Dream hanging off his shoulder, as more of his ghosts memories slip into his head. It was abandoned, making it the perfect place for him and his hero to rest and supply before heading further from civilisation— of the people who knew its location, few would be willing to return, and even fewer would even consider it an option.
He let Dream sit down by the empty potato farm and has a closer look at him. He’d never seen Dream without his mask before and he looked younger— far younger than he’d expected.
He’d never been the best at telling ages, but after he’d come back, Tommy had been sure to inform him that he was, in fact, seventeen, and not in his twenties or thirties like Wilbur had previously guessed, and Dream looked to be around the same age as him and Tubbo.
His face though, scarred as it was, reminded him of that other friend of theirs— the annoying one, Ranboo— only younger.
Wilbur moved around the abandoned base, looking through chests for anything useful. Most of what was valuable had been taken already, but he found some food, torches, medical supplies, and clothes. He’d used up all his healing items during the escape, so it would have to do.
When he got back, Dream had pulled himself up into a sitting position, slapping his hands over his face the moment he saw Wilbur come back.
“I’ve already seen your face, no need to hide it. What’s your age by the way?”
“Your real age.”
“... Fifteen. I think at least. It was at the start anyway.”
Wilbur knelt down by Dream, taking out the bandages and sanitiser he’d found.
“I need to take off your shirt to replace the bandages, is that alright with you?”
Dream shrugged, and then immediately winced in pain at the moment.
“Why would you even bother asking?”
Wilbur worked quickly, replacing the stained bandages around his chest and arms. At least Sam had been thorough with his medical attention, even if he could still see the scars of potion-healed wounds under the newer injuries and bruises. Once he was done he stood up, and threw the bloody bandages and shirt into the corner. He could deal with them later.
“Hey, that’s my—“
“Do you want to get an infection from that filthy thing? Your immune system is weakened as it is! Anyway, I found something to replace those prison clothes.”
Wilbur turned back to the things he’d managed to gather, pulling out a neatly folded but dusty L’Manberg uniform.
Dream looked unimpressed.
“It used to be Tommy’s but he stopped wearing it after the election. He’s become a bit of a disappointment since I’ve been gone I’ve found. Even Tubbo wore the uniform when he was president.”
“I’m not wearing that.”
“Dream, you endured months of torture, you brought me back from the dead, and with my help, you broke out of a prison designed to be inescapable. Are you really going to be a coward about wearing some clothes?”
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Anne Boleyn route
Part 1 [Chapter 1]
I shot up in bed, heart pumping frantically in my chest and fear taking a hold of my thoughts when I took in my unfamiliar surroundings.
Immediately, I pushed my back against the headboard and looked around. It took me a moment to remember that I wasn't in my own room. and now I'd gotten to be where I was now. I'd woken up in a fright, some form of nightmare having plagued my sleep and my thoughts were in a panicked disarray and I hugged my knees close to my chest as I attempted to calm my racing heart. I took in a deep breath and closed my eyes as I tried to make sense of the dream. Why would I have had a dream like that? It wasn't the greatest thing to wake up to after yesterday's ordeal.
Deciding that a glass of water would be the best remedy to clearing my head for the moment, I made my way to the kitchen and soon found myself recounting my dream to Sebastian, a glass of water in hand and my nerves significantly less high strung and tense.
I still found it hard to believe that I'd actually had a dream like that. Why of all things did I dream of someone biting my neck?
"Like a vampire would."
Somehow, saying what I had thought about it made it sound all the more unbelievable and I found myself feeling somewhat at easy at the realisation. There was no reason for the dream to have scared me too much now that I knew that it had all been on my head. Vampires didn't exist no matter what my dreams had to say on the matter.
"Dreams can be so realistic even when they're about the most unbelievable things."
Sebastian listened to my story calmly, giving no judgement which I appreciated. It was already mildly humiliating to admit that I had been so spooked by a dream about something as unrealistic and superstitious as vampires of all things. Had I recounted this dream to anyone else, I have no doubt that they would have brushed it off as a mere dream and chalked it up to a wild imagination or laughed at and mocked me for having such a ridiculous fear of something that was so unbelievably childish to entertain the existence of.
"I suppose that it's a sign that you had that dream, tonight of all nights."
"The dream serves as a warning..." He began. "That you are to give them neither your body nor your heart."
"Them?" Who exactly was he talking about? None of this was making any sense.
"The residents of this mansion. You see, everyone that you have met tonight, they are exactly what you saw in your dream. They are all vampires."
With Sebastian's stoic face, I almost believed him for a moment, the atmosphere growing tense as a seed of doubt entered by mind. I brushed off the feeling of uneasiness as quickly as it had come on as he clearly meant it as some form of joke, however, though the tension was still lingering in the air between us.
I didn't know he was the type to make jokes, much less ones like these but I did appreciate his effort to try and make me feel better about having such a silly dream.
Sebastian's still unchanging expression, staring back at me, completely seriously, made me waver once more.
There was no way that what he was saying was true. Was there?
Surely not! That's ridiculous to think. He was probably just trying to help reassure me in regards to the dream by joking about it, albeit in his own strange way. Vampires can't be real. It isn't possible.
I smiled at the butler and shook my head, releasing a breath that I hadn't realised that I had been holding as I'd mulled over the possibility that he had just been joking around with me and simply trying to make me feel more comfortable seeing as that seemed a lot more plausible in my mind than the former. Vampires. It's ridiculous.
"Thank you, for trying to make me feel better, Sebastian and listening to me ramble about my silly dream."
A mix of what seemed to be caution and worry flashed across Sebastian's stoic features.
"Anyway, I really should be getting to bed if I plan to help you around the mansion tomorrow. Bonne nuit, Sebastian."
I turned and walked out of the kitchen but there was still a nagging feeling in the back of my head. Whatever it was, I was sure to feel better after a good night's sleep.
As I made my way through the dark hallways, the oil-lamps no longer lit to provide me any light or reassurance in this strange new place, I found my fears becoming continuously more heightened and apparent at every slight noise or creek.
"Oh great, you're still awake?" I jumped at the sound of someone's voice slightly behind me and turned to come face to face with a familiar pony tailed individual, his expression laced with confusion and annoyance.
"Oh! Raphael right?" I had to say that I was surprised to see him here. I knew that he lived here but he didn't seem to be the type to leave his room that often if my first meeting with him was anything to go by.
"You remembered my name. Wonderful." His words dripped with sarcasm and mock happiness which he didn't even bother to make an effort to disguise. It seems that my prior assumptions about him were correct. Definitely not a people person.
"You're quite difficult to forget." The first words I'd heard him speak had been all too telling of his character.I
"I was intending on having my meal here but, seeing as we have company, I'd much rather not. You should leave while you still can. You don't look like you'd last long here."
With an attitude as cold as his and an expression to match, it was difficult to forget who he was, especially with what he'd said. Not only was he openly displaying his distaste towards me but he sounded so cryptic. It wasn't like I was in any danger here. Le Comte had made sure to have reassured me of that.
Regardless, why was he awake at this time?
"I was just in the kitchen getting a glass of water. And you?" I made an effort to continue with the conversation. It wasn't like Sebastian's words could be true after all.
Given the icy glare that he fixed on me and the way that his features twisted into a judgemental stare, it was evident that he didn't want to continue this conversation though it felt more like I had just threw something at him rather than just asked him what was keeping him up. "I was just going to get a light snack. I wasn't able to have dinner after all."
Nearing the end of his statement, his voice took on an accusatory tone and I scoffed in offended disbelief. It wasn't as though I had decided to get trapped here and ruin his dinner! And I didn't see why my presence should have to put him off from eating! Did my being here really bother him so much as having to try and avoid my very existence? If anything, he seemed to be all too entitled.
"I stand by what I said earlier." He spoke, as though his previous words weren't entirely out of line. "You don't look like you'll last long here so, if you plan on making it through the night, I suggest that you go to your room and be quick about it. Isaac skipped out on his rouge and might be coming to get some soon."
"Make it through the night"? "Rouge?"
There he goes again, being cryptic. I was still more than a little disgruntled by his earlier words but I couldn't help but think more into his words. What did he mean by that? Why would Isaac coming to get some rouge, whatever that was, stop me from making it through the night. This was the second time that he'd said something along those lines.
Sebastian's words flashed through my mind.
"The residents of this mansion. You see, everyone that you have met tonight, they are exactly what you saw in your dream. They are all vampires."
No. It's just that nightmare that I had influencing my thoughts. That's still a ridiculous thought to entertain! Surely, he's just being figurative about his clearly demeaning view of me.
My confusion in regards to the situation must have been all too evident on my face as realisation washed over his features. "Ah. You don't know?"
Know? Know what?
The hallway seemed to darken at his smile which held a mockingly pitying and yet predatory tone to it and I started to feel impossibly small. Like a rabbit cornered by a fox. My heart beat quickened as my breath caught in my throat. Alarm bells started ringing in my head and I felt the overpowering urge to run and hide.
"I've been informed that you'll be residing in this mansion for the time being, at least until you're able to get back home through the door, correct? I don't particularly want to associate with you though it seems to be impossible to avoid at present but it would be unfair to simply allow you to stay here without knowing the truth though, by your expression, it seems that you already know." He took a few purposeful steps towards me, only stopping when he was mere inches away from me, invading my personal space. Every cell in by body begged me to run, but I was frozen in place, as though by some kind of unknown force.
Of course I knew what he was talking about and what he was trying to imply but the thought of it being true made my heart lurch. It was impossible but this was too much of a coincidence that he would bring this up after my conversation with Sebastian. This couldn't just be some sick practical joke, could it? Practical jokes don't go this far.
"I assume that Sebas than has already tried to tell you but you with your fixed and unimaginative mind were unable to believe it so I'll spell it out for you. After all, lambs need support before they can walk on their own." His expression was still pitying but his eyes were steely and I felt a shiver run down my spine as I started to tremble and feel faint. The air between us seemed much to think as my head fogged up with fear as my body froze in place as I waited, unwillingly, for him to confirm won't thoughts. "All of the residents of this mansion are exactly what you think we are. We're all vampires."
A cruel smirk twisted Raphael's lips and I couldn't help but see him as what he claimed to be. A vampire. A monster that fed off of human blood.
The confirmation sparked something in me, terror flooding through my veins, and my body went into fight or flight. I shoved him away from me with as much force as my trembling arms could muster and was only able to catch his shocked expression before I started off, my shoes padding across the carpeted floor as I ran.
I had no destination in mind and no thought other than getting out of this place and finding help.
Had to repost it because Tumblr, as usual, was being fucky with the original 🙂
Chapter 2 goes up in a few hours 😙✌
Do not repost, edit or claim
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My mind and heart are like the stars, which seem to be alive, even when they have already died ...
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DannyMay 2021 Day 8: Gravity
Read also on AO3
Danny starts finding it more difficult to stay on the ground.
Danny had taken to wearing lead in his shoes. Well, they weren’t lead, per se, but they were pretty damn close. The same website that Sam bought her platforms on had quite the men’s range, and this particular pair he’d found had extremely striking steel toe caps. They were thick and clunky, and even a month ago they’d have been too heavy for him to wear. Now, though, he was looking for something heavier.
It had started gradually. Little things, like having a little extra bounce in his step or being buffeted more than usual by the wind. He’d not noticed how much lighter he’d got until it became a problem. The first major sign was when he’d awoken to a sore head, having bumped it on the ceiling when he’d floated upwards during the night.
“Chains,” Jazz had said with a resolute nod. “You need chains.”
Soon enough, she’d tethered him to the bed with metal chains she’d found in the basement, which kept him in place just like a weighted blanket. It definitely did the trick for now, but would be hard to explain away if his parents were to ask. It took over an hour for the red marks to fade from his skin whenever he got up.
When Danny had started to drift out of his chair at school, Sam had yanked him back down onto the wood, and insisted on the shoes.
“People are going to see you,” she pointed out, and he had to admit that such thing was less than ideal.
And then there was gym class. The clod stompers weren’t exactly regulation, and Ms Tetslaff insisted he take them off.
“In my gym, it’s either you wear sneakers or you clean the bleachers!”
She soon changed her mind when he jumped to shoot a basket, and just kept soaring, up and up and up. Wes approached him later and suggested putting a few weights in his pockets – but only if Danny had a good belt. There was no need to repeat the ‘pants falling down' fiasco.
“I know you don’t want to hear this,” said Tucker hesitantly, “but this can’t just continue. It’s scaring us all, not just me. You’re going to end up disappearing on the horizon like a helium balloon.”
When it had become almost impossible to stay on the ground with heavy shoes, weights in his pockets, and chains around his neck, he had to admit he needed help. There were two options, and he was loathe to do either. Option A was telling his parents, something he’d never want to do in a million years, and option B was visiting Vlad, which might have gotten him killed.
He picked option B.
Sitting on (or rather, floating above) Vlad’s lab chair, he was poked and prodded for hours. He had both of his friends standing beside him, tapping their feet impatiently on the tiled floor.
“Yep, you’re still dead,” Vlad muttered, taking a reading from the thermometer under Danny’s tongue.
Sam scowled. “So what’s happening to him then?”
“I don’t know.”
“You just don’t know?”
“No,” he admitted with a sigh, and raked a hand through his hair. “This never happened to me. I certainly don’t know why it’s happening now.”
Danny rose higher.
“You should probably stay inside, little badger, lest you float yourself away.”
“But he can’t just stay inside forever,” Tucker pointed out.
Danny grimaced. “Might one of the ghosts know what’s going on?”
“God no,” said Vlad. “I’ll have a look in the library, but we’re the first of our kind. They don’t have anything on us.”
So Danny stayed inside. He pinned his blanket to the bedroom ceiling, and made sure all of the windows stayed shut. Jazz brought his homework up so that he didn’t fall too far behind. Jazz was confident that there must be an answer out there, somewhere.
He woke up in the middle of the night as a white mist rasped out of his throat. He looked around wildly, but he couldn’t see anything. Instinctively, he went ghost.
With nothing left to stop him, he phased through the ceiling and into the loft. It was full of old furniture and cardboard boxes holding childhood memories, but when he tried to grab something on the way past, his hands went right though. He couldn’t regain his tangibility.
He couldn’t actually feel the coldness of the air outside when he went through the roof tiles. But he could feel the wind. He was in his pyjamas, so he had nothing to weigh him down. He just kept going.
Wetness on his cheeks told him that he was crying, and as soon as the dam broke there was no stopping it. He screamed guttural, wordless screams, but there was nobody around to hear them.
The ground was so far away that it was barely there. It was dark on every side, and soon he wasn’t sure which way he was even falling. The air was too thin. Just because he didn’t have to breathe didn’t mean he didn’t want to. There was a weight on his chest preventing it from rising, and his lungs screamed just because he thought they should. It at least gave him something real to focus on.
There were stars all around him, blazing like beacons, but they didn’t give him the comfort they normally did. He wasn’t flying, he was falling, all of his limbs aching from the drag. He’d never reach the stars. There’s no way he could hold out long enough. Maybe he’d smash into the moon instead and give it a whole new crater.
He wondered how long it would take for his parents to notice. Would Jazz explain it to them, or pretend not to know? It didn’t really matter now, either way. At least nobody had to watch it happen.
He watched the sunrise and smiled sadly as the sky turned pink. It really was beautiful.
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Happy Mother’s Day/Adoption
Elriel Month - Day 9
This one is near and dear to my heart. I was looking forward to writing this chapter for a while. Because families is what you make, not what you are born into.
I hope you enjoy! And buckle up, this one is a big boy.
Comments are always appreciated
Fluff, mentions of some sexual things, nothing explicit, lots of talking and loving and good things
They stood in the hallway, Elain looking down at the key in her palm.
Azriel put his heavy, rough-skinned hand on her neck and squeezed lightly, his fingers tangling with her braid.
“Do you mind?” he asked, voice unsure, “if I touch you? Just a little,”
“I mind,” she looked up at him.
His hand dropped at once. He stepped back, his face actually displaying something akin to pain. The Shadowsinger was not easy to surprise, but he seemed genuinely shocked by her response.
She was shaking her head in admonishment though.
“I am so-,” he began stuttering, but she interrupted,
“I mind that you don’t touch me more!” she said fiercely and his reaction was priceless--a smile lit up his features, a pleased little smirk playing on his mouth. Relief that was now rolling off his body was palatable.
“Is that so?” he teased, his hand migrating back to her neck, his thumb stroking lightly, as he moved closer.
“Indeed!” she declared snappily. “You are awfully timid, considering that you are living with Nesta and Cassian.”
“Well,” he began, but she interrupted him again,
“You know, Nesta and I are sisters,” her voice was heavy with meaning and suggestion. “And by the way, I am not a maid. I lost my virginity before her!” She stared at him, a challenge in her pose, on her flushed face.
Azriel’s breath stilled for a bit.
Well, that answered one question that’s been on his mind for a while. Normally, he could tell, but with Elain, he struggled to identify anything in her scent. Either her experience was nominal, or there was no experience to be had.
Elain wasn’t stupid--she knew that he’d wondered. Everyone did, because nobody knew except for her, Greyson and Nesta. The twins suspected, but the three of them rarely discussed matters of love or sex. The twins picked up on her attraction to Azriel a while back, but they never mentioned it. For all she knew, they might have been there on that fateful Solstice night, and witnessed the horribly awkward exchange. Elain, though, under their own tutelage in matters of spying and noticing things that others preferred to keep secret, picked up on something of her own--Nuala had been Azriel’s lover. There was a barely perceptible change in Nuala’s demeanor whenever she spoke of ‘lord Azriel’. An intimate softness seeped into her voice, one born of affection that was more than just camaraderie or companionship. Elain, true to herself, did not pry, grateful that the twins reciprocated and did not question her feelings either.
Sometimes, when she visited Nesta at the House of Wind, she also met Nesta’s friends--Emerie, a clipped Illyrian, and a bubbly, opinionated priestess named Gwyn. There were times, if Elain was being honest, when she went up to the House early in the morning, to watch the training sessions. It seemed like everyone had the same idea--the pristessess, as well as she, because watching the solemn, but gentle Azriel train was something that they all partook in. He never let on whether he was aware of all the admiring glances that trailed him and his every move, and Elain did not know if she were to be amused or jealous of the attention he was receiving. Irrationally, she considered him ‘hers’. Not in some wild mated way, but in a more subtle realization that he was interested in her. And only her. Yet, she kept her thoughts to herself, and no one was privy to her fantasies and affections. The same couldn’t be said for Nesta and her friends, who gossiped and exchanged details that were so intimate, it probably would’ve made Cassian blush.
Gwyn was recently introduced to a young Illyrian named Balthasar, who apparently helped Nesta during the ordeal of the Blood Rite. The young male showed a lot of promise and was now being trained by Cassian himself, which led to the introduction to Gwyn. Balthasar, smitten, requested to court her and they were in the initial stages of the courtship, though that didn’t stop Nesta and Emerie from asking all sorts of questions...especially about his anatomy. Gwyn didn’t even have the answers, but the questions kept coming. Elain was happy that the twins did not put her through the same scrutiny. Curiously, Cerridwen asked a lot of questions about Emerie, the kinds of questions that had Elain promising that she’d introduce them, soon.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Azriel with a smile. “And just so you know, and since we are sharing information, but I was the last to lose my virginity out of the three of us. And I am the oldest.”
“Who was the first?”
“Who do you think?” he chuckled.
He booped her nose with his knuckle. “Smart as always.”
There was a pause in their banter, a brief, tense silence.
“Good night then,” he murmured and pressed his lips to her forehead.
Elain bit her lip and it took a lot of self-control on his part not to lick her plump, pink lip on the same spot.
Elain had a suite of two rooms, situated in the back of the mansion, away from Feyre and Rhys, and Azriel’s room and office were close to hers--whether it was a coincidence, or Elain’s hand in designing the layout of the mansion, who knew?
There would be no sleeping for him tonight. He came here to speak with Rhys, and ended up seeing Elain’s legs, touching her, and asking her to enter a forbidden, clandestine affair with him, to which she agreed. He found out that she was not a virgin--he still didn’t know how he felt about that--and that she was ready to defy Rhysand in order to be with him. For someone who was meticulous, thoughtful and controlled, Azriel was not going to sleep tonight. He needed to. He was exhausted and worn out from travelling and worrying, and now…
He undressed and bathed, running the evening’s events in his head over and over again. Was he making the situation worse? For everyone? His usual doubts began swirling in his brain, as he wondered if he’d pushed the situation too far? He wasn’t too concerned about the ramifications for himself, but Elain was…
Standing in his bedroom.
“Lainey, what ar-,” he began, stopping in his tracks. At least he was wearing his underpants, though nothing else.
She was barefoot, wearing only a nightgown--a simple white thing that reached to her knees, with tiny applique flowers on the straps.
Suddenly, he was reminded of the nightgown in which she was dragged before the King of Hybern and how she looked then--terrified, small, so thin. He was barely alive, but the violent, burning rage that coursed through him at that moment, when she was pushed inside the Cauldron, it still flowed through him today, at the memory of it. And then they pulled her out, the nightgown clinging to her, and she naked underneath it, like a newborn babe, wet and crying and sodden...Only she was not born, but someone remade, and at that very moment, a thought penetrated his pain-addled brain...It was a horrible and selfish thought, a thought that he never repeated and never voiced to anyone, even to himself, though it lived in the back of his mind. What if she was reMade for him? What if the Cauldron made her for him? Made Nesta for Cassian? That’s why her mate bond was such a gruesome shock to him--how could the Cauldron that just made her give her to another? Why did Cassian and Nesta remain bound, ever since they first saw each other and the eddies of the Cauldron began swirling in their favour? But he, as always, had his one desire snatched away from him.
Yet, seeing Elain in his bedroom right now, he couldn’t feel so petulant after all.
Elain was choosing him. Not her bound mate. Him. Why that was the case, he couldn’t say, but neither did he care.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” she asked, her voice very quiet.
“I am not much of a sleeper, “ he admitted.
Her gaze raked over him, his whole form, from head to toe, and then back up. Her eyes slithered over his legs, his powerful thighs, shyly skipped over his middle, then went up, to his thickly-muscled abdomen, the burnished-bronze skin of his chest. Her chocolate-brown eyes skidded over the network of scars and tattoos that flowed from his neck, down to his strong, sinew-corded arms, and then up to his neck, finally meeting his gaze.
He liked it. Liked his woman looking at him. Her gaze was bold, without coquettish pretence, without unnecessary shyness, as she studied his body in silence. He let her.
Her slow and thorough study of him continued for a few moments, her eyes following the contours of his wings, which he tucked tightly behind his back, then to his hands, which he eventually folded on his chest.
She, at last, looked around and then said, almost to herself,
“I designed this room…”
When the house was built, he was simply told that these were his rooms. Truthfully, he liked them immediately. Found the colour scheme of blues, grays and whites soothing and pleasant. It wasn’t dark, which, perhaps, was the most important element for him--he didn’t like dark. For someone who lived in the shadows, he enjoyed light and sun more than anyone could imagine. The dark was a place where he languished for a decade of his life. It was sorrow and horror and reek. It was his half-brothers tossing piss at him, kicking him in the stomach, spitting at him.
“I hoped that you might like it,” she said and then looked down, her bare toes scratching against the cobalt and silver rug. “This gave me quite the headache. I wanted the colour to be just right.”
“It is right,” he assured her, and then took a few steps towards her.
“You are so beautiful,” she blurted, staring at him, watching him move. He didn’t even know how to respond, though the compliment certainly pleased him. Unlike Rhys, who’d probably say “Oh, I know” or Cassian, who’d say something along the lines of “and you haven't seen all of me yet, sweetheart,” Azriel was more humble when it came to women swooning over his looks. Though he was very aware that he was, in fact, beautiful. But he remained silent, his only hope that she would never stop looking at him like that--like he was the only thing that she desired.
He came over to her and they stood so close, she could feel heat radiating between the two of them. Her breasts tightened beneath her nightgown and she knew that he could see her puckering nipples, as blush spread from her face down to her chest.
He cupped her cheek and asked gently,
“What are you doing here?”
“Sleeping with you,” she announced, her brown doe eyes sparkling with challenge.
“Elain, not that I am not,”
“Just sleeping, Az,” she corrected him.
He blew out a breath of relief and she chuckled.
“Is sleeping with me so terrifying a notion for you?”
He shook his head, “Not terrifying at all. But thank the Cauldron. Because I am not sure that I could deny you anything, yet this is not how and where I imagined...things happening…”
Her finger traced a pattern along the markings on his skin, and he needed to exercise all of his famed Azriel self-control not to pull her into his arms and devour her mouth.
“How did you imagine them happening?” she asked, with quiet, pretend innocence. Her lashes fluttered, as she drew her gaze from his chest up to his face.
He smirked and finally allowed himself to squeeze her tight hips in his palms. She was an enticing mix of both slender and voluptuous, with beautiful waves of honey-golden hair and caramel-brown eyes. She even smelled like honey...Like pastry. If anyone doubted it, Elain was confirmation that Azriel definitely had a ‘type’--shapely light-haired women with naturally kind and affable dispositions and brown eyes.
“To begin with, us not being in any kind of close proximity to Rhys...or Feyre,” he snorted and Elain grinned, nodding her agreement. “Then,” he considered, and gently cupped her breasts. They nestled comfortably in his palms, surprisingly soft and supple, a woman’s breasts, not a girl’s. Her breath hitched, and he felt the rapid beating of her heart against his wrist, while he squeezed, gaging her reaction.
“Girls in the village,” she remembered, looking down at his scarred, rough hands that fondled her tenderly and unhurriedly, as if the two of them had all the time in the world, “used to tease me. Said that these were too small...that men liked an ‘overfill’.”
He rolled his eyes and muttered,
“Well, good thing you got out of that village, right? Because those girls knew fuck all about what men like.”
His thumbs brushed against her swelling nipples and she gripped his bicep instinctively, stifling a moan.
“Exactly why I want it to be just you and I,” he whispered against her cheek, his breath warm, his body ever so slightly tense. “So that if you want to moan, you’ll moan. And if you need to scream, then I will delight in your screams and your pleasure.”
“Az…” she looked up at him, “you know that...gods…” she sighed,
“What, my beauty?” he urged her, pressing slightly on her nipples, coaxing a response and a gasp.
“I want you so much…” she confessed at last. “In every way...With me. I want to do all these things that I fantasize about. Going places, making you laugh, doing silly things…”
“And we’ll do them,” he promised, kissing her cheek, “we’ll do them all.”
“Sometimes, I envy Cassian and Nesta,” she admitted. “They are so playful and happy together. They are like two peas in a pod,”
“Yeah, well,” he mumbled, “you haven't lived with them then,”
“But you know what I mean? they live for themselves. They have happiness, and it’s tangible. It’s not that they are happy, which they are, but they have this wonderful aura of joy and understanding about them. I want that too. But I want it to be ours. Uniquely yours and mine.”
His wings rustled at her words, the earnestness in them. It was a twinge of happiness that he couldn’t contain, as the claw on top of his wing flexed, as his throat might, when he was happy and excited. As he was right now.
“Baby, together, we can be anything,” he picked her up in one swoop and pressed her to his chest. She yelped and giggled next to his neck and his wings flared at the sensation. “We can do anything!”
He deposited her on the bed, suddenly painfully, achingly aware that it was Elain fucking Archeron laying in his bed. He couldn’t even wrap his mind around this development.
“We can even kill the King of Hybern together!” she laughed happily, waiting for him to slide next to her.
“We can and we did,” he nodded, spreading his wings across the expanse of his bed, tucking Elain closer to him, her soft breasts splaying over his chest.
They’d never discussed what had happened that fateful day. The memories were too heavy, too overwhelming, and it took a while for all of those emotions to settle.
Nesta couldn’t cope. For many a reason, none of which she discussed with Elain. But Elain knew that the death of 1,000 Illyrians, an entire legion, hung heavily over Nesta’s consciousness. Nesta chose to save one. The only one that mattered to her. The only one she ever loved. She saved Cassian, only to decide a few hours later that they would die together, side by side. That the death of the 1,000 Illyrians was for nothing, for their Commander would still die that day. That the black ash that rained over the battlefield was all because of Nesta’s binding to this one male, who mattered to her above everything else. And if she couldn’t save him again, then she would die with him.
Then after the war, the rumors began to spread like wildfire. The GREAT LOVE. The greatest love story of this age. Nesta and Cassian--the Cauldron-made and the Commander General--for whom she sacrificed a legion of Illyrians. Over whom she draped herself, in the last attempt to protect her mate from certain demise. None of it helped Nesta’s mental state after the war.
“Why did you give me Truth-Teller that day?” Elain asked suddenly.
Azriel wasn’t planning to discuss the battle, not when he snuggled so comfortably next to her, the fire crackling merrily in the white marble fireplace, throwing shadows on the walls. The rain was pelting against the windows, but Azriel never felt better, more at peace.
But he said,
“You know why.”
“I knew you’d follow them,” he said simply. “I knew you’d follow your sisters. I had no way to protect you otherwise...so I gave you the dagger,”
“Listen,” he said firmly. “I knew things were going to go to shit. Cassian was alone out there. Rhys forbade me from fighting. The Cauldron took out a legion...You didn't need to be a great war strategist to know that we were losing, badly.”
“I was such a coward,” she muttered with disgust.
He tipped her chin up and shook his head, his voice stern,
“No. At the end, you came through. At the end, when it mattered, all of you came through. Nesta offered herself--I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting that from her. But since then, she’d earned my undying respect. Feyre and Amren were there, by that fucking Cauldron...Anyway, I knew things were going to fall apart quickly and spectacularly.”
“They did,” she agreed.
He paused, thinking. She looked up at him and brushed her fingers over his face, soothing him, dulling the memories, calming him tenderly, with a kiss or two on his chest, over a pronounced scar on his shoulder.
“I had to save you,” he said at last, voice hoarse. He wasn’t comfortable with the disclosure. That like Nesta, he didn't care about anyone else, other than Elain. Her survival was the only one that mattered. It was clear to him then, that Mor didn’t matter quite as much as he thought she would. Cassian, his brother, his second half, was a soldier and he expected that he could perish--they both did. His gentle little fawn though, his beautiful girl who somehow understood him without speaking, who accepted him instantly, and who was thrust into the madness of war and this world against her will, well, his girl had to survive.
“I had to give you the one thing I trusted,” he continued, his lips pressed to the top of her head, “and hope that it would be enough.”
“But that’s not all you did,” she reminded him, bringing his hand to her lips, kissing it absently like she enjoyed doing. Azriel still marvelled at how natural it came to her, how easily she offered him this simple, loving gesture.
“You wrapped me in shadows.”
“I mean, you are shit with a dagger, baby,”
She smacked him harshly on the shoulder and he burst out laughing. Azriel only laughed like this with her and Cassian. She never heard such joy and ease come from him, unless he was teasing her or goofing around with his brother.
“Not so shit after all,” she snapped her fingers and stuck her tongue out at him. “Stabbed that bastard like it was a walk in a park!”
“That’s my girl,” and he slapped a loud kiss on her forehead.
She became a bit more serious and said, “I couldn’t have all that be for nothing...Nesta, Cassian, you, with your shredded wings, but still fighting...Rhys on that battlefield. I mean, if Tamlin was there, how could I not be? I had to save Nesta,” she swallowed. “I had to...and Cassian. Because without him,”
“I know, love, I know,” he nodded simply.
“After all that, for her to lose him, it would’ve been intolerable. And I think that for you, too.”
She sighed and clutched at his arm.
“No one even saw me, from behind the shadows. I knew where the Cauldron was--I could feel it--and I knew that both Nesta and Feyre were there. I had no idea what I would do, to be honest. None. But when I saw it--gods, the bloody horror that was Cassian, just blood everywhere, and my sister sprawled over him, it was…’ she shuddered at the memory. “I just saw the King’s back to me, and I went for it...I don’t really remember it all too well. It was chaotic. I guess I stabbed him in the throat,”
“Yes, in the neck. And Nesta finished him.”
“I honestly don’t remember. But thank you. For the shadows.”
“Any time, love, any time. Remind me never to get on your bad side.”
“You are horrible and I can’t believe that I like you.”
“I can’t believe it either,” he murmured, with some seriousness in his voice.
She only shrugged and yawned and asked, “Do we sleep?”
“You sleep, baby,” he encouraged, stroking her back soothingly. “I’ll do some work.”
She lifted her head off his chest and looked at him. He grunted his displeasure.
“No, get back in there,” he whined.
She shook her head. “No. You aren’t doing any work. If Rhysand can go to the opera and fuck my sister in a hotel for the night,”
“Elain Archeron, what language!” he mocked teasingly.
“Well,” she ignored him, “then you can take the night off as well, and sleep. You aren’t obligated to work constantly.”
“So I request to court you two hours ago and you are already ruling over my life?” he chuckled.
She shrugged, “I guess I am.” Then, gently, she cupped his face and brushed her thumb over his mouth. “Please Az...I want you to rest. Please.”
He smiled at her and finally nodded. “As my lady commands.”
“What do you need to sleep?” she asked with glaring sincerity which rattled him. He wasn’t used to people caring about him. Cassian cared. Azriel wasn’t sure that anyone else did.
“I...I am just happy that you are here, with me,” he rubbed his head, “I don’t really need anything.”
She looked at him and asked, “Do you want me to undress?”
He almost choked, but mustered himself about to groan, “Baby...yes. But no. If you are undressed any further, there will be no sleeping. And all our plans will go to seven hells!”
Giggling, Elain settled within the embrace of his heavy, thick, warm arm and wrapped her arm over his torso. Her fingers brushed over one leather cuff around his wrist that contained a cobalt siphon.
“Only one?” she inquired.
“I mean, I am careful, but I don’t sleep with seven siphones,” he chuckled. “Just one.”
She turned on her belly, looking at him curiously. He shifted and then pulled the blanket over them.
She propped her cheek, leaning onto him, within the hold of his arm, from which she apparently did not wish to move. Good.
“What happens if you don’t have it on?”
“I don't know,” he admitted, “I haven't been without them for a long time. I imagine nothing good. If we are threatened, I’d probably destroy the entire mansion,”
Her face changed ever so slightly, but not in fear, but in awe.
“So you are very powerful?”
“More so than Rhysand?”
“Different kind of power. My shadows allow me to have predictive power--know certain things in advance...they warn me if there is a threat, or if someone is in danger. I can send them to look for things, to seek things out, to scout. Also, they hide me, as you are well aware. The siphons channel my power, the physical, killing power, but also allow me to heal myself and others--not from diseases, or wounds,”
“I can also move through space with the shadows or winnow,”
“I am different.”
He stroked her back tenderly and said, “But I don’t do magic tricks, like Rhys,” and at that, she snorted. “And my power isn’t confined to this Court. I can be a shadowsinger anywhere.” He levelled a serious look at her, and added, “and you, my dear, are Cauldron blessed. Your powers,”
“I don't think i have any powers,” she protested.
“Wrong. But like mine, they are predictive in essence.”
Elain hummed, thinking about his words. He was likely correct in his assessment, but she didn’t know what it meant. He didn’t push her further into this conversation, sensing that she wasn’t comfortable with the discussion. So he stroked her head and she settled next to him in silence.
She’s never slept with a male before. Never with a man either.
She had met Greyson in the field early, early in the morning. Even the servants and the grooms in the stables were still asleep. She snuck out, so not to wake up Nesta and answer questions that she didn’t want to answer. Greyson was always surrounded by his men and his soldiers and privacy was hard to come by. They’d kissed. Never for too long or too much, ever in fear of being discovered and interrupted. Greyson, eager to emulate the heroes of Old, of the First War, was polite, chivalrous and domineering. He had to prove himself to his father, and she made for a good match--pretty, soft, wealthy. So he treated her accordingly. She loved him. Or at least was infatuated with the idea of loving him, of being a proper wife to a warrior. That was until she had met real warriors, that fateful night. Ancient, scarred, wild and magnificent, she’d never forget seeing them for the first time--so indescribably beautiful, the three of them, and so dangerous. Greyson was but a boy compared to them, his life experience meager, his aspirations juvenile. He didn’t know the world beyond their village and the adjacent lands. And something cracked in her chest that night, after she’d gone to bed. Azriel stunned her. But he was utterly unattainable. He was so outside the realm of her wildest dreams that she tucked her fascination with him deep inside of her, never to think of him again. He could never be. It would never be. She resolved to be a good wife to Greyson, the Lady of the Manor, and was convinced that eventually she’d forget about the winged Fae male who spoke beautiful words to her and permitted her a glimpse of a different and beautiful, if savage world. Then, that early morning, in the mists, just as the sun was touching the horizon, Greyson made his move. She was not forced or pressured, and for that she was grateful. She agreed, lost in his scent and his kisses, and then it happened, in a bale of hay. She wore more clothes then than she did now. He hiked up her skirts, and then with some fumbling and grunting slid into her. It was unpleasant, and painful too, but after the first bout, he was ready again, and the second time was better, as he was more loving and even popped her breast out of the bodice and squeezed it like it was a sponge. Some mystery was solved for her that morning, and it made her giddy. So when she returned home, she was smiling.
Now, she was wrapped around Azriel. Their legs tangled together. His breath was steady and the movement of his wide chest even and deep. He actually fell asleep, that massive arm pressed around her. He was so hard and so big, she kept getting a little lost in him and it was the most thrilling sensation of all.
When she had to, Elain Archeron acted. Tonight, she had to act. This impasse between the two of them, with Rhysand in the middle, was becoming intolerable. Azriel was too loyal to his oath, and though he chafed and fought against Rhys’s order, it was more complicated for him to stand against his High Lord. Elain had no such qualms. She didn’t obtain immortality only to lose Azriel.
It was so early, it was still dark in the room, the embers gleaming in the fireplace. The rain had stopped sometime in the night. Now the barest lick of light seeped through the blue velvet curtains. Elain knew that she should probably sleep some more, but that would be impossible. She was too happy. Her heart overflowing with joy.
Azriel was asleep atop of her, his head resting just below her breasts, his torso situated comfortably between her legs. Gods he was heavy! His wings splayed over the bed, draping over the edges, and Elain realized that they added additional weight to his already muscle-clad body. She also marveled at how enormous they were. Of course she’d flown with him and seen them unfurled before, but it was different when he was in motion. Now, it was like an endless dark mantle that spread over the bed, drooping all the way to the floor.
Azriel’s palm rested on her breast. During the night, she reached for his hand sleepily and placed it there, and he hadn’t let go of it since. It would be nice if he never released it. If she could spend the next century here, in his bed, with him sleeping soundly within her embrace, his hands palming her breasts, she wouldn't think of it as a century wasted. He was sleeping! It filled her with unusual, inexplicable excitement--that with her, he was so relaxed, so at peace that he found rest at last. Even his shadows were at rest. The shadows usually left the two of them alone, disappearing when they were together. Elain had asked about that, and Azriel explained that since the shadows detected no possible threat from her, and because they sensed his feelings towards her, they didn’t feel like they needed to be present. Apparently, they trusted her Azriel with her. The notion made her chuckle, when he told her.
“Emani,” he murmured sleepily, shifting atop of her at last, his mighty shoulders rippling with waking muscles.
“Sleep, sleep,” she urged him, stroking his jet-lack hair. “It’s early.”
He moved his head though and looked up at her, chin pressed into her upper stomach. He looked even more handsome right now, if that were even possible--the planes of his face softened, the hair tousled, eyes an unusual emerald green, which she’d never seen before. The shadows awoke with the master, and like a bored puppy, they saw that there was nothing interesting to be done around here, before disappearing.
“I am squishing you,” he noted, though didn’t make a move to lift himself. She lightly rubbed her foot against his lower back and smiled at him.
Looking at her, he gushed softly, “You are beautiful, Elain,” and she blushed at the ravenous hunger in his eyes, the expression of awe.
“You can squish me every night,” she told him, drawing her fingers over his cheekbones, studying his face.
The sombre fact that that would not be the case, and that this was a stolen night for both of them, hit them like a pile of bricks.
She would not lounge in his sprawling bed ever again--or at least any time soon--and either would they enjoy the intimacy of last night. There would be no loving embraces, or soft conversation, not the tangle of their limbs, or the caress of their hands on each other’s bodies. He would not be cupping her breasts in his scarred palms protectively and she would not be waking up wrapped in his love.
“We should...” she began.
He placed a kiss between her breasts and then lifted himself off her. Her warm, damp center immediately missed the sensation of his body pressing into it, and she groaned, not caring that he knew.
“Lainey,” he kissed her hands, “I am sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for…” she sighed.
“No, emani, I do,” he sat up, running his warm hand over her hip, where her nightgown hiked up almost to her stomach. “I should’ve come up with a plan of some sort by now.”
She propped herself on her elbows, golden brown hair sliding over the pillows. Those trusting chocolate eyes looked at him with expectation. He rubbed his head, mussing his hair even further, and then said,
“I slept like I was dead…”
She smiled. “That was the idea, shadowsinger.”
“Some Cauldron-born power you exercised on me?” he teased. And then, leapt to his feet at once. It startled her, this abruptness, which was so unlike him.
“I am such an idiot!” he exclaimed, slapping his forehead.
Brows furrowed, as she awaited an explanation.
He snapped his fingers, thinking, figuring something out.
“We’ll need your sister!” he said at last.
“Which one do you think?”
“Nesta. What can she do?” she frowned. Then ordered, “come and touch me, while you tell me.”
He was back in the bed in a second, as he began trailing kisses over her arms, her shoulders, bypassing the too-tempting throat, his calloused hand landing on her naked thigh, caressing languidly.
“Remember the ball in Hewn City?” he asked, punctuating every word with a kiss. She nodded, attempting to stifle a moan of pleasure, which proved unsuccessful. He only continued his delicious, measured assault on her flesh with his lips, and Mother above--if this is what she was feeling now, when he was just casually kissing the least sexual parts of her, then what would happen when he was keen on actually making love to her? She already knew that she’d never felt like this before. And they’ve done nothing. Nothing at all, with Azriel being a gentlemale as always. Well, at least one of them was smart and collected. Elain was about to fling her nightgown off and then...come what may.
He pulled back a bit, sensing the turmoil inside of her.
“Yes, I remember,” she groaned, having difficulty keeping her eyes open, her back arching towards him.
“Baby,” his voice was gentle. “Look at me, love.”
She managed to, somehow.
His expression was kind, understanding.
“I want to kiss you a little more, emani,” he said, tucking her hair behind her ears. “But, you can’t,”
Don’t get aroused. Don’t mark his bedroom with her scent. She knew what he was not saying. It was an impossible request, but he was right. So she nodded.
“Good girl,” he approved, and the praise did nothing to ease the wild craving that engulfed her.
“Just call me Elain,” she begged, hating it. She wanted to hear ‘love’ and ‘baby’ from his lips. She needed to hear him say ‘emani’ to her--’darling’ in Illyrian--something Cassian frequently called Nesta as well. The greatest, most intimate term of endearment in Illyrian.
“Tell me why we need Nesta?” she asked at last.
He nodded, playing with her hair lightly. “Her scent--rather Cassian’s scent--was glamoured for Nesta for her dance with Eris,”
“Yes, I remember. Morrigan did it for her,”
“Yes, but Morrigan showed her how to do it as well,” he explained at last. “Which has been a fucking blessing!” he added with a groan and Elain burst out laughing. “Stewing in their fucking scents was a nightmare that I do not wish on my worst enemy!”
“Poor Azzie,” she stroked his face, laughing.
“Yes! Yes, indeed. Poor Azzie indeed,” he was nodding vigorously.
She wondered, “Does she have to glamour both of us?”
“No, either one would be sufficient. I don’t really want to be coming to Nesta every time we want to kiss,” he muttered.
“Which,” she noted dryly, “we haven't done yet.”
“We will,” he winked at her.
“I want to dangle something in front of you to keep you guessing.”
“Again, why do I like you? I don't know. I must be crazy.”
Both of them heard Nyx cry in his nursery.
“Well, I guess that’s all the time we got,” he sighed.
She took his hand and asked, “Are you busy today?”
“I have some meetings, but nothing that I can’t move or postpone. Why?”
“I think you need to spend the day with me,” she suggested, kissing his knuckles.
He agreed, “I think that I do, too. Do you have something in mind?”
“Oh yes, absolutely. Can you meet me at 9 bells, at the Brea Bakery?”
If he was surprised, he didn’t say anything.
When Elain opened the door and stepped out into the hallway, in nothing but her crumpled nightgown, she was met with Nuala’s shadowy presence.
“Good morning,” said Nuala cheerfully, though she understood everything at first glance.
Azriel was behind Elain, his gaze heavy, and edged with warning. The twins technically worked for Rhysand. He paid their salaries and they served in his household. They were found, hired, trained and worked for Azriel just as well. So…
“Cerridwen went to get the baby,” said Nuala evenly. Then her eyes darted to Elain’s bedroom doors. “You should probably get in your bath now. The High Lord will be coming back soon.”
Shadows swirled around Azriel at once.
“You have time,” added Nuala, glancing at her sometime-lover. “But do not tarry. You should be gone soon.”
“Thank you Nuala,” he said simply, but there was gratitude in his expression.
“We’ll take care of everything,” she promised.
By the time Elain arrived at the Brea Bakery, Azriel was already waiting for her. The clock tower struck 9 bells just as she approached him.
“Hello beautiful,” he winked at her, head cocked to the left.
It was a sunny, crisp autumn day. The sky was a crystalline blue and the sun was bright, if cold, though it didn’t stop Azriel from stretching his wings ever so slightly to catch the rays. Elain figured that since they were uncovered, the wings were probably colder than the rest of him. He wasn’t in his leathers--just a jacket, trousers and knee high boots, the siphons on his wrists hidden under the jacket. He looked almost normal, if not for his otherworldly handsomeness and the swirling shadows, though they didn’t engulf him, and only floated about lazily.
“Everything alright back home?” he asked, as she threaded her arm through his.
She nodded. “I haven’t even seen him. Only Feyre, and she was busy with Nyx. And yes, you are correct about the stench.” She wrinkled her nose. She’d heard her sister fuck her High Lord more times than she cared to recall, usually when they forgot to throw a shield over their bedroom. It was better now, since her rooms were far away from theirs--definitely her idea--considering the close proximity that they had to each other back at the townhouse. Still, today, they hurried to see their baby son, so the remnants of their nightly activities were glaring.
“We don’t need to disgust people like that,” she decided. “For their sake.”
He was grinning and nodding.
“I think we might have dodged them this time around.” They entered the bakery. “He is not screaming into my head, questioning me. So…”
“Lady Elain!” a green-skinned male Fae smiled at Elain from behind the counter. Then he glanced at Azriel and added, “Lord Azriel. Good morning.”
Elain reminded herself that just like Cassian, who couldn’t walk the streets without being ogled, stared at, admired, whispered about and generally adored by the public, Azriel was also instantly recognizable. Though admiration for him was tinged with a bit of unease and fear, for everyone knew who he was, what he did, and what that famous dagger on his thigh was known for, Azriel was still loved and exalted.
“The usual, Lady?” asked the baker.
“Since I have help today,” she said, “load us up, Bron.”
The baker winked and nodded, disappearing behind the counter.
Within minutes, he began carrying out large, flat boxes. Curious shadows informed Azriel that the boxes contained doughnuts.
“Lord Azriel can probably carry,” Bron the baker sized Azriel up, “seven? Eight?”
Once mountains of boxes were placed on the marble counter, Bron reported, “Jelly. Chocolate. These are chocolate glazed. Caramel. Raspberry. Strawberry.”
“All with sprinkles?” she confirmed.
“Of course. So many sprinkles, I had to place an additional order. Almost ran out.”
Once Elain paid, Bron began loading up Azriel’s outstretched arms with the boxes. They weren’t heavy, but cumbersome. Then he did the same with Elain and bid them a good day.
“Lainey, baby, you hungry?” inquired Azriel with a chuckle, once they were back on the street. She laughed.
“Don’t know how you keep your girlish figure after what...200 doughnuts?”
“A secret of mine. Follow me, Lord Azriel.”
He rolled his eyes, “they never learn.”
“I am always Lady Elain,” she shrugged. “I got tired of correcting people.”
Elain led him down a few winding streets, towards the newly built district, which was still under construction, emerging from the ruins of the Rainbow.
They approached a wildly coloured building--purples and pinks, greens and yellows, blues and reds were splashed over the walls, like the Rainbow itself threw up all over it.
An orphanage, informed the shadows.
Elain opened the door with her boot, hefting the boxes, and Azriel shouldered the door, letting her pass.
“Elain, hello!” “Elain, you came!” “Elain, what’s that? Doughnuts?” “Elain, are we going to play today?” “Elain…”
There were dozens of children, some Illyrian, some Fae, some High Fae, all of various ages.
At the sight of Azriel, some of them paused and stopped to consider him.
One brave boy, of about 10, came forward and asked boldly, “are you the shadowsinger?”
Azriel nodded, “I am.”
“Why are you here?” demanded a girl with bright eyes and blonde ringlets.
“I came to help Elain,” he explained, as they moved through the throngs of children, finally ending up in the dining room.
“Who is going to help us?” asked Elain and hands rose in the air eagerly.
Quickly, she rattled out orders--plates, cups, napkins...the older kids were asked to fill jugs with water, set out fruit bowls, while the younger ones set the tables.
“Lain! you came!” a small Illyrian boy with a pale face and large hazel eyes rushed to her and wrapped himself around her legs. She gently rubbed his head and said, “Temal, how are you doing?”
“Good!” he reported, nodding as well in confirmation.
“That’s excellent. How are you with your lessons?”
Temal frowned a bit and Azriel smiled, observing the dynamic between the two, while he helped unpack the doughnuts.
“I don’t like learning letters,” exclaimed Temal dramatically. “It’s too hard!”
“But you are a smart boy--it can’t be that hard for you,” argued Elain.
“Why do I have to?! You can read to me, Lain!”
He was small for his age, but he was missing two teeth, so Azriel figured that he was about six, and his wing size pointed to the same age.
“Who is this?” he then demanded, plopping down on the bench. His legs dangled in the air, as he studied Azriel. “Are you a prince?” he then inquired.
“A prince?” Azriel shook his head, “no.”
“Are you Azriel?”
“I am Azriel.”
“I know you!” said Temal confidently. “You are a big warrior! And you have shadows,”
“That I do,” confirmed Azriel, while Elain smiled. “What about you?”
“I am Temal. From the Iron Eagle camp.”
“Oh, I’ve been to Iron Eagle,”
“Yes, it was nice,” agreed Temal and then switched to Illyrian, recognizing one of his own in Azriel. “Me and my mali--father--we lived there together. He was a big warrior too,”
“Temal,” interrupted Elain, “Common Tongue.”
The boy frowned, but switched back to the Common Tongue, muttering, “Lain is mean sometimes…”
Azriel chuckled and sat down on the bench beside Temal. “I don’t think that she is mean, but she is correct--you need to speak both languages.”
“But she makes me read too!”
“Which you should know how to do,” noted Azriel.
“Why?” Temal threw his hands up. “I want to be a big warrior! they don’t read…”
Elain implored Azriel with her gaze, and he nodded to her.
A little girl stepped tentatively towards them, her fingers in his mouth, enormous gray eyes watching Azriel, or rather his shadows, with fascination. He sent one over, and it darted towards her, while she tried to grab it, only to watch it seep through her fingers. She grunted her displeasure, trying to grab another, but to no avail. Frustrated, she climbed onto the bench beside Azriel and then her eyes snagged on his siphon and they widened with amazement.
“Do you like that?” he asked softly. She looked at him, then at the siphon, then back at him, eyes blinking. He extended his hand to her. She disregarded his scars entirely, and lightly touched the siphon with a small, chubby hand. He sent a twinge of power and the stone glared brightly, eliciting an excited gasp from the girl and from Temal.
“Sanaai,” said Elain, “do you like the siphon?”
The girl nodded eagerly, caressing the stone.
“Ask Azriel nicely, and he could change the colours for you,” suggested Elain. Sanaai threw a pleading glance at Azriel, but did not say anything. She must have been around three, perhaps four, so old enough to speak, but she was silent, caressing his hand and the leather band around his wrist. Azriel did not pressure her to speak, and changed the flow of his power, entertaining her with the glimmering stones.
“Is that a siphon?” inquired Temal in awe.
Azriel nodded, and Temal immediately touched it, utterly floored by the proximity to the legendary stones, muttering, “how many you have, Azriel?”
“No!!! Seven?” cried Temal. “Nobody have seven! It’s too much…”
“I have seven, and my brother,”
“Only General Cassian have many,” interrupted Temal.
“General Cassian is my brother,” said Azriel, amused at how reverently the boy spoke of Cassian. “And we both have seven.”
“My mali had one,” recalled Temal, leaning over Azriel’s shoulder, sighing. “It was green.”
Azriel was quite aware that Temal’s mali was gone, but he said nothing, other than, “well, then your mali was truly a great warrior if he had one green siphon.”
The fact that it was green told Azriel that the male was part of an areal legion. Possession of one siphon indicated that he was probably of a higher rank--a commander.
“My mali,” continued Temal, “was in the war. He is now with Enalius and other warriors. In Vallahalla.”
Azriel only nodded.
Elain’s face was full of such sorrow at Temal’s detached explanation that it broke Azriel’s heart. Sanaai, who was fussing with his shadows and siphons silently settled on his lap, tucking her head into his chest. She was a lovely little girl, with luminous brown skin, darker than his, those striking glacial eyes and gorgeous curls of honey-brown. She still attempted to catch a shadow in her fingers, though rather than being frustrated, she was giggling at it. Azriel held her to him, her body soft and light against his arms.
“You know what, Temal,” he said at last, “I think that it’s quite possible for you to get a siphon as well,”
“What?” Temal perked up, but then shook his head, “it’s too hard! Mali can do it. You can do it. I can’t. I don’t even know how to fly. My mali was teaching me, but then he go to war. And then to Vallahalla. So I don’t know…”
Azriel chewed on his lip and said, “I can teach you to fly.”
Elain’s eyes flew to him, when she overheard his words. She was helping the younger children settle on the benches for their breakfast, while the older kids were distributing doughnuts and juice. He looked at her and then at Temal,
“Would you like that?”
Temal’s eyes were so enormous and his face a mask of amazement. “You gonna help me Azriel?” he murmured.
“Of course,” said Azriel. “You. Other younglings who don’t fly yet. We’ll do it together.”
“Lain, it’s so true?!?” cried Temal. “Azriel gonna teach me?!”
“If Azriel said he will, then he will,” simply said Elain.
The window was rapidly closing on Temal’s ability to fly. It’s been two years since the war. Temal’s father probably began teaching him when the boy was about 3 or so, which was the right time to start the lessons. However, now, in the melee of the post-war confusion, so many orphaned Illyrians had their lessons fall by the wayside.
“But you have to promise me one thing,” added Azriel, turning on his bench to face the table. Most of the younglings were already seated, eyeing the doughnuts with delight. Sanaai stayed on his lap, unwilling to move, which was just fine with him. He poured her and Temal their juice and then there was haggling over what type of doughnut they wanted. Sanaai didn’t say anything, but frowned and shook her head when Azriel offered her a variety of options, until settling on the strawberry one. Temal couldn’t make up his mind, until Elain proposed that they all share, and fluffy, puffy doughnuts were ruthlessly sliced in half, so the four of them could sample different ones. His face covered in powdered sugar, Temal asked, “What you want me to do, Azriel? So you teach me to fly?”
“I want you to work on your reading,” said Azriel, sipping his coffee, which Elain brough for him kindly, since he was occupied with the children.
Temal frowned, sighed, but nodded.
“We’ll have lessons three or four times a week,” Azriel promised, as he fed Sanaai her doughnut portions, which she stuffed into her mouth until she almost gagged. “Alright,” he muttered to her, “you need to calm down. No one is taking this away from you. I don’t want you choking, you know…”
“That’s a lot!” Temal was excited.
“But,” Azriel added, “before we fly, you will show me what you’d learned and read for me. Agreed?”
“Yes,” the boy nodded, not too enthused, but resigned.
“Good. You’ll get your siphon before you know it!”
They spent the better part of the day at the orphanage.
As heartbreaking as the stories of some of these children were, they seemed to be thriving here. Elain, to his surprise, though he wasn’t sure why he was surprised by her efficiency, ran the operation with kindness and understanding, somehow cued to each child’s special needs and backgrounds. There were other teachers and minders of course, but she was the center of all the activity. Azriel now understood where she had disappeared to most of the time, and what she did with her days. He was aware that she spent a good deal of time and effort working with city planners, designing gardens and parks, and helped out elderly and unfirm Fae with their planting and gardening, but seeing her here, it became clear to him that this place was her favourite, the closest, and dearest to her heart. And it filled him with pride, actual joy that his girl was someone so special, so kind and loving. And it made him wonder if he did, in fact, deserve her.
“Az,” she called him, once the older children were busy with their lesson, writing something scrupulously in their journals.
Temal and Sanaai would not leave his side, along with a few other children, who trailed him and asked him a million questions a minute.
“Do you build?” she asked.
“Build what?” he wondered with a smirk. “I helped build Cassian’s bungalow.”
“I don’t need you to build a bungalow,” she giggled. “Just some shelves. We have the wood, but if you can,”
“Sure,” he nodded. “Though I think I will need some helpers!” and he looked at the younglings around him.
“I’ll help you, Az,” offered Temal immediately. They’d moved from Azriel to Az very quickly.
“And you, pretty girl?” Azriel asked gently, stroking Sanaai’s curls.
She nodded eagerly. The rest of the children all volunteered to become carpenters for the day, and followed him to the yard, where planks of wood were stacked against the wall.
Elain watched him from the window, smiling.
She never doubted him, yet there was a twinge of apprehension. Azriel wasn’t known for his display of emotions, so she didn’t know how he’d react. Yet she needed to show him this place. Wanted him to know this part of her, how important it was for her, what these children meant to her. And now, she felt stupid tears prickle her eyes, when she watched her little boy, her Temal, bond so quickly with her big boy, her Az. Temal and she shared an immediate, unbreakable bond, from the moment she saw the frightened confused little boy and the moment she took him in her arms. He wouldn’t let go. He spent days and days, perched on her hip, silent and shell-shocked. It took a long time for him to finally stop shaking, crying, asking for his ‘mali’. His mother died at childbirth, so his father was the only parent and Temal didn’t know anyone else. The father, as she found out later, was incinerated by the Cauldron, one of the thousand Illyrians who perished and turned into black ash.
Azriel ran his carpentry shop like he commanded his legions. Elain smiled through her tears. In minutes, he assigned everyone a task, distributed materials and tools, engaged everyone from the tiny Sanaai, to the older children, who were stripping and polishing the planks. The older boys were showing off in front of him, displaying their strength, which was amusing. Some even tried to carry a plank of wood on their own, watching how he managed two, on each shoulder. Turned out that they were a bit too ambitious, and had to call upon others for help, but his strength and ability only spurned them into action. Before the end of the day, the shelves were mounted on the walls and the children took to the task of filling them with books and toys.
“Good night, Lain!” Temal gave her the biggest hug, rocking against her for a long time.
“Good night, love,” she kissed his head. “Play, eat dinner and then sleep well and I’ll see you soon.”
“I like Az,” he then whispered in her ear.
She smiled and whispered into his, “I like him too.”
“Az, you gonna marry Lain?” he asked loudly, when Azriel returned from putting Sanaai for her nap.
“Yes,” said Azriel without hesitation. “If she’d like to marry me, I’d marry her.”
“I think she does,” affirmed Temal confidently.
“Well, then it’s settled.”
Temal extended his hand to Azriel, and they shook.
“It was good to meet you, Temal. I’ll see you for your flying lessons.”
“Are you strict?”
“A little bit.”
Azriel helped Elain with her jacket and then wrapped her scarf around her neck.
“I can do it!” said Temal with wild confidence.
Azriel buttoned his own jacket and said, “Of that, my boy, I have no doubt.”
Outside, Elain took his arm and they walked together in companionable silence, each thinking of something. Azriel was chewing his lip, a sign of contemplation.
He halted suddenly and turned to face her.
“What?” she asked.
He cupped her face in his hands, and looked at her for a long time, with that inscrutable, piercing Azriel gaze which made people squirm and tremble. She just waited for him to speak.
“They’ll have to be ours, you know,” he said at last. “Temal, and Sanaai.”
Tears spilled on her pink, cold cheeks and he wiped them with his thumbs.
“Yes,” she nodded.
“Yes?” he smiled, his heart full. He’d never been so sure of anything--well, except for Elain. But when they were sitting at the table, sharing their doughnuts, he felt that this was his family. Instantly. His little sweet girl, and his brave Illyrian boy and his beautiful Elain, whose heart encompassed the world.
“Emani, tell me that you know this as well?” he urged her. That these children belong with them, that they were their family. Whatever children the two of them might or might not have, these two were absolutely, incontrovertible theirs.
“Of course,” she sobbed, “of course. They are ours. Az...” she looked at him through her tears, smiling widely, “Azriel…”
“I know, my love,” he murmured. “I will do everything, and I mean everything, to make this happen,” he vowed, kissing her tears away, stroking her face. “Soon, love. Soon.”
The Crow or the Sparrow
Drops of blood and footprints marked the snow, visible in broad daylight for even the worst of hunters to follow with ease. But no sane hunter would dare pursue such a trail. Neither animal nor man had left these tracks.
Claws that had slain countless men and women and children. Walking upon two legs.
A slight limp, owed to injuries from which it had bled, pushing forward, ever forward, lurching, and shambling farther and farther away from the city.
Snow crunched under every light footstep taken by two shadowy figures. In pursuit of their inhuman quarry, they strode across uneven terrain, far away from man-made roads and paths. Garbed in heavy jackets, with trouser legs and boots and coattails caked in the white powder of snow, their slender silhouettes almost blended in with the forest around them when they came to a stop.
Even in broad daylight, the canopy of barren trees that made up the sprawling Blackwood sufficed to blanket it in a dreary, dreamy gloom. Little clouds of condensing air puffed away from the mouths of the two hunters, forming beyond the scarves and tricorne hats that covered their faces, then dissipating in the cold breeze.
One of them looked around, as if confused. The other stared at him, then followed his erratically wandering gaze.
Were they being followed by something else?
“You sense something?” asked the other in a hushed hiss. The sound of her voice sliced through the wintry air like a knife. “Is it here? Watching us?”
“No,” Johnn muttered. “It's—I’ve been here before.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed at him.
“What is that supposed to mean? You’re a bloody bandit that has been robbing the king’s men in this fucking forest for years. I’d be surprised if you hadn’t,” Nora said.
He almost swiveled, glared at her, then swallowed a response.
The two of them breathed heavily, using the brief respite to recover from their forced march through the layer of unforgiving snow.
He finally replied, with a voice that trembled, “The Blackwood is huge. There’re parts no man has ever stepped foot in. Parts no man should ever step foot in, what with the fair—”
“Shut up. Don’t waste breath on their wretched name. Is this their domain? Is that why we’re stopping?”
“No. Like I said—I’ve been here before,” Johnn repeated.
He pointed to a large boulder, now covered in snow, near a fallen tree, where a tangle of gnarled roots stood out from the ground, where a storm had uprooted the ancient tree. A natural landmark, no doubt.
“You can hear the ocean from here, yeah?”
Nora only nodded.
“And the trickle of a brook nearby?”
“Well, I can, and I know this place. The brook leads to a cave. You have to dive through water for a bit, then you reach a larger cave, connecting to an even larger one. A cove where some slaver pirates used to hide out.”
“So what? Are you thinking he—”
“I don’t know. But it’s where Terry died, and where I killed their captain. And it is giving me the creeps just thinkin’ about it.”
“Then what in the hell is there to give you the creeps anymore? Thought you Merry Lot did all those windbags in,” Nora said, every word mumbled more than the last.
“I killed Shark-Eyes,” Johnn said, the sentence riding on a sigh. “Have the scars to always remind me and can’t taste sugar anymore where I bit my tongue to break his spell.”
“What—he some kind of warlock?”
“How should I know? The unnatural is your specialty,” he quipped.
Nora’s heartbeat picked up speed when she sensed Johnn smirk underneath his bandana.
“All I know is that he is dead, he used to work some sorta black magick, and his hideout used to be ‘round these parts. Now, what do you think the odds are, that—you know, possibly—the alchemist we’re chasin’ is a bit balmy on the crumpet—what are the odds his magick has got something to do with old dead Shark-Eyes and his warlock—warlockery? What do you even call that shite?”
“I call it bad news. Who cares what it’s called?” Nora said, ending her question on a sharp note that left no question.
Johnn pointed past the uprooted tree and the boulder sticking out of the pristine snow. Before he could say something, Nora said, “Fine, who knows—maybe there is a connection. Maybe not. What say you, though—hear me out—you stop being a poodle-faker, we ignore this for now, and we follow the fucking blood trail we’ve been following since bloody Lesterfield?”
She drew her flint-lock pistol for emphasis and tapped the brim of her hat with the weapon’s fine barrel—now adorned with intricate etchings of crucifixes and mystic seals used to exorcise demons. Johnn’s shoulders heaved and then slumped in a shrug, punctuated by another sigh.
“Fine,” he groaned. “But if we end up following this trail into that cave, then…”
Johnn stammered several broken sentences that failed to connect, prompting Nora to tell him to shut up. She sprung into motion before he could protest, trudging through the snow. He followed.
Their breathing and the crunching of frosted grounds accompanied them for dozens of paces more, as they gained speed and vigor, staving off the cold. The rest of the forest stayed eerily silent. Not even the crows dared to caw that day.
Johnn murmured behind her, “You could wear a dress if—”
Dozens of paces more they followed the trail. Passing snapped branches, here; holes in the snow turned vermillion, where droplets of blood had fallen, there. And always those lurching motions, like the creature sometimes moved on all fours, then on his legs again. Claws had scarred a tree trunk in his path where the alchemist had braced himself and caught his breath. Now long gone—but the huntress could almost smell the ghost of his presence, only hours ahead of them passing through here.
The trickling sound of water grew louder as they hiked, loud enough that even Nora could hear it despite the noise of their march.
The red dots in the snow and the tracks spoke volumes: Nora read immediately how the transformed alchemist, Baxter Hanrahan, had trampled down the grounds around here, splashing himself with the cold and refreshing water. Cleansing his wound.
A singular bullet rested in the brook, water flowing around it where it jittered. The stream of water was not strong enough to carry it away. He must have extracted that from his injury.
Then he had followed the natural path leading down the flow of the brook. Because it had stopped snowing several hours ago, and these trails had been left after the snowfall, she knew they were gaining on the wounded monster.
Standing still and letting her gaze sweep in the direction in which the thin stream of water flowed, framed by the serene, shining and glistening teeth of ice that lined the brook’s edges, the tracks led right into a small, cavernous opening, yawning with a deep darkness that her eyes could not fathom.
Nora clicked her tongue and raised a hand to silence Johnn before he could utter any stupid remarks about having been right. She swallowed the urge to swear up a storm of profanities that could have made a sailor blush.
More than him having been right, she hated the idea that they had to go search a cave for the damned alchemist. More than that even, she hated the idea that this might somehow be connected to another damned sorcerer.
“We’re better off not going in that way,” Johnn said. “Unless you like your gunpowder wet, I suggest we climb down the smuggler’s cove, rather than crawling through the thief’s entrance.”
Clicking her tongue again, Nora shook her head.
Johnn pulled up his crossbow and she could hear the smugness riding on his voice as he added, “Of course, if you chose to use—”
Pointing a finger at his face and then turning her head to follow the gesture with a furious glare sufficed to shut him up again this time. Seeing only his gray eyes sparkle out from in between his hat and scarf sufficed to convey the smugness he found in his small victory. She knew his face too well.
Then that sparkle froze. His gaze hardened. Stared through her. Past her. At something that only now caught the corner of her eye, like the shadow she always spotted at the edge of her vision. Only tangible now.
Within a split second, they aimed their weapons at the third figure; bodily reactions and instincts that happened without thinking. Nora stared down the sights of her pistol and blinked once her gaze met that of yellow, strange eyes. Wide, with a strip of black glistening wet in them, like looking into the eyes of a goat.
Indeed, the two hunters stared into the eyes of a bestial man, whose face resembled a goat, crowned by a harmonious pair of winding horns, a lot like those of a ram. A figure that resembled a man in that it stood upright, though he stood upon hooves for feet. Garbed in layers of thick linen cloth and a dark red robe, frayed around the edges. His clawed hands clutched an old wooden staff, against which he leaned.
Like the two, this goat-man was frozen. In shock.
Nora recognized the sentiment. She recognized the goat-man.
“No,” she said, clipped.
Lowered her pistol and raised an open gloved palm towards Johnn, adding, “Lower your weapon, he is harmless. Well, maybe not harmless, but—not harmful.”
Johnn’s hesitation surfaced in form of the crack of his leather clad finger loosening from around the trigger of his crossbow, but the tension in his defensive posture remained.
“Isn’t it—isn’t he—”
“Not all fair—not all of them are bad, I suppose. Well, at least he isn’t,” she said, peeling her attention away from Johnn and looking back to the goat-man.
The beast-man tilted his head and his intelligent goat eyes betrayed a fearful intelligence as they darted back and forth in between Johnn and Nora. Cutlery and tiny wooden carvings, hanging from threads of twine attached to his belt, clacked, and jingled softly. How he had appeared out of nowhere, without a sound, such a thing only the fair folk could explain.
Goat-man not only leaned on his staff—he hugged it, as if it offered him protection, yet only rendered his appearance more vulnerable and innocent. Johnn finally, audibly, lowered his crossbow.
Nora had rescued the goat-man in this same forest. Slew a vicious witchcrafter who wanted to eviscerate the creature for his innards, for divining secrets or some nonsense.
Over a whole year prior to this day.
Understandably frightening in appearance to most, Nora still sensed the same softness in the fair creature as he stood before them. The bushy hair on his chin swayed gently in the breeze, almost underlining that notion.
He had helped her before—returned the favor—when she escaped from the penitentiary and almost perished in these same woods, injured and alone, at the mercy of autumn’s chill.
The goat-man nodded his head. Stayed silent, as he always did. A greeting, perhaps?
Nora suspected they spoke no common tongue that they could share. They had yet to exchange any words.
But the goat-man pointed to the cave entrance upon which he stood. To where the brook continued to trickle away, flowing into that gaping shadowy hole. Where a greater, more sinister darkness awaited them.
The goat-man shook his head. With purpose and deliberation, he shook his head back and forth, warning them of the danger below.
“We have no choice, friend,” she said, speaking those words with a softness that felt even alien to herself. She, too, shook her head.
They could not speak to one another in words they understood. Not like this. Yet they both understood.
The goat-man turned slowly, carefully, and raised a hand. He pointed one of his long, blackened claws to the trees behind him, following with his own eyes to draw all attention to it. To where the soothing sound of ocean waves lapped against jagged cliffs.
“Is he showing us where to go?” Johnn asked. “I mean, we would have gone there anyway.”
The goat-man turned to peer back at Nora. She nodded deeply at him in return.
“Thank you,” she said.
The goat-man tilted his head again and stood still. Watched.
Nora started in the direction he had pointed to. She shot a glance at Johnn and waved at him to follow.
She stopped again as the goat-man descended from the rocks above the cave entrance, approaching her. Not frozen in fear, but unsure what to expect, she studied the goat-man’s every motion until he halted in front of her, standing only one pace away. He looked so old. So ancient. His fur grayed and silvery. And he smelled of pine resin, and campfires, and a unique, strange musk.
From inside his tattered robes, he produced something, held caringly.
As his sharply clawed fingers unfurled, he presented a tiny object in his weathered palm. There rested a small bird, intricately carved from wood. Impossible to recognize what kind of bird it represented, she locked eyes with the goat-man to discern what this gesture meant.
He stretched his arm out further to her, splaying his fingers to the limit, motioning her to take the carved keepsake from him.
Nora took it and closed her gloved hand around it with the same loving care that he must have applied to craft it. She nodded again to express gratitude and the goat-man mimicked the motion.
They withdrew from him and walked on towards the bluffs, where the sound of the ocean’s upset waves beckoned them.
Looking over her shoulder, Nora found the goat-man to be watching them leave, observing their steadfast march to doom. She found herself studying the carved bird in her palm every few steps.
It reminded her of both of a sparrow and a crow. Which—was unclear.
It felt more like a symbol. Like a charm or talisman.
Spiraling, harmonic patterns, mirroring those upon the goat-man’s staff had been shaved into its surfaces and painted dark, also reminding her of the old ways, the old days of the kingdom that only survived in museums and ruins, driven into fading obscurity by the church’s relentless efforts to quell ancient evils.
She eventually shoved the tiny item into one of her coat pockets and when she looked back to where she expected to see the goat-man still watching them, she only saw the slender black trunks of cold and naked trees. He had vanished. As silently as he had appeared in the first place.
Johnn stared at her till she met his gaze.
“What was that about?”
“I don’t know,” Nora muttered.
She trained her eyes on the snowy grounds before her once again. The ocean grew louder with every step, heavier with every herald of the waves. More powerful. Foretelling the danger they knowingly approached. The crunching of snow underfoot ceased once they reached the edge and naked rocks and gravel crackled underneath the soles of their boots.
They overlooked a steep rocky drop to the crashing waves, reaching from one end of the Red Coast to the other as far as they could see. Fog and clouds swallowed the horizon beyond the sea.
Johnn nodded his head to indicate something on the cliff’s face beneath them. A shadow between the rocks. Likely hard to spot from the water, barely visible from their vantage point. Truly, a perfect location for dubious seafarers to hide out.
“Down there. Hard to spot, but that’s where they ran their boats into the cove. We climb down, there’s a natural ledge we can use to enter. Really—watch your step now,” he said.
They did as he foretold. Nora’s hand slipped once, her boot in a different instance, causing a chunk of rocky earth to plummet into the depths, bouncing down the unforgiving cliffs, and disappearing into the waves far down.
But they took their time. If the mad chemist, Hanrahan, was hiding in these caves, then they would execute him sooner or later. Better than tumbling down these jagged stones, breaking bones, and landing in the icy cold embrace of the sea.
Slowly, cautiously, they descended, bit by bit. As Johnn dropped down the final stretch of a few steps, he landed on a rough and natural surface, staggering as he regained his poise, then readying his crossbow and pointing it at something Nora could not yet see from where she clung to the cliff’s wall.
Nora waited before dropping down, ensuring that he had only drawn his weapon as a precaution. He looked up at her and then nodded to confirm she could safely follow. His stern gaze carried the same tension that she felt in her every joint.
Then she followed, descending with continuous caution, until she dropped down herself and landed on the natural ledge with a stifled grunt.
The darkness of the cave here felt far less foreboding and oppressive at first glance.
Broken and shrunken by the ridges that jotted out of the sea in clusters near the cliffs, the waves sloshed more gently at the edge where they stood. The gaping mouth of this hidden entrance overlooked a deep and wide cavern, large enough to house a significant sea vessel.
Standing in stark contrast to how hard it would be to spot the cave from afar, the natural structure opened to almost monolithic proportions. Stalactites hung from a high and vast ceiling like rows of teeth. Very deep inside, far from where they could see, the darkness swallowed the cavern’s depths.
Somewhere, even deeper inside, a small light glimmered. A torch, or a gas-lit lantern perhaps. Its tiny flame danced, distant and forlorn.
Nora’s hand crept to her pistol, then decided against it. Metal rustled against leather as she drew her cutlass instead.
Their quarry was here.
The two hunters exchanged glances and carefully traversed the grounds, weaving in between broken stalagmites and advancing only slowly to prevent any unwanted noise from announcing their arrival. The ocean swallowed the few sounds they made.
Rotten, old wooden planks creaked once Johnn left the rocky ledge and stepped foot onto the hidden pier. He froze in place and waited, as did Nora, both staring into the darkness, letting their aim travel back and forth, expecting their prey to be hiding anywhere where he could pounce from a place of hiding.
Something blotted out the tiny light in the distance for a split second. Just enough that untrained eyes may have missed it. But both Nora and Johnn had noticed. Not a word was exchanged.
The shadows were many. Many blind spots silently stared back at them, unblinking, unmoving. Testing their courage. Nora felt her scarf in between hat and hair growing damp with sweat, colder, and colder as they lurked deeper and deeper into the cavern, until the shadows engulfed them fully.
Hanrahan had ample space and opportunity to hide and hide well. To watch his hunters and gauge the appropriate reaction.
For as slowly as they progressed, their eyes adjusted to the dark. The gloomy twilight of the fog-covered ocean behind them, they crept closer and closer to the tiny light. Entering a meandering, narrow cave, with only the light of the lonesome lantern left as their guide. Just enough to see where they were going, but not enough to discern the depths of branching paths, through which a cold breeze softly whistled, and Nora’s tension grew, expecting the alchemist to attack from anywhere now.
Johnn had taken the lead, advancing with a certainty that reflected his claim of having been here before. He seemed to not notice a roiling fog or smoke that crawled across the well-treaded rock of the cave floors, coiling around their legs like a carpet of misty serpents.
Nora wanted to say something but refused to alert their monstrous quarry to their presence if she could.
As she reached out to grab Johnn’s shoulder, the unnatural fog expanded rapidly, filling the corridors with a thick soup of gray mist, drowning out that tiny light and delving everything into pitch-black. It strangely smelled like honey. Her gloved fingers connected to Johnn’s shoulder.
He slipped from her grip, jolting forward without a word. Tiny rocks crunched under pressure. Something stifled a gasp from her beloved, as if covering his own mouth.
But carrying his crossbow, he had no free hands to do so.
The leather of Nora’s glove cracked again as she clutched her cutlass tightly and withdrew it towards her own body, flipping it down just in case she bumped into Johnn.
In the ensuing silence that draped itself over her, she hissed like a snake, “You will pay.”
The mists swirled as if they obeyed unspoken commands. Unnatural as it was, commanded by sorcery, this fog dissipated, having served its purpose. A presence loomed above, standing atop an elevated platform. There stood Baxter Hanrahan. His humanity long gone, now an abominable creature of unholy proportions.
Hideous lips parted to display rows of crooked, jagged teeth, no longer a maw that resembled a human’s mouth. Garbed only in rags and torn remnants of fabric, most of the chemist’s mutated body stood exposed. In the faint glow of the gas-lit lantern, his skin looked pallid and deformed, thrumming as if disease wracked every limb or multiple heartbeats pulsed inside his chest, bulging with veins and pustules and patches of mangy hair. A third eye blinked upon his shoulder, making Nora’s stomach knot at the sight.
In the clawed clutches of the monstrous creature, Johnn trembled. He had lost his hat and scarf, which now rested together on the stone floor of the large chamber they all stood in. He did not squirm against the iron grip of his captor, whose massive hand clamped down tightly over the brigand’s mouth—the long, blackened claws twitched with dangerous closeness to the artery on his neck. Another hulking arm gripped Johnn tight, crushing his own arms against the creature as it held him, and leaving him no space to wiggle free or fight back.
And the monstrous Hanrahan just leered at Nora. The pistol hanging from her belt weighed heavy against her hip now, and she burned to sling it out. But the creature’s cruel smile said one thing, and one thing clearly: one wrong move, and he would rip Johnn’s throat right out.
Cages made of wrought iron lined the sides of this sprawling cave chamber, where old pirate pickaxes had roughly hewn its walls into shape. The cages all stood eerily empty, manacles dangling lifelessly from their top bars, their floors littered with old straw and stains of human blood and refuse.
Nora sensed the despair of those who had once been kept here and tasted the evil of those who kept them. She raised her blade, but held it sideways, raising her other, empty hand alongside in a clear gesture: to display surrender.
A throaty, baritone guffaw emerged from the monster’s bulging throat. Johnn squirmed now after all, provoking the creature to grip him more tightly. The tips of Hanrahan’s claws scraped against his captive’s exposed skin, drawing out thin rivulets of blood that quickly ran down Johnn’s neck.
Nora removed her hat and tossed it aside. She pulled her scarf down. The smell of sea salt and rust overwhelmed her senses and a quick scan of the room revealed only two exits. The one she had entered from, and one beneath the ledge upon which Hanrahan and Johnn stood, supported by old, wooden, rickety beams.
“I know what you did in the city, Baxter Hanrahan. I know all about you, Outer Wall Ripper,” she said. She clenched her teeth, holding back the anger that welled up from her gut. Good, she thought. It would mask all else. “Like I said—you will pay. If you think taking another hostage will help you, then you have made a grave mistake.”
The creature growled, “I can tell you what I told all before you.”
His voice sent shivers down Nora’s spine, defying her expectations as she had not anticipated such a creature to be so capable of complete and comprehensible speech.
“You will never stop me. You are just human,” he snickered. “You are just—beneath me in every way. Just a woman.”
Teeth still clenched, so hard they threatened to crack, Nora could only imagine how hideous her own grin must have looked now. She would spite this awful creature.
“I have slain ladies, high and low, strong and sickly alike. I have slain men, one of them three heads taller than yourself, and I have sampled the supple flesh of children. You all fight, you all run, you all whimper and beg for mercy, but there is none. You are all game to me. All sport. All walking sacks of organs that can be harvested for a greater purpose. All your suffering amounts to my victorious innovations and to my pleasure.”
Nora kept her eyes focused on the creature, awaiting his first mistake. They always made a mistake. Especially when they talked this much.
Did all monsters enjoy hearing their own words out loud? Vampyria, wolf-men, demons, wraiths, fair beasts—everything she had ever read of in the Bestiarium Nox and seen for herself—they all monologued.
“Yes, yes. Keep talking. There’s not one ounce of this bunk I haven’t heard before,” she said. As the awful toothy grin faded from her face, a melodiously mocking tone entered her next sentences as she rendered them, “We little humans are weak prey for you to play with. Let me guess—you’ll keep me alive for as long as possible, because you have oh-so-much-worse things in store for me. Am I close? I apologize, it is all the same drivel to me. Please do correct me if I’m wrong.”
She shot a lop-sided smirk at the creature and both Hanrahan’s and Johnn’s faces fell simultaneously. One taken aback by the sheer audacity of this short woman—the other surprised and fearful that she was taunting Hanrahan into slashing his neck.
“You know nothing,” Hanrahan snarled. His claws clamped down. Blood refused to exit Johnn’s neck this time, awaiting only the right amount of pressure and pull to slice through his flesh. “What do you know of me? I am like a god amongst men. Alchemy has made me god-like. You are a fool if you’re too blind to recognize divinity in the flesh, staring back into your wretched little soul. Yes, I can taste your darkness, too. You have killed so many that you have forgotten what it’s like to be human, naked in their innocence and justified in their wrath. To one such as you, I am as a god.”
Nora whistled out a sharp tone, just piling on more derision.
“A god you say? You are out of your bloody mind. The last so-called 'gods’ I met all bled out like the regular jossers who get the tar kicked out of them by sailors in seedy bars. I’ve just had about enough of you petty pretenders. Why don’t you just slash that fool’s fucking neck already and we can get on with this?”
Johnn’s eyes went wide with dread. All air of superiority had drained from Hanrahan’s presence. Only a glimmer of fury remained, reflecting the tiny lantern’s light, now growing into a flame behind the monster’s eyes.
Nora smirked once more and tilted her blade to show the alchemist the sharp edge of her cutlass.
“Come on, you tosser. Let’s see how godly you are after I gut you like a bloody pig.”
The glint on her blade caught Hanrahan’s eye.
This was the moment. The moment she had been building up to.
Time grinded to a halt.
Defying all, she slung out her pistol with her free hand and fired. The flint struck; a cloud of smoke exploded with the bright jet flame shooting out from the intricately marked barrel. The silver bullet might help, but all she needed was the surprise.
Blood sprayed from the platform, splattering the rocky floors, prompting her to sneer, but Johnn had elbowed Hanrahan and broken free from his grasp, tumbling down onto the ground, and coming to rest on his side, chest heaving and struggling to get back up on his feet after the hard landing.
Only little blood pooled beneath Nora’s beloved fool. As he looked up at her, she saw the vermillion dripping from his collarbone rather than his neck, and the spray of blood had come from Hanrahan’s forehead where her bullet had struck.
The alchemist pawed at his own skull to assess the damage, causing the rage in Nora to make way for fear. A bullet to the skull proved insufficient to stop the abomination, and as he saw his own blood in his monstrous palm, his eyes darted up until they locked with Nora's—a fiendish gaze, saturated with murderous intent.
She reacted quickly but not quickly enough. Her empty pistol had yet to clatter against the stony ground when Hanrahan flew at her like a living boulder, catapulting himself at her with unbridled rage. Her hand had gone to grab another pistol from her belt, but the force of a whole horse-drawn cart barreled into her, knocking the wind out of her lungs, and provoking a shriek of pain as she felt ribs crack upon being crushed between iron cage bars and the monster.
In a frenzy of flailing claws and inhuman screeches, Hanrahan quickly slashed Nora’s coat to ribbons, tearing her shirt to shreds and leaving her with countless cuts in a matter of seconds. The blade in her hand sliced as she swung and jabbed and jabbed at the alchemist-monster, barely connecting but forcing him to retreat a few steps.
Pain soared from a deep cut where a claw had lacerated her leg. Nora groaned and one of her knees threatened to give out under her own weight, but she held the blade out in front of her, in between herself and the monster, who now grinned at her again, baring his crooked and vicious fangs.
One wrong move, and those teeth would tear out her neck.
The sadistic smile wiped itself from his face when a barbed arrowhead emerged from his neck. Both Hanrahan and Nora stared at it with surprise, watching blood drip from its pointy tip.
Following its origin, the bolt from Johnn’s crossbow had lodged itself into the alchemist’s neck. Johnn, still lying on the ground, now held his discharged crossbow in his hands, leaned up against a cage, grinning smugly at the monster, his own bloodied teeth on display. That grin also faded when Hanrahan whipped around.
Undeterred by the projectile sticking out of his nape, he grabbed Johnn and tossed him aside like a broken toy, eliciting a pained shout as Johnn crashed into another cage, collapsing as soon as he tried to get back up after smashing his head again an iron bar.
Hanrahan howled in pain, reacting to Nora ramming her sword into his back—and then twisting the blade. He spun around again, shoving her away, thus disarming her with the masterless blade now sticking out of his back.
That throaty and deep laugh repeated itself as Hanrahan guffawed at her. He laughed at their attempts to kill him. His laughter broke and his newfound grin faltered as he choked and coughed, almost sounding human for a moment. Almost pitiful.
Giving no quarter, Nora slung out the other pistol from her belt and shot him in the side of the head. The smoke cleared quickly, and something gravelly and menacing emerged from his throat—a furious growl. Blood sputtered from the injury, yet he wobbled only slightly where he stood.
His rage simmered, ready to unleash his full frenzy. Nora could feel it, like waves of heat and hatred emanating from his hulking, deformed body. Up close, he smelled like rotten fruit and excrements and vomit.
She quickly looked around for something, anything, but pulled a silvered dagger from behind her back—it would serve until she could retrieve the cutlass from Hanrahan’s back.
The alchemist ignored her and picked up a small object from the table upon which the gas lantern sat. A metal syringe in his clutch, Hanrahan’s paw dwarfed it. He laughed again, erupting into another hacking, wheezing cough, and then jammed the needle into his own neck. The sickly pale flesh thrummed and pulsed there, and his veins turned pitch-black, like a disease running from the injection and spreading quickly throughout his monstrous body.
The huntress was not going to find out what this meant—the silver-lined dirk in her hand flashed twice, reflecting the small light’s flame as she stabbed Hanrahan twice with quick jabs, trying to circle around him.
But he turned with her and his left arm grotesquely almost doubled in size. The claws tipping his grotesque fingers shot out to twice their length, rivaling Nora’s dagger.
Her heart skipped a beat, and he swatted the knife from her hand. The pain of several cuts on her arm flared up with delay, upon which she clenched her teeth and paced backwards.
Hanrahan continued to grow, all over, hunching over and bracing himself against the floor with his meaty fists, like a gorilla she had seen in the zoo.
“I am not merely like a god,” he spoke, now sounding like four voices spoken in unison, so deep that they threatened to open a yawning abyss straight to hell. “I am god.”
The crossbow bolt lodged into his neck now snapped under the roiling masses of his transforming flesh. The cutlass shot out of his back, clanging as it rattled and rolled across the stone floor. Johnn crawled towards it, but nowhere nearly as fast as he needed to be. His strength waned.
Hanrahan lunged at Nora again, leaving several gaping cuts across her chest despite her attempts to leap back, and causing her to roll backwards across the ground, away from him. The grit and dust burned in the many scratches where stone all chafed against her injured skin.
The dirk had rolled right out of reach.
“Time to die, worm.”
This was it.
Nora steeled herself, ready to finally meet her end. Out of options.
Out of all the places, to die in a dark cave, forgotten by its owners, unknown, unseen, in a haunted place where nobody would find her. Would she join its phantoms?
Hanrahan lurched forward and he arched backwards, raising that hand of lethal claws high above him, ready to bring it down and impale her once and for all. Ready to rip her heart out with the ease his new form afforded him.
Something whipped out at the alchemist. Coiled and wrapped itself around his wrist in the blink of an eye. Something like twine, or ropes. Or rather: vines. Covered in dark, sickly leaves. And thorns.
He grunted, surprised as much as Nora over this turn of events. He looked from the tangle of thorny vines that bound his arm and yanked at them. Despite his tremendous, ghastly frame, and swollen mass of muscles, whatever had projected these bindings at him proved far stronger. His eyes bulged and he roared like the foul beast that he was, teeth protruding outward and bloody spittle spraying through the air. So loudly he roared that it filled all these caves and left an unpleasant ringing in Nora’s ears.
They both followed the vines to their source, a dark silhouette that stood upon the elevated platforms where Hanrahan had held Johnn hostage, just outside the sphere of the lantern’s faint glow. The flame within the lamp dimmed and nearly went out, as if it tried to conceal the presence.
A woman cackled from there. Awful, piercing, like a fork being scraped across a metal plate. The vines tugged at Hanrahan again, yanking with far greater force, and he stumbled away from Nora, now fully turning to face his greatest foe yet.
The vines constricted around the alchemist’s arm, causing pus and black tar-like blood to ooze out from the grinding cuts. He howled in pain, roared, and thrashed around, grabbing hold of the vine, and then howling yet again as its thorns pierced his fingers when he gripped it. He tugged and pulled with all his might, yanking left, then yanking right, not once managing to counter the unnatural force that had seized him.
And the cackling continued.
Gritting her teeth and stifling her own groans of pain, Nora scrambled onto her side, then back up onto her feet. She limped towards Johnn, who had fallen unconscious with the hilt of Nora’s cutlass buried underneath his hand.
Another tangle of thorny vines shot out from the darkness and enveloped Hanrahan’s ankle. He fought its pull, but it suddenly jerked towards the shadowy silhouette, causing him to lose his footing, dropping him onto his back with such weight that the stony floors quaked.
Nora’s cutlass came chopping down. His incessant thrashing prevented the blow from cutting into his neck, so it shattered his front teeth and hacked into his cheek, provoking more pained howls from his monstrous maw.
Her boots skidded against the floor as she lurched back, right underneath one of his claws swinging at her in retaliation and only narrowly missing her.
More vines shot out at him, seizing that same claw, and limiting his motion. It curbed his thrashing to the point where Nora’s next blow struck his neck, causing a violent crimson explosion to spray her own face.
Hanrahan gurgled, choking on his own blood, desperately attempting to fight back and to utter more inane threats, but Nora continued her dirty handiwork that she had grown accustomed to inflicting upon all these monsters.
The vines multiplied, pinning Hanrahan down and turning the hulking monster into a quivering ball of helplessness. Blow after blow, Nora cut deeper through his neck, until only a deformed spine held body and head together, and even that soon severed after more overhead swings of her cutlass. The same blade that had executed so many creatures before Hanrahan, adding his life to the many it had dulled itself in claiming.
His eyes had lost all light of so-called “divinity”, having made way to terror. And pleading.
No amount of thrashing or resisting helped the alchemist in the end. The vines held him too tightly, joined by more tangles from the platform, restraining his every limb and allowing Nora to end him.
Between heavy breaths and shuddering as she shrugged off the numbing pain, she spat a gob of saliva and blood onto Hanrahan’s twitching remains. The thorny vines loosened, revealing how they had ripped devastating wounds which may have slowly bled out the alchemist, had her sword not removed his head first.
Those same vines now withdrew, controlled by some otherworldly force. They slowly slithered back from whence they came, like leafy, eyeless serpents; rustling and trembling as they moved. Thorns scraped against stone, scritching and scratching.
Still consigned to death, Nora turned to see their source, ready for them to take her next. For whatever abomination had shown such force in stopping Hanrahan, it would have a far easier time in ending her life next.
She winced, clamping her eyes shut to blot out all pain, fires across her body from the dozens of cuts and bruises she had suffered. Blinking, her vision blurred, in part owed to blood flowing into the corner of her eye. She wiped it away with the back of her hand and blinked again.
Wanting to see the face of her killer, she snatched the lantern from the table, where other mysterious metal syringes clanked against each other. She ignored the alchemist’s supplies and raised the lantern high, stumbling forward. The blade of her cutlass lazily scraped across the stone as she lurched forward, mirroring Hanrahan’s final motions. Nora could barely stand.
In days past, that platform supported the slaver captain, housing a wicked little wooden throne upon which he once sat, allowing him to observe his miserable captives in their iron cages.
Whoever now perched upon that platform, Nora could barely make out any features. Though draped in a rugged, dark cloak, the huntress identified a vaguely feminine figure. Devoured by the shadows of a black hood, almost no face could be perceived. Only shriveled, gray skin and chapped lips that had curled into a devious smile. Teeth, rotten and black, glistening wet.
Hands folded serenely before her hunched figure, like a praying woman, and the vines creeping evermore back to her, shrinking in volume, and disappearing underneath her robes, with cloth so deep that no feet could be seen, only fabric sweeping the platform’s wood and the vines slithering into the void underneath the cloak.
“My pretty little birdie,” spoke the hag. A thick accent, one from up north. Raspy, riddled with phlegm, a voice rife with ridicule. “So nice to see my beautiful little monster in full bloom.”
Nora groaned but it spilled over into a clipped burst of laughter.
Another one of these self-indulgent ghouls, she wagered.
“Get in line, witch,” Nora sighed. Truly exhausted, some part of her preferred the thought of instant death over having to hear another monster ramble on. “I’m sure there are a dozen others who all want to take their pound of flesh from me.”
Nora gripped her head and wheezed with another stifled groan. Eclipsing all other pains, numbing all her senses, her head began to throb in agony. That typical invisible knife sliding into her skull again.
The hag cackled once more, sadistic, and amused.
“No, my pretty. I have all I need now, I am quite alright,” replied the hag with unsettling melody in each syllable.
“And just who the fuck are you, now?”
She cackled again in response. Frosthearte never shared her name lightly. Not even to her chosen orphan.
“I am the decay that gnaws at the roots of the world’s tree. I am the curse that haunts wicked men with eternal suffering. I—”
“Oh, bloody spare me already. If you’re going to kill me, fucking hurry it up.”
Nora spat impotently, nearly fell as she lifted her cutlass to point it at the hag. Her cry, more defiant than ever, echoed through these empty caves.
“Come on, then!”
The lips of the hag drooped down, yielding a displeased frown.
“Sparrow, or crow, my pretty. Are you the crow, or the sparrow?”
“Make some fucking sense!”
“Are you the harbinger of death, or the herald of new blood?”
Nora stumbled as soon as she launched her sword up at the hag. The blade’s metal sang as it rang out, clattering across the wooden platform and striking nobody. Nora’s vision continued to blur, never clearing. Blinking again, she saw:
The hag was gone.
“Death awaits you on your path,” whispered the hag.
Nora swiveled, losing her footing, and falling backwards and banging her previously unhurt elbow against hard stone in the process. She cringed.
But no hag had appeared behind her. Johnn lay unconscious nearby, face down in the dirt. Paces away from him, the body of Hanrahan had stopped twitching in his death throes, motionless and devoid of all life.
No hag in sight. Nowhere.
“You must face Death, the pretender,” the hag’s voice continued in creeping whispers, echoing through the halls, and invading Nora’s mind. Riding on that knife of a headache as it sank deeper into her skull.
Nora gripped her head and—unable to escape this hag’s merciless and incessant whispering—curled up into a fetal position, oblivious to all pain as the headache grew so intolerable that it muted the searing agony from dozens of bleeding cuts.
“I will uphold my end of the bargain, and you shall not see me or mine for a long, long time. But the necromancer who dares call himself Death—he shall stand in your way, and you need be prepared. Prepared to put your old ghosts to rest, one last time.”
Nora groaned in pain, almost bridging into an angry shout, but it died in her throat and she gritted her teeth to stave off the incapacitating pain. She wanted to tell the hag to shut up and get out of her head.
The words she spoke made little sense, but the warnings resonated with her.
She knew exactly what ghosts the hag spoke of.
“This is my parting gift for you, my sweet, beautiful monster.”
The last word echoed not only through the cavernous corridors but reverberated in Nora’s thoughts until it reached a deafening crescendo.
Are you the crow or the sparrow?
Those words arrived not in whispers, but echoes inside Nora’s mind. Memories. Older.
Words she had heard spoken before.
She had met the hag as a child. It all came back to her now.
Never forgotten, only buried. Things that made no sense until this very moment.
“Are you a crow or a sparrow?” The hag had sounded so much more pleasant and nice back then.
The weird witch reached out to take the little sobbing girl’s hand. Little Nora’s hand. The little girl who once stood as the sole survivor in a small village, where pestilence had taken all souls to heaven but hers. The hag looked nowhere as frightful then as she did now.
Before Nora even reached the walls of Crimsonport, huddled with the forlorn masses of all the other refugees who sought to escape the Blight, the hag’s willowy hand held hers, guiding her, and nurturing her. Feeding her soup and potions, by the many campfires, providing poisonous words that jaded her from such an early age on.
“They all abandoned you. Not out of malice but borne of weakness. All may crumble under the might of the Blight. All but you, my pretty little birdie. Eat, grow strong. Defy those who wrong you. Trust nobody. None but me. And never surrender. Never stop fighting. Slay all of them and feed the forest soil with their blood.”
I will always be watching you. The shadow in your wake.
How had she survived a plague? Nora’s mind reeled, but the crippling headache blocked the thought from reaching its rightful conclusion.
Curled up into a fetal position, just like when the hag had found her as a child, the body of fully-grown Nora unfurled again, sprawled out as she reclaimed her fading senses. The dim glow from the gas-lit lantern on the desolate table. In this hopeless, abandoned dungeon. The cold, biting air, removed from the wintry outdoors but carrying the smell of rust and sea salt with it. The smell of death all around.
More than anything else, the pain brought her back. The warmth of her own sticky blood. She winced and stifled another groan as she turned over onto her side. And then onto her belly from there. She crawled, dragged herself over to Johnn. Too exhausted to get back up again.
His shoulders heaved softly, rhythmically. Not dead, merely out of it.
Gingerly, she brushed his long, bloodstained hair from his face, curiously absorbed by the old scar that missed his now-closed eye and ran down the length of his chiseled cheek.
Crow or sparrow? Life or death?
Nora resolved to not let those words reach her. To not let them lead her astray. To do as the hag had told, but not in a way she would like. If it was defiance this hag desired, then she would happily oblige.
She refused to play some sinister game. Refused to accept the strict separation of elements thus proposed. Nora’s fingers curled into Johnn’s hair, running through them, until they found purchase on his coat’s collar, which she gripped. She softly shook him. And then again when he refused to awaken.
Seeing opposites aligned, finding together, she would defy such unnatural severance.
Crow or sparrow? Life or death?
Why not both?
Johnn gasped and his eyes fluttered open.
—Submited by Wratts
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For the Underwing Challenge @avaeverstone asked:
Out of all your OCs, which one is your favorite and why?
(But I didn't have my ask box open, oops.. I fixed that)
I think Felix is definitely one of my favourite OCs. He's from The God Complex, which I'm not currently working on, but I talked a bit about it here.
He's the youngest prince of Thenan, and when he was about 14 his father's main adviser staged a coup and slaughtered the entire royal family, except for Felix.
The land of Thenan is tied to the lives of the royal family, so in order for it to not be destroyed, really, by magic, at least one of the royal family has to be alive.
Felix is kept in a prison for the next 200 or so years (no one has ever actually seen a royal live to old age, they keep killing each other, so it's unknown how long they actually live). Felix's Blessing, or magic, is to manipulate shadows and darkness, even turning them solid. His prison is perpetually flooded with light to prevent him from using his Blessing and escaping.
(Of course, he does escape, and that's where the story begins)
I think he might be my favourite because he's really just looking for a place to belong. He tries to fill that void by doing what his family would have him do, but ends up filling it with found family instead.
He's also pretty awkward, has a massive sweet tooth, and is really really behind on current events, and like... same.
I'm pretty excited to write about him again, actually. Maybe I'll do that when I finish my current wip
Here's an exerpt! (Of him escaping)
“Oh, hell.” A loud clatter sounded on the other side of the door—footsteps, then someone fumbling with keys. Only one set of footsteps. The servant. “No no no no I don't want to do this.” His body tensed and he held his breath. He drummed his fingers against his legs. The servant was old and slow and half blind, he would be slow to warn anyone that Felix had escaped. Felix had time.
A Quiet Place
I walk through the woods
stripped by the sense
of my seasons,
challenged by the taste
of my plight
trickling over streams
towering between pines
flickering above clouds
the breath of breeze
descending down the hills
Me looking at pretty people: “They are aesthetics pleasing to me.” ☺️
My friend: “That’s a *insert gender here*, I thought you didn’t like that.” 🤨
Me very ace: “I like their aesthetic, doesn’t mean I want to snog them.” 😑 “I can appreciate when someone is gorgeous.”
My friend: “Are you sure you’re a-“
Me: “YES I AM SURE!”
Aesthetic attraction doesn’t always mean sexual attraction, just like romantic attraction doesn’t always mean sexual attraction. Everyone has different attractions, please be respectful to them.
(Six) sentence Sunday
This is a total joke like it’s at least 15 sentences
Qui-Gon is nearly bisected.
„Bisected!“, Obi-Wan laughes at the medical droid, rattling off every possible issue a bisected body comes with and this is a stupid day and he’s had it.
„I‘m over this“, he says to Mace and leaves and goes to the lower levels and gets righteously, uproariously drunk.
„I wish I could hit you“, is the first thing he says to Qui-Gon, later, when he wakes up which, from where Obi-Wan is sitting, seems to be excruciatingly painful.
„You deserve it more than anyone in the parsec“, and when Qui-Gon, the bastard, manages to grin: „I’m going to make your life miserable. I’ll sic Yoda onto you!“
„You wouldn’t“, Qui-Gon says, after long minutes of wet, labored breathing that makes Obi-Wan’s heart clench and eyes water. „You can’t”, he continues, „I haven’t done anything. I don’t have legs Obi-Wan.”
„I’m sure you’ve done something“, Obi-Wan snaps, all venom, but what he thinks is I hate you. I‘ll love you more than you’ve ever imagined. I‘ll kiss your palms and take care of you. I’ll be there every day till you’re sick of me and if you stumble I’ll catch you and if you fight I’ll be there.
If you had picked me this wouldn’t have happened. You’re all I have.
From this “Obi-Wan was never Qui-Gon's Padawan but instead met Tahl first when she aggressively befriended him” thing I’m writing
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