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One Dark Window: Part 1 – Chapter 13

Degeneration falls like leaves from a branch. Swift, or slow and steady. The infection grants great magic. Degeneration is the cost of such a gift. For many, the payment is their own sanity. For others, their lives.

Degeneration falls like leaves from a branch.

We ran back down the corridor—down the winding stairs—all the way down to the doorway into the gardens. Ravyn tapped his Nightmare Card, his jaw strained.

“My parents and sister are going to search the castle,” he said, skidding to a halt just before the garden door and the clamor beyond. “You can wait here for them, if you like.”

I struggled to catch my breath. “What happens if we can’t find him?”

“We will,” Ravyn said. “When he’s clever enough to fool the guards, Emory wanders. But I’d rather it was my family that found him, not a Physician or a Destrier.”

I looked out into the gardens, the crowd dense. “You’ll need another pair of eyes out there,” I said. “I’ll go with you.”

Music spilled through the open doors. The King’s guests were loud, the veil of propriety thinned, laughter echoing against the castle’s stone walls. Servants bustled to keep wine goblets full. A dance began, torchlight casting a soft glow across the garden as the couples swayed in the humid evening air.

But before Ravyn and I could join the crowd, just as the gong struck midnight, a booming voice called from behind, echoing through the cavernous hall.

When I turned, the hall dimmed, enveloped in darkness. Three Destriers, armed with Black Horses, marched through the castle toward us. Ahead of them, bathed in the red light of his Scythe, broad and fierce, strode His Royal Highness, Ruler of Blunder, Keeper of Laws, Protector of Providence Cards.

King Quercus Rowan.

Ravyn slid his Nightmare Card into his pocket. “Uncle,” he said coolly.

“Enjoying the feast?” the King asked, stopping in front of us.

“Very much.”

“You look winded.” Just like his sons, the King boasted green, intelligent eyes. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing, sire,” Ravyn said, his face expressionless, as if carved of stone. “I was escorting Miss Spindle to the gardens.”

When the King’s eyes moved to me, my ears filled with the sound of my own heartbeat.

“Miss Spindle,” he said. “Of course. Erik’s daughter. I have not seen you at court.”

It took all my might to smile. The Nightmare, provoked by my fear, stirred, his claws sharp. I stepped forward and bowed, my knees unsteady. “I don’t often leave the quiet of home, Your Majesty.”

I could feel the King’s eyes tighten on my face. “A pity,” he said. His gaze drifted over me to Ravyn. “It seems you’ve already made an impression.”

Ravyn stood still as a statue, jaw hewn shut.

“I look forward to seeing you more, Miss Spindle,” the King said. He shot Ravyn a pointed glance. A moment later Ravyn and I were enveloped in a heavy cloud of darkness, the King and his Destriers disappearing into the garden.

I watched them go, careful not to look Ravyn in the eye. “We should find your brother before the King finds out he’s escaped his room.”

I felt it again, Ravyn Yew’s hesitance—his discomfort when the King noted us together. Was it the lie that bothered him, pretending to court me?

Or was it me he could not stand?

Drunk off the King’s wine, dizzy with dance, the King’s guests moved without restraint along the garden path. Ravyn muttered under his breath as we squeezed through the masses. “I fucking hate Equinox.”

The crowd shifted, knocking into us. I caught a glimpse of two White Eagles, the Cards of courage. They flickered like snow on the wind, white and clean, in the less crowded side of the gardens, near the rowan tree grove.

Bouncing between the white lights stood a boy, his hair dark and his movements erratic—as if lost to the world all around him.


“There!” I said, pointing. “I see him.”

Ravyn pushed through the crowd in a flurry of black, leaving me behind. I tried to watch him, but a group of drunken men jostled me off the path.

One of the men laughed, patting my head as if I were an animal underfoot. When I swiped his hand away, the crowd shifted. The men pushed into me again, this time with enough force to knock me to the ground.

I hit the garden path hard, wind shooting out of my lungs. A moment later a hand reached for me, hooking beneath my shoulder. I moved to slap it away but froze, recognizing the man that raised me to my feet.

Elm Rowan looked down at me through rich green irises. When I was on my feet, he wrapped a firm arm around me, shielding me from the crowd. “All right there, Spindle?”

“Go away,” I said, the feeling of slapping myself so fresh my cheek still stung.

“I think you mean ‘thank you,’” the Prince said, pulling me through the crowd, up the path.

“Let go.” I twisted in his arm, the Nightmare hissing behind my lashes.

“And let you get trampled?” Elm said. “Our aspirations will have ended before they’d begun.”

The crowd surged again. I pressed into Elm, the shrieks of drunken laughter all around us.

“By the bloody trees,” said the Prince, his fingers glowing red as he pulled the Scythe from his pocket and tapped it three times. For a brief moment, his eyes glazed over and he was lost—deep within himself, consumed by magic.

I watched him, dread and fascination knotting in my stomach.

The crowd’s eyes turned to us. Still, they moved, commanded by the red Card, men and women blowing like ash on the wind, parting ways until there was a distinct path through the mayhem. Then, only once there was a clear path to the rowan grove did Elm tap the Scythe thrice more, releasing the crowd from his control.

I stepped hesitantly down the new makeshift path.

He just made fifty people as docile as paper.

The Nightmare clicked his tongue against his teeth. He couldn’t control you, could he?

The path diverted, woven through manicured box shrubs. Elm led us, pressing the heels of his palms into his brow. “Well?” he said, slipping the Scythe into his tunic pocket.

“He’s over there,” I said. Emory Yew and the lights from the White Eagle Cards returned to view.

Emory’s cackle ripped through the grove. He swayed, jostled like a willow reed between two men with White Eagles. The men were taller than him—older and broader and a great deal angrier. I could not hear their words, but by their stance—the strain in their thick shoulders—I could tell they were not exchanging pleasantries with the King’s youngest nephew.

A moment later Emory was on the ground, blood seeping out his nostrils from the hit he’d taken.

“Here we go again,” Elm said, hastening down the garden path.

Emory lay on the grass, his words coming out in bursts of laughter. Elm and I were still too far to discern his words, but whatever Emory said, it was enough to make one of the men yank him off the ground by the collar.

But before the man could strike again, he was reeling backward, a black sleeve wrapped around his throat.

The Captain of the Destriers had arrived.

Dark greenery rushed past my periphery. The path twisted, leading Elm and me to a row of hedges. When I peered over the hedge, I saw Ravyn, the deep tones of his Nightmare and Mirror Cards standing in contrast to the men and their White Eagles.

The second man stepped forward. “That little runt picked my pocket!”

Ravyn let go of the first man’s throat. “He’s a foolish boy,” he said. “Leave. Now.”

“Not until I get my coin back!”

Spurred by the courage his White Eagle granted, the first man swung at Ravyn with brute strength, his fist balled like a mace. Ravyn dodged him, twisting through shadow. He stepped between Emory and the men, pushing his brother away from the tumult.

Emory retreated to a nearby tree, his lips twisted in laughter. He climbed onto a low branch and dangled, eyes wide and glassy.

I pushed into the hedge, but Elm put his hand on my shoulder to stop me.

“You’re not going to help him?” I demanded.

The Prince leaned against the greenery and yawned. “It’s been a long day. Let Ravyn have a little fun.”

The Nightmare watched the brawl behind my eyes, his tail flickering. The men moved in unison in an attempt to catch Ravyn off guard. Ravyn merely turned, vicious in his accuracy, and sent one them sprawling across the ground with a swift jab to the jaw.

The man landed in a slump beneath the rowan tree. Emory howled from his perch, his smile so wide I could see his teeth. “Apologies for the sticky fingers,” he called as he dropped gold coins, one by one, onto the man’s chest. “It’s a family trait, I’m afraid.”

I stared at the boy, transfixed. I had sensed it on the stairs. There was something strange about Emory Yew. Now I understood what it really was. The infection—it was eating at him, ripping away his sanity.

He’s degenerating, the Nightmare said. Little by little. Magic always comes at a cost.

I twisted the crow’s foot in my pocket. “What magic did Emory’s infection grant him?”

Elm’s gaze shifted to his young cousin. “He can read people,” he said. “As if all their secrets had been transcribed onto the pages of a book. All it takes is a single touch.”

Coldness crept up my spine. I see a yellow gaze narrowed by hate, the boy had said to me. I see darkness and shadow. And I see your fingers, long and pale, covered in blood.

Elm, unaware of my distress, continued. “But the infection has taken its toll. In the last two years, he’s grown weaker, changeable, and violent. Sometimes he can’t even remember his own family. Every Solstice and Equinox, he seems to worsen.”

Ravyn and the second man continued to tussle. Ravyn parried his jab, answering with a brutal backhand. Elm watched them, cracking his knuckles one at a time.

“Emory told me about you last night,” he said. “He said there was a woman in the castle with black eyes and dark magic.” His smile did not touch his eyes. “The poor boy was too excited. He’s never met anyone else infected before. Anyone besides his brother, that is.”

It felt as if a hundred bees had flooded my lungs, their wings fluttering in a torrid panic. I struggled to breathe, heat climbing out of my chest and wrapping around my throat.

Ravyn Yew. Infected.

Did you know? I gasped at the Nightmare.

He purred, gratification dripping like hot wax off his voice. I had my suspicions.

And you didn’t think to tell me?

You’ve had the man in your gaze all day. Surely you saw more than a handsome face.

Elm watched me, tracing the shock on my face. This time, his smile was full. “He didn’t tell you?”

I blinked, my tongue caught in a snare. “He—He’s—”

“Infected,” Elm said. “Yes. Terribly so.”

What creature is he, with mask made of stone? the Nightmare said once more. Captain? Highwayman? Or beast yet unknown?

The Nightmare and I peered over the box shrub, the tussle now at its climax. Both Ravyn’s opponents were on their feet, their White Eagles beaming from their pockets. Emory crowed at them from his perch in the tree. When the first man moved to strike, Ravyn took a hit to the stomach and slapped him away as if he were no more than a dog.

The second man—the one who’d struck Emory—lashed out. Ravyn countered, catching him at the elbow. A moment later the man let out a brutal cry and fell to the ground, his arm twisted unnaturally behind him.

I watched the Captain of the Destriers, alone and victorious, lean over the men. I could not hear the words he spoke. Still, I did not miss the way the men cowered, neither able—nor willing—to get back up.

Ravyn held out an open palm to them and waited.

The Nightmare leaned forward, honing my eyes. We watched both men, bruised and bloody, place their White Eagle Cards onto Ravyn’s open palm.

The moment the Cards touched the Captain’s hand, the white color disappeared.


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