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One Dark Window: Part 2 – Chapter 22

Magic born of the infection is immeasurable. Unfathomable. It owns no loyalty—keeps no rules. For some, it carries great, unyielding power. For others, darkness and degeneration await.

Magic born of the infection is immeasurable.

We did not take the main stairwell out of the castle but rather the winding servants’ passage, our steps hasty until we reached the small wooden door to the gardens. Outside, the full moon cast eerie shadows through the mist, the garden wraithlike as it caught the autumn breeze.

I followed Ravyn down the same path we’d trudged the day before, careful of my step. When a screech owl sounded above my head, I jumped, moving closer to Ravyn as he led us through the bramble, the path wrought with shadow.

The ruins of the ancient castle looked even stranger by night. They sat, nestled by mist, absorbing moonlight.

At the edge of the cemetery stood the stone chamber, its window dark and ominous.

The Nightmare’s gaze alleviated the darkness around us. Go inside, he murmured.

“We’re going there?” I whispered, Ravyn’s steps sure as he led us past the looming yew tree.


The chamber had no door, only the one window. Ravyn swung himself over the lip of the window, his movements graceful, practiced, as if done a hundred times before. A moment later he was inside.

He leaned over the sill and held out a hand to me.

I hesitated. There was something magical inside the chamber—I could sense it, the sudden pang of salt in my nose distinct. Roused from the depths of my mind, the Nightmare sprang forward, so abrupt I nearly lost my footing.

Go inside, he urged.

I took Ravyn’s hand and he guided me over the stone windowsill. My feet hit soil, and for the half second it took for my eyes to adjust, everything was perfectly black.

The chamber was a square. Moonlight flickered from above, the wood ceiling atop the chamber rotted out—fractured. I could see the shadow of branches above, the yew tree watching us through the broken wood ceiling.

In the center of the room, there was a tall, broad slab of stone. My breath caught in my throat and I looked around, this time in earnest.

I recognized the room: the ivy-laden walls… the fractured wooden ceiling… the stone in the center of the room.

All that was missing was the armored knight perched upon it.

This is the place, I gasped. The room from my dreams.

Yes, the Nightmare called, his voice shifting like a ghost on the wind.

What is it? Who was the man seated atop the stone?

A place of time—a man of fault. Both fueled by rage—both buried in salt.

Ravyn and I approached the stone in the center of the room. “When I was a boy,” Ravyn explained, “I liked to play here.”

I shivered. “Rather terrifying place to play, isn’t it?”

His eyes found mine. “Perhaps.”

I poked through my mind, demanding an explanation—a reason why he’d shown me this place in my dreams. But the Nightmare stayed silent, waiting, watching.

“Why are we here?” I asked.

Ravyn withdrew his hand from his cloak. “I’ll show you.”

He placed his palm upright in the center of the stone slab, moonlight dancing along his skin. I didn’t see the small silver blade—drawn from his belt in a sudden, fluid motion. I didn’t see much at all. He was too quick.

Before I could even blink, Ravyn’s hand was covered in blood.

“What are you doing?” I cried.

He pocketed the knife, a cut slashed across the flesh below his thumb. Blood dripped down the lines of his palm to the stone beneath. “Don’t worry,” he said, his voice shockingly even for someone who’d just wounded himself. “Watch.”

Breath caught in my chest as Ravyn turned his palm onto the stone, the world and the Nightmare behind my eyes suddenly still. Then, out of the depths of the stone—bright and true—emerged several unmistakable beams of light.

Providence Cards, hidden in the depths of the ancient stone, unlocked by blood.

Ravyn’s blood. Infected blood.

Magical blood.

The center of the stone, once dark and impenetrable, became clear as water. I could see through it, like looking through a door. Deep within its depth sat the Providence Cards, stacked, hidden, and waiting.

I fought the words. “How—how did you…?”

Ravyn smiled, reaching into the hollowed-out center of the stone and grasping the stack of Providence Cards.

Their colors vanished—snuffed out by Ravyn’s touch. I watched, fascinated, as he laid them out across the stone, color and brightness returning one by one as he let them go.

Prophet, Maiden, Chalice, Golden Egg, White Eagle, and the newly acquired Iron Gate.

“Your collection,” I said, my eyes lost in the colors. “Your father showed them to me.”

“And this is where we hide them,” Ravyn said, patting the stone.

“How on earth did you discover this hiding place?”

He shrugged. “Playing as a boy. I’d cut my shoulder on the window and stumbled in, blood on my hand. When I touched the stone… well, you saw.”

“But why is it here?” I asked, the smell of salt lingering in the room. “What is this place?”

“I don’t know. It’s old—as old as the ruins outside.” He reached into his pocket, retrieving the burgundy and purple lights—the Nightmare, the Mirror. “I found these inside the center of the stone.”

I prodded the darkness, the Nightmare. When he spoke, his words dripped like rainwater. An offering, bartered with blood. That’s how the Spirit bargains—always with blood. So the Shepherd King built her this chamber at the edge of the woods, this altar. And here, they bartered.

How do you know so much about it?

He did not answer. I ran my hand over the stone, its surface cold and rough beneath my palm.

Ravyn wiped away his blood on the sleeve of his tunic. “Others have tried to open the stone to no avail. Should something happen to me, you are the only one here who can open it. Only infected blood will unveil the chasm.”

I looked up at him. “Is something going to happen to you?”

His smile did not touch his eyes. “Not if I can help it.”

He collected the Cards once more, each surrendering its color at the touch of his hand. As he reached for the White Eagle, I grasped his sleeve and held it. I stared at the Cards in his hand—all devoid of color, save the Nightmare and the Mirror. “Why can you use only these two?”

Ravyn did not speak at first, his eyes intent on my face. Perhaps, like other things between us, he wished this secret to remain unspoken. But I held his gaze, waiting, emboldened by the stillness around us.

“I was thirteen—older than most—when I caught the fever,” he said, breaking the silence. “But I saw no sign of magic, no new abilities. I avoided Physicians. I thought I had escaped the consequences of the infection. A year later, I was training to be a Destrier.” His tone darkened. “But when I was offered a Black Horse, the Card would not yield to me. I couldn’t get it to work, no matter how hard I tried.” He paused. “Hauth told Orithe Willow, who cut me with his claw and confirmed my infection to the King.”

I had never heard him speak so much at once. His voice bore the depths of dark water, smooth, unwavering. It lulled me. I traced the Captain of the Destriers’ face with my eyes, lost in his past—starved for his story.

Ravyn continued. “But like his pet Orithe, the King saw value in my infection. Without the Black Horse, I became a better fighter than the other Destriers. The Chalice did not work for me—but neither did it work against me. No one could see me in the Well Card. The Scythe cannot control me.” He paused. “That is why he made me Captain.”

He ran his hand through his hair. “Every year, I lose the ability to use another Card. Only the Mirror, Nightmare, and, I assume, the Twin Alders remain.” To my wide eyes, he gave a shrug. “Magic comes at a cost. If we do not collect the Deck and heal my infection, I will not be able to use Providence Cards at all.” He looked at me, his face shadowed. His eyes found mine. “I rarely talk about it, save with Elm.”

My brow twisted, the words slow to come. “But he’s… he’s—”

“A Rowan.”

“Aren’t you afraid he’ll tell his father?”

Ravyn smiled. “If you knew him, you’d realize how impossible that is. Elm is loyal—to a fault.”

I thought of Ione. Or, my stomach dropping, how Ione used to be. “And he’s loyal to you, not his own father and brother?”

Ravyn paused. “Elm was a clever child. But he hated training, preferring his books. The King took displeasure in his mildness and thought him weak, leaving his upbringing to the Queen. When she died, Elm was… mistreated at Stone.” He struggled with the words. “Hauth brutalized him. So one day I just… brought him home. My parents became his parents, my siblings his siblings. He’s wary, untrusting, but he’d die before he’d betray us.”

There was something new, something fierce and raw, about the Captain of the Destriers. Perhaps, like me, the salt in the air had set him on edge—woken him. Gone was the unyielding expression, the unflinching austerity. In its place, deeply rooted intent.

Ravyn turned back to the Cards atop the stone. He stacked them, the colors disappearing as soon as they touched his skin. Then he reached into the stone, setting them down to rest. When his hand retracted, their colors returned.

He pulled the same knife as before from his belt and brought it to his hand.

“Wait,” I said, catching his arm. “Let me.”

His brow furrowed. “No, Elspeth.”

“I mean it,” I said. When he did not budge, I stuck out my jaw. “If I’m to know how to do it properly, you must let me actually do it.”

Ravyn’s grip on the blade did not let. He said nothing, something at war behind his gray eyes. Still, he did not give me the knife.

“Fine,” I said, turning away from him.

He caught me by my good wrist and pulled me back. He brought my hand close to his chest. Above it, he held his knife like a violin bow, its wicked edge a whisper from my palm. “It doesn’t take much blood,” he said, his voice a growl. “Just a small amount. An offering.”

A barter, whispered the Nightmare. Nothing comes free.

Ravyn’s skin was rough, like the cover of a long-forgotten book. But it was warm. My breath swelled as I waited for the pain of the blade, my eyes never leaving his.

He slid his knife along the heel of my palm. I gasped, watching a trail of red beads escape the nigh-invisible cut Ravyn had just dealt. He pinched my flesh, pulling more blood to the surface. “Just a small cut,” he murmured. “Nothing too deep. No need to scar these beautiful hands.”

If there was pain, I hardly felt it. Something else was stirring in me. Not quite pain; an ache.

Ravyn guided my hand to the stone, pressing it against the textured, ancient stone. When he pulled it back, droplets of blood remained. A moment later the Cards were gone, sealed back in the stone, the chamber dark once more.

Gone, too, was my blood, my barter, lost to the strange magic of the stone.

“Nothing comes free,” I whispered.

Ravyn pulled my hand back to him, only a few beads of red remaining. He pressed two calloused fingers into the cut, stopping the bleed. A strand of hair fell over his brow, his eyes lowered to my palm.

I pushed the hair out of his face with my other hand, my fingers shaky as they brushed over his forehead.

Ravyn looked up, his gaze lingering on my mouth before climbing to my eyes. His fingers slid to my wrist, languid in their journey. “I can feel your pulse. Your heart is racing,” he said.

I was suddenly thankful for the cover of nightfall—the darkly shadowed chamber. Had it been daylight, the intense heat in my cheeks would have been unmistakable.

I felt tethered—wrapped in an invisible string that tied me to the Captain of the Destriers. I was painfully aware of how closely we stood—the warmth of his broad body—the curve of my breasts above my neckline as I took quick, unsteady breaths—the feel of his calloused hand on mine. “I don’t know why,” I said.

His lips curled into the ghost of a smile. “Don’t you?”

I kept still, waiting for something I didn’t have the courage to name. With his free hand, Ravyn cupped the side of my face, his thumb lingering perilously close to my mouth.

Breath hitched in my lungs and my lips parted, anticipation melding with a lightness I did not understand. Ravyn let out an abrupt exhale—his thumb brushing across the flesh of my bottom lip, snagging it.

When he leaned closer, I closed my eyes, his mouth a whisper from mine. His voice caught at the edges. “Is this you pretending, Elspeth?” he said, the tip of his nose grazing mine. “Because if it is…” His breath stirred my eyelashes. “You’re very good at it.”

His words moved something in me. The same calling from before—the same ache. I wanted him to run his hand over my mouth again—to feel the texture of his rough, hardened skin. My body was screaming, a mindless, impatient call for touch.

His touch.

“No better than you, Captain.”

Ravyn’s throat hitched, his eyelids lowering. He placed my hand firmly on his chest, across the Yew insignia, just above his heart. His chest thumped—his heartbeat ragged, as if he’d just been running. When I looked up, he was watching me, his eyes softer than before. “Does this feel pretend?” he said, his mouth close now, so close his lips tugged at mine.

It felt… raw. Honest. Something I was deeply unfamiliar with. It had taken Ravyn Yew, Captain of the Destriers, my supposed natural enemy, to make me realize what I truly, deeply wanted.

To stop pretending.

Our lips collided, there, among the salt. Ravyn growled into my mouth and I pressed my entire self into him, wanting—needing—to feel him against my body. His hand slid over my jaw to the nape of my neck, his fingers twisting in my hair, his mouth opening to mine. Our tongues touched, hot and unfamiliar, tentative at first, then greedy.

He drew me out of my Nightmare-infested mind into myself. The kiss deepened. I cupped Ravyn’s jaw in my hand, my fingers digging into the stubble that grew there. I didn’t think about being soft with him. I was so tired of pretending not to want this.

The hardening of his body told me he felt the same. Ravyn hooked his arm around the small of my back, pressing me against him. He brushed his mouth across my cheek, his teeth nipping my earlobe before lowering to my neck. Shivers danced up my spine. His fingers curled in my hair, pulling it just enough so that my head tilted back, my neck bared to him. He kissed me below my ear, under my jaw, down my throat.

Had I kept my eyes shut, I might have surrendered entirely to Ravyn’s touch. But I opened them a sliver, and when I did, something over Ravyn’s shoulder caught my gaze. A shadow shifting across the dark chamber. When I followed it, my eyes returned to the stone in the center of the room—the one that, only moments ago, Ravyn had opened and I had closed, with blood.

Only now, perched atop it, his gold armor dimly glistening, sat the man from my dreams.

He watched me as I stood with the Captain of the Destriers. When he spoke, I recognized the silky quality of his voice. “Elspeth Spindle,” he said, his eyes—so strange and yellow—ensnaring me. “Let me out.”

I ripped away from Ravyn, fighting to suppress a scream. But when I looked back at the stone, the knight was gone. The only thing left was the smell of salt, invisible as it lingered all around us.

Ravyn’s eyes were wide, wild. His black hair untidy, his hands—hands that, a moment ago, had been tangled in my hair, my body—dropping to his sides. Even in the darkness, I could trace the flush up his neck. He opened his mouth to speak, but I was already turning away, afraid to stay another second in the strange, magical chamber.

“I’m sorry,” I said as I moved to the window. “I have to go.”

“Elspeth,” he called after me.

But I did not turn back, and graciously, he did not pursue me. I ran into the meadow, released from the salt—the magic. I exhaled short, hot breaths that did nothing to soothe me, and did not stop running until I’d reached the small wooden door at the base of the castle.

What’s happening to me? I cried, my fingers balled into fists. Am I losing my mind?

The Nightmare slithered through my thoughts, like a serpent over grass. I know what I know, he murmured.

I shouted into the chasm of my mind. Enough, Nightmare! Tell me the truth. Who is that man? Why do I keep seeing him?

He is a vestige of the past, haunting the chamber he built for the Spirit of the Wood, nothing more than a memory of a man who once was. His voice grew harder. A man I once was.

I slammed my chamber door shut and flung myself into the room. But my foot caught on the carpet. I swore, kicking the ancient wool.

My eyes froze. There he was, woven into the carpet of my room, his gilded armor bright atop his black horse. The knight from the chamber. Only now, as I scanned the wool, I noticed a distant object, woven into the green at the edge of the carpet, nestled at the edge of the woods, just before the tree line.

A doorless chamber with one dark window.

My youth came slamming into me. I saw myself as a little girl, poring over my aunt’s copy of The Old Book of Alders, fixed on the Nightmare Card’s page. So certain had I been that the creature in my mind was an embodiment of the Card itself—the monster on its cover matching him entirely—that I had failed to understand what was written just a few pages prior.

But it felt incomplete, my collection yet whole. And so, for the Nightmare, I bartered my soul.

I put a hand to my mouth, fingers shaking. My voice came out hollow. “But that would mean I absorbed your soul when I touched the Nightmare Card. Which makes you… the Shepherd King.”

A growl, a sneer—oil, bile. His voice called, louder than it had ever been, as if he was closer. Stronger. Finally, my darling Elspeth, we understand one another.


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