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One Dark Window: Part 2 – Chapter 25


Soft sway the leaves of the willow tree fair,

Its reeds are thus gentle, bended in prayer.

No switch shall be crafted from branch, stalk, or bark.

Its canopy waits, respite from the dark.

So, too, I demand, the Physician must be.

His words whisper soft as breeze through a tree.

From the white spring flower to the depths of his root,

His wisdom is pure, his healing absolute.

When the first lash fell, a cumulative scream shot through the crowd. The man, stripped of his tunic, moaned wordlessly, blood falling down his back and pooling into the stones at his feet. The woman, tied separately, watched with the rest of us, her eyes wide and glassy.

Oppressive as smoke, the veil of death fell over the square. It strung itself through the crowd, crawling through my nostrils down into my throat, choking me. Tears pricked my eyes, and when the Destrier cracked his whip again, the sound ripped through me, so visceral I doubled over.

Elm put his hand on my elbow and did not stir, as if cast of stone. Only when Hauth addressed the crowd did his face shift, his green eyes narrowing and his mouth drawing into a tight line at the sight of his brother.

The red and black lights of Hauth’s Cards surrounded him like a venomous cloud. “This man and woman betrayed your trust.” The whip lashed again. The woman cried silently, defeat stamped onto her brow.

“They did not report the infection,” Hauth continued. “They kept their child hidden, allowing the infection to fester, putting all of Blunder at risk.” The whip ripped again, and I jumped, a long, helpless wail echoing across the square. “And now, they pay the ultimate price.”

I craned my neck, searching the crowd. “Where is the child?” I whispered, my voice breaking.

Elm shook his head. His green eyes had gone cold.

Around me, Blunder’s citizens were frozen to the cobblestones. Their faces were drawn, colorless. Some had tears in their eyes. Others hardly seemed to blink. Some bore heavy brows, their expressions twisted. There were no cries of triumph—no support for the High Prince and the Destriers. They did not claim this violence.

But they were too afraid to stop it.

When the Destrier with the whip moved back, Hauth stepped in front of the prisoners, pulling the Scythe from his pocket.

He tapped it three times. “Give me your charms,” he commanded.

The prisoners dug at their clothes, their eyes dull and unfocused. Hauth waited with his palm extended, like a tax collector awaiting his coin. The woman pulled a rabbit foot from her shift. The man, his hands bloody, an owl feather.

They handed them to Hauth, who crushed them beneath his boot. “The infection is a blight,” he called, his words cutting through the cavernous silence. “It is poison that seeps through the mist, fashioned by the Spirit of the Wood. Those who fail to report it commit treason.” He turned to the prisoners. “By the authority of the King, I, Hauth Rowan, High Prince of Blunder, sentence you to death.”

The sudden sharpness of the Destriers’ shouts hit my ears, painful after all that terrible silence. “Go!” they called, flanking the crowd. “To the gates!”

Pushed in every direction, Elm and I were carried with the tide, bodies pressed all around us. The Prince clung to me, his fingers tight on my arm as we jostled about. I heard the moans of the prisoners behind us but did not turn, forced forward by Destriers on horseback and the sway of the crowd.

We flocked out of the square back onto Market Street. I whipped my head around for any sign of Ravyn or Jespyr, but the crowd was too vast, onlookers joining us by the minute.

The shadow of Black Horses surrounded us.

The Destriers led us to the edge of town. We moved through the tall fortified gates, then followed the road some fifty paces. There was nothing, just road and a wide, open field. Hauth stood at the edge of it, joined by Linden, two other Destriers, and the bloodied prisoners.

Behind them, not fifty paces, the mist loomed, waiting.

The crowd came to a crashing halt. I was pressed up against several others. I heard the boom of Destrier voices, the whicker of their warhorses. “Make room!”

Half of Blunder poured onto the road. We looked grotesque in our house colors, our clothes too bright—too alive—for what we were about to witness. I was wedged tighter into Elm’s side as the crowd split, making room for the Destriers, Hauth, and the prisoners.

A carriage rolled through the gates, its horses snorting steam. It came to an abrupt halt near Hauth and the prisoners. Out of it spilled two men clad in white, between them a boy no older than twelve.

I clenched my jaw, something inside me boiling over, the Nightmare’s hiss blistering through my mind.

Like his parents, the boy was tied at the wrists. I expected tears—wails of despair—but the boy was silent, his shoulders high, his hands balled into fists. His shirt was torn at the neck, his hair strung with sweat. Whatever had happened, he had put up a fight.

I leaned close to Elm. “What will they do to him?”

Don’t you know? the Nightmare whispered.

Elm’s voice was lifeless. “He’ll be made to watch his parents disappear in the mist. Then he’ll be taken to Stone. If my father deems his magic without use…”

I blinked away tears of rage. “He’ll be murdered.”

Elm did not answer. His eyes were back on the carriage. I turned just in time to see a third Physician step onto the road. He was taller than the others, his frame leaner—his eyes unnaturally pale.

Orithe Willow, head of the King’s Physicians.

Elm jolted beside me. “Hauth shouldn’t be doing this, not in front of everyone.” His head whirled. “Where the hell is Ravyn?”

Up ahead, the Physicians and the boy between them joined Hauth. Orithe folded the length of his white sleeve back several inches, revealing a clawlike contraption with long, angry spikes reaching out from each of his pale fingers—a device made for only one purpose.

Blood.

When the Physician flexed his fingers, the metal spikes made a grating clang, an ominous knell that cut through the crowd. The boy tried to move toward his parents, but Orithe extended a spike to his throat, forcing him to remain still.

A single drop of blood fell from the boy’s neck. Not a fatal wound, but enough for Orithe Willow to sentence him to death.

Orithe’s voice boomed in the naked silence. “This child carries the infection. His magic is unsanctioned—dangerous. Let his death, and the death of those who harbored him, be a warning,” he called, his pale eyes wide. “There is no hiding the infection. Whether today, tomorrow, or years ahead, we will discover every fever—every degeneration—every unsanctioned magic.”

Hauth raised his Scythe over his head. “Card magic is the only true magic. Everything else is sickness.” He tapped the Card three times, turning once more to the prisoners. “We of Blunder surrender you who have broken our laws to the mist.” A cruel smile curled his lips. “Be wary. Be clever. Be good.”

The prisoners turned toward the mist, their movements jagged, their legs shaking. For a second it seemed as if they would not step off the road.

But there was no fighting the red Card.

The woman stepped forward with a bloodcurdling scream and took slow, rigid steps into the field. Her husband followed a pace behind, casting his gaze backward, shouting something I could not hear to his son.

Their feet dragged through dead grass. In a minute, they would be swallowed entirely by mist.

The sound of the Nightmare’s hiss—the tap of his claws—juddered in my ears, hollowing out my fear until all that was left was rage. When the shadows grow long, when our names turn to dust, what we loved, what we hated, will spoil to rust. All will be forgotten, save one truth, unshaken…

What did we do when the children were taken?

My heart raced, my cheeks burning with tears. “We need to do something, Elm.”

The Prince’s green eyes were locked on the prisoners, who drew closer and closer to the mist. I felt a tremor in his arm, the muscles of his jaw rigid. “We can’t risk Orithe seeing you,” he said.

“I can handle myself.” I looked down at my red dress, marked by the spindle tree. “Give me your cloak.”

The Prince’s shoulders stiffened. “Why?”

I tugged at his sleeve until it slipped off his shoulder. “Trade me masks.”

The Prince cursed beneath his breath and shrugged out of his cloak. When I put it on, my red dress disappearing behind the clasps, the wool was so dense it swallowed the light. So, too, was his mask. My fingers shook as I fastened it behind my head.

Elm turned, searching the crowd once again. I knew who he was looking for. But there was no time. I wrapped my hand around his arm, searching his green eyes. “You don’t need Ravyn,” I said in a low, urgent voice. “That boy is innocent, just like Emory. You are the strongest magic user I have ever seen. You have a Scythe.” My voice hardened. “You must do something.”

Hauth and the Destriers faced the mist, watching the prisoners, talking in low voices. Hauth tilted his head back in a sharp, ugly laugh.

The sound of his brother’s laugh snapped something in Elm. His green eyes narrowed, prey to predator. He reached into his pocket, retrieving his red Card, muttering something under his breath I could not make out—prayer or curse.

An audible gasp ripped through the crowd. The Physicians turned to the mist with wide eyes; the Destriers’ backs stiffened. Laughter died on Hauth Rowan’s mouth.

The prisoners had stopped walking. They stood, frozen mid-step, as if cast into stone, caught in the battle of the Princes—Rowan against Rowan.

Scythe against Scythe.

Elm slipped away from me. “Stay out of sight,” he said, eyes ahead. “Don’t do anything stupid.” He twirled the Scythe between his fingers and stepped through the crowd like an actor at encore, all of Blunder his stage.

When Hauth saw his brother, the green in his eyes was eclipsed by red. His neck bulged, his uninjured hand locked in a fist. “What—”

Elm sucked his teeth. “Too far, brother. Even for you, this is too far.”

The Physicians cowered, offering Elm a wide berth. I pushed through the tightly knit crowd, the Nightmare spurring my steps. I kept my eyes on the boy, who still stood at the tip of Orithe’s brutal claw.

Red versus red, the Princes faced off in front of their kingdom. Elm stood a head above his brother, lean and sly, his unruffled demeanor stark in contrast to Hauth’s, who burned with anger enough for the both of them. “It is within my right to sentence criminals,” Hauth barked. “Withdraw your Scythe. Now.

Elm shot his brother a smile. A challenge. “I don’t think I will.”

Linden stood at Hauth’s shoulder, hand on his hilt. He lunged for Elm. But before he could land a blow, Elm’s green eyes shot to him, focus honed. He held out a hand between himself and Linden, fingers splayed, muttering words I could not hear.

Linden stopped midstep, then, with a bloodcurdling shriek, fell to the ground at Elm’s feet. Elm looked down at him, lips curling, a drop of blood slipping from his nostrils.

The Scythe was taking its toll on him.

The Nightmare laughed, pitiless. Be wary the red, be wary the blade. Be wary the pain, for a price will be paid. Command what you can, death waits for no man. Be wary the pain, for a price will be paid.

Hauth glared down at Linden, then back at the prisoners. They were still frozen, mere paces from the mist. I slunk closer to the Physicians—the boy. I had no plan, only the beat of blood in my ears as the Nightmare’s clicking claws drove me forward.

Hauth opened his mouth, his entire body cued for violence. But before he could speak, a ripple moved through the crowd, the flurry of color parted by two figures, both dressed in all black, hands on the hilts of their swords.

Ravyn and Jespyr Yew.

And it was all the distraction Hauth needed. He slammed his elbow into his brother’s face, knocking Elm back a step, shattering his focus.

A cry ripped through the boy’s parents, their feet moving once again, propelling them toward the mist. The boy tugged against the Physicians, a desperate cry escaping his lips. I put a hand to my mouth, my eyes burning as I watched the boy’s father slip beyond sight, consumed by the blanket of gray, his mother disappearing into the mist a moment after him.

But their voices remained, wordless cries growing more and more frantic as the salt in the air twisted their minds.

Someone was shouting commands—Ravyn. Destriers dropped from their horses, most of them joining Ravyn and Jespyr, a few rallying behind Hauth. I heard the ring of steel. But I did not turn to face it. My gaze was on the boy caught between the men in white robes. I was close now—so close I could see the sweat on his brow, melding with his tears.

I felt an enormous push. The crowd erupted in pandemonium. No longer commanded to bear witness, men and women ran in every direction, desperate to get away from the Destriers and their infighting. A woman knocked into me, colliding with my broken wrist. I saw stars, the pain white-hot. But my legs kept going. I ran, crying out for the monster I so desperately needed.

Help me!

My veins burned. The Nightmare sprang forward, shrouding my mind in darkness. My steps quickened and my eyes locked on Orithe Willow, who turned as if summoned.

We collided at full tilt. He was larger than me—broader, heavier. But he was not stronger than the Nightmare. His head hit the ground with a thud, his eyes wide, his mouth slack. He swiped at me with his grotesque claw, but the steel fingers did not find me—I was already slipping away.

A hand pulled at me from behind—a second Physician. I sent an elbow into his diaphragm, and he fell onto dead grass with a violent cough, knocking the boy down with him. The third Physician did not approach, his eyes widened, hands shaking. He turned on his heel and ran, joining the crowd’s torrid mayhem.

The boy lay at the lip of the road. He tried to get up, but before he could find his feet, metal flashed through the air.

The boy screamed, Orithe Willow’s claw catching the hem of his tunic, holding him in place. I don’t remember leaping forward. Darkness clouded my eyes, and the next moment, I was standing over Orithe, the heel of my shoe sure as it collided with the Physician’s jaw, knocking him back to the ground.

The boy’s tunic ripped free. He stumbled a few steps. When his gaze rose to me, his spine straightened.

“Come with me,” I panted, reaching for him.

The boy’s eyes narrowed, straining to see my face beneath my mask. A moment later his gaze shifted over my shoulder. When I looked back, I saw the third Physician. He’d brought a Destrier with him, his Black Horse a flurry of darkness, his eyes fixed on me.

Linden.

“Fuck,” I said just as the boy took my hand. I did not look back—not for Orithe or Ravyn. There was no time. Before Linden could reach us, the boy and I darted headfirst into the mist.

Heat ripped up and down my arms, the Nightmare’s presence all around me, like a second skin. I took a deep breath and coughed, the salt in the air thick. I dug frantically in my skirt pocket, my fingers snagging on the charm I no longer needed, and doubled our pace.

Linden entered the mist behind us, the dense air contorting the sound of his approach, his steps near and far at once.

We hurried through a meadow, the grass dampening the hem of my dress. When the ground sloped, my feet caught me up, but I did not fall, faster and surer than I had ever been. Behind me the boy was panting, every ounce of his strength summoned to keep my pace.

The salt in the air clung to me, stinging my eyes. My vision blurred with tears. When I rubbed them away, the world around me disappeared. The sky was suddenly black, daylight smothered into nothingness. I was no longer in the meadow between town and the wood, but somewhere else. Somewhere full of long, flickering shadows, a strange orange light reflected on my golden armor.

I whipped my head around. Flames licked the sky behind me, the walls of an enormous castle engulfed in an inferno. The boy was still behind me, only now he wasn’t alone. More children hurried behind us, their frightened faces illuminated by the flames.

Words formed on my tongue, but I did not speak them. All I knew was a deep, debilitating fear and an impulse to continue on—to save the children from the fire and the danger that awaited us if we did not flee. That’s when I noticed it—waiting at the edge of the flames, resting beneath the shadow of an ancient yew tree.

A chamber at the edge of the meadow, its one dark window, black and infinite, beckoning me forward.

“Miss!”

I tripped on the hem of my dress and fell onto the grass. I coughed, choking on air. When I looked up, the sky was gray once again, hidden beneath the green tops of the wood. Gone was the chamber—the fire—the smoke in the air. All that was left was the boy, wide-eyed as he looked down at me. “I can hear them, miss.”

I clawed inside my mind for the Nightmare. But his jaw was sealed, his pointed ears perking, listening. There, he said. Do you hear it?

I did. Shouting—a man and a woman’s voice, deep within the mist. But they were not alone. The tread of heavy footfall sounded from whence we’d come—the clang of metal—the sinister darkness of a Black Horse Providence Card.

He’s close, the Nightmare warned. You cannot outrun him. Not with the boy.

I scurried to my feet, pressing my charm into the boy’s hand. “Take this charm for your parents,” I said. “They’ll have to share it, but it should wake them.”

The boy blinked down at the crow’s foot. “But you won’t have one.”

“I don’t need it,” I said. “The Spirit does not harm people like us.” I checked my mask was secure, Linden’s steps drawing near. “Go,” I said, releasing the boy.

His footfalls sounded like bird wings as he fled through the trees. I did not watch him go. My back was hunched, my ears perked to the sound of the Destrier. The Nightmare’s hiss ran up my spine, stunning me, the world around me blurring.

Linden came out of the mist, his sword aimed directly at my neck.

I dodged him. When I stood straight, my fingers curled, my eyes narrowing. My legs sprang forward, my steps powerful as I closed the distance between myself and the King’s soldier. I saw the fear in his eyes—confusion and panic. But I did not care. I was lost to the magic—the Nightmare’s wrath enveloping me.

I struck him in the jaw, then the ribs. He fell to the ground, his sword reckless as he slashed at me. But he might as well have been slashing at a ghost. The Nightmare moved like lightning, twisting my body. My foot collided with the Destrier’s shoulder, pinning him to the ground and knocking his sword free.

I leaned over him, my hand poised like a claw. Salt prickled my nose and my arms burned. For a moment, my mind clouded. I forgot where I was, why I’d come. All I could see was darkness.

Bloodcurdling screams brought me back. Stop! I cried, but it was too late. Linden lay on the ground, his hands held up to his neck, blood oozing through his fingers.

I jerked away, trapped by a bitter rage. My thoughts hammered against the Nightmare’s wrath, confusion and dread leaching into my mind. What did you do? I cried.

The Nightmare did not answer. But he did not have to.

A scream caught in my throat. I tore from the wood, my feet unsteady, the dark shadow of the Destrier’s Black Horse growing smaller and smaller as I pelted through the mist.

I did not see the second Destrier until I’d already crashed into him.

I shouted and pushed against the chest of his black tunic, but he caught me along the arms. He said my name, but I hardly heard him, my mind caught in a riptide, the Nightmare’s presence so strong it stupefied me.

The Destrier pulled me to him. When I looked up, I saw gray eyes behind his mask.

Ravyn Yew’s chest heaved against mine. When he spoke, his voice was ragged. “Elspeth—Elspeth, can you hear me?”

I gasped, my breath coming in rapid, violent swells. Tears fell down my cheeks, the salt in my eyes and the magic in my veins white-hot.

“Breathe,” Ravyn said, reaching for my face. “You’re safe now. Just breathe.”

I blinked, the flames of the Nightmare’s wrath still licking my mind. My voice hitched, my breath shallow and uneven. “The boy—the Destrier—my magic. I… I don’t know what happened.”

Ravyn leaned into me, his forehead resting against mine, his breath on my face. “Your eyes are yellow.”

I snapped my eyelids shut. Please go away, I begged the Nightmare, knowing all too well there was nowhere for him to go. I heard the echo of his laugh, his steps slow—his claws painful—as he stalked through my thoughts into darkness.

I let out a breath, and Ravyn reached for me. But no sooner had his fingers touched mine than the Captain recoiled, his gaze frozen on my hands.

When I looked down, my hands were curled like claws. My fingers, long and pale, were covered in blood.


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