Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 11


I awoke to a cold, empty room.

Hours earlier, I’d left Henri and Brecke in the tavern downstairs, content to let them drink and banter while I enjoyed the solitude of a hot bath, but the more I’d soaked alone in the steaming water, the more my mind had flooded with the many demons nipping at my heels.

My missing mother. The agreement between her and Prince Luther. Teller’s schooling. The wolf in the woods. The flameroot powder.

Each question was a stone slab in an wall surrounding me on all sides, thick and ivy-coated like the one I’d seen encircling the palace gardens, a beautiful but impenetrable cage. My mind hurled itself at the barrier, clawing for answers, but my pathetic mortal fists only scraped and bled as the wall inched closer and closer, squeezing at my soul.

In retrospect, solitude might not have been such a good idea.

After only a few minutes, I’d scrubbed hastily at my skin and hair before scurrying back to the room and collapsing into the scratchy cotton sheets, grateful to succumb to the refuge of sleep.

But now I was wide awake, and the empty expanse of bed beside me was cold and still neatly made. Henri had not yet come back.

A peek through the window at the moon hanging low in the sky told me dawn was nearing. Worry crept up the nape of my neck, forcing me out of bed and back into my clothing and blades.

As I wandered through the dim hallway and down the stairs to the tavern, worn hardwood planks creaked under my footsteps, slicing through the heavy silence. The air was thick with the scent of stale ale and damp wood, but there was no lively chatter from the patrons, no clink of glasses and dishware. Like the mottled brass sconces lining the walls, the vibrant signs of life that had illuminated the room hours before had all been extinguished for the night.

A hiss of whispers lured me deeper into the dining room. Around the corner, a group of eight men crowded around a wobbly, rough-hewn table, a single candle at the center casting ghoulish shadows that waltzed along the oak-paneled walls. Their shoulders hunched forward, expressions excited but earnest, as they murmured in low voices.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted the dimpled jawline and disheveled hair of Henri’s profile seated beside Brecke. The grin that had earlier seemed permanently stamped on Brecke’s face was gone, replaced by knitted brows and a hand rubbing unhappily at his beard.

One of the men slammed his fist into the table, and I flattened against the wall. As emotions and voices grew hot, fleeting words and stunted phrases made their way through the room.

“…we cannot allow….”

“…send word to the others…”

“…gathering forces…”

“…almost time…”

“…war…”

The last word struck like a viper, fangs sinking into my skin.

War.

What war? Emarion had been at peace for my lifetime. If there were threats from abroad, surely my father would have mentioned something.

Or perhaps, with Mother missing, he would have kept any troubling news to himself to spare us from further worry. Just as Teller and I had been keeping our problems from him—and each other.

Anxiety tightened around my neck. As a mortal, Teller was now considered an adult by law. If there was a war, he would be drafted to fight.

And so would Henri.

And so, too, might my father. Despite his retirement, his expertise would be invaluable, and the loyalty he commanded among the mortal forces was unmatched.

And I would be left behind. Alone—unless I abandoned Lumnos to join the army, too. Unless I traded in my life as a healer to pick up a weapon and fight.

Fight, the voice inside me echoed.

A tingling sensation coated my skin, and the world around me went dark as a hazy image shimmered in my mind’s eye.

I was standing on a battlefield aflame with silvery fire, clad in armor of deepest black that concealed mud and gore, the speckled evidence of war. My bloodied hands bore a great gold-handled broadsword whose onyx blade was veined with scrollwork that seemed almost illuminated from within. I swung the blade around me in slow, menacing circles that dared my enemy to approach. A shadowed figure stood nearby, and lifeless bodies—Descended and mortal—lay in a broad ring at my feet, as if they’d been thrown back by the force of a massive explosion. My face was grim, undaunted. Sad, I think—but strong. Unbreakably strong.

I cursed myself again for destroying my flameroot supply and leaving myself vulnerable to these delusions, but something about this vision was… different. Unlike the vivid hallucinations of my childhood, which had felt lucid and entirely real, this seemed more like a glimpse into something vague, something possible. Not a reality that was, but a fate that could be.

The vision faded as quickly as it came, leaving behind an energy humming in my blood. Though I was once again empty-handed in a dark tavern, I could still feel the glossy metal of the sword in my grip, still smell the rotten scent of death wafting on an imagined breeze. That sensation of power—no, of being powerful—was intoxicating in a way that left me as intrigued as I was unsettled.

My cheeks flushed as reality settled back in. I had no place on a battlefield—I was a healer, not a soldier. And even if I was equally as adept with blade or bow, my father had taught me better than to romanticize bloodshed.

War is no game, he’d once scolded after spying me giggling as I waged mock warfare against Teller with rocks and wooden sticks. War is death and misery and sacrifice. War is making choices that will haunt you for the rest of your daysYou fight to protect, or to survive, but never for the joy of killing, no matter how brutal your enemy.

If war truly was coming, there would be no glory in it. Not for Teller, or Henri, or my father, and certainly not for me.

I was about to return to the inn when my eye snagged on one of the men. He had propped his arm on the table, his dirt-mottled sleeve pushed to his elbow. There, on his forearm, in stark lines engraved on pale skin, was a vine-encircled flaming tree. The Everflame—the same tattoo I’d seen on Henri’s shoulder.

My eyes raked across the other men. There again—on a calf, protruding from the hem of cropped breeches. Another on a chest, edging out from an unbuttoned tunic. The bicep of another, midnight ink barely visible through a white linen sleeve. One more, hidden beneath tied-up hair.

Each of the men bore the symbol on their flesh, a permanent mark of some chain that connected them.

Henri had lied to me. I’d asked him directly about the tattoo’s meaning, and he’d lied to me.

To honor the Old Gods, he’d said.

Honor the Old Gods, my ass.

I gritted my teeth and stalked out of the shadows across the tavern. Chairs screeched as I shoved them out of my path. The men startled at the sound, several tugging at their sleeves and collars to conceal the tattoos they’d so brazenly exposed moments earlier.

Henri jumped to his feet. “Diem!”

His guilty wince only stoked my irritation. Whatever he’d been doing, he obviously hadn’t wanted me to know about it.

“These are my friends.” He gestured to the table. “Everyone, this is Diem, the girl I was telling you about.”

The men offered a chorus of nods and grunts in greeting but studiously refused to meet my glare.

“I thought you were asleep,” Henri said. It sounded like a confession.

“I woke up,” I snapped. “A word, please.”

The other men glanced at each other and at Henri, the corners of their lips quivering with the effort not to laugh at the domestic doom their comrade had landed himself in. All except for Brecke, who was grinning outright.

I turned and marched back up the stairs to our room, spinning on him as the door closed behind him.

“I’m sorry,” he started, “I didn’t realize how late—”

“I don’t care that you were out late. I’m not your wife.” Henri flinched. “What does the tattoo really mean, and why do all of you have it?”

He opened his mouth and paused, hunting for an answer—and failing, judging by his silence.

‘For the Old Gods’, was it?” My glare was scathing. “I can’t believe you lied to me.”

“It wasn’t a lie, exactly…” He scratched the back of his neck, still avoiding my eyes.

“Are you all fools?” I smacked my palm lightly against his shoulder, and he staggered several steps back, eyes wide with surprise. “Do you understand how much trouble you could get in if anyone saw that?”

“We’re careful. We don’t let anyone see them.”

“Like you didn’t let me see them?”

He rubbed at his shoulder. “That’s different. I wasn’t trying to hide it from you. There’s no Descended anywhere near here.”

“Have you gone mad?” My voice was hoarse with the effort of not screaming at him, mindful of the thin walls and dangerous topics. “By the Flames, Henri, we’re in Fortos. The army painted this whole cursed continent red the last time a group of mortals got together under that symbol.”

His expression shifted, the lines of his face hardening in a way that made him seem older and weathered. “I am well aware of that, Diem.”

“Tell me what’s going on.” I crossed my arms, one brow raised expectantly.

His voice went quiet. “Like you’ve told me what’s going on with you?”

A long silence passed between us.

My conscience scolded me that he was right. I’d been pulling away from him for weeks, and his secrets, whatever they were, surely paled in comparison to the turmoil I was so carefully concealing from him.

But there was another voice. A louder voice.

Fight.

It was a creature of its own, this thing inside of me. It was a lit match that eternally wavered above the pile of kindling that was my shredded soul, a drumbeat that called my temper to arms at every provocation.

Henri rubbed at his face. “I don’t want to argue with you, but it’s safer if you don’t know.”

“I don’t need you to protect me. I’m not going to break.”

“Are you sure about that?” he snapped. “You haven’t exactly been stable lately.”

Fight.

Words bubbled up in my mouth. Awful words. Unforgivable words. Words that would break us in irreparable ways.

And it wasn’t just words. The thoughts that were raging through my head struck true fear into my heart, even as they grew louder and more insistent.

Fight.

My eyes squeezed closed.

I… I wanted to hurt him. Break his bones. Claw his skin until he bled.

The thought horrified me.

Captivated me.

Purred to me.

“Go back downstairs to your friends,” I forced out between clenched teeth. My quivering hands flexed and fisted, over and over.

The anger deflated out of him. “Wait, Diem, I’m sorry.” He stepped forward and reached for me. I jerked away and staggered backward, my panic coming out as disgust. Henri looked as if I’d slapped him, but I was terrified I would do worse if he stayed.

So much worse.

Fight.

“Now,” I snarled at him. “Go!

He stared at me for a few seconds, heartbreak in his eyes, then turned and walked out of the room.

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