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Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 15

The following day, my father’s warnings still whispered through my thoughts. I had expected him to tell me to accept the immutability of the Descended’s harsh rule and find other, smaller ways to make a difference. And perhaps, in some ways, he had.

But there was something else underlying his words that lingered. Somewhere buried in his lessons, there was a challenge. A calling.

I didn’t know whether it came from him or from within my own heart, but I felt it as surely as the autumn breeze that chilled the sweat upon my neck.

I was not made to sit and do nothing. I was made to fight.

And as I made house calls to my patients throughout Mortal City, tending to broken limbs and persistent illnesses, the voice that had taken residence inside me whispered back.

It heard the calling, too. And now it paced, a rumbling beast in its pen, waiting for me to find the courage—or the madness—to set it free.

My last call of the day took me to the outskirts of Paradise Row, to a stretch of alleys where purveyors of sex hovered in every doorway, offering their carnal talents to the lonely, intoxicated souls who staggered out of the nearby pubs.

I knew better than to ask for too many details when making calls in this neighborhood, but when I walked into the brothel’s parlor to find a very pissed-off woman standing with arms crossed and fresh blood coating her body, my curiosity got the better of me.

“What in the Undying Fire happened? I was told there were only bruises and possibly some broken bones.”

“That’s right,” the woman said curtly. “The girl you’re here for is in the back. This blood isn’t hers.”

“Is there a second patient?”


“If someone’s bleeding, I should really see them first, this is a lot of blood t—”

“The blood is none of your concern.”

She raised an eyebrow in an unspoken threat.

“Understood,” I rushed out.

She waved me into a back room where a woman was perched on the edge of a rumpled bed, naked and weeping. She clutched a bedsheet to her body to cover her more intimate areas, blue and purple splotches already visible on her coppery skin.

An entourage of women in lacy garments surrounded her, holding her hands and stroking her hair, murmuring tender words of support. Several were covered in blood. They were much younger and more scantily clad than the stern woman who’d greeted me—a madam and her girls, I guessed.

I ignored the guarded looks from the other women as I nestled beside the injured girl. “I’m Diem. I’m a healer, I’m here to help you.”

She sniffled up at me. “I’m… um… Peony.”

Not her real name—I knew that much. This area of Paradise Row was mockingly referred to as The Garden in honor of the fanciful flower names commonly used by its vendors. The pseudonyms played upon the male fantasy of the innocent ingénue and protected vulnerable workers and their families from being pursued by cruel judgments and dangerously infatuated clients.

I offered up a sympathetic smile. “Nice to meet you, Peony. I’m very sorry this happened to you.”

Tears clung to the sweeping lashes that curtained her large, tawny eyes. “How long will the bruises last? I gotta get back to work soon, I need the money.”

“Don’t you worry about that, Peony,” the madam said gruffly from where she leaned against the door frame. “We’ll take care of you. Won’t we girls?”

The other women nodded in emphatic agreement.

“Can you tell me what happened?” I asked.

“He… he…” Peony’s shoulders quaked as she dissolved into sobs.

“A customer wanted more than she was willing to sell,” another girl answered for her. “She told him no, and he tried to take it anyway. He got a few hits in before we could k—”

“Tulip,” the madam clipped. “That’s enough.”

Tulip looked down and pursed her lips.

I realized then there was blood on the floor, as well—not puddles, but long scarlet streaks that painted a path to the door. Suddenly I understood why so many of the girls were dripping with red. And why the madam had told me not to worry about it.

Like I said, Paradise Row women were nothing if not loyal.

I gave a sharp nod and set to tending the girl’s injuries, grateful that my examination revealed only bruises and scratches.

As I worked, I egged the girl’s friends into lighthearted conversation. With injuries like these, the kind that could scar your soul more than your body, laughter was often a better medication than any tincture I could whip up.

It only took one coy request for advice on lingerie to surprise the man I was seeing, and they’d instantly launched into a passionate debate on the merits of wispy scraps of satin versus silhouette-enhancing corsets. Even Peony had jumped into the fray with a soliloquy on costumes over negligees.

“What they really want is to pretend,” she said matter-of-factly, her tears quickly drying. “They want something they can’t have.”

“What costumes do they like best?” I prodded as I spread an arnica mixture along her collarbone.

“Actually, they love healers,” one of the girls answered, rolling her eyes and groaning. “They always want us to pretend to treat their poor, injured dicks.”

Another girl grinned at me. “Maybe you could loan us some props.”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be deeply disturbed.

“But what they like even more is when you pretend to be Descended,” Peony said, joined by a murmur of agreement from the other girls.

“They all talk like they hate ‘em, but most mortal men would pay every cent they’ve got to sleep with a Descended woman,” another girl said.

That hardly surprised me. For too many mortal men, sex was about power and control in a world where they had little of either. Imagining the lengths they might go to exert their dominance over a woman in the ruling class made my stomach churn.

“There aren’t any Descended women offering… services?” I asked.

“I’ve tried to recruit some,” the madam said bitterly, “but the Descended think themselves too good to do our work.”

One of the girls snorted. “Well they aren’t too good to come screw us. Some of the Descended are my best customers.”

“And unlike mortal men, they don’t lie about taking the contraceptive tonic,” another chimed in. “They’re all too scared of the King to risk getting a mortal pregnant.”

One of the girls studied me intently, her gaze thin and suspicious. “I’ve heard about you. The mortal who’s got eyes like them.”

I rolled my shoulders under her scrutiny. Even after all these years, attention on my eye color still put me on edge.

“You could make a killing here, pretending to be one of them,” she said. “You could charge whatever you wanted.”

“And they wouldn’t beat you up,” Peony teased, though a shade of sadness returned to her eyes. “They’d be too scared you might actually have magic.”

“I’ll, um, keep that in mind,” I lied. I packed up my things and handed Peony a small jar. “You’re all done. Keep putting this cream on the bruises, it will help them fade quicker.”

Her lashes fluttered as she fought back a fresh round of tears. “How much do I owe you?”

“This one’s on the house.”

Relief fluttered over her face, but she quickly hid it behind a defensive pout. “I can pay,” she insisted.

I rose to my feet and smiled. “I wouldn’t dare. The lingerie advice you gave me was worth more than this would be.”

I said my goodbyes and followed the madam to the front parlor. When we were alone, she tugged a suede pouch from the neckline of her corset.

“You’re a sweet girl, but I’m not some pauper asking for handouts. If a customer takes a service, they pay for it. That’s how I run my business here, and I won’t accept different from you. How much?”

I gave her a hard stare and weighed my response. I understood her convictions, but the idea of profiting from what had been done to Peony didn’t sit right in my soul.

“If anyone’s going to pay, it’s going to be the man that hurt her,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “And I have a feeling he already has.”

Her lips thinned as she gave me an appraising once-over. “The girls were right, you know. You could make a lot of money here with those eyes of yours. I’d cut my percentage in half for you.”

“I already have a job.”

“You can be a healer when you’re old. You only get a few years to be young and pretty. Seize your opportunities while you got ‘em.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I’m not sure my betrothed would be too happy if I accepted.”

A small lie. Henri wasn’t my fiancé—yet. Merely thinking about that step turned my throat scratchy and tight. But it was an easier explanation than the truth.

It wasn’t about the work. I’d had my share of casual lovers, and I respected these women and their profession. Men sold the strength of their bodies as sellswords and assassins, bricklayers and carpenters. Why should it be any less acceptable for women to sell the softness of theirs?

The truth, the real truth, was that I’d made one too many calls like this to Paradise Row. I’d seen firsthand what happens to the girls here—a few bruises were the least of Peony’s worries. And no matter how many bad men this madam made disappear for their evil acts, there would be more.

Until someone brought change to this realm, there would always be more.

“Tell me, girl, what’s your beloved, a farmer? A blacksmith?” She sniffed dismissively. “You could bring in five times his income working here. You could make enough to travel, maybe buy yourself a cute little house in some better realm. You could even get off this gods-abandoned continent.”

I couldn’t deny a part of me thrilled at the idea of having the means to escape my tiny, miserable pocket of the world in search of a grand adventure. As a healer, making ends meet in Mortal City was about the best I could hope to achieve.

But my father. My brother. Henri. Maura.

My mother.

I sighed. “Thank you, but… I can’t.”

She shrugged and tucked the coin purse back into her brassiere. “Suit yourself. But whatever you do or don’t do, sweetheart, do it for yourself. Don’t choose a mediocre life for a mediocre man. Go be exceptional. If he’s worth it, he won’t judge you. And if he’s really the one, he’ll come along for the ride.”

A bloodcurdling shriek pierced the air, floating in from outside the open door.

The madam didn’t even flinch. “Think over my offer,” she called out with a halfhearted wave as I bolted into the street.

I’d heard enough screaming patients in my work to know the difference between a cry of fear and a howl of agonizing pain—and this had been unmistakably both.

My head whipped back and forth in search just as it rang out again to my left, followed by shouting and a child’s wails. I pulled a dagger from its sheath and broke into a sprint.

“Please, don’t—my baby! My baby!

A woman’s voice, plaintive and desperate. And the child—their cries had morphed into a sound that turned my blood ice cold.

Ahead, wisps of dark smoke blanketed the ground and unfurled in a curiously slow, deliberate sweep, like gloved fingers stretching for something just out of reach.

No, not smoke—shadow.

Another scream drew me closer, and I skidded to a stop at the edge of the tendrils’ grasp. Nearby, a woman cowered on the ground, arms outstretched to shield a small child clutching her waist and bawling hysterically.

Across from them towered a wiry man whose shimmering golden hair capped an expression carved with hate. He wore a fine jacket in a rich sienna hue, its ivory buttons undone low to reveal a fair-skinned chest.

The glow of his eyes cut through the darkness of the alley.

The vicious blue eyes of a Descended.

More hazy, curling shadows leaked from his open palms. The sentient darkness formed an arc of floating onyx spikes around the woman and child.

My hand tightened on my dagger.

“Get out of the way,” he growled at the woman. “I’ll make it as quick and painless as I can.”

“This is your child!” Her tone wobbled between begging and sobbing. “How could you be so cruel to your own son?”

“That half-breed should never have been born,” he spat. “This is your fault—you should have ended the pregnancy when it began. You hid it from me for four years, and now that boy’s blood is on your hands.”

She pleaded, tears plunging from her cheekbones. “Let me go to the King and beg for mercy. Or—or I can leave. I’ll take him to Umbros, and you’ll never hear from us again.”

“I can’t take that risk. My family has spent centuries building our position with the royals. We are finally among the Twenty Houses, and I will not have some mortal whore and her illegal spawn ruin everything we’ve worked for.”

The venom dripping from his voice seemed to infect the shadows at his control, making them darker and crueler. His fingers curved into hooks, and the sharp points tightened around them.

The voice inside me roared to life. The pulsating of his magic reverberated like an echo of its restrained rage.


“Get out of the way, or I’ll kill you both,” he ordered.

“Like hell you will,” I snapped, unsheathing my second dagger. “Step away from them.”

He barely acknowledged me, waving his hand with disinterest. “Leave here, mortal. You want no part of this.”

“Oh, but I do,” I growled back.

A smarter, more rational part of my brain clutched at my hem and dug in its heels, hissing at me to heed the man’s warning and turn away. This wasn’t like the belligerent louts or school bullies I was used to tangling with. This was a Descended. Other than the Prince’s display at the palace—which I couldn’t seem to get out of my head—I’d never even seen their magic up close.

But smart and rational were privileges of the lucky, the fortunate few who could afford to close their eyes to injustice and walk away.

The people of Mortal City—my people—had never been allowed to be lucky.

And I was not built to walk away.

Choose your battles and your enemies with care, my father had said.

Well, today I chose this battle. Today I chose this enemy. I would not let one more innocent child perish at the hands of the Descended.

And if this is how I had to die, so be it.


I dropped my chin and marched toward him.

He drew up his fist, and the shadows at my feet spiraled into steel-like bars to block my path. I swore, jerking back, my hand pausing in mid-air. The voice swirled into the tips of my fingers and coaxed them forward, filling me with a terrifying urge to touch the strange dark matter.

“This is my last warning,” he barked at the mother.

She turned to me with red, watery eyes that had lost all hope. “Save my son,” she pleaded. “Let me die, but I beg of you, save him.”

I froze as recognition smashed into me. The day of my mother’s disappearance, this woman had helped me, distracting the men chasing me so I could escape. She might very well have saved my life that day—and now her fate was in my hands.

The man roared, swinging his arms forward, and the ring of night-black spikes closed in as her scream of agony burned through my head. The dark bolts sank into her flesh, becoming a splatter of scarlet flecks across her body. The wounds grew and grew and grew, her blood trickling in a slew of tiny waterfalls to the ground below.

I shouted for him to stop and reached for the bars. They crackled as I grew near, tiny barbs spiking toward my hand and forcing me to pull back.

If I couldn’t get through them, my blades could. I cocked an arm and launched one of my twin daggers, carefully aiming through a slim opening in the obsidian cage.

My heart sung as my blade hit its mark. The point dimpled into the soft flesh of his throat, right over his jugular—the kind of wound that could end a life in seconds.

Buried deep beneath my fear, a cold, heavy numbness spread through me at the prospect of his death at my hands. Not a sadness or regret, but a dark acceptance that made all my precious ideals seem distant and foreign.

But as quickly as it came, despair took its place. The knife bounced harmlessly to the ground without leaving so much as a scratch.

My blades—my worthless, cheap, gods-damned mortal blades—could not pierce Descended skin. I might as well try to pelt him to death with a pebble. It had been so pathetic an attack, he hadn’t even turned his head to acknowledge it.

I looked on in horror.

“Gods save me, please,” the woman sobbed. She clawed at the spikes in a frantic, futile attempt to yank them free. A second ring of them materialized and plunged into her throat. Blood bloomed along her collarbone and trailed down her chest like a cruel necklace of dangling rubies.

My gaze locked on a pair of frightened blue eyes beneath her slumping body. The child was too young to understand what was happening—only that his mother was hurt, and he was scared, and he didn’t know what to do.

Neither did I, and the realization destroyed me. I couldn’t get to him, couldn’t save his mother, couldn’t stop his father. I could swagger and act cocky, making my brash threats against the Descended all day long, but in the end I was just another weak, useless mortal.

As I sank to my knees, a desperate idea broke the surface of my anguish. The blade Brecke had given me—he’d claimed it was sharp enough to pierce Descended skin. Maybe, just maybe…

Careful to avoid notice, I slid the blade from its sheath along my calf.

The man thrust his arm upward. The spikes impaled in the woman’s body rose, dragging her with them into the air. He flung out his hand, and she flew across the alley and thumped against a thick stone wall.

I flinched at the sickening crack. I knew the sound of shattering bone when I heard it. When I finally mustered the courage to look, my gaze met the vacant, glassy eyes of a corpse that would see no more.

Fight, the voice demanded. Fight.

A snarl erupted from my chest. “You killed her, you fucking monster!”

He didn’t hear me. His eyes were singularly focused on his next target.

I frantically gestured to the boy. If I could get him to safety, then make just the right throw…

“Come to me,” I coaxed.

His face jumped between me and his approaching father, his features pinched and unsure. He took a step toward me before pausing with a wary glance at the bars that held me back.

“I don’t want this, but I don’t have a choice.” The man spoke low, though loud enough for me to hear, and I wondered which of us he was trying to convince. “I have to do it. It’s the law.”

“You don’t have to,” I pleaded. “I won’t tell anyone. I’ll take the child away and say it’s my own.”

He paused.

“If we’re found out, I’ll bear the consequences myself,” I rushed out. “I don’t know your name, I couldn’t turn you in even if I wanted to. No one will ever know.”

His gaze went thoughtful as he stared silently at his son. His eyes rose to me, and my heart staggered to a stop.

“Please,” I whispered. “He’s just a child. Don’t do this.”

His face hardened. “No.”

He closed his cowardly eyes to hide from the truth of what he did next. With a single outstretched palm, a bolt of shadow shot across the alley.


Instantly, I moved. Brecke’s blade left my hand and soared toward the Descended. This knife was still new and foreign, its delicate balance so different from my heavy daggers. My years of training were enough to put the blade in his neck, but it struck too far from any veins that would bring him down.

He stumbled backward, hands fumbling at his throat as dark crimson slithered through his fingers.

In the midst of the chaos, the cage he’d built around me flickered and faded away. I launched toward the boy and covered his body with my own. He was curled into a ball, tiny arms wrapped protectively around his dirt-scratched knees.

“You bitch—you stabbed me!” The man’s words came out gurgled and half-drowned in blood, but he managed to stay on his feet. The shock in his eyes twisted into something sharper and angrier.

He jerked the knife from his neck and let it rattle to the ground. I watched in horror as the gash began to clot before my eyes.

I knew they could heal, but to see it work—to see a wound that could be fatal for a mortal man cause them no more danger than a minor cut…

These people truly were gods.

Evil, horrible, murderous gods.

Father was right. Mortals didn’t stand a chance—not in a battle of strength, at least. If we had any hope of surviving them, it would have to be a game of wits.


A plan began to form. I filled my lungs with air and screamed a single word as loud as I could.

“Fire! Over here—fire!

The man balked, his ire cooling to confusion. I screamed the word again—and again and again. My throat scraped raw with the effort of casting my voice as far as it could fly.

With a swipe of his hand, the shadowy spikes dissolved from the woman’s corpse and reappeared, one by one, in a lethal halo around my chest.

“You should have walked away,” he warned. “You mortals have such pathetically short lives, and yet you’re all so quick to throw them away.”

“Fire!” I shouted again. “Fire!”

Nothing happened. My confidence in my plan was turning bleak.

Death stared me plainly in the face, its toothy grin enjoying the misery of my demise. I was going to die in this disgusting, forgotten alley. Would anyone even bother checking my body or searching for a next of kin? Or would I be yet another woman who disappeared on the streets of Mortal City, following in my mother’s footsteps in one final, horrible way.


The voice thrashed, no longer asking for release but demanding it—snarling to be unleashed and bring the world to ash.

But I had nothing left to offer, to the boy or to myself. No weapons, no magic, only the protection of my flesh to shield him from his father’s vicious wrath.

I had never really been religious. I’d never sought the guidance of the Old Gods, and aside from the occasional sacrilegious swear, I had certainly never invoked any of the Kindred, knowing better than to expect any help from the very same beings who had fractured our world in two.

But if it could bring even a sliver of peace in these final moments or curry a crumb of favor from whatever infernal thing ruled over the afterlife—for this boy and his mother, I had to at least try.

Sacred, ancient words flowed through me—the Rite of Endings, a forbidden prayer from the ancient mortal religion.

End be your time, a trade in kind, a life well-lived for peace to find.”

As the prayer tumbled from my lips, the man’s feet shuffled over dusty stone. He sauntered closer, and my words quickened with my racing heart.

Be not afraid, as shadows fade, all pain and woe shall be unmade.”

“A blasphemer,” he sneered. “Good. I’ll sleep easier knowing you earned your death.”

Now fate well-sealed shall be revealed, for those whose worthy souls shall yield.”

“Your mortal gods can’t help you now, girl. Perhaps the Kindred will have mercy on you both.”

I wrapped my hands tighter around the child and squeezed my eyes closed.

In love and calm, our holy psa—”

And then he struck.


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