Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 29


I stared at the closed door for a solid minute.

I debated waiting for Luther in the main salon or convincing the guards to escort me to the front parlor, or even offering up my weapons to them until he returned.

By the Flames, was I truly that desperate?

It was an odd thing, to feel so distrustful of my own heart. I wasn’t sure I was even capable of killing the King. If last night had shown me anything, it was that I had little stomach for murder.

The truth was I no longer knew how I felt about anything.

A month ago, I had been focused. I had clear, attainable goals.

Find my mother. Keep Teller in school. Serve as the palace healer. Help the Guardians.

I may not have loved my place in the world, but at least I knew where it was.

Now, though, my future was smoke, opaque and foreboding, threatening to suffocate me alive if I didn’t find some way out.

Now, my future felt… empty.

When I was upset as a child, my mother would wrap me up in a blanket and we’d sit by the hearth clutching clay mugs of steaming, sweetened tea. She’d tell me stories of old Emarion, a time before the Kindred and their devastating rule, stories that had passed down in oral tradition through generations after the Descended had burned every mortal-penned book they could find.

She had the most beautiful voice. Melodious and strong, brimming with confidence and edged with the mystery of all her hidden secrets. Even silent, she could captivate a room.

But as formidable as she was, she was still just my mother. The woman who soothed me after a nightmare, who fed me soup and stroked my hair when I was sick. She was my constant lantern when, like now, the world was dark and I didn’t know which way to go.

To the world, she was Auralie Bellator, but to me she was just… Mother.

And I missed her. Gods, did I miss her.

I wiped away the wetness on my cheeks, grateful for the small mercy of avoiding an audience for that. I cautiously edged my way back to the King’s bedside like a wild animal approaching another in the woods, not quite sure which of us was the scarier predator.

Like Luther, the King’s power radiated in his presence. Weakened, yes, but impressive still. What must it feel like, to be the most powerful person in the realm? To know that you had not just the authority, but the ability, to wield life and death with the curl of a finger?

But today, he was no fearsome child of the gods.

Today, he was just an old, dying man. Alone.

A spasm rippled through his body, then another. His eyelids flickered delicately, as if lost in a dream. His breathing was so fast—far too fast, and far too shallow. It wouldn’t be much longer now.

I took his hand, laying my palm against his wrist until our pulses aligned. It was an old healer’s trick—when all medicine failed, sometimes a cherished touch could persuade a fading heart to match the stronger, faster beat of its beloved. I might not be Ulther’s nearest and dearest, but at the moment, he and I were all each other had.

I gave his wrist a gentle squeeze and softly whispered the sacred Rite of Endings:

End be your time, a trade in kind,

a life well-lived for peace to find.

Be not afraid, as shadows fade,

all pain and woe shall be unmade.

Now fate well-sealed shall be revealed,

for those whose worthy souls shall yield.

In love and calm, this holy psalm,

shall guide your soul to realm beyond.”

As the final word fell from my lips, a crackle of energy passed between us, a static shock that made every hair on my arms stand on end.

The King’s knobby fingers seized mine. No longer was he feeble and frail—his grip was an iron shackle that chained me at his side.

His eyes flew open, already on me, like he’d been watching me even in sleep. Dark, deep-sea blue. Startlingly clear. Lucid.

No—something more than lucid. Seeing more than me. Seeing into me.

“You,” he croaked, voice hoarse from months of atrophy. “You’ve finally come.”

I jerked backward, yanking my arm as I tried and failed to escape his hold. “No—I’m sorry. I—please, let me go.”

“They told me you would come for me.”

“What? Who?”

“They told me your blood would shatter our stone and lay waste to our borders.”

I shushed him, trying to soothe his outburst. The poor man was delusional—lost to hallucinations. “Everything’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you.”

His skin began to light with an unnatural glow. Floating an inch above his head, a circular form took shape—a wispy black ringlet of thorny vines, speckled throughout by twinkling stars, rising to a single peak above his brow. It was a stunning, ethereal thing made not of tangible materials, but of light and shadow itself.

The Crown of Lumnos.

The King gasped, his grip on me tightening. “I am not afraid, Devourer of Crowns. Ravager of Realms. Herald of Vengeance.”

Oh, he was definitely delusional.

I stroked his arm, cooing softly. “Your nephew, Prince Luther—I’ll go get him. Just—let go of my hand, alright?”

Luther,” he breathed. Brighter and brighter he blazed, like the final flare of a dying star. His eyes bulged wide, the vivid color of his irises dulling to a muted, dusky smoke.

His throat made a strangled noise, and his voice abruptly changed. It sounded older—so much older. Impossibly older.

Unearthly.

And unmistakably… female.

Give him our gift, Daughter of the Forgotten. When the end has come, and the blood has spilled, give our gift to my faithful heir, and tell him this is my command.”

The King’s back arched, his chest rising at a sharp, unnatural angle before collapsing back onto the bed. His hand went limp, finally releasing me from his grasp.

My heart thundered with foreboding unease. I staggered backward and tripped over a nearby chair that sent me crashing to the ground and Brecke’s blade tumbling out of its sheath and clattering across the stone floor. I grabbed it and clutched it defensively in front of me.

The King took a shuddering breath—a rattling, punchy exhale, the kind I’d only ever heard when death was imminent.

The glow faded from his skin, along with what little color he had left. His pallor turned ashen, his expression contorted in agony, mouth fixed wide in a silent scream.

“Blessed Kindred, what did you do?”

One of the guards now stood in the open doorway. His horrified gaze jumped between me and the King.

Oh, this is bad.

“Nothing,” I said quickly, scrambling to my feet. “It—it happens sometimes. When death is near, they can—”

“What’s going on here?”

Luther’s voice.

So bad. So, so bad.

He and two more guards appeared in the main salon, staring at my hands.

My quivering hands, clinging to a Fortosian steel dagger with white-knuckled fear.

To someone who had just walked in, it surely looked like I’d been about to do something evil. Something treasonous.

“Nothing happened,” I protested. “Nothing. He just—it was nothing.”

Luther pushed his way past the guards to Ulther’s side. He took one look at the King’s pained expression, then yanked back the blankets and searched his body for wounds.

“I didn’t hurt him,” I blurted out. “Your guard surprised me, that’s all.”

“I heard voices,” the guard cut in. “There was yelling and a struggle.” He pointed to the overturned chair at my feet and glared at me.

“A struggle?” I shook my head frantically. “I swear, I didn’t do anything!”

I shot Luther a pleading look, but the dark suspicion I’d seen the night before at the armory had reappeared in his eyes.

The worst part of it all was that it hurt. He had no reason to believe me—plenty of reason not to, in fact—but in that moment, seeing Luther glare at me like I’d murdered a defenseless, dying man felt like he had been the one to drive a blade into my chest. For a moment, just a moment, I’d stupidly believed we might have been something like friends.

My throat burned, and I hated myself for it.

I channeled my hurt into ire, hiding my wounded heart behind a scowl. “I didn’t even want to be here. You begged me to come, remember?”

No one spoke.

Luther silently finished checking the King’s body as I glared at the wall, blinking rapidly to fight back the emotions squeezing at my chest. Once satisfied the King was unharmed, Luther paused. His features pinched as he started toward me.

“Diem—”

“That’s Miss Bellator to you,” I snapped, still refusing to meet his eyes. “Arrest me or let me leave. I don’t want anything to do with this palace or anyone in it ever again.”

A long beat of silence passed.

“You’re free to go,” he said quietly.

I shoved past him and out of the room, storming through the long corridors. At the sound of his footsteps echoing behind me, I had to fight the instinct to run, settling for a hurried jog down the winding staircase of the foyer, two steps at a time.

As I approached the main entry, I caught the eye of the guard I’d brought to his knees on my first formal visit. He took one look at the knife still clutched in my hand and stepped toward me with a vengeful sneer.

“Touch her, and I’ll rip off your fucking arms.”

His face paled at the boom of Luther’s voice across the marble foyer. The guard’s gaze flicked over my shoulder, then back to me. He shrank back to his post, but if his glare had been a weapon, my entrails would have been decorating the chandelier above our heads.

My furious pace continued outside and down the entryway steps. Even the splash of crisp morning air couldn’t soothe the simmering eruption barely contained beneath my skin.

My heart felt raw in a way I didn’t understand. Why should I care what Luther thought of me? He was a Descended, and the Descended were my enemies. Just because I wasn’t ready to slaughter them in cold blood like the Guardians didn’t mean we could ever be allies.

It certainly didn’t mean we could ever be something more.

I slammed the door on that thought as hard as I could. I needed to get far away from here and never, ever come back.

I broke into a run, flying past the palace gates and down the secluded pebbled path that led along the walls of the royal grounds toward Mortal City. I was nearly to the main road when Luther’s voice rang out behind me.

“Diem, wait.”

“You don’t get to call me that,” I snapped, refusing to slow.

“Will you please stop running?”

“Go freeze in hell.”

A hand closed around my wrist and pulled.

The abrupt change in momentum jerked me back, crashing me into his chest as our paths collided. My muscles moved in a contradiction of training and instinct, one hand raising the knife between us while the other clutched onto him as my balance wobbled backward. Luther’s arm curled around my waist, tucking me securely against him.

A million angry words shot to my lips, then vanished at the press of his hand low on my spine.

“Five minutes, Diem. Give me that much.”

He was breathing too heavy—we both were, our chests brushing with every rise.

I masked my fluster with a withering glare. “I said you don’t get to call me that.”

His lips hooked up. “Then I guess we’re both bad at following orders.” He glanced at the dagger hovering near his neck. “Are you going to put that away?”

“Oh, I think it’s fine right where it is.” I matched his smirk, mine considerably colder. “A girl can’t be too careful. There’s all manner of monsters in this part of town.”

His eyes gleamed. “You have no idea.”

I tried to pull away, but he matched every step I yielded until my back flattened against the high stone wall. He arched his neck forward, jaw rising to allow the blade’s edge to brush the vulnerable flesh of his throat as the thrill of a challenge lit up his face.

I scowled and forced my hand to hold its ground. “If this is your apology, it’s a strange way to do it.”

“I didn’t come here to apologize. Of course I suspected you. Can you blame me?”

No, I couldn’t—not really. Not when I’d even doubted myself.

“It would be an insult to dismiss you so easily, and I wouldn’t dare do you that disrespect. I recognize a threat when I see one.” His gaze roamed a languid path down my body, his assessing stare making me feel as thoroughly touched and as intimately exposed as the day he’d searched me for weapons. “And you’re as dangerous as they come.”

“Then why are you here, Luther?”

His eyes snapped back to mine, his lips parting, but he didn’t answer.

I could take his life in an instant. A single twitch of my wrist, and three inches of Fortosian steel would slice his most crucial artery wide open. A gruesome, messy death, but a quick one. Too quick for even his Descended healing to save him. On this isolated path where few had reason to travel, his body might not be found for hours, maybe days. By then, all trace of me would be long gone.

And yet…

The way he studied me with such fixation, riveted by my every movement, my every breath. The way his hold on me greedily tightened, even though the muscled barrier of his body left nowhere else for me to go. The way every time I blinked, his face seemed closer. Closer. Closer.

Even holding his life in my hands, I felt less like the predator than the prey.

“If you think I’m such a threat,” I said, the huskiness of my voice revealing more than I’d intended, “perhaps I should take you out now while I have the chance. Kill you before you kill me.”

“Do it,” he said, no trace of hesitation.

He lowered his head, forcing the knife’s honed edge into his flesh before I could stop it. My breath hitched as a trickle of warm liquid slid over my fingers.

Luther didn’t even flinch.

“You think I fear my own death?” he whispered in my ear. “Every day I draw breath is as much a curse as a gift. I’ve been living on borrowed time for longer than you can imagine. If you’re the way my fate finally catches up to me, I can’t fathom a more beautiful end.”

Though his tone was harsh with challenge, there was a raw kind of pain beneath his words, a wounded beast howling to be seen.

“Do it,” he said again. “Kill me, if that’s what you think I deserve. But if you do, give me one favor before I go.”

His pulse throbbed against my blood-soaked hand, his heartbeat racing to match my own.

“Favor?” I managed to ask, despite the heady fog clouding my thoughts.

Without pulling away from my dagger, he turned his face, hot breath spilling over my cheek as his mouth trailed the line of my jaw. His eyes rose to mine. “Let me die with the taste of you on my lips.”

Our lips collided, and I was lost.

Lost in the grip of his strong, rough hand as it rose to gently cup my face. Lost in the palm skating down my back, over my hips, along my thigh. Lost in the rumble that vibrated from his throat, rippling through the blood that slicked my fingers.

Lost in the sweep of his tongue as he savored me, slowly and deliberately, like the most decadent dessert—like the last wish of a dying man.

Lost in the roll of his hips between my legs, and the hardness that pressed between us.

Lost in the way I hungrily arched to meet it.

I didn’t even realize I’d dropped the knife until my hands were on him, roaming his body, tangling in his hair. A breathy moan slipped free from my lips, and the sound of it goaded him on, my back crushing against the stone as he wrapped me in his arms.

I’d never been kissed like this before. I’d never even known this was what a kiss could be.

And that scared me even more than a blade to the throat.

Adrenaline set my veins alight. I fumbled for my training, racking my brain for some pertinent lesson on how to fight off an enemy you couldn’t seem to resist, but the only words of my father’s that surfaced were utterly useless and horrifyingly mad: The truth is that I just knew.

With more effort than I was ready to confess, I slid my palms to Luther’s chest and shoved him back.

“I don’t know who you think I am,” I panted as I tried to piece my anger back together from its shattered fragments. “There are plenty of people in Mortal City who will happily spread their legs for a rich Descended suitor, but I am not one of them.”

He couldn’t have looked more disgusted if he tried. “That’s what you think this is? Is your opinion of me truly so low?”

Something dark passed over his face. I forced my attention away—down to the bloody handprints coating his chest, his arms, his jaw, their scarlet streaks following the line of his scar.

“How should I know?” I said, shrugging like it meant nothing. Like that kiss—that fucking kiss—had meant nothing. “You’re practically a stranger. You’ve never shown me any side of you that’s real.”

He fell preternaturally still. Any remaining shards of his icy veneer melted away under the heat of his rising temper, that blazing soul of his now burning beautifully, fearsomely unchecked.

The realization hit me like a punch to the gut. All this time, I’d dismissed Luther as someone ice-cold and heartless, too frosty to feel anything true.

But Luther wasn’t cold at all.

Luther was an inferno.

Looking at him now was like staring in a mirror in the worst kind of way. I hid behind false bravado and snarky jokes, while Luther’s shield was forged with brooding stares and clenched jaws—but inside, we were one and the same.

Inside, we rattled the bars keeping us trapped in lives we didn’t choose. Inside, we roared with an insatiable craving for more. Inside, we paced and we planned and we waited.

Inside, we burned.

“You know, Diem,” he growled, “I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about you, wondering if you’re the best liar I’ve ever met or the worst. I think I finally know the answer.” He placed his palms flat against the wall, ensnaring me between his arms. “The only person you’re good at lying to is yourself.”

My anger forged back together with a sizzling crack. “How dare y—”

“Tell me you don’t feel it.” Sapphire sparks ignited in his gaze as the energy surrounding us fluttered in a matching rhythm. “Look me in the eyes, and tell me you don’t feel my magic.”

Though no trace of ghostly light or deadly shadow spilled from his hands, I might as well have been drowning in it. The hum of his magic was a sword swung in the darkness, an ominous storm you couldn’t yet see but felt brewing in the wind. It was everywhere and nowhere, infusing the very air itself, holding me in its grasp and caressing my skin like a thousand hands.

The voice in my chest purred in recognition.

“Go ahead,” he breathed. “Lie to me. I already know the answer. I know you feel my power.” His chin rose, our lips so very, very close. “Because I can feel yours, too.”

No.

No.

He smirked. “You’re no more mortal than I am.”

“No,” I whispered. Argued. Bellowed. Begged. “You’re wrong. You’re—you’re mistaken.”

“Diem, if you’re scared of the progeny laws—”

“I’m not scared. You’re just… wrong. I feel nothing, and neither do you.”

He pulled back enough to meet my panicked stare, his disappointment so thick I could almost taste it—sour and long since spoiled. With a heavy sigh and sinking shoulders, he stepped away, letting his hands fall to his sides.

“If that’s what you really want,” he said quietly. Sadly.

What you really want

There was so much I wanted. So gods-damned much. So much I couldn’t have—not without risking everyone and everything I loved. Not without sacrificing myself in the process. But how could someone like Luther ever understand that?

“I… I have to go,” I stammered. “My family…”

His head dipped. “You should know I won’t enforce your mother’s bargain. That’s between her and me. It’s not your burden to bear.”

“But my brother—”

“It’s not his burden, either. He can finish his schooling—I’ll make sure of it.”

Something ached in my chest.

I should have been glad to hear it. Instead, I felt… confused. Too raw and brutally laid-bare. He’d stolen all my certainty with his lips, and now the only thing left of me were questions I wasn’t strong enough to answer.

I couldn’t seem to force myself to leave—and neither could his magic. The tendrils of his potent presence wound around my limbs and hovered, as if yearning to draw me closer, but holding back.

“Be the palace healer,” he said, his voice rough. “Take the role back from Maura. Not because of your mother or the bargain. Because I’m asking you to. Because I need—”

“I’m quitting my job as a healer,” I blurted out.

I’d known it the second I saw the explosions from my kitchen window, but I hadn’t dared admit it until now. Saying the words aloud made them real. Final.

The expression that gripped his features looked so much like that first morning in the palace, when he’d watched Lily collapse in his arms. “What? Why?”

I couldn’t explain to him what I didn’t entirely understand myself. I was overcome with regret over my broken vows and my role in the Guardians’ attack, but it was about more than that.

Something had shifted in my soul. The wind was changing course, pushing my sails on a new, uncertain path, and though I didn’t know how or why, I felt powerless to stop it.

More than that—I didn’t want to stop it.

“It’s something I have to do for myself.”

“Then… I’m not likely to see you again.”

“No,” I agreed. “Not likely.”

He nodded stiffly, his back straightening. As his magic retreated, its wisps traced the contours of my face, my lashes fluttering at its tender touch. Its warm energy clung to my skin until, at the last possible moment, it fell away.

I took a step back, drawing in a deep breath for what felt like the first time in minutes.

“Goodbye, Prince,” I murmured.

He smiled, and it was the saddest smile I’d ever seen. “Goodbye, Miss Bellator.”

I turned and walked away.

When I was almost out of sight, his voice called out again. “You saw it too, didn’t you?”

I stopped, but I didn’t look back.

“Last night,” he said, “right before the roof collapsed. The vision. The battlefield.”

I couldn’t move, my body paralyzed, my thoughts stunned to stillness.

“What if our story isn’t over, Diem Bellator? What if it’s only beginning?”

Like in the vision, an exquisite ache swelled in the left side of my chest. Without thinking, my hand rose and pressed against it.

I hesitated, then stole a fleeting glance back. Luther’s own palm lay flat below his left shoulder, a plea in his eyes.

I couldn’t give him the answer I knew he wanted. Our worlds were too distant, our goals too aligned with each other’s destruction. If we ever met on a battlefield, surely it was destined to be as enemies, not allies. But there was one olive branch I could offer—a weapon I never should have put into play to begin with.

“There’s a hole in the exterior wall of the palace gardens,” I said. “Hidden under the ivy on the southeast corner. Repair it as soon as you can—today, if possible.”

He nodded, his expression turning stormy once more.

I finally turned my back and ran, feet pounding against the long gravel path to Mortal City. Though I knew from the silence in my wake that he hadn’t followed me, I couldn’t shake the feeling of Luther’s piercing gaze searing into my back every step of the way.

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