Spark of the Everflame: Chapter 8


I knew why I was here.

My mind kicked and thrashed at it, screamed in refusal, even though I knew my defiance was futile. My legs turned south, carrying me down the familiar, dimly lit road. With every step, I whimpered internally, begging to turn around or choose another path.

I knew where my feet would stop before it came into view. I braced for it, held my breath as I rounded the corner. Desperately, I willed my eyes to look away, but the effort was wasted. I’d fought and lost this battle too many times.

Just as it had before, a glimpse of coppery hair captured my gaze. My mother’s back was to me, her body cloaked, facing a towering man in elegant clothing and expensive accessories.

In all the many times I’d had this dream, his face had always been fuzzy and indefinite, like a forgotten word hovering on the tip of my tongue.

This time, he stood out in stark, vivid detail.

Eyes like chips of ice. A knife-sharp jaw. Dark eyebrows that seemed permanently furrowed.

Prince Luther.

My mother’s shoulders were tense, her hands gesturing emphatically. The Prince kept his face close and voice low, eyes narrowed to slits, fists clenched at his sides.

My feet moved again, dragging me out from my hiding spot behind the crates and into the open.

This had never happened before.

I waited for them to spot me, yet somehow, I stayed veiled from their sight. Their voices grew—a whisper, then a murmur, louder and louder until their shouts rang through the alley.

“A bargain was made,” the Prince jeered, his scar twisting with his irate features, “and now the Crown is calling it in.”

“I won’t do it. I won’t serve you.” My mother’s voice sounded peculiar, not entirely her own.

“Foolish woman, it’s far too late. You can’t beat us. You can’t escape us.”

“I’ll leave—I’ll go far away from here where you’ll never find me.”

“Then the boy must pay.”

“No!”

I wasn’t sure if the word came from my mother’s lips or my own.

The Prince’s mouth hooked into a cruel smile. “The Crown is owed a life debt. If you do not fulfill the bargain, the boy must. It’s your life or his.”

I reached out to grab my mother. I had to stop this from happening, had to warn her.

“You or the boy. Who do you choose?”

My hand brushed past her hair to settle on her shoulder. She started to turn, and the Prince snatched her elbow to hold her in place.

“Who do you choose?” he demanded.

I yanked hard, forcing her to heave backward until she finally turned to face me.

Only it wasn’t her at all. It was my mother’s body, her fiery hair, her aged hands—but staring back at me, silver eyes wild with terror, was my own face.

I lurched back. “No,” I whispered, voice shaking.

The Prince gave a dark laugh, quiet at first, until his head fell back and his powerful body shook with the force of it. There was no happiness in the sound, only the vicious satisfaction of a man who knew he’d already won.

“Please,” I begged. “Let us go!”

He sauntered forward until he stood directly in front of me. His shoulders were so broad, his chest so wide, he seemed to blot out the world. Slowly, his hand curled around my throat. He leaned forward until his breath warmed my lips.

“One of you will be mine. Tell me, Diem Bellator—who do you choose?”


I bolted upright and clutched my neck. The brisk night air was a shock to my still-naked body.

The fire had faded to a pool of sparks that cast a faint orange glow across the campsite. In the dying light, Henri’s breaths kept a sleep-soothed rhythm, a marked difference to my own heaving, panicked gulps.

With trembling hands, I crawled out from under the blanket draped across us and fumbled for my clothes before staggering out of the clearing.

I walked deep into the moonlit darkness until the campfire was a distant red blur, and I fell back against the trunk of a towering oak. The heels of my palms pressed against my closed eyes.

The release of sex had been hollow and short-lived. I could already feel tension twining inside me all over again.

The nightmare had rattled me. I’d relived that afternoon a thousand times over, asleep and awake, until I was no longer sure what parts of my memory were real or imagined. I’d prayed the answer to my mother’s disappearance was somehow hidden in the details, a puzzle I could solve if I only looked closely enough.

The mystery of the Descended man’s identity had been unraveled, at least—but it left utter madness in its wake.

Beware of answered prayers.

I slowly drew the crisp air into my lungs, hoping it would somehow soothe the heat that roiled inside. My attention was broken by the sound of a snapping twig.

I sighed, realizing I must have woken Henri. I pushed off the tree to turn back to the campsite—then froze.

Through the trees, the familiar outline of Henri’s body still lay curled up and sleeping by the fire. Whatever was coming, it wasn’t him.

The crackle of steps over fallen leaves sounded again. Closer.

I spun toward the noise and squinted into the darkness. The waning moon cast just enough of a glow to illuminate the woods, but a breeze jostled the leafy canopy above me, causing the speckled moonlight to dance in a way that camouflaged any movement.

A noise rumbled from the trees—low and distinctly inhuman.

Finally, I saw it. The dark browns and blacks of its body melted seamlessly into the wilderness, but its keen yellow eyes and white-furred snout gave it away. Four large paws moved deftly over the terrain, barely audible over its threatening growl.

My hand instinctively flew to my hip, but instead of finding the cold metal bite of my dagger’s hilt, I grasped empty air. My weapons belt had been ripped off in the moment of passion with Henri and now lay uselessly at the campsite.

To be disarmed is to court death. It was my father’s first lesson, a gift on my eighth birthday along with my first proper weapon, a bone-handled switchblade from his collection that I’d been eying for months. In the years since, many of his lessons had come down to that same crucial foundation: The world will try to disarm you, Diem. Do not let them. By wits or by weapon, be prepared at all times.

And yet, here I stood, barefoot and empty-handed, carrying nothing sharper than my fingernails and rapidly losing a staring contest with a hungry-looking wolf.

If the beast didn’t kill me for my foolishness, my father certainly would.

The animal prowled toward me. Its lips curled back, baring a row of sharp white fangs.

I swore under my breath. I knew enough about survival to not turn my back and run, which would only trigger its predatory instincts. I could call out for Henri, but he might not make it in time—or worse, the wolf might turn on him.

The creature moved closer, near enough for me to smell its foul breath as it snarled. The hair on its back stood on end, its tail stiff and horizontal.

Bad signs. Very, very bad signs.

My eyes darted around for a rock or fallen branch, anything I could turn into a weapon, but my search was met with dirt and leaves.

Ice flooded my veins. Was this my fate—some pointless death in the middle of nowhere? Was this all my sad, unimportant life would ever be?

Without warning, the world fell away, just as it had that morning in the royal palace. The moon guttered, trees dissolved into shadow, all sound hushed to a thundering silence.

There was no longer a forest. There was only me, the wolf, and infinite darkness.

Fight.

As the voice inside me purred in anxious anticipation, a burning sensation pricked at my skin. A scalding frost, an impossibly frigid inferno. I looked down to see my hands aglow with a silvery light, my fingers twitching in surprise.

My heart roared in my ears. This was impossible—was I still dreaming?

The wolf’s ears flattened. It crouched on its quivering haunches, falling deadly still as it poised to attack.

Shit. This was no dream. Within seconds, those fangs would be in my throat.

Fight.

For once, I agreed with the voice’s call.

This was going to hurt, but I would fight back. I would scratch and claw my way to safety, even if I had to do it with my bare hands. I would not leave Maura and my family to the mercy of the Descended.

I refused to let this be my end.

I glared into the beast’s amber eyes and felt an unexpected flicker of shared understanding. Its ravenous hunger gnawed at my stomach as clearly as if it were my own.

Suddenly, it launched off its hind legs and sprang toward me. I raised my hands to protect my vulnerable neck, eyes squeezing closed as I anticipated the impact.

Destroy.

A blinding flash glowed red through my clenched eyelids. A yelp—followed by a soft hiss.

Then deafening quiet.

The acrid stink of singed fur burned the inside of my nose. I dared to open my eyes.

Hanging in the air was a cloud of ash, a million particles floating like delicate snow to dust the glittering black stone fragments now scattered along the forest floor.

The wolf was gone.

No. Impossible.

The wolf had been right there. I had seen it, I’d smelled it.

I looked down at my hands again. They still shone with that same bizarre light, now fainter and fading fast.

Understanding crashed into me. I had felt these things once before in my life, a long time ago. A time I’d tried desperately to forget.

I sprinted back to the campsite and tumbled to my knees in front of my pack.

“Diem?” Henri called out groggily. “Is everything alright?”

I ignored him as I ransacked my belongings, growing more and more frantic. “Where is it?” I muttered to myself. “Come on—please be here.”

Frustrated, I turned the bag over until the contents scattered over the forest floor. It was an avalanche of food, weapons, undergarments, books—everything but the one thing I needed.

“Diem, what are you looking for?”

I couldn’t answer. I didn’t trust myself—didn’t trust him. Didn’t trust the moon above my head or the soil beneath my feet. If my theory was right, nothing was safe from its touch.

I turned over every item, murmuring where is it in an increasingly rabid chant. I untied the small suede pouch of medicinal supplies I’d brought along, hoping I’d placed it inside, but the vial was nowhere to be found.

The weight of Henri’s hand on my shoulder startled me. He gave it a warm, firm squeeze.

Real—that was real.

His touch felt like an anchor, a heavy weight that sank through the tempestuous sea of my panic and lodged me in solid ground.

But it was something else stuck in a bed of sand under the rolling waves that consumed me—the jars of flameroot I’d hurled into the Sacred Sea. Even the spare dose I normally kept in my satchel was gone.

“No!” I couldn’t stop shouting it. Maybe if I said it enough times, it would be true. “No, no, no, no…”

My entire body trembled violently. What was I thinking? A few weeks without symptoms, and I’d believed myself cured forever? I’d been so unforgivably hasty.

The part of my brain that belonged to a calm, professional healer tried to tell me that I was in shock, too much adrenaline going one way and too little blood going the other. My wiser conscience pleaded with me to lie down and breathe, but every movement felt too far outside of my control.

If my fears were right—oh gods, if this was true…

Henri kneeled beside me. “Diem, talk to me. What’s going on?”

“My powder.” My voice came out scratchy, fractured. “I—I need my powder.”

Bless the Undying Fire, he knew what I meant. Henri was the only person outside my family that I’d ever told about the flameroot. Even Maura didn’t know—another choice my mother had insisted on but refused to explain.

“I’ll help you look. Calm down, it’ll be alright.”

I couldn’t seem to choke the words out that looking was useless. I’d destroyed my only supply, and with my mother gone, I had no way of ever replenishing it.

Henri stoked the fire so the light of the flames spilled across the campsite, then returned to my side. He gently turned over my belongings as he searched, but his eyes lingered on me. “I thought you decided to stop taking it?”

Some haunted reaction must have commandeered my face. He immediately stilled.

“Diem, tell me what happened.”

“I had a hallucination. Like… like before. Like when I was young.”

He set down the items in his hands and leaned back on his heels. “What did you see?”

“There was… I saw an animal. Attacking me. I thought it was going to kill me. And then I—my hands… there was this light, and I—”

“What kind of animal?” His head was angled slightly, like he was trying to puzzle something out.

Why does that matter, I wanted to scream. I’m losing my mind, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.

“A wolf,” I gritted out. “It lunged at me, and then I—”

“Diem.” The word struck me like a command, demanding my silence. His shoulders dropped. “That wasn’t a hallucination.”

My head was still shaking, though I wasn’t sure if it was from shock or denial. “No. No, it couldn’t have been real. My hands—”

“I saw it, too. Well, I didn’t see it, but I heard it growling. The sound of it woke me up.”

Everything paused.

“You did?” My voice came out strangled. “You’re sure?”

He laughed, the sound clearly born of nervous relief rather than amusement. He reached over and took my hands. “Yes, I’m sure. You didn’t imagine it.”

So the wolf had been real. But if the wolf was real, then the rest of it had to be real, too. And what I’d done to the wolf…

“But, Henri… it lunged at me, and then—then it was just… gone. I think I… it almost felt like I’d—”

“You must have scared it off. You know how skittish wild animals can be around humans.”

I stared at him, jaw hanging open. “But… if it was real—”

“By the Flames, Diem, you scared the life out of me.” He laughed again, scrubbing at his face. He rose to his feet and pulled me up to join him. One arm snaked around me and tucked me in tight against his waist, his other hand stroking my hair. “This is exactly why I wanted you to come on this trip. You’ve been under so much pressure lately. I knew eventually you were going to snap under the weight of it all.”

I nodded weakly and looked down to hide the scarlet flush on my cheeks.

Maybe he was right—maybe there’d been no strange sensation, no glow, no cloud of ash, no body burned out of existence. Maybe I’d simply been so rattled by the events of the past few days that the old fears of my youth had stirred from years of hibernation.

Henri squeezed me reassuringly before pulling back. “Come on, let’s get some sleep. Dawn is still hours away.”

As he turned, the glimmering embers of the campfire illuminated his muscled back. In his sleep-dazed rush to get to me, he’d left his shirt behind. My eyes caught on a patch of black ink on his shoulder.

A gnarled tree, with leaves of flame, inset in a circlet of vines—the sacred Everflame, the Tree of Life and Death.

According to the old mortal religion, all life began as sparks from the Everflame that fell to the earth as glowing seeds. At death, those found worthy by the Old Gods would be placed among its burning branches, where their earthly bodies would turn to ash but their souls would remain forever warmed by the Undying Fire. Those found unworthy were doomed to an eternity in a cold hell encased in ice, far from the Everflame’s redeeming heat.

Though some mortals still clung in secret to the ancient faith, all references to the Everflame and the Old Gods were now outlawed across the nine realms. I’d only ever seen them in the old mortal books my mother collected—the one law she’d always been happy to flagrantly disobey.

My hand rose to Henri’s back, fingertips tracing the dark lines etched into his skin. “When did you get this?”

He tensed and recoiled from my touch. “A few months ago.”

He offered no further explanation as he grabbed his tunic and threw it hastily over his head.

“Why?” I asked.

“To honor the Old Gods.”

“Do you know what the Descended would do to you if they saw it?”

“I don’t care.”

“Henri, they’d flay the skin right off your back.”

“Let them try.”

His bitter tone sent a chill rippling down my spine.

Before I could argue, he pulled me into his arms and crushed me with an eager kiss. His lips were rough and hungry, nothing like the sweet, gentle kisses of last night.

I gave a few halfhearted protests, my mind still reeling, but after being so overwhelmed by a whiplash of emotions, the simple ease of lust was a welcome reprieve. Desire won out, and we tumbled back out of our clothes and into night’s sensual embrace.

Crouched in the shadows, watching and waiting from afar, were the memories of a missing mother, a dangerous Prince, and a cloud of ash that had once been a snarling wolf.

Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset