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The Ever King: Chapter 4

The Serpent

Screams of anguish—of true agony—produced a twisted delight deep in my bones.

The kind that heated the blood, raced the heart, drew me back for more, again and again. No mistake, the sounds seemed to be the only way I could feel that euphoria, the thing folk called joy, anymore.

There was power that came when a village careened into a frenzy at the mere sight of black bone hulls, sharp spikes like the spines on a sea serpent, and bloody sails. The heady taste of panic and fear and pleading had become my purpose.

Tonight went differently, and it was damn aggravating.

Flames danced across the walls of the neatly aligned wood and wattle cottages. Heat burst out the windows, and smoke and ash soaked the alleyways of the dwellings all the way to the hills.

A winding, cobbled road curved around the steepest hillside where the lord of the Rusa township built his manor and all its sharp peaks.

I looked forward to watching it burn.

By now, the melodic tune of screams and terror ought to be shattering the silence of the night. There were a few sobs, a wail or two, but the folk of Rusa, when the black hull of the ship sliced through the sea surface, submitted as though they’d anticipated the attack.

From my position on the deck, I could make out the main square of the village, an open place made of dark polished stone like night trapped in glass. Countless villagers huddled with their pitiful families. Dressed in night clothes, littles sniffled and clung to their mothers. Fathers had chins lifted, no mistake waiting for the knife to the throat when the threat hadn’t even been made yet.

My grip on the rail tightened until each knuckle ached. I didn’t know if I was more irritated that they did what I would’ve commanded before I commanded it, or that each man seemed so resigned, so at peace, with his fate.

There was nothing delightful about cutting a man down when he was already on his damn knees. The chase, the fight, the knowledge that you overpowered a foe, was half the excitement.

On deck, two of my crew held a half-naked man between them. I dragged two fingers across the brim of the tricorn hat atop my head and pulled it off, revealing the black scarf that always covered my skull when I stood aboard the ship.

The scar cutting through my lip went taut when I curved one side of my mouth. “Lord Murdo.”

Both points of the man’s ears had been sliced. The slight blue-cream shade to his skin was darkened in blood. He lifted his head with effort and met my eyes. “My K-King.”

I curled one hand under his bearded chin. “Your King? Is that what I am?”

“Yes,” he said, breathless.

“Hmm.” With care to hide the bite of pain in my left leg, I lowered to one knee until we were nose to nose. There it was. Gods, the fear flashed vibrantly in the dull gold of his eyes. Without care for the gashes on his scalp, I slammed the tricorn onto his head. “What I think, is you wanted this for yourself.”

Murdo’s forehead wrinkled. “No, My Lord.”

“Oh, I think you did. Why else would you be so foolish to steal from your king?”

“I swear to you, I did no such thing.”

From the back quarters of the ship, Larsson, my second in command, stepped onto the deck. He always seemed ready to laugh through the violence. This moment was no exception. A wry grin played on his mouth, and the slight glow of gold in his dark eyes was bright with excitement.

Beside Larsson stood a stoic man, hair like fire, and ears pierced in blue stones from lobe to the sharp tip. For a moment I reveled in Murdo’s twisted glare from the betrayal.

“I don’t believe you, since your bastard sold you out.” I leaned forward, lips against his ear, and whispered, “Pity your son hates you.”

“Athol, you traitorous—”

A closed fist slammed into Murdo’s jaw, silencing him.

I glared over the man’s head at the masked face, hidden beneath a hood. Celine gave me a one-shouldered shrug in return. She was dressed in a thick tunic, topped with a woolen coat that hit her thighs. No one at first glance would know a woman was beneath it all. She preferred it that way.

Folk of the Ever always underestimated females. Her twisted delight came in revealing herself before she drew her blade. To end a man with the look of stun still on his face kept Celine grinning for weeks.

“Athol has brains, unlike you, Murdo.” I clenched my teeth as I stood, careful not to show the fire of pain in the bones of my weak leg. A glimpse of weakness, and I’d be dealing with nothing but assassins come to slaughter their pitiful king. “You took what did not belong to you, and it truly makes me dream of what my blade would look like sticking out of your eye socket.”

Murdo blanched. “The witch . . . she needed a cherished possession of . . .”

“Of what?” I folded my arms over my chest. “Don’t stop there, keep talking. Whose possession did you need?”

“The king’s.”

“That’s right. The king.” I gripped his hair and wrenched his head back until he met my gaze. “You were duped by a half-wit spell caster. You think the lady of the House of Mists has not used her fiercest witches to heal this land? You think you will be the one to do it?”

“What choice do we have, My King? You might control the Ever Sea, but you don’t know how to heal it either. Like you, we’re all trapped in this dying land. Forgive me for not being willing to give up just yet.”

I didn’t need to look to know the rot was there. Deadened forests covered half the Rusa isles. Charred foliage, fruit trees, and crops were brittle and worthless. Even some of the springs and coves in the distant isles had darkened, spilling out decaying fish and eels, unfit to eat.

Rusa was not the first to be claimed by the poison.

I wanted Murdo’s tongue, but only because he spoke the truth. Turns after earth fae sealed off the Chasm, something had shifted in the Ever Kingdom. An imbalance grew between worlds, and a poison took root.

I’d hunted for answers, pillaged and thieved for lore and artifacts. The only hope for healing I had left was the power gifted to the former king by the most powerful of sea witches. A gift that strengthened the Ever King, and what I needed now was more damn power.

The lost mantle of my father was a talisman with power unmatched, meant to be used by the true Ever King.

The trouble was I could not reach it. A price was placed upon such a gift. Should it be lost, the mantle could not be taken back for ten turns. A punishment for being foolish enough to lose the gift of a sea witch, I supposed. The earth fae had now owned my father’s power for twenty.

Ten turns ago, the opportunity to challenge had been there, and I let it slide through my fingers by making a different choice. A choice that now led to the destruction of my own kingdom.

Another tenth turn was about to fade away, and I still had no way to open the damn Chasm.

My people knew my father’s mantle had been conquered by the earth bender king. It wouldn’t take much to count the turns and realize the chance to take it back was ending. I wasn’t surprised they’d gone to such lengths to find a way to heal what was dying.

Unsurprised, but it didn’t mean I needed to be merciful for the betrayal.

Murdo spit blood at my feet. “When our king leaves us to destruction, the desperate will do anything. Perhaps a new king might finally return the Ever to its former glory.”

“You could be right, Murdo. But we’ll never know.” I’d learned quickly how to fight with a weak limb and have a weapon in hand before an enemy even noticed. My knife rammed between two of his ribs. There were the screams I craved. Hand on the hilt of the bone knife, I leaned close. “We’ll never know, for you cannot take what is mine by right, by blood, and by destiny.”

I yanked the knife out of his ribs. The old lord spluttered and gasped. Close to his face, I dragged my tongue along the blade, letting the tang of his blood drip from my lips, down my chin.

With the point of one slightly elongated canine, I pricked my finger until a bead of blood surfaced. Murdo’s skin paled.

“Swear your fealty, Murdo, and you won’t greet the Otherworld today.”

The lord sucked in a sharp breath and nodded. He clutched his side and maneuvered to his knees again. A gasp of pain scraped from his throat when he bent forward and pressed a kiss to the toe of my boot.

I chuckled, low and harsh, then kicked my foot up, knocking his teeth. Blood slicked the top of my finger now. I crouched, failing to hide my own grimace, and hovered my palm near Murdo’s wound.

“I accept your vow.” Through the hole in his side, I jabbed my bloody finger. The bastard roared in pain when I twisted and scraped more than was needed. Convinced enough of my blood had tangled with his, I stood.

Murdo let out a few gasps, head on the deck.

When silence surrounded us, a groove gathered between his brows. “M-My King?” He stammered the words like a question, waiting. Already the veins of crimson snaked from his wound, coiling around his belly, up his ribcage, aimed at his heart. He convulsed. “King Erik . . . p-p-please.”

“Did you expect me to sing?” I tilted his head. “I wonder why. I don’t save traitors.”

Spittle and blood foamed at Murdo’s mouth. His eyes grew wet and glassy as his body twitched from the poison of my blood. I’d earned the name Bloodsinger at a tiny four turns when my father tested the magic of his heir.

In the worst of ways, I’d discovered exactly what my blood could do.

A simple song from me would save Murdo. But with silence, my blood would fester and destroy his insides until his heart gave out. I didn’t utter a sound, and returned my fallen tricorn to my head, adjusting it low on my brow. Like an insignificant piece of the deck, I stepped over Murdo’s body and strode for the gangplank leading to the shore.

“You going on land?” Celine’s twittery voice was muffled beneath her mask.

“You found it?”

“We did.”

“Then I am going to retrieve it.” With a jerk of my head, I gestured at Athol. “See to it he understands what happens if he follows his father’s footsteps.”

Halfway down the plank, another form came to my side. I clenched my fists. “I don’t need you to guard me, cousin.”

Tait, my obligated first in command, didn’t move away. Half a head taller, Tait was built like a shield, broad and thick. We shared the same bronze-brown skin, but Tait’s hair was dark as shadows and fell over his shoulders. Mine was like the soil underfoot and shorter. The scarf on my head kept it free of my eyes, but the scars on the back of my neck reddened with irritation when my hair grew too long.

There was little love between the two of us. Harald, his father, had seen to it what affection we once had as small boys was slaughtered through harsh treatment and forced distance.

No doubt, Tait suspected I was the one behind the death of his father. He’d be right, and I was convinced he didn’t press me on it out of fear I’d do the same to him.

Again, he’d likely be right.

“Where is it?” I snapped.

Tait lifted a beringed finger, pointing at a woman who clung to a girl, no older than twelve. “Their alchemist was to make an herb poultice with it.”

On our approach, the mother shifted in front of the child. Folk of Rusa all shared the pale skin, a shade of ivory, some nearer to slate. The flames reflected off every tone like glass.

“You must be the alchemist of the isles?”

The woman’s chin trembled. “Yes, My Lord.”

I smirked, flashing the bloodied tooth in my mouth. One knuckle dragged down her cheek. She closed her eyes and whimpered when I gripped the back of her neck and drew her face close. “I hear you have something of mine, love.”

“We d-didn’t know, My King.”

“I believe you. Hand it over.”

“Halle,” the alchemist woman said gently. “Yes, come here, my girl. Return it to the king.”

The young girl fluttered her dark lashes. Bleary eyes locked on mine, but slowly she handed over the silver charm. She was terrified, so small. Somewhere, buried deep, there was a desire to sympathize with her fear. I’d been a frightened boy once. But turns of learning how dangerous the heart could be kept any tenderness for the child where it belonged—locked away where I couldn’t reach it.

My instinct was to snatch the silver bird away and shove it into my belt, safe from anyone touching it again, but I kept my movements controlled. Calm.

My fingers curled around the old twine. Many times, it could’ve been replaced with gold or silver chains, but I’d kept it the same itchy string from that night so long ago. I bent a little lower and tucked the girl’s hair behind one ear. “You have my thanks, my lady.”

She bowed her head. “Please, d-don’t punish my mam. We thought we had it as your gift to melt down for the poultice.”

I hummed, inspecting the edge of the small bird’s wingspan. “This little charm caused a great deal of strife, didn’t it?” I pinched the charm between my fingers and held it close to her face. “Truth is, I’d give up half my palace to get this back.”

Tears lined her lashes. “We didn’t know, swear it. Please f-f-forgive us.”

“Afraid it’s not up to me, love.” I took a long step away from the girl and lifted my voice over the crackle and snap of fire devouring their homes. “You claim to be my people, yet you have been disloyal and untrusting. Have I not offered refuge in the royal city with me?”

I slammed a fist into my chest. “I have opened my gates to every realm, every land where the darkening is fiercest. Yet, you stay, and seek out your own ways to take my throne, my crown, by thieving from your king. I think the worst part of this whole ordeal is that you thought I wouldn’t find you. I always find out.”

I snapped my fingers and one of the crewmen tossed a burlap sack. It landed at my feet. Without dropping my gaze from the girl, I reached for the sack.

The girl shrieked and buried her face in her mother’s shoulder when I removed the dried, decaying head by the hair.

“I’ve come to return your false sea witch.” I tossed the head into the crowd. Folk spluttered and hurried away when it dropped with a wet thud. “She lied to you and took your coin. Now, your village is in ruin, and your lord is dead.

“But I’m not without mercy. There are some still loyal to your king here. Lord Athol is now your man. He shall decide who is loyal enough to join him on your upcoming journey to the royal city, and who is not. I leave your fate in his hands.”

Athol abandoned the ship and sneered at the people of the isles. They stared at Murdo’s second son with trepidation. Tait remained behind to give Athol his instructions on bringing folk into the royal city by the next high tide.

They couldn’t stay here, not with the darkening spoiling their land.

A cinch built in my chest, almost like guilt, at having failed another realm. The way to end this rot seemed like it was right there within my grasp, yet it always slipped through my fingers and tossed me back a hundred paces whenever another realm was abandoned.

Celine met me by the gangplank. She’d removed her mask, and her full lips cut into a smirk, showing off her white teeth against her brown skin. She dragged her fingers over a straight, pink scar across the center of her throat, like it was a comfort through the tension. “You know,” she began, “that Athol bastard has a vendetta against half the village.”

I shrugged and rubbed my left thigh. “That will be their problem. They ought to learn how to plead for his mercy swiftly.”

“Well, are you satisfied now that you have your precious bird back?”

Celine mocked me often about my charm. She was the only one who could and get away with it. She could taunt all she wanted, I’d still cling to the bird. An untamed obsession.

I dragged my nose along the silver wings, imagining her scent buried in the metal. Someday, I vowed to destroy my enemy, but another, darker side, wanted to destroy his heir in a different way. Devour her like the serpent from the story she once told.

I wanted nothing more than to tear through the walls, shatter her world, then take what was left of her.

As though my thoughts summoned my twisted desires, the tide slithered higher onto the shore, soaking my boot. Celine was chattering on about our journey home, words I couldn’t take in any longer. My blood sparked with a jolt of something . . . familiar.

The rune mark on my arm prickled like flames licked across my skin. I tugged on my sleeve and had to bite my damn lip to choke back a shout of surprise. The ridges of the cursed mark had deepened to rich crimson, dark enough it almost looked black.

Not possible.

Without a thought for my anguished muscles and bones, I dropped to the water’s edge, dipped two fingers into the sea, then lifted them to my tongue. Savory and salty, but beneath it all was . . .

“Celine, there is blood in the water.”

“A few folk have died tonight.” Celine arched a brow.

“No.” I tasted the water again. A twist knotted my insides, an insatiable pull toward the shadows of the deeper Ever Sea where currents led the Chasm. “My blood.”

“Yours?” Her eyes widened. “Your blood was used to . . . seal the barriers. If it’s filling the sea then . . .”

I hesitated, took another breath, as if giving time for the sensation to die like a cruel trick. The pull never faded. “The Chasm has been opened. I feel it.”

Celine drew in a sharp breath. “Erik, don’t taunt me with this. Are you speaking true?”

I wheeled on her, teeth bared. “Would I lie about this? Gather the crew. We’re leaving.”

“By the damn gods.” Celine fanned her face. “It’s happening. Really happening. Okay. Okay. Tait, you swab, get back here!”

I stormed up the gangplank, shoved through a few crewmen cleaning the deck of Murdo’s body, and took the five steps to the helm two at a time.

“Where to, My King?” Larsson leaned over the rail of the steps. Beneath the bloody red shade of the scarf over his skull, his dark hair blew about his face.

I touched the jagged handles on the helm and the ship shuddered beneath the connection. Gusts of cool wind picked up the sails.

The corner of my mouth twisted into a grin. “To the place songbirds sing.”


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