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Two Twisted Crowns: Part 3 – Chapter 48

Elm

Ione had told him, the two of them sprinting to the stone chamber, what must come next. Elm stood opposite Hauth, the two of them leveled. One the hunter, and the other the fox who had grown so tired of being hunted, he’d forged his own snare.

The Shepherd King’s blade fit perfectly in Elm’s hand, the engraved hilt stamping itself into the grooves of his palm. It was forged for a tall man, its reach longer than Elm’s Destrier blade. He held it out—the tip hovering over the stone that stood between him and his brother. “He’s a clever man, the Shepherd King,” he murmured. “Strange, but clever. Far more than I.” His gaze narrowed over Hauth. “And certainly more than you.”

Hauth said nothing, unreadable, untouchable.

Elm took a step forward. Rolled his shoulders. “I wasn’t ready before,” he said. “I’m ready now.”

“For what?”

“To be King of Blunder.”

“To change things,” Ione said at his side.

Eyes the color of emeralds measured Elm and Ione. Hauth glanced at the Providence Cards in Ione’s hand, then the rest, spread upon the chamber floor. A low, unfeeling laugh bubbled from his throat. “You think you can unite the Deck? It’ll be midnight in moments—if it hasn’t already passed. For someone so clever, the Shepherd King missed one rather important detail. No one in this room is infected.”

Ione bent, picking up the fallen Providence Cards. Elm stood over her, keeping his sword pointed at his brother’s throat. One by one, Ione placed the Cards on the stone in the heart of the chamber near the gold crown that rested there. “Yet.”

When she placed the Scythe upon the Deck, the muscles in her jaw tightened. “You used this Card for many terrible things, Hauth. And not just for me or Elm.” She lay a finger over it. “The first time I truly understood who you were was when you used your Scythe to send people into the mist without their charms.”

Hauth sneered. “Whatever plot that monster has fed you—he was wrong.” He touched the crown atop his head. “I will die before I give this up. And I will not, brother, for I have the Maiden. I cannot die.

He lunged toward Elm. Caught the Shepherd King’s sword by its blade. Blood seeped through Hauth’s fingers as he held the sword still. With his other hand, he reached—reached—until his fingers wrapped around Elm’s throat.

Elm felt the familiar strength of his brother’s brutish hand. It was the first time in his life he did not tense against it. He held the sword still with one hand and caught Hauth’s wrist with the other, feeling for the horsehair bracelet he knew was there. Elm looked into his brother’s green eyes. Smiled.

And ripped his charm loose.

Hauth’s gaze went wide. He opened his mouth to swear—to scream—

Mist rushed into him.

So strong it burned, the salt in the chamber quickened, cloistering around Hauth. He shook himself, running his hands over his face—his nose and mouth—as if he could drag the mist out of him. He was still beautiful—the mist had done nothing to erase the Maiden’s hold over his body—

But his mind, the Spirit laid claim to. Sunk her teeth into. Hauth’s eyes went glassy, then bloodshot. He fell over himself, hunching upon the stone in the heart of the chamber, twisting and wailing and pinning his ears with his hands, as if he didn’t wish to listen to something wretched only he could hear.

When he reached for his arms—tore at his sleeves—his veins were the color of ink. The infection crept into him on a salt tide, unbidden. Dark, magical, and final.

Elm backed away. When his spine hit Ione’s chest, she wrapped her arms around his middle. Elm watched his brother writhe in the mist. His stylus would never forge this image. But he wanted to watch. Needed to remember.

“Help me,” he whispered to Ione.

She put her hand over his, the two of them bearing the weight of the Shepherd King’s sword. They pulled in a breath at the same time. Then, over the Deck of Cards, they held the tip of the sword against Hauth’s chest—the same place he’d stabbed Ione.

And pressed.

He hardly seemed to notice when the blade pierced his heart. The mist, the Maiden—and an education in pain—had stolen something vital from Hauth Rowan. When his blood spilled, first slow, then in earnest upon the Deck of Providence Cards, saturating the ancient velvet trims, Elm clamped his teeth. Held his breath.

For a terrible moment, nothing happened. Then, one by one, the Providence Cards disappeared.

Hauth kept on thrashing. The Maiden was beginning to heal him, his flesh closing around the blade in his chest. But he was still lost. “No!” he shouted. “No, I will not go!”

Ione began to shake. But her grip on the sword—on Elm—held firm.

On a wretched gasp, Hauth went eerily still, his eyes rolling until they were not green any longer but white, parceled by angry red veins.

When the mist began to pull out of the chamber, it dragged Hauth with it. He ripped his body off the sword and stumbled past Elm and Ione—flung himself out the chamber window. Without a sound, without a final word, the King of Blunder was gone, disappeared—the last casualty to the mist and the Spirit of the Wood’s ravenous snare.

All that was left of him was the crown he’d dropped, a gilded ring of twisted rowan branches, fallen upon the Shepherd King’s grave.

When Elm and Ione looked back at the blood-soaked stone in the heart of the chamber, the Deck of Cards was gone. A chasm had opened in their place. In it, a single, unfamiliar Providence Card, remained.

Ione’s voice broke, tears falling down her face. “We did it.”

Moonlight filled the chamber through the rotted-out ceiling. Elm looked up. Felt his heart expand. The night winter sky, bereft of mist, was a color he didn’t know the name of. Moon, stars—all of them so bright it stole the breath from him, the world around them without tarnish.

Ione wrapped her arms around his middle—tilted her head skyward. “It’s beautiful.”

Elm pulled her hand to his mouth. He was sure the Spirit of the Wood didn’t attend to the meager lives of men. But in that moment, when, after five hundred years, the mist did finally lift and he became King of Blunder, Elm looked up into the night sky. Held Ione Hawthorn close. He knew, in all the rotten, broken pieces of himself, that everything in his life had led to that moment, as if written in the lines of the trees. A crooked, wonderful circle, with his name in the heart of it.

He picked up the Card in the center of the stone. Placed it in his pocket—climbed with Ione out of the chamber. When they stepped into the meadow, the pyres had all burned out. Everything was quiet, the world around them gentle and unmarred.

All but for a trail of crimson blood, leading back toward the castle.


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