“Luella!” he presses, worry contrasting with the frustration in his voice.
“Harrow was using glimmer,” I blurt.
“What?” The white fights to consume Eldas’s eyes as his lids hold themselves painfully open. “How would you—”
“He told me,” I say quickly. Then nerves and fear prompt me to speak even faster. I rush to tell Eldas of what I saw in the alleyway—what I suspect was glimmer changing hands to Aria from a fae accomplice. Of what Harrow told me on his bed and his confusion of how he’d become addicted to the substance he’d never meant to take in the first place. My theory of Aria using it to lure Harrow here, alone.
“They were planning this… Going after you that day was nothing more than an unexpected opportunity. That was why their kidnapping attempt seemed so haphazard. It was a crime of convenience. But the real plot was Harrow all along because the fae instigators knew they had a woman who had his ear,” Eldas seethes. I hope the rage in his eyes is directed at the fae and not at me, but I’m not certain. “You and I will discuss your choices to keep all this from me in more detail when my brother is safe.”
“Fine.” I want to object that I tried to tell him while respecting my patient’s wishes, but I know this isn’t the time or place. He’s right. Harrow’s safety is priority one right now.
Hook lets out a low whine and we begin following him again. The wolf leads us to a back, forgotten corner of the town. Refuse piles line the wall and fill the air with their stench. Eldas plugs his nose, rearing away. I’ve smelled worse from some rare plants, but the aroma still staggers me.
Somehow, Hook manages to keep the trail through it all and he leads us to a series of boards leaning against the wall—out of sight with the trash piled in front of them. Hook scratches and then lets out a low growl. As Eldas and I near, we hear the faint echo of people talking, words indiscernible. Through cracks in the boards, the dark line of a tunnel in the wall is visible.
“Stay here,” he hisses.
“But you need—”
“I do not need you. You are a liability because I can’t allow something to happen to you. And if you had been forthright with me from the beginning, all of this might not have happened,” he snarls at me with rage I didn’t think Eldas could harbor toward me. I stagger back as if he struck me. Yet, even through his anger, his worry and compassion for me shines through. It reminds me that the Eldas I’ve come to know and care for is still the man standing before me. “Stay here, hide, and stay safe with Hook. If something happens to you I’ll be forced to rip apart every fae with my bare hands.”
Before I can say anything else, Eldas pushes the boards aside, steps off into the darkness, and leaves me alone. I grit my teeth. Hook lets out another low whine and scratches.
Images of Eldas ambushed, injured and bleeding, fill my mind. Surely Aria knew he’d come after Harrow? Unless they thought they could get Harrow long away before anyone realized? These thoughts swirl around the image of Harrow, drugged to the point of incoherency.
I meet Hook’s luminescent golden eyes.
“What would you do?” I whisper. The wolf looks back to the hole in the wall. “If you insist, I can’t argue with that.”
I fish in my bag for a sprig of briar. I picked the plants I took from the gardens at Westwatch carefully. Every one for a different reason, based on the insights of a past queen. For weeks I’ve been reading and practicing their written methods.
The memory of my last attack lingers. I wasn’t confident with my magic then. I needed Hook and Eldas to stand a chance. But I’m not the same woman as I was. I know how to use my powers and I trust the land beneath my feet to keep me safe.
“Let’s go.” I nod toward the opening and Hook strides into the darkness, unafraid. I try to emulate him, following close behind. As we walk, I push magic from my hand into the briar, charging it with energy to use in a large burst.
The silence is broken in the distance by a sharp cry being cut short with a sickening crunch.
“Go!” I urge Hook and he bounds ahead. I stumble through the darkness, running my hand along the rough-hewn wall. It bites into the flesh of my palm but I keep pressing firm.
Soon, a sliver of light guides me. I can make out Hook’s shadow, racing onward. He crosses into the moonlight before me. The noises of fighting rise in my ears. I keep pumping my feet forward.
I’ve never been in a real fight before. I studied how to heal, not hurt. But I’d never been married before, crossed the Fade, had magic, slept with a man, or loved like this before. I’ve been able to take all those firsts in stride.
I can do this.
I emerge into a forest. Instantly, I notice how the fae lands are different from the Elf Kingdom. Motes of magic drift through the air between the trees, casting everything in shades of blue and green. Vining flowers I don’t recognize hang like curtains from the trees’ leafy boughs. Even the earth seems different under my feet; it’s more untamed, magical, and much more like what I think I originally expected of Midscape.
Hook’s growl followed by a shout brings me back to reality. I sprint forward, dashing around the trees to a low-lying clearing. Two fae lie dead, their throats slit with a violent dark line. Eldas faces off against a beast with paws that match the prints we saw in the road. The animal is the size of a bear, covered in fur around its face and paws, but the rest of its body is coated in wet-looking scales, like a serpent’s.
Hook’s whimper draws my attention across the clearing to where the wolf has been beaten back by another fae with ram’s horns. The man’s eyes gleam a bright violet and his hands move through the air, vaporous magic tracing his motions. Both beast and man wear necklaces weighted by labradorite around their necks.
I hold out the briar and sink my feet into the ground.
An arm closes around me and the blade of a dagger is at my throat.
“King Eldas!” Aria shouts over my shoulder. My ears ring. I was right; it was her all along. I’ve never been so angry about being correct. “If you won’t parlay with us for your dear brother, then perhaps your queen?”
Eldas’s bright eyes leave the beast to face us. A rage unlike any I’ve ever seen twists his handsome features into pure malice. Waves of shadow radiate off of him and the presence of the Fade thickens with his magic.
“Let her go,” he growls.
“Let us go and agree to give us the land that’s rightfully ours!” She pushes the dagger closer to my throat.
“Aria, don’t do this,” the man with the ram’s horns says, voice weak with emotion. “You were supposed to get away.” I see something I recognize—an emotion I’ve seen in Eldas numerous times now. Admiration, compassion. I’m beginning to piece together the simple plot this seems to have been…Aria fell in love with one of the rebel fae. Love was the one thing that could make someone act against their own best interests.
“You insult your people’s—your family’s—attempt at diplomacy and hurt your cause with this.” Eldas holds out his arms and an array of silver blades pop into existence. He summons each one with nothing more than a thought—a true name of a weapon he learned and saved in his memory throughout the course of his life. “Kill her and you kill us all.”
“Our lands are cold and cruel,” Aria shouts. “She only makes the Elf Kingdom viable for food and game.”
“That’s not—” I can’t get out a word. Aria yanks me tighter and the dagger bites into my throat as I dare to speak. Blood slips down the blade, dropping to the earth.
“Silence,” she snarls at me. “We have a way that you’re no longer needed. A ritual that will restore this land.”
Ritumancy… Willow explained it as the act of performing rituals to gain magic. I never expected Aria to be the one to give me the missing piece that finally put together the puzzle of how to end the cycle. But she did.
I just have to survive long enough to test my theory.
“Don’t take another step closer,” Aria shouts as Eldas begins to move; his eyes are still stuck on me with panic. “I know you, you won’t dare risk the life of the Human Queen.”
Droplets have been dripping from the hand I cut on the wall for a good minute now, mingling with my blood streaming off her blade. I smirk; I learned very early on how dangerous my blood can be when mixed with nature.
“He won’t,” I whisper. “But I will.”
Magic explodes out from around me with a force I haven’t felt since the afternoon with Harrow in the lunch nook. I release my control and it flows into the earth unfettered.
I am like a blight on the land. Death spreads out from around me as the power is consumed and leeched from the earth itself. Balance, it all requires balance.
The briar falls from my fingers and writhes outward. The thorny vines wrap around Aria and she lets out a shout. I can feel their tiny daggers digging into her flesh as if the vines were a part of my own body.
Yet, none of the thorns face me. Aria is cocooned in a wicked prison—trapped, but not dead—and I am free to step away as the vines wrench her hand holding the dagger away from my throat like violent puppet strings. The earth cracks under my feet as I walk. Thorny, angry briar follows me and races toward the beast as I point in its direction.
The clawed and scaled creature makes an attempt to get away. But it can’t outpace my magic. The air shifts as Eldas turns his attention onto the remaining fae. The weapons he summoned rain like a hail of steel on the remaining man. Aria lets out a scream of pure anguish—cold and lingering.
I lower my hand the moment the last fae is wrapped in briar. All at once, energy leaves my body and I sink to my knees. They slam into the rocky ground, now cracked and dry—void of any life but my snaring vines.
Hook races over to me, licking my face as I support myself on all fours. It’s as if I have just sat on the redwood throne. My body trembles and aches. Exhaustion clouds my vision.