I let go of her hand the moment the room felt more…open and light, fresher. There was still a sharp edge of pain lingering in the shadows, but it was now manageable for her.
“I don’t—” Agnes placed a hand to her breast, giving a little shake of her head. Her brow pinched as she stared at her right hand. Almost tentatively, she returned her gaze to me. “I feel like I can breathe again.” Understanding crept across her face, quickly followed by the gleam of awe in her eyes. “The gift.”
I slipped my hand back under my cloak, conscious of the ball of tension brewing inside me.
Agnes trembled. For a moment, I was afraid that she would drop to the floor again, but she didn’t. “Thank you. Thank you so much. My gods, thank—”
“There’s nothing you need to thank me for,” I cut her off. “Have you said your goodbyes?” I asked once more. Time was getting away from us, time we didn’t have.
Tears glimmered as she nodded, but the grief didn’t seize as it did before. What I’d done wouldn’t last. The pain would resurface. Hopefully, by then, she would be able to process it. If not, the grief would always linger, a ghost that would haunt every happy moment in her life until it became all she knew.
“We will see him now,” Vikter announced. “It would be best if you remained out here.”
Closing her eyes, Agnes nodded.
Vikter touched my arm as he turned, and I followed. My gaze landed on the settee closest to the hearth as Vikter reached the door. A floppy-headed stuffed doll with yellow hair made of yarn lay partially hidden behind the thin cushion. Tiny goosebumps broke out across my skin as unease balled in the pit of my stomach.
“Will you…?” Agnes called out. “Will you ease his passing?”
“Of course,” I said, turning back to Vikter. I placed a hand on his back and waited for him to dip his head. I kept my voice low as I said, “There is a child here.”
Vikter halted with his hand on the door, and I tilted my head toward the settee. His gaze followed. I couldn’t sense people, only their pain once I saw them. If a child was here, he or she must be hidden away, and possibly completely unaware of what was happening.
But then why hadn’t Agnes admitted to the child being here?
The unease expanded, and the worst-case scenario played out in my mind. “I will handle this. You handle that.”
Vikter hesitated, his blue eyes wary as they lifted to the door.
“I can take care of myself.” I reminded him of what he already knew. The fact that I could defend myself rested solely on his shoulders.
A heavy sigh rattled from him as he muttered, “That doesn’t mean you always have to.” He stepped back, though, facing Agnes. “Would it be too much trouble to ask for something warm to drink?”
“Oh, no. Of course, not,” Agnes answered. “I could make up some tea or coffee.”
“Do you perhaps have hot cocoa?” Vikter asked, and I smirked. While that was something a parent may have on hand and could be seen as him searching for additional evidence of a child, it was also Vikter’s greatest weakness.
“I do.” Agnes cleared her throat, and I heard the sound of a cupboard opening.
Vikter nodded at me, and I stepped forward, placing my hand on the door and pushing it open.
If I hadn’t been prepared for the too-sweet and the bitter-sour stench, it would’ve knocked me over. My gag reflex threatened to be triggered as my gaze adapted to the candlelit bedroom. I would just have to…not breathe as often.
Sounded like a solid plan.
I swept the room with a quick glance. Except for the bed, a tall wardrobe, and two rickety-looking end tables, the room was bare. More incense burned in here, but it couldn’t beat back the smell. My attention returned to the bed, to the form lying impossibly still in the center of it. Stepping inside, I closed the door behind me and started forward, slipping my right hand back into the cloak, to my right thigh. My fingers curled over the always-cold hilt of my dagger as I focused on the man. Or what was left of him.
He was young, that much I could tell, with light brown hair and broad shoulders that trembled. His skin had taken on a gray pallor, and his cheeks were sunken as if his stomach hadn’t been full in weeks. Dark shadows blossomed under eyelids that spasmed every couple of seconds. The color of his lips was more blue than pink. Taking a deep breath, I opened myself up once more.
He was in great pain, both physical and emotional. It wasn’t the same as Agnes’s, but no less potent or heavy. In here, the anguish left no room for light, and it went beyond suffocating. It choked and clawed in the knowledge that there was no way out of this.
A tremor coursed through me as I forced myself to sit beside him. Unsheathing the dagger, I kept it hidden under my cloak as I lifted my left hand and carefully pulled the sheet down. His chest was bare, and the shivers increased as the cooler air of the room reached his waxy skin. My gaze traveled down the length of his concave stomach.
I saw the wound he’d hidden from his wife.
It was above his right hip, four ragged tears in his skin. Two, side by side, an inch or so above two identical wounds.
He’d been bitten.
One who didn’t know better would think some sort of wild animal had gotten ahold of him, but this wasn’t the wound of an animal. It seeped blood and something darker, oiler. Faint, reddish-blue lines radiated out from the bite, spreading across his lower stomach and disappearing under the sheet.
A ravaged moan drew my gaze upward. His lips peeled back, revealing just how close he was to a fate worse than death. His gums bled, streaking his teeth.
Teeth that were already changing.
Two on top, two on the bottom—his canines—had already elongated. I looked to where his hand rested next to my leg. His nails had also lengthened, becoming more animalistic than mortal. Within an hour, both his teeth and nails would harden and sharpen. They’d be able to cut and chew through skin and muscle.
He would become one of them.
Driven by an insatiable hunger for blood, he would slaughter everyone in sight. And if anyone were to survive his attack, they would eventually become just like him.
Well, not everyone.
But he was becoming what existed outside the Rise, what lived inside the thick, unnatural mist—the foulness that the fallen Kingdom of Atlantia had cursed these lands with. Some four hundred years after the War of Two Kings had ended, they were still a plague.
The Craven were creations of the Atlantians, the product of their poisonous kiss, which acted like an infection, turning innocent men, women, and children into starved creatures whose body and mind became twisted and decayed by ceaseless hunger.
Even though the majority of Atlantians had been hunted into extinction, many still existed, and there only needed to be one Atlantian alive for there to be a dozen Craven, if not more. They weren’t completely mindless. They could be controlled, but only by the Dark One.
And this poor man had fought back and escaped, but he must have known what the bite meant. From birth, we all knew. It was a part of the kingdom’s blood-soaked history. He was cursed, and there was nothing that could be done. Had he come back to say goodbye to his wife? To a child? Had he thought he would be different? Blessed by the gods?
It didn’t matter.
Sighing, I replaced the sheet, leaving his upper chest bare. Trying not to breathe too deeply, I set my palm on his skin. His flesh…it felt all wrong, like cold leather. I concentrated on the beaches of Carsodonia, the capital, and the dazzling blue waters of the Stroud. I remembered the clouds, how fat and fluffy they were. How they looked like peace must feel. And I thought of the Queen’s Gardens outside of Castle Teerman, where I could simply be and not think or feel anything, where everything, including my own mind, was quiet.
I thought of the warmth those too-brief moments with Hawke had brought forth.
Marlowe’s shivers subsided, and the twitching behind his eyes slowed. The puckered skin at the corners of his eyes smoothed out.
“Marlowe?” I said, ignoring the dull pain that started to blossom behind my eyes. A headache would eventually come. One always did when I repeatedly opened myself or used my gift.
The chest under my hand rose deeply, and clumped lashes fluttered. His eyes opened, and I tensed. They were blue. Mostly. Bolts of red shot through the irises. Soon, there would be no blue left. Only the color of blood.
His dry lips parted. “Are you…are you Rhain? Have you come to take me at my end?”
He thought I was the God of the Common Man and Endings, a god of death.
“No. I’m not.” Knowing that his pain would be eased long enough for this to be completed, I lifted my left hand and did the one thing I was expressly forbidden to do. Not just by the Duke and Duchess of Masadonia, or by the Queen, but also by the gods. I did what Hawke had asked in regard to the mask, but I’d refused. I pulled down my hood and then removed the white domino mask I wore just in case my cloak slipped, revealing my face.
I figured, or hoped, that the gods would make an exception in cases like this.
His crimson-laced gaze drifted over my features, starting where wisps of burnt copper hair curled against my forehead, then the right side of my face, followed by my left. His stare lingered there, over the evidence of what a Craven’s claws could do. I wondered if he thought the same thing the Duke always did.
Such a shame.
Those three words seemed to be the Duke’s favorite. That and: you have disappointed me.
“Who are you?” he rasped out.
“My name is Penellaphe, but my brother and a few others call me Poppy.”
“Poppy?” he whispered.
I nodded. “It’s a strange nickname, but my mother used to call me that. It sort of stuck.”
Marlowe blinked slowly. “Why are…?” The corners of his mouth cracked, the new wounds seeping blood and darkness. “Why are you here?”
Forcing a smile, I tightened my grip on the hilt of the dagger and did another thing that should end with me being hauled to the Temple but hadn’t yet because this wasn’t the first time I’d revealed myself to the dying. “I am the Maiden.”