His chest rose with a sharp inhale, and he closed his eyes. A tremor coursed through him. “You’re the Chosen, ‘born in the shroud of the gods, protected even inside the womb, veiled from birth.’”
That was me.
“You…you are here for me.” His eyes opened, and I noticed the red had spread until only a hint of blue remained. “You will…give me dignity.”
Anyone cursed by a Craven’s bite did not die in their beds quietly and as peacefully as possible. They were not afforded that kindness or sympathy. Instead, they were generally dragged to the town square to be burned alive in front of a mass of citizens. It didn’t matter that most became cursed either protecting those who cheered their horrific demise or working to better the kingdom.
Marlowe’s gaze shifted to the closed door behind me. “She’s…she’s a good woman.”
“She said you’re a good man.”
Those eerie eyes tracked back to me. “I won’t be a—” His upper lip curled, revealing one deadly sharp tooth. “I won’t be a good man much longer.”
“No, you won’t be.”
“I…I tried to do it myself, but…”
“It’s okay.” Slowly, I pulled the dagger out from under my cloak. The glow of the nearby candle glittered off the deep red blade.
Marlowe eyed the dagger. “Bloodstone.”
Before any signs of the curse, a mortal could be killed in any number of ways, but once there were signs, only fire and bloodstone could kill the cursed. Only bloodstone or wood sharpened into a stake from the Blood Forest could kill a fully turned Craven.
“I just…I just wanted to say goodbye.” He shuddered. “That was all.”
“I understand,” I told him, even though I wished he hadn’t returned here, but I didn’t have to agree with his actions to understand them. His pain was starting to return, rising in sharp pulses and then ebbing. “Are you ready, Marlowe?”
His gaze shifted to the closed door once more, and then his eyes closed. He nodded.
Chest heavy, and unsure if it was my grief or his that weighed me down, I shifted ever so slightly. There were two ways to kill a Craven or someone cursed as long as you had a bloodstone blade or wood from a Blood Forest tree. Penetrate the heart or destroy the brain. The former wasn’t immediate. It could take minutes to bleed out, and it was painful…and messy.
Placing my left hand against his too-cold cheek, I leaned over him—
“I wasn’t…I wasn’t the only one,” he whispered.
My heart stopped. “What?”
“Ridley…he was…he was bitten, too.” A wheezing breath left him. “He wanted to say goodbye to his father. I don’t…know if he took care of himself or not.”
If this Ridley had waited until the curse began to show signs, there was no way he would’ve been able to do it. Whatever was in the blood of the Craven—of an Atlantian—triggered some sort of primal survival instinct.
“Where does his father live?”
“Two blocks over. Third home. Blue…I think blue shutters, but Ridley…he lives in the dorms with…the others.”
Good gods, this could be bad.
“You’ve done the right thing,” I told him, wishing he’d done it sooner. “Thank you.”
Marlowe grimaced, and his eyes opened once more. There was no more blue. He was close. Seconds. “I don’t have—”
I struck as fast as the black vipers that hid in the valleys that led to the Temples. The tip of the dagger sank into the soft spot at the base of his skull. Angled frontward and between the vertebrae, the blade pierced deep, severing the brain stem.
That was all. He’d taken his last breath before he even knew it. Death was as instantaneous as it could be.
I eased the blade out as I rose from the bed. Marlowe’s eyes were closed. That…that was one small blessing. Agnes would not see how close he’d come to turning into a nightmare.
“May Rhain escort you to paradise,” I whispered, wiping the blood from my dagger on a small towel that had been draped over the end table. “And may you find eternal peace with those who have passed before you.”
Turning from the bed, I sheathed the dagger and then replaced my mask and lifted my hood, tugging it over my head.
I started for the door.
If Ridley were still alive, he had to be within minutes of turning. It was nighttime, and if he was in that dorm where others who were off duty slept….
No matter how well trained they were, they were as vulnerable as anyone else while asleep. Concern for a certain guard from the Rise surfaced, and fear pierced my chest and stomach.
A massacre could be minutes away from happening.
Worse yet, the curse would spread, and I more than anyone knew how quickly it could ravage a city until nothing but blood pooled in the streets.
We left Agnes in the bedroom, her husband’s limp hand pressed to her chest as she carefully brushed his hair back from his face.
It was an image I wouldn’t forget for a very long time.
But I couldn’t dwell on it then. I’d learned from Vikter that there was a daughter, but luckily, she was staying with friends, having been told that her father was ill. Vikter saw no reason to not believe Agnes. I was relieved to know that my worst fear hadn’t come true. That the child hadn’t also been cursed. Once someone had been cursed, a bite from them would pass on the curse, and even though Marlowe hadn’t fully turned, he would’ve been prone to uncontrollable rages and thirst from the moment he’d been bitten.
But now I stood outside another tiny home, in the shadows of the narrow, dirt-packed alley, listening to another tragedy. The moment I’d shared with Vikter what Marlowe had told me, we’d gone straight for the father’s house since it was closer than the dorms. I was beyond glad I couldn’t see the man because I could hear the heartbreak in his voice as he told Vikter what had happened, and the ache in my head was now throbbing. If I saw the poor father, I would’ve wanted to somehow ease his pain. The old man knew precisely why Vikter was there when he asked if he’d seen his son.
Ridley hadn’t been able to take care of himself.
However, his father had.
He’d shown Vikter where he’d buried Ridley in the backyard, under a pear tree. He’d ended his son’s life the day before.
I was still thinking about that as Vikter and I left the Lower Ward, using the heavily wooded area outside the Citadel to avoid any City Guards. Many years ago, animals such as deer and wild boar had been plentiful in Wisher’s Grove, but only the smallest critters and large, predatory birds remained after years of hunting. The Grove now served more or less as a border between the haves and have-nots, the thick tree line all but erasing the cramped living arrangements for the vast majority of Masadonia from those who lived in homes triple the size of the one Agnes now mourned in. A part of the Grove, closer to the center of the city, had been cleared, creating a park where fairs and celebrations were held, people often rode their horses, sold goods, and picnicked on warmer days. The Grove ran right into the inner walls of Castle Teerman. Literally.
Very few traveled the Grove, believing it to be haunted by any who’d died there. Or were they haunted by the spirits of guards? Or was it the spirits of hunted animals that roamed between the trees? I wasn’t sure. There were so many different versions. Either way, it worked for us because we could easily slip out of the Queen’s Gardens and into the Grove without being seen as long as we kept an eye on the patrolling guards. From the Grove, one could go anywhere.
“We need to discuss what happened in that house,” Vikter announced as we navigated the forest floor with only a sliver of moonlight to guide us. “People have been talking about you.”
I knew this was coming.
“And you using your gift back there didn’t help matters,” he added, keeping his voice low even though it was unlikely we’d be overheard by anything other than a raccoon or an opossum. “You all but confirmed who you were.”
“If people are talking, they haven’t said anything,” I replied. “And I had to do something. That woman’s pain was…it was unbearable for her. She needed a break.”
“And it became unbearable for you, too?” he surmised. When I didn’t say anything, he added, “Your head hurts now?”
“It’s nothing,” I dismissed.
“Nothing,” he growled. “I understand why you want to help. I respect that. But it’s a risk, Poppy. No one has said anything yet. Maybe they feel indebted to you, but that could change, and you need to be more careful.”
“I am careful,” I said. Even though I couldn’t see his expression as he too had lifted his hood to cover his face, I knew he sent me a look of disbelief. I grinned, but it quickly faded. “I know what the risks are—”
“And you’re prepared to face the consequences if the Duke ever discovers what you’re doing?” he challenged.
My stomach dipped as I toyed with a loose thread from my cloak. “I am.”
Vikter cursed under his breath. In any other situation, I would’ve giggled. “You’re as brave as any guard on the Rise.”
Taking that as a huge compliment, I smiled. “Well, thank you.”
“And just as foolish as any new recruit.”
My smile turned upside down. “I take my thank you back.”
“I never should’ve allowed you to begin doing this.” He caught a low-hanging branch, moving it aside. “You going out among the people poses too much of a risk of discovery.”
Dipping under the branch, I looked back at him. “You didn’t allow me,” I reminded him. “You just couldn’t stop me.”
He stopped, catching my arm and turning me so I faced him. “I understand why you want to help. You couldn’t when your mother and father lay dying.”