Notice: Contains adult language and thematic violence. Reader discretion advised.
The attacks always happened in the open air—the wind in her face, the skies clear and cool, and she a target, a beacon. A fool. She banked left hard, dodging a branch as she made for the cover under the canopy.
She flew as hard as her wings could carry her, not daring to risk the time it might cost her just to look over her shoulder, to see how close they were. The forest stretched before her—a maze of shadow and moonlight, flora and rot. She could not fly hard enough, her breath shards of ice in her lungs.
She didn’t need to look to know how close they were. She could practically taste the foul air around them, feel the ancient blackness curling around her as she sped through the night, cutting through the air and around trees like a human weapon—a blade, honed for killing. Four. There were four of them this time!
Maybe they were the murderers, but she was no blade. And she was certainly no human.
But tonight…maybe tonight she was a shooting star, outflying the darkness.
The darkness that had chased her for as long as she could remember.
She picked up speed, a streak of lightning through the damning darkness.
“Holy Eloah, Meren, you look like shit!”
“Thanks, Ash,” she said flatly, brushing past her friend. She plopped down on her dandelion fluff cushion, helping herself to a huge cup of water before taking a full breath.
Asher stood in the doorway with his arms crossed, furrowing his brow. No, not furrowing his brow. His brow was in a constant state of furrowed. Asher was always miffed with her for one reason or another. Like the brother she never had. Or wanted. She rolled her eyes, keeping her attention on her glorious cup of water, kissed with just the perfect amount of honeysuckle nectar, ignoring the ache in her back.
She’d had to fly fast this time. Too fast. Her wings seemed to scream in protest.
She picked broken leaves from her thatch of curly hair, a cerulean strand falling messily across her brow. She pushed it away absently, lost in the knowledge that one of these days, those bastards were going to catch up with her.
“What happened?” Asher scowled, his legs spread shoulder-width apart, his face set in menacing determination.
“You know what happened, Ash,” she said, not bothering to look at him. But that midnight hair of his, his skin so rich and dark, the thick arms peeking out from under his sleeveless oak-leaf tunic—he was hard to ignore for long. There weren’t any of the legendary Warrior færies left; all of them had been either murdered or tortured decades ago. But Asher—with the human-like weapons he had fashioned himself out of bone and stone, with his short temper and feral need to prove himself—he was as close as it came. One of those weapons, a bone blade so jagged she doubted it left much that was recognizable when he was done with it, hung ominously from his belt.
“You disobeyed my orders,” he said, glaring at her from across the oddly shaped room, carved from the center of the chalam tree.
“Your orders?” She balked, still not bothering to meet his pointed stare, instead picking at the vines growing around her cushion, silently reminding herself to prune soon lest her little nook in the tree become overrun with the nuisance growth. She was absolutely uninterested in another one of his fatherly, suffocating lectures. When he let the silence grow long between them, she finally sighed through her nose, taking another long drink before she said, “I don’t know how they always find me.”
“Here it comes,” she said, but he ignored her, pushing off of the doorjamb.
“You’re too brazen, Meren. You take too many risks.” He crossed the room one step at a time. Asher always opted to walk instead of fly when he was frustrated. It drove her to madness the way he refused to use his wings when he was in a foul mood. Which was often. She lifted her gaze to his, but showed no remorse, no apology. No way would she apologize to Asher.
“It’s not safe for you out there,” he warned.
Her temper flared like a willow branch straining against its trunk in a violent wind. “We can’t hole ourselves up in this coven forever, Asher. Jotham is wrong. We can’t keep pretending that nothing is going on. There are more of us, I know it.” She spoke curtly, her words swift and hot.
“We’re not pretending like nothing is going on,” Asher argued, his tone disapproving. He took another step. Another. Closing the gap between them. Towering over her like he was…
“Stop acting like my father,” she spat.
Oh, he didn’t like that comment one bit. Not one tiny bit. Asher knelt before her, gripping her chin a little too firmly, his face, his entire countenance shifting to something… Something she wasn’t sure she liked.
“I’m not your father,” he said, his tone a low warning. “But you’ll forgive me if you scare the shit out of me too often. I forbid you to go out again.”
“You know I won’t listen,” she said, jerking her chin from his grip. A cool sting lingered on her skin in the wake of his grip.
She could feel his gaze on her for an uncomfortable moment before he finally sighed, pushing on his knees as he stood again.
“You can’t keep hoping you’ll be fast enough to outfly them, Mer,” he said, moving to her hearth, ripping away a few vines that had grown over the opening before working to bring a flame to life. It had always marveled her, the way the færies lit fires in the heart of trees without thought. As if one mistake wouldn’t reduce their entire home to ashes. But that had never happened. In fact, there were only legends of such things, and certainly nothing from recent history. Meren had always chalked it up to the magic they used to light those flames, the same magic Asher now used, tossing a ball of færy light from his tan palm. The only magic left in the færies anymore. Light. Useful for little more than a few bobbling flames that lit their homes and warmed their hearths. No wonder most færies had gone into hiding. Their magic was nearly indistinguishable from a human these days—a far cry from the days of yore. The times her parents so often spoke or sang of. When færies were the wielders of the Light—the messengers of Eloah himself.
Those days were long gone, along with any semblance of peace. Just as the færy Light had diminished to little more than utility, so had the lore of the færies in the consciousness of most of the world. Useless. The lot of them.
Asher’s flame flared to life in a flash of blue, then settled into an easy, crackling golden fire in her hearth.
“I’ve outflown them every time so far,” she said, unable to resist arguing with him as she watched him pick up a loaf of bread that was probably too hard to eat.
His back was still to her as he said, “That is beside the point.”
There was truth in that. She knew it. But it didn’t matter to her. Not really. The Dark Færies were growing. Spreading. While the Light of Eloah was all but useless in the Light Færies anymore, the opposite could be said for the Darkness that was spreading across their lands. And the knowledge of that gnawed at her day and night like a wolf at a kill. It went against her nature entirely to just stand by and watch her world be devoured by the Darkness. So she argued with her friend despite the fact that she suspected he was right.
“I’m faster than you, Asher. And I’m faster than they are. They’re not going to catch me.”
He turned to face her, the knife in his hand like an extension of his arm. “And what happens when they do?”
It was the concern in his eyes—sincere and suffocating—that kept her from exploding into a fit of frustration. It was that genuine concern that usually kept her from killing him, despite him infuriating her on a daily basis.
She stood and padded across the shiny wooden floor, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll be all right, Ash,” she said as warmly as she could.
To her surprise, he seized the moment to close the remaining distance between them, setting down the knife he was using to slice the stony loaf and putting his warm hands on either side of her face. “I worry about you, Mer.”
“I know,” she said, brushing him off. “It’s annoying.”
He breathed a laugh through his nose, the small gesture softening his whole demeanor. His shoulders relaxed, but his wings remained ramrod straight behind him. Not flapping lazily like a cat’s tail, but rigid—as rigid as his concern for her. “When are you going to let me take care of you?”
She nodded to the loaf of bread behind him. “What do you call that?”
“Sustenance,” he said. “You seem incapable of so much as boiling water.”
“I am not,” she protested.
He laughed and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her into a bone-crushing hug. His fiery wings at last flickered softly, as if he were calmed by her nearness. She wondered what it said about her that the thought made her uncomfortable.
She absently watched those wings over his shoulder before she pushed out of his arms, pressing a smacking kiss to his cheek and then treading to her bed, plopping down on the fluffy, feathered mattress.
He turned back to the bread and set about buttering a slice.
“I’ll be much more impressed when you learn to make me toadstool soup,” she quipped.
He kept his back to her. “That will never happen.”
He looked over his shoulder, a sly grin on his mouth. “Because it’s disgusting.”
“It is not!” she barked, incensed. It was, in fact, her favorite. And had been since she was a youngling.
“You have terrible taste, Mer,” he said, buttering more slices of bread. She stuck out her tongue at his back and those formidable amber wings of his, lined black and patterned with gold and crimson.
By no means a cook, Asher was, at least, constantly aware of her needs. She was starving. Which was why, she supposed, she let him come in here, let him act like this was his home, his things. Let him feed her like she was a helpless færyling.
Not that he needed permission to do that. He had been treating her as a helpless færyling from the moment he had found her all those years ago.
She rolled her eyes and flopped onto her belly, turning the giant page of a book she had found on one of her ventures—a mortal story. Of wars and kings, and prophets and dragons.
Bound by the sea
For all eternity
Leviathan awaits her destiny.
By fire and flame
She sets the world ablaze
For the coming of the new age.
“I still can’t believe you made me lug that stupid thing in here,” he said over his shoulder, as if he knew exactly what book she’d turn to first. She bit the inside of her lip to keep from chuckling. The book had become her favorite from the moment she had found it.
The book was not færy-sized. No, it was a human-sized book she had found and then sweet-talked Asher into helping her heave it up the side of the tree and into her little home. Which, consequently, was hardly large enough for the book. She had turned it into a platform, a dais of sorts, on which she sat as she read it. Asher had suggested she throw a cushion on top and call it a bed. She had merely rolled her eyes and set about reading it.
And it had fascinated her. Page by page, she hadn’t been able to put it down, stopping only to hover above and turn the page or adjust to uncover a paragraph she sat on. She had read it like that in a matter of days. Now she kept it open all the time—like a witch might reference a spellbook.
“Why do the humans call these stories færytales?” she asked absently as Asher drizzled honey from the comb onto a slice of the crusty bread. “They don’t even believe in færies anymore. They think we’re butterflies or moths or something.”
“Eloah knows,” he said. “Humans are strange.”
Strange, perhaps. But intriguing. And as Meren read more of her book, she couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to meet a human. To help them as the færies once had.
To be a true færy of the Light.
Asher turned to face her at last, bringing her a slice of honeyed bread and biting into one of his own. “Jotham wants us to meet tomorrow,” he said around the unnecessarily large bite in his mouth.
She ignored the sight of him chewing the food and took a bite of her own. The bread was tough. Asher hadn’t been wrong—she was terrible about keeping decent food in her cupboards. She swallowed the hardly-chewed piece before she said, “Why? So that he can tell us to keep hiding? Keep pretending like they won’t find us as long as we stick together?” She savagely ripped off another bite, frustration mounting as she chewed on the stony bread. The butter and honey did little to hide the fact that it was barely edible.
“It’s a good plan, Mer.”
“It’s a coward’s plan,” she quipped.
“I suppose you have a better one,” he said, but she didn’t answer. “That’s why you went out there tonight, isn’t it?” When she still didn’t answer, he sighed. “Meren, what is it that you think you’re going to find?”
“More of us, Ash. I know there are more of us.”
“There aren’t,” he said, standing. “They’re all dead. Just like you will be if you keep going out there.”
“So this is it?” she snapped, standing to her feet. “This is our life forever? Hiding here, hoping we won’t be found?”
“It’s better than dying!” he yelled.
“Ash, I’m tired of this! I’m tired of hiding away like a coward. I’m going to do something. I have to do something!”
He crossed the space between them, gripping her shoulders in his calloused hands. “You are one færy, Meren. One. What exactly do you think you can do?”
“Whatever it takes,” she said, and pushed out of his grip.