My hands tremble as I walk through the darkness, but I’m not cold. I’m anxious, and a little excited because tonight I’m finally going to drive my dagger through Sergeant Graves’ heart.
Faded cobblestones, worn down by the tread of hooves and weary footsteps, lead the way into Overburn, an encampment outside of Central Arcane's castle walls. A place whose sole purpose is to house King Travers’ army and keep them entertained between shifts. Rumor has it there isn't much to the camp, but it’s said to have a tavern where the men can drink and girls who will satisfy every desire for a few measly coins, and that is where Graves is supposed to be until sunrise.
I grip the edges of my wool cloak and try to make as little noise as possible. Any woman worth her weight in salt wouldn't be caught walking alone at this time of night. There are too many men in Arcane who don't believe in consent. I know firsthand how ruthless some of them can be, but it isn't the fear of being attacked and or taken advantage of that has me on high alert.
I could be found by Hunters.
Men trained to survive in the Arcane Woods. Soldiers who can move as quietly as a shadow in the night, but are as lethal as death himself. All they’d need to do is glance at my red hair and I'd be dead. Their actions wouldn’t need justification. They are the judge and jury to anyone they feel is a threat to the crown.
All night I’ve worried about running into one of them on the path to Overburn—or at the very least one of the king’s soldiers—but my journey has been surprisingly quiet. From the moment I stepped outside of Central Arcane’s walls there hasn’t been a single guard posted in the tree stands to keep King Travers’ civilians safe.
Even here, at the encampment’s entrance, there isn’t a soul on duty to ask who I am or what my intentions are at this time of night. The only thing standing between me and the rows of tents where the King's army sleeps is a lichen-covered archway and two torches, whose flames burn blue instead of red.
My heart races as I get closer to the cobblestone path. The fire that guards every royal building is rumored to be enchanted, having been stolen from the Cauldron of Life itself, and spelled to ward off evil.
I might be what the world calls a Cerise, but I am not evil. At least, I don’t think I am. I mean… sure, I kill people, but only those who deserve it. Murderers. Rapist. The lowest scum of the earth. Men who have no regard for anyone but themselves, or are too stupid to realize the pain they leave in their wake. Most of King Travers’ soldiers fall into that last category, but only a special few make their way onto my list.
Beyond my unusual hobby, I try to live a good life. I go to church every Sunday and sit obediently beside my uncle in the first pew. I clean up after myself, never forcing another to take care of me. I help where I can and when I’m allowed. I offer food to the hungry within our lands every chance I get. I do everything I can to put good karma into a world that constantly spits in my face because I was born with red hair. By the laws written by our beloved King Travers, my hair makes me something unholy.
A daughter of Legend.
A monster to be feared.
I clench and unclench my fists as I draw closer to the torches. I can't dally, not without raising the suspicions of anyone who might walk past. For any normal person, these are nothing more than lights pushing away darkness but for someone like me…
Someone with something to hide…
I swallow hard and hope the fires let me pass.
My mother’s words whisper in my ear. Reminders of how I’m pure of heart and the tales of old mix together into a comfortable lullaby. For six beautiful paces, my heart steadies and I relax. Until the hackles on the back of my neck stand on edge. Until I’m close enough to feel the warmth of the flames without being basked in their light.
Any hope I had about the rumors swirling around the strange blue light being just rumors die. All week I’ve prayed the stories circling these flames were hearsay created by King Travers to control his people. After all, there is no better way to ensure a kingdom’s compliance than to instill fear in its people, and no one knows exactly what happens if a Creature of Legend comes near the flames.
All anyone knows is what they’re told, that the eerie blue glow keeps each city safe.
I hesitate just outside of the fire’s reach, a measly five cobblestones away from the arch. My skin hums with an electricity I’ve never felt before. I brush my hand across my arms, noting how there’s nothing on me, but it feels like a thousand ants are crawling up my spine, taking tiny chunks of me as they cover my body from my fingertips down to my toes. It’s a strange, personal torture. Ants are one of the few things in this world I’m allergic to. A peculiarity I’m careful to keep to myself, yet somehow it’s something the flames have discovered.
“Nothing is on me,” I remind myself through gritted teeth. Every bite and twinge of pain, every shift of my skin that feels like warmth and tightness is not real. This is nothing but the magic in the air is trying to mindfuck me into turning back. It wants me to abandon everything I’ve worked for and save myself.
Take me back to the girl I was before the fire, and I probably would have heeded the warning. That girl was someone worth saving. But me? I’m nothing like her anymore.
I take another step, the last before crossing into the archway and basking in the torches’ light. A wave of nerves and nausea has me holding my stomach but I press forward until the tip of my leather boot touches the iridescent blue glow.
The firelight tugs at a part of me I keep carefully hidden, it’s invisible ants biting and scratching, and stinging until I can’t hold myself back anymore. My magic bursts out of me in a flash of heat and the critters I can’t see fall from my skin. It pulses like waves in the night, searching for the danger it knows is imminent. Ripples in the air bounce against the tents, the soldiers in the woods, and even the tavern a hundred yards away, connecting the world in a web of darkness. My senses find everyone within a two-mile radius all at once.
I see the flickering hearts of soldiers and hear the thump, thump, thumps in my ears. I’ve never heard heartbeats or felt someone else’s emotions, but tonight I experience it all. Excitement. Boredom. Arousal. Frustration. Drunken stupidity. Curiosity. Hatred. I feel everything at the same time, from everyone around me.
Pressure builds inside my head and the only thing I can think to do is to press my palms to my temples to hold the pain back. It feels like my brain is expanding and desperately trying to break free of its cage. Something in my chest cracks as a vice I can’t see wraps around me. I can’t breathe. Can’t think. Pain fills my every thought, and I’ve barely touched the blue light. I close my eyes and screams that haunt my dreams fill my ears. I shudder, remembering how my brother’s last breath was wasted trying to save me.
The pain swallowing me shifts, finding a new angle to attack from. A cry builds in my throat as the vice around my lungs heats. I sense what’s about to happen before the first ember ignites on my cloak. I can take the pain of being burned, but I can’t let this magic unearth everything else that happened that night.
I force my lungs to draw in air, ignoring the smell of burnt hair, and open my eyes. There is no fire beyond the scone. There are no bodies on the ground, broken, burned, and forgotten. Everything I feel is in my head, which means I can control what happens next.
I can choose to concede and flee Overburn like the torches want, like I probably should do.
Or I can say fuck it.
What’s the worst that will happen? I die? I’d rather feel the cold blade of the Grim Reaper and know its touch was earned than live with the guilt of giving up. Graves doesn’t deserve my death but if the stars decide it’s my time then so be it.
I don’t hesitate a second longer before stepping into the arch and putting myself at the mercy of the blue light.