“It’s time.” Cecile tweaks my nose. “For you to go.”
“Go where?” My body slumps back, my muscles going lax.
“Let’s get this done.” The other girl. The too-familiar voice. She moves closer, a faintly curious look on her face. On my face.
Chills shoot through me, fighting with the heat that seems to be burning me from the inside out. She has my face! She’s even wearing my clothes, the black jacket with the Gryffindor logo that I thought I’d lost. This is a hallucination. I must have fallen asleep in the car. Wake up. Wake up. Wake the fuck up!
“You sure cut it close. The ley line wouldn’t have lasted another day,” I said. But it wasn’t me. It was the one with my face and favorite jacket.
Cecile shrugged. “I’m getting it done.”
“What is going on, Ceci—” My voice fails, my eyelids closing despite all my effort to keep them open.
“You’ll see.” With a gleeful laugh, she slams the door.
Everything goes black.
The assassin writhes as I press my iron blade into his shoulder.
“Tell me who sent you, and all this will be over.” I walk around the male, his silver eyes fixed on me as he bares his fangs.
“The king beyond the mountain,” he grits out.
“Funny.” I pull another iron blade from my pack, the metal sizzling against my palm. “You’re the third would-be assassin I’ve caught and also the third to say that.” I dig the blade into his thigh, twisting as I go.
This time he groans, his face contorting with pain. Good.
“There is no realm beyond the Gray Mountains. No king. Not even any fae. So who are you talking about?” I turn the knife a little more.
“The king beyond the mountain.” He pins me with an icy glare. “One day soon, you will kneel at his feet before he takes your head.”
“He’s your king, then?” I cross my arms and stare down at him.
He doesn’t respond.
“This king you speak of, he’s responsible for the disappearances of lesser fae such as yourself?”
“Not lesser. Not in his kingdom!” He snaps his teeth at me. “You are no king, not of me or any of my brethren. The winter realm will fall and you with it.”
That was new information. Whoever this king was, he had an agenda beyond taking my head. He wanted much, much more. I’d suspected as much, though he seemed fixated on my realm. I’d had no reports of attempts on other rulers.
“Whatever he’s promised you and your kind, it’s a lie.” I pull my finishing blade from my pack.
“You’re the lie. You and all the rest. When he comes, he will burn all, cleanse all, and destroy the realms.”
“Seems like he’s got a lot on his plate.” I flip the iron blade in the air and catch it. “So I’ll give him a hand and take care of his talkative assassin.”
“My king will reign!” His yell is cut off by my blade, but not before a knock sounds at my door.
I throw up a cloaking spell around the male as his soul departs to the Spires, then approach the door.
“My lord.” A representative of the summer realm bows low, but not low enough. “The guards suggested there might be an issue? There have been … noises.” He peers at me.
I throw my shoulders back, highlighting the grave differences in our statures. “You disturb me based on idle prattle from your guards?”
“Problem?” Gareth strides up, his lanky frame dwarfing the guards posted outside.
“Ah—” The courtier swallows hard as he stares at both of us—two battle-hardened fae from the winter realm. “No. No problem. Apologies, my lord.” The courtier bows and backs up, his jeweled sash glittering in the light and his perfectly-coifed white hair wisping slightly. “We simply want to make sure your stay in the summer realm is to your liking.”
“Sweltering heat, simpering courtiers, and a postponed meeting about the ongoing disappearances? No, it’s not to my liking.” I glower.
Gareth walks into my room and heads to where my cloaking spell lingers. My second-in-command snorts with amusement but says nothing.
“Tonight, my lord. The conclave is set for this evening.” The courtier stumbles over his words and backs away slowly. “It will go off as planned, I can assure you. Queen Aurentia is just as concerned as you are.”
I doubt that, given that the vast majority of disappearances have been from the winter realm, my realm. The perfumed peacocks of the summer court care only for themselves. I was a fool to come here, but I will do anything I can to help my people. They deserve nothing less from their king.
“It had better be tonight.” I glower at the bejeweled buffoon. “For your sake.” I back up and slam the door.
“Who’s the stiff?” Gareth hitches his thumb at the dead assassin.
“Another one from the king beyond the mountain.” I stare at the brand on the assassin’s neck, a twisted black tree, the same mark the others bore.
“You should have sent for me.” He pulls his silver knife from his belt and twirls it in his palm. The jagged scar on the right side of his face looks particularly stark here in the summer realm, where flowers and greenery seem to soften every rough edge except ours.
I shrug. “I handled it.”
“I’m here to watch your back.”
“You do that just fine.” I stride to him and peruse the bloody mess.
He shakes his head. “You’re king now, Leander. You can’t put yourself at risk. This isn’t the same as when we were on the battlefield. I need to know when there’s any sort of threat. You can’t just handle things on your own. You know that. If we want to maintain the peace we fought so hard for, you have to put aside the warrior and live as the king. Find your mate and—”
“I can’t force my mate to appear, Gareth.” I try to run a hand through my hair, but my silver crown stops me. How many times had I wished for my mate? Only the ancestors knew. But no winter realm high fae have felt the mate bond in 150 years, not since I defeated the necromancer and won the throne. Some dark magic took hold as I twisted my blade through his black heart, and none have been able to break it since.
“I know you can’t will it. But she will come, and then with an heir, we will finally be past the dark days. The necromancer’s curse can’t last forever. I won’t give up on finding my mate, and neither should you.” He squeezes my shoulder just like he’d done so many times when we were soldiers, before I was king.
He’s right of course, and that fact grates at me. The winter realm is mine to rule, but my throne was hard-won over centuries of bloodshed. The winter fae are a harsh people, wily and dark. But with the establishment of my reign, we finally have a tenuous peace amongst the high fae, lesser fae, and the summer realm. It is up to me to preserve it.
Gareth lets out a long-suffering sigh, then kicks the dead fae’s chair. “He tell you anything?”
“More of the same. But he did add that the mountain king doesn’t just want me dead, apparently. He’s after the realms. All of them.”
“Him and what army?” Gareth pulls my blades free and wipes them on the assassin’s tunic.
A streak of foreboding careens through me. “That’s what we need to find out.”
Something tickles my nose. I swat at it, but it doesn’t go away. My eyes open slowly, achingly. What’s wrong with me?
A flash of memory darts across my mind—a nightmare of myself standing next to Cecile in a dark parking lot. I sit up and knock my head on something hard and unyielding.
“Ow!” Putting a hand to my head, I fall back onto a bed of scratchy hay, some of it once again tickling my nose.
“Shh.” A harsh whisper nearby.
“Who’s there?” I press one palm to my aching forehead and turn to look into the gloom.
“Shh!” This one is even more urgent.
I can’t make out much, just some sort of room with hay on the floor and—wait, are those bars? My breath leaves in a whoosh, and I scoot sideways until the air above me is clear. I’d been lying on the bottom level of a crude sort of bunkbed carved into a stone wall. My jeans and t-shirt are gone, replaced with a crude shift dress, the material rough against my skin. I press my hand to my neck, a hint of relief blooming in my mind when I feel the necklace.
My eyes aren’t accustomed to the dark as I move toward the bars, but I keep staring hard, trying to find the source of the shushing voice. All I see is hay and gray walls.
“Hello?” I whisper.
“Do you want a bloodletting?” The hay to my left shifts, and a pair of eyes peer at me.
A clanging noise shatters the stillness. I jump as heavy footsteps approach, the sound paired with what sounds like sharp nails raking against stone.
I scurry back beneath the stone bunkbed and press myself against the wall. My head throbs from where I knocked it earlier, and my pounding heartbeat doesn’t help.
“Great. Just great.” The eyes disappear, the hay settling.
A hissing voice, one that slithers up my spine, echoes off the walls. It’s heavily accented and speaks a foreign language. A rhythmic rustling noise grows louder with each second.
The instinct to hide, to somehow melt into the stone behind me, rushes through me. But there is nowhere to go. The one spot where the hay is thickest is already taken.
The voice is closer now, and I stare into the darkness outside the bars.
I press my palm to my mouth to stop any noise from escaping. But my body shakes, everything inside me freezing up and rattling.
Movement catches my eye, and a monstrous, clawed hand appears just outside the bars.
A scream wants to pull free from my lungs, but I swallow it down. Too afraid to look away, I don’t blink as the rest of the creature comes into view. My mind can’t seem to grasp the horror of what my eyes are seeing. A huge snake body propels the torso of a man, the rhythmic hissing sound coming from the scales as they slide along the floor.