The man walked into a huge, gloomy room; his footsteps, though soft, echoed from the old and round walls. Set in intervals, stone-torches flickered with dim light, revealing a table at which five people were seated. Facing him, waiting for him. What little light the room offered, was contrasted by the sheer buzz of bright energy, wafting from the elders seated before the man. Their feelings were dancing around them, shared, amplified and intertwining. There was no sound, yet the conversation was as animated and urgent as any verbal one could be.
The man came to a halt and looked up. Five sets of golden eyes rested on him, while the feelings-chatter mellowed down.
“We have summoned you, Armand, because of a delicate matter,” a woman, on the outer right finally said. Her voice was as soft as it was coarse. A combination that chased a shiver of delight down the man’s—Armand’s—spine. “The ancient, Christoph, protector of Trinity, has fallen.”
Armand swallowed and manipulated his excitement into shock in a split-second. He let his eyes wander over the elders; no one had noticed. The man on the left glowered at him, but then, there was always the glitter of animosity about when he and Armand met.
“That is hardly news warranting a mission for me,” Armand said.
“Silence!” the man on the left spat. “You will listen to your elder and you will do so with appropriate respect.”
Biting his teeth and careful to not let his annoyance show, Armand lowered his head in deference.
“Our spies have gathered information making it vital for someone to take action in this matter,” the woman with the soft-coarse voice said. “First of all, our intelligence says Christoph has given the elixir to a myre, which tells us he might have had more. Secondly, his death makes Trinity vulnerable to other ancients, and if one of those get their hands on the elixir…” The woman bled out a wave of horror. “Well, I don’t think I have to tell anyone why we can’ let that happen.”
“This is a mission of utmost importance,” the elder in the middle said. “It requires a delicate approach and you know your way around Trinity and their faction system.”
Armand let confusion color the air around himself. “Why delicate? As far as I know, Christoph lived all alone in his mansion, it shouldn’t be hard to infiltrate.”
The man on the left scoffed, his golden eyes hard. “Because, my dear Armand, the mansion is currently occupied by the myre he gave the elixir to and the manor has extensive protection surrounding it. Oh, and the elixir-touched myre is a reaver. We have no way of knowing if it wouldn’t be able to see through your intentions in seconds. Which is why you have to come up with another plan. A direct infiltration is too risky.”
Armand had to hide a dark grin. Not only was he presented with the option of finally getting his hands on the elixir; a reaver popping up like that was a very interesting detail. He had to prepare immediately.
He bowed his head again. “I thank the council of elders for bestowing such a meaningful mission to me.”
A snort sounded through the room, and sure enough, as Armand looked up it was the man on the left, sneering at him. “I was overruled concerning this. You have—“
The woman on the right silenced him with a gesture. “We are all aware of Armand’s past failure, Silas.” She leaned forward, warmth accompanying her smile.” This is your chance to redeem yourself, Armand. Don’t disappoint me.”
“I would never, my lady.” Armand hid another smirk, masking his true feelings behind a wall of pride, firmly set in place. It was dangerous to fool members of his own race like this. But once he had what he’d always wanted, it would all pay off. And getting it was worth almost any risk. He smiled up at the council, his thankfulness genuine. It wasn’t like he would ever come back here, regardless whether he succeeded or not, but he felt like showing them his true feelings for once.
Grass tickled Daphne’s feet as she placed her steps with care. Breathing out in a rush she swiped down her blade, using her entire body to put force behind the blow. Her sword connected with another and was swatted away with ease. She used the momentum to roll out of reach of the riposte and sprang to her feet. Without missing a beat, she attacked again.
Sweat ran down her body and her heart seemed to pulse behind her ears. With gritted teeth and straining, burning muscles, she refused to relent.
Just one hit. She only needed one. Her hands sweaty, she gripped the hilt of the huge sword tighter. Lunging forward she twirled in a circle, blocking a blow and rounded her opponent. Just when she thought she had it, her opponent feigned to the right and dove to the left, the broad side of her friend’s sword slapped her butt.
“Dead,” Kate yelled, her eyes brimming with mischief.
“How, on god’s green one, would I be dead if you poked my ass?” Daphne asked. She huffed, letting her sword sink down to her side.
Kate grinned. “Oh, you do not want to go there, hon. Besides, you nearly got me that one time.” She pursed her lips. “If you would listen to me and use a sword more your size you’d get the hang of this a lot quicker.”
Daphne glowered at her friend. There was no way she was using another and Kate knew that. It didn’t deter the terror from suggesting it over and over again though. To be fair, the sword was huge and heavy and completely not what Daphne should be using. But it was his. And it was the only thing she had left of him.
“Again,” Daphne demanded.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough for one night?” Kate asked even as she raised her blade and crouched down in wait.
Daphne gritted her teeth. “Not even close.”
Kate’s expression was drawn, but Daphne knew what her friend felt. She could taste her sweet worry and smell her incredulity, along with an underlining note of thick, warm respect that had never been there before.
Yes, Daphne was driving herself hard. And yes, it was showing. Her body felt beaten, and angry red welts and colorful bruises covered her skin from head to toe. They did vanish fairly quickly, but that didn’t stop her from harvesting a new batch each night. Yet, no matter how hard Daphne pushed her body, there was no calming or exhausting her mind. It didn’t help her sleep.
Four days. Four stinking, endless days. Days in which her mind had painted out scenarios, possibilities, and bullshit. Days which had been trying and sad for everyone. Their leader Toph, a nightmare and the ancient who had built and protected the myre community in Trinity, had not been the only casualty in their fight against his brother Alric.
One of the beast-shifter twins, Moe, had died. His brother, Max, had barricaded himself in his guestroom eversince. And then there was Edna... Her death had had nothing to do with Alric and his horde of narrow-minded, brainwashed freaks.
Jay had found the witch in her bookstore when he’d gone to check on her. It looked like the seraph who had been camping out there, looking for Daphne and Mist, had not left her alive. Daphne hadn’t really liked Edna, but the news was devastating nonetheless.
How the guy had been able to kill a witch of Edna’s skill was anyone’s guess. Not even Karen, the witch who had aided against Alric and was by now a friend to Daphne, could give any insights as to what might have happened.
On top of that heap of shit, Toph’s death was a real problem. Since he had been the one mentally protecting the city, every supernatural creature in Trinity was now fair game for any ancient who so happened to want to bring the myres here back into the fold of the caste system. As a result, the scent of uncertainty and fear blanketed everything around and inside the manor and it tore at Daphne. As much as she didn’t want to feel, or care, she did.
Daphne swallowed at the feelings Aileen had given her earlier. The werewolf and Kate took turns feeding her now, but their feelings were still foreign. Aileen’s were scratchy and warm, Kate’s slithering and chaotic. Daphne wasn’t used to them. She craved a different brand, from someone different. Hot anger searing her insides as she consumed it, lathering her soul with a burning balm. The only ones that made her feel real, grounded and comfortable. His feelings. But he wasn’t there to feed her. He wasn’t there to soothe her. And it was Daphne’s fault.
Waiting for an answer from Mist’s captors was torture, and it took every ounce of will in Daphne’s body not to throw caution to the wind and waltz into Ashenwall and get him back.
Since Mist had been taken away by seraphim under orders of their princess Celine—who was currently occupying a cell in the basement of the manor—it had been hard for Daphne to do anything. Breathing was hard, eating was tiresome, and sleeping was impossible. The souls inside her had gotten louder, they constantly pierced her mind, demanding attention. Demanding blood. Daphne had been close to falling back into old habits; even holding a brush made her want to stab someone or herself with the thing. She knew getting her ass handed to her on a nightly basis was not a healthy alternative, she craved the bruises and sores her training brought, they mollified the noisy souls. Like this she could lie to herself, tell herself what she did served a purpose. That she was preparing herself. The pain was something Daphne could focus on, something she was familiar with. And she might be immortal, in the sense that she wouldn’t die of old age, but decapitation, withdrawal and some sort of demon-made metal could still kill her. It was good to learn how to fight, at least that was what she told herself.
Normally Kate did the training, but sometimes when the terror had had enough Daphne would hound Nick to do it.
Nick was a dread demon, who had come to Trinity when Mist had called for help against the traditionalists. She had brought her best friend Jess, a fey, along. The two had stayed after the fight, partly because they wanted to get Mist back and partly because the guild Nick belonged to, the keepers, had ordered her to monitor the situation.
Nick was a superb teacher, she only said what she needed to and explained the how’s and why’s of every session clearly and in a way that was easy to follow. But Daphne didn’t like asking her, the main reason being that simply existing around Nick was hard for her. The demon was raw and vibrant, emotionally, a ‘hot mess’ and there was no way for Daphne to shield herself from it.
Daphne breathed out and blocked an attack from Kate. As she inhaled, she caught a cotton candy scent drifting across the grass. Daphne jerked to look for the source; only Germaine, the jinn who had been in Toph’s employ, smelled like that. A cotton-candy soul.
A swat on her arm and a cackle was punishment for her lapse in focus.
“Dead,” Kate said through a toothy grin.
Daphne put up a hand in acknowledgment and turned from her. “What is it Germaine?” she called into the darkness.
The jinn materialized a few paces away. He floated toward the two women, his normally purple body painted a dark gray in the moonlight.
“How do you do that, hon?” Kate asked Daphne, rubbing her sword hand on her leather pants.
The jinn cocked his head and a small smile played on his boyish face. “Apparently my soul has a very distinct scent.”
“Ew. That was a piece of info I could have lived without.” Kate snorted and sheathed her sword. “Well, I’m done for one night. Catch you later, hon.”
The terror shot Germaine a glare and trudged toward the house. Figured. Kate was not fond of the jinn and never spent more time in his presence than she had to. They both thrived off of pranking others and provoking them. The jinn was the only one Kate couldn’t catch off guard and it irked her beyond belief. He was made of smoke and her mind tricks didn’t work on him.
“What’s up?” Daphne asked the jinn again.
He floated closer, his eyes not meeting hers, while twisting one of the two solid, gold rings on his thumb around. With most other people Daphne would have just breathed in, identifying their feelings to know what was wrong. On him it didn’t work. From Germaine she only got hints and small flashes of feelings. Right now, she could smell puffs of sour, cold dread drifting around him.
“I need to speak with you,” he finally said.
“I thought as much.”
“I’m sorry. This is not easy for me and I don’t really know where to start.” He hung his head and his fluffy, pink clouds of hair swayed to cover his face.
Daphne nearly keeled over as she tried to sheathe her blade in its holster on her back. How did people make it seem so casual? Nick had no problem with it. “The beginning would be a start,” she muttered as she fiddled with her sword. Finally it slid where it was supposed to and she straightened.
“The beginning... No, that would take too long.” He floated closer and touched her arm. Before Daphne could pull away the world swirled and twisted before her, spiraling away in a flurry of color and movement. A second later they stood in the manor’s study and Daphne cupped a palm to her mouth to keep from ruining the floor.
“Dammit, Germaine! You know I hate that. Couldn’t we walk? It’s not like we took a trip around the world here.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I just... Ah...”
“Out with it. What is so important all of a sudden?” Annoyance nudged at the back of Daphne’s mind; these days she tended to have a very short temper.
“You are,” the jinn blurted. Then he hung his shoulders and waved to one of the couches. “Will you sit, please?”
Daphne frowned at his behavior but went over and parked it. He floated next to her, bobbing up and down like a helium balloon whose string was being tugged by an overeager child. The motion was making Daphne’s head swim and she looked away.
“You know, when the owner of a jinn dies he is set free. After a few days these,” he held up his thumbs, showing her the rings, “come off. They just melt away. But as you can see, they’re still on me. First, I thought master Christoph hadn’t died like you said. But I examined your old home and felt it. He is gone. So I began searching through the manor, trying to find the reason. The reason why I couldn’t leave. And uhm... Well I found this.”
He vanished in a puff of red smoke and reappeared a few seconds later, a piece of paper in his hands. With a glum look he slowly approached Daphne and handed it to her.
Daphne took the page from him and unfolded it. It was stained and looked like it had been torn from a book. With hasty strokes someone had written on it.
I know what you have done and I am proud, if a bit angry. This isn’t your fight. Not your burden. It is mine. Started a long time ago when I left Alric behind to be with your mother. He has never forgiven me for leaving the royal court, and he has never forgiven your mother for choosing me. There is only one way this can end. I have to do it.
I have no idea how you were able to shake my compulsion, a direct order, youngling, but it gives me hope. Hope you will fare better than I have. Hope you will make the right choices in life, despite me and mine. I know you, the fire inside of you, the will that just won’t be crushed, by anything. I know who you are. And I know I needn’t worry.
I am sorry for the burdens which will befall you, because I know in the end, our people will turn on you because of what I have left you. I wish it was different, but we can’t change who we are. And I can’t change my past actions.
The elixir I gave to you is a highly sought after, rare commodity. It has been known to empower myres to unspeakable degrees. I stole the last crate from my former home, the royal castle of ancients, to be able to make a home for free myres outside the caste system. Because an elixir touched ancient, a pure one, who doesn’t come into contact with other supernatural powers like Alric did, is said to grow so strong, he is able to use his gift of compulsion on his own people, enslaving them. I could not risk my kind destroying what I was about to build, so I took it with me. Good thing too, I have no doubt they would have used it against me if it had been an option for them.
What I am about to ask of you fills me with deep regret and guilt, yet, you are the only one who I dare entrust with this. The elixir must never fall into the hands of an ancient. Life as we know it here in Trinity would become unthinkable. Protect it with your life. At any cost. You are elixir-touched, if you trust in yourself you will become a force of monumental power. A worthy protector of the last elixir.
You are strong and loyal to those you love. I have watched you from the shadows your whole life, and I know you have one thing most others lack, the one thing needed to bring people together.
The capability to forgive. As I see it, you have already used that to turn one would-be foe into a friend.
I leave you everything I own, youngling. I think it is only fair, considering what I put you through and the fact that if I ever had a daughter, I’d like to imagine she would have been like you.
I wish your mother could see who you have become, but I’ll rest in peace knowing her death is finally avenged.
Christoph. First of his Name. Guardian of Trinity. Shielder of Dreams.
Daphne let the letter sink to her lap. She didn’t know what to say, or what to think.
“Uhm, so now you know,” Germaine said.
“The elixir… do you know where it is?”
The jinn shrugged. “Master Christoph has never shared that information with me but he has a secret study, which I will show to you if you’d like. It could very well be he stashed the elixir there.”
Daphne swallowed and nodded slowly. “I don’t… W—what exactly does ‘all that I own’ entail?”
Germaine sighed. “The mansion of course, his cars, his money, his extensive library, his secrets, his responsibilities, and oh yeah, me.”
“Excuse me?” Her gaze shot to the jinn.
A pained smile flashed over Germaine’s lips. “I don’t think he meant to give me to you, I think he simply forgot that’s how it works.” When Daphne just frowned at him he pointed one smoky finger to Toph’s signature. “See there?” He tapped the page.
Daphne squinted her eyes. It was written in a lighter color, not as black as the rest but a very dark red.
“He signed with his blood. Which makes it a binding contract.”
Germaine cocked his head. “What do you mean, no?”
“Exactly what I just said: No. Aside from the whole elixir thing, which I can get behind; I won’t own someone. You’re not a…” she looked around. “You’re not a fucking couch!”
The jinn smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “That is very nice of you to say but doesn’t change what is.”
“There has to be a way! Can’t I just release you? Use a wish to free you?”
Germaine shook his head, making all the pink fluff swivel. “A jinn who is gifted through a contract can’t be freed. I’ll be yours until you die.”
“Yeah. Not a word I would use, but yeah.”
As always, Daphne couldn’t sleep. Her mind churned, alive with countless voices and horrors. But for once Mist wasn’t on the forefront of it all. She owned a jinn. She actually owned another living being. That was just so wrong on too many levels. And there was nothing she could do about it. She guessed most people wouldn’t scoff at owning one; they were probably sought after. But she wasn’t most people, and the thought of having someone at her beck and call, for as long as she lived, just didn’t sit right with her.
What the hell had Toph been thinking? Gifting her, not only with a person, but with a staggering amount of responsibility? How was she, unstable and prone to descend ever deeper into madness, a good choice to protect something so vital? The old bugger had clearly been out of his mind.
Toph’s words in the letter, concerning his view of her, had touched Daphne deeply but she had never expected this.
Daphne pinched the bridge of her nose and counted to ten. She was about to burst, at least that was what it felt like. Inside her was hell and she was busy pushing at the agitated souls. Urges, thoughts, memories, the whole shiny deal was swamping her. Being alone brought them out to play, amplified them. The need to feel pain, to feel anything other than what she was currently going through, was becoming a pulsing thing in the pit of her stomach. Right now, all she wanted to do was scream. This…this shitshow of a state she was in? It was too much for one person to bear.
She tossed her pillow from the bed and kicked away the blanket.
Rufus, who had been nestled at her side, scurried away with a squeak.
Daphne stretched a palm out for him. “I’m so sorry, little rascal. Come here.”
Her pet rat scrutinized her for a few seconds, then slowly made his way over. She pulled him on top of her stomach and stroked his back. Concentrating on the feel of his soft fur helped, if only marginally.
The sound of Aileen and Kate going to bed in the room next door had her biting her lips, suppressing a whimper. When the first moan of ecstasy reached her ears, Daphne threw an arm across her face. She couldn’t stomach the sound of their lovemaking, not tonight. She loved Kate dearly and Aileen as well but listening to their love was setting the empty hole in her chest on fire.
The door of her room opened and Rufus struggled out of her hands and scurried to the edge of the bed. The smell of warm fur and dark musk preceeded the black panther entering the room. Jay, in his animal form, softly closed the door with a huge paw and strolled to the bed. Without looking at Daphne, he hopped atop the foot-end, nuzzled an exstatic Rufus and then curled around him, placing the bruxing rat next to his belly-fur. Loud purring erupted from the big cat, washing over Daphne in soothing waves. She lay back down, her heart aching. Jay had come to her like this yesterday already to help her sleep. As a felinne, he could amplify his calming aura, chasing away everything else.
Thankful as Daphne was, it broke her heart that he did it. With each wave of calm, she smelled a bout of Jay’s worry, coupled with his own heart-ache. He hated seeing her like this, he hated the fact she was like this, mainly because of Mist, even more.
Daphne could taste his honeyed affection for her every time he was near, and she saw it in his eyes too. He’d never said it, but she knew he was harbouring feelings for her, deep ones.
“Jay?” Daphne whispered, her throat ripe with tears.
He lifted his head, his green eyes piercing the darkness.
“You really don’t have to do this. I’m fine.”
The panther pulled up one flew, clearly calling her out on her bullshit, and lay his head back down. His fur looked silken and Daphne longed to snuggle up to both him and Rufus, but she didn’t dare. Letting Jay in here, letting him help her, weighed heavily enough on her conscience. She was not about to add to his misery by leading him on.
His presence was already affecting her, tired and strung-out as her body was, the calm Jay gave her made her eyes heavy within minutes.