The following is still subject to change, as it is being edited.
Wings of Ash
The woman crinkled her nose in disgust as she descended the damp stairs. She had to remind herself not to touch the narrow walls on either side, as moisture and fungy glistened in the unsteady light of the torch she held up. The smell was abhorrent. Wet rot, and excrements. And she—Lady Aurnia Esteph—was forced to sneak through this hidden staircase into the dungeons.
Her lips spread in a bitter smile; they would all pay for this. Dearly. She was going to end them for this slight, for this unforgivable misstep.
With an indignant huff, she stepped from the last stair and made her way down a corridor to her right, entering a maze of damp passages. She’d memorized the way long ago and slinking through this hellhole was easy, if disgusting to boot. Finally, she walked from a hidden nook and found herself in the farthest part of the dungeon.
The cells on either side of her, housed those long forgotten, wasting away. Empty eyes glittered in empty sockets. Most of the inhabitants too weak to lift a finger, or summon more than a feeble groan.
Lady Esteph’s destination was a little way on. The one she looked for was nearly forgotten, but not yet, and never by her.
She hiked up the basket she carried and swiped a palm over her black cloak, brushing away non-existent bits of lint. Even traversing this grime-filled, dank place, no hair was out of place, and no spot or stain marred her clothes.
Taking a deep breath and a moment to square her shoulders, she forced her perfect face into a smile and stopped before a cell. “I brought you food,” she whispered.
Slowly a figure stepped into the light of Lady Esteph’s torch. She was beautiful, would have been in everyone’s eyes. Her long black hair and astoundingly blue eyes were the same as Lady Esteph’s, but where her hair was straight; the woman in the cell had tight curls, and where Esteph’s eyes were round and bright, the other woman’s were almond-shaped, glaring catlike at the torch.
“What kind?” she hissed, her voice—though melodic—clipped and sharp.
Esteph placed the torch into an iron holder next to the cell and pulled the cloth atop the basket to the side, revealing an assortment of different foods. She handed the woman inside a pie and watched as she visibly forced herself to take small bites.
“I have good news, Lexi,” Esteph said. “Our goal may be close.”
Lexi swallowed silently. “It is about time. I have been rotting in this cell for fifty years now.”
“I know, darling, and very soon you will be free. Not only that, you will rule the world at my side.”
The woman’s catlike eyes narrowed as they turned to pitch-black. “And they will pay?”
Esteph gripped the bars with a hand, cursing the impenetrable magic keeping Alexandra from freedom. “Yes, my daughter. All of them will pay.”
She’d dreaded coming back. Not only did she dislike cities in general, but this particular one held atrocious memories. Celine rolled her shoulders back to dim the ache stemming from two scars where her wings used to manifest. They were gone now, but she could still feel them hurt. Just like she could still smell the fire that used to inhabit her—but had been stolen. She’d gotten used to the constant chill without its warmth, the silence without its whisper, but she was achingly aware of the loss; every waking moment.
She blew out a breath and drew her new jacket tighter around her body. There was a hint of winter in the wind blowing through her brunette hair, and she tucked the straying strands behind her ears. With an uneasy stomach she stepped away from the car she’d gotten out of and braved the distance to the iron gate ahead along a muddy road. The path wound up beyond the gate and disappeared to the right behind a cliff. Celine’s fingers hurt in the chilly air as she fumbled with the lock for a few seconds before the she got it right. The gate swung open with a lamenting creak—jarring her—before embedding its lowest part deeply into the mud.
The engine of the car roared as it shot past her, the driver not looking up. He stopped inside the fence though, waiting for her to close the gate again. Celine made quick work of her task, and glanced at Trinity—the city nestled in the valley below—the city she was not keen on visiting again.
“We’re almost there,” her companion said when she closed her door. “The place is only a bit higher up.”
He hadn’t spoken much since they’d left Haven; the silence a two-way street. She wasn’t interested in talking and he had nursed several wounds during the journey. Celine had gotten used to the pain he shared from time to time. She wasn’t sure if he did it on purpose or not, but had soon come to the conclusion that she didn’t much care for him either way. As a sympath, he was naturally communicating through his feelings, not so much his words. It wasn’t a concept Celine was comfortable with.
“Right,” she mumbled.
“When we get there, let me do the talking.”
“Afterwards I’ll stay up there, to report back to our lady. Our connection would be void if I entered the city. There is a cellphone in the glovebox, you’ll use that to stay in touch with me. I expect one call at dusk and one at dawn, every night. Keep your updates clear and short. If anything unforeseen happens, you call and I will help to my abilities.”
The underlying fear she felt worming up her stomach was not her own, and she knew he was trying to influence her into fearing him. Tool.
Celine reached for the latch in front of her and yanked the glovebox open. Sure enough, there lay the cellphone and she snagged it before shutting the box with a resounding sound. “Why don’t you come with me? You could call her on a cell, you know.” She was careful to not let her annoyance coat her voice. From his raised brows, Armand had gotten the message. There was no point in pushing the issue.
“Two reasons. One, a lot of people in Trinity know me by now and if I were to be seen with you, you’d have zero chance of infiltrating Reaver Manor. Two, because it’s Lady Esteph’s wish.”
Another bout of fear rolled through her, making her initial control snap. “Right. You failed the last time you tried.”
He glanced her way, his eyes pulsing with golden light for a second. “Daphne is formidable. And she knew I was the enemy, which is why you need to befriend her.”
“What makes you think she’d buy it? She can sense feelings, no?” Celine said through her teeth. Just the thought of befriending that bitch—the one who’d cut off her wings and in so doing stole her fire—even if it was to deceive her, was maddening.
“You’ll see,” Armand said. “We’ve had an item delivered to our destination, something that’ll help with your quest.”
Celine pocketed the phone and crossed her arms. Judging from his closed-off expression, he was done talking, and she was done asking. This whole endeavor had her chest burning with a variety of mixed emotions. She was afraid, mostly because of Armand’s stupid trick, angry, sad, and driven. She wanted—needed—revenge. It might have been the deception of her mother that had led Celine to lose her wings, but ultimately the reaver had taken them. And with that she’d taken everything. Her powers, her people, her title, her home. Anger took the driver’s seat at those thoughts, and she was baffled once again how she’d been able to look the reaver in the face and leave. How she’d been able to tell her people to leave the reaver alone.
A fist of leaden discomfort closed around her heart at the memory of that particular conversation. It was pure luck that she hadn’t spoken to her mother—but to Caspar, the captain of the guard. The guard who had answered to her once. He hadn’t been able to meet her eyes when he’d flown down to meet her at the bottom of Ashenwall’s outer walls. Celine fought back the tears springing up at the back of her throat. She had walked there. Walked. And there was no entrance to that place for people who couldn’t fly. People like her.
Caspar had listened, nodded, and promised to carry forth her message. No acknowledgement of them knowing each other… intimately. It wasn’t like they’d been a couple, but she had deigned to let him into her bed from time to time. That day? Not one word from him that didn’t need to be said. It was the moment Celine had truly understood what it meant to lose her wings. She was nothing, she didn’t belong. Anywhere.
Adrift like a ship without a sail she’d wasted away—until Lady Esteph had offered her a purpose. And the means to carry out that purpose. Whatever those might be.
Celine sat up when they reached the top of the mountain. Numerous small houses and tents settled into the side of a hill that semi-circled a plateau. Caves littered the rocks, from which watchful eyes scrutinized their approach. She could feel them watching, even if she couldn’t see anyone. This was the camp of the Others. The fourth Trinity faction, for myres too different to live inside the city itself. Or for those that didn’t like cities. Celine would likely end up in a place like this eventually, once her deed was done—if she survived.
Armand stopped the car and turned off the engine. “Let’s go,” he said. “Keep close to me and don’t talk to anyone. Some of these folks are loyal to Trinity.”
Grudgingly she got out and followed the sympath across the plateau. He was heading for one of the bigger houses. Set directly into the rocky wall behind it, the building seemingly grew from the rock itself.
Armand knocked on the door to a strange rhythm and after a few seconds it opened a fraction.
“I’m here under orders from our lady. The Lady of Haven,” Armand explained.
The door swung open and Celine relished the warmth fanning over her face when she stepped inside. A fire blazed in the back of the room and her eyes immediately went to it. She marveled at the ever-dancing flames, her heart warming along with her body.
Armand’s voice tore her from her musings. “Celine, this is Clara.”
She turned to the woman who stood next to the door and nodded. One look at her and Celine knew why she lived out here. Clara was a ‘visible’. A kind of demon who had experienced trauma in her youth. A trauma so severe, her change had stopped mid-demonic and stuck that way. It was—regrettably—not uncommon for her kind. Her scales were skin colored and spanned her elbows and parts of her face. Horns curled back from above her temples, short and hardly developed, she’d have to have been very young when it happened.
“Clara, Celine,” Armand waved a hand at Celine.
The demon didn’t look up, but Celine saw the flash of her eyes. One was yellow with a slit pupil, and one blue—human-looking. She shuffled over to the fireplace. “Please sit,” she said when she reached the group sitting before the fireplace.
Celine didn’t have to be told twice. She took the seat closest to the flames and spread her cold fingers toward it, almost sighing at the familiar sound and heat.
Armand and Clara had watched her but didn’t remark and sat down themselves.
“How have things been?” the sympath asked.
“Normal,” Clara answered. “The faction is still scrambling for a new leader since Julia. Some have left, others have joined, but overall, they don’t concern themselves with the goings-on in Trinity. Most of them enter the shield daily, to protect themselves against ancients. But the over-all mood is that the witch who drew up the protection should have widened the radius. They feel left out, and some are getting angry about it.”
Armand smirked and the sudden urge to grin struck Celine, but she denied it and rolled her eyes. Proximity to a sympath sucked big time.
“Perfect. Did you get what I asked for?” Armand asked Clara.
The demon nodded and pulled a small parcel from her pocket. “I have not let it out of my sight, sir.” She offered it to Armand who took it.
“Good girl,” the sympath said while ripping the paper open. He shook a silver band from it into his palm, closed his fist around it and shut his eyes for a few seconds. “Yes,” he said, opening his eyes that shone golden now. “This should work fine. Celine, put this on.”
He offered the ring to her and she hesitantly took it and drew it over her ring-finger. It fit perfectly—and was strangely warm. “Is this…a choker?” she asked, feeling a small thrum of magic coming from it. She had heard of them but never seen one; rings that protected against the powers of a soul reaver.
“Something similar.” Armand smiled. It never reached his eyes. “A coven of witches has been working on it for some time now. It is a reduced choker. It only shields deeply anchored feelings, while letting the surfacing ones through.” He leaned back in his recliner. “That way, Daphne won’t know you’re hiding something from her.”
“Oh no. No, no, no. She’ll see right through it,” Celine said and tugged the ring off again. “You know that she does this thing where she turns golden and sees every-fucking-thing? Right? This will not fool her.”
Armand looked at the ring, then at her. “She took your wings, she imprisoned you, and she has already looked at your soul. If I know anything about my daughter, it’s that she has a soft heart. I bet in her mind she did you wrong, and she will—if anything—seek your forgiveness. All you have to do is find a way inside the manor. Once you’ve accomplished that, you will trick her to follow you outside of Trinity—bringing her here would be a good idea. And if you happen upon any information regarding the elixir, you’ll let me know.”
Again, he sent a sliver of fear her way, and she was just about done with his shit, when she remembered that in truth; he had every right to treat as he did. Even her own kind would treat her a lot worse. Still, it took much effort to wrangle her anger down and not snap at him. Judging by his scowl, he knew.
Celine nodded once.
“Remember, you made a promise—a binding one. Do not disappoint our lady by getting killed before you can fulfil it.”
“Don’t worry,” Celine said through clenched teeth. “I have nothing to lose, and only gratification to gain. I will do everything I can to uphold my promise. But what exactly do you propose I do? Roll up to the gates of her place and demand entrance?”
“For example, yes,” Armand spat.
“Well that won’t be conspicuous at all,” Celine drawled.
The tension in the room was palpable as Celine and Armand glowered at one another, until Clara cleared her throat subtly. “You could also start at a pub in Trinity, where many myres gather during the night. The bartender deals in information and maybe one of the patrons will know a thing or two. When you get there, ask for Mary, and tell her you are a ‘new face’. It means you fled the caste system and she will talk to you. I guess it wouldn’t hurt to have as much info as you can get before you go to Reaver Manor.” She slumped into herself when Armand’s glare focused on her.
“Good idea!” Celine snapped. “This is actually helpful, Armand.”
He snarled at Celine. “Careful, stop acting like something you’re not, princess.” The sympath smiled evilly, sending a bout of chilling disgust her way. “Oh, I forgot—you’re not a princess anymore—technically, you’re not even a seraph.”
It took everything she had not to jump at his throat hearing those words. His grin widened when her eyes darkened and she grabbed the padding of the armrests so roughly she nearly ripped them off. “Clara,” she said, her voice icy. “Where is this bar and what’s it called?”
“Downtown,” the demon answered. “It’s called ‘Hail Mary’.”
“Excellent.” Celine jumped from her seat and stomped through the room. She wrenched open the door and blew out a breath.
“Don’t forget to stay in touch, princess,” Armand called. “Every dusk and dawn.”
Celine fled into the wind, slamming the door behind her. She strutted through the open space, and back to the dirt road that had taken them here. She could only hope the walk to Trinity would cool her ire, otherwise she’d have a serious problem.
All Hail Mary
The city looked different on foot, less magical and a lot more run down. Smelled worse too. Like sewage, smoke and fast food. Celine wrinkled her nose as she walked through the narrow streets of downtown Trinity. Her mood hadn’t improved by much, unless one counted that she was now angry and almost frozen stiff. A humorless chuckle took hold of her when she remembered the last time she’d been here. How different she’d been, how different the world had been. She’d been unstoppable, a true force to be reckoned with. A fucking princess.
Yes, she’d grieved her father’s death, but there was a lead on getting revenge, and a loyal squad following her every order. Most of them were dead now—thanks to her mother, Queen Estelle, who had betrayed Celine, and the reaver, who’d gotten them killed.
Thoughts about her mother plagued her nightly, and she pushed them down as good as she was able. But it wasn’t easy. A part of her still couldn’t believe her mother had killed her father, but the reaver—of all possible people—had made her see. How on earth she’d been able to transfer a memory to Celine was anyone’s guess, but Celine had known it to be true. Without a doubt. Her mother had sent her on a rampage, spending time, money, good men and sorrow, chasing the wrong person. Mistrael the seraphim slayer. The killer of her kind. And she had succeeded where her father had failed for years, she’d caught him. Only to end up a prisoner herself—she was able to admit that her hubris had been at fault there. Had she just left, the reaver wouldn’t have been able to touch her. But she had gravely underestimated the woman and her determination to get her zephyr back.
She scowled at a passing man who grinned at her, missing several teeth. Even in his clearly inebriated state he recoiled from her and shuffled away. It made Celine’s spirit lift somewhat.
“Still got it,” she whispered to herself. She punched her fists deeply into her pockets and sped up her steps. It smelled a bit like snow and she wanted to reach the pub Clara had told her about before she froze to death in this miserable place.
A few blocks farther she saw the ‘Hail Mary’ sign she’d been looking for. Loud music came from within and Celine grimaced before entering. She hated noise, and crowds. This sure was a place with an abundance of both. Just walking into the pub was an assault on her senses. She was thankful for the warmth, but the stale smell of beer, roasted meat, cigarettes, and man-sweat was nothing short of a disgusting mix. Celine weaved, dodged, and glared her way through to the bar where a black-haired, large-bosomed woman served drinks while yelling intermittently.
“You Mary?” Celine shouted over the noise.
Green eyes found her. “Who wants ta know?” Her accent was heavy, clearly not from around here.
“A new face,” Celine answered as instructed by Clara.
“Good for ya, lass,” the woman said. “And if that’s true, then yeah, I’m Mary.” Lightning quick, the woman pulled a knife from her side, slammed the blade into the counter to her right, inches from an outstretched hand. “You fucking know that isn’t yours, Alan,” she told the man who’d been busy reaching for a filled glass of beer. “Pay first, then drink.”
“Aww, come on Mary!” the man pleaded. “You know me.”
“Exactly. And your tab is as long as me.” The woman pulled the knife back and held out her hand. The man grudgingly placed a few bills into her palm while grumbling profanities.
“Thanks, love,” Mary said and winked at him, dividing the money up between her cleavage and a purse on her hip. “Always the generous tipper.”
“You’re killing me, woman,” Alan said, snagged the beer and stomped off.
“So,” Mary said, and refocused on Celine. “What do ya need? I deal in entertainment, alcohol, and information.” She tilted her head, letting her gaze roam over Celine. “You’re too pretty to be looking for a job, but I might know people who’d give you a roof over your head for the day.” She swiped away a black strand of hair, sticking to her sweaty forehead. “But whatever you’re here for, it’s gonna cost you.”
Celine procured money from her pocket and slid it over the dirty bar. Mary snatched it up and added it to the cash stuffing her cleavage.
“I need information,” Celine said and bent closer. “What do you know about… the reaver?”
Mary’s eyes widened a fraction and started to glow subtly in an amber color, revealing her to be a werewolf. “I don’t know much about that one. Lives in Toph’s old manor, saved the city not long ago. Weird for a reaver, if you ask me. She is surrounded by a lot of powerful myres.” She leaned forward a little more. “They say she can do things…things no reaver can.” Then she shrugged. “But I don’t know that much for sure. I only saw her once; she came here close to withdrawal and Toph saved her life.”
Mary smirked. “A new face indeed. The ancient who founded the myre community in this very city. The one who offered us a haven away from the system. Freedom. How do you not know about him?”
Celine stared. “The Christoph? The Guardian of Trinity? The ancient who broke from tradition, that Christoph saved her?”
“Yep, the moongoddess bless his soul. But if you wanna know more about that reaver, you should wait a few minutes.” She glanced at her watch. “I have a nightly visitor who knows all about her.”
Mary poured a glass of beer and placed it in front of Celine. “To nurse during waiting.” She nodded over to a table in a far corner. “That one is free, I’ll send the guy over once he comes in, kay?”
“Can I trust him?” Celine asked.
Mary laughed. “Lass, ya can’t trust anyone in this life, least of all a hot man with a reputation.” With that, the bartender’s attention shifted to the next customer and Celine appeared to be all but forgotten.
Celine made her way over to the indicated table and sat down. She sipped her beer, while watching her surroundings with care. She hoped the ‘hot guy with a reputation’ Mary had been referring to didn’t want money from her as well. She’d hated to ask Armand for the cash she had on her even before their little argument earlier. And there was no way she’d ask him for anything ever again.
It wasn’t like she’d taken her inheritance with her when she’d gone on the hunt for her father’s killer. The money she’d taken along, had been spent on the high witch, to spy for Mistrael and the reaver.
After a sip of her beer, she cracked her knuckles and sat back. So many different myres in one place was a remarkable sight. Celine shook her head. They didn’t even try to hide. She could see a table of witches playing a sort of drinking game while using magic. Their runes hovered around them, as did their drinks. Next to them, a fully demonic man arm-wrestled a vampire, a drove of people surrounded them, yelling and waving money around, betting on the outcome. The demon slammed the vampire’s hand into the table, sprang from his chair to the sound of cheers and thumped his chest like an overgrown gorilla. He grabbed the fey jumping up and down in clear delight at his side and kissed her deeply.
Celine raised a brow at the public display of interracial affection. She wasn’t used to it but couldn’t help a smirk from taking hold of her lips, as even more cheers erupted courtesy of the make-out session.
She let her gaze wander further and met the eyes of a man surrounded by a group of guys. His attention was focused solely on her as if he’d been trying to figure out which cheesy pick up line would work best on her. His lip tipped up ever so slightly and he winked. Great. He thought of something. Celine groaned and rolled her eyes; she was not in the mood for company of any kind. But she was shit out of luck because the man sauntered over to her table. Her sword hand twitched to her side, making her painfully aware that she didn’t have her beloved weapon anymore. Another thing that had been lost since that fight with the reaver.
“This seat taken?” the man asked next to her, smirking, and giving his buddies behind him the thumbs up. He flopped down uninvited and placed a hand on her upper thigh. His skin had hardly made contact with her, when Celine grabbed his wrist, drew his arm up between his shoulder blades with one hand—planting his face soundly into the table with the other.
“No,” she hissed. “But that doesn’t mean I want company.” She bent him back, kicked the legs of the chair forward, so it tilted and crashed to the floor with the idiot inside it. Celine sat down again, swiped up her beer and took a swig, not fazed in the slightest by the gaping mouths and bug eyes she was getting from the near silent room.
The man at her feet scrambled up and left her vicinity without a word, to the whooping and howling amusement of his buddies. The room returned to the noisiness from before, but now she was getting a slew of curious looks. Celine sighed and drew up the hood from her jacket, to better ignore them.
She grimaced. The jacket Armand had bought on the way here. A hideous, beige thing that wasn’t nearly warm enough. But she’d needed one. Again, she cursed her lack of cash. She’d have to come up with a way to earn a bit of money. And soon. Maybe she should look into the arm-wrestling thing, as a seraph she was incredibly strong, fire or no fire. She’d have the element of surprise. The royal tattoos lining her cleavage and collar bones where hidden by the jacket and nothing else indicated what she was. Not anymore.
Watching the demon arm-wrestle for another few minutes, she eventually finished her beer. It can’t hurt to try, she thought to herself. And it was a way of releasing some of that pent-up anger. Even after the short debacle a few moments ago, she was still pissed beyond good reasoning.
Celine placed the empty glass on her table, got out the few bucks she had left and made her way over to the demon. His winning streak was about to take a nosedive.