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Traveling in spirit is a lot different than traveling in the body. The body gives you more strength – and more risk – but the spirit can see things beyond normal physical senses. As I rose up and up from the Otherworld, I saw it in all its beauty and power. People and objects were ringed in light, some brighter than others – like Dorian, who shone like a small sun. All around him and the others, the Alder Land glittered with its own aura, an aura that called out to me in a funny way. Leaving it felt strange, like part of me was being abandoned back there.
As for me, my soul grew wings as I crossed into the Underworld. I was dark, nearly black, and wore a graceful, avian shape. I was the Dark Swan, my totem, the shape my spirit naturally traversed the worlds in. I hadn’t had to use this shape in some time. I’d first developed the ability to move my spirit into the Otherworld wearing a shape nearly identical to my physical presence; I’d later learned to go over entirely in my own body. But this was not the Otherworld, and I needed the protection of my swan shape. The land of death did not like to give back its souls, and the closer I got, the more risk I faced. I could only pray Kiyo hadn’t fully entered it yet.
Feeling him was easy. My physical body was still close to his, and he and I had enough of a mental and spiritual bond that I could track him. But, as it turned out, he was far ahead of me. Too far. He had crossed the black gate. If I wanted to follow, I would have to enter the land of death in earnest. My return was doubtful.
And yet…I couldn’t just let him go. Not yet. Not when he’d died because of me. Not when he’d still followed, despite my rejection of him. Not after what we’d shared together.
Onward I flew, my wings sweeping over currents of power. I saw no gate per se, but I felt when I crossed it. The connection to my physical body trembled, and I knew I had just endangered it. Too much time here, and it would sever altogether. With that knowledge came another sensation as I crossed over, one so sharp and sudden that I might as well have been slapped in the face. It felt like a belly flop into a freezing pool – remarkable considering the soul did not feel physical sensations. Well, at least that was what I’d been taught. I’d never known any shaman who crossed over and survived to tell about it. Once I actually entered the world, I was suddenly awash in tactile feelings. Warmth swirled around, mixed with those streaks of icy cold.
For just an instant, I saw a world so beautiful, it made me ache inside. Color and light and wonder. Glimpsing it, I felt my connection to something much greater than myself, something I had never understood in the worlds of the living. I was drowning in it, in that burning bliss that made the euphoria of magic seem trivial. And just for a second, I nearly grasped all the meaning to life and death.
Then, in a blink, it was all gone, and I was plunged into darkness. I silently cried out, longing for the return of that beauty. Where had it gone? Why wouldn’t it come back?
A voice answered me, vaguely female. It spoke in my mind, reverberating through me and my being.
This world becomes what you bring to it. What do you bring?
The blackness shifted and became solid. I saw no light source, yet I could just barely make out the area in front of me. Ground appeared, cold and dead. Black rocks jutted out at odd angles, sharp and ugly. A chill wrapped me up. My field of vision was limited in that weird illumination. Everything beyond it was unfathomable darkness. In front of me, I made out a deeper blackness, surrounded by a faint gray outline. A doorway or a tunnel.
Was this what I was? Had I shaped my surroundings into cold darkness?
The voice spoke again: This world is what you make it.
Inside the tunnel, I could feel Kiyo. With no more thought, I took flight again, moving forward.
The darkness swallowed me once more. Then I emerged into an empty clearing. It looked like I was in a cave, surrounded by that same cold stone. An indeterminable source illuminated the room with stark light. There was no way out. I felt Kiyo ahead still but saw no way to get to him. Behind me, the path I’d come from was gone.
And then I wasn’t alone anymore. Shapes materialized around me. I recognized almost every one of them. The keres. The fachan. Finn. Some of the yeshin. An assortment of spirits. Countless other monsters. Countless gentry. Every being I had ever banished to this world. They filled almost every inch of space in the enclosure, crowding around me.
Their faces were horrible. Twisted reflections of what I used to know. They opened their mouths, screaming their terror and pain, reliving when I had killed or banished them. The group closed in, hands reaching out. They clawed at me, trying to gouge me and scrape away my skin.
The feathers were gone. I stood in my human form, quite ordinary-looking in casual clothes. The hands and faces closed in tighter, and I screamed as the mob tore me apart. Agony shot through every part of me, a terrible and consuming pain. I sank to the floor, trying to ward them off.
What will you give us? they seemed to ask as one. What will you give us to let you pass?
“What do you want?”
You sent us here without thought. You ripped our essence out of one world and into another. Do you know what that is like? To have your essence torn asunder?
“Show me,” I whispered.
It started inside of me. Like a small spark, noticeable only by a faint twinge. Like getting shocked with static electricity. Then it grew, spreading out like a mass of wriggling worms, eating me from the inside out. Only it was more than physical. It was like…a spiritual cancer. I could feel everything about me disintegrating. First, all the superficial things. My love of pajamas and Def Leppard. This was followed by the removal of things that identified me, that made me unique: my physical abilities, my shamanic powers, even my newfound magic. Next, my emotional connections were stripped away, making me forget everyone I knew or loved. My parents, Kiyo, Dorian, Tim, Lara…they all vanished, their memories blown to the wind. Finally, my base essence disappeared. Me as a physical and mental being. Eugenie Gwen Markham. A woman. Half human, half shining one. It was all gone, and I was nothing. I wanted to scream but had no means of doing so.
And then, I was back.
I sat huddled in a ball, alone in the cavern. Unfolding myself, I saw that I was whole. My self-knowledge had returned. Still shaking, I looked up and saw that a doorway had appeared. It was a way out, a way toward Kiyo.
I walked into the next tunnel, again entering the darkness. When I emerged, I found myself in a cavern exactly like the other. Only this time, I wasn’t alone. A man stood on the far side, his back to me as he studied the wall. Sensing my presence, he turned around.
He had reddish hair, streaked with silver and just barely touching his shoulders. The features of his face were striking, a square jaw and sharp angles. Handsome in a harsh sort of way. He wore clothes like the gentry, most of him covered by a sweeping cloak as rich as anything Dorian might own. Rich purple velvet. Jewels worked into the edges. A crown sat on his head, made of a gleaming metal too bright to be silver. Platinum, I thought. It was a masterpiece of metalworking, all scalloping and flowing edges, like a circle of entwined clouds. The edges of it met in a small point at the top of his forehead, like a faux widow’s peak. Diamonds and amethysts set among the lacy curves glittered in the weird lighting.
But it was his eyes that really seized me. They would not hold one color. They shifted, like clouds on a windy day. Azure blue. Silvery gray. Rich violet.
“Hello, Father,” I said.
The eyes held at a steady, deep blue as he looked me over. “You are not what I expected.”
“No matter. You will do. In the end, you’re only a vessel anyway. Your magic will grow, and those around you will eventually see that what needs to be done is accomplished, once your child is born.”
I shook my head. “I’m not going to have your heir.”
“Then you will not pass. You will die here.”
I didn’t say anything. Anger hardened his already fierce features, and whatever attractiveness I’d noted before vanished. I remembered my mother’s reaction, her pure and unwavering hatred for him. His eyes flickered again, turning from blue to a gray so dark it almost looked black.
“You are a stupid, foolish girl who has no idea what you’re doing. The fate of the worlds hinges upon you, and you are too ignorant and too weak to do anything about it. No matter. You are not the only one who can carry on the dream.”
“What, you mean Jasmine?”
He nodded. “She lacks your power and war instincts, but again, she is only a vessel. More important, she is willing. Aeson made sure of that. He visited her years before finally taking her. She knows her duty. She will see it through.”
A cold, heavy lump settled in my stomach. I had gone out of my way to avoid pregnancy, but Jasmine would not. She would be seeking it, purposely trying to have Storm King’s heir. All my smug contraceptive practices would mean nothing.
Storm King read my thoughts. “Maybe if you were the one, you could control the situation. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad if you were the heir’s mother. If your sister is the one, there will be no reprieve.”
“Don’t fuck with me just to get your way. It won’t work.”
The eyes darkened further. “Whatever you want, then. It makes no difference if you die here and stay with me.”
I stared at the far, blank wall, willing the stone to open. Beyond it I could feel Kiyo slipping away from me. My heart – if I had one in this form – beat more rapidly.
I closed my eyes. “What do you want me to do?”
Hands reached around from behind me, closing around my waist.
“Submit just once,” Aeson said in my ear. “Submit just once to me, and you can pass on.”
His hands pulled me against him, and I tried to squelch my rising nausea. Some reasonable part of me said it didn’t matter. None of this mattered. I wasn’t here in body. I couldn’t get pregnant. This wasn’t actually happening.
Yet…it seemed so real. And for all intents and purposes, it was. His hands upon me. His breath against my neck. It felt exactly as it would in physical form, as I knew it was intended to.
I opened my eyes and saw my father watching me. Beyond him, Kiyo moved farther away.
“All right,” I said, barely recognizing my own voice.
Aeson turned me around and kissed me, harsh and bruising, uncaring that my lips stayed inert and did not kiss him back. He pulled me down, putting my back against the sharp planes of the stone. The last thing I saw before all went to blackness was Storm King looking down at me, face cold and uncaring. I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the mental and physical hurt.
When I let myself see again, I sat on the ground, palms down against the hard surface. Just like before, I felt no more pain, and I could tell my clothes were whole once more. Another illusion…one my body had no memory of but which would stay etched in my mind for some time, I suspected. Standing up, I moved forward, on toward Kiyo.
Someone else was waiting for me in the next chamber, a man I’d never seen before. He was slim and small, dressed in scarlet velvet bordering on outlandish. He held a small cloth-wrapped bundle in his hands and paced around nervously. When he caught sight of me, his face brightened with relief.
“There you are, your majesty!” he exclaimed. “I’ve been waiting.”
“Waiting for what?”
He proffered the bundle before me. “To give you your crown. You have to put it on.”
I eyed the bundle nervously and then looked at the smooth, blank wall between Kiyo and me. “Is that what I need to do to get through? Put on the crown?”
He nodded, shifting from foot to foot. “Hurry. We’re running out of time.”
I knew what the crown was for. I knew what Dorian had done outside of Aeson’s fortress. Somehow, some way, I had gained the Alder Land. I had become its queen. I sure as hell didn’t want it, though. If I made it away from here alive, I’d definitely rectify the problem. But if wearing the crown here was what it took to pacify this next sadistic torment, then I would do it. It was a whole lot easier than everything else I’d been through.
“Fine. Give it to me.”
He handed me the bundle. I unwrapped and nearly dropped it when I saw what lay inside.
Aeson had worn a gold circlet. Dorian’s crown, which he rarely wore, was similarly simple. It resembled a ring of leaves, beaten out in different metals: silver, gold, and copper. Presumably Maiwenn and the rest of the Otherworldly monarchs wore similar items.
But this…this was not a simple circlet. It was heavy and platinum, an intricate swirl of metal set with diamonds and amethysts. Storm King’s crown. Only it was smaller. A bit more delicate. Designed for a woman.
“What is this?” I exclaimed.
The man gave me a puzzled look. “Your crown.”
“This isn’t the Alder Land’s crown. This is my father’s crown.”
“What else would you wear, your majesty?”
I tried handing it back to him, but he stepped away from it. “I don’t want it. I won’t wear it.”
“You have to. It’s the only way.”
He looked at me pleadingly, almost like he wanted me to move on to the next stage of this game as much as I did. I didn’t need his entreaty. I wanted to move on too. Badly. Badly enough to finally lift the crown up with shaking fingers and rest it on my head.
Instantly, I no longer stood in the chamber. I was on a high, cragged peak, overlooking vast sweeping plains. The sky was dark and heavy with clouds, and lightning danced among them. Below, on the plains, armies stretched as far as the eye could see. Armies of gentry and spirits and the myriad creatures living in the Otherworld. The crown felt heavy on my head yet did a poor job of holding down my hair as the wind whipped it around. A gown of indigo velvet embraced my body, and a black and silver fur cloak draped my shoulders. In my left hand, I held my wand, and in the crook of my other arm, I held a baby.
It was wrapped up in white blankets, its eyes closed. A fine haze of hair, its color indistinct, swept over its head. I had no idea who its father was – I didn’t even know if it was a boy or girl – but some instinctual part of me knew it was mine. Tentatively, I reached out with my fingers and touched that fine hair. It felt like down, like the softest, finest silk imaginable. The baby stirred slightly at the touch, snuggling against me, and something inside of me stirred as well.
I jumped as a hand encircled my waist, and a warm body moved next to mine. Dorian. A sword hung at his side, and a new crown sat on his head, more elaborate than his former circle of leaves. It was made of thick gold, heavy with jewels and dazzling to behold. But it wasn’t as big as mine.
“They’re waiting for your order,” he said.
I followed his gaze out to the fields of people and saw that they were all on their knees before me, heads touching the earth. Above them, thunder rumbled as the storm swirled restlessly.
“I don’t know what to do,” I told him.
“What you have to do.”
As though moving of its own accord, the hand holding my wand rose into the air. The armies rose with it, like I was a puppeteer pulling marionettes to life. A great roar sounded among them, swords banging on shields and magic flaring in salute. One downward motion, and I knew they would march. One motion from me, and I would unleash hell itself. The roar intensified. Dorian’s body shifted closer. The baby stirred again.
My hand felt heavy and started to fall….
I stood alone in the stone chamber. No man. No crown. The doorway had appeared, and I lunged for it.
The darkness engulfed me, and I swear the tunnel had grown more narrow than before. Still I moved onward. I could feel Kiyo growing closer and closer. I ran, needing to find him, needing to reach out to him, needing to –
And there he was.
He lay on a small dais in this new chamber, wearing his human shape. He was on his back, whole and perfect, his hands clasped on his chest like a sleeping fairytale princess.
I moved toward him, and a woman moved in front of me.
I didn’t know how I hadn’t seen her before. She had just appeared. I looked at her and squinted, trying to focus, but had trouble. Her appearance kept shifting. One instant she was golden and lovely, honey-blond hair pouring to her ankles. The next she was pale as death, black hair sweeping behind her like a funeral shroud, yet still beautiful in a frightening sort of way.
Persephone herself blocked my path, and I knew there was no way I could go through her.
“Let me have him. Please. I’ve passed all the tests, just like you wanted.”
What I wanted? It was the same voice I’d heard before, only now amusement tinged its edges. None of that mattered to me. They were not my tests. This world is what you bring to it. Most of the dead bring guilt or regret. You brought your fears.
I peered beyond her to Kiyo, my soul screaming out to his.
“What do you want? What do I need to do to take him?”
What makes you think I’ll give him to you? He’s mine. I received him fairly. The dead do not leave my realm.
I racked my brain, turning over every story or myth I’d ever heard.
“What about Orpheus? You let him take Eurydice.”
But in the end, she did not leave. He was not strong enough. She stayed.
“You don’t need him, especially since I’ve sent you so many other souls.”
Was it truly for me? Or your own ends?
“Does it matter?”
Perhaps not. But now I have two more, and I do not have to give them up.
“Then do it as a favor,” I begged.
A favor? Her amusement grew. Why would I do that?
“Because I’ve served you faithfully. And because we’re the same. I’m trapped in two worlds too, and I don’t think I can get out of that. I’m torn in two forever now.”
I touched the butterfly tattoo on my arm, half black and half white. Just like Persephone, who spent half her existence as a goddess of springtime and half as a ruler of death. Just like me, half human and half gentry. Half lover, half killer. In Swan Lake, Odile is the dark swan and Odette is the light swan, yet both are played by the same dancer.
She only stared, and I desperately tried to think of something. “You said this world is what we bring. I brought love too. Doesn’t that count for anything?”
She considered. That depends. Will you give up your love? Sacrifice it to me? Promise you will stay away from him forever, that you will forsake your love.
I stared at Kiyo’s inert form, thinking how it would be to never see him again. Something inside of me died at that thought, but I didn’t hesitate.
“All right. I agree.”
Persephone stared at me a moment, then Kiyo vanished.
It is done.
“You sent his soul back? He’ll live?”
If his body is healed soon, then yes, he’ll live.
She continued staring at me, and I realized I’d made no such guarantees for my own return. In fact, I could no longer feel that glittering connection to my own body.
You are trapped here, she affirmed.
“I know. It’s okay. It’s worth it.” And I meant it. Kiyo’s life meant more than my own.
Her blue-to-black-to-blue eyes held me. Then, as improbable as it seemed, she sighed.
Go back. Go back to your dual existence. I will see you again someday, and then you will stay.
Her fingers touched my forehead, and a searing pain ran through me. My form disappeared in a flurry of feathers and black wings, and I felt myself being pulled out of this world. Just before I left completely, she spoke again. Her voice was tired and maybe just a little sad.
Keep your love. I have no use for it anymore.
An instant later, I woke up in my physical body, gasping and choking for air as I returned to life.
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READY TO PLACE AN ORDER