â€œQueen of Allâ€ Extended Excerpt
The Masks of Under
Kathryn Ann Kingsley
â€œKneel for meâ€¦or kill me.â€
The look in his eyes. There had been such dark desperation, hunger, and desire. He meant every word. That was the choice before her. There was no third way out. There was nowhere left to run, nowhere left to hide.
Submit or take his marks and end his life.
Really, that was what she should do. Take the second option and end the havoc and the death.
Thatâ€™d be the logical choice.
The moment they had reappeared from the battlefield, he had pinned her to a column in his bedroom. In a panic, she had summoned a knife and tried to defend herself. Now she held that obsidian blade against the pitch-black ink on his pale cheek, and he made no move to stop her. In fact, he turned his head so she had better access and a clean shot to slice them off.
She should kill him. She really should.
Itâ€™d be the smart thing to do.
She never claimed to be smart.
He watched her with that icy, stone-like expression of a king, a man who was the master of everything around him, but his eyes were flashing in fascination and that heady mix of darkness and passion she had come to love so much. He might be like the oldest brother to the man she knew, but this was stillâ€”in some strange and horrible wayâ€”her Aon.
â€œWell? Make your choice.â€
She couldnâ€™t do it.
As her grasp on the blade loosened, his expression smoothed into a haughty one. He could see her defeat. He traced his flesh-and-blood hand slowly up her arm, leaving goosebumps in his wake. As he reached the back of her hand, he gently took the knife from her. Slowly enough that she could change her mind. Gently enough that she could argue.
She let him.
Her hand was trembling. She was trembling. His presence was washing over her like a dark cloud, like a fog. He flicked his wrist and tossed the knife away, letting it skitter across the floor toward the wall.
Aon stepped into her, pinning her to the column. His other hand grasped her hair, holding her head still, as his lips descended on hers.
The warlock was like a whirlwind or the crash of a storm as he overtook her instantly. God, how quickly she melted against him as he kissed her, possessive and passionate. He turned his head to deepen it, demanding entrance to her mouth with his tongue. She let him in without any resistance, letting her eyes slip shut. The stone column felt more escapable than he was right now.
He moaned against her lips. When he finally let up from the kiss, she was breathless and trembling. His own chest was heaving. He let his finger trail across her lower lip, swollen from his attention.
He took another step back, releasing her, leaving her standing there on her own, shivering at his sudden absence even in the hot air of the desert that flowed through the room. He seemed to be waiting for her to do something. But what?
Then it hit her.
â€œKneel for meâ€¦or kill me.â€
If she couldnâ€™t do the latter, then he expected the former.
Swallowing the lump in her throat, her stomach twisted into a knot, that same familiar sense of fear and excitement he had always had over her. He was terrifying and always had been. And now, he was a whole different animal.
â€œYou asked me to take what was mine. Do not forget that.â€
â€œBecause you made me.â€
â€œAnd what did I give you in return?â€
Lydia cringed and lowered her head, her hands tightening into fists. She had asked him to take her, but to spare the lives of everyone else. She shouldnâ€™t have been so surprised he was going to take her words very literally. That was what he had been wanting her to do, after all. And no small part of her wanted the same thing.
â€œDo not look so morose. You will lead me to think you have not anticipated this as much as I.â€ He chuckled at the defiant glare she gave him, and his features twisted into a playful, fiendish grin. One that was almost familiar. â€œWhat an expressionâ€¦how long will you stay bitter at me, I wonder?â€
â€œA good long while,â€ she snapped back at him angrily.
He let out a thoughtful noise as he watched her. â€œFear, anger, and desire, in equal measuresâ€¦makes for such an irresistible drug, donâ€™t you think? Kneel. I grow impatient.â€
â€œYou heard me. Kneel to your King. Or do you break your vow so quickly?â€
â€œIâ€”â€ Lydia began, but as his expression turned wicked, she knew he would put her there on his own if she said no. This was part of his game. She had agreed to do as he asked as part of her prisoner of war exchange. Herself, for everyone else. He was testing her resolveâ€”to see if she was willing to shatter their agreement so quickly.
Wincing, she looked away from him and growled quietly in frustration. Fine. Fine! Okay. This wasnâ€™t anything outrageous. He wasnâ€™t asking her to kill someone. He wasnâ€™t asking her to cut off her own arm.
This wasnâ€™t anything she didnâ€™t want, if she was honest with herself. She took a few steps forward away from the column and clenched her fists at her sides. She could do this. She had to do this.
Slowly, she dropped to her knees on the polished stone floor. He let out a small moan at the sight, and he stepped up to her until he was only a few inches away. The smell of him was no longer of old books and dusty leatherâ€”it was of crisp summer air and the wind. It was of incense and spices. His human hand reached down and stroked her hair. â€œGood girl. Now, look up at me.â€
She lifted her head and met his gaze. The lust and hunger there lodged a rock in her throat. She felt equal parts fear and excitement at what she saw. She was now also level with something else, proof of his desire for her. His expression was one pure darkness as he looked down at her.
â€œYour new King demands his tribute.â€
The memory of the night prior was still running through her head. The images of what Aon had doneâ€”no, what the King of All had doneâ€”were pouring over her. And here she thought her version of Aon had been controlling. This man was another creature entirely.
He hadnâ€™t hurt her. Not in any way that mattered. Not in any way that some sick, dark part of her hadnâ€™t really enjoyed. This man merely didnâ€™t feel the need to hold back. He had taken what he wanted or demanded she give it to him. The Aon she knew had wished to ease her into the hot water that was the dark side of his desires. This man felt no such compulsion. This man felt no need to take things one at a time.
Now that she healed so fast, she didnâ€™t even have any bruises, bite marks, or claw marks from what had transpired. She felt no aches that she really should have after what he did to her.
The King of All had come to claim what he wanted, and he had taken the spoils of war for his own. And god damn her, she had enjoyed every moment of it. Even when she protested, when she had begged him to slow down or wait, some part of her was reveling in the act. She hadnâ€™t wanted him to stop.
She couldnâ€™t deny it. Her body had betrayed her dignity.
He had held her as they fell asleep, tangled in the thin sheets of his bed. He had whispered to her of how much he loved her, about how she was the only thing in his world that had ever really mattered. He had told her that his soul, his life, belonged to her. She would have cried if she hadnâ€™t been so tired. And it was there that she had woken, curled up in his arms.
Really, his bed was more of a platform with a mat, feeling just as ancient as everything else in this palace of his. Two of the walls of the room were open to the world outside, framed only by the massive columns that soared overhead. It felt exceedingly exposed. But as they were up several hundred feet from the ground, she supposed she shouldnâ€™t worry too much about last nightâ€™s escapades being heard or them being spied on.
Not that she suspected the man beneath her gave a flying fuck about any of that.
So here she found herself, in thin cotton nightclothes. Straddling his waist, one hand pressing against the headboard over him, the other holding one of her obsidian daggers against his throat.
Itâ€™d be so damn easy.
He was asleep, after all. Dark hair splayed out on the unbleached cotton pillows around him. He looked soâ€¦contented. So peaceful. As though he had never enjoyed this kind of sleep before in his life.
Maybe he never has. Maybe heâ€™s never been happy before. Maybe he never had anyone he wanted to share his bed with.
No. He was a tyrant and a murderer. He was going to kill everyone on that battlefield if she hadnâ€™t bargained herself away. Worse yet, he admitted he was more than willing to destroy everyone in Under except for the two of themâ€”just because they were a distraction. He only let them live because their presence here made her â€œhappy.â€ He was a sociopath, at best.
One swipe of her knife across his throat and he wouldnâ€™t wake up for half an hour. Thatâ€™d give her time to remove the marks that decorated his face, and thatâ€™d be the end. The end of all this stupidity.
It would be so damn easy.
She looked down at him. When she had woken up, she was tucked against him like a lover, his knees against hers, her head under his chin, arm draped over her. It was a familiar pose. She had woken up with Aon like that many, many times. But this man was a stranger in his own right.
Left to right.
It wouldnâ€™t take much forceâ€”her daggers were sharp, after all. It really would just take commitment more than anything else. Just dedication. She wouldnâ€™t even really feel it.
Just do it. Come on, itâ€™s so simple! Just commit, then itâ€™s all over!
Why couldnâ€™t she do it? Why the hell couldnâ€™t she kill him?
Lydia had been like this for ten minutes, hovering over him and screaming at herself in her mind to just kill him already. End it all! End his miserable life and your part in it! But she couldnâ€™t. No matter how hard she shouted at herself inside her own head, she couldnâ€™t make her hand move.
It wasnâ€™t hypnotism.
It wasnâ€™t the work of the Ancients.
It was her own inability to kill him.
Whoever the King of All was, he wore the face of the man she loved. He shared shades of the man she adored. This was the body and, just maybe, the soul of the man she would throw her whole life away for. If a portal opened to Earth this very moment, she would reject it to stand beside her warlock, this man beneath her. The man she had, for better or worse, whether or not she should, come to love. Her monster. Her madman.
But now, she didnâ€™t know what, or who, he was. She had no clue who wore this mask of flesh and blood. Last night he had been so similar yet so foreign to the man she knewâ€”reverent and violent in the same breath. He had pledged himself to her, swore that he was hers, even as he broke her down and pieced her back together. She couldnâ€™t deny she had enjoyed every second of him and every inch of what he gave her.
What happened now?
Left to right. It would be so easy. Just do it, you stupid idiot!
Doubt gnawed at her like termites under a house. What if her Aon was still in there somewhere? What if he was really in any way the same man who lay sleeping peacefully beneath her? Could she really kill him?
She loved him.
What if his insistence that they were the same man was right?
Or was he a monstrous creature that made all others pale before him?
Lydia cringed, tears flowing down her cheeks. Edu and the rest were terrified of this man. They had hated the King of Shadows because some part of them could remember the King of All.
She could end it. Right now.
â€œIf you wanted to be on top, all you had to do was ask.â€
She froze. She had thought he was asleep. But as his dark eyes drifted open, he turned his head to look up at her. He didnâ€™t grab at her wrist and didnâ€™t force the knife away from his throat. If anything, he tipped his chin back to give her easier access. He watched her, his face free of anything but a kind of passive acceptance edged in grief.
She hung there silently, wide-eyed and unsure of what to do.
â€œI take this to mean you are upset with me,â€ he said after letting her inability to answer hang in the air for a long moment. He still didnâ€™t move to stop her. â€œDo it, if you must. My life is yours to spend. Now, as it always has been, and ever will be, my love.â€
With a frustrated growl, she rammed the knife into the headboard over his head. Stuck it halfway to the hilt. She couldnâ€™t do it. Not when he had been asleep, and certainly not when he was looking up at her with sorrow in his eyes.
She pushed herself off him but couldnâ€™t find the strength to go far. She sat on the bed and buried her head in her hands, feeling the tears redouble their efforts. His weight shifted on the bed. At first, she flinched, wondering if he would be angry at her. But instead, she felt his hand slowly stroke over her hair. He knelt behind her, his knees on either side of her legs. His arms curled around her, gently urging her to lean back into him. She gave in. His bare chest was warm against her back, and it lulled away some of her turmoil, even if her issues were about him.
His head settled atop hers. â€œI braced myself for what I might see in your eyes. But I admit, it stings worse than I could have imagined.â€
â€œWhich is what?â€ she murmured into her hands, trying to keep herself from all-out weeping.
â€œYou look at me as you would a stranger.â€ Aonâ€™s voice was tight in pain. â€œYou look at me as if you do not know me. There is mistrust in your eyes. You look at me, truly wary. Not the mix of fear and delight when I seduced you as a madman, but real dreadâ€¦â€
Suddenly, his hand fisted in her hair and yanked her down. He bent her backward and twisted her over his right thigh. She hissed in a breath of surprise and found herself with another dagger in her hand. She didnâ€™t even have to think about it before it was in her palm. She held it up against his throat once more, startled into action, thinking he was about to hurt her.
â€œYou see? You would never have reacted in such a way to the man you knew before. You would have seen this as another game and relished my touch. Now you think I am going to hurt youâ€”youâ€”the only thing in this world that carries value to me. You trusted me as a madman, but you do not trust me now. You would never believe that version of me would hurt you, so why do you think I would do so now?â€
His power seemed to fill the room, seemed to crackle through the air like lightning and clench around her stronger than the fist that curled in her hair. Aon had been intimidating before, but not like this. Still, he didnâ€™t move her dagger from his throat. He knew as well as she did that she wasnâ€™t going to use it. â€œYouâ€™re more dangerous than he is.â€
Spilled-ink eyes narrowed as they bored into her. There was such age in those depths. The cold-hearted King who loomed over her was as sure and as cold as a stone mountainside. â€œThat is false. Very false.â€
â€œWhat do you mean?â€
His eyes flicked over the writing on her face, as if reading them again. Only then did his gaze soften even a little. The hand in her hair did no such thing. His clawed hand drifted up to settle over her throat. Not tightening, but as if he were remembering a keen desire to do just that. â€œI nearly killed you so many times, Lydia. So many moments where I was on the brink of giving in to what I wanted to do to your mortal flesh. Or worse, losing myself into the insanity and tearing you to pieces as though I were a rabid animal. You walked the razorâ€™s edge every day you spent in my presence, ignorant to how close to real danger you truly were.â€
â€œBut he never did it.â€
â€œWe are the same man,â€ he snarled, annoyed again that she had called them different people. â€œAnd I would have. It would have only been a matter of time. Edu merely killed you before my own insanity would have done the deed. And after, you chose to reject your mask and you did not hide your marks from me, even then. How long before, in a fit of darkness, I tore them from your skin and returned you to the void?â€
â€œI trustedâ€”â€ him. She stopped herself from calling him different people again, but just barely. â€œYou.â€
He leaned his head down to place a kiss at the corner of her mouth. It made her shudder despite herself and the compromising position she was in. â€œYou are naÃ¯ve. You are young. You will learn.â€ When he ghosted his lips over hers, she tightened her grip on the knife at his throat. â€œNowâ€¦either use that dagger or stop your hopeless grandstanding.â€
â€œIâ€™m not grandstanding.â€
â€œThen do it. Slit my throat, take my marks, and send me to the void.â€ He tilted his head away for her. â€œYou could not do it a moment ago. You could not do it last night. You could not do it when we fought. Make good upon your threat now or stop your whining. The blade is in my way, and it is irritating to be interrupted repeatedly in such a fashion.â€
The icy wind that was his tone froze her to the core. She felt it roll down her spine, and she shuddered as if he had thrown her into a frozen lake. She struggled, pushing against him vehemently. He let her go, and she stood from the bed to pace away from him. The sun was out, but the room was still cast in shadow. She shivered again, even in the hot air.
She looked down at her body, at the turquoise marks that decorated her skin. She wanted them gone.
She wanted to quit.
Please, let this end.
Nothing was worse than the heartlessness she had just seen reflected in his features. Aon may have not been in full control of his emotionsâ€”he was so quick to snap into jealousy or a fit of rageâ€”but he had them.
â€œWhat do you want from me?â€ she asked quietly.
â€œI want you to love me.â€
â€œMy love? Or my surrender?â€
â€œThey are one and the same. Come to the Altar of the Ancients. Kneel before our makers and join me. Be my queen.â€
â€œSo why not just drag me there? Why not re-write my head and make me love you? Why wait?â€
â€œWhile I will love you, no matter what may remain of youâ€¦if they were to take you by force, you may end up little more than a shell. If you fight their dominion, you will break. I do not wish to see that terrible pain come to you.â€ Hands settled on her shoulders, one metal and one warm. She jolted in surprise and shouldnâ€™t have been shocked she didnâ€™t hear him approach. â€œIf you accept them willingly, as the Priest has done, you will merely know peace. It will be as though nothing had changed.â€
Lydia squeezed her eyes shut and lowered her head, trying to hide behind her long hair as it fell alongside her face. Surrender to having her mind rewritten or have it torn to shreds as they remade her. Kneel or have her knees broken. â€œMy love would be a lie.â€
â€œA shattered queen whose love is a fabrication is better than an eternity alone. I have destroyed this world countless times in my need to have someone at my side. You are the answer to that hole in my very being. Whether you wish to be or not. I am sorry, my love. But I will not let you slip away. You belong to me.â€
Give up or be broken. There had to be another way out. There had to be some talking sense into himâ€”some way to get through to him. There had to be. Otherwise, there was only one other way out. She looked down at the knife in her palm, and she had the sudden urge to tear her own marks off with it. To simply end it all.
Death was a better fate than this.
â€œKill me, Aon. Just kill me. Or Iâ€™ll do it myself.â€
Hands whirled her around to face him. â€œDo not say such a thing!â€
She looked up at him, startled at his sudden reaction. â€œIâ€™d rather be dead thanâ€”â€
â€œNo! No. Do not speak the words.â€ His eyes were wide in panic. He snatched the knife from her hand and hurled it away. â€œDo not leave me alone! Do not make me drag you to them so soon. I will not let you harm yourself. I will chain you to the wall, bind your arms and legs if I must.â€
She glared at him. â€œIâ€™ll find a way to do it. You know I will. Iâ€™m a lot of things, Aon, one of them being stubborn.â€
â€œIâ€”â€ His eyes went glassy, and his body jerked suddenly, as if something had been torn out from his back. His hands slipped from her shoulders, and he collapsed to his knees. His shoulders were now hunched, his head down. He buried his hands into his hair, clenching them tightly, shoulders heaving as he pulled in sharp, painful breaths. He moaned in agony.
Lydia blinked at the abrupt change. What the hell just happened to him?
Not knowing what else to do, she knelt in front of him and put her hand on his shoulder. He flinched at her touch. â€œAon?â€
Her heart wrenched so hard, it may have stopped. Her breath hung in her throat, and she looked at the man in wide-eyed horror. As his face turned up to hers, there was such torment in those flickering dark eyes that she knew the image would be burned into her memory for the rest of time.
There was no coldness there. Just a raw, exposed fire. Emotions flashed over his face. Pain, fear, torment. Love.
He interrupted her before she could tell him how much she loved him. How much she missed him. He reached out and cupped her head in his hands, shifting to kneel closer to her. â€œThey let me go. Just for a moment. Just so you could see. They wanted to sway you from seeking to take your own life.â€ His breaths were still coming fast and hard, as if he might hyperventilate. As if he were fighting off the edge of panic. â€œIt is false hope. They are liars. This is an illusionâ€”â€ Face twisting in pure suffering, he doubled over again. â€œI am an illusion.â€
She threw her arms around him, cradling him against her. He half-collapsed into her embrace. â€œAon, I love you. I love you, and Iâ€™m so sorry.â€
â€œI beg you, do not end your life. Do not doom me to a reality where you are truly gone. The wrath I would pay to this world and all the othersâ€¦there would be no returning from the damage that would do to my soul.â€ His body spasmed as if someone had shoved a red-hot poker against him. He pulled in a hissing breath. â€œThis is why they have freed me, if but for a moment. To convince you to live. For in this desire, in this common goal, all parties are agreed.â€
â€œI donâ€™t know what else to do.â€
â€œDo not take your life. Take mine instead. Find a way to end me. Please, my love.â€ He lifted his head and rested his forehead against hers. His voice was tight and thick with whatever pain the Ancients were flooding him with.
â€œThere is no way to save me, and there is no hope of my return.â€ Tears rolled down his cheeks. â€œYou are stronger than me. Stronger than the man I truly am.â€
â€œI tried to kill you. I love you. Iâ€¦I canâ€™t.â€
â€œYou must.â€ He kissed her, a frantic press of lips to hers, as though they were on a sinking ship and this was their last chance. Perhaps it was. â€œOr I will destroy you. I will destroy this world and everyone in it, just to have youâ€¦and the man I really am will tear you to pieces to get what I want.â€ He held her face in his hands in his frantic need for her to understand.
She understood. But knowing and doing were very different things.
â€œMy life has been a ceaseless cycle of destruction, of yearning for what I could never have. Do you think the Great War was the first time I acted in such desperation? Your history is repeating itself, and so is mine. You are on this terrible, endless circular path beside me. End it all.â€ His eyes were turning glassy again. His hands were slipping from her cheeks. He was fighting to stay conscious, and he was losing.
â€œAon, donâ€™t go.â€ Donâ€™t leave me alone again. â€œPlease, donâ€™tâ€”â€
â€œDo you know your eyes are now turquoise? Since you returned from the lake where Rxa had put youâ€¦I havenâ€™t had the chance to tell you how beautiful they are.â€
Her heart was cracking, and she let out a small, choked sob.
â€œI will always love you, my dragonfly.â€
And with that, his eyes rolled into his head, and he slumped down against her.
Laying her head against his shoulders, she held him. Held him and wept. For him, for herâ€¦for them both.
For a moment, Lydia could almost forget.
She could run her fingers through his hair as he slept and believe just for a second that when he woke up, everything would be back to â€œnormal.â€
Normal. Right. None of this shitâ€™s been normal for months.
Normal was her home in Boston. Her job. Nick. Her apartment. Normal was far, far away from here. It was all gone to her now, either through a portal or buried under sand and blood. God, she missed Nick. But like everything else, he was dead and gone.
All that was leftâ€¦was him.
After he had passed out, she had hauled him back into bed. It hadnâ€™t been graceful, but she was stronger than she used to be. She didnâ€™t feel like sleeping, but it felt wrong to leave him. And so, she stayed with him, leaning up against the headboard, with his head in her lap. She traced her hand through his long black hair, and once her tears had finally dried out, she took the time to think.
Maybe she should give in. Maybe itâ€™d be easier that way. To just let him drag her to the Altar of the Ancients and let them rewrite her brain. Let them possess her in the same way they were doing to Lyon. Or worse, like Aon, where they were plugging holes in his head like a sinking ship.
So far, she preferred the sinking ship to the man she was just starting to get to know.
For a moment, the Ancients had shown her they really were the same man. They had let go of their control of him so she could speak to the part of him that she recognized. And her Aon had begged her to kill him. Begged her to end his life. But she just couldnâ€™t bring herself to do it. He was still, somehow, some way, the man she loved. Even if he was just a smaller part of the whole, he was still there.
Could she love this man? Could she love the â€œbigger picture?â€ She honestly didnâ€™t know. He was cruel, but so had been the man she knew. He was egotisticalâ€”no change there. But the one thing that worried her more than anything else was his coldness, the stoic loftiness she saw in his dark eyes.
It was as though Aon really had been changed out for his older brother. There was a hardness there, an aloofness that scared her. But could she learn to love it, this dark king? Or would she always miss her madman, even if he was right in front of her? Even if those eyes that seemed so cold to her now softenedâ€”just a littleâ€”when he looked at her?
She didnâ€™t know, and there was the problem. If she knew the answer, sheâ€™d kill him, or herself, or let him drag her off into the altar and let them bash her head open like a coconut and put someone else in her place. The fact that she didnâ€™t know left her locked in indecision, stuck in the mire and unable to move.
How long the Ancients would let her linger like this, she had no idea. But she was certain it wouldnâ€™t be enough time, in her opinion. For giant, world-controlling super-monsters, they seemed damn impatient.
For all her problems, she felt for the man who was unconscious in her lap, this King of All. It seemed he was doomed to always be suffering. Even when he finally had the only thing he ever wantedâ€”herâ€”she didnâ€™t know if she loved him back anymore. That had to hurt worse than she could imagine. He had been alone for longer than the mountains on Earth had names. And now she was taunting him with her very presence.
That was the other reason she stayed with him; she sympathized with him. She couldnâ€™t fix the problem, she couldnâ€™t flick a switch and just magically love him again, but she couldnâ€™t abandon him either.
His metal hand was lying in her lap, palm up. She watched as one of his fingers twitched once and then went still. His breathing never changed, but she knew better. Aon had done this a few times before. He had just woken up but didnâ€™t want to move. Heâ€™d pretend to be asleep so he could stay where he was with her. â€œHey,â€ she said, her voice barely above a whisper. Just in case she was wrong, even though she was damn sure she wasnâ€™t.
Lydia couldnâ€™t help but grin. â€œI know youâ€™re awake,â€ she said, her tone still low.
Silence. Just slow, perfectly paced breathing. It was a good act. Too bad she wasnâ€™t buying it. She thought for a moment before an evil plan came to mind. â€œOn Earth, we invented a thing called a â€˜wet willy.â€™ Itâ€™s when you stick your finger in your mouth and then shove it into another personâ€™s ear.â€ She stuck her finger into her mouth and let it make a pop noise as she withdrew it. Grinning, she lowered her hand toward his ear. This time, she was going to call his bluff for once.
His human hand shot up to catch hers before she could follow through. He kept his eyes shut and otherwise hadnâ€™t moved. â€œDo not dare.â€
Lydia chuckled. â€œJust proving my point.â€
He was fighting off a smile and losing. It caught purchase for a moment before he finally let it have its way. It hung on him for a second or two and then faded away. He let go of her wrist as his eyes drifted open, but he didnâ€™t lift his head or make any other movement to get up. She let her hand fall on his shoulder, and he placed his human hand back where it had been, idly resting on her leg.
â€œIâ€™m glad my stupid antics can still make you smile, even if you donâ€™t want to let them.â€
â€œThey always will, even if perhaps I do not show it as much as I used to.â€ He curled the fingers of his metal hand in toward his palm one at a time before releasing them and repeating, as if he were testing the mechanism. As if it really were foreign to him. â€œI know I amâ€¦less emotive than the man you knew. I know I am quieter than he. I am sorry for that. But I do not know how to change.â€
She went back to gently stroking his hair. He was hurting. It was hard to see, but it was in his eyes, even if his face and tone were flat. â€œItâ€™s not your fault.â€
â€œBut it is still my burden to bear.â€ His eyes slipped shut again, and his brow furrowed. â€œI find myself jealous of my own shadow. For it is that which I cast upon the ground that you love, not me.â€
Wincing at his words, she leaned down and placed a kiss on his temple. â€œIâ€™m not giving up hope. I donâ€™t know yet.â€
â€œYou are resilient above all else. I remember the first time I laid eyes upon you in the waking world. Thrown from a horse, you were terrified, battered, and beaten. You had certain death chasing at your back. And yet you were brave enough to face down one demon with another close behind.â€
â€œYou remember that?â€
â€œI remember a girl. A mortal, weak in body but stronger in heart than any I have ever known. One who took pity on a broken man. One who saw value in his empty heart and took his darkest needs with joy. And then she rose like a phoenix from the graveâ€¦ I remember her forgiveness, her sympathy, her kindness, even as I took away her friend and her freedom.â€
He took her hand from his shoulder with his human one and pulled it to his lips, pressing a kiss to her fingers. His breath was hot against her skin. â€œI remember how she looked at me, blue eyes wide in fear and excitement. How she delighted in running from me yet how she would let me take her by the hand and lead her into the darkness. I recall howâ€”despite all that broken monster had doneâ€”she loved me. I remember those who were too jealous, too afraid, to give that shell of a man the only thing he had ever wanted.â€
He too waffled back and forth between calling his nightmare the same man and calling his mad self â€œhe.â€ It must be hard for him to resolve as well, she realized.
â€œI think you need a new name.â€
â€œItâ€™s not fair to call you Aon.â€ She smiled faintly down at him. â€œItâ€™s not fair to call you after your shadow.â€
â€œIt is somewhat adding insult to injury, yes.â€ He sighed and let his eyes slip shut. â€œThen name me, my Queen of Dreams.â€
â€œHmmâ€¦â€ She looked off thoughtfully. Naming things was fun, even if she was terribly bad at it. â€œKoa? For the â€˜King of All?â€™â€
â€œNo. Sounds feminine.â€
â€œAoff. Yâ€™know, like A-on, but A-off.â€
â€œAbsolutely not.â€ He was fighting a smile again.
â€œWell, if he was the alpha and youâ€™re the omega, how about Oon?â€
â€œAre you attempting to insult me more?â€
Lydia snickered, and now the man in her lap was grinning despite his best efforts. She looked down at him and thought it over for another moment. â€œHow about Noa? â€˜Aonâ€™ backwards. All the parts are there, butâ€¦justâ€¦different.â€
â€œHe is my reflection in the glass.â€
â€œVery well. Noa. I accept this name, my mother of monsters. Although I worry for the species of creatures you will create as time goes on. Your sense of humor isâ€¦pervasiveâ€¦if nothing else.â€
She laughed and leaned down to kiss his temple. â€œYou have no idea.â€
â€œI look forward to finding out.â€ The amusement faded from his eyes. â€œIf the Ancients do not take that from you.â€ The moment of levity was gone, as he was reminded of the position they were both in. All that she was suffering, he was going through as well.
They fell silent as she felt the weight of her looming debate over them once more. â€œIf it were your choice, what would you do?â€
â€œBetween what options?â€ He seemed as though her running her fingers through his hair was lulling him back into sleep. His voice was faraway sounding. It seemed her touch still did that to him, even if as he said, it showed less on the outside.
â€œAs far as I can figure, I have two choices. My options are either to kill you or surrender my mind to the Ancients. Either willingly or unwillingly.â€
â€œI would argue that willing and unwilling are very disparate choices and should therefore be listed separately.â€
â€œI get mind-fucked either way.â€
He chuckled at her crass language. â€œYes. Precisely. And there is a far cry difference between willing intercourse and rape.â€
When he had a point, he had a point. She couldnâ€™t think up a retort. â€œFair. Fine, there are three choices. What would you do?â€
â€œIf our situations were reversed?â€
He paused for a long time. â€œI could not bring myself to kill you. Even thinking that there was a shadow of a woman I loved within you, I could not do the deed. Faced with the other choices? I would kneel willingly before their altar and sacrifice the sanctity of my mind.â€
â€œI would rather no longer be my true self than to be alone a moment longer. The man you knew believed the same. That is why he burned the world away to save you. I am no different. I am he. Do not forget your youth in comparison to my years. I have been alone for a very, very long time.â€
She paused and considered his words. She couldnâ€™t accuse him of lying, not really. He really would lay it all down to be with her. He already had. After a long pause, she finally admitted to him what she was feeling. â€œIâ€™m scared.â€
â€œI know.â€ He wove his fingers between hers and held her hand close to his chest. â€œIf I could kiss your fears away, I would. But once you kneel before them, you will no longer feel such things.â€
â€œThatâ€™s the problem.â€
His brow knit together, and he seemed unable to find a way to argue with her. With a long, weary breath, he finally broke the silence. â€œPlease, do not leave me.â€
â€œIf I was planning on getting up, I wouldâ€™ve by now.â€
â€œThat is not what I meant.â€
He meant not to leave him here, in this world alone without her. It was his own plea for her not to kill herself or try to find a more permanent way out of this mess. Tears threatened to fall. She shuffled down to lie on the bed, pulling his head onto her shoulder, holding him.
The way he nuzzled into her broke her heart. He clung to her, draping his arm over her, and she knew he was listening to her heartbeat. The tension melted out of him. The warmth of his body and her own exhaustion were starting to lure her own eyes shut.
It had been a hopeless threat, saying she wanted to kill herself. She couldnâ€™t leave him alone. Not her Aon, and not Noa. She found that she couldnâ€™t bear to look at this man and turn her back on him. She didnâ€™t know if she loved himâ€¦but she couldnâ€™t abandon him.
â€œIâ€™ll stay,â€ she whispered. It felt like an admission. It was the truth, and she couldnâ€™t bring herself to lie to him.
â€œI am sorry I am not the man you love.â€
â€œItâ€™s okay.â€ It wasnâ€™t. But she didnâ€™t know what else to say. â€œMaybe you can be, someday.â€
â€œWeâ€™re immortal, arenâ€™t we?â€
â€œI suppose we are.â€ He leaned his head in and kissed her collarbone, and she couldnâ€™t help but feel herself grow warm even at the innocent gesture from a half-asleep man. â€œTomorrow, I must sit upon my throne and deal with the needs of my people. They squabble and bicker like children. Will you attend?â€
â€œThat sounds horrible.â€
â€œIt will be. But come with me.â€
Lydia snickered. â€œWhy?â€
â€œIt lifts my mood when you are near me.â€
â€œWait. This has been you in a good mood?â€
He chuckled and clutched her to him as though she were a stuffed animal. â€œI love you, Lydiaâ€¦â€
When she couldnâ€™t say it back, her heart broke, just shattered in her chest, and she felt the tears form and run along her face into her hair. She leaned her head in to kiss his forehead. If he cared, she couldnâ€™t tellâ€”he was already asleep.
She wrapped her arms around him and cried until sleep took her as well.
Edu felt the chains biting into his flesh.
It was a memory he had long since sought to wipe from his mind. And for a very long time, he had succeeded.
But now, the nightmares he had banished to the recesses of his mind had returned. He was on his knees in a dungeon, hidden away from the blinding sunlight, save for one small window that cast a single square of light upon the floor. It never moved, for the sun did not track through the sky like it did on Earth. He could only tell the passage of time by its presence or absence as it slipped into eclipse.
His mask was gone. His arms were bound behind his back and attached to the wall behind him, and another chain was wound around his throat, tethering him to a heavy metal loop in the floor between his knees.
He knew he could not break it.
He had tried for thousands of years, after all.
The worn groove in the metal told him that yes, this was indeed the same ring of steel. He had put that dip in the metal with his constant thrashing. This was the same place. The question remained: which was the dream? This agony, or the past five thousand years of a peace they had, if only by comparison?
He had not expected to wake. Not after Ylena had died, and the King of All stood poised over him to remove his marks and send him to the void. But Lydia had intervened and seemingly spared his life and sent him to the pits of this hell instead.
He could not even straighten up, trapped as he was in this forced supplication. His arms were lashed to the wall behind him and his neck to the floor beneath him. He could not crack his aching bones or stretch his sore muscles in any way. It was meant to be an insultâ€”it was meant to demean and degradeâ€”and it worked. He knew that no matter how his body screamed to move, he would not be allowed such respite. The King of All knew how to break him.
The King of All knew how to destroy anyone. He always had. Now that he had regained the memories he had so willingly thrown away, he could see the comparisons between the man he knew as Aon and his true self. To call the King of All a sadist was to call a tree a flower. It was a gross understatement.
He was not the only one who dwelled within this dungeon suffering. While he could not lift his head well enough to see very much, he could hear the voices of those around him. Ini, and by her narration of things, Vjo, and Dtu were here as well but still unconscious. One voice hurt him more than most.
â€œYou okay, Big Red?â€
The King of All had taken Evie. Kept her as a prisoner in the same cell as him. There was no doubt as to why he had done it and not put her in the cages with the other lesser-ranked and rebellious souls.
Itâ€™s a reminder of who I still have to lose. Itâ€™s a reminder that Ylena is gone, but there are others I must protect. He wants to tell me that he can still hurt me.
Edu nodded faintly. No, he was not okay. Not under any circumstances. But he did his best to lie.
â€œYou sucked at lying bâ€™fore I could see your cute face. Now youâ€™re just awful.â€
His fib had gone about as far as he had expected it to. He huffed a laugh and lifted his head as far as he could to look at her where she sat, chained to the wall, still finding the ability to smile at him. Although it didnâ€™t quite reach her eyes.
â€œNo wonder you all hid your faces. Youâ€™re all crap at lying without them.â€
â€œOh, wonderful child, we hid our faces for many reasons. Our desire to hide our motives is just one of them,â€ Ini said from where she lay. If he turned his head as far as he could to one side, he could see her where she was chained by one wall.
It was dangerous keeping them all here in one cellâ€”Dtu, Vjo, Ini, himself, andâ€¦Evie. Notable by her impending danger, Edu knew. But it took a great deal of power to keep their own gifts tamped down, captured and kept muted by the symbols etched upon every surface around them. There were not many cells that could hold a king or queen of Under, let alone four.
â€œBut, yes, Edu is a miserable liar.â€ Ini giggled. The woman was battered and broken, spent beyond the point of healing her wounds, but not being allowed to die. And yet the glimmer hadnâ€™t left her unnaturally bright sapphire eyes. It never would, no matter how hard the King of All tried to remove it.
He found himself smiling faintly at the Queen of Fate, the only one the King of All could not break. And ohâ€¦how he had tried throughout the years. Edu could remember her screams. It seemed these walls had heard them once more, judging by the bruises and cuts that adorned her small frame.
For the King of All knew how to ply his favorite tradeâ€”torture. Never was there a creature more skilled in the art of twisting a body to his whim than he. Not in this world or any other. Even Edu had begged for mercy on more than one occasion. Even Eduâ€™s pride had fallen before knife and needle and screw. But not the Queen of Fate. She would only laugh when she had the air to do so.
Now that Edu could see Iniâ€™s face, he remembered it, with her almond-shaped sapphire eyes and stunning features. Dtu and Vjo were also stripped of their masks and their pride, lying on the ground or propped up against a wall. Neither of them had awoken from their slumber of death yet. Dtu was going to be livid when he awoke. With the chains that bound them keeping their powers as shackled as their bodies, he couldnâ€™t take his wolf form and howl, which was some small favor. Edu did not know if his headache could withstand the noise.
The door to the chamber swung open. He turned his head and strained to see who had entered. His heart fell along with his hopes.
â€œGood evening, all.â€
â€œHello, Aon!â€ Ini piped brightly, greeting the man in such a manner to purposefully needle him, both in her tone and her use of his false name. â€œA wonderful night, isnâ€™t it?â€
The King of All ignored the attempt at goading him. â€œI see the dog and the spider have yet to wake. A shame. I wished to speak to you all at once. You will have to convey my message to them once they rise.â€
A whisper of fabric on the packed dirt floor was all the warning Edu had before a metal hand twisted into his hair and yanked his head backward painfully, not caring for the iron around his neck that made that position send stabbing pain through his shoulders. â€œI suppose you will be unable to convey any message at all, hm? How clever of my false self to take your tongue. I think I prefer you this way.â€
Edu glared and listed off a myriad of insults in his mind.
â€œI do not think you want to know what he said,â€ Ini said with a snicker. The psychic could hear his thoughts, and those had been particularly loud and colorful. â€œBut know it was quite clever and unique.â€
The King of All laughed dryly and let go of Eduâ€™s hair, letting him drop his head back down to lessen the pain. â€œTo think I would have expected gratitude that I allow you all to live. How foolish of me.â€
â€œI was wondering, why do you let us live?â€ Ini asked.
â€œIf I were to kill you, the Ancients would replace you,â€ the King replied simply.
â€œAnd what is the matter with that?â€
â€œThatâ€™s easy,â€ Evie said and tried to stretch her shoulders. His fiery redhead did not know when to keep her mouth shut. He loved that about her. When he had owned a tongue with which to speak, he was quite similarly matched in that trait. â€œâ€™Cuz he doesnâ€™t want bunny to know weâ€™re down here,â€ Evie interjected.
The King of All merely turned to her and glowered dangerously. Evie, either blissfully unaware of the danger she was in, or more likely, belligerently uncaring, merely grinned back at him. â€œOooh, look at that face! Iâ€™m right, I knew it. She doesnâ€™t know weâ€™re down here. She thinks you let us go. If you killed us, sheâ€™d know the jig was up when some other idiot walked around in red ink.â€
â€œBunny? Ah, you mean Lydia.â€ The King of All walked toward Evie.
Edu yanked on the chains viciously and knew what was to come by the tone in his voice. No! Anyone but her. Let him flay the skin from my flesh before touching her!
Hearing the racket, the King turned to look at Edu with an arched eyebrow. â€œYou know why she is here. You know why she shares your prison. Certainly not for your comfort or peace of mind. I know you are an idiot, but you are not that foolish. You know what is to come.â€
Yes, he knew. But it did not stop him from howling and yanking on the chains, tryingâ€”as if he had not done so a million times before and failedâ€”to snap them.
â€œYou really do make this too easy, Edu.â€
Edu snarled in rage and yanked on the chains again. But he could no more budge them than he could the whole of the temple itself. His futile redoubling of his efforts brought a laugh out of the other man. Aon turned back to Evie and reached down to grasp her by the hair and drag her up to her feet. Evie squeaked and froze, but to her credit, she levied her best glare up at the warlock. She did not cower. She did not cry or beg. Edu could not have been prouder.
â€œTell me Iâ€™m wrong,â€ the redhead piped up at the King. â€œShe donâ€™t know weâ€™re down here.â€
He seemed to debate his answer for a moment before shrugging idly, seeing no harm in telling a prisoner the truth even Edu already suspected. â€œNo. She believes I have let you all go to find a new life on the horizons, far away from here.â€ He sneered at the childishness of the idea.
â€œWhy not, though?â€ Evie asked, her innocence showing.
A metal hand snapped around her throat, and Evie jumped in fear but barely made more than a wince of pain as the man tightened his grasp. Edu yanked on the chains again, but he was a proverbial dog barking on the end of his leash. He could do nothing to help her.
â€œWhy not? Oh, poor, little, young thing. You think you know this world? You think you understand the players who live within it? Do you think that cretinâ€â€”he pointed back at Eduâ€”â€œwould ever let me live in peace? Do you think I have not let him try when I have tired of stripping his flesh from his bones for my own amusement? No. Time and time again, he comes back to hound me, to pester me like the insect that he is! I have beaten you. I have beaten you all, but that will not convince you that I am the rightful ruler of this place. This world is mine.â€
â€œIt ainâ€™t yours, you pompousâ€”â€
The King of All backhanded Evie across the face, cutting off her insult. Edu pulled against the chains so hard he felt them bite into his skin. Blood, hot and thick, ran down his wrists and his neck, but he did not care.
â€œMind your betters, girl.â€
â€œYouâ€™re right. Youâ€™re older than me. Youâ€™ve been here fer longer than I can imagine. But yâ€™know what? I know enough â€™bout this world,â€ Evieâ€™s voice was tight with pain and lack of air, â€œto know theyâ€™re better than youâ€™ll ever be.â€
Edu expected him to tear out her throat. To rip out her eyes or strip her of her mark right then and there for such an insult. But as his smile turned cold and vicious, he knew that would have been a kinder fate.
â€œI think,â€ the King said with sick amusement in his voice, â€œI would like to take the time to teach you some respect.â€ He reached up to release the chains that held her to the wall. His metal claw twisted in her red curls, and he dragged her beside him as he turned to leave.
â€œLemme go!â€ Evie shrieked and tried to kick at the man. But he was far stronger than she, and he kept her under control like an adult might an angry toddler.
Edu roared in rage. How he wished to pitch invectives at the man, to threaten him with as much death and torment as he was capable. He thrashed, and the metal creaked but did not give way. No! Not Evie. Anyone, anything, but her!
The King of All looked back at Edu with a grin. â€œDo not fret so, old friend. I will be kinder to you than you were to Lydia. I will return your little love to you alive. You burned my loveâ€™s heart out of her chest with your own hand. Yet,â€ he paused thoughtfully, â€œwhat will be left of this one when I am done, I cannot promise you will recognize.â€ He dragged Evie from the room and slammed the door shut behind him, leaving Edu to his wordless rage.