Wicked Winter

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Chapter 15

I was plagued by nightmares.

I lay on the couch of my old tent, the one I’d shared with Sebastian, and instantly wondered where he was. I sat up and glanced around. There is no sound, no snoring coming from Sebastian, no snickering and gossiping from beyond the skin of the tent, and no howl of wind. The world was silent.

A formal, full-length ball gown in white, was waiting for me on my bed, wrapped in clear plastic. A note was secured to it in fine yellow ribbon. I tiptoed over to it, my heart flip flopping in my chest when I saw the note had my name written on it in fancy calligraphy. I untied the ribbon and opened the note.

Neva,

This was my mothers. Follow the owl.

Your Betrothed

My betrothed? Now my heart was hammering. I reached out with a shaky hand and touched the plastic covering the gown. It was smooth under my fingers, and cold, as if it had been laying out overnight in mid winter. I gulped, gripping the plastic and letting it slide off the gown.

The dress was enough to take my breath away. It was strapless, made from organza and satin, with a sweetheart bodice that had been thoroughly embroidered and crystal-beaded down through the asymmetric dropped waistline. The fully draped and caught up skirt was accented with asymmetric ruffles and diamonds, finishing with a semi-cathedral train of lace. A pair of white satin gloves sat beside the dress, along with a small silver box. I opened it. Inside lay an amulet that made my body shiver and tense all at the same time. My mother’s amulet. Gently, I looped my finger around the chain and brought it into the light.

The entire galaxy winked at me through the glass, and my mouth seemed unnaturally dry. The necklace seemed to call to me, chanting an unnerving tune: Put me on, around your neck. With this ring, comes your death.

I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself. It was as if some other entity had taken over my body, and all I could do was watch in horror as I slid its silver chain around my neck. The amulet sat in the hollow of my throat, and it was surprisingly warm - so warm it almost burned. I continued on, slipping out of my nightgown and into the wedding dress, despite my best efforts. My hands and fingers were sliding across the buttons and gems without my consent.

I slipped my fingers into the gloves.

A hoot came from the corner of the room, and my head snapped up. Foster’s white owl sat perched on one of the dining room chairs. Its eyes were of the void, black pits that stared straight through me. It blinked and hooted again, this time puffing out its chest and spreading its wings. It kicked off the wooden chair and flew through the slit of the tent and into the night. Silently, I followed.

I wasn’t walking fast, but I somehow kept up with the owl. It gave the occasional coo and glanced down in my direction.

My feet glided over the hard ground, padding over the grass and dirt. There was no snow like I remembered, which was a strange yet pleasant surprise. I missed the past fall and all the promise it brought.

The owl took a sharp turn, breaking from the path in the center of camp and towards the shadowed, looming woods in the distance. It hovered for a while, waiting for me to catch up. I altered my course, following the bird up the steep knoll and into the dense underbrush.

The owl was gone.

With the owls disappearance, I seemed to be snapped out of my trance, and the amulet burned into my skin.

“Shit!” I hissed, ripping the amulet from my skin, breaking the silver chain. It landed on the ground with a soft thud.

It was glowing, I realized, with an icy blue light. It was bright and harsh on the eyes, like a lightning bolt that never dimmed. There’s was a deep cracking sound, and the aumlet broke open, spilling the night sky onto the earth like black ink. It bubbled and pooled at my feet, the sticky substance surprising warm to the touch. It slowly began to climb up my legs, consuming me and the dress in black oil.

I struggled against the internal leash tethering me to the spot, but I couldn’t break the bonds. My feet were glued to the ground. I was going to be swallowed alive and there was nothing I could do. But then something curled around my elbow, and my head snapped up. Foster stood before me, his eyes sad.

“Neva.” He spoke my name with somber remorse.

I opened my mouth to beg for help, but then the oil was everywhere, in my eyes, sliding down my throat. I couldn’t breathe.

A woman walked up behind him, a woman with hair as black as a ravens ring and skin as white as bone. Her beautiful mulberry lips were slightly parted in a wicked smile as she put a pale hand on his shoulder. He flinched at her touch, but didn’t shake her off. As the black, sticky oil pooled into my mouth and nose, I realized she had very familiar eyes; those of fractured crystal.

The last thing I remembered was choking on Sebastian’s name as the black liquid stole my last breath.

I woke with a start, drenched in cool sweat dripping down my back, forcing myself to breathe and blink. Real - this was real.

But I could still feel the thick black liquid sliding all over my skin, the look in Foster’s eyes - as if he’d just done something he would regret for eternity, and the woman with ink for hair. I could still feel the burn of the amulet in the hollow of my throat.

A shiver racked my body.

Just a dream, that’s all it was. Besides, my mother had told what the amulet was, why she had it. It would soon be mine.

I sighed and scrubbed my face with my hands, trying to scratch away any hint of sleep. Perhaps it was the the steady pace of the past few days, or the stress that had seemed to rub my nerves raw, but a hollowness had taken root in my chest, and I felt empty. Heartbroken.

A breath shuddered past my lips as I kicked back the covers and placed my feet on the cool, icy floor.

I slipped from my room, careful not to let the door slam shut behind me as I slithered through the darkness of the manor. I still couldn’t shake my dream - it clung to me like shadow, looming, always there, but I refused to go back to sleep. What if the nightmare struck again?

So instead I decided to explore my surroundings while the queen and her servants slept silently in their beds.

I wanted to be so familiar with the manor that I could walk it in my sleep. If this was in fact to become my home one day, I needed to know every crook and cranny of this place.

The halls were dark and dim, but I didn’t dare risk a candle or anything else that would draw attention my way. The castle was a labyrinth of twisting and twining halls that loomed on and on and on in stretches of blackness. I crept down the staircase that led to my room, my bare feet padding on the hard floors.

Moonlight spilled through the large, two-story windows, casting everything in a silvery glow. I tried to focus on the painting hanging on the walls, but it was too dim. I could only pick out brief squiggles and lines of faces and landscape.
As my feet wandered, so did my mind.

Something wasn’t right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something about this place felt off. It was beautiful, yes. But something Foster had told me earlier whispered past my ears for a second time.

With beauty comes cruelty.

I could vaguely sense the underlying meaning of his words, but they were just out of my reach. Was he saying that he was cruel, because as much as I hated to admit it, he was gorgeous. Was he saying the land was cruel? That wasn’t anything new. You couldn’t pay me enough gold in the world to venture out past these walls and into the wilds of Tir Na Nog. Was he saying my mother was cruel? No, he couldn’t. She offered me her home, and from the vibes I’d been getting from her all day - a place in her heart.

So what was he saying?

A booming crack sounded outside, powerful enough that it shook the very foundations of the building, and the entire castle came alive. The candles lining the walls blazed to life, and fae began scurrying out of their rooms, eyes glowing in frantic fear.

“They’re here!” a goblin hissed as he scampered past, a shiny bronze dagger in his crummy palm.

“To the queen! To the queen!” shouted others, all running towards the Throne room like a living sea of fangs and claws. They dragged me along with them, their momentum pushing us all forward. I stumbled with them, my heart pounding in my throat.

“Who’s here?” I asked a male faerie with mint green hair and red eyes as he ran beside me, though I already had a sick feeling weighing in my gut.

The fae’s eyes were wide and frantic as he stared down at me, his legs in a steady jog. “The witches,” he whispered.

The sick feeling grew until I felt as if I would vomit. Bile burned a path up my throat and I gagged on it as I choked it back down.

The witches were here.

When the mob of faeries finally reached the Throne room, I broke apart from the group when I saw Foster standing by my mother’s throne, a his eyes hard and fierce. When he saw me approaching, his shoulders relaxed a bit, but his mouth was still drawn in a thin, firm line.

“Where have you been?” he snapped, and I flinched back, surprised.

“Just walking around,” I said back, crossing my arms over my chest. “I couldn’t sleep.”

He snorted and rolled his eyes. “Pathetic human blood,” he mumbled under his breath and he reached out and grabbed my arm with firm fingers. I didn’t have time to be offended. “Come with me,” he commanded, and I could tell by the steely undertone in his words there was no room for arguing.

We slithered past a herd of frantic redcaps that snapped their teeth in my direction, and continued down the hall, our feet pounding against the icy floors.

“Where are we going?” I hollered over the chaos unfolding around us. His fingers were cool metal on my arm.

“I have to get you somewhere safe. Your mother is rallying troops and the fae at court.”

“Why aren’t you with your troops?” I shouted back. “Aren’t they suppose to take orders from you?”

His jaw clenched as he elbowed his way past frantic norgens, pixies, brownies, bogarts and orcs. They all sneered as we weaseled our way past, shooting us angry looks that made me cling to Foster even more.

We stopped at a door made out of dark brown wood, which was a surprise for the Winter Court. Foster grabbed my elbows and spun me to face him. “Climb the steps as fast as you can. It leads to the tallest tower in the entire castle, and I’ll be up in a few minutes to defend you. I have to make sure there aren’t any witches around that will follow us.”

My throat threatened to close as I started at his pale face, his beautiful eyes and white hair. I don’t know why I did it, but I reached out and stroked his face and my entire body came alive with a roar.

Foster stifled a groan, gently pulling my hand away from his face. “I’ll be back for you,” he whispered. “Give me a few minutes.”

I nodded, tears blurring my vision as another loud crash shook the castle. There was a flash of orange and red through the windows, and soon the alluring smell of smoke tickled pasty my nose.

When I turned my attention back to Foster, he was already jogging away from me, his sword unsheathed and his owl flying low beside him. My heart hammered in my throat as I fumbled with the door’s knobs. The door opened with a groan, revealing a very steep, very dark staircase that went up-up-up into the heavens.

With a shaky breath, I lunged up the steps and into the shadows.

There were no lights to guide my path, so I stumbled and tripped multiple times, banging my shins and chin on the hard stone steps. I would no doubt be baring the bruises for days to come, if I was alive, that is.

The muscles in my calves began to scream as I continued to climb, my fear of the witches and what they would do to a traitor fueling me to continue on. Cool air cut down my throat as I conquered the steps one by one, desperate for refuge.

After minutes of sprinting, my legs began to quiver, and I had to lean against the wall for support.

Then I heard the clicking of boots on stone.

Forgetting about the pain in my legs and the burn in my lungs and throat, I flew up those steps faster than I’ve ever done anything before, my feet barely touching the stone.
But still, the boots got louder, heavier, drawing nearer.

Finally, thank God, another door presented itself, and I fumbled for its knob in the darkness.

I could hear the footsteps as clear as I could hear my heart throbbing in my ears now. There seemed to be more of them, more boots stomping on the stairs.

The door burst open with a groan and a cloud of dust, and I toppled inside with a thud. Spinning on my stomach, I used my shin to kick the door shut just as the hollow footsteps crowned the steps. I caught a glimpse of a black uniform and light blonde hair, followed by a curse.

“She’s in there!” someone called, and my body threatened to freeze, to shut down completely in fear.

The Sages wouldn’t spare my life this time, even if I begged them to let me back into the academy. Plus, I was part fae. I was there enemy.

Wait.

I was part faerie. I was the daughter of Meave, Queen of the Winter Court, and I came from a dominating line of female rulers. I felt my power, a steady thrum vibrating like guitar strings deep in the marrow of my bones. My finger’s began glowing with a chilling blue light that illuminated the room around me, chasing away the shadows.

I quickly surveyed the area, slightly surprised when I realized it was a girl’s bedroom, the only window draped in frilly white and pink curtains, a large bed with stuffed animals stuffed in a dusty corner.

The door shuddered on its hinges as the witches continued to ram into the wood. I took a few breaths, attempting to calm my racing heart, but it was no use. My power flowed through my veins light molten lava, igniting something inside my chest, like an orb of raw power that I’d never felt before. I felt alive.

With a crack the door blew apart in splinters, and I shielded my eyes from the debris with the back of my arm.

Three figures entered the room, their faces illuminated by the eerie glow of my fingers. I didn’t recognize any of them, thank God, though one’s face was hidden under a black cloak, but they all glared at me with knowing stares - as if I was the person that caused all their problems.

A man with honey blonde hair and cool grey eyes sneered in my direction, his lips curling upward in a bitter grin.

“The Sages were right,” he spat in my direction. “You’re a traitor.”

I bristled at his accusation, though we all knew it was true. My fingers curled into fists at my side.

One of the witches, a women with an ageless face and big green eyes cast a glance at the man. “She’s to be taken alive, Victor. Don’t forget Akan’s orders.”

“We could lie,” purred the third figure, and my heart turned to stone, my stomach clenching. Zafira stood beside the man with honey hair, flipping her hood back to reveal hateful topaz eyes. “She died in crossfire, a scrap piece of iron hit her in the stomach. We did everything we could to save her, but it was her fae blood that betrayed her.”

A lump had formed in my throat, and I couldn’t breathe around it.
Of course it was Zafira. But as I stared into her familiar golden eyes, my gaze lingering on the small tattoo of a crescent moon just below her bottom lid, I couldn’t help but wonder, was he here too? Was Sebastian somewhere in the castle, dancing in and out of the grip of snarling fangs and razor sharp claws?

The other woman’s mouth thinned into a line, but she didn’t say anything. How could she? A Count had given her orders, and birthright commanded she follow.

The man and woman began circling me like wolves while Zafira sat back, her spine resting on the peeling pink wallpaper of the walls. The man, in one swift motion, bent down and attempted to kick my legs out from under me, but I jumped back. The girl was waiting, her hands up, waiting to cast a spell.

The small draft that blew through the room, caused by a small hole in the only window, suddenly turned into howling gusts of wind that nearly knocked me over. My arms pinwheeled as I attempted to keep my balance, but I wasn’t strong enough.

I landed on the dusty floor with a huff, the oxygen whooshing from my lungs in one quick movement.

There was a click, and suddenly the man was holding a small ball of flame. My blood pounded in my veins, but I kept the fear I felt off my face. That was on lesson I learned from Sebastian, never let your enemy know you’re scared.

My eyes lingered on the tiny inferno he had nestled in his palm. He grinned, cruel and barbaric, and let it fly. I closed my eyes and held my chin high. At least if I was going to die, I would go down with dignity.

There was a whoosh, a grunt, and then nothing. There was no burn, no pain.

My eyes snapped open.

Foster stood with his sword to Victor’s nect, a hand curled around throat. “If you want your pathetic human filth of a friend to survive,” he hissed towards the girls, “I suggest you put your weapons down.”

Zafira had drawn a small golden blade herself, and its edge winked at me in the dim light. She sneered in his direction. “Disgusting fae,” she spat, and I could feel the tension rippling off Foster. “Do you think I care about a single soldier? I have thousands.”

Foster’s mouth twisted upward in a menacing grin. “I was hoping you’d say that.” Too fast for my eyes to follow, Foster drew the blade of his sword across the fire witch’s throat, slashing him open.

Dark, shining liquid poured from his neck, and he fell to his knees. His hands came up to grip the wound, as if trying to fuse it back together, but he only made it worse. Blood and gore bulged through his slender fingers, and I had to swallow the bile that burned a path up my throat as he sank to the floor in a gasping heap.

Foster jumped back too fast before the blood could splash and besmirch his uniform. He pulled a black cloth from his pocket and swept it up the blade, ridding it of any evidence of the murder he had just committed. “One down, two to go.”

The woman with the green eyes leapt into action with a roar, her eyes filled with spiteful fear. She’d snagged a fire poker from the fireplace and aimed it for Foster’s heart. The elven knight did nothing but smile, his teeth flashing, and bounded into the fray.

I could do nothing but watch, fascination ridding me motionless as I watched him dance in and out of her blows. She even used some of her magic, attempting to blow him off balance with gusts of air.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched a shadow move.

I reacted.

A dark smog had been released, slithering across the ground and towards an occupied Foster. Night magic. I wasn’t sure what it was going to do to him, but I knew it wasn’t going to tickle. Zafira stalked low, a golden dagger glinting in her grasp. She raised the blade and...

Power burst from me like an explosion, a blinding flash of blue and white light. I squeezed my eyes shut at the blinding flash. When my eyes adjusted to the returning darkness, the smog was gone... But so was Zafira.

There was a gurgle from the corner of the room, and I caught a glimpse of Foster ripping his blade free from the chest of the other witch. She clawed at him with her fingers, but soon slumped to the ground where she went silent and still.

When his eyes met mine, something passed between us and I felt as if my legs were going to buckle. “Where’s the other one?” he asked, wiping his blade of the crimson blood that looked black in the night.

“I - I don’t know,” I admitted, my body still quaking from the adrenaline.

But then something stirred by the door, and I gasped.

She was dying, there was no question, but how she was dying was what stole my breath away. Her body was turning a sickly blue, her eyes glazed over in a white film that caused my stomach to squirm. Her eyes rolled in their sockets before landing on me. I could see the panic, laced with fear and hatred. I could feel it too, and it was enough to cause a tear to drip from my eye.

She gasped for air, but something was happening inside her body, and she jerked in slow, painful movement... It was as if... as if she was freezing. Her body began to crystallize, becoming translucent. I could see the floorboards beneath her hands.

“What’s happening to her?” I asked quietly, my body shaking.

“You are you mother’s daughter,” Foster murmured, kneeling down to study the dying Count. Soon, her eyes were the only thing that moved, almost completely untouched. Her entire body wasn’t just encased in ice, but had become it.

“What do you mean?” My heart ached as I stared at the dying girl. I couldn’t rip my gaze away. I’d done that. “What did I do?”

Foster picked up a the golden dagger than had fallen from her grip, twirling it between his fingers. “You froze her soul.”


I didn’t have time to mourn the life that I’d taken. After Zafira had finally... died, Foster grabbed my arm and dragged me back down to the main floor. The castle was in chaos, and the dense aroma of smoke assaulted my nose. Small fires littered the corridors, melting the frozen structure and burning whatever its fiery tongues licked at.

“They weren’t alone,” Foster growled, his nails digging into my flesh as he ran.

Black uniforms were everywhere, slaughtering fae, and a thin haze of purple; a mixture of blood, lingered in the air. Luckily none of them recognized me with my shaper features, white lashes and pointed ears. The lack of glamour actually acted as a blessing for once.

The witches were invading, and after our encounter upstairs in that tiny room, I finally knew why. For me.

I still couldn’t wrap my mind around it - why the Sages would send an entire legion of witches raining down upon us, all for one single girl. I was nothing to them, replaceable. Trash. I mean yes, ice magic was in my grasps, but now that it was apparent that I wasn’t even fully human, why would Sage Akan want me in his clutches?

I killed someone. Not just anyone, but Zafira. Sebastian’s sister.

The world blurred past in fuzzy colors as Foster hauled me somewhere else he ruled safe, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I felt weighed down, heavy, and I didn’t want to move.

I murdered someone.

It was done. I could feel the cold, unyielding grip of something sinister gripping my heart, like a wicked, gnarled hand. I couldn’t help but come to the realization that somewhere up those stone steps, in the small pink room with peeling wallpaper, I murdered a part of myself too.

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