I was a brewing cauldron of swirling emotions and thoughts. The most potent ingredient among the stew was concern, followed by amazement, pride, even a dash of fear.
But mostly concern.
I sat at the head of the council table, leaned back in my chair, one ankle resting atop the opposite knee. I leaned an elbow on the arm of the chair, resting my jaw against my fist. The room was silent, like the unsettling stillness of a forest before the eye of a storm.
Seated around the table were Brenya, Torryn, Andromeda, Marrok, Sylvie, and Aella. We had been here for nearly an hour now, waiting for Warrick’s return... He’d gone to the belly of the Aviary to deal Ronan his lashings.
No one spoke.
All eyes were on me. All except for Brenya, who stared at the table in front of her, her chin held high, her expression blank. I kept my face masked with calm indifference as I sat at the head of the table. I camouflaged the scent of my emotions with a wall of impenetrable steel so that the others would not detect how disturbed I truly was.
Though I could still smell their own shock, their own fear, their own confusion...
I’d even masked my emotions and thoughts from Brenya. I did not want her to feel how worried I was for her. I did not want her to sense my fear of her unstable mental status. I did not want to cause her any more emotional weight than she was already bearing. It wasn’t that I saw her as weak, or thought that she couldn’t withstand knowing how I was feeling in this moment... She was strong, so, so strong...
But she was also so incredibly delicate. I had never known anyone who felt emotion as strongly as she did. I’d never known anyone so empathetic toward the emotions of others, never met anyone who felt guilt or remorse as strongly as she did.
Too much emotion was not good for her. I knew her well enough to know that to be truer than any truth. She was an emotional vacuum, and when the spaces inside of her became too full, too jam packed with the mass of them... She detonated. And sometimes, it caused her to hurt the people she cared for most.
Like when she’d been overcome with grief and anger in the forest, when her father had been killed and she’d killed Marrok and Sylvie’s father in retaliation. Or when her determination to retrieve the fire rune had caused Warrick to burn his wing. Or when her love for me, her determination to get me out of a marriage I never wanted, caused her to bind herself to Ronan.
All of these violent explosions of her magnified emotions had resulted in her own suffering. And each time, I had to watch as she suffered that immense, all consuming, paralyzing guilt in the aftermath that followed.
And now... What she’d done to Ronan... Crushing the bones in his legs to dust... What Warrick was doing to him right now, this moment, far below us in the dungeons because she had ordered it to be done... This was the worst of all of it.
The ruthlessness of what she had done did not bother me. In fact, I felt immense pride for the power she’d shown. In a way, I was touched that she’d shown such protectiveness of me. And of course, I wasn’t particularly fond of Ronan. It hadn’t bothered me to watch her hurt him.
But the knowledge that she was fond of him... The knowledge that she was bothered, so hurt by his betrayal, and the idea that she would become so much more bothered if he turned out to be innocent...
That bothered me.
I was not sure if he was the culprit. There was room for reasonable doubt... But gods, I wanted it to be him. I’d never wanted anything more than for him to be the one responsible for this. Not because I hated him and wanted him to die. No...
But because if he wasn’t the one responsible...
Her guilt would destroy her.
This was my concern. This was the reason my insides were drowning in worry. This was the reason that, behind the emotionless mask of my face, I was being torn apart at the seams.
I didn't care that I'd almost been assassinated tonight. It was an after thought, floating in the back of my mind, un-concerning to me. It didn't matter right now.
She mattered more.
She would hate herself if he was innocent. She would feel like the most vile, evil, most horrible person in the world, no matter how untrue it was. She was not evil. I’d never known anyone as good ... As pure as she was.
But then... The person I’d seen in the ballroom tonight... The person who had incapacitated every single person in the aviary, a feat I would’ve thought impossible even for her, the person who had completely, utterly, absolutely ignited into a living flame of fury right before my eyes... The person who would inflict such devastating pain onto someone she’d considered her friend, the person who would so easily condemn a man, her friend, to die...
I did not know that person.
It was a side of her I’d never witnessed, never thought, never considered could even exist...
It reminded me of my dragon.
Like some feral, vicious beast that lived somewhere deep, dark and untouched inside the cracks of the most ancient whispers of her being. A being that shared the same body as her, but was completely separate from her own sense of self. A part of her that was completely driven on instinct and the will to survive.
Just like my dragon.
I watched her motionless form at the other end of the table, wishing I could read her thoughts. I reached out with a mental hand and slid a gentle finger down the seam of her consciousness. But it was locked up tightly, like my own. She wasn’t going to let me in, not right now.
I settled on trying to read her body instead. I studied the straight, rigid lines of her posture. Her back was straight, shoulders pushed back, hands folded in her lap. Tense, she was so tense... But her fingers did not fidget. She was not nervous, or anxious... Only tense.
Her chin was held high, her eyes cast downward, still trained on the wooden tabletop directly in front of her. Stubborn... Set in her decision.
I watched her chest rise and fall with the slow, steady stream of her breath. In, out, in, out, in, out... A pause. A slight tightness touched the corner of her eyes. Then, she continued to breathe, her face smoothing out again nearly imperceptibly.
In, out, in, out, in out... A very subtle intake of breath. The smallest wobble in her lower lip. But it was gone in an instant. Her chest continued to rise and fall rhythmically.
I could tell, even with her mask, even with her blocking me out, even with her impressive acting skills... Her mind was racing. She was struggling with her emotions, with her swirling thoughts... I could see it in the subtle details of her body. I was so attuned to her, so in sync with her... To anyone else, she would look completely in control, completely calm.
But not to me. I knew her.
More focused this time, I reached out a mental hand. I pressed my palm to the barrier of her mind, stroked my thumb across it. I sent a wave of comfort, understanding, and love over the wall like a warm breeze, like the most gentle caress.
Slowly, her eyes lifted from the table top. Slowly, her gaze met with mine. Her face remained as impassive as mine, giving nothing away to the others. I caressed her mental shields once more, wishing I could hold her, wishing I could kiss away her worries.
The tight lines of her posture relaxed the slightest fraction, and the corner of her beautiful lips lifted almost imperceptibly. I felt my own body sag with relief when her answering caress whispered across my consciousness like the gentle beat of a butterfly’s wing.
Then, she dropped her gaze back to the table. I was left feeling cold when her ghostly fingers withdrew.
I felt like I was slowly losing my mind.
I’d trusted him. I’d trusted him, I’d defended him, I’d allowed myself to care for him. Even when Dristan warned me from the start that he was a horrible, manipulative bastard. I hadn’t listened.
I’d let him trick me into thinking he was my friend, that there was something good in him. I’d actually believed that just because he had a dark past, had been through horrible things, had suffered in ways I couldn’t imagine... I’d actually believed that there was still goodness in his heart.
He’d always been there for me, always encouraged me, always believed in me... But he’d also always wanted me for himself. He wanted the crown... I just never thought... Never believed... Never fathomed that he was capable of hurting me this way.
He was supposed to be my friend...
I struggled to keep my emotions buried, to keep them from showing on my face as I stared down at the table. The cruel, ferocious, terrifyingly powerful voice was gone now. She had slowly slipped back into the deepest pits of my mind, no longer needed. She knew that her job was done, and that she had accomplished her purpose.
Her purpose of protecting her mate...
And now, with her absence, other things were trickling in to take her place. The anger was seeping away, the numbness was fading... And I was trembling like a leaf on the inside as my mind began to race with the reality of what had just happened.
Gods... What did I do back there?
I did what I had to do.
But what if... What if...
Don’t say it.
What if it wasn’t Ronan...
I had to stop being so weak. I had to stop being so emotionally invested in every little thing that happened. If it wasn’t Ronan, then I’d deal with that bridge when it was time to cross it. I had to bury my emotions and use my wits. What mattered now was that someone was trying to kill Dristan. I had to think of everyone around me as a possible suspect, friend or not.
But there was no doubt in my mind.
It had to be Ronan. No one else had a motive. No one else had threatened Dristan’s life inside of the Aviary’s walls before, no one but Ronan. It was no secret that Ronan hated him, especially after what had happened when I’d become Fae and the mate bond became known in front of the entire Aviary. Everyone knew that Ronan had lost me to Dristan.
In his mind, Ronan had lost everything to Dristan, in some way or another. He’d told me himself once before that what Dristan’s ancestors did to his family was unforgivable. Back when he’d been cunning and cruel and selfish...
That was the real Ronan.
This person, the one who I had so foolishly grown to care for, this person who seemed to care for me too, was a lie. He wasn’t real.
I’d been a fool.
And when Ronan had realized that Dristan and I were really going to be married, to be crowed king and queen, he just couldn’t fucking take it. He couldn’t’ stand to see Dristan take the crown, the one thing he wanted most...
So he tried to poison him.
It. Was. The. Only. Logical. Answer.
I would not back down. Not unless he was proven innocent, which wasn’t going to happen. And even if it did happen... No, I couldn’t think about that now.
What mattered was that my people knew I would not tolerate traitors, even if someone was only suspected of such a thing. I would not go easy on those who would harm my people, myself, or my mate. No matter who they were.
I would not be seen as weak.
I didn’t know how long we’d been sitting there when Warrick finally entered the room. Robotically, I lifted my eyes and watched as he shut the heavy door behind him, turned, met all of our gazes, and then found his seat.
I studied him. His lips were pale. His eyes were vacant.
“Is it done?” I heard myself say, my voice cold and hard. I hardly recognized it.
Warrick lifted his face, his glassy eyes finding mine. He blinked, swallowing slightly. “Yes. All of his lashes have been dealt. I did not call for healers, as you asked...”
I nodded stiffly. “Good.”
“He was asking to speak with you.” Warrick added quietly.
A soft laugh fell from my lips that was in no way humorous. “Yes, I’m sure he is just itching to feed me more of his lies. It’s too bad for him that I’ve lost my appetite.”
“Perhaps we should discuss the possibility that someone else could’ve been responsible-” Warrick began to suggest, but I cut him off.
I held up a hand. “There will be no discussion. That is what the trial is for. If Ronan is found innocent, we will discuss our next move. Right now, we need to turn our attention back to the mission.”
Warrick stared at me for a short moment before nodding and turning his attention to the table top in front of him. A wise decision.
I took a steadying breath as I lifted my folded hands from my lap and set them down in front of me on the solid wood. When I opened my hands, revealing the stone that the Kadoma had given to me, every pair of eyes in the room focused on it.
“The earth rune and the riddle to find the final elemental rune.” I whispered, stroking the stone lovingly with my thumb.
Seven, eight, nine, ten seconds later, someone finally spoke.
“Well, we already know that it’s water.” Andromeda said smoothly.
I turned my head to the right to look at her. “Yes.”
“Are you certain you want to do this now?” Dristan asked suddenly.
I turned my gaze forward again, surprised, settling my gaze on the intense pair of sapphire eyes across from me. His eyes stayed locked with mine as he moved his fist from his jaw and pressed it to his mouth.
I felt my eyes narrow. “What are you talking about?”
His head lifted, leaving his fist suspended in font of his chest. “We could wait until after Ronan’s trial. We don’t have to do this now, it can wait.”
I blinked rapidly at him before I let out a soft laugh. “And why would we want to do that?”
His eyes flashed and he cocked his head slightly, as if to silently say ‘you know damn well why’. I glared at him. He glared back.
I needed him to let this go. I just needed him to understand that I wanted to move on, I didn’t want to dwell on what was happening with Ronan. I’d buried my emotions for the time being, and the look in his eyes was a shovel, ready to dig them all back up again.
Just drop it, Just leave it alone Dristan, please...
“Brenya, we will all understand if you need some time-” He began, but I couldn’t bear to hear him finish. He was only making things worse.
I slammed my right palm onto the table top. “I am finished wasting time!”
A tendril of power slipped out of me in my burst of anger, swirling a gust of wind around the room. Papers went flying off of the table and a few paintings shook against the stone walls.
Dristan was the only one who did not flinch. He watched me, his expression blank, as he pressed his fist to his mouth again. Even Aella jumped, startled by my outburst. She hadn’t spoken a word all night. Her wide, glassy black eyes widened, watching me like a hawk.
Papers floated back toward the ground, toward the table, as I reeled my power back in, as I closed my eyes and took a deep, steadying breath. No one spoke. I could taste their concern, their fear...
I hated it.
“If we take a break every time something awful happens, we are never going to get anywhere.” I said more softly, re-opening my eyes. “I’m sorry, I just... I need to focus on something else right now. Okay?”
Dristan nodded subtly, his mouth hidden by his fist, his eyes intense but giving nothing away. If my outburst had caused him anger or pain, I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t gauge his mood, couldn’t taste his emotions, couldn’t feel him through the bond. If i wasn’t already so overwhelmed, I might’ve been concerned by that. But I was overwhelmed, so I brushed it off, turning my attention back toward the stone in my hands.
Everyone else remained quiet. I knew I was scaring them. I knew they were concerned. I should’ve apologized, but if I allowed myself to feel sorry now, I would feel sorry for too much...
“Is everyone ready?” I asked, clenching the stone in my hand and lifting my eyes.
I met eyes with each of them, one at a time. Andromeda’s wide, golden eyes gleamed at me as she nodded quickly. Torryn’s steady, aquamarine gaze regarded me calmly as he nodded, just once. Warrick’s onyx eyes met mine briefly, much too briefly, as he nodded. Sylvie’s gray blue eyes were filled with poorly disguised concern as she whispered “Yes.” Marrok’s emerald orbs pierced me as he agreed. Aella’s alien, bug like eyes glimmered as she bowed her head slightly.
And Dristan... I held his stare, studying those deep, warm pools of water. I searched them for what felt like a thousand years, finding no trace or hint of what he might be feeling, before he finally slid his fist away from his mouth and said, “Alright... Open it.”
Mentally, I slumped to the ground in an exhausted heap of relief. Physically, I kept my expression calm and nodded firmly, cupping the cool, black stone in my hands. I never knew what to expect when my skin first came into contact with the runes.
None of us did.
With once last glance around the table, I let out a sigh and steeled myself for the surge of power that I knew was coming. My eyes fluttered closed. Silencing my thoughts, I reached inward, conjuring a small handful of power from the dark pool that resided somewhere deep, quiet and ancient in the pits of my being.
I counted to three...
A small trace of power crackled outward from my chest, then traveled to each of my shoulders, then zapped down the length of both my arms and straight into the palms of both of my hands. The sensation caused the hairs on my arms to stand on end as the sweet, slightly rancid scent of magic suddenly blossomed around me.
I gasped softly as the stone cracked in half against my palms, the sound echoing around the silent room like a bolt of lightening through a dark, still sky.
The two pieces of rock fell away from each other, clattering noisily onto the wooden table. A small scroll of paper fell to the table as well, but I didn’t even have a half a second to glance at it before the smooth, shiny rune stone rolled across the sensitive skin of my palm.
Every ounce of breath in my lungs whooshed out of me in an instant. I felt a fleeting rush of pain, but it was gone in an instant. I felt warm...
I flew backward in my seat, clutching the rune to my chest as its magic poured into me, filling me with it’s silent whispers of wisdom, impregnating me with it’s primordial knowledge, anointing me with it’s innate sense of power.
I wasn’t ready.
Couldn’t have ever been ready, no matter how much time I spent preparing myself. No amount of bracing myself could’ve ever composed me to endure the rush of power that was rushing into me, pumping through my veins and intertwining with my bones, with my soul.
I thought I might be screaming, but I couldn’t hear anything apart from the raw, roaring power assaulting my eardrums. I could feel my hair whipping around my face, stinging my cheeks. I couldn’t open my eyes. I felt like I was spinning, careening wildly out of control in the eye of a hurricane.
And then, I felt something else...
Something that I had always been somehow vaguely aware of, only now the awareness was crystal clear, was as real as the beating of my own heart, and my connection to it was anything but vague. I could literally feel the earth around me, like it were an extension of my body. Like an arm, or a leg, or a vital organ...
I could feel the forest, far, far below. I could hear the wind in the trees, could feel how it tickled its way through the leaves attached to each branch, causing them to sing and sigh with laughter.
I could smell the dirt, could sense the shifting soil as ants and worms wiggled through it beneath the surface. I could sense the enormous presence of the hollowed out volcano that I was currently buried in, could feel it breathing around me as if it were just as alive and relevant as I was.
Everything was connected. Everything.
And I was smack in the center of it all.
I was the brain stem of the massive, timeless, endless system that was nature’s very own nervous system. I had direct access to it all, could command it to my will, could become it...
Something trickled across my skin.
Sound came rushing back to me.
Gasps sounded around the room.
My eyes flew open and I gazed around the scene before me in confusion. How much time had passed? Seconds? Minutes? Hours?
Andi was near the far, back wall. She stared at me in horror. Torryn stood in front of her, posed in a defensive stance, his eyes wide and flashing with disbelief. Aella was still seated and she was watching me in that way that she always did, but her eyes wider than usual. Watching, assessing... Amazed.
Warrick was leaning forward in his seat, gaping at me. Marrok looked pale as his green eyes bored into me. Sylvie’s hands were covering her mouth, her shoulders tense, her spine as straight as a pin.
Dristan was not in his seat.
I looked up and to my left to find him standing beside me, his eyes bulging, his lips parted in shock. I stared at him, wondering why he was looking at me that way... He lifted a hand, reached toward me as if to touch me, but he stopped. My brow furrowed with confusion.
“Brenya?” He whispered, his eyes searching mine, his expression now openly concerned.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I whispered.
His throat bobbed as he swallowed, blinking down at me rapidly.
“Y-you... Your skin... Your arms...” He sputtered, his eyes trailing down my arms and then back to my face.
I shook my head, my brows drawing nearer to each other. “What?”
I turned my head forward and looked down. One arm was tucked against my chest, the rune still clasped tightly in my fist. The other arm was reaching toward the table where my hand was braced... My hand...
My jaw fell open.
My hand had morphed into the table. My arm... My arm was not covered in skin. It looked like the branch of a tree. Like the dark, bumpy, grooved wood of the table... It didn’t just look like wood.
It was wood.
My skin had become wooden, like the table beneath my touch. Like the trees far below. Like the Kadoma...
It snaked all the way up my arm, to my chest, to my other arm... I leaned forward, studying my legs. They were rooted to the stone floor.
I had become a living, breathing tree.
The next morning, I stepped out of the shower and stood naked in front of the full length mirror. I watched the other me as her head cocked to the side, her still wet hair clinging to her neck, shoulders and back. I watched, perplexed, as she lifted her hands... And starting at her fingertips, her skin transformed into solid, armored wood.
It slithered up her forearms and to her elbows, up to her shoulders, across her chest, down her belly, her legs, her feet... It spread up her neck and over her bewildered face until she wore a mask of bark. Even her hair seemed to harden against her skull.
What amazed me even more than my strange, new appearance was the range of mobility I still had. I could still move the same, could bend and walk and jump. It felt like I was still me... But I was covered in living armor.
I’d already tried stabbing my dagger through my hand. It had bounced off harmlessly, just like it would’ve done if I’d tried to stab a Kadoma.
Along with a magnified power over the earth element, I could now transform my skin into impenetrable wood at will. I smiled at myself in the reflection as the bark-like skin began to retract and my own smooth, tan skin took it’s place.
“That’s going to take some getting used to.” Dristan’s voice purred from the doorway.
I turned, still smiling, and met his gaze.
He leaned against the entryway as steam billowed out. His arms were crossed, one ankle crossed over the other, as his eyes slowly, hungrily raked down my nude body. I felt my tongue sweep across my lower lip as I took him in. His torso was bare, leaving his toned, rippling muscles fully visible to me. Soft, grey cotton pants hung low on his hips and my eyes lingered on the V cut of his lower abdomen.
He took his time assessing me. I didn’t move. I didn’t feel shy, or nervous, or ashamed as his eyes intimately slid over every curve of my body. My cheeks didn’t heat with embarrassment like they used to when he looked at me in such a way.
Now they heated for different reasons...
His eyes slid back to mine and he pushed off of the frame, slowly walking toward me. He stopped half a foot away and I inhaled slowly, letting his flame and pine needle scent wash over me. He took my left hand, brushing his thumb across the sensitive skin of my palm as he lifted it to his mouth.
His eyes did not leave mine as he planted a tender kiss against my engagement ring. “Quite a convenient gift, love. You are weapon-proof... I like that.”
His breath was hot against my skin, sending goosebumps down my arm. I stifled a groan. “I’ll bet you do, you giant, over-protective gecko.”
He smirked, his eyes flashing with wicked humor as he pressed his lips to the backs of my knuckles. “How are you feeling today?” He murmured against my skin.
I considered his question. Honestly, I felt rather numb. But numb was better than the alternative. “I’m fine.” I whispered. “I’ve been thinking about the riddle all morning...”
He hummed thoughtfully and lowered my hand from his mouth, lacing his fingers with my own. “So have I...”
None of us knew what to make of it. Not even Aella... After my startling transformation in the council room last night, and several minutes of my struggle to return my skin back to normal, we’d all brainstormed over the new riddle for two straight hours. No answer had been found so far.
I sighed, closing the space between our bodies and nestling my face against the warmth of his chest. His arms folded around me, pressing me to him as he buried his face in my hair and inhaled.
The riddle played on repeat in my mind...
“What was once lost, but never was.
Unheard, unseen, untouched, because...
Those who seek our shibboleth,
Those who cling to sun and breath,
Will sooner reach their certain death.”
We knew it had to be water. Water completed the four elements. But where the rutting hell was this damned riddle telling us to look? It made no sense...
“We must go. The trial begins in thirty minutes.” Dristan whispered against my neck.
I closed my eyes, struggling to drag in a breath.
“Yes... I know.”
“Brenya, if it’s not him, I don’t want you to feel-”
“Don’t.” I whispered.
He nuzzled further against my neck. I waited for him to press the matter, to speak again... But he didn’t. He only held me, breathed me, supported me...
But we were pulled apart when three sudden, loud knocks sounded at the front door.
Dristan pulled away from me, his brows furrowed slightly. He stared down into my eyes for three beats before reaching to the counter and handing me a large towel.
“Stay here, love.” He said before turning and stalking out of the room.
Confused, I wrapped the towel tightly around my body and padded after him. I stayed in the bedroom, hidden behind the door, and listened as he pulled the front door open.
“Dristan...” Warrick’s voice said. He sounded off.. Unsettled, breathless. Something was wrong.
My scalp prickled.
“Ronan is gone.”