I stood frozen in place, staring at Aella’s back as she stood above the bed in the infirmary. Her hands moved swiftly over Brenya’s limp body, as they had been doing for the last several hours.
If I did not have even the slightest inkling of hope that she had the ability to help my mate, I would’ve killed her hours ago. I kept my arms crossed tightly over my chest. They wouldn’t stop shaking.
They trembled with rage, and fear, and more rage.
They yearned to wrap their hands around the Sylph’s throat. To squeeze until her skin turned purple. To punish her for taking my mate to that god’s forsaken island, for putting her life in danger this way.
They also yearned to push her to the side and stroke Brenya’s face, to heal her with the love that pounded through my veins, to make everything okay again... They yearned to do the impossible, as if by simply loving her enough, she would somehow survive.
My first, second, and third in command stood silently by the door, watching the gut wrenching scene unfold with wide, wary eyes. Marrok and Sylvie stood to my left. I could smell the salt in the silent tears that continued to slide down Sylvie’s cheeks.
“Why is it taking so long?” I growled quietly.
“These things take time.” Aella responded, not bothering to turn and look at me. “Her injuries are not external...”
"I know that.” I seethed through gritted teeth. “I also know that it is all your fault. What the rutting hell were you thinking, letting her go there on her own like that!? I could’ve gone with her, I could’ve protected her, I could’ve-”
“No one has ever survived the Sirens. You and I both know that you would have never allowed her to set foot within one hundred miles of that island.” Aella interrupted me, her tone cool and even. Her hands continued to drift, hovering an inch away from Brenya’s skin. “She had to go alone. It was the only way...”
I felt like a geyser, ready to erupt. “I should kill you...” My hand raked through my hair, pulling so roughly it was a miracle it stayed attached to my scalp.
“I doubt you’d do something so foolish.” Her voice was like the wind. “You need me.”
Her calm demeanor made me even more angry. How could she be so unaffected by this? How did her hands not tremble? How did she sound so relaxed?
“I still don’t understand what’s taking so long. It took you less than an hour to heal Warrick.” I growled, trying to rein in my temper.
“That was different.” She said. There was ancient, inhuman, never ending patience in her voice. “Warrick was not dying.”
A metal chair across the room levitated off of the floor as my blood simmered, red hot and dangerous. “SHE IS NOT DYING!” The chair flew across the room as I roared. It smashed into the far, back wall and clattered to the floor in a twisted, misshapen hunk of metal.
A hand squeezed my shoulder firmly from behind. “Dristan-”
I whirled around, shrugging Warrick’s hand off. My vision was pulsing with red and white and I didn’t know how to contain the growing fury and panic poisoning my insides. I threw out my palms, shoving roughly against his chest. He staggered backward a step, his dark eyes flaming.
“Don’t touch me!” I warned.
His nostril flared. “Get ahold of yourself and I won’t have to.”
I bared my teeth at him, all too ready to accept his challenge. My temper was laced with dynamite and I was itching for a match, dying to light the fuse, to let the explosion go, desperate to just get it out of me.
Warrick must’ve registered the violent gleam in my eyes because he suddenly closed his eyes, nodded once, straightened his spine and said “Come with me.”
I huffed in disbelief. “I’m not leaving her.”
“There is nothing you can do. You are distracting Aella and ruining the furniture. The others will stay with her. Now, come on. You need to channel your rage.” He said calmly.
My hands shook at my sides as I glared at him. A part of me knew that he was right and that I should do as he said. I was only making things worse. My dragon was a quivering mass of deadly flame inside of me and trying to contain his rage would only drive me closer to the furious insanity that threatened to burn me alive.
But I couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving this room, of being anywhere other than exactly where I was. Every instinct in my body, every fiber of my being, every molecule and atom that made me who I was, screamed at me to stay with her.
To guard her, to shield her, to protect her...
The other end of the bond was silent and cold and dark, like soaring alone through the night sky in winter. I drew in a breath and it felt like inhaling tiny shards of invisible glass as the pain of her absence on the other side of the bond grew more and more solidified in my mind.
The only thing holding me together was a faint, dim glow within that chilly abyss. A small point of light... Far, far away. Too far to call out to and be heard. Too dim to see clearly.
But I knew it was her.
She was still holding on, still fighting, still alive.
“Dristan, please.” Warrick said. My eyes snapped back to his. The pain and concern lining his face felt like a blow to the gut.
He looked at me with such pity. It should’ve meant something to me, something good, something kind or grateful or glad. But I hated the pity that melted his chocolate eyes.
He looked at me as if I’d lost someone I loved. As if someone had died... He looked at me as if she... As if she was already dead.
But she wasn’t dead.
She wouldn’t die.
She couldn’t die.
I wanted to claw at his face, to rip his soulful eyes right out of their sockets, to never have to endure him looking at me that way ever again. His pity was fuel. And he was throwing it all over an already raging fire.
I flexed my fists. “Fine.”
Without another word, he turned and strode out of the room. I followed, shooting a look at Andromeda and Torryn as I passed them.
“Don’t worry.” Andi whispered. “We won’t leave her.”
Torryn nodded in agreement, his crystal blue eyes boring into me. Apart from Warrick, he might be the only person in this room, in the entire Aviary, who could have even the slightest taste of empathy for what I was feeling right now. Apart from Warrick, he was the only person I knew who had a mate.
He knew what it felt like to force yourself to walk away from the female your soul was anchored to. To feel your insides ripped apart in the process. I tore my eyes away from him, unable to withstand the intensity in his gaze.
I tried not to think as I followed Warrick wordlessly through the busy corridors. I tried to ignore the eyes that watched me as we passed by. I tried not to think, or see, or feel...
Soon, I was nothing but a living, breathing flame. I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even breathe.
I am standing in a vast, green field. The smell of gardenias and roses and lilies wrap themselves around my senses like silk. I want to bottle the scent, tuck it in my pocket, and keep it forever.
Multicolored birds dance in the breeze above my head, singing happily, their own secret language of joy. Thousands of milky white flowers are strewn across the grass in every direction, like droplets of snow in December.
I tilt my head back, closing my eyes and smiling up at the brilliant sun as it’s warmth kisses every valley and plane of my face.
I am so... Happy.
There are no other emotions here. And I know, somewhere, there are people who will miss me. Somewhere far, far away, there are people who will never understand my departure. They will mourn me, miss me, cry for me...
And I know I should be saddened by this thought. But sadness does not exist here. I cannot even remember what it feels like to be anything other than as completely, wholly, unreservedly content as I am...
Here and now.
I don’t know what I used to be...
But I know that where I come from is wrought with pain, and fear and fatigue. I do not remember what those feelings feel like.
I do know that I am glad that I don’t.
And I do not want to go back to it.
I don’t want to be whatever it is that I was...
I want to be... Free.
Free, like the birds that play in the warm sky above me.
I want to be a bird...
I am a bird.
A bird who has been caged her entire life. A bird who has wings, but has never been given the opportunity to truly use them. I am a bird who stands in a field, watching how the others twirl and dive and hover in the wind above. A bird who longs to take flight, be weightless...
I am a bird who has never known the pleasure of simply being a bird. I have never ventured out of the safety and comfort of my own cage, never been given my own choices, never been allowed or dared or even dreamed of flying...
Death has set me free.
Death... Sweet and terrible death, has reached out his skeletal hand and gently broken the lock that was holding my cage together. And as I realize how truly, unmistakably, undeniably broken that cage finally is...
I stretch my wings...
and I fly away.
I had been sparring with Warrick for the last hour and a half. He’d had enough decency to not even try and fight back. He only blocked my blows. At least enough to ensure that he did not suffer serious injuries from my furious fists.
He had turned himself into a living target. He was allowing me to use him to take out my aggression. He didn’t complain, or frown, or even speak as I struck him again, and again, and again.
He knew what I was battling. He had been through this, and so much worse. I couldn’t imagine the things that he had had to endure on his own. He had suffered my worst fears. He had watched his mate die...
I couldn’t understand how he’d survived it. I could never empathize before... But now, I had a mate of my own. I knew what it meant to love someone more than yourself.
And finally, as I punched and kicked and struck him, as I thought of what unparalleled pain he’d been through, my rage lessened.
Not because of the beating I was giving him. Not because of the anger he was allowing me to release. But because I suddenly knew how much worse it could be.
He rose a brow at me as I dropped my fists and stared at him. I panted heavily as sweat dripped from tips of my hair and into my eyes.
“Is that it?” He finally said, surprised. “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.”
I swept the back of my hand across my forehead, staring down at the mat we stood upon. I avoided looking into his eyes. I did not want him to see the pity that I was feeling for him. I didn’t want him to see it because I knew how it felt to be looked at in such a way.
“Are you alright?” He asked more softly.
I took a deep breath and lifted my eyes back to his. “Better... Thanks.”
“Sure. You don’t hit very hard anyway.” He joked, rubbing a hand over the bicep I’d been using as a punching bag. He winced slightly and laughed.
I grinned, stepped forward, and clapped him on the other shoulder. “Really, Warrick... Thank you.”
He nodded, still smiling. “You’re welcome, brother.”
“I’m sorry for behaving that way.” I mumbled, shaking my head and stepping away. “I just...”
“I know.” He said, sparing me the embarrassment. “I know. Don’t worry.”
I glanced at him briefly and smiled before looking away again. “I should get back...”
And then it happened.
It all happened so fast.
It felt like falling in a dream and waking up the moment before impact, my heart hammering in my chest, my mind confused and petrified and not sure what was real.
It felt like someone had filled the ocean with despair and dumped it on top of my head. And I couldn't comprehend what was happening to me.
I couldn't comprehend anything aside from the fact that my body was suddenly filled with a horrible, sickening, heart stopping kind of shock. The kind of shock that locks up every muscle in your body. The kind of shock that paralyzes you, inside and out, and you don’t know if what you’re experiencing is even real.
The kind of shock that kills....
Just for one, fleeting moment...
Except you’re not dead.
And when that shock dissolves, you’re left with nothing but emptiness. Relief does not exist. The pain does not lessen as the second pass by.
No... The seconds that tick by only make the pain so much worse.
And I couldn’t breathe.
I fell to my knees, my hand clutched to my heart. I gaped at the air like a dead fish, my entire body shaking with indescribable anguish.
“Dristan,” Warrick dropped to my side, his tone alarmed. “Dristan, what’s wrong?”
I couldn’t find my voice. My vocal chords had been severed with rusty, dull scissors and I had no idea how to shape my lips around words anymore.
No... Gods, please no...
The dim light... The small spark of my mate, alive in the distance between our bond...
It had disappeared.
Just like that.
Like blowing out a candle. Like closing your eyes. Like cutting a thread...
The steel cord between us went limp.
And suddenly, I was screaming.
I was on my feet.
I was sprinting.
Gray, stone walls with paintings adorning them whipped past me in a blur as my legs carried me at the speed of light. It wasn’t fast enough. The sound of my boots pounding on the pavement echoed off the corridors.
I could hear another pair of boots behind me, struggling to keep up. I thought I could hear my name, too, but I couldn’t be sure.
All I could do was run.
Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.
Faster. Faster. Faster.
The door to the infirmary never stood a chance as I slammed my shoulder into it, knocking it straight to the floor. Chunks of rock came off with the hinges, falling roughly to the ground, but the sound was a soft, delicate whisper compared to my bellowing voice as my eyes fell upon her.
Aella stood above the bed, her hands pressed to Brenya’s chest. One hand, folded over the other, pumping up and down, up and down, up and down...
Andi, Torryn, Marrok and Sylvie stood around the bed. Their eyes said everything that I couldn’t. My hands were blocks of cement at my sides. My legs were useless stubs.
I couldn’t feel my dragon. He had shriveled into a deep corner of my being, somewhere dark and void of anything other than nothingness.
“Dristan!” Aella shouted, lifting her head.
I stared at her hands.
Up, down, up, down, up, down...
“DRISTAN!” She screeched. I’d never heard her yell before. It stunned me enough to bring my lifeless eyes to meet hers.
“Get over here, now!” She instructed, still pumping the silent heart beneath her hands. “I need your help! I need ALL of your help!” She motioned toward the others in the room with her head.
Warrick stumbled into my back, his breathing harsh, and he shoved me toward the bed. I did not protest.
Didn’t know how...
We stopped at the edge of the bed.
I stared down at Brenya’s pale face. She looked like she was sleeping. Just... Just sleeping. She looked so healthy, so strong, so beautiful... She couldn’t be... Couldn’t be...
I couldn’t think the word.
“She’s slipping away.” Aella said, more calmly. “There is one other thing I know of that we can do to try and bring her back...” Her hands pump violently. Brenya’s body lolled beneath her hands with each motion.
Bile bubbled in the back of my throat.
I want to die.
I want to die.
I want to die.
“LISTEN TO ME!” Aella screamed.
My head snappd up. Her huge, black eyes were determined and shockingly intense. She was sweating slightly. Strands of limp, dark hair clung to her forehead and neck.
“She has no power left in her.” Aella said. “She has no source with which to draw life from. The source of magic in our bodies is what gives us immortality. Without it, we die.”
I stared at her blankly, wondering why she was telling me something that I already knew. Blubbering idiot... If I hadn’t been so numb, I might’ve drawn my sword and cut off her head.
But I couldn't find the will.
I couldn't find anything inside of myself other than an endless, vast, empty, ice cold void of nothingness.
“She needs our help.” She continued, her alien eyes darting between the six of us. “She needs to borrow our power. We have to give her enough of each of our power to bring her back and keep her alive until her own power can restore itself. Do you understand?”
I was vaguely aware of the others saying yes, nodding, reaching out their hands.
This can't be happening...
“But let me be frank... It will be dangerous.” Aella warned. “If you give too much, you could die yourselves. Only give enough to bring her back. And... It will hurt. It will hurt like nothing you've felt before."
Like that mattered...
“Just tell us what to do!” Andi cried, her eyes wet, her whole body shaking with sobs of grief and fear.
Aella stopped pumping. She pulled one of her hands away from Brenya’s chest, keeping the other firmly in place over her heart.
“Put your hands on top of mine.” She instructed quickly, yet calmly.
Some small semblance of reason came back to me in that moment. If there was something we could do... If there was any chance that I could wake from this hellish dream... I had to try. I had to move my body.
My hand trembled as I lifted it and placed it over hers. I met her eyes. “Aella...” I didn’t recognize my own voice. So frail, so brittle... “Bring her back...”
She nodded. “We will bring her back together.” She promised.
More hands piled on top of my own. I glanced around, meeting the eyes of my comrades. They blinked at me, at each other, at Brenya’s lifeless body... I could see the panic and pain in their eyes.
I wondered what my own must look like.
“Hen dduwiau a duwiau newydd, clywch ni nawr!” Aella recited, closing her eyes.
I couldn't hear Brena's heart beating. My breath came in rapid, painful gasps. My free hand somehow found its way to her face, though I couldn’t remember instructing it to do so. My actions felt robotic. I was in a daze.
I thought maybe... Just maybe... Maybe I was still on the island. Maybe this was just a hallucination, a terrible, cruel illusion that the Siren's had shoved down my throat. Maybe it was all just a gods forsaken nightmare.
Her skin was warm beneath my touch. Her cheeks were still flush with pink. But I couldn’t feel her through the bond. I was touching a shell... This was not my mate.
She was not here.
Please... Come back...
Something hot rolled down my cheek as Aella continued her spell. “Rhoi ein grym i ni! Gadewch i’n hud lenwi ei gwaed!”
My hand... The one on top of Aella’s, the one on Brenya’s chest... It began to tingle. It tingled in the strangest way, growing more and more intense with each passing second.
“Gadewch iddi fyw! Gadewch iddi fyw! Gadewch iddi fyw!”
It didn’t tingle anymore...
It burned like the seventh circle of hell. It burned like a thousand suns. It burned like every spark, every flame, every spice, every source of heat in the world had been placed in the palm of my hand.
My teeth clenched together as white hot fire spread between my fingers and across my palm. It burned like nothing I’d ever felt before and I thought for certain that my bones were melting.
Someone began to pull their hand away.
The hand that I had been been pressing to Brenya’s face snapped out instinctively. My fingers closed around Sylvie’s wrist like a vice, keeping her in place as she struggled against the burning pain. Tears cascaded over the apples of her cheeks, but she nodded at me, almost as if she were grateful for my forcing her to endure it.
“GADEWCH IDDI FYW!”
A blinding, white light exploded out of our hands and into Brenya's chest. The force of it was so powerful, so unexpected, and so incredibly painful that I actually cried out. I could hear other screams ringing all around me.
But not for long.
I felt myself flying.
Flying through the air.
I heard myself grunt as a sick, wet thudding sound cut through my awareness. It was followed by a searing, stinging pain above my left ear.
Brenya? Where are you...
I’m going to pass out...
I’m going to pass out...
I’m going to...