The Firebird Prince

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Kellan

The world was swimming so badly that Kellan almost tripped over his own feet.

He reached out a hand to steady himself, dizzy and nauseous. When the worst of the spell passed, he lifted his shirt and examined his wound; it seemed normal, if a little swollen, but Kellan doubted that was the source.

He was too dizzy to focus properly, so he forced the pain down and pushed forward. He had to get to the cellar.

But his knees buckled at the next step; he stumbled into the wall, breathing heavily. His vision blurred and he slid unsteadily to the floor, hand pressed to his stomach.

The pain seemed to be coming generally from that direction. But then Kellan realized—it wasn't his wound, it was his hand.

Kellan blinked, trying to get his vision to focus. He examined his right hand, puzzled—what could be wrong with it? He hadn't hurt it recently, and it seemed perfectly fine.

But it wasn't an ache, or a throb, it was—it was just pain, hot and indescribable. Kellan bit back his panic and pushed back his sleeve. For a moment his vision blurred again, though for a completely different reason.

Black traced the veins on his forearm, dark and pulsing as if the blood itself had turned black. As Kellan fumbled the button open and pushed it further up, he saw the black creeping upwards slowly but steadily, towards his shoulder.

Poison.

A harsh breath left him as he stared at it with shock and fear. He lightly touched it with a shaking finger. The black writhed and pulsed and he flinched, jerking his hand back. His heart pounding, he checked it too, but it was unmarked. A sliver of relief washed over him.

He sharply pulled his sleeve down, tugging at the cuff. Inhaling sharply, he pushed to his feet, fighting through the sudden disorientation.

Pull yourself together, Kellan.

He stumbled along, leaning against the wall, trying not to fall. His vision was hazy and spinning. His heart pounded a weird, unsteady beat.

His knees buckled again just as he was about to reach the cellar door; he scrambled for purchase, but the world seemed to spin, and he fell. His vision faded into black.

"Look what we have here," a voice said, rock grating on rock. "Prince Kellan."

Kellan could think, and he could hear—but he could not see. His vision was a sea of black, streaked with stars. He tried to speak, but it felt like his throat had closed up.

"What's the matter?" the same voice said, and a hand seized his collar and yanked him up. Kellan had barely gotten his feet under him when he was backhanded, hard, across the face. The force of it sent him stumbling into the wall. The sudden, overwhelming vertigo made him nauseous.

"Come on, Prince Kellan," his assailant said. "Fight back!"

But Kellan barely paid him any mind; all his attention was focused on trying to gain some semblance of composure again. The girls were still in danger, and Arkan would need his help.

Right now, though, that didn't seem possible. The man, whoever he was, wasn't about to let him go. He punched Kellan again and again, right where it hurt, until Kellan was left wheezing with pain, body trying to curl into itself. The man held him up with a tight grip on the back of his head, fingers twisted into his hair.

"I couldn't do this to your old man, but you're even better," he said with a blow, his voice breathless with sadistic pleasure. "You just lay down—" another blow "—and take the beating."

Kellan tried to catch his breath, but it was out of his ability. His body throbbed in tandem with the rapid beat of his heart.

The world was little more than a haze now. His hand ached distantly, and the thought of the poison that was slowly creeping towards his heart somehow failed to alarm him.

Then he thought of his sisters, in the cellar, in trouble. Panic closed up his throat.

His breathing quickened, and the man heard it. He laughed. "What's the matter?" he asked, mock concerned. "Are you scared, my Prince?"

"The cellar," Kellan tried to say, but all that came out was a choked-off, inarticulate sound. The man drew him up and close to himself, so that Kellan could feel the spit on his face as he said, "I can smell it on you. You're so afraid."

Instinctively, Kellan flinched away. "No, you don't, boy," the man said, then slammed him into the wall. Kellan staggered, head ringing, before his legs gave way and he collapsed again. The man let him fall.

"You're pathetic," he said, disgusted. "I overestimated you. You're weak, and certainly not fit to rule."

Kellan barely heard. The world was spinning and all sound was curiosity muted. His vision was completely black, all of his energy sapped by the poison.

Don't pass out, Kellan told himself. You can't pass out.

He had to...he had to protect his sisters. They needed him. He was being weak—he had to get a grip, he had to go and fight whatever monster wanted to harm them.

Fight it, Kellan ordered himself. Fight it, so you can protect them. They're more important. Move, Kellan!​​​​

He tried to fight off the weakness, but the effort left him sweaty and gasping for breath. His heart pounded in his ears: it was the only sound he could hear.

And in the end, he gave in.

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