The Firebird Prince

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Araysh

Araysh’s bones ached.

He took another breath, slow and shallow, in through the nose, out through the mouth. He did not dare move, did not dare open his eyes. His fear would devour him if he did.

The room was small enough to feel like a coffin. Araysh rolled his shoulders, taking another shuddering breath. Keeping his eyes closed was a small, foolish way to convince himself that the walls wouldn’t cave in, pressing on him until they squashed him between them. He could pretend that if he stretched his arms, he’d feel air on his fingertips and no not walls, that he wasn’t confined to a room that felt more like a box.

Another breath. It echoed and ice slid down Araysh’s spine, but he kept himself rigid. If he moved even an inch, his body would touch iron, and—

Araysh repressed a shudder. He had to remain still, standing straight in the middle of the small room, the only body part touching touching the ground his feet. His shoes’ soles were thin and did little to protect the ache that invaded his bones because of the close proximity of iron, but at least his skin didn’t react as badly as it would when touching it.

Still, it was affecting him, and badly. His hands were cuffed behind him, and even the handcuffs were iron—a cruel, cruel touch. At first it had been agony enough to make his breathing go ragged and more into groans. But now Araysh kept his jaw clenched, even as his skin burnt enough that Araysh knew it would never properly heal. The iron walls, even if they didn’t touch him, were oppressive and made him go momentarily dizzy, during which it was all he could do to remain upright.

He was sure it hadn’t been all that long since he’d been locked in—and betrayed, so badly, so thoroughly, by his own sister—but it felt like hours. How much more could he stand?

He was so uncomfortable with the iron that he’d almost forgotten about the wounds in his arm. Not that he could do anything about them. He would bleed out, and be able to do precisely nothing.

On the way out, his breath shivered.

He felt himself fading. His vision blurred, his head suddenly light.

Endure, Araysh begged himself. Endure.

But for what?

Araysh balked at the thought, shocked and appalled. He blinked rapidly, trying to get his vision to clear, his mind to gain its bearings again.

His knees were weak, aching from the cold, the iron, the exhaustion. How much time did he have till they gave out completely?

The world faded again and Araysh swayed, almost collapsing. He caught himself on the wall but flinched away with a ragged shout, all the pain suddenly rushing back again.

Agony was consuming him.

His body shuddered as he reeled, caught in pain and terror, with nothing to steady him. His vision swam, streaks of silver and black swirling nauseatingly. He locked his knees in an attempt to keep them from buckling, but they folded all the same as another wave of pain shuddered through him. His body hit the ground and such agony assailed him that Araysh lost his grip on the world, on himself, in everything.

He wasn’t sure if he was breathing anymore. It hurt too much to tell.

His body was seizing, skin sizzling, heart palpitating.

Araysh was sobbing, and he was too excruciated to be ashamed. He did not have the breath to scream.

Somehow, he managed to moan, “Help, help.” Please.

The words were mangled and feeble, and even if his captors heard them, they would not come to help.

He was alone. Utterly, utterly alone.

And he was so, so helpless.

Please.

He was alone when his body shuddered one last time, when he rasped out his last breath, and he was alone when his heart ceased to beat.

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