I stand in front of the mirror in the large closet, eyeing my body with judgement. I am in only lacy undergarments that I found in one of the drawers. There weren’t any ‘human’ items, so I settled for this. I’ve put on a small amount of weight, causing my ribs to look less pronounced and my cheeks to be less hollow. While Reapers and Vampires tended to be rail thin, humans were curvier. I had breasts and slight curves that cause me to stand out amongst the Nokturns. Ash appears in the doorway a few feet behind me, his eyes widening at the sight of me before quickly turning away.
“My apologies, Lark,” he says, sounding embarrassed.
I’ve never been ashamed of my body. Growing up with only men, I had grown immune to scrutiny.
“It’s okay,” I assure him, “Come in Ash.”
Ash turns cautiously and steps forward. His gaze rakes over me, head to toe before he places his palm to the small of my back, making me heat with surprise under his touch.
“Are you very sore?” he asks.
“Yes,” I nod, “It was difficult to sleep.”
He looks pained and guilty, meeting my eyes in the mirror, “I wish I had not marred your beauty with such harsh marks.”
I pull on black cotton pants as he watches me carefully.
“Hush,” I say straightening to face him, “It will heal. It isn’t as if the scars could get much worse.”
“Unfortunately, I have to take you to the Dark Box now,” he says.
“I know,” I tell him, “Let’s just get it over with.”
He doesn’t make a mention of the previous night, so neither do I. I pull on a soft gray sweater and pull my hair into a tail. Ash leads me out of our quarters and deeper into the castle and through winding corridors that lead downward. When we reach a dank, dungeon room, complete with cells fitted with iron bars, I start to think the Dark Box is simply a prison and that it won’t be so bad after all. I am wrong.
Past the cells, at the back of the room, there is a small door, barely big enough to crawl through. Ash unlocks it and doesn’t meet my eyes.
“Twenty-four hours,” he says, “I will be counting it down and I will not let you stay in a moment longer.”
I nod, getting to my knees and crawling carefully into the darkness. He closes the door behind me, eliminating the only trace of light and throwing me into pitch darkness. I feel around the stone floor, my hand grazing over something that feels like bone. I try not to think about it too much. The room is small, big enough for only two or three people if we were crammed together. I try to keep my breathing even and calm, but it’s difficult between the immense physical pain I am in and the unknown aspect of this damn box.
That’s when the whisper starts. I think it is in my head, as it’s always been, but in this small space, it almost feels as if someone is whispering next to me.
“You would let them imprison you like this? You could free yourself from this box without effort. They do not know how limitless you are!”
I cover my ears, “Go away, please, just go away!”
“Stand up for yourself! Rise to your full potential!”
“Shut up!” I scream, “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
“I am the little voice inside you that you refuse to listen to. I will not be silent. I will be the one who is by your side when you finally see the truth! Then, you will accept me. Then, you will have no choice.”
I curl myself into a ball, covering my ears as tightly as I can. It’s no use. The whisper continues throughout the day and night, telling me awful things, whispering about making the world burn, and that I would be responsible. I crawl around the box, feeling for anything that will help me and I come up with nothing. I claw at the stone floor and walls, leaving my fingertips raw and bleeding. I give up, wrapping my arms around myself and rocking myself into a false sense of security.
When I feel something grab my leg, I scream, kicking at the darkness, connecting with something solid. I’m dragged out of the box, fists flying, my knuckles cracking against what feels like stone and I open my eyes, squinting against the light. Ash stands before me, looking me over as if assessing me for damages. He rubs his hand along his jaw and I realize that it is him that I hit, blood from my mangled fingertips smeared across his pale skin.
“You’re okay,” he says, petting my hair gently.
I collapse against him, “Please, never again,” I plead, letting him support my weight.
He lifts me into his arms, carefully touching my back, and cradles me against him, “Never again,” he says, “I promise.”
I will not be the same after that, I know it, and maybe even Ash knows it. Something deep inside me is broken and I’m not sure if I will be able to repair it.
Days later, Ash is walking with me through the snow-covered gardens and I vaguely wonder if it ever gets warm here. I haven’t spoken a word since the day he pulled me out of the Dark Box. The voice is becoming too prevalent in my head and I feel like I can’t think straight. I refuse to reveal that to Ash for fear of being cast out in a land of predators.
“I want to show you something,” he says, leading me down a pathway that leads toward the front of the castle. He stops and points in the distance, on the other side of the gardens, “Do you see that little speck of red?”
I squint, searching for what his hyper-sensitive sight has picked out. Finally, I see it and I nod.
“That’s the only flower that blooms in Mortem. It is the Scarlet Soul flower,” he tells me.
I give him a genuine smile, despite the fact that it’s a small one, and he seems to appreciate it. As we turn toward the steps, Torak, the large beast, sits at the top and I immediately back away.
“Do not fear him, Lark,” Ash says, guiding me toward the large wolf, “He can sense that.”
I give him a wary look, as if I am uncertain of whether to believe him or not.
“Come, Torak,” he commands of the wolf-like creature, “Torak is a Barghest.”
I give him a questioning look, having never heard the word before.
He nods, “A hellhound of sorts; a ghost-dog. He is drawn to death and spirits.”
I look at the beast in wonder, knowing I had caught glimpses of beasts in the shadows of the night, but never fully believing they were real. We have enough monsters in Maldara walking out in the open. We don’t need more lurking in the shadows.
“I didn’t know creatures like him existed,” I whisper.
“Of course,” Ash says, looking delighted at having heard me speak, “Those amongst us who choose to believe otherwise are ignorant.”
I cringe as Torak descends the steps to us, nudging under Ash’s hand.
“Put your hand out, palm up,” he tells me and I comply shakily.
Torak moves to my hand, sniffing cautiously for a moment. Finally, his large tongue laps out over my skin, earning a gasp of surprise from me. Ash lets out a laugh and it jump starts my heart, hearing something so genuine and good come from him.
“My Lord,” a servant named Risa appears at the entryway of the castle, “Your father requests your presence in his study.”
His smile fades as he gives her a nod as she retreats inside as he turns to me, “Return to your room. I’ll find you in a bit,” he assures me before disappearing inside.
“Miss Lark,” a warm voice calls to me after Ash disappears. I spin to find an elderly man in black robes standing on the bottom step. He is flanked by two young men. I have seen them hanging around in Ash’s vicinity before, but we’ve not been introduced.
I look at him questioningly, wary of this stranger and his intentions.
“I am Lord Jonas,” he says, “Neena is my sister. This is Lord Moren and Lord Bertram, two of Sebastian’s closest friends. I am to show you to the training grounds.”
Lord Moren and Lord Bertram both have black hair, but Moren’s eyes are green and Bertram’s are honey-colored, instead of the usual black or gray I would have expected.
“Training grounds?” I question, growing wary of him already.
“Yes, Miss,” he nods, “It has come to my attention that you are quite skilled with a bow.”
I nod, somewhat relieved that I will be able to get a taste of something I love.
Jonas leads me to a large structure, detached from the castle. When we enter, I try to take it all in stride. There is a large running track, targets for shooting and other various obstacles and equipment.
“Now, High Lord Allister tells me that your ability is unique?” he asks.
I shrug, “I don’t know that it’s unique. I’m well-practiced.”
Lord Moren makes a ridiculous snorting noise.
His eyes go wide as he looks at me, “Doubtful,” he finally says, “But, I suppose, not impossible. It remains to be seen.”
“I bet she’s full of it,” Bertram says, “She’s nothing but a human, trying to seduce the Dark Lord.”
I pull a bow from the rack and a quiver of arrows, stepping back and taking aim at one of the mid-range targets. The arrow lands directly in the center.
“Dumb luck,” Bertram says.
“I didn’t practice for hours every single day for ‘dumb luck’,” I counter, growing more bold as I defy their doubt.
Bertram grows angry at my careless response and I’ve forgotten that I am among Reapers, not humans.
“Perhaps we should Reap her right here, right now,” Moren suggests, “Save the Dark Lord a heap of trouble. She’s only been here for a couple of days and already she is causing problems.”
“True, but then we face the wrath of his anger,” Jonas reminds them.
I back away from them, finding myself in a corner. I raise the bow, aiming at them as they continue to move closer to me. Lord Jonas doesn’t shift the way that Ash does. His power manifests in a subtler way, the black mist hanging about his hands. He reaches forward and I can feel the tug deep down in my soul as he works to coax it out of me. I could not let this happen to me.
“You can make it stop!” the scratchy whisper claws at my brain.
Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop. I repeat the thought over and over in my head, keeping my eyes shut tight.
“What are you doing?” Lord Moren shouts.
“Stop! You’re hurting him!” Lord Bertram cries.
I hear the guttural sounds of Lord Jonas and I open my eyes. My open palm is pressed against Jonas’ forehead, where he kneels on the ground before me. Light is radiating from my palm and I quickly pull it away and Jonas collapses to the floor. The door across the facility slams open with unbelievable force.
“Jonas, what the hell are you doing?” I hear Ash’s voice at the door and I look over at him. Knowing what I must look like to him, I try to focus on his presence and the calming air he has about him. I am frightened and angry. He is going to be angry that I didn’t follow his commands. He will blame me and he probably thinks I am the aggressor in this situation considering his uncle is in a heap at my feet. I look at them, feeling my hands shake uneasily. What had I just done? And how had I done it?
Ash snaps in my direction as if to gain my attention, “Focus on me,” he commands.
I look down at my hands, still glowing with light, then I look at him, blocking out everything else around us, as if putting a bubble around the two of us. I trust his voice. I trust in his ability to bring me back. I drop to my hands and knees, rasping in shaky breaths. He kneels in front of me, putting a hand on my neck, his palm cool. As a Reaper, he has the ability to calm and slow someone’s heart to the point of death.
“You’re okay,” he says softly.
“I’m sorry,” I cry, tears streaking my cheeks.
“What the hell were you all thinking?” Ash stands up, facing them with anger. He turns a withering look on his friends and they look terrified.
“My sister asked me to look into the girl’s abilities,” Jonas says, referring to Neena, as he pushes up from the floor, “And she’s clearly been hiding something from you.”
“It isn’t your place, Uncle, and it certainly isn’t my mother’s,” Ash growls.
“She’s a witch!” Jonas shouts, “Besides, it isn’t as if any harm was done!”
“No harm done?” Ash scoffs, “Look at her! She’s terrified! She’s human, and you three come in here and crowd her? How much of her did you leech without her even realizing?”
Moren and Jonas look a little sheepish, but Bertram looks unashamed. Had they really done such a thing? Was that even possible? What could they take?
“She’s not human, Sebastian!” Moren says in his defense, “She is a danger to you.”
I feel the energy shift in the room, my senses still heightened from my experience. Even I know it would be a mistake to anger the young Reaper Lord.
“She is MINE!” Ash growls, “If I did not want her, she would not be here!”
I look to where the men face off. I’ve seen a Reaper in action and it is a terrifying sight. The Ash I know is gone, replaced by a swirling black smoky mass with glowing white eyes. Jonas cowers in the presence.
“Yes, My Lord. It won’t happen again,” Jonas says, quickly conceding.
Satisfied, Ash shifts into his normal form, “Leave us,” he commands of Jonas, “You two, stay,” he gestures to Moren and Bertram.
Jonas scrambles from the building.
“She is a snake, a rebel,” Bertram says, “I don’t know how, but she is and she is using you! She was doing something to Jonas, something I’ve never seen before.”
“What about Angeline?” Moren asks.
“What does that have to do with anything? Angeline knows I have no interest. Perhaps you should remind your sister of that,” Ash snarls before dismissing them with a wave.
I struggle to stand and Ash is quick to grab my arm, helping me.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” he says.
“I’m sorry, I may have instigated things unintentionally. They look human and it’s easy to forget that they are much more,” I admit.
He gives me a grim look as if he disapproves of my light-hearted treatment of the situation.
“He shouldn’t have pushed you that way,” he says, “None of them should have. They could’ve killed you, Lark.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” I apologize.
“Why didn’t you just go to your room as I asked?” he questions, disappointed.
I glance at the wall of mirrors, “I’m sorry,” I say, squeezing my eyes shut.
“Hey,” he says, tilting my chin up, “Don’t do that.”
“Do what?” I ask.
“Be ashamed of what you are,” he says.
“I don’t know what I am,” I admit, “I don’t know what I just did to Jonas, but it wasn’t human. What is happening to me?”
“I wish I had answers for you, Lark,” he says, “I didn’t see everything that happened, only the light that radiated from your hands.”
He takes my hands in his, turning them over, examining them.
“I don’t know what happened. He was trying to reap my soul and I just knew I had to stop it because I didn’t want to die,” I explain, “There was light coming from my palm and it was doing something to him.”
“We can figure this out, Lark. Everything will be fine,” he promises, “We will figure out what you are.”
“Which is what? A human? A nothing? Prey amongst predators? Or am I a witch or a monster like they said?” I sigh, “I saw how they looked at me. Like some kind of freak.”
“You are not nothing,” he says matter-of-factly, “You are perfect.”
In the afternoon, Ash leaves with his father to go into the city on some business with relatives. He instructs me to stay put in my room, and for once, I decide to listen. I peruse the bookshelves in the main sitting room, admiring the colorful spines. I never learned how to read anything other than maps, so while I longed to know what was written between the covers, it would always be a mystery to me.
“Miss Lark,” Risa says from the door way as I am dusting off the cover of an old work of fiction.
“Yes?” I look in her direction.
“High Lady Neena has requested your presence in the throne room,” she says.
The knots that form in my stomach instantly, only grow as I make my way down the corridor. Ash had told me not to leave my room, but I couldn’t directly defy the request of the High Lady, could I? As I step inside, Neena sits on her throne and, to my surprise, Lady Angeline stands by her side, as well as the Lords Moren and Bertram.
“Risa said you wanted to see me?” I question, hoping to get this unpleasant visit over with.
“Yes,” Neena says, “We have a little problem, Lark.”
I wait patiently for her to continue.
“I can sense your soul from here,” she says, inhaling deeply, “I can see why my son is so, intrigued by you, but this growing infatuation must be put to an end. What hold do you have over him?”
“I wouldn’t know,” I tell her, unsurprised by the venom in her tone.
“What are you?” Angeline chimes in, “No human can influence a Nokturn the way you have with Sebastian. And Moren told me what you did in the training facility. What sort of monster are you? A witch? An enchantress? Or something else?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, shaking my head and backing away, feeling the sudden need to escape before this escalates.
“Let us Reap her,” Bertram says with a wicked grin.
“I’m not going anywhere near her,” Moren says with a shake of his head.
“I’ll not have my son waste more time with something like you,” Neena says, “I have been working hard to cultivate a relationship between Sebastian and Angeline. They are perfect for one another.”
“Then you should have no need to fear any influence I might have,” I comment.
“You need to leave,” Angeline says, practically spitting at me.
“If you choose to leave on your own, and disappear into whatever slum it was that you came from,” Neena says, “Then I will consider not having Angeline reap your soul from your body right here and now.”
“What choice will you make?” Moren asks, baring pointed teeth like his sister’s.
“You have until the Winter Solstice to leave Mortem,” Neena says.
I stay silent, weighing my options. The Winter Solstice is nearly six months away. If she wants me gone now, why give me such a distant deadline? I’m unsure of what I should do. I doubted Neena would keep her word of letting me live if I did choose to leave peacefully. Suddenly, there is thick fur brushing against my hand and I look over to find Torak at eye level with me. He looks back at me and in his eyes, I see something that is almost human.
Angeline scowls and Neena looks surprised, “So, the beast has taken to you then,” she says with disapproval.
I don’t speak, but Angeline does, “That’s impossible,” she sputters, “I have been around that mangy beast my entire life and he has never done anything but growl.”
I smirk at that, “Perhaps he hasn’t found you very approachable,” I say.
“Shut your mouth!” Angeline shouts.
“Watch your tongue, defiant little witch,” the High Lady snaps.
The throne room doors creak open and I turn to see Ash striding into the room. Relief floods me as I realize he is my savior in this moment, as he has been in so many others.
“What’s going on here?” he asks, suspicious.
“Nothing, dear,” Neena insists as Angeline bobs her head in agreement.
Ash arches a brow and looks down at me questioningly.
“Can we talk about it later?” I ask, my voice barely a whisper, not wanting to look like a snitch.
“That won’t be necessary,” he says, taking my hand, “Come, I want to show you something.”
“Remember, Lark, you do not have much time,” Neena repeats before I am out of earshot.
He pauses at the door and looks back at his mother and Angeline, “I will be speaking with you both later,” he says, giving Angeline a hopeful look on her face, “It will not be pleasant.”
I can’t help but feel gratified by the look of defeat on her face, nor the sound of the two women’s raised voices as we walk down the corridor, leaving them behind.
“Do you want to talk about what happened?” Ash asks as we step out onto the castle grounds.
“Something tells me you already know,” I say, glancing back and Torak who trails behind us.
Ash smirks at that, “Torak is my Connexus, a bonded beast. I can see through his eyes by entering his mind,” he explains, “I saw the whole exchange,” he puts a finger to his lips, “Don’t tell anyone. It’s my little secret,” he winks.
“I’m sorry,” I apologize.
“You did nothing wrong, Lark,” he assures me, “My mother can be difficult at times and she tends to try to control things she shouldn’t.”
“And you are one of those things,” I comment, understanding his meaning.
“We are one of those things,” he corrects me.
“Do you think she would really have Angeline take my soul?” I ask with worry.
“Doubtful. Not unless she would like all of Hell to rain down upon her,” he says, with a smile, though it doesn’t make me feel much better.
“What if they do?” I ask, worried.
“Don’t fret, Lark,” he says calmly, “I will be with you at all times.”
“I’ve done nothing but complicate your life since I showed up,” I tell him, “Maybe I should leave like your mother wants. At least then you would have a shot at being happy.”
“How so?” he questions.
“Well, then you could pursue things with Angeline. You could make peace with your mother,” I shrug, “You wouldn’t have all of the trouble that comes with owning a human.”
“Lark, I haven’t felt that I had anything to live for in over eight hundred years,” he says, “Can you imagine, being as old as I am and feeling as if there is nothing and no one out there for you?”
I shake my head, “I can’t even imagine how it will feel when I’m my father’s age.”
“The only thing I have ever cared about was myself,” he says, then shakes his head as if clearing the thoughts from his head, “My point is, I have no want or need to appease my mother or Angeline. I would be more miserable without your presence.”
He walks away toward the training facility, leaving me to scramble after him.