I drop from the lowest limb possible, but the impact on my leg is more than enough to make me cry out in agony. My arm throbs where it hangs limply at my side. Fortunately, it isn’t snowing this far south in Mortem, but it is significantly colder. I pull my coat out and slip it on, pulling the hood up. I couldn’t very well drag myself all the way to the castle, it was miles away. I hadn’t thought this through. I’m such an idiot. I’m so unfamiliar with the Mortem towns that I don’t even know if there is one close by.
I see something move in the distance and I squint to make it out. Its eyes are glowing red in the night and I realize it’s barreling toward me. I try to back away but it’s upon me in an instant. I shut my eyes tight as the beast pins me to the ground and when its face is close to mine, it sniffs and begins licking my cheeks. I peek through one eye and realize this beast is a familiar one.
“Torak!” I cry in relief, wrapping my arms around his furry neck. I never thought I would miss the hellhound, but here I am, embracing him like a treasured companion.
He sniffs at my injured leg then lets out a painful howl. He nips at me and then kneels lower. I can’t know for sure, but I think he wants me to climb on his back. I wrap my good arm around his neck as I pull myself up. He takes off at a run, carrying me faster than I could ever travel on my own two feet.
It’s an hour’s journey riding Torak when we reach a small village on the outskirts of Mortem. Torak takes me directly to a building bearing a healer’s mark. He scratches at the door and an old woman opens. She startles at the large dog before her, until her eyes settle on me, then my mangled leg and limp arm. She switches into healer mode and helps me down, escorting me inside and settling me on a small bed. Torak paces in front of the door, clearly guarding the place.
The woman gathers supplies and settles next to me, cutting the material of my pants up to my knee. She shakes her head, “What happened, dear?” she asks, cleaning the wound gently.
“I was bitten, in the woods,” I tell her.
She casts a glance back at Torak in suspicion.
“No, no,” I quickly correct her train of thought, “Not by him.”
“It’s a terrible wound indeed,” she says, “Something large, no doubt.”
“Werewolves,” I admit.
Her eyes go wide and she shoves back from me so hard, she sends her wooden stool tumbling behind her.
“You need to get out of my house, right now,” she demands.
“But—I don’t have anywhere to go,” I plead.
A commotion comes from outside before Ash appears in the doorway, his eyes finding me immediately.
“Dark Lord,” the old woman bows.
“Why is she not tended to?” he asks her coolly.
“My Lord,” she begins, “It’s a Werewolf bite. I cannot help her.”
Ash looks at me, wide-eyed, “You traveled through Fortis? Why would you do such an idiotic thing?”
He seems angry as he towers over me and I suddenly feel self-conscious of my appearance to him and my presence here in general. Had I made the wrong decision?
“It was the shortest route to get here,” I shrug, not meeting his eyes.
“And why are you here?” he asks.
“You know why,” I say stubbornly.
He looks at me for only a moment longer before looking back to the old woman.
“Bind her leg and arm, prepare her for travel,” he orders.
She hesitates for a second before doing as he asks. When she is done, he lifts me easily and carries me outside. I cannot read his expression, but he doesn’t look pleased to see me. He climbs into the carriage with me still in his arms. He settles me onto the seat across from him and sits back, running his hands through his hair. He pours a glass of vika and I notice for the first time how tired he looks. He’s still undeniably handsome, but he looks rough considering he is a Nokturn.
Once we are on the move, he finally speaks.
“Why didn’t you stay put like I told you to?” he asks, frustrated.
“My brother thought it was a good idea, that you would be happy,” I say, “I’ve been miserable for months and he’s noticed. He was convinced you had some sort of feelings for me. Clearly, we were both wrong,” I sigh, not meeting his eyes.
He’s on his knees before me in an instant, tilting my chin up to meet his gaze, “Is that what you think? That I don’t have feelings for you because I’m angry?”
“Well, there’s the part where you told me you couldn’t feel something for a human,” I remind him, “Even though we both know I am more than that.
“I had to say those things, Lark,” he says, “You wouldn’t have stayed otherwise.”
“I’ve been miserable for months, Ash!” I cry out, my leg throbbing as the adrenaline finally wears off.
“If you wanted to return so badly, why did you not respond to any of my letters?” he asks, “Had you returned my sentiments that I plainly stated, I would’ve come to retrieve you myself. I was under the impression you had moved on.”
“What letters? I’ve never received any letters from you. Only one from Lord Killian,” I tell him.
“Killian wrote to you?” he asks, looking suspicious.
I nod, “But what did your letters say?” I ask, more interested in that.
He shakes his head, “It doesn’t matter. You’re here now. What did Killian write to you?”
I point to my bag on the floor of the carriage and he drags it over so I can reach it. I rifle through it and pull the little card out and hand it to him. His eyes scan it, reading and re-reading it, though it is only three words.
“He had better have a good explanation for this,” he grumbles, “Otherwise, I’ll kill him.”
He sits silently for a moment in thought before his eyes widen and he looks at me, “You didn’t go see him, did you?”
“What? No! Of course, I didn’t!” I cry out in protest.
He relaxes visibly, “Good.”
“How did you find me?” I ask.
“Torak,” he says, “He took off earlier and I couldn’t find him. I’ve been monitoring his whereabouts through our link.”
“He found me,” I say.
“He smelled your blood,” he clarifies, “But he left because he sensed you. He’s quite attuned to your feelings.”
He looks really guilty and realization hits, “You’ve known how miserable I’ve been and you just ignored it?”
“It’s not like it was easy!” he exclaims, “I’ve been drinking more than I ever have before. I can’t sleep, I can’t reap.”
“I’m so sorry it was so difficult for you to know I was in pain!” I shout. He tries to reach for my hand but I shove him away angrily, “You are the one who chose to leave me!”
“I didn’t want to! I wanted to sweep you up and bring you back and keep you with me forever,” he says, looking frantic, “But I couldn’t condemn you to that fate.”
“What do you mean, Ash?” I ask, shaking my head in confusion.
“I’m a liar, a sinner, a murderer,” he says, “I am darkness, personified. If I keep hold of you, I will drag you down, ruin you.”
“That isn’t true,” I counter, but he doesn’t let me continue.
“It doesn’t matter now,” he says, “I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I cannot be without you, despite my efforts. Seeing you again tonight has only confirmed that fact.”
The carriage comes to a stop and I know we haven’t traveled far enough to have reached the castle. Ash scoops me up and takes me out. This town is much larger than the first and the healing facility looks to be a bit more official. We step inside and a man comes forward, dressed in white.
“Lord Sebastian,” he greets us, “What seems to be the problem?”
“Werewolf bite on her leg,” Ash states, “Fix it.”
He leads us down a long corridor and into a stark white room with lights that are far too bright.
“How long since the bite?” the healer asks.
Ash looks at me for an answer, “A few hours now,” I answer.
The healer doesn’t look optimistic, “The only way to stop the spread of the Lycan disease is to give a shot of liquified silver, directly into the heart.”
“And that will work?” Ash says.
“There are risks,” the healer says with a shrug, “It could damage her human organs, she could die, or she could still end up as a Werewolf.”
Ash looks torn, so I answer, “Do it, give me the shot,” I say with certainty, “It is my life after all.”
“It could kill you, Lark,” Ash says, almost pleading.
“I don’t want to become a Werewolf,” I say in horror, knowing how uncontrollable that particular species of Nokturn can be.
He gives a grim nod and the healer turns to prepare his large syringe. Ash stands over me, petting my hair and gently touching my cheek as if he’s trying to memorize everything about me, as if he thinks I am already dead. I start to grow sleepy with exhaustion and my eyes flutter as I struggle to stay awake. I cannot fight it anymore as the healer turns around with the syringe in hand, a swirling silver liquid inside. I close my eyes and allow the darkness of sleep take me under.