A Sword of Greed and Envy: A Nokturn Rising Novel

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Chapter 21

When I step onto the landing in front of my father’s tree home, what used to be my home, my heart beats rapidly. Ash stands beside me, taking my hand in his. I give a quick knock and wait. Footsteps grow louder and the door swings open a moment later. Taron stands before me, his neutral expression turning into a grin as he recognizes me, then a scowl when he looks at Ash.

He tries to pull me forward and away from the Reaper but I stand my ground.

“Don’t, Taron,” I say, pulling away from him, “We need to talk.”

“Father won’t like this,” he warns.

“It doesn’t change the fact that it needs to happen,” I tell him.

He moves to the side and allows us to step inside. My father comes from his study in the back, freezing as he takes in the sight of us.

“Lark,” he growls, “Why is there a Reaper in my house?”

“We are together,” I tell him calmly.

“Together?” my father cries in outrage, “You’re seventeen, Lark. What is he, ten times your age?”

“More like fifty,” Ash comments.

I shoot him a glare, a silent warning to shut up.

“You take advantage of a young girl, trick her into some horrifying relationship, is that how you Reapers operate?” my father barks.

“Listen, I didn’t come here for you to judge my relationship,” I tell him, “I came here because Mortem needs Medeor’s loyalty.”

My father laughs, “You’re serious? Mortem raids our towns, burns our buildings, murders our people, and now you want loyalty?”

Another knock sounds at the door before it opens and Elliot steps in with Garrison. Both of them on guard the instant they see Ash.

“What’s all this?” Garrison asks.

“Mortem wants Medeor’s loyalty,” my father fills them in, “And my daughter has apparently sold herself to the fate of being the Reaper’s lapdog.”

“Do not speak of her that way,” Ash warns.

“Ash, stop,” I warn him.

“What the hell, Lark?” Elliot says, looking at me with a pained expression.

“Arcanum and Fortis will move against Medeor,” Ash tells them, “And if I had to guess, it will be soon.”

“You’ve just ravaged our streets,” Garrison says, “Why should we listen to anything you have to say?”

“Because this is Lark’s home,” Ash says, “And I only came to Medeor because I thought you all were hiding her from me. I didn’t realize she had not come to you for assistance. Arcanum was already here, burning your town to the ground. My army has acted in your defense, despite the damage we might have left in our wake.”

“Why were you running away from him?” Taron asks, speaking for the first time since the conversation had begun.

“I wasn’t running from him,” I clarify, “I was running from his mother and those close to her. She doesn’t want me with Ash.”

“We have that in common then,” my father says.

“Help or don’t,” I say, taking a step forward, “I don’t really care, but I’m riding north at dawn.”

“I’ll go,” Taron says, stepping forward, causing a look of horror to cross my father’s face.

“You will do no such thing,” he scolds.

“With all due respect, Father,” Taron says, “You can’t really stop me.”

It only takes a week for Maldara to become severely war-torn. Death lurks on the streets of the city centers and along the roads that travel between factions. It doesn’t bother me. I’ve seen enough death to last a lifetime, it no longer turns my stomach as it does most people. We travel on horseback, the Dark Lord and his Lady of Shadows, a legion of Death Stalkers and soldiers at our back.

Arcanum and Fortis alike seek to destroy Ash, unwilling to let him take over the entire land of Maldara. Normally, I would be against one king to rule us all, but Arcanum has been abusing their power for far too long and their horrible treatment of the human race cannot be tolerated any longer. While I have not voiced my intentions, I know and live by them every single day. I must not let harm come to Ash. He is our only hope for a future with anything resembling equality, and if I must give my life for his, I will do so without hesitation.

It had taken a lot of convincing for Ash to allow me to ride alongside him, instead of in a heavily armored carriage. Taron flanks Ash on his other side. We’ve conquered nearly all the settlements on the outskirts of Arcanum, claiming them in Ash’s name, except for the small stretch of uninhabited land near the Arcanum/Mortem border.

Up ahead, a broken-down carriage sits on the side of the road, no sign of life around it. I hold up a hand, signaling the riders to halt.

“What do you think?” Ash asks, leaning toward me.

It has become our way of things, him seeking my expertise and I seeking his.

“Could be an ambush,” I say, studying the wreckage carefully.

“Aye,” he nods, “What do you suggest?”

I don’t answer with words. Instead, I draw the bow from my back, pulling an arrow tipped with a flammable ball of cloth dipped in lantern oil. I strike a matchstick across my boot and touch it to the arrow. Ash looks on with pleasure as he watches me closely. I draw the bow and launch the arrow through the air. It lands with a thud and the carriage catches suspiciously quick. A few moments later, it explodes in a fiery blaze so large that we feel the heat from the distance.

“Your skill and knowledge are unmatched,” he compliments me.

My eyes shift over his shoulder to Taron who gives me a nod of approval. I spy the hilltop ahead as unmarked soldiers crest the top. I raise my bow and it is seemingly aimed at Ash. I release my arrows in rapid succession until my quiver is empty. Then, I dismount and pull the blades from the straps around my legs.

“Lark, wait,” Ash calls as I approach the fallen men.

I need to retrieve my arrows and make sure they are all dead. I drive my blade into the first man’s throat before pulling the barbed arrow roughly from his body. I repeat the act several times before walking back down the hill.

“Let’s move,” I say, mounting my piebald horse. His coat is jet black while his mane and tail are bright white. Ash’s steed is solid black, the only color fitting for the Reaper.

“Are you alright?” he asks once we are moving.

“I’m fine, why?” I ask.

“You seem, distant, cold,” he says, “It’s not like you. I just don’t know how you’re handling all of this.”

“I was trained for violence, Ash,” I remind him, “It’s the only thing I really know anymore. The only thing I’ve ever known, the only constant. This is who I truly am. If you don’t like it, then I won’t hold you to your invitation to accompany you back to Mortem when this is all over.”

He nods solemnly like my words have saddened him. I keep my eyes forward as we approach the final stretch of forest separating Arcanum and Mortem. I wonder if Ash has a point. I have felt empty and hollow for the past week and it has only increased with each day that passes. Something inside of me feels off, but I cannot place what it is.
“We will make camp here,” Ash says, gesturing toward the trees.

I give him a nod of agreement.

“Scout ahead!” he calls out to the soldiers behind him.

Two Death Stalkers and two soldiers of the Mortem army ride ahead.

“Any word from Arcanum or Fortis?” Taron asks.

Ash shakes his head, “No, I fear that my old friend Killian has become set on obtaining Lark for himself, though, I am uncertain of Fortis’s motivations.”

“Don’t dwell on it,” I say, “Our focus is taking Arcanum.”

Ash nods, “Yes, I know.”

“All clear, My Lord,” one of the scouting soldiers announces as he reaches us.

“Very well,” Ash nods and we ride forward with more purpose, eager for rest.

“When all of this is over, will you return to Mortem with me?” Ash asks me later that night by the dying fire.

Taron and all of the soldiers are sleeping and the Death Stalkers hover around the edges of camp, keeping watch since they do not sleep.

It has been nearly two weeks since I departed from Mortem under the cover of darkness.

“Your mother will not welcome me any more now than she did before,” I tell him, shaking my head, “She will do everything in her power to kill me and wed you to Angeline.”

“I do not want Angeline,” he growls in response, “Besides, with my father out of power, they won’t have any say in the matter.”

“We don’t even know if we will make it that far, Ash,” I remind him, “Maybe we can talk about that when all of this is actually over.”

He gives me a curt nod, clearly not wanting to let it go, but not harping on the subject farther. He stands and moves away from me, going to speak to one of the Death Stalkers. I don’t see it until it’s too late. An arrow in the night, barely visible as it flies through the air; directly at Ash.

“Ash!” I cry out, scrambling to my feet and sprinting.

He turns to look at me with concern and the arrow burrows into the back of his shoulder. It exits out the front of his body, the barbs digging into his flesh. Wounded, he cannot use his Reaper power to shift. He drops to his knees, looking very mortal. I drop to his side, unaware that I’m crying until he reaches up with his uninjured arm and swipes away the tears.

“So, maybe you do care,” he whispers.

I pull a blade from my boot and saw the arrow shaft, letting the tip fall to the ground.

“This will hurt,” I warn him.

He keeps his eyes on me as I pull the arrow from his back. I clean the wound and bandage him as best as I can.

“My Lord, shall we pursue the assailant?” a Mortem soldier asks.

“No,” I answer before Ash can speak, “It’s a distraction. We are surrounded.”

Ash clutches at my arm desperately. I know he’s in pain but I cannot let it distract me from keeping him alive. His soldiers look to him for confirmation. He will heal quickly, but not quickly enough for the battle I know is about to ensue.

Ash gives out a low whistle and the Death Stalkers come forward.

“Clear the woods,” he chokes out, “Soldiers, surround the camp. We will not go willingly or without a fight, is that understood?”

They all nod solemnly. Taron posts up on the other side of Ash, drawing his beloved sword, Storm Treader, ready to help me defend him. I give him a grateful look then scan the trees, waiting.

It is unexpected when Lord Thrash, of Fortis steps into the small encampment, shirtless soldiers in tow, clearly ready to shift to wolf form when needed.

“Well, well, well,” he says, “What have we here?”

I stand, moving in front of Ash protectively.

“When word came to my father in Fortis that the Dark Lord was traveling with a female companion, a human,” he says, “We didn’t quite believe it.”

“You must be eager to report back to him like a good little lapdog,” I say, watching him closely.

He ruffles a little at the insult, “Tell me, Lark Kravinoff, what has he promised you after all of this? I assure you that Fortis could match it, better yet, we could multiply it, tenfold.”

“He’s promised me nothing,” I tell him and I can see confusion settling into his features.

“Nothing?” he asks, raising a brow, “Then this should be an easy choice for you.”

“You are right,” I nod, “It is an easy choice.”

I don’t move from my position in front of Ash’s form slumped on the ground. I feel the grip that had been on my arm, now on my leg.

“Turn over the Reaper and you can walk away from all of this,” Thrash says, “Return to a normal life.”

“Lark,” Ash rasps, “It’s okay.”

“What?” I ask.

“It’s okay,” he says again, “To be upset, to get angry. It’s okay to let me go. You need to do what you have to in order to stay alive. Don’t worry about me.”

I don’t know what he’s talking about so I just shake my head as I try and focus on the task at hand.

“Lark,” he sputters.

“No, Ash!” I shout at him, “That’s not happening.”

He should be healed by now since the arrow has been removed, but he’s still injured. I don’t understand what’s happening to us. I don’t know how badly silver affects Reapers, but I know how detrimental it is to Werewolves. I pull a silver tipped arrow from my quiver and nock it, aiming directly at Thrash’s heart.

“What are you going to do, Lark?” Thrash asks, “Shoot me?”

“Precisely,” I say.

“You think that will stop me?” he asks, “Do you think it will slow me down?”

I release the arrow and I can see that he is surprised when it lodges into his chest. He howls in pain, half shifting into wolf form, as if he’s stuck between the two states.

“Kill them!” he calls out, sending his men scattering through the forest. I hope the Death Stalkers pick them off one by one.

“Lark,” Ash whispers, but I can’t be distracted by him right now. I have to keep him alive.

He slumps to the ground and I can see the faint rise and fall of his chest. He is unconscious, but alive. I turn back to Lord Thrash, growing angrier by the second. One of Thrash’s fellow wolves, leaps from the woods behind me, tearing its large claws across my back, opening old wounds. I feel the sticky, wet blood trickling down my back and it makes me dizzy. Taron swings Storm Treader through the air, slicing through the beast with the dark blade. My hands begin to glow with light and suddenly, I am grateful for it, rather than afraid of it. Another wolf launches itself in my direction. Instinctively, I throw up my hands, palms out. Beams of bright white light shoot from my hands, hitting the wolf as if he were nothing. It flies through the air, smacking hard against a tree, whimpering as it slumps to the ground.

Thrash rips the arrow from his body and shifts into full wolf form. The beast barrels toward me, snarling and snapping. I don’t have time to turn the light toward him, so I kneel to the ground, my knees going weak, somehow knowing, this is the end for me. I feel a chill on my back, like ice, and it spreads over my body before receding just as quickly. A cloud of black smoke envelopes me as I close my eyes, preparing for the pain of teeth sinking into my flesh. I hear a yelp of pain and a thud. The pain never comes.

Taron grasps for me in the fog and I grip my fingers around his arm, holding on tight.

“Lark, what the hell was that?” Taron asks, looking at me, wide-eyed, though I can barely see him.

“I d-d-don’t know,” I sputter.

I look down at Ash, dropping to my knees, but he isn’t on the ground where he had been before. I feel around, my hands rustling through the fallen leaves and sticks on the ground. He’s gone.

“We have to move. Now,” Ash’s voice barks from behind me as the hazy smoke begins to clear. I turn to face him and realize that his injured arm is now completely healed and the black smoke had been him, in his Reaper form, but this time was much different from the other times I have seen him shift, much slower and calmer somehow.

“We ride east, toward the Arcanum faction. We will approach the capital from there,” he continues, telling the generals as we set out in the middle of the night, still exhausted, having gotten no rest.

It is a quiet ride for the first few miles, the only sounds being those of the animals stirring in the forest.

“You were impressive back there,” Ash says, his voice low, “Perhaps you are learning to harness your power.”

“I was a coward,” I shake my head in disappointment.

“I would be dead if not for you,” he says seriously.

“Don’t,” I say, shaking my head, “You’re alive. We survived. We are okay.”

“Were you tempted by his offer?” he asks.

“To turn you over?” I question.

“Yes,” he answers.

I shake my head, “No. If I chose to walk away from all of this, to walk away from you, would you let me?”

He sighs, “I didn’t let you before,” he says.

“But if I told you?” I say.

“Then I would have to find a way to let you go, even if it torments me for the rest of my life,” he answers.

“Whether I want to admit it or not,” I say, “I need you.”

“I need you too, Lark,” he whispers, as if he doesn’t really want me to hear.

“Do you think we can win?” I ask him.

“We don’t have any other choice,” he tells me, then glancing a few yards behind us to where Taron rides, stone-faced, “You need to talk to him. Explain as best you can.”

I sigh, “I know. It’s difficult, the way we were raised, to accept Nokturns,” I say with a shake of my head.

“But, you accepted me,” he reminds me, “Perhaps, your brother is also more open-minded than you might think. He is your twin, after all.”

I cast a look back at my brother who doesn’t meet my gaze. I might lose him forever, for something I cannot control. I don’t know if I could handle that loss any more than I could handle losing Ash. Taron has always been a constant in my life, the one person who was always there for me no matter what. I had to be honest with him and I would have to have faith, that despite everything we were taught, that he will accept me and stick by my side, even knowing that I am what we had been raised to hate.

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