Shadows to the South

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Chapter 4-Zephyra

**Trigger warning- scenes of violence/assault**

The Dome’s elegance transcended any other building or monument in all of Ardasia, or all of Nivern perhaps. The structure was entirely open inside, with vaulted ceilings that arched up into the sky made from a myriad of glass honeycombs. The glass roof was ornate but not gaudy, and the smooth surfaces reflected the sunlight on brighter days and painted tiny rainbows all over the interior of the building. There was no floor to speak of; only moss and grass-covered the base of the dome. The silence inside was deafening, almost bordering on too peaceful. All air elemental mages that showed even the slightest aptitude in magic trained here. The Dome acted as a containment unit for small weather systems, and as such, the interior was sparsely furnished where all the real training took place. Underground, there was a small series of offices and living quarters, but everything on the ground level was dedicated to the mages and their mastery of air and weather.

Despite how barren the landscape was inside, Zephyra had always found the Dome to be beautiful and delicate looking, and as a child, she had snuck into The Dome several times just to marvel at the silence and the beauty of the refracted rays of light. It used to be her hideaway when she most needed to think, but that had stopped quite suddenly when Borelas had risen to power.

Borelas was the son of one of her father’s vassals, Lord Nenofen. While he had spent many years at Ardasia, her father had barely paid him any mind until he started to demonstrate exceptional talent in elemental magic. He was the only Mage that could rival her father or mother in that respect. While Zephyra had the gift herself, she was still a novice in comparison, barely more than a fledgling next to Borelas’ raw power. Borelas had earned her father’s respect as he rose quickly in the ranks, as well as his trust and her hand in marriage.

It was as if merely her thoughts had summoned him, for a few moments later he strode up out of the underground office suites to join her in the Dome. To the casual passerby, Borelas seemed like the perfect fiancée and the ideal male specimen. His deep auburn hair was artfully tousled, and his wintery grey eyes bored into hers with an expression that some might mistake for adoration. Only she knew better. Those eyes hid a keen intelligence and pure malicious intent. He played the charming and doting partner flawlessly, but away from curious eyes, he was vicious, ambitious, and frightening in his quest for power. If she had been the type of individual who was content to play the brainless and swooning soon-to-be wife, then she was sure he would have grown bored of her and left her to her own devices. Unfortunately for her, she had too much of a backbone to pretend.

His silvery robes billowed around his trim frame as he approached, and a smile was plastered across his fair features but it never quite reached his eyes. When he stood in front of her, he grasped her hands and raised them to his lips, brushing them lightly across her knuckles. She knew Borelas was extremely perceptive; there was no way that he could have missed the faint shudder of revulsion that ran through her body when he touched her. She had never made any attempt to hide her intense dislike from him. She was almost certain that he purposefully made her feel uncomfortable to try to unsettle her.

They had been locked in a power struggle for as long as she could recall. To Borelas, she was a means to an end, just one more conquest barring him from completely ascending to the highest tier of nobility and power. He couldn’t seem to fathom why she wouldn’t just accept him as her future husband, which was a testament to how little he knew her. She had never been the meek and mild type that was willing to just accept “Daddy’s orders”. His arrogance knew no bounds, and she was more than happy to quickly knock him down a few pegs by reminding him that his position was contingent on her acceptance of him. Once she had hammered that point across, he had abruptly switched tactics. His attempts at seducing her were laughable at best, considering that she found him vile. If she were any other woman, she was sure that she would have been tripping over herself trying to get his attention. But she had been exposed to the other side of Borelas early on.

“Princess,” he all but purred, “I’m glad you decided to join me. ”

“Borelas,” Zephyra responded in a dry monotone, purposefully omitting his honorific. No doubt that would bruise his overinflated ego, as he was a stickler about everyone using his proper title for minor nobility, granted to him purely because he was her father’s pet. “Don’t mistake my being here for eagerness of any kind. I’m here because I was ordered to answer your request. Nothing more.”

“Can’t a fiancée wish to see his bride to be?” He asked his tone the slightest bit sharper than it was moments before. He moved swiftly into her space before she could protest. His form dwarfed hers as he towered over her and grasped her chin, forcing her eyes to meet his. His smirk bordered on salacious as he grazed her bottom lip with a fingertip. The fingers of his free hand traced a path down her neck and across her shoulders as he pinned her with a pointed stare. “Why won’t you give in to me? It would make this so much easier Zephyra.”

She tore herself away from him, almost shaking in anger. One thing was clear, as much as Borelas craved power, he craved her body even more. It wasn’t merely to subjugate her to his will; he wanted what he knew was unattainable, and he made it abundantly clear that he lusted after her. And as much as she hated to admit, he frightened her. He had become increasingly bold as of late, so much so that she had even made mention of it to her father in the hopes that he’d intervene. And when her father barely seemed affected by the news, she knew that she would be expected to fend for herself.

She hadn’t mentioned Borelas’ most recent changes in behavior to Komus either, even though keeping anything from him made her feel exceptionally guilty. She knew Komus almost as well as she knew herself though. If word of the mage’s actions ever reached his ears, she’d be hard-pressed to hold him back from ripping Borelas apart, and she couldn’t risk him angering her father.

As she backed away further, Borelas’ eyes narrowed and he rushed towards her, his reactions lightning quick. He grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked sharply. She involuntarily let out a whimper of pain, which only seemed to spur him on. His breath was hot against her cheek as he pressed himself against her, his other arm firmly secured around her waist. She tried to push him away, but he tightened his grip and she could feel her scalp burn painfully from his grasp.

“Don’t think I’m not aware of your little indiscretions,” he hissed angrily as he gave her hair another fierce tug. She was painfully reminded of how alone they were at that moment, and her heart began to beat frantically in fear. Borelas had always had a cruel streak, but so far he had not escalated to physical violence out of fear of her father she assumed. But something had changed in him, and she had recognized it moments too late. Her blood ran cold as she felt his lips trail down her neck, and this time she couldn’t suppress the tremble that went through her body at the unwanted contact. His next words skimmed over her collarbone and made her entire being freeze in complete and utter panic. “Perhaps you need to be taught a lesson.”

His hips ground into her in response, and she let out a strangled cry as she realized he had effectively pinned her body and legs against the length of him and the wall of the Dome. As she struggled to lift her hands to try to fend him off, he released her waist and hair in one swift movement and pinned her wrists above her head with one hand. His other hand drifted lazily up her inner thigh through the high slit of her dress. She tried to wriggle out from his hold but to no avail; her strength was dwarfed by his. But what he hadn’t anticipated was her resolve. As terrified as she was, there was no way that she was letting him touch her without a fight.

She closed her eyes, and she could feel Borelas chuckle softly against her skin as he mistook her expression for submission. In reality, she needed to concentrate, to ground herself somehow. Within moments, she could feel the wind whip the hair from her face and claw frantically at her clothing. Borelas pulled away abruptly as he felt the wind howl at his back, and his eyes darkened with rage as he met her turbulent gaze. It was clear that he was physically witnessing the storm brewing in her eyes as she pulled from her power reserves to fuel the vortex behind him. Before he could react, she rushed forward and kneed him in the groin. He stumbled backward in pain, and dropped to one knee, gasping in misery.

She smiled triumphantly as the cyclone swirled around them, responding eagerly to her elemental magic. For a moment, she felt infinitely powerful... until the storm was snuffed out with very little effort. She whipped around in shock to meet Borelas’ furious gaze as he made a series of sharp hand gestures that ended all of her hard work in moments, reminding her of exactly why he was the highest-ranking mage in all of Nivern. He stalked towards her with barely concealed rage, and she felt his hand connect with her cheek before she could even think to react.

“How dare you,” he snarled, punctuating each word with a hiss of anger. Her vision swam slightly as she clutched her face and continued to try to back away while he steadily advanced. She paused abruptly however as a cruel smirk crossed his features.

“I’m not the only one who knows that you’ve been disobeying orders and whoring yourself out to the Guard. Your father has your pretty pet bird right this moment, and has promised me a suitable punishment since he dared to touch what was promised to me.”

She shook with mounting dread; as much as she wanted to believe that her father wasn’t capable of enacting such torture against someone she loved, she barely recognized him anymore, and Borelas had nothing to gain from lying to her at this moment.

“He plans on making it public, to remind the people to keep within their station. He promised me blood. Perhaps he’ll cripple those pretty wings of his? Or flay the skin from his body so he’ll scream at your touch...” he continued with a contemptuous sneer.

It felt as if the air had left her lungs as she stared at him in shock. “You wouldn’t,” she whispered. “He wouldn’t. ”

He chuckled as he gauged her reaction, his eyes fixated on her own. His voice was like a cruel caress that simultaneously choked and chilled her. “I would, as would he. It’s happening right this moment. My only goal was to delay you and remind you of your real place while he was apprehended. In fact, why don’t you hurry home Zephyra? See for yourself what I’m capable of.”

She stumbled a few more steps backward in shock before she broke out into a run. Inwardly, she cursed herself for not being winged. Not like she could help it- the fates had made her flightless- but she knew she’d be too late if Borelas wasn’t deceiving her. Even at a dead run, it would take far too much time to reach the palace, and who knows what they could have started doing at that point.

Her mind was screaming; her emotions were as violent and chaotic as the storm she had created mere moments ago. She had thought that her father was incapable of torture, but what if she was wrong this whole time? Borelas wouldn’t have surprised her, but even though her father didn’t want to see her promised to a commoner, she had always thought that he had still felt some degree of warmth towards her and her brother.

As she approached the palace, she could hear a clamor coming from the city square. She made a split-second decision and detoured towards the crowd instead, knowing that the gallows were situated there as well. If there was any shred of truth to what Borelas had told her, her father would have taken Komus there to make an example of him publicly. Dread filled her stomach like an icy weight; foreboding flooded through her bloodstream and her breaths came out in panicked gasps.

She flew into the square and her eyes instantly fixated on the raised level in the middle of the crowd. Even at a distance, she could see her father’s head executioner in the center of the stage, and her father standing off to the side, watching the proceedings. In the midst of it all was... Komus. As she pushed her way through the bodies congregating around the spectacle, she could feel her hysteria mounting. The closer she came, the more she was able to see. Her father watched Komus and his executioner with a dispassionate stare, his eyes cold and unflinching. And Komus...

Blood ran down his bare chest and sides in slow rivulets. His head hung low as if he were a man already beaten, and strands of that gloriously rich hair that she loved clung damply to his face, stained a deep shade of copper. Angry red welts and slices cut across his chest and midsection, as well as what appeared to be some shallow scalp wounds, and they were all weeping blood. His arms were chained above him to an overhead beam at an awkward angle, forcing him to stand on the tips of his toes to prevent dislocation. Only after taking in the full scene did she notice that the executioner held a wicked-looking flail, with barbed blades fashioned to its tips.

The crowd seemed incensed and bloodthirsty, and they cried out for his death. The throng of people paid her very little mind as she forced her way through; they were so distracted by the scene before them that they didn’t even recognize their own Princess. What had her father said to make them turn their backs on their beloved General? The people adored Komus...

She was almost upon the dais now, but before she could climb it, a hooded figure reached out and pulled her roughly into him. She cried out in anger and attempted to strike him, but he hushed her and held her tightly in an embrace, long enough that she could place the features beneath the hood. Tyri.

“Quiet Zephyra. You can’t stop this. Please,” he begged, his voice thick with emotion. She could feel the tears descending her cheeks and she slapped weakly against his chest as she sobbed.

“Why?” She choked out brokenly. “Why are you not helping him? He’s your best friend! Why is father doing this?”

Tyri’s eyes were flinty as he stared down at her, his mouth set into a hard line. “He’s my oldest friend Zephyra. You know that I’d give anything to help him. Our father publicly accused him of raping you. There was no trial, and he knew that Borelas would keep you occupied long enough to give them a head start. By the time I knew what was happening, he had already taken him out of the palace and put me under guard so I couldn’t follow. I managed to sneak out, just barely.”

Shock flooded her system and she felt her head swim. She wouldn’t stand here and watch him die. “I won’t let him do this Tyri. I won’t.”

Tyri snarled and shook her lightly. “Don’t you get it? Father must have made some sort of threat against you for Komus to have come with them so willingly. The Komus I know would have fought against them, forced his way out, screamed his innocence. Something’s wrong. He’s been silent this entire time, he hasn’t denied a thing!”

She tore herself out of his grasp and shook her head vehemently. “I’m the only one that can declare his innocence, and I won’t stand by and watch while he tries to protect me!”

With that, she turned abruptly and scrambled up on the dais. She could faintly hear Tyri call out to her in warning, but she felt as if she were within a bubble; the world fell away around her, and the only thing she could hear or see was the lifeless form of the man she loved.

A hush fell over the crowd as she crossed the floor, and she watched as her father strode towards her. Time slowed as Komus turned his head towards her, intense cobalt eyes pinning her in place with a silent plea. The executioner dropped the flail again and scarlet ribbons sprayed out to spatter across the wood. Komus howled in pain and she bolted towards him, her body no longer frozen in time. As the executioner lifted the flail again, she threw herself in front of Komus, her body shielding him from further abuse.

“Stop!” she screamed, her eyes wild with rage. She could feel the wind picking up behind her, lashing at her back and hair as she fueled it with her anger. The executioner stopped short and let the flail fall to the ground as he looked between her and her father, awaiting further instructions. Only then did she realize that Levanteran had reached her side. He grasped her wrist roughly and forced her to face him. His eyes were dead, emotionless voids, the likes of which she had never seen before. She flinched away from him, but he caught her hand again and pulled her close to hiss in her ear.

“If you openly oppose me daughter, be prepared to face some grave consequences.”

She could feel her face blanch, but she gathered herself and stood tall, meeting his inscrutable gaze with a resolute stare of her own.

“So be it. I won’t stand by and watch you kill him.”

His eyes bored holes into hers for a few moments longer before he nodded brusquely at the executioner. “Take him to the dungeons. I’ll deal with him later.”

The executioner nodded mutely in response and began to unchain Komus. His body slumped to the ground, and yet he still craned his head, desperate to find her.

“Don’t... Zephyra...” he croaked out hoarsely as he tried to struggle to his feet. Her father turned and bent towards him, and with a detachment that frightened her, backhanded him almost lazily across the face before gesturing abruptly to the executioner.

“Get him out of here. Now,” he barked coldly. With that, he faced the gathered crowds. “Disperse! My daughter cries for mercy, and I’m obliged to give it to her. There’s nothing more to see.”

Whispered mutterings filled the air as Levanteran all but dragged his daughter off the stage. Zephyra scanned the crowd for Tyri, but she couldn’t spot her hooded brother amongst the commoners. Hopefully, he had fled back to the castle before he was found out and punished in kind.

Her mind raced as she was dragged back through the palace halls. Her father refused to answer any of her questions, despite her many pleas. She had no idea what would happen to Komus now that she had intervened, if Tyri remained unharmed, and what was going to be done to her as retribution for stopping her father’s public punishment. She had never thought that he was this unfeeling, but she realized with mounting dismay that she had no idea what he was capable of anymore. Today was proof of that.

As they neared his private chambers, he shoved her through the doorway, only to have her come face to face with Borelas once more. He leaned against a bookshelf in her father’s study, an arrogant sneer gracing his features. Her brows furrowed in confusion as she scanned the room for some form of escape or answers... something, anything. Her father entered behind her, shut the door, and locked it. The snick of the lock seemed to echo loudly in the room, and her heart raced in response. She turned towards him and shook her head.

“I don’t understand...” she said softly. “Why? Why are you doing this?”

Borelas laughed, and she turned towards him once more with a scowl. He sauntered towards her with all the grace of a predatory cat, his eyes flashing with contempt. He stopped short and abruptly slapped her across the face. The strike caught her off guard and she stumbled, clutching her cheek as a startled gasp left her mouth.

Levanteran walked around her without so much as a glance and seated himself at his desk before he answered her.

“You’re exactly like your mother,” he said, his voice dispassionate. And yet, there was a thin edge of something else there; anger, simmering and red hot. As if there were an old grudge there that he had been carefully tending to, stoking the fires of his rage to fuel his brand of retribution.

The statement caught her off guard, and she blinked owlishly at him. What was that supposed to mean? Of course, she was her mother’s daughter...

Levanteran stared back at her, and when she failed to respond, he sighed loudly before he made a dismissive gesture. “No matter. This farce ends here. This little... dalliance of yours... is no more. I’ve been sent a message from the High King.” With that, he lifted a single piece of parchment before continuing. “He wants a wife. One of royal lineage. I’m ending your engagement to Borelas.”

She startled, and her eyes flew to his with relief. Could it be that her father wasn’t so uncaring after all? She waited for him to continue, but Borelas interrupted with a bellow of indignation.

“What! You promised her to me!” he yelled, his voice pitching higher as he faced her father with clenched fists. “You are backing out of our arrangement? How d-”

Levanteran turned steely eyes on Borelas, and her former betrothed stopped, mid-rant, sensing the change in the atmosphere around him. Levanteran wasn’t one to be trifled with, and he was quite possibly the only individual that Borelas feared.

“Quiet, if you value all that you hold dear here,” he snapped dangerously into the pointed silence. Borelas stood still, but Zephyra could feel his ire from across the room as he glared back sullenly at the King.

Levanteran rounded the desk, parchment in hand, as he approached her once more. She watched him warily, unsure of what any of this meant for her. Her father had promised her a punishment, but so far, breaking her betrothal felt like a reward. When he stood in front of her he continued, completely unruffled.

“The High King wants all of the royal daughters of the realm to be sent to him so that he can pick a wife from amongst them. You will go. And you will please him, do you understand me?”

Her eyes flashed in rebellion; she was no one’s possession to be traded off to the highest bidder. “I promised myself to Komus. I refuse.”

He laughed, and the sound was poisonous, bitter, ugly. “Vows made by the Rilsayath women mean next to nothing. Unfortunately, he’s likely already spoiled you for Silvanos. Hopefully, he’ll be able to see past that.” He angled his head, regarding her as if she were something as irritating as a stain on his shoe. “Komus will accompany you. I want him to watch as Silvanos fawns over you, and you over him. And you will do your best to make him choose you. Having the High King’s ear at my disposal would prove to be invaluable. Komus will learn his place, and after this whole ordeal is done, I’ll banish him to the furthest reaches of my realm as punishment for defying me. He’ll never lay eyes on you again.”

“I won’t,” she responded fiercely, tears threatening to overwhelm her.

“You will, Zephyra, or you’ll face far worse things when you return,” he replied with barely another glance in her direction as he stalked back towards his desk. “Your brother is my Heir, and for that, I must keep him close. But you are useful in a mere few ways, and I’ve decided that it’s in my best interests to all but sell you to the highest bidder.”

“What about me?” Borelas whined suddenly from the wings. “What about what I was promised?”

Levanteran looked up briefly from his paperwork once more and made another dismissive hand gesture before responding. “Take what you’d like Borelas. If it’s her body that you desire, have it. She’s no longer virtuous anyway, so you can hardly sully her further.” He paused as Zephyra gasped in shock, but he barely registered her reaction before continuing. “You can have her for the night, nothing more. She leaves in two days, at first light. All I ask is that you leave no visible or lasting marks on her body. I won’t have the High King wondering after them.”

At that, Zephyra stumbled a few feet backward, her eyes flying between her father’s form and Borelas’ as he descended on her. Borelas’ face was covered by a contemptuous sneer as he grasped her forearm in an iron grip and yanked her towards him roughly.

“Come Zephyra, we have the whole night to ourselves,” he hissed venomously in her ear.

With that, she screamed, as the realization and weight of her father’s decree came crashing down on her.

Two days later, they departed for the capital. She felt as if she were in a fog, wading through the thick soup of her thoughts. She wasn’t sure if she was capable of emotion anymore. And yet, some days she was so raw that all she could do was cry as painful memory after painful memory flooded her thoughts and haunted her dreams. Other days she was numb, drifting, completely afloat; barely cognizant of the world around her.

She could feel the press of the guards at her sides like the stab of many tiny daggers, pricking her skin in every which direction. They were close; she was so confined that she could feel her panic mounting as she struggled to catch her breath through the ever-present terror that held her prisoner. Komus was closest to her, and some distant part of her still called to him. But it was all too fresh, too recent. The part of her that was damaged, still quaking and afraid, shied away from him. She could see him visibly wince under the shift of his armor in her peripheral vision; he had barely begun to heal before her father had forced him to accompany her as yet another way to torture them both. Thank goodness elementals were able to heal quite rapidly, otherwise, she feared that his wounds would reopen on the trek to the capital.

As they neared the carriage, Komus offered his hand to her to help her climb into her seat. She noticeably shied away from him and climbed in herself while she tried to ignore the blatant hurt in his expression. He shook it off and leaned closer to her to whisper; close enough to make her wary, yet not so near that it made her want to shuffle backward in her seat.

“Zephyra, please... Tyri told me. He told me what... what he did to you...” he said, his voice raw with unshed emotion. “What can I do for you? Please... just tell me how I can help. I won’t let any harm come to you, I promise...”

She stared back at him, and as much as she tried to summon some semblance of warmth or false reassurances, she wasn’t sure she had any left at this very moment.

“Don’t,” she said softly. “Don’t pity me Komus. There’s nothing you can do. You tried your best, but it’s over now.”

With that, she turned away from him and curled into herself. She felt his presence at her back as he waited for the span of a few moments, but, knowing that they were being watched, he withdrew quietly and closed the carriage door. Only when the carriage began to move did she let the rhythmic bumps and sways lull her into what she hoped would be a dreamless sleep.

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