“Soldiers,” Corra said, indignant. “In his royal army.”
I raised my hands. “So what have you heard?”
Ridlow bellowed a slew of curses as Corra twisted the dagger out of his flesh. Blood raced from the gaping wound, running down his armored leg to pool in a puddle on the floor and over the toe of his boot.
“One of your guards sold you out for a mere five hundred coin, telling tales of a king with no memory locked in the bowels of your nightmare-infested castle.”
I contained a snort. “Okay.” I nodded, fixing my eyes on my hands as I thought about who that could be. “You knew he’d have no memory of his time as a prince.” I lifted my head. “So why is that even important?”
“Because,” the male said with a smile. “He also informed us that you were trying to make him remember.”
“Only to kill him,” Corra cut in, her eyes dancing with hatred.
“He was about to vow himself to some human woman,” I explained matter-of-factly. “What is one supposed to do?” I looked at Corra for some sisterly understanding. “He broke my black heart.”
Her brows furrowed, and she looked at her comrade.
“Regardless,” the male said. “We’ll be needing our king back now that his memories are restored.”
I laughed, tugging at my frayed skirts. “You see, that’s the problem with this game of gossip via opportunist messenger. Things are not always true or explained correctly.”
The male turned for the trunk and reached inside to grab a mace.
I groaned. “Darkness’ sake. Did you think he would just take a tonic and suddenly remember everything?” I tutted. “He’s still alive for a reason, and that’s due to him not remembering yet.”
The male paused. “I don’t believe you.”
“Then why am I here?” Magic be damned, I wanted nothing more than to beat them senseless with my bare hands. I sighed. “Look, how about this… When I am done with him, I’ll send his body back to your kingdom as a gift of good faith.”
Corra guffawed. “How easily you separate us still. Sending your lackey to try to rule over people who would rather see you perish.”
“And you would have accepted me? A young queen in mourning who could hardly tell friend from foe?”
The male squinted at me, long pale fingers rubbing at his goatee. “We accept nobody but our blood. Here’s your first warning. Follow our demands or else.”
They unhooked Ridlow, and he fell to the ground with a yelp.
My eyes watched as my mind drifted.
The mace came down upon his head over and over until brain matter and blood coated the male’s face, my skirts, Berron, and half of the tiny wormhole in the ground.
I woke up screaming.
Unbearable heat lanced through my jaw, sticking to my skin.
“Let’s see how much they adore you, how much they’ll refuse to take our threats seriously, when you bear our scars for all to see on your once beautiful face.”
I shoved the poker away, but it tore my flesh with it.
The rainbows were back, arching across the room, and then I passed out.
I came to again when Berron shouted my name in warning, and the poker was shoved at my cheek. It slid to my mouth, where it burned with a ferocity that rivaled the worst pain I’d ever felt. I smacked it away. The male laughed, continuing to jab it at my face.
He waited there for what felt like lifetimes, but was likely hours, just begging me to pass out so he could reach me in places he thought would most affect me.
Finally, when his name was called from the cracked open door, he tossed the poker beside the small fire he’d lit and stalked away.
I added his name to memory. I’d chant it in my mind as I watched his flesh peel back from his bones.
It felt like razor blades had been taken to the left side of my mouth every time I drew and exhaled breath. My flesh bubbled and oozed as I laid upon the dirt ground and clung to Berron’s hand through the bars.
All the while Ridlow’s body decayed, the ground trying to swallow it within its warm embrace with each passing hour.
“Forever, Audra. You will forever be the most beautiful creature this land has ever seen, scars or not.”
For it would scar, and I was vain enough to let the horror swallow me in the knowledge’s ugly embrace. They wouldn’t heal so long as we were trapped beneath this stone, surrounded by it, and access to the land and the magic tied to it couldn’t be sought.
It was a dry, dizzying, barren landscape. Akin to that of the desert plains of the Sun Kingdom, where walking for days would leave your mouth foaming, head pounding, and your body weakening.
“Hey, look at me.” Berron squeezed my hand, his eyes urging me to stay with him and not to burrow inside my dour thoughts. “Do you think some of the guards survived?”