Cloak of Night – Evelyn Skye

Empress Aki woke up completely disoriented and with a skull-hammering headache. She opened her eyes slowly, because even that movement hurt her head. There was dirt beneath her, and the air here was sharp and sour, as if a crate of cleaning solution had been left open and undiluted. Her throat ached from breathing it. What is this place? Aki certainly wasn’t in the Imperial City anymore. The last thing she remembered was her brother, Gin, taking control of her mind and forcing her to abdicate the throne in his favor and then one of his ryuu turning everything in the world green and knocking her unconscious. Carefully, the former empress rose, bracing herself against a wall. She was still in the taiga uniform she’d donned before the battle with Gin, and now her sleeves caught on the jagged rock walls. Aki was in a grotto of some sort. A waterfall crashed twenty yards away from her, and a pool of churning water spanned the short distance between the grotto floor and the base of the falls. She crept along the narrow ledge of rock around the edge of the pool. Surely this was more than a mere grotto. Gin wouldn’t leave her alone if she could simply swim her way out. She approached the underside of the waterfall and stretched her hand toward it. The droplets burned her fingers, and Aki jerked her arm away.

“Nines!” she cursed, falling backward onto the ground. Wisps of smoke rose from her fingertips. Acid. Instinctively, she began to plunge her hand into the pool to cool it down, but she caught herself at the last moment. The pool might be filled with the same thing. Aki cradled her hand and gaped at the torrent of acid raining down in front of her. Was this a fabricated prison that the ryuu had created? Or was this a real waterfall, and they’d somehow transformed the water into something deadly? In either case, it was terrifying. A girl laughed from the other side of the grotto. Aki startled but didn’t see anyone there. She scurried back to the opposite part of the cave.

Out of thin air, the girl materialized. Virtuoso. Aki gritted her teeth from both the pain of the acid burn and seeing the ryuu who had knocked her out during the battle at Rose Palace. The girl didn’t even bother with a greeting before she stalked over, kneed Aki in the stomach, and shoved her onto the slick ground. Tears stung Aki’s eyes. “Please. You have to let me go,” she said. “No,” Virtuoso said curtly. “I demand it.” Virtuoso shrugged.

Aki had nothing. She was a prisoner. She couldn’t cast spells like her brother and the ryuu and taigas could. No one knew where she was, or even that she was still alive. She might as well be dead. She slouched against the wall, no longer bothering to hide the fingers burned by the acid. Virtuoso smirked at Aki’s blistering skin. “I see you’ve discovered that these are no ordinary waterfalls.” “You did this?” “It was my idea. Another ryuu executed it for me.

Want to go for a swim?” she sneered. “I thought my brother wanted me alive. You know, so I could suffer in exile as he had to. Isn’t that what he said before he had me thrown in here?” Virtuoso glared daggers at her. Aki set her jaw. She refused to give away the fear chewing at her bones. The acid in front of Virtuoso began to boil. What in Sola’s name was this? Aki pressed herself even harder against the wall to get as far away from it as possible. An enormous emerald bubble—seven or eight feet in diameter—rose from the depths of the acid. The orb bobbed to shore and opened as if it were yawning.

It was empty, except for a large armchair. Virtuoso glowered. “There’s a small cell behind this rock wall, sheltered from the acid. Squeeze through the crevice over there”—she pointed to a person-sized crack in the grotto wall, obscured by the falls’ shadows—“and you’ll find a mattress, water, and food. Enough to survive. Barely.” Then she stepped into her green bubble, sat in it like the captain of a small ship, and sank into the water, leaving Aki behind. Alone. Possibly for the rest of her life, because Gin wanted her to rot here as punishment. She hugged her knees to her chest and looked at the curtain of acid locking her into this prison.

But there was still one hope, even if it was a small one. “League of Rogues,” Aki whispered. “If you’re out there, please don’t give up on me.” Chapter Two Hana clenched her fists as she rode away in her bubble. As Virtuoso, Emperor Gin’s second-incommand, she was supposed to want to snap the former empress’s neck in the grotto. But there was a part of Hana that was relieved she wasn’t allowed to kill Princess Aki. Prisoner or not, she was still royalty. Unfortunately, it was that kind of wishy-washy commitment that had made Hana weak before. She’d fallen for her sister’s attempt to reconcile, letting Sora go instead of turning her in. If I had revealed Sora as a mole in our ranks, the Society of Taigas wouldn’t have been warned of the impending attack, and the ryuu could have taken the Imperial City without as much ryuu bloodshed.

They also could have avoided killing some taigas who would have been valuable once they were brainwashed and turned into ryuu. That had all been because Hana had wavered in her allegiance. I won’t make that mistake again, she thought. From now on, whatever Emperor Gin wanted, she would be single-mindedly dedicated to him and his pursuit of the Evermore. “Nothing will sway me,” Hana said aloud, as if doing so would further bind her to the pledge. “Nothing.” Chapter Three It’s a strange thing , Sora thought, when a boy you’ve known your entire life is suddenly an enormous electric wolf. It was stranger still to ride on his back as he flew through the night, sparks flickering off his blue fur. She, Fairy, and Broomstick clung to Daemon, bracing themselves against the biting chill. They’d fled Kichona, beaten and terrified, after Prince Gin—the Dragon Prince—seized the throne.

But now, just hours later, the decision nipped at the edges of Sora’s mind. They were supposed to be the protectors of the kingdom. Was it irresponsible to abandon their people? But the rest of the Society of Taigas had been beaten, and if Sora and her friends had stayed, Prince Gin might have captured and hypnotized them, too. And then Kichona would have no one left to save them. Still, it felt wrong to run away. “Turn around,” she said to Daemon. “What?” “Turn around. We need to go back.” “Are you out of your mind?” Daemon said, his voice half growl. “Prince Gin just took over the minds of every warrior we know, and we only barely escaped.

” “Which means that the prince won’t expect us yet,” Sora said. “He probably thinks we’ll disappear for a while to lick our wounds. No one would guess we’d turn around after losing a battle and fly straight back.” With a reluctant sigh, Daemon changed directions and headed back to Kichona. Eventually, a crescent-shaped island came into view. Isle of the Moon had been the retreat of the Society of Taigas’ council, before the ryuu destroyed it. Even from this height, Sora could see the red bridges smashed into ponds and the toppled Constellation Temple. But its devastation also made Isle of the Moon the perfect place to regroup before they returned across the channel to Kichona’s main island. No one would expect them to choose this as a hideout. “Try touching down on that strip,” Sora said, pointing to a narrow clearing.

“I hardly know how to fly, let alone land,” Daemon said. “I might dash us all to pieces.” “You can do it,” she said, even though they’d only discovered his magic hours ago. She tapped into the mental bond she shared with Daemon and sent him a ribbon of reassurance. It coursed through their connection like the scent of salt water and sunshine on a summer day, and she could immediately feel the muscles in his shoulders release some of their tension. She looked down again at the island. The destruction was even more stark as they got closer. Gardens were flooded. Beams from broken buildings littered the ground. Rainbow koi swam in puddles on top of broken rooftops instead of in the carefully tended ponds they’d once called home.

“I’m going to aim for that meadow at the edge of the woods,” Daemon said. “There’s slightly more space there. Everyone, hold on.” Sora leaned into the fur on the back of his neck and hugged him, feeling his lupine strength beneath her, and for just a moment, she let the wonder of Daemon’s transformation sweep over her. Even though he was a wolf, he smelled like cypress trees and sky, like a boy born of the forest and the stars. Every nerve in her body tingled, awake in a way she’d never before experienced. Fairy tightened her grip around Sora’s waist, bringing Sora out of her thoughts. Broomstick stretched from behind Fairy and wrapped his arms around both of them, his reach long enough to secure them all together. Daemon began his descent. The wind stung Sora’s face, and her ears felt tight from the pressure of flying downward at such speed.

A flock of birds squawked and broke formation to allow Daemon through. The open air quickly gave way to treetops, and then— “Jump!” Daemon shouted as he careened, out of control, toward the grass below. Sora leaped off his back, tucked her body into a ball, and somersaulted as she hit the ground. She rolled once, then sprang to her feet, as agile as if she’d intended such a landing all along. Beside her, Fairy also landed lightly, as did Broomstick, his massive body graceful from years of taiga training. It didn’t matter that he was the size of a small rhinoceros; he moved like an acrobat—strong and fluid and effortless. Daemon was not as lucky. He crashed into the meadow, bouncing several times, and stopped only when he’d skidded several hundred feet into the wet, sandy remnants of a meditation garden. His groan rumbled like an unhappy thunderbolt. They rushed to him.

“Wolf!” Fairy cried. Sora was the only one who called Daemon by his birth name. Likewise, he was the only one who called her Sora. He rose on wobbly legs, his paws crossing awkwardly as he stumbled. Broomstick reached him first and braced Daemon against his own frame. “Steady there.” Daemon grinned sheepishly, which was quite an accomplishment for a wolf. “I told you I might crash.” “But you’re all right?” Sora asked. “Ego bruised, but that’s the worst of it.

” She nodded. “Let’s find a place to settle down. It’s been quite a day.” That was, of course, a massive understatement, but so much had happened since the sun rose that morning, Sora could only process parts of it at a time. Prince Gin had hypnotized the entire Society of Taigas except Sora, Daemon, Fairy, and Broomstick. He had also destroyed Rose Palace, sacrificed two hundred innocent people in a bloody ceremony, and possibly murdered his sister, the empress. It was almost too much to bear. “Hey-o,” Daemon said, “that house over there looks intact.” Sora and Fairy followed him and Broomstick. Upon closer inspection, the building wasn’t a house but a large hall, possibly a meeting space for when the Councilmembers had their annual retreat.

Also, it wasn’t so much “intact” as not falling down. The front door barely hung on its hinges, the rice paper on the windows was torn open, and the glass ceiling was completely shattered. But it was the best they had

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