Nightblood – Elly Blake

HE WAS LOST, AND ONLY I COULD find him. My fire-filled palm illuminated the jagged onyx of the endless, twisting tunnels. Shadows followed me, their shapes grotesque against the walls, elated to have finally found prey. They cavorted as they drew out the brutal ecstasy of the hunt. Exhausted, I stumbled over a loose rock, and my upper arm met sharp stone. Hot blood slid down inside my ripped sleeve. I felt no pain, only urgency. I called Arcus’s name until my throat grew raw. The wind laughed. At a fork in the tunnel, I hesitated. If I took the wrong path, I would lose him. And somehow I knew that it would be forever. “Ruby!” I followed the echo. The darkness became a physical thing, devouring light. A whistling breeze made the flame in my palm sputter.

My steps slowed. If my fire died, I’d be at the mercy of the shadows. I could taste their greed as darkness closed around me like water, suffocating. Drowning me in night. “Ruby!” I could feel them now, wrapping around me like a thousand moving tentacles, constricting my breath. I screamed and struggled. Eurus’s laughter rang out, echoing in my ears, my chest, my blood. Fear blanked my mind. The god of the east wind could kill me with a word. Desperation lent me strength.

I lashed out with my foot, connecting with something solid. The creature howled. The shadows spun me around and gripped my shoulders. I drew back my fist and— “Ruby! Damn you, wake up!” A slap stung my cheek. When my other cheek received the same treatment, I shoved at my attacker with both hands. Fire built in my palms. “Not on my ship, you don’t!” Warm hands gripped my wrists. “No fire, you maniac! You’ll kill us all!” Blinking against the glare of lanterns, I beheld a livid gaze—dilated black pupils ringed by golden honey-brown. Not a vengeful god, but a furious prince. “Kai?” It took a second to register that the tunnels hadn’t been real, Eurus’s voice and the grasping shadows only in my mind.

As I tried to remember the details, the rest of the nightmare disappeared like mist. I could only recall shadows and a sense of deep dread. Kai’s appearance did nothing to soothe my fear. His brow was lowered ominously, his copperygold hair in pillow-mussed disarray. He leaned in, his low-voiced ferocity eradicating the remaining cobwebs of my dream. “What in the everloving blazes did you think you were doing? First you try to hurl yourself over the side and now you’re threatening me with fire on a wooden vessel?” He shook my wrists until the flames in my palms died, his breath hot against my cheek. “If I have to choose, I pick the first option. At least you’ll only kill yourself!” I’d tried to throw myself overboard? I shivered, imagining the icy water closing over my head. If Kai hadn’t grabbed me… Obviously, I’d been sleepwalking again. This was getting downright dangerous.

Not that I would admit that while accusations were being heaped on my head. It was my nature to fight back. “Stop shouting at me!” I twisted against his hold, but his fingers and thumbs dug into my wrists like burrs. I gave him a swift, hard kick in the shin. “Let go!” With a brusque oath in Sudesian, Kai moved back, keeping hold of my wrists. “You’ve bruised me enough for one night, don’t you think, Princess?” Had I already lashed out while dreaming? I scanned his body for cuts and bruises, then realized I was staring. His bare chest rose and fell with harsh breaths, the lantern light painting his lean muscles with loving attention to detail. “Couldn’t you have put on a shirt?” I snapped, averting my eyes. “You’re lucky I bothered to pull some breeches on.” He finally let go of my wrists, watching me for signs of imminent attack before continuing.

“I was dead asleep. If I’d taken the time to dress, you’d be swimming the Vast Sea right now. Or, more likely, sinking to the bottom with fish nibbling at your pretty little toes.” “I apologize for making your life so difficult.” I crossed my arms over my wrinkled nightgown, annoyed more at myself than him. When would the sleepwalking end? It made me feel so powerless, so out of control. While Kai started pacing in silent agitation, I turned to grip the rail and stared down at the barely visible roll of waves, waiting for the world to make sense again. Though I couldn’t grasp the images from my dream, the sense of urgency and loss weighed heavily on me. Eurus’s laugh still rang in my ears. That memory was eerily clear, raising gooseflesh over my scalp.

I shuddered and rubbed my arms, looking around for some distraction. Above soaring masts and full white sails, the sky lay black and clear, studded with diamonds. A suggestion of pink edged the horizon, hinting at dawn. I realized that several crew members were staring at me, as if waiting to see what mad thing I would do next. As the ship hit a swell, the planks groaned, and it sounded to my guilty ears like a judgment on my irrational behavior. “You can all go back to your posts,” I told the sailors. I didn’t need their nervous stares to make me feel any worse. “I’m the captain,” Kai said with grim conviction, stalking back to me. “I’ll be the one to tell them to go back to their posts.” He jerked his chin at the crew.

“Get back to your posts!” The night watch scurried away. Kai came to lean on the rail next to me, his voice pitched lower but no less fierce. “This can’t go on.” “I told you last time that you should bar me in my cabin at night.” “As if that’ll stop you. You could just burn the door down!” I threw up my hands. “I don’t know what you want me to do, Kai!” “You were fine for weeks. Why have you started wandering the decks in your sleep these past few nights?” “I wish I knew.” Ever since I’d destroyed the throne of Sud and taken the fire Minax into my heart, I’d had an increase in vivid dreams involving tunnels, shadows, and enclosed spaces, but only in the last week had I started sleepwalking. The crew reported my midnight wanderings to the captain—Kai —and he was the one who shook me awake and led me back to bed.

“If you would let me post a guard outside your door—” he began. “No! Then Arcus will know something is wrong. He’ll overreact. You know he will.” Arcus had enough to worry about. He had a kingdom to rebuild now that his brother’s devastating rule had ended, and yet he couldn’t focus on that until we stopped Eurus from opening the Gate of Light. Wherever that might be. If we failed, a horde of Minax would break free from the Obscurum—the underground prison created by the goddess Cirrus—and the world would be populated by mortal puppets possessed by bloodthirsty shadows. Don’t think like that. I had to focus on the next task: giving Brother Thistle The Creation of the Thrones, a book we believed had directions to the Gate of Light—if he could translate the passages that eluded us.

Kai leaned his head back, his eyes closed. There were shadows under his eyes, the planes of his face more sharply drawn. He looked exhausted. I winced. “Look, I’m sorry you keep having to get up in the middle of the night for my sake.” He opened his eyes and peered at the lightening sky. “Well, we’re only a couple of days from land, anyway, and then your nightmares will be someone else’s problem.” He slanted me a half smile, which died as his eyes flicked downward. “Ah…” He cleared his throat. “Maybe you should lace up your”—he pointed at his chest in lieu of description—“with a bit more care.

” I glanced down. The sleeves of my nightgown were long, the hem all the way to my ankles, but the laces at the collar had come undone, showing an alarming amount of cleavage, and possibly more from his vantage point. “Oops,” I said, fumbling with the laces. I wondered if my faulty apparel might have been the real reason the crew had been staring for so long. Normally I might have told Kai what he could do with his opinion about my clothing. But this wasn’t criticism of my tendency to wear a tunic and leggings instead of a gown. We needed to keep our relationship in the calmer waters of friendship, where we had steered it since leaving Sudesia. When modesty was restored, I raised my head, but Kai had already turned on his heel, his easy strides taking him toward the companionway. “Good night, Ruby,” he said over his shoulder. “I trust you won’t cause any more trouble tonight.

” “I won’t go back to sleep,” I called after him. In fact, I wouldn’t sleep at night for the rest of our voyage. A bright sky seemed to be the only proof against nightmares. Next time I tried to toss myself into the drowning deeps, Kai might not be there to save me. The horizon was orange now, the stars winking out as dawn claimed its due. In a few minutes, the shadows would be gone. “Except for the one in my heart,” I whispered. The dread I’d felt earlier returned with the suddenness of an unexpected squall. As I turned from the rail, I could have sworn I heard laughter in the wind. TWO A SHOUT OF “LAND HO! ” RANG FROM the crow’s nest.

Frostblood sailors rushed to the rail and scurried into the rigging, eager for their first glimpse of home in months. Nervous warmth coursed through my veins, heating the brass rail beneath my palms. The voyage had cost us time, preventing us from doing anything more active than reading and planning. Soon we would find out if the book held the secrets we needed. The next few hours passed in a flurry of activity. As the Tempesian half of the crew carried out their tasks with laughter and snatches of song, the Sudesians eyed the gray cliffs with distrust. This white-cloaked kingdom topped with drab pewter skies was the place where so many of their own had been murdered by the previous Frost King. It would take more than the death of that king and a few brief months for them to feel safe here. My thoughts were equally torn. Sudesia, with its tropical clime and vibrant colors, had felt like a warm embrace to my Fireblood spirit.

And yet, Tempesia’s snowy peaks and icy mists had the pull of deep familiarity. Its people, however, could be colder than its northern reaches. With a few exceptions, I had little use for Frostbloods. “Your expression is very grave,” said the most notable exception. Breath as cold as an arctic wind tickled my ear. “Not looking forward to winter in the north?” I leaned back against him and echoed his wry tone. “It’s more that I dread spending another winter with Frostbloods.” I gestured landward. “And there’s a whole kingdom of them.” Arcus chuckled, his large hands coming to rest on my shoulders.

“I’ve heard you have a history of handling those Frostbloods with great skill. Particularly their king.” He smoothed my hair to the side and a cold kiss fell on the nape of my neck, making a delicious shudder run through me, top to tail. I turned with a smile and caught a flash of intense blue eyes before his lips met mine softly, sending another thrill along my spine. I pulled back to murmur, “Their king seems intent on handling me.” His chest rumbled with a laugh, and I grinned. His fingers came to rest on my neck as his lips slid up to my temple. “You can’t blame him. You’re very touchable.” I enjoyed his clean scent, his strength and steadiness, and snuggled closer, drawing his arms tighter around me.

For the first time since my nightmare, I felt safe. He rested his chin on my head, inhaling deeply. “You smell so good,” he said in a low, soft voice. “I could stand here and breathe you in all day.” I tucked my cheek against his chest. “You smell like mint. I wonder if you taste as good.” “All right, Lady Firebrand, we need to change the subject or the crew is going to blush as I bend you back over my arm and kiss you senseless.” I knew he wanted to, just as I knew that he wouldn’t. Though he sometimes kissed me on deck, he was reserved about it.

Even when we were alone, it hadn’t gone much further. Every night, he’d left me at my cabin door with a mere kiss. “Promises, promises.” He made a sound low in his throat, his eyes heating. “Stop it. Now, tell me what you were really thinking about.” I looked over my shoulder at the gray cliffs. “Aside from the obvious? I’m wondering what we’ll find when we reach the capital. The Frost Court left alone for nearly three months…” He was silent for a moment, then shrugged. “Whatever has happened, we’ll deal with it.

” I peered up at him, not trusting he was as calm as he sounded. “Doesn’t this go against the Frostblood code that tells you to plan carefully for any contingency?” His eyes crinkled at the edges. “That may be the Frostblood code, but a certain Fireblood has taught me to live in the present. Right now, that includes enjoying the last few hours of peace on this ship.” As if on cue, the Frostbloods erupted in the ribald shanty they always sang as we neared land, extolling the rewards of shore leave. I lifted a brow at Arcus. “Peace?” “Relative peace.” His eyes softened like melting ice. “I’ll take what I can get.” I reached up to brush a lock of hair that had fallen over his forehead, and he leaned subtly into my touch.

I tilted my face up, inviting. Our lips had just brushed when Kai’s voice interrupted. “How thoughtful of you to put on a final show for the crew.” Arcus’s arms constricted, pulling me closer. He always acted as if the Fireblood prince were waiting to snatch me away at the first opportunity. Kai leaned against the rail with his signature indolent grace. His wine-red doublet and fiery hair —bleached more golden by the weeks of sun—were the only spots of color in a gray landscape. “I suppose it’s cold enough to justify some cuddling,” he said, as if generously granting a request. “Though a Frostblood isn’t the logical choice if you’re looking for warmth, Ruby.” His eyes held only the usual level of sensual promise typical of him, but Arcus reacted with a frostbitten stare.

“Watch yourself, princeling.” “Even a Fireblood princess craves warmth sometimes,” Kai taunted with a slow grin. Arcus’s nostrils flared. “Did you need something?” “We’ll land soon.” Kai gestured to shore with a lift of his chin. “Just checking our plans haven’t changed.” “Same as before,” I said. “We take the book to Brother Thistle. He finds and translates directions to the Gate of Light. We go there and make sure it stays closed so no Minax can escape.

Simple.” “Yes, that’s all very simple,” he said with an eye roll. “I hope you’re right about that book.” “I am,” I said with more confidence than I felt. The Fireblood masters accompanying us had been translating The Creation of the Thrones from ancient Sudesian, but they’d found no mention of the Gate’s location. However, they’d told us there were some passages in ancient Ventian—a dead language purported to be the root of both Tempesian and Sudesian, but which none of us could translate. I was sure Brother Thistle could. “We must be realistic,” Kai said. “The book may not contain clear directions, in which case a search will be necessary.” He cleared his throat.

“And at the risk of starting another argument, we must talk about how to secure ships to help us in our search. You’ve made it clear you need the Frost Court’s approval to deploy your navy.” Arcus’s eyes held a warning. “That’s what our laws require, yes.” “And for them to agree, the Frost Court must be convinced of the danger. Therefore, we need to show them proof the Minax exists.” “You will not use Ruby to give them proof,” Arcus said with narrowed eyes. “I don’t need your permission,” I added quietly. He turned to me, his tone somewhere between commanding and begging me to see reason. “Either you could lose control of the creature and it could find another host, leaving it free to wreak carnage like the frost Minax did.

Or you could lose control and hurt someone. Either way, the risk is too great.”

.

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