Queen of Dark and Light – Nissa Leder

Scarlett closed her eyes and breathed in the energy around her. A quiet hum permeated the air, its vibration a subtle tickle on her skin. As she’d grown more aware of her power, she was able to distinguish the different types of magic she now possessed. After the sacrifice Ankou had begun and she’d ended by killing Decuma, she could sense magic in everything around her. As Scarlett lifted her arms, her palms facing the white sun above, she opened her eyes. Three blinks later, after her eyes adjusted to the brightness, the world became clear. With a deep inhale, she lifted a large rock from the ground and sent it flying toward Sage, who ran at her, daggers raised. As the rock rushed through the air, it split into a dozen pieces. War was on the horizon, which meant she needed to prepare. Every morning since Morta killed Ankou, Scarlett had begun her day by training with Sage. Not only did it allow her to improve her grasp on her magic, but it also gave her the opportunity to release all her pain and frustration. The stones whizzed toward Sage. She tried to block them with her daggers, but there were too many. Although their small size made little impact, it created the distraction Scarlett needed. As several rock fragments struck Sage, Scarlett created a lasso of light.

She twirled it and flung it around Sage’s head. Sensing something around her throat, Sage grabbed at it with both hands. As her fingers touched the rope, she released it with a shriek. It was a new trick Scarlett had learned. Her light could be hot if she wanted it to be, she only needed to wish it so. Since she didn’t want to actually hurt Sage, she’d allowed the end around her neck to remain cool but let the rest scorch. Never one to give up easily, Sage’s eyes narrowed into slits as she scanned the area. Above Scarlett’s head, a tree branch grew, extending itself toward her like a snake swimming through air. With her free hand, she reached out and used her magic to bend the snake-branch downward, sending it shooting into the ground. Something curled around her ankles.

She glanced down to see tree roots poking from the ground and constricting around her lower legs. The roots jerked to the side, pulling Scarlett’s feet out from under her. She flew to the ground with a thud, forced to release the rope of light. As she pushed herself up, a dagger flew straight at her face. Scarlett flung up a shield of darkness just in time. The dagger collided with her magic and dropped to the ground. Flickers of Teddy’s lifeless body flashed into Scarlett’s mind. His blank eyes. His pale skin, freckles grayer than ever before. Rage pulsed through Scarlett as it did every time she used her dark magic.

The memory of her friends’ deaths consumed her. How their bodies had slumped forward after Ankou had murdered them. How useless she’d felt, unable to save two of her best friends, friends who were innocent and deserved long, wonderful lives. Not horrible deaths. Somewhere, Scarlett heard someone say her name, but she pushed the voice away. She remembered the satisfaction that flowed through her like lava, thick and hot, as she ended Decuma’s life. Ankou deserved to have someone he loved taken from him. She would have killed all three of his daughters if she could have. But then he wouldn’t have gotten the ultimate comeuppance when his own daughter shoved a dagger into his heart, claiming his power—including the power he’d just received from the sacrifice—for her own. The betrayal on his face was beautiful.

“Scarlett,” the voice said again, a little louder this time. The present world faded back into view around her. She blinked, bringing it all into focus. A rope of shadow extended from her hand, wrapping itself around Sage’s throat. When had Scarlett done that? Sage was trying to pry her fingers underneath the rope, but it was too tight. Her face swelled red as she struggled for air. Scarlett stepped back as the shadow rope dissolved, her hands flying to her face in horror. “I’m so sorry.” Sage gasped, her normal color returning to her skin. She stepped back as she panted.

Her glare softened, and she sighed. “You can’t follow your instinct to use the dark magic. You lose control every time you do.” Scarlett nodded. She knew it was true. But the darkness inside sang to her. When she consciously chose her magic, she would focus on the light or her newly strengthened connection to the earth. But when she had to act on reflex, her body chose the darkness every time. It yearned to be unleashed. The longer she went without using it, the more it bubbled inside her, hot and fierce.

Sage stepped toward Scarlett and rested her hand on her shoulder. “You can do this. You are the most powerful being I’ve ever seen. Your magic belongs to you and you can control it.” A half-grin rose on Scarlett’s lips. She’d always liked Sage, but in the past two months, she’d become one of her closest friends. Unlike so many others, she didn’t treat Scarlett like she was some fragile piece of crystal that would shatter under the slightest pressure. Quite the opposite. Sage pushed her past her limits, expanding her magical awareness a little more each day. “You want to go again?” Sage asked as she pulled back her hand.

Scarlett shook her head. “I think that’s enough for today.” As her grasp on her magic grew, defeating Sage had grown easier. It was a good sign, one that should be encouraging. But the stronger Scarlett grew, the more dangerous she became. Any time the darkness overwhelmed her, she was a bomb ready to explode at the first spark. She admired Sage for showing up every morning, no matter the risk to her own safety. “I’ll head inside shorty,” Scarlett said. After Sage disappeared around the corner, Scarlett headed toward the gardens to visit her friends’ graves. It wasn’t as if she was embarrassed to be seen heading there, but she didn’t want to see the looks of sympathy that had followed her like shadows since their deaths.

At first, she found herself drawn to the graves at least three times a day. For a week, she spent her days reading every book on death she could find in the castle’s library. With as much magic as she had, there had to be a way to bring them back. But if there was, she couldn’t find it. If they’d been Sidhe, they’d have had to pass through the Darkland, which, with Morta as its ruler, would have been a fate worse than death. Scarlett didn’t even dare imagine what she’d have done to them there. They’d have been the perfect leverage against her. Not a lot had gone right lately, but Teddy and Natalie moving on somewhere else was something to be incredibly grateful for. Wherever humans went when they died, it had to be better than that. It wasn’t much, but it gave Scarlett a small amount of peace.

These days, she’d take what she could get. Any more darkness and she wasn’t sure she could control it as well as she had been, which wasn’t even all that well. As she walked to the graves, the sunshine tingled her skin. Her new connection to the earth around her gave her calmness. Today was still. There was no breeze and, except for the chirping of a bluebird whose nest rested in the tree beside the graves, no sound. Scarlett welcomed the quiet. The thoughts in her head were always so loud. Silence was a nice change. She rarely wore fancy gowns these days, instead opting for fighting leathers.

Her biggest priority was training, not something as easily accomplished in a dress. Scarlett held her breath as she approached Natalie’s grave first. She bent down and, using her magic, plucked a yellow flower from a nearby plant and brought it to her hand. She sniffed the sweet bulb before gently setting it onto the earth. Next, she moved to Teddy’s grave and did the same thing. Some days, she spoke to them, reminiscing about the good memories. But thinking of the pleasant times stabbed her like knives, causing the darkness inside her to buzz. Other days, she apologized for their unfair ends. Even if they couldn’t hear it, pouring out her regrets soothed her. Today, she said nothing, instead letting the silence hug her like a blanket.

K C H A P T E R T W O aelem’s skin tickled as he evanesced back to the palace. He’d been outside the Unseelie City visiting the army training facility. More recruits were showing up every day, men and women alike, ready to fight to protect their court. Kaelem had held off sharing the threat they faced as long as he could, but after Morta killed Ankou, he couldn’t wait any longer. Lola sent out a notice to every Unseelie fae in the city that war was coming. Kaelem’s body appeared in the palace lounge, where someone with a familiar face sat on the couch waiting for him: Laik. “An unexpected visitor,” Kaelem said as he walked behind the bar to make a drink. He was thankful so many of his people were willing to sacrifice themselves for their court, but knowing that many Unseelie fae might die in the war ahead was not an easy knowledge to bear. “Hopefully not an unwelcome one,” Laik replied. Kaelem pulled out two glasses and popped open a new bottle of strong liquor.

“No, as surprising as it still seems, you are far from the top of the list of people I don’t want showing up in my palace.” He poured a shot of liquor into each glass then topped them with some juice before handing one to Laik and sitting in a chair across from him. “How is life as king treating you?” He hadn’t heard from the new Seelie King since Ankou’s death. Kaelem had sent a messenger to Laik, informing him of everything that had happened, requesting a formal, public declaration of the Seelie Court joining their alliance. After Genevieve’s death, Laik had told Scarlett he would join their cause, but since then, neither Kaelem nor Scarlett had heard from him. Laik sipped his drink with downcast eyes. His mind and aura were tightly locked from Kaelem’s view, but even a strong fae like him couldn’t hide the sadness in his face. Laik might have gained a crown, but he’d also lost a mother. Kaelem knew all too well the pain such a loss caused. After he swallowed, Laik peered up.

“It’s been…eventful.” Kaelem raised his glass. “Cheers to that.” Laik returned the gesture. “I received your message of the events of Ankou’s death. My spies tell me Morta is preparing an army with all four Faerie courts as well as all of her Otherworld creatures. I know it’s only a matter of time before the Seelie Court is dragged into the war, and I’d rather make that decision myself.” “So, you’re ready to fight with us?” “Yes. My army has doubled in size in the last two weeks and all the soldiers are dedicating their days to intense training.” Laik set his drink, now half-empty, on the coffee table.

“The Fates will pay for everything they have done.” With their gift of sight, the Fates had shared their predictions for centuries. Those predictions had consequences, and now, after learning of their selfish motives, a lot of pain could be attributed to them. Kaelem’s mother had taken their word that his father was in danger. Had they kept their vision of the future to themselves, would she still be alive? Kaelem sipped his drink again, pushing any what-ifs out of his mind. They were pointless. The past couldn’t be undone, but he and his allies could do everything in their power to defeat the remaining two Fates. “Very well,” Kaelem said. “I’ll let Scarlett know. I’m sure she’ll be pleased.

” “How is she?” Laik glanced at his drink as if the question was casual, but Kaelem sensed the deeper curiosity beneath his words. It came as no surprise that he wondered how Scarlett was faring. She was his daughter, after all. One of many surprises Kaelem had learned about the new Seelie King. With Genevieve now dead, Laik might be one of the oldest fae alive, which made his involvement with Scarlett’s human mother even more surprising. “She is growing stronger every day. The ritual Ankou performed before his daughter killed him for his power gave Scarlett even more magic. With war on the horizon, more power should be a good thing, but I worry that the more magic she has, the harder it will be for her to control it.” Laik nodded, sighing as he inhaled a deep breath. “She is a strong woman.

I’m sure, with time, she will be able to manage it all.” Kaelem tapped his finger on the chair arm. Normally, animosity between the Unseelie and Seelie Courts ran high, and words needed to be selected carefully. Rumor had it, a war between the two had once started over a nasty look. But those were different times, with no mutual enemy to bind the courts together, giving Kaelem room to press Laik with a few questions. “Curiosity has the best of me, and I can’t help but ask how you ended up with a mortal daughter.” Even if Scarlett had always been half-fae, the Seelie Court never acknowledged anyone as true fae unless their blood was pure. Would that remain the same under Laik’s rule? A smirk rose on Laik’s lips as he raised his gaze to Kaelem. “A Seelie and Unseelie King having drinks while talking about mortals. Oh, how times have changed.

” He lifted his glass again and, with one long drink, finished the liquid. “Although the Seelie Court doesn’t mingle as often with mortals, it has always been prudent about keeping up-todate with the ongoings of the human world. Its technology has grown exponentially over the last century, and the Seelie Queen was always worried that, someday, the humans would find a way to neutralize the playing field with the fae. To some, such a prediction would seem outlandish, but Genevieve didn’t remain queen for so long by ignoring potential threats. “So, she sent me to learn more about the human world. One town in particular, Silver Lake, held magical energy, which led me to believe if the humans were working on a secret weapon, it might be there,” Laik said. Kaelem finished his drink and, using magic, sent it to the bar counter. “And were they?” “Eventually, I found humans who were aware of our existence, but I never found any weapons. I did, however, see a beautiful, pregnant, human woman leaving the grocery store with a purse slung across her shoulder and two handfuls of grocery bags. As she walked to her car, one of the bags ripped open and its contents dropped to the ground.

I couldn’t stop myself from going to her. The least I could do was help her to her car.” “Ah, love at first sight?” Laik smiled. “I don’t know if you could call it love right then, but after meeting her, I couldn’t stay away.” “And what did your mother think of your affection toward a human?” Kaelem knew the answer—the Seelie Queen was kept blissfully unaware—but he wanted to know how Laik had kept such a secret. “Even though I couldn’t find a weapon there, I pretended I had a lead so I could keep going back. Scarlett’s mother was about to have her first child alone, and I told myself I would stay until she’d had the baby. Then I decided I could help her for the first few days. Which turned into weeks, then months, until eventually, she carried Scarlett in her womb.”

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