Prince Lucien d’Malvane looks at me with the steady gaze of a wolf across a meadow. Waiting. Waiting for the others of his pack to join him. For me to join him. And I look back at him, with six eyes Weeping blood. His sister, Varia d’Malvane, waits for me, too. They’re mirror images of each other—sheaves of midnight hair, skin like the summer sun when it sets. Profiles of marble, of hawk and owl. She stands poised and triumphant while her brother, the only boy I’ve ever loved, barely stands at all. He pants, haggard. He protected us from the Bone Tree’s explosion with all his fledgling magic, with witchfire that melted every bit of snow off this half-demolished mountain peak. He’s a witch. But Varia’s one, too. She’s so still, it’s as if she isn’t breathing. Perhaps she doesn’t need to any longer, what with the valkerax-tooth choker around her neck—and all the Bone Tree’s power it holds as hers to command.
To her, that choker means power. She’d faked her death, leaving behind her parents and brother. When she returned, she had me train Evlorasin—one of the massive valkerax—to suppress its hunger by Weeping. She bribed, killed, threatened for this moment. For her, that choker means everything. It means the culmination of five years of striving. Of blood. Of mercilessness and hope and everything in between. But to me, it looks like little more than a fancy shackle. Malachite and Fione stare up at the Bone Tree swaying behind the crown princess.
It’s the only noise that dares to break the air—the rattling of the strung valkerax bones that form its bleached branches, its white roots, and its smooth trunk. And from behind the tree, they rise. The massive, twisting pillar of alive things, of bright white gargantuan wyrms in the hundreds, sways beyond the mountain peak Varia stands on. Just behind her, like a throne. A support beam. A terrible spine reaching all the way from the depths of the Dark Below and into the sky. They’re soundless. Or, at least, they’re so far away you can’t hear anything, not the scratch of scales I’m used to from Evlorasin, not the hungry shrieks and growls I know well. No, these valkerax are completely given over to the song. The hunger.
The madness. They’re frothing, screaming, their fanged maws snapping with rage as they scrabble over one another, desperate to obey the Bone Tree’s commands. Varia’s commands. But on the mountain, we hear nothing. There’s only the four of us, only one of us still human, all of us puffing exhausted clouds into the bitterly cold air as we watch the pillar extend. Grow. From raging hundreds to feverish thousands. Curling around one another, making a tower of their bodies through sheer frenzy. Utter silence. None of us knows what to do, to say, in the face of thousands of starving valkerax clawing for the clouds.
It’s the sort of silence that echoes, trilling bells of terror in my hollow chest. Varia has what she wants. But where’s my heart? What I want? I can feel it. I can feel her power surging through me like booze poured down a throat on a cold winter’s night, like a flame burning up a line of oil and snaking through dry grass. The emptiness in my chest burns with her magic, every inch of void set aflame. It’s beyond me. It’s beyond anything I’ve ever felt—and I’m Weeping. I’m supposed to be in the center of stillness, untouchable by my witch. By her. But she can touch me.
She is, right now. Her magic, her influence…it’s reaching me. More than that—it’s lying on me with its full weight, making it hard to breathe, to move a muscle. She could. Those two words echo shrilly in my skull. A static shot of fear runs down my spine, and I realize she could. With the sheer brute power of the Bone Tree behind her, she might be able to command me through the Weeping. My one ace, gone. My one scrap of control, of independence. Gone.
As always, I’m the first to do the most foolish thing. “Varia!” I step forward, the mud and slush from the melted snow seeping into my boots. “My heart! Give it to me!” Every word rings out easily in the empty air. Varia’s onyx-shine eyes narrow imperceptibly, her smile eternal. She oozes around the Bone Tree’s trunk, sliding her hand along it as she goes. Like she has all the time in the world. Like the world can wait for her. “We did have a deal, didn’t we?” She laughs softly. “And you’ve been so very loyal. Which is more than can be said for who you used to be.
Or for most.” Her eyes slide over to Fione, who flinches back violently, palms hitting mud to stabilize. It’s selfish; I know it is. Fione’s hurt, inside and out, and Malachite’s bleeding from the claw wounds on his face. Wounds I gave him. Lucien’s exhausted—even now, he struggles to stand, boots squelching hopelessly as he tries to get purchase in the mud. But Varia’s fresh. Varia’s new. Her face practically glows, her raven hair sleeker and shinier than ever before, as if she’s eaten and slept well for a compounded million years. She cares for Fione and Lucien, I know that, but the hard glint in her eyes as she looks between her brother and her lover is new and strange and I don’t like it.
A wildcat’s look. Every instinct in me screams of danger. She may love them. But the Bone Tree inside her—around her neck—might not. The pillar of valkerax doesn’t stop moving—a tornado of wyrm flesh climbing ever higher. Why are they going so high up? “Zera!” Lucien barks suddenly. Heat. My Weeping senses feel a spot of heat behind me. My head snaps back just in time to see black hair and then an arm lacing around my neck from behind. Casually.
Leisurely. Varia holding me, as if she’s embracing a friend. I can’t move. Every inch of muscle is suddenly granite in tar. It’s her magic. It has to be. “Zera.” Varia’s voice is calm, her breath on my ear. “You’ve done so well.” “Get—” Lucien scrambles in the mud, managing to rise to his knees.
“Get away from her!” Who does he mean? She from me or me from her? I can’t turn my head, but I can feel it. I can feel her eyes burning out at him. Malachite gets it first. He always does—faster instincts than me. He moves for Lucien, pulling Fione along by the hand, the two of them sliding in front of the prince. Fione’s shaking too badly to hold her crossbow cane up, but Malachite raises his broadsword in front of him, in front of all of them. Defensive, waiting, even as his milk-white fingers tremble around the handle. I’ve seen him stare down a fully grown valkerax charging at him, but now is when his rubyred eyes hint fear. “Give me—” I move my numb lips. “My heart.
” “Is that all you want?” Varia asks innocently. “You could have anything, Zera. I’m the most powerful witch in the world now. Those High Witch fools, their eclipseguard, even my father, his entire army, every army on the Mist Continent—no one can stop me. Not anymore. With your Weeping and my power—we could carve the world anew. We could lay the foundation for what no king or empress or council in all of history could: peace. Real, lasting peace.” “My…heart…” I grit out. “Just think, Zera,” she implores harder.
“Think beyond yourself. No war means no more Heartless. No more Heartless like you would have to be made. No one else would suffer as you have. Wouldn’t that be worth it? Isn’t that what you want—to stop the hunger? What if you could do it for everyone, forever? Make it go away once and for all, eternally?” Forever? For everyone? My eyes unsplit—six points of vision condensing suddenly into two. Pain and anger flood into me, the stillness of the Weeping draining away like a stabbed waterskin. The hunger comes crawling back, too, pulling itself out of the peaceful abyss claw by claw. you can never be rid of me. you and I—one and the same. never one without the other.
we grew you. we shelter you. we make you whole. “Zera—” Lucien starts, making it to his feet shakily with the help of Malachite’s shoulders. “Varia, let her go—” “I’ll give you what no witch has ever truly given you, Zera. A choice,” Varia says patiently, stroking a strand of my hair idly. “Come with me now and change the world. Or stay here while I move on, and spend the rest of your unlife screaming into oblivion at the top of this mountain.” She means to leave me. To leave me here, while the radius between us that’s required for me to function as a Heartless breaks.
A Heartless can’t exist outside of their witch’s radius. It’s only a mile and a half, but thanks to my locket, that length is extended. But she could still go far beyond it. I’d be stuck here forever, screaming soundlessly in mind-bending pain, no consciousness or feelings or senses at all. “Zera, say her name.” Lucien staggers toward us, fingertips going pitch-black as he conjures up magic. “Say her witch name, and I can free you—” “Why would you want that?” Varia laughs in my ear. “Why would you want her, Lucien? She betrayed you over and over again. She’s loyal only to her heart. Even now, she begs for it.
A girl like her, selfish to the last, would never be loyal to you.” “Loyalty,” Lucien grits out, black eyes searing, “is not a requirement to protect someone.” My chest swells. This is him. That is him, in one proud sentence. Selfless. Willing to stand for me, at the end of all things. I feel the thick blood tears on my face cut by something thinner, watery. Real tears. Human tears.
My mouth moves, but magic surges through me faster than I can think. “Don’t,” Varia commands, her voice dark. “Don’t speak.” The words almost bring me to my knees. Sledgehammers, beating on me over and over, forcing my lips into a single closed seam. It’s so powerful I’m dazed, blinking in the bright light of the mountain, the shadow of the valkerax pillar swaying over me. Us. Him. Lucien. My head rings.
My tongue’s still, my lips obeying and unmoving. But my teeth—I don’t use my teeth to speak, and they care not for the command. I bite until I taste blood, sharp pain. “Lau—” “Don’t!” Varia snarls harder. The sledgehammers turn to boulders, a landslide, to a cascade waterfalling down and pulverizing me to nothing more than bruised lumps of flesh. And in the bloody wake, the creeping fear settles in—if Lucien becomes my witch, it’s just another person who will use my heart against me. Another witch commanding me. Chained to another, to be used for his ends, his goals. My own heart and own memories and own life still beyond my reach. He reaches his hand out, all his fingers dark with magic now, the effort of standing quaking his knees.
But still, he stands. Still, he waits. I look up at his soft face, the shadow of the valkerax swaying over him. Light, dark, light, dark. “Whatever happens, Zera,” he murmurs through cold-ravaged lips, “whatever you choose, I’ll always be here for you.” will you? The hunger laughs. or are you only brave and good now to get what you want, little prince? If I become his Heartless, he could command me. He could do anything he wanted to me, and I wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it. he could hurt you. He could hurt me.
he could use you. He could use me. he could destroy you. He could destroy me. “Don’t be naive.” Varia laughs in my ear. “You know best of all that love is worth nothing. No one stays. Look at my brother—he’s turned on me. His own flesh and blood he loves so much.
Look at Fione—she betrayed me, and we were meant to be married. Love never stays. But power, Zera— power does. Changing the world permanently, enduringly, means more than love ever will.” The Weeping’s fading so fast, her magic flooding back in to fill the gaps. Lucien stands there, eyes silk—strong and steady—and waits. Just waits. He looks ready. He looks…at peace. Whatever I choose, he’ll be here for me.
The valkerax pillar sways closer over his face, and I look up in dawning horror. Not up. They’re not going up. They’re going across. The pillar of valkerax bends at the midpoint, falling through the air and toward us, toward the mountain, with screaming velocity. A bridge. It’s going to form a bridge—right at Varia’s feet. I feel Varia’s blazing magic stutter for a split second, a streak of panic in her as it flares out of her control, and she unhands me, her fingers going dark as she tries desperately to rein it back in. “No!” she snarls up at the falling pillar. “Not yet!” But the valkerax don’t care.
They’re coming, plummeting to earth like fallen birds, growing bigger and bigger. My Weeping is almost gone, the peaceful void growing smaller and smaller. It’s now or never. she is safer. The hunger tries one last, desperate, honest attempt. you know what she’ll do to you. but him…you have no idea. unsafe, chaos, a gamble, a danger— I’ve been afraid. I’ve fought a valkerax, I’ve lived among a human court who’d love nothing more than to burn me alive. I’ve fought off the first mercenary from Nightsinger’s woods, shaking and clutching my sword.
Fear never means nothing—not even when you’re immortal. There’s always the fear of pain. Without death, the fear of pain is the only thing you have left. The only thing that anchors you to the world, to the cycle of life and death like everyone else. One foot in agony, the other in the never-grave. Fear means everything. Fear is all I have. I’ve never, in my entire life, been more afraid than the moment the words tumble from my lips. “Laughing Daughter!”