“I sent my clan into the White Mansion, to the king’s true library, and had them bring me every book and object of interest they could find. The castle, as you’ll soon see, is stuffed with books and bottles and potions and endless artifacts that we’ve transported to Draoidheacht Keep. Heed me well, touch none of it. They’re not your usual books and bottles and such. Dani can tell you a thing or two about what might be found in the king’s collection.” He laughed. “Ask her about the Boora Boora books. But don’t ask her about the Crimson Hag, and no matter what you do, once you arrive at my castle, bloody hell, don’t open any bottles you might see lying around.”
“If they’re so dangerous, why did you bring them out into our world?”
“Many might prove useful. Knowledge is power. So is power,” he said dryly. “A controllable Crimson Hag would be a hell of an advantage. I don’t sleep, Kat, I study. I learn about myself, about the Fae race. I prepare. The gods and Fae are going to war again, and that battle could well destroy our world. The gods want humans eradicated, the Fae want humans enslaved. It’s a lose-lose for us either way.”
I said, “What does this have to do with Sean? I’m assuming it ties in somehow?”
“We, too, were made dramatically more powerful by the ancient melody. It was months before the full transformation occurred for me, and yet another few months after that for Sean. I suspect it’s moved slowly for the Seelie, as well. We all change at our own unique pace. I’ve learned to control what I’ve become. But Sean, ah lass, your Sean has not. And he must. He’s running out of time.”
* * *
We arrived at the perimeter of Christian’s heavily warded kingdom just before dawn. He’d carved apart fifty thousand acres of the Highlands for his own, and begun repairing and fortifying the enormous, ancient castle he’d christened Draoidheacht Keep. It was in that great, sprawling castle he and Sean lived, in the finished parts of the crumbling ruin. As we soared over a final ben, Christian said, “Brace yourself, lass, it’s not pretty.”
Even prepared, I was stunned by the vision that greeted us as we cleared that final ben, broke through clouds and soared over his kingdom.
Everywhere I looked, the earth was black.
Gone was the lush greenery, the abundant profusion of foliage and life. Beneath an endless bank of low-hanging, dense, rumbling thunderclouds that stretched as far as my eye could see—a churning, crashing dark gray roof—the earth was burnt and barren, as if it had been charred to a crisp.
“What happened here, Christian?” I gasped, clinging more tightly to his shoulders as an icy gust blasted me. It was uncommonly cold, too. The temperature had plummeted thirty to forty degrees the moment we crossed the harsh line of demarcation
“Months after the Song was sung, I took a flight through the Highlands, savoring the beauty. I’d only just begun to embrace my wings. I was in a buoyant mood that day and decided to take a stroll, visit our local pub for a wee dram before returning to Castle Keltar. I walked the last few miles, enjoying an unusual gentle hum I felt in the earth. It seemed to be seeping up through the soles of my boots, into my skin, deep into my bones. It felt good, Kat, a beautiful rhythmic vibration enlivening me. I didn’t understand what was happening, didn’t realize a dormant part of me was responding to the new magic in the earth, awakening. That I was becoming the Prince of Death who’d once existed three-quarters of a million years ago. When I strolled into the Cock and Crown that day, one hundred forty-two people—my people, under Keltar care—exploded into clouds of black dust before my eyes. I killed every single person in that pub, merely by entering it. Had I returned home instead of going for a drink, I’d have killed my entire clan, with the sole exception of Dageus.”
I flinched. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’ve spent the past two years scouring tomes from the king’s library, seeking information about what I am, what power I have and how to use it. It’s not as if I have anyone to ask. The Seelie would prefer us dead. Barring that, they want us on their very short leash, to be used as weapons. There are no Unseelie left to educate me.”
“But don’t you sort of just know what you can do?” My gift was simple, it slammed me in the face every day. Since the Song was sung, it had grown even more potent, but thanks to time spent with Kasteo, I’d learned how to make and hold walls, Kevlar myself in emotional armor. Before I slept each night, I deliberately and carefully walled the world out, creating a blessed fortress of silence for myself, so I might face the next day rejuvenated, strong.
“Not until I try,” Christian said. “And often I’m not trying to do anything at all. The power manifests without my consent, like the day I strolled into the pub. Shortly after I imprisoned myself here, your Sean joined me. He’s Famine. Wherever he walks, the earth dies, crops wither, the soil goes barren; in time enough, the world would starve. The same thing happened to him that occurred with me: he felt something seeping up from the soil and, as he walked, the earth around him began to die. Unlike me, he hasn’t been able to contain that power.”
I winced. “It was Sean who destroyed this land?”
“Aye. He tests himself, strolls out to a strip of what blanched green remains when he thinks he’s ready to try again. Each time he destroys the earth, he returns angrier, grows more bitter. Anger and bitterness aren’t emotions an Unseelie prince can indulge without catastrophic results.”
“What is that? Who lives there?” I exclaimed. He’d soared us far to the north as we’d talked, and we now glided directly above the line of demarcation where the perimeter of his blackened kingdom met lush green again. I’d seen something like it before, the abrupt transition where the Shades had devoured everything in sight as they’d approached our abbey, but had stopped for reasons unknown.
On the charred land to my right stood a small thatch-roofed crofter’s cottage in the midst of lifeless earth. On the grassy side, directly adjacent to it, was another small crofter’s cottage of stone that was welcoming and warm, surrounded by neatly tended gardens where flowers bloomed.
The cottages were day and night, yin and yang, huddled next to each other. Far below us a couple walked on the grassy side, near the cottage, holding hands.
“That’s Dageus and Chloe. He lives within my wards. She lives just beyond them. I’ve warded the fuck out of her cottage, too, but will not permit her inside my kingdom, lest we inadvertently harm her.”
“You came into our abbey yet killed no one. I felt you, Christian. You have it under control.”
“There is no ward, no charm, no magic solution to harnessing a prince’s deadly powers. What I used to master it is the simplest yet often the most elusive thing of all: love. If I grow angry, if I allow myself any negative emotion at all, I can slip,” he said quietly. “The key to success is never being bitter, never being angry, never coveting, never succumbing to any kind of desire that contains darkness. Your Sean, lass, he’s consumed by it.”
I blinked back a swift burn of tears. I’d wondered, so many nights, in my private garden of silence at the end of each day, where my childhood love had gone. Why he’d never texted or called. He’d simply walked away, without another word. It had pained me almost beyond enduring.
Yet, all this time, Sean had been holed up in isolation, warded away from the world, trying to learn to control the Unseelie monster he’d become. All this time, I’d thought he’d left me because he didn’t want me, didn’t want us. And so, I’d given him his privacy. I’d not texted or called either. Stung, hurt. McLaughlin-stubborn and unyielding.
But that wasn’t why he’d left at all. Sometimes, despite the open window I have into everyone else’s emotions, I can be blind and foolish about my own. “Take me to him, Christian.”
“I hoped you’d say that.”
Crawling in my skin, these wounds they will not heal
I LOST ONE OF MY birds this morning.
His name was Charles James Aubry. He was twenty-three. He hung himself in my flat on Desoto after only nine days off the streets. I just dropped in on him three days ago and even I’d been fooled.
But I’ve seen many come and go and I’ve learned a bit about their ways; sometimes right before they check out, they seem better than ever, well-adjusted. Not giddy or tip-you-off kind of happy, but misleadingly balanced, and I wonder about that borrowed grace. Wonder about the enormous amount of pain they must be suffering to finally feel okay only when they decide to opt out of this crazy, beautiful world. You don’t see it coming, not even me. Although I’ve learned to watch for an unexpected, suspicious peace.