Chapter no 12

A Dawn of Onyx

The ride back was a thousand times worse than the ride into the woods. After lending me his shirt to wring out my wet hair, Kane and I dressed quickly and made our way through the woods, less clothed than we

had been before.

He was such a miserable prick. Playful and charming and surprisingly caring when he chose to be, but as selfish as they came. I kicked myself internally for wasting a plea for my freedom on him.

To make matters infinitely worse, I couldn’t take my mind off the bastard’s slick chest as it stuck to my back, my dress pooled around my middle so my chemise could dry. His hands held the reins in front of me innocently enough, but watching him grasp the leather straps was so sensual it made my toes curl. I was acutely aware of his controlled breathing on the back of my neck and swore I could feel his heart hammering against my shoulder blade. The way our legs were spread in tandem over the sides of the saddle felt disturbingly erotic and I kept having to pull my wandering mind back from downright filthy places.

I was furious with the man. So, so furious. But I also wanted to lick his neck. It was complicated.

Our horse sidestepped quickly to avoid a fallen log, and Kane’s hand splayed tightly against my stomach to hold me in place against him. His pinky just barely grazed my lower stomach, but I felt the sensation in my core, and a deep need grew within me. Kane’s chest expanded, and he let out a shaky breath before removing his hand, as if my thin, wet chemise was soaked in fire.

Thankfully, we reached the castle soon after, and Kane dismounted faster

than I’d ever seen the man do anything, and we had quite literally just been sprinting. I thought he might have adjusted himself while I got down from the horse, but I averted my eyes.

“Well, thanks,” I said, and turned on my heel to head into the keep. “Arwen,” he called after me. “Wait!”

I tried to will the red from my cheeks, before peeking behind me, only to see that he was bringing me my boots. My eyes fell to my bare toes.

“I don’t think you meant to go in there barefoot, but I know better than to tell you what to do.”

“Thank you.” A thought struck me, my head now clear from whatever had clouded it on our ride. “I didn’t get to ask you my question.”

Amusement flashed in his silver eyes. “I thought you might have forgotten. Go ahead.”

There were so many things I could ask. Why did you declare war in the first place? Why was Griffin upset with you today? Who were you talking to in the dungeon that first night? For someone that has an entire kingdom to take care of, you are supremely selfish. I guess that last one wasn’t a question.

But what I really wanted to know toppled out of my mouth like a rock rolling down a mountainside.

“Why do you allow everyone—your own subjects, those across all of Evendell—to think you are such a monster?”

Kane’s brows shot up in surprise. “You don’t think that anymore?”

I answered honestly. “I’m not sure, but you definitely play into the persona.”

His jaw ticked, but his eyes were thoughtful, not angry. He sighed, looking toward the now cloudy sky above us. Then his eyes dropped down to me.

“Most of the rumors I’d imagine you’ve heard about me are true. I don’t allow vulnerability to get in the way of my duties.”

For some reason, his words were like a slap. “So, you see compromise, mercy, love… as vulnerability? Weakness?”

He seemed to be trying very hard not to roll his eyes. His jaw tensed.

“Yes, actually. Kings who are ruled by emotion make decisions that hurt their people. My only job is to keep my kingdom safe.”

“King Gareth is a kind and just king,” I said, lifting my chin. “He keeps his people safe and is always merciful. He allows them a choice.”

Kane’s jaw hardened. “I’ve never forced my people to join my army.”

My protest went stale in my mouth. But he continued, stepping close enough that a single breath separated us.

“And does he keep his people safe?” His eyes seared into mine. “You’re here, aren’t you? A captive of his greatest enemy. Gareth is a sniveling worm.”

I fisted my hands at my sides. “You are needlessly cruel.”

He stepped back, an unkind laugh escaping him. “There’s just so much you don’t know.”

“Then tell me.”

He sighed, but when his eyes found mine again, they looked almost wounded. “How many times do I have to tell you—I can’t.”

I clenched my jaw. “I guess trust is another one of those pesky weaknesses you don’t like to indulge in.”

My heart raged in my chest. What was I doing? Standing out here, arguing with him once again? Taking his secrecy personally? He didn’t owe me anything.

I needed serious help.

I stormed off toward the keep and tried not to feel anything when he didn’t call after me.


My stomach made a gurgling sound as I took the stairs two at a time to meet Mari in the great hall. The castle was eerily beautiful at night, faint music and the hum of suppertime chatter floating through the halls. I hadn’t eaten anything since returning from the Shadow Woods last night, opting instead to crawl into bed and drown out my thoughts in a restless sleep. And a fidgety morning. And anxious afternoon—

It was evening now, and I was starving.

“I finally found a book on Faeries, but it was all children’s stories,” Mari huffed, blowing one red curl out of her face once I had caught up to her in line for dinner. She was fascinated with Fae lore, but there was very little reading material on the beings. Some books claimed the creatures were a myth altogether. Mari wasn’t sure yet.

“Why not go back to your research on witches? I thought you were enjoying that. Dagan should have that grimoire translated soon, right?” Maybe he could help me get the burrowroot on the night of the eclipse. He seemed willing to help Mari, and he was kind enough to teach me sword fighting.

I stepped aside, allowing a group of handsome young soldiers to bypass us. Mari looked lovely in her blue dress and black Onyx bow. Each of the young men eyed her thoroughly, but Mari didn’t seem to notice.

She only rolled her eyes at me. “Witches are far less interesting. Everything we think we know about the Fae—the wings, the pointed ears, the claws—might not even be accurate. The fact that I can’t find a single definitive text is making me bonkers. Witches are just women who can master a few spells. It’s boring, honestly.” She chewed her lip.

I narrowed my eyes at her.

“What are you not telling me?”

“Nothing!” But the deafening pitch of her voice said otherwise. We stood there in rare silence until finally we were served our brisket. Tender, caramelized, and smelling of spice and sweetness—I couldn’t wait to stuff my face. We sat down in a corner lit by both lantern flames and fireflies that sometimes drifted into the hall from the courtyard. Their flickering glow danced across Mari’s preoccupied eyes.

“If you aren’t going to tell me what’s really going on with you, how am I supposed to tell you about the disaster that was the day I spent with the king yesterday?” I feigned genuine puzzlement and took a huge bite.

“What? When?”

I shook my head as I chewed.

“Fine,” she relented. “I’m trying out some spells and have not had… much luck.”

My mouth hung open. Mari was a witch?

She had said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world, but only those with a witch or warlock in their ancestry could practice witchcraft. Magic wasn’t uncommon, but I had only met a handful of witches in my life, their spells used for crafting or cooking, sometimes to make sleeping potions or tonics for luck that only worked half the time. Though I imagined, knowing what I did of Mari, she didn’t intend to perform such common witchcraft, but rather, something far more impressive. Far more powerful.

“I finally figured out how to fix the issue, but it’s a little tricky.” I got the feeling admitting defeat physically pained her.

But I was still hung up on the magic part. “Spells? You have witch lineage?”

She nodded. “My mother was a witch.”

Mari hadn’t spoken much of her mother, and for someone who talked as much as she did, there must have been a reason it was a sore subject. I wanted to know why and what she was keeping from me but swallowed my curiosity. I wasn’t ready to tell her about Powell yet, so it didn’t feel fair to pry.

“How can I help?” I asked instead.

Mari shook her head. “There’s nothing you can do.”

“Come on, I’m happy to be a test subject. Want to try a wakefulness spell on me? I’m exhausted.”

She laughed, then chewed on her lip, and I knew if I waited there was a good chance she would open up. I had a suspicion that secrets didn’t last very long in Mari’s internal vault.

Finally, she caved as I had hoped. “All right. What I need is Briar’s amulet. It’s a relic that belonged to one of the greatest witches in history, Briar Creighton. She lived hundreds of years ago, but she’s still alive today, as fair and youthful as she ever was. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. She put quite a bit of her sorcery into this locket before she was rumored to gift it to… Well, you can guess.”

I already feared the answer. “King Kane Ravenwood?”

“Yes! Apparently, they were lovers when he was young.”

“Of course they were.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. I wasn’t judging Kane for sleeping with a hundred-year-old witch who probably didn’t look a day over my age, but still. I suddenly had a terrible headache. “So you want me to ask him for it?”

Mari’s eyes nearly jumped from her head. “No! Holy Stones, Arwen, of course not. He’d never give that to you, or to me.”

I heaved a sigh of relief. Thank the Stones, because I was done with anything related to—

“I want to steal it from his study.”

Now it was my eyes that bulged. “Tell me you aren’t serious.” “You asked me to be honest with you,” she said with a shrug.

I massaged my temples. My headache was becoming a full-blown migraine.

“It’s too dangerous,” I said. “King Ravenwood would have your head for far less.”

“He’ll never know. He’s out in the woods today—the blacksmith told me this morning in the library. It’s the perfect time.” She bit at her lip, before turning her pleading eyes on me. “The only time.”

Guilt squeezed my stomach. I had pushed Mari to be honest with me. We had only been friends for a few weeks, but I knew with absolute certainty that she was going to enact this idiotic plan with or without me. And truthfully, I felt braver now than I ever had before. I had survived a lot worse than sneaking into a study.

“I’m going to do it either way,” Mari said, as if she could read my thoughts.

“All right, fine,” I conceded. “What’s your plan?”

Mari’s answering smile was so pure, so joyous it pulled a reluctant grin to my cheeks as well, despite my exhaustion, and fear that this would be a complete disaster.

“It’ll be easy,” she beamed. “And then you’ll tell me all about your day with the king. Follow me.”

“Now?” I said, but she was already up and bounding down out of the

great hall. I cursed under my breath and shoved one last forkful into my mouth before following after her.

We leaped up the sprawling stone staircase, through the gallery above the courtyard, and past the apothecary, locked for the evening.

I wrestled to slow my shallow breathing as we walked with urgency. We’d be in and out in no time.

“How do you know the amulet is even real, let alone in his study?”

“I’ve lived here all my life, Arwen. I know every secret the castle has, and even a few the King himself doesn’t yet know about.”

Shoving away panic and nerves, we rounded yet another corner, and found ourselves in a passage I hadn’t been down before. It had the same sophisticated stonework and shadowed nooks and crannies as the rest of the keep, but was narrower and filled with fewer lanterns. As if to tell guests, this hallway isn’t for you.

At the end were two ornate doors, covered in inky, iron filigree, guarded by stoic sentries. But Mari led us past them quickly, and around a final corner to a lone display case. Inside were treasures I could never have imagined, like wartime armor belonging to the original king of Onyx, encrusted diamonds and amethyst crowding along the metal-like teeth. Below that, a gangly amphibian creature with delicate lace wings suspended in some kind of preservative. And further below, a massive harpy’s talon, taller and wider than me altogether.

Every day in this kingdom my understanding of this continent—this world—expanded.

“Come on,” she whispered, pulling me from the enchanting artifacts in the glass case.

I spun, looking around. “There’s nothing here.”

Mari murmured a phrase and, with a rumble I felt in my toes, the case that housed the unique items shifted and groaned, revealing a small enclave.

“What was that?” I whispered through clenched teeth.

“Secret password,” Mari said back, under her breath. “The door is spelled to only open when they’re uttered.”

How very surreptitious of Kane, having a hidden entry to his private

studies. Fitting for a man who prized his secrets above all else.

Mari slipped inside and I followed, heart a furious beat inside my chest.

It was like stepping into a jewelry box. An ornate rug—clearly from Garnet or Quartz due to its elaborate detail—spread below my feet, sprawling over the floor and underneath bookcases, statues, and a leather loveseat with intricately stitched plush pillows. A stone-wrapped fireplace holding logs still adorned with cooling embers like jewels. Vases overflowing with the chilling Onyx lilies and violets I had come to love. Moonlight filtered in through a domed glass ceiling that seemed to reach up and up without end. It must have been the inside of the spiral tip of the castle, a tall and pointed spire that pierced through the clouds.

And in the center of the dazzling nook, a large reading desk—wood the color of copper and with nearly as much shine, and a delicious black leather chair that begged to be sunk into with four clawed feet. The desk was laden with shiny books, worn scrolls and quills, even a leftover goblet cast aside still marked with the stain of wine.


“Yeah, I said that when I first saw it too.”

“You’ve been in here before?” Mari was more of a rebel than I would have guessed.

“Only once or twice,” she said, peeking through drawers and shelves. “Maybe a few more… After one of the kitchen maids spilled the passphrase to enter back when I was young, I’d sneak in every once in a while. He never used to come to Shadowhold anyway. I would just snoop around to see what treasures the king had collected. Or to hide from bullies.”

She said the last part so offhandedly I almost didn’t catch it. I wanted to press further, but she hurried herself over to a shelf filled with weathered texts and began to rifle through them.

“So, if you can get in so easily, why did you need my help?”

“I had heard rumors that when the king visited, he kept his pet in here. I thought I might need a spare pair of hands. But it looks like we’re alone, so this should be a breeze.”

Pet? The thought of Kane running around with a wide-eyed and scruffy

pup melted my heart. I physically shook the images out of my head, and my eyes landed on a small, unimpressive wooden door nestled in the corner.

“Where do you think that leads?”

“The king’s quarters. But I don’t have a way in there.”

I hummed my understanding, but my thoughts were elsewhere. There was something startlingly erotic about thinking of Kane’s bedroom. What he did in there when he was completely alone. How he slept, who he thought of. I tried not to shiver.

It probably looked like the dungeons or his throne room—all stone and steel. A dark, cold room for a dark, cold person.

I could hear Mari’s eye roll in her voice. “You are king-crazy.”

I flushed at the realization that I had been gazing longingly at a wooden door.

“All right,” she approached the desk. “Briar’s amulet, where are you?”

Before I could join her, a haunting cry, like a widow’s wail, cut through the room.

A scream lodged in my throat at the sound and Mari and I both whirled around, caught.

A feathered creature prowled out from behind the loveseat, stretching like it might have been asleep. It was a strange, gangly thing that stared back at us. Upon first glance, it seemed just like a large owl. But with closer inspection, I recoiled from beady, human-like eyes and bony shoulders that folded underneath its raven-feathered wings. It crept toward us with impish delight, lanky legs, and a twitching cock of its head. As if an owl had mated with an underfed, demonic child.

It halted, regarding us peculiarly, then squawked again, revealing rows and rows of pointed white teeth.

“Mari. Is that Kane’s ‘pet’?” My voice didn’t sound like my own.

“Yes, can you distract it? I’m almost done.” She was pushing through every drawer of the desk, rummaging for the locket. The owl-thing hooted again and stretched its clawed feet. Unblinking eyes bore into me, following my every move.

“Distract it? Mari!” I hissed.

“It’s just a strix. If it was going to eat us, it would have already.”

I released some of the tension in my locked-up knees and clenched jaw. “Oh. So they don’t eat humans?”

Her voice was an echo, the result of her head being deep underneath the cavity of the wood. “No, no. They absolutely do. But he hasn’t yet, so…”

I sucked in a shaking breath.

This woman was out of her mind.

“Good owl creature. What lovely fangs you have.” Was this distracting? I tried to speak affectionately, as I would have with Bells and Hooves back home. It came out harried and unhinged.

The creature only inched closer. Its eyes had gone predatory, the three spindly fingers of its ghoulish claws reaching outward. My breath was coming in uneven bursts.

“Mari, come on. Now.”

“Almost… done…” she grunted, her voice muffled.

The strix, still staring daggers into my soul, spread its wingspan wide, the feathers inky black and sleek as if they had been dipped in oil. I jumped backward at the sight.

“Ah! Found it.”

At Mari’s exclamation, the owl-like being flashed its teeth once more and charged at me.

Heart thumping in my ears, I ran for the secret entrance, burying myself against the wall and faintly making out Mari’s low hum behind me. The rush of wind at my back had me spinning around, and I watched as the strix shot up into the air with a strangled hoot, suspended there and thrashing.

Bleeding Stones.

I slumped with relief, supporting my body’s weight against the hidden door, and sucking in the musty air of the study.

“Are you doing that?” I motioned toward the strix, fighting to get back down from its hovering spot midair.

“Yes!” Mari cried, running over to me. A thin leather rope held a purple gem around her neck. “Holy Stones! I can feel her power, I can’t believe it.” “That is so great. I’m thrilled for you. But,” I looked up at the hovering

beast, angling down to swipe at us but unable to move. “What do we do about that? We can’t leave him up there.”

“Sure we can.”

I shot her a glare. “No, we can’t”

I couldn’t do that to Kane or the creature, no matter how much it had wanted to eat my eyeballs and feast on my flesh. At least, that was what I felt like it had been trying to communicate to me. “Bring him down, and we’ll run out before he can get us.”

Mari frowned but held the amulet tightly against her chest with determination. She focused on the swatting, squawking owl and began a haunting chant under her breath.

Seeing magic done was always awe-inspiring, even when I was shaking so hard my jaw hurt. The static wind, the slight hum in the air—our town dressmaker’s little spell to get a bottle of dye from a high shelf. A brief enchantment by a barkeep on a drunken patron to help him leave without trouble.

It had never looked as raw or visceral as what Mari was doing. She continued her chant, but the creature didn’t budge.

Mari and I exchanged a look of concern. The strix looked concerned as well, cocking his feathered head.

The thump of footsteps echoed through the wooden door—the one that led to Kane’s bedroom. All three of us whirled at the sound, and the filtered noises of men next door seeping inside.

Then, I heard his unmistakable voice, muffled through the door. “And Eryx seems pleased with our offer. We may have an ally yet. And just in the nick of time.”

“That’s a stretch.” Griffin’s voice.

“Oh, for Stone’s sake, Mari! Try again!” I hissed. I didn’t know what it said about me, but I was significantly more terrified of running into Kane than I was of death by strix.

“Always so upbeat, Commander. Can’t we have one meager success?”

Griffin scoffed through the wall. “Fine. But what about Amelia?”

Kane’s casual laugh carried through the door into my bones.

My face heated.

I did not want to hear more of their conversation. Mari’s face scrunched up as she continued to chant the spell, grasping at the amulet around her neck.

“Griff, do you honestly think, with all that is at stake right now, that—

The strix hooted loudly, flapping its staggering plumes against the magical strain.

Oh, Stones. My heart was in my throat. I was choking on it— We had to leave right now.

“What is that?” The thumps of guard’s boots were a steady rhythm from the King’s room heading toward us.

“Mari!” I hissed.

Suddenly Mari’s hold on the strix released and the creature fell halfway from the lofted ceiling to the ground, catching itself mere inches from the floor with outspread wings, and murder in its eyes. Mari and I slipped through the enclave right before the guards pushed in or the owl-like creature could have us for dinner.

We heaved twin sighs of relief in the hallway and walked as fast as looked natural in the other direction. When we rounded the corner, I was practically vibrating with anger.

“Mari. That was—”

“I am so sorry, Arwen,” she said before turning her chestnut eyes on me. “It was so dangerous and completely stupid. I can’t believe you agreed to it, honestly.”

I could feel my all too familiar headache returning.

“You almost got us killed,” I snipped. “How could you think—”

I snapped my mouth shut as we passed by two strolling sentries in the torchlit hall. Mari and I smiled—warm and broad and phony as charlatans.

They passed us and I readied myself to lay into her further, but she slowed at the gallery, looking down at the people milling about the courtyard below us.

She looked stricken.

Had the strix scared her that much?

“I had to get the amulet,” she said. Voice low like a secret. “I couldn’t fail,” she turned to face me, eyes grave. “Being good at things, knowledgeable about everything. I don’t know. It’s all I’m worth, I think.”

Irritation still prickled at my skin, but her words made my heart hurt, too. “Mari, that’s not true and you know it. How can you say that?”

“I didn’t have any friends here growing up. It’s an army stronghold for Stone’s sake. There were very few kids, and of them, the girls were sent to take classes in Willowridge, and the boys were taught to fight. I think Papa never sent me away because he didn’t want to be alone.”

The image of a small, lonely Mari, red curls taking up half her face, bullied by young boy soldiers and hiding in Kane’s ornate study, made me want to hug her.

“My mother died giving birth to me. I never knew her, but I knew from what Papa told me about her that she was a brilliant witch, and good at everything else she did. He was so enamored by her, and every day growing up he told me how alike we were.

“I loved reading, just like she did. It felt so good to have something that I could take pride in. Feeling like she and I were the same. Then, it didn’t matter what anyone thought of me. I had my mind, just like my mother, and that was all I needed. I was so afraid of failing at these spells, Arwen—at failing at something she was great at, that I had set my mind to—that I almost got us both killed. I am so profoundly sorry. I just didn’t know who I would be if I tried witchcraft and didn’t succeed.”

All the fury swept out of me like a snuffed candle. I could relate.

Maybe not to the incredible pressure she put on herself, but to the childhood loneliness leading to some poor adult choices. Truthfully, had I found something when I was young that I was as great at as Mari was at academia, I might have grown up with some of the sense of self and confidence that she possessed.

I turned her to face me.

“Mari, if you never pulled a random fact out of thin air again, or quoted a text I’d never heard of, or mastered a new spell or translation, I wouldn’t

think of you any differently. Your brilliance and fierce determination are only two of the many, many qualities that make you my friend.”

Her eyes brightened. “Thanks for saying that.” “It’s true. I’m a terrible liar.”

We resumed our stroll, and this time the silence was pleasant—a nightcap to accompany the balmy evening that had somehow not ended in our death.

“So,” she said after a few minutes. “Are we going to talk about what we heard?”

My cheeks reddened. Amelia.

“My ego is still recovering from the fact that Kane seems to have slept with half the kingdom, including century-old witches, and shows no interest in me,” I said. It was a joke, but it didn’t come out like one.

Mari grabbed my arm tightly and swung me into her eyeline.

“Let’s not follow that train of thought,” she said, grimacing. “You don’t want to be wanted by a man like that anyway. You hate him, and with good reason.” Her voice was warm, yet firm. “You are a bright light, Arwen. And he is not worthy of you.”

I nodded but my heart had seized up in my chest.

Maybe, as much as I thought Mari couldn’t see herself accurately, it was possible neither could I.

You'll Also Like