Chapter no 4

A Dawn of Onyx

A belt cracked on my back, quickly replaced by my hands, deep inside a bloody, gaping chest wound. An orange, glowing eye peered at me— gazing into my soul. Power I couldn’t describe tingled in my fingertips, in

my bones, in the corners of my memory… I jolted awake.

The darkness around me was disorienting. I could almost make out the organic shapes of leaves and trunks and vines, but everything was cloaked in shades of blue and black, barely lit by moonlight. Bodies shuffled around me one by one, and I suddenly remembered where I was and what had happened. Disorientation morphed into an onslaught of growing dread. Horror churned in my gut and tightened in my jaw. In my bones—

Broad Man, who was now moving at a steady, slow pace, much to the shock of his fellow men, nudged me forward, and I dismounted off the beast, my limbs moving before my mind instructed.

Without realizing it, I touched the long neck of the creature, steadying myself on shaking legs. Its peculiar eyes darted to me, and I mustered a weak smile. Don’t eat me was all that came to mind. I had the vague, diluted thought that I was probably in shock.

Only then did I notice the unbearable chill. It was much colder here in the north, and my body was covered in gooseflesh, my lips and nose going numb.

The rest of the soldiers had walked ahead into the darkness, uninterested in the newly captured girl. A small mercy, maybe. Broad Man wrapped the twine around my wrists once more and I grimaced at the raw skin being abused again in the same spot.

A sound like lightning cracking startled me, and I turned just in time to see the creature take off into the skies, dirt flying into my eyes. By the time I pried them open again, I couldn’t make the dragon out in the dark above any longer. Gone just as quickly as it had appeared, it was as if I had fabricated the creature out of my own imagination.

Except I never could have crafted something so disturbing.

I stared after the beast, into the textured darkness of night and forest and trees.

My only way back home, gone.

Broad Man jerked me forward and my wrists wailed in response. But I shuffled forward, one after another. Bert and Broad Man before me, two of the soldiers carrying the burlap-wrapped body behind us.

All I could make out in the slivers of moonlight were gnarled trees and lush greenery that came up to my shins as I stamped through.

We were clearly not in Willowridge, the capital of the Onyx Kingdom. There was no city, no life, no noise. Just a forest of some kind. The smell of damp moss, lilac, and night-blooming gardenia filled my nostrils. Different than any forest I had been in—no sweet spice or pumpkin or familiar decay of falling leaves. I had only ever been in forests that were endlessly brown and golden, or bare of leaves altogether. This wet, foggy enclave was already unlike anything I had seen or felt. All oaks and pines, cold and floral and crisp. For a single, nonsensical moment I could almost forget where I was, how I had ended up here.

My eyes were slowly adjusting to the night. We rounded a great, knotted willow tree, and in the distance loomed an imposing stone castle, with hundreds of lit-up tents in the field surrounding it. They were a cacophony of wartime colors, like a handful of mismatched jewels. Each a different size and shape, pitched alongside and on top of each other like picnic blankets on a summer day, haphazard and overlapping.

What… what was this?

As we walked further, I finally heard something other than the crunch of our feet on the dirt—the sounds of people and music and unhurried swords on swords in practice.

A wave of dread crashed over me.

It was more than just a castle or fortress, but rather an entire keep. Almost like a walled village of its own.

The hold was bordered on every side by the twisted woods we had traipsed through—no way in or out without making it across these haunted trees and vines and roots. No sign of life in any direction past the woods. Internally, I cursed myself for falling asleep on our ride here. A bird’s-eye view would have been helpful. But the come down from both the adrenaline of anxiety and then exertion of my powers on Ryder and the Broad Man had been a sedative I couldn’t fight.

Vast iron gates appeared through the maze of trees, creaking open for us as we approached. I allowed Broad Man to pull me through, my eyes glued to the rolling land and castle before me.

“Welcome to Shadowhold, girl,” Bert said, before striding ahead of the pack.

I shuddered.

As we walked through the road that bisected the sprawl of canvas tents within the castle gates, it dawned on me—this must have been the Onyx army outpost, as evidenced by the blacksmith tables, cooking pots, and hung-up armor spotted among the encampment. As we drew nearer, I noticed a few small cottages and huts to our left, and stables to our right.

Most must have been asleep, but a few soldiers were playing the lute and drinking by a crackling fire. Some looked up at the body being carried behind us, or at my half-clothed form, but all kept their eyes averted from their lieutenant.

I shivered against the freezing night. I tried to wrap my arms tightly around myself before remembering they were bound behind me.

The longing to be back with my family was a greater pain than I had ever felt, far worse than any of Powell’s beatings. It welled up inside of me, threatening to bring me to my knees at any moment.

What would they do then? Drag me along the dirt as I sobbed? Yes. That’s exactly what would happen.

I almost choked on the desperation—I wanted to be anywhere but here.


My feet towed along the gravel and dirt, dust forming a thin layer on my ankles, as Broad Man hauled me forward, and my eyes pulled up to the castle before me.

It was like nothing I had ever seen before.

This was the most chilling, twisted, somehow awe-inspiring fortress I could have imagined.

The all-stone stronghold was a feat of gothic architecture with towering turrets and strong, stone pillars. Stained glass windows glinted in the darkness, eerie in their glass depictions of war and brutality, a strange contrast to the warmth that radiated from within them. Inside, the light cast shadows in their frames that moved fluidly like specters. The exterior, dotted by large black torches and a few heraldic flags donning the Onyx crest, only bolstered my assumption that the keep was the Onyx army base.

We reached the massive wooden doors of the keep, and my teeth clenched as I steeled myself. Broad Man tugged me once again, and my wrists lit with agony pulling a strange whine from my lips.

Bert eyed me with a twisted, delighted gleam. “Come, girl, you can stay with me tonight.” Horror blurred my vision.

I couldn’t think of anything to say to save myself.

“Lieutenant, I think Commander Griffin wished to see us upon our return.

I can throw the girl in the dungeons for now?” Broad Man offered.

Bert considered his soldier, then, annoyed, gave a gruff nod.

I heaved a small sigh of relief. I didn’t know if the Broad Man was trying to help me or if it had just been dumb luck, but I was more grateful than I had been all day when Bert stalked off toward the castle. Broad Man pulled me away from the doors, and we filed past more guards and through a gate that led down a spiral of cobbled stone stairs.

Dread awoke inside my chest anew and my mouth went bone dry.

“No, no…” I begged, pulling away from the shadowed cellar, but the Broad Man didn’t seem to hear me.

Or to care.

Inside, the dungeon was dark and stale and reeked of brackish water and human filth. The incessant, slow drip of liquid echoed through the stairwell. Torches lit up a hallway filled with iron cells below us, and my heart jumped into my throat.

“No, wait,” I pleaded again. “I can’t go in there.”

Broad Man gave me a curious look. “I’m not going to harm you. It’s just a place to lay your head until the lieutenant decides what to do with you.”

I tried to get my breathing under control.

“I just can’t be locked in. Please. Where do the healers stay?”

Broad Man huffed and pushed me down through the dizzying stairwell. My lungs were collapsing in on themselves and by the time we reached the bottom, I could hardly breathe.

He pulled me behind him and along the maze of cells. The hoots and hollers of foul-mouthed prisoners, paired with my heartbeat thundering in my eardrums, became a vulgar symphony. I tried again in vain to cover myself.

Broad Man opened a cell door wide and shoved me in, tearing off my bindings. I stumbled, catching my palms on the rough, dirty stone beneath me. It was even smaller inside than it looked. I spun, racing back toward the iron bars.

“Wait!” I yelled, but he was halfway down the hall and the cell was locked.

I heaved out a sob and backed into the corner, sinking down and bringing my knees to my chest. My head was swimming, my breath coming in irregular, uneven gasps. I tried to remember what Mother had taught me all those years ago when I panicked, but my mind was in shambles.

Maybe now was the aforementioned time to fall apart.

How did this all happen? I tried to replay the evening’s events back in my head and it only hurt more. I finally gave in to the tears I had been holding in all night. They burst out of me and trickled in streams down my cheeks, splattering onto the floor. My wails were loud and choked, like a child’s.

I wished I was more like Ryder. I hadn’t seen him cry more than twice in our whole lives. Once, when he was fifteen, when he fell off our roof and

broke his kneecap. Again when his father Powell died, seven years ago.

My stepfather died of a stroke, and when Mother told us, Ryder sobbed for days. His father was his best friend in many ways, and Powell worshipped his only son. Powell and I never had that kind of relationship, though. I wasn’t sure if his hatred for me was born out of knowing I wasn’t his, or because I wasn’t strong like Ryder, but either way, he carried a rampant disdain for me that I was shocked nobody else could see.

Unlike Ryder, I cried all the time. I cried when Leigh made me laugh too hard. I cried when I saw my mother in pain. I cried at the end of a great book, or when I heard a beautiful harmony. I cried when I lost a patient at the infirmary. I cried when I felt overwhelmed. It was the least brave quality

—to be sensitive and fearful and full of tears.

But I let them flow freely now.

I sobbed for my family that I’d never be with again. For my stupid, rash decision to trade my life for theirs. I didn’t regret it, but I hated that it had to happen. That I hadn’t been able to come up with anything smarter. I cried for my future here, which I knew would be painful at best. Short at worst. I tried to steel myself against a number of torments, which only made my mind run wild. What if they simply never let me leave this cell and I was trapped for eternity?

The unmistakable cry of a man in desperate pain clanged through the dungeon walls. I scanned the cells I had been dragged past. But almost all the other prisoners were sleeping.

The cry for help—for anybody, please—rang out again. There must have been another annex nearby for torture.

I pressed my palms to my ears tightly, but couldn’t drown out his sobs and pleas. It sounded as though he was being ripped in half.

I gulped and choked on air, panic back in full force. I was suffocating.

Maybe I was dying. My mind was a clash of crawling dread and frantic energy, thoughts flitting from one to the next with no time to catch them. I was dizzy and panting, bracing myself against the stale floor beneath me.

Definitely dying.

I had to get out of here. Right now.

What had my mother told me to do? Why couldn’t I remember? Was it—

Three Things.

That’s what she had called it. Find and focus on three things you can name—I could do that.

One: Cobwebs. I spied cobwebs and mold atop the low ceiling of my cell.

It smelled like mildew and damp, trapped air.

I sucked in a lungful of it.

Two: Lanterns. A few weak, flickering lanterns hung outside my cell. I couldn’t feel the warmth of the flames, but the dim shafts of light cast shadows on the murky, wet floor.

Three… I looked around my small space and saw two buckets, one empty and one filled with water. Three: Buckets. I doubted either were clean, but I scrambled up and splashed my face. The freezing cold water knocked the wind out of me, but the shock helped my system. I sat back on my heels and breathed a little easier.

Bleeding Stones.” I put my head between my knees. “Quite the mouth on you.”

A voice, at once like thunder and a caress, purred through the iron bars beside me.

I whipped my head up. In my terror upon being thrown into the cell, I hadn’t realized there was another prisoner in the one directly next to me; we were only separated by rusty metal beams.

I flushed. I’d had an audience for the most horrifically unpleasant moment of my life. And based on the continued cries of the person being tortured in some other wing of this dungeon, it was likely one of the last few.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.

“It’s just…a little dramatic, don’t you think?” the dark voice said. My skin bristled.

I squinted through the flickering shadows, but couldn’t see more than the outline of a figure slumped against a wall.

“I said I was sorry, what more do you want?” I was still trying to catch

my rushed breaths.

Immediately I regretted my harsh tone. I couldn’t make an enemy of the man I’d be trapped next to for who knew how long. He was probably a thief. Or a murderer.

Or something far, far worse.

But the prisoner only chuckled, the sound like the rumble of rocks down a mountain, reverberating in my chest.

“Some peace and quiet from your weeping would be nice.” As expected, but still—what a prick.

This time I didn’t bother hiding my glare. I didn’t know if he could even see me in the darkness.

“I’m done now,” I admitted, drawing in a long breath. “It’s not every day you get imprisoned. Or… maybe it is for you, but—not for me.”

Please leave me alone, please leave me alone.

“I’m just saying, some of us are trying to get some sleep around here. Your theatrics and heaving bosom aren’t going to change your situation.” He paused. “Though the latter is nice to look at.”

My stomach turned at his words.

Did I say prick? I meant bastard. Vile bastard.

I had no reason to fight with him, and I shouldn’t anger him—I had better survival instincts than that. But I had been through too much tonight.

I didn’t have a single straw left in me. “You’re disgusting,” I breathed.

“Someone’s feeling brave with these bars between us.” “Not really,” I admitted. “Just honest.”

The conversation was a strange yet welcome distraction to my anxiety.

Being alone with my thoughts sounded worse than almost anything.

The tortured man’s wails had finally turned to whimpers. I hoped for his sake he might pass out soon. Now I only heard rustling as I watched the figure in the cell beside me stand up and stretch.

His shadow alone was imposing—at least a foot and some change taller than me, but the dim light hid the rest of his features. He stalked toward the bars that separated us. I fought the instinct to scramble backward and away

from him, reminding myself that he couldn’t reach me in here. I had to have some kind of backbone. Especially if this was to be my future.

“Are you trying to scare me?” I was aiming for bold, but it came out low and quiet.

“Something like that,” he whispered through the bars. My heart leapt into my throat at his words, his voice soft and yet so deadly my toes curled in fear. I still couldn’t make out his face amongst the shadows, but I could see his sharp, white teeth glinting above me in the lantern’s buttery light.

“Well, you don’t. Scare me, that is.”

He laughed, but it felt cruel. “Such a brave bird. Good to hear. Perhaps now I can sleep.”


But…my thoughts were now flowing in a calm, even rhythm, compared to the frenetic mess they had been before.

My panic had subsided.

I took a soothing, lungful of damp, dungeon air, and turned my eyes up to the prisoner bathed in shadow beside me.

Had he known what he was doing when he was goading me? Definitely not, but the distraction had kept me from falling apart completely.

Still, I couldn’t help glaring at him. “Your cruelty is a bit cliché.”

He heaved a sigh that sounded suspiciously like a laugh and crouched down. Finally, the lantern outside his cell illuminated his face.

At first, all I could see were his eyes. Piercing, slate gray, and so bright they were silver. They simmered under thick, prominent brows and obscenely long lashes. His dark hair had fallen casually across his forehead, and he coolly brushed it out of his face with a strong, broad hand. Perfect chiseled jaw. Full lips. It was indecent, frankly, how gorgeous he was.

Gorgeous, indecent, and deadly.

A chill ran through my entire body.

I felt more afraid now than I had all evening, and that included a literal ride through the skies on the back of a dragon. But despite the warning bells going off in every cell of my body, I couldn’t look away.

He watched me examine him. There was a glint in his eye that I couldn’t

stop staring at. He smirked a bit and I came back to myself, heat reddening my cheeks.

“Why, because I’m imprisoned?”

“What?” I tried to shake off whatever was clouding my mind. “The cliché, as you said.”

“Yes.” I lifted my chin. I had read enough books. “Cruel, dark prisoner.

It’s done to death.”

He grasped at his heart in mock insult. “You wound me. Couldn’t I say the same of you?”

I pursed my lips, and he grinned slightly.

He was right, of course. But I didn’t want to share my sob story—how I wasn’t actually a criminal like him—with this lethal, terrifying, profanely handsome stranger.

When he realized I wasn’t going to offer any insight into my own situation he sighed.

“You’ll have to buck up a bit, bird. You’re in Onyx now. It’s not all mud-colored hair, ruddy cheeks, and squash farmers. Bastards like me are the least of your concern.”

His voice carried an edge that stripped his words of any playfulness. I couldn’t help the shiver that slipped down my spine.

“How do you know I’m from Amber?”

He looked me over through the bars. Briefly, stupidly, I wondered how I must have appeared to him. Stuck in a grimy cell, shivering, feet and bare legs caked in dirt, hair a tangled mess, lips blue. Ugh. I crossed my arms over myself when I remembered how little I was wearing—the flimsy camisole—and what the cold had done to my chest.

His jaw ticked slightly. “What happened to the rest of your clothing?”

I squirmed under his unrelenting gaze, my face flushing. “It’s a long story.”

His expression was calm, but his eyes had gone black. “I’ve got time.”

The last thing I needed was this dangerous prick knowing about my humiliation at the hands of Onyx’s lieutenant. “I had to use my blouse to help someone. That’s all.”

He nodded with skepticism, but the intensity had cleared from his eyes. I shivered, an awkward convulsion against the chill in the air.

“Are you cold?”

“Yes,” I admitted. “You aren’t?” “I must be used to it.”

I wanted to ask how long he had been down here, and what he was in for. But I was leery of this strange, imposing man. His presence was almost too much to bear.

“Here,” he offered, taking off his fur cloak and slipping it through the railing. “I can’t listen to your teeth chattering a minute longer. It’s grating on the nerves.”

I hesitated, but survival instincts kicked in before pride. I took it from him, wrapping it around myself in one swift motion. The cloak was scented like cedarwood, whiskey, and velvety leather. And warm. So warm. I almost whimpered as the heat enveloped my freezing arms and legs.

“Thank you.”

He watched me as my eyes fluttered closed, calmed by the warmth and heavy weight of his cloak. Even then I could feel his eyes on me, and my skin itched under his gaze.

For some bizarre reason, I couldn’t stand the silence.

“Well, I’m not crying anymore. I’ll try to keep it down.”

But he didn’t crawl back to his corner to sleep. Rather, he unfolded one leg out in front of him and brushed a large hand through his hair, sweeping it out of his face.

“Trying to get rid of me?” “Yes,” I admitted.

“She uses me for my fur and then kicks me to the curb. Women…”

I rolled my eyes, but I knew better than to be charmed. Obscene beauty or not, this man was locked up in an Onyx Kingdom stronghold dungeon. I just had to balance on the razor’s edge between angering him and letting down my guard.

“Just practicing some self-preservation. You could be dangerous.”

“True,” he mused. “I could be. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t care if you

were dangerous.”

I raised a skeptical brow and wrapped the fur around me tighter. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He gave a crooked grin and shrugged. “You’re much too alluring. I’d just have to take my chances, and if you killed me,” he leaned in a bit. “Well, it would be a good death.”

I pressed my shoulder to my mouth to suppress a laugh. “I think you’re a shameless flirt who has been down here alone for too long. Like a beast that likes to play with its prey.”

He shook his head with self-deprecation, but the mirth had drained from his eyes. The realization that I may have struck a nerve sent a chill through my bones and I scooted away from his shadowed form.

“If I’m a beast, so are you.” He gestured with his broad hands to the cells that held us both.

For some reason, I felt tears spring to my eyes. The simple reminder was all it took.

Stones, I was so weak.

“The only thing we might have in common is a shared hatred for the wicked Onyx king that shackled us both in here.”

“What’s wrong with our king?”

His use of ‘our’ answered one of my questions. So, he was from Onyx.

Maybe that explained the aura of darkness that rippled off of him. I tried to bite my tongue. I really did. But it was a sore subject.

“Besides decimating an innocent kingdom for their meager wealth and causing thousands upon thousands of innocent lives to be lost?” I asked. “Or training his soldiers to be more brutal, bloodthirsty, and violent than any other army in Evendell? Or what about his famed love of gleeful torture, senseless death, and ruthless gore?”

It seemed the cell I was in was not so great for my bedside manner. His mouth lifted in a smile. “Sounds like you’re afraid of him.”

“I am. You should be too.” I shook my head. “Defending the very king who chained you up… King Ravenwood’s soldiers slaughtered all of my brother’s men. He was lucky to have made it out alive.”

“Yes, bird. I’ve heard that does happen during wartime.” “Don’t be glib.”

“Don’t be naive.”

I stifled a groan—another sore subject. I snapped my mouth shut before insults flew out. Maybe it was time to put an end to this deadly tightrope walk of a conversation. I moved further away and turned to face the empty cell on my other side.

But he sighed from behind me, resigned. “I shouldn’t expect you to understand, bird.”

Bleeding Stones.

I spun to face the bars again, ready to ask why he was so intent on talking to me all night, when all he had wanted was sleep, but was caught off guard by the way his eyes bored into me.

Eyes like endless pools of liquid silver flickered with something far more intense than I had expected.

“Why do you keep calling me that?”

It wasn’t what I had planned to say, but came out nonetheless.

For the first time, he faltered, and the intensity behind his eyes vanished as quickly as I had seen it. “I’m actually not sure,” he said, laughing to himself. He looked down at his boots. “Just feels fitting.” He met my eyes. “Perhaps given the cage.”

I gave him a look that said, oh right, that, and closed my eyes again. “Well, this has been peachy, but unless you have some way out of here, I’m going to try to sleep now. I’m sure we can continue this tomorrow, and the next day, and the eternity after that.”

I aimed for biting, but all fiery retorts and energy for banter had dissolved. The reality was worse than bleak. I was alone, exhausted, and more terrified than I could endure for long. I had nothing left in me tonight. Maybe tomorrow I’d figure out how in the world to get out of this keep, this kingdom, this whole mess I was in.

But tonight, I could only slump morosely against the wall and let my eyes flutter closed. As I drifted off to sleep, I thought I heard the stranger whispering in hushed tones to someone else. I fought to stay awake and

listen in, but my mind and body were too drained. Sleep came for me, swift and unyielding, against the muted sounds of men arguing.

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