There were a million snowflakes floating through the air in Southern Blackwood. The tiny, glittering crystals drifted to the ground like miniature smiling ghosts.
All was peaceful as the snow fell and the sun rose, casting a silvery-gold radiance across the kingdom of the dead. The gentle heat of the early morning rays warmed my cheeks, filling me with a glimmer of hope as I gazed at the beautiful sight before me.
It was hard to imagine that it could all be destroyed soon.
The second Sohsol Apocalypse was already on its way.
I stared at the jagged mountains in the distance, so covered in ice that they almost disappeared into the skyline. Then my gaze focused closer, onto the snow-laden branches of barren trees and the needled shoots of evergreens. Maybe we would have the advantage if our enemies attacked us here? After all, they were used to islands, beaches, deserts, and magical forests—they weren't used to the freezing cold of an icy tundra.
Rob strode out onto the balcony beside me, holding a steaming mug in each hand. He still looked tired, with narrowed eyes and messed-up dark hair.
Maybe he was exhausted from the events of the day before? It hadn’t been the perfect holiday we’d all imagined—in fact, it'd been mostly a disaster thanks to those mischievous, bastard-ass demons. The people of Blackdell seemed to truly enjoy themselves, forgetting the terrible reality we existed in for a single night of bliss and cheer.
But the night was over. It was morning now. It was time to face reality head-on.
He passed one of the mugs to me and took a sip of his own as he gazed out across the same mountains I stared at. The silence was odd, heavy yet comfortable. Neither of us spoke for a few long minutes. We simply stood there, quietly soaking in each other’s company.
Eventually Rob sighed. "Taron and Tamara will be here any moment now."
I nodded my understanding as my stomach twisted into knots. Whatever news they’d come bearing on behalf of the Storm King couldn’t be anything good.
"Are the others up?" I asked, sipping at my hot tea. He’d added cream and sweetener, just how I liked it. It made me smile.
He nodded, turning to me instead of the mountains. "No matter what happens, Jewels, just remember: no one is to blame but Zacharias motherfucking Storm."
My heart rate picked up, pumping nausea through my veins. "What do you know that you’re not telling me?"
His gray eyes fell shut, and he shook his head.
Dan cleared his throat from the doorway where the balcony met the inn we were staying at. "They’re here."
Rob fought hard to shoot me a smile, but it was incredibly flat. "Let’s get this over with then."
"Wait," I said, grabbing Rob's arm. "I meant to ask you the other day… how are vampires able to travel during the day down here? Back home, they'd burn into ashes."
He smiled softly and simply pointed upward. "It's almost always overcast and cloudy. As long as the sun's rays are blocked, they're safe."
Ah. I supposed that made sense.
Inside, we met up with Cal, Ben, Ash, and Criss. Tension coursed through their rigid muscles as they stood around waiting on us. I could tell we were all a nervous wreck. Well, except for Rob. He was eerily calm. It made me even more nervous.
The vampire twins stood just outside our room door, waiting in the hallway until we officially invited them in. I didn’t think it was an actual vampire restriction, more like a common courtesy that vampires followed more strictly than most.
"Come on in, guys," Rob said as he sat down in one of the two clawfoot chairs.
Taron nodded and strode over to sit in the other chair, while Tamara stood at his right-hand side, arms crossed at her chest. The rest of us perched precariously on the edge of three double beds we’d pushed together in order to make room for us all to sleep the night before.
I was never a nail-biter, but I was seriously considering becoming one right then.
Taron bounced his fingertips together a few times before finally lacing them tightly. "There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m going to just spit it out. Please forgive my insensitivity."
Rob nodded, and Taron took a deep breath.
"Three of your mothers are dead."
I swallowed hard, desperately trying to shove down the urge to puke.
The rest of the guys acted at once. Dan cursed, Ben spouted off a bunch of questions, while Ash and Criss looked stunned out of their minds, with wide eyes and gaping mouths. But not Rob. He simply removed a flask from his inside pocket and took a long swig. It’d been so long since I’d seen him turn to alcohol for support, I’d almost forgotten how much he used to lean on it.
"Which three?" Cal asked. He was trying to be stoic, but I heard his gentle sadness underneath it anyway.
Taron paused and sighed once more as his gaze fell on Ben. "Bianca." He glanced at Dan. "And Delilah." Finally, he turned to Rob. "And Rosemary."
A burning hot tear slipped down my cheek, scalding my skin. I couldn’t speak. I could barely swallow or breathe.
The Storm King’s note flashed through my mind, the memory fading and wavering around the edges. You’ll pay for that, he’d said of our triple marriage. I should have known it would have been a price too high to repay.
He… he killed their mothers because they loved me enough to marry me. Because they defied him. It was all because of me…
Emptiness took up residence in my shell of a body. I was so numb it hurt. I couldn’t imagine how pained my princes were. They probably wouldn’t even want to look at me; I knew I wouldn’t.
I stood to leave, but Rob stopped me with his gentle words. "I already told you it’s not your fault, Jewels. It’s his. He did this, not you."
But still, I couldn’t speak. It was like my vocal cords had tied themselves shut and burned off any excess.
Rob sighed and scrubbed a hand down his face. A layer of dark stubble had grown along his jawline during our journey. As attractive as it was, I couldn’t bring myself to look at him for long. It pained me too much. No matter what he’d said, I felt guilty as fuck.
"Are their bodies on the cart?" Rob asked the vampires.
Taron shook his head. "Just their heads. In a chest. The other queens wanted to bury the bodies and send them to the Underworld in peace."
More tears stung down my cheeks and splashed to the wooden floor at my feet.
"They didn’t go to the Underworld," Rob said softly. "I thought I felt their presence yesterday when we bumped into you at the town square. I just didn’t want to believe it until I heard the news for myself. Saw it… for myself."
Taron stood and placed both hands behind his back. "I can take you to the cart if you’d like, Your Highness."
Rob nodded and glanced at his brothers. "If their spirits are still here, I’ll make sure we all get to talk to them. I promise you that."
I didn’t peek at their expressions. I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing condemnation and disappointment on their handsome faces. Especially not because of me.
I swallowed hard and finally found my voice, small and squeaky as it was. "I’m going to go for a walk." Finally, I turned to them, my heart breaking as my gaze swept past each sorrowful face. "I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry."
"Jewels—" Rob said, but I didn’t wait to hear what he had to say.
I ran into the hallway and down the flight of stairs. I didn’t need him trying to offset the blame when I knew damn well it belonged squarely on my shoulders. Avoiding the curious gazes of the other inn customers, I pushed through the front doors and hurried outside.
The white of the snow was blinding, stabbing an instant headache straight into my skull, but I deserved it, so I didn’t try to shade my eyes. I simply turned away from town and ran out into the barren, snow-covered tundra that lined the mountains.
Cold wind snapped at my face and hands, but I didn’t care. The snow got deeper the farther from Blackdell I trudged, until I finally reached the first tiny ridge of the mountainside. I climbed up, sinking my hands into the numbing cold snow as I clawed my way to the top, then disappeared down the other side.
I wasn’t stupid. I knew I couldn’t go far. I’d get lost then freeze to death. Though, maybe I deserved a fate such as that. It would certainly be more merited than the deaths of Bianca, Delilah, or Rosemary. They were fucking saints. Saints who silently endured torture on behalf of their sons… and death because of me.
Sinking into the bark of a nearby pine, I closed my eyes and allowed the tears to stream freely. It was so cold, my wet lashes instantly turned to ice, weighing my eyelids down. I blinked and tried to pull the ice away, and that’s when I saw it in the corner of my eye—an alicorn, standing knee-deep in the snow, its white mane tangling gently in the harsh winter breeze.
How I noticed something white amongst an entire backdrop of more white was anyone’s guess. Maybe it was intuition. Maybe it was magic. Or maybe it was familiarity.
"Are you the one we saved in the forest?" I asked it, knowing full well the creature wasn’t about to reply. Horses didn’t talk, not even winged, horned, fantastical ones.
I pushed off the tree trunk and stepped closer to the beautiful creature. It never flinched. Never took a step back. It simply blinked its long lashes overtop of its big black eyes and waited.
I held out my hand and eased closer until my freezing cold fingers were flush against its warm ivory coat. Timidly, I stroked its hair, snuggling closer with each passing moment of trust that we miraculously shared. I was grateful, not only for the companionship but also for the heat.
"I see you’ve managed to elude the Storm King since we set you free," I muttered.
The alicorn snorted softly and bumped its head into my shoulder.
Smiling, I moved my palm to its muzzle instead of its side, gently stroking the silken fur between its nose and ears.
"I wasn’t expecting to see you so soon, or ever again, really." I stared into the alicorn’s intelligent eyes and felt that same sadness and guilt welling up inside of me. "What are you doing here, huh? Have you come to escort the queens’ spirits to the Elysian Fields? Surely something as angelic as you would have an angelic purpose."
The alicorn merely snorted again, its breath coming out in a puffy cloud as it did so. It took a few purposeful steps in the opposite direction from which I came, then waited.
My brows furrowed. "You want me to follow you?"
The alicorn whinnied and took a few more steps, once again waiting for me to follow.
I hesitated, glancing over my shoulder to where the village lay behind the small hill I’d just climbed and descended. When I turned back to the alicorn, regret kissed my features. "I’m sorry, dear thing, but I can’t. I’d get lost and never find my way back, I just know it."
It snorted, shaking its head as if to disagree with me.
I grinned and rolled my eyes. "Just because you seem to have an excellent sense of direction doesn’t mean I do."
It neighed, stomping its glittering silver hooves into the snow. The poor thing seemed pretty adamant about me following it. I suddenly wondered if ignoring it was the best idea. Peering around the majestic beast, I saw what might’ve been a path of sorts winding between the mountains. In all actuality, it was probably just a valley tucked into the mountains’ base, but it could easily be used as a path. Was there something at the other end?
I pursed my lips. "I don’t know…"
Suddenly, the alicorn’s body tensed and it jerked its gaze over to the hill behind my back.
Spinning, I found Ash and Criss cresting the top of the horizon.
When they reached the peak, Ash crossed his arms and raised a brow, grinning curiously. "Who were you talking to, Sweets?"
I pointed over my shoulder. "The alicorn."
But when I spun around, the creature was gone. It must’ve been spooked by the guys.
I sighed. "Well, there was an alicorn, until you two scared it away."
Ash scanned the snowy horizon skeptically, as if trying and failing to find any sign of the creature, while Criss lowered his head in apology. "Sorry. We just needed to know you were all right."
Smiling, I trudged through the snow until I reached them. I wrapped my arms around each of their necks and held them tightly. "Thank you."
"So are you?" Ash asked. "Okay?"
I nodded. "I think so. I just feel so terrible. This is all my fault, and I have no idea how I’m ever going to look at them again knowing I’m the reason their mothers are…" I couldn’t even say the word aloud.
Criss nodded as if he understood completely.
"Rob was able to connect them to the astral plane," Ash said. "They’re talking to their mothers right now. One thing’s for sure though, the queens do not blame you."
"You heard them say that?" I asked, unsure.
Ash nodded. "Rob, Ben, and Dan don’t blame you either. They know it’s the Storm King’s fault, and only the Storm King’s fault. They aren’t mad at you, Sweets."
Criss rubbed the top of his buzzed head. "They asked us to bring you back. And the queens would like to talk to you too."
Oh, gods, did I have the balls to face them, knowing full well their deaths were basically my fault? Whether they blamed me or not, I still blamed myself.
Squaring my shoulders, I nodded curtly.
Balls or no balls, I owed them to at least show up.
And so I would.
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