There were a million ways to die in the Kingdom of Blackwood.
Plague. Starvation. Violence. Natural disasters. To name just a few.
I never imagined I’d die of fucking stupidity.
Standing at the edge of the woods, an ominous wind ruffled the tattered hem of my dress. A storm was looming on the horizon. The telling breeze would soon turn into a howling gale, rain would pour in buckets from the clouds, and thunder and lightning would flash brightly and boom deafeningly.
No one in their right mind would risk going out in a Blackwood storm. They say the violence in the sky was a product of Zeus and his descendants. They say the entirety of Blackwood was once ruled by the original six Olympian gods and that residual power still flowed through the veins of a few unlucky people.
Unlucky, because they also say that if you’re found to be with power, King Zacharias Storm would either kill you on sight or claim you as a slave.
But I’d never once laid eyes on a person with powers, nor the Storm King, nor the castle of Blackwood. If it weren’t for the brutal taxes we were forced to pay, I might believe the whole thing was a fairy tale. As it stood, I feared death just a little more than I feared poverty. After all, I’d been poor all my life and had somehow managed to survive. Pretty sure I couldn’t survive death.
And neither could Speedy, my pet sloth. At least, not on his own.
I loved him dearly, but he was a suicidal maniac. Every time I turned around, he was in one precarious situation or another. I didn’t know how many times I’d saved him from inevitable death, but it was almost never enough. I mean, he was a sloth for fuck’s sake. If there were a million ways for me to die, then there were a hundred-million ways he could die.
I was about 99 percent sure he’d wandered into the forest. Probably, he’d gone in for a snack and had gotten lost. Either way, I couldn’t leave him alone in there—especially during a sky storm.
So, there I was, about to die of stupidity because of a sloth.
With a growl and a string of curse words, I hiked up my dress and marched into the forest.
"Speedy!" I called out, over and over until my voice was harsh and the winds were harsher. Until raindrops tore like knives from the sky, slashing branches straight from the trees. Until I came to my damn senses and realized I needed to get the hell back home. Reluctantly, I turned to leave, but just as I did, a soft bleating sound came to my ears.
I spun around and charged even further into the forest. It wasn’t the farthest I'd gone into the wood, but it was farther than I ever intended to trek during a sky storm.
"Speedy!" I shouted again, then listened as closely as I could above the wind and thunder and the crashing of tree limbs. The bleating grew a bit louder. So, at least I knew I was headed in the right direction.
Honestly, I was surprised he'd made it this far. He was usually slow as shit; hence the purpose and irony of his adorable little name. I'd found him at a rough time in my life—just after my boyfriend had left me—which was why the moniker hadn't been more creative. He never did come to move any faster, though. He was either lazy as hell, or naturally destined to be another creature's prey. I had a bad feeling it was a mixture of both, which was why I tried to keep such a keen eye on him.
Of course, I couldn't always be watching, like when I was stuck in the mines chipping away jewel after jewel from the cold, hard stone. Gods, I hated jewels.
Speedy always seemed to choose moments like those to disappear into the woodwork. Little bastard.
"Speedy Ravenel, get your sloth ass over here right now!"
The bleating grew even louder. That's when I finally saw him, swaying in the wind, long limbs and claws desperately clinging to a tree branch, his cute, mask-like face turned upside down in a fearful frown.
My heart dropped. He was clearly scared to death—I could practically feel his fear. I knew I needed to get to him as soon as possible. To calm him and protect him.
Carelessly, I scrambled through the undergrowth, but out of freaking nowhere, a gruff-looking man crashed down the side of the hill beside me. He landed with a thud, just off to the side of my feet, and didn’t move. There was blood caked in his grizzly beard and soaked through his dirty tunic. With arrows jutting haphazardly from his back, he looked to be on the verge of death or, perhaps, dead already.
Momentarily stunned, I glanced uneasily between the stranger and my beloved pet. Should I run? Should I help the poor guy? Was he even helpable? And where the hell had he come from?
But then the man sucked in a ragged breath and grabbed my ankle, frightening the ever-loving shit out of me. His mouth opened, and he uttered three little words that would likely haunt me for the rest of my life...
"Kill the king."
Then his grip slackened, and he died at my feet.
As he lay there, a faint gold glow illuminated around his lifeless form. It grew brighter by the second, glittering like a hundred topaz jewels. The radiance soon gathered into a rippling orb of energy, almost like wisps from his very soul were collecting just above his chest. Then, before I could do anything more than gasp, it shot straight into me, piercing right through my heart.
I tensed and fell to the soggy, leaf-littered ground.
And everything went black.
I awoke to the sight of a damned arrow in my face.
It was early morning, and the rain seemed to have stopped, but I was cold and wet, and the sky was mostly gray and dreary. The stranger from the night before still lay dead on the ground next to me, but a handful of guards on black stallions now surrounded us both, as well as a few guards on foot.
What in Hades was going on here? My senses soared up to high-alert, and my heartbeat whooshed loudly in my ears. I’d never seen royal guards before—least of all in Blackleaf—but if the purple and silver crest on their chest plates was anything to go by, then that’s exactly what these men were.
The nearest guard kept the arrow trained at my throat as the door of a carriage opened and closed at the top of the hill. My gaze lifted toward the sound, and through the disheveled leaves on the bank, I saw a long streak of exposed dirt. Probably where the late stranger had fallen from last night. Were these guards chasing him?
A man approached the peak of the hill, wearing a jeweled crown on his graying head. He looked around and casually removed a pair of black leather gloves from his wide, bejeweled hands. He wasn’t tall in stature, but there was most definitely an air about him that screamed of importance and poise.
Oh, dear gods, it's the motherfucking king of Blackwood.
"Well, well, well," he muttered with amusement as he carefully descended the hill. "What have we here?"