“What are they?” Kyra’s whisper was almost silent, but it seemed to fill the space anyway. She clung tightly to her mother, Evia, who stared fearfully out the window at the hooded figures approaching.
“They are Malic’Uiel,” Evia said quietly. “Creatures of darkness.”
Emmerich, Kyra’s father, stood by the window, weapon in hand, ready to defend his wife and young daughter against the coming onslaught. He turned to gaze at Evia when she spoke. “How do you know this?” he asked.
Her smile was almost pained. “We all have our secrets, my love.”
Em glanced out the window again. The Malic’Uiel grew closer. He took a step toward his wife, then stopped. “I’ve heard the rumors . . . I know people are running.”
“I didn’t think the rumors were true,” Evia said. “I prayed they weren’t.”
Kyra trembled in her mother’s arms, wishing her father could hold her as well. She’d heard the rumors too, from her friends who were there one day but gone the next; their homes abandoned, belongings left behind, the doors hanging open like giant mouths gaping at the sudden departure. Kyra had gaped too, over and over while one by one they disappeared. With each disappearance her world seemed to close in on her. She clung to her mother now, her head barely level with her chest, and wished she was small enough for her mother to cradle her as she once had.
Risking a glance out the window, she instantly regretted it. The men coming were taller than Emmerich by at least a foot, cloaked in a black shroud that hung heavy on their shoulders but wisped about their legs like a fog. They stood straight and terrible—an approaching doom. She couldn’t see their feet; they seemed to float on the blackness, coming closer with every passing second. Their faces faded in and out of the shroud, never staying visible long enough for her to determine whether they were gruesome and terrifying, as she perceived they would be, or beautiful, as the rumors had whispered.
Their hands were pale, with long fingers wrapped around strange devices that Kyra thought might be weapons—but they weren’t weapons she understood. These devices didn’t seem to be created to destroy. They were similar to the snares her father used to catch small animals—loops of rope dangled from short rods, and at the end of each rod were two large hooks. As Kyra studied them, she realized the hooks could shoot out if needed and they would pull the rope out behind them, wrapping around whatever they were targeting. But if the hook missed . . . Kyra shuddered. No person could survive if that hook buried itself inside them.
It took a moment, but Kyra suddenly understood. These men were hunting. Kyra and her family were the prey.
She glanced again at her father, sick to her stomach. They couldn’t stay here.
Em hadn’t moved from his place by the window, but his eyes flickered back and forth between his family and the shrouded enemy approaching.
“Evia,” he said quietly, “I need to know what you know. You cannot carry your secrets any longer, but we have to get out of here first. Go get the bow and the extra dagger. Pack whatever provisions you can, and you and Kyra go.”
Evia glanced up, her face stricken, but did as he requested. It wasn’t long before she had a full pack slung across one shoulder, a quiver of arrows across the other, and a slender dagger strapped to her thigh.
“What about you, Em?”
“Go out the back way, stay low, and get into the woods as quick as you can. Remember where we used to meet, before our union?”
“Go there and wait for me.”
“You can’t fight them,” Evia said, her tone low to keep from frightening Kyra. It was useless; Kyra could hear the strain behind the words. “You see them out there. You’ll die.”
Em took Evia’s free hand and grasped it tightly. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to fight them. I’ll only make sure the two of you are safe, and then I’ll follow right behind.”
“I promise.” Em stooped until he was eye to eye with his daughter. “Go with your mother, Kyra. Listen to her. I’ll be right behind you.”
“No,” Kyra whispered, “Please.” She was safe with Em, protected. Without him . . . She glanced at her mother. Would they be okay?
Em kissed her forehead, and then stood to gather his wife in his arms leaving a long, lingering kiss on her lips. “Hide yourselves well. Don’t show yourselves to anyone until you see me coming.”
Evia nodded, then darted for the back door. Kyra followed, keeping her hand tightly clasped in her mother’s. As frightened as she was, she tried not to show it; she tried not to tremble, and she bit her lip to keep from crying. This wasn’t right. Her father should be running with them.
Just before they slipped into the woods, Kyra stole one last glance at the house. The window was empty. Without her father watching over them, the house looked hostile. Thankfully, her mother’s hand held her own. The warmth was a comforting reminder that she wasn’t alone.
She didn’t know at the time that her mother was about to become a broken, painful memory in her life.
Kyra lurched up and threw herself forward, vomiting into the corner of her cell. The wrenching pulled at her stomach, forcing it to cramp again and again while stomach bile splattered onto her knees. In the back of her mind she realized that her skin would have felt like paper if it weren’t for the thick sweat that oozed out of her pores. Her body was dying. When the wrenching stopped she remained hunched over, praying for the strength to keep from collapsing. Her mother’s memory seemed to pulse in the dark, a ghost of a past once filled with hope.
Her hand gripped rough wood, and her knees dug into a packed dirt floor. There was no window here, nothing to show whether it was night or day. She felt like she had been thrown into an endless night. Eventually she found the strength to push herself back, collapsing against the wall behind her. Her eyes pricked as if they wanted to tear up, but no liquid found its way out. Her body couldn’t even muster the strength to cry.
Kyra had no memory of being tossed into this cell. She remembered running from the Cadavers, she remembered begging Caden to leave her behind, and she remembered the face of the Malic’Uiel inches from hers, promising her that he’d take her soul. After that, she’d woken up in darkness.
At first, she had tried to keep track of the hours, counting out seconds and minutes to keep from going crazy. There was a pile of pebbles in the corner that she had used to track the time, but it wasn’t long before she started to second-guess her counting and then lost track entirely. What remained there now was a small row of the pebbles—nine total—counting not the days but small, brief moments of calm that stole into her night; they were fleeting, lasting long enough for her to remember there was something beyond this existence, but no more. For now, they created the rhythm of her life, if she could call it that. Beyond those precious seconds, all she could do was wonder if this what was it felt like to die, and hope that life existed beyond death.
The bulk of her memories were a blur and they shifted in and out of her conscious mind, plaguing her subconscious. In this endless darkness they swirled around her, teasing her, tearing at her mind. Memories of her mother tormented her. Memories of her father laughed at her. Memories of her friends and loved ones all haunted her existence.
The memories were visions of her past life, but they came in tainted waves, always carrying a dark undertow as if they’d been pulled from her mind and mixed with death before being pushed back into her head. She wasn’t sure anymore what was real or had been real, or what was just a dream, an illusion of the reality she had been thrown into.
She scrunched her eyes tightly shut, focusing her mind on the memory that had most recently been in her dreams, the one that initiated the vomiting.
At least, she thought it was a memory.
The terror of the memory had felt real. The fear at seeing the Malic’Uiel for the first time had felt real. The longing for her parents had felt real. She kept her focus there, on her parents, remembering that at some point somebody had loved her.
It must have been real. She didn’t believe the Malic’Uiel knew how to feel love, which meant they couldn’t have forced the emotion into her body.
“No,” she whispered to herself. “That one was real.” A real memory, untarnished by the destructive, grasping fingers of the Malic’Uiel.
A swell of hate gurgled out of her chest and she screamed in frustration.
The Malic’Uiel destroyed all that they touched. That was real.
That emotion, that white hot desire to rip them apart as they had done to her life, that was real.
Kyra held on to that emotion, clung to it with every ounce of her strength, fearful that it might be the only thing that kept her from becoming one of them.
They destroy what they touch.
That was her new mantra.
I will not be destroyed by them.
That was her other mantra. Those were the words she would use to survive the Malic’Uiel.
So while other parts of her slipped away, Kyra held on to the hate. It was the only thing she could find that was powerful enough to withstand the destruction of the Malic’Uiel.