■ My submissions
■ Partner’s submissions
The clouds above Cirrane village coalesced into a floating blanket that rejected the sun’s light above, casting shadows like massive ink blots onto the pebbled road beneath it. A young girl in a flower dress pulled the gaze of her father towards the strange rain cloud with a point of her finger…
…but what Cirrane would receive was far beyond rain.
Before long, the shadow soldiers surged towards the bustling outdoor market like gray mists with vaguely humanoid shapes. They were as nondescript as shadows upon the corner of one’s eye, but appeared as transparent soldiers when still enough to take prisoners or direct orders… soldiers with molten eyes and uniforms of leathered skin.
The strolling father in his miner’s cap and overalls was pushed to the ground with blades pressed against his neck, while his screaming daughter fled until she was swept up by a horseback soldier’s arm and restrained against a mane of ebbing tendrils.
A cacophony of chaos rose along with the screams of those woefully unprepared. Doors of buildings were slammed shut only to be torn off with a hurricane’s fury and ransacked by blurred, bestial beings. Women were taken and occasionally swallowed into the air, their screams abruptly cut from existence. Men fought with whatever they could manage as weapons, be it a broom handle or loose brick, only to be struck down or lassoed and dragged away by galloping horses.
Amidst the horror and pandemonium, a hazy presence slowly materialized itself into a corporeal form, like a swimmer surfacing from the depths. The sight of a tall, slender man with leather armor the color of dried blood unveiled itself near the community building to stunned onlookers. His skin was as pale as snow, while his dark wavy hair flowed to a wind not of this earthly plane. Stark red markings and embellishments scattered themselves across the his armor, mostly strange glyphs that kept their truths away from unknowing eyes. He stood with arms that were calmly folded behind his back.
Though the name escaped comprehension, the onlookers ultimately understood. This is the Shadow Prince.
Yet another village claimed, was the look on his eyes while he reveled in quiet triumph. And many more still to fall.
“Enough!” The cry was enough to shake the Prince from his reflections, and his focus settled upon a young, armored knight before him, emboldened by the weapon in his hands.
The young warrior held forth his blade to the Prince’s chest. “Stop this!” he insisted with a seething defiance that masked his dread. A merchant’s cart with caged chickens had toppled nearby, and their screeches perfectly captured the terror coursing through the air.
The Shadow Prince smiled at the boy’s request. “No,” he whispered back.
The warrior gritted his teeth in anger before his blade was swung. The Shadow Prince stepped calmly to the side and neatly dodged the attack. For a minute or so there was a ballet of desperation as the young warrior’s frantic swings failed to land a blow upon his graceful opponent, who hopelessly seemed one step ahead.
Finally though, with what seemed like a stroke of luck from the God’s themselves, the tip of the blade haphazardly pierced the chest of the Shadow Prince, and his snarl of pain accompanied a backwards tumble onto the ground.
He was but a moment away from lifting to his feet and ending the pathetic charade when a healer girl inexplicably rushed to his side A brief nudge of agitated dismissal would give way to the sight of eyes as they laid upon the woman… and the particles of air swirling around him seemed to freeze into place. There was some sort of subconscious, wordless realization… until a string of them finally sifted to the lips of the entranced Prince.
“You are… who are you?”
The one? his mind questioned with the awe of a fledgling stargazer. She was attractive beyond the incommodious pulses of lust that the Shadow Prince grudgingly indulged upon to satisfy his meager ties to mortality. Her beauty spoke to something eternal, something that lifted above time itself and entwined with his essence… in this life, or the one that followed.
A few moments passed as the young woman dutifully tended to his wound. The Shadow Prince wouldn’t resist and remained still. Once it seemed the woman was finished, the Prince seized her forearm with one hand and drew a glyph upon it with the other… slowly and precisely, spreading a wave of gooseflesh. The mark’s imprint resembled a pair of entwined snakes upon a bed of waves, ghosting away after a few moments.
He then climbed to his feet, his gaze ever locked upon the healer girl.
“Dear maiden, my name is Charôţh. I am honored and humbled by your presence.” A polite bow of greeting preceded his next words. “I have decided that your village shall be spared from my onslaught. In exchange, our lives are now bound together by the mark of Ætranos.” He could see the confusion in her eyes, but left it alone.
A snap of the Prince’s fingers instantly evaporated the pillaging forces, and the sudden silence that followed swallowed the village with finality.
“Until we meet again,” he said with a smile to the woman, still on her knees. Another snap of his fingers, and he disappeared before her very eyes.
Years passed. Kingdoms fell, as well as villages. The conquest of the Shadow Prince had neared its ultimate goal of dominance, and yet he sat wearily upon his throne as his trusted second approached with a climb up the circular staircase.
“My liege,” came the report of General Onyx. “More news to report. Rebellions gathering momentum and spreading outward.” He took a moment to reflect on the magnitude of the matter. “Their… alchemies have improved, it seems.”
“Yet I remain on the cusp,” Charôţh sighed through his breath. “If only the world accepted the inevitable, this would already be done with.”
“My scouts have returned with more details,” Onyx continued. “The village of Cirrane appears to have fortified into a stronghold.”
Charôţh’s eyes widened before narrowing into snake-like slits. “Cirrane,” the Shadow Prince hissed as he shifted on his seat.
“You’re familiar, my liege?”
The Shadow Prince shut his eyes and nodded. “I am familiar, and I seek to be unfamiliar,” he sneered while lifting to his feet. “We shall go to complete what I had left unfinished.”
The villagers of Cirrane were much better prepared when the ominous clouds gathered once more over their heads, but the fear on their faces was unmistakable. A large troop of knights assembled to await the looming threat, assembled in rows with blades drawn, while women and children fled or hid as best they could.
Eventually, a swirling portal as black as the void pooled before the knights, rousing a chorus of gasps and shouts. The Shadow Prince emerged through the dark doorway, flanked by hordes of his hellborn soldiers.
Before he could lift a deadly finger towards the row of armored rebels before him, he was interrupted by someone pushing to the front and ahead of the knight’s positions. The Shadow Prince was visibly taken aback when he realized it was the healer girl, but rigidly stood his ground.
“And what have you say before the heat of battle, dear maiden?” Charôţh asked after a fleeting pause, unable to guise his curiosity.
Katya Greenleaf had been in the town center the day of the attack, in what she would later learn was among the first wave of the endtimes.
At first, she thought it a mere storm, her pace hurrying to get back to her cottage. Then the charging beasts descended to prove her otherwise. She ran, at least initially, before managing to subsume herself in the cold, calculating mindset of the wartime clinician. Triage. Treat who you could as best you could with what you had. Unfortunately there were few wounded, only the dead and the taken. Still, she tried, flitting as stealthily as she could across the town.
One man, the only identifiable one akongst the assailants, soon appeared, quickly ending up engaged with one of the few standing knights that remained in the villags—practically a boy. She could not help but watch, frozen in fear behind a set of crates.
Her consciousness slid over the blur of runes, mind unable to latch on enough to parse even one. Even the color of his eyes seemed an indiscernable mass. The girl broke from her paralysis once the scuffle finished.
The young knight scurried away as soon as he had an opening. Wise. Katya looked to the wounded man, breathing sharp as she fought with herself. He was obviously a prominent figure in conducting this slaughter; perhaps his death would prevent others. Her hands twitched.
Life needed to be preserved, regardless of ideology, intent, actions, regardless of anything.
“I’m Katya, lay still now, we’re going to get you fixed up, okay?” She tried to keep her voice comforting; human connection was often the only thing that kept the severely wounded clinging to life long enough for trearment.
Katya moved to kneel at him, beginning to suture. It seemed rather unecessary after a mere three stitches however, his flesh knit together to leave the man unscathed.
Before she could stand and draw back, he had grabbed her, his grip cold and firm as steel. A cthonic chill followed in the wake of his finger, the procedure allowing him plenty of time to regard her features.
She had a soft face and sharp jaw, doll-like lips lying under a button nose. A milkmaid braid as gold as sunshine crowned her head, pinned tight, and large forest green eyes stared fearfully back at him. Finally, she was released.
After an oddly genteel introduction, he vanished, taking the sieging horde with him.
There could be no knowing his motivations and intent for her, what the mark meant, only blind speculation. And there was little time for that in the aftermath.
Nightmares hounded her since, and though that was the case for most all the townsfolk, hers often took a less typical shape. Between the normal images of the sick and wounded and dying and dark were odd vignettes: plummeting through endless mists. A field of poppies, scarlet as loathing. Blood, so much blood, pooling into a grasping dark.
The years following hardened the village. Their once self-imposed insularity reached new heights as their trading partners were swallowed from the map—seemingly literally in some cases. Cirrane had become a bastion against the encroaching dark.
Thankfully their initial, watered down isolation helped the needed transition to complete independence. Few changes were needed for complete self-reliance, more for the increased defenss focus: the peace would not last forever, they knew. There was speculation as to what happened to the taken, but most viewed it as a worse death, being dragged to a wretched afterlife.
The people seemed to either galvanize in their resistance, or succumb to despair as scant few refugees reported the elimination of an ever-increasing amount of kingdoms. Too many people came to her for poison. Perhaps she shouldn’t have refused them—they may very well try more painful methods—but she found that removing access to an easier method helped curb some of the casualties. Too few.
It seemed the world was ending. She herself would rather try and cling to every moment of existence she could. Hence why she had not discussed her marking; it was unlikely anyone would accept any association with the perpetrator of the apocalypse.
It was a winter night when they next struck. Once-green fields lay covered in a snowy shroud, leaving the landscape a featureless canvas as far as the eye could see. A full moon hung low in the sky, mantling the scene in a pallid silver light.
Katya had joined the soldiers for the upcoming battle, nervously triple-checking her supplies in the back. In the best case scenario, there’d be wounded. In the worst, they’d all be gone.
But the sight of the crimson-mantled man emerging from the portal sent a primal jolt through her, something not entirely fear. Perhaps. . .perhaps the slaughter could be avoided?
Decked in the white robes of a battlefield nurse, Katya resembled an ethereal wraith flitting to the front, at least in color and cut. Her braid—now only shoulder length—peeked loose at her neck from under the wimple; a plague of scarlet fever years ago had forced many a haircut, herself included. It was only logical that as one of the few treating the afflicted, she end up as such.
With an iron that belied her fear, she spoke when up front, soft and firm. There was much she wished to say, to ask, but lives were at stake.
“Years ago, you promised we’d be spared in exchange for you marking me.”—the girl extended that same arm, sleeves drawn—”Would you break that vow?”
It was a gambit that was unlikely to succeed: though he had indicated a regard for etiquette—at least on a surface level—she knew precious little about his regard for oaths. Not all supernatural creatures were bound by them; another tack would be needed.
“If I were to willingly join you, would you spare them again?” A waver could be detected now, the words joined by wisps of chilled breath.
The weight of the dagger in her boot seemed to grow as if in reminder. He had bound their lived together, supposedly. If the need for leverage arose, perhaps her life would hold weight enough to save the village, if threatened.
Life needed to be preserved, after all, and the cost of one could very well save many here.
The confrontation of the healer girl brought forth a sort of embarrassed grimace to the face of the Shadow Prince. Her nurse’s attire meant nothing to his forces—they were vicious enough to ignore the battlefield etiquette towards disregarding medics—but its significance spoke to the gospel of light. She was a helper, a healer, and now sought to be a selfless sacrifice.
The dark forces at his sides remained primed for slaughter, hinged upon his order, like rabid attack dogs pulling tautly upon their master’s leashes. And yet, the Shadow Prince held his tongue, refusing the command that would almost certainly overwhelm the steadfast knights and the draw of their swords.
“…if you were willing to join me.” Charôţh tasted the words presented to him, plunging his mind into the realm of possibility. There had been scant occasions when a woman had roused his interest above his lust for conquest, but the healer girl had awoken something primal. Even those of the dark were privy to spiritual revelation, and it was beyond certain he and she were woven. There was the promise of ventures across euphoric planes that transcended the thrusts of hips and throaty moans…
The mark of Ætranos had been little more than a formality. A bi-product of his unexpected fascination, an empyrean oath that could be broken with only the cost of loneliness… which at one point, would have been an acceptable forfeit. There had simply been no time for loneliness, not during his rampages across now conquered lands. But now his life’s ambitions were nearing their inevitable climax… and what then? What would there be left to dominate?
Indeed, the mark was simply an invitation for fate’s word, as it were. And now, before his very eyes, fate seemed to be speaking quite clearly.
“Are you sure you’re willing, woman?” the Shadow Prince posed while stacking his arms across his chest. “Your life as it has been would vanish forever. For the rest of your days you would accompany my side as my betrothed.” As if his betrothed almost escaped his tongue, but his boldness was quick to make the correction.
“You would share my bed, tending to my whims and fancies… experience things beyond the scope of your comprehension, beyond fear.” Charôţh’s index finger raised, as if to say you mustn’t bring fear, fair maiden. Not to this agreement.
“If these conditions are acceptable to you,” Charôţh concluded, “then I shall concede towards withdrawal once more.” He then stepped to the side, allowing a path into the black, swirling void behind him.
“After you, if you’re so willing,” the Shadow Prince smiled while extending his arm. “But first, I must know your name.”
Her heart beat in the cage of her chest like a hummingbird’s wings; a bead of sweat dripped down the back of her neck even in the biting winter air. The mere act of regarding that inhuman army was taxing, let alone contemplating the much more permanent act of joining them in their domain.
The knights tried to maintain an unflappable demeanor, but it was obvious they were just as nervous as her. Many were praying that whatever was happening would spare them; many more were just waiting for when the snarling creatures charged.
As willing as one can be when under duress nearly spilled from her lips; sarcasm was a tempting outlet when trapped. Thankfully her mind mover faster than her tongue—at least in this instance—and her response was more measured.
“My life would be gone anyways with your prior course of action.” That and the lives of thousands, but it would not help to remind him of how many he would be forgoing the slaughter of; he seemed to revel the kill.
A title so grand as “betrothed” was surprising. Katya had expected “concubine” or “whore”. Perhaps “chattel”. What were his reasons for all this? Surely a warlord had no shortage of women he could threaten? But she was as likely to get an answer to that now as to “why kill the world?”.
The mere fact of whatever he had planned being beyond her comprehension was enough to justify fear, at least to any reasonable person. No one was entirely without fear of the unknown, let alone unknown surrounded by uncountable acts of slaughter. One could still glean the shape of an obscured thing by the ripples it produced.
But the thought that she could save her friends and fellows and neighbors and people from certain agony was enough to set her course. Fear was unavoidable, but it was the actions in spite of or because of it that held weight.
Plus, if it proved too unbearably unfathomable she would probably be able to find a means to end herself. A grim resolution to draw comfort from, and yet.
Her steps did not falter—despite the leaden feel—even in the deeper patches of snow. She stopped only when next to him, not out of fear, but to turn and enfold his outstretched hand in one of hers. Soft and small.
“I am Katya Greenleaf. Let us be off then, dear Charôţh.” Cold fire shot through where the mark lay, tensing her jaw and sending ice water down her spine. But there was something more, some jolt of yearning connection that coiled around her spine like a climbing snake. Names held power, at least in some tales. Hopefully him knowing hers would now.
She could see his eyes now: an oddly human blue.
The girl—if permitted—would move to take him into that gaping unknown with her. If he truly considered then betrothed now, he should have little issue crossing the threshold with her.
In all honesty, the Shadow Prince expected the healer girl to balk at his terms, or at least attempt a bargain he would most surely reject. Instead she willingly surrendered, taking his hand as she readied herself for the unknown before her. Charôţh allowed himself a smile; she had impressed thus far, but the real challenge was about to begin.
“Very well, very good. I see that you are ready. But before we leave…”
With Katya’s hand still in his, he turned to the knights and “May the name of Katya Greenleaf be forever praised, and etched into legend. She has spared you all from certain destruction. I promise to treat her fairly and courteously on the other side, where the nest of shadows resides.”
With that, the Shadow Prince took a long bow as his soldiers retreated from existence, and led Katya into the void portal as it swallowed them into another domain.
They found themselves on a bridge made of what looked to be polished black marble, with faint red veins weaving through the sheen. Beyond the railings was a thick fog that shrouded a distant stretch of water on either side; the thick, maroon mass peering through the haze suggested that the moat consisted of blood. Groans of despair stretched rode along the gusts of wind that slid along their feet and past their ears. Looking above, the Shadow Prince’s castle resembled obsidian shards that stretched into, and perhaps past the heavens.
“Come, my dear,” Charôţh said as he beckoned Katya forward with a hand upon the small of her back. “It’s time to enjoy your new home.”
The entrance of the castle was a tall door made of a dark, oily oak, which parted slowly upon their approach. There was a sheet of shadow within its arch that concealed what lay within its gate, and for a moment they seemed to be entering another vessel of desolation.
The visual of the grand hall appeared suddenly. Upon a tall, circular staircase was the throne, made of marble with a back that arched outward like a crescent. Directly above the throne was the floating sculpture of an armored demoness, holding a pair of daggers in her hands and one clenched between her teeth, held in place with a magic that rejected a visual means of suspension. Her eyes blazed a red light that slid crimson contours across nearly every edge and bend, and her knees stretched into a lunging pose. Her broad, sprawling batwings cast sharp, angular shadows across the chair below her, swallowing it almost completely in darkness.
Flanking the wide, black rug of the hall were statues on ribbed pillars, some resembling beasts of lore and legend, and others that were simply horrifying. A circular void similar to what Katya experienced earlier was seen above one column… depicting a countless array of charred arms… reaching through with hopeless grasps at nothing but air, seeking a hold to pull them from their prison of nothingness. A closer inspection revealed the desperate hands periodically twisted and clenched.
Indeed, these statues also seemed alive in their presumed stasis, as one ox-like beast with an axe snorted its welcome as the pair passed the glare of its searing, fiery eyes.
“I hope this isn’t… overwhelming for you, Katya,” Charôţh said, with the slightest tinge of apology in his voice. A look on his face, however, revealed the ghost of a smile playing on his lips.
“If you would follow me…” the Shadow Prince said while leading the way towards the left of the grand hall. Another door would greet them, similar but smaller to the grand hall’s entrance, and parting subserviently just the same. Inside was a long hallway with paintings on either side, exquisite portraits of what may have been predecessors of the Shadow Prince’s dominance. Some bore a striking resemblance, others appeared to be distant relatives. At the end of the hall was another door, more modest with its impact, and needing the twist of a brass knob to open.
“Where you will sleep, my dear.” Charôţh stood aside to allow Kayta’s glimpse into the bedroom. Despite a pair of busts of what could only be described as screaming souls, the room seemed almost shockingly tame compared to the sights thus far. The bed was wide and expectedly tucked with black sheets and blankets, enclosed by a tall canopy with dark, translucent drapes with intricate patterns. The oily-oak doors of what was almost certainly a wardrobe could be seen, as well as another that possibly offered a washroom. Oblong windows allowed a grayish light to shed through the room, creating a sort of simmering mist that almost cloaked the floor.
“You are free to come and go as you wish, but this castle you shall never leave without me,” Charôţh said with a sternness that almost constituted a warning. “And there’s something else…”
Leading them back out into the grand hall, the Shadow allowed the door to shut behind him before looking to his left, the area behind the throne that sat atop its coned staircase. There would be seen a series of archways with red curtains exhibiting a vertical series of mysterious glyphs, draped with swathes of shadow. He gestured towards them with his gaze affixed on Katya.
“The Temporal Gallery,” Charôţh explained. “Rooms that live, breath, and move as we do. Rooms above time, throughout plausibility. Even I am unaccustomed to their mysteries. You are forbidden to explore them on your own, as the absence of a spiritual anchor might damn you within their clutches forever. But perhaps in time, we can do so together.” He turned to his green-eyed guest and smiled.
“There’s more to see, dear Katya, but before that… are you hungry, my dear?” Charôţh clapped his hands with a soft emphasis as he looked towards the opposite end of the hall. “My dining room is cozy and intimate, and I promise the dishes from my chefs will appetize you, despite any misgivings you may have gathered thus far.”
The last thing Katya wanted was to have to look back, but Charôţh had forced it of her by turning. Her eyes squeezed shut. She couldn’t look at them, couldn’t look back at the home and all the friends she was leaving.
But she knew she’d regret if if she didn’t.
With one last look, she regarded her fellows: a mix of confusion, relief, and tinges of sorrow played across the canvas of their faces. All Katya could offer them were silent tears—tears she could and would not give to Charôţh—and a wan smile before they stepped into the dark. They would be able to go on; they would be preserved.
When the landscape reshaped in front of her, it was not to the expected void. The physician had no idea what to expect in this strange new realm—at least they still seemed to use structures, which was somewhat more typical than she had figured.
Though most structures didn’t have red veins pulsing through the brickwork, and generally could only be built so high before the walls had to be unfeasibly thick to support it.
The liquid below matched the color of his armor far too much for her liking, but it surely couldn’t be blood: that’d be far too impractical. As if impracticality held weight here, where the stone defied weight and gravity enough to pierce the firmament.
Her spine stiffened as his hand settled on it, nudging her forward. It made for an oddly serene image: in pose, he resembled a doting husband, one hand on hers and the other about her waist. The lingering wails rather ruined the whole thing, setting her teeth tense in her jaw. Those poor people. . .
The great hall was an impressive display of artistry and scale, though the choice of statues left much to be desired. Who waa the demon woman, so important as to be above the throne itself?
She startled at the movement of the ox. The goal of many architectural structures—beyond the basic security and shelter—was to awe and intimidate. But who could he be attempting that with here? Whoever it was, it seemed that goal had many more avenues available when magic so heavily saturated a realm. Her face twisted at his “concern”, more so the smug, sardonic bent to his lips. He was obviously enjoying her discomfort—by far among the least of the sufferings he seemed to enjoy.
“It is. . .rather much. But not beyond at least surface-level comprehension thus far. One may call the pervading torture a touch excessive.” Katya tried to keep her voice level, droll, but it hitched and wavered revealingly as her gaze fixed to the grasping portal. If the ox was alive in some capacity. . .
They thankfully moved on to the thankfully mundane bedroom before she could contemplate their agony too deeply.
The mists covering the floor seemed to move and coil playfully about her ankles; she shifted her legs to try and ward them off. The thought that her first ventures into true intimacy would be in this den of darkness, with this creature that killed the world. . . it dropped a leaden weight in the pit of her stomach.
Hopefully she could find something to cover the busts; the bed looked comfortable, at least. Were they alive too?
If she were free to roam the halls, perhaps she could find a ladder, sheets or rope as a tether, and curtain rod or comparable tool to try and help pull the pained souls from portal in the hall. To try such unaided would only result in her being pulled in, and though the attempt would not likely yield, she still had to try.
Not being permitted to leave was expected, frankly, and barely worth considering: he could and likely would destroy Cirrane if she reneged on her promise.
The next step of the tour hurt her eyes; looking too long at the runed archways invoked an aching pressure in the walls of her mind. It was more out of necessity than desire that she turned her gaze to him as he spoke, though the sight of him invoked its own set of concerns. How could this monster look this human? His eyes held a compelling spark in them.
The depths of the gallery certainly were intriguing, though dangerous if even the lord of this very domain could not navigate them entirely. Curious.
“I could afford to eat, yes.” More so the chance to think and process in a hopefully more mundane environment, but food would not go amiss—provided it was edible enough. Rationing had taken its toll on all of Cirrane, rendering all far more lean than the years prior.
“Besides, I imagine the rest of the tour will only prompt more questions, I already have so many I’d like to try an address beforehand.” It was then that his mention of chefs registered: if he had staff who could survive this realm, perhaps all the people taken here still persisted?
The dining room was scarcely larger than the bedroom, with a doorless entrance to the adjacent kitchen, where the clinks and clatters of dishes could be heard as unseen chefs kept busy with their culinary preparations.
“Let us then sit, eat, chat… and question,” the Shadow Prince said while extending his arm to the modestly-sized dining table. “I very rarely have opportunities to entertain dinner guests,” he remarked as he sat upon his chair and watched Katya do the same. “This is a bit of a treat for me… a welcome aside from my dedication of conquest.”
There were goblets awaiting the pair at their seats, as well as dishes and silverware; all black with intricate red and gold embellishments. An ebony drape ran along the table, embroidered with alternating matte and lustrous stripes.
On the walls were an array paintings, portraying a variety of still-lifes, landscapes, and oceanscapes with ships, each of course subdued with the range of their palettes, ordained with black frames.
A well-dressed waiter with gray, expressionless eyes approached with a wordless welcome and poured what appeared to be a chardonay wine for Katya. For Charôţh a thick, dark liquid was poured from an unmarked bottle. The Shadow Prince twirled his goblet pleasingly as a basket of biscuits was placed between then, their aroma mouthwatering and not without their own visual touch of darkness, being covered in poppy seeds.
A long sip of his drink preceded his next words to Katya. “You’re quite beautiful, you know,” he’s say with a sideways pull of his grin. “And delightfully virtuous. I can smell the innocence across every inch of your body.” Amazingly, a soft, inebriated blush had already risen to Charôţh’s cheeks.
“It was my intention to partake of your body tonight,” he continued, the gleam in his eyes clearly enjoying his own forwardness. Charôţh’s demeanor has certainly relaxed while his eyes studied Katya’s reactions intently.
“But alas, you’ve been through much today, have you not? Leaving your old world abruptly behind… I’d be remiss to explore your thighs with the weight of the day’s turbulence still heavy on your mind.” Another sip of his black wine swished around in his mouth. “Perhaps in the morning…” he’d add, almost absentmindedly.
Behind Charôţh and around the room, Katya would surely notice the changes on the walls… the paintings which one presented innocuous imagery had changed… now depicting sexual entanglements that clearly involved she and Charôţh. One scene illustrated an overhead view of Katya pinned below the Shadow Prince with her legs wrapped around his waist… yet another was an unmistakable close-up of Katya’s bare breasts, her nipples perked and firm. All the while, the color of the Shadow Prince’s eyes had shifted from a blue to a warm purple that bordered on a cherry red.
Without warning he lifted from his seat and reached for the side of Katya’s face, cupping it softly with fingertips that gently stroked the area of skin below her ear. Slowly his hand trailed to her jawline… then descended along the side of her neck with a brief pause of pressure that seemed interested in her pulse… then further still to the top of her chest with a final, gentle squeeze across the fullness of her breast.
“I do have certain tastes in lovemaking, my dear, some of which may be… challenging for you at first. But I promise that my patience will be…”
The waiter’s arrival interrupted Charôţh’s thought as he lay down bowls upon his and Katya’s salad plates.
“Ah! Soup!” Charôţh said excitedly. “I do believe our main dish is some sort of fowl,” he’d say to Katya with a low voice while leaning towards her, as if sharing a secret. A wink accompanied his playfulness, but still held an air of sultriness.
“Now then. You had some questions for me, yes, my dear?” Charôţh said while plopping back into his chair as he fumbled for his spoon on the table.
More out of habit than anything else, she unwrapped the cloth layered over her hair, letting the cornsilk braid fall back behind her. It was rude to have one’s head covered at the table, and though she did not often run in noble circles she was still raised as such. In a time that no longer seemed real.
“You do seem to take precious few breaks from conquest; it makes me wonder why you stopped on my account.” Bitterness snuck into her words, black as his wine.
The placement of the tableware prompted speculation: he had not arrived at Cirrane with the sole intent to take her. They were unlikely to have been set before he left: did he have some sort of direct magical link to or hold on the staff? She had seen him give no orders.
Katya gave the server a pleading look, desperate for some sign of humanity, and found none.
The dream-field of poppies flashed through her mind as she regarded the biscuits, quickly dissipating. There were concerns of indefinite entrapment upon eating food of this realm, but she was already damned. The girl took one and split it in half, savoring the buttery comfort.
With it, an opioid numbness washed over her fears: enough to hide the edges like a rising tide, but not submerge then entirely. Katya had worked with milk of the poppy before; she knew full well that poppyseeds in this state should not have this effect.
It was when she was first partaking of her drink that he stated his initial intent. The fruity taste felt far less refreshing down her windpipe. Her eyes fixed his with a watchful stare as he continued, yet more red tinting her cheeks. It was obvious he was seeking some shocked or repulsed reaction, as if she were some pearl-clutching dowager. She would try her best to ensure he did not receive it.
His humanity seemed so variable: she had met him a barely-fathomable revenant heralding the doom of the world, now he seemed merely a sickly rake, eating and drinking and taking drunken delight in his planned iniquity. A warm shiver ran through her: the sinful slant of his lips promised much.
“Indeed, it’d be a rather dour wedding night as it were. My gown will still be usable whenever. . .that occurs.” Katya motioned sarcastically at her conservative white medic’s robes: a wedding dress of sorts.
His words soon affirmed the promise of his lascivious smirk, and she could no longer ignore the shifting paintings.
They were terribly. . .distracting; a blush not induced by the alcohol painted her cheeks and lower still. The images were inevitable, perhaps it was best she try and grow accustomed to them. Her eyes lingered on some of the more lascivious scenes when he moved to her. Was he blushing as well? What had happened to his eyes? She had not thought him capable of possessing color, let alone—
He was soon on her, touching her with the reverence of a penitent promised absolution. After so many years of struggle and paranoia, the mere pretense of affectionate touch was enough to unleash the floodgates. Her head tilted into his palm, cheek warm and soft against his fingers. Heat grew in her chest; her pulse raced as if to greet his touch. It no longer felt quite as icy. An effect of his inebriation, perhaps?
A faint groan slipped from her as he clasped over the roughspun cloth covering her chest; everything felt too sensitized. The sound soon took a less pleased note it the interruption, whether out of relief or disappointment she could not quite tell.
The waiter placed their dishes without affect; the poor soul seemed bereft of higher thought, at least from what little she had seen of him. The heat within quickly cooled.
The soup appeared conventional enough: a light chicken soup. Presumably the stock came from the bones and lesser cuts of whatever fowl was to be their main course. Hopefully it would not prove foul.
Small spoonfuls were eaten as she pondered what avenue to take. She could not squander his likely limited willingness to indulge her. Few would have the patience to address every single lurking question swirling about her head.
“What happens to the people you take?”
Hopefully the questions of “why did you take them” and “what is this place” would have some sidelong light shed on them as he answered the first. If light could even find purchase in this realm.
She dipped the other half of the biscuit into her soup before nibbling at it: she figured she deserved at least some narcotic relief, and the flavor helped bolster the bread.
Charôţh savored a bite of his soup, swishing it within his mouth as he watched and listened. Katya appeared noticeably more relaxed before him, though there were contemptuous pulses that flared across her eyes. These too will pass, the Shadow Prince thought to himself before collecting his words.
“They are alive,” the Shadow Prince finally answered, in such a manner to address an underlying concern. “Though perhaps they themselves lack that realization. My shadow forces seek out companions as those do in the realms of light… as well as intimacy and sexual succor.” A toss of his goblet was swallowed with an audible gulp, and the flush on his face had pulled the complexion to a nearly human shade.
“They are now citizens in the realms of shadow, certainly for a long time… perhaps for the rest of their days. Their existence needn’t be fraught with turmoil and grief, if they are willing to submit to the desires of their abductors.”
“They are acting on the primal impulses that unite us all,” Charôţh continued. “Sexual climax is a touch upon the plane of euphoric bliss that weaves itself across all beings, both dark and light and in between. It lingers and looms on my own mind, even as my passion fully invests itself into my bid for conquest.”
With his elbow on the table, Charôţh’s fingertips dangled his goblet by its rim with casual twirls. “To climax is to be one with Creation, for those fleeting, succulent seconds. It can be quite addictive, as you very well may know for yourself.” His smile flitted curiously.
A trio of waiters arrived with pleasant offerings of smells and sights. The fowl was unveiled as chicken, delivered on an oblong platter between the Prince and Katya, glazed with a thick blackberry sauce and garnished accordingly.
Slices of chicken breast were carved and placed upon Charôţh’s and Katya’s plates by a waiter’s patient knife and fork. A lightly sauced vegetable medley was portioned by another attendant, and the pair’s drinks were promptly refilled.
“And perhaps that is where my… challenging tastes come into play,” Charôţh said, resuming where he left off. “I’d like for you to fight against that climax… deny yourself the satisfaction of its release. If my simple command isn’t enough of an anchor, then perhaps the looming shadows of punishment will provide the proper motivation.”
“After all, as one who selflessly administers aid, your earthly desires should be set aside for those of others, yes?” The Shadow Prince’s hand reached once again towards Katya, seizing her breast with a firm clasp, kneading it for a number of seconds before a gentle tug of her nipple accompanied its departure.
“Who knows… your disdain for me might carry your discipline far across our intimate entanglements. But passion can be quite infectious… let’s hope it leaves you in a state of perpetual want.” The grin on Charôţh’s face flared deviously.
“We shall see for ourselves tonight,” the Shadow Prince declared, straightening himself in his chair. “I see no point in a delay. The sooner you acclimate yourself to my desires, the better.”
She sighed with an emotion too weak to be relief, but incomparable to anything else. They were prisoners of war, taken by a conqueror for labor and exploitation. Not dissimilar from that period of roving warlords that lay far closer to the now than many would like to think, well within the realm of comprehensibility. The people persisted, even in whatever wretched state they had been trapped in.
Her eyes lingered on his hands as he spoke and twirled his goblet, the sinuous grace of his hands combined with the quiet intensity with which he spoke wove a compelling heat that settled upon her. The memory of his touch lingered all-too much, augmented by the lascivious paintings. He had a strange handsomeness, she decided: lean and pale.
“I suppose I’ll have to take your word on the matter of, ah, climaxes for now; as you’ve said, I’ve never, been with another. And my self-produced ‘climaxes’ have generally been rote and underwhelming.” Indeed, for her they had generally been little more than a machine-like session of joylessly pressing at herself to elicit stimulus; she had difficulty understanding how much weight folks often regarded the matter.
Something far more akin to relief than before flooded through her as the “fowl” he seemed to take such fiendish delight in foreshadowing was revealed to be a mere chicken. A delicious one, at that. It was something of a comfort that the beings here were still human enough to require food, at least enough to have the infrastructure for it. She ate vigorously: meat was amongst the scarcest food available during the years of rationing, one that was much-needed.
It certainly didn’t hurt that it was so well-prepared.
“If those climaxes are what all the fuss is about, I don’t believe I’ll have too much trouble resisting.” Her eyes gleamed sharp, mouth tilted smugly with the veiled challenge: “show me how good it can be”. Perhaps the inebriation was lending her too much courage.
As if in chastisement, his hand was upon her again, almost as warm as a human’s now. Light pinpricks danced at the back of her neck with his ministrations, even through the thick white cloth. Such promise seemed to linger in those touches, even the hint of pain at his pinch that drove an airy, startled sound from her throat. It was only a good deal after he released her that she gathered herself enough to respond.
“Generally, aiding others is my desire, but it’s been in such a way that’s more substantive than fleeting moments of extraneous pleasure and not at the cost of all of me.” Katya was still a person, after all. She deserved pieces of herself that were just hers.
His sudden rise and resolution was startling, but expected. It took only a moment’s hesitation for her to rise with him: it would be best to try and get this evening’s tribulations over with; perhaps then he’d leave her alone in the morning, and she’d be free to explore.
But despite her rationalizations, the girl would be lying to herself if she denied any curiosity, any desire.
“Very well, I suppose it only makes sense that the farce of this betrothal extends to the marriage bed. Let’s be done with it.” Less venom than she wanted had made it in her voice.
The smile that curled below Charôţh’s cheeks relished the subtle challenges that Katya presented. There would be a moment’s consideration before his decision was made. “Let’s see just how ready you are, my dear Katya.”
There was a sudden snap of the Shadow Prince’s fingers, and both he and Katya found themselves seated upon the black velvet blankets of his bed. The gray mist danced and flowed along its foundation, and traces of candlelight emanated a soft orange glow across the bedroom.
“My apologies for the hastiness, but your beauty makes it quite difficult for me to wait.” The grin never left Charôţh’s face as a series of hand gestures invoked a sightless presence around Katya… a swoop of his palm commanded an invisible force of arms to remove her surcoat and dress, discarded unceremoniously to the floor alongside her wimple. She was then directed to lay upon her back with a backwards pull of her shoulders, wearing nothing but her undergarments as the Shadow Prince dissolved his own fittings into nothingness with another snap.
“This I save for myself,” the Shadow Prince cooed as he freed Katya’s loins from their tantalizing barricade. A series of tugs slid up the softness of her legs, culminating with a careless toss of cloth.
A fluid, cup-like motion of his hand then parted her thighs. From there, the unseen strength relinquished its hold as the Shadow Prince positioned the swollen tip of his rigid cock against the flowery folds between Katya’s thighs. His fevered gaze dangled downwards to his lover’s face, buttressed by his thin, muscular arms and shoulders.
“You are mine, Katya… now and forever.” With a motion of his waist, he slipped inside his betrothed.
The succulent sensation of warmth spilled across his body. There was a brief moment of effort to pierce Katya’s shield of purity, and then his cock was fully immersed… arching upwards and inwards, as it burrowed as deeply as its excitement would allow.
“Oh… oh yes, Katya.” The thrusts were heavy and rhythmic, each with a second’s savor of ecstasy at the nethermost arc. The pleasure built quickly until a final, desperate buck of his hips swallowed every inch of his cock, accompanied by euphoric moans that the Shadow Prince seemed almost to fight against, muffling their intensity with pursed lips.
As he flooded Katya with his seed, Charôţh’s eyes pulsed between a fiery red and a vivid sky blue… refusing to close amidst the throes of ecstasy as they affixed upon Katya’s own forest-green orbs. His pants climbed from within his throat as sweat collected upon his brow, pattering against Katya’s forehead in bulbous droplets.
His cock eventually eased, shrinking back from its spasmic frenzy, until its head nestled within Katya’s opening with aftershocks of elated exhaustion. The eyes of the Shadow Prince cooled to a neutral cerulean, and his mind seemed to return from nirvana… some celestial place above the descriptions of language.
“There we are,” he sighed throatily before maneuvering his spent body to Katya’s side. “You did well, my betrothed. Though you yourself shall never partake of such delights, know that I am quite satisfied.” The Shadow Prince then shifted to his side towards Katya, supporting the chin of his inquisitive face with a bent elbow’s palm. “For the moment, at least.”
Once again, the sense that… something… was conveniently absent from Kelyn’s response flagged Charles’ scrupulous instincts. He of course didn’t care to interrupt their momentum with an inquiry, as their rapport was growing by leaps and bounds with every exchange, but somehow understood that whatever her secret was, it would rear its head sooner or later. It might raise an eyebrow but he’d be sure to shrug it off… he was good at that sort of thing, and to each his own, as they say. He had his own crosses to bear, after all.
Her breath caught in her throat as they were whisked straight onto the bed; too little time was given to recover before being stripped and shoved onto her back. An attempt to cover her chest was made, but the force that had pulled her back kept her pinioned.
His own disrobing could not be seen, only surmised as his now-bare arms crept up her legs like a grasping spider—her head remained pinned as well. One that had taken her braies and left her shivering.
The pressure keeping her stiff had ceased now, at least. The first thing she did was cover her chest as best she could with her slender arms, the next was to look at him, a hunter poised for the kill.
There was an allure to the intensity with which he regarded her, the sheer closeness. The weighty finality of his words. It would only get him so far on its own, however. A squeak of fear slipped from her lips at the feel of his heat so close to her junction.
The girl yelped and squeezed her eyes shut when he sheathed himself within her, unyiedingly him.
Though the languid atmosphere of the dinner had relaxed her by the most minute amount, she had no preparation for this. His cock abraded through her, her passage hot as a crucble, tight and dry as a drumhead.
Perhaps the overwhelming sensation of being filled with another could have grown tolerable at least, given time and encouragement. Charôţh gave her neither. The man tore within her some part so deeply lodged she had not realized its pervasion, and the pain was commensurate.
He would not get her tears, she promised herself again. But god it hurt; he was splitting her in two, carving her from herself and replacing all she was with him. Even her breath was pushed out of her, each thrust forced a gasping exhale, each retreat a pained whimper.
Katya shoved her mind elsewhere then, it politely showed itself out of the room that was her skull. Now it was more like she was an impassive observer, watching a different woman be brutalized by a conqueror. The play of colors in his eyes was more akin to a novel sunset now.
It was only when he was done that she returned to herself, though her emotions felt muffled. Further away than her body, for now.
With disdain, she wiped his sweat from her brow, trying to force as much air back into her lungs as she could and trying not to retch. For a time, words escaped her and her thoughts, only being drawn back into sharp, targeted focus as he slipped from her and spoke. His words gave her mind enough to work with to snap back:
“Well, the supposed delights weren’t exactly difficult to resist; 2 minutes of pained squelching noises between my thighs is hardly the most compelling siren.”
Shaking anger laced through her voice, barely-suppressed. He had robbed her of her first intimacy, turned what was supposed to be a pleasurable, sweet exploration of sensation and body into a careless, selfish exercise. More the fool she for expecting anything selfless of a warlord; pontificating about pleasure was far easier than delivering it, after all.
“Perhaps I could find a book to read for next time, if this is to be a regular infliction. Do something intricate with my hair, maybe.”
The bitterness continued into her sigh as she sat up and moved to undo her braid, hair streaming like spun gold over her shoulders. Her core ached as she bent to pick up her discarded clothes, tossing them at the busts she could have sworn were leering at them. The wet trickle of his seed sent a realization through her, one that came with a deathly weight.
“We need silphium root.” The physician stated with a notable lack of affecf, gaze aimed at anywhere but Charôţh. A new fear arose, a new cost that she may have to pay making itself known with the cloying heat now sliding out of her.
Would he force her to carry a child as well?
The exhilarating flood of release had already slipped its hold from Charôţh’s mind and loins, and the realization began to settle that Katya had not quite enjoyed her own experience. The coping sound of distance had already laid its claim upon his lover’s voice, and the ghost of a frown tugged at the corners of his mouth. A long moment passed between them, solemn and dispassionate.
“We need silphium root,” Charôţh repeated, seemingly speaking to something other than Katya. Within a few moments, there was a single, loud knock at the door. “Come,” the Shadow Prince called, prompting a small, black-robed servant to enter and scurry to the healer’s side of the bed. Upon closer inspection, the servant was only a robe, with a hood draped around an invisible head and unseen hands offering a plate before Katya’s presence.
“Silphium root at your request, m’lady,” said a prickly, nasally voice. A brief presentation of the plate’s contents preceded the next point. “Also the stem of the sky flower, which will nullify your potential pregnancy, should you decide to consume it.” The offerings were left on the nightstand, and the servant dismissed himself without another word.
In the meantime, the Shadow Prince had sat up on the edge of the bed, busying himself with his own whims. A tucked-away violin’s case floated across the bedroom and into his hands by mental command, and before long the instrument was tucked under his chin alongside a bow in his hand. Music began to play, frenetic and choppy at first before leveling into crisp, poignant waves. After a time, the musical piece culminated into a shuddery, deeply somber crescendo, after which Charôţh withdrew the violin from his chin, breathing heavily as if the effort had drained him.
Silence descended like an curtain upon the bedroom once more, and the Shadow Prince’s eyes turned to Katya, now the color of a faded, overcast blue.
“I’m disappointed that you weren’t able to enjoy your first act of physical love,” Charôţh stated with a genuine sense of regret in his voice. “Luckily, this will be far from your only act.” A smile sifted to his face, one that seemed to offer encouragement as opposed to grim realization.
Still sitting opposite his lover on the bed, Charôţh’s hand caressed a pocket of empty air before him. Katya would feel his disembodied touch across her cheek, tender and reassuring. Love’s intoxicating release seemed to touch its influence upon even the darkest of beings.
“I allowed my lust to overrule any conscientious considerations, at the cost of your own suffering.” There was a surprising note of apology in his words, but also a noticeable reluctance to verbalize it.
“If it’s of any consolation to you, my first act of intimacy was fairly joyless as well. I was forced as a young age to copulate with a contemptible witch, and her embrace was cold and listless. It was quite the relief, once the exchange was over.” The Shadow Prince sighed, but there was little regret expressed in his breath. “Such are the ceremonious coming-of-age rituals for beings of the Dark. We are taught to disassociate sexual release with attraction, but the curvaceous offerings of mankind have only grown more… tantalizing with the passing of generations.”
Charôţh leaned the violin case against a nightstand before shifting to lay on the bed, hands tucked behind his head while staring upwards. He often found a silent comfort in trailing his eyes along the ornate carvings which splayed and spiraled across the ceiling, showing themselves through the translucent fabric of the bed’s canopy.
“At any rate, what’s done is done. I would caution against training yourself to resent the act of lovemaking, since our entanglements will be common occurrences. I can only hope that our… your experiences improve, with time and patience.” A certain coldness has once again taken residence in Charôţh’s voice, and he quietly welcomed its return. In the end, he thought, Katya’s pleasure is a mere supplement to my own, secondary and unnecessary. Such is her weight to bare.
Katya pulled the sheets to cover herself at the knock, the black fabric cool and soft across her bare skin. The servant’s lack of hnads was noticed as soon as he entered, the lack of anything else when it approached.
“Ah, thank you.” Still, it wouldn’t be polite not to thank the thing, even if might only a manifestation.
The girl ate the bitter herbs, the taste in her mouth now matching the roiling in her stomach. At least she was offered a choice in this.
The music was unexpected; more so the fact that such a creature could produce anything of beauty. The symphony held groef, boundless enough to nearly bring her to tears in the reverie. A shuddering breath escaped her as the sorrowful threnody finished, as if she could breathe out all the melancholy that plagued them. It lingered enough to quaver her voice, even in the wake of his remorseless non-apology.
“Yes, you did. And it is ineeed of little consolation; it means you might know something of how wretched it can be and still chose to inflict it on me.” And likely countless others. Hurt leaked into her voice, creeping as if there was actually any affection for him to have betrayed.
Their wedding night would set the pattern, she realized. If she could not coax him to consider her now, the odds of doing so would decrease each rote, joyless day.
“If all the experiences are to be like that, I see little natural reaction but to resent them. Why mark me at all if you treat your betrothed like a paid harlot?” His caress mocked her further; the facade of tenderness only seemed to mantle him when it did not ask anything remotely taxing.
No, her own lack of experience had not moved him; a different tack was needed, even if risky. Katya turned to look at him now, eyes gleaming emeralds, lit with cold fire.
“I suppose I should have expected your skills to be lacking. A warlord used only to taking from the unwilling could hardly be expected to have developed any capacity for delivering pleasure to another.” Her voice turned imperious, filled with a power and confidence she did not currently possess. Perhaps he’d actually respond to her less subtle challenge, given his disregard for the less overt one, his ignoring of the petty snipes. Sympathy wpuld obviously not move him, perhaps the desire for dominance would.
“I don’t think you even could bring me to these supposed peaks you have no problem expounding about.” A smug slant marked her smile.
It swiftly dawned on Charôţh that he had previously not spoken of his sexual breaking to any creature, light or dark or of mankind. No effort was made to keep it hidden, but there was never any occasion to share it, even with the wenches and slaves enjoyed in his past. He had confessed it to Katya without hesitation, and his revelation left him equally relieved and perturbed.
Involving himself in the realms of intimacy and vulnerability has conjured strange reflections. Were these wise endeavors, befitting of the Shadow Prince? There was a lack of concern that was alarming in itself, and perhaps even this fell short of the true crisis before him. He had ravished and ravaged the woman promised to him by prophesy… and his mind incredulously felt the stony weight of regret. Was his impervious soul slowly being weathered? Could Katya somehow sense this weakness, and sought to press the only advantage she had?
Charôţh rebuked these potentialities, but admitted his admiration. Through her resentment Katya meant to challenge him, all the while refusing the river of hopelessness that would have drowned any other woman.
The look on the Shadow Prince’s face shifted from incredulity to a sort of buoyant acceptance. Only the Fates were privy to the nature of their love and how it would blossom, but Charôţh moved to enforce this love, whether it be rooted in fear or affection, or some unspeakable combination.
“My dear Katya,” Charôţh said in response, after a curious narrowing of his eyes. “I’ll offer you an even greater advantage. Your sweet slit shall forever be free from my cock’s intrusion, lest I succeed to pleasure you to ecstasy another way.”
The Shadow Prince lifted to his knees and crawled along the bed towards the maiden of light, situating himself before her pair of pale legs as his mauve gaze devoured her bare body. He then leaned forward and lowered his lips, pulling close to her wet cleft as his hands parted her knees.
“Hear me well, maiden Katya, for I am nothing if not a creature of my word. Reject the climb of release, and my cock shall nary again slip its way between your thighs. Even if your body should surrender its resistance, perhaps you’ll hide it well, and I’ll be none the wiser.”
With that, Katya felt a spongy wetness against her clit.
Charôţh was not quite a connoisseur of the nub that hid itself within a woman’s core, but perhaps it didn’t matter. As harshly as his cock had thrust, his tongue was conversely tender. Flutters and flicks ran up and down along Katya’s folds. Her clit was gently sucked and tugged with puckered lips, contrasted by hot, deliberate gusts of breath. A rhythm was established and rarely wavered, one which indulged in time and methodical exploration.
All the while, the mind of the Shadow Prince had already settled. The world was his to claim, as well at Katya of the Light.