Underneath the night sky, Elena Salas walked through the woods that were so common in the kingdom of Anglar, a land thick with forests beyond the hub of the capital city. Tonight, the air was still, quiet, and all of Elena’s senses were cast out around her, sensing for dangers that seemed ever-present in her line of work.
Hours prior, Elena had watched her target sleep in the small sliver of moonlight that shone through the man’s curtains, observing the inhales and exhales that would soon be long gone. Hooded lids, bushy grey brows, silk pajamas—bought from thievery and glutton, taken from the city’s poorest Koscis and Magicks. He’d had a deep line between his brows with pockmarks on nearly every inch of his face. Those murders—works of vengeance as she liked to think of them—Elena took great pleasure in, stepping in where the king wouldn’t, killing the wealthy and noblemen where no one else dared.
As she had swung the blade over his neck, his beady little eyes flew open, but there hadn’t been time to gasp, the blade rendering his fear mute.
Elena smiled to herself now as she picked her way through the dark woods.
Anglar was an expansive kingdom, full of mountains and valleys, forests and trees. She had the pleasure of living away from the hub of the city, in the southeast of Anglar, below the king’s castle that loomed ahead of the Cartas mountains in the north. Her home was among a dense forest of trees and bramble—one that the king and his men rarely scouted during hunting season, for it was too thick with life for the nobility to properly navigate through.
She lived in hiding, her very existence a secret, and so, she killed by the moonlight, underneath the stars.
It was a new moon tonight, and once it had been a time for celebration. Her parents, her mother a Magick and her father Kosci, had always celebrated the phases of the moon—sage and incense burned on the new moon, and red and white candles lit with mounds of fruit on the table for the full moon. As a child, she had looked forward to her parents’ parties with excitement; it was a time of unbridled joy, sheer delight, and full of delicious sweets. She had truly felt like the child of a witch during the moon fests—a feeling that was rare for her with no demonstrable abilities herself, aside from a vivid imagination.
But Elena didn’t miss the parties. It was during one of them that she had seen her parents brutally murdered. Her breath caught in her throat, and her heart beat wildly. She closed her eyes and willed herself into stillness, into calm.
She forced the memory away as she came upon her home. To the untrained eye, there was only a smattering of red and gold leaves cast over with shadows and the stump of an old oak tree, almost glowing in the thin sliver of moonlight.
Elena walked to the stump, brushing her cloak aside so she didn’t trip on any of the dying vines that ensnarled themselves so easily in fabric if one wasn’t careful, and with a quick glance to make certain she hadn’t been followed, she lifted the stump and jumped down.
Jamie was waiting in the damp underground space that served as their living room. Torches lined the walls; he had lit them all.
“Scared of something?” Elena joked, shrugging out of her worn cloak, fraying at the ends and holes forming in the elbows. She hung it on the golden hook on the dirt wall beside the makeshift iron ladder they used to climb in and out of their home.
Jamie was sitting on the blood-red sofa that Elena’s mother had once had in her own living room. The sight of it had ceased to cause her that sharp pang of loss, of grief, but it was impossible to see it without thinking, just for a moment, of her mother.
“Just you,” he replied, smirking.
Elena laughed, a short, hollow sound. She strode into the kitchen which adjoined the living room, her back to him.
“Did you find him?” Jamie asked casually, but Elena knew his tone was forced by the way he kept his voice casual, as if he were asking about a good meal instead of a murder.
Since they were children, Jamie had always been the kinder soul of the two of them. Since Elena was an assassin for hire, Jamie helped her weed out nonsense clients with his powers to feel people’s emotions. But he had no desire to assist in, or later hear about, her murders. Feelers usually were more empathetic, sensitive, and her mother had loved that in Jamie, who had been like a son to her. Elena’s mother had been more fierce, prone to intense fits of emotion, and always lamented that she couldn’t be more like a feeler.
Elena glanced at the back of her hand on the kitchen counter and noticed a fleck of blood on the knuckle of her index finger.
She rarely thought about what her parents might think of her career now, for it likely would have broken their hearts. They were each strong in their own way—her father’s strength quiet, her mother’s more vocal—but neither condoned acts of violence, preferring peace over war. While they had not been interested in the king’s god, nor religious in the ways of Anglar, they believed debates could solve more problems than fights. Than murders.
Elena tore off a piece of bread from the loaf on a plate on the counter. She liked to think her job as an assassin was an act of vengeance. It helped her sleep better at night, helped her celebrate the victories of death to help or atone for someone else. It helped her live with herself and her nightmares.
Jamie cleared his throat, waiting for her response.
She started but took a deep breath.
“I did find him,” Elena replied, keeping her tone casual, matching Jamie’s own, but more clipped. She tore off another piece of bread, chewing quickly; she was ravenous.
“Should I make a death announcement in the morning?” Jamie grinned, but it fell short. There was a nervous energy about him that Elena couldn’t place tonight. He often waited up for her after a job, but he rarely asked follow-up questions.
“You won’t need to,” Elena said with a shrug. “It’ll likely be the talk of the town. Greedy tax collector and all that, you know?” Which is what made Elena feel even better about the kill, because their king had done nothing to put a stop to the collector’s terror-induced influence.
King Nicolas ruled with an iron fist, doling out punishments to suit his ego, but didn’t bother to interfere in anything that hurt the desolate in the city. If the tax collector had been a Magick, however, that would’ve been a different matter entirely. King Nicolas cared more about domination than anything else and had decided long ago that magick threatened his rule. Magick, which had once flourished in Anglar, was now spoken of in whispers for fear of being beheaded.
“We had a visitor,” Jamie admitted quietly, startling her out of her thoughts.
Elena froze, the bread she held in her hands hovering inches from her mouth. She put it down on the counter slowly. After missions, she was always famished, never able to eat before a kill, but now, after the job was done, her stomach growled.
She turned carefully around. Jamie got up slowly, shuffling towards her to stand a few feet away. His shaggy dark hair hung in front of his sweet brown eyes, but he was staring at her, and she could see the fear there now. It was the same fear that had been present for months after their parents’ deaths.
To see it back caused her to tense; her chest felt constricted, her breathing shallow.
She took a steadying breath and ran a hand through her white blonde hair, sweeping it out of her face to stare at him.
They’d only ever had one visitor.
“What did Marcus want?” she asked, careful to keep her voice controlled.
She shouldn’t have been surprised. Their jobs all came through Marcus, who was a prominent assassin within the entire land of Terra, traveling through Anglar, Vlenmar, the Black Mountain region, and more. He was arrogant in his killings, reckless even, but he was necessary to contract work through without giving away her own identity as the child of a murdered Magick.
Elena thought of Marcus now—his dark brown eyes, constantly radiating an intensity that even Elena had to look away from—and sighed.
Marcus had also been Elena’s first lover. But that wasn’t important anymore. What mattered now were the jobs he was able to procure for her.
“He said that tomorrow…” Jamie stopped and shuddered.
Elena waited impatiently as he took a deep breath. She crossed her arms and tried not to glare. Jamie was the only one she had any amount of patience for, and it was that reason alone that she didn’t snap at him to spit it out.
“He said that tomorrow, someone from the castle would be coming here.” She tensed as he added, “…for us.” Jamie’s words echoed in the silence of the underground home that had been theirs since they were eight. It had been built for them by their families over a decade ago, their parents working together to give their children a safe place after Elena’s mother had gotten a premonition magick would soon be forbidden. Her mother had been a healer, but visions had come to her all the same.
“What?” Elena asked sharply, not wanting him to repeat the words, but demanding an explanation, her fingers curled into fists by her sides. Jamie looked down, shifting his weight nervously, one foot to the other.
“Somehow, they’ve found us. They’ve been tracking us. They know I can feel. They know you, well, they know you—”
“They know that I’m an assassin?”
“Yes. And Marcus got word—”
“Who did Marcus get word from?” Elena cut in icily, trying to keep her rising temper in check. Jamie had nothing to do with this. But Marcus had been a coward, coming to their home when she was not there, and now, she wanted answers.
“The king came to him. To bring us in.”
“He refused?” she asked, waiting to hear the impossible.
Jamie nodded. “He refused.”
“… and the king’s guards didn’t murder him?”
Jamie scoffed. “Marcus has always gotten a free pass. He’s done dirty work for the king himself for too long.”
This was true. Assassins were normally hung or beheaded in public; their bodies then put on display in the town square. Marcus had been spared either fate for his dirty work for the king, and for his own family connections. Even an iron-fisted ruler like King Nicolas had to keep up appearances and leave his hands clean.
“He refused, claiming he didn’t know where we lived,” Jamie added. “He then came to warn us.”
Elena turned from him and picked up her forgotten handful of bread. She ate a giant piece in silence, quieting her aching stomach. There was a part of her that always knew this day would come. How could they have expected to live in hiding for the rest of their lives?
When she was done and had placed her dish in the basin of water that served as their sink, she sighed and walked past Jamie towards the red coach. She slumped on it, her hands crossed on her belly, twiddling her fingers. Jamie slowly walked over and sat down beside her, leaving space between them to give her room.
Elena stared at the dirt walls around them, taking in the home they had had since they were children. It was barren, with nothing but the essentials. Elena wondered if they had kept it this way because they liked it, or because they knew they would one day have to leave.
Neither spoke for a few minutes.
“You should leave,” she said finally.
“Leave?” Jamie gave a short, humorless laugh. “And go where, exactly?”
Elena turned to face him. He brushed his hair out of his eyes again. His dark ones met her light ones, and she felt that pang of grief again. Were she and Jamie fated to be forever apart, too? Brother and sister, if not in blood. They had spent nearly their entire lives together, just like their parents before them. The friendship had been passed down in their blood.
“Go into town. Get a haircut. Work as a shopkeeper—”
“Selling what, Elena?” Jamie interrupted, sitting up straighter. He shook his head. “What’re you saying?”
“You can paint! Sell your paintings.” Elena threw up her hands in agitation.
“Painting is a hobby. I’m a feeler—”
“Stop,” Elena snapped. “You aren’t anymore. You are a regular person with no magickal abilities except the phenomenon of being a fantastic painter.”
Jamie jumped to his feet, rounding on her.
“I am not a bloody painter!” he roared. “I’m your partner. I’m your brother, for gods’ sake. We are in this together. We either both leave—”
Elena stood, her hands fisted at her sides. “Both leave?” she asked incredulously, her eyes flashing. “White hair and green eyes? A newcomer? A face to be interrogated?” She snorted. “You know what they’ll say: An elf! A witch! We wouldn’t last a day if I go, too.”
“We don’t have to go to the city,” Jamie replied, and she could tell he was struggling to calm down. “We can head to the countryside, the valley, even.”
“Where we are even more likely to be noticed. If you go into the city, you can easily blend in. You have dark hair, dark eyes, just like half the population of Anglar. No one will suspect you are a Magick.”
“I’m just a commoner, in other words?” Jamie asked, feigning hurt.
Elena rolled her eyes. “Yes. And right now, being just a commoner could save your neck.”
Jamie smirked as he crossed his arms over his chest. “You can say what you will. There’s no way I’m leaving you. I won’t betray you like that.” He said it with such conviction, such loyalty, keeping to their many promises they had made throughout the years to stick together no matter the circumstances.
“It’s not a betrayal if I’m telling you to go, Jamie,” she said with a sigh.
“We’ll both run. Why would we wait? Why should we stay here to die? If we leave, at least we have a chance.”
Elena shook her head, avoiding his eyes. “We don’t have a chance. Nicolas doesn’t easily forget or let go. He will have half the kingdom searching for us if we leave.”
“And yet, you think he’ll stop looking for me?” Jamie’s eyebrows narrowed, looking incredulous.
“Yes. If he has one of us, he will.”
“You mean if he has you,” Jamie countered. “If he has you, he won’t look for me.”
“Yes,” Elena repeated. “I’m the assassin, after all. The one murdering his precious noblemen. You are innocent in this. Being a feeler by itself is no longer a crime, Jamie.”
“It is if you have been practicing, which, as you very well know, I have.” He glared. “I won’t let you hang from the gallows as a spectacle. Not without me by your side,” Jamie managed to say through gritted teeth.
“We can go to Garcari,” he suggested when she didn’t reply.
Garcari. It was the holy grail of Magicks these days—a kingdom ruled by Queen Raytha, a place with an abundance of magick, just to the east of Anglar, adjacent to the castle and the Cartas Mountains, north of Rusnia. But Queen Raytha was smart; she knew the policies of King Nicolas, and in order to preserve the magick in her kingdom, to keep it away from the hands of a greedy man like Nicolas, she had filled the Dark Forest that separated the two kingdoms with all manners of dark magick—ghosts and ghouls, vampyres and werewolves, and other unknown terrors. King Nicolas had been trying to penetrate the Dark Forest for years with no success. Dozens and dozens of his men had never returned, while others had come back insane or severely injured and unable to speak of what lurked beyond. Corpses had appeared at the edge of the forest, their glassy eyes wide in horror.
Garcari was not an option.
“You know we can’t,” Elena said. “It’s impossible. Our parents had their chance to go before the killings, before the forest, and they didn’t. Now, we must live with that inaction.” She sighed angrily. “Why did Marcus tell us this?” She cursed aloud. “We could have slept soundly tonight and at least gotten enough rest to kill some of the men who are coming for us.”
Jamie said nothing. There was nothing to say, nothing to do, and nowhere the two of them could go. Anglar was vast, but the king‘s army wouldn’t stop tailing them even if they set off now.
“Please,” she implored in a whisper, taking Jamie’s hand into her own. “Please leave.”
They locked eyes while Jamie shook his head to deny her request, but she kept hold of his gaze. A current of energy ran through her into him, taking all her strength to focus. Magick didn’t seem to run in her veins, but maybe this time, like the others, she would get lucky with compulsion. Jamie didn’t know of the first time, or the handful of other times after that. She wasn’t sure if she even had the gift, if it had all been coincidence, but she had to try.
And so, when Jamie finally blinked, he thought his words were his own as he threw his hands up in defeat. “Fine. I’ll go.”
Elena breathed a sigh of relief, her heart shuddering from gratitude and fatigue. She knew it was wrong, for compulsion was a dark magick, not belonging to any class of Magick, and she felt the sting of its betrayal as she looked at her dearest friend—only friend. She loved him more than she imagined she’d ever love anyone else. And that was why she had to do it.
He grabbed her hand once more as she stepped away and pulled her into a fierce hug.
“I don’t want to do this,” he whispered in her ear, his voice shaking. “I don’t want to do this, Elena.”
They clung to one another, tears falling down each of their faces.
“I will see you again… I promise you that.”
Jamie had been gone for several hours now. Elena had watched as he climbed the makeshift rungs out of their home and disappeared.
Before he left, Elena had cut his hair for him with a small knife while he squeezed his eyes shut in mock terror. They had laughed about how terrible her ability to make someone over was, her hands shaking as she clipped away his chestnut strands, leaving his hair at uneven lengths. The result was less than flattering.
They drank strong elderberry tea together, and when it was time for Jamie to go, with a sack of clothes on his back and not much else, they had embraced fiercely. Elena thought she might never let go and tried to ignore the nagging guilt of using compulsion on him. Jamie had half-heartedly tried to convince her to come with him. But they both knew she would never change her mind.
Jamie did not tell her where he was going, either; she refused to hear it, but she imagined him heading to the city, to live boldly among the people right in the valley of the king’s castle high up on the mountainside.
“I will see you again,” she called to him as he made to climb out of their home. “I promise you that.”
He smiled sadly. “I will never forgive myself for leaving you,” he said, his voice thick with grief.
And in mere moments, the only family she had left disappeared.
She knew the sun would soon be rising, if it wasn’t already. Living below ground had required them to be experts at telling time, understanding how much had passed without windows or doors to see the sky. She forced herself to sit on the couch, with a dagger in one hand and a sword unsheathed beside her. The king and his men would overcome her, but not without a fight first. That much she vowed.
Her thoughts shifted to Marcus, and she wondered if he had lied, if he had indeed told the king of their home in the forest. It would take over a day’s journey—two if they were slow—to get to their home from the castle. They were vigilant when they were above ground. Surely, they would have noticed someone spying on them out in the woods so dense with thicket that even the animals had a hard time moving among it.
Marcus had probably betrayed them. He had come into Elena’s life when she was vulnerable, newly orphaned. He had been just a few years older, and yet, he possessed such poise, such intelligence, and now, Elena realized, such manipulative abilities. Their relationship had been toxic from the start, and while he had taught her the skills she needed to become an assassin, he had also taught her about the devious ways of one’s mind and heart. Their partnership had never been stable, and over the years, it went from bad to worse.
It had to be him. She would kill him when—if she ever got the chance.
She rubbed her eyes, tired against her will. Her stomach growled, and she wondered whether the king’s men had gotten lost, or if maybe Marcus had lied. Maybe no one was coming, and Jamie had left for no reason at all. It wouldn’t be above her ex-lover to do something so ridiculously cruel and stupid.
She briefly let her mind think of how she would track Jamie down, there in the bustling city of the kingdom. The city was enormous, as big as the forest. How would she find him?
Feeling desperate, on edge, she put her sword in its sheath on her hip and climbed the rungs to the surface. She would no longer lie in wait like a helpless victim.
When she got to the top, right underneath her beloved tree stump, she knew something was amiss. She could feel it in the air just above her head. It was like the forest had been silenced, muffled into submission. She cursed herself for not honing the gift her mother had—the ability to sense everything around her and to know exactly when things were not quite right, to know what was off.
But Elena could only sense the quiet beyond her home, not the cause.
She rose above the forest floor, looking around carefully. There was nothing to be seen. And that was part of the problem. Usually a squirrel scurried here or there, or a bird shifted on its branches nearby, or even a chipmunk would often dart back and forth in the brush as it looked for a nut or a playmate. The few animals of this forest were not disturbed by her or Jamie anymore, not after getting used to their presence over the years.
But now? There was nothing.
Elena climbed all the way out, every sense alert but mystified by the quiet and motionlessness of the forest. She let the stump fall back into place. Silently, she did a full rotation around her, seeing only the trees and the sun between them shining down with a refreshing warmth that had been missing the last few cloudy fall days.
Someone was out there; she could sense that much. And they were stupid to think she would pretend they were not. So, she waited, one hand on the hilt of her sword, the other clenched around her dagger. Briefly, she wished for her cloak down below, wished for the comfort of home she already ached for, knowing this coming fight would be the end of her life as she knew it.
Finally, she heard it. The crunch of leaves beneath a boot. She whirled in that direction, and sure enough, a man appeared from behind a tree, his own hand on his sword’s hilt, wearing the royal blue of the king’s colors with black riding boots. He had curly