Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
I’d been envisioning what it would be like to behead the Vile One since the old wizard had shown up at my door the day after I turned seventeen and told me my destiny—that I would be the person who ended the dark shadow of evil that ruled our realm. Well, okay, not that specific second because who believes a drunken stranger with a crooked hat carrying around a humming staff? No one. That’s who. At least, you shouldn’t. That’s unsafe.
Let me amend. I’d been envisioning this moment since after we’d had tea and he’d explained a few things and told me about the prophecy. Though it didn’t feel real, as in very likely, and downright probable, until I pulled a magical sword from a bog and a beam of light shot down from the sky, anointing me with supernatural purpose.
After that, I kept a vision in my head about what would happen when I separated the Vile One’s head from his shoulders in the final climactic battle. The cut would be clean. There would be artistic arterial spray, and the disembodied head would roll down the steps of the raised dais and come to rest at the feet of my best friend. Everyone would cheer, and I’d finally be the hero I was prophesied to become. I’d feel different. Righteous. Awesome. Accomplished. Finally grown-up.
Unfortunately, as things seem to have gone since the start of this whole journey, that did not happen. Not even a little bit.
Fueled by adrenaline and vigor, I swung my blade for the death blow, expecting to cleanly remove the Vile One’s head. Instead, the blunted edge buried halfway through his neck and jarred to a stop on his spinal column. Huh. Who knew that prophesied weapons didn’t come ready-to-use? Apparently, magic swords that spring from bogs don’t rise pre-sharpened.
Stunned at this unexpected turn of events, I froze long enough to draw attention from the party of questors supporting me.
“Arek!” Sionna yelled from somewhere in the chaos. “Finish him off!”
I wrenched the blade from the Vile One’s throat, did my level best to ignore the astonished look on his face, the open mouth, the wide eyes, the gush of blood running down the front of his black robes, and struck again. And again. I hacked at the twitching body, which had fallen backward and slumped on the front of the throne, propped up like a grotesque doll, until I was certain he was dead, and no amount of magic could bring him back.
Finally, the neck gave way and the head plopped onto the ground, splattering like an overripe pumpkin. Dead eyes peered up at me from sunken hollows, and thin lips pulled over yellowed teeth in a parody of a scream. A picture that would surely fuel my nightmares for at least the next few months, potentially the rest of my life.
I had also imagined lifting the Vile One’s head by his hair and holding it up as a kind of trophy as all the dark magic he’d used to usurp the throne and control the realm would recede like a fierce tide, sucking itself from the world in a flash of light as the populace cheered. Except, the Vile One was bald, and there was no way I was picking the head up by anything else, because ugh.
Also, nothing happened. No flash of light. No magical reversal. No swell of victorious music. No fanfare. Nothing.
Disappointingly, I didn’t feel different at all, other than sticky. And weary down to my bones, and nauseated. There were no cheers from onlookers, though the sound of vomiting was clear over my right shoulder.
I dabbed my blood-drenched face with the hem of my tunic, but only succeeded in smearing the crimson more thoroughly. My chest heaved. My arms ached. I turned, swaying on the steps, and surveyed the chaos of the room behind me. The fighting had ceased. My friends were all upright, scattered around like thrown dice, but alive. Followers of the Vile One, distinguishable by their black robes and neck tattoos, were either dead, fleeing, or kneeling in defeat.
I leaned heavily on the sword—barely resisting the urge to sag right there onto the stone steps, next to the jerking corpse, and take a nap. Instead, I stumbled down to the main floor.
“You okay?” Matt asked. He had soot stains on his sleeves, tears in his clothes, and a cut above his eye that leaked sluggishly. His brown hair was matted to his head with sweat. He smelled like ozone and magic. He held his staff in his hand, the bright blue jewel at the tip glowing like a star, but as we stood together in the aftermath, his power faded.
A late addition to the vision of victory I kept in my head included sweeping Matt into my arms and declaring my undying affection. But as I was literally covered in blood, I didn’t think Matt would appreciate a hug at this point, or a grand gesture or even a friendly slap to the shoulder. Not when we were both trembling with exhaustion and ebbing adrenaline.
“Yeah. I’m good. You?”
“Yeah.” He grinned weakly. “It’s done.”
“It is.” I ran my gloved hand through my hair. “Super gross, though.”
“Oh, definitely. That was, for lack of a better word, vile.”
“Good one.” I held out my fist, and he bumped his knuckles against mine.
Bethany appeared from around a corner, small harp in one hand, wiping clinging bits of vomit from her mouth with her sleeve. She peeled a strand of sweaty auburn hair from her cheek, cast a look at the throne, turned green, then disappeared again. The sounds of her retching echoed in the eerie silence of the previously chaotic throne room.
Sionna rolled her eyes. She wiped her sword on a prone body before sheathing it. Her brown skin was blood-spattered, but far less than mine. She’d no doubt sharpened her sword. Her black hair still swung in her high ponytail, and the wisps that had escaped framed her face, and though her shoulders slumped with relief, her steps were as energetic as ever. Every inch a warrior. Every inch beautiful. Every inch the reason for many of my inconvenient boners while on this quest.
“I’ll check on her,” she said.
I cleared my throat. “Good idea.”
She left the room through the same arch. Matt and I exchanged a glance. Pretty sure we were on the same wavelength about the boners. Even if we weren’t, at least he was still by my side. Thankfully, that piece of my vision was fulfilled. We’d been best friends since we were boys and we’d be best friends forever if I had any say, weird wizards, glowing staffs, enigmatic prophecies, and secret crushes notwithstanding.
“You two okay?”
Startled, I spun around.
Lila stood on the ribbon of purple carpet that led up to the throne. Her soft-heeled boots made little noise when she moved normally, but on the plush, she made no sound at all. With her hood pulled up, her features were partially hidden, but I knew the familiar jut of her chin and the bow of her mouth. She had a bulging sack over one shoulder.
“Yes. We’re fine. Exhausted and”—Matt gestured toward the headless form—“vaguely traumatized, but…” He trailed off; his eyebrows drew together in consternation. “Have you been looting?”
She shrugged. “A little.” She dropped the overstuffed bag at her feet with a loud clank.
“Lila!” I placed my hands on my hips, a difficult task when holding a sword. “Put it back.”
“But—but…” I sputtered. “What do you even have in there?”
“Oh, you know, loot, spoils, riches. The usual.”
Matt pursed his lips. “That’s vague.”
She smirked. “Exactly.”
“Here you are!” The voice came from behind us, and again, I found myself turning quickly, sword raised. Rion leaned on the heavy wooden doors that we’d barged through mere minutes before. Besides his grimy army, he looked almost untouched from battle. He smiled when he saw us, tipping his blood-smeared sword in acknowledgment.
I relaxed and blew out a breath. “Can people please stop sneaking up on me? I’ve had a day.”
“Is it over?” Rion asked, not remarking on my outburst. Instead, his gaze drifted around the throne room until it settled on the body by the dais.
“I think so?” Matt said. “I mean”—he gestured helplessly—“this is it. Right?”
Sionna returned from the adjoining room, her arm looped through Bethany’s. Bethany wavered on her feet, but she’d stopped actively vomiting. The entirety of our party now stood in the throne room. We looked at one another, no one speaking, merely existing in the moment of sudden calm after the storm.
I surveyed the group, reassuring myself that we’d all made it, that we were all there and safe. Bethany, our bard, rested against the wall, gaze locked on the broken window across the room, and not anywhere near the bloody neck stump that leaned against the foot of the throne. She was charismatic and magic, essential to our success with her ability to talk her way in or out of any situation. Sionna gripped Bethany’s arm, lending her strength. Sionna was a fighter, sleek and deadly, as fearless as she was dangerous. Lila, the rogue, stood on the carpet, loot bag at her feet. She was dexterous and conniving, her past shrouded in mystery, as were her motivations. Matt, the mage, my best friend, my confidant, my secret crush, and wielder of arcane spells, held his staff in the gentle curve of his hand. And Rion the knight rounded out the crowd. He was hulking and strong, older than the rest of us, but barely an adult himself, bound to our group by a sacred oath.
Then there was me. Arek. The Chosen One. The fulfiller of the prophecy, awkwardly standing in front of the throne. Somehow, this ragtag mess of personalities, dubious expertise, and questionable hygiene had come together and completed the impossible. We’d saved the realm. Holy shit. We’d saved the realm. This was the moment. This was victory.
Lila nodded once sharply, then grabbed her sack and threw it over her shoulder. “Great. Well, this has been fun, but I’m out.”
“You’re out?” Matt hobbled in front of her. I narrowed my eyes. Matt hadn’t mentioned an injury. That doofus probably twisted his ankle when we ran up the entryway stairs dodging arrows. “What do you mean by that?”
She shrugged. “The quest is done. It’s over. We won. I helped.” She hefted the sack. “I took my reward. I’m out.”
“Wait.” Bethany straightened from her hunch by the wall. “You can’t just leave.”
“Don’t you want to be here for what happens next?” she asked.
Lila raised an eyebrow. “What does happen next?”
Again, we looked around at each other, silent and unsure. The question hung over the room, like the black pennants that swayed limply against the stone in the slight breeze. Bethany shrugged. Sionna blinked. Rion tapped his fingers on his smudged armor. Matt’s mouth tipped down in that funny little frown he always got when he was thinking.
Well, at least we all knew the question, but it didn’t look like anyone had an answer.
It was Rion who broke the awkward silence. He cleared his throat. “A new ruler needs to be instated. He,” Rion said, jerking his chin toward the body, “was the ruler of our kingdom, as ill-gotten as it was. He killed all the royal family save one—”
“Oh,” Matt said, straightening from his impressive lean on his staff, “we should find the princess.”
I furrowed my brow. “Isn’t she locked in a tower?”
“I think we need to wake her from an eternal slumber,” Bethany said, “with true love’s kiss?”
“I think that’s a different quest.” Lila dropped her sack, the contents clanging. “Doesn’t she have to let down her hair?”
“No,” Sionna said. “We have to guess her name.”
“You’re all wrong.” Matt waved his hand. “We just need to let her out.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound right,” Bethany said, hands on her hips. “Are you sure?”
Matt sighed and dug around in the pouch at his side. “The prophecy—”
The entire group groaned. We all knew the prophecy. We’d all read the prophecy. Matt had lectured us extensively on the prophecy. I could recite the prophecy from memory with my hands tied behind my back while being beaten with sticks by angry gnomes. Well, almost all of it, save for a section that was significantly smudged by wine. But I didn’t mention that because it was a sore spot, and as fond as I was of Matt’s withering glares, I didn’t want to be the target of one at the moment.
Undeterred, Matt yanked the scroll from his bag and flapped the parchment in our direction like he was scolding us. “The prophecy doesn’t mention true love’s kiss or long hair or guessing names.”
“You pulled it out just to tell us that?” Lila crossed her arms and quirked an eyebrow.
Matt’s lips twisted into a frown. “I’m making a point.”
“Is the point that you’re pedantic?” Bethany asked, fake smile plastered on her face despite looking a little green around the gills. “Because we’re aware.”
“You have vomit in your hair,” Matt shot back, stuffing the scroll into his pack.
“Okay, okay.” I raised my hands and addressed the group. “Let’s all take a moment to breathe.”
Lila wrinkled her nose in my direction. “Before we embark on any side quests, there need to be baths all around. And food.”
“Hey! I just killed the Vile One.” I waved at the decapitated corpse behind me for emphasis. “Cut me some slack.”
Rion cleared his throat. “Before I was interrupted, I did have a point.”
I gestured at him. “Continue, then.”
“So commanding,” Matt whispered, snickering.
I bit my lip to keep laughter from bubbling out. I was covered in blood, and some of the castle residents had poked their heads out of their hiding places. Hysterically laughing wouldn’t be a good look.
“The point is, with no current royal family to assume the throne, and with you being the individual who hacked off the head of the Vile One, the job to rule the kingdom falls on your shoulders.”
Huh. He said hacker of heads. The alliteration was nice, but there could be a better title in my future. Better nip it in the bud.
I crossed my arms. “Let’s not go with ‘hacked off the head,’ please. And there’s a princess in a tower who is the lawful ruler. I’m just… a prophetic pawn here.”
“Yes, but until she is freed, you are the rightful monarch.” Rion nodded to the empty throne.
I shook my head. “But I don’t want to be the rightful monarch.”
“Arek,” Sionna said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “We can’t leave the throne open while we complete the side quest.”
“Do you really want to have to do it all again,” Bethany whined while flailing her hands emphatically, “if someone even worse sneaks in and sits there while we’re gone and takes the throne?” She clutched her harp tighter and absolutely did not look at the headless body slumped nearby. “Or do you want to suck it up and proclaim yourself king for like a few hours?”
I shot a look at Matt. He shrugged, his expression not reassuring at all. Ugh, I really wanted for this all to be over because I wanted to talk to him in private and do the whole confessing thing that had been eating away at me for months. Putting on a dead man’s crown seemed the opposite of wrapping up the quest, but I couldn’t deny that Bethany’s point was sound. I didn’t want to do this all again.
“I… um… I…”
Rion took my stuttering as acceptance. He unsheathed his sword and knelt on the stone floor. “All hail, King Arek!”
“Oh no!” I held up my hands. “No. Stop that. Don’t do that.”
Bethany strummed her harp, her pale lips curled into a smirk. “All hail, King Arek,” she sang, and with the magic of the instrument, the statement amplified into a chorus of voices. Bitch.
The proclamation rang out in the small room, and suddenly, everyone knelt. The few servants who had wandered in at the commotion. The remaining followers of the Vile One. And my fellow questors, my friends, those traitorous assholes.
“Get the crown,” Matt said, nudging me with his shoulder, positively gleeful. His lips tugged into a smug grin that stuck to his ridiculous face. He sank to his knees. “Put it on.”
“No. It’s on the head. The severed head. That’s disgusting.”
“You’re wearing gloves. It’ll be fine.”
“And then what? Put it on my head? Fuck that. Gore will get in my hair.”
“It’s already in your hair. It’s all over you.”
“Don’t be a coward,” Lila said. She was the last to kneel, but she did, which was surprising. She even pulled back her hood, revealing the long braids of her blond hair, and the pointed tips of her ears. “Do it.”
“Do it. Do it. Do it,” Matt whispered, cackling.
Lila reached out and pressed a single fingertip to my arm. “Peer pressure.”
“Ugh.” I marched back to the head, considered it, and nope. Putting on a bloody crown was not part of the vision. Neither was the whole ruling thing. Absolutely not part of the deal. But for appearances, and until the true heir from the tower was freed, I guessed ruling for a few hours wouldn’t be so bad. Especially if it shut up the irritating chants.
I yanked the golden crown off the head. It rolled to the edge of the step and teetered for an agonizing second before toppling off and hitting the stone with a gag-inducing splat. I swallowed down bile, desperately trying not to pull a Bethany in front of my soon-to-be subjects. Knocking the lifeless figure off the dais, I ascended the remaining stairs and stood in front of the throne.
It was ornate, in a menacing way, with terrifying monsters etched into the decoration, and intimidating all on its own. It shouldn’t have been—it was only a chair—but I did pause at the idea of plopping down where the guy I just killed used to sit.
I took a breath. “Well, all right then.” Despite my misgivings, I placed the crown on my head, turned quickly, and dropped onto the throne. It was not at all comfortable.
I don’t really know what happened in that moment, but something in the room swelled, and crackled, then broke over me in a wave of warmth and potential. The hair on my arms stood on end and a shiver traced down my spine. It was like standing in a field during an oncoming storm as the pressure and expectation of something much bigger than myself bared down on me, a reminder of the wonder inherent in magic and in the world, and my place in it. In an instant, I was suffused with the song of everyone who’d come before, and how all roads had led me there, to that place, to that moment, to that role.
It lasted the length of a breath, then evaporated.
The chanting ceased. I squirmed, trying to find a position that didn’t twinge my back. All eyes stared at me. Yeah, this was a bad idea. Almost as bad as leaving my house in the middle of the night nine months ago, clutching the prophetic scroll that landed me here with Matt trailing behind me.
“Say something,” Sionna hissed.
“Oh.” I leaned forward, shaking myself out of a stupor. “Uh. The Vile One is dead. I killed him. So, I hereby assume the throne of Ere in the realm of Chickpea and declare myself King Arek.” I licked my chapped lips. “But only until we free the princess from the tower. My rule will be for a few hours. Tops. An interim king, if you will. Yay. Huzzah. And all that.”
“Spoken like a true statesman,” Matt said with a grin.
Lila rolled her eyes. Bethany, still pale, picked a few strings on her harp, and my words echoed outward, throughout the castle and the grounds.
A round of polite applause followed.
“Can… uh…” I swallowed. “Can we have the room please? And maybe a cleanup crew?”
The few interlopers scattered, including the last remaining living followers of the Vile One, and soon the room was clear save for us and the dead.
“Did you lot feel that?”
They blinked at me.
“Feel what?” Bethany asked. She clutched her stomach with one hand. “Sick? Because yes.”
“No. The magic? Matt, did you do something?”
He furrowed his brow. “Not that I’m aware of.”
“Huh.” It could have been the release of stress, the receding of adrenaline, leaving me chilled and shaking. But I knew better. After nine months of prophetic fuckery, I recognized the presence of magic. The way warmth and power washed over me on the throne mirrored the prickling shock when Matt used his staff, or the sweep of mystical promise when I touched the sword for the first time in the bog. There was more brewing in the throne room than I wanted to be part of, and the sooner we found the princess and installed her as queen, the sooner I could be done with being destiny’s pawn.
I slapped my hands on the arms of the throne and stood. “Well, let’s find this princess, then.”
“Now?” Bethany asked.
“Now,” I said with a sharp nod.
Lila frowned. “But baths and food.”
“And rest,” Sionna said.
“Now.” I pointed to the crown. “Consider it my first act as king.”
“Your first act as king is to not want to be king,” Matt said, smile lurking around the curve of his mouth. “Sounds about right.”
“Come on,” I said, descending the dais and striding quickly out of the room. “The sooner we find this princess, the sooner we can put this whole quest behind us.”