The Heartbox

The Heartbox

Dusk seeped into the park, smothering the last traces of daylight and compelling the gaslamps to sputtering life. Clusters of humans and fae drifted towards their homes as though at the bidding of the failing light. Cerys knew better. Mordrin. The malevolence that had pulled her from her own home and paralyzed her on this bench now thinned this crowd; once true night settled, she would be utterly alone. Not that anyone had deigned to notice her since her arrival well before sunset. And she may yet have hours. Or seconds. Every breath was a luxury.

Focus. Again she willed her body to move, refusing to acknowledge the tendrils of panic that whispered along the base of her skull. She could not afford to indulge her fear of what might come.

Ghastly memories pried fingers into the cracks of her tenuous concentration all the same. That Pixie’s body. Bitten in two. Scholar Vyrsiad’s collapse in Fae Square, his great Angeli wings burnt to nubs. The last Elven Hunt, a small company of fifteen found dead at their camp. Unwounded. As though their very breath had been stolen.

She shivered and a new panic surged into her veins at the realization that though she was unable to lift a finger, the monster had allowed her to tremble in fear. No. Concentrate.

Despite her efforts, her brow could not furrow and her jaw did not clench. Her hands remained folded in her lap, her lips continuing to tug in the serene smile that so belied her struggle. The gathering fog swallowed the nearest streetlamp and she fancied that the shadows massed thicker now, congealing into cords of night to enwrap her ankles and creep up her skirts. Knowing most of the lore surrounding Mordrin’s deeds, manipulating the night air to further bind her seemed very much his way.

Black boots stepped into her downcast gaze and her concentration faltered once more. Not a soul, fae or human, had noticed her here. Did Mordrin wait for her to glance up, to relish her mounting horror as she took him in? Cerys hadn’t any doubt that if she resisted too long, or altogether, her eyes would be drawn upwards whether she willed it or no.

She’d not give him that satisfaction. Ignoring her thunderous heartbeat, she forced herself to look up. Glowing with fae light, his hair and eyes as dark as his attire, his countenance startled her. Elven.

Cerys blinked. Legend ascribed as many appearances as vile deeds to the monster, but she had never heard of him styling himself after the Elves.

Perhaps

No. She smothered that flicker of hope before it could ignite. If an Elf looked upon her now, then Mordrin must have chosen to appear as one.

And yet… He radiated an intensity, certainly, but she sensed no malice. When she met his eye, he offered the slightest nod.

“Good,” he muttered, pushing a lock of black hair shot with silver behind his pointed ear. “Your legs then.”

A glance to her lap shattered her hopes of fanciful imaginings: the suspected shadow chains had grown distinct. At the Elf’s incomprehensible murmurs these bonds tightened for a moment then wilted away like living things struck dead. Cerys stared at the stranger; though she sensed his satisfaction, he didn’t smile. His fae aura flickered as if uneasy.

“Move them,” he ordered and she did so though flares of pain shot from her hips into her toes; she hadn’t so much as twitched in hours. “Keep moving them. Even through pain. If he comes and I’ve not finished, you’ll need to run.”

His voice slipped back into the fae tongue and the paralysis evaporated from her arms, from her hands.

“You’re not him.”

He opened his eyes, stopped mid-incantation. “I beg your pardon?”

“You’re not Mordrin.”

Clearly taken aback by the very idea, he shook his head with some vigour.

“No,” he said, “but if I don’t finish this, we’ll be meeting him.”

Taking his hint, Cerys continued to move her arms and legs, ignoring the stabbing pain that signalled the return of feeling. When the constriction about her torso melted away, she took several deep breaths on his instruction.

He fell into silence as the final bonds shattered and the numbing heaviness fully fled her body. Shaky, she rose to her feet, resisting the urge to throw her arms around him in gratitude. He took a step back, perhaps afraid she might do just that.

“You can walk?” he asked, his tone clipped. She put one foot in front of the other and nodded.

“Good. We need to get away from here. Mordrin will come after you – after us – once he finds you gone.”

Cerys was unable to match his brisk pace, her barely awakened muscles protesting each step. He slowed at her call but didn’t turn, continuing to lead them through the park and keeping to the glow of the streetlamps; his fae light all but dissolved in the brighter illumination.

“I’m grateful,” she said, “but he took me from my home and trapped me on that bench when he was nowhere near me. What’s to stop him from doing so again now?”

The stranger did not pause. “What makes you think he was nowhere near you?”

Cerys’ stumble had little to do with the feeling returning to her limbs. Though she yet lagged behind, the Elf pivoted and grabbed her arm before she could fall.

“We must hurry,” he hissed. “Mordrin does require some proximity for his spells and if we are too close to where he bound you, he’ll find us soon enough.”

He waited with clear impatience until she nodded, then set off once more. Determined to keep pace, Cerys was thankful that her recovering muscles finally allowed her to catch up.

“You’ve not told me your name,” she pointed out, eliciting a swift and thoroughly annoyed glance.

“Savin.” The iciness of that single word drove a deeper chill into the night air.

“Cerys,” she said, wondering at his tone. Certainly she’d never seen him before, done nothing to cause any animosity between them.

“I’m aware.”

That startled her. Not a random encounter then.

“How did you free me?”

He hesitated for a heartbeat before answering. “Magik.”

“Magik? But…I’m a witch.”

“Of course you are,” Savin muttered, then sighed. “Mordrin would know of your…talents…and would have impeded them. Most magik cannot counter him, but mine is occasionally able.”

He moved ahead of her again and she hastened her own step, battling the temptation to burst into a run. But where would she go? Savin, for all his brusque manner, at least seemed certain of his path.

“I’ve permission to hide you in a Grove Temple,” he said as she drew alongside, “Mordrin shouldn’t be able to penetrate there. At present, you’ve only been granted sanctuary for this night. I can petition again in the morning, but we may need a new course. My Queen was quite reluctant to allow a human into a Grove – witch or not.” A smirk flickered across his face at this last and her temper flared despite her awareness that he could still abandon her.

“If I bother you so, why did you free me?” she snapped. “Surely not to heave insults at me while we find this apparent safe haven of yours.”

Savin actually stopped for a moment, turning to her with a bemused expression.

“My apologies, lady.” He swept low in a deeply sarcastic bow, “I will get you to relative – if temporary – safety, as promised. But please dismiss any notion that my actions have been guided by any interest in you.”

He spat the final word with a vehemence that could not be ignored. Cerys forced herself to meet his eye.

“You’ve not answered me. Why did you come? Do you seek out all of Mordrin’s victims in some self-proclaimed heroic quest?”

Too far. How dare she? The thought flitted through her mind as she read the very same in his eyes, sparking now with a breathtaking temper. She wanted nothing more in that instant than to scoop her words from the air, to swallow them whole even if they choked her.

“We must keep moving,” he snapped, setting off once again. His stride left no question that if she didn’t follow, he’d not wait. Silence persisted for full minutes before he spoke again, the menace in his tone unmistakable. “As you find it prudent to question my motives, let me be clear. My claim stands: I did not act out of a personal interest in you. I swore to my brother that I would not let you come to harm while I live.”

“Who is your brother?”

“Was,” he corrected. “His name was Danil.”

“And he knew me?”

“Danil was…aware of you. He knew your mother.”

Exasperation eclipsed both sense and fear as his answers steered them further from her original question.

“But my mother is dead,” she said.

“I see you’ve inherited your father’s keen sense of observation.”

But his disgusted expression had smoothed into self-admonishment almost before she registered his words. “My apologies. That was unkind. I’m sorry that your mother has passed – my brother cared for her deeply.”

His tone closed the conversation, leaving her to piece together the puzzle now spread before her. Could her mother have had such an affair? Trysts between humans and fae were not unheard of, though most fell away in the face of public derision. But Cerys had never heard mention of any Elf…and her mother’s unrelenting practicality made the idea especially difficult to accept. Besides, she’d never have hurt Cerys’ father so…

And yet… She glanced at Savin. As with any fae, his age was impossible to determine; he might have already lived a century, though he appeared no older than her own five-and-twenty years. Perhaps her father had met her mother after she and Danil had already become acquainted. Or perhaps Danil’s love was unrequited. She held her tongue in check, better judgment prevailing at last.

The sculpted silver curls of the Elven Gates came into view, engulfed in sapphire flames that burned through the thickening fog. Cerys’ step faltered; she’d expected a subtle glow, perhaps somewhat brighter than that which surrounded the fae themselves. Certainly not a firestorm.

Unimpressed by this spectacle, Savin strode into the blaze without hesitation. His nonchalance convinced Cerys to follow, but a sudden, searing heat brought her up short. Savin continued on towards the Gates, unflinching even as an azure flame snaked up his arm, consuming his sleeve in fire. He seemed oblivious that she wasn’t at his side. Perhaps humans required the touch of a fae to pass; perhaps he’d never attempted to bring a human across before.

Flames twisted along the back of his coat and the edges of his hair, rendering her speechless, too overwhelmed by the sight to think of calling to him. His sleeve had burned away entirely now; the armour shielding his forearm glowed crimson.

And still, he seemed not to notice.

Understanding struck her with such force that she stumbled backwards. Savin didn’t see this fire, didn’t feel his skin scorching as his clothes burned. Fingertips of Mordrin’s flame danced towards his face, towards his eyes.

“Savin!” she screamed, even as her own throat closed around her warning.

Savin spun, fury and horror chasing across his features as his blindness shattered. His magik sparked, scattering flame and salving flesh. By the time he reached her, her own desperation left his words incomprehensible. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. Mordrin had filled her throat with stone.

Another Elven word crumbled the obstruction into dust, dropping her to her knees in a fit of violent coughing. Savin indulged her for only a moment before yanking her back to her feet. Breaking free from its hemming, the fire lunged towards them with a roar too loud to be natural. Savin grabbed her elbow and rushed her away from the Gates as the flames spread outwards and upwards, obscuring the Elven Quarter entirely and towering stories high. “He’s coming,” he gasped. They ran along the only path open as the flames closed behind. Blinded in every direction save forward, Cerys was unable to tell if they were being chased into the woods, the city, or somewhere else entirely.

Corralling them at last on the docks, the cerulean fire crept now with all the swagger of a predator assured of its prey. Savin swore, stepping backwards; his boots drew far too near the pier’s edge. None of his magiks – and she had heard him try many – had even weakened the blaze.

Unable to dismiss the ridiculous notion that the flames could hear her, Cerys waited for Savin to speak. He barely glanced behind before nodding towards a nearby warehouse; the fire blocked every other route. “We’ll have to chance that,” he said, sounding as though he wished he could say otherwise. “We’ll not survive the water.”

He didn’t elaborate and she didn’t press, keeping close as they proceeded to the splintering door. The fire might yet dart between and separate them. She averted her eyes from the burns on his coat.

Inside, they allowed themselves a momentary respite and Cerys seated herself on an overturned bucket, letting the damp shadows soothe her feverish skin and worn muscles. Savin lingered near the door, his form eerily illuminated by his light. Gloom swathed the farthest reaches of this place, but Cerys could discern chains hung from the ceiling, random piles of scrap wood and metal, and the wide upsweep of a staircase. Tiny windows lined the top of one wall, far higher than either Savin or Cerys could reach.

“Why doesn’t he come?” she whispered. “The park, the Gates…he must know we’re here.”

“Of course he does,” snapped Savin. “Mordrin never expected you to escape in the first place. At the Gates, he assumed I’d die and you’d fall senseless.” He waved towards the flickering blue light; the predatory fire had drawn closer, slamming the trap shut. “He’s caged us here.”

Cerys closed her eyes, trying to ward off the chill that had crept into her blood at his words. When she looked at him again, Savin caught her gaze and gestured towards the stairs. “We should find somewhere to make a stand,” he muttered. Cerys nodded, more dismayed than she would have imagined by the tremor in his tone. He’s frightened. The very idea jarred her.

As they approached the stairway, Savin brought a pistol to hand and unbuttoned his coat, revealing a brace of knives strapped against his chest. Both held silent, though there was little need; the fire’s unnatural roar muffled all else. If Mordrin chose to take them by surprise, he’d have no trouble doing so. Occasionally a shriek cut through the pervasive rumble, bringing Savin to an uneasy pause and startling Cerys. By the time they had mounted the steps, her nerves were raw and her trembling had turned violent.

Above, they found a lower ceiling and fewer windows but otherwise the second storey was much the same as the first. Savin’s fae light intensified in these deeper shadows. A stairwell enclosed the next set of steps, a course that Savin dismissed for the time being. “Too easy to be trapped there,” he whispered. Here they could flee above, below, or across the vast room as necessary.

For whatever good it might do. Neither spoke the words, but the thought hung between them as though suspended in the shifting dark. Grimacing, Savin located a square of firelight cast beside the dormant hulk of a machine and knelt, blending into the glow. Cerys shrunk into the gathered shadows alongside, nodding her thanks as Savin passed her a blade.

Moments stretched into minutes, stretched into hours. Perhaps not; perhaps a mere second had passed. Savin sat on his heels, pistol spinning in his hand, tense and preoccupied. His breath was steady but perspiration stood out on his face and his dark gaze seemed to flick into every shadow, every crack along the walls. The burns on his skin glinted in the uncertain light.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered, hoping the fire’s growl softened the edge she heard creeping into her tone. “I thought that Mordrin attacked randomly – most often when he found victims that were easy to take. But he’s hunting me. Why?”

Savin offered her the briefest glance before returning to his vigil. “I’ve a suspicion,” he said. He hesitated a moment before continuing: “Forgive me if this seems…forward. But are you enhanced at all?”

Despite his prelude, the intimacy of the question pushed a flush onto Cerys’ skin that threatened to steam in the cool warehouse shadows. Of course she was enhanced. Most humans – and some fae – were. Nevertheless, to request details of such renderings was considered extremely rude.

But surely he wouldn’t have asked without cause. “Yes,” she said, trying – and failing – to keep her tone neutral. “But all are common. A drum in my weaker ear, a pin where I broke my wrist. Eye plates.” She searched her memory, found more. “Some finger rings. A leg patch.”

The heartbox.

Her breath caught and Savin turned. “Any others?”

“Yes, a rare one. A lensed box beside my heart for my magik.”

Savin narrowed his eyes, suspicious. “Meaning?”

Twisting a dark curl of hair between her fingers, Cerys bulled her way through her discomfort to reflect on what little she’d been told about her heartbox. She’d had the enhancement since infancy and barely deigned to notice it now.

“My magik was deemed too wild when I was born,” she began. Savin snorted and resumed his study of swirling dark, his thoughts of such labelling clear. “I’ve been told it was uncontrollable – dangerous to myself and to anyone who happened to be near. My parents were at a loss but my father found someone with a ‘heartbox’ for sale. He said it would focus my magik through a lens of sorts.”

“A lens?” asked Savin. “That makes little sense. Focusing your magik through a lens would concentrate your power. This sounds more a box that allows you to siphon off what you need.” He paused, and concern creased his brow. “Did no one bother to consider what might happen to your unused power over the years? Anything not tapped off wouldn’t simply disappear – it must have been building up in that box ever since.” He shook his head. “This sounds like a foolish solution at best…and a very dangerous one at worst.”

“My father would never have endangered me!” Cerys bristled, her voice growing louder with each word. Savin turned and raised an eyebrow.

“I should hope not intentionally,” he said, his own tenor still soft. “But how much did your father really understand of magik?”

Cerys hesitated. Her father hadn’t had any magikal talent of his own, and her mother had been a mediocre witch like herself. Savin had already proven power that outstripped anything anyone in her family could have accomplished. He nodded as though she’d answered him. “At any rate,” he said, “that will be what Mordrin is after.”

“But why? What use would a demon have for a little box of power?”

“Don’t be naïve. Wild magik that’s been building for decades, trapped in that enhancement? Not an insignificant thing.” Cerys had no response to this, so he continued. “I’ve believed for some time that Mordrin is crafting something. A minion, a body to inhabit, I don’t know. But his victims of late have all been targeted. And each has had something that the demon might find useful for such an endeavour. In your case, a ‘little box of power’ could fuel the thing while he sits back and watches. And once yours runs out, he can just fill the box with his own…or anyone’s he’s happened to steal,” he added with a grimace.

Perhaps correctly sensing that she needed time to process these revelations, Savin said nothing further. Silence resumed as they returned to the drowning sensation of waiting for their fates to play out.

For Mordrin would come. Perhaps as a liquid spectre rising from a hairline crack in the floor. Perhaps as a man climbing those very stairs that Savin watched so closely. The demon might arrive the next hour, the next day. Weeks could pass, minute chasing minute, until all fight and strength had drained away in the face of starvation and thirst. Her thoughts turned to Savin, so disdainful of her people in general, of herself in particular. A most unlikely champion. And yet he strode toward death at her side, all for the sake of this brother who had loved her mother.

To have chosen to be here with her now, Savin must have little to lose.

But did she have more? Her mother was gone, her father passed years ago. She’d be missed, certainly, but she had no family, no lover to mourn her. Perhaps the world would feel the weight of her loss no more than Savin’s.

“Are you not wed?” she asked. Though he didn’t look to her, his expression grew pained.

“I am, in fact. I’ve a Beloved. Arika. And a daughter. Briahl.”

His reply thinned the air and Cerys struggled for breath. “Why ever would you come for me?” she gasped. “Promises can – must – be broken sometimes. You must have known how this would end. Your Beloved, did she…” Cerys stumbled at this last thought. Did Savin’s Beloved know he might die this night protecting another – a human lady, no less? But Savin caught her meaning and closed the question with a nod.

“Did she not try to dissuade you?”

“Only briefly. Arika is Elven. She’s always understood that the Faerie Pact might lead to something like this.”

Faerie Pact. Cerys turned to stare fully at him, though he continued to face away. His vow had been laced with a magik that bound him to his word. Such promises could not be severed – no matter who might wish it so.

Before she could press him further, Savin leapt to his feet, bringing her to her own. “We need to move. Now!” His knuckles were white around the grip of the pistol. Cerys’ heart clenched and her hand rose to her chest of its own accord. The tiny box sealed beneath her skin suddenly felt intolerably heavy.

“I thought you said we’d be safest here!” she protested. “There may be nowhere better.”

“Anywhere will be better,” he muttered. His gaze lingered over her shoulder. “Come. Now!”

Cerys glanced behind to see what had alarmed him so, but the wall revealed nothing remarkable. As she turned back to Savin, she hesitated despite the furious impatience reflected in his eyes; his fae light had caught a glint upon the floor.

A trifling puddle of inky fluid pooled near to him, its swell so gradual that she’d not have noticed had she not paused to watch. As she scanned the room, she became suddenly aware of what Savin had detected; tiny slicks had sprung up everywhere, black and glossy with a sinister lustre. Gathering thickest at the seam between the wall and floor, the oily mess crept up the walls, trickling towards the ceiling in a blatant mockery of anything natural. Cerys’ stomach churned.

“Where do we go?” she asked.

“Down. We have no choice.”

Looking to the ascending stairwell, Cerys required no further explanation. The pools there had run together, creating a moat that blocked the only passage to the upper stories. For the moment at least, they had a clear path to the downward stair. Taking the steps two at a time, Savin came to an abrupt halt at the bottom and swore, his curse stifled by the thick air. Cerys stepped around him, her own oath frozen on her lips.

An ebony marshland spread from the final step to meet walls that now churned upwards. Above, the upmost stair had acquired an ominous gleam. They’d find no refuge there.

“What is this?” she whispered. She had to allow that the stuff may have been there all along: tiny, unnoticed droplets swelling from the heat of the fire, or some other perfectly reasonable cause. But she’d wager not.

“I don’t know. It wasn’t there when we arrived; I sensed its appearance. It may be Mordrin, some weapon of his, or something else entirely that inhabits this place and doesn’t appreciate our trespass.”

Something else entirely… That hadn’t occurred to her.

Cerys looked out across the wet labyrinth, watching as patches of dry safety shrank into nothingness. The oil climbed into the upper stories…how long did they have before the weight above brought the warehouse down? Peculiar light danced in the morass; the blue fire yet burned beyond these seething walls. Would the black fluid burn? Should they somehow survive the building’s collapse, they may only have seconds before the fire rushed in to consume the oil and anything it had touched – including themselves.

At her side, Savin offered a fleeting glance to the upper storey before staring once more across the treacherous swamp. “I don’t know what to suggest,” he said. Despair broke his voice, the tremors she’d glimpsed now evident. “I’m sorry. I’ve failed Danil. Failed you.”

Cerys grasped at the ledge of her own fleeting courage before Savin’s anguish could overwhelm her as well. Her heartbox accepted the cautious touch of her spirit as it ever had, and she felt the familiar heady rush as she opened what she must now think of as a spigot. She tried to imagine the vast accumulated power that Savin insisted lay trapped within the box, and couldn’t.

But she hadn’t time to dwell on it. Gathering any thread that might offer the slightest hope, she wove together the tendrils of her magik, forcing her mind to focus and her sight to sharpen. Somehow, there must be a way through the chill certainty of death taunting them from every corner. Imaginings of searing flesh, bursting lungs, crushed bones and lingering poison teased at the edges of her mind but she shut away every distraction even as they threatened to send her to her knees. No time.

The weaving took shape. She saw their path.

Winding and slender, the trail meandered beyond her sight. Perhaps it would lead them into the very same peril. But certainly they couldn’t remain where they stood. Cerys risked another glance to the top floor, dismayed to see the oil dripping onto the second step; the first had vanished beneath an inky veneer. No time indeed.

“I’ve found a path to the back,” she said, “though I can’t say that we’ll be any safer there…”

Savin snorted, likely at her choice of words.

“But we’ll die if we stay here. The fire, the river, this…this oil – whatever it is. We may find something to help us.” Or perhaps not. She left the thought unsaid.

Straightening, Savin gazed in the direction she pointed. Thankfully, he seemed to have regained most of his composure. “This…oil…seems to thin that way,” he allowed. “And I think I may see another downward stair. This may simply be a matter of where we die. But I see no other choice.”

Though the slightest touch of his own magik could certainly have shown him the path she followed, Savin fell in behind her without comment. Her magik had already sparked and they couldn’t afford to waste a moment. Already the liquid had slipped down another stair and the trail she intended to follow narrowed with every breath. As Cerys picked her way across the floor, a look over her shoulder revealed that the oil closed behind, forcing their steps just as the fire had. Trepidation pricked, but Cerys said nothing. She had caught Savin’s expression and suspected that he had noticed the same.

The keening cries that had been muffled on the upper storey grew in volume once more, amplified in a disquieting crescendo. Slowing, she glanced quickly at Savin. His frown deepened but he gestured for her to keep pace; whatever his concern, he seemed unwilling to risk a pause to consider it.

At last the path ended, depositing them before a large rectangular pit barred by only a low fence. Across the abyss, Cerys noted a narrow staircase that plummeted into darkness, confirming Savin’s guess of a lower level. The oil drew no closer, leaving them with a slender dry path that followed the line of the fence, a refuge so useless that she suspected it to be a mockery.

Savin cast a cursory glance into the pit, then seemed to check himself and leaned over as far as he dared. Cerys hesitated, but her need to learn all she could about what they might face triumphed over her fear of heights. Placing her hands upon the rail and finding it sturdier than she’d hoped, she kept her back straight and looked down.

Bare and lightless, the cavity plunged to unseen depths. Shadow-ghosts thronged in this deep, roiling in upon themselves to fuse into greater phantasms or split apart into hundreds of tiny, shrieking apparitions of fear. Here, she and Savin found the origin of the banshee screams that had so often slowed their steps.

But this wailing shadow-dance hardly touched her awareness. Her blood had already frozen in her veins, chilled by a gleam of metal, a smooth curve that suggested nothing so much as the top of a massive skull. Dread and shock coloured Savin’s soft oath. Though he’d told her his suspicions of Mordrin’s latest undertaking, Savin’s tone indicated that he’d never imagined anything of such magnitude. Indeed, if the creature’s body was in proportion to the head they now glimpsed, it was easily twenty feet tall.

Thunder settling into his eyes, Savin began to walk without another word. A slip of oil darted towards her boots, thwarting her attempt to follow. Cursing under her breath, she hurried in the other direction, certain that Savin made for the staircase. If she rushed, she could meet him there. She’d not let him descend alone, no matter his opinion of her or her own misgivings.

Behind, Savin snarled. Cerys halted, jarred by the savagery, the hunger laced into the tone, so incongruous with even what little she knew of him. She spun, dreading what might have elicited such a sound.

Savin had fallen to one knee, his blistered skin pale as ice, his earthen eyes closed. The snarl hadn’t come from him.

They were no longer alone.

Mordrin appeared as a man in form only; his flesh might be fashioned from snow flayed by ash, and two shadows burned crimson as bloodied embers where eyes might otherwise have existed. His mouth was too wide, extending across his entire face and curving upwards in what could only be satisfaction. Drifting in the air, the demon gripped Savin’s shoulder with one slender hand, holding the other open just behind the Elf’s head. The slightest tensing of those fingers brought Savin to agony, jolting him against an unseen pain; magik syllables poured from his lips in a ceaseless, useless stream. Cerys felt Mordrin’s will engulf her: her heartbox snapped shut and her knife clattered to the floor, hissing in the oil. Helpless now, she struggled against the numbness that spread across her mind, against the sudden certainty that she could do nothing to help. Unable to avert her eyes, she might have grown roots where she stood as she watched the spectacle play out beyond the liquid barrier.

Mordrin leaned close to Savin’s pointed ear. “Struggle and it will go worse for you.” The over-wide mouth cracked, though the lips did not seem to form the words Cerys heard echo through the warehouse. Savin grew still.

“Better.”

The fiery chasms darkened to voids and Mordrin exhaled, whipping the air to a frenzy. Cerys’ hair caught in the frantic storm and she covered her face, her focus narrowing to the sole task of keeping herself from toppling over the fence. The air around Savin thickened in the wake of the tempest; congealed shadows now crowded against him. And began to crystallize.

Cerys’ scream snagged in her throat as she watched the shell spread along Savin’s body, encasing his arms, his legs, creeping up his neck and into his hair. He’d suffocate in moments. And yet, even as the tomb closed about his face, cracks appeared; hairline fissures chased each other across the lethal carapace. The slightest flicker of hope caught in her spirit. He’s fighting.

Her elation wavered as a snap split the air and the shards repelled. Dozens – no, hundreds – of fragments hung suspended around Savin, whose face remained ashen despite his small victory. She watched with tense anticipation as the pieces curled amongst themselves, softening, becoming drops of night.

Or creatures.

Her hope smothered to nothingness. Savin had won no victory.

Mordrin’s raised fingers flexed.

The wisps launched against Savin, crawling into his eyes, his ears, his mouth, burrowing into his skin to disappear beneath his flesh. Mordrin’s single tap on Savin’s shoulder sent the fae sprawling as though he had been shoved with supernatural strength. Cerys watched, helpless, as Savin’s pallor slipped from grey to blue, his breath shortening to sporadic gasps. She heard herself scream at last, felt tears burn her eyes and face. Her magik and heartbox might well be fancy baubles and she no more than a mundane human child entranced by their sparkles. She could do nothing. Nothing.

Savin met her gaze and opened his mouth as if to speak. Blood spilled over his lips onto the floor, swirling into the fluid that had trapped them here. His fae light extinguished as he crumpled.

Cerys saw the demon approach, noted his careless passage across the oil, but continued to stare at Savin’s body, searing the image into her mind. He had loved his brother enough to swear a Faerie Pact that had meant his end. Did his Arika weep even now, knowing that her Beloved would never return home? How would she tell their daughter that she must now live out her centuries without her father?

A rustling sound drew her attention back to the demon. The crack of his mouth curved further now, the smoulder in his eyes grown fiercer. Beyond satisfied, she realized. Gloating. Mordrin’s murderous hand lighted on her shoulder. She flinched, expecting her own slaughter to arrive with the slightest twitch of his fingertip.

Instead, she succumbed to his unspoken command and set her path once more for the staircase, marching forward with the hopeless resignation of an innocent facing her gallows.

Cerys faltered at the crest; the steps cascaded in a solid waterfall, a sheer drop plunging into the mists below. The lack of a rail ensured that a single push would send her tumbling to the unseen bottom. She stifled that thought, refusing to allow it purchase upon her despair. Behind her, Mordrin floated without word, without touch, nudging her forward by means of the suggestions he lodged in her mind. He hadn’t any need for the staircase himself – certainly the treacherous passage had been erected simply for the amusement of watching his victims carefully pick their way to their doom.

Foot followed foot onto each perilous step. Cerys focused on her boots, refusing to look at the demon or the storm-tossed shadows below. Above all, she mustn’t look up, mustn’t envision Savin’s body. Mordrin hummed in her spirit; he might very well use any shred of her grief against her. She turned away every thought of Savin, tucking each into the tight spark of rage blossoming in her chest, chasing her fear to the edges of her periphery.

As they descended, the spectral cacophony rose in pitch and the shifting fog revealed pieces of Mordrin’s creation. Cerys glimpsed the head, grotesque in its incompleteness, ornamented by yawning eyeplates and some few staggered needles sprouting from an ovoid mouth. The mists mercifully shrouded the torso from view but moments later she counted four legs, each larger than a man and jointed in too many places to be based upon anything natural. At the final stair the vapours closed, hiding the bottom of the creature and everything else besides. Here the light from the upper storey could not penetrate but a sudden gleam at her back drew her attention, nauseating her even as she turned. Flickering light emanated now from the demon in a sick parody of Savin.

Mordrin’s thoughts steered her into the single visible chair and she sat, noting what scant surroundings she could discern by his weak, mocking light. At her side, a small set of shelves that might have been scavenged from the wreckage above housed a jumble of boxes and jars. The clutter remained inert for the most part, but a few vessels rattled as though holding prisoners desperate for escape. Suddenly awash in fear once more, Cerys looked away, into the night-swept mists. Not at the demon. Not at his collection. She fancied she’d seen Pixie wings in one of those jars, floating in a pale, viscous substance.

Slipping in front of her, Mordrin drew her gaze to his face even as she refused to acknowledge the searing voids that served as his eyes. His mouth split and held open unmoving; the quiet menace of his voice filled her mind.

“You have betrayed me twice. At the first, when you allowed another to unbind my work, I decided I would enhance your pain when I took my prize from you.”

He traced a finger down her cheek, the tip wet, somehow slick with blood. Savin. Cerys burrowed into herself, found her bud of rage and hugged it to her soul.

Mordrin continued: “At the second, when you warned the witch-Elf of the fire, I decided that once I had taken my treasure, I would keep you as my plaything, to amuse me until I tired of you.”

He paused then, just long enough for her to wonder if she would ever exhale. “However.” Straightening now, the demon stepped away from her, clearly confident in the arcane curse-work that bound her in place. As well he should be. Cerys could move no more than she had been able to on that park bench. There would be no opportunity for a third betrayal. “I find instead that you have offered me a boon. This one.” He spread his hands and an image of Savin’s body appeared between them, his broken form dark, bloodied and still. So still. “This one,” Mordrin said again, “has hounded me for nearly a century. Countless times I have had him in my grasp and he has ever eluded me. But you – you brought him to me, provided me the gift of finally ending him. He will vex me no longer. And thus you shall have a gift in return.”

Obliterating the illusion with a clap of his hands, Mordrin moved back towards her and Cerys found herself once again staring into his face. Certainly she knew better than to make a deal with a demon but once again she seemed without choice. And, indeed, he had already exacted his price.

“I shall grant you your life. I shall even grant you your magik. And then I shall let you go.”

Cerys blinked. The demon watched her for a moment and when he spoke again she heard definite amusement behind his voice.

“Two decades of unused power. You may even have all of a fortnight to play before it tears you apart. And by then, my pet will be ready. Before then, certainly, but I fully intend to watch at least some of the show.”

The taunt pulled at the chains of fear already enwrapping Cerys, tightening them until she couldn’t breathe. Her parents’ reasoning behind installing the heartbox pounded against her skull: the wild magik had harmed not only herself but any who came too close.

Without her heartbox, the accumulated magik would make her lethal. She could only pray that the wild magik killed her before the slaughter spread too far.

Mordrin’s voice continued to echo in her head. “I may even send my pet to come play with you. He is nearly complete.” She heard a sudden leer come into his tone. “Perhaps I’ll make use of the witch-Elf’s pretty eyes. He ever saw too much.”

The bud of rage in her spirit flourished, new petals of hatred unfurling. Her soul trembled. You will not touch him.

Mordrin flinched as though she had somehow struck him. “What did you say?”

But she had said nothing and thus he could not accuse her.

“Enough!” he barked. Spasms jolted her muscles as he released the paralyzing spellbind without any of Savin’s consideration. Her wrists and ankles remained immobile, pinning her to her chair. Mordrin’s swift glance reduced the clothing on her upper body to ash, charred fabric sloughing away to join the clutter on the unsettling shelves. Her spirit tensed at the sight of a bladed claw materializing like an alien weed from the end of Mordrin’s finger; her body flinched as the edge touched her skin. He leaned close. Too close.

“Struggle and it will go worse for you,” he said, shattering her resolve. Cerys tightened her fingers about the arms of the chair and planted her feet. She willed herself not to scream.

She failed.

Agony lanced across her skin, chasing deeper as the blade plunged further in pursuit of the heartbox. Mordrin kept the incision small but that was little comfort when the claw retracted and his fingers dug into the wound, shoving aside anything that barred his way. When her ribs proved an obstruction, she quite nearly fainted from the pain.

And then those fingers closed about the treasure. The heartbox. Sheer horror wrested a gasp from her lips; he might have clutched her actual heart, such a violation did she feel. The whisper of Mordrin’s breath upon her cheek swelled her misery. She remembered well what such breathwork had meant for Savin.

“And now we shall see how long it takes your magik to devour you.”

Cerys heard – felt – the slightest of clicks and her entrapped power coursed through her body and spirit, flooding her being. Fists clenched, she attempted to raise her hands just barely from the arm of the chair before she lost all control as she knew she must. They obeyed.

Mordrin didn’t notice – any interest in watching her wild magik spread had been temporarily delayed by his elation at having the heartbox within his grasp. Cobbling her flesh back together with a careless word, he caressed the tiny metal box with fingertips now blemished by both the bright markings of her wounding and the deeper stains of Savin’s murder. Cerys felt the magik vibrating into her spirit, tingling in her blood, filling her lungs to bursting.

And soothing her terror into nothingness.

Wings erupted from her shoulders, enormous and gossamer. Her ears tapered to sharp points with soft tufts of hair sprouting behind, and she flexed her lengthening fingers, testing the extra joint that had appeared in each. The metamorphosis cast shivers through her soul.

Her wild magik would not devour her. It nourished her.

Cerys heard the pulse of the earth even as her spirit wept with the sky. Behind her eyes, forests grew, died, and grew again. The sea rushed through her veins. And she suffered the chaos of sorrow, rage and hatred that infected each of these awakenings. The blood of innocents spilled. Children, beaten and abandoned. Love, unrequited. Men, fae, killing each other over petty caprices while suicides self-destructed. Nature, raped at every turn, exploited on a whim.

The quiet knot within her revived, her purpose laid clear as she grew truly wild.

Cerys looked upon Mordrin. The copper glow that infused her spirit defined each layer of his malevolence in bright amber: not only his utter rapture at Savin’s demise, but the pure joy he derived from every murder, every injury he inflicted upon the bodies, minds and souls he chose to plunder. The humans and fae had anger enough, certainly. But Mordrin fed upon it. Revelled in it. Embodied it.

Her jaw clenched at the sight of the Mordrin’s creation. How many had been torn apart to provide the demon with a new toy?

Droplets appeared on the creature’s four metal feet, glowing molten. The colossus groaned as it began to fall. The shadow ghosts hushed.

Distracted by the noise, Mordrin glanced upwards and screeched, a word of his own suspending the drooping giant in place. The unfinished creature bent, sagging at the seams. Ruined. Mordrin spun on Cerys and froze.

She had risen. Copper light bathed all she looked upon now, blurring most details but lining others sharply. Mordrin fell, supplicant before her as he realized his error. “My Lady – ” he began.

Cerys sensed the instant of his disbelief followed by the merest flicker of a shriek as the void she set within him yawned. A sweep of her hand kindled her aura to flame, engulfing the warehouse whole. Walls shredded, the giant liquefied. She felt a moment of sadness as Savin’s body fell to ash, but a moment only. His spirit had fled with the shattering of his light.

Returning to the docks with a thought, she inhaled deeply of a world now limned in copper. Those places most desperate for her justice shone radiantly, drawing her. Cerys turned towards the nearest bright edging.

She had much to do.

16 thoughts on “The Heartbox

  1. I loved this story, the images were so real to me I could picture everything in my mind’s eye as I read it.

  2. This is a well-written story set in a wonderfully detailed world. There is a constant intrigue that builds into foreboding as the author creates an atmosphere of impending doom. When Mordrin does finally show up, it’s all worth it as the character is fascinatingly creepy. A great read!

  3. Read your story!! I LOVE it!!! Dark as usual, and beautifully so, I wanted to collect most of your sentences and keep them! You build SO MUCH world in a tiny window of time

  4. This is very good. I really envisioned these characters and understood them very quickly which is incredible in a short piece like this. Quite,quite good!

  5. Emily, you have once again outdone yourself! This is a remarkable short story, and I found it riveting from beginning to end. You have a rare talent, indeed.

  6. Penned by a talented storyteller, this haunting quest through a mythic land is full of suspense. A battle of forces, mysticism and an absorbing tale make this story exciting.

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